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San Francisco restaurants make food a climate change solution

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Chefs and restaurateurs in The City are in a unique position to move food as an environmental solution. (Courtesy photo)
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’Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry, and San Francisco’s restaurants are a great place to do all three. Amidst white tablecloths and the sound of cocktail shakers, the winter cold may seem far away. But each bite of warm bread and sip of wine connects patrons to the world outside their cozy booth — a world increasingly impacted by climate change.

Crops and livestock suffer from extreme and chaotic weather, which is already causing food to become scarcer and more expensive. The environment also suffers as our demands increase. Food must move beyond these roles of environmental victim and perpetrator. Thankfully, in The City, some big names in the restaurant industry are moving food toward a climate change solution.

“There is the possibility to make a lot of difference with menu choice,” Anthony Myint, a San Francisco restaurateur who champions environmental sustainability, told me.

His menu at The Perennial in SoMa is an example. It offers warm slices of crunchy Kernza bread, a grain that draws carbon out of the air and stores it in the ground. Organic beef comes from Stemple Creek Ranch, which uses compost to enhance carbon sequestration. These ingredients not only reduce The Perennial’s carbon footprint, they also work to slow climate change. They demonstrate food as an environmental solution.

The optimistic, environmental ethos behind The Perennial is certainly commendable. But it’s unrealistic to expect every restaurant to adopt the same comprehensive approach — at least, immediately.

Myint, along with Chris Ying of Lucky Peach and carbon emissions expert Peter Freed, developed another way for more mainstream restaurants to make a difference. Their nonprofit, Zero Foodprint, helps restaurants calculate their carbon footprint and figure out practical ways to reduce it. Participating restaurants usually purchase carbon credits to offset their operational emissions.

“The purchase of carbon credits, in general, supports projects that verifiably reduce emissions,” Elizabeth Singleton, executive director of Zero Foodprint, told me. “At the end of the day, what we’re talking about is the true cost of food. We’re trying to price carbon back into food.”

The prices on Mission Chinese Food’s menu reflect that cost. Zero Foodprint found the restaurant’s ingredients accounted for 78 percent of its carbon footprint. Among the ingredients, beef and lamb were the biggest offenders. Mission Chinese Food raised the price of these dishes by a dollar to account for their carbon cost. The small price hike went to purchasing carbon credits and more sustainable ingredients.

But the price hike does more than just account for the true cost of beef and lamb — it has an affect on people who eat at the restaurant. Like a carbon tax, it gently guides cost-conscious people to make better choices while ordering. It subtly raises awareness among those raising their Tsingtao beers and chowing down on Mission Chinese Food’s deliciously spicy dishes. It inspires change.

“The most impactful [way to lead change] is helping get the word out there, talking about it,” said Chef Corey Lee of San Francisco’s acclaimed Michelin-star restaurant, Benu.

Zero Foodprint just completed a carbon assessment at Benu and is completing assessments at Chef Lee’s other restaurants, Monsieur Benjamin in Hayes Valley and In Situ in SFMOMA.

The collaboration between Zero Foodprint and Chef Lee will hopefully get more chefs involved. Not only is Chef Lee renowned in the industry, he also works with the chefs who feature dishes at In Situ. He can encourage them to reduce the impact of their ingredients by using different suppliers, purchasing carbon credits and including price hikes that will reach more customers.

These chefs and restaurateurs are in a unique position to move food toward a climate change solution. Of course, the government could impose a hamburger tax, and grassroots groups and religious organizations could boycott. But relying on restaurants to lead makes the most sense: Not only do they know food, they also know how much we love it.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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