|June 28, 2013|
Sustainability gets the green light
|Consumers eat it up. For some, the focus is the environmental impact of what they eat. Others feel it's more important to patronize local businesses and producers. And there are those who are concerned with eating more nutrient-rich produce or prioritizing animal welfare.|
It's a broad spectrum of values and many are willing to shell out a premium for these foods.
So it's no surprise that there's a growing crop of innovative entrepreneurs and organizations that want to make it easier to eat by these values.
Michael Oshman, founder and CEO of the Green Restaurant Association, has been at it for 23 years. He and his crew work with restaurants, caterers and other food-related businesses in 45 states to reduce their environmental impact.
It's an essential piece of the sustainability pie --- particularly since consumers spend almost half of their food budgets eating out.
"Back then, you were either on the business side or the environmental side," he said in a telephone interview from his Boston offices. "So we set out to create solutions."
The initial arguments that he made to restaurants --- particularly to the camp that believed environmentally friendly practices were not good for business --- still hold up.
"We said, 'If this industry self-regulates --- reduces energy, reduces water, reduces waste --- it's less likely that legislation will come.' And not only that, but you'll be keeping more of your money in your own pockets by reducing your waste 50 to 75 percent. That was the hypothesis 23 years ago, which has, thankfully, proven to be true."
Though he's revamped his certification standards somewhat over the years --- from a flat certification to a starred system based on points --- the basic premise has remained the same, though they have increased their standards and been able to demand more from members. And their members have kept pace.
"On a yearly basis, these restaurants are going through the process," he said. "How much is vegan? How much vegetarian? How much is within 300 miles? How much is within 100 miles? How much is organic?"
"We do that for the light bulbs, we do that for the chemicals, we do that for everything down to the second decimal point. And then we come up with a score. We want them to get to at least 100 points, the two-star certified green restaurant level."
The Green Restaurant Association notes that sometimes the least obvious changes --- like trading in conventional plastic and Styrofoam takeout containers for recyclable and compostable alternatives --- give you the most bang for your buck.
Often a simple switch can make a significant difference. An example Oshman offers is the nozzle for a sprayer in a dish pit. Older versions use from two to six gallons of water per minute, while newer efficient versions can cut that down to less than one gallon. And an investment in energy-efficient lighting can cut power bills by as much as 50 percent.
So they work with every vendor, from waste haulers to uniform companies, to make recommendations about where changes should be made, and help their clients rack up the points necessary to receive certification, which allows the restaurant to use the registered trademark of 'certified green restaurant.' They can use it in advertising, Oshman said, "and you can go on the Web, click a button and see the hundred steps they've done to be completely transparent."
In the end, he said, "the lack of change is not because of the lack of knowledge. It's really translating ideals into reality."
It's an attitude Danielle Vogel, owner of Glen's Garden Market, a new locally sourced grocery store near Dupont Circle, tries to bring to her business.
"The way I think about it here is progress one bite at a time," she said, talking about her customers. "The fact is that by consuming the products we sell they are moving in the right direction on all the metrics."
Vogel, who spent 10 years working on environmental policy in the House, Senate and the Department of Justice , decided to make a big career leap after the disappointing demise of the 2010 climate change bill.
"Instead of making large-scale legislative progress, I was going to make small-scale practical progress," she said. "And so when people come into the store, it doesn't matter what their climate politics are."
According to a 2010 Department of Agriculture report about energy use in the U.S. food system, "domestic food-related freight services used a little over 10 percent as much energy as did the food-related agricultural and processing industries they serviced."
Which means the problem isn't just how far food has to travel to get to our tables, but how it is cultivated.
"Not only is everything here local, by which I mean it comes from the Chesapeake Bay Watershed," Vogel said, "but these products are a cultivated representation of the very best artisanal food producers we have in this region."
But the fact remains that small farmers have a hard time capturing even a fraction of the market share of corporate and industrial farms.
It's a problem that Local Food Hub, a regional food aggregator based in Charlottesville, Va., is trying to address.
"Our goal is to open up new avenues they traditionally haven't had access to," said Alan Moore, director of distribution and business development. "They traditionally can't sell to a university or a hospital because the process of becoming a vendor is too onerous."
The nonprofit organization, founded in 2009, was born out of a series of meetings with institutional buyers who had a desire to source more local food but lacked the time and personnel to work with dozens of small farmers who could each provide only a fraction of what they needed.
The concept of a food hub isn't unique to central Virginia. It's a model that is spreading across the country. The USDA published a report in January noting that only 9 percent of food hubs in the U.S. have been in business for 20 years or more, while 60 percent have come on line in the past five years.
Moore explained that Local Food Hub began with "a vision of working with about 10 farms our first year, and pretty quickly brought on over 30 that we partnered with. But in that same time, we realized there needed to be that education there to help coordinate with the farmers, to try different types of products, to have workshops."
Four years later, the organization is much more than a middleman. It now works with more than 80 individual producers to source everything from fruits and vegetables to honey, eggs, meat and locally milled grains. And it manages a 70-acre certified organic farm and educational facility.
"In the spring, we turn on a greenhouse where we generate starts," Moore said, "but the greenhouse is bigger than we need, so we raise a lot of extra starts that we give to our partners. They can then plant those starts and we'll buy the fruit back from them."
It's an economic engine that is paying dividends for farmers and buyers alike. "It takes time and commitment from our buyers to have faith that we can supply the product," Moore said, "but also a lot of faith from the growers that they can produce a product and get a fair price for it."
And while Local Food Hub doesn't require its partners to be certified organic or adhere to any set of specific farming practices, the reality is that most of the producers are too small to do anything else.
"All of our growers are small and almost all of them live on the farms, so they're very connected to the land and they're very aware of the impact of what they do and how they farm. And honestly, spraying and doing things like that is very expensive."
"We don't want to tell you what you can and can't do," he continued, "but we can encourage different practices by being able to pay more for certain things that are grown a certain way."
And those products can be found at a growing number of D.C. establishments.
Local Food Hub counts Glen's Garden Market among its buyers, as well as Washington's Green Grocer, a produce box delivery service, and Keany Produce, which in turn sells to local restaurants including Clyde's Restaurant Group.
But sourcing more locally grown and sustainably farmed ingredients is only part of the equation. For every meal that is prepared --- whether commercially or in a home --- there is a certain amount of food scrap, and it's got to end up somewhere.
Enter Jeremy Brosowsky, a D.C. resident and entrepreneur who, three years ago, started Compost Cab, a compostables pickup service that enables even urban apartment dwellers to dispose of food scraps in an eco-friendly fashion --- and eventually receive fertile soil back for their rooftop gardens, backyards or balconies.
"I think there's extraordinary value in making that connection between what goes in your mouth and what goes out of your household or restaurant," he said. "So what we've done is create a very simple, relatively cost-effective model for enabling people to live their values."
"Our expectation is that over time more people are going to value this. It just becomes part of the ethos, the way people live their lives."
According to Brosowsky, while composting is still the "provenance of early adopters and forward-thinking types," he does see extremely high customer-retention rates.
"We have people who signed up three years ago totally on spec, and three years later are still doing it because it has become a fundamental part of the way they prepare food for their family."
But the irony is that, from an ideological perspective, he's trying to put himself out of business.
"At the end of the day, municipal pickup of compostable material is coming. Just look at what [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg has planned for New York in the next few years. It may take 10-15 years elsewhere, but at some point it's going to be a part of the municipal waste stream."
Meanwhile, his business is doubling every seven to 10 months.
"As far as I'm concerned, what I'm in the business of doing now is putting a system in place so that when the city is ready to go all in --- and I don't just mean Washington but cities generally --- that urban agriculture captures some of that waste stream for productive use."
For Brosowsky, composting is the last line of defense in a system in which anything edible can and should be put to its best and highest use --- as food.
"If you're running a commercial kitchen and you have leftovers at the end of the day, you want that stuff being donated," he said. "You look at places like DC Central Kitchen and Martha's Table, who are committed to food capture. They should all be in line in front of me."
In the home kitchen, he advocates for getting the maximum mileage out of your scraps.
"If you've got the stubs of carrots or celery or whatever, that should be going into a bag in your freezer until you've got a gallon bag full," he explained. "And when you do, you take what's in that bag, put it in a stock pot, fill it up with water, make yourself some vegetable stock."
"Cheapest, easiest stock you'll ever have. And then after it's mush, you can drain it out and put that material in the compost."
Like Vogel, Brosowsky understands his role as a part of a practical approach he hopes will result in generational change.
"There is something kind of inherently optimistic about entrepreneurship," he says. "You are betting on the future, you are creating something new with the idea that it will grow. I believe that, all things being equal, people want to do the right thing. So my job --- as a parent and as an entrepreneur is to level the playing field as much as possible and enable people to make the best possible decisions."
It's one of the reasons he loves working with schools --- and with his own four children.
"You want to create as many positive associations with sustainability as possible at as young an age as possible, so that when they get older their inclination is to do the right thing."
But change is not going to happen overnight.
"We're not going to snap our fingers and have everybody composting," he said. "But over time, all of these little data points push things in a direction. And it's encouraging."
"The good news," he continued, "is that the world is increasingly interested in sustainability writ large, and even the biggest companies, the ones you would think would pooh-pooh it or see it as an impediment are understanding that there are opportunities to do little things that make a big difference."
This includes many of the restaurants, hotels and other businesses who turn to Compost Cab as an easy way to "get greener."
In addition, they also offer a low-cost compost drop-off at Dupont Circle's FRESHFARM market on Sundays.
"Frankly, it is a very easy conversation for an upper-middle-class guy to have," he said. "If you are working two or three jobs just trying to get by on a daily basis, then composting is not a No. 1 priority for you."
Many markets though do accept --- and even double --- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and WIC (women, infants and children) benefits in an effort to make fresh and healthful food more available to lower-income families. And the number of farmers' markets in the United States is growing at a rapid pace: The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service listed 7,864 in operation in 2012, up nearly 10 percent from the year before.
But the larger issue --- whether the growing alternative food system can reach beyond the upper middle class --- is not always an easy conversation to have.
But it's a critical point that many don't like to talk about. While it's steadily becoming possible to make choices that make progress in terms of environmental impact, those choices are still relatively costly.
At Glen's Garden Market, price pushback is the No. 1 complaint Vogel hears.
"People don't necessarily understand that they're making an unfair comparison," she said. "They're getting a much better quality ingredient, that's why it's more expensive."
"But," she noted, there are ways to afford eating green: "Forgo the meat, and you can buy heaps of vegetables."
By all accounts, eating meat is one of the least eco-friendly things you can do with your diet. A 2008 New York Times column by Mark Bittman about the global demand for meat and its environmental impact cited a study by the Japanese National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Service, which estimated that energy involved in producing 2.2 pounds of beef could light a 100-watt light bulb for nearly 20 days.
"So all things being equal," Brosowsky said, "you want to eat things that are closer to the sun and have taken fewer steps away from the sun's energy to create calories from it."
And these businesses are gradually increasing accessibility to these foods, making incremental progress toward a sustainable food life cycle as a whole.
Brosowsky sums it up this way: "Farm to table is good. Farm to table to farm is better. That's the business we're in."