By Heather Sperling
What foods are “cool”? Ibérico ham, heritage breed meats, and almost anything Japanese, I’d say. But there’s more to it than that, if the Cool Foods Campaign has anything to say about it. Cool Foods is an impressively well-thought-out and driven advocacy group that hopes to make us think more about where our food is coming from, and what that means for the environment – just in time for Earth Day. Their definition of cool probably isn’t going to stick, but it brings up some good points about two major topics of our day: food and global warming.
The campaign’s slogan – Take a Bite Out of Climate Change – is a throwback to McGruff the Crime Dog, but they use a globe in a shopping basket to get their message across. They’re trying to tell us – chefs, diners, restaurants, corporations, and everyone else – that the food we buy has an impact on our environment; specifically, it has a direct impact on climate change. With 113 million people eating out each day* at one of 945,000 restaurants across the nation, what chefs serve in their restaurant has a direct impact on their consumers…and on the environment.
In the last decade, “global warming” has grown from a term loosely associated with cars and aerosol spray cans to a cause impassionedly championed by Al Gore and Vanity Fair (whose 3rd annual Green Issue is on stands this month). “Organic,” “local” and “sustainable” are words on an increasing number of chefs’ and diners’ lips, and a handful of chefs within the industry have taken up the mantle of change, using their dining rooms as venues for what they feel to be the future of food: responsibly sourced products. The country’s food-savvy know that “local” and “organic” both have their merits, and even Wal-Mart has caught on.
Take a Bite out of Climate Change in 10 steps
And yet, to quote author and advocate Anna Lappé, “ask people what companies are impacting global warming and they’ll say Shell before Sarah Lee…Chevron before Coke.”
Here’s some food for thought: greenhouse gasses (nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, methane, and fluorocarbons) cause global warming. 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Add in the by-products of processing, packaging, and transporting food, and you have your final number: an estimated 25 to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food. This applies to everything from the packaged products that line grocery store shelves to the beef delivered to your back door by Sysco and the non-organic carrots in your walk-in.
There’s the temptation to throw up your hands and say “we’re doomed!” And there’s the temptation to go militantly local, labeling anything but local food as bad. But that’s not a feasible solution for the country or the issue as a whole. Ask Peter Hoffman, chef of Savoy in New York and a supporter of local foods for nearly 20 years, and he’ll say: “it’s not as simple as ‘buy local,’ but that’s a great place to begin.”
Organic (local or not) has its place too. Organic foods are produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers – these common farming tools emit nitrous oxide and methane when applied to the land and pollute water sources (killing local fish and plants). Organic farms can emit up to half the amount of carbon dioxide as the farms that use chemicals.
The practical goal is to begin to break some of our bad habits, one Sysco meat order at a time. At a recent lunch at Blue Hill, Hoffman spoke of “getting off the grid,” a phrase that used to refer to the search for alternative energy sources, but today can apply to food. We need to get off the industrial agriculture grid, Hoffman says, and seek out food options that have a less damaging ecological impact. Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill, made a meal of local produce from the restaurant’s farm at the Stone Barnes Center for Agriculture 20 miles away. Beets were served with Blue Hill Farm yogurt and greenhouse-raised mâche. Stone Barnes Berkshire pork (fed on whey, a byproduct of the farm’s cheesemaking) lay on a bed of cracked wheat, spring parsnips, and first of the season ramps.
Not everything was local – there were hazelnuts on the beet salad that I’d wager weren’t farm-fresh, but I didn’t ask. Either way, it’s a model for how to begin. Barber is on board with Hoffman, and both chefs have signed the Cool Food Campaign’s pledge to:
- eat organic foods
- buy locally grown foods that support local communities
- reduce meat and dairy consumption
- purchase wild-caught and local seafood
- choose whole unprocessed foods
- avoid processed and packaged foods
It’s not black and white or militant (the campaign encourages doing the above “whenever possible”). It’s a feasible way to start trying to make a difference – just in time for Earth Day.