Women Chefs Tackle Climate Change

Nov. 10: Last weekend I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual conference of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs in Rhode Island. What a delightfully high energy event that was! A wide variety of chefs, farmers, and writers attended my talk on whether climate change is going to redefine what we mean by "sustainable food." Two wonderful Bon Appetit chefs — Preeti Mistry of the deYoung Museum in San Francisco and Mary Soto of American University in Washington DC — joined me and gave practical examples to balance the more theoretical concepts I offered.

When I give presentations, I’m always surprised that professionals and students alike assume that discarding disposables — paper plates, styrofoam containers, etc. — are the MOST important environmental issue in a dining hall. The perception of avoiding waste of recyclable materials has really become ingrained since I went to college. Interestingly, though, we don’t yet apply that same sense of responsibility to food or food waste. Perhaps we’re okay with food waste because it dovetails with our national pasttime of avoiding leftovers. There’s probably another reason as well. Polls show that consumers believe they’re justified in throwing out "natural products" but not discarding plastic or non-biodegradable products. Most of us, apparently, believe that products that can bio-degrade actually will. Most of us, apparently, also haven’t been to a landfill to see that "natural" products, including biodegradable packaging materials, NEVER decompose unless they are exposed to oxygen, such as in a compost pile.

Through Bon Appetit’s Low Carbon Diet Program and the smattering of Op-eds that are appearing with more frequency, there is a growing awareness that food is a climate change issue. I hope one of the major results of these efforts is a narrower definition of what we consider to be "waste" and a better understanding of the implications of disgarding food. Reducing the usage of disposables, one of the Low Carbon Diet initiatives, is important, but from an environmental perspective reducing the incidence of food waste is tops on the list.

Helene S. York, Director, Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation