As Restaurants Struggle, Can They Still Contribute to Regenerative Practices?

by Katherine Sacks


At the start of 2020, Zero Foodprint was primed for success. The California-based nonprofit had successfully run a pilot of their 1% program, raising $77,126 for healthy soil projects by working with two pilot restaurants which added an optional surcharge to their bills to support carbon farming. They had a partnership lined up with San Francisco’s Restaurant Week 2020, to be held in January, to support the program. It would soon be announced that the James Beard Foundation was awarding the organization their Humanitarian of the Year award. They were primed, with about 100 additional restaurant-members added to their roster for the 1% program, dedicated to supporting a carbon-neutral, regenerative food system.

And then COVID-19 hit. “We had been pushing so hard on this vision, bringing people together, and then that became this dangerous idea,” Karen Leibowitz, co-founder of Zero Foodprint, says. Leibowitz and husband, chef Anthony Myint, started the nonprofit after years working in the restaurant industry themselves; successfully opening San Francisco restaurants Mission Chinese, Commonwealth and the sustainability-focused Perennial. With Zero Foodprint, they left the kitchen and focused on bringing the table to the farm, as Myint is often quoted saying, as a way for chefs to have a direct impact on bettering the food system. Through the 1% program, restaurants would raise funds with the optional surcharge, which Zero Foodprint would then award to farmers to use on agricultural techniques, including composting and planting cover crops, that help restore the soil and pull carbon underground.

But with the uncertainty of the pandemic, and knowing firsthand how difficult running a restaurant is, even during prosperous times, the Zero Foodprint team knew 2020 would not be the year they expected.

A New Kind of Restaurant Certification

When it comes to dining out sustainably, the behind-the-scenes can be a little murky. Unlike grocery store labels like USDA Certified Organic or Animal Welfare Approved, which guarantee food products meet certain production standards, restaurants may use the words farm-to-table, sustainable or organic in marketing or signage, but it’s not always easy to know the realities behind these claims. Restaurants can apply for USDA Organic certification, just as farms do, but most are discouraged by the difficult requirements to acquire the label. For a restaurant-goer who cares about their foodprint, dining out can be a frustrating experience.

There are a few organizations that offer some insight into the level of commitment a restaurant has towards sustainability, including the Green Restaurant Certification and Green Seal. While Zero Foodprint was founded as a way to connect restaurants to regenerative farming, it also acts as a similar badge for consumers. As a first step, new members go through a life cycle assessment, and once a restaurant has identified areas where it can reduce its own carbon footprint, the restaurant can contribute to the Zero Foodprint fund through carbon offsets and/or through the 1% program.

For Chef Natalie Globe, who already put sustainability at the forefront when it came to sourcing, energy use and more at her Sebastopol, California restaurant Handline, participating in Zero Foodprint felt like an obvious next step. “One of the biggest questions had always been, ‘How do you put resources back into the system?’” she says. “It felt like participating as a member of Zero Foodprint was an answer to that question. We were looking for ways to dig in a bit deeper to what it means to be answering the call of our times regarding climate crisis, social justice and racial justice and how they pertain to the food movement.”

For consumers, dining at a restaurant that participates in the Zero Foodprint program is also a way to answer that call. Although the amount of money charged to customers is small — 1 percent of a $50 meal is a mere 50 cents — the contributions from diners’ checks adds up. “I felt like it was a really great program for me to get involved in that not only holds us accountable, but also our guests,” says Chef Caroline Glover of Annette, in Aurora, Colorado. “I think there’s an element of educating guests that’s really important. It also felt like it’s something doable; like we can make a difference and kind of help what our industry is doing to the earth.”

The Realities of 2020

Zero Foodprint moved forward as planned during the first months of 2020, but in March restaurants across the US shut down, and Zero Foodprint’s operations immediately changed. After the shutdowns, they returned members’ most recent contributions and put memberships on pause for the remainder of the year. “[We did] a fair amount to update our systems to account for the ways that businesses may be in flux for quite a while,” Leibowitz says. “Even in places where restaurants have reopened, there’s always the threat that they’ll close again.” Not surprisingly, a good number of the restaurants dropped from the program early on in the pandemic. As other restaurants reopened for take-out or limited service, they navigated the surcharge, some keeping it, others choosing to remove it, especially if their takeout system didn’t allow for the customer to opt out.

But some restaurants, like Annette, were able to continue making the payments once business re-started in some way. At first the returned Zero Foodprint check felt necessary, says Anette’s Glover. “It was like, great, here’s $300 back,” she says. “We can get this in our bank account.” But once the restaurant started to have success with to-go business, she sent the check back and re-committed to participating in the Zero Foodprint program. “Obviously, when we start doing to-go, we’re really not doing our part for the environment right now,” says Glover, lamenting the amount of single-use plastics used by the food industry now, as take-out has taken over as the primary way to do business for many restaurants.  “Once we realized that we had enough to-go orders coming in to make the payment, there was no question, that that’s where we wanted the money to go.”

Despite the frustrations of 2020, Zero Foodprint’s Liebowitz has also found moments of hope throughout the pandemic. Similarly to Annette, many establishments have taken the shift in business as a time to recommit to their goals. “It’s been really incredible to see that during this time of hardship for restaurants, when they’ve had to rethink everything,” says Liebowitz, “it’s actually been an opportunity for [restaurateurs] to reconnect to their goals and think, ‘If we have to rethink how we run our business, then we can figure out how to be sustainable in the long term.’ That’s awesome.”

Supporting Local Farmers

Despite the setbacks of 2020, the Zero Foodprint team was able to continue to support climate resilience in some ways. In California, the team made six grants available in 2020 through their Restore California program, using funds garnered from restaurants participation in 2019 and 2020, as well as financial support from California’s Department of Agriculture. This includes a $20,000 grant to Sonoma Valley’s Tresch Family Farms for compost application, and Solidarity Farm in San Diego, a cooperative family farm working with and operating on land owned by the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians for their “Carbon Sink” demonstration farm.

The goal of Carbon Sink is to both reintegrate Indigenous farming traditions and to engage consumers, policy makers, scientists and more on soil health practices. “The [Carbon Sink] project is working to test strategies and demonstrate how carbon sink farming practices can support climate resilience,” Ellee Igoe, co-coordinator of the Carbon Sink Demonstration Farm told Climate Science Alliance. “For this project, one of the goals was to increase soil organic matter from one percent to four percent, specifically using compost application, cover cropping, no-till, hedgerow installation and transition from row crops to trees.” Along with this work, the farm also participates in a local farmers’ market, operates a CSA, and offers classes to youth about regenerative agriculture, building Indigenous food sovereignty in the community and highlighting the importance of soil health.

“Being able to do that kind of [grant] work has been really exciting and gives us something to feel good about as a team,” says Leibowitz. “To know that we can continue to have an impact on the world, even if we’re sort of stuck at home.”

Shifting Focus

While the US federal government has been supporting farmers’ use of carbon reduction techniques for more than two decades, a recent report shows this work is grossly underfunded: in 2018, for instance, spending on soil health projects amounted to less than one percent of the USDA’s annual expenditures. Grants for farmers to shift to regenerative practices exist, as do tax incentives, but there is a lack of structure and technical support in place that makes it difficult for many farmers to practice in reality. “[To advance this work, we need to be] providing crop insurance to help fund farmers in transitioning crops, supporting farmers with adequate grant funding to purchase necessary equipment and implement practice requirements, upfront payments for conservation practices, and compensating farmers for their knowledge and time during farmer to farmer exchanges,” Carbon Sink’s Igoe told Climate Science Alliance.

A nonprofit like Zero Foodprint can often help bridge connections between local governments and farmers and communicate such needs. This year pushed Leibowitz and her team to think in these ways. “A big difference between before and during COVID, is that we’ve been really engaging deeply with regional governance,” says Leibowitz. By engaging counties with climate action plans, Zero Foodprint has been able to “route local dollars into preserving and making local farms more resilient,” she says, allowing the nonprofit to ultimately engage with more communities than pre-pandemic.

They’ve piloted this work in the communities of Denver — where Myint attended the Slow Food Nations festival in 2019 and met many local chefs — and Boulder. Their partners include a local anti-waste organization and an agriculture nonprofit Mad Agriculture, which teaches the technical information about carbon farming. Even with the shutdown and restaurants struggling, Leibowitz has been able to recruit a dozen or so new Colorado members into the 1% model, including the local Boulder Subway franchise locations. “It’s brought out some really good things in people, as crises do,” says Liebowitz. “They joined in difficult times, and I feel like it will continue to spread out.”

As the team continues to think of new ways to support carbon sequestration, their newest program opens contributions up to the public, allowing anyone to support the regenerative agriculture practices at San Diego’s Solidarity Farm. For roughly $50, a sponsor can “sequester a ton of carbon,” and directly support the farm, including the planting of olive and fruit orchards, cover crops and hedgerows. Zero Foodprint estimates that this project will remove more than 10,000 tons of modeled carbon dioxide (CO2e) from the atmosphere.

Looking Forward

As the Biden administration begins its term, more governmental funding and support for carbon farming is on the horizon. “[My plan] includes making American agriculture the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and create new sources of income for farmers in the process, by paying farmers to put their land in conservation and plant cover crops that use the soil to capture carbon,” Biden said in a news conference in December.

And as groups like the James Beard Foundation and Restaurants Workers Community Foundation support restaurant regrowth, Zero Foodprint 1% program can continue to have impact. As Leibowitz said, it’s an opportunity for restaurants to grow and consumers to come back in a way that supports better, more sustainable values. Annette’s Glover agrees. “We knew before this that we’re not in the most sustainable industry. We know our profit margins: small. We know what our footprint is on the earth: big,” she says. “My hope is that we make better decisions going forward. I feel like Zero Foodprint is just the tipping point of that. It’s just making that conscious effort to contribute, to offset our carbon. My hope is that we don’t forget what we saw during this pandemic as we start to rebuild everything.”


Top photo courtesy of Zero Foodprint.

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