Restaurants Fight Climate Change One Meal at a Time with Zero Foodprint

By Savannah Kuang
September 24, 2020

As sustainable farms work to fight climate change through regenerative practices that rebuild soil health and increase resilience, restaurants can also do their part by pledging to support farmers in their efforts. Zero Foodprint partners with restaurants to crowdfund grants for carbon farming.

“People in the food world connect with farmers directly, and restaurants can be a liaison between consumers and producers,” said Karen Leibowitz, the Executive Director of Zero Foodprint, which is the recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s 2020 Humanitarian of the Year Award. “Zero Foodprint can help people who eat at restaurants connect with the sources of their food, and help farmers communicate the idea that it’s not just what you eat, but how you grow it that makes a huge difference.”

Tackling Climate Through Food

Restaurateurs Karen and her partner, Anthony Myint, became curious about the climate impacts of food after opening restaurants such as Mission Chinese Food and Commonwealth. That work served as inspiration for The Perennial, a well-lauded (though since closed) example of how a restaurant can be a platform for climate action and education. 

Working with former Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying, they started to explore the environmental footprint of the restaurant industry, founding the nonprofit Zero Foodprint in 2015. When Karen became the director in 2018, the organization started emphasizing regenerative agriculture as a potential climate solution. 

“We were thinking about a renewable food system where you prioritize pulling bad carbon from the atmosphere and restoring it in the ground,” said Karen. “It would be a climate solution that not only creates better food but also makes us more resilient to things like droughts and floods.” 

Over the past two years, Zero Foodprint has developed pathways for restaurants to support farmers tackling climate change on the ground. Restaurants can take a pledge to send 1 percent of their revenue toward grants, or invest in proportion to their carbon footprint. Zero Foodprint provides grants directly to the farmers for carbon farming projects. There are currently about 100 active or pledged members, including restaurants like State Bird Provisions, Mister Jiu’s, Nightbird, and more. 

“We’ve really been trying to connect those dots so that restaurants can become a kind of crowdfunding platform for farming that can save the world,” said Karen.

Restore California

There are currently four Restore California grant projects in the works, which together have an estimated benefit of sequestering 680 tons of atmospheric carbon—equivalent to not driving an average passenger vehicle for 1,687,345 miles, or the sequestration of 888 acres of US forests for one year. 

Those projects include prescribed grazing and compost application at Tres Patas Vineyard in Mendocino County; compost application, cover crop, hedgerow planting, and tree establishment at Carbon Sink Demonstration Farm at Pauma Tribal Farms in San Diego County; no-till and range-planting project at Stemple Creek Ranch in Marin County; and compost application at Tresch Family Farm, an organic dairy in Sonoma County.

“One of the things that’s most exciting for us is bringing in farmers who may be less familiar with regenerative agriculture and gradually supporting their transition. That way, we can expand the number of acres that are sequestering carbon, and the number of people who are involved in this movement,” said Karen. “That’s been the focal point of our program design.”

From COVID to Wildfires

Since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the food world, many restaurants have permanently closed their doors, and others are currently only open for takeout. Much as some farmers relied on restaurants for the majority of their pre-pandemic sales, Zero Foodprint relies on restaurants to crowd-fund healthy soil projects for farmers. 

Mission Chinese Food was hit early on in pandemic, before shelter-in-place went into effect in March. “We experienced the impacts of this virus a bit early—since the beginning of the year—because people made an association between Chinese food, our food, and the outbreak,” said Karen. However, the restaurant has since rebounded through delivery and participating in San Francisco’s Great Plates Program, delivering culturally appropriate food to seniors.

But many restaurants have not been so fortunate, which means that Zero Foodprint is also facing uncertainty as less restaurants are able to contribute to the program. “As we continue to navigate this uncertain economic time, it’s not clear how the restaurant industry will be able to support these kinds of programs,” said Karen. “Still, we’ve actually continued to sign up new member restaurants, as people are radically rethinking their business plans and recognizing that climate change is an urgent threat, as we’ve seen from the wildfires this year.” 

Continuing on in Solidarity

As the uncertainty continues, Karen thinks it is more important than ever to support restaurants who are committed to investing in sustainable farms. “You can support farmers through their CSA programs or buying from them at the farmers market, but also by ordering takeout and purchasing gift certificates from ZFP restaurants,” she said. 

Karen is also hopeful that restaurants will come out stronger after this crisis, and can continue to connect people through food and support regenerative farming initiatives.

“I hope that as we come through this crisis, we will value what restaurants do in terms of community and expressing our best selves—where we are nurturing, community-minded, and sharing,” said Karen. “I really believe that restaurants are a place where these beautiful aspects of human nature can be expressed. I’m just hoping that we’ll be able to reopen restaurants as gathering food spaces. We’re going to need each other because we’re starting to feel the importance of solidarity, and we need to come together to protect the planet and the most vulnerable within our society.”

Photos courtesy of Zero Foodprint. Photo of Karen and Anthony by Alanna Hale.

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