Forget counting carbohydrates. Food service company Bon Appetit is worried about a different kind of carbs in its food – carbon emissions associated with production and transportation. It’s looking at how food affects climate change and vice versa.
Bon Appetit Management Co. serves food in a lot of college dining halls across the country. For Earth Day Monday, the company is hosting 500 events in college cafes – including the University of Portland, Reed College, Lewis and Clark College, George Fox University and Willamette University – under the theme “Your Lunch Is Heating Up.” The event will feature cooking demonstrations and samples of several foods that are both low-carbon and include ingredients that may be affected by climate change.
Bon Appetit commissioned a review of scientific papers on the climate impacts to crops such as corn, wheat, rice, fruit, dairy and coffee. Some are expected to be impacted more than others by earlier thaws, later frosts, higher than average temperatures, droughts and new pests and weeds.
Maisie Greenwalt, vice president of strategy for Bon Appetit, said she’s found it takes a big event to draw people’s attention to the environmental impact of the food choices. That’s why her company has hosted Low Carbon Diet Day every year since 2008.
The foods on the menu for Monday’s event include an almond-milk blueberry smoothie, a cheese-less pizza, and edamame burgers topped with spiced carrot peels. Each item has a little lesson in climate change cooked into it.
Almond milk is a low-carbon substitute for dairy milk, which comes from cows that produce methane gas – greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
“Almonds are also being affected by climate change,” said Greenwalt. “They’re California’s most valuable crop, and they should experience a slight yield increase because of climate change. So almonds are also a great option post-climate change.”
The smoothie also uses frozen, local blueberries from last season so fresh berries don’t have to be flown in from South America, she said.
Removing the cheese from your pizza also lowers its carbon footprint. But you don’t have to lose all the flavor and moistness it brings to the pie, Greenwalt said. A parsley-pecan pesto can substitute for the flavor of cheese with fewer carbon pounds. The pizza crust is being made to illustrate the climate change impacts on wheat.
“Hotter summer temperatures are reducing wheat yields and an increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is affecting protein yields,” said Greenwalt. “On the flip side, there are areas farther north that are starting to grow wheat where they previously couldn’t, so everything is shifting upward. Part of the story is about adaptation and whether farmers can adapt quickly enough to keep up with the changes.”
And, of course, making a burger without beef reduces its carbon footprint. But substituting spiced carrot peels for a tomato has a double impact because you’re using a food item that might otherwise be thrown away instead of a food item that has to be brought in from far away when it’s not in season.
“What we’ve learned is to look at high-carbon foods and ask from a culinary perspective what that food is giving you,” said Greenwalt. “Is it flavor or texture? And what other foods could achieve that same objective.”
Greenwalt said her company has reduced the carbon footprint of its food by 25 percent since a United Nations study found that a third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food.
“That really opened our eyes as a company that doesn’t have a lot of trucks on the road or a lot of smokestacks,” she said. “We hadn’t realized we were contributing so much.”