Low Carbon Food Service

Two years ago, Bon Appétit Management Company, which provides onsite restaurant services to more than 400 corporations and colleges, launched a program called the Low-Carbon Diet. The idea was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its food service operations, while teaching its staff and its customers how food contributes to climate change.

Why bother?

Scientists estimated that growing, processing and transporting food contributes about a third of the world’s greenhouse gases. For example, one pound of beef generates the equivalent of 21 pounds of CO2—largely because cows emit a lot of methane through their digestive system. Vegetables and many grains have a much smaller carbon footprint.

What are the goals of the Low-Carbon Diet?

They’re quite specific. The company has said it will:

  • Reduce use of beef by 25% and source all meats from North America;
  • Reduce use of cheese by 10%;
  • Source all vegetables, non-tropical fruits and bottled water from North America;
  • Eliminate air-freighted seafood;
  • Reduce food waste by 25% and implement composting at all possible sites;
  • Reduce coffee purchases by 10% and introduce more shade-grown and organic coffees;
  • Reduce packaging by 10%;

But how can a company change the way its customers eat?

It's all about making subtle menu changes, which offer diners plenty of options. The company works closely with its chefs—about 500 in all—to promote chicken, vegetarian and pork dishes. They make substitutions on their menus, replacing beef satay with chicken satay, for example.

Hamburgers are still available for those diners who want them, but lower-carbon burger options (such as turkey) are always promoted. And Bon Appétit chefs have found that 4 oz. of natural beef, raised without added hormones or antibiotics, cooks down to the same size hamburger as 5 oz. of standard beef, due to less water loss.

Using just the right amount of the most flavorful ingredients is another key step. A small amount of feta cheese can do as much to flavor a pizza than twice as much mozzarella.

Bottom line, the goal is to make the low-carbon foods more appealing. Most of Bon Appétit chefs are classically trained, so they know how to work creatively with seasonal, local ingredients.

Is the Low-Carbon Diet making a difference?

Definitely. Bon Appétit cafés reported that they bought 33% less beef after the program had been in effect for two years. Cheese purchases are down by 10%. The company has virtually eliminated all air-freighted seafood as well.

And as part of an existing Bon Appétit policy to support local farmers and producers, chefs buy a minimum of 20% of their foodstuffs from within 150 miles of their kitchen.

Where can you find this program?

Bon Appétit has rolled out the program at its more than 400 corporate and university cafes and catering operations around the country. It corporate clients include eBay, Cisco, Dreamworks, Medtronic, Nordstrom, Target and Yahoo!.

The company also feeds students at American University, Goucher College, Hamilton College, MIT, Oberlin, Reed and Washington University, among others. Specialty venues include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Center and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The company serves about 80 million meals a year.