Combating Climate Change One Meal at a Time

While summits, scientific research and more federal funding all have their important place in the climate change discussion, at the end of the day it comes down to people.
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This week, Americans will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, that national day of appreciation for the environment. Since we celebrated the very first Earth Day in 1970, we've made major strides as a nation. But even as we deepen our national commitment to preserving the environment at the local and national levels, we should continue thinking about how each of us can contribute to a greener world.

Carpooling, conserving water and using energy-efficient light bulbs are environmentally-friendly actions that often come to mind. But there's something else we all can do to combat climate change every day - three times a day, to be exact - breakfast, lunch and dinner. Many people are unaware of just how strong the connection is between food and climate change. In fact, with all the energy it takes to get food from the farm to our plates, an estimated one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from our food system. The good news is that some foods are more eco-friendly than others. By choosing wisely, we can help slow climate change with each bite we take, without sacrificing taste.

My organization, Bon Appétit Management Company, is a food service provider for corporate, education and specialty clients around the country. We serve over 100 million meals every year in 400+ cafés around the country, at places like eBay, Yahoo!, University of Pennsylvania, MIT and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And we try to run this business like we run our lives--by making the right decisions for the environment and for our health every day. Over the past two years, we've reduced our carbon emissions by over four million pounds per month by making largely unnoticeable menu changes. And this Earth Day, we'll celebrate our third annual "Low Carbon Diet Day" where we will call attention to the link between food and climate change in our cafés, encouraging our guests to experience how simple and delicious planet-friendly fare can be.

But anyone, not just large companies with the time and resources to do so, can make changes that will have a significant impact over time. We recommend starting with a few basics:

  • Minimize food waste and take only what you will eat (food sitting in landfills emits harmful methane gas).
  • Eat more seasonal and regional foods since they are less likely to have been air-freighted to you. It can be as simple as topping a sandwich with grilled onions rather than out-of-season tomatoes.
  • Limit beef and cheese consumption (since the ruminant animals these foods come from emit methane gas).
  • If it's processed or packaged, try to skip it. This kind of food takes a lot of energy to produce, and often, the packaging is wasteful.

So it's really pretty simple. While summits, scientific research and more federal funding all have their important place in the climate change discussion, at the end of the day it comes down to people. The choices we make every day as individuals, as families and as corporations are what ultimately will drive lasting environmental change.

As we celebrate Earth Day this April 22, we encourage individual Americans and American businesses alike to make decisions that will benefit themselves of course, but also the communities they engage with and the customers they serve. It's not the path of least resistance, but it's a sound business model, and reminds us of the connection between planet and plate.

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