By Eric J. McNulty
I’ve long been a foodie.
I’ve chronicled my food and wine adventures on my Executive Nomad blog. I’ve also been an environmentalist for decades. The first big “aha” moment about bringing these two together occurred in 2008 when I read in The New York Times that for the average American, consuming 20% less meat was the rough equivalent of shifting from a typical sedan to a compact hybrid in terms of environmental impact. Perhaps I might go vegetarian one day, but this was a start. I set a goal of one less meat meal per day. I also set a standard of only eating sustainably raised meat and poultry both as a way of reducing meat consumption – few restaurants served these products then – and minimizing the harm to the planet from the meat I did eat.
I kept on my personal journey. It is difficult to discern exactly what the best choices are when one travels a lot for business as I do. High-end restaurants tend to trumpet their local, organic, and sustainable choices — but what do you do in an airport terminal?
The second big “aha” came in spring 2011. I was challenged to develop a proposal to make my community more sustainable as part of my Lesley University self-designed Master’s program on leadership in the context of large-scale challenges, such as climate change and urbanization. There were many possibilities, from handing rainwater runoff to fostering more bicycling. I kept returning, however, to food. Food is one of the fundamental elements that knits families and communities together. It is part of everyone’s daily activities. How we grow, prepare, eat, and dispose of food has tremendous impact on personal, public, and environmental health. Best of all, with nearly 20 restaurants and other purveyors of food within a two-block area in my immediate neighborhood, there was a golden opportunity to take individual action to community scale. Why should my journey be a solo one? What if a group of like-minded people could band together to drive broader awareness and change? If it worked, it could also serve as a national model.
Restaurants use significantly more energy and water than a typical storefront business, such as a bank or barber. They also create a lot of waste – as much as 50,000 pounds of garbage per year according to the Green Restaurant Association (GRA). On most restaurant menus, there is limited information about ingredients, nutrition, or other attributes of the meals we consume. Here, I saw an opportunity.
My community of Washington Square is home to Boston’s first GRA Certified Green Restaurant, The Fireplace. Chef/Owner Jim Solomon is a passionate advocate for green restaurants for many reasons. Not only does going green enable him to be a good corporate citizen, but it also saves 12 – 20% on his operating costs as a result of his green activities. Solomon introduced me to Michael Oshman, Founder and CEO of the GRA, who offered to certify the neighborhood as the nation’s first official Green Dining Zone if we could reach the threshold of 25% of the dining options becoming GRA Certified Green Restaurants. Together we have pursued this quest to improve health and the environment one delicious meal at a time.
Becoming a GRA Certified Green Restaurant requires earning Green Points across a number of environmental categories, including energy, water, waste, chemicals, disposables, and food. When considering sustainable food options, a green menu is naturally slanted toward the local, natural, in-season, and flavor-rich. When a restaurant serves a certain percentage of organic fruits and vegetables, naturally raised meats or sustainably harvested fish, it earns Green Points. When a certain percentage of the menu is vegetarian, the restaurant earns even more GreenPoints. Chefs get inspired. In short, the menu will trend toward a greater number of environmentally sustainable options, which makes it easier for diners to take care of their bodies and the planet without thinking that they are somehow penalizing themselves by skipping “the good stuff.”
Solomon told me of the journey he has taken over the last 11 years since opening The Fireplace. “Local was the focus when we opened,” he said. “Becoming Certified Green challenged me to learn about being sustainable.” Initially he bought beef through a traditional supplier. Local suppliers simply couldn’t provide consistent quantities of the high-quality cuts he wanted. In going green, he began to seek out sources of sustainably raised meat – but they, too, weren’t local. The beef was coming from California. He found one local supplier at the local farmer’s market but they were small-scale. The market has now grown enough that he can source grass-fed beef from Vermont which fulfills both goals of being sustainable and as local as possible. The taste is good too: The Fireplace was just awarded first place in Boston Magazine’s Battle of the Burger.
Solomon explained that the supply chain has matured significantly. He can now get not just local eggs, but local cage-free eggs. Organizations like Farm Fresh Rhode Island make it easy for chefs to discover and secure what local farmers are harvesting at any given time.
Here in Washington Square we have begun to promote the effort with neighborhood dine-arounds. No lectures, no slide shows; simply six-to-eight health and environmentally conscious neighbors getting together at one of the local eateries to have a good time. Sometimes we are rewarding a restaurant that has committed to investigate certification. Other times we are delivering a subtle nudge to one of our favorites that we’d like them to do so. We enjoy great food, the uplift of laughter, and getting to know each other a bit better.
The behind-the-scenes improvements that count toward GRA Certification have several public health benefits. Restaurants use up to 2.5 times the energy of other similar-sized businesses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. High efficiency lighting and appliances slash that energy use, which, in turn, cuts down on the electricity that must be produced, as well as any pollution associated with it.
Water savings can be equally dramatic. In a case study cited by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, one restaurant saved as much as 50,000 gallons annually simply by switching to low flow water devices. Given our national drought, any water saved is a good thing. In every restaurant, there are enormous opportunities.
The path to becoming a Green Dining Zone has not been fast or easy. Restaurateurs are busy and work long hours. Getting their attention takes persistence and they don’t like meetings. However, restaurateurs are eager to listen to consumers, including the two thousand individuals who have signed a petition to encourage Brookline’s restaurants to go green. Additionally, a new web site has been established to help consumers tell restaurant owners that they support the Green Dining Zone goal. On DineGreen Brookline, one click sends an e-mail to almost every restaurant in town (not just Washington Square), encouraging them to explore more environmentally sustainable practices. We hope that this direct customer action will pique the interest of more neighborhood eateries, and are pleased to report that one restaurant has already responded by taking steps to become a GRA Certified Green Restaurant!
We are happy to share the community action model that we have developed and the lessons we’ve learned. This initiative has been designed for Brookline, but it is open-source and available to any other city or town. Perhaps a little competition will speed things along.
Eric J. McNulty is Senior Associate at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard and a Senior Fellow at the RoseMont Institute for Transformational Leadership.