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Greg Christian has been in the food business for over three decades and spent most that time as a chef. But when his youngest daughter, who is now twenty, got profoundly sick with asthma, it never occurred him that diet could affect her symptoms. “She was going to the emergency room all the time, and then the intensive care started happening.” His ex-wife suggested that they switch their daughter to an all-organic diet, and surprisingly, her asthma got better. While there are only preliminary studies suggesting that diets rich in processed food correlate with asthma, what Christian saw in his own daughter was undeniable. She was better. He remembers, “I was shocked that it helped her—and confused.” He realized he didn’t know as much about food as he thought he did. A few things were clear: “I didn’t know how to change my business, but I knew that it wasn’t okay that my kids got to eat organic food and most of the world didn’t.”
Christian became a “self-taught sustainable food expert,” founded a nonprofit, the Organic School Project, and gave his own catering business a revamp. He was also a man whose talents were evolving—from chef to the sort of guy who could pinpoint inefficiencies in a kitchen, who thought about menus in terms of both taste and waste. This is when Christian gathered experts in sustainability, food service, nutrition, waste management, business and environmental science and formed Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, a B Corp designed to teach big kitchens how to feed their students, patients and customers locally grown and scratch-cooked food, without adding expense.
Beyond Green first saves money for restaurants, cafeterias, and even a food truck by spotting inefficiencies in things like energy, water, food and soap. (Yes, soap—lots of suds go to waste in half-filled dishwashers and in other daily chores.) Often menus are too large, and having a bounty of options means chefs over-order food. Processed food with a longer shelf-life fills out large freezers, while unused fresh food spoils. There’s a shocking number floating around food circles, and cooks know they contribute to it: nearly 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste.
“People stop there,” says Christian. “They think the food part of our food system is inefficient.” But problems riddle the kitchen.
One of the biggest things that goes to waste in industrial kitchens is time. In school kitchens, there can be a lot of standing around time (between when frozen food is unwrapped, put in the oven, and when it comes out). Many school cafeteria cooks spend hours on a process called “cupping,” putting food in little plastic cups with lids. After Beyond Green’s assessment and by switching to bulk serving of meals, cooks at Bureau Valley School District in Manlius, Ill. saved a total of 25 hours and $500 each month in equipment and labor costs, simply by cutting out “cupping.”
Money saved in reduced energy and water use, waste removal and pick-up goes toward locally grown ingredients. Retraining cooks and eliminating hours wasted in their day lets them scratch-cook.
Christian admits that sometimes, “It’s a hard sell.” For decades, most of us have been convinced by food industry marketing that processed, packaged food is easier, and so better. “To turn this whole system around, it’s an evolution, not a revolution… When you walk into a business, like a hospital, and you say, ‘We’re going to bring a revolution to your cafeteria,’ you’re never going to close that deal,” says Christian. To get real change, cooks can’t see consultants as bullies. They are offering five- to ten-year sustainability strategies, not a kitchen coup.
Beyond Green’s work in Skokie, a Chicago suburb, was a transformation with district-wide support on their side. During the 2008-09 school year, 1,200 Niles North high school students signed a petition demanding healthier cafeteria food. Sheri Doniger, a school board member who worked closely on the healthy foods program, explains that in their district’s case, they had total buy-in from staff. Beyond Green’s sustainability strategy ensured that there was no room for greenwashing; their bid requests required vendors make a measureable impact. Waste, energy and water use went down, meals were scratch-cooked, and 90 percent of students agree the food is tasty—at the same time that their meal costs remained the same.
For a notion that began in one man’s home kitchen, Beyond Green’s reach extends throughout the US and Canada, but remains tied to its Chicago home. Its staff occasionally takes local high school students to farmers’ markets to do menu planning and then teaches them scratch-cook methods in cooking classes. Their process spans fixing leaking sinks, retraining cooks, and teaching kids to appreciate what goes into a good meal. As Christian puts it, “It’s about dreaming a new dream, of a different food system that works for everyone.”
Photo courtesy Beyond Green.