Going on a Low Carb(on) Diet

Going on a Low Carb(on) Diet

You've probably heard of the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet and the Best Life diet. Now it’s time to consider Low Carbon Diet. It's good for the planet, and good for your health, your waistline and your bottom line. What’s not to like?

While the impacts of agriculture and food production on global warming are complex, the Low Carbon Diet is pretty simple. You eat less beef and cheese. You throw away less food. And you try, when possible, to eat locally grown food.

This would be of no more than passing interest, except for one thing: a food service company called Bon Appetit, which operates more than 400 cafeterias in 28 states, is putting the Low Carbon Diet into practice, and it seems to be affecting the way thousands of Americans eat.

Two years ago, Bon Appetit, which operates cafeterias for Target, Cisco, eBay, MIT, Wheaton and Oberlin Colleges, among others, launched the Low Carbon Diet on Earth Day. For a day, it served no hamburgers for lunch.

More important, the company set a goal of reducing beef consumption by 10 percent. A year later, every site had reduced beef consumption by at least that much, and the system as a whole cut it back by 23 percent.

"It's time to become accustomed to thinking of meat and cheese as 'special food' rather than simply as lunch and dinner," says Helene York, the architect of the Law Carbon Diet and the director of strategic initiatives at Bon Appetit. York also runs the Bon Appetit Foundation, where her job, in part, is to spread the word about the connections between diet and global warming.

By some accounts, the food system accounts for as much as one-third of global greenhouse gas production. Some of my favorite writers—Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Peter Singer and, long before any of them, Frances Moore Lappe —have written eloquently about how we eat can change the world. Food has become a big environmental issue in the blogosphere. (See the Ethicurean, Sam Fromartz's ChewsWise and Tom Philpott's Victual Reality columns at Grist.) These conversations will shape individual behavior. But only when big companies like Whole Foods, McDonald's and Wal-Mart get into the game will change come at the scale we need. That's what got me interested in Bon Appetit.

Founded by a couple of chefs and based in San Francisco, Bon Appetit is a division of a $20-billion-a-year public-traded British food company called Compass PLC. The company, whose slogan is "food services for sustainable future," employs more than 500 chefs, many classically trained, who prepare meals from scratch when possible. Bon Appetit began a "farm-to-fork" initiative encouraging chefs to buy locally back in 1999, it rolled out a sustainable seafood program in 2002 (after winning the food service contract at the Monterey Bay Aquarium) and it made a national commitment to buy cage-free eggs in 2005.

York, who is in her late 40s, found her job at Bon Appetit on Craigslist. A Yale MBA, she had worked at Aetna and Citigroup, then managed a Jewish theater troupe before getting into the food business. She launched the Low Carbon Diet in 2007, with a goal of curbing the company's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent over three years.

You can check out the diet at www.eatlowcarbon.org. It's instructive, if not comprehensive or precise. You can see, for example, that a chicken and cheese burrito has more than three times the global warming impact of chicken noodle soup, or that a breakfast of toast and jam will warm the planet less that a bowl of cold cereal and milk.

More interesting than the diet itself is how Bon Appetit persuades its customers to change their habits. "You lead with flavor, and I don’t say that lightly," York told me. For example: a chef named Chip Griffin, who runs a Cisco Systems café in Boxborough, Mass., created what he called "the best-tasting turkey burger in Massachusetts" for Earth Day last year. He worked at the grill station himself, touting his healthier choice. Afterwards, hamburgers went back on the menu, but the turkey burger has outsold them ever since.

This year, Bon Appetit has pledged to eliminate all air-freighted seafood, reduce tropical fruit consumption by 50 percent and reduce cheese and meat consumption by 25 percent (from the 2007 baseline). The company has also begun to measure all of the food that it throws away because when food is disposed of in landfills, it decomposes and emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Where feasible, Bon Appetit has set up composting programs or looked for ways to get its food scraps back to farmers who feed them to pigs and chickens.

"We're looking at food scraps as a resource, rather than as waste," York says.

These are solid steps, but as you dig into the environmental impact of food, things get complicated in a hurry. Measuring the carbon footprint of the food on your plate is an inexact science. Is it better to buy local or buy organic? Are farmed shellfish sustainable -- or not?

No ordinary person can be expected to sort out all those choices, but they matter. Which is why we need more companies like Bon Appetit to guide us.

Farmers Market Produce -- Image CC licensed by Flickr user NatalieMaynor