2020 Humanitarian of the Year: Zero FoodprintSarah Maiellano
September 15, 2020
This award is given to an individual or organization working in the realm of food who has given selflessly and worked tirelessly to better the lives of others and society at large.
As co-founders of San Francisco’s Mission Chinese Food, Zero Foodprint’s executive director Karen Leibowitz and director of partnerships Anthony Myint, know the challenges of running a restaurant day-to-day while thinking about larger goals, both personal and global. That’s why when they opened The Perennial together, the husband-and-wife team sourced from farmers who took steps to better the planet and mitigate climate change.
“We’re proud of what we did there, but then we started thinking about the big picture, the scale of the problem, and the pace of climate change,” Leibowitz says. “It’s not going to be solved by just sourcing from the best farmers and hoping others do the same.”
In 2015 Myint created Zero Foodprint to help restaurants assess their emissions, improve processes, and purchase carbon offsets. Last year, Zero Foodprint merged with the Perennial Farming Initiative, the farm-focused nonprofit that Leibowitz was running. The newly merged organization launched “Restore California” in January 2020.
Through this new program, restaurants add a one percent surcharge to dining bills, which Zero Foodprint funnels towards grants to help farmers implement regenerative farming practices featuring carbon-rich, healthy soil. “This soil is full of life, resistant to drought, and creates hardy, nutritious crops, all while pulling carbon out of the atmosphere—it’s a win-win,” she says.
“When it comes to a big problem like climate change, people often feel hopeless,” Leibowitz continued, “but we help farmers do something that turns back the clock by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.”
Today Zero Foodprint’s programs have pulled the equivalent of more than two million gallons of gas emissions from the atmosphere. It has 52 member restaurants located throughout the U.S. and across the globe, including noma, Chez Panisse, Atelier Crenn, and, of course, all three Mission Chinese Food locations. Participating restaurants can sign up for the Carbon Neutral process (which addresses restaurant emissions), Restore California, or both.
“Chefs are in this amazing position to translate between consumers and producers about where food comes from,” Leibowitz says. “Restaurant people really care about the potential to do good.”
Zero Foodprint aims to make it easy for chefs to get involved and use their position to better the food system. “Restaurants and their guests can make small steps that add up to a real, positive impact,” Leibowitz continues. “If we can come together, we can create a direct pathway to climate solutions.”
Currently piloting programs with four California farms, the organization plans to grow its reach by linking up with farms in Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. But with the current COVID-19 crisis, expansions are currently on hold.
However, Leibowitz is hopeful for the future: “As the world rebuilds our food system in the wake of the global pandemic, we can set our sights higher than simply returning to business as usual. Let's create a new food system that is stronger and more resilient than what we had before.”