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Taking the High Road in the Restaurant World

Katherine Miller

April 25, 2018

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Good Food 100, Raise, Fair Food Program, Seafood Watch logos

In her latest dispatch, our senior director of food policy advocacy Katherine Miller explores the human side of sustainability, and highlights the work of leading organizations that are fighting for a more equitable food system.

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What does it mean to be a truly sustainable restaurant?

Chef-led groups such as Zero Food Print posit that sustainability means figuring out ways to become carbon-neutral. For others, such as Chefs Collaborative, Good Food 100, and Slow Food, sustainability is a multi-faceted approach that includes committing to more local and regional food sourcing, as well as promoting businesses that support jobs and economies within the food system. Then there are programs, including JBF’s Smart Catch, which focus on specific ingredients and the production and harvesting methods used.

Whether independently, or viewed collectively, all of these programs share common goals when it comes to the conservation of natural resources (and the support of like-minded people and business enterprises).

But what about the human aspects of sustainability? How are restaurants and food-related businesses not only working to mitigate climate change but also supporting efforts to reduce the exploitation of workers?

Recently, Seafood Watch, in coordination with Liberty Asia and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, released “an online tool enabling restaurants and suppliers to identify the risk of forced labor, human trafficking, or hazardous child labor in the fishery operations that supply their seafood." This first-of-its-kind tool is a step in the right direction for the seafood industry, which has been plagued by serious accusations of slavery and human rights violations. 

The Fair Food Program, led by the James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Award–winning Coalition of Immokalee Workers, creates partnerships with “farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies to ensure humane wages and working conditions for the workers who pick fruits and vegetables on participating farms.” These efforts, along with the work of unions, non-profits, and workers’ rights groups, also help educate consumers and chefs about the best businesses and industries to work with and support through their spending dollars.

The Beard Foundation is proud to support these initiatives focused on food production. The James Beard House in New York City has initiated food waste reduction efforts and sustainable seafood sourcing standards over the last 12 months. We’re also proud that the Beard House is part of a program called RAISE run by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United. RAISE is “restaurants advancing industry standards in employment” and hundreds of restaurants around the country, including the Beard House, Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Russell Street Deli, Crafted Hospitality Group, and Union Square Hospitality Group support the campaign’s “high-road” principles.

Through RAISE, the Beard House can network with other restaurants, share information about business practices, and find ways to improve our own practices, including commitments to diverse and equitable employment, safe and healthy workplaces, and jobs that pay a livable wage and provide important benefits such as paid sick leave and healthcare.

The Beard House, which hosts as many as 200 events each year, also provides a forum for us to have conversations about human and environmental sustainability, allowing us to discuss and model the ways members of the culinary community can run high-road businesses. 

Our journey in this work is only beginning, and even with a long list of challenges laid out before us, we are often motivated by a quote from James Beard: "If we really believe in food we must do something about it, for our voices should be raised above the rest."

Living all of these principles—zero food waste, no red-listed items, fair food pricing, higher wages, and benefits—can be hard. There is often contradictory information, competing interests, and higher costs involved. To do all of this also requires constant dialogue between our guests at the Beard House, our team, the media, and other non-profit organizations. There is a need—and a desire—to help use our platform and our voice in support of a better food system, and the Beard House allows us the opportunity to educate our guests by showing them how delicious a sustainable meal can be!

For more updates on the Beard Foundation’s sustainability initiatives subscribe to our Impact newsletter and follow us at @BeardFoundation and @JBFChefAction on Twitter.

Learn more about JBF Impact programs.

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Katherine Miller is JBF’s senior director of food policy advocacy. Find her on Twitter.