Extreme food makeover
Roger Williams University's reduced carbon "foodprint" loses nothing in translation.
Last Thursday, April 24, Roger Williams University's dining services went on a low carbon diet. No, that's not a typo — and not to be confused with low-carb — grains and beans were front and center on the menu at the University's Upper Commons dining facility. Low carbon foods are something else entirely: foods that do not contain beef and dairy and are produced without releasing much, if any, greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
While their contribution to greenhouse gases may not be as immediately apparent as, say, a fleet of gas-guzzling SUVs, beef and dairy cattle have a big impact. In fact, if every American skipped meat and dairy just one day a week, consuming vegetable-based proteins in their place, it would be the equivalent of taking 19.2 million cars off the road for one year.
This is because the digestive systems of cows, goats and sheep produce a lot of methane – a greenhouse gas that is 20 to 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
Flexitarianism — going vegetarian or vegan on a part-time basis — has become pretty popular, for a number of reasons, but primarily because it is better for both your waistline and your wallet. Low-carbon diet advocates hope that even more Americans would skip the beef and dairy every now and then, if they realized how much better it was for the environment. And it's not even necessary to go vegan, or even vegetarian: chicken, fish and eggs are also low-carbon choices.
Eating low on the food chain is not a new concept. Long before the phrase "carbon footprint" entered our lexicon; long before any of these students (not to mention much of the staff and faculty) were born, there was "Diet For a Small Planet." Written by hunger activist Frances Moore Lappe and released in 1971, "Diet" was the first America heard about the environmental impact and high energy costs of meat production. Lappe promoted vegetarianism not for humane reasons, but because it is best for the earth. Lappe noted that in some traditional cuisines there is a natural balance of roughly 70 percent whole grains to 30 percent legumes.
For example, the Latin American diet consists primarily of beans with tortillas and rice; traditional Middle Eastern foods include dishes like hummus and falafel, made from chick peas and bulgur wheat; and in Asia, rice and soy dominate the diet. These foods have become fairly mainstream in much of America, are as delicious and healthy as they are environmentally-friendly, and were present in abundance on Thursday's menu.
Bon Appétit Management Company, Roger Williams' food service provider, began celebrating Low Carbon Diet Day one year after the 2007 launch of its own Low Carbon Diet program, which made it the first in the industry to address how food choices can affect our changing atmosphere. With cooking demonstrations, and low-carbon makeovers of some of the popular dining stations, diners see that they do not have to go entirely meatless to make their diet a climate-friendlier one. A dairy-free fruit smoothie greeted diners on the way into the hall; the regular burger station was replaced by a fish taco with fresh cole slaw and accompaniments; and the Italian station, usually a cheese-lover's mecca, was replaced by a buffet of Middle Eastern and Indian dishes, from hummus and couscous to naan bread and tamarind chutney.
Since launching this low carbon initiative nearly eight years ago, "Bon Appétit has reduced its beef consumption by 33 percent, and its cheese consumption by 10 percent," said Nicole Tocco, Senior Fellow from the Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation.
But what do the students think?
"They love it," said General Manager James Gubata. "The students are concerned about the impact of beef and dairy on the environment, and the food is really good. They can east responsibly and it's delicious. We have creative, awesome chefs." Jonathan Cambra, Senior Chef and Assistant Director of Culinary Operations, noted that the company strives to strike a balance between their clients' tastes and environmental responsibility, reducing, while not eliminating, purchases of air-freighted products like tropical fruits. Also, given the University's location, they strive to use local, underutilized seafood, such as the Acadian redfish in the fish tacos. "Last week we served a scup chowder, and the students really loved it. Once they got past the word 'scup'."
By all accounts, Roger Williams students are more than willing to try new things. Given the stellar credentials of Executive Chef Ruben Haag and Cambra, a Bristol resident who spent several years as Chef de Cuisine at local culinary landmarks Inn at Castle Hill and the Boat House, their palates are in extremely capable hands, a fact not lost on the students themselves, one of whom passed by as Cambra stood in the bustle of the lunch rush explaining the low carbon diet. The young man paid Cambra a compliment, plain-spoken but ultimately as sincere as it gets: "This guy right here? He kicks butt — every day."
Visit EatLowCarbon.org to learn more about reducing your carbon "foodprint."