Friday, May 30, 2008

Green plate special

Lately, every time I go to a restaurant, I wonder what kind of food-related practices I'm supporting by eating out. For my own cooking at home, I buy mostly organic food, but I have a feeling that the vast majority of eateries I patronize aren't doing a lot of organic sourcing. "Wouldn't it be great if they were?" I keep thinking to myself. "I'd pay extra for that."

After talking today with Michael Oshman, now I'm wondering why I've been keeping those thoughts to myself. "Restaurants are very, very,gralogo4 very sensitive to consumer demand," he told me. Oshman is the founder of the Green Restaurant Association, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that since 1990 has run a certification system that not only certifies restaurants but also helps them through the process with education and consulting services.

The choice to serve organic food is just one small part of what it means for a restaurant to be green (or at least greener) in the GRA's eyes. Other considerations include energy and water use, recycling, cleaning agents, and what types of materials are used for everything from to-go containers to tables. In order for an establishment to sport the GRA's logo, it must be styrofoam-free and have a full-scale recycling program in place (defined by the city in which it's located), and—crucially—it must make four improvements per year in any of the 11 areas delineated on the GRA's website.

"It's different for each restaurant," Oshman said. "If you already have the best equipment, we'll look at areas you haven't touched, like energy or waste reduction, for example. Even after only a couple of years of making four improvements per year, it's pretty exciting what an average business can do."

I asked whether there were any menu-based disqualifications for certification. For example, would serving seafood varieties that are overfished or caught unsustainably prevent a restaurant from joining the club? No, though "we would give them credit for getting rid of those things." Ultimately, pragmatism reigns, Oshman said, pointing out that many restaurants use energy that is nuclear- or coal-based. "In an academic vacuum, you'd absolutely say no to those things, but in the real world with six billion people, no one would go forward [with such limitations]," he said.

Which brings us back to consumer demand. If diners make their voices heard, restaurants will listen. To help stimulate such communication, the GRA's website has downloadable suggestion cards customers can leave at restaurants encouraging them to join the association and get certified.

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