There is nothing more dear to us than our food culture – what our momma cooks, what our grandma fed us. Being told that what is on our plate is hurting the planet can feel like a threat to our souls.
Science and innovation are bringing a dizzying number of new meat alternatives, from the booming rise of Beyond and Impossible to dozens of global startups hoping to replace land-hungry, pollution-belching animal agriculture with protein fermented in labs.
But chef Camilla Marcus prefers to look back to find food solutions. Modern diets are formed by “an overhang from the industrial revolution,” she says. “Which is not how your mom cooked. That isn’t how historical cultures cooked. It was much more about zero waste and being sustainable. Nothing was left on a plate, nothing wasn’t repurposed.”
Depending on her age and locale, maybe your mom depended on frozen TV dinners, but that way of cooking – along with supermarkets stocked with only the best cuts of factory-farmed meat and visually perfect produce – is the real insult to food tradition, Marcus argues.
“No one could afford it or could conceive of a packaged, perfect piece of steak. That isn’t how people bought things. They bought things from their neighbors. They bought things from local shop,” she says.
After being trained at the International Culinary Center and working her way up through some of the best reviewed restaurants in the world, Marcus opened west-bourne in the Soho neighborhood in New York with the hopes of being a model for sustainable, earth-conscious, zero-waste dining. “Our whole goal was sort of accidentally vegetarian, but decidedly wholesome,” she says. “I genuinely believe that we’re not going to convince the public to be vegetarian or vegan. I’d rather try and get someone to eat plant-based a couple of meals a week or a couple of days a week.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Marcus’ mother shopped locally, buying all-natural kids’ snacks from Mrs. Gooch’s (a market later acquired by Whole Foods), using washable napkins and rinsing out bottles to return to the milkman.
It wasn’t until she arrived on the East Coast for college and culinary school that she realized her family was old-fashioned in the best possible way. “That’s when the light bulb went off – oh, I had this really unusual childhood and I didn’t realize that people didn’t think like that and didn’t think about how they’re storing things, where they’re shopping, how they’re cooking, what they’re using, what they’re throwing away,” she said.
A new report by the European grocery giant, Tesco, and the WWF conservation organization finds that humanity wastes a staggering 2.5 billion metric tons of food each year.
So instead of evangelizing a mass migration to veganism, Marcus hopes people will start taking small steps to make their diets more sustainable. Carnivores can search out organic, grass-fed-and-finished meat from a so-called “whole butcher” committed to minimal waste. And if you’re throwing out a lot of broccoli stems because your children only eat the tops, look up something to do with them, like add them to a smoothie.
“I don’t think it’s that our eyes are bigger than our stomachs,” she said of the challenges facing the country. “I think we throw out a lot. We don’t know what to do with it … and I think on the supply side, we throw a lot out because we think that the public doesn’t want it and that may or may not be true.”
If shoppers and diners were happier to buy bruised kale or did not demand it out of season, the industry and even policy makers would follow suit, she said. First, though, there has to be more understanding and options.
Marcus has done plenty of learning of her own. After demanding that her west-bourne staff source only compostable or reusable items and eliminating virtually all food waste, hers was the first eatery certified under the TRUE program.
But just as she learned her restaurant had achieved an even higher sustainability certification, the Covid-19 lockdown put her out of business and pandemic priorities took the focus off sustainability. “As someone who cares about climate change and our environment, it was really hard to see single-use plastics come back with a vengeance sort of overnight,” she said.
She gave birth during lockdown and, cut-off from her beloved staff, began connecting with other chefs to create the Independent Restaurant Coalition. With so many eateries in deep financial shock and PPP loans poorly designed for that industry, they are lobbying for a Restaurants Revitalization Act to help others avoid the same door-closing fate.
She’s confident that as the world reopens, her west-bourne model could still become the norm as more people dine out with the knowledge that every bite consumed has a cost to land, air, water and the climate not often reflected on the check.
“I do think Millennials and Gen-Z are actually thinking about that and going, you know what, I don’t know that I need steak on the plate tonight. You know, it’s OK,” Marcus says.
“It’s really been obviously a brutally painful period, but I think one that hopefully has catalyzed real systemic change. I think that it really has been a long time coming.”
That change could be a realization that eating well is more than just about food.
“You choose your favorite places to eat because they make you feel good and you like the vibe,” she said, not simply because it’s the right price and they always deliver on time.
The same could also be true of ingredients, she says. Not necessarily the prettiest or the cheapest – though she argues that policies like subsidies must change to make good food affordable to all – but the ones that make us, and the bigger community feel good.
Chefs and restaurants have their part to play, as does the food industry and government she says.
But as the pandemic shone new light on food producers and grocery store clerks along with first responders, maybe there will be new views of food and eating that persist.
“We should be asking ourselves, why is a plastic knife 10 cents on the dollar to a fully compostable, biodegradable one?” Marcus said. “That’s where the rubber will hit the road.”
With the massive impact of America’s food industry on its greenhouse emissions, big changes are needed.
But small ones can have an impact too. Marcus said: “I tell people just decide you’re not going to use paper towels, just decide, commit to that one thing. I promise you can do it. It’s a lot easier than you think.”