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Shades of Green: Innovations in Foodservice Sustainability

By Debby Cannon, Ph.D., CHE

The business environment of operating a restaurant has always been challenging and is only complicated by today’s economic climate. Our industry is one of small profit margins and cutting pennies to positively impact the bottom line. With that said, how is the restaurant industry doing with efforts to “go green” in becoming more environmentally proactive and sustainable? One would perhaps guess that the movement towards sustainable foodservice has slowed. Just the contrary—it seems to be stronger than ever.

Earlier this year, the National Restaurant Association published its “What’s Hot: Top 20 Trends” for 2010. Of the 20 predictions, two-thirds were tied to sustainability, locally grown and produced products, sustainable seafood, organic produce, fresh ingredients and nutrition and health. The NRA named “gardens” as the hottest trend in restaurant concepts for 2010. Gardens—whether rooftop, backyard, community or other types—will lead the pack of new restaurant innovations according to the NRA.

According to Holly Elmore, CEO of Elemental Impact and Director of the Zero Waste Zone, sustainable involvement is thriving. The commitment to environmentally proactive business practices in the restaurant industry is growing as it is in other industry sectors.

Elmore presented a 90-minute seminar at the National Restaurant Association’s Show in May of this year. The topic was composting, and this presentation resulted in numerous engagements for Elmore nationwide with restaurant and foodservice companies seeking her expertise in the areas of food residuals and composting.  According to Elmore, the validation from the National Restaurant Association in offering this type of seminar was a first. Secondly, the interest the seminar drew in attendance and follow-up requests is a definite indicator that our industry is putting a priority on sustainability.

Elmore’s organization, Elemental Impact, does not focus solely on the foodservice industry. The foodservice industry, however, is an “engine” to the organization because of the far-reaching impact it has on the environment. One of the priority areas for   Elemental Impact is soil sustainability. According to Elmore, our soil over the years has been depleted of essential minerals and vitamins. Through university partnerships with experts in the fields of food science, agriculture and nutrition, Elemental Impact is serving as a catalyst to enhance soil quality, which will result in healthier foods.

New technologies in agriculture will increasingly impact the foodservice industry. Already there are significant advances in alternatives to soil-based production of food such as hydroponics and aquaponics.

Hydroponics, the forerunner to aquaponics, is the production of plants in a soilless medium. All of the nutrients supplied to the crop are dissolved in water. Aquaponics involves the integration of hydroponics with aquaculture—raising fish. Recent work by researchers and growers has resulted in aquaponics being a working model of sustainable food production. The waste products of one biological system (ammonia from the fish) serve as nutrients for a second biological system (the vegetables or herbs produced.) This is made possible by microbes in the system that convert the ammonia to nitrogen, in a process called nitrification.

The benefits for foodservice operators are numerous. Multiple products can be produced—both fish and vegetables/herbs—from one production area. That production area can be relatively small, such as part of a rooftop garden.

The trend is starting to gain momentum in California, with top chefs such as Adam Navidi, owner of Signature Catering in Orange County, Calif. Chef Navidi has recently started exploring aquaponics in his commitment to offer the freshest and healthiest food products.

“I’ve been growing with hydroponics for the past six years,” he says. “With our new restaurant Oceans and Earth, we expect to have an aquaponics operation in back by this coming spring.” Navidi says that for a chef to have control over at least part of his food supply is an amazing new opportunity made possible with aquaponics.

That trend is expected to move eastward among restaurant and foodservice operators. The Charleston, S.C., restaurant scene has already begun to rely on an aquaponics farmer north of the city. The owner, Travis Hughey, is known in aquaponics circles around the world as the inventor of Barrel-Ponics, a brand Hughey has trademarked. He is a partner in a new aquaponics partnership called AquaPlanet, focused on teaching and services related to aquaponics and local food. The firm’s founding partner, Bevan Suits of Decatur, Ga., is working with Hughey to produce training videos that can be accessed online by subscription.

“Travis is pretty much in demand in foreign countries because the food and water situation is more severe there than it is in the U.S.,” Suits says. “We’re glad to work with him because he gives a good presentation.”

As we look at the future of food production and sustainable foodservice and restaurant operations, definitely stay tuned for exciting options and innovations.

Debby Cannon, Ph.D., CHE, is Director of the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality, located in the highly ranked Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University.  The school offers three different programs: A B.B.A. degree with a major in hospitality; a certificate program (a post-baccalaureate program) in hospitality operations, event planning and meeting planning; and an M.B.A. degree with a concentration on hotel real estate. Visit the School of Hospitality’s website at www.robinson.gsu.edu/hospitality or call 404.413.7615.

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