How Can We Incentivize Restaurants to Serve Us Healthy Food?
Written by Aaron French
People are eating more and more meals away from home these days. A study last year by the US Department of Agriculture found that Americans eat a third of their calories at restaurants each week, while other studies peg that number at around 50 percent of calories consumed. Restaurant meals per capita have more than doubled in the past few decades, and these meals are exceptionally high in calories, fat, and sodium compared with meals eaten at home.
This fact lies at the heart of United States Healthful Food Council (USHFC), which aims to improve the health of our nation, one meal at a time.
“We’re at a time when I really think we’re at a tipping point and things are shifting,” with regards to our consciousness about healthy food, says Lawrence Williams, president and founder of USHFC. By offering monetary and marketing incentives to the food service industry, Lawrence’s goal is to increase the proportion of fresh, unprocessed, healthy, and environmentally beneficial foods that we eat when we dine out.
The problem is that “when you are not preparing your own food you are giving up control of what goes into your body to someone else,” says Lawrence. And this problem is compounded because “the economic incentives for the restaurateurs and chefs are counter to the nutritional benefits of the diners. The way it’s currently set up, our entire food system is geared towards low cost and low quality food at the expense of health and nutrition.”
The USHFC is addressing this issue directly by creating partnerships with restaurants and other foodservice establishments. The partnerships will enable USHFC to certify healthy and environmentally friendly operations, as well as offer recipe analysis, nutrition consulting, and other labeling and advisory services to promote positive food options. USHFC will then take the next step and market these restaurants and food outlets to allow consumers to make more informed choices when the chose to out.
Lawrence just left an 8-year run at Space Exploration Technologies, where he was the vice president for strategic relations. More commonly known as SpaceX, the company is currently launching rockets to dock with the International Space Station.
So how does a vice president of a space transport company get into fixing the food system? Lawrence chuckles when I ask him this over a pint of beer at the new San Francisco Mission district eatery Namu Gaji. “Growing up in [the] South, I saw a lot of overweight children getting picked on a lot,” Lawrence remembers, “and once I grew up I realized that this was an area where I could use my experience to make a difference. And I’m really committed to living a healthy lifestyle myself and know how hard it can be.”
Lawrence realized that this was an area where he could use his entrepreneurial skills to make a difference. He decided to found USHFC as a non-profit so that “nobody would think that I’m a competitive threat. I simply want to align the incentives in the direction of health and sustainability.”
Taking significant inspiration from the LEED certifications given to buildings, the USHFC’s initial strategy is to encourage existing best practices in the industry, and then provide a marketing mechanism to bring in new customers by explaining and broadcasting what the restaurants are doing right.
“Our gold-standard is going to be to establish what the top 10-percent of foodservice providers are doing in regards to nutrition and environment, and then encourage those practices to propagate across the industry.” The goal is to work with existing organizations, including the Green Restaurant Association, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, The Environmental Working Group’s Bottled Water Scorecard, and others. “Let’s try to incentivize what we already know to be good for everybody,” Lawrence said. The USHFC will focus on both health and the environment simultaneously because “it’s difficult to separate ‘good for environment’ from ‘good for nutrition.’ They are mutually reinforcing criteria.”
Beyond that, the plan is to take a measured approach to building USHFC’s program. Lawrence first wants to make USHFC national but shallow, and then go deeper in a few select locations. “It’s a long term program,” he says, “like LEED certification which has been around for 20 years. Back then nobody knew what an impact it would have, but now the LEED brand is really worth something and is changing the way we construct buildings. I want to lead USHFC to be like that in 20 years, only with food.”
This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.
Photo from pixelshifter via flickr