Food & Drink

Food & Drink
Dilemma of a Thumbelina carrot
Image: MARTHA CHENG

Rethinking Everything

The Convenient Truth: A lunch wagon owner’s honest confession about maintaining sustainability

Quoted

As a business owner who cares about sustainability, I can’t decide if bottled water is like an iPhone (a use-for-anything device) or the devil realized in plastic.

Food & Drink / Being sustainable is an uphill battle against hundreds of years of human innovation. No wonder it’s so freakin’ hard.

I didn’t always think this way. I write articles about food sustainability and eating local. I’m OK with spending most of (if not all of) my paycheck on local and organic food. I go out of my way to pick up a CSA box of vegetables or half a cow from Molokai. I meet my farmers and think it’s all a great, fun adventure.

Then I opened, with two business partners, a lunch wagon that serves gourmet grilled-cheese sandwiches. Even aside from the fact that local cheeses are few and no one grows wheat for bread, I assumed business purchasing would adhere to the same principles as personal purchasing.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. We buy carrots from California when there are local options. Our menu is meat-centric, even though sustainability experts tell us eating more vegetables is better for the environment and our personal health. We use local ground beef, but we can’t reliably procure other cuts of meat so we turn to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) meat from Costco. We don’t recycle because it’s outside of our normal route, and sometimes we use bottled water to wash our equipment.

What happened?

It turns out, running a “green” business is like trying to convince a lion to grow its own food instead of killing to eat. Going green is rethinking everything we know, especially in business. For centuries, humans have been developing technology for the sole purpose of finding ways around inconveniences. Take the imported carrot. In the time it takes to peel three local, tiny, knobby carrots for one serving, we could peel one California monster carrot for three servings.

What about other vegetables? A funny thing about greens is that a bag full of them cooks down into a product the size of your fist. Some vegetables have to be roasted and some have to be de-veined –otherwise someone who bought a sandwich at lunch might still be chewing it now.

Compare that to the brilliance of a hunk of cured meat, such as pastrami or salami. It’s compact, already cooked, lasts twice as long and takes up half the space. On top of that, it’s a bundle of protein and fat–everything we need and crave. All we gotta do is slice it. Genius.

Perhaps most horrifying of all, we sometimes resort to cleaning portions of the truck with bottled water. It’s not an exercise in extravagance, like Johnny Depp bathing in Evian; bottled water is the ultimate platform product. A single bottle of water is (artificially) cheap, convenient to store, perfectly mobile and already in stock. As a business owner who cares about sustainability, I can’t decide if bottled water is like an iPhone (a use-for-anything device) or the devil realized in plastic.

In the end, it’s not expensive costs that make it difficult to run a business with sustainability in mind. In our experience, it’s also time, space and the need to sometimes reinvent the wheel.

I’m well aware of the irony of our situation. The three of us are involved in Slow Food and rile against Monsanto like other conscientious eaters. And yet our monster carrot might be the one slippery peel that gives over our Islands to GMOs and seed crops.

But any restaurant cook will tell you cooking professionally is nothing like cooking for yourself or your friends and family. At home, prepping Thumbelina carrots is therapeutic and part of the dinner ritual; they’re cute as all hell. But in a business, they’re just hell.

I don’t know of any other culture that hurtles so quickly toward the future while yearning for the past. We talk of Twitter and iPads and databases for farmers while reminiscing about the good ole days of family farms and cooking and eating like our grandparents did.

Maybe because we haven’t reconciled the responsibilities of the present and future, the past is an idyllic retreat, the psychological equivalent of a day spa.

Sure, I think we need a food revolution, but not by merely dismissing decades of human innovation, whether in agriculture, food service–anywhere–as sunk costs. How? I don’t know. “Green” isn’t something a single business owner (or three) can figure out.

Opinions expressed here are my own, not necessarily those of my business partners.