OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Restaurants Restoring Northern California through Healthy Soil

Restaurants can restore regional food systems by mobilizing consumers to send a few cents per meal to restore carbon in healthy soil.

Photo of Karen Leibowitz
3 1

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

The Perennial Farming Initiative (PFI)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

California Association of Resource Conservation Districts (CARCD) helps PFI coordinate with Californian farmers. CARCD and CA Department of Food & Agriculture offers expertise, information, policy recommendations, communications, and seed funding; gather stakeholders for group meetings; and help calculate sequestered carbon. Hyphae Partners helps PFI build a business model that aligns development, conservation, fundraising, and agricultural objectives. 3Degrees Inc. designs and implements renewable energy solutions. They: (i) oversee farmer and rancher contracts; (ii) administer the supply of and underwrite greenhouse gas (GHG) Reductions; and (iii) source and retire food-related carbon offsets and renewable energy credits to make Zero Foodprint restaurants carbon neutral. Marin Restorative Communications will support PFI’s public relations platform. PastureMap assists with rancher outreach, access to soil health data, and communicating the value of healthy soil.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.perennialfarming.org/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

San Francisco

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Northern California Megaregion, a 60,010 km^2 area, spanning from Sonoma to Monterey along the coast and Yuba to Merced inland.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Our vision for a renewable food system is rooted in healthy soil and informed by more than a decade of personal experience as restaurateurs, organizers, and community leaders in Northern California. We (Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint) have deep roots in the region, having operated food-related businesses and nonprofit projects here since 2008. Our pioneering pop-up restaurant, Mission Street Food, featured 75+ local guest chefs, donated its profits to local food pantries, and was recently hailed as “the most influential SF restaurant of the decade” (www.sfchronicle.com/food/article/Remembering-Mission-Street-Food-the-most-13346403.php). Since then, we have co-founded Mission Chinese Food and Commonwealth (which have funded more than a million meals for the local food bank), and The Perennial (2016-19), which championed regional carbon farmers and ranchers whose practices build soil health by drawing carbon out of the atmosphere (known as sequestration). Through our nonprofit work, we have firsthand experience of the complexity of our sprawling megaregion’s foodshed, and we have developed personal relationships with many of the farmers, ranchers, chefs, activists, ingredients, and communities that make Northern California special. Our Zero Foodprint program has helped dozens of businesses understand, reduce, and offset their carbon emissions, beginning with our regional restaurant community and radiating into other sectors, including food service operations of local tech corporations, and geographically across Northern California. Through this work, we have engaged with fruit and nut farmers of the Central Valley to the winemakers of Napa and Sonoma, to the ranchers of San Benito, as well as the chefs and consumers of the urban centers. Having lived and cooked in Northern California since the early 2000s, we are steeped in the foodways of our region, and we have built the relationships and credibility in this region to make real systemic interventions.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Northern California is one of eleven growing population centers around the United States that regional planners have identified as “megaregions,” where we can expect increasingly blurred boundaries between clustered metropolitan areas through 2050. Roughly 1 in 25 Americans already live in the Northern California megaregion, and America 2050 projects that the megaregion’s population will grow approximately 50% between 2010 and 2050 (america2050.org/northern_california.html). The megaregion encompasses 21 counties around Oakland, Reno, Sacramento, San Jose, and San Francisco, which together represent a diverse multitude of ethnic communities and income brackets. Northern California is known for technological innovation, agricultural productivity, and world-class universities; at the same time, the region struggles with housing/homelessness, transportation, and access/affordability. Northern California represents less than 1% of U.S. land, but 5% of its economic output. Northern Californians are rightly proud of the region’s food history, particularly as it intersects with the good food movement: Northern California has led the country on food issues from Cesar Chavez to organic co-op groceries to Chez Panisse to the country’s first organic certification (CCOF) to Michael Pollan. The region is known for excellent restaurants that are often rooted in a “farm to table” ethos, as well as for the ingredients—especially fruits and nuts—that are enjoyed around the nation. The diversity of Northern California’s people further contributes to the complexity and dynamism of the region’s foodways, with particularly noticeable culinary influences from Latin American, East Asian, and South Asian traditions, all of which intermingle with the ingredient-driven Mediterranean style that has become the baseline of “California cuisine.” Here in Northern California, decades of intensive agriculture combined with global climate change have undermined the region’s soil health. In the past decade, Northern California has suffered a historic drought, massive fires, and a respiratory ailment known as “Valley Fever” linked to dry topsoil blown off of farms (https://civileats.com/2019/06/17/climate-change-fueled-valley-fever-is-hitting-farmworkers-hard/). In 2017, the State of California launched a Healthy Soils Program that directed funding from its Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to subsidize agricultural practices that would improve soil health, in order to meet the state’s carbon-neutral goals, but also to improve nutrition, productivity, and climate resilience. The government’s Healthy Soils Program is a good start but solving the climate crisis requires activating the entire food system, including consumer/voters, and that is where restaurants, businesses, and nonprofits will be crucial. California is approaching an agricultural crisis that will affect the entire nation; the choices that California makes will determine the future of food in America.

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Climate change has and will continue to impact every aspect of our lives. From flooding to fire to extreme weather, climate change might well devastate our food systems while damaging economic, environmental, cultural, technological, dietary, and other essential systems. Locally and globally, extractive agricultural practices have prioritized short-term profit over long-term agro-ecology, while U.S. farm policy has essentially subsidized agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and current efforts in the sustainable food movement are not creating change on pace with the urgency of climate change. The U.S. food system provides many low-cost, calorie-dense foods that increase the likelihood of excessive calorie consumption, unhealthy weight, and obesity (Hawkes, 2009); when this excessive consumption is perceived as a need for higher production” (Nesheim MC, Oria M, Yih PT, editors, 2015), the system drives demand for foods that result in negative health impacts and correspondingly higher health care costs to populations that are already burdened with lower incomes. This trend is likely to continue well past 2050 if our relationships to food and soil are not revitalized, and California is the most likely source of agricultural disruption, since over a third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts consumed in the U.S. are grown in California. Also, the Northern California megaregion shares many of the nation’s endemic problems, including policies supportive of cheap food (Bay Area Food Futures Roadmap) raised on depleted soil and lacking nutrient density, in spite of its robust food economy. In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, the food sector amounts to almost half a million jobs, nearly 40,000 food businesses, and 113 billion dollars. The science of soil health is evolving rapidly and California has begun to subsidize a suite of climate-smart agricultural practices, but unfortunately, current market conditions do not incentivize farmers and ranchers to adopt conservation practices related to soil health. New technological tools like COMET-Planner (which can estimate agricultural carbon sequestration) are increasingly capable of modeling the environmental benefit of healthy soil. Still, the U.S. food system lacks a mechanism for farmers and ranchers to derive economic value from implementing such plans, in spite of rising public interest in soil-based solutions to the climate crisis.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

PFI seeks as its mission to build a renewable food system rooted in healthy soil. Our work incentivizes farming practices that draw down carbon dioxide and offer our best hope of addressing the climate crisis. A sustainable food future depends on healthy soil having economic value commensurate with its environmental and nutritional value, and our method involves engaging restaurants, producers, and consumers in the development of a soil carbon market to actively fund regenerative practices. PFI’s work builds on the new science and technology of carbon farming as upon our co-founders’ experience as business leaders who have successfully advanced the idea of carbon-neutral or “Zero Foodprint” restaurants. In response to the above challenges, PFI has developed a Vision to foster a megaregional food system based on healthy soil. Our optimistic Vision holds that climate change can be solved through soil conservation, and that restoring value to our soil will reshape our region’s economy, as well as its diet, policies, technologies, and more. Our Vision activates the restaurant sector as a source of investment in healthy soil across the Northern California megaregion’s agricultural sector. To participate, megaregional restaurants simply add a 1% charge on diners’ bills and direct that money to PFI’s Healthy Soil Carbon Fund, known as Restore California, which will fund on-farm carbon-sequestering conservation practices (such as compost application, cover cropping, and managed grazing). This Vision builds on five years of proof-of-concept work through our Zero Foodprint program (ZFP), which has established a market for carbon neutral restaurants by helping some of the world’s best restaurants to assess, improve, and offset their carbon footprints. Our Vision offers far-reaching intersectional impacts: Agriculture focused on healthy soil sequesters carbon instead of emitting it into the atmosphere, mitigating climate change while increasing the nutrient density of the region’s produce and improving regional resilience to drought, fire, and other effects of climate change. Farmers and Ranchers will engage in conservation practices that increase soil health. Chefs and restaurants will develop the cultural value of food grown in healthy soil. Diners at participating megaregional restaurants will be empowered by accessing a healthier diet, and the chance to invest in reversing climate change. Scientists and students at the megaregion’s universities will develop technologies for testing, tracking, and verifying soil health and the healthy-soil supply chain. People will live healthier lives, with reduced health care costs and increased quality of life. This Vision will also enable the creation of a megaregional food system that derives economic value from environmental remediation, as restaurants and farmers capitalize on their participation in the renewable food system, attracting participation and emulation far beyond the megaregion.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Healthy soil has a special value in Northern California because our land has already been ravaged by the extreme weather associated with climate change, and healthy soil will make the megaregion more resilient to drought, flood, and fire that have already affected regional housing, economics, and health. PFI’s Vision has the potential to pull carbon from the atmosphere and lock it in soil where it belongs, not only restoring soil carbon, but also restoring nutrition, flavor, resilience, as well as regional pride. Healthy soil improves crops’ flavor and nutrition, so increasing access to food grown in healthy soil is good for our diets as well as the quality of food in restaurants. Our Vision focuses on restaurants because they serve as hinge points for a vast range of food system issues. Rural producers and urban consumers interact through the lens of a restaurant, where agriculture becomes culture and food futures are shaped. Meanwhile, residents will be empowered to take action on climate; producers can implement and derive market value from previously cost-prohibitive conservation practices; and restaurants can respond to consumer demands for sustainability. Innovating around the concept of renewable restaurants will also boost the tourism industry, given that 88% of consumers want businesses to make sustainable choices for them (Forbes), and the region will become known for its renewable food system. Regional technology and governments can then support the burgeoning restorative food economy through supply chain infrastructure and preferential procurement policies. By mobilizing every person across the food system, from farmers to chefs to families ordering take-out, our vision reimagines the role of food in Northern California, positioning eaters of all types as agents of change in a Vision that can not only transform our diets and our economy, but reverse climate change and restore hope.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Healthy Soil is crucial to the Northern California megaregion’s food future, and its effects are seen across the food system and in the following sectors. The Environment California’s agricultural lands constitute an enormous opportunity to draw down carbon. A case study at Stemple Creek Ranch in Marin County implemented healthy soil practices in 2013 and has already sequestered carbon equivalent to 1 million gallons of gasoline; scientists estimate that sequestration could continue for 30-100 years. If land across Northern California were similarly managed, it would have a measurable impact on global greenhouse gas levels over the coming decades. Healthy Soil also increases the megaregion’s resilience to drought, flood, and fire and provides a model for other states to emulate. The Vision is scalable and built to apply to other industries, such as the fiber/clothing industry. As this project grows and inspires similar projects in other states and countries, it could create one of the largest pools of capital to be invested in conservation. Over the next ten years, participation by one-third of California restaurants would raise ~$323 million annually for Restore California, translating to approximately 216 million metric tons of sequestered CO2 over a 10 year period. A 5% national rate of adoption by US restaurants would direct approximately $412 million per year into a healthy soils carbon fund, which would sequester 275 million metric tons of CO2 over a 10 year period domestically. Moreover, if federal legislation implements this mechanism across all domestic restaurants as part of a future farm bill or “green new deal,” a 100% restaurant adoption rate would direct about $8.24 billion/year into a healthy soils carbon fund, which would sequester 5.5 gigatons of CO2 over a 10-year period (based on National Restaurant Association Statistics and data from California’s Healthy Soils Program). Diet The key to healthier food is healthy soil. Fruits produced under organic farming generally contain more vitamins, more flavor compounds, and more antioxidants compared with conventional farming. Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. For example, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before. From 1950 and 1999, researchers found that for 43 different vegetables and fruits, there were “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B2, and vitamin C over the past half century (Donald Davis, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2004) due to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss). PFI’s work reverses this trend, facilitating an agricultural systems change that incentivizes farmers and ranchers (who might not otherwise engage in organic and other healthy soil practices) to produce healthier food, which informs the everyday diet of our megaregion’s residents. Moreover, healthy soil also produces tastier more flavorful produce and can have a significant impact on shelf life, which can in turn affect the long-term flavor of a stored vegetable (https://www.chefs-garden.com/blog/april-2019/the-science-of-flavor). Culture Diners in restaurants in San Francisco (SF) and other regions have been acclimated by cultural norms around additions to their bills: since 2008, an increasing number of SF restaurants have imposed surcharges of up to 6% to cover health insurance mandates and diners have demonstrated virtually no price sensitivity toward these surcharges (Jonathan Kauffman, San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 2018). As a test of diners’ tolerance of and reception toward a program like Restore California, PFI co-founders instituted a 3% surcharge toward the Restore California fund at a restaurant they co-own; since September 2018, Mission Chinese Food has served approximately 35,000 diners, received only about 30 inquiries about the surcharge, and accommodated two requests to reverse the charge. PFI has already seen increasing adoption of its work. Participation already includes dozens of well-known California restaurants already participate or have pledged to begin in 2020. Ultimately, this project is rooted in community: it empowers and connects diners to agricultural practices that provide them with better food while reversing climate change. This pits the individual against the seemingly unstoppable momentum of climate change and positions them as the catalyst that disrupts those systems that would seek to continue and maintain the status quo. Moreover, the public’s engagement in Restore California and related healthy soil projects will create a community-driven, self-sustaining funding stream for conservation and additional conservation opportunities, ranging from education, financing, technological innovation, and transparency around metrics such as Soil Organic Matter percentage. Economics California’s restaurant industry has a history of driving consumer expectations around food and agriculture, notably driving demand for organic produce when “California cuisine” and “Farm to Table” trends that began in California ultimately shifted markets and agricultural practices across the country. The restaurant industry, moreover, is the largest economic sector of the food system: in 2018, the California restaurant industry had gross revenues of $97 billion (National Restaurant Association Statistics). If Zero Foodprint achieves a 5% restaurant adoption rate in the state, that would direct approximately $49 million/year into Restore California, which would translate into 32 million metric tons of CO2 sequestration potential over a 10 year period. The project will also drive adoption rates within the restaurant sector, as incentives from state and local government, such as preferential food procurement policies, along with congruent procurement policies from corporations with net-zero goals, create a business case for participation. The project will also create demand for soil carbon and ecosystems services beyond the California restaurant market; clothing retailers and manufacturers for example can adopt a “Restore” style approach to creating a renewable fiber system, and other industries can contribute through parallel efforts like 1% for the Planet (which has already approved PFI as a nonprofit member). Ultimately, the project provides restaurants and other food services the opportunity to gain business, increase cultural capital, and improve their own supply chains. In doing so, the project paves the way for agricultural conservation practitioners to be compensated for the holistic value they create and not only for the value of their agricultural outputs. Technology PFI’s work builds on the new science and technology of carbon farming and with the advent and dissemination of healthy soil practices will come the accompanying incentivization of technology to monitor and implement best practices. Globally, technology is becoming more and more available to perform this function, as Meerah Shah discusses in Ground Truth: Digital Innovations to Improve Soil Health: “For farmers, achieving the right balance between nutrients, cost of inputs (labor, water and fertilizers), and the minimalization of environmental impacts is as essential as it is difficult. This creates an opportunity for digital technologies to simplify the process of visualizing, understanding and improving soil fertility, for example, through sensors, drones and smart irrigation disrupting the way that decisions are made, and how inputs are applied” (https://farmingfirst.org/2019/06/ground-truth-digital-innovations-to-improve-soil-health). Similar work is taking place in Maryland as part of a partnership between Microsoft and the USDA, which uses FarmBeats at a 7,000-acre farm: “FarmBeats harnesses data and artificial intelligence to help farmers cut costs, increase yields and sustainably grow crops that are more resilient to climate change. FarmBeats collects data from sensors, drones, satellites, and tractors and feeds it into cloud-based artificial intelligence models that provide a detailed picture of conditions on the farm” and in real time (news.microsoft.com/features/feed-the-world-how-the-usda-is-using-data-and-ai-to-address-a-critical-need). This is just an example of how technologies will be adapted and as policies and consumer demand incentivizes more sustainable soil conservation, PFI anticipates further innovation in digital technologies to manage and monitor healthy soil practices. Policy PFI is pursuing executive policies and legislation that support its Vision in Northern California. San Mateo and Santa Clara counties have offered to match funds from local participating restaurants for local producers, and all 21 counties in the megaregion could follow suit. At the State level, Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross has committed to offering expertise and other support, and PFI attends the healthy soils working group meetings and scientific panels she convenes; CalEPA and CA Air Resources Board (CARB) Chair Mary Nichols have committed to help calculating the carbon impacts of PFI’s work; the governor’s office has also cautiously expressed enthusiasm for executive action on state food procurement to prioritize healthy soil and Zero Foodprint member businesses. Legislatively, PFI has partnered with established advocacy groups – Natural Resources Defense Council’s environmental entrepreneurship program (E2), and the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) – to advance policies that support regenerative agriculture. We will be meeting with legislators in early 2020 to discuss specific healthy soil policy proposals.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email

3 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Photo of Village Development  Center (VDC)
Team

Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.

View all comments