This is part 6 of our serialization of Chapter 4 (Energy) from the latest Resilience guide, "Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable & Secure Food Systems". So how does eating out stack up?
We Americans spend almost 50 percent of our household food budgets on eating outside the confines of our homes, and we derive more than 30 percent of our caloric intake from those meals and snacks.25 It only makes sense that researchers and market analysts would come up with a name for all of that dietary and economic activity.26 “Away-from-home food” is an American passion, second only to our love affair with the car. They are, of course, in cahoots, but that’s another steamy story for later.
Energy consumption in the “away-from-home food” category differs significantly from that of home food storage and preparation. Refrigeration actually becomes the smallest energy concern, with food preparation and HVAC systems becoming much more energy-intensive than in the average home. Sanitation is obviously a central concern and therefore an energy-intensive demand in a food service setting. Lighting is also a high energy demand, as it needs to be sufficient for work, safety, and hygiene. Energy bills in a public eating establishment are an integral element in determining profit margins profit and loss, so some players in the food service industry have been quick to adopt energy-efficiency technologies and practices.
So how does energy in the food service sector relate to local food systems? The simple response is “waste.” However, this simple answer is not lacking in complexity. Remember that food service is essentially a waiting game: food service personnel are trying to predict both the timing and the scope of customer demand. It’s not like cooking in the home kitchen, where you generally know who is coming to dinner and when they will be arriving. Even if you do miscalculate, you can always put the leftovers in the refrigerator for the next day. In contrast, a miscalculation on the part of a restaurant manager or a grocery store deli operator typically results in food—with all of its embedded energy from farm to plate—being tossed into the garbage...yes, garbage. All too seldom does this food go to the charitable food system or a municipal composting operation.
And then there is the issue of disposable utensils, containers, and packaging—materials made of Styrofoam, plastic, and paper, born out of habit and not necessity. Patronizing a local full-service establishment as opposed to a fast-food restaurant or supermarket deli can result in significantly less waste of energy and packaging. Not all local establishments are necessarily conscious about the number or types of containers that they use, but places where customers sit down to eat generally generate less post-consumer waste than fast-food establishments and the increasingly ubiquitous prepared-food sections of supermarkets. Cafés and restaurants also tend to build more rapport and community interaction, as hospitality is an important part of the equation for the success of a local business. And it’s also much simpler to advocate for change in how foods are served in locally owned food service establishments than it is in chain restaurants.
As soon as we step out of our homes in pursuit of food, we cross an energy threshold that is worth considering. In all cases—upper and lower—Calories and calories count.
25. “Food and Alcoholic Beverages: Total Expenditures,” table 1 in the USDA Economic Research Service Food Expenditure Series, accessed November 26, 2011, http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/cpifoodandexpenditures/Data/Expenditures_tables/table1.htm.
26. Hayden Stewart, Noel Blisard, and Dean Jollife, Let’s Eat Out: Americans Weigh Taste, Convenience, and Nutrition, Economic Research Service Economic Information Bulletin no. 19 (Washington, D.C.: USDA Economic Research Service, October 2006), 1, http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib19/eib19.pdf.