When it started in 1970, Earth Day was part antiwar protest, part nascent environmental worries and part hippie woo-woo. As we near 7 billion people on the planet, April 22 for many people has become a day to step back and think about the impact all those lives have on the planet. The biggest piece of this metaphorical pie is our need to eat food: the animals we raise to eat, the transportation of foodstuffs and supplies, deforestation and the destruction of habitat in the name of agriculture. • A number of Tampa Bay restaurants and food businesses are adopting different strategies for being more environmentally cognizant. Some fit neatly into the "renew-reuse-recycle" paradigm and others entail novel collaborations with other businesses. In honor of Earth Day, here are a few notable examples.
Jim Strickland calls it his beer to beef program. The cows don't call it much of anything, but when the trailers are half a mile away from his Strickland Ranch they start smelling the spent craft beer grain and begin galloping. For Strickland's cows, the grain left over from brewing beer makes ideal feed.
Strickland works with Richard Gonzmart and Tim Shackton at Ulele in Tampa and Mike Harting at 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg to use their grain at his Myakka City ranch.
"We have no written agreement, but we're taking their spent grain," Strickland says. "We need a lot of grain because we have a lot of cows."
The breweries' grain represents about 50 percent of what the young calves eat, about 10 to 12 tons trucked up to the farm in two shiny trailers. (Harting says they go through 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of grain a month.) Down the pike, the beef from those same free-range Florida cows makes its way back to Ulele in the form of steaks.
"When we first spoke with Jim Strickland, he said he needed to figure out the nutritional value of the spent grain, so he had the head agricultural guy from University of Florida analyze it," Harting says.
Strickland says he did a 40-day test of the spent grain, paying for a lot of lab work. The result: "It's good feed."
"It's about sustainability," Strickland says. "I think our society is going that way, don't you? My birthday is on Earth Day, see. It's a circular story."
Clean plate club
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one third of the world's edible food ends up uneaten, meaning 1.3 billion metric tons of food annually winds up in landfill instead of feeding the world's hungry. What are local chefs and restaurateurs to do in the face of all that waste? The Johnson family, owners of Fred's Southern Kitchen restaurants in Plant City, Lakeland, Riverview, Sarasota and soon-to-open Lake Mary, have a novel approach.
Although they prefer the term "market table" to buffet, they have historically had an all-you-care-to-eat approach that can, let's face it, lead to glutinous behavior. So they took a stand.
"It started with the grandma approach: 'Take what you eat; eat what you take,' " says Michael Johnson. They provided a little discount to diners who didn't leave food waste on their plates. "But people thought we were watching them too closely, so now it's more of an awareness campaign and we ask that you are considerate about your waste."
Since then, they've appealed to diners' sensible sides with a three-tiered approach to dining. Those with lighter appetites can opt for the "blue plate" approach whereby a server brings customers a plate filled with food ($7.99 at lunch, $9.99 at dinner). Then there's the "one trip" option ($9.49, $11.99), basically a three-course meal with one visit each to the salad station, entree station and dessert station. And the third option is the "I'm going to town" full buffet ($10.49, $13.49).
"We were hearing a lot of, 'I don't want to go to Fred's because I don't want to eat that much,' " Johnson says. "Once people see what we're doing now they typically love it."
Best part? Allowing customers a way to self-regulate has curtailed the amount of food waste.
Regene Jones started the Gone Bananas food truck in 2011. The specialty is Banana Whip, a nondairy vegan frozen treat that also comes in Banana Strawberry and Banana Pineapple flavors. Customers step up to the window, order their swirly confection and walk off with a spoon and a smile. Just one problem.
"A lot of takeout containers are almost impossible to recycle," Jones says. "I've always been very passionate about recycling. I don't want to continue to fill landfill with Styrofoam."
Thus, she sources biodegradable plant-based cups and spoons, largely made of corn or potato starch, from one of a growing number of eco-friendly companies. According to Jones, the products are about three times the cost of the plastic foam, and they look different, with a softer consistency and a smooth, silky feel. But the cups and spoons can safely be heated to 212 degrees and aren't more fragile than regular disposables.
Sustainable disposables may sound like an oxymoron, but this new trend in to-go materials made of renewable, and compostable, resources is increasingly big business — and an ongoing environmental imperative. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that the United States generates more than 230 million tons of municipal solid waste and that more than 30 percent of that is attributed to food packaging materials.
To try Banana Whip, and those biodegradable cups, visit facebook.com/GoneBananasFL for the truck location.
Since its debut in December, Michael Mina and Don Pintabona's Locale Market in St. Petersburg has been about careful curation of as much local product as can be rounded up. Generally speaking, this means food travels shorter distances and thus has a smaller carbon footprint. When it comes to sourcing local seafood, the Gulf of Mexico is a natural, but as any frustrated angler can tell you, you don't always catch precisely what you want to.
Locale's fish counter, and in turn its wine bar, grill line and elite FarmTable Kitchen restaurant, rely heavily on by-catch. What this means is that they contract with local fishermen who bring in whatever they catch, and then Locale's chefs figure out what to do with it. In April, they offered a fish taco on the menu: One day that meant five different species, including sandbar shark and blackfin tuna caught accidentally during other fisheries. And one night that blackfin tuna was offered as a first course at FarmTable Kitchen, carved into velvety swaths of sashimi, plated with aerated basil/kale/watercress foam, a sprinkling of togarashi and fried semolina chips for textural snap.
The market has also recently switched to sustainable packaging from Eco-Products, like cutlery, bowls and plates made of sugarcane, and they are exploring options for commercial composting and recycling. (The city of St. Petersburg doesn't offer these services.) For now, all of Locale's cooking oil is carted away and recycled by local company FCS Plumbing. FCS in turn dries the oil, turning it into dirt that is burned for electricity. Feel like celebrating Locale's eco-consciousness? Tonight they feature "green wines" for Wine Wednesday — biodynamic, organic and all the other buzzwords that resonate so deliciously on Earth Day.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.