Lawrence Williams, founder and chief executive officer of Eat REAL, says the food industry in this country is incentivized to do the exact opposite of what is healthful and ecologically responsible.
“The path of least resistance in the restaurant industry is to call up Sysco or US Foods and get everything [preprocessed]: factory made stocks and dressings, marinated chicken breasts loaded with sodium and corn syrup.”
In order to exert a counter-balancing incentive on that market, Williams has launched the REAL Certification for prepared food distributors, standing for Responsible Epicurian and Agricultural Leadership. Oakland restaurants including Hot Italian and Tambo are some of the first in the country to earn the certification.
Like the LEED certification for architects and engineers, REAL is a voluntary audit that restaurants submit themselves to. In the long term, the certification is meant to encourage consumers to prioritize nutritious and responsibly sourced food in their choice of patronage, “aligning the bottom-line and the waist line,” Williams jokes.
Williams can give a litany of disturbing data points about the state of American health.
“An increasing amount of the calories we consume are provided by restaurants, school cafeterias and corporate workplace contracted providers, rather than from cooking,” says Williams. “Those food services have gotten great at optimizing the food to appeal to addictive tastes like extreme saltiness and sugar until everything else tastes bland.” Food entrepreneurs have found ways to make American food the cheapest in the world, he says, but those short-term tasty payoffs come with long-term health– and financial– costs.
The REAL certification credits establishments with points across a range of criteria such as the use of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy preparation methods, moderate portion sizes, unsweetened beverages, healthy children’s options and sustainable sourcing practices. “It basically means ‘this chef cares,’” says Williams. This chef understands the implications of his or her menu on your long-term health, the health of the local economy and the ecological environment. It’s a matter of transparency and holding these establishments accountable, he says.
The REAL certification sets the bar at about the 20th percentile of best practices. “We’re hoping to create a virtuous cycle in which restaurants can afford to opt for the pricier but more responsible ingredient because costumers will take their money elsewhere if they don’t.”
It’s hard to expect restaurants to employ better practices if they don’t get recognition for it. Now it’s up to the consumer to reward them for it.