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How chefs are saving us from the next potato famine

At fast casual restaurants like Tender Greens and Teranga, chefs are introducing unfamiliar foods to customers in an effort to diversify our limited food supply. Food security is at stake.

How chefs are saving us from the next potato famine
Fonio, a grain grown in Senegal and purchased by TenderGreens. [Photo: courtesy Food Forever]

It may seem like our diets are quite varied—in a single day we can eat mangos, Fruit Loops, chicken legs, and Oreos. But when you break it down, about 75% of our food comes from just 12 plants and five animals, according to a report from the World Wide Fund for Nature and Knorr foods, released earlier this year. When it comes to plant-based calories, almost 60% come from just three crops—corn, wheat, and rice.

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 Our limited food sources pose a big food security problem. Consider the potato famine. It devastated Ireland in the mid-1800s because the Irish relied so heavily on a single crop. When a blight swept across the country, causing widespread potato crop failure, people starved.

Globally today, we may not be at potato famine level risk, but according to Food Forever, an organization that advocates for sustainable food systems, humans currently rely on only 1% of available crops worldwide. While people consume wheat, soybeans, and maize in large quantities, foods like teff, amaranth, fonio, and paw paw hardly make it to the table. That’s where chefs come in.

Eric Oberholzer [Photo: courtesy Food Forever]
Food Forever is working with chefs from all over the world to help diversify the ingredients they use in their restaurants. Erik Oberholtzer, the co-founder of Tender Greens, a fast organic franchise with stores in California, New York, and Massachusetts, joined up with Food Forever about three years ago, and has been advocating for diverse ingredients ever since.

 Chefs, says Oberholtzer, are “the curators of food culture…we understand how to communicate through food, and if we’re successful, we have audiences who trust us and are open to going down a journey of discovery.” The idea is that the more unfamiliar foods chefs can introduce to the public, the more likely they’ll be to expand their palates.

 At Tender Greens, Oberholtzer has been big on introducing his customers to fonio, a West African grain that he says “cooks up exactly like couscous.” Oberholtzer uses it in tabbouleh or as a flavor-absorbing base for stews. Fonio is a nutrient-dense, gluten-free food, and its popularity would help bolster micro-economies in West Africa. “If it’s delicious and good for people and, by the way, it happens to be good for the planet and the farmers who are growing it for us, then it’s a real win,” Oberholtzer says.

 Not all foods have been equally easy to introduce to Oberholtzer’s U.S.-based kitchens. Breadfruit, for instance, which grows mainly on tropical islands doesn’t travel well or have a long shelf life, so it’s difficult to use from a supply side perspective. It’s also not the easiest sell in a restaurant. “It’s super starchy, so it crisps up like a French fry, which is delicious,” says Oberholtzer, “but it’s not really easy to replace the beloved French fry.”

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Going organic at NASCAR

Oberholtzer also works directly with farmers, like Pocono Organics in Pennsylvania. The farm is located right next to the Pocono Raceway, where NASCAR events take place. To spread awareness of the farm’s organic produce, Pocono Organics and Oberholtzer set up a marketplace right by the track so attendees at NASCAR races could “buy organic produce, heirloom varietals—stuff that they’re not familiar with—and bring them back to their campers and throw them on the grill,” says Oberholtzer. “It’s part of education for audiences that are often not part of this conversation.”

Pierre Thiam [Photo: courtesy Food Forever]

Meanwhile, Chef Pierre Thiam of the Yolélé Foods company is on a mission “to introduce crops like fonio and improve the livelihood of smallholder farmers in Africa,” he writes over email. The company is now distributing crops from small African farms to Whole Foods, Amazon, restaurant chains, and campuses. At his fast casual New York restaurant, Teranga, Thiam serves Liberian “Ruby” red rice, fermented cassava couscous (Atieke), black eye peas, plantain fufu, millet, baobab, and moringa.

Food Forever has also been working to get chefs to sign The Chefs 2020 Manifesto, a document outlining sustainable food goals to which they can commit. (Both Oberholtzer and Thiam have signed it.) Informed by more than 100 chefs across 36 different countries, the manifesto details all the ways that chefs can, for example, use sustainable ingredients, protect biodiversity, and invest in farmers with healthy practices.

 “My main concern is that modern agriculture is not sustainable. It’s causing 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s using 70% of the planet’s potable water,” says Thiam. “We need to change our food supply system and quickly return to planet friendly agriculture… We must promote crops like fonio that are resilient, drought resistant with deep roots that fixate the soil.”

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