Restaurateur Anthony Myint is fighting climate change with a cost-effective and practical approach.

Anthony Myint is no stranger to innovation. In 2008, he cofounded a pop-up in San Francisco that would eventually blossom into the celebrated brick-and-mortar, Mission Chinese Food.

But when Myint and his wife and business partner, Karen Leibowitz, welcomed a daughter into their lives, they began looking at the bigger picture, namely the future of sustainability. Their brainstorming culminated in Zero Foodprint, a nonprofit that helps farmers switch to regenerative agriculture practices. Within the program, 1 percent of consumer purchases at partner businesses are funneled into grants for farmers.

Dozens of restaurants across the country have joined Zero Foodprint, which was also awarded the Humanitarian of the Year Award by the James Beard Foundation in 2020.

As Myint explains, it took some trial and error to develop a climate solution that was both cost-effective and practical. But now, with the right systems in place and the industry rounding a corner in the COVID crisis, he’s hopeful the movement will gain traction.

How did you go from running a restaurant to advocating for environmental change?

We started in the restaurant industry in 2008 with a pop-up that turned into Mission Chinese, which gained popularity. At some point we found ourselves at these chef conferences, drinking beers with the No. 1 chef in the world—that kind of crazy stuff. So fast-forward a few years and my wife and I had a daughter, and we just started to think a lot about climate and food systems in the future. We wanted to use our platform in the industry, our access to the cultural capital of the chefs, and then also the fiscal capital in the industry to start working on climate solutions.

Needless to say, with chefs and restaurants, everyone’s kind of overwhelmed and looking a couple of hours ahead, maybe a couple of weeks ahead, but definitely not 20 years ahead. People try to do their best and take care of their customers and the planet, but most people aren’t thinking, ‘Oh, let’s try to change the whole food system; let’s change how food is grown.’ People are thinking about how they can make a good choice within the current system.

How has Zero Foodprint evolved since it was first founded in 2015?

So Zero Foodprint began trying to get chefs and restaurants to go carbon-neutral and make changes. What we learned was that the vast majority of the carbon footprint was the ingredients. Meanwhile, we started a restaurant called The Perennial that was championing this new way of growing food. If all of food production shifted to regenerative agriculture, it would be radically climate beneficial. So we tried to get people excited: pay the extra dollar, buy the good stuff, here’s the Tesla of food. We did that for a couple of years, but at some point we started to realize, unfortunately, it wasn’t really changing anything.

So what if, instead of buying the good stuff, you had a way where cool chefs, but also maybe even McDonald’s, we’re just sending a couple of cents per purchase—let’s say 1 percent of sales—to help a rancher change half of his growth. So it wouldn’t be predicated on logistics and trying to have small-scale processing and McDonald’s franchisees buying from that small butcher shop.

We closed that restaurant, focused our work on systemic change, and started a collaboration with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Air Resources Board.

That collaboration is still in the early days. We more or less launched at the worst time conceivable—in the middle of COVID—for a restaurant-facing program. But since 2020, the program has generated and awarded over half a million dollars to help 31 farms on 5,000 acres start to change how food is grown. So far, it’s taken about 18,000 tons of carbon out of the atmosphere, and that’s equal to not burning about 2 million gallons of gas.

Why is passing the cost to the consumer an effective solution?

Some data around consumer preferences shows like 88 percent want brands and companies to take care of the climate for them so they don’t have to think about it. Something like 70 percent are willing to pay a premium for sustainability. Our program was structured to do that. You’re taking climate action. You’re doing it not by planting a tree in Ethiopia, but by helping a local farm grow better food. So that should resonate. It’s almost like a table-to-farm movement instead of a farm-to-table movement.

A lot of studies from sociologists or behavioral psychologists show that nobody opts into anything; nobody opts out of anything; you kind of just go with the flow as the default. I would compare it to a 5 cent [tax] on a can of beer. Nobody is like, ‘Screw that. I’m not going to buy the beer.’

What kind of businesses are signing up?

Our previous demographic was probably almost all fine dining. That was in the carbon-neutral era. Now that the approach is this table-to-farm regenerative economy where anybody can participate, it really has democratized it. So now it’s a Subway franchisee in Boulder; it’s a juice shop; it’s a wine label; it’s online retail; it’s a compost company; it’s a restaurant with a Michelin star. Really, it’s anybody.

We continue to feel optimistic. It almost sounds too simple, but a chef or a restaurant has no way to change how food is grown except through this kind of program. And now I understand why. It’s almost impossible to create all the relationships with farmers and local conservation districts and all these things to allow one penny or $1 or $1,000 to start flowing toward compost-covered crops, planting trees, and doing things on farms in a systematic way.

What are your growth goals? Are there any specific brands you’re eager to partner with?

Our whole team is four people, so we’re pretty lean and hoping to grow. I think someone like a Shake Shack or Chipotle would be the first choice because it would start to make it clear that this is a new normal. They’re big enough that they’re not going to work with us on it; they’ll probably just do it—and that would be great. But they haven’t gotten to that point yet. Most everybody hasn’t gotten to that point. I think some big corporations like General Mills are starting to pay their farmers to shift to regenerative, but foodservice hasn’t yet, so that should be the next trend. It helps to clarify that this isn’t charity; this is trying to change the food system.

Feature, Sustainability