Tackling Food and Climate Change with the Founders of Mission Chinese Food and The Perennial

When Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint of the wildly popular Mission Chinese Food decided they wanted to start a restaurant that focused on sustainability, they thought most of what that would mean would be conservation — getting food locally, reducing waste, and being careful with their packaging.

But then they started talking to people like Wes Jackson, president of The Land Institute. If something can be accomplished in your lifetime he told them, you’re not thinking big enough. So they did an environmental assessment with Zero Foodprint and found the majority of their greenhouse gas admissions came from their ingredients, especially meat and lamb.
In their quest to understand how they could do things differently, they visited Nicasio Native Grass Ranch, which practices “carbon farming,” a way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and returning it to the soil. John Wick co-founded Marin Carbon Farming, and the website describes him as a “tireless advocate” for this practice. Apparently, they aren’t kidding about the tireless part. Leibowitz says when they got to the farm, Wick was talking to someone from the United Nations. When he got through, he started explaining carbon farming to her and Myint — out on the side of a hill, complete with a whiteboard.
Leibowitz says she found what they learned that day particularly hopeful – and she’d like others to know about it.

“It’s such important news that it’s surprising how little airplay it gets,” she says. “I want to shout it from the rooftops- or the rooftop garden. I want it to be a movement.”

Driving back that day, Leibowitz and Myint decided on a name for the restaurant they planned to open — The Perennial — because of what they’d learned about perennial plants and their role in restoring the soil ecosystem.

Myint and Leibowitz, along with some of their food partners, such as 18 Reasons, Soil Solutions and Singing Frog Farms, will be at the Asian Art Museum for an event, Takeover, on Thursday, Aug. 4, to talk about food and climate change. At The Perennial, there’s a statement on the menus, letting people know they can ask about the restaurant’s mission is about sustainability — or they can just enjoy their meal. With Takeover, they can have a deeper conversation, Leibowitz says.
“We’re a mission-driven business, but we don’t think business is the sole solution,” she says. “We’re offering different activities about how to engage politically and we want it to be a gathering place for thinking about food and climate and inspiring change.”

Some of those interactive activities were designed by IDEO’s San Francisco Food Studio. Lynda Deakin, who runs the lab, says she thinks now is an unprecedented time of change in the food world towards being more sustainable. Projects IDEO is working on include reducing food waste and making the food system more transparent.

At Takeover, Deakin says they be doing something involving balloons. And who doesn’t love balloons? (For any of you who saw the Democratic Convention, this is Sen. Tim Kaine’s dream come true.) These balloons at the Asian will have a purpose: Pop them, and they'll give you ideas about what you can do.

“Food and climate change is such a large, lofty problem,” Deakin says. “We want to make people realize small steps can add up to something bigger.”

Takeover, Thursday, August 4, 6-9 p.m., Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin, $5

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