Restaurants & Water: Foodservice industry makes strides towards sustainability except in one key area

By Caroline L. Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT


One-third of consumers worldwide prefer to buy food from sustainable brands.

That’s according to a recent surveyof 20,000 adults from five countries, including the U.S, which was conducted by Unilever – a transnational consumer goods company. 

After attending Menus of Change(MOC), an annual summit hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, I learned how the food service industry is making moves to listen to consumers’ concerns. The good news is that chefs and other food service leaders are working to improve environmental health – but there is still great need for change in one specific area: water sustainability.

What’s Improved?

According to the MOC Executive Summary, increased consumer demands for more “transparency and traceability” from their food sources is pushing the food service industry to take faster action. 

So far, the environmental areas which already have improved include:

  • Supply chain resiliency and transparency
  • Change in food industry investment standards
  • Local and regional food systems
  • Agriculture, drugs, chemical use and animal welfare
  • Diet quality and health
  • Portion size and caloric intake
  • Protein consumption and production
  • Fruit and vegetable consumption and production
  • Climate change[1]
What’s Needing Work?

Of the dozen issues of concern, only one of them – water sustainability – was given a thumbs-down, which means it is “far from where it needs to be.” 

The executive summary found that the U.S. foodservice industry is just beginning to pay more attention to water issues, since drought and groundwater depletion have negatively affected profits in the recent past.[2]

“Water sustainability is very important both because the food sector uses such a large share of our water resources and also because good menu planning can also help you better manage volatile food costs,” said Arlin Wasserman, founder and partner at Changing Tastes and chair of the MOC Sustainable Business Leadership Council.

Moreover, forty states are expected to have water shortages over the next ten years, as reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And according to last year’s MOC report, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that water stress may put almost half of the world’s population and 40% of grain production at risk by 2050.[3]

Which Foods are Water Efficient?

America’s agriculture sector accounts for about 80% of U.S. water consumption, according to the USDA,[4]and plant-based protein sources, including peanuts, use much less water than animal products. 

In fact, peanuts are the most water efficient of all nuts, using only 3.2 gallons of water to produce one serving (1 ounce) compared to almonds, which use 28.7 gallons per ounce. Worldwide peanut production contributes to just 1% of the water footprint of total agricultural production.[5]

And beef uses six times more water than pulses or legumes require – per gram of protein -- for production. The drastic difference between water footprints of plant-based proteins and animal-based proteins is mostly attributed to the water footprint of the animal feed.[6]

What can you do as a foodservice professional?

“Meat, poultry and dairy generally take more water to produce than plant-based foods,” Wasserman said. “So, developing plant-forward menus and recipes that use smaller amounts of meat can help reduce the water your restaurant demands.”

The MOC Executive Summary defined “plant-forward” as “a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes and celebrates, but is not limited to, plant-based foods – including fruits and vegetables (produce), whole grains, beans, other legumes (pulses), and soy foods, nuts and seeds, plant oils, and herbs and spices – and that reflects evidence-based principles of health and sustainability.”

Here are some menu suggestions for restaurants to help improve water sustainability:


1. Make the protein flip. 

Move the meat or animal products to the side of the dish or view it as a condiment -- as a supporting role instead of the star. For instance, transform a “meat-and-three” with a large steak and sides, to a stir-fry with rice, vegetables, a smaller portion of steak.

2. Go halvsies.

Halve the animal protein in some dishes and replace the rest with the plant-based food.  Is there a burger on the menu? Try a mushroom- (or other vegetable) and beef-blended burger. Or reduce the grilled chicken on entrée salads and add some chopped peanuts on top.

3. Dress it up.

Even for those customers who love rich and creamy dressings, which are typically cream-based, there’s a plant-based option! Try a peanut butter-based salad dressing– it’ll still deliver that rich mouthfeel, but with more protein and good fat. 

4. Go all out.

Some customers are just not going to give up their meat or dairy, but some will for one meal! Dabble in offering some fully plant-based menu items, like the Quinoa Avocado Burrito on Georgia -based restaurant Café Sunflower’s lunch menu, or like the Frozen Peanut Butter Pie on Oregon-based restaurant Cornbread Café’s main menu. In dishes where animal proteins are typically offered, use plant-based foods like peanuts and peanut butter, tofu, seeds, beans and legumes. 

5. Be Fruity.

Do desserts on your menu include the main item, ice cream, and then raspberries on the side as an afterthought? Try offering a fruit-heavy menu item, like Minted Poached Pears, and just top it off with a scoop of that s’cream and some crushed peanuts. Or try out chocolate-dipped strawberries dipped in crushed peanuts as a sweet treat for your diners.


Long story short, the more plants and plant-based proteins are served to customers, the more it will help conserve our water supply—without overhauling the entire menu. 



[1]Executive Summary. Menus of Change 2018 Annual Report. Published 2018. Accessed September 2018. 

[2]Executive Summary. Menus of Change 2018 Annual Report. Published 2018. Accessed September 2018.

[3]Executive Summary. Menus of Change 2017 Annual Report. Published 2017. Accessed September 2018. 

[4]Irrigation and Water Use. United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Service. Updated July 2018. Accessed September 2018. 

[5]Water footprint of crop and animal products: a comparison. Water FootPrint Network. Accessed September 2018. 

[6]Mekonnen MM, Hoekstra AY. The Green, Blue and Grey Water Footprint of Farm Animals and Animal Products. UNESCO Institute for Water Education. Published December 2010. Accessed September 2018. 

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