How one org helps chefs ensure food is sustainably sourced


In the culinary world, the name James Beard evokes images of the famed American chef teaching classes out of his townhouse in the West Village of New York, or writing cookbooks that brought American cuisine to the forefront of the gastronomy scene. 

When he passed away 30 years ago, his townhouse was turned into “The James Beard House” by friends, and later, the James Beard Foundation. The organization’s core mission remains intact: to celebrate, nurture, and honor culinary leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone. Today the foundation itself has grown beyond the walls of the townhouse.

Sarah Drew works as an Impact Programs Manager at the James Beard Foundation, focusing on sustainability and eco-friendly supply chains. One program, Smart Catch, focuses on sustainably harvested seafood. The team gathers data from their community of chefs, assessing and educating them on whether the items in their kitchen are being fairly sourced.

“We are using the best scientific information available to us to help the industry learn where we can make the most change,” Drew said. 

The Smart Catch program helps determine whether food items are green (best choice in terms of sustainability), yellow (a good alternative but with some concerns) or red. A red item is one that’s been overfished or caught in ways that are harmful to the environment.

If many chefs are using a product that is being harmfully sourced, the foundation can host a webinar about why the product may not be sustainable to purchase at the moment, as well as offer alternative recommendations in order to foster more diversity in menus. Drew credits Airtable for helping them develop the more streamlined processes the team needed for impact. 

When she first joined the project, she inherited a Google spreadsheet with upwards of 15 different tabs, each with different names, color codes, and highlights. To an outsider, the system didn’t make sense, and it was too manual and time consuming. 

“The information we collect from the chefs has to be easily accessible and customized for the many different stakeholders involved. Airtable’s views, fields, [Apps], and functions are built in and make it possible to work across a distributed team."

Sarah Drew

Impacts Program Manager

Using Airtable’s customizable, personal views, different stakeholders can each focus on just the information that matters most to them. They’ve deployed automations, like the ability to send a scheduled text. Drew says that's made it much easier to glean information from chefs – something that has always been a challenge given the unconventional nature of their work. 

“I mean, think about their occupation, they're not at computers. Sometimes it's very hard to get their attention through just email, so we’re also setting up automated texts: ‘Hey, your assessment is due,” Drew said. 

That simple, customized automation has given Drew time to focus less on administrative work, or tracking down chefs, and more time to focus on what she really cares about — making an impact. 

“To have these processes not be manual means we’re able to focus more on the educational piece — talking to chefs, rather than copy-and-pasting stuff from spreadsheets."

Chefs can plug into the system by sending their information directly through forms. “The first thing I did when we set up Airtable was create surveys, using forms, to send out to our chefs,” Drew explained. “We also have a link on our website with an interest survey, so if you want to sign up for Smart Catch, that’s where you can and that information feeds directly to the columns in our table."

With the system they’ve built, they can quickly generate an assessment or highlight approved and unapproved items. When you open their Airtable base, you’ll see all of the basic contact information, the number of assessments, the most recent assessment, and the next assessment. 

In two and a half years the program has grown from 65 restaurants to nearly 600. Drew says she needed a solution where everything was built in. Airtable’s views allow them to work across a distributed, global team. The organization they’ve gleaned helps them focus more energy on tackling this complex problem in a way they’re uniquely suited to do. 

“At the end of the day, our goal is to improve the transparency in the supply chain and sustainability of the ocean, and it’s been integral to have a system that accommodates this complex information, and makes for streamlined communication between diverse stakeholders, from chefs to suppliers to scientists,” Drew said.


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