Report: Independent Restaurants Face Climate Change Crises

A new study from GW’s Global Food Institute and the James Beard Foundation® warns that climate change threatens the industry, the economy and the job market.

February 26, 2024

Vegetables in a bunch, carrots, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants.

A new report from the Global Food Institute at George Washington University and the James Beard Foundation® illustrates how climate change poses an immediate threat to the independent restaurant industry—endangering a powerful economic engine that creates millions of jobs across the country and supports the growth and viability of farms and other local businesses.

The product of the Global Food Institute’s first research grant, the report, “The Climate Reality for Independent Restaurants: A Deep Dive into the Supply Chain,” details how rising temperatures, extreme weather events, floods, drought, fire and shifts in agricultural patterns are all driving up costs for an already vulnerable industry, undermining the ability of chefs to meet consumers’ expectations for high-quality affordable meals.

“Independent restaurants are already experiencing the impacts and immediate threats of climate change, along with the millions that they employ, the farmers that they rely on and the people they feed,” said Tara A. Scully, director of curriculum development for the Global Food Institute and a contributing author on the report.

The research is part of a broader chef-led policy advocacy initiative launched by the James Beard Foundation last week. The Climate Solutions for Restaurant Survival campaign aims to unite chefs across the country to raise awareness, educate federal policymakers and galvanize action to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“Independent restaurants are integral to the economic, social and cultural fabric of our nation. They’re a powerful expression of the rich cultural diversity and unique culinary history of this country. They’re an important canvas for bringing people together—for bringing communities together—to gather, socialize and celebrate all of life’s moments,” said Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation. “The harsh reality is that climate change will create serious challenges for many of these beloved establishments, and it is critical we come together and take action now.” 

According to the new report, the independent restaurant industry is the fifth largest employer in the United States, totaling 3.9 million workers, generating $75 billion in wages in local economies across the country and over $209 billion in revenue.

But climate change and its impacts pose an immediate threat to the food supply chain of independent restaurants, and the decreased availability and quality of commodity and specialty crops represent a longer-term challenge—from restaurant closures and layoffs to rising consumer costs and environmental threats to farmers.

“As a chef, and in my work with restaurants around the world, I see first-hand the impact of climate change on the ingredients we source, the dishes we prepare and on the communities and people we serve,” said José Andrés, world-renowned chef, author, humanitarian and founder of the Global Food Institute at the George Washington University. “This research is more than just a collection of data and insights; it’s a rallying cry for chefs, restaurateurs, food producers, policymakers and all actors across the supply chain.”

Andrés called the new research “just a taste of what’s to come” from the Global Food Institute at the George Washington University, which aims to be the world leader in delivering food systems solutions and fostering revolutionary change to eliminate world hunger by promoting cross-disciplinary research, harnessing the experiences of experts in global food policy and educating future food leaders.

Community cornerstones

Independent restaurants are more than just places to eat, stressed Scully, an associate professor of biology at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, calling them in a blog post “a cornerstone of our communities.”  

But they also face a host of challenges beyond climate change, like a lack of the brand recognition, resources and robust supply pipelines available to large restaurant chains, Scully said. That’s made them vulnerable to disruption and shortages, as illustrated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, nearly 60% of independent restaurants fail within their first three years.

Environmental disruptions further impair restaurant operations and food supply chains at local, regional and global levels, the report detailed. Low crop supply, ingredient shortages and operational challenges due to extreme weather disruptions have forced independent restaurant owners and chefs to confront rising and wildly fluctuating costs. With climate change growing in intensity, the report noted, the industry will inevitably see restaurant closures, employee layoffs and rising costs for consumers.

Meanwhile, as climate change disrupts traditional weather patterns, farmers continue to face unpredictable yields, increased vulnerability due to pests and diseases, altered growing seasons, intensified extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and severe health risks. As these threats persist and the number of farms continues to shrink, the report’s authors predicted increasing pressure on vital supply chains for independent restaurants.

“In our interviews, we heard about so many different challenges—like exponential price hikes on lettuce or tomatoes stuck in ports, declines in staple ingredients like salmon because of hurricanes, power outages leading to food spoilage and interrupting cooking and operations more broadly,” Scully said.

As the James Beard Foundation campaign unveiled strategies for supporting chefs—like equipping culinary leaders with essential data and media and advocacy training; creating opportunities and platforms for their voices to be heard; and coordinating direct engagement with policymakers—the study’s authors suggested actions for federal officials to alleviate the climate crisis’ impact on independent restaurants. They included:

  • Support conservation programs to help farmers implement practices that can mitigate climate change, increase yields and source sustainable ingredients for restaurants.
  • Provide climate-smart technical support and capacity building to address the volatile aspects of farming and implement ecological strategies to make land more resilient.
  • Support local and sustainable farming practices that diversify the supply chain, and provide opportunities for small, midsize and disenfranchised farmers to thrive.
  • Advocate for sustainable food policies and practices such as crop diversification, regenerative farming, efficient water and energy use and reduced farm waste.

“By embracing climate smart and sustainable practices, we can not only bolster our food security, but also support the livelihood of farmers and the vibrancy of our communities,” Scully said.