Struggling chefs are fired up about climate-fueled supply chain woes

Climate change is taking a massive bite out of the global food supply chain, and local restaurants are bearing the brunt of the impact, according to a new report

On Wednesday, the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit known for its culinary awards, and the Global Food Institute at the George Washington University released an analysis investigating the impacts of climate change on independent restaurants, which are the fifth-largest employer in the U.S.

“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,” José Andrés, a chef, humanitarian and founder of the Global Food Institute, said in a statement

Menu sticker shock: Perhaps unsurprisingly, extreme weather events such as droughts and floods have had reverberating impacts from farm to table. In 2022, Hurricane Ian resulted in the loss of more than $416 million worth of citrus crops in Florida, which produces more than half of all citrus consumed by Americans (if you noticed a hike in orange juice prices last year, this is probably why, NBC News reported). That same year, crop loss insurance claims rose to nearly $20 billion in Texas after record droughts hit the state, according to the report. This reflects a nationwide trend in skyrocketing agricultural insurance costs, as my colleague Georgina Gustin covered in September

Combined with labor shortages and supply chain issues during the COVID-19 pandemic and war between the Ukraine and Russia, these losses have led to price surges on common ingredients such as rice and wheat, forcing restaurants to raise their own prices by about 24 percent on average since 2020.  

“Supply chain issues [occur] almost daily, and there have been more disruptions in the past three years than ever before,” John Palladino, a restaurant manager at the Great American Restaurant Group in Virginia, said in a statement about the report. “Fishermen don’t go out during a hurricane, so it prevents you from sourcing a specific type of fish. The same is true for droughts; in certain regions [they] will devastate a particular crop, and you’re left trying to find it from another area.”

Can’t handle the heat: While big chains like McDonald’s may be able to weather the storm, climate-fueled losses are particularly damaging for independent restaurants, which are notoriously difficult to get off the ground (26 percent of them fail in their first year of operation, according to the report). 

As a result, local chefs have been feeling the heat—and the rain and the ice and the smoke.

“A challenge that happens a lot is we will be prepared for a big weekend, because we project sales based on the rhythms of the businesses’ sales, and then there will be a wildfire and the concentration of smoke will be so severe, people will opt not to leave their homes,” Mary Sue Milliken, a chef and co-owner of Border Grill in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, said in the statement. “We get stuck with food, beverage, and labor bills but no sales to offset them.”

A bright spot in the report is the role that food hubs such as local farms and markets can play to help local restaurants survive during supply chain disruptions, especially along the West Coast. However, these local supply chains are lacking in many states across the Midwest, the report stressed. 

The James Beard Foundation has launched a campaign to bring chefs and farmers to D.C. to engage with Congress and share more about the mounting climate challenges they face. 

Alternative Housing Is Increasingly Hard to Come by After Climate Disasters

In 2023, roughly 2.5 million people in the U.S. were displaced from their homes due to weather-related disasters, including floods and fires, according to newly released data from the Census Bureau.

For many, the disaster itself is just the beginning of a much more drawn out nightmare. The new data shows that more than a third of respondents had been displaced for longer than a month, reported the New York Times. Many states are unprepared for the influx of individuals forced from their homes during increasingly frequent extreme weather events. As a result, long-term or permanent alternative housing is becoming more difficult to come by for survivors as climate change accelerates. 

In a particularly stark example: Some families are still waiting for housing more than two years after brutal tornadoes tore through Mayfield in southwestern Kentucky in 2021. This included Ashley Prince and her fiance Dylan, who relied on friends and family to house them until they finally secured a temporary spot at the nonprofit Camp Graves, which offers rent-free container homes to people in need, reported the Associated Press. But many families still live transiently as they wait for assistance from the state. 

“Especially for children, getting back to stable housing is the most important factor to getting them back into recovery mode and improving post-disaster,” Michelle Meyer, the director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University, told the AP. 

More recently, an intense wildfire burned through Maui in August, and forced thousands of locals from their homes. Six months later, 5,000 people remain displaced in emergency hotel accommodation as they wait for longer term housing placements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Some families have been offered housing, but turned it down due its distance from their community, jobs and children’s school districts. 

“We stood firm and said we really needed to stay in Lahaina,” Cynthia Shibao, a resident who currently lives in Hyatt Regency in West Maui with her husband and two teenagers, told Honolulu Civil Beat. “You take the people out and you don’t have Lahaina.”

Disaster inequity: Research shows that low-income and minority groups face the highest risk during disasters, and are less likely to receive recovery aid after. 

“Until we really address the root issues of climate injustice, we’re going to continue to see a disproportionate impact as it relates to disasters in Black and historically excluded communities,” Abre’ Conner, director of environmental and climate justice for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told CNN last year

However, a new interim rule to a major federal disaster aid program enacted in January by the Biden administration could help change that. As my colleague Kristoffer Teague reported, the changes would speed up the application process for FEMA’s Individual Assistance program, and increase the number of people eligible for the program and the amount of financial aid they receive. 

More Top Climate News

EVs Could Help Support Lung Health in Children: If all new vehicles sold by 2035 are zero-tailpipe emission electric vehicles, there would be 2.7 million fewer asthma attacks in children and 147,000 less cases of bronchitis, according to a new report from the American Lung Association. However, ending the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles by then would be an “extraordinarily heavy lift,” particularly if the EPA slows the transition by giving carmakers more time to bring down EV costs and meet emissions caps, writes Justine Calma for the Verge

Radioactive Waste Was Dumped off Los Angeles Coast for Decades: In 2011, marine scientist David Valentine from University of California, Santa Barbara discovered mysterious barrels littering the seafloor off the coast of Catalina Island. Since then, Valentine and his team have documented high concentrations of DDT leaking from the barrels and now, low-level radioactive waste, reports Rosanna Xia for The Los Angeles Times

In wildlife news … I’ve recently seen several stories of endangered animals being killed across the U.S., including three gray wolves in southern Oregon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is offering a $50,000 reward “for any information that leads to an arrest, criminal conviction, or civil penalty assessment” in the case. 

In a separate case, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization is offering up to $20,000 for information regarding the death of an endangered smalltooth sawfish near Key West, Florida, in which the animal’s iconic “saw” (or rostrum) was removed. This unique animal part is often sold on the black market for use in traditional Chinese medicine or for ornamental purposes, reports Jess Thomson for Newsweek

Share this article

Read more