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The free bread basket: an environmental nightmare

Should restaurants quit offering bread baskets? New research from the University of Guelph suggests maybe so.

On average, restaurants and banquet facilities waste between a quarter and 35 per cent of the bread they serve with a meal, according to a research paper by Bruce McAdams, assistant professor of the university's School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. At a time when concerns about global food security and food prices are on the rise, that level of waste is a compelling reason to encourage restaurants either to reduce their portions or offer bread only on request, he says.

"Restaurants shouldn't just automatically bring a bread basket to your table," Prof. McAdams says. "You're being wasteful, not only environmentally, but also economically."

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In his paper, he points out that previous research determined that the carbon footprint of bread ranges from 977 grams to 1,244 grams of carbon dioxide per 800-gram loaf. That is, the carbon emissions outweigh the actual bread, "proving an unsustainable process."

"With our research showing a current 'waste' of bread sitting around 30 per cent, it is easy to calculate how eliminating even half of this waste could see an addition of thousands of dollars to the bottom line," Prof. McAdams writes.

The good news is that the overwhelming majority of consumers he polled for his study expressed concern about wasting food, and were willing to accept "French" service, in which bread is offered by the server instead of being automatically placed on the table in baskets.

At Célestin, a French restaurant in Toronto known for its crusty, fresh-baked baguettes, the complimentary bread baskets rarely go to waste, co-owner Hellen Leon says. In fact, customers often ask for second or third servings. However, she notes the restaurant has reduced its serving sizes, partly due to the cost of producing the bread. "It's an expensive, quality product."

A growing number of restaurants are now charging for bread, Ms. Leon says, but it's not a practice she intends to adopt.

"We don't believe we should be charging for the bread because it's part of the meal," she says, though she is mulling the idea of offering it only on request.

It wasn't so long ago that environmentally conscious restaurants quit serving bottled water in favour of tap water. Could the disappearance of the bread basket be far behind?

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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