As the recent #BeansOnTheMenu challenge in NYC proved, it's time to consider adding some legumes to our plates.
From September 18 to October 31, restaurants around New York City joined the #BeansOnTheMenu challenge. The challenge, part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger (SDG2) “Beans Is How” campaign, encouraged restaurants to feature a bean dish on their menu for the duration of the challenge. Part of the SDG2 plan to create a world free of hunger by 2030 is to double global bean consumption by 2028.
SDG2 and the subsequent “Beans Is How” campaign marked the first time that food was featured in the U.N.’s official climate change agenda. It isn’t surprising considering these superfoods have climate, sustainability, economic, health, climate resiliency, and global benefits surpassing any other produce. But consumers exhibit a “bean hesitancy,” according to researchers at the Berkeley Food Institute. Chef Aneesa Waheed of Tara Kitchen Tribeca observed that of the multiple locations where Tara Kitchen operates, her New York City location consumed the lowest number of beans. Noticing this trend, Waheed looked deeper and realized that “People do not eat vegetables or any kind of legumes, beans, in the city.” It wasn’t just bean-focused dishes, but dishes that featured beans didn’t do very well on the menu either.
To shift consumer attitudes toward beans, #BeansOnTheMenu included a social campaign designed to help restaurants drive interest in beans.
La Vara, a Spanish restaurant in Cobble Hill, told the Brooklyn Eagle that #beansonthemenu prompted discussions that “Send us to research dishes and then innovate around tradition.”
This innovation was kind of the point, according to Paul Newnham, the Executive Director of SDG2. “As people who source ingredients everyday, restaurateurs and chefs know the effort, energy and cost involved in growing crops,” Newnham explained. “The Beans is How, #beansonthemenu challenge, gives restaurants and chefs, 1) the ability to connect to a positive, global solution 2) Choose one or more humble ingredients from the bean family, and get seriously creative with their flavour combinations to elevate a dish to a new level 3) Educate diners on climate solutions whilst offering them delicious food.”
Per pound, beans have more protein than beef and, per pound, beans are significantly cheaper than beef, which would theoretically make beans a more desirable product. Dry beans are the cheapest, but even canned beans are a more economical option than ground beef. Better yet, beans have been found to lower the risk of heart disease when eaten four times per week.
While it is well known that vegetables are a more sustainable crop than meat, beans take it a step further by being both sustainable and major carbon capturers. The soil around bean plants can take in carbon year-round, making beans a “negative emissions” crop. When beans and other legumes are part of a crop rotation, the amount of sequestered carbon is increased. Part of this is because beans, legumes, and other pules are self-fertilizing, meaning they fix nitrogen in the soil as they grow, improving, rather than depleting, the soil quality. When nitrogen is added to soil it is often paired with phosphorous to help plants better absorb the nutrients. Near bodies of water, the rainwater runoff of phosphorous can contribute to harmful algae blooms like the ones plaguing Lake Hopatcong in northern New Jersey. Because beans don’t require as much nitrogen and phosphorus, they are less likely to result in polluted waterways.
As the climate changes, bean plants prove once again to be amazing. Many varieties of beans are resilient crops, meaning, they can withstand more extreme temperatures, increased droughts, and other harsh conditions that would normally destroy crops. Resilient crops are important to keep the world fed in the face of climate change.
Black beans, butter beans (lima beans), chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, kidney beans, and more are readily available on grocery store shelves. For some reason though, bean intake in the US is low at about 7.5 pounds consumed per person annually according to the US Dry Bean Council. For comparison, Americans consume 224.6 pounds of meat per person annually. One of the reasons why bean intake is so low was outlined in a study published in 2020, which suggested, “There is a disconnect between known nutritional and health benefits of legumes, current dietary recommendations for legumes, and current legume consumption patterns.” The United States Department of Agriculture found some increased trends in bean intake in 2017, mostly attributed to the popularity of Tex-Mex food and hummus, but there is limited information available to note if intake is actually rising. Worldwide, bean consumption is only increasing by 0.5% annually. That is why campaigns like #beansonthemenu are so important.
Waheed of Tara Kitchen theorized that misinformation around beans is part of their unpopularity. “I think just saying that beans is good for the environment, we should all be on the beans wagon, is not enough to have market conversion,” Waheed said. “As much as people want to save the planet, they’re also extremely worried and concerned about what it actually means for themselves on a personal level.”
To continue spreading the good bean word, Newnham and his team with SDG2 hope to “see more catering companies and schools take part in [Beans Is How], as we look to activate in cities across the USA and around the world. Beans really is how we can fix our food future!”
Chef Aneesa Waheed noted that there is “There is nothing else on this planet that’s better for you” than beans. Tara Kitchen Tribecca will continue to keep a bean-forward menu. La Vara in Cobble Hill said they will “Always” have beans on their menu.
Next time you go to a restaurant or plan out your meal prep, consider the beans.
Some Brooklyn restaurants featuring beans:
- Cafe Mogador, Williamsburg
- K’far, Williamsburg
- Laser Wolf, Williamsburg
- La Vara, Cobble Hill
- Masalawala, Park Slope
- Shalom Japan, Williamsburg
- St. Julivert, Cobble Hill