The Bananas of Boston’s Flour Bakery

Bananas

How many bananas do two small bakeries consume?

Earlier today, Joanne Chang — proprieter of Boston mainstay Flour Bakery and one-half of the immensely popular Myers+Chang in the South End — tweeted that she goes through “around 70 banana breads” each week at each of her 2 Flour Bakery locations. Aaron Cohen, the man behind the Boston’s top food-related Twitter account, @eatBoston, asked her how many bananas that comes out to. Her answer was, essentially, “a lot.” While that’s certainly true, it doesn’t help us to get much farther the fleeting wonderment Chang’s banana bread comment was meant to inspire. The question remains an interesting one: how many bananas can we assume that Flour Bakery goes through in a year? And what, if anything, does this mean to us?

First, a few assumptions. The most obvious estimate we need is how many bananas are in each loaf. Home bakers will know that for a standard loaf pan, most recipes will call for 3-4 medium-sized bananas. Flour is an artisinal sort of place, and Chang is always pushing toward reasonable portion sizes, so I’ll assume that they bake in conventional loaf pans. 2 bananas is enough if you’re thrifty, and while 3 or 4 provide for better flavor and texture, a skilled baker like Chang is likely to maximize the effect she gets from each fruit. I’ll assume that the Food Network has the recipe they got from her mostly correct, and that she uses 3 bananas per loaf.

How many bananas is that each week? 140 loaves of banana bread per week, each containing 3 bananas, puts Flour’s net banana consumption at 420 bananas per week, or 60 bananas per day. Both locations are open 7 days a week, year-round, with the exception of major holidays. Let’s assume that they bake on all of those, save 10 days to allow for the days off. That gives us 355 total baking days per year, putting Flour’s net banana consumption at roughly 21,300 bananas per year (60 bananas a day x 355 baking days).

Banana industry in the Caribbean

Almost all bananas are grown in Central America. Photo courtesy Jan Sochor.

To contextualize what those bananas count for, I’ll call upon a statistic from Edgar Blanco, Executive Director of the Latin American arm of M.I.T.’s Global Supply Chain and Logistics Excellence (SCALE) program, about transportation-related emissions. Blanco, who in the past has done work for Chiquita Brands regarding the carbon footprint of their supply chain, estimates that a single banana arriving in Boston is worth about 120 grams of CO2 equivalent once it hits the shelves. This puts Flour Bakery’s annual energy consumption just to get the bananas to the bakery at approximately 2,556 kilograms — or 5,635 pounds — of CO2 equivalent.

What does that mean? It means that transporting bananas to Flour is equivalent to approximately 49% of the greenhouse gas emissions from a single passenger vehicle over that same period, or just under one third of the CO2 emissions from the annual electricity used by one American household. This is about 55% of the carbon sequestered by one acre of pine forest each year; if Flour wanted to offset their banana transportation emissions by planting trees, they’d need to plant 66 of them — and then wait ten years — for those seedlings to suck in all the CO2.

How much do we pay for the right to do this? Let’s assume that Flour is charged $0.33 per banana by their supplier, an estimate that is almost certainly on the high side. This yields raw annual banana expenditures of $7,029.00. The supplier, too, has employees and rent to pay, but’s probably unnecessary to try and estimate the percentage of that seven grand the supplier spends on transportation. Suffice to say that it is less than $5,000 annually.

So Flour goes through over 21,000 bananas a year, and getting them here is the equivalent of having an extra car on the road for 6 months. It takes over a half-acre of forest to offset the emissions from transporting a single ingredient to make one item at two Boston bakeries.

Is this a fair trade-off? It depends. How much do you like banana bread? It’s helpful to break things down like this, but it’s also obviously much more complicated in the real world. If there were a lot fewer bakeries out there — or, more directly, if society baked much less banana bread — this wouldn’t be an issue. That’s not happening any time soon, though, and bakeries are just one part of the picture. Joanne simply gave us a peek into her little corner of the professional baking world. It is a tiny, tiny corner.

This obviously isn’t meant to single out Joanne Chang. Quite the opposite. She doesn’t really have any say in the matter: her customers demand banana bread, and so she gives it to them, or else they will go somewhere else to get it. Bakeries like Flour have two options: keep serving their food and try to get “greener” where they can, or simply stop using commodities like bananas that are artificially cheap.

Flour Bakery

Flour Bakery -- Image via Flickr courtesy dykstranet

Unfortunately, consumers do not have the backbone to quit bananas, and so we should not expect bakers to quit bananas. We, as consumers, need to recognize that people in charge of restaurants actually have remarkably little power. All of their influence comes from us. If we stop buying their goods, they fold. If we buy more of them, they expand. That’s it. End of story.

Furthermore, Chang is one of Boston’s most beloved culinary figures, and for good reason. She absolutely oozes honest kindness, and anyone who has ever met her can attest to this. She spoke candidly about her restaurants at a recent Museum of Science panel on eating and the environment; she came off as a conscious, ethical person, trapped between a rock and the hard realities of America’s restaurant scene. You could almost sense a bit of a desperate cry, though she’s far too nice to actually vocalize it: if only there were fewer crappy restaurants driving prices down and feeding people junk, we’d all be so much better off.

What restaurateurs like her can do is nudge us along in the right direction. Chang, frankly, is smarter than a good portion of her customers; if she speaks to them, many will listen, and many will care. She cares about this sort of stuff, and needs to be gently reminding everyone that she’s doing what she can, and that we should really start to do so as well. But beyond that, it’s all up to us.

Think about your impact, and start to believe in food production and preparation practices that are mindful of the environment. After you do that, stop supporting businesses that don’t share those beliefs. We need to take our food more seriously than we currently do. Only then can we force the good practices — and the good people — to rise to the top.

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