An Interview With Erin Drain 

By: Sofia Veraldi 

This week I got the opportunity to sit down with  board member, Erin Drain. She has been with Next Bites for three years and since January of this year is Chair of the Board. She is committed to food sustainability and it was an honor to have the opportunity to sit down with her. I ask Erin questions on the food system at large, sustainable restaurants here in Chicago, and personal questions about her sustainable journey. Her responses were not only thought provoking, but inspiring. 

What inspired Erin to get involved with Next Bites:

    Three years ago, Erin was invited to get involved by a former Board Member. She had been working in the hospitality industry, specifically in wine sales, and Next Bites (then Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition) was looking for fresh, young blood with sales experience. Erin fit perfectly. Next Bites is the first nonprofit board she has ever sat on and the first official sustainability focused organization she has been a part of.  Erin continues to be excited about the mission of Next Bites and how much the organization has grown in her three years, saying it’s nice to actually be making a difference.


Where Erin hopes to see Next Bites in the next 10 years:

    “Global!” Erin says with a giggle. She would love to see Next Bites with some very long-standing, long-term strategic partnerships that are forward thinking. She hopes that Next Bites will rework how the food system currently functions by spearheading the effort to bring organizations together, that typically wouldn't be.


Why Erin is passionate about sustainability:

    Erin had a very simple, yet powerful response to this: “Because everyone has to be; it’s not an option at this point.” She stresses that sustainability is something that everyone has to do. She personally is passionate about what she is putting in her body and her home, wanting to know it is good for the environment and good for her. Erin believes that we have been mistreating our home, the earth, and it is everyone’s responsibility to make up for that misuse. When it comes to sustainability and food, her passion stems from her enjoyment of food as well as the universality of food. Everyone has to eat, and it is a universal language Erin feels protective of.


The environmental work Erin does outside of Next Bites:

    Erin, along with four other women, is involved in an unofficial political action group that tackles a variety of social justice issues. Erin is personally researching is the Syrian refugee housing in Chicago.  One of the reasons refugees need rehousing is an agro crisis in Syria caused by a drought. She says this situation ties together social and environmental issue, claiming that climate change will become the number one social issue. The personal issues that she is looking at are small local ways of environmental impact.   In her personal life, Erin is embarking on a “beef free June,” she is also careful about what chemicals she is using, and she uses and gives out low flow sink aerators to friends.


What Erin sees in the Sustainable food future:

    Erin hopes to see  Big Organic changed.  She wants to shift the consumer desire to see organic on the label to a consumer desire to care about the level of resources used to create the product.  Erin also wants to see small farmers getting subsidized, more local eating, and bigger companies and chains taking sustainable actions. She gave a shout out to Sweetgreen, saying that they serve as a model for where she sees the future of fast dining.


What are the biggest challenges Erin see in the restaurant industry to become more sustainable:  

    Erin feels that the biggest challenges to restaurants in taking steps to become more sustainable are financial. She explains that the way restaurants currently operate is barely profitable and therefore making any sustainable changes adds expenses they can't afford. Erin says the solution to this problem is consumer education. If consumers are educated then they will understand why certain restaurants practicing sustainability are a bit more expensive. She says it is hard to ask people to pay the extra money but they will see long-term benefits.


What Erin believes are the easiest ways for restaurants to make a difference:

  1. “Never Styrofoam!!! NEVER EVER AGAIN”

  2. “Low flow aerators”

  3. “Less meat”


Erin’s biggest restaurant pet peeve:

    STYROFOAM!!! She doesn't see the reason it is being used anymore, especially because it never goes away.


Erin’s favorite local restaurant:

    Lula Café is Erin’s favorite. She says it is the original farm to table restaurant in Chicago. Erin has a lot of love for the restaurant, not only because she used to work for the owner, Jason Hammel, but because it has amazing food and is very trustworthy.


Erin’s favorite green product:

    Vinegar- she uses it for everything from cleaning, to her hair, to take stains out of a tea pot, to killing weeds in her garden.


Erin’s advice for people on reducing their footprint on a budget:

  • Eat less meat

  • Use vinegar for everything

  • Learn how to grocery shop