Sustainable Food Choices

This is an area where the individual can do a great deal. We all eat, and collectively our eating habits have a huge impact on the world. 10% of all the energy used in the US goes to producing, processing shipping, and cooking food.

Eating more local and more in season is the biggest impact. The average food item travels 1500 miles to your table. Eating out of season almost guarentees that the food will have come from far away – I’ve seen peppers from Israel and Apples from New zealand in the store, just in the produce section. Does our food need to travel more than we do?

It can be hard to find out if grocery store food is local; reading labels helps. Buying something made in Portland rather than New York isn’t huge but it’s going in the right direction. If you are inclined, asking the grocery store where items come from. Making it clear that you, the shopper, wants local food, will eventually push the stores to respond, although I’d expect the Co-op to be more responsive than Albertsons.

Buying from the grower’s market and asking the farmer will assure you have local food with minimal transportatation. It will be fresher and therefor more nutritious. It supports the small farmer who needs it more than agribiz. You could also join a CSA and get a weekly basket of fresh vegetables – this is easier for the farmer who can plan ahead.

Even better, grow your own! That reduces the transport of your food down to a few yards. Grow basic crops in the right season and they are easy to grow. Again this is where if we all do it, it makes a huge difference – one lettuce plant isn’t much, but if everyone in Ashland (pop. 26,000 or so) grew one lettuce plant each, that is a whole lot of lettuce.

Plus you know exactly how it’s been grown. Even those so-called organic standards now have loopholes you could thow a dog through. The most healthy food is the fresh food you’ve grown yourself and picked moments before eating. It’s also the most delicious.

Speaking of organic, buying organic is a good thing. It may cost more but voting with our dollars is important and food is cheap in the big picture. But don’t feel too warm fuzzy about it in the big picture of sustainability and climate change. A lot of this organic food is grown on mega-farms where they use twice as much machinery and oil to make up for not using chemicals. It’s certainly better for you to eat, and poisons the planet less, but a lot of organic food production isn’t in any way really sustainable.

The less processed the food you eat, the less processing (which equals energy use and factories) is needed. This does involves changing our preferences – raw apples or applesauce or frozen apple pie? Making your own soup rather than buying soup is a tricker calculation, but eating more foods raw as nature provided, or barely cooked, is a sure win.

As an aside, you can make your own solar oven, or buy a nice one for about $250, which will bake and steam very nicely and not use any extra power at all.

Changing our preferences isn’t fun, we like what we like, but we can do it if we think about the true costs. You can eat all the in season strawberries you like, but when they aren’t in season you have the choice of trucking them from Mexico or processing. While strawberries are delicious, we don’t really *need* to eat strawberries in January. Waiting for a special food to come in season used to be one of the special delights of the year. If you can always get them, they aren’t special, right? So while it feels like giving up something we enjoy in life, it’s also putting that something on a pedestal and perhaps enjoying it a little bit more as a result.

This applies to non-local foods too. Tropical foods like mangos are less special when you can buy then any time – so think of the airplane fuel and don’t buy them. If you love mangos, buy them only for special occassions, you will enjoy them much more for the waiting.

Buy in bulk, too, whenever possible. Packaging is pure waste, even if some of it is recyclable, that doesn’t excuse all the energy and materials that went into manufacturing it and printing all sorts of designs on it and shipping it empty, filling it, shipping it to the store… you get the picture. If you do have the opportunity to buy bulk, bring your own containers or bags. And of course bringing canvas bags whereever you shop means less packaging.

If you can’t buy bulk, you can buy in larger containers – those individual small packages of raisins or juice have a great deal more package for the same amount of contents than a large single box. Usually the larger quantity costs less too, so it’s win-win, as long as it’s something you will use before it goes bad. Or freeze it.

Figure out how to not waste food. A study in Scandanavia found more than half the food that’s purchased is thrown away. This seems to disagree with the buy large packages suggestion, but it’s really depends on what you are doing now, where the easy wins are for you and your family – if a lot of food spoils in your fridge, maybe consider making some effort in this area. Observe your shopping and eating habits. Take a few things out of the grocery cart before you check out; supress your impluse to buy food. Make an extra effort to eat what is in the fridge before it goes bad. You can also get a dog, or chickens, or start a worm bin, or even just a compost pile, to deal with the waste – but far better not to have that food grown somewhere, shipped all around carefully refrigerated, handled in the store, and cooked: just for the worms.

Eating “low on the food chain” – plants rather than animals – is also good. There’s an inherent loss in feeding a cow or chickens, they use a fair amount of the food to walk around and moo or squawk. Industrially produced animal products (including milk and eggs as well as meat) come from animals that are treated very badly and is neither sustainable, moral or healthy.

However, animals can also eat things that we don’t care for (like grass) and scraps like carrot tops. Animals can lead enjoyable lives on small farms. If you eat meat, seek out animals raised in these more sustainable ways.

Learn to cook from more basic foods. For example, while canned beans are handy, it’s not that much more work to soak and cook dried beans – just a matter of learning and practice. Baking bread isn’t hard either, and the results are better tasting, cheaper and much more rewarding than store bought.

Try new kinds of foods – sustainable local foods – learn about native and wild edibles. Try unusual things in your salad; sorrel soup is a french delicacy that’s made from a perennial weed. Try serving millet with dinner. Go wild and learn how to process acorns for food. I don’t know that this is so really a suggestion for individual action for sustainability, but it’s a way to get in touch on a whole new level with food and history and the land that supports us.