Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Greening Our Eating

Step one of our greening project is to take a closer look at something very personal - my family's eating habits - and to explore how the choices we make affect others and the planet.

It's no surprise that the typical American diet is bad for your health, but bad for the environment? I never stopped to think about how my food decisions may impact the world around me. Besides wasting less food, and starting to eat those leftovers in the fridge before they turn into a whole other kind of science project, what changes could my family make in order to green our eating? I identified six areas that will take priority when making food decisions for our family.

1. Eat Local
Did you know that the average food product travels 1500 miles to get to our plates? Starting with my morning coffee, bananas for the baby, juice boxes for the big boy and Dad's sushi addiction, most of what we consume daily could not be considered local. But choosing locally grown foods eliminates the need for long-distance shipping. This ensures that food gets to your plate faster, making it fresher and better tasting. Cutting down on the number of miles food products travel also cuts down on emissions and fuel consumption, the amount of packaging necessary, and whatever chemical additives might be needed to guarantee a longer shelf life. Knowing exactly where your food comes from also gives you peace of mind if there is a food recall. You'll know immediately whether or not you should be concerned.

2. Eat Organic
There is still much debate over what level of risk might be imposed by the use of pesticides in conventional farming methods, but whether or not the chemical residue negatively affects humans (and I'd rather err on the safe side), it does have a significant environmental impact - on nearby water supplies, on soil quality and on biodiversity. Choosing organic foods certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and bearing a label that says "USDA Certified Organic" is the best way to make sure the food you are eating has been produced under strict organic guidelines. However, eating locally offers the benefit of knowing the people who are producing your food and being able to ask questions. Some local farmers in our area are not applying for organic certification because of the burden of record keeping and the additional paperwork necessary, but are still practicing organic farming methods. Others will let you know their produce is pesticide free, although not technically organic.

3. Eat in Bulk
No, this doesn't mean we're shopping at the warehouse clubs. But, we are purchasing more foods from bulk food bins, like those in food markets like Whole Foods, in order to avoid unnecessary packaging and create less garbage. Our four-year-old was the first to feel the pinch of this modification when we stopped buying juice boxes. (We're also working on eliminating all individually wrapped snacks.) Just remember to bring your own reusable bags with you when you hit the bulk bins to avoid filling your kitchen with more non-recyclable plastic bags. And if you can't find a store with bulk bins near you, buying staples such as rice in large bags reduces wasted packaging - just make sure you will eat it all.

4. Eat Sustainably
This is particularly important when choosing fish. The Seafood Watch program of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium publishes a pocket guide of recommendations so consumers can choose to eat fish that are caught using responsible fishing methods that do not lead to overfishing, bycatch (catching unwanted species with broad fishing practices), or ocean habitat destruction. And for those of you with iPhones and Androids, there is also an app to help you make the best seafood choices in restaurants and sushi bars. Read more about Seafood Watch here.

5. Eat Humanely
While we are lessening our consumption of animal products, when we do choose meats, we look for labels that indicate humane practices such as free-range, grass-fed and hormone-free. These methods are not only healthier for our consumption but the conditions are better for the animals and the environment. This is something we'll be researching further in the weeks to come.

6. Eat Compassionately
When food items cannot be purchased locally, as is the case for my beloved coffee, we will be making the commitment to buy fair trade. Even though this is more of a social movement than an environmental one, buying products with the Fair Trade label promotes sustainable practices among producers in developing countries.

My family is currently practicing these six points in varying degrees, but as we move forward and delve further into the research pertaining to each category, I will post our findings, our successes and our failures. Read more about our local eating pledge and our experiences with CSA's on Friday.

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