Sunday, January 31, 2010

User-defined content.

Several readers commented on my produce post (thanks!), so I thought I would compose a comprehensive response. Here are some of the questions brought up directly or indirectly by the comments:

“…how much of our carbon footprint comes from trucking food around? I suspect it pales in comparison to energy used in heating and cooling. While it's great to help when we can, are we sure we're investing our time where it has the most impact?”

First off, I want to say that I had several reasons for wanting to eat more ethically, especially when it came to eating meat and eggs. The beef industry, enabled mostly by cheap corn, is an unsustainable (economically as well as environmentally) and cruel system. The incentives to grow corn are based on the sheer volume of corn a grower can produce, which leads to ridiculous over-use of chemical fertilizers that eventually contaminate nearby water sources. The corn is then fed to cows in huge feedlots (CAFOs). Cows were not designed to eat corn, so they have to be pumped full of antibiotics in order to keep them from dying. They sit and lie in their own refuse, too confined to engage in natural behaviors. The “emissions” from these feedlots are tremendous, and the waste inevitably ends up contaminating the soil and groundwater. Finally, both the cheap corn and cheap beef, which has been shown to be unhealthier for human consumption than grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, is offered up to us in myriad forms, pretty much all of them unhealthy, contributing to the rise in diabetes, obesity, and heart disease in our country. There are many other problems too such as contamination of industrial meat and the overuse of antibiotics leading to more resistant strains of nasty bugs. I’m not even going to discuss the chicken/egg industry here and now, but it’s awful too. For a more complete and referenced accounting of these issues, read this article or watch King Corn as a first step; The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the most comprehensive source. My point here is that I did not choose to remove myself, as much as possible, from the industrial food system solely to reduce emissions. I did it because I think this industry is sick and broken in just about every aspect of its existence. Therefore, I think it’s worth doing even if the food industry isn’t the biggest contributor to our carbon footprint.

But back to the question... I tried to find a plot that compared greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by usage type (food industry versus heating and cooling, for example) but was unsuccessful. The plots I did find were unclear. For example, one plot had emissions for transportation and electricity along side industrial, commercial, and residential categories. It makes me wonder what kind of transportation emissions are not industrial, commercial, or residential. I did find a plot that shows emissions for the food industry specifically:

This suggests that food production has a much greater climate impact than food transportation in all sectors and that the impact from red meat is by far the largest. As the commenter suggested, reducing food miles may not be the most effective way to reduce the climate impact involved with your food consumption. Rather, you should probably focus on replacing much of the industrial red meat in your diet with vegetables.

One last thing on this issue, I found this article by Michael Pollan in which he claims that:

“After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do — as much as 37 percent, according to one study.”

The article was written to the President-elect and outlines an approach to changing the industrial food system to the benefit of people, animals, and the environment. It’s long, but I think a very worthwhile read.

Is local food better for the environment?

The simple answer is maybe. When it comes to fresh produce at least, food miles is an incomplete metric. As a reader pointed out, it depends heavily on your local food region. The SF bay area can likely supply a much larger and more diverse set of goods with fewer destructive inputs than Phoenix, Arizona or New York City. Plus, the impact of food miles depends heavily on the method of transportation. Moving food by ship or rail is much more efficient than doing so by truck. A total impact score, which would combine the production and transportation impact of a food from farm to consumer, would be a more useful metric. Several studies discussed in this article found that, when the total impact of a food item is evaluated, local food does not always win out over foods that are extremely not local. Here are some excepts from the article describing the findings:

Many factors influence the carbon footprint of a product: water use, cultivation and harvesting methods, quantity and type of fertilizer, even the type of fuel used to make the package. Sea-freight emissions are less than a sixtieth of those associated with airplanes, and you don’t have to build highways to berth a ship. Last year, a study of the carbon cost of the global wine trade found that it is actually more “green” for New Yorkers to drink wine from Bordeaux, which is shipped by sea, than wine from California, sent by truck. That is largely because shipping wine is mostly shipping glass. The study found that “the efficiencies of shipping drive a ‘green line’ all the way to Columbus, Ohio, the point where a wine from Bordeaux and Napa has the same carbon intensity.”

The environmental burden imposed by importing apples from New Zealand to Northern Europe or New York can be lower than if the apples were raised fifty miles away. “In New Zealand, they have more sunshine than in the U.K., which helps productivity,” Williams explained. That means the yield of New Zealand apples far exceeds the yield of those grown in northern climates, so the energy required for farmers to grow the crop is correspondingly lower. It also helps that the electricity in New Zealand is mostly generated by renewable sources, none of which emit large amounts of CO2. Researchers at Lincoln University, in Christchurch, found that lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped eleven thousand miles by boat to England produced six hundred and eighty-eight kilograms of carbon-dioxide emissions per ton, about a fourth the amount produced by British lamb. In part, that is because pastures in New Zealand need far less fertilizer than most grazing land in Britain (or in many parts of the United States). Similarly, importing beans from Uganda or Kenya—where the farms are small, tractor use is limited, and the fertilizer is almost always manure—tends to be more efficient than growing beans in Europe, with its reliance on energy-dependent irrigation systems.

Williams and his colleagues recently completed a study that examined the environmental costs of buying roses shipped to England from Holland and of those exported (and sent by air) from Kenya. In each case, the team made a complete life-cycle analysis of twelve thousand rose stems for sale in February—in which all the variables, from seeds to store, were taken into consideration. They even multiplied the CO2 emissions for the air-freighted Kenyan roses by a factor of nearly three, to account for the increased effect of burning fuel at a high altitude. Nonetheless, the carbon footprint of the roses from Holland—which are almost always grown in a heated greenhouse—was six times the footprint of those shipped from Kenya. Even Williams was surprised by the magnitude of the difference. “Everyone always wants to make ethical choices about the food they eat and the things they buy,” he told me. “And they should. It’s just that what seems obvious often is not. And we need to make sure people understand that before they make decisions on how they ought to live.”

Clearly, a comprehensive impact score would be a more useful metric than food miles. However, it may be impractical to compute especially for processed items that include many ingredients from different sources. And perhaps that brings us to the true value of local food. Rather than arguing about which fresh, whole produce item impacts the environment the least, we should really be considering local food as an alternative to processed, packaged, food-like products. For example, it may be difficult for an individual person to evaluate the relative merits of strawberries purchased at a local farmer’s market or shipped in from another region without knowing the production issues involved with making strawberries grow in each region, the practices of the farm from which they came, or the methods of transport. However, I think it is clear that buying fresh, whole strawberries to put in your cereal has less of a negative impact than buying cereal with processed strawberries already inside. At some point, a cereal-company employee had to make the same decision as my fictional strawberry consumer as to where to buy the strawberries. But instead of those strawberries traveling directly from farm to consumer, they first have to be shipped to the cereal plant and then be packaged and distributed and ultimately arrive at the supermarket along with all of the other ingredients in the cereal. Those strawberries will thus travel many more miles and impact the environment more than the same strawberries delivered directly to the consumer.

There are clearly situations when food that has traveled less is better for the environment. In particular, local produce is almost certainly better than produce incorporated into a processed food-like product. It is also likely to be better than well-traveled food in regions where food is easily grown. Certainly, to draw upon the above examples, eating local lamb or apples while living in New Zealand is clearly much better than importing them from England! It would be very useful for the scientists who do these life-cycle-analysis studies to create best and worse local food lists for different regions that could guide our shopping decisions. Until then, the following guidelines (roughly in order of importance based on my opinion) seem like the most useful:

(1) Replace industrial, red meat with vegetables as often as you can.

(2) Buy whole, fresh foods rather than processed ones.

(3) If possible, shop at a farmer’s market that provides information on (or restricts) the farming practices of its vendors in addition to food miles.

(3) Use common sense. If you live in an area that easily produces food, stick with local (preferably organic) produce. Otherwise, eat non-local fresh fruits and vegetables to keep yourself healthy!

(4) Pay attention to the season. Tomatoes do not grow in California in January. If you find them in the store, they either traveled a long distance or were produced in hot houses, which require a lot of extra electricity. Try something seasonal instead.

“Of course the difficulty with organic is that it doesn't always mean the same thing. At least local usually means less than 100 miles away.”

This one was pretty easy to check (yay!). Actually, USDA Certified Organic represents specific regulations that must be followed before a food item can be labeled as such. You can find out exactly what it means at the USDA National Organic Program website. As for local, it typically indicates a 100-mile radius. However, there is no official definition. I read that some food is described as local if it is sold in the same state as it was grown; great if you're in Rhode Island, not so much in Texas.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Problems with produce.

One of my eating commitments was to buy seasonal, organic produce mostly from farmer’s markets. Organic produce is grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, which is better for the environmental and, often, better for our health. I wanted to shop mainly at farmer’s markets because the food is more likely to be local and seasonal. In fact, those two characteristics go hand-in-hand. When something is out of season here, it is often shipped from far away or grown in ways that require a lot of extra energy. Buying seasonal or local usually means my produce didn’t travel 1500 miles to my plate, which is the average distance that industrial food travels to get from farm to consumer.

It was this commitment that brought me to the local farmer’s market today to pick up produce for the week. The market was quite large but unfortunately had only one certified organic vendor. I was only able to get about half of the items I needed from this vendor, which created quite a dilemma for me. Other vendors had the produce I had picked for my dinners this week (specifically because they are seasonal), and the vendors are certainly local, but they are not organic. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I went ahead and bought most of the things I still needed and headed for Trader Joe’s.

I love shopping at TJs. They have reasonable prices, their food contains much more wholesome ingredients than the more standard grocery chain fare, and they offer lots of organic options. (They also gave me a free banana when I showed up on my way to a 5K race, desperate for my running fuel, before the store had even opened for the day. They will also allow you to open and taste any item without any commitment to buy!) I was hopeful, when I arrived, that they would have the rest of the fruits and veggies I was seeking. Instead, I ran into the opposite problem from the farmer’s market. They had organic options, but they were not at all local. Most of the items I wanted were grown in Chile! I ended up buying some of these foods and just gave up altogether by purchasing a non-organic eggplant from Mexico. I left the store feeling rather dismayed and wondering which is actually better: local or organic.

When I got home, I did a little research. This article does a good job of explaining why eating local food is probably the right thing to do and why it’s not always easy to be sure. Basically, the best things about eating local produce (usually defined as being grown less than 100 miles away) are that there is less of a carbon footprint from transportation and there is more communication (and accountability) between farmer and consumer. As the article points out, all other things being equal, it is certainly better for the environment for me to eat a tomato grown a block away rather than one that was shipped from Mexico. However, a lot of other things are not equal. The type of transportation makes a huge difference in the carbon footprint of a given food item, as can the conditions in which it was grown or processed. It can actually be very difficult to determine which of two foods are “better”. When it comes to organic, however, there is a definite benefit to the environment due to the restriction of certain chemicals and practices. So, while local and organic is best, organic but traveled may be better than local but not organic. Maybe.

The more interesting part of the article is the comparison between the environmental impact of food transportation versus other aspects of the food industry. It turns out that red meat and dairy production are far worse for the environment than any other aspect of the food industry. The article cites studies that showed that in the UK and in Sweden, meat and dairy account for half their total food emissions. Half! They also point out that replacing meat and dairy with vegetables only one day a week can reduce greenhouse gases more than if you lived next door to a farm and didn’t have to drive anywhere to get all of your food.

So what does this mean for me? For one thing, it means that my choice to cook only one meat dish per week (and use meat from a local, ethical farm) has a much greater impact on the environment than buying local produce! Any positive difference I could make by buying locally would be swamped out by the negative impact of serving my local veggies as a side dish for the industrial steak I got at the grocery store. Choosing organic produce is still useful because it has benefits beyond reducing emissions, and local organic still sounds like the best option. But before I agonize over every vegetable on my grocery list, I need to remember that every time I pick an organic vegetable over an industrial one, I am helping, even if it wasn’t grown down the street. Even if I also buy one eggplant from Mexico…

Sunday, January 17, 2010

False alarm.

According to this article, food manufacturers are not required to report the amount of potassium in their products, although a few are starting to do so. The information on Daily Plate appears to come from the nutrition labels, at least for the brand name items. That means my potassium intake could be much higher than it appears. In fact, it seems all but certain given that the article mentions many high-potassium foods that I have eaten over the last week. Sweet potatoes, spinach, edamame, white beans, apricots and peaches, melon, halibut, and (low-sodium) tomato products are all good sources of potassium. Not surprisingly, a balanced diet that includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables will provide most of what my body needs. This is also the conclusion of Michael Pollan’s newest book, Food Rules, in which Pollan offers 64 plain-English guidelines for eating. His motto is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”, and the rules help guide you toward that lifestyle. If you are interested in eating better, this might be a good (and cheap) place to start. If you already eat this way, it's a little less useful but still a fun read.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

1800 calories of Yum.

For the last 11 days, I have faithfully measured and recorded everything I ate. It was actually pretty easy except when I ate out for lunch, which I do most days. I did end up using Daily Plate, which can now be found at, to track my nutrition information. The interface was slick and easy to use, and I was impressed with how many brand-name foods were available in their database. It was easy to find exactly the product I was consuming in many cases. However, without an obvious help page, it did take more effort than I would have liked to figure out how to do all the things I wanted to do. Also, the free service gave me the main nutritional information I wanted (i.e. calories and protein) but not the other important nutrients like iron and calcium. As a runner, the nutrients are at least as important to me as cholesterol! So, since I needed the info in order to give you, my reader, the full analysis I promised, I paid the $30 for a six-month subscription. Before I tell you what I learned, I’ll give you an idea of some of the guidelines I already use for eating as these contributed to my eating decisions throughout the experiment.

Most food (that you should actually eat) can be put into one of four categories: fruit/veggie, dairy, protein, or grain. Nancy Clark recommends eating three meals and two snacks per day; each meal should include food from 3-4 of these categories, and each snack should have food from 2-3. She also recommends trying to eat different foods each time. Don’t just eat apples with every meal and expect to get all full credit in the fruit and veggie category! I kept this in mind when putting together my meals and snacks. I put together a few breakfast options so I didn’t have to eat the same thing everyday and packed snacks to take to school.

As for dinner, my husband and I typically cook three meals per week with the expectation that each meal will last us two nights. We decided to try having one meal include meat, one include seafood, and the third be vegetarian. It was pretty easy to do and kept us from over-consuming meat. A lot of the problems associated with industrial meat are related to the fact that we all eat way too much of it. The focus is on quantity not quality. Ethical farms are simply not going to be able to produce meat in the quantities we currently demand. So even though I am now getting meat from an ethical farm, I still wanted to reduce my overall consumption.

Here are some things I learned:

I eat more protein than I need even on days when I go vegetarian. I averaged 150% of my daily required value (DRV) of protein, with a maximum of a whopping 192% and a minimum of 111%! Most of my (non-meat, non-seafood) protein came from soy milk, string cheese, beans, and brown rice. Also, a lot of veggies have at least some protein, and they really added up! When we did eat meat or seafood, we kept the portions to 4-5oz each. It seemed small at first (think deck of cards), but with all the added vegetable side dishes we made, I really didn’t miss the extra meat. Bottom line: I don’t need meat to get enough protein, and I don’t need as much protein as I eat.

A cup is a lot, except for popcorn. So is a tablespoon… A lot of times food manufacturers try to trick you into thinking food is healthy by listing the nutritional information for an absurdly small serving. Knowing this, I often assumed that I was eating at least one serving and used that to guesstimate my caloric intake. Over the past 11 days, however, I actually measured my food, and it turns out that I eat much less than a portion of many foods. I do not eat a cup of yogurt or add a cup of milk to my breakfast cereal. Actually, I use only half a cup. I also do not use two tablespoons of salad dressing! I thought that measuring out my portions would make me feel restricted, but it actually showed me that I could often eat more than I thought. Also, having an idea of just how much food there is in a tablespoon or cup makes it easier to determine if a dish has too much butter or oil to be healthy.

Veggies are amazing. Did you know that a cup of baby spinach has only five calories? Five! More importantly, those five measly calories provide almost 20% of the DRV of vitamin A, 6% of vitamin C, almost 4% of iron, and even counts as a good source of calcium. A cup of baby spinach makes a tasty base for a salad and is easy to toss into pasta sauce or omelets. Broccoli also has an astonishing amount of nutrients for its calories, and sweet potatoes are both delicious and nutritious. You don’t have to eat all of your veggies raw either; roasting, steaming, and baking are all easy and preserve most of the nutritional value of the food. Steamed veggies should still be crisp, though, and baked potatoes should be eaten with their skin. I was able to eat a lot more food for the same calories when I chose vegetables over meat or pasta, and they have a lot more to offer as far as nutrients too.

I still don’t get enough nutrients. I did fine on vitamins A and C, but I averaged only 77% and 63% of my calcium and iron, respectively. I got only 22% of the recommended potassium, on average, and had only 44% on my best day. As it turns out, a banana contains only 9% of my DRV of potassium. Dang. For the rest of the nutrients that Daily Plate tracks (the B vitamins, vitamin D, folic acid, etc.), I averaged from 1.6% - 44% of the DRV, which is pretty abysmal. My main concerns are the calcium, iron, and potassium, though, so I’ll need to spend some time finding foods that are high in these areas and incorporate them into my diet. I had no trouble staying under my calorie goal each day, so there is room to add. And, as I already mentioned, I could probably switch out some of my protein calories for healthful veggies.

I’m not sure if I will keep measuring and logging my daily foods. It’s certainly been a useful experiment. I have a better grasp of how much I eat, which foods are worth their calories, and which nutrients I need to concentrate on getting. I have also put together some good breakfasts, snacks, and dinners. If people are interested, I am happy to share them!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Eat at Steve's.

Lately, I've been hearing whispers that Chipotle (a personal fave) is doing "good things". In search of details, I did some googling, which turned up several articles that mentioned "Food With Integrity". Eventually, I made it right to the source: Chipotle's webpage about its Food With Integrity program in which the Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, explains why and how he is adopting more ethical food standards for his restaurants. Here are some excerpts:

"Food With Integrity" isn't a marketing slogan. It's not a product line of natural and organic foods. And it's not a corporate initiative that will ever be finished or set aside to make room for other priorities. It's a philosophy that we can always do better in terms of the food we buy. And when we say better, we mean better in every sense of the word- better tasting, coming from better sources, better for the environment, better for the animals, and better for the farmers who raise the animals and grow the produce.

The hallmarks of Food With Integrity include things like unprocessed, seasonal, family-farmed, sustainable, nutritious, naturally raised, added hormone free, organic, and artisanal. And, since embracing this philosophy, it's had tremendous impact on how we run our restaurants and our business. It's led us to serve more naturally raised meat than any other restaurant in the country, to push for more sustainable practices in produce farming, and to work with dairy suppliers to eliminate the use of added hormones from their operations.

Steve goes on to describe how he became aware of our current food industry practices with regard to pork production and his decision to take Chipotle down a more ethical path. Here is what you get when you eat at Chipotle:

Since 2001, all of the pork served in our restaurants has been from pigs raised in this humane, ecologically sustainable way. In addition to all of our pork and all of our chicken in the US, more than 50 percent of our beef is naturally raised. And we'll continue until all of our meats in all of our restaurants meet this standard.

Once again, naturally raised pork at Chipotle means:
· No antibiotics, ever.
· Letting pigs exhibit their natural behaviors in open pasture or
deeply-bedded pens.
· Vegetarian feed with no animal by-products.

When we began buying naturally raised pork in 2001, it made us take a fresh look at all of the food we serve. We called this idea "Food With Integrity," and wanted to know as much as we could about how animals are raised and vegetables are grown, we started to look at everything we buy and how we could make it better.

The next step after pork was naturally raised chicken.

The supply for this better chicken is scarce, so we started small, buying naturally raised chicken only for a few markets at first. That amount has grown over time as demand for naturally raised chicken has grown, and today all of the chicken we serve in the US is naturally raised.


To meet our naturally raised standard, chicken must:
· Never be given antibiotics.
· Have more room to move about than in conventional chicken
· Be vegetarian fed, never given animal by-products.


Food With Integrity is about taking the long view. It's about figuring out how we can use our size and influence to create enduring change. Today, more than fifty percent of our beef is from farmers across the country who meet the naturally raised criteria set forth in our Food With Integrity standards. Naturally raised beef costs more, but we think it's worth it. We're working overtime to make all of our beef, in all of our restaurants, naturally raised within the next few years.

When you order naturally raised beef at Chipotle, here is what you are getting (and not getting):
· No added growth hormones, ever.
· No antibiotics, ever.

· Vegetarian feed with no animal by-products.


Every year we increase the amount of organically grown beans we buy for our restaurants. Today, 30 percent of our beans are organic. We'd love it if all of our beans could be organic tomorrow. Unfortunately, it takes time for supply to meet the demand, but eventually we hope that all of our beans at all of our restaurants will be organic.


Agricultural chemical companies have formulated a synthetic hormone that is injected into a cow to artificially increase milk production. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is used in the United States, but banned elsewhere. Many farmers report that rBGH causes maladies such as udder infections and joint problems. Those synthetic growth hormones end up in the milk we drink.

We think some things should be sacred. Like dairy. The cheese and the sour cream at all of our restaurants is free of the synthetic growth hormone rBGH. We're not scientists, but ingesting hormones with our crispy tacos just doesn't seem like a good idea.

Chipotle's decision to use only rBGH-free dairy is just another step along our Food With Integrity journey - bringing you the very best ingredients from the very best sources.

In addition, Chipotle uses no eggs and can easily make vegetarian and vegan entrees. This all sounds pretty terrific to me! However, part of my resolution was to only eat meat from ethical sources as I define them. That means that, despite what Steve says, I need to know where he gets his meat. And there it is, at the bottom of the page! A list of all the (supposedly) ethical meat sources that Chipotle uses. I will admit that I did not go through all of them. I just picked a couple from each category and looked through their websites. In some cases, it was difficult to tell just how "ethical" the farms are. I found two examples, however, that I will describe in more detail.

The pigs at duBreton definitely seem better-off than standard industrial pigs. Just as Steve describes, they can mull about in a pasture or root through deeply-bedded pens. They are fed well with no dead animal parts to fill out their diets! These pigs clearly have not had their tails chopped off to make them more sensitive to the bites from other pigs packed too close together in a standard CAFO. However, these pigs are also not part of an ecosystem. They are raised on a pig farm. In addition, there appear to be other levels of ethical pig product that you can purchase from this company, which goes all the way down to something called "quality source". From the information on Chipotle's site, I think they buy the better pork, but it's still troubling that even the supposed good farm still uses some poor practices.

The other site I check was for Niman Ranch. This is another place I'd heard some positive whispers about and was happy to check it out. Their website says their cows are treated humanely, raised on sustainable farms and ranches, are not given hormones or antibiotics, and are fed a vegetarian diet. These seem like good things, although the mention of vegetarian-fed rather than grass-fed concerned me. Corn is, after all, a vegetable. However, it is not one cows are designed to eat. It makes them fat and sick and, without antibiotics, they die. So what is Niman ranch actually feeding their cows? I found the answer in their FAQ.

Why doesn't Niman Ranch produce only grass fed beef?

Contemplating grass fed beef might conjure up pastoral images, but in fact much of the cattle marketed today as "grass fed" spend their time in feedlots or feed yards being fed large amounts of hay, rice bran, almond hulls, and other assorted feeds that the USDA allows to be called "grass."

Our cattle are raised on pasture, spending an entire grazing season with their mothers. We finish our beef cattle on grain because doing so produces the best quality, which is always our objective. Niman Ranch cattle go to slaughter in peak condition, when they have stored the maximum amount of intramuscular fat that results in superbly flavorful and tender beef.

This is a curious answer. First, they suggest that grass-fed beef is actually not so great because things such as hay count as grass. I can't really evaluate this statement, but do recall from "The Omnivore's Dilemma" that there is a lot more to grass than we might naively think. I trust the grass farmers (as they refer to themselves) who make sure their pastures are chock full of all the different kinds of grass that their happy, foraging cows want to eat. Their cows eat hay. It's probably a good thing. The next part of the answer is even more discouraging. They think grass-fed is not that great a thing, so they feed their cows CORN. They let the calves graze for one season and then "grain finish" them. So... One season grazing on grass and the rest of their lives eating corn? A description of the cows' living conditions during this "finishing" phase seem strangely left out. I did a little background research, and it seems Niman Ranch used to be one of the best places to get your beef while still being available in some Bay Area grocery stores (super convenient!). Unfortunately, the ranch has been sold and it seems the new owners are not sticking with the original practices. It's really too bad. I wonder if Steve knows this...

So, what is the verdict on Chipotle? Their intentions are beyond reproach and their commitment to organic products, no antibiotics, and vegetarian feed are all commendable. Even though some of their food sources don't appear to live up to their lofty goals, certainly a step in the right direction should be supported. I would say it is clearly better to eat meat (or beans or even sour cream) at Chipotle than pretty much any other fast food chain. They aren't currently ethical enough for me to consider eating their meat, but I will definitely support their practices with my food dollars buy eating their veggie bowl. If you do nothing else to support ethical eating practices, I would ask that the next time you have a hankering for some fast food, skip McDs and pick up some Chipotle!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Oh right, nutrition.

Part of eating ethically is, well, eating. This is something I do very well at least insofar as I know where to find food and to put it in my mouth. As a child, my mother taught me to check the ingredient list for strange things with names I couldn't pronounce, but I don't recall much emphasis on calories, fat, portion size, or even the good things like calcium and iron. When I went off to college and became the sole decision-maker about what I would eat, I didn't make the best choices. For the most part, I ate too many calories and not enough nutrition. I recall thinking that, because I wasn't overweight, I didn't need to pay attention to such things. You can guess what happened. I gained weight. In my first two years of college, I gained about 10 pounds, which actually wasn't a bad thing for me. However, in the ensuing five years, I gained another 15 pounds, which was decidedly not good. When I started graduate school, I decided to start eating better and exercising more so I could lose the weight. It was really hard! Not paying attention had gotten me used to a state of over-consumption and under-nutrition to such an extent that cutting back a little here and there just slowed my weight gain rather than helping me lose. Despite all of this, I was still reluctant to actually count calories or measure out my food. I didn't want to seem obsessive about my weight or appear to be bowing to social pressure.

Lately, my attitudes have been changing mostly due to running. I have never been athletic before, and I really had no hope when I first got on a treadmill that running would become part of my life. I'm so glad I was wrong. Running has become very special to me. I not only enjoy doing it and the way in which it makes me feel strong and fit, I also enjoy reading about how to become a better runner. What I have learned is that being informed about what you are putting into your body is a good thing. Counting isn't the same thing as restricting, and getting proper nutrition is essential for an active life. When I look at food and nutrition as fuel for my body, calories become just another metric, one completely removed from my pants size. When I think of my body as a tool, it motivates me to take care of it. In a way, this should be obvious. It should be the way all of us look at what we eat.

So on to actually eating. I know I need a certain number of calories every day to not keel over and die. I need more calories to be able to get out of bed and write blog posts and even more if I want to run. I also need vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. My running sources tell me I should pay special attention to iron, calcium, potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Putting all of these things together seems daunting but doable. In general, I want my ethical eating lifestyle to be practical, by which I mean that I don't want to spend a great deal of time on it. However, I think some overhead here at the beginning might be required. What I need to do now is count. Count the calories, vitamins, and so on in the foods I eat (this will clearly also require some measuring, yikes!). My plan is to do this religiously for a week or two. I'm not necessarily going to change what I eat; I just want to know how much nutrition I'm getting in how many calories. (In truth, even just knowing how many servings of food are on my plate would probably be a good start!) Luckily, there are now internet resources that help with this. The Daily Plate ( supposedly has a vast searchable database that will allow me to tell it everything I eat and will thus provide me with all the wonderful information my little heart desires. By the end of my 1-2 week experiment, I hope to have gained enough knowledge about what I eat and how much nutritional bang I'm getting for my caloric buck that I won't have to examine things quite so hard in the future. Here are some questions that illustrate the sorts of things I would like to know by the end of my experiment. If you wouldn't know the answers to similar questions about what you eat, maybe you should consider joining me.

- How many calories can I eat without gaining weight? How many do I need to run?
- How much milk do I actually put in my cereal?
- If I had to guess, how much is "about a cup"? What about a tablespoon?
- How much potassium do I need, and can I get it all from a banana?

I guess I'll tell you the answers in a week or so. : )

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Farm fresh, no guilt.

The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture runs a large farmer's market at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. The CUESA site has great vendor profiles that describe the farms and their practices. Most are small, organic farms that subscribe to the sustainable agriculture school of thought. I went through the vendor profiles pretty thoroughly and found a farm that I think meets my requirements. Marin Sun Farms (see also, their CUESA profile) sells eggs, meat, and poultry at the farmer's market. They also have a CSA program and supply several high-end restaurants in the Bay Area. We decided to start with the market. Yesterday we got up early, loaded our wheeled cooler with ice, and headed up to the city. The farmer's market was easy to get to (a short walk from the Embarcadero BART station) and, since it has been rainy and gloomy out, was not too crowded. The booth for Marin Sun Farms exceeded my expectations. They had a wide variety of chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, goat, and pig parts and, of course, my long-awaited ethical eggs! All of the meat was vacuum sealed and labeled, so they were clean and easy to transport back home and into our freezer. The eggs looked really interesting; there was such a variety of colors! They are more delicate than industrial eggs, but we had no trouble getting them home intact. We usually cook three dinners to get through a week and are planning to have only one include meat or poultry, so we purchased four different cuts to get us through the next month. We ended up with chicken breasts, pork stew meat, a sirloin tip roast, and ground lamb. Some of the meat seemed more expensive than what we get at Trader Joe's, but I'll wait to discuss that until I can go check the numbers. The eggs were definitely more expensive, and the price is extra high during the winter when the hens produce fewer eggs. We paid $8 for a dozen medium eggs. Another vendor, Eatwell Farm, also sells ethical eggs for the same price and has an extra option of smaller eggs for $6.50 per dozen. To finish up our trip, we picked up some organic broccoli, potatoes, and squash. In the future, I think we'll purchase more fruits and veggies on our monthly trip to this farmer's market or perhaps join a CSA program. Overall, I thought our first attempt to buy ethical food was a great success!

(If you are looking for an ethical farm in your area, check out Eat Wild. Farmer's markets can generally be found with a quick Google search.)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

They're really more like guidelines.

My plan for adopting an ethical culinary lifestyle will require several modifications to my current lifestyle.

1. Buy meat, poultry, and eggs from ethical farms via a farmer's market or CSA (community-sponsored agriculture) program.

There are different opinions about what constitutes ethical meats and farms. I am looking for a farm that mimics a natural ecosystem, in which outputs from one part of the farm become inputs for another and vice versa. This type of farm is sustainable and eco-friendly. I also want the farm animals to have as close to a natural lifestyle and diet as possible. It may be hard to make a list of all the specific attributes of such a farm, but I can easily envision it in my mind: chickens wandering about pecking food bits out of the ground, cows grazing on grassy, rolling hills. You get the idea. I do not want to eat a steak from a cow that lived in a knee-deep pile of its own manure and was force-fed corn or dead bits of other animals. I do not want eggs from hens that literally commit suicide to escape the deplorable conditions in which they are kept. There is virtually no meat sold in a grocery store (even those that focus on natural foods) that meets my standards as ethical. "Organic", "vegetarian fed", and even "naturally-raised" are all words with official USDA definitions that still do not include cows grazing on pastures or eating grass as they have evolved to do.

2. Buy seasonal, organic produce from farmer's markets but supplement with organic produce from the grocery store as needed.

Clearly, there are less ethical issues involved with eating plants. However, the fertilizer and pesticides used with most produce is truly detrimental to our health and environment. Organic produce is produced without these chemicals. Some argue that organic produce at a grocery store is still "bad" because of all the (fuel) energy required to pack and ship it. I think that one step in the right direction is better than none.

3. When eating out, order vegetarian or seafood meals.

It is almost impossible to find out where the meat and poultry served in any given restaurant are coming from. The only way to be sure I am eating ethically when eating out is to opt out. In these situations, I am not going to worry about the produce being organic because, really, I would just never be able to eat.

That's it; three basic rules that I will be following from now on. These represent big changes for me as I have never before bought meat at a farmer's market or sprung for the organic produce or eaten out as a vegetarian! There is certainly more one can do, but I am most interested in changes that make a big difference in the way I consume food, and the types of food industry I support with my dollars, but that are also practical for my (or your!) busy and active life. So, just for the record, here are the caveats to my new ethical eating habits, for now at least.

(a) I am not going to restrict cheese and yogurt; I already drink soy milk and avoid most other dairy.

(b) I will eat what people serve me when a guest in their home unless it is reasonable to request vegetarian fare (i.e. - there are other vegetarians).

(c) Bananas. They're not local or sustainable, but they are so good for powering a runner! I'm undecided on whether to at least buy them organic so we'll see.

(d) I'm not considering fair trade or labor practices. Hopefully a farm that is good to its animals is at least as good to its people, but who knows.

(e) Occasionally, but not more than once a month, I will allow myself to eat a meal at a restaurant without any restrictions at all.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The first step.

I am starting this blog as a part of my 2010 New Year's resolution. My goal is to create an ethical culinary lifestyle that is still practical and satisfies my nutritional needs as a runner. I first became concerned about my eating habits after college when I realized I had gained about 20 pounds and my (limited) attempts to exercise away the pounds were not successful. Over the last five years, I have slowly modified my diet to be healthier with positive results, although I am still calorie conscious and concerned about losing (or really gaining) weight. In addition to these nutritional changes, I have adopted a new hobby of running. An active lifestyle requires proper nutrition, and it's not easy to make sure I'm getting everything I need without taking in too many calories. While these issues are important to me, I recently found a new reason to consider the food I was eating. After watching the documentary King Corn and reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, I had to acknowledge the numerous problems with our current food system. Animals are mistreated, the environment is damaged, and we consume more and more unhealthy and even dangerous food. I won't go into all the details in this inaugural post, but I can assure you that it's worse than you might think. Knowing the facts, I cannot possibly continue supporting this unsustainable and unethical system and exposing myself to unhealthy foods. Within the next few posts, I will outline my plan for a more ethical culinary lifestyle. I hope you will find my trials and tribulations useful in making your own positive changes.