Saturday, June 9, 2012

Your top 20, America!

In honor of surpassing 100 likes on this blog’s Facebook page, I decided to make a list of 100 things we could each do to become more ethical eaters or support a more sustainable food system. Then, my son was born. And so, I present you with this list of 20!

As always, I’d be happy to hear your ideas. Perhaps we can get to 100 after all!

1. Change where you shop.

Buying direct from a farm through a consumer-supported agriculture program enables you to support the practices that matter most to you. It also gives you access to local, seasonal, whole foods. Both produce and meat CSAs are available in many areas; use Local Harvest for ones near you. The variety of produce and cuts of meat that make their way to your doorstep through a CSA can be both challenging and thrilling. And the best part, the prices are often cheaper than at the grocery store!

Not ready to commit to a CSA or investing in part of a whole animal? Farmers markets and food co-ops might be a better choice for you. Similar to a CSA, farmers markets typically offer lower prices on seasonal produce and ethical animal products as well as access to vendors with a variety of farming practices. There is no commitment to purchase, and you have more control over what products you end up with. However, deducing on the fly which vendors meet your standards can be challenging. Food co-ops often focus on offering sustainable and/or healthier options, and a little research can help you identify a co-op that fits your priorities. Members typically get a discount, and some offer an even deeper discount if you volunteer.

2. Opt for organic, especially when buying the Dirty Dozen.

Conventional, resource-intensive, chemical-laden agriculture is unsustainable. Not only does it reduce the growing power of the land, it also pollutes water resources that people rely on. Plus, the pesticides used in conventional agriculture have been shown to make it all the way to your plate. The Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen are the foods that carry the most amount of pesticide. Buying all organic produce is a great choice for the environment and your personal health, but you should really buy these 12 from organic growers or opt for produce on the Clean 15 list.

3. Don’t eat meat you didn’t source yourself.

Factory meat is gross. The animals are treated terribly, and their waste is a major pollutant. Animal feed is produced through wasteful conventional agriculture, and all of the antibiotics used to keep the animals from dying under such dire conditions are making them less useful to us. Polyculture and pasture-based farming systems, on the other hand, can produce meat in a way that actually enriches the land. Allowing the animals to wander freely, expressing their natural behaviors, is not just a kindness; the animals are actually part of the mechanics of the farm. Sourcing your own meat allows you to steer clear of antibiotics and hormones and to support farms that use ethical practices. You can still enjoy a nice pork chop and a glass of wine by purchasing meat from a farm you trust, or by seeking out a restaurant that coordinates with ethical farms.

4. Stop drinking soda.

I’ve discussed this at length in posts on sugar, soda, and my Food Day challenge. The average American consumes an unhealthy amount of sugars, and soda is a key contributor. Even diet soda is correlated with health problems, although the exact pathways are still uncertain. Soda doesn’t provide your body with anything it needs, is likely harmful in many ways, and uses a LOT of resources – the water used to make the soda, the resources that go into growing corn for soda’s corn-based sweeteners and additives, the fuel used to transport it all over the world, and the resources that go into making and disposing of bottles and cans. Sustainability is a trade-off. Everything we do has an impact; everything requires resources. Couldn’t our resources go to something better than soda?

5. Eat at a farm-to-table restaurant.

Restaurants that use local ingredients and work with local, small-scale farms are becoming more prevalent these days. Not everything you find in a farm-to-table restaurant will be ethical; even small farms can use some sub-optimal practices. However, the ingredients are almost certainly better than at restaurants that don’t make any effort. Plus, frequenting these restaurants is a way of exerting market pressure. If more people demand better quality, and are willing to pay a little extra for it, ingredient sourcing at restaurants is likely to improve. Find your new favorite restaurant at Local Harvest or Animal Welfare Approved.

6. Don’t trash your food scraps.

In a landfill, even things that we would consider biodegradable have trouble breaking down due to a lack of airflow and other necessities. Food scraps, for example, petrify in landfills. Luckily, there are many other options for disposing of food scraps. Many areas now offer food scrap recycling programs. Worm compositing is a great way to turn your trash into nutrient-dense fertilizer, and it lacks a lot of the attention that a regular compost pile requires (read about my experience here). Raising backyard chickens not only gives you a way of disposing of food scraps, it also provides you with a hyper-local source of ethical eggs. Polyculture farmer, Joel Salatin, has stated that we would not have a commercial egg industry in this country if everyone raised just enough backyard chickens to eat their food scraps. Chickens are a major commitment, though. You will need to make arrangements for them when you travel and keep them safe from predators. Also, many areas have laws that restrict the kinds of animals that can be kept on a residential property. So be sure to check the rules in your area before getting started.

7. Spread the word.

Most people know very little about where their food comes from. As you learn more about the ethical dilemmas associated with the modern food industry, share what you’ve learned with others. Get involved in the food conversation by commenting on blogs and news articles. And be sure to share what you learn elsewhere with readers here! You can post links to interesting articles on this blog’s Facebook page or leave comments with links on related posts.

8. Do-it-yourself.

Urban homesteading is the practice of self-sufficient living. Homesteading can extend beyond producing your own food to include things like greywater capture, using solar energy, and restoring or repurposing old items. The bottom line is to take control of your own needs and to do so in a sustainable way. Plant a garden. Cook your own meals. Save the bones from your ethical chicken or beef to create a homemade stock. Save your bacon grease. Jar produce for use during the off-season. All of these practices can reduce waste, enable you to eat well with less environmental impact, and put you in more control of your food. You can learn more about urban homesteading on websites like and Make Magazine’s projects site.

9. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

I’ve been hearing this waste management mantra since I was a kid, and it still makes a lot of sense. Simple things like bringing a reusable water bottle with you when you leave the house or holding onto grocery bags to use on your next shopping trip reduce the number of new products we need to manufacture. Before you toss something into the trash, see if you can think of a creative alternative use, such as using empty coffee cans to protect fledgling plants in your garden. Most neighborhoods offer recycling bins that get emptied along with regular trash pick-up.

10. Participate in politics, especially the 2012 Farm Bill.

Our food system is governed by laws that we can help shape. Voting every four years is important, but being active citizens in the interim can have a much greater impact. Keep up with food-related legislation such as the 2012 Farm Bill, and contact your congressmen to make sure your voice is heard (read about my experience here). And don’t forget about local politics. Zoning restrictions and other city council policies can restrict the establishment of community gardens, the sharing or sale of produce grown on residential property, and more. It’s up to you to advocate for more food-friendly policies. Many communities are establishing food policy councils for just this purpose. Get involved with one in your area or consider creating one.

11. Adopt a nutrient-rich whole foods diet.

Refined grains, vegetable oils, and added sugars make up more than half the calories in the average American’s diet. And yet, these foods have almost no nutritional value. Eating a diet rich in fresh produce, clean meat and seafood, and other minimally-processed foods is far better for your health. Growing foods that keep us vibrant and healthy is a much better use of our limited natural resources!

12. Eat less beef.

Compared to other animal products, raising beef cattle requires much more land and contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions. Producing beef using the feedlot system has many additional downsides, but even in the most sustainable systems, beef comes at a higher cost in terms of resources than eggs, chicken, or pork. So, rather than relying on beef, try substituting some other animal products or opt for a vegetarian meal. Beef can still be a part of an environmentally-conscious diet, but perhaps not a major part. Trying different cuts of beef or purchasing a share of a whole cow will help utilize more of the animal, which means fewer cows are needed overall.

13. Buy ethical eggs.

In a previous post, I went into detail about the convention egg industry, and why I work so hard to avoid consuming conventional eggs. Cage free, free range, and organic labels don’t mean much when it comes to the living conditions of the chickens. It’s pretty much impossible to buy truly ethical eggs from a regular grocery store, but natural groceries, food co-ops, and farmers markets often have a selection of eggs from fully pasture-raised chickens. Some CSAs also offer eggs. However you can find them, ethical eggs are worth the search and the heftier price tag. Ethical eggs are nutritious, delicious, and require far fewer resources than other animal products.

14. Be skeptical of health claims.

Health claims are a big trend amongst food advertisers, but truly healthy foods – like broccoli or cashews – rarely have flashy packaging and health claims. So how do you know what is truly healthy? The best approach is to use plain old common sense. Chocolate-flavored cereal that claims to be healthy because it has whole grains is probably not something you should eat. Gummy candies with a huge “Fat Free” label aren’t healthy either. Still unsure? Opt for foods with the smallest number of steps between the farm and you. Also, consider what the food is offering your body. Sweetened beverages, artificially flavored and colored snack chips, candy, and heavily processed packaged meals are all unlikely to offer much nutrition and, therefore, cannot be truly healthy.

15. Don’t stop at the headlines.

Similar to health claims, results of food and nutrition studies can be difficult to interpret. It seems like every day there is a news report claiming that a certain food is correlated with health problems or that a tasty treat is actually beneficial. In reality, the results are rarely as straightforward as the news media would make them seem. All of these studies require some critical thinking to understand, and none of them should be considered a license to over-consume (or completely give up) a particular food. To learn how to better interpret health claims and the results of food studies, check out this humorous and informative video, by the creator of the documentary Fat Head.

16. Buy from retailers that have signed the Fair Food Agreement.

Would you pay a penny more for a pound of tomatoes if it meant that the farm workers who picked those tomatoes were not beaten, locked in crates, or made to work an entire day without breaks or shade? The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is negotiating with food retailers, like grocery stores and fast food restaurants, to improve the conditions for farm workers. Retailers who commit to the Fair Food Agreement source ingredients from farms that follow a basic list of standards for their workers. You can support this important effort by shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Find a complete list of retailers who have signed the agreement of the CIW website.

17. Get informed; stay informed.

The documentaries King Corn, Food Inc., and Fresh provide excellent background on the food system. For someone really new to the corn-to-beef monoculture system and its history, I’d recommend King Corn, whereas Fresh and Food, Inc. both cover a wider breath of food system issues. There are also several great blogs that report on current happenings related to food and environmental sustainability, such as Grist, Civil Eats, and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

18. Invest in a sustainable food future.

From CSA participation and farmers markets to farm loan programs and eco-conscious retirement accounts, there are many ways to put your dollars to work! I recently went into detail on the options for investing in sustainable farms directly and on the options for green retirement accounts.

19. Fight for better food at work or at school.

Although the experts may disagree on what constitutes an optimally healthy diet, pretty much everyone recognizes the importance of eating more vegetables, especially leafy greens. Unfortunately, the food offerings in many workplace cafeterias and public schools are sorely lacking in fresh vegetables. You can help by advocating for better options. Healthier foods can help reduce healthcare costs, which may get your employer’s attention. As for school lunches, farm-to-school programs and school gardens have shown that kids who are involved in growing and preparing vegetables are much more willing to eat them. Perhaps you could even volunteer to start a campus garden that would supply fresh produce.

20. Eat sustainable seafood.

Seafood is very healthy, providing lots of omega-3 and other brain-building fats. However, overfishing is harming our oceans, and many fish farms are not ecologically sound (although the number of sustainable farms are increasing). Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch offers guides and information as to the most sustainable seafood choices. They even have downloadable pocket guides and an app for both iPhone and Android. Also, check out their Super Green list to find seafood options that contains few contaminants (like Mercury) and have a low environmental footprint.