Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Greener Year Challenge: Find Earth-Friendly Food (August)

Food, glorious food! I've exhibited great self-control in waiting this long to tackle this topic. As you may have gathered by now, I consider food my "pet project" for the planet, the catalyst for understanding and exploring ecology. And it's a worthwhile subject to focus on, too: agriculture accounts for at least 9% of the total carbon emissions in the country (not including transportation costs) and is the battleground for the health of our soil, the rights of some of the most exploited workers in our country, the integrity of our water sources, and countless other practical and ethical controversies. What you choose to buy and eat (and not buy/eat) matters— consumer demand controls a huge sector of the food industry, and those of us with time, knowledge, and a little bit of money to invest can make a big difference in shifting the way our soil, water, and energy are used (or abused). 

Various groups and nonprofits have given boilerplate guidelines for what to eat to be eco-friendly, but these recommendations don't take the particularity of places into account. For instance, in St. Louis, local grass-fed burger bought at the farmers market has a much smaller environmental impact than grocery-store almonds grown in California (and irrigated with water from their precious depleted aquifer), even though meat is supposed to have a bigger carbon footprint than plants. 

Because eco-friendly choices have numerous factors, there is no single "right" choice when deciding what to buy. In general, though, the most environmentally-friendly food is in season, locally available, and smallish-scale. 

If you haven't read my post about Food Waste, you should probably do that first; the first step is not wasting the food we have. But if you've already checked out those challenges, dive into these!


Learn what is in season in your area. When are tomatoes ripe? What about asparagus, broccoli, apples, peas? This chart can help you find out. Having an awareness of the seasons points you in the right direction for eating harmoniously with the natural cycles.

Look for “Local” labels at the grocery store. A lot of stores have stickers or signs for local produce, and it's often a good idea to buy them. This supports the local economy and (usually) helps smaller-scale farms make a living. 

Hurdy-gurdy player!
Eat less industrial meat. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: this is one of the most important steps to lessen your negative impact on the planet and on the communities who must endure the pollution of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Ethical considerations of animals aside, CAFOs endanger the health of the people who work there and the surrounding communities, as well as emitting an unreasonably huge amount of greenhouse gases. Choosing to opt out, even some of the time, will lessen the demand. 

Visit a farmers market. There are more farmers markets than ever before, so type in, "Farmers markets near me" and see what comes up. Are any of them close to you? Do any of them fit into your schedule? Bring a backpack or reusable bag and show up. Remember, you're not obligated to buy anything; just stroll around and see what there is to see. Market quality varies wildly from place to place, but you're likely to see lots of arts and crafts, a lot of value-added products such as jam and fruit preserves, and some fresh vegetables, maybe even meat and dairy if you're lucky. There will also probably be live music. (I once saw a man playing a hurdy-gurdy at a farmers market, and my trip was worth it just for that.) If you're feeling bold, talk to one of the sellers and ask about their farm or garden. Why do they grow what they grow? How do they deal with the challenges that come along with it?


Checkout nearby farms, fruit stands, etc. in addition to markets. If you don't have a farmers market nearby, search for local farms instead, which often have farmstands or even formal farm stores. Check out Local Harvest for suggestions. 

Grow some of your own food. Whether you're growing herbs on a fire escape, tomatoes in a bucket, a small garden in your front yard, or a community garden plot, planting seeds is one of the biggest ways to step outside— if only for a moment— of the extractive industrial agricultural complex. Talk to someone you know who grows food, contact your local extension office or Master Gardener program, and/or check out websites like Tenth Acre Farm and Northwest Edible Life to get started.

Find and buy humanely-raised animal products. Navigating labels on meat can be daunting. See this guide for sorting it out. The ideal option is to find a local farmer who raises meat, dairy, or eggs, and talk to them about their practices. Eat Wild can help you find a farmer near you. Farmers markets are also a good place to check out, as well as select independent groceries. 

If your front yard accidentally turns into a
butternut squash forest, that's cool too.
Support restaurants and stores who buy from local farmers. Go to Local Harvest, set the search to "Restaurants" or "Grocery/Co-ops" and see what comes up in your area. 

Try out foraging. I love foraging. It puts you in touch with your surroundings, helps you become more aware of pollution and wild spaces, attunes you to the rhythm of the seasons, and makes you grateful for food that you can gather with hardly any work. If you're new to foraging, try dandelion first (cook it in a stir-fry), and work your way up from there. For my midwestern friends, I highly recommend the book Midwest Foraging by Lisa M. Rose for a user-friendly introduction.


Build a relationship with local farmers and commit to supporting them. Farmers who are stepping outside the industrial agricultural food system need our help. They need us to support them with our money, our willingness to eat whatever they grow, and our ability to get other people to support them too. This might manifest in starting a buying club where you connect local farmers to other people, volunteering, or simply buying the bulk of your groceries from a network of farmers. They need to be able to stay afloat in order to keep feeding us. One of the most common ways to do this is to…

Join a CSA. Community Supported Agriculture is a model wherein you pay a farmer for a summer's worth of produce up front, then pick it up from the farm each week. It's a wonderful model for farmers who don't want to spend all their time trying to market their goods, allowing them to focus on growing the food in an earth-friendly way. You get the benefit of helping out a farmer and eating nutrient-dense food for a fraction of the cost to buy it at the farmers market. Search for "CSAs near me" or check out Local Harvest for more info. 

Do a Local Food challenge. For a set amount of time, try living on almost entirely food that is grown within a set area— whether that's your state, your local bioregion, a 10-mile radius, or only what you can grow yourself. How does this change your awareness of the way you rely on the industrial global food system? 

Share good food with others. How can you improve food security in your neighborhood, your church or community, your city? This might take the form of inviting people over for dinner, growing food and donating extra to food pantries, campaigning for healthier school lunches, going in with friends to donate a CSA share to a family in need, or simply taking a wholesome home-cooked meal to a new mom (or a college student living on ramen, or a friend who just lost his job). There are also numerous food justice organizations where you can donate your money or time; St. Louis features Gateway Greening, Urban Harvest STL, Earthdance Farms, and more. Food is meant to be shared and accessible to all, so do your part to spread the joy.

Which of these challenges would you like to take on this month? What would you add to the list?


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