I'm lucky to live in a climate where you can start gardening in March (February if we're lucky). This is after we lived in Montana where the growing season starts late and ends early. I was able to have a successful backyard garden for a couple of years while we lived in Montana. Heck, one year I grew corn. Yep. Corn. The plants didn't grow as tall as they would have if we lived in Ohio or Iowa but they still developed ears and tasted sweet.
Now that we live on Whidbey Island outside of Seattle, the growing season is more forgiving. Aside from big juicy tomatoes (just not warm enough here), I can grow a whole host of awesome vegetables and get things started early. I planted my small garden on April 1 and already carrots are starting to emerge, along with brussels sprouts, onions, and potatoes.
To build our little garden (10'x6'), we repurposed several items from the backyard, which is going through a facelift. Our garden is in the front yard while we work on backyard. In the small space, I have been able to plant a kitchen garden:
In a nearby tub are more leeks and lettuce. I also planted lavender, rosemary, and oregano in a flower bed along with strawberries. Phew! Lots of plants!
So if you are looking to start a garden and the whole thing seems daunting, here are a few tips:
There are many other tips I will provide as the growing season progresses. My garden is in the baby stages now and I'm looking forward to a fruitful harvest. Now if the crows would stop digging up my onions...
When the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, they outlined several diets that are more sustainable or environmentally-friendly than ones that most Americans consume. These diets, vegetarian, vegan, and the Mediterranean diet, consume little or no meat or animal products. In the report, they cited the affect of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of raising cattle compared to raising other forms of animal protein like seafood or poultry. Basically, raising cattle causes more environmental degradation than raising other livestock or even growing plant-based protein foods like lentils and other legumes.
This marks the first time the Advisory Committee addressed issues of sustainability in their report. However, the committee merely makes recommendations and it’s up to the USDHHS* and USDA* to compile the actual guidelines that Americans are supposed to follow.
So, when the 2015 Dietary Guidelines came out a couple of weeks ago, sustainability is not mentioned. The guidelines sidestep the issue of sustainability and do not explicitly state to eat less red meat. Rather, they promote healthy eating patterns of eating more nutrient dense foods and less sugar, among other things. Don’t get me wrong, I support this approach since it simplifies things for Americans. It makes sense. Americans need simple, easy-to-follow nutrition guidelines.
However, since the Advisory Committee made it a point to discuss sustainability in the food system, I feel it was the duty of the USDA and USDHHS to at least mention it. The fact that the committee discusses it begins to highlight the importance of sustainable eating patterns as well as linking food and the environment. I realize that there is a portion of the population (me included) who are hyper-aware of the effect raising food has on the environment. I mean, this is where the localvore movement stems from along with those who support GMO food labeling.
Are other countries addressing this? Sort of.
Sweden, for instance, released their 2015 Dietary Guidelines. And they simplified the whole thing down even to give one-minute advice:
They go a little further than this, as well, give practical Eco-smart food choices:
Why this matters
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but Climate Change is real and will affect our food supply at some point. The United States, as a world leader, should take the initiative and make recommendations regarding food and sustainability. This is a serious issue and one that is being ignored due to the influence of powerful lobbies and politics. Growing food in a sustainable manner or following more sustainable eating habits (eating less red meat, consuming sustainably raised seafood, eating more fruits and vegetables, eating less processed foods, and reducing food waste) is not a political issue. Rather, growing food sustainably (or even eating sustainably) looks to reduce our carbon footprint and reduce the stress food production puts on the environment, all while providing healthy food for everyone to enjoy. However, along the way this issue has become political, which is disappointing and not helpful to future generations.
Perhaps in 2020, when the next Dietary Guidelines are due, the USDHHS and the USDA will formally address sustainability. Based on the current political climate in Washington, DC, I won’t get my hopes up. I will continue to do my part, however small, and eat less meat, more fruits and vegetables, curb my food waste, and source as much food locally as I can.
*United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.
Roos, E. Environmental concerns now in Sweden's newly launched dietary guidelines. FCRN. June 11, 2015. Available at http://www.fcrn.org.uk/fcrn-blogs/elin-roos/environmental-concerns-now-sweden%E2%80%99s-newly-launched-dietary-guidelines
Eco-Smart Food Choices, Sweden. Available at http://www.livsmedelsverket.se/en/food-habits-health-and-environment/food-and-environment/eco-smart-food-choice/
How much do you think about food waste? Probably not much, based on current statistics:
Worldwide (per year):
222 million tons of food wasted in industrialized countries
Compared to food production in sub Saharan Africa = 230 million tons
30-40% of the food supply is wasted
Or about 20 lb/person/month
1,160 lb food/year per American family
Food waste comes from:
40-50% from consumers
50-60% from businesses
Obviously we need to do better.
As you can see families and households only hold part of the blame. Businesses - restaurants, grocery stores, farms, etc, share in wasting food. That's billions of dollars thrown out each year. As I sit here and write this, I am realizing I need to clean out my refrigerator and throw out old food. As much as I try to prevent food waste by reinventing leftovers into other meals and freezing food, it seems inevitable.
But that's me, in my home. I'm aware of the situation in my fridge. Let's pick on business for a quick second. Where is food waste happening at a local grocery store? While there are many areas of food waste in the store (expired items), there is one place that is also a big culprit.
Next time you are in the grocery store, visit the deli. If your local grocery store has a deli, most likely it has a soup and salad bar along with a bakery. Ok. So, let's focus on the soup bar. Depending on the policy of the store, soup leftover at the end of the day is thown out. While that doesn't seem like a big deal to you (why should I care about soup?), let me put in terms of amounts.
Let's say, there are 3 soups out on the bar. At the end of the day, 2 gallons of each soup remain. That's 6 gallons of soup being thrown away each night. Or 42 gallons per week or 2,184 gallons per year.
Now before you run out to the store to buy up all the soup from deli to prevent it from being thrown out, contact the store and ask them their policy. Some stores are proactive and donate leftovers to soup kitchens and other charities. But some don't. Don't let them tell you that they fear litigation because the Good Samaritan Law protects them from lawsuits. These stores lack the will to do what's right. Hunger is a real issue. And so is food waste. That leftover food could go to someone who needs it.
As with most things, to make any meaningful changes in the food system, sometimes you need government (oh no!) to step in and legislate change. In fact, France has taken steps to stop food waste. In the US, it's up to municipalities around the country to write ordinances that enact change. Here's what is being done:
French supermarkets are now banned from throwing away or destroying unsold food. They must donate it to charities or for animal feed.
The city has a goal of having zero waste by 2020 by diverting all of it's recyclable and compostable trash from landfills. They are currently diverting 80% of their waste from landfills.
To achieve this, they have enacted recycling and composting programs for consumers and businesses. For instance, restaurants are prohibited from using styrofoam take out containers because they are not recyclable. Residents and businesses are given food composting bins. Food and any waste must be either composted or recycled. If not, there are fines.
The city instituted a composting program for residences and businesses. Starting January 1, 2016, they will start issuing fines for garbage containers containing >10% of recyclables or food waste. All commercial businesses that generate food waste must subscribe to a composting service.
Portland provides recycling and compost bins to residences and businesses. They have a goal of raising the recycling rate to 75% by 2015.
These are just a few examples. There are other countries and cities addressing waste and recycling. I live in Cincinnati where they have not enacted any ordinances to combat food waste. They do, however, have a site dedicated to encouraging the public to donate food before throwing it out.
What could I do better in my house regarding food waste? I already do a great deal but food waste happens no matter how hard I try to prevent it. Since we are renting and planning to move out of state within a year, we do not have a compost bin. However, I do throw some food scraps into the garden (ones that I know will breakdown quickly). It's not perfect, but it's a start.
Here are some things you can do to prevent food waste:
Compost food waste. There are several websites and resources online about starting and maintaining a compost bin.
Only buy food you need. I write out a menu for the week and grocery shop according to the menu. I notice that on weeks I fail to write a dinner menu, we have a lot more food waste. Having a menu and grocery list forces me to take an inventory of the food in the refrigerator and pantry. I'm not wasting as much time and money in the store, either.
Cook from the pantry, freezer, or fridge. This means using up foods that ready to expire. I like to use up vegetables that are getting past their prime in either frittata or soup (2 perfect ways to utilize leftovers, too). I also freeze leftover soups and meat to use at a later time. Doing this saves me time and money in the end because some days I don't want to make a big dinner. It's comforting to know there is leftover soup in the freezer that will be good for a weeknight dinner.
These are just some ideas to get started thinking about food waste. I encourage you to enact steps in your household to reduce food waste and becoming a more knowledgeable consumer.
What Does Local Mean to You?
The first time I realized my interest in sustainability was when my family and I lived in Chicago. I took my young children to a local farmer’s market and without even thinking, I asked the farmer selling the vegetables how far way they were located from the city. This was 10 years ago, before the term “food miles” became mainstream and the magic 1500 mile number (# of miles food typically travels from farm to store) was assigned to foods sold in the grocery store. The farmer’s answer, “100 miles.” I hoped they were a little bit closer, but 100 miles is not too bad considering how big Chicagoland is.
It got me thinking of what local food means and it’s been something I wrote about and studied over the past several years. It seems as though “local” means something different to each person. There is no straight definition.
So, if you had pick a number of miles that you consider local, what would it be? 10? 25? 50? 100? 300? And then ask yourself this, could you eat 90% of your diet exclusively from local foods, say within a 100 mile radius of your home? That means gathering 90% of your diet -- everything from seasonings (salt, herbs, etc) to flour to sugar to meat. Is this even feasible and do you want to do this? Could be a good challenge if you’re up for it.
I would venture to guess that there are some areas of the United States will have way more variety in their local food system (ahem, California) than other parts of the country (let’s say, northern Minnesota) simply due to seasonality of food and growing conditions. Perhaps it’s even more of a challenge to define local food in some areas where winter seems endless (like Montana or Alaska).
Now, if you wanted to eat locally where you live could you go without bananas, assuming they are not grown in your backyard? How about lemons? Perhaps those items could be part of the 10% of foods that are not locally sourced in your diet. It all starts to get tricky and you have to make compromises on what you want in your diet. I can go without bananas but lemons are a whole different story. Maybe I need to grow a lemon tree. I tried to once, but it never produced lemons.
But that’s thinking of local foods on a personal scale. We can go to farmer’s markets, get a CSA share, and find local meat and eggs. However, not everyone has the means or the time to go to farmer’s markets or pay for a CSA share. They rely on big grocery store chains to get their food.
So, what does local mean to these corporations? Local is the new organic and as people become more familiar with the food system, the more they want sustainable food choices. Which means, big corporations are defining local for their own business models and each one is different. Since we don’t have a “local food” definition, this isn’t a big surprise.
I took the time to search several grocery stores and see what they consider “local food.” This is by no means an exhaustive list of grocery stores in America. It’s just a sampling, but as you can see, each one defines “local food” differently.
Local food is produce grown and sold in same state.
Leaves it up to the stores but basically they use state lines. A big state like California is divided into areas “Bay Area,” etc.
Products are local if they are sourced within their 6-state region (Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Kentucky).
Local food is anything sourced within 400 miles of the store. They have a nice new website dedicated to local farmers and sustainability.
They have regional growing partners. They also had a policy that local food is less than 8 hour drive to the store.
Local produce is sourced within the states the store is located.
They leave the definition of “local food” up to the consumer.
Now you know what local means these grocery stores. If I did not list your grocery store, you can always look on their website to see what they say.
To me, local food depends on where I live. If I can find what I need within 25 miles from my home, I am good with that. However, when we lived in Bozeman, Montana, local food meant looking beyond the 25 mile radius, especially if you wanted to enjoy all that Montana has to offer – Flathead cherries, flour, and lentils.
Eating 90% of your diet sourced locally will be a big challenge for most people. Perhaps setting a smaller goal (like getting only local produce or honey) is more attainable.
The best way to start is to determine your definition of local food and do your best to follow it. At the very least, a farmer’s market is likely nearby. Ask the farmer where he/she is located. And if you are able, plant a garden, even if it’s small and only grows lettuce or cherry tomatoes. That’s as local as you can get.