December 6, 2010

Green Eats

How can we cut down on carbon and still eat well?
Last week, the head of the Bon Appetite Management Company Foundation, Helene York, came to speak at Wesleyan. Bon Appetite is a national food-service management company which runs Wesleyan's dining services. Helene York runs their foundation, which seeks to educate their company and consumers about food choices and better eating, both from a personal and environmental stand point. She has a big job - Bon Appetite serves 120 million meals per year, so her decisions have a big impact. She gets to help decide where food will come from (sustainable or not?), how big of portions will be served (it's a bigger deal than it may seem) and how Bon Appetite will educate its consumers.

York, who is also a columnist at The Atlantic, spoke mostly on the impacts of our current food system on the environment and global warming. I would encourage you to read her articles on the Atlantic for further insight (particularly this controversial article on beef). In the mean time, here are a few facts to get you thinking:
  • We waste 40-50% of our food (at all steps, not only consumers). This constitutes up to 10% of total green house gas emissions. 
  • 25% of edible food is wasted
  • As much as 1/3 of garbage discarded is food.
So we have this issue where people are eating too much food on a personal level and yet wasting too much food on an environmental level. We need to balance out our relationship with food and start being smart, efficient and healthy about what we consume. Some of this needs to come from a governmental level, some of this needs to come from commitment from the food industry about cleaning up their act, and some of this needs to come from us. The work that York is doing is just one example of the impact those in the food industry can have on improving our food system. One example she gave was that Bon Appetite decided to challenge its chefs to reduce meat and cheese by at least 25%. They did it. And without sacrificing the quality of their food. 25% is a big number when you think about it. And the impact it has on the environment (including lower green house emissions) and on individuals' health is big too. 

We can also take steps in our own lives to better the food world, our health and the earth. Like York said, voting with your fork is important. But that doesn't go far enough. Educate other people about these issues and get them interested in it as well. It's going to take a lot of people to change this system. 

Here are some ideas I had about how we can do our part, particularly those of us in college:
  • I live in an apartment that only has a mini-fridge. Since there isn't much space in the fridge but we like to cook a lot, we have to buy fresh products on a regular basis. This means that vegetables don't rot and get discarded very often because we have to plan what we are going to cook and then cook it right away. Of course going to the store every day is not a reality for most people, but being conscious of the food you have on hand and not wasting it because it rotted is an easy step towards making a change (not to mention economical as well, since your food won't be going to waste).
  • Control your portion sizes. This is important for personal health, but also important for the health of the environment. We must decrease the amount of food we consume - it simply is not sustainable. Be a "mindful eater" and eat in moderation. 
  • York stressed the importance of local food. Do your part by buying locally (even if, at times, it isn't necessarily the lowest carbon option). Local food is important for the environment but also for communities and food culture. If you're eating cheese from France, as York pointed out, it takes a lot of carbon to get from a cow in the French countryside side to your plate at dinner. 
  • Learn how to cook! I know I harp on this point, but learning how to cook means you can use local ingredients instead of buying a frozen dinner shipped in. It means you're willing to use fresh vegetables and meats instead of consuming high-calorie, high-carbon processed food. Eating green should still be eating well! 
  • UPDATED: I forgot this one... COMPOST! Many colleges have compost programs in place (like Wesleyan) that make it easy for students to compost. If you're school doesn't have one, they're easy to start. It makes great use of food waste that would otherwise litter a landfill.