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The Holiday season will be over soon and most of us will look back and reminisce about all the good food and the good times that were had. You may have some regrets about the sweets you allowed yourself to indulge in or the numerous alcoholic beverages you consumed. But besides the impact that these meals will on your health, have you considered the impact on the planet? If not, please read on and make wise choices while having fun.
The origins of our daily meals are as exotic and distant as the faraway places we daydream about or visit during the holidays. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service produce in the U.S. travels 1300 – 2000 miles before it reaches the consumer. The Leopold Institute in Iowa, U.S. found that most fresh produce available in local supermarkets could be easily sourced within 50 miles, but was traveling between 300-2000 miles.
While technology has helped economies grow and connect, it has also given us easy access to global food sources. Even though most of the food we eat can be grown by our regional farmers, most of it is produced half way around the world and transferred to us in diesel ships, planes, trucks and trains, on roads and rails and all sorts of infrastructure constructed to specifically facilitate the flow of these goods.
This is what makes the processed curry mix sold at our supermarkets have spices from India, coconut milk from Thailand and packaging from a factory in New Jersey. In addition, the fresh produce export industry leads to a great deal of waste and damages local economies — The U.S. strawberry and cherry producers let their produce rot in the fields after a bumper crop in early 2010, while Australian orange growers were forced to bury unsold fruit after a 2008 glut. This happened because it was cheaper to let it rot than to pick it.
So what can you do in the new year to change your eating habits in support of your health and the planet? The food miles (or “locavore”) movement advocates sourcing your food within a 100 mile radius of your home. Locally produced food is fresher, more carbon-friendly and helps you connect with your local community. However, this is sometimes easier said that done, especially if you live in a city where you have easy access to processed food and don’t have to luxury to cook from scratch as often as you’d like. The good news is that food retailers are gradually becoming more aware of consumer demand for local food and many now advertise the fact. Organic retailers most commonly stock local produce and bigger supermarkets are slowly catching on. But beware that although many supermarkets now sell organic produce, it may still have come a long way. The bulk and centralized buying power of big supermarket chains means that shopping locally is less economically viable for them.
One of the community reactions to the problem of extensive food transport and import is the Community Supported Agriculture movement and an extensive system of food cooperatives worldwide. Groups make contact with the farmers and receive and sort the food for distribution to the members of the coop. The food is seasonal, local and fresh. The buyers know a lot about where their food comes from. For instance Honest Weight Food Coop in Albany, N.Y. hold orientation and workshop events so new members can learn about the local community and the farmers that grow their food. The presence of the socially aware ‘middle-man’ allows city folk to access sustainable, local food by sharing the work of acquiring it and building strong communities at the same time.
Finally, community gardens, local buying groups and local farmers markets are becoming new sources of locally produced food. Taking a trip to the central fruit and vegetable wholesale market in your town or joining a local food cooperative is the best way to find out about where your local food comes from. University student unions often have contacts with food coops, as do many local environment groups. There are numerous online directories to link you up with your local coop. In the United States you can check out the Food Coop Directory and if you’re in Europe, visit Cooperatives Europe for more information.