Mr. Green's Food Commandments
By BOB SCHILDGEN
Not so many years ago, natural and organic foods were smiled upon as a quirk of cranks and hypochondriacs. Advertising exhorted Americans to rush their food from supermarket to belly with the least possible aggravation. Preparing fresh food entailed too much hassle, as did returning an empty container to the store for recycling.
Today, natural foods have become mainstream. Millions of people now better understand how diet affects their health and environment. A “slow food” movement is rising to counter industrialized farming and assembly-line food production.
But translating this new knowledge into practice isn’t easy. Anyone in need of an easy-to-follow roadmap to improved eating habits will find these tips an inexpensive route for carrying bold ideas onto the dinner table.
1. Eschew meat-centered meals
Americans consume an average of 185 lbs. of beef, pork and poultry each year. It would be better for our health and our environment to knock back fewer bacon burgers, steaks and chicken wings. Why not follow the example of Thomas Jefferson, who ate meat, “as a condiment to the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.” Our third president made it to age 83, a pretty good run for his era.
2. Buy organic
Organic farmers and ranchers aren’t allowed to use chemical poisons on their crops and livestock and are generally better stewards of the land. Yes, organic meals cost more to produce and get to the table (few qualify for volume discounts), but following the tips on this list can reduce overall costs enough to make up the difference.
Yet, eating organic still isn’t a cure-all. With more multinational food conglomerates now making organic claims, it’s sometimes preferable to buy from conventional local producers who treat their land well and whose products travel shorter distances to market.
3. Support local farmers
Small farmers—those still left—need all the help they can get. Living close to one of the country’s 3,700 farmers’ markets makes weekly shopping a treat. Consider supporting community-supported agriculture (CSA), which provides subscribers regular deliveries of delectable produce from area producers. LocalHarvest has a searchable online database of CSA farms at LocalHarvest.org/csa.
4. Cut back on processed, packaged foods
Food packaging accounts for 30 million tons of waste annually. Much of it’s solely for display, or contains products we’re better off without.
Microwave popcorn is just one example. Popcorn is the result of the painstaking efforts of Mexican corn breeders 6,000 years ago. (Archaeologists have found popcorn thousands of years old that still pops!) Instead of leaving well enough alone, today’s food industry purveys popcorn in individual, non-recyclable 3.5-oz. packages that cost seven times more than popcorn in a larger bag or jar, while depriving us of that comforting rattle of kernels exploding against the lid of a kettle.
5. Seek green variety
Anybody who claims vegetables are boring should visit a Mediterranean country. Crete’s residents, who have the longest life expectancy in the world, eat 26 kinds of wild plants. Yet, Americans get stuck with 3.5 million tons of iceberg lettuce, year in and year out. It takes 36 calories of fossil-fuel energy to grow and ship 1 calorie of iceberg lettuce. “We might as well be shipping baggies of water back and forth across America,” says author Bill McKibben. Better choices are easy-to-grow arugula, endive, chard, chicory, dandelions, mustard, collards, kale and Italian parsley.
Organic farmers and ranchers aren’t allowed
to use chemical poisons on their crops and livestock
and are generally better stewards of the land.
6. Be picky with fish
Fish is still a healthy choice, despite news that the world’s fisheries are being depleted, and that some seafood may contain dangerous levels of mercury or dioxin. The trick is to try tasty, but less-popular alternatives that are lower on the food chain, like sardines, or sustainably-farmed varieties, like trout. Consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Guide at www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp and the Sierra Club’s Mercury Survival Guide at www.SierraClub.org/mercury.
7. Shop in style
“Paper or plastic?” How many billions of times grocery clerks repeat this tiresome question. Next time, cause a stir by righteously chirping, “Neither,” and whipping out a reusable cloth or string sack. Even better, leave the car in the garage and make human-powered shopping trips part of the family’s fitness program.
8. Make your own
Most of the best recipes on Earth were created by peasants who wouldn’t be able to read the directions on modern food packages. Yet, America has Ph.D.s microwaving TV dinners, while complaining how complicated it must be to make the original of what the processed food wizards are attempting to imitate.
The truth is that cheap, healthy, tasty meals, from cereals to sautés to soups, can easily be made from scratch. Individually packaged instant oatmeal, for example, costs about $3 to $4 per pound, while plain old bulk oatmeal costs 79 cents a pound.
9. Grow your own
Lawns surrounding 85 million U.S. residences occupy about 25 million acres. Digging up a fraction of this real estate to grow chard, lettuce, peas and tomatoes would be a marvelous improvement. Citizens would save money on food, as well as the millions of gallons of oil used to ship foodstuffs from farm to market. Apartment dwellers take note: An amazing amount of produce can be grown in containers or window boxes, especially greens, which are ready to grow back when cut. For tips, browse university agricultural extension services online or check out McGee & Stuckey’s book, Bountiful Container (Workman Publishing Company, 2002).
10. Recycle and compost
While most of us no longer fling bottles and cans around like cavemen tossing out bones, recycling still lags behind what it could be. Only about half of the nation’s aluminum cans are recycled, resulting in a huge waste of energy and resources.
Recycling food scraps is equally vital. Composting could drastically cut down on the nearly 500 pounds of organic matter per household per year that’s hauled to city dumps. Plus, we’ll be creating fertile soil for our own yummy and nutritious vegetable gardens. What a joy, to make something from almost nothing.
Bob Schildgen writes the popular Hey Mr. Green environmental advice column for Sierra magazine. Look for his new book, Hey Mr. Green, Sierra Magazine’s Answer Guy Tackles Your Toughest Green Living Questions.