Most of us haven’t really thought about what it takes for our food to reach from a field or processing facility to our forks. It can be hard enough to think of what to make for dinner without the added burden of figuring out how to make that dinner sustainable and better for the environment!
While reading about this, I realized that the complexity of the food distribution system is magnified by the global pathways that so many foods need to take to reach our tables. In 2019, 2.45 billion dollars were spent by the U.S. to import bananas from Ecuador. While the actual production of bananas in high volume isn’t as harmful for the environment as the production of some other foods, the distance that they travel across continents adds to the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (or increases the carbon footprint of the banana sitting on your kitchen table).
You may ask why the carbon footprint of a food matters. A carbon footprint of a food product is the total amount of green house gases (carbon dioxide and other gases) caused by that particular product. When carbon dioxide and other green house gases enter into our atmosphere, they absorb solar energy and trap and hold heat at the earth’s surface.
In the past, natural processes like plant photosynthesis that absorb carbon dioxide, balanced out this effect. However, over time, the human ability to produce green house gases has far exceeded the ability of natural processes to counter the effect of these gases. As a result, heat remains trapped in the earth’s atmosphere due to these gases and contributes to global warming and extreme weather changes.
I wondered how all of this translates back to what we put on our dinner tables. It turns out that we can make simple changes to our menus that reduce our carbon footprint and overall impact on the environment. Here are 6 of them:
- Prioritize buying or growing food locally. Take advantage of farmers markets in your area. Consider going apple picking when apples are in season. If you’ve always wanted to have a vegetable garden, try it out to see if this is something you would enjoy doing.
- When buying fresh produce, be intentional about how much you purchase and try to limit over buying. If you’ve noticed that certain fruits or vegetables go bad before you get to them, buy less of that particular fruit or vegetable.
- Eat animal products in moderation. It requires more energy to maintain livestock and the production of animal products creates a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. As a result our carbon footprints are considerably lower if we choose vegetarian menu options. If this seems like too big of a change all of the time, consider a small change like having a meatless Monday or choosing to switch out 2-3 meals a week to something vegetarian. Fruit and vegetables are good for our health as well so making these changes can make a difference to both your health and the environment.
- Choose more whole foods when grocery shopping and reduce the number of processed foods in your cart. Each less processed option has a lower carbon foot print. Choose fruit instead of cookies and baby carrots instead of chips. This is another choice that is good for your health and good for the environment.
- Take a close look at the packaging of the foods you’re purchasing. Try to reduce the amount of plastic you’re bringing home. If you’re purchasing dry goods that last awhile, consider buying those in bulk to save money and to reduce the amount of packaging that is thrown away.
- Make intentional choices when packing food to go. Instead of taking single serving pre-packed snack packages(that cause more waste to accumulate) with you, pack small servings of a snack into a small to-go container that you can bring home, wash and re-use. Carry a re-usable water bottle with you so you don’t contribute to any plastic waste from one-use disposable bottles as well.
After you’ve made intentional choices that are more environmentally friendly for awhile, it becomes automatic and very easy to do!
Have you thought about sustainability with your food choices? If you have, what strategies have you found to be easy to incorporate into your daily life?