Thursday, July 10, 2008

My Food’s Carbon Footprint

I made the decision many years ago not to eat processed or artificial foods. I spend a significant amount of time at the grocery store reading labels, and if I don't recognize an ingredient, I don't buy the food. Period. Call me crazy, but I just don't fancy ingesting propylene glycol (an ingredient in jet fuel), and high fructose corn syrup (which I believe is almost singlehandedly to blame for our nation's obesity epidemic). I also buy mostly organic foods and try to only eat whole grains, so no white bread, white pasta, white rice, etc.

Slowly, this line of thinking has crossed over into my household products. If I don't want to eat chemicals and hormones, I shouldn't be cleaning with them either. Or feeding them to my dog. Or using them on my face or body (I really struggle with this one, and often lose. I mean, Chanel makeup is so chemically fabulous).

At the same time, for the last few years, I've run marketing for various companies who offer "green" products, either to help clients monitor and offset carbon emissions or reduce fuel consumption through safer driving. It is amazing how far green marketing can catapult companies these days, but that is a separate topic…

Very slowly over the last several years, I've been becoming an environmentally conscious consumer—largely without my knowledge. I did not deliberately set out to make the greener product choice. I just wanted to be healthy. I didn't seek to work for companies who offered green products, but having spent the last several years seeing the huge impact corporate green initiatives can have on the bottom line and the environment, it is hard not to be impressed and start thinking about what I can do to help at an individual level. Gradually, the responsibility I tried to incite in potential clients through my marketing messages has seeped into my own mainstream thought process.

So, suddenly, I find myself crossing over from green by chance to green by choice. One (albeit small) factor in quitting my job this week was the opportunity to nix my commute and work in San Francisco, thus being able to take public transportation more often.

As I am solidifying what this means for me, I luckily picked up Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which introduced a new concept I had never before considered: the carbon footprint of my food. Yes, my food. Barbara Kingsolver is an acclaimed novelist (The Poisonwood Bible) whose family of four decided for one year to only consume what they could get locally, either by growing it on their farm, or getting it from one of their neighbors. She spends considerable time in the book talking about the environmental impact (and cost) of trucking tomatoes from California all the way to Virginia or Tennessee in the off season (not to mention flying in bananas from South America). Not only are tomatoes completely tasteless when they are out of season, but driving them across the country is a fuel guzzling waste which becomes a tax write off for the large food conglomerates who are doing the trucking. And, to add insult to injury, often the large food conglomerates undercut local farmers on price, so fresh produce from Tennessee sits and rots while stores choose to buy cheaper, lower quality produce which is trucked in from thousands of miles away. Wow.

Why are Americans so keen to eat tasteless tomatoes???

For the last three years or so, I've been increasingly drawn to the concept of eating seasonally – a diet that consists of eating fruits and vegetables that are available at that time. I also realized that buying as close to the harvest area as possible was a plus given the short shelf life of most fresh produce. I was pro small farmer. Pro local production. Pro obtaining the freshest produce possible in order to optimize taste. But I never considered the environmental impact of trucking food across the country. In this era of global warming warnings and hyper sensitivity to fuel prices, why aren't more people talking about the inherent waste in this system???

I grew up, as did many of us, in a household where vegetables were canned or cooked until dead. Tasteless. Monochrome. Mushy. These adjectives are the polar opposite of what vegetables should be, as anyone who has ever shopped at a local farmers market for dinner ingredients certainly knows.

So, as I move towards a consciously greener lifestyle, I am looking at where my food came from. How far it had to travel to get to me. Who got paid in the middle. At a farmers market, I hand cash to the person who cared for and grew what I'm having for dinner that evening. It costs me less money and the grower makes more money.

Many people would say that it is easy to think this way when you live in California with such easy access to fresh produce for the majority of the year, and that is certainly true. But, I cut my teeth on this line of thinking while living in Baltimore and frequenting their many wonderful farmers markets.

To find a farmers market near you, click here.

Stepping down from the soapbox now.


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