What is Sustain Champlain?

Sustain Champlain is a campus-wide initiative strives to infuse sustainability concepts and practices across Champlain College by coordinating and promoting best practices within four areas: our institution, academics, operations, and culture.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Going Mindful- We're Talking Food This Month, Nom.

A Teeny Foreword- These past few months I’ve had this increased interest in the food I’m eating, where it comes from, how it is produced, its nutritional values, and the ethical repercussions. Most Americans live by the S.A.D, Standard American Diet, a very unfortunate, though kind of true, acronym. Many are at risk for inadequate diets even if they aren’t eating at fast food places. Another sad truth is many people just don’t care what they’re eating. But for the many that don’t there is a large percentage of the population demanding more food information. We’ve stopped farming for ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we need to give up the right for healthy and safe food or the knowledge of where it comes from. So for the month of January I’ll be blogging about food and how we college students, with minimal income, can still make a change and difference.

It’s relatively easy to reduce your consumption of bottled water, cut back on shower time, and turn off the lights. The benefits are fairly straight forward and don’t involve much pondering or soul searching. Issues that arise when trying to decide how to eat nutritious, tasty, and sustainable meals require more thought and can sometimes, actually many times, leave you going “huh?” Take one thing out of your diet, supplement it with another, and you can end up causing damage in a different area. It’s a touchy scale.

We produce food through massive farms and factories. During production, the amount of water, space that is needed, and potent gases released, typically methane and nitrous oxide which are 23 and 296 time more detrimental than CO2, are second to the impact driving has on the environment! And I guarantee you that it would be much easier to convince someone to drive a car with better fuel economy than drastically change their diet. But we can’t pretend this isn’t an issue and let it spiral until we no longer have a say. Although it can be harder to make sacrifices, eating a sustainable and ethical diet doesn’t mean you have to eat bland food.

Here are three things you can do to help make your meals more sustainable. One of the biggest things you can do to cut down on your meals carbon emissions is too cut back on the amount of meat you’re consuming. You don’t have to becoming a vegetarian, but eating one meatless meal a week, over the course of a year, will cut down your foot print. Many colleges participate in Meatless Mondays. Exeter is one and according to them, a year of participating in Meatless Mondays would reduce their emissions by 15% or 85 tons of CO2e (CO2 equivalents)! It takes a lot of energy to raise livestock and they in turn, through fertilizer, release a large amount of methane into the atmosphere. Large scale factory farms, until now, were not investigated regularly and contributed to water contamination and pollution. According to an article on a website called Sustainable Business, “Now dominating animal production nationwide, confined livestock operations generate more than three times the waste that people do, according to EPA estimates, yet factory farms lack waste treatment facilities comparable to those that treat human sewage.”

Another thing you can do is look into the local movement. Being a Champlain student, there is a good chance you have heard of Vermonters zest for eating food from local farmers. This is the locavore movement and many around in the country are interested. This taps into the issue more people have with the distance their food is traveling from farm to packaging to grocery store and finally table. Now, there are people who disagree with the local movement because transportation of food only accounts for 10-13% of emissions. As one journalist wrote,

“To choose a locally grown apple over an apple trucked in from across the country might seem easy. But this decision ignores economies of scale. To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market.”

People might also say that eating local takes money away from small farmers in other countries. Still, it’s a safe bet the amount of carbon through production and transportation of a local farmer is far less than a mega-farm of factory. It’s kind of like the issue of whether or not to eat (actual) free range chickens because of the amount of land needed. You’ve got to think do I want to ethical or statistically-correct. Again, it’s not always an easy and straightforward answer.

But the idea of eating well and sustainably doesn’t have to be an all or nothing action. I’m generally not a fan of cherry-picking bits of beliefs, but when it’s something as complex as food I think you have to imagine you’re in a Tim Brookes class and he’s asking you, “What are you trying to achieve.” Even if local eating doesn’t match up statistically, there is a lot you can take away from it. For example, you can go to the Farmers Markets and have a face to face conversation with the man growing your strawberries. And you can shake hands with the lady that milked the cows and made your cheese. I strongly believe that local farmers hold themselves to a higher standard because they know that their neighbors are counting of them and they can’t hide behind a homey-sounding business name. It’s possible to live a healthy life on a local diet but it’s not 100% ideal. We’re so very lucky to have variety and the ability to try foods from different countries and cultures, but it’s a good idea to buy from local farmers when possible. It builds a sense of community and allows you to see that you don’t have to look to exotic lands for delicious foods.

The third (though, definitely not final) thing you can do to cut down on your carbon food print is too grow your own food! According to Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling book The Omnivores Dilemma, a small sixty dollar investment in gardening supplies and seeds can save you one hundred and up on your produce bill. Plus, with all the hubbub and uncertainty about genetically modified foods and pesticides, you can be certain of what you’re growing. I am fortunate because my apartment will have a backyard and I understand that many don’t. You can still create small window gardens with containers and pots, and during the final week of January I will give you information on how to start one. If you’re at home and have ample backyard space then give it a try. You can start small and grow the produce you always find yourself buying. Eating should be enjoyable, and it can seem like a headache with all these confusing labels and uncertainties and contradictions, but having an understanding gives you power and knowledge to make the right decision.

Here are some interesting links:

A basic carbon foot print calculator you can use to get a rough idea of where you are.

Here’s the article that questions the locavore myth. It’s definitely good to understand all points being made before forming an opinion!

A trailer of the documentary The Future of Food, which will be showing later this month!

The Low Carbon Diet written by Mike Tidwell. I read it last year in a writing class and it is a good example of the challenges we face when eating.

Here is a breakdown of month long mini-series on food.

Jan 18th: shopping on a budget and tackling food terminology and labels

Jan 26th: starting your own garden and composting

TBA: a showing of the movie The Future of Food

Keep on Being Mindful!


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