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How to eat sustainably

The journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single bite.

Many of us think we need to change the way we eat: that we should eat less processed food, less junk food, less food on the run, and maybe just plain less food.

But increasingly, it seems the entire food system could use some serious adjustment.

Each of us can contribute to making things better if we learn how to eat sustainably. Jump ahead if you want to see 13 ways to begin to eat better, by which I mean how to eat sustainably, how to eat locally, and how to eat in a way that’s more environmentally friendly.

More and more, we’re taking notice of some troubling facts. Too much our food comes from thousands of miles away, so that it takes lavish amounts of petroleum just to get it to our plates. Too much of it is elaborately packaged, generating lots of trash. Too much of it is produced by agribusiness operating on an enormous scale, even as our family farms continue to shut down. Too much of it is peppered with pesticides and herbicides, and grown in biologically dead soil soaked in chemical fertilizer. And too much of it comes from animals that really could be treated better.

A lot of people have been working very hard for decades to change this dismally inefficient, environmentally devastating, unhealthful shape of things. Recently, movies like Food, Inc. and author Michael Pollan’s bestselling books In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma have brought mainstream attention to these issues.

Sustainable eating, a phrase being heard more and more these days, is one popular description of the multi-featured groundswell of grassroots response by concerned eaters and growers to all these issues.

Where I live, in Madison, Wisc., with the nation’s largest farmers market, world-class restaurants that make a point of pride of naming the farms that supply their ingredients, and an abundance of organic and artisanal farms, cheese makers, breweries, bakeries and more all around us, we’ve long been at the epicenter of what many see as a revolutionary movement. In September 2009, when Michael Pollan gave a series of talks here that drew crowds of up to 5,000, he described our town as one of the important fronts in [the] battle to change the American way of eating and growing food.

Pretty weighty stuff. In fact, it might seem a bit overwhelming, wondering how to start. You might worry: Is this just one more thing for me to feel guilty about not doing right? Do I have to give up my favorite foods? Can I still shop at the supermarket? Can I ever eat out? Do I have to slave for hours in the kitchen? Do I have to start a garden and get dirty? What if I don’t have time to shop at the farmers market — and what would I do with the weird stuff I bought there, anyway? And the expense! Will I go broke trying to live on whole, fresh, natural, locally produced food?

Relax. Breathe. That’s not what this trip is about. To change the way you eat, start by making some tasty transitions, one forkful at a time.

13 Ways to start eating sustainably

1.Pay attention. The first step is just to increase your awareness. Let yourself wonder all sorts of things whenever you shop or order out:

  • Where did it come from?
  • How did it get to you?
  • Who handled it? Do you think they like their job, or hate it?
  • How did it get to look the way it does?
  • Could your great-grandmother have made this out of raw ingredients? Or does it look like a factory and lots of patented technology is required to make it?
  • Where will the packaging and the scraps go after you’re done with your meal?

Let your mind become accustomed to drifting along these directions. Any concrete measures you decide upon will connect naturally and easily to your train of thought.

2. Start small. Don’t try to change everything about the way you eat all at once. Add one or two local or organic items to your cart, and see how you like them.

3. Read labels. Make it a habit not to put anything in your cart until you’ve consciously chosen to accept each ingredient. You can go a long way by choosing just two or three key offenders to avoid, without needing a chemistry degree. Try crossing these two off your shopping list:

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) – which adds a quality known as umami, or “tastiness,” but also makes you crave more food while deadening your palate
  • High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a highly refined substance metabolized differently from traditional sugar that’s drawing fire for possibly contributing directly to today’s obesity epidemic.

4. Shop for ingredients, not meals. If you’re concerned about price, this is the best way to turn the equation around to your favor. For instance, if you take microwave-ready lunches to work, the “all-natural” equivalents will be pricier. But if you prepare meals from scratch – say, a chef’s salad, pasta salad or lasagna – you’ll be able to swap in the finest local ingredients and come out even or ahead.

5. Learn to cook. Treat yourself to sturdy pans and quality knives, a cutting board you find beautiful, whatever will make it easier and more enjoyable to create your own fantastic food. Buy cookbooks. Sign up for cooking classes at your local natural foods store or university extension.

5. Choose local products. Many grocers in my town actually identify these. For instance, Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative names the local farms that grow its produce and labels local items throughout the store. Metcalfe’s Market has an award-winning signage program showing the distance, in miles, from your shopping cart to the farm where its produce came from. If your supermarket doesn’t highlight local products, talk with the manager or drop a note in the suggestion box.

6. Join a CSA. Purchase a share of a farm’s annual harvest through community-supported agriculture (CSA), and you’ll get a weekly box of fruits and vegetables for nearly half the year. Some programs provide add-ons of local meat, cheese, eggs, honey and fair-trade coffee.

Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC) has published a cookbook, From Asparagus to Zucchini, that will help you figure out what to do with that kohlrabi, or fennel, or whatever unfamiliar treasure might be in season, even if you don’t live in Wisconsin.

7. Shop at farmers’ markets. A cornerstone of the local food movement, this is the place to find food diversity like you’ve never imagined and bright, fresh flavors unmatched by foods bred for long storage life and shipping hardiness.

9. Grow something to eat. You don’t need to dig a big rectangle out of your yard to do it — growing food can be as simple or as comprehensive as you like. For instance, I’ve been growing herbs for years and years. All it took was a few pots and a few patches of ground where I felt like planting things: mint, chives, lemon balm, and later, sage, thyme, oregano, chamomile, basil. Nothing is as wonderful to smell and taste in a salad or cooked dish as your own fresh herbs from right outside your own back door.

10. Visit a farm. Make an outing of it. Take the kids; go with friends. Several local farms offer “U-Pick” apples, strawberries, pumpkins and more.

11. Patronize independent restaurants serving local food. Where I live, a trade association named Madison Originals makes it easy to find such venues. There might be a similar organization where you live. Try an Internet search of “independent restaurants local food” or similar, along with your city’s name. You might be pleasantly surprised at how much you’ll find.

12. Get informed. Read books like In Defense of Food or Sally Fallon’’s Nourishing Traditions. Get on the e-mailing lists of organizations in your area that host events where you can learn about and enjoy local foods, and even find volunteer opportunities. In my area, that includes local treasures like REAP Food Group (“REAP” stands for Research, Education, Action and Policy) and Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens as well as the Wisconsin Alliance for Raw Milk, the local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation, the aforementioned MACSAC and much more.

13. Have fun! Good food tastes good. It’s fun to make. It’s fun to share. Enjoy the ride.

A version of this article by Vesna Vuynovich Kovach appeared in Bravamagazine (a Madison-area publication) in March 2010. A longer version, tailored to local audiences and including special tips from several local people prominent in the sustainable food movement in Madison, appears here, on my online archive of published writing.

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