Food and Sustainability
Food and sustainability combines environmental activists with social justice activists and mixes them in with farmers, policy makers, average consumers, and, well, that's everyone. Food impacts every human, which explains why the information about food, nutrition, and sustainability takes on so many angles.
What is the food system?
The food system is how we get our food. It includes, among others, consumers, farmers, the policies and governing bodies that regulate subsidies and safety, the slaughterhouses and production factories, the supply chain and transit workers, grocery stores, and the companies and entities that support the food chain by providing things like refrigeration and ships.
First, sustainable food and agriculture is not a new concept: Indigenous farming techniques are the basis of many solutions to make the food system healthier, such as crop rotation and crop mixing. Indigenous stewardship and many traditional farming techniques keeps the land healthy and works with the land, and is not a new invention.
To learn more about indigenous agriculture, check out these resource:
Second, changing the food system is not about harshly criticizing today's farmers. With a world population that climbed from about 1.6 billion people in 1900 all the way to approximately 7.6 billion people in 2020, the agriculture industry has had to manage policy changes, power restructuring, immense growth in demand, and changing weather patterns. Though experts do call for an economic and environmental restructuring of farming (such as in this article https://agamerica.com/tips-to-restructure-farm-debt/) ), the world of farming is complex and angry cries against big-ag and massive farms simplify the problem.
Finally, agriculture carries with it a grim tradition rooted in slavery, indentured servitude, bleak factory working conditions, and uprooting indigenous land owners. On the other hand, agriculture changed the course of humanity about 10,000 years ago and is how most people on the planet survive today. The food system touches nearly everyone on the planet in some way, and so creating systemic change will take time, thoughtful yet bold policy changes, and consumer action and education.
Does the food that you buy actually make a difference?
Personally, I feel out of place when dipping into a Whole Foods. The calming music puts me at ease and lulls me into a sense of safety, which I get brutally ripped out of when I look at the price tag of the gluten-free oats, ethical avocados, and organic leggings. No hate- I'd love to have the finances to indulge- but alas, I am a recent college graduate who can not afford the price tags on sustainable food products.
While contributing to a sustainable food system does not mean that 100% of the products that you buy have to be ethical and organic, voting with your dollar is REAL. Food companies are businesses and therefore respond to consumer demand. Saying that your spending doesn't matter is just like saying "why bother voting, I'm just one person". At least agribusiness doesn't have an electoral college, and since everyone has to buy food, companies have a clear picture of what demand is and then produce for it. Therefore, if you buy even one product a week that you support, such as organic food and produce in general, you cast your vote in favor of produce, healthy soil, and a healthier food system. The food system is complex and will take policies and time to overturn, making consumer votes even more important.
Perfection is not the goal. Rather, staying within your budget and contributing to a sustainable food system can mean simply buying one more vegetable per week than you usually purchase, cooking one more day a week than usual, or even getting educated and active in local issues!
Specifically, here are 12 ways to eat sustainably that do not require heaps of free time to cook and garden or access to a rustic yet up-scale farmers market. With these tips, you can work on making your carbon footprint slightly smaller while still saving money.
1. Cook your own food and use vegetables! Some things to consider when cooking: Cooking your own food will take more time than buying out. In addition, cooking a meal is almost always cheaper than buying the same meal at a restaurant, but cooking with produce (frozen or fresh) and quality food comes with a higher price tag than using cheaper products. Work within your budget, and remember that frozen produce is your thrifty and healthy friend!
2. Arm yourself for kitchen adventures with cheap and minimal cooking supplies!
1 Sharp knife
1 large spoon for stirring and mixing
1 large mixing bowl
1 can opener
1 medium-to-large pot
1 baking sheet (optional, for baking)
1 bowl, fork, spook, butter knife
3. Get protein from plants. A serving of whole grains (such as brown rice or whole wheat bread) plus legumes (lentils, beans) is one plant combination that makes a complete protein. Each half has different protein amino acids that together complement each other and make up a complete protein!
Buy beans and rice for 1-2 nights a week instead of buying meat!
Savings: together, rice and beans make up a complete protein. For a total of under $3.50, you get 10 servings of rice and beans that make up a complete protein. That means $.35 per serving of protein, and costs far less than most meat dishes.
Cooking bagged legumes and grains on a stovetop takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours. This is just boiling the food so you’re free to work, but you still have to be at home.
Canned legumes take minutes to prepare and serve but cost a few more cents per serving.
4. Shop for cheap in-season produce such as the Seasonal Food Guide app. Seasonal produce is cheaper and fresher, and more likely comes from a local farm. This reduces transit emissions and gives you more nutritious and wallet-friendly produce!
5. Buy organic when you can.
Converting a massive farm to organic takes time, money, and even more massive amounts of resources. But by buying even one organic produce per week, you are steadily adding to the demand for organic produce, which overtime makes it more feasible for farmers to shift to growing organic. Businesses run on consumer demand, so putting your money towards a certain product is your vote for the kind of food system that you believe in.
Buying organic doesn't need to be a cult activity and not everything you buy needs to be organic.
6. Stock your cabinet with 5 or more dried spices and herbs, plus olive oil. This costs a lot upfront but will save you money down the line as you flavor your food with combinations of spices, rather than with pricey speciality sauces. Spices last longer than sauces so you will end up reducing your trash output, which reduces your overall pollution and impact on the land.
7. Cut a quarter milk carton in half with scissors (or obtain any plastic jug and cut the mouth off!) and fill it with your compostable kitchen scraps. Find a neighborhood compost bin that you can bring your compost to, or even use it on your own plants.
Tip: keep the compost in the fridge or freezer to avoid attracting flies.
8. Eat oats for breakfast! Oats are cheap to produce, nutritious (they contain about 5g of protein!), and delicious with anything from eggs and spinach to berries and bananas. For $4, you can get a cardboard container of 30 servings of oats. The packaging is recyclable (or at least decomposes faster than a plastic bag) and costs $.13 per serving.
9. Read about regenerative agriculture, indigenous land practices, and the food system for free through your local library, free PDFs, and online articles!
10. Take free online courses through platforms like Coursera, Edx, and SkillShare to learn more about gardening, nutrition, food production, and more!
Enjoy your food and keep learning!