If you read most news sources about the environment, you’ll notice they are starting to reflect a similar fear: due to our lifestyles, our planet’s climate is changing, and it’s beginning to change our lifestyles. In Alaska, the National Public Radio reports that “warming temperatures, melting sea ice, and thawing ground are changing traditional hunting practices, bringing new health threats, and causing never-before-seen changes to the land (1)”. We have sped up the changing environment by the energy sources we use to power our lives, from industry to food production, and from home-living to the individual automobile. Even the most-resource rich areas are relying on energy sources that have a negative impact on the earth. Hawaii is 92 percent dependent on fossil fuel – more than any of the other 49 states – and it has potential wind, solar, and geo-thermal energy sources- also more than the other states have (2). Much of that energy is probably expended shipping supplies to the islands and everywhere, and with the rise in cost for fuel, our grocery costs and subsequent cost of living increase (3).
Everything we buy in grocery stores today is shipped in from somewhere else (4). If you’re one of the lucky shoppers, you might live within 100 miles of the origin of some of your groceries. Others, like those in land-locked or low-agriculture states, probably receive groceries that have traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles before being unloaded, stocked, shelved, and sold (4). The pleasures of enjoying Mediterranean feta cheese, snacking on bananas in the winter, and chewing cherries in the fall are all provided by modern food storage, preservation, and shipment. The food in your refrigerator is probably several weeks old by the time you buy it, because it was picked while still a little green, shipped to a processing plant, sorted by appearance, sprayed with a preservative to slow ripening, labeled, packaged and shipped to a warehouse. Another truck probably gathered up your local grocer’s warehouse order and drove a few hundred miles, dropped it off at your grocery store, and placed it in storage until it was needed. Your fruit or vegetable is not too much fresher than the frozen, sliced version sitting a few aisles down. In fact, sometimes the frozen food can seem fresher, but that’s another topic altogether. Fresh food isn’t as fresh as we once knew it.
In addition to your food having to travel hundreds of miles by land, some of your food has traveled in from other countries. Importing goods and produce is quite common, as an early morning shopping trip at the Produce Market -a shipping yard- had taught me in Los Angeles. As I marveled at all the melons, vegetables, and jarred olives, I realized that most of the vendors I saw were from South America, not California, as I’d imagined (5). Later, upon closer inspection at Trader Joe’s, a popular grocer, I realized that most of their produce was from Chili, at least at that particular time. I don’t know how long it takes to ship food from Chili to California and Washington, but the fuel expended to ship it while reasonably fresh is likely costly to the consumer and to the planet. Other countries also have different standards in food production, and I wondered to myself if all of the produce had been inspected for quality and purity when it came to the docks. I had met a food inspector at the produce market, but he blended in with chefs and grocery representatives, and I wasn’t sure how much he was able to inspect before it was sold. I knew there had to be more inspectors, and I hoped that they were inspecting all our food before it was shipped hundreds of miles. Recent food contamination scares have made me wonder about inspections again, because efficiency and speed could make it difficult for inspectors to fully inspect a product before hurrying to the next item (6).
However, groceries don’t have to be so stale, old, foreign and flavorless. You could follow in the path of Barbara Kingsolver, whose family spent a year purchasing only seasonal local foods and canning in preparation for winter (7). She reports that she and her family also discovered “the pleasures of eating naturally raised meat” in addition to her fresh vegetables, and she turned their experiences into Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, complete with recipes, commentary, and tips. I was discussing this book with one of my nutritional science professors, who exclaimed, “I don’t have a million dollars to quit my job, move to Virginia to live on a farm, and hope that the royalties from my last book sustain me while I grow my own vegetables! (8)” She’s right, most of us find this method a little extreme, but eating locally doesn’t have to be a drawn out, American Gothic experience.
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon didn’t grow their own food, but in Plenty, One Man, One Woman, and One Raucous Year of Eating Locally, they spent a year eating food grown within 200 miles of their apartment in Vancouver, B.C. (9) “According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, the food we eat now typically travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles from farm to plate. The distance increased by up to 25% between 1980 and 2001 when the study was published,” J.B. writes. They knew they couldn’t change the big grocer’s methods, but they could select from where their food came. If you’re like me, you’re thinking, what was their health like after they spent a year in Canada trying to eat locally? Well, first of all, Vancouver is near fertile land, great water resources, and plenty of local farmers. Second, eating more simply and with fewer preservatives mixed into, sprayed on, or genetically implanted in our food is a healthier approach, even if the selection decreases, and you will more aware of your body’s health. “I noticed…that my meals had grown steadily smaller and simpler…and the food seemed to go straight to my blood and my brain. I was having a peculiarly electric conversation with my body about its needs,” J.B. writes in his January chapter, about half-way through his experiment.
There has been a returned interest in shopping at farmer’s markets and supporting the local farmer, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one way to do both. The CSA Program is one in which a community member buys a share of a farmer’s crops, thereby encouraging a disappearing breed of farmers to continue their hard work for at least another season, despite climate changes, drought, rain, freeze, increased fuel costs, and irrigation needs. This is important, because individual farmers are fighting to survive against big farming corporations that have bought out the farmers and are mass producing our fruits, vegetables, and animals to keep the prices low enough for the budget stores to sell their products and whose individual costs are less than the farmers’. Taste, nutrient value, and even purity of the food could be suspect as these give way to all-year-round availability, purchasing power, consistently low prices, and business-marketing trends. But I believe in quality when it comes to the food I eat, in particular the raw foods I eat, and I want to help the local, individual businessman and farmer as much as I can afford.
If committing to a CSA seems a little large at first, then take advantage of the great Seattle Farmers Markets that take place each week in various parts of the city. In addition, the Pike Place Market hosts regular farm stands as well as special weekly farmers days, including an organic producers day. Farmers from all over Washington gather at the Pike Place Market to share their produce with tourists and local buyers. Check out the Pike Place Market website or the Seattle Farmers Market website for details.
The choices you and I individually make with our cars and food won’t probably stop the planet’s progression towards environmental disaster or even halt global warming, but with the increased interest and passion to preserve our planet for our children and their children, we may be able to shape how the planet’s resources are used, abused, or renewed for the future. I have heard that even one household’s small change in the type of light bulb used to light the home can reduce the expenditure of power, lower the individual electric bill, and eventually reduce consumption overall. One family’s change in its grocery purchasing can benefit the local farmer, reduce the demand for imported foods, and possibly persuade a change in how we use our planet’s resources. I’m pretty confident in my experiment because several people have done it and survived to write about their experiences, but more importantly, I’m making small changes in my life in order to reduce my personal impact on my planet, because I hope I can leave something for my kids to enjoy.
1. “Alaska’s Residents Grapple with Changing Climate.” National Public Radio. Aired June 13, 2007
2. “Resource-Rich Hawaii Depends on Fossil Fuel.” National Public Radio. Aired June 13, 2007.
3. “Dairy Prices Drift Higher in U.S., Globally.” National Public Radio. Aired June 13, 2007.
4. “How Food Finds its Way to Your Plate.” National Public Radio. Aired June 13, 2007.
5. The City Produce Market. www.citymarketla.com. Visited in 2004.
6. “Monitoring Food Imports in the United States.” National Public Radio. Aired June 13, 2007.
7. Kingsolver, Barbara, Camille Kingsolver, and Steven L. Hopp. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
8. Helm, Susan, PhD. Professor of Nutritional Science, Pepperdine University. Phone Interview. 13 June 2007.
9. Smith, Alisa and J.B. MacKinnon. Plenty, One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. New York: Harmony Books, 2007.