This week in our series of Earth Month Tips, we’re talking about the impact that food has on the environment from how we get our food, to what we eat, to what we do with leftovers. In all, agriculture in the U.S. accounts for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions due to factors like raising livestock (fun fact: cows fart a lot of methane!), fertilizers, and producing grains. Transportation to get our food to stores and to our homes, and to get ourselves to restaurants leads to additional emissions. We’ve already talked about the insane amount of plastic that can go along with meals out and packaging just about everything at the grocery store. Since we likely can’t grow enough food to feed our families from backyard gardens, here are some ideas for helping reduce the negative environmental impacts your family’s diet has.
DIET: Research shows that a vegan diet is the least harmful for the environment but many of us aren’t able or ready to make such major changes. A vegetarian diet is the next best option. But, you don’t have to go whole hog (awkward pun – sorry). As we mentioned, raising livestock is one of the biggest contributors to food-related emissions, especially when it comes to cattle from which we get beef and dairy products. Carbon emissions come from feeding the animals, providing them with land (side note: cows require A LOT of land), controlling their indoor climate, and processing them for consumption, as well as from the animals themselves (gross). From an emissions perspective, raising a cow to eventually become food can be 6 times more negatively impactful than raising a pig and 7 times more than raising a chicken. Research indicates that livestock agriculture produces around 50% of all human-made emissions. HALF! The average American eats three beef hamburgers per week. Researchers say one of the single biggest steps you and your family can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to cut down your servings of red meat. Amazingly, a 2014 study indicates that giving up red meat would reduce your carbon footprint (i.e., the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels by a particular person, group, etc.) more than giving up your car! Consider saving red meat for special occasions. Use substitutions like turkey meat for tacos and burgers and increase your servings of alternatives like beans.
SOURCE: You’ve probably heard the phrase “Buy local” and there are many reasons to consider doing so. When you buy your food locally, you’re supporting people nearby who grow and sell the food, benefiting your community economically, and, over time, increasing the availability of additional local products. There are also health benefits of eating locally grown or produced foods because they’re generally fresher and safer. The environmental impact of buying local foods can be immense. Food produced elsewhere may have to travel to your grocery store by 18-wheeler, boat, or even plane, releasing way more greenhouse gas emissions than your local farmer’s pick-up truck. It’s also easier to get background information on local food sources, such as whether they use pesticides, how their animals are raised, and whether they grow fruits and veggies in season, which is healthier for you and better for the land. Armed with that information, you can make the best decisions for your family. Unsure what organic foods you should buy? Check out these tips. If you don’t have the option of buying locally produced eggs and meat, consider choosing antibiotic- & hormone-free for both health and ecological reasons. Several farms around Birmingham offer Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs that enable you to buy locally grown, in-season, and, in most cases, organic fruits, veggies, cheese, and meat, and pick up a weekly box of treats at a location convenient to you. We love Snow’s Bend Farm and had a great visit with them over Spring Break! Some other CSA options include: Hepzibah Farms, Owls Hollow Farm, Boozer Farms, Jones Valley Teaching Farm, and Stone Hollow Farmstead. If you live within a mile from the grocery store, bike for small trips, or take a family walk to buy groceries with a wagon or push cart for getting everything home. Don’t forget your reusable bags!
WASTE is a surprisingly big problem in this country. 40% percent of usable (i.e., non-contaminated) food is simply thrown out every year. If your kids are picky eaters, you can probably attest to this. But forcing a kid to “Clean your plate!” can contribute to eating issues and those stories about “starving kids in China” never seem too convincing. Reduce waste at your dinner table by starting everyone with small servings with the option for seconds. At the end of the meal, untouched food can safely go back in the serving container ( I regularly scrape my kids’ leftover green beans on to my own plate because we all have the same germs by now anyway…). Consider starting a backyard compost for your food scraps (note: dairy and meat should go in the garbage), which will reduce what goes to the landfill and provide fantastic fertilizer for your garden. Finish what you have before buying new (easier to do if you don’t grocery shop while you’re hungry). Keep track of what your family is having to throw out. Is everyone sick of that particular food? Does it need to come out of the rotation for a while or is there a new way to prepare it? Instead of throwing them out, donate shelf-stable foods to agencies like Greater Birmingham Ministries. Pack up dinner leftovers for lunches the next day or hold a weekly “Leftovers Night” where food is served smorgasbord style and everyone eats in front of the T.V. together. Another way you can help reduce waste on a large scale is to donate to organizations like Magic City Harvest or Community Foodbank of Central Alabama, which collect unused food from grocery stores and restaurants to be distributed to those in need. Ask your local groceries if they participate in food recovery programs.
Kristen is a local Mom to three, ages 12, 9 and almost 6. She’s the author of our Parenting with a PhD series who also happens to have a passion for educating others about the benefits of living a greener life. She hopes that leading by example will encourage others to try some alternate ways of shopping, and incorporating small changes that can make a big impact on our future.