Even when food prices go up, we can eat in a healthy and sustainable way. It all starts with having a food strategy that includes an awareness of the politics of food.
Why is food activism important?
It might surprise you to know that food is publicly exchanged on the international stock market. While it was once a local public resource, food is now a private, transnational commodity traded by billion dollar companies. (source) Seafood is the most highly traded of all foods and coffee the most highly traded beverage.
Food Activism Addresses the Problems With the Mass Production of Food
Tragically, this for-profit industrial system has failed to produce food that is either sustainable or affordable: half of those who grow 70% of the world’s food go hungry everyday.
The major players claim these systems are necessary to “feed the world” but we’re far from that goal. Nearly 40% of all food in the United States – $408 billion worth – is wasted. Farmers, packers, shippers, manufacturers, retailers and households all waste food. (source) The world produces enough food to feed everyone, yet 811 million suffer from hunger, mostly women and children.
You can become less dependent on the current system by sourcing food locally and sustainably, avoiding food waste, and being self-reliant.
Let’s look at some ways to do this.
Start With a Shopping Plan
First, win at shopping. Stay in your budget and save money:
- Plan your meals around what you already have on hand and on what’s in season. For example, resist the temptation to buy strawberries all year round. Instead, reach for clementine mandarins, grapefruit, lemons, oranges, tangerines and Anjou pears in the winter, when they all are in season in temperate climates.
- Make a list of potential meals, but be ready to substitute when you see what is on sale in the grocery store.
- Build meals around staples like rice, pasta, beans, and whole grains.
- Plan meals around vegetables, rather than around meat.
- The night before you shop, use leftover food in the fridge for a “hodgepodge” supper.
- When in the grocery store, spend most of your time in the outer aisles, where the fresh produce, dairy and perishable items are displayed. Avoid spending too much time in the center aisles where the more expensive (and generally less healthy) packaged items might tempt you.
- Shop less often, once a week is a reasonable goal.
- Use a calculator when shopping to make sure you stay within your budget.
Make Your Own
You can save a lot of money, eat better tasting food and make a smaller carbon footprint by making your own. Baking bread is a great step toward self-sufficiency. There’s a super easy, no-knead recipe in the book, The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Search for heritage grains grown in your area. Consider milling your own fresh grains.
Other items you can make at home are:
- Salad dressings
- Refrigerator pickles (cucumbers, jalapeños, red onions)
- Breadcrumbs and croutons
- Baby food
- Cheese, especially cottage cheese and ricotta
- Teriyaki sauce
- Peanut sauce
- Sweet and sour sauce
- Tempura dipping sauce
- Chili seasoning
- Garlic salt
- Garam masala
- Tea blends
And, don’t forget to can and/or freeze local fruits and vegetables during the bounty of summer. You’ll thank yourself in the winter. Tomatoes and peaches are good to start with. Look for classes at your local county extension office. And, there are plenty of good books on the subject of gardening, preserving, and food security.
We all know the health advantages of eating local, but there’s also a cost savings. Vegetables in Farmer’s Markets are often less expensive than store bought vegetables and most vendors take SNAP debit cards. Many also sell meat and some, even fish. Local Farmer’s Markets and local farms often offer greens and root crops into the winter. If you join a CSA and pay up front for your summer food, you can save even more.
Coffee is impossible to get locally unless you live in the tropics. If you buy coffee to make at home, look for labels like Fair Trade, USDA Certified Organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Bird Friendly Certified, and UTZ Certified. Read the label carefully. When you buy it freshly made, source it from a partner in the Sustainable Coffee Challenge—Dunkin’ and Starbucks are two.
Eat Less Meat
Think veggie-centric. Make dishes that use meat as a condiment or flavor enhancer rather than as a centerpiece, like soups, stews, stir fries and casseroles.
- Use a ham hock or bacon to flavor beans, stews and soups.
- Add sausage to a pasta dish.
- Use small chunks of chicken in a salad, like a Cobb salad, or in a broccoli cheese casserole.
- Use tofu instead of meat in a stir-fry.
- Serve veggie laden tacos.
- Grill or broil kebabs with lots of veggies.
The Politics of Meat
The problem with meat, especially beef, is that 99% of US beef is factory farmed. Factory farmed means that the cows are confined indoors to tiny, crowded sheds, where they are fed a special diet to make them grow quickly. Our concern with food activism should include animal welfare. Their diet includes copious amounts of grain, as well as antibiotics and animal waste. The cows are denied the ability to graze, to lie comfortably, nurse their young or to live in herds with their offspring.
Aside from being inhumane, factory farming of animals uses a tremendous amount of land, water and energy while releasing a huge amount of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 25% of global land use, land-use change and forestry emissions are driven by beef production, including conversion of forests in the Brazilian Amazon. (source)
One way to decrease our carbon footprint is to eat less beef and, when we do, to eat beef that is pasture raised or grass fed rather than factory farmed. Pasture raised means that cows get most of their food from grazing on grass and just some from grain. Grass fed means that a cow eats nothing but its mother’s milk and grass, no grains.
The American Grassfed Association can help you find a grass fed beef supplier near you. Locally, you can buy grass fed beef from a small, local farm or a vendor at your Farmer’s Market.
Chicken is the most sustainable of meats. Look for organic, grass-fed, and pasture-raised labels. Turkey is a close second. Pork is the third most sustainable meat because it releases half of the emissions of beef. Look for pork that is “Certified Humane,” or “Animal Welfare Approved.” You may be able to find all these meats, especially chicken and pork, at your Farmer’s Market. Lamb is the worst meat, with a carbon footprint that is 50% higher than beef.
In general, seafood has a much lower environmental impact than meat, but overfishing is prevalent in the industry so it’s important to know the source of your fish. Small species like anchovies, herring, farmed mussels, scallops, and oysters have a small carbon footprint, while fish like Octopus and Bluefin tuna are overfished. Seafood Watch of the Monterey Bay Aquarium has stellar regional consumer guides in English and Spanish you can download to have on hand when you shop for seafood or go out to eat.
Grow Your Own Food
Growing a garden makes you feel hopeful, and some people have even turned their front yards into a garden area. Even if you have a small space, you can grow herbs on a windowsill or tomatoes in containers. You can also sign up for a plot in a community garden. If you’re ambitious and your town allows it, you can keep backyard chickens and even ducks. Honeybees are a great addition to your urban homestead as is mushroom growing. Some people even farm fish in their backyards.
Waste Not, Want Not
When we throw our food into the garbage, it releases methane gas, as it decomposes in the landfill. A simple food activism at home step is to turn your food into compost. You can compost your food yourself in a household composter in your backyard and in some towns, companies will pick up your food waste and turn it into compost for you. Vermiculture, or worm composting, is another great way to recycle your food, and other, waste into compost.
Aspire to throw away less food. Review your food use to see why you’re throwing away food. Are you are buying exotic ingredients and only using a little? Are you buying packages that are too big? Are you cooking too much of something?
Storing your food properly is key to preventing waste. Here’s a great guide to food storage. And here are more ways to make the most of your food:
- If root vegetables wilt, put them in cold water in the fridge and they will crisp right up.
- Same for most herbs, but snip off the bottom a bit.
- Add wilted greens to soup or an omelet.
- If fruit starts to go bad, make it into refrigerator jam or put it into a smoothie.
- Make soup stock from onion tops, carrot ends, extra herbs, Parmesan rinds and meat bones.
- Use leftover rice for a stir-fry.
- Make a pasta salad with leftover pasta.
- Freeze extra herbs or put them in a frittata or vinaigrette.
Eat food past its “peak.” An expiration date tells you how long a food product will remain at its peak value when unopened. However, it is not a safety date. As long as an unopened item is stored properly, it can generally be consumed beyond its expiration date.
Food Activism in Your Community
In addition to what you do in your own home, here are some things you can do in the larger community to help restore food justice:
- Learn about the Chefs’ Manifesto, a global community. This action plan, designed as a practical guide, details simple actions that chefs can take in their kitchens, classrooms and communities to deliver a better food system for all.
- Advocate for SNAP, WIC and public school free breakfast and lunch programs in your community.
- Support grassroots solutions like Farm to Table, Farm to School, Cooking with Kids and Food Tank.
- Speak up when you hear stereotypes about poverty and hunger.
- Donate to and/or volunteer at a local food bank, food pantry, soup kitchen, or homeless shelter.
- Start or support a pay-what-you-can cafe.
- Watch A Place at the Table.
- Read The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Files and the Dinner Table. Share the books, Don’t Waste Your Food and The Farm that Feeds Us with your children.
- If you, or someone you know, needs help finding food, call or text your zip code to the National Hunger Hotline, 1-800-548-6479, or use the form on WhyHunger (available in English and Spanish) to locate local emergency food providers and other support services.
Host a Sunday dinner and talk about:
- Where does our food come from?
- How is the global food system connected?
- How can we support a local farmer?
Get together and talk with others about:
- What can we do to alleviate hunger in our area?
- Do we have enough food banks in our area?
- Are restaurants donating their leftover food to the community?
- Are food trucks delivering food to rural residents?
- Where are the food deserts in our community?
Remember that the way you eat and what you do with your food when you’re finished with it are both political acts. Just bring your awareness to it, and you’ll know what to do. Plus, eating will become much more satisfying.