This is harder than it should be— eating healthier and finding ways for my family to do the same. Since I’ve begun paying closer attention, the remarkable nature of our food conundrum, which is described in documentaries, in podcasts, in all types of media, has become more tangible to me because . . . it really is easier to obtain and eat unhealthy, processed, packaged food than to obtain and eat healthy, fresh food.
With everyone in my family working and going to school, and having two children involved in youth sports, those daily deals with the Devil are easy to make: running through a fast-food drive-thru, or shopping at the store for things we can pop straight into the oven. And it’s not just the kids’ activities that affect our decisions; I spend an hour each week in our local adoration chapel, am on the board of two non-profits, and my wife and I both have periodic meetings after-hours. When afternoon and evening obligations chop up that block of time between 4:00 PM and bedtime, any ideas about cooking have to fit between the pick-ups and the drop-offs. That’s challenge enough.
However, since beginning these efforts to eat better and shop smarter, other peripheral issues have also come to my attention through reports about food and eating. The first of the two came last summer at the National Sustainability Teachers Academy, where I learned that Americans waste or throw away 40% of our food. This news isn’t new, even though it was new to me. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the amount wasted averages to about 400 pounds of uneaten food per person per year. Notwithstanding the shameful idea that each of us, me included, throws away 400 pounds of food, the below infographic shows that we’re not just wasting the food itself:
Before attending that teacher academy, I hadn’t really thought about how food waste is also water waste, fertilizer waste, and fuel waste, all of which were used or consumed in the process of bringing it to our refrigerators and plates.
Once again, I’ve found that I’m as bad as anybody about contributing to the quagmire I now want to escape, including when it comes to food waste. I also learned in Montana what a Life Cycle Analysis is – obtaining a comprehensive understanding of what resources are used to bring a product to market – and have been thinking about it every time I clean out my fridge: dish after dish containing a one-third of a cup of spoiled this followed by nearly a half-pound of spoiled that. My wife’s aunt always says that it’s a sin to throw away food . . . I think she’s right. The question – this effort has been fraught with questions – is: what do we do to change it for the better?
The second of the two epiphanies came last month, when I saw that the United Nations issued a report saying we all need to eat less meat, because its production is one of the factors that is driving climate change. I’ve written before about getting annoyed with doomsayers and their apocalyptic pronouncements, but two things made me pay closer attention this time: the UN’s Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change published the findings, and there are actual solutions offered for veering off the doomsday course. They focused here on the need to alter our agricultural practices worldwide, because the ecological stress of large-scale meat production is overwhelming the land. In short, the whole human race needs to move to a plant-based diet. Rather than change the food system from the top down – producers to consumers – one aspect of the solution will be to change it from the bottom up. If we choose to eat less meat, then we’ll buy less meat, and farmers will produce less meat when demand drops.
While I hadn’t been shooting for becoming a vegetarian, what I’m hearing is that we all need to be close to it, because the planet isn’t going to support us otherwise. The problem for me, beyond enjoying cheeseburgers and fried chicken very much, is hunger. When I don’t eat any meat for a day or two, I’m downright hungry and feel like I’ve barely eaten at all. The other day, we went to Zoe’s after Mass, and I ordered a falafel pita and roasted vegetables, cleaned my plate, and still wanted more to eat. People can tell me that it’s better for me and for the planet, but when my belly is still growling when I’m finished with a meal, my reactions are less friendly than if I were satisfied.
If that weren’t enough, among the insights I’ve gotten, another glaring problem has arisen: trash. I’ve been astounded at how much packaging ready-made foods leave behind after the food is gone. Wanting to keep my son away from Lunchables, which are loaded with salt and contain nothing green, I’ve shifted his attention toward healthier lunch options: making his own sandwich on some good bread and coupling it with these packages that have green apples, pretzels, cheese, and caramel dip. But the plastic containers are still a problem . . . Realizing this and trying to do my part, for my birthday, I got a set of stainless steel lunch containers, that are at least keeping me away from Ziploc bags. Small changes, man, small changes . . .
Though it’s only beginning, this foray into foodie consciousness and sustainability has taught me a valuable lesson already: for people to change, the healthy, sustainable way must get easier. As it is now, it is so easy to eat processed food, throw away the leftovers and the packaging, and put one trash can at the street twice a week. It’s also easy to ignore the resources that go into our food – fuel, water, chemicals – because we don’t see them go into our food. I keep hearing that we’ve got until 2030 to straighten out our habits or climate change will become even more severe, and I think about what that means for my family. My wife and I will be in our mid-50s, looking toward retirement, and our kids will be in their 20s, looking toward starting lives and families of their own. Notwithstanding the larger picture for all of humanity, I’d hate to spend my retirement in scalding weather with exorbitant food prices. It makes more sense to me to fortify the future by sacrificing some convenience now, which is what this effort is all about.