How to Go Green: Eating

A detailed shot of a salad bowl with green vegetables.

Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

The dailies? You know -- milk, bread, eggs -- the dailies. These are the things you eat that you find yourself running out each week (or each day) to purchase. Now, you spend a lot of money on these purchases because of their purchasing frequency, so its important that something worth so much money is chosen carefully.

And it's not just about money; because we all do it several times a day, eating green is perhaps the most impactful single act we engage in. Those dailies we mention above all have very specific impacts -- from where the cows graze before supplying your milk, to how near your home your bread is baked.

Of course, it isn't quite that simple; there are myriad factors throughout the entire life cycle of all your food and its inputs that affect its relative impact. So, how do you navigate all of these choices? Read on.

Top Green Eating Tips

  1. Indulge in the Big O
    When you eat organic, don't just picture the healthy food you are putting in your body, picture the healthy ecosystems which produced that food, the workers who are safer from chemicals, the land, water, and air that is being protected, and the wildlife that is being allowed to thrive. Organic vegetables, fruits, grains, juice, dairy, eggs, and meat (and don't forget the organic wine and beer), are grown and processed in ways that support healthy people and a healthy planet. (While you may not be able to find or afford organic options for everything you need, certain fruits and vegetables are more pesticidy than others.) For details on the meaning of organic, see the USDA Organics homepage.
  2. Feast on Fair Trade fare
    Fair trade certified food ensures a proper wage and working conditions for those who harvest and handle it. But fair trade is green for the environment as well. TransFair, the only fair trade certifier in the U.S., has strong environmental standards built into its certification process that protect watersheds and virgin forests, help prevent erosion, promote natural soil fertility and water conservation, and prohibit GMOs and many synthetic chemicals. TransFair claims that their environmental standards are the most stringent in the industry, second only to USDA organic certification.
  3. Go local
    Buying seasonal, local food is a boon for the environment for a lot of reasons. Since most food travels many miles to reach your table (1,500 miles, on average), locally sourced food cuts back on the climate-change impacts of transportation. Local food also generally uses less packaging, is fresher and tastier, and comes in more varieties. It also supports small local growers and lets them get more for their produce by not having to spend so much on packing, processing, refrigeration, marketing, and shipping. The best way to track down local food is at farmers markets or through community supported agriculture (CSA), which often offer home delivery.
  4. Don't follow the pack
    Instead of buying foods that come in extensive packaging (most of which is petroleum-based plastics) look for unpackaged or minimally packaged foods, experiment with bringing your own containers and buying in bulk, or pick brands that use bio-based plastic packing. And of course try and recycle or reuse any packaging you end up with. [Trader Joe, we love you but it's a packaging nightmare in there]
  5. Compost the leftovers
    Greening your meals isn't just about the food that winds up on the plate--it's the entire process, the whole lifecycle shebang. Composting leftovers will ease the burden on the landfill, give you great soil, and keep your kitchen waste basket from smelling. Apartment dwellers and yardless wonders can do it too! And yes, a composting toilet can be part of the miraculous cycle as well. (see below for more resources)
  6. Grow your own
    In the garden, in the greenhouse, in the window box, or something fancier. Even urbanites can get quite a bit of good eats from not much space.
  7. To and from
    Just as buying locally grown food cuts on "miles per calorie," buying from local sellers cuts back on emissions, fuel consumption, and unnecessary traffic.
  8. Just enough
    Put some extra planning into the amount of food you cook will cut back on waste. If it's something that will spoil quickly, try to avoid making more than you or your family can eat. If you've got extra, make a friend happy with a home cooked surprise. If it's a bigger affair, give the leftovers to those who may need it more.
  9. Eat it Raw
    Many people swear by the benefits of eating raw. Whatever the health advantages may be, preparing raw food consumes less energy and because raw food is usually fresh by definition, it is more likely to be locally grown.
  10. Ease up on the meat
    Meat is the most resource-intensive food on the table and eating less of it can be the single most green move a person makes. Producing meat requires huge amounts of water, grain, land, and other inputs including hormones and antibiotics, and leads to pollution of soil, air, and water. A pound of beef requires around 12,000 gallons of water to produce, compared to 60 gallons for a pound of potatoes. If you're a meat eater, for starters, try cutting out a serving of meat each week. Going vegetarian or vegan is a profoundly meaningful environmental choice, and it's done wonders for Chris Martin and Prince.

Green Eating: By the Numbers

  • 30 percent: Increase in both fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions caused from shipping a pound of apples from a farm in Iowa to a market in Washington, compared to shipping those apples to a local market in Iowa.
  • 5: Number of countries the average U.S. meal comes from.
  • 1500 to 2500: Number of miles food travels between farm and market. That's 25 percent farther than it traveled two decades ago.
  • 958: Liters of water it takes to make one liter of orange juice; 958 liters of water for irrigation, 2 liters of fuel for tractors, water-pumping, pesticide spraying, and the occasional electric heater to ward off frost.
  • 8000: Kilometers worth of travel required to gather all the ingredients to make strawberry yogurt in Germany.

More on Composting

A pile of kitchen leftovers in a simple bin will do a pretty decent job of breaking down, but for those looking for more advanced means of decomposition, there are options that can work faster, yield richer soil, and even work indoors. Bokashi is an indoor method developed in Japan for apartment dwellers. A healthy community of worms in your compost will break down organic matter fast and can be kept in an enclosed bin. Electronically controlled compost systems are hitting the market that promise a faster, sweeter smelling breakdown and can sit in the kitchen like an appliance.

What Is the Omnivore's Dilemma?

The Omnivore's Dilemma is a book written by Michael Pollan, which looks at the current state of food production through the industrial chain, organic, and the hunter/gatherer chains. Pollan brings up tough decisions, like whether organic produce flown in from halfway around the world is better than the local produce with pesticides. Industrial food also brings in a list of questions over all of the ingredients that go into modern food, and the chemicals, fertilizers and other ingredients that go into the production of food.

Further Reading on Green Eating

The following links are resources developed to promote sustainability and help you get started greening your food staples.

  • A cornucopia of food resources can be found on Care2's Green Kitchen section.
  • Want local food but don't know how to get it? The Green Leaf Market is for you. This resource is a network of local farmers and where to find them.
  • Trying to eat locally grown food can be a challenge, especially from the get go. More resources can be found at the Eat Local Challenge.
  • The ever-astounding Worldwatch Institute has several studies on the impacts of locally grown, organic, and factory-farmed food.
  • FoodPrint offers helpful tips on buying local and sustainable, and for promoting sustainable food in schools.
  • Eat the Seasons is a UK-based website showing which foods are in season each week, the health benefits of those foods, and how long they are in season, among other helpful facts. A North American based site will be launched soon.