Sometimes a novelty becomes a necessity. Take New York’s farmers markets. A visit to one of the city’s outdoor food extravaganzas was once an entertaining field trip on an autumn Saturday, an excuse to sip apple cider and run my fingers across bright orange carrots with their thick green tops (so different from the shiny, leafless tubes wrapped in plastic in the produce aisle) and beets and potatoes still spotty with dirt.
Maybe I’d buy a head of red leaf lettuce and a sphere of goat cheese. Perhaps I’d think about how they would taste tangled together in my big wooden salad bowl coated in the one homemade dressing in my repertoire (olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a dab of Dijon mustard, a dash of honey, minced garlic — always a winner) and sprinkled with a handful of toasted walnuts. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I would have imagined the satisfaction I’d feel serving such a yummy dish. But my thoughts would have ended there. I wouldn’t have considered how purchasing produce and dairy from local farmers — NYC farmers market participants come from farms in places like upstate New York and New Jersey — is one of the most positive things I could do for my body, my taste buds, my economy and my planet.
Feels better, tastes betterI’m embarrassed to admit this to my eco-gastronomy companions, but it’s only in the last three years that I’ve come to understand the multitasking do-goodness of buying fruits and veggies from the market instead of the grocery store — where they are most likely shipped in from thousands of miles away. I console my conscience with better late than never, and feel a distinctive sense of pride knowing that a weekly trip to the farmers market has shifted from optional to non-negotiable.
I’m not alone. Many of my foodie friends have made the connection between a product’s presence at the market and the taste sensation it will undoubtedly deliver. The equation is simple: Tomatoes are only available at the farmers market if it is tomato season. And if it is tomato season, the plump, juicy globes are all but guaranteed to please. Eating seasonally is a big part of eating locally. And eating locally is a big part of eating responsibly. If you live on the East Coast or some other chilly climate, it may at first be a drag to get through the winter without a peach or a strawberry, but once you understand, and accept, that any berry showing its face in the heart of winter traveled long and hard to get to you — you won’t want anything do with such an out-of-place fruit.
Looking for an expert to back up my relatively new way of eating, I turned to the folks at Slow Food USA, an organization than connects the way we eat to the vitality of our communities and the safety of our planet. Gordon Jenkins, an advocacy coordinator for Slow Food, reminded me that big agriculture is directly connected to climate change. He said that 20 percent to a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are related to agriculture. In fact, the EPA found that in 2005 U.S. agricultural production emitted as much carbon dioxide as 141 million cars (I’ve been sitting with that number for days now and still feel a surge of shock each time I read it).
Most of the fossil fuels burned on industrial farms are used to spread fertilizers and pesticides. Jenkins says that the output of these chemicals contributes to 40 percent of fossil fuel input. And this is before the food even leaves the farm! He reminded me that the food system is made up of several arms and that processing, packaging and transporting also have a significant impact on the environment. A carrot harvested on a farm in California has to make a significant journey — often in a refrigerated truck — to end up on my plate in New York. Same goes for a steak that was raised in Iowa or a slice of cheese that began in Wisconsin. And the container or wrapper that houses said food item was also made using fossil fuels. According to Jenkins, it takes half a gallon of gasoline to produce one box of cereal.
You are what you eatWhen it comes to climate change, carnivores are clearly not off the hook. Industrial meat production wrecks havoc on the environment. Jenkins explains that most livestock are fed corn and soybeans and a significant amount of oil goes into their production. “For every calorie we get out of the beef we eat, 35 calories of energy are used to produce it,” he says. This means that when we seek out local, organic, grass-fed meat and poultry we’re giving a serious nod to the planet.
Eating with awareness — that is, taking the time to consider how your food was grown, who facilitated that growing, how it was packaged and where it traveled from — is an everyday, personal way to fight climate change. “As individual consumers we don’t realize how much power we have. When you choose to buy local, you’re buying from small or mid-size family farms, and there’s a huge opportunity in innovative farming to reverse climate change through agriculture,” Jenkins says. “Organic farming or responsible farming actually takes carbon out of the air and traps it in the ground through compost.”
Today, I’m thinking about the farmers who grow my fruits and vegetables, even considering a day trip out of the city to see them in action. I considered the life of the organic, free-range chicken that I roasted the last week, and I’m starting to grow my own herbs (gardening is the ultimate in eating locally and a good solution for those who don’t have access to farmers markets).
If I find myself frustrated with all the thought that goes into eating this way, I console myself with the knowledge that eating responsibly has my pleasure in mind. “The food that’s good for the climate is also the most tasty,” say Jenkins. He’s right. Fresh, local, organic, seasonal food is positively exploding with flavor, having been spared the harsh chemicals and long, hyper-refrigerated journeys of most industrially produced meat and produce. Eating what’s available just tastes better. If I’m saving the planet while I pig out, so be it.
Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.
Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.