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Thursday, April 22, 2010 06:04 am

Making every day Earth Day


I’m somewhat ambivalent about Earth Day. It’s not that celebrating the earth is a bad idea. But one day a year – or even one week – hardly seems adequate. After all, humans are completely, totally, absolutely dependent on Gaia – Mother Earth. But I fear that too many of us, from schoolchildren on up, join in the celebrations, listen to a speaker, attend an event; and then, patting ourselves on the back for our environmental awareness, unthinkingly go back to our old ways. Concerns about the health and well-being of our “Mother Ship” go on the back burner, or even in the deep freezer, until we dredge them up for next year’s Earth Day.

It’s like adult children who give their parents a special day on Mother’s and Father’s Days, and then blow them off the rest of the year. Or bosses who take their secretaries to lunch for Secretary’s Day, but are overbearing jerks in the office. Or people who are self-righteous because they go to church, synagogue, or temple once a week, but engage in immoral, unethical behavior the other six days.

Of course not everyone is like that – not even most people. Nor were Earth Day, Mother’s, Father’s and Secretary’s Days, or religious services created as excuses for less-than-stellar actions and attitudes. But, especially in regard to Earth Day, it’s just too comfortable to slip back into habits that we didn’t realize were harmful to the environment when we acquired them; and perhaps even still don’t.

Awareness is the first step. Unless we know how our actions, and patterns of consumption affect the earth, we can’t make wise choices and appropriate changes. And nowhere is this more true than in the food we eat.

So in honor of Earth Day, I’d like to challenge you to find out – really find out – about the food you eat. It’s not a one-day activity, but an ongoing journey of discovery. Here are a few ideas to get started:

View everything you eat through the lens of sustainability.

Sustainability is defined as farm practices that don’t deplete the land and natural resources and that provide living wages to farms and farm workers. It can also include how food is transported, manufactured and processed.

Find out exactly what you’re eating.

“Eat food,” advises author Michael Pollan. Well, duh! But what Pollan means is eating actual food, not a collection of additives and chemicals. In other words, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Read labels. Are they mostly a bunch of gobbledy-gook? If you can’t pronounce it, maybe you shouldn’t be putting it in your body. Look things up – the Web makes it easy. Regardless, a lot of gobbledy-gook in a product almost certainly means that it’s been highly processed, using fossil fuels and other resources in the process.

If you have children, find out what they’re eating when they’re not with you. What’s their school lunch program like? There are increasing calls for school lunches to become healthier, using fresh ingredients sourced locally as much as possible. Unfortunately, that’s still the exception. The norm is highly processed food – much of it outright junk – high in fat, sugar and salt. Even sending wholesome lunches with your kids can be problematic. I made sandwiches with whole wheat bread, and put carrot and celery sticks, juices with no added sugar, and fresh or dried fruit in my children’s lunchboxes. Any sweets were things such as oatmeal cookies or banana bread made with whole-wheat flour. All three of my kids – and they were spaced four and five years apart – at some point flat-out refused to take those healthy lunches to school. The other children were making fun of them. The cool kids, I was informed, brought Lunchables – creepy little squares of processed cheese, dubious tiny circles of meat, and crackers nestled in plastic molded to their exact dimensions. The “food” looked as plastic as the container. But the boxes in which they came were brightly colored, with cartoon drawings, games and puzzles. Those cute boxes were far larger than their contents justified, which is something else to keep in mind about what you eat, no matter what your age – the size of its packaging relative to the actual food.

Find out how your food is produced.

Does your meat come from factory “farms,” known as CAFOS – confined animal feeding operations – that produce vast lagoons of polluting waste. The animals are given an unnaturally rich diet so they can reach slaughter weight at an ever earlier age. It’s a diet that takes an equally vast amount of fossil fuel to produce, and also contains growth hormones that have been implicated in the rise of breast and colon cancer, and antibiotics; in fact, CAFOs are America’s single biggest user of antibiotics – not to treat sick animals, but given as preventives, because of the appalling conditions in which the animals live.

Is your fish caught by trawlers casting vast nets that destroy many times more sea creatures than their intended catch? If the fish is farmed, is it done so in an environmentally responsible manner, or is it intensively farmed, polluting the waters and posing a danger to wild fish stocks?

Are your strawberries grown on black plastic that covers soil so suffused with toxic chemicals that it literally has become dead?

What about other produce you eat? Do the workers who pick it have to wear masks to keep from becoming ill? Does it come from huge packaging plants that mix contaminated produce in with good produce, ensuring both that the ill effects will be widespread, and that the contamination source will be difficult-to-impossible to discover?

Find out where your food comes from.

Cherries from Chile in the dead of winter? Asparagus from Argentina? Shrimp from Sri Lanka? Globalization affects every facet of life today, and nowhere more so than in our food. As with other aspects of globalization, some are good, and some not so good. We enjoy an astonishing array of foodstuffs today, most of it available year-round, and pay only half as much for it as we did 50 years ago. Why does food that travels halfway around the world cost so little? Which leads to….

Find out why what you eat costs what it does.

Are those foods from thousands of miles away so affordable because environmental regulations and restrictions on pesticides and other chemicals there are minimal to nonexistent? Is it because farm wages and standards of living are low? How much fossil fuel is used to transport them? Do perishables come by ship or plane?

In America, how much of a role do government subsidies play in the cost of food? Are they a hidden tax, i.e. hiding the true cost of our food? How much of a factor is the employment of illegal immigrants as farm workers? What are the effects of monoculture (planting huge areas with a single crop or raising a single breed of animal)?

If you don’t like what you find out about what you’re eating, find alternatives.

There are lots available, and their number is increasing rapidly. Visit a local farm that uses sustainable methods. Learn to cook if you haven’t, and cook more if you have. Make making dinner as well as eating it into a family affair – a time for togetherness. Discover local organizations such as Slow Food Springfield, The Illinois Stewardship Alliance, and The Land Connection. There are books by Pollan and many others, information on the Web, and fascinating documentaries, such as The Future of Food, King Corn, and Food, Inc.

So celebrate Earth Day. Have a great time. Afterwards, keep in mind that the Earth deserves to be – needs to be – honored and cherished every day. And remember that eating what’s best for the earth is also best for you.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.


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