3 Realities of Practicing Food Sustainability That Go Beyond Farmers’ Markets and Canvas Totes

Photo: Stocksy/ Emily Jean Thomas
Inspired by the 2021 theme for Earth Day, “Restore our Earth,” Well+Good is running a monthlong series called “Planet Hope” with expert-led content focused on food, clothing, sustainable living, and everyday activism. Check back for actionable advice for how to work each focus into your life in an ongoing, meaningful way.

Every Saturday morning, I wake up early—even before my dog—filled with a sense of excitement and competition. My goal? To get to the nearby Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, farmers’ market before others so that I can have my pick of the local kale, arugula, plantains, and even chocolate. I get a thrill when I find a fruit or vegetable I don’t recognize, because that means I can add a new flavor to my mental palate and my cooking repertoire.

Too often, though, the act of eating sustainably is aestheticized like this—just a well-to-do food lover going to get the most precious produce—rather than understood as a multifaceted issue touching not just agriculture, but also economics, government policy, and labor. Practicing food sustainability isn't as simple as bringing a canvas bag to the farmers’ market and saving scraps for making stock. Sure, those habits are sustainable (and great to do!), but they're not enough to make sustainable eating an accessible reality for all rather than a consumer choice for the privileged few. Only after dismantling the dominant narrative of eco-consciousness being bourgeois and a commodity will we start to really understand what needs to happen.

We must find a way to use farmland and urban space to create food that is both ecologically sound and economically accessible.

What, exactly, does need to happen? We must find a way to use farmland and urban space to create food that is both ecologically sound and economically accessible. In effect, it is time for food justice: an approach that takes into account the Earth, the workers, the animals, and everyone doing the cooking, serving, and eating.

Interested in practicing meaningful food sustainability? Embrace the following 3 tips:

1. Rethink your nutrition plan (namely, meat and dairy products) to prioritize the planet

The United Nations (UN) recently reported that the food system accounts for more than one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, which, in excess, lead to the Earth becoming too warm (i.e., global warming). That number comes from how land is used, as well as how food is processed, packaged, and transported, among other issues. From that number, the most impactful foods are beef and dairy, which is why in 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended a move toward a plant-based diet to curb emissions and slow the rate of global warming.

Lack of widespread sustainability in the food industry also contributes to the experience of food insecurity, which has ballooned among Americans during the pandemic to more than 54 million, up from 35 million pre-pandemic. How? Well, livestock like cattle and chicken use up 80 percent of global farmland while providing less than 20 percent of the global supply of calories. This insufficiency of land use not only has a big effect on the climate, but also means that a diversity of foods that could provide more calories to more people are not being grown on most of the usable land in the world.

While there are best practices for sustainably eating meat and dairy products, as environmental and food insecurity scholar and author Francis Moore Lappé wrote back in 1971 in the first edition of Diet for a Small Planet, the inefficiency of using farmland to grow grain that is then fed to livestock leads to avoidable hunger. This is because of the farmland use relative to caloric supply pales in comparison to what we'd have if we used the farmland more efficiently, to grow other sustainable crops.

2. Shop local to influence institutional change

A nutrition plan full of vegetables, legumes, and grains is a sustainable win, but the processing, packaging, and transportation involved in the food industry matters, too. That's because eating locally and understanding who's doing the farming often means eating more sustainably.

In the United States, undocumented workers account for 50 percent of the farm-labor workforce. This means they’re not eligible for benefits, such as unemployment, and are often mistreated or not paid sufficiently, as they will have no legal recourse if paid below minimum wage. Also consider that during the pandemic, meat processing plants experienced widespread COVID-19 outbreaks, but the consumer demand for low-priced meat and former President Trump’s use of the Defense Production Act kept the plants open, despite an inability to maintain a safe and healthy workplace.

So if you eat meat, you can choose to not support big corporations that have not taken care of their labor force during the pandemic by finding a local butcher. The industrial meat and dairy companies that receive $38 billion in governmental subsidies in the U.S. each year are the ones that are largely responsible for poor working conditions, as well as more greenhouse gas emissions than smaller ranchers.

3. Consider the source of your ingredients to control who's benefitting from your dollars

There is also the matter of understanding who owns the farmland that grows much of the food one will find either at the grocery store or a local market. While there were one million Black farmers in 1920, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), that number is now only 45,000 out of the 3.4 million farmers in the nation; the COVID-19 relief bill that was passed in early March will result in $5 billion going to them and hopefully growing the number back toward where it was a century ago.

When thinking about sustainability, we should also be thinking about equity, in terms of labor forces and land ownership. That's because, for example, the United Nations has found that Indigenous farming practices are useful in combating climate change, because the diversity of what is grown and how land is used keeps carbon in the Earth rather than emitting it. Big agricultural businesses have largely done away with diverse land use.

Restaurants are another area of sustainability concerns in the food space, with the industry employing an estimated 15.1 million workers, with many relying on inconsistent tipped wages. To help ensure those millions of employees have a sustainable, living wage, organizations like the One Fair Wage coalition are focused on ending sub-minimum tipped wage, which would go a long way toward food-service jobs being sustainable work. Workers employed for companies aligned in a sustainability-backed mission is a win for practicing food sustainability in general.

The many factors that go into the creation of a truly sustainable food system can make even thinking about creating it seem intimidating. It’s not just about getting organic produce or going to the farmers’ market, but of being aware of the extent to which food is political, and considering how to move the food system toward a just future—from the field to the market and to the restaurant. It’s about finding out who in your local community is doing the farming and food justice work, and asking what support they need to continue, as well as patronizing those restaurants who already pay a living wage to their workers. It’s about voting for those who take these concerns seriously. The food system is wildly complex; there are no easy answers. But the one thing we can each do is learn and seek community, arming ourselves with much more than just a canvas bag.

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