Defining the Contours of our Century

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Banner courtesy of http://www.UN.org.

President Obama addressed the UN summit leaders today, imploring each to do their part in combating global climate change. “Nobody gets a pass… We have a responsibility to lead,” he stated before 120 heads of state.

Today’s Climate Summit was not a meeting to bind treaties or draft legislation to reduce carbon emissions. Instead it was an opportunity for world leaders to familiarize themselves with the impending danger of climate change and to exchange ideas in advance of next year’s UN Climate Change Conference to take place in Paris. The hope is that today’s gathering will motivate dignitaries to take action in their own countries.

Obama outlined a plan to meet carbon-cutting goals within the next six years and urged the international community to join the United States in these efforts. He also announced measures that would help developing countries to strengthen their resilience to climate change, noting that “no nation is immune” to the deadly weather events we have seen in the last several years.

It may not be easy to garner political will in favor of fighting climate change; bizarrely, the topic is still controversial in the U.S. Many political leaders seem to scoff in the face of science, despite the fact that the scientific community concedes that climate change is human-driven. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and one of the leading organizers of the People’s Climate March, was disappointed that Obama didn’t promise enough: “If the President really wants collective ambition,” he said in a statement following the summit, “he’s got to show a little more can-do spirit from the world’s leading economy… Today’s boasts about his climate efforts ring hollow in the face of America passing Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s largest oil and gas producer.”

While McKibben makes a good point, this global conversation needs to start somewhere, and it’s starting here, on American soil. I am proud of that. Our leaders have a role to play, but so do we, as citizens of America and of the planet. It’s important that we act. The People’s Climate March was a solid first step, but we need to carry that momentum with us to the polls. Register to vote, and then vote – for leaders who will take action to make positive changes rather than those who will be bought out by corporations with ties to Big Oil.

In the President’s own words, climate change will “define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other” issue. I agree, and we have no time to lose.

“The Largest Climate March in History”

Demonstrators gather in front of the Morris Theater in downtown South Bend, Indiana

Demonstrators gather in front of the Morris Theater in downtown South Bend, Indiana.

Two weeks ago, I went to a screening of the film Disruption at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana. The compelling film highlighted the devastation we’ve seen around the world that has resulted directly from climate change. It made me angry at times, tearful at times, and then it gave me hope. (To see what all the hype was about, watch the entire film here.) It was a call to action to attend yesterday’s march in New York, in advance of the UN’s summit on the climate crisis (the summit meets tomorrow). I had badly wanted to go, but because of work and the expense of making a last minute trip, I opted to stay here and attend a rally locally in solidarity with the marchers in New York and worldwide (there were more than 2,600 events in more than 150 countries!)

There were about 50 of us in downtown South Bend yesterday – not a bad turnout for this highly conservative area. But in New York City, the final count of demonstrators totaled 400,000, surpassing expected numbers by some 300,000 people! That number included former Vice President Al Gore, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, New York Mayor Bill deBlasio, and actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo. These and more marched alongside people of all faiths and nationalities in an effort to demonstrate the numerous reasons to take action against human-driven climate change. They’re calling it the largest Climate March in history to date.

Demonstrators wave the American flag, the UN flag, and a flag depicting Earth.

Demonstrators wave the American flag, the UN flag, and a flag depicting Earth.

At the end of our rally in South Bend, participants were asked to write on a prayer flag “what I don’t want to lose to climate change”. Naturally, I wrote “food” on my flag. But I’m reminded that our food system is not only threatened by planetary warming – it’s also a leading cause of climate change. In the words of food journalist James McWilliams: “Producing over 300 million tons of meat a year arguably represents the most destructive misallocation of natural resources in all human history, one that contributes disproportionately to the core issues that The People’s Climate March will address: global warming, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.” In other words, if you care about the environment, you can’t ignore animal agriculture. You have a choice: educate yourself and make a change, or remain culpable in the destruction of the only home we know. (Read the rest of McWilliams’ article here.)

Here’s hoping the United Nations Summit results in some tangible strategies for mitigating climate change around the globe. Stay tuned.

A small, but meaningful gathering of organizers and demonstrators.

A small, but meaningful gathering of organizers and demonstrators.

Inglorious Fruits & Veggies!

So this fun little viral video out of France finally made its way around to me…

Inglorious Fruits and Veggies! What a novel concept. It reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write another post about food waste, a problem that so often goes unnoticed just because many people are unaware of it.

And yet there’s a growing body of information out there. Food isn’t only wasted because it’s “ugly”. Some of it gets wasted before the consumer ever has a chance to see it. Food is wasted across our entire food system; in the field, at the grocer’s, in restaurants, and in our own refrigerators.

For example, 950,000 jars of good peanut butter were dumped in a landfill in New Mexico last year. Why? Because retail giant Costco rejected the shipment – which came from a recently-bankrupt peanut processing company. They chose to discard all 950,000 jars, citing “leaking peanut oil”. You’d think they could have salvaged at least some of those jars. Or, instead of discarding them, they might have considered donating them to a shelter or non-profit.

The Food Recovery Network is one such non-profit that would have taken on those peanut butter jars, despite a bit of sticky peanut oil. In 2011, they opened their doors to stray leftovers from university dining halls and sporting events in order to feed the 1 in 8 people that struggled with hunger in their Washington, D.C. community. Since then, they’ve recovered over 400,000 pounds of food from more than 95 colleges in 26 states, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. (I’m proud to say that Bon Appetit, the company that manages the cafeteria at my alma mater, is committed to socially responsible food practices, and regularly supports the Food Recovery Network!)

This year, the FRN launched a new “Food Recovery Certification” program for restaurants and businesses (grocery stores, schools, hotels, hospitals, caterers, farmers, etc.) that donate their excess or unsaleable food to local non-profits and charities at least once per month. Upon certification, they receive a bright green window sticker that lets customers know about their commitment to feeding communities (and not community landfills).

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Look for this sticker at your favorite restaurant. If you don’t see it – ask them why they’re not certified yet!

In his book American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom writes about the fact that one barrier to action for restaurants discarding food is “the fear of liability.” What restaurant owners may not know is that they’re protected: in 1996 President Bill Clinton signed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act designed to encourage the donation of food and groceries for redistribution to those in need. Unless a restaurant knowingly sends bad food to shelters, this act protects them from any and all liability issues.

I love reading about what other organizations and individuals are doing to combat food waste in their homes and communities. There’s so much to learn, from large-scale efforts (see the Food Recovery Challenge, part of the EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management Program) to grassroots, in-my-own-kitchen efforts (check out these 21 Brilliant Kitchen Hacks to Help You Cut Down on Food Waste).

For our part, my husband and I have figured out that if we make a dinner menu for the week, we end up buying only what we’ll use. We take our leftover dinners to work for lunch the next day, and we cut waste by not buying food we don’t have a plan for. It’s worked out pretty well, and we have fun trying out new recipes to add to our rotation!

What do you do to prevent food waste in your home?

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Our cat, Emmy, supervising the kitchen with an air of silent authority. You can see our dinner menu in the background. Betcha you’re wondering what “haystacks” or “jap chae” are!!

Food Waste at It’s Finest

Mountains of ice cream in a dumpster outside of Harding's Market in St. Joseph, Michigan - Photo Credit to David Clayton, Facebook

Mountains of ice cream in a dumpster outside of Harding’s Market in St. Joseph, Michigan – Photo Credit to David Clayton, Facebook

On Monday, June 30th, the Southwest Michigan / Northern Indiana region suffered a major thunderstorm that knocked out power across several counties – power that is not likely to be restored in most areas until Saturday, July 5th.

The power outage is a pain in everyone’s ass. This week it’s impeded routine business and networks that we take for granted. But on an individual-household level, it’s also meant people going without hot showers and hot food. And after any amount of time – by now (Wednesday), certainly – it’s rendered most of what’s in people’s refrigerators inedible.

Food waste at it’s finest… The photo above was shared with me on Facebook. It was taken by an acquaintance (I don’t know the photographer personally but you know what they say about six degrees of separation? This acquaintance is probably more of a 2nd- or 3rd-degree separation in this small community). Think of all that went into producing this ice cream. Energy and fodder for feeding cows, time spent by and money paid to the farmers who raised the cows and produced the milk, and again time and wages of the processors who turned it into ice cream… wasted because of a storm that knocked our power out.

Obviously extreme weather events happen, and power is going to go out sometimes. And obviously, you have to factor existing infrastructure into the equation. Very few people are equipped to predict the severity of storms such as the one we witnessed late Monday evening / early Tuesday morning, and certainly these things come on quickly enough that you can’t always prepare for them in advance.

But in a roundabout (or maybe not so roundabout) way, you can consider the extreme storm on Monday a direct result of global warming. Climate change is giving us increasingly extreme weather: remember the Snowpocalypse/Snowmageddon that froze us all only a few months ago? How about that drought that destroyed local corn crops two summers ago?

The person who posted this photo of discarded ice cream at the St. Joseph Hardings is obviously saddened by all this wasted icy-creamy goodness, but now think of all the ADDITIONAL food going to waste – vegetables, meats, dairy, frozen and refrigerated – that are rotting in peoples’ fridges and freezers across Michiana due to the power outage. A power outage that is expected to last all week and across several counties. You begin to realize the enormity of the impact this storm and food waste will have on our community. It really is sad.

Food waste and climate change, people. We regularly waste upwards of 40% or more of the food we produce in this country (and not only because of extreme weather). And science has told us (for quite some time now, actually) that climate change is not a hoax (contrary to what your politicians will tell you).

Food policy. Climate science. These things matter.

Making Connections

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Earlier this week, the news broke of a manure spill in Allegan County, Michigan – about an hour and a half north of where I live. The spill originated at a dairy farm and was discovered last Friday – although they were unable to determine when the leak had started and how much manure had seeped into Bear Creek, which runs into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River and ultimately empties into Lake Michigan. They’ve estimated that the plume has travelled about five miles downstream at this point.

I was actually sitting in the newsroom at my workplace (I work for a radio broadcasting company) when my coworker announced the manure spill. Offhandedly, I cringed and said, “That’s why I don’t eat meat!” He looked at me like I was crazy – what does that have to do with a manure spill??

(Admittedly, I made my comment before I knew the spill was from a dairy farm and not a meat-production farm – meaning that ultimately I do share a part in the blame, since I eat cheese. But in my mind, a CAFO is a CAFO, and the problem is still the same! Concentrated animal feeding operations contribute to pollution of our waterways – and more.)

My coworker didn’t immediately make the connection between my choice to avoid meat and the manure spill that took place last week. He tried to defend the industry by countering that we need manure. “But you’re a vegetarian! It fertilizes our crops. Our vegetables!” he said.

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An image of Bear Creek, the site of the manure spill. (Andrew Kuhn – MLive.com)

I tried to explain that the amount of manure we produce (not to mention the poor-quality, hormone-laden, disease-ridden manure we produce) is totally unnecessary for growing vegetables. The EPA has estimated that a farm with 2,500 cows on it can generate as much waste as the people in a city the size of Miami.

That’s a lot of poop.

Last year, the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health performed a 5-year follow-up to the 2008 report, Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America (published by the Pew Charitable Trusts). The general findings of the original report concluded that industrial animal production as it is performed today (2008) is unsustainable. “It represents an unacceptable level of threat to public health, an unacceptable level of damage to the environment, is harmful to the animals housed in the most restrictive confinement systems, and is harmful to the long-term economic health to the communities near their location” (Robert Martin, Food System Policy Director at the Center for a Livable Future and former Executive Director of the commission formed for the 2008 study).

The follow-up study reported that all of the original problems outlined in the 2008 publication have only gotten worse. More concentrated animal production. Greater antibiotic resistance. And yes, the public health threat from livestock waste has grown.

In a statement released by John Schaendorf, the farm owner responsible for the spill, he said, “It’s new for everybody. It’s never happened before.” Except that it has, and it certainly could again, in my state and elsewhere. And the scary part about animal waste is that unlike human waste, which undergoes treatment by law, animal waste is not regulated at all. Instead, it’s held in giant manure lagoons before being diluted and spread over cropland. It takes nothing more than a large storm to sweep through and overflow these manure pits – leeching hormones, pathogens and toxic metals into the nearby water table.

As it happens, that’s exactly what occurred in Allegan County; the spill is now being blamed on an icy, snow-covered “pipe and valve that failed in a storm water system”. With all the rain and snow melt Southwest Michigan has received in the last two days (and the warnings of flash flooding), that means that whatever cleanup is left will be virtually impossible.

This is why it’s so important that we make those connections – between the supply and demand of our diets, and the health of our immediate environment. They are intricately linked to the very health of our own families and neighbors. And as we are pounded with more and more extreme weather each year, spills of this type are bound to happen again.

Interactive Charts for Food Nerds

A friend of mine just shared a pretty neat link with me. For anyone who has an interest in food systems world wide AND a love for online interactive charts – this is pretty cool!

Oxfam has published their Global Food Index, a “snapshot of 125 countries showing the best and worst places in the world to eat, and the challenges people face in getting enough of the right food.”

Here’s a glimpse of the overall country rankings:

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What’s cool is that you can also sort the countries by which have enough to eat, food affordability, quality, and obesity/diabetes rates. The data is pretty interesting and I like that you can see it all in a glance. Click on a country’s icon, and you get a specific look at those country’s rankings.

The work of Oxfam is fairly well known, but among other things, one of their primary objectives is improving food systems globally. They’re committed to helping farmers get fair prices for their produce, advocate for trade policy that lifts people out of poverty, and support women’s labor rights – all of which are fantastic reasons to support them. They also campaign for a sustainable food system that will be able to feed the world’s 9 billion people by 2050. (And that’s just food. They also work on water, health, education, poverty, development, and climate change. Can I get an amen?!)

On a related note, the United Nations has a pilot page called the FAOSTAT (Food and Agriculture Organization Statistics) where they’ve published all kinds of global data on food production, trade, agri-environmental indicators, and more. The site is a little more difficult to maneuver, but it can tell you a great deal more, and can compare specific industry data between countries. I encourage you to check it out (I usually start with the “Browse Data” tab).

Happy data-browsing, foodies of the world!

Red Light, Green Light?

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About a week ago I came across an article published by CNN Health entitled Red light, green light: Food choice made easier. The article describes a study performed in a Massachusetts hospital cafeteria, where foods were labeled with green stickers for the most healthy items, yellow stickers for less healthy items, and red stickers for the least healthy options. Items with green stickers were put in easily visible and easy-to-reach locations.

It’s a fairly simple concept; even a child can understand the “green means go, red means stop” analogy. In fact, the study was based on a book by Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist, designed to help parents and kids make smarter dietary choices in their own homes.

The hospital study was geared toward adults rather than children, and about a third of the purchases were made by hospital employees who used the cafeteria regularly. After 24 months, the study showed a decrease in red-sticker purchases, from 24% to 21% (and an even greater decrease in red-sticker beverage purchases), while green-sticker purchases increased from 41% to 46%. Employee purchases showed the greatest improvement.

The takeaway, at least according to the study’s authors as quoted in the CNN article, is that “simple food environment interventions can play a major role in public health policies to reduce obesity.” However, the study’s lead author, Dr. Anne Thorndike, does state that while the traffic-light system can quickly and easily convey a brief nutritional overview, it cannot and should not replace more detailed nutrition information.

I’m inclined to agree with Thorndike’s latter statement. While the colored label strategy may work well on a smaller scale – in a hospital cafeteria setting or your family’s pantry – the assumption made in the takeaway above is that it could potentially be applied on a wider scale – in supermarkets, for example.

Except that… well, supermarkets already do this. Or rather, food corporations do. It’s what Michele Simon, a public health attorney, calls “nutriwashing”. Just as foods can be “greenwashed” by the food industry, they can also be nutriwashed. It’s when highly-processed junk food at your neighborhood grocery store comes with a “whole grain” label stamped on the box. Or when food companies such as Kraft label their products “Sensible Solutions”, or PepsiCo slaps a “Smart Spot” sticker on their packaging. In her book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How To Fight Back, Simon explains how companies will go to great lengths to persuade health-conscious consumers to continue buying their products, even if it means developing their own (misleading) guidelines for “healthy” eating. Health-minded consumers are simply more likely to buy a product if it has a healthy label attached to it.

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So how is the traffic light analogy any different? If this strategy fell into the wrong hands – co-opted by the food industry’s PR machine – “green light” labels would cease to mean anything at all.

Indeed, Dr. Dolgoff, originator of the “green-light, red-light” concept, has come under criticism because her own book advocates green labels for some questionable “foods”, including Lucky Charms, white breads and pastas, candy corn, M&Ms, etc. It makes you wonder if her research was sponsored by a corporate source; it would not be unheard of. (To be fair, I have not read her book myself, and there have been many positive reviews as well.)

To apply the “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right” system on a large scale would require an independent governing body – one which is not influenced by Big Food lobbyists – to make decisions on how to designate labels. Judging by the state of labels in our supermarkets now, and the power Big Food has over the market, this would be no easy task.

But perhaps the takeaway should be this: the strategy can work. It can work in your own home if accompanied by a little research and education. It may work particularly well in teaching children about diet and limits. It may not solve the wider problem of obesity, which affects a third of Americans. But if you ask me, it’s probably as good a place to start as any.