Anatomy of an Evening Meal

It really has been awhile since my last post – a month! Truly I haven’t meant to be away for so long… and I’ve been up to so many things!

Recently I’ve been looking at what the world eats, and what sustainability means in those many different places. I discovered the FAOSTAT, a unique tool introduced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (my nerdy-foodie-anthropologist-junkie self loves this – it can tell me about food all over the world!) I’ve been thinking about the impact of globalization and how farming practices and foreign policy in one country affect families in countries half the world away. I’ve been thinking about the growing population problem, and what it means that our planet will soon need to feed 9 billion people. And, in thinking about the strain that kind of food production could put on our Earth, I began to explore what can be done about global food waste.

So you can see I’ve been busy. And I want to think hard on all of those topics and perhaps discuss them here later.

Today though, I decided to take a deep look at just one meal. I wondered, what does it take to produce an average meal? Where does my food come from? How much energy and water is used to produce it? What happens to my kitchen waste? It’s by no means a comprehensive study, but here’s what I learned.

For dinner tonight we decided to use up a bunch of produce we had in our fridge – we tend not to eat it up FAST enough and it sometimes goes bad before we get to it (read: consumer-level food waste!) Stir frying is usually a good way to throw a variety of veggies together. I’d also been wanting to try my hand at making mango lassis and had recently bought the ingredients, so I made that as well.


Part of our stir fry prep


Mango lassi prep – pardon the poor photos

Stir fry ingredients: tofu, kale, green onion, mint, red bell pepper, zucchini over rice
Tofu marinade: lemon juice, sesame oil, soy sauce, honey, corn starch, red pepper flakes
Lassi: mango, yogurt, honey, salt, cardamom

Where our food was grown (we live in southwest Michigan):

  • Kale, green onion, zucchini, mint – locally (within a few miles)
  • Red pepper – unknown
  • Lemon juice, yogurt – distributed by Grand Rapids, MI company, but growing area unknown.
  • Cardamom pods – distributed out of Ohio
  • Corn starch, tofu – USA
  • Salt – Canada
  • Sesame oil – Japan
  • Mango – Mexico
  • Honey – Argentina
  • Rice – India

When/how our food was grown:
 The kale, green onion and zucchini were grown within the last 2-3 weeks – we get them in our CSA basket, which comes from a transitional-organic mixed-crop farm at a local university. The mint was picked fresh off a plant in our backyard. For everything else, the “when” and “how” are unknown.

Processing for our meal: Tofu was seared, then tossed with other chopped/diced vegetables in a wok. Marinade ingredients were mixed and then tossed in the wok also. Water was added to rice to cook in a rice cooker. Mango was cut off the pit, turned into pulp with a blender, then blended further with yogurt, honey, cardamom and salt.

Transportation/Distribution: Our meal was both very local and very foreign! Ingredients came from as close as our backyard, across our country, and from as far away as Asia and South America. I’m sure it got to us via as many kinds of transportation as you can imagine – my best guess would be by truck and by air. I can’t know for sure about any of them except those grown through our CSA program – those get trucked to the produce stand directly from harvest, and then we pick it up and bring it home in our car.

Acquisition: All but the mint was purchased either from the CSA farm or one of our local grocery stores.

Packaging and storage: Fresh produce from the CSA comes in a basket. Fresh produce in the store is usually not packaged until we bag and purchase it. Sesame oil and soy sauce are in glass bottles; red pepper flakes, lemon juice, cornstarch, and yogurt came in plastic containers; cardamom pods came in a plastic bag. We store the perishables in our refrigerator and everything else in cupboards/cabinet.

Preparation: Veggies were washed under running water, rice was cooked with water (2 cups), and we periodically rinsed our hands – rough water estimate about a gallon, maybe more. For utensils we used knives, cutting boards, blender, wok, nonstick Teflon pan, spatula, and a wooden spoon. Stir fry was cooked over a gas stove; lassi was blended using an electric blender. Total cook time was about an hour if you estimate 20 minutes searing the tofu, 20 minutes stir-frying veggies, and 20 minutes cooking the rice.

Our kitchen: Our kitchen is average-sized for an apartment – open floor space where our table is but not very much counter space. It’s lit mostly with energy-efficient CFL bulbs except for one fluorescent bulb over our sink. Our home is heated with gas (in the winter – not right now) and a nearby nuclear power plant supplies our electricity.

Cleaning/Disposal: Utensils and dishes will be hand washed in the sink. We usually wipe up after cooking with a damp towel – may use a cleaning agent if we need to scrub areas of our stove. Packaging from food goes mostly in the trash as we do not have a recycling service in our area (I really wish we did – throwing away perfectly recyclable plastic and cardboard pains me every time). All organic waste ends up in our compost. Sewage from our home goes to a septic tank.

This was a fascinating study of my meal. One of the most surprising things I learned was all the countries represented within my own kitchen. I do try to buy as locally as possible – which works here in southwest Michigan in the summer, because being next to the lake means our climate and growing region are second only to California in terms of productivity and variety!

But when I stop to think about it – well, of course, where else would I get rice but from Asia? Where did I expect the mango to come from? Most surprising was the honey – from Argentina?! That’s one I know I can do better on – I know I can get local honey, and I’ll pay attention to that the next time I buy some.

This is our second year participating in the CSA program. We get a fresh basket of locally-grown produce every week. Last year we found ourselves with abundances of certain veggies that we just couldn’t eat fast enough – yellow and jalepeno peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, etc. Often they would rot in our fridge. Part of it was that we didn’t know what to do with them in such quantities. This year I’ve been reading about the processes of fermenting vegetables, and I’m hoping to reduce our food waste by using fermentation as a preservation method. I just made my first batches of sauerkraut and pickles!

photo-2 5.38.04 PM photo-2 5.49.05 PM

We’ll see how they turn out!


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