12 Easy Ways to Reduce Your Food Footprint This Year

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Okay, Food Folks. We have a couple of serious problems. One is that our food supply system is flat-busted-broken. The other is that the spokespeople for change in this area tend to be… well, how to put it? Sanctimonious jerks, or dingbats who copped their look from Wavy Gravy and say GMOs are wrong but cannot articulate why. It’s… awkward.

The best reasons for changing your ways (gently, simply, gradually and non-radically) aren’t just “environmentalist.” They are pleasurable. And if you play your cards right, they save you money too.

Here are 12 things (that’s one a month, Resolutionists!) you can do without becoming that guy no one wants to go out to dinner with, or having to quit your job to join some weird back-to-the-land cult. Any of these will improve your life and the lives of the people who will be here when you are dust. And if we all did ALL of them – well, we’d be having a whole different conversation right now.

1. Spend More Money on Meat
meat via ornello_pics.jpg
photo by ornello_pic via Flickr

...And do it a lot less. You don’t have to be a vegetarian – but if you want to live to see your grandkids get married and you don’t want to have to wear SPF 45,000 sunscreen to their wedding, think about how much you want to contribute to an industry that is dirty, demonstrably accelerating climate change, contributing heavily to chronic illness, and exposing you to gross and sometimes lethal infections. Anyone who has ever driven through the charming town of Coalinga, CA knows what I’m talking about – if you live near a large-scale cattle, pig or poultry processing operation you probably do too. If you eat meat every day, consider just taking one or two days a week off from it. If you are buying it cheap, know you’re aiding and abetting the worst aspects of the industry – please consider investing in your health and the planet’s by buying organically raised, small-farm stuff, and if you can get it directly from the producer, so much the better. If you decide you’re better off without it altogether, you’re in good company and will not suffer in restaurants, I swear.

2. Compost
Compost via Flickr by Joi Ito.jpg
photo by Joi Ito via Flickr

There are people who do not have a realistic option for this, but really, not many. Many fortunate city-dwellers have composting available through their waste management service, so if you don’t have a backyard or a nearby community garden, you can probably just take the ten flipping seconds it takes to separate organic matter from beer bottles and stick them in the green can. If you do have a community garden, donate. They will want it, trust me. And if you have green space of your own, find a convenient corner to compost stuff by yourself – it is nearly zero effort and results in healthy soil. Anyone who thinks it is inconvenient has probably never tried it.

3. Sign Up for a CSA
CSA via Flickr by Charles Smith.jpg
photo by Charles Smith via Flickr

Community Supported Agriculture is exactly what it sounds like. For a monthly fee, an actual farm delivers actual food to your home or to a convenient pickup location. It is always fresh, always local, always seasonal and puts more of your grocery budget into the hands of the folks who grow your food. You can usually customize a CSA share to work for you – how often you receive deliveries and to some extent, what is and isn’t in them.

4. Plant a Fruit or Nut Tree
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If you don’t have a large park-like backyard where you can do this personally, find a program that will do it on your behalf. In my hometown (San Francisco), contact Friends of the Urban Forest for help and suggestions; elsewhere, look to your county extension services Master Gardeners. If you do have a large parklike backyard, or even a modest one where there’s an empty space or an ugly shrub you’ve wanted to yoink out of there for ages – get thee to thy local plant-selling establishment and find out what grows best in your area. Cross reference that with what you actually find tasty, and get the shovel into the ground. Northern Californians can grow nearly anything – but sometimes places with harsher climates produce the most amazing things. If you’re in upstate New York you’re going to be able to grow way better apples than I can, and if you’re in humid Georgia, you already know your people rule the peach and the pecan. Los Angelenos don’t get the chill hours required for great cherries or nectarines, but that dry, mild weather is avocado heaven. Not to mention bananas. Upper Midwesterners? Cherries, baby. And hazelnuts.

5. Embrace Foraging
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If you live in a highly polluted area (ironically, all too often that’s agricultural land) do a little homework to make sure this is safe (some edible forageables are more likely than others to deliver a mouthful of pesticides or car exhaust byproducts), but in a typical suburban neighborhood, for example, everything from “weeds” in vacant lots (some of which are wildly expensive “superfoods” like purslane) to that plum, walnut, apple or lemon tree branch dangling over the fence and onto the sidewalk are legally fair game and you can’t get fresher or more local. Anyone who has ever stumbled onto a giant blackberry bramble on a hiking trail knows there are few things in life more sensually satisfying than wild fruit. Caveat: Unless it’s a demonic invasive like knotweed or garlic mustard, be respectful and don’t get greedy. As the mindful forager’s creed goes, “Take one, leave three.” Also, please do a LOT of homework before hunting down any kind of mushroom. There are approximately two of those that are easily distinguished from lookalikes that can be icky, or put you on the liver transplant list.

6. Go Easy on the Fish
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photo by Mr. TinDC via Flickr

Before you go shopping or order sushi, take a second to glance at the watchlist and think twice about how badly you want to contribute to the extinction of the Bluefin tuna. Check in with the Natural Resources Defense Council) for current lists of clean and non-threatened seafood.

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