Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sustainable Dining in Houston and My Thanksgiving Meal

Sustainable Dining in Houston
When I was back in Houston for Thanksgiving break, I spent the better part of a day searching out sustainable yet cheap meals. Surprisingly, Houston, consistently ranked among the most polluted and fattest cities in America, had a wide variety of sustainable dining options that ranged from farmers markets similar to the one found in Charlottesville to restaurants that are “Green Restaurant Certified.” I did, however, quickly realize that while it was quite easy to find raw and unprepared food that would be considered sustainable at a price within my $6 per meal budget, finding prepared sustainable meals for under $6 was much more of a challenge.
My mother suggested that I visit a restaurant named “Ruggles Green” that goes to great lengths to maintain sustainability on as many levels as possible. The hostess was more than willing to give me the restaurant’s website address that establishes the following mission statement:
“Ruggles Green is Green Restaurant Certified by the Green Restaurant Association. We offer delicious menu items that incorporate organic, all-natural, hormone-free, preservative-free, products that are always delicious. We strive to preserve the environment through our actions in recycling, conservation, the use of sustainable products, and simple common sense.
We strive for all Natural, all Organic, and all Ways Delicious.”
They even provide a link to their Green Restaurant Association certification:

The only problem, which was a common one that I have encountered, was that there was nothing on the entire menu for $6 or less that would constitute an entire meal. Their cheapest sandwich on the menu, described below, sounded quite interesting but was almost $9!

Ruggles Green Veggie-Nut Burger - with Hemp Protein, Micro Greens &
Fresh Mozzarella, Lettuce, Tomato & Red Onion, served on a Whole
Wheat Bun $8.95

In fact, I went to 3 restaurants that were advertised as “sustainable,” and I was not able to find a single full meal within my budget. On the other hand, I was able to make my own meal with ingredients found at the Houston Farmer’s Market that consisted of 2 chicken breasts that came from humanely raised chickens that were raised at a farm only 30 minutes outside of Houston and a salad of locally grown micro greens and carrots with an organic dressing I found at Central Market.

Thanksgiving Sustainability Analysis

I went into Thanksgiving with the hope that my grandparents would prepare a meal that included a wide variety of the various fruits and vegetables that they grow in their large garden. Their garden is even maintained in a way that uses no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Unfortunately, my grandfather has been recovering from heart surgery and has been unable to fully maintain his garden. He was able, however, to make an all natural sweet potato pie with the sweet potatoes he was able to harvest. The turkey eaten by my family was a free-range turkey raised on my grandparent’s ranch. Additionally, all of the beef consumed during the meal was harvested from a grass-fed limousin cow that had to be put down after breaking one if its legs in a cattle guard. Other than these 3 examples, there were no other aspects of the meal that would be considered particularly sustainable, but I feel that my Thanksgiving meal must be more sustainable than most.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Local Food During Thanksgiving?

During my week off for Thanksgiving, I found that it was a lot harder to eat local food, especially for a purely local diet. I only spent one day in Virginia, during which I paid a visit to my local Whole Foods Market. Here I found that there was barely any local food at this time of the year, especially in the produce and salads department. There were a few dairy products and meats that were shipped in from Pennsylvania. However, my hometown had much less local food than I could find in Charlottesville. Maybe it was because I lived in Northern Virginia, where the land is mostly dominated by businesses and factories, while Charlottesville is surrounded by farms and farmland. Another reason is that this was far later into November than when I first started my project, so the availability of local food was far less at this time of the year. In addition, the Whole Foods was a lot further away from my home than it was from college. I had to drive 40 minutes or more to get there, which was a major reason why my parents didn’t go there more often.
I spent the rest of my time during Thanksgiving in New Jersey. Over here, it was even more difficult to find local food, especially during the winter months. Whole Foods was over an hour away from the location that I was at, and the markets nearby had no local food at this time of the year. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to find any local food, though I suspect that should I try during the spring or summer months, local food would be much more readily available.
Avik Dayal

Analysis: Eating Locally

In the week of eating local food, it was found that with a little bit of planning in advance, I could definitely eat purely local meals for around the same cost as my usual meals. In groceries at the beginning of the week, I got enough food from Whole Foods to last me most of the week for around 50-60 dollars. Though this is a little bit more than the average cost of groceries, it was not a significant amount more. The only major issue that arose in local foods was the variety found at this time of the year. Though this was not the only cost during the week, I found that I could definitely have lived on this cost alone. Other than this cost for groceries, I had about another 20 dollars in expenditures. These expenditures were for food from the Fine Arts Café and from Revolutionary Soup. Overall, my bill for the week came out to be around 80 dollars, give or take 10 dollars. However, I did not use all the food that I bought for the week, and could have used it for a little bit more time. With a little bit of advance planning at a different part of the season, a college student could definitely eat purely local food during the year.
Though a college student could definitely eat purely local food during most of the year for a reasonable cost, it would probably not be convenient. One would also find it difficult to eat sustainably local food during the winter months, for there are barely any produce products available. However, after my week of eating purely sustainably, I investigated how to eat a few local meals a day. Since I had a lot of produce left over from my week of eating purely local food, I had a few local apples for several of my meals during the week. Whenever I would eat out, I would try to eat at Revolutionary Soup or restaurants that served local food. Though the price was slightly more, the net benefit overrode the cost. I was eating healthier food than before, while also living with the knowledge that I was helping farmers and companies in the area. When you account for this in the long run, the food that I eat is well worth the extra 1 dollar that I paid for it.
Avik Dayal

Friday, November 27, 2009

Where Was My Organic Thanksgiving Dinner?

Thanksgiving- a time to sit around the dinner table to be thankful for all the people you have in your life. On my Thanksgiving, I sat with my immediate family- my mother, father, sister and my aunt, uncle and cousin. The meal was a cultural representation of a holiday dedicated to being grateful for the many things we as people do not consider during the rest of the year. Yet the meal I saw in front of me was duplicated onto every table in the United States. There is of course the turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, bread rolls, sweet potatoes, and so forth. This the imagery of Thanksgiving. On a holiday when 5.32 million turkeys are ritually killed each year, it is important to understand where these animals come from and how they arrive to many dinner tables in America. I know for a fact that my turkey WAS NOT organic and neither was the majority of meal. We had some Whole Grain crackers an an hors d'oeuvre , but even those did not consist of any organic ingredients. So what does this say about the nation as a whole? On the one day of the year represented by a feast, Americans generally fail to bring organic products onto the Dinner Table. The New York Times Well column recently blogged about the cost of an organic Thanksgiving Day meal compared to a non-organic one. They found you could end up paying nearly 75% more when going all organic! From ivillage. If one has to pay this much more money, then is it really worth it? This page says you have to pay $100 more for an organic Thanksgiving Dinner.

But supposedly organic turkeys are healthier and tastier on this blog here. But Thanksgiving is already an expensive holiday- families are consuming much more than they ordinarily would, so why should people pay even more? Certainly, this blog explains the benefits of eating organic, but when it costs extra money (and a lot more $$) to do so, people usually drop out of the race and still with the industrial produced. So once again, we are back to the problem with organic products- no one I know of is against it, but few want to pay for it or have the money to do so. Hopefully one day when the price can drop to where even those of the lower class can afford organic food can it products be available for the general populace.

I think that if Thanksgiving consisted of organic products, it would be more settling the respectful to the holiday. It's origins are when Squanto taught the pilgrims how to plant crops in the fields of Massachusetts- not with the use of pesticides,GMOs, or fertilizers. The holiday is about mutually respecting the earth so that people of different backgrounds can bond with one anther. When people buy industrially produced products for Thanksgiving, it undermines the ideology of the holiday. But nevertheless, that the ugly truth, that when it comes down to money, people cannot afford the organic products. What does this mean for us as a nation? That generally speaking, we are not ready to make the transformation to organic food. The industrial process is what has allowed the US population to survive, and our dependency to it is not wavering. Of course, there are vegetarians, vegans, and some who took on the organic diet this Thanksgiving, but for the rest of us- our products come from the industrial process. There is a long way to go before an organic Thanksgiving dinner can become more of a reality for us as Americans.

A Sustainable Thanksgiving?

It seems to me that the idea of Thanksgiving is to bring people together and highlight the importance of close relationships. It is supposed to be a reminder that the things we should be thankful for are not really things, but people. Traditionally, bringing together loved ones on Thanksgiving also means providing a large amount of food for all to share. While feeding a large extended family can certainly require a lot, there is some sort of inherent fear among Americans of “running out of food.” Thus everyone tends to make far more than enough for the Thanksgiving feast. Preparing the food for this meal can be fun, and a bonding activity in itself, but it can also be stressful. The spirit of thankfulness of the holiday often becomes masked as something goes wrong in the kitchen and tempers flare. It is easy to forget that people, and not food, are what really matters on Thanksgiving. When one of those people that you hold dear is no longer there, the mask of materiality is easily removed – suddenly, providing a lavish meal with the best china no longer has any importance.

This year for Thanksgiving, my family decided to keep it simple. Rather than buying an exorbitant amount of food, the three of us opted to make pancakes for our Thanksgiving meal. While the ingredients weren’t local, and only some were organic, there was something far more sustainable in how we went about designing our dinner. We stuck with simple ingredients, ones that had been minimally processed such as unbleached flour and pure butter (rather than margarine). We made the meal from scratch, mixing the basic baking ingredients with fruit and nuts that we chopped ourselves. All three of us were involved in the making – someone stirred, another flipped the pancakes, someone prepared the table. And we made the right amount for the three of us – we didn’t have to worry about the presentation and making sure it looked like we had “enough.”

In a way, I feel our meal was very sustainable. At face value, we didn’t create a large amount of food waste and our simple ingredients overall were cause for less pollution than others. But I think more importantly, the manner in which we prepared the meal helped strengthen family ties – it was in keeping with the spirit of giving thanks for what you have. Sure, it could have been more sustainable. The ingredients weren’t local, the fruit wasn’t in season, and only some of the parts were organic. But the idea behind the meal was one of care in its making and consideration for others. These principals lie at the core of sustainability, in regard to food as well as everything else. After spending this semester trying to figure out how to eat sustainable, I have realized that just knowing the facts and buying the “green” labeled products is not enough. One has to understand the meaning behind it all, why we should even bother to eat sustainably. The reason is out of a care for others – a desire to share something wholesome and good with those who are with us, and to make choices that will allow those in the future to share these same pleasures.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Summary of Eating Organic at UVA

Comprehensive Summary of my attempt to eat sustainably (through an organic diet) at the University of Virginia

I set out to determine if eating sustainably is viable for a UVA student by going one week attempting to eat only organic products. I analyzed the feasibility of this diet based on five factors: convenience, affordability, availability, taste, and health, and determined how a student’s level of proximity to Central Grounds influences his ability to continue this diet. Overall, I found that the organic options on grounds are very limited, but Greater Charlottesville contains a large number of restaurants and stores which carry organic products.
For a UVA student who relies on a meal plan, one would have to primarily eat in a Dining Hall. I found that the most convenient Dining Hall to Central Grounds, Newcomb, has little to no organic items. They do incorporate several “Green Dining” concepts into the way they make their food, but they make almost no effort to provide students with genuinely organic food. Therefore if a student relies on the Dining Hall and is looking for the great level of convenience, they will have almost no options to eat organic food. Slightly farther away from Central Grounds, O’Hill Dining Hall does better with organic options but still is below satisfactory for what a Dining Hall at UVA should be able to offer. O’Hill always provides organic lettuce (although it comes from Salinas, California), but it has few other organic products available at any given time. Still, if a student if hoping to eat only organic food at O’Hill, it is pretty much impossible. Finally, there is Runk Dining Hall which is the least convenient of any of the Dining Halls, but has the most organic options. Runk provides a completely organic salad bar and various other organic products. Therefore Runk receives an acceptable rating in regards to eating organic at UVA, although it is surely the farther Dining Hall from Central Grounds. If a student is to completely rely on Dining Halls, it is very difficult to eat an organic diet under any circumstance.
If a student has a meal plan but also has Plus Dollars and plans to eat at the various cafes on campus, then there are several other options available. The cafes (Wilsdorf, Alderman, and Clark) unfortunately offer no organic products. The Pavilion XI in Newcomb does offer several decent options including organic (and local) tofu at Burrito Theory. CrossRoads, the store within the O’Hill Dining Hall, does offer organic groceries which are available to students. The best café by far if one is looking to eat organic on campus is the Fine Arts Café. This café offers a variety of organic (and local) options that are at an acceptable price. More importantly, many would agree that the food tastes very good. The Fine Arts Café is a place on grounds where one can eat organic food, not overspend, has a variety of options, is convenient, and seen as delicious. Therefore, this café is certainly one option which allows eating organic to be possible at UVA.
If a student also has money to spend, they would travel to The Corner. The Corner offers several exceptional options to eat organic food within the sphere of UVA. In terms of convenience, it is a fairly close walk from central grounds. One of the best options on The Corner is Revolutionary Soup which says that at least 30% of its food is organic from Polyface Farms. Overall, there are many organic options available and the some of the items have a great taste. Three, on the Corner also sells various foods with organic products. There are other options available on The Corner to UVA students attempting to eat an organic diet without jeopardizing convenience.
Finally, if a student has a car or uses a bus, then there are the options of Greater Charlottesville that in which a student can consider. Although there are many more options within Greater Charlottesville, the level of convenience decreases. If the student is lucky to have a car and does not have to rely on other public forms of transportation, they have to consider new factors such as time and gas money. Yet there are a number of locations which serve organic options including Rebecca’s Natural Food, Java Java, Integral Yoga Natural Foods, Food of All Nations, and Whole Foods. There is Chipotle (serves organic pork) and Harris Teeter supermarket, both of which can be walked to from the UVA campus. A really good option off campus is the Ivy Inn which prides itself on being fresh and local (with organic products). Yet many of these options are more expensive, so one must consider economic factors when trying to eat organic off grounds. Yet, a UVA student should know that if one had a car or means of travelling to these places, eating organically at UVA is feasible, although it may not convenient or necessarily cheap.
Overall eating organic is viable at UVA depending on the factors listed above. If a student has only a meal plan it is nearly impossible to eat organic on grounds. If he or she has Plus Dollars and eats at cafes on grounds, then his/her options expand, although the level of convenience begins to decrease. If the student goes to the Corner and has extra money to spend, then eating organic becomes much more feasible. The level of convenience does not dramatically differ, although there is an economic factor which comes into play. If a student has a car, then eating organic becomes more feasible at the University of Virginia. Therefore, one’s ability to eat organic food is dependent on one’s proximity to Central Grounds, how much money they are able to spend, and what means they have to travel around campus or off grounds. The reasonable response would be to add more organic options into the Dining Halls to make it easier for students with a meal plan to eat organic products. Yet overall, I found that eating organic is possible at UVA if a student has the means and dedication to go about this diet.


Below is a chart (subjective to our particular findings in this experiment) of the availability of organic products and the convenience for a UVA student living near Central Grounds. I believe it is very clear, that as proximity decreases (to Central Grounds), availability increase, which is not favorable for a student. This means that a great deal of effort may be necessary to achieve satisfaction through an organic diet. The chart below was made on a five star scale for the availability to each option.

In terms of specific options, each member of our group rated on a scale of 0-5 stars, how they would rate the following restaurants in Dining Halls. We then calculated the average of the four of our scores, this is what we found.

Rankings of Sustainability
Revolutionary Soup- 4
Newcomb Dining Hall - 1
O'Hill Dining Hall - 2.5
Runk Dining Hall - 3.5

More coming later for my final post. Happy Thanksgiving All!
- Michael

* Also props to the Israeli who came to our blog. I will be there in a month and I will look into how Israel as a fairly western nation is taking on going green and how its people eat sustainably.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Feasibility and Sustainabilty

In this blog post, I hope to evaluate just how sustainable my week of being vegetarian actually was. It seems to me that there are several tiers of eating sustainably, choosing a meatless diet is merely one of them. First though, let me define what I mean by eating sustainably. For me, it means making food choices that have minimal negative impact on the environment, factoring in all stages of production, distribution, and consumption. This is sustainability on the scale of the foodshed. The more I think about it though, I would say eating healthy would be sustainable on the scale of the human body. Obviously the human body cannot perpetuate indefinitely no matter how healthy the food you feed it. But I would say that healthier food is more sustainable for the body in that it maintains and improves its quality rather than degrading it, and helps lengthen the duration of its existence. I think though, that it’s going to get confusing trying to differentiate between sustainable for the body, and sustainable for the foodshed. So in this discussion, when I mean sustainable for the body, I’ll just call it “healthy” and sustainable for the foodshed will be referred to as “sustainable.”

There is no one solution to eating sustainably. It’s more of a long term project, a design strategy that is constantly being altered. I think that as far as our different sustainable diets (local, vegetarian, organic, and under $6) local is generally going to be the most sustainable, followed by organic, vegetarian, and then under $6. Obviously, someone could eat under $6 for every meal with absolutely zero consideration for sustainability. From there, I’m looking at these diets as, how would it change from a normal American diet where the consumer starts out with no considerations for sustainability whatsoever? As far as being vegetarian, there are several bonuses when you cut out meat. Assuming that like the average American this person was solely eating industrial meat, not eating beef lowers greenhouse gas emissions and saves water (it takes a lot more water to produce a ton of beef than a ton of grain). In theory, more vegetarians would mean less demand for beef and hopefully then less CAFOs, leaving the land available to return to its natural state – a positive for the environment. Regarding health, many studies point to industrial meat as a cause of heart disease and other health problems in America. Additionally, industrial cows are raised in unsanitary conditions within CAFOs; its not unlikely that the hamburgers they become are just as unsanitary, possibly harboring deadly E.Coli and containing antibiotics and chemicals (Food Inc.).

The hypothetical American is now vegetarian, but he’s getting more educated so he decides to start buying organically as well. Even if the organic food is coming from an industrial organic farm, the consumer is still supporting agriculture that does not pollute the land, air and water by using harmful pesticides. However, as seen in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, large organic farms like Earthbound still have to send their vegetables through a factory system to pack them, and then ship the product all over the country, emitting pollutants along the way (Pollan, 166). Taking this step of buying organically is only slightly more sustainable I would say than being a normal vegetarian - however, an organic diet is worlds healthier. In Our Daily Bread, a documentary about industrial food in Germany, workers are shown in hazmat suits, spraying chemicals over every inch of the rows of vegetables grown inside a climactically controlled greenhouse. By choosing the organic product, the consumer is avoiding exposure to these chemicals (both for himself and for the workers), which in the long term can contribute to the development of cancer and other health problems.

Becoming a vegetarian and deciding to buy organic are steps that are easily taken in most developed areas. This is assuming a grocery store that offers organic products is available. I know even my local Kroger offers the Kroger-brand organic version of many products, so I hope I am right in assuming that organic products are available in a large part of the US. I would venture to guess that the availability of a variety of local goods is much less common. Besides in some select places in the US, deciding to buy local is probably not going to mean a complete overhaul of a normal diet – it’s likely this option won’t even be available. Buying local food depends a lot on climate and growing season. Some places in the US are not suited for agriculture, so finding a local farm could be literally impossible. A search for registered farmers’ markets on came up with a listing of 4,584 in the entire US. Most of these are concentrated in the northeast, and in pockets on the coast of California. It looks like if you’re living in the middle of Utah, you’re out of luck when it comes to finding locally grown food. If local items are available though, purchasing these will definitely increase sustainability simply by cutting the emissions from transportation. Additionally, local food is generally grown on smaller farms, which tend to require less energy input from non-renewable sources such as oil and coal. Buying local products will more often than not also be healthier. The nutrient density of fruits and vegetables decreases with each day it has been picked off the plant. If you buy your food locally, you are probably getting it sooner and thus getting the maximum nutrients out of it.

After that lengthy explanation, my point is that my vegetarian diet over the week was probably more healthy for me than sustainable for the planet. However, it was far more sustainable than a typical American diet. Basically, what I tried to do throughout the week was work up through the tiers of local, organic, vegetarian. I went to the farmers’ market at the beginning of the week and got as many local products as I could, which consisted of various vegetables, apples, eggs, and bread. I then filled in with organics, getting the rest of my vegetables and snack foods from this category. When I couldn’t find (or couldn’t afford) local or organic, I just stuck with vegetarian items, such as cheese, juice, and bananas.

As far as emissions from transportation, I think I did great. I drove to Harris Teeter at the beginning of the week, and then the rest of my meals were accessed by walking or taking the trolley. That is, until I drove the 2 hours home to Roanoke….but the purpose of that wasn’t to pick up food, so I don’t think I need to factor it in. The one benefit of being in college is the ability to walk or take public transportation to almost everywhere you need to go – I could have even walked to the grocery store if I had felt so motivated.

Cost wise, my diet was no more expensive than buying a meal plan – actually, it was cheaper. A meal plan that offers enough to cover all a students dietary needs is $1890 for the semester, that’s $118.13 per week. For a week’s worth of food from the grocery store, I spend $50-$80. And food that I buy in a week usually carries over into the next week. Even factoring in $10-$20 spent on meals out each week, my vegetarian-organic-local hybrid diet is cheaper than getting a UVA meal plan. Obviously there was a bit more effort involved, but I think this proves that for the average student, cost should not be an excuse to eat unsustainably.

My week of eating sustainably not only made me feel better, both physically and mentally, but it was affordable and helped out the environment a bit too. I hope that any student interested in changing his eating habits can use this as one example of how to approach that goal. I know that I will continue refining and redesigning my diet as I gain more knowledge about the topic of the foodshed and sustainable agriculture in general.