April 2010 Issue

Eat Green on Earth Day — Dietitians Share Their Best Eco-Friendly Food Shopping Tips
By Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 12 No. 4 P. 18

If the idea of Earth Day conjures up images of tree-hugging hippies, think again. Former Wisconsin Sen Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day in 1970 as a way to put the environment into the political limelight and provide Americans with a forum to express their concerns about our land, air, and water quality. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts, according to the Earth Day Network.
Regardless of our political affiliation or whether we prefer tie-dye shirts or polyester suits, we all have a stake in protecting the environment. As Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, explained in a 2005 address at Missouri’s Columbia College, “There’s nothing radical about clean air and water. We want to protect it because it’s the infrastructure of our communities. Good environmental policy is good economic policy. If we destroy nature, we impoverish ourselves.”

April 22 marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day and gives dietitians a unique opportunity to illuminate the connection between our food choices and the health of our planet. And what better way to teach than through personal example?

Bright Green Advice
Shopping lists, like pages in a personal diary, reveal intimate, honest details of our private lives. To find out how eco-savvy dietitians shop and eat, I surveyed the greenest nutrition experts on earth: members of the American Dietetic Association’s (ADA) Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. For a peek into their grocery carts, kitchens, and lifestyles, I asked, “What foods do you choose to protect our planet? And just as important, what do you exclude from your diets?”

The following is bright green advice from more than a dozen enthusiastic individuals. Let’s spread their wisdom; Mother Earth needs our help.

1. Buy fresh, buy local. Everyone wholeheartedly endorses fresh, local food. In Vermont, Diane Imrie, MBA, RD, follows the seasons. The coauthor of Cooking Close to Home buys the bulk of her food directly from the farm thanks to year-round farm shares. Karen Ehrens, LRD, of North Dakota resists the temptation to buy raspberries from South America in January. “Even though they look very appealing,” she says, she appreciates them more in season in the United States.

2. Think outside the box. Denise Sheehan, RD, southeast assistant program director for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, rarely shops at the supermarket anymore. “I had never really thought about how far my food traveled and the costs in dollars and to the environment,” Sheehan says. But she wanted her two young children to know how and where food grows, so she joined a community-supported agriculture group. Twelve years later, she remains a working share member and avid supporter of the local food and farming community.

Green RDs favor food co-ops, community-supported agriculture, and farmers’ markets.

3. Grow your own. Diana Dyer, MS, RD, author of A Dietitian’s Cancer Story, says, “We are what we grow.” She “grows her own groceries” in Michigan and most recently started a small commercial organic garlic farm. Sheehan planted an edible garden in her flower beds. Now she is transforming a half-acre backyard into a community garden.

In Iowa, Susan Roberts, JD, MS, RD, the ADA’s 2008 Medallion Award winner, grows enough produce in her raised organic garden beds to last eight to 10 months thanks to her green thumb and basic food-preservation skills. Roberts has chickens as does Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, who plans to add a chicken coop to her urban garden in Oregon.

4. Consume and waste less. “Buying anything you don’t need isn’t very earth friendly,” says Colorado-based dietitian Jan Patenaude, RD. Ecologically minded dietitians eagerly reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost. Short shopping lists and small waste streams cut energy use and slow global warming. So does buying whole foods in bulk, which requires less processing and packaging. Patenaude brings her own reusable produce bags to the store and refuses to support grocers who seal several produce items on a bed of Styrofoam in plastic wrap.

Sharon Palmer, RD, a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California, has a healthy respect for leftovers and also opts for filtered tap water over water in plastic disposable bottles. Ashley Colpaart, RD, a master’s degree candidate at Tufts University, carries her own coffee cup, grocery bags, and water bottle. On her wish list is a bamboo fork, knife, and spoon set that she can carry and reuse.

5. Choose organic, reject GMOs. Diane Welland, MS, RD, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Clean, says, “One of the best things you can do for yourself, your family, and your community is to eat local and organic whenever possible.” Organic farming systems reduce pollution, protect our waterways, and make the Earth a cleaner place, she adds. Welland explains that the USDA’s organic label is the best guarantee that we won’t be eating genetically modified organisms. In fact, Colpaart avoids processed food because, as she says, “Most have one of the many derivatives of corn ... grown industrially and genetically modified...”

6. Ditch conventionally grown meat (and dairy). Climate-conscious RDs eat largely plant-based diets. Eecole Copen, MS, RD, of Portland, Ore., recently stopped purchasing conventionally grown meat. She prefers buying meat directly from the farmer who raised it without antibiotics or added hormones and preferably grass fed. Stacia Clinton, RD, LDN, who works on food-climate mitigation strategies for HealthCare Without Harm in Massachusetts, limits her family’s meat consumption but always chooses grass-fed beef. Palmer, too, purchases only organic, free-range, or grass-fed poultry and meat and organic dairy products.

7. Trade fairly. No one’s giving up coffee and chocolate without a fight, but fair trade and organic products consistently make dietitians’ earth-friendly shopping lists. Colpaart even makes a point to question coffee shop managers about their brew. “It gets the management thinking about what is important to the consumer,” she says.

8. Make conscious decisions. Syrah Merkow McGivern, MS, RD, with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, chooses fish and shellfish that are low on the food chain or those farmed or caught in manners that are not detrimental to the ocean. In Washington, Laura Wild, MPH, RD, avoids buying palm oil-containing food items to decrease deforestation of tropical lands for palm oil plantations.

Both Dyer and Roberts contemplate the consequences of every purchase they make. Roberts says, “I make the choices I do because I care about the health of my family, the earth that I live on, and the one I’m leaving for my children and grandchildren.”

What’s good for the Earth is good for us. Anna Lappé, author of the just-released Diet for a Hot Planet, says the climate crisis has a lot to do with what’s at the end of our forks. She advocates organic, plant-based, grass-fed, and sustainably and humanely raised food and promotes composting and discarding our throwaway habits.

However, Lappé says, “The best way to bring climate-friendly food into your life is to reclaim your own power to cook, grow, and create your own food.” The good news, she adds, is “The diet that’s best for our bodies is best for our planet.”

— Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, is a freelance writer, speaker, and radio host. She is a former Food and Society Policy Fellow and serves on the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Board.


Learn More About Earth-Smart Eating
American Dietetic Association Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group: www.hendpg.org
Equal Exchange: www.equalexchange.coop
Monterey Bay Aquarium: www.seafoodwatch.org
What’s in Season in Your Region: www.fieldtoplate.com/guide.php