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Road Warriors — How to Eat Sustainably While Traveling
By Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD

Road warriors—those of us who travel for work or pleasure—generally agree it can be difficult to eat well on the road, in airports, and in unfamiliar locales. Whether we're avoiding a specific ingredient or simply want to stick with sustainable fare, following our unique dietary preferences can be challenging at best and leave us hungry and frustrated at worst.

I never leave home without checking the online version of The Vegetarian Journal's Guide to Natural Foods Restaurants in the U.S. and Canada (www.vrg.org/restaurant/index.php) and Nikki and David Goldbeck's Healthy Highways (www.healthyhighways.com). But not every location has a listing. For example, I found nirvana in Arcata, Calif., at several cafes and the North Coast cooperative grocery store. I was able to load my cooler with organic avocados, fairly traded chocolate, and freshly baked whole grain bread. But I witnessed firsthand the rural food desert extending hundreds of miles through eastern Colorado and western Kansas. There, the few small grocery stores were devoid of  “good” food, by my definition: fresh, nutritious, safe, local, and organic.

While I felt sorry for myself, I felt worse for the local residents who weren't driving home to a more healthful food environment.

With conference season heating up, I asked my traveling colleagues to share their survival skills. All of them work to protect their health and the planet, no matter how many miles from home. 

Not surprisingly, everyone shared the same two tips: Do research in advance and never leave home without your own food. Organic granola and energy bars, nuts, and dried fruit topped their travel lists. But each offered unique strategies as well. The following are their secrets to sustainable journeys:

• Amanda Archibald, RD, founder of food education company Field to Plate, teaches through taste. By design, her traveling workshops immerse participants in delicious sustainability. She intentionally seeks and financially supports locally owned accommodations such as inns and bed and breakfasts, where farm-fresh food and wine take center stage. 

• Diana Dyer, MS, RD, a farmer and author of A Dietitian’s Cancer Story, says "when the stars align" she'll have the opportunity to stay in the home of a friend who cooks with locally grown organic food.  But her best discovery is www.realtimefarms.com, where visitors can upload information on farmers’ markets and restaurants that source from local sustainable farmers. 

• Debra Eschmeyer, outreach and communications director for the National Farm to School Network, plugs the zip code of where she thinks she'll hear "the grumblings in our bellies" into Local Harvest's restaurant guide at www.localharvest.org/restaurants. If the options don't look appetizing, she falls back on old faithful: "healthy snacks and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

• Allison Harmon, PhD, RD, LN, chair-elect of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group and an associate professor at Montana State University, describes hotel rooms with refrigerators and rest stops with picnic tables as a traveler's dream come true. Her goal: "minimize waste, packaging, and reliance on fast food."

• Barbara Hartman, MS, RD, winner of the 2009 Veterans Administration Sustainability Achievement Award, looks for roadside farm stands and markets and plans farm visits and picnics into her trips. 

• Kelly Horton, MS, RD, CD, an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and founding director of Connect Nutrition in Seattle, looks for "like-minded people who make the time to seek out sustainable options."  

• Joel Kimmons, PhD, an Atlanta Slow Food board member, advises, "Don't go hungry." Hunger leaves us vulnerable to eating foods we'll regret later. He's a fan of the Eat Well Guide at www.eatwellguide.org.

• Julie Negrin, MS, CN, a culinary and nutrition educator and author of Easy Meals to Cook With Kids, reminds those of us traveling with children to avoid kiddie menus. Better to review the menu with children and encourage them to try something new to help refine their palates.

• Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, known as “The Veggie Queen,” is a seasoned vegetarian cooking instructor and author. She packs a "travel kit" of favorite snacks to which she can add a few pieces of fresh fruit and feel like she's "living well." To help protect the environment, she also packs her own cup for coffee and tea. "If I get to stop by a farmers' market while traveling, I'm in heaven," she adds.

• Susan Roberts, JD, MS, RD, an Iowa-based food policy consultant, talks with the concierge at the hotel where she's staying. She finds this is often the best bet "as long as I can explain what is important to me." She also uses the Web to find local farmers' markets where vendors can recommend restaurants that purchase their farm-fresh food.

• Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, an environmental nutrition and food policy consultant, says her favorite tools for finding local, sustainable, seasonal, and/or organic cuisine include local contacts, the Chef's Collaborative (www.chefscollaborative.org), Green Restaurants (www.greenrestaurants.org), and local Slow Food chapters (www.slowfoodusa.org).

Our personal experiences, no matter how challenging, help make us better teachers and smarter advocates for more inclusive food choices for all. Safe travels, good luck, and fare well.

— 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.