I am taking an online class called “Sustainability of Food Systems: A Global Life Cycle Perspective” via the website Coursera. I’m considering it practice, as I will start a low-residency graduate program called “Food Systems and Society” at Marylhurst University this fall. I figure it’s practice for both the subject matter and the forum; the last time I was in college, I transcribed my papers to an electric typewriter after composing them longhand. This 21st-century virtual classroom is a new thing for me.
Anyway … in learning about food loss (the spoilage and damage involved in growing, processing and transporting food) and food waste (the food that is never eaten because the person who has it throws it out) one of our exercises was to describe a meal we ate in great detail, paying special attention to where things come from and where they go. The online discussion is super-interesting—the students live all over the world, and their answers demonstrated similarities and differences in food and preparation. For example, a woman in Singapore ate for breakfast broth and spring rolls with rice noodles and scallions. This sounds delicious, but I would be hungry again in about eight minutes. Must. Have. Protein.
I thought I would share my response, since it is part comedy—it validates my reputation as a Domestic Not-Goddess—and part study in food systems:
Because my spouse, who is the family cook, is out of town, I was left to my own devices in the kitchen for dinner this evening, which usually results in my grazing straight from the refrigerator. Today was no exception. I ate, in “courses” rather than all at once:
- Two pieces of chicken that were grilled last week. I ate them cold.
- Five carrot sticks (the “baby” carrot variety; not true immature carrots but larger ones that have been shaved to child-size). Aside: Does anyone else experience the inability to swallow carrots after a while? Five mini-carrots was pretty good for me; usually, it’s more like three. My throat just closes up and I have to wash the last bite down with water.
- Havarti cheese, cut from a small block, in pieces.
- Two pork breakfast sausages, heated in microwave, with maple syrup.
Not much of a meal, I know. I am not a good cook, and subsequently I dislike doing it. One good thing about grazing: using up all the random items that might otherwise go to waste! (Like the grilled asparagus I found in a plastic storage container; it was unfortunately too far gone to eat, so it went into the compost.)
My meal involved no other ingredients, except on the chicken, which was prepared last week by my spouse, and so it had some kind of marinade: let’s say olive oil, balsamic vinegar and oregano. Most of this food came New Seasons, which we affectionately call “The Convenience Store” because it is about five blocks from our house (walking distance) and because, like a traditional convenience store, has inflated (or, at least, high) prices. I will now discuss eat food item in particular, and try to address all the questions.
The chicken was originally purchased whole, and I’m pleased to report that it came from a farm just outside of Portland. I bought the olive oil at the Mother Earth News Fair that was in Puyallup, Washington, in June; the bottler is from Kansas and they work with an organic grower in Greece. The balsamic is inexpensive dreck from Trader Joe’s, full of caramel coloring. The oregano came from my side yard.
Because the chicken came from a reputable farm that engages in free-range and organic practices, I feel confident that this chicken ate a combination of organic feed and whatever insects and grasses it could find while ranging. I talked to the purveyor of the olive oil and they are on the up-and-up as far as being a family-owned business and supporting sustainable growers in Greece. But there’s still the issue of transporting olives to Kansas and then to Washington, where I drove 150 miles from Portland to buy it (though I would have been there regardless).
The carrot sticks were an impulse buy at Fred Meyer when I was preparing for a picnic a couple of weeks ago. Probably grown in California. They required a lot of water and probably fertilizer, and then this silly shaving-into-“baby”-carrots processing.
The cheese is imported from Holland; I would normally not buy such a thing when plenty of great cheese is made in Oregon, or Wisconsin at the furthest, but I was buying lots of small rounds-ends just for fun and variety. My favorite so far was an Oregon-made Perrydale!
The pork was raised and processed about 150 miles from Portland. The pig ate any number of things. This is, again, a humane free-range operation so it hopefully got some yummy food scraps now and again, and probably mostly grain. It was born sometime last year and slaughtered sometime this year.
I bought the jug of Wisconsin maple syrup myself when I was there last year visiting. It, and their cheddar, are the best. Vermont be damned.
The sausages were cooked this weekend using a gas range; I re-heated two links for 30 seconds in our microwave oven.
Most of my food was transported by truck, and then either my car or walked home. The olives probably came on a ship and then train or truck to Kansas. The syrup flew to Portland in my checked baggage, where, according to the nice note the TSA left me, it was found not to be a bomb.
All of it came in some kind of plastic. I am not sure what can be done about that. We will put the syrup bottle in the recycling once it’s empty, but the rest of the packaging went into the trash. Once the original packaging is removed but there is still food left over, we put it in reusable, plastic containers for storage in the refrigerator. The City of Portland has a municipal composting program; if it didn’t I would compost in our back yard.
I mostly used my fingers for this meal! I ate the chicken cold, ate the carrots straight out of their bag, cut the cheese with a paring knife and ate it, and used a fork to eat the sausages, which I did put on a small plate. Note: I do not eat this way when my husband is home!
The only water I used was to drink. Portland’s water comes from a watershed called Bull Run; it’s located about 50 miles east of the city in the Cascade Mountain range. It is very good water, so good people won’t abide the idea of putting fluoride in it, even though Portland is one of the last municipalities to refuse.
The kitchen is about 10 feet by 12 feet. Our natural gas (heat and stove) probably comes from Wyoming? I’m not sure, and the electricity mostly is generated by the Bonneville Dam, which is in the nearby Columbia River. We do buy the sustainable-energy credits, so a tiny portion comes from wind turbines in the Columbia River Gorge.
When I wash my dishes I will use hot water (gas heater) and a sponge and liquid dish soap that is sustainable in some way or another (no phosphates? Recycled plastic bottle?).
So—Think of your next meal this way! What resources were depleted to make it? How much of it was wasted? What does it mean when people talk about a global food shortage, and yet so much food is wasted?
I’m sure this an overly used phrase in the industry, but it’s Food for Thought.