Sustainability Across the U.S.

102 This time last year I was just starting a week-long intensive MBA course on Global Sustainability.

The class – which covered everything from green technology innovation to social entrepreneurship – really focused on three distinct environmental challenges: Food, Water and Energy.

If there was one major takeaway from that week of class, it's that these three issues are inextricably linked. You can’t solve our water scarcity issues, for instance, without taking a hard look at American meat consumption.

When it comes down to it, food, water and energy are the building blocks of sustainability.

A year later, the ideas and questions from that class popped into my head – this time on our two week drive cross country from Boston to San Francisco. Over the course of 16 days, my husband Dan and I traveled through 19 states, making stops in the following cities:

  • Berkeley Heights, NJ
  • Nags Head, NC
  • Charleston, SC
  • Savannah, GA
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Abilene, TX
  • Alamogordo, NM
  • Santa Fe, NM
  • Moab, UT
  • Bryce Canyon, UT
  • Ely, NV
  • Lake Tahoe, CA
  • San Francisco Bay Area, CA.

Needless to say, we saw a lot of America in just over two weeks!

Our goal for the trip was to say off the Interstate wherever we could; thankfully, outside of an incredibly long drive across I-20 in Texas, we managed to stick to smaller, two-lane roads for most of the trip.

Choosing this “off the beaten path” route served a couple of purposes. First (and perhaps selfishly), the drive seemed a lot more pleasant when we weren’t staring at concrete overpasses or stuck in commuter traffic. But secondly, and more importantly, getting off the main roads helped us get a better sense of what the United States actually looks like.

While we might have ended each day's drive in a bigger city or town, we spent most of our days exploring roadside villages and small towns intersected by a tiny highway. And while it's perhaps cliche to say how big our country really is - I have to admit, the U.S. really is huge!

Beyond size, though, spending two weeks on the road is a sure way to better understand just how economically, politically, and culturally diverse the U.S. really is.


The people, the food, the social issues – each small town and each big city clearly had its own priorities and culture, which made our trip incredibly eye-opening.

(Honestly, it’s no wonder people have trouble finding common ground on big picture issues like government, politics, and immigration – our country is simply filled with too many people who believe in too many different things!)

Yet at the same time, since our trip ended it’s actually been pretty easy to look back and identify some commonalities among all of those differences.

While I can’t back up any of the following assertions with hard facts, census data, or research studies, I can say that, in my heart of hearts, I believe there are some very clear and very common issues that our country is facing.

Once again, it all comes down to Food, Water and Energy.


Access to Fresh Food: A while back I saw a PBS news segment on Food Deserts – that is, locations throughout the U.S. where 50% or more of the population has low access to supermarkets. After driving through some of the most rural and economically depressed areas in the country, I can now say I’ve seen these Food Deserts with my own eyes.

For those of you with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s on practically every corner, you might be surprised (as I was) to visit places with absolutely no grocery stores in sight. Yet this was the reality we observed in many of the towns we visited on our trip.

We went in expecting “Main Street USA” to be filled with Mom and Pop retail stores, pharmacies and restaurants – a local flavor, if you will. Instead, what we found were Hardees, McDonalds, Sonic Burger, and Dollar General stores (not to mention the Pay Day Lending agents offering outrageous interest rates, but that’s for another post).

This got us thinking: We managed to do ok on the road with our cooler in the backseat filled with bread and cold cuts (sourced from the occasional Walmart when we were lucky to find one). But we were just “passing through”. What about the people who actually live – and try to feed their families – in these small communities? Where do they get fresh food? What are their options beyond fast food, or even dollar stores selling pre-packaged dinners?

Needless to say, the potential answers to these questions were very troubling.

Water: While water-scarcity was a common theme (especially in the hotels we visited in New Mexico and the Utah desert), what worried me the most was actually access to clean, filtered water.

As road trippers with reusable water bottles, we were always on the lookout for places to fill up our water supplies – which means we got to sample quite a bit of local water.

As we made our way through the country, and especially through Texas and into New Mexico, we started noticing an odd taste in our drinking water. Soon, what started out as a bit “earthy” actually became so dirty and foul-tasting that we opted to buy a couple of bottles.

Now I can’t say for sure that this water wasn’t drinkable, but it certainly made me pause, especially after having made it through our own recent boil water order in Boston.

Water is something we often don’t pay attention to – until we can’t find any.

As someone used to being able to chug freely from the tap, I was reminded on this trip just how precious – and tenuous – our relationship with clean water in this country really is.

Energy: Energy was also top of mind for me, especially as we drove through Texas and saw countless wind farms (exciting) and oil wells (ick) dotting the landscape. Not to mention having to fill up our gas tank every37day. Nothing like a cross country drive to remind you how reliant we all are on oil!

Speaking of oil, there was simply no way to drive through the Gulf Coast and not think about the recent BP Oil Spill. While I think I will save my complete thoughts on the oil spill for a later post, I will say that being “on the ground” in the South reminded me of how complicated this issue is for people.

Yes, BP seriously screwed up – and as an environmentalist the whole situation makes me beyond angry.

But the side of the story that people don’t often consider is that oil is not just a big business – it’s a big employer for American workers, and a big supporter of local economies.

As our host in New Orleans explained to us, if BP pulls out of the Gulf, “what will happen to all of local restaurants and businesses – and their employees – that exist simply to support BP?”

A tough question, indeed.

While Food, Water and Energy were big questions for me throughout our trip, I can't even begin to describe how beautiful our country is - and how welcoming, resilient and friendly people are.

We may not agree on everything - and we may approach sustainability in different ways - but we are one amazing country.

If you haven't yet driven cross country - what are you waiting for?!


The Basics of Fair Trade

Equal ExchangeHow many of you have heard of Fair Trade? I’d imagine many of you have. But how many could actually define it, or discuss it, or even promote it? My guess is not as many.

That was the case for me until recently. Recognizing that I’d heard a lot about Fair Trade but that I couldn’t actually talk about it at length with anyone, I felt the need for some information and education.

Enter my local Net Impact chapter and the event they hosted this week featuring Rodney North, self-proclaimed “Answer Man” from Equal Exchange.

Equal Exchange is a 24 year-old organization started by three guys trying to answer a question: “What if food could be traded in a way that is honest and fair, a way that empowers both farmers and consumers?”

As the founders saw it, there were three key problems they felt needed to be addressed:

  1. Chronic, generational poverty amongst the tropical farming population, especially coffee farmers. Interestingly, they noted that while coffee farmers kept getting poorer and poorer, the industrialized nations that drank the coffee kept getting richer and richer.
  2. Exploitative and undignified working conditions in the U.S., which they felt warranted the creation of a new democratic and cooperative business model.
  3. Uninformed and disempowered consumers that were unaware of the environmental and social problems present in various production supply chains and marketplace systems.

With all of this in mind, Equal Exchange set out to create an organization that would tackle these three crucial issues.

Today, Equal Exchange sources fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, nuts and berries from farmer-owned cooperatives in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the United States. In their own words:

At Equal Exchange, we’ve created a different path to the market – one that brings farmers closer to you, and delivers more of your dollars to their communities. We do this by partnering with small-scale farmer co-ops that are democratically organized, which means they make decisions on their terms. Through this model, we believe food can become a delicious and powerful tool for creating Big Change for small farmers, their families and communities.

According to Rodney and the Equal Exchange website, Fair Trade encompasses a number of practices and ideals meant to provide adequate protection and support to growers, as well as increased assurance and certification for consumers. Some of these include:

  • Direct purchasing from the farmer cooperatives themselves – ie: no middlemen
  • Agreed-upon floor pricing for commodities so that even in times of financial crisis, farmers earn a living wage
  • An extension of credit by Equal Exchange and other importers so that farmers may invest in new resources and technology to grow a higher quality product
  • A fee paid by importers and wholesalers to cover the costs associated with Fair Trade certification
  • A seal attached to each and every product ensuring certified status to the consumer.

As Rodney put it so cleverly: “We don’t teach a man to fish. We just stop stealing from him.”

And whether it’s through the fair prices they pay farmers, the kind of cooperative organization they’ve created, or the partnerships they’ve built with consumer and faith-based organizations, it’s clear that Equal Exchange is pushing forward with its mission of creating a “more equitable, democratic and sustainable world”.fair-trade

As the talk wound down, Rodney touched on a couple of points that I thought were worth sharing.

When asked about Equal Exchange’s goals for the future, Rodney said that the organization’s explicit purpose is to be an example for others to follow. As an organization, Equal Exchange can only buy so much coffee itself! So its goal is to create a model that others can emulate. And, he said, the one good thing about our economic system is that organizations copy models that work.

He pointed to McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts and Ben & Jerry’s as examples of companies that have gotten into using Fair Trade products. While most would argue their intentions are purely based on maintaining or growing market share, Rodney still sees this as a success – because regardless of their intentions, they're still supporting Fair Trade principles and practices.

Finally, and I thought very insightfully, someone brought up the topic of the “Local Food” movement – that is, the idea of eating locally to promote more sustainable agriculture and food production.

“How does Fair Trade,” the attendee asked, “align with or diverge from the goals of eating locally?”

After admitting that the idea of eating locally can be problematic for Fair Trade proponents, Rodney said the best Equal Exchange can do is provide information and education to consumers looking to learn more. He also pointed out that some products – like coffee, for instance – just can’t be sourced locally.

So, while aBe_Fair neighborhood coffee shop might want to serve sustainably-produced beans, their best bet is to stick with fairly-traded, overseas products versus anything artificially produced closer to home.

All in all, a terrific night of learning, conversation, and food for thought (no pun intended). I encourage you, the next time you’re wandering the grocery aisles, to think about where your bananas or nuts or chocolate came from.

By being thoughtful and educating ourselves about the origins of our food and the people who produce it, we can go a long way in supporting the important mission of organizations like Equal Exchange.

Happy grocery shopping!

Eating Seasonal (and Sustainable)

LeeksI've written before on The Changebase about my own journey to find sustainable, local food - including this post on defining what local food really is. The big conclusion I reached after trying to define "local" was that what I really meant was eating seasonal.

By eating seasonally, we get a couple of benefits:

  1. Food tastes better: Anyone living in a New England winter who's bought a package of raspberries shipped from California (or farther away!) knows what I'm talking about. There's a reason why raspberries, and many other fruits and veggies, don't grow naturally in the winter. Wait until prime growing season and your tastebuds will be rewarded.
  2. It doesn't cost as much: Buying produce in season means you're getting it when it's most abundant - which means it's less expensive. Trust me, your wallet will thank you.
  3. The planet is happier (and so are you): Ok, maybe "happy" isn't the right word, but there's plenty of evidence that eating in season places less stress on the environmental systems needed to grow your food. It means avoiding much of the artificial "stuff" that gets used to grow your watermelons in December, which by extension means ingesting less artificial stuff when you eat. 

So what's the catch? Well, I've found that it's actually kind of difficult to find out what's seasonal - given that each region of the world has different growing seasons (as well as natural resources that make growing certain foods easier or more difficult).

That said, I did find one resource recently that I thought was worth sharing.

Eat Seasonably is a UK-based campaign to get people thinking about what they eat and when. I first heard about this group via Twitter, and when I saw the incredibly helpful seasonal calendar they created, I was hooked.

Granted, I'm contradicting myself because this is an initiative that's focused on the United Kingdom, so the information in this calendar isn't completely applicable to where I (or maybe you) live. Still, the interactive map and downloadable pdf they put together is such a great tool that I still think it's worth sharing.

Check out the website and play with the interactive calendar - it's an easy, seamless, and visually interesting way of understanding what's best, what's available, and what should be avoided when.

According to the calendar, February's best includes leeks and cabbage...

Happy eating (seasonally)!

Seasonal Eating

A TED Wish: Teach Every Child About Food

Jamie OliverAnyone who knows me knows that food is a big part of my life - learning about it, talking about it, and especially eating it! I've written about my interest in food in past posts, and today I came across a recent TED talk about food that I thought was worth sharing.

First, for those of you who don't know, TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a non-profit "devoted to ideas worth sharing".

Every year TED organizes a conference that showcases truly outstanding collections of today's greatest thinkers, scientists, artists, activists and changemakers doing great things in the world. And the best part is that after each conference, TED posts these talks on its website so that everyone can learn and participate in the idea-sharing.

In addition to showcasing these incredibly diverse, passionate and articulate speakers - and this year's list is no exception - TED hands out an annual TED Prize. The goal of this Prize is to grant someone's "One Wish to Change the World". In addition to $100,000 in seed money, the TED Prize winner gets the chance to pitch his or her wish in front of the conference's incredible collection of attendees - with the purpose of inspiring the audience to act.

TED's goal, then, is to harness the power of its network to inspire collaboration on some of the world's most important and pressing problems.

The 2010 TED Prize winner is Jamie Oliver, a well-known British chef who's launched a campaign called Jamie's Food Revolution. Jamie's wish is this:

I wish for your help to create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.

To learn more about the problem that Jamie sees, and the solution he proposes, check out this video.


Congratulations Jamie, and good luck!

Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.

EatFoodNotTooMuchMostlyPlants Since it’s still early in 2010, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring and share my New Year’s Resolution.

My family and friends know that one thing I love to talk about is food.

Between my husband Dan studying to become a chef and my own studies of sustainability and the environment, the topic of food and the questions we have about it – what to eat, where to buy it, what impact it has on the planet – come up often in our family.

To us, food is a big deal. In fact (at the risk of sounding cliché), in 2009 food became a central focus for us as we defined who we wanted to be as individuals and as citizens of the earth.

Mainly this was for selfish reasons: eating food made us happy. Yet the more we learned about where our food came from, the less happy we felt.

In the early days of this conversation, I often felt more helpless than hopeful. Trips to the grocery store were spent worrying over food labels, wondering about the origins of the meat we wanted to buy, and fretting over the cost of anything labeled ‘organic’ (not to mention wondering whether organic was really all it was cracked up to be).

We often asked ourselves: how could we ever find a balance between eating food that's good for us and that we’re proud of, while also not driving ourselves nuts trying to only eat "perfect" (aka: local, seasonal, sustainable, delicious, nutritious) food?

With that, 2009 became the Year of Food Education.

Our learning started with an investigation of where our food comes from and an examination of how hard it can be to find sustainable food sources in our area. I also took a stab at defining what local food really is, and I learned about the potential dangers that exist in our current industrial food production system. Over the course of many months, we read, discussed, debated, and searched for more and more information.

In the end, all of this research proved to me and Dan that we wanted more control over what we ate and where it came from. We also wanted to know that the foods we put in our bodies were actually nutritious (and not overly processed, refined, or generally interfered with).

If you take this newfound awareness and combine it with a chef’s passion for cooking, you’ll create a kitchen that looks a lot like ours does today. Over the course of 2009, our kitchen literally went through a makeover. Slowly but surely, staples like canned soup, processed snack bars, and Ben & Jerry’s were replaced with homemade soups made with fresh stock, our very own granola bars, and even made-to-order ice cream. In fact, there’s actually very little pre-made food in our pantry and fridge at all these days. What a delicious experiment this turned out to be!

Sure, the kitchen is Dan’s favorite room in the house, so putting him to work (and motivating me to help) hasn’t been all that hard. But beyond that, our kitchen transformation is actually very reflective of the new approach we’re taking in 2010 with the food we eat.

Which brings me to my 2010 Resolution: “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.”

Ok, so those aren’t my words – they actually belong to author Michael Pollan, whose book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” I just finished reading. But those seven words of advice (and the entirety of his book, actually) are so perfectly aligned with the way Dan and I want to approach food in 2010 that I’ve co-opted them to use as my own.

I’m not going to write a review of this book (mainly because I think it is so full of good words of wisdom that it would mean basically re-writing the whole thing), but I can’t endorse Pollan’s ideas strongly enough. “In Defense of Food” champions the idea that eating foods (not to be confused with ingredients – for example, eating a whole food like broccoli versus an ingredient like high fructose corn syrup) is good for your health, for your spirit, for our culture, and for the environment.

To give you a little taste of Pollan’s ideas, I’ve scanned in a copy of a pamphlet I picked up in a bookstore recently. While Pollan doesn’t create a set of rules relating to what foods we should eat, he does outline some guidelines to consider when shopping for food. I’ve reprinted them here to inspire you and encourage you to think about any changes you could make in the food you buy and eat.

Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.

The thing I like best about Pollan’s ideas is that, unlike diet fad books or nutritional guidelines, “In Defense of Food” encourages us to find the pleasure, satisfaction, and joy in eating. It’s not about what you can’t or shouldn't eat; instead, it’s about embracing the history of our food and shortening the length of the chain between us and what we eat. By doing this, we'll not only feel better ourselves, but we'll feel better about our connection with the people who grow our food and with nature itself.

As I said at the beginning, Dan and I love food because eating makes us happy.

Michael Pollan's book makes it easy for us to find even more happiness through our food - and anything that can do that is a big winner for us! I hope you'll take some time to read through this book too...

And by the way - Happy New Year!