7 days to sustainable sustenance
Trevon Milliard, Kraft connoisseur, embarks on a week of eating sustainably.
By Trevon Milliard. Photo by David N. Seelig.
I’m that guy you see at Albertsons piling 10 boxes of Pasta Roni onto the conveyor belt for $10.
Weekly specials determine my week’s meals, always have. I try to eat healthily, rarely succumbing to candy, chips, soda or other goodies. But my concern has never extended beyond my body and wallet to the more altruistic purpose of “sustainability.” Perhaps that’s what prompted my editor to suggest I not just write about “how to eat sustainably in the Wood River Valley” (as originally planned), but become the lab rat in my own experiment.
Challenge accepted. I would eat sustainably for one week.
First up: Determine the parameters of “sustainable food.” Presented with my assignment, I immediately concluded that sustainable meant all-local food. My first thought was, “I’ll be washing down a lot of potatoes and onions.”
When I moved to Idaho in late August, I bought a five-pound bag of spuds in the spirit of donning my new Idahoan identity. A month later, I broke the bag tie to discover more sprouts than potatoes.
For a guide to my presumed sustainable suffering, I turned to John Turenne. His company, Sustainable Food Systems, has led more than 25 American schools and hospitals (including St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center) through the voluntary change of offering sustainable meals.
Turenne’s first words were reassuring. Eating only locally produced food sets the bar too high. It establishes an unreasonable expectation of how to live. While it can be done for a week by eating seasonally, the question is: Can you consistently live that way? Some things, like coffee, aren’t grown anywhere in the entire United States. Going by the local-only rule means you’d never drink a sip again.
According to Turenne, sustainability isn’t only about sustaining the local economy; it’s about sustaining a person’s health, the world’s environment and social well-being, too. To best achieve this, he sets out four pillars of sustainable food: economic, environmental, social and nutritional. “If your choice supports and promotes any of these you are on the right track. Just try to do as much of these as you can.”`
Going back to the coffee example, locally grown beans aren’t available, but you can support a local roaster like Lizzy’s Fresh Coffee in Ketchum. The beans aren’t local, but by purchasing Liz Roquet’s organic, fair-trade beans, you’re meeting three out of the four pillars.
Armed with my four pillars, my experiment began.
I quickly discovered that shopping sustainably means frequenting multiple locations and buying food in its raw form. No pizza rolls or frozen dinners for me.
Moving beyond the freezer aisles of Albertsons and Atkinsons’, I was surprised to discover an array of foods fitting my assignment, including organic options for almost everything. And you can’t miss the Idaho produce. Both stores loudly and proudly promote their Idaho apples, pears, potatoes and onions, which are usually pretty cheap.
But to get locally produced staples like eggs, milk, bread, cheese, meat and whatever is available for the time of year—especially in the dead of winter when farmers’ markets aren’t an option—the co-ops offer a good alternative.
Dick and Melinda Springs started The Sustainability Center in Hailey last year, running it out of an old, white Forest Service building with green trim on River Street.
Walking into the center, I am greeted by a mingled mix of aromas, earthy smells reminiscent of a farm. Food here isn’t hermetically sealed, but instead is strewn out in grouped displays, the smells allowed to meander freely inside the chilly building.
Behind a makeshift cashier’s stand sits Dick Springs. A yellow legal pad used for jotting down sales is perched on a glass table next to a hand-held calculator. Behind Springs stand two tall freezers full of free-range, grass-fed chickens from his south-county Kelok Illahee Farm. A five-gallon jug of Vee Bee Honey from Quigley Canyon sits on another table, along with no-spray potatoes, winter squash and specialty preserves from Carey.
Most of the food comes from within 25 miles. Springs adheres to the locavore philosophy, and believes people can and should eat entirely local. “What did people do here in the 1880s?” he asked. “Would you have to give some things up? Yes. But these are things that can be done, that were done.”
Local food usually meets all four of Turenne’s sustainable pillars. Being naturally grown makes it environmentally friendly and nutritional. The food doesn’t have to travel across the continent, making the carbon footprint a lot smaller. And local farmers largely employ socially acceptable practices. To find out for sure, Springs said, just ask. “I can give you almost every farmer’s life history,” he said. “I can vouch for everything. That’s one thing we sell unspoken here, trust.”
The longer-standing co-op of the area is Idaho’s Bounty, which has a user-friendly Web site www.idahosbounty.org, for perusing all its fruits, vegetables, herbs, dairy products, meat, bread and much more. Weekly orders can be filled online and groceries picked up in either Hailey or Ketchum. The Web site also offers producers’ information for every item, giving the location and even contact information.
That type of intimacy with my food was the most fulfilling aspect of this experiment. I spent about 30 percent more than usual ($99 compared to $76 for my weekly bargain items), but none of my meals were pre-prepared in frozen packages with ingredient labels reading like a foreign language. And my dinners usually lasted multiple nights because I had to prepare them from scratch in large quantities, and they were more fulfilling.
When I opened the oven that first night and peeled the aluminum foil off the edge of the 2-inch-deep pan—steam fogging my glasses—I could easily identify every ingredient that lay cooked beneath: beef, yellow onions, russet potatoes and organic cherry tomatoes, with a little salt and pepper. Nothing else. The smell leapt out of the pan, and the pool of juices within was just a coalescence from the foods, no water or preservatives added. When it came to the taste, I had never enjoyed potatoes this much—besides French fries, of course.
And this was just my Monday dinner. I had six more days to go. What would my next creation be? Banana bread French toast? Homemade pizza?
In reality, a 30 percent increase is too much for me to endure week after week. However, I went from one extreme to the other: bargain buyer to sustainable shopper. Not everyone needs to take such a giant leap. Just start with a hop.
I’m not going to boycott Totino’s frozen pizza, Velveeta or my favorite box of Pasta Roni—Angel Hair Pasta with Herbs. But I’ll definitely be buying some of my weekly items with sustainability in mind and, as Turenne put it, trying to do as much as I can. That food was far more enjoyable anyway.