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Going Nuts for Nuts: Why We Do (or Don’t) Eat Sustainably

November 12, 2009

I’d never seen someone buy $60 worth of nuts and dried fruit before…that is until Austin and I went to his hometown of Hays, KS a few weeks for dried fruit

Our stay in Hays coincided with an annual visit from Root’s Nut and Dried Fruit Farms, a farm from California that travels across the U.S. for a few months during the year to sell their products.  We stopped by their stand, where many other locals walked around tables covered with nuts, dried fruit, and snacks, eager to partake in this one time deal.

Before that day, I had never seen Austin spend so much money on specialty foods before.  Constrained by a college student’s budget, we’ve always been Wal-mart frequenters.  Though I would splurge on a few items like soy milk and organic vegetables, Austin shopped with only two guidelines in mind: caloric necessity and price.

Organic or not organic, free trade or not free trade, local or not local…for Austin, that was not the question.

Therefore, it surprised me when he eagerly filled a whole cardboard box with these goods that weren’t conventional grocery store cheap.  Did this mean he wanted to start shopping more sustainably?  Were we going to start making the Community Mercantile, a natural foods store, our new grocery store of choice?

Not necessarily.  Here’s a little excerpt from our conversation about his food buying discrepancies:

Janie: When we went to the nut and dried fruit stand in Hays, you spent a lot of money.  But whenever I suggest we go to the Merc, you always say it’s too expensive.  Why is there that difference?

Austin: I dunno…I never really thought about it.

Janie: So there’s no reason why you were willing to spend $60 on dried fruit at the nut stand but not willing to spend an extra dollar or two buying organic or local.

Austin: Well, I guess it’s because Andrew told me he dropped almost $200 at the fruit and nut stand because their stuff was exceptionally good.  When he told me that, I felt like I should go and buy a lot of their products too…and that the price wasn’t a big deal because the products would last a long time. I trusted his judgment that the quality of the products justified spending more than I normally would.

Janie: It was your friend’s recommendation that was the biggest influence for you?

Austin: Yeah, definitely. I tell Andrew about how the Merc has the best bulk granola.  And now he buys his granola there too.

Our conversation reminded me a lot of what I read about in my book, The Psychology of Environmental Problems, by Deborah DuNann Winter.  The book explains how through social diffusion, sustainable behavior can be encouraged through everyday interactions between two people.  The norms, likes and dislikes, and recommendations of others play an influential role in the choices that we make.

Therefore, when Andrew suggested to Austin that he buy from the nut stand in Hays, cost no longer was as important to Austin as complying with the accepted social norms encouraged by his friend.

Why then, doesn’t Austin buy free-range meat after reading abut CAFOs or organic after hearing about industrial produce?  My thought is that the source of the influence plays a large role.  While news sources may have scientific evidence, Andrew has the advantage of being Austin’s friend, of having a much closer relationship with Austin than some food expert on the news.  The stronger the relationship, the stronger the influence.

So what does this all mean?  Simply that we must strive to be more conscious consumers–to think about the sources of influence in our lives and to make thoughtful decisions.

And for those of you who are trying to encourage others to live more sustainably, it is easy to forget that the little things you say or do can have a big impact.  Stay true to what you believe in, and remember that your words have more power than you think.

Who or what influences your eating habits?


Cheap Eats: Part II

November 10, 2009

In my last post, I started talking about food.  Specifically, cheap food.

You know, the “Dollar Menu-its so cheap it should be a sin-I can’t believe I bought a meal for a buck” food.

The thing is, food this cheap should be a sin.  Not because food should be expensive, but because the price of these cheap foods aren’t actually as cheap as we think.

Foods like $2.50 frozen pizzas seem like a deal, but in fact hide a very real and very expensive cost: detrimental effects on the environment and our health.  These external costs may not appear on your grocery bill or drive thru receipt, but still we bear their effects on a day-to-day basis.

What are these external costs and what creates them?

Cost: Obesity     Cause: Farm Bill Subsidies

The majority of subsidies distributed by the farm bill are put into the pockets of large, commercial farms growing commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat.  Rather than help maintain a balanced agricultural economy, the government pays by bushels produced–keeping prices low and encouraging overproduction.  What to do then with all the extra corn, soybeans, and wheat?  Simply look at the ingredients list of most processed foods, from cereal to soda, chips to Hamburger Helper.  You’ll likely find a derivative of these commodity crops there.

These cheap, subsidy endorsed add-ons (click here for a list) allow food producers to sell their high-calorie, high-fat, high-cholesterol foods at incredibly low prices.  Meanwhile, farmers who grow fresh produce have received hardly any assistance.  Therefore, while waistline-widening fast foods and junk foods get cheaper and cheaper, vegetables and fruits become more and more expensive.

Here’s a talk given by Mark Bittman, a food journalist, on how our modern diet is effecting the planet and our health:

Cost: Air and water pollution     Cause: Industrial food production

Commodity crops such as corn and soy are also very resource intensive crops, meaning that they require large amounts of water and chemical fertilizers to grow.  Born out of fossil fuels, these chemical fertilizers are a double whammy on the environment: first it releases greenhouse gases (pow!) and then the chemical runoff pollute both soil and water (wapow!). 

The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico? We have agricultural runoff to thank for that.

Pig-farm Toxic Lagoons? We have industrial meat production to congratulate.  (Warning: the link contains some semi-graphic pictures)

Though this kind of environmental degredation is occuring, many of us continue to eat industrially produced food.  Why?  Because it’s easy to simply turn off your computer or TV, ignore the pollution, and chomp into a $1 cheeseburger.  Environmental costs are external costs, meaning that they aren’t factored into the price of the food.  Furthermore, even if they were factored in, how do we figure out the costs?  How much is clean air or drinkable water worth?  Who do we charge: the chemical producers, the farmers, or the consumer?

So what can we do about it?

It is tough to change the way we eat.  In no way am I saying that tomorrow we should all be vegan locavores who only eat organic foods.  My teacher always says: “The key is balance and moderation.”  There are a number of things you can do to incorporate a different way of eating into your life–one that allows you to enjoy good food without turning your meals upside down.

1. Cook more! After a stressful day, nothing sounds easier than running through Taco Bell or popping in a TV dinner.  But cooking can be therapeutic, enjoyable, and easy.  To make things speedier, take a free evening to cut and prepare your food for the week.  That way, when you’re ready to cook, all the ingredients are already ready to be thrown together. Using a slow cooker allows you to cook while you’re out.

2. Eat more fresh veggies. Hate broccoli but love potatoes?  Throw some steamed broccoli into mashed potatoes (you seriously won’t even taste them).  Vegetables are low in calories, high in nutrients, and void of any corn or soy additives.

When I asked Austin and his friends why they don’t eat more vegetables, they argued that vegetables don’t have the calories or protein that they need.  To a certain extent, I agree.  Eating salads all day wouldn’t cut it for me either.  You can still have a steak…just add steamed veggies on the side.  Challenge yourself to incorporate a vegetable into every meal.

3. Grow your own food or buy from those who do.  Ok, I don’t have a green thumb.  My only successful plant was a cactus.  But growing your own veggies isn’t only for farmers with acres of land.  Many people try to utilize the space they have and try to grow what they can.  For some inspiration, check out: The 6×8 Garden, a blog about a woman who grows food on the balcony of her second story apartment.

CSA (community supported agriculture) and local farmers are a great source of fresh produce for those who have no green thumb whatsoever (like me!).  Click here to find CSAs and local farmers in your area.

I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts on cheap food!  Why do you eat fast or processed foods?  How are some ways you incorporate fresh ingredients into your food?

Cheap Eats: Part I

November 9, 2009

“Dude, look at these!  They’re only $2.50!”
“Oh my god.  We should get five of those.”

I wandered down the frozen foods aisle to see what Austin and Blake were so enthusiastically pulling out of the freezer.  Frozen Tombstone pizzas.  The pile in their cart resembled the Leaning Tower of Pizza.

“$2.50?  For a whole pizza?  Aren’t you guys the least bit weirded out by the fact that you can buy a whole pizza for only $2.50?  I mean, these companies are selling whole pizzas at $2.50 and still turning a profit.”

“Well, the ingredients are really cheap.  It’s not like it’s a high quality pizza.”

“But doesn’t that make you nervous?  How do you know how good this meat is?”

“I don’t.  But it’s cheap.  And they’re so good.”

The guys left Wal-mart that day satisfied and excited to eat their cheap pizza finds and once again cost trumped quality.  The existence of CAFOs, government subsidies, and industrial food production too far from their daily lives to illicit any change in their food choices. On the other hand, the presence of the dollar, or the lack of it, made a very real difference in their eating habits.

Reading “The Psychology of Environmental Problems” by Deborah DuNann Winter helped me better understand why that was.  When humans were still hunter-gatherers, survival was their main focus.  Their perceptual systems evolved in a way so that only the most sudden, urgent, and current issues were on their mind.  Big-picture or long-term ideas very rarely, if ever, entered their thoughts.  The evolution of our psyche plays a large role in how we perceive and act on environmental issues that don’t directly effect us.

Therefore, when the Dollar Menu was introduced, we flooded fast food restaurants with our George Washingtons, eager to “indulge” in such a deal without hesitation.  And yes I will admit, I too have passed through the drive thru for a McChicken Sandwich.  Very few of us questioned how they ever managed to make food that cheap.

So how exactly did Tombstone sell pizzas for $2.50?  How do we get double cheeseburgers for $1?

I asked a couple people at school why food is so cheap.  Here are some of their answers:

While some people had pretty good guesses, others had no idea whatsoever.  So why is it that food is so cheap?  And what can we do about it?

Tune into Part II of this post for answers!  In the meantime…why do YOU think food is so cheap?

Man vs. Wild…is that really how it should be?

November 3, 2009

I felt like a hobbit in Fangorn Forest–minus the ears and hairy feet of course.

Austin, Blake, and I took the afternoon to hike in a nearby old-growth forest today to escape from the stresses of school, work, and other responsibilities.  Walking amongst those tall, silent giants, a sense of peace and calm overcame the three of us, who only hours before were jittery with anxiety and stress.

Hours later, forced by the setting sun to leave, we headed back to “civilization.”  As we drove into town, I wondered how we’ve become so separated from our natural environment.

After all, we are still members of a food web (though one we control to a great extent).  We still drink water from the same rivers and breathe the same air as other living things, and after we die, become part of the same earth once more.  So why is there this distinction between “man” and “nature”?

Much of our mental and emotional disconnect comes from a physical disconnect.  We get our water from faucets, our energy from sockets, and our food from grocery stores.  Nature no longer feels like a part of who we are, but has become some faraway, outdoor “thing”.

This disconnect keeps us from realizing how dependent we are on the balanced life processes on earth.  We need clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, and a variety of food to eat so that we don’t just survive, but live.  Yet we continue to dump chemicals into our rivers, send greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, and build monocultures of crops.

This week I simply urge you to reconnect with Mother Earth a little bit.  Take a walk, lie under a leafy tree, or chase squirrels like Austin does.  How are you connected to the earth?




And for a great book about man’s relationship with nature, check out The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature by David Suzuki.  I absolutely loved this book–especially how Suzuki uses scientific fact to show how our relationship with the natural world is absolutely incredible.


GreenMyGuy Hits the Streets

October 25, 2009

Because this week has been such an eco-failure (see previous post), I hit the streets of our downtown area to better understand why we’re environmentally friendly in some ways and not others.

I asked two questions:
1. What is one environmentally-friendly thing you do?
2. What is one not environmentally-friendly thing you do that you would never give up?

Interview #1: Water Use in the Bathroom

Having to run the sink while going to the bathroom is a bit strange, but what I thought was most interesting was that she makes the effort to conserve water even though her other habit wastes water.  She later explained that she has tried to stop running the water in the sink but it’s a habit she just can’t seem to shake.

Interview #2: Recycling and Composting

This man’s eco-habit and not eco-friendly habit both relates to what we do to our waste.  On one hand, he recycles, but on the other, he fails to compost.  Why does he only go as far as recycling?  What factors limit the extent of him being environmentally friendly?

Interview #3: Packaging and Driving

Like Austin and I, driving seems to be this man’s un-eco habit.  However he was the only person that I talked to who mentioned excess packaging and its giant contribution to our waste.  A lot of people talked about driving or recycling.  Why the focus on certain environmental subjects and not others?  Is it limited exposure due to education or the media?  Or is it because recycling is something easy to incorporate into our lives while avoiding excess packaging is primarily out of our control?

Interview #4: Biking and Driving

Like many others, this man tries to ride his bike more but still mostly drives a car.  It seems like while the human effort to be more sustainable is there, the infrastructure (such as an efficient bus system or safe bike lanes) simply isn’t available, thereby limiting how much we can do.

I’d love to hear what you do that’s eco-friendly or not eco-friendly.  Leave a comment and share with us what you do!

Emission of Defeat

October 25, 2009

Alas, I am sorry to admit that this week has been a bit of an eco-failure.

For weeks now Austin and I have tried a variety of environmentally friendly projects–from shopping at the farmer’s market to

image source:

image source:

recycling our waste–completing each one with a certain level of success.  This week was supposed to be no different: I planned to have a day where Austin and I only used public transportation, bikes, and our own two feet to get around in order to learn more about sustainable transportation.

It is no surprise that transportation causes 29% of all U.S. greenhouse gases and is the largest source of CO2 emissions.  When Henry Ford created the assembly line, he also created an insatiable American lust for the automobile and all it represents: independence, freedom, convenience and status.

And I suppose it is that lust that got the better of us this week.  Despite our efforts to walk and ride the bus more, we drove our cars every single day. How did we become so utterly dependent on our cars?  Though we had a local bus system and we both lived within walking distance of campus, why did we still choose to drive?

Independence and Freedom: Like most American teens, Austin and I considered receiving our license a rite of passage.  Your first car is a symbol of adulthood and independence, a literal move away from your parents.  Driving a car allows us to go where we want, when we want without asking for someone else’s help. We have the freedom to come and go as we please, without having to abide by a bus schedule.

Convenience: In a car-oriented society such as ours, it is no surprise that our cities are designed to be car-friendly and focused.  Wide lanes leave no room for bike lanes and urban sprawl makes walking an unreasonable choice when you’re in a hurry.

Status: I once made the mistake of suggesting that Austin get a Prius.  “Janie,” he said, “I’ve always driven an SUV and I’ll always drive an SUV.  I know that they may be bad for the environment, but I don’t care.  It’s one of those things I just won’t give up.” Driving a car, specifically an SUV, is part of Austin’s personal identity.  To him, that identity is simply more important than any CO2 or greenhouse gas emission.

So how do we get ourselves to use more sustainable forms of transportation?  How do we overcome the advantages of driving, remember its environmental impacts, and find alternatives that have advantages for both us and the earth?

And are there simply things we won’t replace, even though they are unsustainable?

We’re In the News!

October 21, 2009

While in Hays, KS this past weekend, Austin and I were honored to be interviewed by the Hays Daily News for an article about “Green Girl meets All American Boy.”

To read the article, click here!


Thank you to Kaley Conner and the Hays Daily News for the chance to share my blog!