By Roberta Attanasio
What we choose to eat matters—not only for our health, but also for our planet. The good news is that most foods known to maintain or improve our wellbeing have low environmental impacts. Even more good news—something that for years has been simmering under the surface is now bubbling in open view. It’s the collective awareness of how our food choices and the way we eat influence both society and environment. While there are people that exploit our planet in order to produce food, there are others who connect to our natural world through it. There are people that waste food, and people that find ways to bring food to those who lack it. Food can be our buddy, but can also become our enemy. Friend or foe, it’s our choice.
So, let’s start by making a commitment to getting to know our food. Do you know where it comes from? What continent, what country, what county? Does it come from the other side of the planet or from your own garden? How did it grow? Who made it grow? Did you grow it yourself, or did someone else did it for you? How did it travel to get to your plate? There are many ways to know our food, and one of these ways is indirect—we can look at us, at our own foodprint, to understand how our major form of sustenance is connected to our world and to our fellow human beings. Our foodprint is the result of all that it takes to get our food from farm to table, and its understanding requires the exploration of how food production relates to animal welfare, the environment, social justice, policy, economics, and public health.
The global food system, based on the industrial production of crops, beef, pork, chickens, eggs, and milk produces at least one third of all human-caused greenhouse gases. It impacts the health of farm workers and people living in the surrounding communities. It pollutes soil, water and air. It destroys wildlife habitats. It requires an intricate web of technologically advanced industries to move seeds to pastures to packaging to retail to waste disposal. Because of lower costs and fascination with out-of-season varieties, we buy excessive amounts of food that not only damage our health, but also end up in landfills. Indeed, food waste is a major problem—it occurs not only at different points of the production process but also at the consumer level. In the United States, an estimated 125 to 160 billion pounds of food is wasted every year—almost half of our food supply. Much of the wasted food is perfectly edible and nutritious. Overproduction, processing problems, unexpected weather events and unstable markets are some of the factors that cause food waste before it is distributed to grocery stores. Then, more food waste occurs because of overbuying due to poor planning, safety concerns or confusing labeling systems.
We need new approaches to producing and eating food. Some of these approaches are based on involvement in environmental activism, social justice movements, and policy development. Other approaches may require to work on and with ourselves, as individuals. Mindful eating is a practice that leads to a loving, caring, and healthy relationships with food and with ourselves, and helps us to make food choices that improve not only our health, but also planetary health. In the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, eating becomes a form of meditation. We become truly nourished through the mindful preparation, serving, eating, and cleaning up of food. By observing this practice, we take the time to savor what we eat, we become healthier, and help reduce waste. Mindful eating makes us feel we are nourished by the whole universe, and therefore realize that collective awakening is possible.
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