James Lesley is currently a graduate student at the University of Vermont’s Master of Science in Dietetics program.

James Lesley is a graduate of the University of Vermont’s Master of Science in Dietetics program.

Earth Day is tomorrow. How can you make a difference? With every food choice that you make. You may not know it, but you make over 200 food-related decisions each and every day!

When to eat, where to eat, what to eat, how to eat…the list goes on and on. With so many things to think about, eating a diet with sustainability in mind may overwhelming. But, it doesn’t have to be. Making a few small changes in your typical shopping and eating habits can add up to make big changes.

Here’s how:

Eat lower on the food chain more often.

Animal-based food products, such as meat, milk, and eggs, are great sources of protein and other nutrients; however, their production is much more demanding on the earth’s natural resources than plant-based foods. Nutrients found in animal products are also found widely in plant foods. Say the average person eats three hamburgers per week. If that person were to eat just one less burger each week, they could save as much greenhouse gas emissions as driving 350 miles. Switching to foods like nuts, beans, legumes, lentils, and whole grains can help you continue to obtain the nutrients that meat provides while still feeling full and satisfied. This does not mean you have to eat 100 percent vegan to help support sustainability. Rather, reducing your reliance on animal products can help reduce the overall environmental impact of your diet.

Eat locally.

This one is pretty straightforward: Food that grows near you, is processed near you, and is sold near you travels far fewer miles than food grown further away. It requires fewer energy inputs to go from farm to plate, effectively reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Purchasing local food also helps establish economic prosperity and promotes a thriving small business sector, an essential source of jobs and economic growth. Money spent at local purveyors is essentially an investment in the community, ensuring economic longevity, a vital aspect of a sustainable food system. Local food is more often in season, is fresher, and tastes better than food that has traveled thousands of miles to get to you.

Eat ugly food

It’s no secret: the world has a food waste problem. The United States alone wastes anywhere from 30-40 percent of the total food produced! Many fresh foods don’t even make it off of the farm because they don’t look exactly perfect or don’t meet visual quality standards, neither of which help indicate the nutritional quality of that food. By choosing that less-than-perfect potato or that lonely banana in the produce section, you can help reclaim that food for the ultimate purpose of being eaten. This prevents it from being thrown in the compost or garbage, therefore reducing greenhouse gas creation.

Mind the non-environmental labels.

One overlooked aspect of sustainable food systems is the social justice component. While it may not directly affect the environment, purchasing foods that utilizes fair trade, fair wage, and humane livestock rearing practices helps ensure that farmers and their fellow workers are being fairly compensated for their products and efforts to maintain their farm. This then encourages future viability of the farm. Choosing products that have verified fair trade, fair wage, and humanely-raised logos can help ensure that you are supporting socially responsible producers, especially when it comes to food from other countries (such as bananas, coffee, tea, or chocolate).

Minimize other “stuff.”

Finally, think about all the packaging that goes along with grocery shopping and eating. Waste in all forms is still waste. Ways to achieve this can include, but is not limited to: bringing reusable containers from home when buying in bulk, purchasing larger containers of products that normally come in smaller pre-portioned packages (such as yogurts), shopping at stores that offer compostable or recyclable produce bags as well as shopping bags, and choosing products that are packaged with less waste in mind (like teabags without tags, strings, and staples).

Buying and eating sustainably-minded foods may seem like too big a challenge, but with these tips you can be on your way to doing so. Keep in mind that each and every purchase of food is like a vote to keep that food in production. With enough votes, producers can continue to provide us with food that helps achieve a sustainable food system in all aspects.

James Lesley is currently a graduate student at the University of Vermont’s Master of Science in Dietetics program. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Colorado State University and has enjoyed learning about Vermont’s unique food and health care systems through his time as a dietetic intern.

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