Editor’s note: Heather Longo was so inspired by an article written in OFM’s March issue she was compelled to do some research on sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and healthy eating habits. Below are her findings, presented in a very delicious way. Outdoor Families Magazine welcomes responses to articles or columns; email Erin Kirkland, editor, and your essay may be published in a future issue. firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Heather Longo – When my daughter transitioned to solid foods, I began to think about how best to set a foundation for nutrition, and a lifetime of healthy food habits. The March 2015 article about “going green” left me wondering: What I can do to emphasize the importance of sustainable agriculture?
I found that an awareness of modern agriculture is key. As dynamic practices both expand options and give rise to potential controversies surrounding food (think humane treatment of animals, genetically modified crops, and impacts on climate change), scientists agree it is increasingly important for us to understand agricultural operations, so we as consumers can make educated decisions.(1) Unfortunately, studies consistently verify what 76% of farmers and ranchers suspect, and (2) that U.S. consumers have little understanding of how their food is produced.
So how do we raise kids who will make informed choices to maximize their nutrition, health, and the health of the planet? Our days are filled with teachable moments where connecting our kids with food can grow in them an understanding that will encourage stewardship.
Here’s how to get kids involved in nutrition:
Plan and prepare meals as a family. Planning a weekly menu can reduce food waste and save you from economically or calorically-expensive impulse buys. It also spares you the dreaded circular “What do you want for dinner?” dialogue. Letting kids choose meals or sides increases their interest in the process by allowing them to take ownership. It also gives you the opportunity to discuss the nutritional rationale behind choices, like why mac-n-cheese is okay sometimes or why it’s best to limit meat consumption.
While you might dread taking the kids to the store, charging them with finding items from their own personalized list turns shopping into a scavenger hunt. When it comes to meal preparation, involving the whole family may not always be the speediest option, but cooking together affords quality time, physically involves kids with food, and provides the primary chef with some welcome assistance.
Make responsible nutrition choices. Limit consumption of energy-intensive and often unhealthy processed food when you can. Look for shorter lists of ingredients you recognize and choose options with less packaging, which ends up in landfills, anyway. When possible, stick with produce that’s in season and grown locally. Wondering if organic is best? An Environmental Working Group report shows that spending a little extra on organic can make a bigger impact on reducing your pesticide exposure.
When it comes to protein, limiting meat consumption can significantly reduce a family’s environmental impact. Meat production takes up more land, consumes more water, and produces more pollution than plant-based foods. There’s even talk that the Federal Government’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines may include a recommendation to limit meat consumption in the name of sustainability.
For those of you who prefer more surf than turf, Seafoodwatch.org offers recommendations on sustainable options, and those that will reduce exposure to pollutants. Of course, you can’t make the best choice all of the time, there will be frozen pizza nights. Balance convenience and cost-effectiveness with sustainability to maintain sanity and stick to your budget.
Garden. The best way to enhance your family’s understanding of food production is to immerse them in the process. Don’t have a large yard? Container gardening can be accomplished on patios, balconies, and even windowsills (see Kelly Johnson’s “Little Green Thumbs“ in the April issue of OFM). Unless you’re a serious homesteader, you probably won’t be able to fill the freezer with your yield, but good news comes from the benefits of experiential learning.
Letting kids explore the trials and successes of gardening gives them a good excuse to play in the dirt while teaching them the amount of time and resources that go into growing even one fruit or vegetable. And, think of the pride they’ll feel when cooking with ingredients they’ve grown themselves.
Reduce food waste. In 2010, food waste accounted for 21% of trash in American households. That means 90 billion pounds of edible items worth more than $109.9 billion was discarded by consumers!(3) Beyond economics, wasted food also squanders energy, water, and resources used to produce it. Reduce your family’s contribution by freezing perishable items before they spoil.
Shop for fresh ingredients just before using them; doing so not only reduces the chance they’ll go bad, but also allows you to buy very ripe produce that’s probably headed for a store’s discard pile. When plant-based foods do spoil, composting keeps them out of the landfill where, in the absence of oxygen, their decomposition contributes greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Composting also helps kids see how old organic material becomes nutrient-rich soil to feed your garden.
Become an Agritourist. Sure, the farmer’s market connects you with local growers, but it won’t show the hours of work invested in getting that food to you. For a closer look at large-scale farming, consider finding a working farm that accepts visitors for tours or allows you to pick fruits and vegetables in the fields. With more time and ambition, you could even commit to a service vacation working on a farm. At Farm Stay US , search for farms, ranches and vineyards where, for variable fees, your family can spend a week or more working side-by-side with farmers. Bonus: There is a search criterion for hosts who accept workers under 12 years old. A fan of international travel? World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms connects would-be vacationers with organic farms around the world where you “earn your keep,” working in exchange for room and board. Though there is no cost for the experience, each country has its own annual registration fee and policies regarding children.
(1) Contributing to Agricultural LIteracy: The Science of Agriculture (2) Americans Say Food Production Headed in Right Direction, Widespread Misperceptions Remain (3) The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States
Heather Longo is a freelance writer and editor with a background in environmental science. She currently lives in Alabama with her husband, daughter, and an outdoor-loving Labrador retriever.