Food for Thought
Season of Eating Raises Questions
We’ve just entered what I will call the season of eating. Starting sometime around Thanksgiving and continuing until New Year’s Eve, most of us will eat and drink enormous portions of meat or vegetables or alcohol or pastries, or all of the above.
Maybe it’s a sign of the times, what with economic and environmental issues on many peoples’ minds, but it’s hard to just eat and be merry. When I bought my Thanksgiving meal from the Isla Vista Food Co-op , I purchased an organic, free-range turkey, and locally grown green beans. I found out that my turkey lived outside with the freedom to go inside, and not the other way around. I bought a local wine to round out my meal. This year I definitely put some thought into what I was going to eat.
The words sustainable, local, and organic have become a part of the everyday vocabulary. While local and organic are fairly easy to define, the word sustainable is not so simple.
Some places, like the Isla Vista Food Co-op, have been thinking about sustainability issues for a long time, and have come up with their own definition. Melissa Cohen, the marketing director for the co-op, said a lot of their produce comes from local farmers, in the Tri-County area, and is seasonal. “If it is in seasonal and locally grown, it is more sustainable,” Cohen said.
Due to this practice, customers won’t find grapes in winter, which she said could be a challenge for some. Instead, the co-op tries to offer customers an alternative, like guava. She said it gives people a chance to try something new.
But does everyone agree on one definition for sustainability? David Cleveland, a UCSB environmental studies professor who has received a UCSB Sustainability Champion Award and a $25,000 grant to conduct research, seemed like the right person to ask.
Cleveland said that sustainability involves a series of decisions. The first is defining sustainability within a community. “It is a value-based desire about how someone wants the world to be. It’s not something that exists naturally, like a rock or a filing cabinet. So defining sustainable agriculture requires community discussion.”
The next, he said, is to access where we are as a community. “We can estimate the methane emitted by livestock and the carbon dioxide emitted by farm machinery, manufacturing of inputs, and transporting food. Then we can try to reduce these, for example, by reducing consumption of animal products, or increasing consumption of locally grown food,” he explained. The next step is to see whether these efforts were successful.
But Cleveland said that this doesn’t mean the discussion is over. “Just because something is local doesn’t necessarily mean that it produces less greenhouse gas. We always have to keep asking those questions, so it’s a balance between the scientific values and data-where we want to be going, and are we getting there? That’s what sustainability is.”
Megan Carney, a UCSB graduate student in anthropology, is a member of the newly-organized Santa Barbara Food Policy Council, which will meet for the first time on Monday, December 7, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at the Casa de la Raza. The goal of the council is to aid “people coming together to coordinate food systems.” Carney said members will be made up of consumers, producers, farmers, distributors, processors, waste management/composting representatives, and other interested parties.
Carney said this council will address both sustainability and food security issues. This might be the first time you’ve heard the term “food security.” If you’re thinking terrorists with some form of e-coli, you are way off. It’s a more insidious enemy. According to the Santa Barbara County Food Bank’s website, food insecurity is “when the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire acceptable food in socially acceptable ways, is limited and uncertain.” Are you thinking this is a problem found somewhere else, like Los Angeles County? Think again.
“Our county has one of the highest (rates) of food insecurity in the state,” according to Carney, citing a UCLA Health Policy Research Brief from 2007 showing county-by-county statistics. She said this fact might not agree with people’s image of the Santa Barbara area. “Santa Barbara is kind of known, by insiders and outsiders, as an affluent town,” she said.
According to USDA report for 2008, 49.1 million people in the United States lived in food-insecure households. Of these, 32.4 million were adults and 16.7 million were children.
With food security in mind, Carney had some ideas about what the Food Policy Council could do. “The main topic that I would like to see addressed by the Council would be linking efforts toward increased sustainability in the local food system with efforts toward increased food security and food sovereignty in the county,” she explained. One of the ways she said this might be done is through subsidized CSA’s (community supported agriculture). If local producers were offered subsidies, they could then offer healthy foods to low-income residents. Another idea might be community kitchens, she said.
This Thanksgiving, the Isla Vista Co-op advertised that they would donate a turkey to the Santa Barbara County Food Bank for each one bought. In the end, the co-op donated 60 turkeys, and 150 cases of dry goods, such as pinto beans and cranberry sauce, to the food bank. While this doesn’t solve the problem of sustainability and food security in our area, it’s a small step toward recognizing that everyone has to get involved in the discussion, and the solution.