Lighten Up: eating locally and organically

After a weekend spent cooking for a house full of visiting family, I have food on my mind; in particular, ways to lighten the carbon footprint of what we eat. According to Stephen Hopp in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, agriculture in the United States consumes about 17 percent of the nation’s total energy use, second only to our driving habit.

Producing our food is energy-intensive for three main reasons: the distance it travels from farm to table–an average of 1,500 miles, the huge amount of processed food many of us eat, and energy-intensive farming methods, especially nitrogen-based fertilizers.

In terms of of processing, it takes energy to turn whole food into something “conveniently” packaged, whether a box of crackers that includes additives like high-fructose corn syrup (which itself might as well be bottled petroleum, as Michael Pollan points out in Omnivore’s Dilemma) or the fast-food burgers we eat with abandon. According to one researcher’s estimate, producing, transporting, processing and delivering a cheeseburger (plus its packaging) emits about 11 pounds of greenhouse gases. Americans eat an average of between 50 and 150 burgers a year (and accounting for those who, like Richard and I, don’t eat them at all, there are folks eating more than that!), which means the greenhouse gas “cost” is equivalent to the emissions from 6.5 to 19.6 million SUVs. Ouch.

Then there’s our dependence on synthetic fertilizers. Researchers Martin Heller and Gregory Keoleian calculate that as much as 40 percent of the energy used in producing our food goes to making synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Producing and transporting a pound of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer releases almost 8 pounds of greenhouse gases (plus the other deleterious environmental effects, including pollution of groundwater, including drinking-water wells, and lakes, streams and rivers).

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Hopp calculates that if each of us ate just one meal of locally, produced, organic food a week, we would save an astonishing 1.1 BILLION barrels of oil, many times the total released so far in the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.


Which is part of why I grow an organic kitchen garden that allows me to step out the kitchen door and pick whatever is ripe–this week it’s mixed lettuces in green and red, ruffled and lobed, sugar snap peas, baby beets, strawberries, and the last of the asparagus. What I grow with my own hands is the most local of food. What if you don’t grow a garden? Here in Salida, we’re fortunate to have a weekly Farmer’s Market, as well as community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms that sell shares, which yield weekly boxes of produce through the growing season (June through September).


And just in time for our weekend deluge of guests, Ploughboy, Salida’s farm fresh market, opened in sight of our house last Thursday. (That’s the Ploughboy building, seen through Richard’s sculptural arbor at the foot of our yard in the photo above.)


Thanks to Kerry and Dave Nelson’s vision and determination (there’s Kerry in the photo above), we can now walk over and buy a whole range of locally produced food, from tilapia (produced in the prison aquaculture program in Canon City) and eggs to tomatoes, greens, and potatoes. They’re open seven days a week, and they carry whatever’s in season from our foodshed, which they define as a hundred mile radius around our small town.

This weekend, cooking for nine people ranging in age from 10 to 81 years, Richard and I made sure that every meal was mostly local, from the fish tacos to the sourdough pancakes (made with organic whole-wheat flour grown and milled in the San Luis Valley just south of us), and the basil-pesto sandwiches with ripe tomatoes from the same San Luis Valley. Of course, we also ate wild salmon and cherries, brought by my brother from Washington state–a contribution of food local to his home territory and transported in the same small, fuel-efficient car that carried his family contingent to the gathering.

Here in high-desert rural Colorado, eating locally and organically might seem difficult or unreasonable. But as it turns out, it’s not. It’s rewarding–and delicious. Thanks to all those who produce food in the region, whether from our own gardens or aquaculture at the state prison. We’re linked by this web of local food and the community of the land that produces it.