Feed the economy by eating locally and sustainably

If a friend said he’d like to give up tobacco or booze but it cost too much to switch to alternative pleasures, most people would call that a sorry excuse for addiction. But people can still get away with saying they can’t afford the switch to healthier and more sustainable foods. That’s usually considered a reasonable, if unfortunate, explanation, not a rationalization for an addiction.

Hugh Joseph and his nutrition students Esposito and Urbanek at Tufts University, one of the leading public health schools in North America, have just blown the cover on that well-worn line. Speaking at an academic foodie conference in rural Pennsylvania, the Canadian-born and McGill-educated Joseph gives the lie to the most frequently-cited excuse for not moving to more nutritious and responsible diets.

On any given month, the study shows, it costs about ten dollars extra to make the switch, while meeting calorie and nutrient needs that are usually missing in a normal North American shopping cart stocked with meats, sweets, packages and food miles, but low in local grains, fruits and veggies. That’s an amazing finding, given the massive government subsidies which play favorites with the producers of cheap grains and meats that fuel the junkfood economy.

These findings suggest a pretty inexpensive way (compared to bankrolling an auto behemoth into bankruptcy, for example) for governments to support people who want to adopt a recession-fighting, health-promoting, global warming-averting diet — Wayne’s low-hanging fruit diet, I call it. Unless, of course, the reason governments don’t adopt such an economic diet has nothing to do with the cost of switching, and everything to do with an addiction – which may just be the biggest cover-up for fooling ourselves about real economic choices these days.

Here’s how Joseph makes his case, with calculations from U.S. figures that are far more detailed and comprehensive than anything produced in Canada. But adapting the methodology to Canada doesn’t take much more than a simple substitute of donuts for twinkies to get the point about the similar cost of healthy and responsible diets versus unhealthy and irresponsible ones.

All dietitians have a score of handy reference texts to make sure that a food shopping expedition brings home the calories and nutrients needed for a healthy diet that prevents a range of chronic diseases. Dietitians in the U.S. also have the advantage of some government tools that give detailed costings on some 58 categories of over 4000 foods, all the better to make sure that government-paid food stamps and meal subsidies for the poor aren’t wasted the way bank and auto bailouts are. Thus, the United States Department of Agriculture publishes a Thrifty Food Plan, which identifies the cheapest foods on offer. Parke Wilde, a number cruncher at Tufts, also provides a calculator program (free on the Internet) that lets people develop their own shopping list to meet their health, calorie and income needs. Joseph and his colleagues simply tweeked that program to come up with a shopping list strong in local and sustainable, as well as healthy and affordable, items. They tested their case on an ideal shopping list for a woman aged 20 to 50 who was trying to keep her costs as low as possible.

Joseph quickly found that a shopping list tweeked to favor local and green food choices almost inevitably steered people to choose foods that ranked better for calories and nutrients.

“Eating sustainably is inherently a better diet,” he told me. “Sustainable white bread is an oxymoron.” Though Joseph’s baseline Thrifty Food plan didn’t allow for the likes of artisanal multi-grain breads or similarly tasty but expensive ways of delivering environmentally correct calories and nutrients, it provided for basic needs better than the typical shopping list.

Joesph’s pro-local and pro-green shopping strategy was pretty simple. He took soda pop, bottled water, white sugar, processed deserts and snacks, white bread, luncheon meats, TV dinners, frozen pizza, boxed cereals, unfairly-traded coffee, frozen shrimp, farmed salmon, factory farm meats right off the shopping list. He provided only occasional sprees for such items as fruit juices and prepared cereals.

Using a heavy pencil on that end of the shopping list was a saving for both the environment and the pocketbook. Staying away from fast food meats, candies and sweets avoids corn and soy, the main users of genetic engineering. Staying away from frozen foods stays clear of packaging, transportation and continual refrigeration that are heavy smokers from the standpoint of global warming. I must admit being surprised by the fuel count for prepared cereals – which, even without the box and travel, take twice as much fuel to convert the same amount of grain as bread does. Neither do fruit juices deserve to be treated as above suspicion; they send up the globe’s thermostat with energy for pasteurization, refrigeration, transportation and packaging, often for minimal nutritional benefit.

Sticking with Joseph’s local and seasonal fruits and greens also reduced both packaging and transportation. Likewise, most of his choices favored crops that foster sustainable labor practices. Although using specific food items to indicate local and sustainable isn’t as comprehensive as actually tracking the food production process, as does Food Alliance in the US and Local Food Plus in Canada, the diet-centred approach definitely hits a sustainability homerun.

Using a heavy pencil on the polluting end of the shopping list also saved money that commonly goes to unsustainable packaging, shipping, refrigerating and branding rather than calories and nutrients. These savings freed up money for a mix of fresh local salad greens, seasonal fruits and maple syrup, as well as pasture-raised free-range organic eggs and chicken.

Aside from these treats, Hugh Joseph relied on what he calls a “hugh-mane” list of staples — lots of tap water, homemade granola, seeds, nuts, beans and root vegetables. He didn’t use other tricks of eating low on the affordable food chain — off-beat cuts of meat, sprouting and gardening come to mind — since he was testing the affordability of items available in standard supermarkets. Variety from such sources could add some much-needed “good hugh-mor” in an affordable and sustainable diet.

The final tally: it cost $152 a month for a very frugal women to eat off the official US Thrifty Food Plan. It cost an extra $10.23 to eat locally and sustainably as well as nutritiously.

A ten dollar a month per-person government incentive program to eat nutritiously and sustainably would pay for itself in avoided medical and pollution clean-up costs and also create jobs in hardhit local economies.

Governments may say they can’t afford to back such a dietary shift. Just like smokers might say they can’t afford to give up smoking. Who’s kidding you?

Adapted from Now Magazine, June 11, 2009. Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

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