Earlier this spring, all of the Virginia Tech dietetic interns took a trip to Polyface Farm for one of our class days. This was the field trip I had been waiting for- I even wrote about it in my personal statement when applying to Tech’s program. If you aren’t familiar with Polyface, I will try to describe the farm and its principles in a nutshell (although I could go on for days). Polyface is “one of the most productive and sustainable farms in America”, according to Michael Pollan, who wrote about the farm in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The farm describes themselves as a “diversified, grass-based, beyond organic, direct marketing farm” and follows a set of guiding principles that include transparency, community, and “ecstatic copulating earthworms”, among other things.1 As someone who is passionate about sustainability, you can see why I’d be excited. During this trip, we were able to witness firsthand how the pigs help to compost on the farm, learn the methods behind where and why the cows are moved each day, and have the difference between a stewing hen and a broiler hen explained to us in great detail. After returning home and gushing to friends, coworkers and family about the trip, I realized what an important role dietitians play in the sustainability movement.
Sustainable eating can be confusing, and there are many definitions. To eat sustainably, you don’t have to know what “mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion” is (although if you want to know, you can visit Polyface’s website at www.polyfacefarms.com), you just have to appreciate and understand the impact that you can have on the environment and food supply through your individual actions. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics lists the following as principles of a healthy, sustainable food system:
- Health Promoting: supports both the physical and mental health of all involved (farmers and workers as well as consumers) and accounts for the impact that processing, packaging, distribution and disposal can have on the public’s health.
- Sustainable: meets the public’s nutrition needs without compromising the ability of the system to meet the needs of future generations. In other words, a sustainable system not only conserves and protects natural resources but it regenerates them.
- Resilient: able to survive challenges like pests and unpredictable climates.
- Diverse: in size and scale, geography, culture, and choice.
- Fair: promotes favorable conditions for all famers, workers, and eaters.
- Economically Balanced: affords a living wage to all farmers and workers while providing balanced economic opportunities for a diverse range of food system stakeholders locally and globally.
- Transparent: provides consumers, farmers and workers information that allows them to understand how the food is produced, transformed, distributed, marketed, consumed and disposed. Empowers these individuals to actively take part in the decision making for the food system.2
In short, a sustainable system’s goal is to produce food in a way that enhances the community’s environmental, economic and social well-being.
For many people, the biggest impact they can have on climate change will be through the food that they eat. Many people view food as fuel, and not as a way to make a social or political statement. Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) can help people understand how they can play a role in a sustainable food supply. One recommendation that can have a huge impact is to decrease meat consumption, replacing some of those choices with plant foods. RDNs can help determine sources of plant protein to replace meats, with tips for preparation methods and nutritional information as well as be able to inspire clients to experiment with different herbs, spices, and flavor profiles. As millennials begin to take over for baby boomers as the majority demographic, priorities are shifting to a greater concern with broad social issues and overarching values like planetary health and animal welfare. Compared to their parents, millennial food choices tend to be healthier, more expensive, consist of more organic and natural and less processed options.3 For this reason, nutrition professionals are educating themselves on not just the science, but also the ethical implications behind what the public is eating.
Here are common questions I have been asked, with some helpful responses:
- Why should I care about sustainability?
- Sustainable foods taste better and typically have fewer toxic pesticides, antibiotics and hormones. The animals are more likely to live healthier, happier lives and be treated humanely. Farmers and workers typically operate under better conditions and are healthier and happier as well. Also, this type of farming supports local economies, is less dependant on fossil fuels, and produces less environment-polluting waste.4
- How can I eat this way on a budget?
- Sustainable eating on a budget is possible; it just requires some planning and strategy. One of the tips you’ll hear from farmers is to purchase seasonally- when they have an abundance of a fruit or vegetable, it will be sold at a lower price. Another idea is to eat less meat. Meat is one of the most expensive items you can add to your cart as well as one that has the most negative impact on the environment. By eating more plant protein (think beans, legumes, and nuts!), you will be reducing your impact and saving money. Finally, habits like making a grocery list (and sticking to it), utilizing coupons and discount Smartphone apps and buying in bulk will all help to save money while still maintaining a healthy eating pattern.
- I can’t make all of those huge changes. Why should I bother changing anything if I can’t fully commit?
- EVERY STEP COUNTS. You may not realize it, but small changes can have a huge impact. For example, on average conventional foods travel about 1500 miles from where they are grown to our plate. Think about all of the greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuels you are saving by purchasing one produce item each week that is grown locally!
- What is the first step I can make?
- Think about your biggest concern regarding our food system and start there. Is it chemicals and pesticides? Read about the “dirty dozen”- aka the vegetables and fruits that contain the most pesticides. Pick one and start buying the organic version instead of conventional. Animal welfare? Start buying eggs that are from pasture raised hens instead of those confined to cages. How about the impact food miles have on our environment? Research your local farmers market and plan a family outing to go explore.
Whether for your own personal health or to help with your professional development, I encourage you to explore the options for sustainable eating in your area. Remember: small changes can add up to have an incredibly positive impact on your health, your community, and the environment!
Megan Best is a current dietetic intern with Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia program. Megan earned an undergraduate degree in hospitality from Penn State University and worked as a Conference Services Manager in DC before changing careers and studying Nutrition and Dietetics at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, Megan would like to combine her interest in sustainable practices with her love of cooking and passion for physical fitness and sports nutrition.
- “Polyface, Inc.” Polyface Inc. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.
- “Principles of a Healthy, Sustainable Food System.” Eatrightpro.org. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, June 2016. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.
- “Outlook on the Millennial Consumer 2014.” The Hartman Group, Inc. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.
- “Do You Have to Eat 100% Local, Sustainable, and Organic?” GRACE Communications Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.