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Season of Service: A Food Miles Discussion

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We usually talk about bite-size ways to help others based on random verbs each week. Last year about this time, we were talking about simple ways to make a difference by "moving." One idea I suggested was that you learn how to calculate the food miles your food has traveled to get to your dinner table. The gist behind that suggestion was that you become more aware of the different aspects of your carbon footprint, so that you can make adjustments to your actions should you feel that your contribution to the sustainability of our environment makes a difference. This week, let me explore further the concept of food miles and ways we can indeed be more aware of our carbon footprint.

Were I to meet any one of you readers of this post on the street and ask you whether or not you want to help our environment, I bet almost everyone of you would answer with a resounding "yes!" It seems simple and admirable, right? Some of you might even blog about ways to live more "greenly." And it seems like being aware of your food miles would be a simple step in that direction, right? But how easy is it really to figure out and how valuable is that information once you know it?

A food mile is typically calculated based on where a food was originally produced and where it was ultimately sold to a consumer. You'll find a few easy calculators online, like this one from the Falls Brooke Centre, with the help of Google. To figure out the food miles of, say, a bag of baby carrots you just picked up at your local Walmart could be as simple as looking at the location of packaging on the bag and using Google Maps or Mapquest to figure out the distance in miles from that city to yours. But if you think about it a little more, you might realize that, although you assume it traveled by truck, it may have come some other way, in which case the amount of carbon emissions would be completely different. And what about, say, a box of Triscuit crackers, that have five or six ingredients? Triscuit boxes say the crackers are made in Northfield, Illinois, and again, you can calculate the simple number of miles from that city to yours of a whole box of finished crackers, but that doesn't include the miles it took to get each ingredient from the farm where they were originally grown, etc. And that kind of detailed information isn't readily available on their website. So you don't have the whole picture.

The question is, though, what exactly is "the whole picture" and how valuable is that picture? If you were to figure out exact food miles on your own, you would need to use this standard equation, called the "weighted average source distance," which looks like this:

WASD =  S (m(k) x d(k))

S m(k)

Where k equals different location points of the production, m equals the amount from each point of production, and d equals the distance from each point of production to each point of sale, for each ingredient in the food you're consuming. It all assumes the average consumer can get their hands on that kind of detailed information. But even the answer to that equation wouldn't take into account these other factors, enumerated by Wikipedia:

  1. Fair trade with poor countries or poor areas of our country can be a good thing, or the opportunity to improve livelihoods through agricultural development.
  2. Sometimes long food miles can actually mean less greenhouse gases, as in the case of these tomatoes transported from Spain to the United Kingdom.
  3. There are other complementary components to sustainable, green living that need to be taken into consideration. For instance, we can shop at local farmers' markets to reduce our food miles, or we can also invest in our local economy by shopping only at local businesses.

And there's another component that I would argue any food miles calculation ignores as well. Our whole world these days is so much more connected than it was even a generation ago, through technology, the internet, travel, corporate relationships, and the media. It is only going to become more so. So the bottom line is: calculating food miles is a good but somewhat difficult and definitely incomplete picture of one's contribution to our global environment. With that in mind, the real question becomes "How "local," how "isolated" do we want to really be?"

Do you use your carbon footprints to decide where you buy your groceries? Why or why not?

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