Food Choices for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet

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A few months ago I wrote about edible food packaging, which, if it becomes feasible, would be one interesting way to tackle the astounding waste of natural resources (trees, petroleum, aluminum, energy) caused by food packaging. According to  As You Sow, an organization devoted to leading corporations toward sustainability, “At least 43 million tons of plastic, glass, metal, and paper packaging—much of it with market value—is landfilled or burned in the U.S. each year. Packaging waste is also the biggest component of ocean litter that harms marine life and pollutes our oceans.”





Before I get to today’s news, here are some things you can do right now about packaging waste, that I wrote about here:

✓ Buy products with the least packaging: Fresh, local, in season. Be willing to buy produce that is perfectly good, though it might not look perfect.

✓ Buy products in bulk or large containers, not tiny serving sizes.

✓ Use concentrates (juices, cleansers), which require less packaging.

✓ When buying a few small items, ask the clerk not to put them in a bag.

✓ Reuse and recycle the packaging you can’t avoid.

✓ Bring your own cloth bags. Many grocery and drug chains sell them, as do online retailers. Some stores give you a small rebate for bringing your own bags.

✓ Eat your package. Buy ice cream in cones, not plastic cups.

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a new movement, complete with its own acronym, challenging manufacturers to create more earth-friendly products and to take responsibility for their remains after consumers (that’s you and me!) have used them. So far this mostly pertains to large appliances. In the food world, of course, recycling is the currently most usable technique.

And, of course, if you go for apples and bananas, you can always eat your packaging!

Tomato lovers rave about the lively, distinct taste of genuine fresh tomatoes, which they say is infinitely superior to the hard round red billiard balls you can get at the supermarket any time of year. I can’t vouch for this, not being a raw tomato fan, but there isn’t much debate that conventional tomatoes are hard and tasteless. Here’s what author Barry Estabook said in his 2011 book Tomatoland:

“Perhaps our taste buds are trying to send us a message. Today’s industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agricul­ture, 100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less Vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s. But the modern tomato does shame its 1960s counterpart in one area: It contains fourteen times as much sodium.”

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’re blessed to be near the Central Valley, one of the world’s great breadbaskets. We also have lots of small farms and urban farmers, so those juicy red tomatoes are not too hard to find here. Farmers’ markets can be found in Berkeley, San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Moraga, San Rafael – go here to find one near you. The newest one opened this week in Lafayette.

You can always GROW tomatoes, as they are very forgiving and brown-thumb-friendly. Even a single potted plant can, with minimal human intervention, provide those tasty red tomatoes that are so prized.

Farmers’ markets have grown explosively in the last decade, now amounting to 7,125 nationwide – and that’s just the ones that the USDA is tracking!

What makes them so valuable?  First, you’re buying (usually) directly from small growers themselves, supporting enterprises separate from the gigantic agribusiness industry. This helps us maintain a sliver of independence from the corporations that are responsible for cheap food that harms the planet with monoculture, pesticides, antibiotics – you know the drill.  Second, you can find certified organic produce – and we know how important that is for health of person and planet!  Third, less packaging and less fuel to transport the goods from farm to your kitchen.


The social benefits are extra. You can meet the people who grow your food, run into your neighbors and make new friends, hear live music (in some locations), purchase prepared meals, and give kids a chance to learn about fresh, healthy food.

The newest one opens this Sunday morning (9 am – 1 pm) in Lafayette (Contra Costa County) in the BART parking lot. Sustainable Lafayette tells us, “The new “year-round” market will feature roughly 60 vendors, and will offer fresh produce, lots of organic items, specialty foods, baked goods, Blue Bottle Coffee, fresh-cut flowers, a pizza oven, freshly prepared crepes and much more. Live music and hand-crafted art will round out the shopping experience.”

Responsible Eating and Living (REAL) is a non-profit corporation, founded by Caryn Hartglass, who has been spreading the message about the benefits of a plant-based diet for over two decades, including 9 years as Executive Director of the nonprofit EarthSave International founded by John Robbins.

She has appeared on Dr.OZ, Geraldo At Large, 20-20 and CNN. She is currently the host of “It’s All About Food” and “Ask a Vegan”  on REAL Worldwide Radio.

Tune in to “It’s All About Food” talk show on June 6th at noon, or visit REAL anytime after to hear guest speaker Linda Riebel PhD, author of The Green Foodprint talk about how you can help save the earth with your food choices. 

On a trip north to Lassen and Shasta, I discovered a brand-new little restaurant that was amazingly sophisticated for its out-of-the-way location. Dunsmuir is a tiny town (population about 2,000) on state route 5 near Redding, with railroad tracks running down the center. There are boarded up empty storefronts and a little place called Dogwood Diner. It’s only been there a few months and doesn’t even have its own website yet – but it’s growing by word of mouth and garnering raves on the reviewing sites.

What makes it sustainable? Well, the chefs choose as many organic ingredients as possible and offer many creative meatless options, such as arugula salad with red quinoa, toasted almonds, and grape tomatoes with a lemon vinaigrette. You can order sweet potato gnocchi. I had a stuffed acorn squash with mixed grains and curried lentils – delightful! The papardelle noodles come with walnut pesto, broccoli rabe, kale, and parmesan.  So the biodiversity mantra to go beyond the half-dozen obvious foods  (“eat wider on the food chain”) is honored here. Fried portabella mushrooms came with cashew gravy and a puree of white beans and cauliflower – also tasty and memorable.

Our waiter showed us a really unusual touch: since the building was erected long ago on top of a creek, the owners have punched out a square hole in the floor and covered it with thick glass, making a window you can look through to see the flowing water underneath.

Dogwood Diner, 5841 Sacramento Avenue, Dunsmuir CA  (530) 678 3502.

Diversity in our food choices is a good thing. As I wrote in my book,

“The Earth provides an astounding variety of edible life forms. Do you know what a red daikon is? (A delicious mild radish). Have you ever heard of feijoa? (A fruit, also called pineapple guava). Not so long ago, kiwis were unknown in America, and now they are familiar fruits. Many other foods are just waiting to reach your table.  Yet we’re putting all our eggs in a few genetic baskets. Three quarters of the world’s calories consumed by humans come from seven crops (wheat, rice, corn, potato, barley, cassava, and sorghum). The genetic diversity of even these few crops is rapidly disappearing, as their native habitats are being destroyed and fewer varieties of each species are being cultivated.”


Choosing a wide variety of foods is good for you. The vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients we need are best consumed from food, not pills, since we evolved to eat things in the combinations that nature gives us. Science, on the other hand, operates by eliminating as many variables as possible in order to identify if factor X caused condition Y. That works in many situations (such as tracing the source of a food poisoning outbreak) but not always with regard to diet. That’s one reason we get so much conflicting health advice!

All this is to introduce today’s fun topic, food varieties. Did you know that there are over 4,000 edible varieties of potato? Most of these are found in the Andes Mountain areas of South America. The one pictured here isn’t an unusual variety, just an odd shape. If you’ve ever grown food, you’ll know that not everything is perfect in shape and color. Here’s a link to some really fun and beautiful oddball apple, eggplant, bell pepper, and other familiar fruits and vegetables. The other photos are of beautiful or unusual fruits and vegetables that I discovered while writing about food diversity. So liven up your plate and your palate by finding and buying some new foods.

Where to find them? In Berkeley, where I used to work, there’s the Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market. Please add to the comments and tell us some other places you find wild and exciting foods.