Planning an eco-friendly menu for your next food-centric event — be it a wedding, birthday, Fourth of July barbecue, business meeting, or even a date — can be unnerving for the uninitiated. Balancing organic, local, and sustainable considerations requires a little know-how and some helpful resources.
How to serve eco-friendly food
Enthusiastic home chefs with a green bent will relish these DIY food ideas, but those wishing a less labor-intensive menu may wish to seek out eco-friendly restaurants or green caterers. Regardless, when planning a green event, you'll want to consider your event's hardware (appetizers, main course, and dessert), as well as the software (beverages).
- Veggie menus: Whether you're throwing together a dinner party for ten or a quiet meal for two, your guests will appreciate vegetable and main dishes made with local and organic ingredients. Meat-eaters can change things up by trying vegetarian. There are lots of creative, sumptuous menus out there!
- Sustainable protein: If you choose to serve meat, opt for grass-fed, small-scale farm options. Seafood lovers should look for sustainably-caught or responsibly-farmed fillets.
- Fantastic fruits: From fondue to fruit tart, apple pie to berry crumble, fruit desserts are a healthy, delicious way to end a meal. When shopping for ingredients, look for local and organic, Fair Trade Certified, and unwaxed varieties.
- Chocolaty goodness: For most of us, chocolate is the epitome of perfection. Make it eco-perfect, too, by opting for organic and fair trade.
- Let them eat cake! If you're baking up a classic wedding or birthday cake, consider making it an eco-friendly treat using organic, fair trade ingredients, like flour and vanilla.
- A cool drink of water: For hot summer weddings or raucous children's parties, you'll want a steady supply of water. Just be sure to serve it pitcher-style in non-disposable cups, or choose reusable bottles for each guest if you're without ready access to a tap.
- Fizzy fun: Soda's a good addition to all sorts of parties and celebrations. Choose natural or home-brewed concoctions to really spice things up.
- Liquid energy: Mid-afternoon get-togethers and late-night carousing may call for a jolt of energy. Choose coffees and teas that are organic, fair trade, and sustainably grown to provide a more natural sipping experience.
- Adult choices: In case you're worried your mature tastebuds will be out of luck, fear not! There are plenty of eco-friendly adult beverages, too. From organically grown wine and beer to home-brewed ales and Chiantis, there's an eco-alcohol for every taste.
- Reuse and recycle: Whenever possible choose reusable dishes and flatware. But if you've got garbage left over, be sure to recycle (bottles and cans, plastic cups, etc). These and many other food packaging items can be made into something new by sending them to the local recycler.
- Compost: Got too many leftovers? Compost to cut your greenhouse gas emissions while producing rich, organic matter for your garden. Paper plates and napkins can often be added to the mix, too.
Serving eco-friendly food helps you go green because…
- Fuel-intensive global food trade, whether by air, land, or sea, adds to mounting levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
- Polluting chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are absent in organic food choices.
- Vegetarian menus reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and other chemicals, as well as animal excrement, from polluting waterways, soil, and air.
- Choosing sustainably harvested fish and seafood ensures that the seafood on your plate is not contributing to the depletion of biodiversity or loss of ocean habitat.
Party planners and blushing brides alike will find that organic, local ingredients, which are fairly traded and sustainably produced, offer important solutions for eco-friendly celebrations.
Serving up local produce, home-brewed wine, beer, or soda, and locally caught fish or small-farm meat, lessens the environmental impact associated with food by cutting out polluting, fossil fuel-intensive transportation from farm to banquet table. Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture researchers found that conventionally grown US produce travels up to 27 times the distance of its locally grown counterparts. The support to local, small farms also helps preserve rural open space and conserves water, energy, and other resources.
Organic food choices, like chocolate, produce, beverages, meat, and coffee are free of potentially dangerous pesticides, insecticides, and other chemicals. To be certified organic by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), food must be grown in soil free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers and cannot be genetically modified or irradiated. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are not only believed to be harmful to human and animal health, but they also pollute ecosystems and waterways.
Vegetarian menus also offer significant environmental benefits. A recent Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report suggests that livestock generate greater quantities of greenhouse gases than do all cars on the road across the globe. Methane is produced both during normal digestion in cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels, as well as during the anaerobic decomposition of livestock manure, especially when handled as liquid manure. Nitrous oxide results from the nitrification and de-nitrification of nitrogen in livestock waste (most commonly of cattle manure and urine). In fact, stats like these have led to questions like: Can going vegan do more to slow global climate change than buying a hybrid car?
With so much overfishing and many questionable fish farms, it's important to choose sustainable seafood, as well — that which has been harvested or grown in an eco-friendly manner — and fish low in environmental contaminants. Seventy-five percent of worldwide commercial fish stocks are already considered fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted from overfishing. Fish-farming, also known as aquaculture, contributes to wild habitat and biodiversity loss, and algal bloom growth, among other problems.
Fair trade offerings
Party and event menus would be incomplete without coffee, fruit, and chocolate. But for millions of small farmers around the world, growing these treats doesn't always provide an adequate living. Most typically see a disproportionately small portion of the profit.
Fair trade, on the other hand, fosters an economically stable relationship between consumers and farmers while promoting safe, humane labor conditions. A high percentage of Fair Trade Certified products are also environmentally friendly, although they are not required to be. Because fair trade producers are commonly small holders who are unable to invest in environmentally damaging practices (that also tend to be costly), such as synthetic pesticides and clear-cutting, many agree to grow Certified Organic products and direct premiums toward concerns such as health care, education, and housing. When a product is both Fair Trade Certified and Certified Organic, it will display two separate labels signifying this.
Related health issues
Since local produce doesn't experience a protracted, in-transit lull between farmer and consumer, it's not as likely to spoil or come in contact with harmful bacteria as conventionally farmed foods are. Preservatives are often used to prevent spoilage in produce farmed for national and international distribution, and these additives can be harmful to human health. In the event that local produce becomes contaminated, the chance of it causing a widespread health crisis is nil given that its distribution area is restricted. During the 2006 E. coli outbreak, the infected spinach was grown on a large-scale farm in a single region in California but consumers in 26 states fell ill.
A recent study conducted by the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine concluded that organic produce showed higher than average levels of 21 important nutrients, including vitamin C, magnesium, iron, and phosphorus. Studies into the health benefits of organically produced foods are beginning to confirm the upsides of these eco-choices. The QualityLowInputFood Project recently found that antioxidant levels (key in reducing the risk of heart disease and many cancers) were 40 percent higher in organic fruits and vegetables and 90 percent greater in milk from organically fed herds.
Children are particularly susceptible to the health effects of pesticide ingestion due to their lower body weights and higher metabolisms. Every day, more than 1 million children between the ages of one and five eat an estimated 15 pesticides on contaminated fruits and vegetables. About 600,000 of these children eat dosages of pesticides deemed unsafe by the government.
On the other hand, supporters of pesticide use in farming believe the chemical levels in conventional foods are appropriately regulated by the government and too minor to adversely affect human health.
- aquaculture, mariculture, or fish farming: The practice of farming seafood for human consumption.
- DDE: A breakdown product of the once-common pesticide DDT, which was banned in the US in 1972 but still enters the environment through use in other countries where it isn't banned. Human exposure comes from eating contaminated leafy and root vegetables, fatty meat, poultry, and fish.
- dieldrin: An insecticide, widely used on crops from 1950 to 1970. It was used to control termites until 1987, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all uses. Exposure to dieldrin occurs through eating contaminated foods such as fish, root crops, and dairy products.
- genetically modified organism: A GMO results from merging the genetic makeup of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature.
- food irradiation: The use of radioactive waste to eliminate bacteria and extend the shelf life of various food products.
- persistent organic pollutants: POPs are toxic chemicals that were, and in some instances still are, used in agriculture for pest and disease control and crop production, as well as in manufacturing. Although many POPs have been banned, they remain in the environment and global food chain, easily traveling via wind and water.
- Ocean's Alive
- Food Routes
- Local Harvest
- 10 Reasons to Eat Locally
- Organic Trade Association
- Organic Consumers Association
- TransFair USA - Frequently Asked Questions
- Natural Resources Defense Council - Is Organic Food Worth It?
- About.com - What does eating meat have to do with fossil fuels?
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer - Are organic fruit, veggies worth the extra cost?
- Pollan, Michael (2007) The Omnivore's Dilemma, New York, New York: The Penguin Group: A great read on food production and the pros and cons of eating local and organic.
- Sustainable Table - The Issues: Fossil Fuel and Energy Use
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - Livestock a major threat to environment: Long shadow
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2006 report
- Sustainable Table - The Issues: Buy Local
- The South African Journal of Natural Medicine - What does organic really mean?
- Weil Lifestyle - Organic Foods Have More Antioxidants, Minerals
- Pesticide Action Network North America - "Nowhere to Hide" media release
- Environmental Defense Fund - Challenge: Ensuring Public Health by Protecting Food and Drinking Water Supplies