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Diana Donlon's picture

It’s hot out! With heat records falling across the U.S. every day, we’re a nation in pursuit of cool. So when it comes to meal time this summer, forgoing the stove and dining on a hearty salad with extra pitchers of lemonade might be the norm.

But there is far more to this subject of ‘cool foods’ than meets the eye. Has it ever crossed your mind that some foods may actually be contributing to these outbursts of extreme weather? Strange as that might sound, it’s true. The way food is grown, processed, packaged and distributed makes some food “climate-friendly” and other food “climate-unfriendly.” But how can you tell?

Center for Food Safety’s Cool Foods campaign is here to help, guiding you through the daily challenges of family meals and making them climate-friendly along the way. And, by making cool choices for your family three-times-a-day every day, you’ll contribute to the important work of stabilizing the climate!

To get you ready for the ‘how comes’ and ‘whys’ at your kitchen table, let’s go over some basic facts:

Agriculture produces the food we eat every day, and every form of agriculture emits some greenhouse gases, or GHGs. These include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide. We all know about the harmful health effects of CO2, but did you realize that methane is 23 times more potent than CO2, and that nitrous oxide is 298 times more powerful? Not good! As residents of this increasingly hot little planet, our common goal must be to produce as few GHGs as possible!

How can you and your family help? Start by following these 5 Cool Foods principles:

  1. Eat fresh, unprocessed foods
  2. Buy local and in-season
  3. Choose organic
  4. Reduce conventional meat and dairy consumption; opt for grass-fed alternatives.
  5. Plan ahead to prevent food waste

Start by choosing fresh foods. You know, those fruits and vegetables that you love -- and your kids will learn to love. Carrots, lettuce and corn are a good place to start. Fresh foods are better for you and for the climate. Processed foods require a lot of fossil fuel energy. So does the associated packaging, including tin cans, plastic wrappers and bottles.

Look for local foods. Most every region has its local specialty, and farmers’ markets are a great way to find out what these are. Shopping at local farmer’s markets and independent grocery stores can help your local economy and help build community. As the saying goes, “Know your farmer, know your food.” Ask if they use chemicals like nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. These are made from fossil fuels and can pollute waterways, kill pollinators (like honey bees!) and leave residues on the food you eat.

Also, buy foods that are in-season. Our grandparents knew all about this. That’s just the way things were. You ate what you ate because that’s what there was to eat! But today nearly every kind of produce is available year-round, and most of us have no idea where it came from. Vendors at your local farmers’ market or grocery store can help you stay in-season and make cool choices.

Okay, you’re so down with fresh, local and in-season now it’s time to go organic! The health and climate benefits of organic foods are a definite win-win. They’re produced without energy-intensive, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones and antibiotics, and are not genetically engineered or irradiated. It’s amazing how many foods we eat every day are! Going organic also can result in 60% less energy use and produce 24% fewer GHGs. Yes, cost is important. And you could see your weekly grocery bill inch up a little. But doing what you can is a great first step. Think of it as investment in your family’s health and the planet’s health, too.

What about meat and dairy? Conventional animal products – beef, poultry, pork, dairy and farmed seafood – are the #1 cause of climate change in our food system. How can you take a bite out of this scary statistic? Begin by trimming your family’s weekly consumption of conventional meat, dairy and farmed seafood. You won’t be alone. Millions are opting for Meatless Mondays. And when you do crave a burger and fries, go for organic or grass-fed meat. Grass-fed animals consume less energy and provide an abundance of beneficial omega-3s. Wild salmon is also high in omega-3 brain food, so look for ‘wild’ (not farmed) local seafood.

And last – try planning ahead to avoid food waste. Up to an amazing 50% of food is wasted. Can you believe that? And most of this food ends up in land-fills where it off-gases methane (with GHGs that are 23 times more powerful than CO2). The moral to this story is simple: It’s not cool to waste food.

So – How cool are you?


Diana Donlon is the director of the Center for Food Safety’s Cool Foods Campaign. She has two hungry teenage boys at home who are learning to cook good food.

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