|by Eirlys Chui|
As times are changing, so are the trends we see in today’s food system. People are growing interested in natural, organic, locally sourced, and sustainable food. They are exploring dietary selections such as vegetarian and vegan options that benefit personal health and that of the environment. Yet there are also arising obstacles—environmental degradation, diet and health problems, social inequalities. There’s hunger, malnutrition, and starvation. There’s obesity and diabetes. In the Lehigh Valley, the local food economy is faced with the loss of farmland, and if the landscape is transformed too much, buying local might become impossible. In the end, if you live in the right place and have enough money, it may seem like the food system is functioning fine, when in reality, it’s become quite out of balance with the natural cycles it is grounded on. One more significant change: eating outside the home is now more than an occasional luxury—it makes up about half of our food purchases. In the months to come, we are challenged to navigate the exceptional changes to this trend incited by the coronavirus pandemic. But as concern for the earth is mounting around the globe and across generations, restaurants and consumers can work hand in hand to lead the way towards a sustainable future.
We must envision a system that provides nutritious and affordable food for all of society, produced and served in a manner that stewards the natural environment and benefits us and the planet for generations to come.
Here in the Lehigh Valley, several businesses have begun incorporating sustainable practices into their operations to help curb the consequences of the climate crisis. Last year, the Alliance worked on a project to identify these cafés and restaurants. They are businesses with initiatives to address food waste, product sustainability, and energy and water usage. Such practices may involve opting for paper straws, compostable boxes, and reusable containers to eliminate Styrofoam and single-use utensils, embracing “ugly produce,” donating surplus food, and switching to LED lighting to reduce energy usage.
Some of the barriers to implementing these necessary changes on a wider scale are cost, ease of transition, and concern about customers’ response. For instance, replacing Styrofoam products with more eco-friendly alternatives would increase total expense. However, what seems to be a big cost initially comes out to mere cents per sale in the end. Weighed against the sweeping ramifications of global warming and ecosystem degradation, the expense of transitioning to sustainable practices seems easily worth the price. Restaurants may also hesitate to make changes because they are uncertain of how their customer base will react. Fortunately, many business owners in this area have, on the contrary, received encouraging and positive feedback for making the switch to sustainability.
Incorporating sustainability into business operations has a wealth of social, economic, and environmental benefits. Converting to renewable energy and using energy-efficient lighting decrease demand for fossil fuels and save costs in the long run. Food recovery efforts redirect food from farms, distributors, and retailers to food banks in order to assist in alleviating hunger and improving food access. Restaurants that participate in composting programs can help reduce the food waste being sent to landfills, save on trash disposal costs, and conserve resources. Lastly, restaurants that collaborate with local farms and producers help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food transportation, and whole-food, plant-based options mitigate deforestation and conserve resources, since meat and animal products require more land, water, and energy to produce.
Meanwhile, what more can we do as consumers? We can combat climate change with consumer change. We can replace plastic bags and disposable bottles with reusable ones, bring reusable takeout containers when we eat out, and support businesses that go sustainable. When the effects of environmental problems aren’t apparent in our daily lives, it’s difficult to feel the urgency of making change. But we must envision a system that provides nutritious and affordable food for all of society, produced and served in a manner that stewards the natural environment and benefits us and the planet for generations to come. So what will restaurants and businesses choose to do? What will you?
We have allowed greenhouse gases to clog our atmosphere, chemicals to seep into our soil, and microplastics to sink into our seas. These are issues that are not going to simply disappear, and if change is not implemented quickly, they will only worsen. We can turn a blind eye to all these problems, but that will not save us from experiencing the consequences of our negligence in the years to come. We must all bear this responsibility together with a paradigm shift in our attitudes and our actions. No one wants to see how our choices have brought about the plastics that pollute our oceans, the litter that sullies our streets, the trash that overwhelms our landfills. But doing what we can to promote food sovereignty, equity, and justice? Making reusables the trend and environmentalism the norm? Now that’s just my (reusable) cup of tea.
Eirlys is a sophomore at Lehigh pursuing Environmental Studies and English.
Published in the 2020 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley