Have you seen this video? It’s the one where British chef Jamie Oliver walks into a first-grade classroom and asks the kids to identify fruits and vegetables he holds up. He’s not trying to stump them — it’s not as if he’s holding up bok choy or kumquats or other items outside the average six-year-old’s culinary repertoire. No, it’s tomatoes, cauliflower, eggplant and mushrooms — and the kids couldn’t be more confused.
I guess I shouldn’t be shocked. And not just because he’s in Huntington, West Virginia, which was recently named the unhealthiest town in America. I recently went to four different corner stores within walking distance of our office right outside Washington, D.C., in search of some vegetables. There certainly weren’t any fresh vegetables (only one even offered a few lonely bananas), and the frozen food cases were stuffed with pizzas and ice cream and…that’s about it.
Let’s face it: We’re a society who eats out of boxes, bags and bottles.
While Jamie Oliver’s stated goal is to combat childhood obesity, I’m also excited about the positive impacts his efforts could have on the environment. The sooner we can get kids to choose fruit over fruit roll-ups and apples over fried apple pies, the better it will be for their health and for the environment in the long-run.
Obviously, packaged foods create a lot of unnecessary waste. According to the Clean Air Council, the average American creates about 4.39 pounds of trash per day and up to 56 tons of trash per year. Almost one-third of that waste comes from packaging. That seems like a good enough reason to me to put down the fried potato chips and pick up a potato.
A popular “healthy” trend right now is single-serving snacks and desserts. While learning to limit your portion sizes is commendable, this couldn’t be worse for the environment.
Sure, you could around this by purchasing normal-sized packages and portioning out single servings in reusable containers. But if we’re more often reaching for fresh produce, we wouldn’t need to worry about this at all. Fruits and vegetables are nature’s very own 100-calorie packs.
Plant foods shouldn’t just be replacing our snacks — they need to start replacing our main course as well. Numerous studies have linked the consumption of red meat to cancer, heart disease and other diseases; and it’s by far the food that has the greatest impact on our environment. In fact, livestock production has been found to raise greenhouse gases more the entire transportation sector.
From feeding and watering billions of cows and the loss of forests to grow their food to the release of methane and the required refrigeration of meat, the world’s increasing demand for meat is quickly depleting our resources.
And what about what we’re drinking? According to the USDA, adolescents ages 12 to 17 get 11 percent of their calories from soft drinks, and teenagers drink up 15 teaspoons of sugar every day. Those plastic bottles for all that soda — up to 2.5 million an hour, according to the Clean Air Council — have to go somewhere. And many of them end up in our oceans, where plastics and other debris are killing hundreds of thousands of marine animals every year.
It’s no coincidence that healthy eating and environmentally friendly eating overlap in so many places. Eating at home, eating less, eating simpler things and eating closer to the Earth were all commonplace for hundreds of years.
It’s probably time for us to start following those rules once again and, as Jamie Oliver hopes to do, pass those lessons on to the next generation.
(Image credit: Scandic Hotels/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)