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Thanksgiving traditions for a changing climate

November 16th, 2012
By Miranda Mickiewicz, Cool Foods Campaign Intern
Center for Food Safety

As Thanksgiving approaches, we are reminded of time with family, showing gratitude, and honoring the land’s abundance. Traditionally, we give thanks for a successful, diverse, and plentiful harvest. However, 2012 has revealed the stark reality that autumn’s bounty is far from guaranteed. As droughts, floods, storms, and unseasonal weather related to climate change take a higher and higher toll on our farms, the long-term certainty of our food supply is in jeopardy.

Fortunately, though agriculture is vulnerable to an unstable climate, it can also be a powerful tool in ameliorating the harmful effects of greenhouse gases.  Since nearly 30% of climate change is caused by the food system, food is a logical starting place for stabilizing the climate. As a nation, we can reduce our heavy “foodprint” by using sustainable farming techniques, eating food grown locally and in-season, and reducing food waste.  What’s more, each person who cooks or shops for Thanksgiving can make “climate-friendly” choices to slow the effects of climate change. What better way to honor the land at Thanksgiving than to protect it through our everyday actions?

One of the biggest and best ways to thank the land that sustains us is to use it wisely. Right now, 40% of food grown in the U.S. is wasted. That means all of the energy that created the food (including climate-changing fossil fuels) is also squandered.  One way to address this problem is to think carefully about how much food we make and serve. If there are only five for dinner, do you really need that twenty-pound turkey? How about those four pies?

While it’s nice to provide an abundance of food for guests, it’s also important to make sure that leftovers will actually be eaten.  Make just enough of foods with a short leftover life—like green salad, whipped cream, or fried potatoes—to feed the number you’re serving. Other items that can be re-imagined into new dishes throughout the weekend are better-suited for preparing in large amounts. Turkey can become sandwiches or stew, green beans added to a new salad, and extra mashed ‘taters turned into potato leek soup.

Strangely enough, another way to cut down on food waste is to have a bigger Thanksgiving celebration. Think about it—if you’re going to have that 20 lb. turkey, four pies, and eight side dishes anyway, you may as well have lots of folks over to eat it!

You can even make it potluck-style to share resources, and still end up with a true smorgasbord of foods. You can also do a lot to reduce the climate “foodprint” of your meal by shifting the focus a bit. Rather than heaping on the portions of turkey and other meats, make them garnishes to an array of delectable veggie-based dishes. Since animals exist higher on the food chain than plants, it takes significantly more energy to produce meat and dairy (and, therefore, higher climate costs) than it does to grow grains, beans, and veggies.  And, you’ll be sparing your pocketbook, since grains and veggies are also less costly. When you do get the bird, seek out free-range or heritage over standard industrial turkeys.  If you decide to use meat replacements, make sure they are non-GMO.

Finally, as you make your Thanksgiving food purchases, make sure you contribute to a more stable climate, not a hotter planet. This includes, whenever possible:

  • Choose ingredients, not processed foods: Preparing your own food from fresh and bulk ingredients is not only healthier and more rewarding, it reduces the need for machinery and packaging—both of which have serious climate costs.

  • Find local, seasonal foods: This one is easy and fun for Thanksgiving. Since it’s harvest time, your local farmers market will be teeming with farm-fresh seasonal produce. That means it didn’t have to be transported far, refrigerated, or grown in a hot-house. Plus, it supports your local economy.

  • Go organic all the way! Grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, organic food not only wins against conventional (industrial) agriculture, it can also actually reduce climate change by supporting healthier soil and more stable ecosystems.

  • Paper or plastic? Neither! While shopping for the big meal, don’t forget to bring your reusable grocery bags to reduce the climate costs of both manufacturing and waste. And, stay away from those paper plates and plastic forks—ask your guests to bring extras of the real stuff if necessary.

If you love Thanksgiving as much as I do, you want to see the tradition stick around.  Yet with climate change looming, the crops so central to this time-honored meal of gratitude and abundance are under threat. By sticking to “cool” foods this Thanksgiving, you’ll help make sure that our season of gratitude and celebration of harvest time sticks around for centuries to come.

Miranda Mickiewicz works at the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco, CA on the Cool Foods Campaign, a project to educate and empower consumers to make climate-friendly food choices. She holds a degree from Smith College and is an environmental educator and aspiring writer.  

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