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True Cost of Food – A Campaign Whose Time Has Come

In just two years some 20 Sustainable Consumption committees have sprung up nation-wide in the Sierra Club to promote an Earth-friendly diet. Events have varied from a few folks enjoying a pot-luck to hundreds of people attending a fund-raising concert with gourmet appetizers.

Why have these outings proved so popular?

  • They’re a great new angle on having fun while helping the Earth. A mantra of the True Cost of Food campaign is “Eat for your health and your planet’s health.”
  • Multitudes of Earth-friendly people are conscientious about diet and health. This is a reservoir of environmentalism that Sierrans have not fully tapped.
  • Local Sierrans are always looking for innovative ideas to build membership while raising ecological consciousness.

Now for some background

The planet simply cannot sustain our wasteful lifestyle indefinitely. In the U.S. we consume ten times more resources per capita than the median for all other countries, and about double that of the other industrialized nations. But that’s not all. Goaded by U.S-driven globalization, the rest of the world is scrambling to catch up. Take, for instance, the 1.3 billion Chinese—over four times the U.S population—who also are striving to drive Hummers, eat fast-food jumbo burgers, and refrigerate their homes in summer. China has made it a top priority to surpass the U.S. economy by about 2020.

What can we, as individuals, do about this?

A lot, it turns out. The Union of Concerned Scientists states that individuals can make a big difference by shifting a few basic consumption choices. Not surprisingly, the number one choice involves energy, especially in transportation or in heating and cooling our homes. But a clear number two involves our diet. Three times a day we can help the planet by shifting our food choices towards more:

  • Plant-based
  • Organic
  • Locally-grown

These rules are not doctrinaire.  Simply put, the more you choose plant-based, organic, or locally grown, the  better. How much better, you ask? The Sierra Club’s True Cost of Food campaign wants you to know that:

  • For each a pound of beef you pass up, you save a gallon of gasoline, 2500 gallons of water, five pounds of grain and an acre of land that went into its production.
  • By choosing certified organic food, you keep a toxic brew of pesticides and chemicals out of the soil, water, and air.
  • The average U.S meal travels 2,000 miles to reach our tables. If you avoid imported foods or support farmers markets, you can prevent thousands of pounds emissions from polluting the atmosphere.

These choices protect not only the environment’s health but your own. The highest mortality in the U.S. now stems from an epidemic of degenerative diseases linked to the saturated fats, empty calories, pesticides, and chemicals that we ingest. On the other hand, numerous studies have shown that a diet high in whole grains, legumes, fresh vegetables and fruit prolongs both length and quality of life. Buying organic, moreover, decreases our exposure to toxins, while locally grown foods retain more nutrients along with flavor.

American Agribusiness trumpets our diet as the most plentiful, tasty, and affordable in history, and pushes it relentlessly through saturation advertising, fast-food outlets, and ‘hundred-acre’ supermarkets. We have seen, however, that this “cheap” food has an exceedingly high— and largely hidden—cost to our health and to our planet. But now the Sierra Club is exposing these costs through its True Cost of Food campaign and acclaimed video (See contacts below).

So far we have laid out how your individual food choices can make a difference. But now, let’s look at how you can magnify that impact through the grass-roots activism that is the Sierra Club’s greatest strength. Here is a sampling of what is possible:

Terry Jensen has engaged both large Sierran groups in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex.One of their current programs is called ‘Sustainable Sundays,’ an example of which was a plant-based restaurant buffet  that drew close to 100 for socializing, updates on sustainability, and a “walk-it-off” hike afterwards. These events have inspired a nearby Texas group—which had been struggling to put on meetings—to reinvigorate itself around similar events.

Diana Artemis, of the D.C. area, has reached out to both sides of the Potomac with a smorgasbord of outings ranging  from a trip to a local organic farm to a cooking demo by ethnic chefs at a member’s home. These events often bring in a speaker on a relevant topic, say, smart-growth alternatives to the sprawl overrunning family farms and small businesses.

Lynn Heath of Orange County, CA included fellow food activists to form a local True Cost of Food committee that started off spectacularly with environmentalist actor Ed Begley, Jr. who keynoted a hike-and-dine event with his message of simplicity and sustainability. Next they sponsored a concert with organic food and wine that drew 300 people; this event was her local group’s largest in years.

 Now, along with regular restaurant events, they are planning an organic gardening party and a possible joint nutrition outreach with the Club’s Inner City Outings.

Most of our Sustainable Consumption committees around the country hold Earth-friendly dining outings. We might ask a restaurant to feature a plant-based meal. Conversely, we might set up one that features a menu of organic or locally-grown food that supports sustainable family farms. Restaurants are delighted to get the business, and local groups often add a fund-raising surcharge. These social events easily recruit new activists. Often people comment that they had been Club members for years, but had never attended a meeting before.

Would you like to get involved? The national Sustainable Consumption Committee is looking for folks to help locally with this campaign. Our popular 15 minute animated DVD, “The True Cost of Food,” is a good way to get started. This gripping yet humorous video dramatizes what our so-called “cheap” food really costs and makes a great presentation for a local Club meeting.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us for information, names of other interested people in your area, and guidance on how to approach your local Club leaders to include sustainable consumption and True Cost of Food among their outings and conservation efforts.


By phone: Michael Beck at 818-246-3661 (24-hour phone number)

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