Food Cycle

The eternal food loop—harvest, prepare, savor, cleanup—has never been healthier, and better tasting, than it is right now.

Even in tough times, everyone has to eat. Indeed, the one place where we could be tempted to make some small allowances is our food. Sure, we might feel a little guilty about indulging ourselves, but what if that dark, delectable chocolate bar you devoured at lunch actually did the earth a little good, or that cheese on your cracker helped protect a 200-acre farm and a variety of bird species, while keeping a family afloat. Maybe that delicious bread you bought was made from corn genetically engineered to need less water, those heirloom tomatoes from the grocery store lowered the cost of toxin-free food for all, and the rice in your sushi provided critical habitat for long-billed curlews. Far from being a health food fantasy, this menu is now, or soon will be, an everyday reality. So raise a fork (and a glass of wine made from grapes grown without pesticides) to eating well while doing great things for birds, wildlife, the planet—and you.

See this article's accompanying photo gallery


Meals on Wheels
On a clear, brisk November day in Stamford, New York, three beef cows and 11 pigs await slaughter. They’ve been trucked here to meet their end in the Northeast’s first mobile slaughterhouse, docked today at Jim Eklund’s organic dairy farm. Under the watchful eye of a USDA inspector, Eklund stuns, kills, bleeds, skins, and eviscerates each animal in the 53-foot-long kill trailer. The organs are moved to an inedible-parts trailer, then Eklund quarters or halves the carcass and places it in a chilling compartment until it’s driven to a butcher or a cut-and-wrap facility. “The meat goes to farmers’ markets in New York City, to restaurants that want local, all-natural grass-fed beef,” says Eklund, who’s building an on-site cut-and-wrap operation so he’ll have the capacity to process 50 cattle a day. “You know exactly which animal the steak or burger is coming from. Larger facilities take hundreds of animals, mix it all up.” The Modular Harvest System (MHS) processes lambs, goats, hogs, beef cows, and veal calves. Farmers like it because it’s closer than industrial facilities, and they can make appointments a month, rather than half a year, in advance. “Ultimately, we’d like to see a system of docking sites throughout the region, so the MHS can be moved around to serve more farmers,” says Judith LaBelle, president of Glynwood, the nonprofit that created it. “It’s ecologically sound—the animals graze in pastures rather than eating energy-intensive grains, the waste is properly disposed of. It’s good for animals, people, and the planet.”—Alisa Opar

Walk on the Wild Side
A parade of notebook-toting, camera-wearing students follow their leader, Leda Meredith, into Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Stopping at a shrub, she pulls off a clump of leaves and holds it to her nose. “I’m big on scratch-and-sniff foraging,” she says. Its pungent odor gives the mugwort away. This invasive plant, which beer brewers once used to flavor their ales, is a natural muscle relaxer, Meredith says, and grows throughout the park. 

Her foraging class is one of many springing up around the country, from Los Angeles to Denver to Boston, demonstrating the growing public interest in finding tasty greens among the weeds. “It’s exploded in the last few years,” says Meredith, an ethnobotanist and author who foraged with her grandmother and great-grandmother in Golden Gate Park near her childhood home in San Francisco.

Fond du Lac County Audubon in Wisconsin, for instance, hosts an annual potluck where participants bring a course concocted with a wild ingredient—last year’s event boasted a menu of savory burdock patties and mustard-greens pesto. Chefs are also digging the idea. At Noma, his Copenhagen restaurant, Danish chef René Redzepi serves dishes replete with local ingredients from nearby fields, like sorrel and wild herbs. Noma topped the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants poll last year, and Redzepi’s foraging-infused cookbook, one of several that highlight wild foods, hit bookstores last fall.

A multitude of factors—from an increasing distrust of the industrial food system to foraging’s zero cost—are accelerating the trend. On top of that, wild finds like maitake mushrooms (right) or mugwort may add a little zest to your meals. Says Meredith, “One of the great things about foraging for me is getting to play with ingredients that you can’t buy.”—Susan Cosier



Oyster Bar
Go ahead—slurp those farmed oysters, without the guilt. The mollusks are symbols for sustainable aquaculture. “[They’re] environmentally, ecologically beneficial as well as economically beneficial,” says Michael Oesterling, a fisheries and aquaculture specialist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. As filter feeders, the bivalves simultaneously eat and clarify water by sucking up algae that thrives on nutrient runoff. Also, cages and other aquaculture containment gear placed on sandy bottoms in coastal waters can provide habitat for other species. “It’s an automatic oyster reef,” says Doug McMinn, founder of the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company, a leading aquaculturist in the bay region.

Many of the oysters sold on the half-shell in this country come from the Chesapeake and northward, where more than 90 percent of farmers obtain stock from hatcheries to kick-start cultures. Shucked oysters, on the other hand, often come from Gulf of Mexico, where farmers  typically rely initially on wild seed—a more traditional method, according to McMinn. The practice doesn’t necessarily deplete native stocks or damage the environment. Still, consider this: Wild oysters can take up to five years to reach market size, while farmed mollusks need only about one. Like ’em briny? Sample the western Chesapeake Bay’s farm-raised variety. Prefer sweet and buttery? Try a Mobjack Bay aquaculturist’s. “Oysters are like wine,” says Oesterling. “Each area has its own flavor.”—Julie Leibach

American Cheese
He was a businessman working for a computer company. She was a stay-at-home mom. Neither of them had ever separated curd from whey—or even milked a cow—but that didn’t stop Steve and Karen Getz from selling their home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 2003 to buy a bucolic, 243-acre dairy farm in Bridport, Vermont, to make cheese. So began Dancing Cow Farm, named for the roughly two dozen bovines hoofing it in a pasture filled with sweet clover, dandelion, trefoil, and a mix of other grasses, all untouched by pesticide, herbicide, or petroleum-based fertilizer.

Dancing Cow Farm is a pasture-based dairy that emphasizes farming in harmony with the environment. Soil is untilled to sequester carbon. The cows spread seeds naturally with their manure. Hay is harvested late in the season to allow ground-nesting birds time to fledge their young without the threat of being squashed by tractors. And suburban sprawl will never sully these acres because the Getzes sold the farm’s development rights to the Vermont Land Trust. This holistic approach, says Steve, “is good for the livestock, good for the family, good for the environment.”

The proof is in the cheese, which is known for a piquancy that evokes grassy pastures. As Steve does the milking each morning, warm, rich milk flows directly from the cows into the cheese vat, where Karen stands by to begin handcrafting different varieties. “We only make cheese from a single milking,” she says. “Typically a cheese maker will store the milk and make cheese two to three days a week.”

Dancing Cow’s cheeses, which are named for baroque dances, including the bourrée (right) and the minuet, are winning accolades from the American Cheese Society and selling at Whole Foods and specialty stores, such as New York’s Murray’s Cheese Shop.—Rene Ebersole



How Sweet It Is
The aroma of fresh-roasted cacao beans spills out of an early 1900s trolley barn tucked in Seattle’s artsy Fremont neighborhood. Inside, modern-day oompa loompas, wearing blue hairnets, chocolate-brown T-shirts, jeans, and clogs, are hand-mixing flavorful inclusions like coconut curry and hazelnut crunch to stir into vats of velvety chocolate. Welcome to Theo Chocolate’s factory, named for Theobroma, the cacao tree genus. This factory’s golden ticket is making chocolates good for the taste buds as well as the environment and cacao farmers.

Back in the early 1990s Theo founder and owner Joseph Whinney hopped off a sailboat in Punta Gorda, Belize, and ended up working alongside local Mayans harvesting yellow, green, and red football-shaped cacao pods for their valuable beans. “I couldn’t believe that’s where cocoa came from,” says Whinney. He was hooked. In 1994, at age 25, he pioneered an effort to supply organic cacao beans to the United States, and in 2006 he began making his own organic chocolate. Theo prioritizes where, how, and by whom its cacao is grown, paying a premium to farmers who don’t rely on chemicals, child labor, or agricultural practices that destroy forests and biodiversity. “I believe you can make a big impact by having integrity in your supply chain,” Whinney says. The company even created bars whose proceeds support the Jane Goodall Institute, and it is preparing to launch a bar with National Audubon this spring.

Birds and farmers alike can benefit when consumers satisfy their sweet tooth with organic, fair-trade chocolate grown beneath a natural forest canopy. Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center biologist Bob Reitsma says that, relative to other land uses, cacao plantations provide “lots and lots of habitat for forest birds,” including species like the violaceous trogon, the purple-throated fruitcrow, the white-collared manakin, and the Montezuma’s oropendola.—Rene Ebersole

Oldie But Goodie
A splatter of yellow stands out against a dark-green rind on the moon & stars watermelon, a variety named for its night-sky-like appearance. Unlike its commercial cousin, this melon is grown from heirloom seeds, or those taken from a non-hybridized plant pollinated in the open, collected, and planted, year after year, often for centuries. “They’re similar to a piece of jewelry or a piece of furniture that has been passed down from one generation to another,” says Diane Ott Whealy, cofounder of Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit that stores and safeguards heirloom seeds.

Most vegetables in the grocery store are the result of F1 hybrids, plants bred by agricultural companies for desirable traits. These grow quickly and are strong and uniform—qualities described as “hybrid vigor.” But if someone sows the seeds from these vegetables, the plants won’t exhibit the same characteristics as their parents, forcing farmers and gardeners alike to buy new seeds annually. Heirloom seeds, however, sprout and bear more or less the same odd-looking and delicious fruits and vegetables—with names like bumble bee bean and Hubbard squash (right)—every growing season. Generally, they’re more resistant to disease and adaptable to their environments. Plus they contribute to the diversity of the gene pool. Says Ott Whealy, “What a shame it would be if we lost any color or any trait from these older varieties that have been surviving all these years.”—Susan Cosier



Kick the Can
Thanks to Atlanta’s Zero Waste Zone, more than 3,000 tons of food and organic scraps so far have been transformed into energy and nutrient-rich soil rather than rotting in landfills next to nonbiodegradable or slow-to-decay trash. The movement—started to divert waste and attract conferences seeking green venues to the city—now has some serious momentum. And just in time. “Our soil is in dire straits,” says Holly Elmore, ZWZ Atlanta founder. “That waste is actually an asset that can be used to rejuvenate our soil and our water supply.”

To succeed, the initiative needed support—and scraps—from Atlanta’s food-industry bigwigs. Elmore tagged higher-ups at the Georgia World Congress Center, Philips Arena, the Westin Peachtree Plaza and Hyatt Regency hotels, the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium, and Ted’s Montana Grill (owned by Ted Turner). “If every one of these large facilities does it,” she says, “we make a huge difference.”

More than half of the participating facilities already recycled, but the ZWZ mission goes further, keeping food residuals and spent grease out of landfills, too, as well as conserving energy and creating toxin-free environments. Learning the finer points of composting took training, Elmore says. Take, for instance, twist ties. They seem like a harmless way to secure bags, but if they get into compost that’s spread on fields, they might harm cattle that ingest them.

No-waste zones are catching on around downtown Atlanta, and cities across the country are abuzz about the concept. Restaurants, food courts, caterers, and colleges are also adopting the practice. The message is clear—spread the word, not the waste.—Michele Wilson

Trim Your Waste

From farm to fork, Americans waste 40 percent of their food. In addition to the economic and ethical ramifications, our widespread squandering has far-reaching environmental impact. Since each person creates roughly a half-pound of food waste per day, we can play a significant role in reducing it. Here are five tips.

1. Shop Smartly: Plan a week’s worth of dinners and make a detailed shopping list to prevent overbuying. Leave a few nights free for leftovers or changing plans. Stick to your list and be honest with yourself—don’t buy produce that often goes unused.

2. In Sight, All Right: Keeping food visible works wonders. That means avoiding the cluttered fridge and cabinets where items get pushed to the back. Take a tip from supermarkets: Put the newer groceries behind the older ones.

3. Avoid Portion Distortion: Don’t dish out too much. It’s easy to take seconds, but we don’t often save what’s left on the plate. And beware—today’s massive plates make a reasonable amount look tiny. If you’re out to eat, know that you’ll likely get more food than you need or want. If leftovers leave you cold, halve recipes and order differently at restaurants.

4. Love Your Leftovers: Eat your leftovers. It’s easy to keep the remains of your dinner, but that’s no help if you don’t eat them. They’re ideal lunches, and they’ll save you time and money.

5. Expiration Exasperation: Trust your senses before you rely on the package date. Sell-by dates are aimed at retailers and leave about a week to enjoy an item at home. And best-by is less stringent than use-by.—Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland