Monday, April 18
Earth Day is just around the corner! As cheesy as this may sound, every day is Earth Day in our house. I know, I know. CHEESE. But it’s true. For the last 6 years, my new year’s resolutions have all been centered around helping Mother Earth by making changes in how our family eats and cooks. As I look back on those years, I can see how much better we’ve gotten about a lot of things and I can also see how those resolutions have really gotten me (and my kids!) to be constantly thinking about how our actions are impacting the environment. The best part is that it’s all been easier to do than I thought it would be!
When I say that I am constantly thinking about how our food system impacts the environment I am not exaggerating. I think about environmental food issues all the time. I regularly read articles and reports about the environmental impact of the food industry and I love getting the chance to talk with food companies of all kinds to find out how they produce food, what they are doing about their carbon footprint and more. This year I’ve already talked with at least 3 different food companies regarding sustainability and have gained so much insight into how food companies think about sustainability and what they are doing about it.
One of those companies I’ve met with is General Mills. I visited their headquarters this past January, where I participated in a small Q&A session with the president of the cereal group as well as a one-on-one conversation with Catherine Gunsbury, director of sustainability and transparency at General Mills. My talk with Catherine was awesome and I got all kinds of great intel out of her. We also discovered that she and I are kindred spirits – we are both obsessed with not throwing food into the trash (obsessed). I spoke with Catherine on the phone again this week, at which point she filled me in on General Mills’ latest annual Global Responsibility Report. We talked about General Mills’ goal to sustainably source 100% of their top 10 ingredients by 2020 (and what that means) as well as General Mills’ commitment to achieve zero waste going to landfill at 100% of their global production facilities by 2025 (they are at about 6% now and making good progress). If you want to read more detail about what General Mills is up to in terms of sustainability and social responsibility, click here.
As I’ve spoken with many food companies over the years, both big and small, and really mulled over all the issues surrounding food and the environment, I’ve been encouraged to see that a lot of these companies really do care and are working hard to turn the ship that is our food system around. One of the other big things I keep coming back to is how powerful consumers are. If we as consumers demand better food (and packaging and production and everything else!), food companies will continue to deliver better food (and packaging and production and everything else!). Like I said, the food industry is a large ship and it will take a lot of work and time to turn it around, but I have faith we can all contribute to that process. It can feel daunting, but if we all keep on keeping on, we can make the world a better place and ensure our food sources will be sustainable for generations to come.
So, what are some of the things we can actually do in our daily lives to help that process along? To celebrate Earth Day this week, I’d love to share ten things our family has done in the kitchen over the years to have a positive impact on the environment. Some of these tactics are more involved than others, but none of them are difficult and all of them make a difference! And, before you let yourself feel overwhelmed by the list, I promise these are things our family does every day. I’m about the laziest cook you’ll ever meet and I’ve still been able to follow these steps! For me the key to success is to keep it simple and realistic and focus on working on a step-by-step basis.
1. Eat Less Meat.
My first official what-we-eat-and-how-we-eat-it-affects-the-environment resolution was to eat less meat. Per capita meat consumption has increased significantly over the last several decades. In fact, if we all switched to natural, pasture-raised meat, there wouldn’t be enough land to support our demand. The natural resources that go into producing a pound of meat versus pretty much any other food is significantly more. Reducing meat consumption across society would have a huge positive impact on the environment! So, how do we do that?
For our family we did not go vegetarian, we simply cut back on the amount of meat we ate week to week. I experimented with vegetarian recipes that incorporated beans because our family likes beans. I chose recipes that made it easier to spread out the meat I was using so I could use less meat overall in that meal, like salads with just 1 or 2 chicken breasts for the whole family. I thought cutting back on meat would be so hard, but it wasn’t, and I think that’s because we took a moderate approach that was realistic for our family.
(Pictured above: Sweet Potato Bacon Pizza, where very little meat is used…and dinner is still filling and beyond delicious!)
2. Cut Back on Paper Towels and Napkins.
I honestly thought cutting out paper towels would be impossible, but it was EASY. I swear. The trick is to buy a big stack of towels and to have them in a very accessible place in the kitchen. The only time I use paper towels now is to soak up grease. Click here to read more about our family’s system that’s made living without paper towels no big deal. Our family also only uses cloth napkins. They go in with the normal laundry and it hasn’t been any extra work. Quick tip: my favorite cloth napkins are the cocktail sized napkins – they are perfect for everyday use!
3. Use Less Plastic.
This was a multi-year goal for me and one I am still working on. Reducing plastic use is hard because it is everywhere, especially when it comes to food products. The good news is that all that plastic gives you ample opportunity to tackle the problem! Maybe start by eliminating one-time plastic use items, like throwaway food containers and baggies. Then slowly replace plastic storage containers with glass, and so on. And, don’t forget the classic bring your own bags to the grocery store! One step at a time is the way to go with this goal!
4. Recycle Even More!
I know most of us recycle a lot already. But I also know a lot of us don’t realize just how much we can recycle. For example, I learned just 3 months ago that the cereal bags inside the boxes for General Mills cereals are recyclable! Upon closer inspection I discovered that the bottom of the boxes told me that very fact, I just never bothered to look. Now I check all food packages much more carefully to see what packaging is recyclable! I also took the time to visit my waste management company’s website and reviewed their recycling list. Did you know you can recycle aluminum foil? The list goes on and on!
5. Waste Less Food.
This is my 2016 resolution and it’s a big one. It’s amazing, though, how simply being mindful of food waste has automatically decreased the amount of food our family throws away. For example, I am so much better about using leftovers now. I’ve also discovered that a lot of our food waste happens when we eat out, so I try to adjust our takeout orders accordingly. There are just so many ways to decrease food waste and paying just a little bit of attention is a simple way to make a big difference!
Composting is related to my food waste goal and something I just started doing this year. I’ve always been scared of composting (actually, terrified), but now that we’re composting it’s seriously no big deal. I have a bowl on my counter where I toss compostable items, which I dump each night in our compost bin we have out in the yard. Total added time to my daily routine? 1 minute. Easy peasy! And, if you’re lucky enough to live in a community that picks up compost with regular trash pick up, then composting is even easier. Be sure to research what your town has to offer!
7. Don’t Throw Food in the Trash Whenever Possible.
This is also related to numbers five and six, but I think it’s worth a specific call out. Did you know that when food decomposes in the landfill, it puts off significant amounts of greenhouse gases that would not be emitted if the food was composted naturally? Keep food out of the landfills by putting it in the disposal or compost pile. There are some items that can’t go in compost or down the sink, but that list is small. This is an easy way we can all make a difference!
8. Buy Food in Bulk.
Buy food in bulk to cut down on packaging and encourage cooking! But keep those food waste goals in mind…don’t buy more than you will use. And don’t forget to utilize your freezer! I’ve found that my freezer has been a great friend both in reducing food waste and allowing me to buy more foods in bulk.
9. Reusable Containers for Food Storage and Packing Lunches.
When I started cutting out plastic, I bought a bunch of glass food containers. I recycled a few of the old plastic items, but kept the good quality ones, which I use when I run out of glass. I’ve forced myself to stop using plastic wrap for covering food in the fridge, too. I’ve also switched to reusable lunch food bags for my kids’ lunches. Washing them every day takes a bit of time, but nothing crazy and it’s definitely worth saving all those plastic bags from going into the trash!
10. Join a CSA.
There’s nothing like joining a CSA to help you eat more locally and seasonally! Plus being connected to local farmers can teach you a lot and really connect you to your community. If a farm share is too expensive or simply too much food for your family, consider splitting it with a friend!
I hope this list isn’t daunting but instead encouraging! If you have any questions about any of these tips, let me know! And, as always, if you have your own tips or tricks for implementing any of the steps above, please share!
Today’s post is sponsored by General Mills.
Thursday, September 11
This post is sponsored by McDonald’s. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.
In May, McDonald’s flew me to Chicago to visit their headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. I sat down for 60 minutes of discussion with some of their leadership team, including the senior directors of marketing and management. McDonald’s understands that they have a polarizing brand and they are making efforts to reach out to people who have neutral or negative opinions about the company (people like me!) to engage in a dialogue. When they first approached me about potentially doing a sponsored post on my blog involving an interview with members of the leadership team, in all honesty my initial reaction was “no way.” But I thought about it a lot and decided that this could be an excellent opportunity to talk with decision-makers at the company, ask them direct questions and hear what they had to say (as well as maybe get a chance to share my thoughts around their business).
I feel strongly that what we do in the kitchen has a strong impact on Mother Earth. My New Year’s resolutions always involve an environmental goal that’s directly related to how our family eats. I also try to cook at home as much as I can to feed my family a nutritious and balanced diet. But guess what? We also go to McDonald’s. Not all the time, but we go. Cate doesn’t like McDonald’s and normally doesn’t order anything (she’s well-versed in the concept of monoculture farming but also does not enjoy the food). Anna and Owen, however, love McDonald’s, and it’s a special treat for them when we go. That said, on the occasions that I visit McDonald’s, questions and concerns about sustainability and our food system are constantly swirling in my head.
When my girls found out that I was going to interview people at McDonald’s, I asked if they had any specific things they wanted me to talk about. They both said they wanted me to ask McDonald’s to please put baby carrots in the Happy Meals. I shared our family’s wish with Chef Jessica, so I’ve done my duty. Even though McDonald’s does not accept unsolicited advice – “Jane Maynard’s Requests” was not on the “How a Product Is Developed” infographic they shared with me – if baby carrots ever do appear in the Happy Meal, the girls and I are totally taking credit!
On to the interviews! Here are the folks that I had the chance to talk with, both in person and over the phone:
- Justin Ransom, PhD, Senior Director, Quality Systems, Supply Chain Management
- Erik Gonring, Manager, Global Government Relations & Public Affairs
- Chef Jessica Foust, RDN, Director of Culinary Innovation
- Cindy Goody, PhD, MBA, RDN, LDN, Senior Director of Nutrition
- Darci Forrest, Senior Director Marketing, Menu Innovation Team
In my discussion with Justin and Erik, we talked about food sustainability and supply issues, which have always been my biggest concerns with McDonald’s and other big food brands. I learned from talking with Justin and Erik that when McDonald’s looks at sourcing, there’s a triple bottom line that’s defined by three Es: ethics, environment and economics. Those three factors drive how the company sources their food. One interesting takeaway that I learned – and something that I honestly hadn’t thought about before – is that McDonald’s wants to get their food from sustainable sources, because they need those supplies to not disappear.
Erik gave the example of the Filet-O-Fish, an iconic McDonald’s item. At one point, the company learned that they were contributing to the depletion of the cod supply off the Atlantic coast. This problem had ethical, environmental and economic implications. McDonald’s knew they had to make a change, especially since they needed a long-term fish supply in order to continue serving the beloved sandwich. After years of work, McDonald’s USA has reached a point where all of the whitefish they use is sustainably harvested, and McDonald’s was the first national chain to serve whitefish sourced from a Marine Stewardship Council-certified sustainable fishery.
I also inquired about organic and local sourcing. Justin said that 14,000 restaurants using local and/or organic ingredients is a challenge. Taking into account their high standards for quality, safety and consistency, McDonald’s has to minimize risk in their supply chain, which makes organic and locally sourced foods difficult to implement. I understand this on a logical level, but it’s still a concern for me. I asked Justin if he was at all optimistic that, in the future, we could source foods in more sustainable ways at this scale. Justin said he is. Honestly, I don’t know that I am, but I’m glad someone is.
We also discussed waste. On the customer side, I asked about recycling and compost bins in restaurants. Erik said that when there is infrastructure to support recycling and composting, typically they get on board: restaurants in cities including San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Austin have recycling bins, and many of those markets also compost organic waste behind the counter. But he also stressed that customer behavior is the biggest challenge when implementing these systems. On the supply side, I learned that the bulk of the waste at a restaurant happens behind the counter. McDonald’s recycles their corrugate and cooking oil in many restaurants, which makes up to 40% of that behind-the-scenes waste. The company is also taking actions like phasing out polystyrene coffee cups and joining the How2Recycle label program to make it easier for customers to recycle away from the restaurant.
The biggest takeaway from my discussion with Erik and Justin is that McDonald’s won’t compromise on their final product. The McDonald’s fry is a good example of this. Justin said that the taste of McDonald’s fries must remain consistent around the world. This means that McDonald’s only uses a handful of potato varieties from specific regions of the world. I was told that identifying new varieties is a long and arduous process and McDonald’s would never allow customers to notice a change in their fries. For me, this is a perfect example of how our demand for one specific product leads to problematic farming practices. If there were more room for variation, we wouldn’t need to farm such limited varieties of potatoes. When there is such a high demand for just a few crops, those plants are susceptible to pests, which in turn necessitates the use of either GMOs – which McDonald’s made clear that they do not use – or pesticides. Industrialized monoculture farming, where you grow un-diversified crops, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Our demand – what we will or will not buy – directly impacts how food is grown.
In my discussion with chef Jessica, nutritionist Cindy and marketer Darci, we talked at length about the menu, how it’s developed and efforts around nutrition. Here are four key takeaways from that discussion:
- When a new product is rolled out, it takes anywhere from nine months to four years to develop, from conceptualization to finally being sold in restaurants.
- McDonald’s has reformulated a long list of their ingredients, from the Big Mac bun to nuggets, to contain less sodium.
- McDonald’s is working on a set of initiatives for their top nine and top 20 markets to be fulfilled by 2020 that include, among other things, increasing the amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables that are served, as well as offering more salads and produce as options with meals.
- Taste is key. McDonald’s won’t sacrifice when it comes to taste and is completely focused on serving customers what they want and will buy.
The Arches, a full-service McDonald’s restaurant in the corporate office building.
A lot of the issues that I have with McDonald’s and our food system in general map back to the consumer. For instance, I asked Darci why McDonald’s peels the apples in their Happy Meals. (I really wish that the apples were not peeled so that my kids would at least have the option of eating better.) Darci explained that McDonald’s serves apples that way because it was the best balance they could find of serving a product that parents would feel good about giving their kids but also one that the kids would eat, based on testing prior to the product launch. Corporations as large as McDonald’s have a social responsibility and should take a leadership role, but purchasing power is also incredibly important when it comes to effecting change.
So did I learn anything new through this process? Yes. Did I get some answers that weren’t completely satisfactory? Yes. Did I get some positive answers I wasn’t expecting? Yes. Could I have asked questions all day long? You bet. And do I still believe that we, the consumers, are at the root of the food system and that we can make a difference? Yes!
Let me know in the comments section below: if you could ask the McDonald’s team one question, what would it be?