Posted by: oysterculture | January 26, 2009

Food Education: Sustainable Stuff

Adrienne at Gastroanthropology was the inspiration for this piece.   She did a wonderful post called Fish Futures and touched on sustainability, which got me thinking.  When I’ve eaten out recently, especially at restaurants billing themselves as sustainable, the experience can be as much of an education as it is about appreciation of a wonderful meal.   It dawned on me this was occurring when I dined at Hook restaurant in Washington, DC. 

interior of Hook restaurant

interior of Hook restaurant

I  had suzuki fish for the first time, and it blew my mind.  The waiter explained this was a sustainable fish and very delicious.  You have to understand, when I grew up in Minnesota, and fish for us, was Van de Kamps fish sticks with tartar sauce.  Consequently, I never had a strong affinity for fish – finding it pretty tasteless.  Now, I order fish regularly, and enjoy it –  but it was something I conditioned myself to do.  [For the record, I want to add that you can get some incredible fish in Minnesota, I just never encountered it in my youth.]

Is sustainabilty a dining trend?  I hope so, in the sense that we are going in a new direction, just as I hope that this emphasis on educating the diner – me – is a similar trend.  What I hope is trendy, in the fleeting sense, is the lip service paid to sustainability – folks jumping on the bandwagon but not following words with actions.  I am frustrated by individuals claiming commitment and then sweeping their unwanted food into the garbage. 

I’ve come to realize that education adds  to my dining experiences and I hope it is here to stay.  When done right, I come away with a deeper appreciation of the experience.  When done wrong, I feel preached to, which is not an activity I usually pay for.   Most often though, the restaurant and everyone involved is so enthusiastic about what they are doing that I get swept up in the momentum and come away further inspired.

I recently helped a start-up (well pre-start-up) host a summit on building integrated, sustainable agriculture.  One of the speakers, Will Allen had just won a MacArthur award for his work in urban farming.  What an inspiration!  (If you are ever in Milwaukee, check out his farm.) Actually, the entire summit was a powerful experience.  I learned so much, and was humbled by the talent and commitment of people that came from around the world to develop ideas and standards that should improve the food we consume.   All the attendees were light years ahead of us in terms of sustainable thinking and it was enlightening to get their perspective on food.

Trevor Paque of MyFarm (photo from SF Chronicle)

Trevor Paque of MyFarm (photo from SF Chronicle)

I embrace the understanding that comes with this trend.  I want the power to make informed choices; knowing that my selections are based on having all information available to me.  I’ll enjoy what I eat, not only because it tastes delicious, but because my selection did not adversely impact the environment.  With this new found knowledge, I can banter around words like terroir, organic, and farmstead with the best of them!  I can distinguish between farmstead and artisanal cheese, and I know that sheep and goat cheeses are seasonal.

Here are some resources that may, definitely not an inclusive list, but a good place to start:

Fish and Seafood:

Marine Stewardship Council    Blue Ocean    Seafood Choices    Montery Bay Aquarium

Produce and Farming:

Food Routes     Local Harvest     Eat Well Guide     Community Food Security Coalition



  1. Educating and sharing about sustainability is the first step. I think trying to make sustainable choices is really hard once you make a commitment to do so. Like food miles vs. seasonality, air miles vs. road miles, water use, fair trade, fair labor, organic – but is it really organic?, etc…

    I think fish is a great place to start learning about sustainability. Did you know over 50% who eat fish out of the home expect that fish to be sustainably sourced? Hah!

    While we as consumers need to make informed choices – I do believe a strong argument should be made about sustainable choices being made further up in the food chain than me with my dollars at the grocery store.

    Thanks for your post – I enjoy them all!

  2. Great point, I agree that education must be made back up the food chain, not only so those that work in the industry can understand their impact (although I’m not sure that will make a difference), but rather in an area that hits closer to home, I suspect, they’ll appreciate – how it impacts their livelihood – they fishing themselves out of work. I like being informed in my choices because as a consumer, I can influence the type of fish caught – if consumers want sustainable, the fisherman should follow suit – may not happen overnight.

    Increasing numbers of business models are invoking sustainability so people are catching on that its not just trendy but to survive as a business, you must recognize your impact on the environment. I also like seeing the studies that show that being ‘green’ makes sense – saves business money in the long run.

    To your first point, I take a different stance. I think it almost becomes easier, because once you make a commitment, all the options that are not aligned with the personal choices fall away. Although, I have to say, living in Caifornia those decisions are not hard with such an abundance so close at hand.

  3. True…I think I was more getting at the notion that it can be difficult to make the “right” choice sometimes because sustainability has so many aspects. For example, if I’m in London do I buy sustainable wild alaskan salmon air freighted and then trucked to my local grocer or the fished to practical extinction cod from the close-by Dover coast? Or a conventional apple where the laborer has health care and job security or the organic apple where the laborer is seasonal and doesn’t know he’s going to have work next week?
    It is easier to make “organic” choices in California but on this Island Nation or in the Arizona dessert it can be a different story.

  4. I see your points – being sustainable adds a level of complexity that did not exist even in the recent past. Your point about the added difficult on an Island Nation is well taken. Why does it have to be so hard to be good?

  5. I know! The greater our knowledge grows about the different types of food the more we want! This is a little off topic, well not really, but its sharing land here in the UK for growing. Like if I have a plot of land and don’t have the time or want to cultivate it then I can “share” it with someone who does.

  6. I think the landshare concept is wonderful, and its definitely gaining momentum as a movement here in the states. A few of the speakers at that summit I referenced have developed for profit business models that work:

    I’ll have to add a new link catagory.

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