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Sustainable Pathway: March - Food and Cooking.

This month, our Sustainable Pathway series looks at sustainable food and cooking. We discuss how to choose ingredients that are kind to our planet (including growing them yourself!), how to cook with them sustainably, what to do with the leftovers and even how to wash up in an environmentally-sound way. We've blagged a special offer of £15 off (with a further £15 per person being donated to the Trussell Trust) for anyone who signs up to Riverford vegetable boxes.

The study is below (trigger warning: contains references to flatulent livestock) and should take about 15 minutes to read. We'll be holding an informal discussion on this study over post-service refreshments for the 10am service on Sunday 17th March. This will give people the opportunity to ask questions on the material covered in a friendly atmosphere. 



Topic Introduction

Sustainable meals are tasty meals! One of the strange contradictions of life is that the more constraints we face, the more ingenuity we show to overcome those constraints and so food cooked with sustainability in mind will be more creative and freshly considered than food that has been cooked without as much thought – and that's before we factor in the benefits of using more nutritious, flavourful, fresher ingredients!

 

Sustainability in food covers:

·         The ingredients we use – how they are grown (including by us!), processed and transported

·         How we cook with those ingredients

·         What we do with the leftovers!

·         Washing up!

 

Choosing ingredients

A useful guide to choosing sustainable ingredients is LOAF; this stands for:

·         Locally produced – this reduces “food miles” (the energy used to transport our food), ensures that food is fresh, in season and supports our local community.

·         Organically grown – this ensures that the soil is treated sustainably and that insects and other wildlife are not harmed through the use of pesticides.

·         Animal friendly – we don’t want our food to be the result of animals or ecosystems suffering.

·         Fairly traded – we want our food to promote social justice and to ensure that farmers and producers, wherever they are in the world, have received a fair price on fair terms for their produce. St. Andrews’ Church has been a pioneer of Fairtrade for many decades!

 

Meat is a particular issue, and reducing your meat consumption might well be the most significant single change that you can make to shrink your carbon footprint. It takes significantly more energy, land (think of rainforest clearance for cattle-rearing!) and water to produce the ingredients for a meat-based meal than a vegetarian meal. Beef production also contributes to global warming through methane emissions (cow farts and burps) – methane is a potent greenhouse gas (84 times as potent as CO2) and livestock causes around 15% of all global greenhouse gas emissions! If you only follow one link in this month’s study, please make it this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k-V3ESHcfA which explains this in an entertaining yet compelling 16-minute video, and is very suitable for use with children – many of whom will already know the presenter, Mark Rober, from his engineering videos! Skip to 9:49 if you want to miss the investigation of plant-based burgers and get straight to the benefits of reducing meat consumption.

 

Some thoughts:

·         Avoid eating meat:

◦         Reduce your consumption even if you can’t become fully vegetarian. When eating out I make a point of considering the vegetarian options on the menu – they’re usually just as delicious! Also, even partially reducing the meat component of a recipe can help – for example a lasagna ragu could be half mince and half beans.

◦         Substitute high-carbon meats such as beef for lower-carbon meats such as chicken.

◦         For vegetarian meal ideas, consider the “More Than Broccoli” blog and recipe collection at https://www.meerdanbroccoli.net/en/

·         Avoid unsustainably farmed / overfished species: for example, choosing hake or plaice over cod or haddock (both of which are overfished – cod more so than haddock) at the chip shop!

·         Avoid foods which directly or indirectly cause animal suffering (Fois gras is a well-known example)

·         Choose wholegrain foods – these have typically had less energy-intensive processing, and are more nutritious! Choosing brown sugar over white sugar, or wholegrain flour over white flour are examples of this.

·         Plan ahead to minimise food waste (remember “reduce” is better than “reuse” and “recycle”!). Think about how prepared food can be stored to avoid it spoiling between meals, and fresh foods can be kept longer before use. There is some fantastic advice on food planning to minimise waste (and cost!) at https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/.

·         Plan for storage – although bulk buying can be an excellent way to reduce costs, ensure food is suitably organised and used on a “first-in first-out” basis to avoid food going out-of-date and hence going to waste.

·         Understand the difference between “best before” and “use by” dates – they mean what they say!

◦         Food is best before the “best before” date but can still be eaten after that date!

◦         Food should be used before the “use before” date – although some braver souls might choose to exceed these at their own risk!

·         Other methods of storing food, particularly gluts of fruit or vegetables, require some initial investment, but can reap rewards over the longer term. Preserving, pickling and even dehydrating methods all maintain the nutritional value of foods beyond the normal seasonal availability.

·         If you only need a small amount of wine for a recipe, or are going to create more stock or sauce than required for a single meal, the excess can be poured into an ice-cube tray and frozen into useful portions that can be defrosted and used as required.

 

The chart below is a useful guide to the dramatic range of carbon intensity of different foods



 

“Food miles” is a term used to refer to the energy used to transport our food – as well as the energy used to physically move the food, there may have been energy used to chill it in transportation and the embodied energy in the packaging that is used. Clearly local food production avoids a lot of this energy consumption – as well a providing freshet (hence tastier, more nutritious) food.

·         When shopping, pay attention to where your food comes from – this is usually on the label. You may be shocked by the results!

·         A simple way of reducing food miles is to consider subscribing to a “Veg box”. These are filled with local produce, with availability according to the season, and with minimal, usually reusable packaging. The BBC Good Food website rates Riverford (https://www.riverford.co.uk/) highly for sustainability and their own sustainability report is honest (https://media.riverford.co.uk/downloads/Riverford+Sustainability+Report+2023.pdf); they already deliver in our area.


If you sign up with our referral link www.riverford.co.uk/refer/pV-kg-jeW5UYgRGXu9tMDA (or https://www.riverford.co.uk/refer/Fz2QnMIZqzPwajJhRWkb9A if the ten sign-ups we’re allowed on the first referral link have all been used up!):

◦         you’ll get a £15 discount after your first order

◦         we’ll also receive a £15 credit, which will be donated to the Trussell Trust (https://www.trusselltrust.org/); we recognise that at the moment, some people struggle to eat at all, let alone sustainably.

◦         Riverford will make a donation for FareShare South West (see https://faresharesouthwest.org.uk/support-us/riverford-organic-join-the-fight-against-food-poverty/).


·          Eat whatever is in season. Many people would nowadays be hard pushed to say what is in season when as we are so used to buying food that has been flown around the world or grown/ripened in huge heated greenhouses! The following table is a useful guide:




 

Remember that food processing takes energy without adding energy to the food – and in many cases removes both energy and nutrition from the food. This is therefore a double waste of energy – so opting for food that has undergone less processing is far more sustainable.


 

Consider buying food that would be rejected by other less enlightened consumers:

·         “Wonky veg” refers to vegetables that don’t meet the aesthetic standards imposed by the buyers for supermarkets, and hence liable to be wasted. Oddbox (https://www.oddbox.co.uk/) is well known for supplying these as a veg box subscription (although its been reported the contents are sometime a bit unpredictable and they might not be so sustainable in other senses – they sometimes import food.)

·         “Too Good to Go” (https://www.toogoodtogo.com/en-gb) is an organisation that lets you buy food (at a significant discount) that would otherwise be thrown out by local businesses.

 

Consider how food packaging can be reduced:

·         To state the obvious – avoid choosing products that are over-wrapped, or wrapped in non-recyclable materials.

·         In Bedford, we’re very lucky to have “The Store” in St. Cuthbert’s Arcade (https://shop.thestoreuk.co.uk/) on our doorstep. This store allows people to take their own containers along and refill them with foods, personal care and cleaning products from the wholesale-sized containers, avoiding the need for any retail packaging and enabling they to purchase only what they need, reducing spoilage.

 

It is sobering to think how scarcity will increasingly impact the foods that we can choose – the Guardian recently published an article (see https://t.co/MCENiTcUBY?s=09) on how climate change and unsustainable consumption is limiting future supplies of much-loved treats including chocolate, coffee or wine.

 

Growing ingredients

If you want the freshest food, zero food miles and possibly the cheapest food, consider growing it yourself. For many edible crops, March/April is a good time to be sowing (hence the timing of this topic!)

 

Right – this is a special announcement for those of you whose immediate reaction to that was that you’re utterly unable to grow anything for whatever reason! Get one of those potted herbs (basil, coriander etc) at the supermarket – the ones that most people shear and dump in a week – but instead, pop it on your windowsill and gently water it. (Hint – most houseplants suffer from being overwatered rather than underwatered!) It’ll be the easiest way of disproving your preconceptions about your abilities!

 

Don’t expect the first attempt to work but be prepared to learn from it. When we planted pumpkin seeds for the growing competition at last year’s Green Fair, not all of them came up. Some of them were fatally attacked by slugs and snails. Mine failed to generate female flowers as I was overcautious and didn’t plant it out, and so it struggled for nutrients. But – some succeeded, and we all learned useful lessons so the chances of success increase with every attempt! The tomatoes we grew alongside the pumpkins (for very little additional effort) were far more successful and delicious (if slightly small) and I’ve got some more seeds for this year.

 

There’s a plethora of information available on the internet – I’d recommend the Royal Horticultural Society website at https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/popular which gives guidance on what to grow where, when and how.

 

Cooking

Much of the energy required to prepare food is used by heating processes. In many cases, this heat then escapes into the kitchen – but not all waste heat is wasted! In the colder months, it can help to heat your kitchen – try reducing your kitchen radiator temperature and letting the heat from the oven make up the difference!

 

We’ll start with the kettle:

·         not all drinks need boiling water – regular tea needs boiling water for a decent infusion, but some herbal teas infuse at lower temperatures, and instant coffee will dissolve at much lower temperatures. It’s a bit daft to use more energy than required to heat water beyond the temperature required to make a drink, and then have to wait for the drink to cool before you can enjoy it! Some modern kettles have a button to automatically turn off at a lower temperature (e.g. 80°C which is great for many hot drinks); for ordinary kettles, you can manually turn then off before they boil.

·         Only boil as much water as you need; if you boil a full kettle for a single mug of tea, you’ve wasted 80%+ of the energy used by the kettle to heat water that will stay in the kettle slowly cooling down.

·         Refill the kettle immediately (but only to the level you’re likely to need for the next use – see the point above!) after using all of the water than you need; this reduces the temperature of the water in the kettle and hence the rate at which the heat is lost to the room.

·         An alternative to a kettle is a point-of-use water heater – these store cold water and only heat it as it is dispensed into mug under the nozzle, so there is no heat loss in storage. The flow is a bit slower than pouring from a kettle but this doesn’t matter if you’re only filling a couple of mugs. They’re also good from a safety point of view (you never have to lift hot water) and for people with arthritic conditions (you don’t have to twist your wrist to pour from a heavy, hot kettle)!

 


 

We’re now familiar with microwave ovens being more efficient then traditional ovens, but there are other energy-efficient heating methods to consider:

·         Air fryer – this has been a game changer for me. Instead of heating a whole oven to cook something like chips, we now just use the air fryer which is both more efficient and healthier. It is also a wonderful way to experiment with unusual cooking methods – my kids love air-fried kale chips! It is also a much safer and healthier way of frying foods that would otherwise need deep-fat frying.

·         According to the Energy Saving Trust, a slow cooker is one of the most energy efficient kitchen appliances. On average, a slow cooker draws about 150 watts – about the same amount of energy we’d have used to light a room before the advent of LED lamps! This means that despite being on for a longer period of time, a slow cooker actually uses very little energy.


 

·         Pressure cookers cut energy use in two ways:

◦         They cook food up to 70% faster than a slow cooker.

◦         They are well insulated, retaining heat rather than wasting energy by radiating heat into your kitchen.

 

While using an oven does require a lot of energy, when you do use it you can make the most of that energy by thinking about how you could maximise usage – for example:

·         Could you batch cook more that one meal?

·         Could you bake cakes, snacks or breads alongside an evening meal?

 

On the hob:

·         cover pans to keep steam in – as well as significantly reducing the energy required to boil a pan, this avoids condensation issues around the house (and potentially losing more energy through ventilation, or even using dehumidifiers rather than dealing with the water vapour at source!)

·         choose the right-sized hob for the pan to minimise unnecessary heating of the air around the sides of the pan.

 

We are moving toward an electrified world – gas for cooking and heating is in its final two decades. If you’re planning any work on your kitchen, consider an induction hob as the most efficient cooking option – they save energy by transferring energy directly to the pan rather than the air around the pan and are very responsive. (It’s possible to buy portable stand-alone induction hobs – IKEA sell one for £45).

 

Dealing with the leftovers

Much of the waste from food preparation can be used in a different way, and the internet is a rich source of unusual ideas! My two favourites at the moment are making crisps in the air fryer from potato peelings, and making soup from saved up vegetable ends/stalks. Brown bananas also make the best banana bread, and stale bread can be crisped up and made into croutons or breadcrumbs.

 

Composting is the obvious option for food leftovers that can’t be reused, and there are multiple options available:

·         Home composting – we recommend that food scraps are fermented using a Bokashi bin before either being added to a compost pile or used as plant fertiliser. Using the Bokashi bin means that you don’t have to worry about which foods can or can’t be composted, as using this technique, they all can! We’ll talk more about composting in the June study, but for those of you who like to read ahead, take a look at https://www.leangreenhome.co.uk/guides/composting/bokashi.

·         Council waste collection – some households in Central Bedfordshire are eligible to receive a home food waste recycling bin for collection by the Council – check here to see if you can apply: https://www.centralbedfordshire.gov.uk/info/2/waste_and_recycling/1198/food_waste. Bedford Borough Council doesn’t currently offer this although there are plans in the works. 

 

Feed the birds! Birds will happily try anything they think is edible, and food scraps are especially gratefully received in the winter months. Some foods can be harmful though, so do check out this guide first: https://www.birdspot.co.uk/bird-food/harmful-bird-food

 

Disposal of used cooking oils is a particular problem. Sadly there are still people who pour their oil down drains, causing sewer blockages (“Fatbergs”) and leading to sewage flooding or being diverted into rivers. The advice for smaller quantities is to leave it to cool, and then (if it can’t be stored and reused) to take it to the Household Waste Recycling Centre where it is collected to make biofuel or failing that to put it in your non-recyclable rubbish. Small quantities of vegetable oil can be composted, but larger quantities slow down the composting process.

 

We sometimes throw away food that's safe to eat out of an abundance of caution! All that is required to avoid this waste is a basic knowledge of how to safely store and reheat this food – check this link for further details: https://www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/best-before-and-use-by-dates.

 

Camels have my favourite way of storing food without it spoiling – they eat it and store the energy! While we’re not promoting over-consumption, if you are left with food that will spoil if not eaten, there’s no shame in polishing off an extra helping and then having a smaller portion for the following meal.

 

Another way of dealing with excess food is to share it! Olio is a community based website that lets neighbours offer any leftover/excess food to others locally – https://olioapp.com/en/ 

 

One rare but significant cause of food waste is when a power cut causes food in a fridge or freezer to warm up to the point where it can no longer safely be stored. If this happens:

·         To reduce the amount of warming up:

◦         Don’t open the fridge freezer and let heat in!

◦         Insulate the fridge freezer by covering it with blankets (this isn’t so significant for modern appliances that already have very good insulation.) Don’t block the coils at the rear where the heat from the fridge/freezer is dissipated.

·         Assessing the food:

◦         If it’s stayed frozen – it can be refrozen with no impact on storage life.

◦         If it’s thawed –  cook the food into a form which can be stored (e.g. cook a thawed bag of mince into a bolognaise and divide it into portions which can be refrozen – hopefully the power will be back on by the time these are ready to go into the freezer.) Eat whatever you can (preserve it like a camel!) - this isn’t gluttony if the alternative is wasting the food. Share the food with neighbours.

◦         Compost what cannot be saved, cooked or eaten.

 

Washing up

Finally, what’s the most sustainable way to do the washing up?

·         Modern dishwashers are generally more energy efficient (and water-efficient) than handwashing, provided that you run full loads. 

·         Whether hand-washing or dishwashing, choose eco-friendly options for detergent (e.g. something biodegradable such as Ecover).

·         If handwashing, don’t forget to put the plug in and fill a sink rather that washing everything under running water to avoid wasting both the water and the energy used to heat the water.


 

What’s coming up this month?

·         Discussion: Those interested are invited to an informal discussion of this month’s topic during post-service refreshments on Sunday 17th March at 1115-1215 in the corner of the hall. Please come along and share your questions and your experience of and issues encountered investigating sustainable food and cooking; you can share as much or as little as you wish about what you have learned!

·         The Big Plastic Count is being held between 11-17 March – full details and sign-up are at https://thebigplasticcount.com/. This study, led by Greenpeace and supported by the academic and charity sector, asks participants to count and classify the plastic packaging that they throw away over the course of a week to provide evidence to support the campaign for a global plastics treaty that aims to:

◦         Cut global plastic production by at least 75% by 2040

◦         Eliminate single-use plastics

◦         Promote an economy focused on re-use of materials, so packaging can be kept in circulation and out of the environment.

As this is led by a campaign group, you might wish to look at the report produced from the previous Big Plastic Count in 2022 to see how the results will be used – see https://thebigplasticcount.com/media/The-Big-Plastic-Count-Results-Report.pdf; having reviewed this we consider that it gives a balanced argument and accepts that there are situations in which plastic products are appropriate.

·         No-mow May (https://www.plantlife.org.uk/campaigns/nomowmay/) encourages people to not cut their lawns in May and beyond, so that wildflowers can grow and provide a food source for bees and butterflies. The website is very pragmatic, and gives advice on how to help nature without making your garden look feral.

·         The Innovation Zero / Infrastructure Zero (https://www.innovationzero.com/) exhibition and conference takes place at London’s Olympia between 30th April and 1st May. It’s rather high-level. Registration to attend before 1st April is free, after than it costs £199+VAT!

 

Further reading:




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