6 (baby) steps to a more sustainable lifestyle

The compost pile at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center fertilizes their farm. Chicken's roaming around the enclosure turn the soil and help the compost break down. Courtesy of Rachel Ram

I recently spent some time at the Hazon Food Conference in Falls Village, Conn. where Jewish foodies, educators, farmers and lay-folks (like me) came in from all over the US to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center’s tranquil grounds to discuss food waste, sustainability, food justice and how it all intersects with Jewish culture. It was a wonderful experience filled with delicious, locally sourced and mostly vegetarian food, lots of valuable new information, food for thought (eye-roll), and, of course, schmoozing.

(Here, you can read more about the conference and how Freedman has come to be a model not just for sustainable living, but also for a sustainable Jewish community.)

While the annual conference is in its 14th year, this year it coalesced around a greater urgency to encourage actionable change given the peak levels the climate crisis has reached. A lot of the workshops and cooking demos revolved around no-waste cooking and other tips on how to reduce our personal climate footprint. As it turns out, a lot of it is really not so difficult, but might require us to rethink some or our habits and adopt a more intentional mindset around our food habit, that will hopefully, with time, become our new more environmentally friendly ones. There’s so much research and resources available if you’re interested in learning more about how our food choices affect the climate (this is a really great primer) but below I’ve sketched out some of the key takeaways from the conference that are hopefully a good place to start. (This is a completely personal list, not officially endorsed by the conference organizers, for more on their programs and approach, visit their website.)

Sustainability is cool, people! Caring for our planet is cool! Y’alla, challo, vamos, let’s make this happen!

1. Reduce meat consumption.

Before you run for the hills, I’m not saying, heaven forbid, go vegan. Although, research shows that a vegan diet does have the smallest climate footprint, it’s an understandably difficult lifestyle change for any omnivore. (Steak is delicious, I get it. Lamb? Don’t even get me started.) For many people eliminating meat and animal products completely, can be not only a difficult lifestyle change, but also an unwanted identity shift. (Me a vegan? Gawd no, don’t box me in with those hemp-wearing hippies!!). Others also worry about feeling like a hypocrite if they indulge in meat occasionally. But a good place to start might be simply reducing the amount of meat in your diet currently, or choosing meat that has a smaller climate footprint. Beef and lamb has the highest impact, for example, chicken and fish less so. Do you eat meat five times a week? Maybe reduce it to three times, then gradually to two. Studies show it can be healthier, too. (In fact, people in North America eat more than six times the recommended amount of red meat.)

There are plenty of resources available if you do want to transition to a plant-based diet (or plant-focused), but a lot of it requires a mentality shift. You can start small, for example instead of thinking of meat as the showcase dish of the meal, incorporate it rather as a side. If you’re serving a buffet, for example, simply placing the meat at the end of the table after the grains and the salads and vegetables can help to adjust our relationship to meat as the main in general. These small changes can help you ease gradually into a different mindset.

Some of the delicious vegetarian food at the conference. Miriam Groner

Shabbat can be particularly hard because most of us associate it with rotund chicken dishes and elaborate cholents, but one approach could be to use less chicken or meat as a start. Say, instead of making a roast, make a veggie stir-fry or casserole that incorporates pieces of chicken breast as opposed to making it the star of the dish. (Incidentally, the shabbat meals at the food conference were fully vegetarian and the food was so good I don’t think most people noticed until one of the organizers pointed it out.)

Also, to eliminate the overwhelming nature of completely revamping your diet and shabbat menus, start by relying more on the tried and tested veggie- or grain-heavy dishes that you know and love already, then slowly start experimenting with new ones as time goes on.

2. Zero-waste cooking

If food waste were a country, it would come in third after the United States and China in terms of impact on global warming, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. 30% of food is wasted across the supply chain globally and contributes to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Chad Frischmann, Project Drawdown). The stats are alarming but we’re not here to focus on that. (Unless fear is a good motivation factor, in which case, dig in and read this.) For now, all you need to know is that food waste has a direct — and significant — impact on climate change. Zero-waste cooking can help mitigate some of that.

Liz Reuven, the popular food blogger behind “Kosher Like Me” says it best: “Handling waste begins in your own home and it starts before you hit the compost or recycling bin,” she told me at the conference. “It really happens in the kitchen before you’re cooking, thinking about what ingredients you are using and seeing to it that you use as many parts as possible.”

Practically this means thinking about how you can use all parts of the food, the scraps, bones and peels etc which can often be repurposed and used in other recipes. Soups, casseroles, quiches and salads are great vehicles for food scrap cooking because you can often dump a lot of diverse ingredients in there. Sure, it requires a bit of creative, out-of-the-box thinking, but the additional bonus, Reuven says, is that it all adds to the flavor of the dish!

“For anyone who is a conscientious cook, it’s a very natural way to behave anyway. All of these scraps, and all of these bones, peels, stems of herbs and even peels from fruit, these are building blocks of flavor,” she said.

Cholent is perfect for this, what more is it other than an amalgamation of whatever is around? Extra herbs can be used later, they just need to be stored properly and chickpea liquid makes for a delicious (and vegan) alternative to mayo. For more tips on how to get started plus a catalog of great zero-waste recipes click here.

3. Compost

Trash sitting in landfills releases methane as it decomposes (one of the most destructive greenhouse gases) so the less we put in landfills the better. Composting, incidentally, also helps in other ways. When used as a fertilizer it creates healthier soil and helps farm soil retain water and sequester more carbon dioxide. It’s a win-win, really. Many states in the US have introduced compost pickups to make it easier for people, or local CSAs and supermarkets often have drop offs. Compostable paper goods are also becoming more accessible and affordable (yay!). For more info on how to get started, click here.

In Dharamsala, a town in Northern India, a helpful drawing connotes the timeline for things to decompose. (Miriam Groner)

4. Tote it

Plastic bags are where it gets complicated. American shoppers reportedly use more than 100 billion polyethylene plastic bags each year. Even if they can be recycled (and most of them can’t be), they typically end up in landfills where they take centuries to decompose (not an exaggeration, more on that here). Paper bags are not that much better because, though they decompose more quickly, they require more energy to produce. Reusable tote bags are the ideal — that is, only if they are reused repeatedly because they require the most energy to produce.

Grocery shopping is where it can get a bit more difficult and might require some more conscientious decision-making to change our habits. So, again, start small by simply being more mindful of what you absolutely need versus what’s unnecessary. In the produce aisle, maybe combine your fruits into one bag as opposed to giving each individual fruit its own first class, VIP packaging. Keep a tote in your car, in your work bag, gym bag, by the door, in your other tote, whatever tickles your fancy, just so it’s easy and becomes second-nature with time. And if you (gasp!) find yourself tote-less one shopping trip, and your grocer wants to give you and individual plastic bag for each item (as mine does), ask them to fit it all in the minimum number possible. It’s gentle nudges like this, done respectfully, that can help shift their mindset as well.

5. Buy local

While most of the benefits of this are obvious, supporting local community, etc., the benefit for the environment is also pretty impactful. Simply put, it requires less energy along the supply and distribution chains. The less steps = the better. The less energy used = less emissions. This might mean shopping at local farmers markets, becoming a member of a CSA, or when at your supermarket by local, seasonal produce. If it’s not in season you have reason to be skeptical. Another benefit: most of the produce is not prepackaged so you have more control over the amount of plastic use unlike at a big-chain grocery stores where a lot of it is often prepackaged. So, general win-win.

6. Get your friends/family/community/dog involved.

The Hazon Seal of Sustainability is a great place to start for this, it helps Jewish institutions become more sustainable by offering them a personalized roadmap and a wealth of resources to introduce more sustainable practices. It’s sort of like the LEED certification, but without specific benchmarks or thresholds. Hazon customizes their approach to the specific needs of the community. It’s a great place to start: they have all the wealth of knowledge and have worked with over 60 communities already so know the territory.

If your office has overt non-sustainable practices, maybe give the office managers a gentle nudge to get on the bandwagon. Same with your bookclub/PTA/mother’s/running groups. Obviously, no need to be condescending or judgemental about it. Everyone is at a different level and there are different barriers of entry for different people. The above guide is precisely to show that there is a scale to these changes, and while some drastic lifestyle changes might not be feasible for everyone (yes, compostable paper goods are more expensive), it’s about taking on some changes, wherever your lifestyle/budget permits right now. Small changes, done by many of us, can indeed make a difference.

The concept of (ba’al tashchit) בל תשחית, an injunction against unnecessary waste, is an ethical principle inherent in Jewish tradition. Sadly, many of our community institutions have somehow lost sight of this. (Just think of the images that yeshivas, camps and shul kiddushes conjure up: garbage bags of waste piling up outside, piles of single-use plastic, paper and (gasp!) styrofoam dishes.) It’s time we addressed this as a community. Let’s hold our institutions more accountable. If anything they should be serving as an example for us. Maybe encourage your synagogue board to get the Hazon seal or to adopt some of the other suggestions above, it’s a great place to start.

Further Reading:

If you’re interested in exploring more on this topic here is some interesting reading on vegan discrimination (yes, it’s a thing), on the Hazon seal, on climate change in general, on Project Drawdown, plastic pollution, cute dogs (unrelated, they’re just damn cute), plant-based recipes, and if I’ve magically convinced you to go all the way home, God bless, my job here is done, and here is a beginners guide to a trash-free lifestyle.

About the Author
Miriam is a digital storyteller and the Web Director at The NY Jewish Week where she curates the online edition. She delights in a good pun and asana.
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