HungryPeaches - Eating Green in Atlanta

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One of the most important choices you can make to green your lifestyle is the choice of what you put into your body. Food choices impact both your personal health and that of the environment. The more research I do, the more I find that the modern industrial food machine is something to be wary of. Yes, modern agriculture does feed billions of people worldwide but, it is also responsible for environmental degradation coupled with financial suffering, and disease in millions. This is due in part to the overuse and under-regulation of pesticides, the seemingly endless consolidation of power into just a handful of multinational companies and the abuse of government subsidies that reward just the types of behavior the public thinks the subsidies are in place to prevent.

It is a well known fact that the average American meal travels over 1500 miles from farm to mouth. This results in the use of a great deal of energy to get your food into your stomach. Oh yes, I cannot forget to mention that genetically modified crops have been cross pollinating with wild versions of the same crops for years and are creating versions of these crops that evolution never intended. We don't fully know the implications of the introduction of these mutant genes. We are performing a giant uncontrolled experiment with the only thing we can use to survive, food.

The research on these subjects is vast and it does contain a fair amount of controversy. This being said, I personally choose to err on the side of caution and make choices that I belive to be the most socially and environmentally beneficial.

So, what are the alternatives? Pundits would say that environmentalists would like to see a return to a hunter, gatherer, forager lifestyle where the land is left to itself and people toil all day to meek out a meager existence. Obviously, this is a ridiculous claim but there are people out there who think the choice is either our current system or the hunter/gatherer/forager system. Many people just don't recognize that there is no shortage of alternative ways to grow food and eat that do not require significant lifestyle changes. Okay, I will admit that switching immediately to a diet of all local and/or organic food is next to impossible and just trying would cost you a small fortune. With that being said, there are ways to affordably change your eating habits and help improve your agricultural environmental footprint. The top three ways that you can green your diet are eating less meat, eating more local food and eating more organically grown food. The great thing about this is that it is a win-win for your health and the environment (if not for your pocketbook).

One of the great things about Atlanta is that we have hundreds of local farms, CSAs, restaurants and grocery stores that make it easy for you to find a better alternative. In our Sites You Should Know post last week, we highlighted the website LocalHarvest.org as a great site to search for local eating options. There are also local organizations such as Georgia Organics and Slow Food Atlanta that are leading the way to a greener diet here in Atlanta. Below, we'll highlight some of the options that are available to you.

Local Farms - These days, local and urban farms seem to be springing up everywhere and people are talking a lot about their backyard gardens as well. Atlanta is no exception. There are some that have been around town for a while and others are brand new. Farming your own food is a great way to get the community involved and the taste of a locally grown veggie or fruit is fantastic. You don't get the loss of taste between field and plate.

One of the most well known local farms here in Atlanta is the Oakhurst Community Garden in Decatur. Oakhurst works to educate kids, families and individuals on topics such as sustainable urban living, organic gardening, health and nutrition. The Oakhurst Community Garden partners with the Atlanta Community Food Bank as part of its Community Gardens Project. According to the ACFB, there are over 150 community gardens in the Atlanta area. Each one of them is managed by the neighborhood with help and advice provided by the ACFB when needed.

Beyond the gardens and farms in the city, there are many farms in Georgia that are focusing on organic and sustainable agriculture. The Georgia Organics website is a fantastic resource for information relating to anything and everything in organic agriculture in Georgia. Their website lists 167 organically focused farms in Georgia.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) - There is a wealth of CSA's here in Atlanta. With the fertile soil and a great climate, our region can support a wide range of crops making CSAs a very good way of getting a diversity of locally grown produce for a reasonalbe price. According to Local Harvest, there are 55 CSAs in Georgia and 20 right in the metro Atlanta area. Some of the more popular CSAs are Cane Creek Farms and Local Food Stop for Northern Atlanta, Serenbe Farms for Southwestern Atlanta, Farmers Fresh CSA for Western Atlanta and Two Mule Farms for Eastern Atlanta. If you're in the city, you may want to check out Gaia Gardens in East Lake Village. Most CSAs will have designated pickup locations and times where you can go to get your produce. For more information on how CSAs operate and to find other CSAs than those mentioned here, check out Local Harvest.

Farmer's Markets

It seems that every city and town has its own farmer's market these days. The trend is definitely a good thing for the local food movement. According to Georgia Organics, the number of farmer's markets in the state increased 588 percent from 2003 to 2008. For those of you who aren't ready to dive head first into the monetary commitment of a CSA, a visit to the farmer's market is a good way to get your feet wet in the local food market. Now, buyer beware, the food that you get at your local farmer's market is not always organic and in some cases it is not always local. Most of the food is local but some vendors may bring in some of their produce from neighboring states. I haven't found much outside of Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia though. But, if local is what you are looking for, you should definitely ask. The same thing goes for organic. Just ask and you will almost always get a straightforward answer.

Some of the more popular markets are the Morningside Farmer's Market, East Atlanta Village Farmer's Market, the Green Market at Piedmont Park and the Atlanta State Farmer's Market. This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are markets all over the place during the spring and summer months. Most markets go from mid May through early October. Check out Local Harvest for an up to date list with times and dates.

Restaurants

Wow, the number of restaurants that are focusing on local, seasonal cuisine has exploded in the past several years. As a restauranteur with a green conscience, you will need to be able to differentiate between those that are just going with the trend (greenwashing) and those that have legitimately baked sustainability into their menus. Some of the legitimate restaurants that we like are Canoe, 5 Seasons, World Peace Cafe, Cafe Sunflower and R. Thomas' Deluxe Grill. Others that we haven't had the opportunity to check out yet but hope to in the near future are The Hil at Serenbe Farms, Watershed and Rathbun's. All of these restaraunts either focus on organic, local, and/or vegetarian cuisine. Some of these spots may be pricey but from my experience, they are worth the extra cash. But, they all have some fare that even the budget minded can afford.

When in a pinch or if you need a quick lunch, you may want to check out Jason's Deli. They have made some great moves to eliminate a significant amount of HFCS from their menu as well as stock as many organic veggies in their salad bar as possible. When you are eating in, you eat on non-disposable plates, drink from non-disposable glasses all with non-disposable utensils. This is rare in the restaurant business these days and significantly cuts down on waste. Jason's has ten metro Atlanta locations so it is likely that you will be able to find one when you are out and about.

Other restaurants have made some strides to green their menu but I'm not convinced that they are committed to the movement. If you are not certain, you should check out their website before visiting and if you are already there, you should inquire with the wait staff. I typically ask the server if they know where the food I am ordering came from. This is a good litmus test that will tell you how in tune with the food the staff is. The more they know, the more likely the establishment is concerned with the environment and your health.

Another item that comes up in restaurants frequently that I would be remiss not to mention is seafood. If you are reading this, then you probaly know already that many of the world's fisheries are in collapse or near collapse and that we have significantly overfished the apex predators in the ocean food chain. This being said, there are still a number of fish that are perfectly fine to eat. The problem is knowing which ones are. In order to make your choice easier, I suggest that you download the Seafood Guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium or if you have an iPhone, you can download the app. Even if you are armed with this tool, you will likely still need to ask your server some details about the origin of the fish on their menu. The less they know, the less likely I am to order.

This only scratches the surface of the green restaurant scene here in Atlanta. Additional resources are Georgia Organics and Local Harvest. Also, the number of things to consider in order to eat green can truly be overwhelming so remember that you don't have to be perfect. As long as you are making a concious decision to eat greener and healthier, you are making a difference.

Grocery Stores

The dominant grocery stores in metro Atlanta are Kroger's, Publix, Wal-Mart and Target. In fact, Wal-Mart is the world's largest purveyor of organic foods. You wouldn't think so if you walked through a store but we're talking economies of scale here. In recent years, the sale of organic produce has been growing at a double digit pace annualy thanks to the big boys. This has helped bring more eco-friendly choices to the mainstream stores but all too often those choices are relegated to their own section of the store and the selection may not be consistent week over week. Attkitionally, these big stores don't take into account the seasonality of their produce. You're just as likely to find strawberries in January as you are in June. If you are green minded, these stores just aren't where you're going to find the best selection or the most concern for the environment.

So, what are the alternatives? We have seven Whole Foods Markets, six Trader Joe's, six Fresh Markets, the Dekalb Farmer's Market and dozens of health and nutrition stores around town. Whole Foods is a shopping experience in itself. It's almost worth the trip in the afternoon on a weekend just for the samples. You can expect to pay a pretty sizeable premium for your food but you will notice the difference in quality. If you would like your bill to stay a little closer to earth, you may want to try shopping for some of your produce and meats at Whole Foods and some at your standard grocery store. *I'm not trying to be an advertisement for Whole Foods here.* Buying any local/organic food from anywhere is a better choice than the chemical/conventional alternative. So, if you can get what you are looking for in one place, by all means do so. You will save time and you won't be burning fuel to transport yourself around making multiple trips.

Aside from Whole Foods, we also have Trader Joe's which is a smaller almost corner store that packs a fantastic selection of produce, meats, prepackaged foods and beverages into a small package. You will also find that the prices are a little more bearable. They have some really great store brand items that you won't be able to find anywhere else. Be careful, because you may become addicted. The Fresh Market is an upscale grocer that carries a good amount of organic items. They liken themselves to a smaller European grocer. Another alternative if you are in the Decatur area is the Dekalb Farmer's Market. This is a mecca for thousands of ethnic shoppers and those who are looking for great local produce. You almost have to check it out just for the experience. Last but not least, you should also be aware of the smaller health and nutrition stores in your neighborhood where you can often find niche green food products.

The next time you go shopping, don't forget that there are definitley green alternatives here in Atlanta and don't forget to bring your own reusable bags.


Drink

If you have made it this far then you might as well pair your meal with a local and/or organic beverage as well. Obviously, you will want to avoid bottled water which is one of the most inefficient means of hydrating the human body that has ever been devised. The tap water in Atlanta is not perfect but if you have a good filter or eat at a nice restaurant (generally have filters), you'll be just fine. One of the most popular local drinks is Coca-Cola but we're going to leave that suggestion off the list (HFCS, et.al.). In it's place, we'll subsititute the beer from Sweetwater Brewery. Yes, a completely different beverage but locally focused beverage with sustainability on the brain. They are part of a Carbon Neutral Partnership and they are a supporter of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Which makes sense since 80 percent of Atlantans get their water from the Chattahoochee and Sweetwater comes from the Hooch as well.

You can find Sweetwater at many local restaurants and bars on tap or in the bottle. But, if you are not thirsty for Sweetwater and are in the mood for a restaurant where you can drink a good locally brewed beer, look no further than one of the three 5 Season's Brewery locations. You can pair your beer with a nice organic and/or locally sourced meal. They also do tours of their breweries daily. Check out their website for more info.

For those of you who aren't beer drinkers, Georgia does have a good selection of wines that are grown right here at home in the mountains of North Georgia. To learn more about the growers, check out the Georgia Winegrowers' Association website. The next time you are out looking for a nice glass of wine, consider a Georgia wine. You'll be doing the environment a favor, contributing to the local economy and you might even enjoy it.


Other Great Ideas

Here are some other great ideas for HungryPeaches.

The Decatur Farm to School Initiative is a grassroots initiative organized by parents, teachers, community organizers and organizations (Georgia Organics and Oakhurst Community Garden). The focus is to create a program that will help Decatur school cafeterias source locally and organically grown food for school lunches and create a curriculum and environment that will help students understand their relationship with food. This is a very new initiative started in 2009. According to their website, "there are 39 states with programs in over 2,000 schools. These programs have been shown to increase students’ awareness and consumption of local foods, as well as support the local economy." We think this is a great idea and we will continue to keep an eye on it.

Another great idea is Salud! Cooking School at Whole Foods Markets. Salud! is a great way to learn how to get involved in your kitchen via instructor led hands-on classes and demonstration classes. It's also a great way to get a delicious meal. Cooking at home is becoming a lost art just like gardening has become. If we are to reverse this trend, we will need more cooks and gardeners and the classroom is a great, fun way to learn these lost arts. To see their seasonal schedule visit the Whole Foods Market website. Salud! is only in the Duluth and Alpharetta (Harry's Farmer's Market) locations.



I would have liked to have gone deeper into the details of the issues related to our current food chain. However, this post almost turned into a book as it is. For further education on this topic, check out the items below:


Books

The Omnivore's Dilemma & In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Movies & Video

Michael Pollan @ Google on YouTube!
King Corn (trailer)
The Future of Food (trailer)