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The intricacies of food sustainability

There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a global climate crisis. Global temperatures rising, biodiversity declining, and plastics being found everywhere (including our bodies) are just some examples of the disastrous impacts of what humans have inflicted upon the planet. 

While issues such as carbon emissions and deforestation have been at the forefront of the discussion about the environment, the focus has also turned to another concern: food sustainability. 

What are sustainable foods?

Sustainable foods can be described as food that positively impacts communities and the economy while also limiting the strain its production has on the environment. Those who promote food sustainability typically advocate for nutritious food obtained in ways that do not damage the planet. 

While the concept of food sustainability can be admired, it has morphed into a more complex issue. The idea of purchasing and promoting food that is good for both people and the environment is enticing, yet the practice eludes many. 

Shopping for sustainable food can include buying products that are local, seasonal, and/or organic. Qualities such as being ethically sourced, plant-based, and having minimal plastic packaging are also common themes. However, in today’s current society, these products can be both hard to find and difficult to afford. 

Food deserts and the intersectionality of wealth, race, and diets

For those who live in food deserts, it can be difficult to find any fresh produce, let alone something labeled as “organic” or “environmentally-friendly.” Not only does this lead to consumers buying packaged and processed foods – the only thing typically available – but it is also linked to those who live in food deserts having higher rates of health problems like cardiovascular disease or diabetes. 

Food deserts are an issue of intersectionality pertaining to income and racism, most often impacting low-income and BIPOC communities, and they showcase the problem of oppression when it comes to sustainable food. 

Demanding prices

While those in food deserts clearly experience the difficulty of affording healthy and sustainable foods, even those who live within access of environmentally-conscious foods are faced with demanding prices. There is no denying that sustainable products are more expensive than their conventional counterparts. There is a noticeable difference in price between an apple and an apple labeled as “organic and locally-grown.” 

While this is usually for rational reason(s) – ethically sourced, chemical-free, expensive to produce, low demand, etc. – it does not change the fact that the majority cannot consistently purchase sustainably. In a study conducted in Australia, it was reported that individuals in the lowest income bracket would have to spend 48% of their weekly income in order to purchase healthy and sustainable food. 

Plant-based living and veganism

However, some advocates of sustainable eating argue that purchasing environmentally-friendly foods is easy. It is suggested to focus on limiting animal products, buying in bulk, and eating local and seasonal produce. 

The layers of sustainable food are ever unfolding. Many now promote veganism as a way to purchase ethically, and while this lifestyle can certainly benefit the environment, it has its own issues as a movement. Most vegans are accepting and acknowledging others’ limitations, whether that be cost, culture, or health, but some are still harsh on those who decide not to commit to a vegan lifestyle. 

Sustainability practices and policies of Indigenous communities

However, arguably the most sustainable communities tend to be those who are Indigenous as a result of “conscious and intentional strategies designed to secure a balance between human beings and the natural world.” They understand the intricacies of the environment and promote systems in hunting, gathering, and cultivation that restore instead of depleting the environment. Even though these communities utilize animals, there is a probable case that their lifestyle is more sustainable compared to the average western vegan. 

Corporate responsibility and unification

What the world views as “sustainable food” needs a slight shift. We have aided the large companies that contribute most of the environmental harm humans cause. By placing rules, limits, and labels on certain foods and products, we forget the simple changes that can help the food sustainability movement.

Instead of going vegan all of a sudden and rushing to discard all the animal products in the fridge, one can use up what they have, creating less waste, before deciding to cut out meat. If the organic, local produce available to you is too expensive – or doesn’t exist at all – try out gardening for a wallet-friendly alternative for fresh and nutritious foods. 

However, most importantly, we must remember that unfortunately, we cannot carry the Earth’s wellbeing on our shoulders alone. The largest players in unsustainable practices in the food and beverage industry are the companies producing “nearly 630 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses every year”. 

Many consumers know the changes that need to be made: local foods, reduced animal agriculture, more biodiversity, fewer pesticides, minimal plastic packaging, etc. As individuals, we not only must choose food sustainability, but we must also pressure those who are wreaking havoc on the environment, our health, and marginalized communities. Voting with your dollar is one of the best ways to do this. While these companies may have power, the people control supply and demand. 

However, it is crucial to remember to have grace for yourself and others. It is not always easy or even an opportunity to choose a sustainable route. Remember that the most important aspect is being conscious and doing what you can with your limitations.

The mission of food sustainability should never divide us. That only further fuels the unethical practices done by those in power. Sustainable, nutritious, and affordable food should be accessible to all, and we have the ability to push society in the right direction, no matter how big or small our contribution may be. 


Mo Dulitz

Mo is an alumni of Seattle Central and is currently attending the University of Washington with aspirations to pursue a career in journalism and communications while also delving into anthropology. She aims to explore the world and reveal the stories it wishes to tell through her writing and photography/videography. When she’s not captivated by her journalistic pursuits, she loves to go on adventures, create, watch films, and surf.

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