Food has been on my mind, more than ever, over this past pandemic year: how to purchase it safely, what to cook for all the at-home meals, how to keep from gaining weight given the proximity of my refrigerator on endless, shut-in days—and how to help those who don’t have enough food for their families. More than fifty million Americans have experienced food insecurity during the pandemic, many for the first time. I’m grateful for the local food banks that are working heroically to fill empty stomachs; they need our support.
When sheltering-in-place began a year ago, I ordered groceries for delivery to my home, but decided, after a few months, to take advantage of the early morning hours for the “elderly.” I (desperately) wanted to get out of the house. I wanted to select my own food again, although my trips to the store felt like carefully planned strikes inside enemy territory: mask on, detailed purchase list in hand, running shoes to help quicken my pace, and eyes laser-focused on slow shoppers who might get in my way. No dawdling to admire the produce, no chit-chatting with store employees, and no eye contact with other shoppers.
At home, things were different. I had plenty of time to focus on food: cooking, eating and also thinking more about where our food comes from and how it’s produced. But, what to cook? Since my sons left home many years ago, I haven’t had much of a relationship with my oven, except for making occasional meals for friends and family. I’m a grazer who typically eats small meals (snacks) throughout the day. The pandemic pushed me into my kitchen for a number of reasons, including the fact that I now have a (quarantining) nightly dinner companion.
In the 1950s, TV dinners were a special treat in our home; vegetables came in cans, if at all; and tuna casserole with creamed soup and potato chips was a favorite. My mother loved meat (the rarer the better), carbohydrates and desserts. I don’t think I tasted fresh brussels sprouts, which I now love, until I was in my sixties. (In fairness, Mama became a very good cook, after we grew up, but was never a fan of vegetables.) As the pandemic worsened, I looked through my old recipe box and realized that its contents no longer reflected the eating habits I’ve acquired later in life—primarily vegetables, seafood, and dairy.
Inspired by the need to help produce nightly pandemic meals, I threw away most of my old recipes (except for a few favorites), perused my newer cookbooks, and signed up for regular emails from New York Times Cooking. A new world opened before me! With time on my hands, I created an organized binder of mostly plant-based recipes. This past year has been all vegetables with some seafood—and only a handful of meals with meat; research has tied red meat to increased risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. I feel great and even enjoy cooking again.
It’s also satisfying to know that my new (mostly) plant-based diet is not fueling the greenhouse gas emissions compared to those from meat production. The way we grow our food, what we eat, and what happens to excess and waste are all essential parts of our carbon footprint. Food production is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. More than half of these emissions come from meat and other animal products through land use changes (forest to pasture) for livestock, methane (cow burps and manure) and farm processes, such as the application of fertilizers.
This doesn’t mean that everyone should become a vegetarian to help save the planet. We simply need to eat fewer animal products – the equivalent of one and a half burgers per person per week, instead of three burgers per week, which is the current level in the U.S. According to the World Resources Institute, this dietary change alone would eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion (and deforestation), even in a world with ten billion people.
Buy less meat, milk, butter and cheese (this one is really hard for me, but I’m working on it…); eat more locally-sourced, seasonal food; and throw less food away. In good news for breweries and beer drinkers (like me), climate experts say it’s better to imbibe draft beer—fewer emissions associated with the production of recyclable cans and, worse, glass bottles. In Georgia, if only ten percent of our population shifts to predominantly plant-based diets, it will help us reduce our state’s carbon footprint by a third in ten years: a goal that is eminently doable, according to Drawdown Georgia (drawdownga.org), the first state-centered effort to “crowdsolve” for climate change.
As difficult and tragic as this past year has been, I’ve found a few silver linings, as I’m sure you have as well. This slowing-down has not been all bad; it’s allowed more time to explore our neighborhoods, walk in local parks, look at old photos and movies, and plan future adventures. While finding my way around the kitchen again has been another happy result of the pandemic, I’m even more excited about my plant-based future. It’s good for the health of the planet and better for my own health.
I think I’ll roast some more brussels sprouts for dinner.
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic
* 1 pint brussels sprouts (about a pound)
* 4-6 T. extra virgin olive oil
* 5 cloves garlic, peeled
* Salt and pepper to taste
* 1 T. balsamic vinegar
Heat oven to 400 degrees .Trim bottom of brussels sprouts and slice each in half, top to bottom. Heat oil in a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat until it shimmers; put sprouts cut side down in one layer in the pan. Put in garlic and sprinkle with salt and pepper. (You may need to cook in several batches.) Cook, undisturbed, until sprouts begin to brown on the bottom.
Transfer sprouts to a baking sheet and place in the oven. Roast, shaking pan every five minutes, until sprouts are quite brown and tender – about 15-20 minutes. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if necessary. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and serve.
Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.