Sustainable Eating & Nutrition: FAQ & Useful Links

Frequently Asked Questions


How do I eat vegetables and fruits seasonally and locally if I live somewhere with a long winter and a short growing season like Alaska?
If you live somewhere like Alaska eating fresh vegetables from local sources will be difficult during the long winter. Put up food if you can, and don’t overlook frozen vegetables when they are out of season. If you supplement your diet with non-local fruits and vegetables try to pay attention to the number of miles your food traveled to get from the farm to your pantry. That goes for people outside Alaska too. Pay attention to what is in season in your region. For a list of what is in season each month in your state, go to the Sustainable Table website, which is run by the GRACE Communications Foundation.

If you have the space, consider buying a freezer. A freezer will encourage you to put up food from the farmers’ market, allowing you to buy produce in bulk when it is at the height of its season, which is when it will be the most abundant and therefore cheapest. And freezing (unlike canning) does not significantly diminish the nutritional value of produce. That said, canning can be another way to preserve vegetables and fruits beyond the summer months.

Is soy bad for me?
Americans are eating more soy products than ever before, thanks largely to the ingenuity of an industry eager to process and sell the vast amounts of subsidized soy coming off American and South American farms. But today we’re eating soy in ways Asian cultures with a much longer experience of the plant would not recognize: “Soy protein isolate,” “soy isoflavones,” “textured vegetable protein” from soy and soy oils (which now account for a fifth of the calories in the American diet) are finding their way into thousands of processed foods, with the result that Americans now eat more soy than the Japanese or the Chinese do.

Yet there are questions about the implications of these novel food products for our health. Soy isoflavones, found in most soy products, are compounds that resemble estrogen, and in fact bind to human estrogen receptors. But it is unclear whether these so-called phytoestrogens actually behave like estrogen in the body or only fool it into thinking they’re estrogen. Either way the phytoestrogens might have an effect (good or bad) on the growth of certain cancers, the symptoms of menopause and the functions of the endocrine system. Because of these uncertainties, the FDA has declined to grant GRAS (‘generally regarded as safe’) status to soy isoflavones used as a food additive. As a senior scientist at the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research wrote, “Confidence that soy products are safe is clearly based more on belief than hard data.” Until those data come in, I feel more comfortable eating soy prepared in the traditional Asian style than according to novel recipes developed by processors like Archer Daniels Midland. For more on soy see In Defense of Food, section III.

Organic food is more expensive; is it worth the money?
I like to say, “pay more, eat less.” There’s no escaping the fact that better food—whether measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond)— costs more, usually because it has been grown with more care and less intensively. Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in American, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should. Doing so benefits not only your health (by, among other things, reducing your exposure to pesticides and pharmaceuticals), but also the health of the people who grow the foods as well as the people who live downstream and downwind of the farms where it is grown. So while it would have been much simpler to say “eat organic” instead I suggest eating well-grown food from healthy soils. It is true that food certified organic is usually well grown in relatively healthy soils—soils that have been nourished by organic matter rather than synthetic fertilizers. Yet there are exceptional farmers and ranchers in America who for one reason or another are not certified organic and the food they grow should not be overlooked. Organic is important, but it’s not the last word on how to grow food well.

Recently a handful of well-controlled comparisons of crops grown organically and conventionally have found appreciably higher levels of anti-oxidants, flavonoids, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in several of the organic crops. Of course after a few days riding cross-country in a truck, the nutritional quality of any kind of produce will deteriorate, so ideally you want to look for food that is both organic and local.

But I think eating vegetables and fruit is so important that I buy them even when they’re not organic –and even when they’re not fresh. There’s nothing wrong with frozen vegetables, and they’re usually a bargain. Some canned vegetables are a great deal, too, though they often have too much salt. The key thing? Eat plants (including whole grains), animals, and fungi as lightly processed as you can find them at the prices you can afford.

Is [blank] good/bad for me?
Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the training to prescribe diets or offer specific nutritional advice. If you have not done so already, pick up a copy of my new book Food Rules, which lays out some basic concepts for eating well. I highly recommend Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat. You might also take a look at Gary Taubes’ book Good Calories, Bad Calories.

How do I find the nearest farmers’ market or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)?
Today in America there is soaring demand for local and regional food; farmers’ markets, of which the U.S.D.A. estimates there are now 4,700, have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the food market. Community-supported agriculture is booming as well: there are now nearly 1,500 community-supported farms, to which consumers pay an annual fee in exchange for a weekly box of produce through the season. For a list of farmers’ markets across the U.S. go to USDA Agricultural Marketing Service or put your zip code into the map tool on the Local Harvest website, which will also turn up CSAs.

Useful Links

The Lunch Tray the website of the writer/mom who brought down, so-called “pink slime,” Bettina Elias Siegel.

Brazil’s new food guidelines, which are based on cooking and eating real food.

The Lunch Box offers tools for school lunch programs transitioning to scratch-cooking with fresh ingredients, including USDA-compliant recipes

Eat Well directory of sustainably-raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs.

Eat Wild lists local suppliers for grass-fed meat and dairy products.

Food Routes on average food travels 1,300 miles from the farm to your table, this site offers resources on locally produced food.

Heritage Foods USA mail-order products from small farms.

Just Food sustainable food systems for the New York City region.

Local Harvest nationwide directory of CSAs and other local food sources.

Locavores resources for eating locally.

Organic Consumers Association promoting the interests of the nation’s organic consumers.

Seafood Watch how to buy seafood from sustainable sources. has a guide to choosing sustainable seafood.

Slow Food USA a grassroots movement that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.

Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture a real working farm 30 miles from Manhattan.

Sustainable Table an online directory of sustainable products in the U.S. and Canada, and the Meatrix movies.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service includes a listing of farmers’ markets across the US.

Buy From The Farm Canada’s largest listing of farmers’ markets.

Om Organics resources on sustainable eating for the Bay Area.

National Cooperative Grocers Association is a business services cooperative for natural food co-ops.

Cooperative Grocer food cooperative directory.

Soil Association the UK’s leading organic organization.

Eat Local Challenge the benefits of eating food grown and produced in the local foodshed.

Local Harvest find CSAs near you by zip code.

Sustainable Table offers lists of what vegetables and fruits are in season each month in your state.

City Fruit growing and finding fruit in urban neighborhoods.

Culinate recipes, articles and links on sustainable cooking.

How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian cookbooks by Mark Bittman.

The Art of Simple Food a Chez Panisse cookbook.

The Frugal Mama Files Meal planning: how we eat well on $75 a week.

Insurance Quotes has a great video on the hidden costs of soda.