September 19, 2007 | By: Carol Lea Spence

There’s a revolution afoot, bringing about change that can benefit the planet and the person, and anyone with a fork can join it.

Around Kentucky, the nation and the world, the movement is toward sustainability, which simply means making decisions to meet our daily needs that will not negatively affect future generations. In agriculture, the focus is on sustaining the health of the land and the environment, as well as sustaining the family farm and local farm-based economies. But even town-dwellers and those whose jobs are far from the farm can participate and reap the benefits in their own homes by eating sustainably.

Mark Williams, director of the UK College of Agriculture’s sustainable agriculture degree program, talked about the fork as a revolutionary tool.

“Through food you have all these connections. You have agriculture. You have the environment. You have health,” he said. “Eating is one of the few things that we do every day that can really be a moral act. It can really allow you to put into action your belief system.”

He explained that what he meant by a moral act is being aware of your food. “It’s being aware of where it came from and what that means in terms of what you’re supporting. It’s being aware of how it was produced. Is it environmentally sustainable? It’s being aware of the connection between food and the environment and food economies and cultures. It’s also being aware of health.”

Janet Tietyen, UK associate extension professor in family and consumer sciences, said that ultimately the idea of eating sustainably is “about connecting with people in a community.”

“I think it’s about your relationship with food, how you think about food,” she said. 

In an extension publication, Tietyen writes, “The health of Kentucky’s families and communities is affected by the well-being of Kentucky farms and Kentuckians have an important role to play by purchasing locally grown and produced foods.” 

Over the past few decades, there has been a sea change in consumers’ eating habits, and the change doesn’t just involve the influx of fast food.

“Seasonality is part of it,” said UK Consulting Chef Bob Perry. “We all used to eat seasonally. It’s only been in the last 30 years or so that you’ve been able to get strawberries and peaches in the winter, pineapples in the summer, where generally we used to eat with the seasons.”

Having those out-of-season crops available throughout the year comes with an environmental price tag. The average food travels about 1,500 miles before it reaches the consumer. Enormous amounts of fossil fuels are expended in their processing, packaging and transporting. Amanda Abnee Gumbert, an environmental specialist with UK, recommends before purchasing it, first think about how far your food traveled. She used maraschino cherries as an example.

“They’re grown in the Pacific Northwest, they may be shipped across the country to be processed, and they’re shipped somewhere else for distribution, and then they’re brought to us. So how many miles did those cherries travel before they got to your ice cream sundae, and how many of us just throw away the cherry anyway?”

For those who don’t have the time to can and freeze local summer produce for winter consumption or to cook meals from scratch every day of the week, there are still sustainable choices that can be made in the grocery aisles. Tietyen explained that, during a recent trip to the store, she almost bought “beautiful Navel oranges, but looked at the label and saw they were from Africa.” She returned the oranges to the shelf. In their place, she was able to buy “product of USA” apples, pears and peaches, with the peaches coming from nearby South Carolina. She also searched labels for indications as to the origin of her canned goods and chose those from closer to home: tomatoes from Indiana, Hoppin’ John from South Carolina and seasoned great northern beans from Ohio.

Tietyen says that making the choice to eat locally- or regionally-produced foods can have broad-reaching impact on everything from the environment to, ultimately, our pocket books.

“Over time, I do believe, that as we start to choose more local foods, that can make a difference in how foods are distributed or not distributed around the world,” she said. “Even if we don’t, given the fossil fuel situation ultimately it’s going to be cost prohibitive. So let’s say that you were able to go to the grocery story here in Kentucky and find things that were produced in Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, the surrounding states. Think what that would do, instead of picking roasted red peppers that came from Italy.”

And the closer to home, the better. Tietyen encourages people to seek out sources of local food throughout the year. MarketMaker Kentucky and Kentucky Department of Agriculture Country Store provide a list of Kentucky stores and farms that sell locally produced food goods, including fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat. In every Kentucky county, extension agents for family and consumer sciences are a resource to help consumers learn more about local foods.


Janet Tietyen, 859-257-1812, Mark Williams, 859-257-2638, Bob Perry, 859-257-8890, Amanda Abnee Gumbert, 859-257-6094