Food and Footprints

FOODOne of the main purposes behind green development initiatives such as sustainable construction and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification is to design buildings that meet the needs of their users while being environmentally friendly. In the past, such actions emphasized initiatives like recycled and eco-friendly building materials, alternative energy components, energy efficient technologies and all facets of a building’s environmental impact.

While these elements are critical, one major facet of sustainability was left out: the impact of the daily habits and activities of building users as a part of building operation.  The sustainable food strategy is a complimentary strategy aimed at reducing the overall carbon footprint of the building.

Inefficient building operations brings to mind poor office (and home) practices like leaving computers on overnight or forgetting to turn down the heat before leaving the office. In actuality, the sustainable activities of building users travel much deeper—down to the roots—and includes how food and beverages are produced and delivered to each building.

In June, 2009, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) updated the LEED standards for Existing Green Building Operations and Maintenance. The updated standards now include a sustainable purchasing credit of food. According to the 2009 edition of the LEED Reference Guide, the intent of the standard is to “reduce the environmental and transportation impacts associated with food production and distribution.”

The single requirement of the standard is simple. Companies must sustainably purchase at least 25% of total combined food and beverage purchases (by cost) during a designated period. For a purchase to be sustainable, it must meet one or both of the subsequent criteria:

1) Be labeled UDSA Organic, Food Alliance Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Protected Harvest Certified, Fair Trade or Marine Stewardship Council’s Blue Eco-Label.

2) Be produced within a 100-mile radius of the site.

The standard’s two components reflect the two most important aspects of sustainable food production: organic health and locality.

Organic food production is becoming increasingly popular due to its widespread health and environmental benefits. Whereas conventional methods of agriculture opt for science-based practices with unknown results, organic methods rely on Mother Nature’s ingenuity and efficiency. Growing and eating organically reduces the amount of toxic chemicals found in the air, soil, water, and our bodies—toxins that are often the result of conventional farming practices. The removal of toxic chemicals has profound impacts on human health, including the reduction of diseases such as cancer. Organic practices also support the natural cycles of the land. They allow plants to grow at appropriate rates, rely upon natural methods of pest control, and keep soils healthy through crop rotation and strategic planting practices. Such benefits are amplified when food is both organic and local.

Locality is a crucial facet of consumption, particularly of food. Like purchasing organically, local foods are better for humans and for the environment. Perhaps the largest benefit of purchasing locally is the reduced transportation costs and emissions. The average meal travels 1,200 miles from plate to production, leaving trails of smog and greenhouse gases in its wake. Purchasing locally reduces greenhouse gas emissions and the cost of food, as less money needs to be spent on transportation. In addition, purchasing locally enables food to be harvested closer to its peak ripeness. Conventional modes of eating require that food be picked well in advance so that it does not ripen during its extended journey from farm to kitchen.

Food has the potential to cause tremendous environmental impacts, however these impacts can be largely reduced by purchasing organic and local foods. Despite the reasons to consume consciously, the question remains as to why LEED would take on a sustainable food standard. The reason is quite simple, actually.

Regardless of company size or business type, employees need to eat; monitoring consumption habits can improve a company’s sustainability.

Over the past few decades, meetings over lunch, dinner, or drinks have occurred with increasing frequency. Whether on the town or in the office, these on-the-clock consumption habits contribute to a company’s overall environmental footprint. Further, the physical layout of many workplaces has morphed to include full size kitchens complete with refrigerator, dishwasher, and in many places, small stovetops or ovens. Such elements play a large role on monthly energy bills and on corporate sustainability initiatives.

With the average meal traveling 1,200 miles to our plates, it seems that the commute of the daily lunch entrée has a longer commute to the office than many employees. Fortunately, with the implementation of the Sustainable Agriculture Standard, the environmental footprint of food as a result of production, distribution, and transportation can be reduced.

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