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Is Your Menu Earth – and Water – Friendly?

By Chef Rebecca Peizer, C.H.E. C.E.C.

Editorial consulting by the Culinary Institute of America

Today’s sustainability movement takes many of its cues from natural systems to produce food that is economically, environmentally, and socially responsible – and recognizes that humans are active participants through the choices we make. That’s one of the reasons that wild products are growing so quickly in popularity. They developed as part of a natural system, growing on their own accord year after year, with little manipulation from humans.

Wild-sourced foods grow in very specific places for very specific reasons, and as a result they produce very specific flavors – described as terroir. Wild salmon returning to the Copper River in Alaska each year not only create a market frenzy, but they command a premium price. Pine nuts from the Southwest are prized for the same reason. The Wild Blueberry Barrens produce a small fruit with the most intense flavor burst and massive antioxidant levels.

So how do we evaluate the depth of a food’s sustainability? One way is by looking through the lens of water usage. Water usage is one of the fastest-growing concerns in the eco-movement today, and chefs ingredient choices have a large influence on water cycles.

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Every plant and animal produced for our dining pleasure impacts the planet’s resources through its own cycle of growing, processing, packaging, transporting, and preparing. Yet to those of us in the industrial world, food comes from a package rather than a mountain, plain or ocean. Small wonder that we tend to look at food through the narrow lens of our own sustenance or pleasure.

  • Craving a nacho chip? It takes almost 140 gallons of water to produce one pound of corn. Water is also needed to clean the processing equipment, produce the oil for frying, and make the packaging.
  • How about a nice steak? Each pound of beef we consume takes around 1,700 gallons of water to produce.
  • Care for wine with dinner? Each grape requires about a third of a gallon of water to produce.
  • A pound of tree nuts represents 1,565 gallons of water
  • A pound of pork requires 660 gallons of water
  • A pound of cheese uses 473 gallons of water

These and other facts are available in the Menus of Change Annual Report, produced by The Culinary Institute of America.

Are Wild Blueberries Water-Friendly Choice?

Wild Blueberries emerged on the desolate plain following the retreat of the glaciers and so were naturally selected to survive in nutrient and drought-challenged conditions. Today they continue to flourish in Maine and Eastern Canada, where storm systems from the west and south converge to provide ample rainfall.

The low bush blueberry plants only require irrigation during dry spells – usually in August – when there is less than the required one-inch of rain each week.

According to David Bell of Cherryfield Foods, a harvester and packer of Wild Blueberries in Cherryfield, Maine, “Many fruits and vegetables are grown in locations that are too dry for natural survival, so much more irrigation water is needed for survival. In contrast, Wild Blueberries are irrigated supplementally to address short-term dry spells during the growing season.”

Bell also points out that the supplemental water is sourced from wells that were installed starting in the 1990s, as an offshoot of another eco-project: restoring the Atlantic Salmon population living in the rivers where agricultural water was once sourced. The wells are replenished by rains in late fall and early spring, and are placed away from the rivers for minimal impact.

As part of their unique evolution, any given field of Wild Blueberries may have thousands of clones with an extensive underground rhizome system. Seventy to eighty percent of the plant actually lives under ground, spreading horizontally in the few inches of organic matter atop the sand and gravel of glacial soil below. This allows the plants to use every bit of surface water available while soaking rains travel onto the aquifer below.

Native Americans made extensive use of Wild Blueberries, an indigenous fruit, which speaks volumes of its sustainability.

Now that’s reason to celebrate!

*LOHAS = Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability

About the Author

Chef Rebecca Peizer, C.H.E. C.E.C.
Associate Professor of Culinary Arts
Culinary Institute of America at Greystone

Rebecca’s passion for food set her on a path to the Culinary Institute of America where she graduated in 2000. From there, she set off to New York City where she became a private chef. She took her next big step in the culinary world when she moved to California and opened Roux, a restaurant in St. Helena in the heart of the Napa Valley. Roux quickly took off and the San Francisco Chronicle named it Top 10 Restaurants in the Bay Area 2001. On the heels of that honor, Food & Wine named her Top 10 Sous Chefs in America 2002. Over the course of her career, Rebecca has had the opportunity to work with many great chefs including Jacques Pepin, Martin Yan, Bradly Ogden, Cindy Pawlcyn, and Julia Childs. She has catered events for presidential candidates, Napa Valley winemakers, and prominent artists, and now shares her passion for food and wine with students at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley.