Sustainable. It’s the latest buzz word and you’ll find it used in every context from food to fashion, business and energy. But what does it actually mean on an individual basis? Back in the before times, in 2019, I was invited to speak at an event in UCC called She is Sustainable. Organised by Tara Shine and Madeleine Murray of Change By Degrees, Sinéad Crowley of Cool Planet Experience and Rosemarie MacSweeney from the International Energy Research Centre at Tyndall National Institute, they had a formidable lineup of women, all of whom were working directly in the area of sustainability, including Environmental Engineering and Future Sustainability lecturer Dr Marguerite Nyhan, Susan Steel – who then worked with the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency – and Eimear Delahunty of food redistribution charity FoodCloud.
That was a little overwhelming, as was the topic itself. Sustainability is a huge concept and the more you read, the more terrifying it becomes. I did my research, looked at lots of different definitions, kicked around many ideas and basically faffed about, intimidated, until I brought the idea of sustainability into my own kitchen.
For me, it all comes back to food.
I had been writing about food for the previous 20 years, eating for far longer than that, and had worked with a producer, a microbrewery, since 2010. In short, my world revolved – and still revolves – around locally made products that I go out of my way to buy, shout about and celebrate by eating them. I knew the stats: for every €10 spent locally, more than €40 is generated in the local economy.
That’s all well and good in theory – but it’s only when you are the local producer that you see the enormous difference it makes when people support you. I experienced this first hand when people picked our beer over some cheaper multinational product and watched our business grow, pint by pint, with the support of those who chose local. It did help that the beer tasted great, too!
Every food choice made is a political action. We make many of these choices every day and, very importantly, they don’t have to cost too much. Building a sustainable local food economy is as simple as picking local spuds over imports, buying eggs from a neighbour’s honesty box, visiting a farmer’s market for locally made bread and cheese. When we can support local, that’s money that stays nearby to support farmers, cheesemakers, brewers and bakers – and these are all people who, in turn, go out for lunch in the local town or pick up a coffee at the café down the road or stop to buy just-picked veggies at a farm gate stall. That €10 is a stone dropped in a local pond, where the ripples move outwards to touch many others nearby.
It’s not about breaking the bank, but it is about choosing where to spend our hard-earned cash. We can support families and small businesses – or we can add to the bottom line of multinationals who, at the end of the day, don’t actually care about or need our money.
That day at the She is Sustainable event, I listened to the experts and I learned a lot. I learned that I am not an academic, nor am I a government policy advisor – but my political will and actions do count. I learned that none of us can do enough, but we all can do something. With a focus on local, we can win in the sustainable stakes, one delicious bite at a time.
Pictured – Outstanding Organisation Award – Neighbourfood, Cork City – Simone Kelly
Photographer: Paul Sherwood
Farmers’ markets, where you can actually meet with the people who made or grew your food, are a sociable way to shop. Set yourself a budget, don’t be afraid to ask the stallholders for recipe suggestions and bring a big bag. You’ll be surprised at all the local producers that you discover.
Online marketplace NeighbourFood is another way to buy direct from local farms and producers. The click and collect system offers a wide variety of organic and locally grown vegetables, fresh dairy, smoked fish, bread, cakes and condiments, all to be collected once a week from a central location. A real discovery for many people during the lockdowns and a winner of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild 2021 Outstanding Organisation Award, there are NeighbourFood markets open nationwide.
Go looking for your local veg box delivery service or order vegetables direct from small, sustainable – there’s that word again – farms with Harvest Day, a company that focuses on gathering the best of 100% Irish organic veg from around the countryside and delivering it toy our door.< /p>
Call into your local butcher, baker, restaurant and coffee shop when you can. The best of these will also support local producers and the creation of local jobs. When you’re in the café, take note of the fact that there’s going to be a 20 cent levy on takeaway cups coming soon so act sustainably – and save money – by bringing your own KeepCup or reusable mug with you.
Author of article: Caroline Henessey
Photographer: Paul Sherwood