Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Trying To Eat Green 40 000 Feet Up

So many Canadians fly across and out of Canada every day that I cannot help but wonder how many meals are served. How many of those meals are comprised of ingredients that were imported to Canada? Is there no opportunity for local farmers to provide food for all those passengers? Air Canada provides 17 “special menus”; you can choose between kosher, gluten free, dairy free, low calorie, fat free and there is even a ‘bland’ menu but there is not one green (i.e, environmentally friendly/sustainable) option.

If choosing the green menu meant an increase in ticket price, would passengers still choose to be sustainable? Suppose you have already bought a ticket and paid the extra 20-something dollars to offset your carbon emissions, do you think about what you are eating or are you happy to swallow what is served? Canadians undoubtedly are aware of sustainability, carbon emissions and the need to eat healthy, but without obvious opportunities to make green decisions, many simply shrug and dip into their pale food.

Opportunities are not always quite so obvious, but remember that you are the one eating and you are the one in charge. There is no harm in asking; in fact, asking is the first step. Eventually the steward(ess) will mention something to his or her superior along the lines of, “ Gee, we ought to offer a green menu; it sure does sound popular”. Sustainability is ‘in’ and although it is conflicting to capitalize on the eagerness of passengers and companies who care more about bragging privileges than the environment, it is still the perfect time to offer a green menu. There are 550 flights (and an average of 80 to 90 thousand people) in and out of Toronto Pearson Airport in just 24 hours! If even a fraction of passengers chose the green meal, other airlines would follow.

Well, after a little bit of searching, I discovered that since November 1st 2009, Air Canada has offered a menu with the name NutriCusine. So far, it is the closest thing to a green menu that is offered. NutriCuisine is the result of the collaboration between Air Canada, Cara foods and consulting company, Food with a Conscience. Food with a Conscience reviews menu items according to their five principals, listed on their website as:

1. Food safety and security - Observe the highest standards of food safety in the production and distribution of food products, take responsibility for consumers’ well-being, and plan for sustainable supply.
2. Nutritional balance - Apply an industry leading knowledge to provide consumers with naturally balanced food choices, sustained by nutritionally balanced cooking methods and the exclusion of unnecessary additives or preservatives.
3. Social and environmental responsibility - The use of regional ingredients to ensure freshness, promotes sustainable economic growth in our communities and reduce our human footprint.
4. Regional taste and sourcing - Use regional ingredients to ensure freshness, promote sustainable economic growth in our communities, and reduce out human footprint.
5. Quality of ingredients - Use quality ingredients, emphasizing naturally grown and produced items, as the foundation for gastronomic products or superior appearance, freshness and taste.

Once the meal complies with all five principles, it is considered “Balanced Assessed” and a company such as Air Canada can proudly declare that they have a new, healthy meal option.

I had a few questions for Air Canada so I emailed media.relations@aircanada.ca. The next day I was forwarded to the Toronto media contact, Peter Fitzpatrick (peter.fitzpatrick@aircanada.ca). Getting answers to questions is not difficult (although sometimes disappointing) as long as you make the effort and have a bit of patience.

Unfortunately, the NutriCuisine menu option is available only to executive class (on outbound international flights only). A special NutriCusine menu has been formulated to match the “specific needs of airline crew”. How those needs differ from any other passenger eludes me. (I asked, and was told the crew get sandwiches and snacks using the same NutriCuisine nutritional guidelines- so why did the website tell me theirs were specifically tailored?) The meal includes an appetizer, main course and dessert; all of which are made from regional ingredients and none of which contain “unnecessary additives or preservatives”, artificial sweeteners, MSG or margarine. The packaging is also environmental friendly.

For economy class, Air Canada’s OnBoard Café menu offers three items that have been “Balanced Assessed”: a vegetarian sandwich, a parfait cup and cheese and crackers- hardly inspired but it is a step. OnBoard Café is offered on most flights between 90 minutes and 2 hours within Canada and between Canada and the United States; Bermuda; the Caribbean and Costa Rica.

Still curious, I contacted the president of Food with a Conscience, Danielle Medina (Danielle@foodwithaconscience.com.), who clarified a few points on the company’s website.

Food safety and security
This means the meals are assembled in a location with a food safety program in place. It also means that they “take responsibility for consumers’ well-being, and plan for sustainable supply”. I had hoped their definition would be the same as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s definition of food security includes the same beliefs as Food with a Conscience but it goes beyond to include agreements on
“International trade and environmental issues, conventions on human rights (including women's and children's rights), social development, education, housing and urban development…it builds on commitments and actions which flow from current domestic programs such as Canada's own Nutrition for Health: An Agenda for Action, Gathering Strength: Canada's Aboriginal Action Plan, revisions to legislation, including the Fisheries Act and Canada's evolving economic, social and environmental programs and policies”.

As part of the joint G-8 pledge on food security, Canada will contribute $1.18 billion over the next three years.

It is important we show our support on all levels. Anyone who is at least trying to help sustain our food supply deserves our time and support. The first step is being aware of what we are eating, every time we eat. If we do not question where our food was sourced and how it got to us, then it will not be long before we are being fed chemical gruel.

Social and environmental responsibility and Regional taste and sourcing

These two categories seem to lack any difference in their definitions, but Food with a Conscience has not connected them either. It is our social responsibility to create awareness that sourcing regional food will not only help sustain our environment and economy, but it will be fresher, healthier and taste better.

Mrs. Medina explains that “regional menus” are comprised of ingredients from Canada. She does not yet deal directly with farmers and food sourcing remains the responsibility of Cara. Across Canada, there are ten Cara kitchens that cater Air Canada flights. Food with a Conscience does its best to work with Cara to guide their hand in selecting products that are regional to each individual kitchen location. To Food with a Conscience, Canada only has two regions: East and West; “On Air Canada flights departing from Western Canada, we try to source food producers in the west and the same for the east, as much as possible.” I am frustrated by how many times trying is an excuse for not doing, but I sympathizes with them a bit too; I know how arduous the process of changing minds is - especially when it comes to food. North Americans have developed an attitude that cheap food is a right - and at the cost of our health.

Nutritional balance
Cara owns Harvey’s, Montana’s, Kelsey’s, Milestone’s, Swiss Chalet and caters to 60 different airlines. On Cara’s website under ‘Nutrition at Cara’, the ways in which the restaurants are nutritious are listed: free salad substitutes instead of fries, no trans-fat in their fryer oils and the use of low-fat, cholesterol-free mayonnaise. It’s a step, but hardly worthy of applause.

Food with a Conscience also monitors and regulates the fat content, the type of fat and the sodium levels before they accept a product. Choosing organic or GMO-free products is currently not a pressing issue when working with the airlines and unfortunately, it will remain ignored until GMO-free and organic products prove to be worth the cost for the airline. That won’t happen until customers start asking, so ask!

Mrs. Medina sounds passionate about making and providing green choices, but before she can approach the farmers, she needs to convince the big spenders (in this case, Air Canada and Cara) that healthy food can generate a profit. She mentions that many of the companies she works with are still thinking profit versus well-being and is sure she can “teach or encourage them to have a balance between profit and caring…” but realizes that, “It is not a simple exercise.”

Quality of ingredients
To me, quality ingredients are good for the Earth and good for my health. Food with a Conscience defines their fifth principle, “Quality of Ingredients” as ingredients that are nutritionally balanced and contribute to the recommended daily intake as prescribed by Health Canada. It also means good taste and consistency of ingredients, fewest possible additives and preservatives and “all at a comparative price”.

I asked about the statement on their website, “The exclusion of unnecessary additives or preservatives”, questioning when additives and preservative are necessary. The response was that additives in cold cuts are necessary for color and preservation. But what are cold cuts doing on a healthy menu? A rubber disk is too far away from what it once was to be healthy. Food with a Conscience is currently working with a company that is trying to formulate natural preservatives. You know what else is natural? Psilocybin mushrooms, poison ivy and rhubarb stems. Claims of natural ingredients overshadow greater issues, such as how the ingredients were grown; how and how far they were transported; how they were processed and with what additional ingredients and finally, how they were then distributed. We need to ask questions about every step.

Food with a Conscience is working with airlines and airline caterers to source healthy foods and design meals. There are many hurdles to jump, but Food with a Conscience is working hard to generate trust from corporations like Cara. Mrs. Medina has successfully worked to reduce the sodium content in some products, and she is continuing, step by step, to gain more trust.

Air Canada is a step ahead but there is so much further to go. Food with a Conscience is a step in the right direction, but they promise nutrition and have failed to realize how closely it is related to sustainability.

We need to praise and support every step in the right direction- however small - until gradually both parties feel equally rewarded. It is ridiculous that not every airplane meal is a nutritious one. Food with a Conscience has highlighted the need for action. If we ask for the NutriCuisine meal onboard Air Canada flights, or for a sustainable meal choice then eventually we will be answered. How can we get what we want if we do not ask?

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