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Published: Monday, 4/9/2007

Let Earth Day inspire a menu

Earth Day on April 22 is all about treading lightly on the planet, from conserving energy and resources to buying foods that are produced and harvested in an ecologically responsible way.

Home cooks can create their own Earth Day dinner for family and friends. You might say, "This is easy, just buy organic foods." But it s just as important to know how to read the food labels.

An Earth Day dinner is not so much about the recipes you use as the ingredients you buy. Pass up processed foods; everything on the menu should be prepared from scratch, which is not as difficult or time-consuming as it may sound.

Start with a salad. Select a protein, prepare vegetables, buy organic bread, and serve fruit for dessert. If you bake, use organic flour and other organic ingredients, including spices.

Organic spices, herbs, and blends (with the USDA Organic seal) means there were no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or sterilization aids used in the growth process, according to Spice Hunter, a merchant in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Buying organic products helps protect the health of farm workers who otherwise would have to breathe in chemicals, and it helps keep chemicals out of water systems and the food supply.

Organic growers rely on the traditional farm practices of composting, nonchemical forms of pest control, and crop rotation. Weeds are picked by hand instead of large machines. Organic spices are not allowed to be irradiated, nor are they to contain any synthetic anti-caking agents, artificial colors, or flavors.

Many small local farmers may not pursue the lengthy process of certifying organic that would enable them to put the label on their produce or food products, but they may adhere to the same or similar farming practices.

That s part of why eating locally grown foods has become the new organic, according to Brita Belli in an article in E/The Environmental Magazine.

But Kimberly Lord Stewart, author of Eating Between the Lines: The Supermarket Shopper s Guide to the Truth Behind Food Labels (St. Martin s Press, $14.95), believes that many food labels can be misleading. "Not all regions of the country can grow certified organic produce," she said in a phone interview. The climate may not be conducive, and there may be too many pests in areas such as the Southeast. She advises looking for "integrated pest management" on labels.

Also, "free-range" chicken is a nebulous term. Broiler chickens are cage-free, she said. USDA guidelines for "range" means broilers must have access to the outdoors, but that is not defined in space or time. When eggs are advertised as hormone-free, the label is meaningless, says Ms. Stewart, because hormones have not been allowed in eggs, poultry, and pork since 1959.

Some chefs and restaurants have been at the forefront of teaching consumers the importance of local, sustainable, artisanal, and organic foods.

The Chefs Collaborative, a national organization of culinary professionals and those dedicated to a more sustainable food supply, will join with Organic Valley Family of Farms for the Earth Dinner series. Among the restaurants are: Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Wash., at

6:30 p.m. Monday; the Savoy in New York will have an Earth Dinner menu all evening April 17, and Flea Street Cafe, Menlo Park, Calif., with Chef Jesse Cool, will have a dinner at 6:30 p.m. April 22.

In addition, the Wolfgang Puck Companies have an animal welfare program that the Humane Society of the United States says is the first of its kind. The standards cover all Wolfgang Puck lines of business, including the dining group restaurants, Express franchises, catering and events, and consumer products. The nine-point program includes featuring Certified Organic selections on menus; serving only certified sustainable seafood, and only serving pork, veal, chicken, and eggs from meat suppliers which adhere to humane standards.

This is all part of understanding where your food has been grown.



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