The Best Books About Food Choice and Sustainability

There’s a transformation taking place on farms across the nation.

For decades, we produced the bulk of our food through industrial agriculture, a system dominated by large farms growing the same crops year after year using enormous amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers that damage our soil, water, air, and climate. This system is not built to last because it squanders and degrades the resources it depends on.

But a growing number of innovative farmers and scientists are taking a different path and moving toward a farming system that is more sustainable environmentally, economically, and socially.

An economically and socially sustainable agricultural system is one that enables farms of all sizes to be profitable and contribute to their local economies. Such a system supports the next generation of farmers, deals fairly with its workers, creates healthy food for all, and prioritizes people and communities over corporate interests.

At Nectar Farm Kitchen we embrace the concept of sustainability. It is a foundation of our farm-to-table cuisine, where we source our ingredients from local farms, artisans, and purveyors.

Want to learn more about sustainability, farm-to-table, and where your food comes from? We’ve put together a list of 7 of our favorite books touching on these issues. Hopefully, we will pique your interest enough that you will read one of the selections (of course you’re welcome to read them all).

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What’s good?: A Memoir in Fourteen Ingredients by Peter Hoffman

Chef Peter Hoffman, whose restaurants in New York City (Savoy, Buck Forty, Buck Forty West) helped pave the way for farm-to-table cooking, explores the cultural, historical, and botanical backstories of the foods we eat.

Hoffman, who left the restaurant world in 2016, has collected wonderful personal stories from inside his restaurant and from the field (farms, farmers markets, foraging) including his “chloroholic” fondness for spring’s “green foods” (English peas, kava beans, string beans, sugar snap peas, green garlic, asparagus) to alliums (onions, leeks, scallions, chives, and ramps) and autumn’s brassicas (kale, rabe, mustard greens, brussels sprouts). His recipes and botanical backstories on seasonal greenmarket favorites (see: entire chapters on garlic, strawberries, and Grenada peppers) will inspire even the most burned out home cook.

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Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey by James Rebank

Published as English Pastoral in the United Kingdom, Pastoral Song is shepherd James Rebanks’ elegy to traditional farmers and farming methods. He chronicles his family’s farm in the Lake District of England recounting fond memories of his grandfather teaching him how to work the land and picking blackberries with his grandmother.

It’s also a story about inheritance, which is gained and lost in the process. By the time Rebanks inherited the farm, it was much different from the one from his childhood memories, changed by the industrialization of farms and modern technologies.

This memoir charts his journey trying to salvage the farm, bring life back to the land, and restore its place in the future.

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Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love by Simran Sethi

As much as there seems to be an abundance of food products on the shelves of supermarkets and grocery stores all over the world, the shocking truth is that many of them have a sameness about them because of their ingredients.

Ninety-five percent of the world’s calories now come from just 30 species. Despite all our food options our food is primarily made of only corn, wheat, rice, palm oil, and soybeans.

The book follows Sethi while traveling to coffee forests in Ethiopia, British yeast labs, cocoa plantations in Ecuador, and from the brewery to the bakery to find out why our food tastes the same and how it affects our health, culture, and our traditions. At the same time this is a manifesto on eating more consciously and a better understanding of new and familiar foods.

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Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating by Robyn Metcalfe

Metcalfe deconstructs the most common foods we find in restaurants, such as a simple slice of pizza, and traces back the ingredients and their source while trying to find what “local” food means, and how the food that comes to our table is harvested, transported, eaten, and sometimes simply wasted.

By looking into the real sources of various foods, the author is making sure that we will never look the same way at food again.

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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

The ultimate book about what it means to eat locally. Noted author Kingsolver takes readers through the seasons, chronicling the joys and challenges of eating foods that she, her husband, and two daughters grew on their farm in Virginia or purchased from neighboring farms.

Part memoir, part cookbook, and part expose of the American food industry, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is one family’s inspiring story of discovering the truth behind the adage ”you are what you eat.” It’s a valuable resource for anyone looking to do the same.

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Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal by Mark Bittman

In this comprehensive, encyclopedic recounting of the history of food, cookbook author and columnist, Mark Bittman, poses a timely question: “What would a just food system look like?” His answer unfolds through the 1.8 billion-year history of food production beginning with the transition from hunter/gatherer societies to agriculture. He emphasizes the profound consequences imparted through this millenia-long process from increased crop failures and malnourishment to the rise of hierarchical societies and legal systems to protect private crop lands.

For readers looking to understand how we’ve winnowed what we grow to a handful of crops, depleted our soils of vital nutrients, and made hunger an endemic part of our food system, this book lays bare agriculture as a political project and suggests a new way forward.

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We Are What We Eat; A Slow Food Manifesto by Alice Waters

A longtime champion of the Slow Food Movement, renowned chef Alice Waters (arguably the founder of farm-to-table) tackles how food defines us in her new book. Waters looks at how food has negatively impacted people and the environment, but also how it can heal and replenish: as she writes in her introduction, “How we eat is how we live.” She covers what slow food is not: convenience, cheapness, or speed; and what slow food is: biodiversity, seasonality, and pleasure in work.

Waters charts America’s various food eras from WWII victory gardens to frozen dinners and fast food as well as more recent farm-to-table efforts and the virtues of biodiversity and sustainability. Above all, the book is a meditation on how what we eat impacts not only us but also the planet, and what can be done to create deep, long-lasting change.

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