What It Means to Eat Ethically on Trips

At home, it can be easy to eat responsibly—but travel can often be ground zero for ignoring our environmental impact.

unpacked-ethical-eating-jessie-wong

Illustration by Jessie Wong

This story is part of Unpacked, a series that explores some of the biggest questions about traveling responsibly. Read more columns here, here, and here—and be sure to subscribe to the podcast.

When I lived in Semarang, Indonesia, as an English teacher about six years ago, I liked to go on walks around my neighborhood—mini-journeys through my community at lunch or after I finished teaching for the day. Inevitably, I’d stop by a warung, a small, usually family-owned streetside restaurant, and order some freshly fried perkedel, or vegetable fritters, satay dripping in sweetened peanut sauce, or fried tempeh. After eating, I’d walk a bit more, almost always accompanied by the sight and smell of a huge, burning trash pile just around the corner from my school. Filled with plastic waste from the West—possibly from someone’s Seamless food delivery or a truck’s worth of wasted produce–I knew that some of the wrappings and materials used to make my meal would eventually sit right on top of the pile. It’s no fault of the busy Indonesian warung owners just trying to keep the trains on the tracks; it’s a system our world has created: overconsumption and extreme waste, both of which often translate to the most vulnerable communities being forced to carry the burden.

Food & Nutrition magazine refers to “ethical eating” as the economic, social, and environmental impact of buying or consuming foods and beverages. For consumers, simply put, it means being conscious of your decisions—and making better ones. While living in Indonesia, I was more of an observer. I didn’t yet have enough perspective to consider how my eating choices were affecting society. Young and relatively broke, I looked to nab the cheapest, heftiest meal that could hold me for a day of temple explorations and bouncing from island to island.

Thankfully, that ideology–among myself and others–is changing. When I arrived back in the United States, my work in New York City public education policy gave me an opportunity to learn more about how we eat has an impact on the planet and the role that travel plays in the current environmental challenges plaguing the world. There’s urgent reasoning: Food waste, a global issue, accounts for a third of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions, and reporting shows that global meat consumption accounts for 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from food production. When we’re at home, it can be easy to think about recycling, composting, or eating less meat. But travel, an experience that’s fundamentally rooted in new experiences, can often be ground zero for ignoring our environmental impact. We can get so eager to try something new that we forget the larger role we’re playing.

It’s why I’m so excited to see dining experiences diversify in the cities I’ve traveled to in recent years. At Mosquito Supper Club in New Orleans, James Beard Award–winning chef Melissa Martin regularly speaks to guests about the importance of using local seafood to support local businesses that use sustainable fishing practices. She doesn’t balk at conversations about climate change; instead, she encourages them, often using the threat of climate change as a prompt to get guests talking at the communal table in the center of the restaurant.

At Peculiar Pig Farm in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, meat is essential, but owner and fifth-generation farmer Marvin Ross makes an effort to avoid waste at all costs, incentivizing the purchase of the full hog—rather than just a few hog parts—to travel-worthy restaurants like the Grey in Savannah and Husk in Charleston. And at New York City’s Lekka Burger, the impressive plant-based menu draws eco-conscious travelers in, but the waste-disposal program, which includes a recycling and compost station in the back of house, is what keeps many coming back.

Ethical eating extends beyond supporting local restaurants, dining at institutions that use sustainable materials, and integrating plant-based food in a travel diet. It’s also important to consider identity. Women, queer people, and Black and other restaurant employees of color still face discrimination in the restaurant industry, often being ignored by establishment award bodies or being considered secondary to restaurants owned by white, cisgender men. When I think about where I’m going for dinner, whose restaurant I’m supporting is at the forefront of my mind.

On my first visit to Brazil this year, I opted to enjoy Afro Brazilian food at restaurants owned and operated by Afro Brazilian chefs and restaurateurs, ensuring that money was going to people who’d been oppressed and ignored in the country’s narrative about its foodways. In Paris, I explored the immigrant-owned restaurants sharing their cuisines, which led to a phenomenal seafood thali at Desi Road, African-inspired vegan food at L’Embuscade, and an irresistible bowl of Chinese noodles in the eighth arrondissement. These experiences allow me to fully understand the culture and history behind a city or country and support all of the communities that make a place so remarkable.

It’s also something all travelers can do by considering the food they’re eating and places they’re engaging with—it only takes a bit of preliminary digging. Research restaurants in advance, check their websites to see who’s leading the kitchen and what local organizations they have connections with, if any. Look at the work of local tour guides and travel enthusiasts, and support tours and travel experience that in turn support towns by giving back to the community.

There’s no easy answer on how to eat ethically. Sometimes, it may appear that one line of ethics (avoiding meat) conflicts with another (supporting waste-elimination efforts from a Black hog farmer). However, that’s the beauty of attempting to ethically eat while traveling. It introduces us to people, restaurants, and dining experiences we may never have engaged with before. And really, isn’t that inherent to the mission of travel?

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