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CEC is committed to creating a more resilient and just region in the face of climate change. Through our work with the Central Coast Climate Justice Network and elsewhere, our vision includes an end to racial injustices and their resulting environmental inequities.

As part of Eat Local Month in Santa Barbara, CEC talked with local experts about local food systems. This is the second of two blog posts that explore the Santa Barbara food system, the system’s biggest energy impacts, and simple steps you can take to reduce your food footprint.

Read Part 1 →

(Click image for full size version.)

Our local food system can be simplified into six components seen in the graphic above.1 The food system in the U.S. accounts for around 15% of national energy consumption, so this system must be addressed as a part of our long-term energy strategy.2 Each part of the system has significant energy impacts — from fertilizing the soil to growing crops, from refrigerating and cooking food to disposing of food scraps. Some of these impacts can be reduced with simple lifestyle choices, and some require larger scale systemic and regulatory changes. In this post, we look at what happens after the food has been grown, processed, packed up and shipped to your community.


Retail and Restaurants

11% of energy used in the food system

Much of our food is grown by farmers and then sold to grocery stores, wholesale clubs, and convenient markets for retailing to the public. A big portion ends up with restaurants, caterers, and institutional cafeterias (e.g. schools, prisons, hospitals, and universities). Most of the energy used by retailers is in refrigeration and lighting, and the restaurants use quite a bit in cooking. Both are energy-intensive users of commercial real estate.

Make an impact: Encourage retailers to prioritize energy efficiency.

Restaurants and grocery stores can reduce their impact by using energy efficient lighting and appliances in their retail spaces. They can also work to eliminate landfill waste generated by their operations. There are several utility and government programs designed to help this sector; a good starting point for resources is the voluntary Green Business Program.


Home Consumption

31% of energy used in the food system

The consumption of food at home is the largest component of energy use in the food system. From old, sparsely-filled second refrigerators in the garage, to ovens that are fired up to toast a piece of garlic bread, most of the energy consumption in the kitchen is used for refrigeration (40%), cooking (20%), and water heating for dishes (20%).

Make an impact: Recycle your extra refrigerator.

In 2005, 22% of households in the U.S. owned two or more refrigerators. Most households only need one to keep perishable food cold. Watch CEC’s e-news for free refrigerator recycling programs. Information on refrigerator recycling →

Make an impact: Buy energy efficient appliances.

Old toasters, microwaves, and other kitchen appliances are much less energy efficient than the newer Energy Star appliances. If you’re not sure how your appliances are performing, you can buy a Kill-A-Watt device for $25 to measure how much energy your appliances use. Compare your figures with newer appliances and decide if it’s time to upgrade. More information →

Make an impact: Stop pre-rinsing your dishes with hot water.

New dishwashers are quite efficient, and it takes a considerable amount of energy to heat water for pre-rinsing.


Disposal: The hidden impact

The majority of our food waste ends up rotting in a landfill and releasing methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 25 times that of carbon dioxide. Only about 60% of the food grown and produced by the food system is actually eaten. The rest of the food is wasted by retailers, restaurants and consumers.3 That’s a lot of food energy being wasted.

Make an impact: Compost your food scraps.

Composting food waste causes it to decompose aerobically, turning it into a valuable gardening product instead of a potent greenhouse gas. For tips on composting in your backyard, visit Also, encourage your local government officials to adopt municipal composting as part of its waste disposal services. Information on business curbside composting →


A checklist

The food system is large, and analyzing energy use within the system presents complex questions. You can make a positive impact with a few lifestyle adjustments:

  • Buy organic.
  • Buy whole, minimally processed foods.
  • Buy local food.
  • Encourage retailers to prioritize energy efficiency
  • Recycle your extra refrigerator.
  • Buy energy efficient appliances.
  • Stop pre-rinsing your dishes with hot water.
  • Compost your food scraps.

Sharing is powerful too. Tell your friends and neighbors how you’re reducing your food footprint.

It’s also helpful to encourage your elected officials to make food-energy issues a priority. Subscribe to our Action Alert email list and when it’s time to mobilize, we’ll let you know.

1Graphic adapted from the original at:
2Canning, P., Ainsley C., Sonya H., et. al. (2010). Energy Use in the U.S. Food System, ERR-94, U.S. Dept. of Agri., Econ. Res. Serv.
3Hall, K., Guo, J., Chow, C. (2009). The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact. PLoS ONE 4 (11): e7940.

Research assistance from Seth Nickinson

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