What Does It Means To Eat Sustainably?

Shane Witters Hicks | Program Officer
Principia Center for Sustainability | Feb 6, 2023

Cauliflower steak with roasted tempeh and baby corn

In an age where “sustainable” is a word used to describe an increasingly diverse group of foods, it can be hard for people to decide what to eat to get the best eco-bang for their buck. And with such an expansive culinary scene – where diners can devour a plant-based burger, slurp a post-workout cricket-protein shake, and enjoy a regenerative mycelium “steak” all in one day, yet still be told off by foodie friends for drinking that resource-intensive almond milk – one can hardly be blamed for wondering, “what the heck is a ‘sustainable’ food, anyway?” 

One of the points of confusion is the fact that “sustainability” is an unregulated and multi-disciplinary term. There’s no legal definition of sustainable food, but a working definition developed by the Alliance for Better Food and Farming describes it as food that is produced, processed, distributed and disposed of in ways that:

  • Contribute to thriving local economies and sustainable livelihoods, including in producer countries;
  • Protect the diversity of both plants and animals and the welfare of farmed and wild species;
  • Avoid damaging or wasting natural resources or contributing to climate change; and
  • Provide social benefits, such as good quality food, safe and healthy products, and educational opportunities.

Let’s break that down: an example of the first point could be coffee beans that are sourced from farms using fair labor practices. Peet’s Coffee, for example, is a “100% responsibly sourced” roaster and retailer after a years-long road to improve its sustainability metrics (which included more than 20,000 annual sustainability audits). It’s because of companies like this that farmers using honest labor practices are able to grow and boost their local economies by providing fair wages to workers.

An example of the second point might be buying seafood raised in closed-loop farms, whose populations are carefully monitored and maintained. For example, a Sacramento sturgeon farm simultaneously produces outstanding caviar and uses the waste to grow butter lettuce. In contrast, wild-caught bluefin tuna and other endangered species of fish are being brought to the edge of extinction through overfishing despite international regulations.

When we consider the “damaging or wasting [of] natural resources” (in this case the rainforest) it’s impossible to overlook the effects of palm oil plantations. Production of palm oil on drainage-based peat swamp in Southeast Asia accounts for between 0.44% and 0.74% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to one study. Choosing a “more sustainable” cooking oil isn’t a clear-cut decision because global demand for these oils is staggering. But data suggests that rapeseed oil (more widely known as canola oil) is a better option than most because it results in the least GHG emissions per liter

Finally, by purchasing from companies that prioritize social welfare and/or put profits towards charitable and educational causes, we contribute to sustainable communities by “voting” with our dollars. One such company is Dave’s Killer Bread, which created a Second Chance Project and claims a third of its workforce are ex-convicts. Similarly, Greyston Bakery – through its unique, no-resume-required Open Hiring policy – provides employment opportunities to those who have experienced barriers to employment. By purchasing organic produce (especially items from the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” list), shoppers can reduce health hazards and support farming free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. 

Is it practical to only source foods that meet all four criteria of a sustainable food? Maybe not. Is it cheap to only eat organic, locally sourced foods from companies that pay fair wages? Probably not. But perhaps it isn’t too large of an ask for the average consumer to hit one criteria at a time. Small steps lead to big changes. Steps like incorporating a “meatless Monday” into your week, buying a Marine Stewardship Council-certified tilapia instead of the cheapest variety once in a while, or choosing free-range eggs rather than those produced in cage-ridden factory farms. Choices like these not only demonstrate to suppliers that we care about what we eat – they directly reduce environmental degradation and suffering on a global level. 

Pastina in Brodo with cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and basil

Keep it simple. Everyone could benefit from following the practical advice given by journalist and author Michael Pollen, who says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” There are few “silver bullet” solutions in life, but incorporating more plants into your diet may be one of them. Animal agriculture is responsible for a huge portion of GHG emissions. A more plant-forward diet has been shown to improve health, sometimes curing chronic diseases like diabetes. And have you ever seen headlines whistleblowing the fact that billions of animals are kept in inhospitable conditions to sustain the consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs? Eating more plants can fix that, too. Indeed, changing global eating habits can simultaneously right several wrongs, so if you can only focus on one thing, eat more plants!

Homegrown Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide

By Jolee Keplinger |September 21, 2022

As a recent graduate, I am always looking for ways to connect to the local food system in Raleigh, NC. I’ve visited various farmer’s markets, and have started growing my own food, aka, a tiny herb garden on my apartment balcony. I dream of having a house with a garden one day, but for now, I enjoy caring for a small collection of apartment-friendly herbs and plants. Growing herbs has been especially rewarding, since they have a variety of culinary uses, and nutritional benefits.

Recipe Inspiration: Homemade waffle with feta cheese, kalamata olives, and fresh basil

From a sustainability standpoint, growing your own herbs can help reduce plastic waste, since fresh herbs at the grocery store are typically packaged in plastic containers, shipped from many miles away. Even though it’s a small impact in the broader scheme of things, the act of growing edible plants feels meaningful, and it can lead one to feel inspired to take on new challenges, such as growing vegetables, or starting a community garden.

The planters pictured here are self watering, and a huge help during the hot summer months. I ordered these from Amazon.

I started my herb growing journey in 2021 with a basil plant I purchased from Trader Joe’s. Yes, I could have just planted seeds like a normal gardener, but I thought it would be nice to re-pot the plant in my herb planter and immediately have a thriving basil plant without needing to wait for the seeds to germinate. Shortly after my basil purchase, I found a set of four herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil, and mint) at Costco. I re-potted them in my herb planters, and had a nice collection of herbs to enjoy. The thyme didn’t survive, but the others did well. I especially loved having fresh rosemary to use for a roasted sweet potato recipe!

In 2022 I moved from New Hampshire down to North Carolina, and needed to leave my plants behind. As soon as I was settled in my new space, I started a new mini herb garden, and it has been successful since! This time, I started with basil, oregano, mint and thyme. The thyme didn’t survive (again!) so I just added more mint. The herbs LOVED the summer heat and humidity (me, not so much).

The highlight of my herb-growing journey happened when my basil plant exploded during the summer, and provided enough leaves to harvest for homemade pesto. It’s a strange feeling having to harvest so much of a big, beautiful plant, but I had to keep telling myself that it was actually beneficial for its future growth. I harvested the basil stems and got to work in the kitchen.

I pulled up a simple basil recipe online, but I didn’t have all the ingredients on hand. I decided to just go for it anyway, and substitute walnuts for the pine nuts that are traditionally used in pesto. I didn’t have parmesan cheese, used sharp white cheddar and hoped that the two ingredient substitutions wouldn’t throw off the flavor too much. I kept everything else in the recipe the same, and the pesto was delicious!

Here is the pesto recipe I referenced when making my own version. You will be surprised at how much basil is needed to make two packed cups! As mentioned in the recipe, you can substitute one cup of packed spinach if needed.

Making my first homegrown basil was the most satisfying experience. I really appreciated it, knowing that I would need to wait a period of time to have enough basil to harvest again. As I am writing this, it’s been about a month since the pesto harvest, and I am contemplating whether to do another before the weather cools down.

Based on my two short years of experience, I would definitely recommend taking on the challenge of homegrown herbs as a way to connect with your food. I think it’s the perfect way for recent graduates to enter the world of gardening, especially for those living in apartments with balconies. Also, if you are not a pet owner (like myself), caring for plants can help fill the need for wanting to care for something other than yourself.

Happy gardening!

Principia Campus’ West Quad 100 Year Old Apple Tree Orchard

Nadja’s Fall ’21 apple haul!

By Nadja Peschke |March 30, 2022 Principia Center for Sustainability Special Projects Officer

It came to my surprise my Sophomore year, how few students and professors knew about the West Quad apple orchard. Every time I walked from the concourse to my dorm or Voney studio, I stopped to marvel at the wealth of ripe apples suspended in the sunshine above my head. I would snag the apple picker from Howard House’s porch (thank you, Kemi!) and pick apples while other students receded back to their rooms for an afternoon nap or homework session. It felt like stealing gold.  

Jonafree Canopy Fall ’21
Senior, Sophie Hills holding our pickings!

The juicy weight of the fruit sagged the branches so low that my 5’ 3” frame could snag a snack and be on my way. It was my Eden when the Red Delicious apples shipped from the industrial orchards of Washington State to the Scramble Room just didn’t taste right. Did you know that “Red Delicious” is not a naturally derived apple variety? It was created in a lab to be a productive monocrop. Consequently, it’s pretty flavorless compared to our campus Jonafree apples.  

I made an effort to bring my friend circle into the bounty. We would pick a box full and make applesauce, or keep the apples in a cold spot in our rooms to enjoy for weeks on end. The taste was tart, sweet, the texture was crisp, the sound of a bite was snappy. I grew a habit of always having two in my tote bag, one for me and one to share. My little Johnny Appleseed act still wasn’t enough to get all students on board, some even seemed dubious that they were edible! This caused me to wonder how our society came to trust fruit in a basket more than fruit in the fresh air? I digress.  

Pruned Tree Blossoming in April ’22

Senior year, I once again looked forward to this early fall treat but was greeted with tired trees, yellowing leaves, and more rot than apple. How did this happen? According to pomologists, pom (fruit bearing) trees need to be trimmed and maintained. A lot of orchardists share a phrase that the trees’ branches should allow a cat to be tossed straight through the canopy without touching a branch!  

Reflecting on the scraggly, tangled limbs I immediately knew the year’s pickings had something to do with the maintenance of our beloved trees. The extra limbs were stealing energy from the possible production of fruits. These limbs start as vertical growing twigs called watershoots, or suckers, and if not groomed from the start they become mature branches that make a bushy canopy. Some of the trees on campus I even call willow apples because they sag so low with watershoots. 

advertisement by Carly Hendrickson

During February and March 2022 I led a pruning crew to help our apples thrive in 2023. Here are a few tips from Dr. Chrissy McAllister, bio professor, who met me to discuss pruning. It turns out that there are three stages to pruning a tree: Clean Up, Thinning Out, and Shaping; 

  1. Clean Up consists of noting dead vs dormant branches and twigs. To do this you very gently scrape the bark away and if it’s green it’s alive … and if it’s brittle and brown, likely that limb is dead. This might also be easy to tell by sight, in that many diseased or damaged limbs have visible decay or breakages. Branches damaged from weather, animal rubbing, or other influences should be assessed for pruning so the tree can heal.  
  2. To Thin Out the tree, check for the culprit: watersprouts. These are new growth that grows at a 90- degree angle out of a branch or by the base of a tree. In the trees on our Quad, watersprouts had grown for years so they were heavy, thick and piercing straight through the branches to the sky. To properly remove them, we had to carefully saw or clip them off flush to the host branch collar at a 10 or 2 o’ clock angle. This ensures a smooth surface for the tree to heal over. Remember, leave no stumps on the branches!  
  3. The Shaping portion is easier with younger trees, this allows the choice of how the tree will grow. An apple tree should have a broad canopy that reaches out more than up. Trimming the branches out of reach ensures more apples where we can pick and enjoy!  

At most, only about 20% of a tree should be pruned a season. Watch out not to cut branches with abundant spurs, these are the pointed buds that will blossom and become the fruit. But the more you remove distracting or unhealthy limbs the more you can direct a tree’s energy to be fruitful. Ultimately, you can’t hurt the tree by following these tips! This is a yearly maintenance for most fruit trees like pears, peaches, and plums. Always double check with a trusted source for your type of fruit tree but tending to them is responsible and ensures the longevity of your trees.  

watercolor inspired by the Jonafree Apple Trees on Campus, painted by Nadja Peschke Fall 2020

The orchard has blessed our Principia community for nearly 100 years, and by tenderly caring for it – and enjoying its bounty! – on an annual basis, this beautiful grove will continue to bless students with new skills and many tasty apples as our orchard grows. Next fall when you walk through the Quad, take a seat on the new benches we added in the quad to breath in the beauty of the orchard, birdsong and pick a few apples. If you’d like to get involved in orchard care, contact the college’s Center for Sustainability! 

Pruning Crew March 2022 !

All Photos Credited to Nadja Peschke.

An Eco-Conscious Guide for Holiday Dinners

By Jolee Keplinger |November 27, 2020
Principia Center for Sustainability
Special Projects Officer

The holiday season is known to be stressful, making it easy for sustainability to be a second thought, but preparing holiday food is a tradition that isn’t going away. If you haven’t already, not is a wonderful time to incorporate some eco-friendly habits into your routine. This guide will explain a few ways you can postively impact the planet this holiday season.

Shop Local, Reduce Waste: When shopping for produce, I find it easiest to reduce packaging waste by visiting a local farm stand. (If you live near Elsah, IL, I highly recommend Three Rivers Community Farm.) Most of the produce is unpackaged, so customers either use the plastic bags provided or bring their own. I try to come prepared with reusable produce bags and shopping bags. Certain foods, such as carrot bunches and spinach, come prepackaged in plastic bags, so those are added to my plastic bag stash for the grocery store’s recycling collection.

If you want to see what markets are in your area, you can type your zip code into the USDA’s Local Food Directory. I tested it out, and I noticed some of the markets I visit did not show up. It’s still worth checking out if you are unfamiliar with your local market scene.

Of course, as the holidays approach, most farmer’s markets are ending their season. Farmer’s markets may not be an option this time of year, you can still step up your sustainability game.

Grocery Store Shopping: Most of us will probably need to shop for holiday dinner staples at the grocery store. Unfortunately can be difficult to avoid ingredients packed in single-use and non-recyclable packaging. Fortunately, some grocery stores, such as Trader Joe’s, are committed to reducing and removing the packaging. They replaced styrofoam meat and produce trays with biodegradable alternatives. They even replaced their clear plastic produce bags with a green compostable version (unfortunately they can only be composted industrially, not in your backyard). They’re far from perfect, but appear to be more ecologically conscious than the average store. You can research the sustainability commitments for your favorite grocery stores, and strive to shop at the one that clearly demonstrates a commitment to sustainable practices.

Minimizing Plastic Waste: Simply skip the plastic turkey bag. I’ve grown up with Thanksgiving turkey cooked in “the bag”. After seeing the family turkey being prepared this way, each year I thought I’d research some more eco-conscious alternatives.

  1. The brand If You Care makes compostable bags with FSC-certified paper. This may be one only parchment roasting bag on the market.
  2. This Martha Stewart recipe will explain how to make a delicious roasted turkey with just regular parchment paper. Fortunately, becoming more common to find compostable parchment paper. For example, I found a roll by Reynold’s at my local target.
  3. You can also learn to cook a turkey without a bag (click for Livestrong article).

Reducing Leftover Food Waste: Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner leftovers can get boring. It may be tempting to toss them after back to back leftover-filled lunches and dinners. (It’s also important to eat up your leftovers within a few days, to reduce the risk of harmful bacterial growth.) The easiest strategy is to simply freeze what you know you won’t eat within 3-4 days.

Be prepared with reusable freezer bags, brands such as Russbe and Stasher, so you will have an easier time fitting them into the freezer. Try to skip the single-use Ziploc bags, but if you do have them, you can hand wash, dry, and reuse them many times, but read this article to make sure this is done safely.

Purchasing Checklist:

  • Create a shopping list and plan to buy what you need. Estimate the number of dinner guests, and decide which recipes you will make, and how many servings.
  • Research farmer’s markets/farm stands in your area. It’s perfect for finding seasonal produce and even free-range meats.
  • Before leaving to shop, remember to bring your own reusable shopping bags. And don’t forget to clean the bags! If bags are cloth, they may be machine washable, and non-cloth bags with a smooth surface can be sprayed and wiped down. Mesh produce bags, such as Earthwise, are also machine washable. They are also great for many other uses, such as organizing small items in luggage.
  • Have a plan for leftover food storage. Purchase reusable food storage bags and storage containers if you can afford them. Opt for dishwasher-safe to save washing time. If you don’t own glass food storage containers, now is the perfect time to upgrade your Tupperware. Glass containers are more durable than plastic, they can withstand high heat, and they can also be used for serving. (This means fewer dishes to wash, yay!)
  • If you have friends or family that would be open to using the reusable products listed above, you may as well add them to your Christmas shopping list. This is a great way to spread the holiday spirit with a sustainable twist.

Happy holidays!

Sustainability Reporting in the Food Industry

By Jolee Keplinger |August 12, 2020
Principia Center for Sustainability
Special Projects Officer

Food processing companies are central to the discussion of sustainable food production. The trend of environmental awareness, plus heightened consumer consciousness, has raised the expectations of many consumers. These days, consumers are wanting to purchase foods that are sustainably sourced and produced. Consumers are seeking openness, honesty, and transparency from food companies.

As a result, there has been dramatic growth in the number of food companies reporting on sustainability. This has led many companies to take time to communicate their sustainability philosophies, goals, and practices in a public manner. This has resulted in the publishing of Sustainability Reports (or Corporate Social Responsibility Reports).

On average, food companies have about 4 years of reporting experience.

Evidence for heightened consumer awareness:

In 2018, 59% of consumers surveyed said it was important that the foods they purchased were produced in a sustainable way (Food Technology Magazine).

In 2017, about 7 in 10 consumers reported that they wanted food companies’ sustainability practices to be more visible (The Hartman Group).

An In-Depth Example: Oatly

When attending the Culinary Institute of America’s virtual Menus of Change summit, I learned about an oat beverage (non-dairy “milk”) brand called Oatly. They were first company to put oat beverages on the market! Their mission is to offer nutrient-rich, oat-based products to the wold without building up a resource-intensive dairy infrastructure, and emitting excessive amounts of greenhouse gasses.

Oatly seemed to have a strong awareness and dedication to sustainability. During the session, the host mentioned that they are committed to tracking their efforts and have been publishing sustainability reports. I was curious to learn how this brand was addressing various aspects of sustainability in its operations. After a quick Google search, I was able to access Oatly’s 2018 Sustainability report.

First Impressions.

At first glance, the report was overwhelming! There were 89 pages filled with text and infographics. In terms of graphic design, it was not what I expected. I imagined the average sustainability report to look very scientific, bland, and not very visually appealing. I was not expecting to see an array of complementary colors, an unconventional text font, simple, yet effective graphics, and plenty of professional looking photographs. I could tell that Oatly really took the project seriously, and was catering to a target audience of millennial/Gen-Z open-minded consumers.

I appreciated the sense of humor that was integrated throughout. At the beginning of reading, I was immediately intrigued by the bold nature of the title page. which stated “Sustainability Report 2018: Slightly Worst Than Last Year!“. That made me want to continue reading. Why would a company be so straightforward about their not-so-great findings? I thought it was very transparent right off the bat, and couldn’t wait to learn what happened.

Oatly’s Sustainability Aspirations and Wins + The Triple Bottom Line


  • Oatly has a goal of equal distribution of women/men in leadership positions and an equal treatment policy. Currently, the board is 100% men, and 67% of men hold leadership positions with staff responsibility.
  • Fun fact: This company has three employees that are specifically focused on sustainable operations.


  • When choosing to purchase oat milk rather than cow’s milk, fewer resources are needed, and there is less of a contribution to climate change.
  • For example, in 2018, Oatly sold 71,482,745 liters of oat drink worldwide. If you assume that that number would have otherwise been consumed as cow’s milk, then 56,471 tons of greenhouse gasses were reduced! That is the equivalent of traveling around the world 11,778 times in a car!
  • Most of their packaging is paper-based, with the exception of plastic cups used for the Creamy Oat Fraiche, oat spreads, and Oatgurt.
  • Oatly ties its efforts to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


  • The global increase in plant-based eating has positively affected the company’s growth in all of its markets. This indicates that the interest (and will) to opt for plant-based food is increasing.
  • Sustainable growth is a topic that of much debate. Oatly acknowledges the general issue of consumer overconsumption, but highlights the significance of large companies creating positive change. Since Oatly is a larger company, there’s great potential for accomplishing and influencing positive change.

Areas for improvement

  • The rapid increase in staff make the establishment of a unified sustainability culture a challenge.
  • There has been increased product travel due to globalization.
  • In 2016 Oatly set a goal to reduce its GHG emissions by 25% by 2020. From 2015-2017, emissions decreased, but they increased in 2018 due to an unexpected growth spurt for plant-based/vegan food products.
  • The long-term goal is to fully produce products using renewable energy and reduce energy consumption. Currently, 87% of their energy use is renewable. Co-packing facilities outside of their home base of Sweden are powered by nonrenewable energy.
What if the fields of oats were home to wind turbines!

Find Oatly! Near You

  • If you are living on Principia College’s campus, you can find the products at the Alton, IL Target. According to the product locator, currently this location carries Oat Frozen Dessert, four types of oatmilk.
  • The St. Louis area has many stores that carry Oatly, including Dierbergs, Fresh Thyme, and Target, Whole Foods and even a few coffee shops.
  • Before venturing out, I recommend checking the Oatfinder for an updated list of stores near you.

How to Use Oat “Milk”

Oat “milk” is a 1:1 substitute for dairy milk. If you’re interested in venturing into the world of plant-based milks, this variety is an excellent way to start! It’s light, airy, and the texture has been compared to skim milk. It’s a great option for individuals with food allergies or intolerance because it’s free of lactose, nuts, soy, and gluten (if certified). This is highly beneficial for those who are responsible for providing allergen-free food for many people. It’s great for chefs and restaurants that want to offer dairy-free alternative foods and beverages.

Common Uses:

  • Lattes and cappuccinos
  • Cereal
  • Baked goods
  • Smoothies
  • Drinking alone





Menus of Change Leadership Summit: Week One Recap

By Jolee Keplinger |August 5, 2020
Principia Center for Sustainability
Special Projects Officer

This summer, the Culinary Institute of America offered its Menus of Change® summit fully online due to COVID-19. This allowed me to attend the sessions while working from home in Florida, and apply the knowledge I gained to Principia College’s food system. This online summit provided valuable content that is relevant to Principia’s food scene during the unusual COVID-19 landscape.

Menus of Change focuses on The Business of Healthy, Sustainable, Delicious Food Choices. This summit works to realize a long-term, practical vision which integrates optimal nutrition and public health, environmental stewardship and restoration, and social responsibility concerns surrounding food. In other words, it fully addresses the triple bottom line of sustainability (people, planet, and profit). Plant-forward food is a major focus, and a new term you will probably notice in the future.

What is Plant-Forward Eating?

The 2018 Menus of Change Annual Report, defines “plant-forward” as: a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes and celebrates, but is not limited to, plant-based foods—including fruits and vegetables (produce); whole grains; beans, legumes (pulses), and soy foods; nuts and seeds; plant oils; and herbs and spices—and that reflects evidence-based principles of health and sustainability.

Ways of Eating and Identity

Remember the time when people identified as either omnivores, vegetarians, or vegans? While this can still be the case, food identities are changing. Identities are going beyond extreme/binary nouns and toward more dynamic verbs such as a “flexitarian”, “climatarian” or “reducetarian“. Plant-forward eating encompasses many of these new eating identities without being restrictive and exclusive.

Remaining Focused on Long Term Goals

The disruption of COVID-19 can be distracting when working toward a more sustainable food system, especially when dealing with long-term issues like climate change. Menus of Change emphasized the importance of keeping up with critical goals, such as the reduction of greenhouse gasses across the food system. Food is a highly important tool when navigating the complex world of GHG reduction because everyone is dependent on it, and it’s a major way humans connect with one another.

Food can be viewed as a root for creating awareness. Chefs and the art of cooking can tell a story and shed light on how the food we eat directly affects the environment. Chefs use food to enter people’s minds and hearts, so they have the ability to emphasize climate-friendly foods and move the food system in a positive direction!

Learn More

Click here to learn about how the Center for Sustainability is advocating for sustainable food!

The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health provides an array of relevant information related to this post.

Plastic-Free Challenge Part 2: Make Your Own Energy Bites

By Jolee Keplinger | July 15, 2020
Principia Center for Sustainability
Special Projects Officer

Purchasing snacks from the grocery store that are not encased in some form of plastic packaging can seem nearly impossible. Here, you will learn some tips and tricks so you can reduce your waste in the snacking sphere.


This post is inspired by this year’s plastic-free ecochallenge. The previous post focused on Stasher bags, which are sustainable food storage strategy that can reduce your single-use plastic waste. In addition, the simple and delicious energy bite recipe in this post can be made from ingredients with zero-waste packaging.

Since the recipe is perfect for storing in a Stasher bag, you now have a great reason to try them out!

Taking Small, Sustainable Steps

Depending on where you live, it can be difficult to eliminate all plastic food packaging. Rather than setting an ambitious goal that feels too complicated to achieve, I recommend taking smaller steps that are actually sustainable in the long run. The recipe below is an example of how making the decision to design your own snacks connects to multiple aspects of eco-conscious living.

Minimizing Packaged Food

Making your own snacks can reduce the temptation to purchase individually wrapped (and oftentimes highly processed) snacks from the grocery store. For example, when buying a box of granola bars, there is first a cardboard box that is then filled with bars individually wrapped in plastic. This soft plastic wrapping is not recycled at most facilities.

Control Over Ingredients

By creating your own snacks, you know exactly what goes into them. When I shop for ingredients, I opt for ingredients that are local and organically grown. Buying your own ingredients gives you the power to “vote with your wallet” and support local and sustainable brands. Plus, it’s always good to know where your food is from and how it was grown. Another benefit of making your own snacks it that you can customize them to your taste and nutrition preferences. If you want to minimize sugar, then you can easily add less sugar to your recipe. (It’s much harder to find low-sugar snacks at the store that actually taste good and are a reasonable value.) In addition, the flavor combinations for energy bites are endless, so they will never become boring!

Recipe Background

I have been making energy bites for years. I started with a very basic recipe that you may have already tried. It’s just peanut butter, rolled oats, honey, and chocolate chips. These sweet and satisfying rolled up balls are similar to granola bars, but much simpler to make, since no baking is required. They’re especially suitable for the summertime, since using an oven requires additional heat and electricity, which the heats up the house and works against the already energy-intensive air conditioning! This recipe is incredibly eco-friendly since it’s low-waste, and less energy intensive when compared to the average baked snack bar.

Last year, I purchased some food in bulk from Dining Services in effort to utilize my remaining meal points before the semester ended. One of my bulk buys was a 5 lb container of sunflower seed butter (aka sunbutter). When I arrived home for the summer break, I decided that making energy bites for myself and my family would be the easiest way to put this ingredient to use. I also wanted an easy snack I could pack for my 8-hour work shifts. I mixed the sunbutter with rolled oats, chocolate chips, sunflower seeds, cinnamon, and ginger. They were delicious!

Locavore Lens: Lately, I’ve seen energy bites popping up in a variety of coffee shops, grab-and-go food cases, and even grocery stores. If you are at Principia College, or visiting downtown Alton, stopping at Germania is a one way you can support a local business. This ultimately supports Alton’s local economy revitalization efforts. Before the pandemic, I visited Germania Brew Haus and paired their energy bites with a cup of coffee. It was an excellent mid-afternoon snack for a solo computer work session. This coffee shop is just a 20 minute drive from campus!

The Recipe: Quick & Customizable No-Bake Energy Bites

Yield: 20-25 bite-sized balls


  • 1 ½ cup of old-fashioned oats
  • ½ cup of your favorite nut or seed butter
  • ½ cup of crunchy add-ins, your choice (coconut flakes, chopped nuts, seeds, cacao nibs, etc.)
  • 1/3 cup of chocolate chips or dried fruit
  • 1/3 cup of liquid sweetener (honey, maple syrup, molasses, etc.)
  • Optional: Spices to taste (cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, etc.)
  • Optional: A pinch of sea salt (this may be good if using an unsalted nut/seed butter)
  • Optional: Cacao/Cocoa powder (to taste)


  1. Measure each ingredient and place in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Mix everything until well combined. Mashing with a large fork can be helpful.
  3. Once thoroughly mixed, taste and make modifications if desired.
  4. Find a reusable storage container and place it next to the mixing bowl.
  5. Scoop the mixture with a spoon or small cookie dough scoop and roll into a ball by hand. Place each ball inside the storage container. This can get messy, so be sure to have a sink nearby!
  6. Place the finished energy bites in the fridge or freezer for optimal freshness. If you prefer them to not be cold, simply take a few out of a the fridge an hour or two before eating and set aside.

Favorite Ingredient Combinations

  1. Mocha Truffle: chocolate nut butter, chopped almonds, a 1/3 cup mix of chopped dates (dried) & chocolate chips, honey, finely ground coffee (to taste)
  • This combination is especially good without oats, but it can be made both ways. The oat-free version reminds me of chocolate truffles! To make this combination, I recommend putting all the ingredients in a food processor and processing until a slightly smooth. Just roll the blend into small balls as usual and enjoy!

2. Pumpkin Seed & Date: oats, almond butter, pumpkin seeds, chopped dates (dried), honey, cinnamon & ginger (to taste)

3. Dark Chocolate: oats, chocolate nut butter, coconut flakes, mini chocolate chips

  • For a sweeter version, feel free to add a liquid sweetener of choice. I like mine extra dark, so I prefer to leave it out. This is because the chocolate nut butter and chocolate chips are sweet enough for me. If you are not using a chocolate nut butter, but would like an easy substitute, simply add cocoa powder and your favorite sweetener to the mix. Just add these ingredients in small amounts and taste to reach your desired level of chocolatey sweetness.

4. Mint Chocolate Protein: oats, almond butter, honey, 2 scoops/50-60 grams of protein powder, chopped mint chocolate

5. Mighty Cricket Protein: oats, almond butter, 2 scoops/50-60 grams of Mighty Cricket protein powder, walnuts (and/or chocolate chips), honey

  • Mighty Cricket is a St. Louis-based startup that creates protein that is good for you and the planet. Using this protein powder is the perfect way to branch out and support a local and eco-conscious business!

Circling Back to the Plastic Free Ecochallenge

In the Food category of the plastic free ecochallenge, there are 5 action categories that can be accomplished when shopping for and making this recipe. The list below shows the applicable actions. Click here to take action and sign up for the challenge!

  • Use Reusable Containers
  • Advocate for More Food Packaging Options (aka alternatives to single use plastics)
  • Make Your Own Recipes
  • Minimize Food Packaging
  • Say NO to Plastic Bags

Zero Plastic Waste Ingredient Guide

Do you want to try finding ingredients that are free of single use plastic packaging? This is usually a challenge when shopping at the average grocery store, so I’m here to help! For the purpose of this challenge, it’s important to be able to distinguish single-use (landfill) plastic from recyclable plastic. Single-use plastic is thin, able to be crunched in your hand (such as a Ziploc, chip bag, or candy wrapper), and not accepted at most recycling facilities. Recyclable plastic is thick and should have a recycling symbol.

If packaging is completely paper or made from bioplastic, it can be industrially composted. This is the best form of non-reusable packaging.

Below is each main ingredient plus helpful information.

Rolled Oats: The usual cylindrical cardboard oat container may not be recyclable. There could be a plastic lining on the inside of the container. (The plastic lid may be recyclable, so don’t forget to look for the symbol on the lid!) When shopping, you can compare different brands of oatmeal and see if any of the containers have a recycling symbol. (From personal experience, the containers I’ve purchased from the grocery stores have not had a recycling symbol.)

To be single-use-plastic-free, you can purchase your rolled oats from the bulk bins and bring a reusable bag or container from home. As a COVID-19 precaution, certain stores are not allowing customers to bring their own refillable containers though.

Nut/Seed Butter: Most butters are sold in recyclable plastic or glass containers. It’s important to clean out the residue before placing in the recycle bin. My favorite nut butter is the organic almond butter from Costco. It’s the best value almond butter I’ve found so far! I also enjoy using an organic or natural sunflower seed butter, or fresh ground peanut butter. Also, try to avoid any nut/seed butter containing palm oil. This oil is often associated with rainforest destruction and habitat loss.

Dried Fruit: It’s common for it to be sold in non-recyclable plastic bags. I have seen dried fruit sold in recyclable plastic packaging in a few stores though. It’s worth looking for in the bulk bins too. If you want to go completely waste-free, you could try buying fresh fruit and drying it in the oven!

Add-ins: Go straight to the bulk bins for these! There are usually a variety of nuts and seeds to choose from. Just be sure to bring your own reusable container to eliminate the need for a single-use plastic bag. If not, you can usually find nuts/seeds in recyclable cans or plastic containers.

Local Liquid Sweeteners: If living on or near Principia College, you can purchase campus-grown maple syrup from the biology department! I recently got my first bottle and put it to good use. You can often find the syrup sold in the C-Store during the spring semester. This is an amazing locally sourced sweetener.

Alternatively, there is a chance of getting local honey from the campus’s apiary. This depends on the success of the bees though, so you’ll have an easier time purchasing local honey from the farmers market. You may also check the Elsah General Store or Three Rivers Community Farm. If you are not living in the area, simply look for local honey at your farmers market or a grocery store that offers local foods.

Chocolate Chips / Pieces: The chocolate chips I often find at the store are packed in single-use plastic packaging. Again, this is an ingredient that could be found in bulk bins. Natural food stores often have them. Whole Foods is also a great option. There, you can find chocolate chips for $4.29/lb. They are not offered in bulk at all locations though. An alternative is to buy a large chocolate bar wrapped in foil or paper (both recyclable) and chop into small pieces.

Cacao or cocoa powder: If you purchase cocoa powder, you’ll probably be able to find it in a recyclable container. (Cocoa powder is not as strong as cacao powder because it’s been roasted.) I always buy cacao powder, but I haven’t found any zero-waste options in stores yet. The organic cacao powder I purchase from Trader Joe’s is in a plastic bag that cannot be recycled. There zero-waste options exist, but they can get pricy, or may not be accessable in certain locations.

For example, fufilled.co sells food with zero-waste packaging locally in California. There, you can find cacao powder in a glass jar or refillable bag. There are other zero-waste ingredient options online that you can explore. After a quick search on Amazon.com, I found a plastic-free packaging option that’s made from paper and metal by OMG Super Foods. There is not a recycling symbol though. All the other options were packaged in soft plastic.

Now, you are prepared to make your energy bites with zero-single use plastic waste ingredients! This aspect of the ecochallenge really shows how much thought goes into reducing food packaging waste. Again, you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself if the eco-friendly options aren’t accessable where you live. Now you know what to look out for, and you can apply this knowledge to any recipe you make!

If you have any fun energy bite ingredient combinations, please share in the comments. Also, feel free to share about your eco-challenge achievements!

The Plastic-Free Eco Challenge: Food Storage Edition

By Jolee Keplinger | July 1, 2020
Principia Center for Sustainability
Special Projects Officer

Today marks the first day of The Plastic Free Ecochallenge, which is a month-long global challenge from July 1-31. Basically, this challenge is focusing on the reduction and refuse of single-use plastics. This is especially relevant due to the surge of COVID-19-related waste, (such as disposable masks, gloves, and single-use food utensils and packaging from curbside deliveries.)

Are you wondering if this challenge will actually make a difference? It’s worth referencing the 30-day Earth Day 2020 Ecochallenge which had 10,210 participants and 120,661 completed actions! For example, one of the top actions was “Use a reusable water bottle”, which was completed 2,105 times.

Now is the perfect time to take action and create new habits. You can also share your progress with others who are part of the challenge. We recommend spreading the word with your friends and family to increase the challenge’s positive impact!

The action categories of the challenge are Food, Personal Care, Community, Lifestyle, Family, and Pets. (You can also create your own action!) The category of focus for this post is Food, and the daily action is Use Reusable Containers. This action means that you will avoid single-use plastic food storage items such as sandwich bags and plastic wrap.

How to Reduce Plastic Bag Waste

You may be wondering what the best eco-friendly food storage containers are. My top recommendation is the Stasher Bag. This is an endlessly reusable storage bag made from platinum silicon.

This material does not degrade over time and it can withstand a range of temperatures. Stasher bags in incredibly versatile products as well. They can be placed in the freezer, microwave, oven, and dishwasher.

They are also Free & Clear, meaning they do not contain toxins which include BPA, BPS, lead, latex, and phthalates. These bags come in a variety of sizes and colors, so there is an option for every style and storage need.

Sustainability Spotlight

Although they can be reused endlessly, if an unexpected accident damages the bag, the website explains how unusable Stashers can be repurposed into kid-friendly playground pebbles! Stasher even uses 70% post-consumer material for its cardboard packaging. To stay up to date on this innovative company, you can follow them on Instagram @stasherbag.

Fun fact: Stasher bags aren’t only useful for storing food and snacks, they can also serve as the bag for your carry-on liquids when flying. The Stasher sandwich bags are completely leak proof and are nearly the same size as the recommended quart-size ziplock bag. Swapping a single use ziplock for a Stasher bag means you won’t need to worry about tiny holes being poked by products in your overstuffed ziplock. (No more liquids leaking into your luggage!) Once you arrive at your destination, you can wash and dry the Stasher and use it for snacking on the go. The sandwich bag size is great for storing cut fruit/veggies, trail mix, crackers, sandwiches, cookies, and so much more!

Tip: After washing your Stasher, ensure it has dried completely. You may dry it with a towel, but I prefer to let it air dry. You can turn it inside out and set it upside down, or place a small object between the opening to allow for air circulation.

Have a wonderful 4th of July weekend, & don’t forget to sign up for the Ecochallenge!

DIY Açaí Bowl

By Jolee Keplinger | June 25, 2020
Principia Center for Sustainability
Special Projects Officer

This isn’t your average açaí recipe! The unexpected ingredient is cricket protein powder. Cricket protein is an up-and-coming superfood that can easily be incorporated into your summertime smoothies. You can purchase this protein powder from Mighty Cricket, a local and sustainable food startup based in St. Louis. Click here to learn more about cricket protein on the blog.


  • 1 ripe banana (frozen)
  • ½ cup frozen strawberries and blueberries
  •  1/3 to ½ cup unsweetened almond milk
  • 2 tbsp Mighty Cricket Protein Powder
  • 1 tbsp nut/seed butter
  • 1 tbsp acai powder

Optional additions

  • 1/4 tsp maca powder
  • 1/4 tsp ginger powder
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp moringa powder
  • fresh grated nutmeg

Topping ideas:

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Muesli
  • Unsweetened coconut flakes
  • Bee pollen
  • Full fat coconut milk or cream


1. Place all base ingredients in blender and blend until smooth.

2. Pour into a small bowl.

3. Sprinkle on desired toppings. Drizzle with full fat coconut milk or cream.

4. Artfully sprinkle on desired toppings.

5. Bonus: Visit @MightyCricketCo on Instagram to learn more creative ways for incorporating cricket protein into your sustainable lifestyle!

Oat Bar Recipe + A Sustainable Sugar Swap

By Jolee Keplinger | June 14, 2020
Principia Center for Sustainability
Special Projects Officer

This healthy & tasty recipe was submitted by community member Pam Fox, who works part time at Principia College’s C-Store. Pam is a plant-based food enthusiast who often shares her favorite recipes with me. Recently, she sent me an oat bar recipe which I made shortly after settling in for summer in my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida. Although I’m busy balancing three jobs and a nutrition course, I always make time for creativity in the kitchen. I specifically made these bars to take with me as a snack for my work at Browns Kitchen, a local gourmet kitchen shop!

Modified Oat Bar Recipe

Prep time: 20 minutes | Cook time: 20 minutes | Makes 12 bars


  • 2/3 cup chopped pitted dates (reserve 1/3 cup)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 tbsp nut or seed butter (I used almond butter)
  • 1 1/4 cup quick oats
  • 1/2 cup flour of choice (I used arrowroot flour)
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup dried fruit of choice (such as cherries, apricot, prunes, etc.)
  • 1/4 cup add-ins of choice (such as chocolate chips, coconut flakes, seeds, or nuts)
  • Optional Ingredients
  • 1 tsp ginger powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp maca powder
  • Fresh ground nutmeg to taste

Notes: I used dates as my dried fruit of choice since I did not have others on hand. My add-ins were unsweetened coconut flakes and pumpkin seeds.


  1. Preheat oven to 375o.
  2. Place 1/3 cup of chopped dates and water into a blender and process until smooth.  Add the nut butter, process again, and set aside. 
  3. In a medium bowl combine the remaining ingredients, except the reserved dates, dried fruit of choice, and add-ins. 
  4. Add the mixture from the blender and the remaining dates, dried fruit and add-ins of choice and mix with a spoon.
  5. Spread mixture into an 8 x 8 baking pan and either spray with oil or line with parchment paper. Bake until firm and lightly brown around the edges, 18-20 minutes. 
  6. Cool in the pan, then loosen edges and invert entire pan over a flat platter. (If using parchment paper, pull the bars out of the pan using the paper edges and place on a cooling rack). 
  7. Cut into about 12 bars & enjoy!

Tips: I store the in the refrigerator to keep them fresh longer. They taste best reheated slightly in a toaster oven. You can also crumble them up and sprinkle on top of yogurt or eat them like cereal with milk.

I like to use this reusable to-go box for storing baked goods. This is a sample product from AASHE, an annual conference for sustainability in higher education. This container is made by OZZI, a company which specializes in reusable container exchange systems.

Fun Fact: 100% Plant-Based Ingredients!

What I love about this recipe is that it’s completely plant-based, so it’s perfect for those who follow a plant-forward and vegan diets. Plant-based styles of eating are often less ecologically intensive when compared to the Standard American Diet. This is because plant-based foods require fewer resources to produce (in many cases) versus animal products which are often highly resource intensive and polluting (especially when produced industrially).

Now, to get specific, not all plant-based foods are good. For instance, refined sugar, which is plant-derived, is definitely a food you want to avoid for both environmental and health reasons. Below are some reasons why I prefer to avoid refined sugars. To satisfy my sweet tooth, I replace refined sugars with natural and eco-friendly foods such as dried dates.

Opt for Organic

Since I am now 90% in control of my food intake, I’ve made a point to purchase mainly organic ingredients. It can be more expensive, but I’ve been purchasing many in bulk at Costco so I end up saving more than I would at the typical grocery store. I also like to purchase smaller amounts organic products at Farmer’s Markets, Trader Joe’s and Aldi. (Although I don’t enjoy shopping at Walmart, I’ll admit that they do have a selection of affordable organic ingredients as well.)

I opt for mostly organic ingredients because they are often more environmentally friendly than conventionally grown or raised foods. I also do not like the idea of harsh chemicals being sprayed on my food, and not knowing what chemicals I am consuming. Organic food is not always completely chemical-free, but it’s a widely available option for promoting optimal environmental and human health.

Sustainable Sugar? Switch from Cane Sugar to Dates!

  • Did you know that sugar cane production is a major environmental catastrophe in Florida? Click here for the article to learn more (Tampa Bay Times).
  • Have you always dreamed of seeing the Great Barrier Reef? Unfortunately, sugar farms in Australia are contributing to the reef’s decline. Waters around the reefs suffer from effluents, pesticides, and sediment from sugar farms, in addition to the wetlands that have been cleared. Read more at thought.co.

You have the power to make a difference! You can skip the refined sugar and use dates to satisfy your sweet tooth. Dates contain plenty of nutrients, fiber and antioxidants. They make delicious stand-alone sweet treats, and are incredibly versatile ingredients. Date sugar, made from finely chopped dehydrated dates, is a great option if you are looking for a sweetener (similar to cane sugar) that has gone through minimal processing.

In contrast, refined sugars are considered empty calories since they contain virtually no vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, fiber, or other beneficial compounds. Nutrient-dense foods are both energizing and satisfying, so it makes sense to replace refined sugars with naturally sweet and nutrient-dense whole foods (like dried dates)!

Sustainability Spotlight

Most dates are grown in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and properly managed and well-tended date trees can live up to 150 years! The trees can withstand long periods of drought under high temperatures, but do require large amounts of water. Despite the high water footprint, many date farmers in traditional production areas use sustainable practices such as natural fertilizers, cover crops, and intercropping-often with other fruits, vegetables and pasture (Foodprint.org).

  • Ecological Lens: Date palm groves are important environmental niches for local wildlife and play a central role in the desert ecological system.
  • Date palms have been effective for the control of desertification and land reclamation in the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Locavore Lens: Since date sugar is mostly produced in North Africa and the Middle East, finding locally produced varieties may be difficult for American consumers. To help offset the food miles, you can look for organic options. This ensures that no harmful pesticides or other chemicals were used during production.
  • If you want a challenge, you can buy some whole organic dates and make your own!

If you make the oat bar recipe and would like to share your thoughts or modifications, please respond in the comments section! Thank you for reading. You may suggest future article ideas as well. Happy baking!