It's not cheap being green

BY KATE TRUESDELL

Published March 20, 2008

These days, "greening" your life is almost as trendy as adopting children from obscure developing countries. You can barely turn around without being hit with an environmental message. The day I opened Vogue to see an ad featuring wind turbines in the background, I knew Earth friendliness had hit a whole new level of mainstream notoriety.

While it's important to maintain a healthy skepticism during this eco-frenzy, it's good that important environmental issues are finally entering into the public debate and mainstream consciousness. I, for one, couldn't be happier. There's just one catch - those lifestyle changes that allow you to brand your vehicle with a "Honk If You Love Mother Earth" bumper sticker come with one heck of a hefty price tag.

It's hip to say that the main barrier to better environmental practices is better education, but the truth is that information can only go so far. And no place illustrates this point better than college campuses. Students represent a group with unmatched exposure to environmental awareness. While we enjoy this feast of knowledge, our pockets aren't always deep enough to let us practice what we preach.

Take, for example, the average student's diet. Food choices have a tremendous environmental impact. Although the credibility of certain green certifications like "organic" is sometimes questionable, foods produced without pesticides and away from factory-farming monocultures are better for the planet - not to mention, in many cases, your health. But these choices aren't always easy to make.

Suppose you want to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a tried-and-true standby for the budgetarily challenged student. A little investigative reporting at a local supermarket franchise proves my point. A loaf of store-brand wheat bread will run you a little over $1, while a loaf of organic bread of the same variety in the same shelf will run you up to $3. A normal jar of organic jam will run you about $1.50, while a super-value generic jar close to three times the size for $1. Organic peanut butter costs $5 to store brand's $2. And if you want to wash that down with a little milk, a gallon of organic milk will cost you $5, as opposed to the normal $3. Prices listed here are small-scale and anecdotal but even at this level, the point is obvious: It takes green to be green.

It's no secret that students' budgets are stretched thin, and I can relate. I don't always make the choices I know are right. Despite my glamorous and fabulously paying job as a Daily writer, I often find myself reaching for the 20-meal case of sodium-rich chemically-enhanced Ramen noodles instead of one pesticide-free Michigan-made apple for about the same price. Realistically, some students are in tougher straits with even more reason to complain.

So what's a college co-ed to do? The trouble is that the solution to the problem starts way before you ever wipe your feet on the People's Food Co-op's welcome mat. Commodity crop subsidies for giant corporate farms continue to plague the agricultural sector. Meanwhile, smaller-scale farms practicing organic and eco-conscious farming aren't afforded the same advantages, despite the increased demand for these products. This difference ends up coming out of your pocket.

The good news is that even if you can't afford an $8 box of Kashi, you can still show your green allegiance. Right now is a crucial time in the agricultural community. Debate on the "Farm Bill," as it's commonly known, which largely determines agricultural subsidies and sets national regulations, was recently extended to mid-April. So it's not too late to let your representatives know how you feel. And if you, like me, aren't quite up on your obscure small-farming regulation legislation, there are more authoritative sources like advocacy groups that can break it down for you so you know what is (or should be) on the bargaining table. (Check out the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's explanation at www.sustainableagriculturecoalition.org.)

It's difficult to prioritize this type of action because students' time, like money, is a precious commodity for which demand exceeds supply. But these changes need to be made, not only in relation to food but also across the board. Technologies like hybrid vehicles and cleaner power need more government support, too. While the importance of consumer awareness and grassroots support shouldn't be overlooked, the green movement needs a boost from the top as well.

Being able to make purchases in good conscious shouldn't be a luxury limited to the upper crust.

Kate Truesdell can be reached at ketrue@umich.edu.