Year for the Planet Week 36: The Strategy of Systems Change

Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.

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To help your immediate community eat better for the planet requires a bit of stealth and a whole lot of patience. This week, I explore how I tried to help my family eat a little better. You remember my family: the Spam-eating, Coke-chugging, chips-eating, home delivery-loving people I am genetically related to. Being poles away from each other in terms of eating habits is a frustrating and heartbreaking exercise. But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t at least try. Heart disease and cancer run in my family, and so each time I see them eating crap, I worry. And each time I see a plastic bag enter the house, I lose my temper.

I knew right away that simply telling them to stop using plastic, eat natural unprocessed food, and stop eating takeout would be futile, especially with people who have never learned any other system to live with aside from the ones they are currently on. I hate arguing (and actually I don’t even like talking), and so I sought to nudge people into opting into my habits by simply changing some things around the house. I tried to fix a broken system by trying to patch it up in places where I found an opening. Here are some of the things that I found worth trying:

1. Do the shopping yourself.
How to lessen the plastic bags that enter your house? By not giving anyone a chance to let them! I would volunteer to shop for people or I took the lead when we’re shopping together and poof, no plastic bags were touched. Obviously, this did not work all the time since my family likes to go shopping in general, but I still felt that those plastic-free grocery shopping trips were small wins, as well as nice weightlifting sessions.

2. Have healthy snacks available for everyone to eat.
Meal prep is second nature to me by now but to many, it is an unimaginable chore and they would rather order fast food meals delivered at home. When I made my energy bites or vegan sugar-free deserts, I would leave them for everyone. Only my brother tasted the energy bites, alas, but hey, it’s a start. The next on my to-do list is to give everyone reusable stainless steel water bottles, reusable utensils, a snack bag, and maybe throw in some personalized mason jars. It’s almost Christmas, after all.

3. Be an example and eventually they will follow.
It’s been nine months since I changed my lifestyle (that’s like having a baby) and my family is astounded because they’ve seen me go on diets before and failed at most of them. But as they see me still going and being happy, sometimes I do catch them following what I do. For example, I’m such a sweet potato fan and would often talk about its benefits such as how it battles inflammation. My mother now sometimes incorporates sweet potatoes in her diet, which is a big win considering that they other day I was wrestling a bag of potato chips from her hands in the supermarket. (She won. Sigh.)

4. Talk about food in terms of their medicinal and therapeutic benefits.
I think most people cave in to eating processed food because they’re new and marketed well, so they become something on the checklist of a bored urban dweller looking for something different to experience and talk about. So I make sure to talk about food in terms of the benefits I get from them. And so I would sometimes see my family use some of the things I bring for their own cooking, or opt for healthier meals such as choosing fish over pork. Again, small wins but still a nudge in the positive direction. After all, I didn’t magically change overnight either.

If you’re the only healthy-eating, tree-hugging, plastic-eschewing advocate in your family or community, I recommend not losing hope. I still think it takes one person with enough persistence and exasperation to infect others with her ideas. Take lots of initiative, change systems yourself, and people will respond. Remember, people usually follow the norm because that’s what they are used to, so switching things around will get them to opt into new habits, even for a little while.

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