Environment

The 11 Worst Foods for the California Drought

Over the weekend, the stands at my town’s seasonal farmer’s market were filled with sweet, succulent strawberries, voluptuous tomatoes, crunchy kale, and thick slabs of cheese. This fresh produces was locally grown, but when the winter hits, the stand shuts down, and the grocery store is just more convenient. This is where California comes in -- and its accompanying devastating drought extends far beyond even the western half of the U.S. 

Within an area 450 miles long by 60 miles wide -- nestled between the Pacific coast and Sierra Nevada range -- lies the California Central Valley. It is home to a winning equation of perpetual sunshine, no snow, a 25-degree daily temperature swing, and the largest patch of Class 1 soil in the world. It is an equation that results in production of over 400 commodities that the American food system has not only taken advantage of but also relied on.

California is the nation’s leader in produce including broccoli, peppers, and grapes. However, since California depends heavily on irrigation for the continuous cycle of production the drought has hit growers hard, producing a rippling effect beyond the field, into the produce aisle. Agriculture demands 80 percent of the state’s water use, meaning that the loss of accessible surface water resulted in increased pumping of groundwater to keep the crops growing. But, increased water prices, decreased available water led to a $2.2 billion revenue loss, more than 17,000 lost jobs and hard hits to farm-focused communities. 

The point is not to punish California by boycotting produces; the mission is to assist in not forcing the feeding hand deeper into a deep, waterless hole. We must all be more conscious of water consumption; Americans use twice as much water as they think. Making smart purchasing decisions can assist in approaching the issue as a mindful collective instead of pretending the issue is isolated to a singular state. 

1. Almonds 

Delicious (salted, raw, smokehouse) and marketed as exceedingly nutritious, almonds (shelled) topped out 2010-2012 as California’s top agricultural export. They are the third most-valued commodity in the state and 99 percent of U.S. almonds come from California. Each individual almond requires 1.1 gallons of water; think about that next time you reach in for a heaping handful of nuts. You do not have to cut out almonds out entirely, maybe just consider what makes that expensive bag of almonds so lucrative.  

2. Asparagus

Asparagus is especially delicious grilled as the evening summer sun sets. But beware, the green spears require 258 gallons of water per pound. Green vegetables are important for a balanced dinner plate though, so sub in broccoli instead. 

3. Avocados

Love diving an endless bowl of tortilla chips into fresh guacamole made from nature’s all-powerful avocado? Think twice before purchasing your next avocados, and maybe switch to salsa. It takes 100 gallons of water to produce one pound of avocados, which equates to about two of them. 

4. Beef 

Vegetarians may say, “I told you so,” in regards to how much water it takes to produce meat1,799 gallons of water go into producing one pound of beef, making it one of the thirstiest of the meats. This high level comes from the resources (water needed to grow feed comprised of corn, soy and grains) needed to nourish the cow. Consider grass-fed beef as a less water intensive meat product. 

5. Cherries 

We all have that friend that brags about being able to tie a cherry stem in their mouth. Put the bag of those sweet treats down: eight ounces of cherries require 97.8 gallons of water. Switch them out for strawberries, which take just 9.9 gallons of water per eight ounces. 

6. Dairy

Most of us are not avid alfalfa consumers beyond the occasional California Club, however dairy cows (and other animals eating feed) are. The alfalfa grown in California is highly exported (transportation requires water too!) and consumed by 70 percent of dairy cows globally. 135,000 gallons of water are required to grow one ton of alfalfa. This translates to the dairy cows’ outputs; cheddar cheese, for example, soaks up 180.2 gallons (think water for the cows and to grow the cows’ feed) to create an eight ounce block. California is a U.S. leader in the dairy industry, cashing in at an annual $8 billion.

Considering the water footprint from water to alfalfa to cow to gallon, milk requires 683 gallons of water. California supplies approximately 21 percent of the nation’s milk, so this is important to keep in mind.   

7. Figs 

One pound of purple, perfect figs require approximately 401 gallons of water. Substitute with dates if you must, although the water is still high at 273 gallons per pound (but less than raisins at 292 gal per pound).

8. Lentils

Meat is indeed a water-monger, but a comparable equal is the vegetarian preferred protein-packed lentils. They also demand a heavy supply at 1140.8 gallons of aqua to produce one pound. When weighing purchasing decisions, of course take into account how much protein and nutritious value each serving packs.  

9. Oats

Perfect for a hearty breakfast or grandma’s famous cookies, oats are a versatile grain. However, for those rolled or flaked oats it takes 290 gallons of water to produce one pound. Not bad in comparison to other foods, but high in the starch category of your plate. 

10. Pork

Like beef, the water needed for animals’ feed is so high that products like bacon, pork, and ham are high in water cost. Just one pound of pork is the result of 576 gallons of water

11. Walnuts

They have a unique in taste and are a favorite on summer salads and in banana bread, however, 99 percent of U.S. walnuts also come from California (and 28 percent of the world’s supply). Each walnut is even worse than one almond, needing 4.9 gallons of water. A little bit better, but still high, is the pistachio at 0.7 gallons per pistachio -- although that adds up fast to an approximate 1,262 gallons for a one-pound package of the little green nut.