BOSTON — EVERY few weeks, the Key family in Los Gatos, Calif. receives a large basket delivered right to their doorstep. The contents: ultra-fresh organic fruits and vegetables. The family of four never knows exactly what will be in the basket, but they know it will be a good variety of what's in season for that week.
"I like the delivery. I like the surprise. And I like that they're grown without pesticides," says Lynette Key.
Environmentalists would consider Ms. Key's family a good example of people who eat with the earth in mind. By buying locally grown organic produce, they support farming practices that are considered sound for the long-term.
This Saturday, which is Earth Day this year, some Americans may wonder: How do my food choices affect the environment?
"Very powerfully," answers John Robbins, founder of EarthSave, a nonprofit organization that promotes what it deems environmentally sound food choices. "Whatever we eat has to be produced using land, energy, water, and soil - that is our agricultural resource base."
Buying from local farmers and choosing organic produce, if it's available, are two ways of supporting earth-friendly food, activists say. If food is local, it probably hasn't been transported a long distance. If it's organic, it hasn't been cultivated with the use of pesticides and herbicides.
"If you can't get fully organic food, don't throw up your hands," Robbins says. There's a tremendous difference, he says, between commercial agribusiness's mass-produced foods and foods that may not qualify as organic but nevertheless use far fewer chemicals.
But Robbins's No. 1 suggestion for adopting a more environmentally sound diet is to simply eat less meat.
In the past century, there has been a fundamental shift of diet in this country toward more meat, poultry, and dairy, he says. "This increase in demand for animal products has resulted in vast degradation of global ecosystems."
Eating low on the food chain is much more resource and energy efficient, says Robbins, author of "May All Be Fed" (William Morrow, 1992), and "Diet for a New America" (Stillpoint, 1987).
"It takes about 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of feedlot beef. All our mothers taught us `Don't waste food.' But in effect, every time we consume a beef-based meal, we are actually throwing away 15 pounds of grain."
Dan Hale, an associate professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in meat science points out, "a lot of people don't realize that even with only 19 percent of our total cropland being utilized, we have a tremendous glut of grain in our country."
The idea of restraining one's consumption reflects a new attitude of frugality among Americans. Excess is out, sustainability is in, and considering the earth's future has become fashionable. Conscious that everything is connected in a global ecosystem, people are more aware of how their lifestyle choices affect the environment. Even schoolchildren are reciting the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.
"I think frugality has to become more of an operative word for us. Not in a penny-pinching way but in a way that's motivated by the recognition of the earth's finite resources," says Lorna Sass, food historian and author of "Recipes from an Ecological Kitchen. [See story and recipe, right.] "I do believe people want to do good things for themselves and the earth. But it does require a certain commitment."
Ms. Sass's outlook is simple: "What's good for the earth is also good for me."
In an interview, she notes that interpretations of an ecologically correct diet vary. But, she says, many experts from various fields have lauded a diet rich in grains, fruits, and vegetables. Sass takes it further by stressing organic produce. And she is in good company.
Organic produce and the safest seafood, poultry, and meats - produced in an ecologically sound and sustainable way - are being promoted by some of the best-known chefs in America.
"Our preference is always to go organic and with beef and poultry free of hormones and chemicals - the freshest and the safest," says Joyce Goldstein, owner of Square One restaurant in San Francisco. "We believe in hand-crafted food."
"It's definitely a trend among chefs," says Charlie Trotter, owner of Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago. "I like to believe that through my type of purchasing - small farmers and organic - that I'm playing one small part in preserving and keeping the land in a condition where it will continue to flourish, provide good produce."
Similar reasoning has even arrived at the White House.
In his book "Earth In the Balance," Vice President Al Gore talks of "dangerous bargains with the future" concerning this country's present agricultural practices.
A coalition of CHEFS (Chefs Helping to Enhance Food Safety) is urging President Clinton to embrace a philosophy at the White House that promotes the value of organically grown produce and stricter standards for the quality of fish, poultry, and meat. A leading spokeswoman for CHEFS is Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.
Ms. Waters says there needs to be more awareness of food's connection to the environment. "Unfortunately people are not understanding that the food is coming from the earth and the water. People just think it comes from the grocery store," she says.
A longtime supporter of local organic produce, Waters says she is encouraged by the proliferation of local green markets or farmers markets, calling it "the healthiest thing happening. It's the best way of getting in touch with people who are taking care of the land for us."
"Taking care" is a key phrase, notes Jim Wilson, farmer for Wilson Farms in Lexington, Mass. Sustainable agriculture is becoming a predominant theme, he says, adding that it's in a farmer's best interest to use as few pesticides as possible. But, he says, "You just cannot feed the world without some use of pesticides."
Many food trends are pointing in the direction of a more earth-friendly diet: salad bars and juice machines, for example.
Also, vegetarianism has moved from the fringe into the fabric of social acceptance. "By and large, it is respected now. It's seen as a healthy choice, an ecological choice, and an ethical choice," Robbins says.
College cafeterias and deluxe restaurants are offering many more nonmeat entrees than in the past. The USDA has revamped its suggested diet from the "four food groups" to the new "pyramid," which stresses more grains, fruits, and vegetables and less meat than before. Even McDonald's is experimenting with a meat-free burger.
Natural foods stores and restaurants report a broader crosssection of customers.
"It's really fun eating low on the food chain," says Leslie McEachern, owner of Angelica Kitchen, an organic vegetarian restaurant in New York's East Village. One might expect a largely counter-culture clientele, but Ms. McEachern says she also gets "fur coats" and "a Wall Street crowd."
"The more we can promote this kind of cuisine, the better," she says, adding: "Maybe Earth Day will become a holiday."