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November 15, 2010

Interview: Fighting Climate Change With PB&J


Bernard Brown of Philadelphia is the founder of the PB&J campaign, an online-based non-profit supported by Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs. The campaign's goal is to reduce people's carbon footprint through a simple message about food. According to the campaign, a plant-based lunch like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich will "reduce your carbon footprint by the equivalent of 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions over an average animal-based lunch like a hamburger, a tuna sandwich, grilled cheese, or chicken nuggets." Take the PB&J pledge and read my interview with Brown:

When did the PB&J campaign start?

The Web site launched February 2007.

Do you have a staff?

It's pretty much just me. We have a handful of loyal volunteers.

Where did the idea of using peanut butter and jelly sandwiches come from?

We had an idea of doing a peanut and jelly eating contest. We would then figure out the impact of that. I was coming out of finishing a master's degree and I had been to lectures about the impact of the poultry industry on the Chesapeake Bay. This impression was that the impact of livestock production was under-discussed. The contest didn’t end up happening, but we did all this research for it, so we launched the website.

You can do any food, really. You can do a pinto bean campaign. But it doesn't quite have the same ring to it. PB&J is all-American, comfort food. I remember in college I ran out of money once and I just stockpiled bread, peanut butter, and jelly for a few weeks.

Are you a vegetarian?

I've been vegetarian for a while, but I'm not vegan. One of the things about this concept is that in practice, someone who's not vegetarian at all and doesn't tend to eat much red meat might have a lower footprint than a vegetarian who eats a lot of cheese. The idea here is a plant-based focus. It was never a question of vegetarianism as much as a shift in how one eats. If you've ever been a vegetarian or a vegan, you learn that eating animals is a luxury. It then becomes easier to conceptualize shifting to a plant-based diet.

Talk about the tone of your campaign. When it comes to eating, people are more sensitive than issues like car emissions and energy.

Step one is to not tell people what not to eat. If you can show how they've already been taking environmental actions and that they can do it more often, you can give them a sense of accomplishment. For example, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which they already like and eat, or something else simple like oatmeal, is a great action. And also, trying to do it in a positive tone. People kind of get in a shell about yet another diet and they tune it out. We try real hard to make this a fun and encouraging concept. This isn't about hardship and self-denial.

What kind of criticism do you encounter?

You see it more in comments on online news stories about the campaign and they see it as a plot or something. But those comments are so extreme and ridiculous that you don't give it credence. I hear a lot from people who are not vegetarians and like the idea. That means it works in that it gets away from the black and white of either eating the standard American diet -- which is heavy on animal products -- or veganism. You can make a big difference on the environment with a small shift to something that's plant-based. It doesn't have to be a lifelong decision that you're making.

Plenty of peanut butter products are high in sugar. Do you consider what kinds of peanut butter and jelly to use?

Not much. Sometimes on the blog we write about it. But when we get into the specifics about the sandwich itself –- yes, it's probably better to have natural peanut butter on whole grain bread with fresh fruit instead of jelly. But we want to keep the focus on the concept. Whether it's grabbing falafel or getting a bean burrito or tofu the next time you're having Chinese food, it's the idea of looking at whether what you're having is coming mostly from plants.

-- Brian Foley


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