Leading by Example

Jayni Chase, environmentalist (and wife of Chevy), on going green.

Jayni Chase loves her garden, as well she should. It is flourishing and so beautifully verdant that it could have been plucked from a scene right out of Alice in Wonderland. There are rows and rows of perfectly formed lettuces alongside broccoli, peppers, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, dill, peas, cucumbers, and bok choy.

“I’m still planning on adding spinach and kale,” Chase declares, her Alice-like long blonde hair flowing in the wind. “And a friend gave me some heirloom tomatoes she started from seed in her kitchen.”

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Chase is hoping to show friends and colleagues how easy it is to start a garden and feed not only your family, but your mind.

“We eat too much meat and feed our kids too many hamburgers,” the mother of three grown daughters says, noting that consuming more vegetables can improve the environment because cattle production is so inefficient. And what better way to get kids hooked on eating vegetables than teaching them how to grow their own gardens?

So, as she has been doing for decades, Jayni Chase is leading by example.

Back when she lived in Los Angeles as a young mother, the California-born native began advocating for recycling programs and healthier school meals. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see the link between fast foods and obesity,” she says, noting that Los Angeles is the capital for fast-food hamburger joints. With characteristic efficiency and passion, she founded the Center for Environmental Education (ceeonline.org) to provide K-12 teachers and students with the resources and materials necessary to build awareness. In 2008, she also began her own independent initiative to create green model schools. The project’s goal is to create a greener culture in schools and their surrounding communities.

“The first step to solving any problems, from small to big and daunting, is awareness,” she says. When she moved to Bedford almost 15 years ago, she continued her environmental work while raising her family. Her husband, actor Chevy Chase, encouraged her activism and even helped test-market many products before finding the ones that worked and could be recommended to friends, colleagues, and the public. Thanks to her efforts, an extensive library of environmental information, including children’s literature and curricula, is available at the Center, now considered one of the strongest online resources for educators worldwide.

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Jayni and Chevy Chase: American Gothic in Bedford.

Teaching children to grow their own vegetables is the best way to get them hooked on eating them.

The couple hopes the BP oil crisis will be a wake up call to environmental disasters. “We don’t pay much attention to oceans, which cover seventy-one percent of our planet,” Chevy says. “We spend less in this country on ocean exploration than on space.” The couple recently went on a trip to the Galapagos with 100 marine scientists, deep-sea explorers, technology innovators, policy makers, business leaders, environmentalists, activists, and artists. (Seeing a bioluminescent jellyfish light up its mating display in the pitch-black ocean was a highlight, Jayni reports.) A small thing everyone can do to help the ocean environment is to ask for sustainable fish, the Chases believe.

“Get one of those little responsible seafood guides, and use it,” Chevy advises. “If you eat fish, tell your fish guy that sustainability is important to you, and not to sell you shrimp from overseas. And don’t eat any more bluefin tuna or sharkfin soup. Did you know we killed ten million sharks last year just for their fins?”

“Living ‘green’ is just how I have chosen to live my life, putting into action what I believe in,” Jayni says. “It’s not hard to be environmentally friendly. Once you understand that everything is connected, that each of our actions has consequences, and begin to view your everyday life in this way, the logic will emerge. If we can each do our part, making changes in our lives to lower our carbon footprint, we will make everyone’s lives better.”

Recycling, she says, is a good place to start. The Chase family puts little out for the garbage collector. Anything the carting company won’t pick up for recycling—like plastics other than those marked “1” and “2”—they take to the town’s recycling center. “It’s something that has been ingrained into us since we were kids,” says daughter Cydney, age 27.

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Of course, the Chases recycle all glass, plastics, magazines, and newspapers, but they go a few steps further and also recycle cardboard, chipboard (like cereal boxes), and all paper that will tear. “Even paper with plastic windows and sticky labels from envelopes can be recycled,” she notes, “as technology has improved so that we can just toss them in as they are, without separating the plastic from the paper. Our paper products come from cutting down trees and our plastic comes from oil. The more we cycle these materials back into products, the less we need to extract.”

Living green forces us to reconsider how we use energy—the electricity, gas, and oil we use in our homes and cars. “It’s crazy how much more energy we use per person here in the U.S.,” says Jayni. “We comprise only five percent of the world’s population, but we’re responsible for twenty-five percent of the energy used on a daily basis. Chevy and I have been purchasing the most energy-efficient products we can find. Over the years, we have switched out our appliances, cars, light bulbs, even Christmas lights for energy-efficient ones. We have two installations of solar panels that feed energy back into the power grid. We switched our pool to salt water. We have never put any chemicals on our property, only organic, non-toxic products.”


Icelandic horses are smaller than standard horses; Jayni was one of the first to bring the breed to Westchester.

They also look for products that have post-consumer waste. “It especially makes sense to buy toilet paper made from one-hundred-percent recycled materials,” she says. “We hold off on running errands and try to do them all in one trip so that we drive less. We both try to do our work via phone and e-mail—although Chevy doesn’t e-mail, so I’m his electronic conduit.  And, obviously, he can’t call in his performances.”

This environmental performance is worthy of an award—and Jayni has gotten many, including Audubon’s Rachel Carson Award. Now that her daughters are grown, she has more time to crisscross the country giving lectures, pick up prizes, and raise awareness. It is her passion and, now, her life work.

The one carbon footprint that can’t be reduced right now is air travel. Chevy Chase’s NBC series, Community, has been picked up for another season, which means they both will be bi-coastal for the next year. “Chevy is now sharing a house with our daughter, Caley, in Los Angeles,” Jayni says. “They’re roommates.”

Would she consider leaving Westchester? “I’ve put down roots here and love it here,” she says, her blue eyes surveying her property. “This is home.” When not at the house, she enjoys the bucolic landscape of Bedford on horse. In fact, she, Cynthia Brill, and pal Meredith Brokaw are renowned for riding Icelandic horses, which are smaller—and, hence, safer for 50-something bodies. “I think I was one of the first to bring Icelandic to Bedford,” she says proudly.

“The love of land is our family culture, the lens through which we see things,” she says. “Even though I’ve had this mindset my whole life, I’ve often fallen into some way of doing something that is wasteful or less environmentally sensitive than it could be. I’m always learning and, if you ask me, that’s a great way to live life!”

A former CNN reporter, Jill Brooke has written for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, New York Magazine and Metropolitan Home. She is the author of Don’t Let Death Ruin Your Life.


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