Last week we gave you tips for asking questions at farms and farmers’ markets so you can find the best food for you and your family. This week we continue with information you need to shop at stores and restaurants.
Because the vast majority of stores buy their food from distributors, they’ll be less likely to know as much about the food as the farmer does. But don’t let that stop you! Don’t forget that your questions are sending a message up the supply and distribution line. If we all start asking for something, we will greatly increase our chances of getting it.
I often use my mother as an example when I’m speaking. She’s not an activist or a foodie, but she wants what she wants. She happens to know the owners of a dairy in Lewes, Delaware, which is very close to where she lives in Rehoboth Beach, and she loves their milk. She went into her usual grocery store and asked the manager if he would start selling some of their products. He said no. She went back a week later and asked again. He agreed to sell a couple of containers of milk, which quickly sold out. I was just down visiting and went to buy milk for my parents and saw that Lewes Dairy now has several shelves of milk on display in the milk section, and people were literally grabbing it up while I was there.
When my mother told the dairy owners what she’d done, they said they’d been trying for years to get their milk sold locally. And it only took one customer asking two questions to change the milk supply in the Rehoboth Beach area.
So if you have a favorite local sustainable food item that you don’t see in your grocery store, ask the manager to stock it. You could even go so far as to find a suitable farmer to supply the product to the store. A word of advice, though – if you are going to get a store to stock a particular item, please make sure you purchase it. Grocery stores work on slim profit margins and shelf space is limited, so make sure you really want what you’re asking them to stock.
If you’re unsure about meat, poultry and dairy items sold in the store, download Sustainable Table’s Questions for a Store Manager, Meat Manager and/or Butcher (which includes answers also). It supplies questions like, “Do you know how the animals were raised?” You can also download Questions for a Farmer and see if the store is able to answer them.
If the store manager or butcher doesn’t know the answers to your questions, ask them to ask the distributor. The same applies to vegetables – talk with the produce manager about where the fruits and vegetables come from. Ask if any are grown locally. I was pleasantly surprised when shopping in Decherd, Tennessee, last year. I asked the very young produce employee if any of the food was raised locally, and he went through the whole produce section and pointed out which was grown close by, which was from Tennessee, and which was from other nearby states like Georgia. If the employees at your store can’t answer these questions, just keep asking until they find out. You may be surprised, though, at the depth of knowledge store employees have these days.
If you can’t get answers to your questions, ask for the name of the farm the food comes from, or at least for the distributor. Call the farm or distributor directly and ask them how the food was produced.
Encourage the store managers to label local food with the name of the farm, so you don’t always have to ask questions. (That’s a good incentive for them to put up signs!) If you’re really feeling bold, see if your store will also list the farm’s growing practices, to make it easier for other customers. And if you have trouble finding the store manager or don’t have time to really speak with him or her, leave behind an “I Care Notecard” to let them know what you are looking for.
Restaurants are a little trickier, unless you’re eating at one that specializes in local sustainable food, but don’t let that stop you. Ask if any of the food is local, sustainable and/or organic. You may be surprised. I’ve eaten in several restaurants that use organic eggs but only if you ask for them (and they charge more). Just know that the waiters and chefs may be overworked, so if the establishment is busy, you may want to keep your questions casual. Questions you can ask include:
Is any of your food local or organic?
Do you know if the animals were raised on pasture or come from local farms?
You can take handy wallet-sized cards along to help you remember a couple of questions to ask.
Another option is to leave a note behind with your bill or at the front desk. You could leave a card like the one Curt Ellis from Wicked Delicate production company and King Corn filmmaker, has created to let restaurants know he won’t eat meat from their establishment until they source from local sustainable farms. Feel free to adapt his card for your use. (Copy below.) You can simply type this up in a Word document and print these out on your home printer or send them off and print up hundreds so you can always keep a couple in your wallet.
The bottom line is simply to speak up. Ask where your food came from and how it was produced. Once you start, you’ll find it’s quite enjoyable to get to know your local farmers, store managers and restaurant employees. And you may be surprised at how much people know or how willing they are to get you the information you’re looking for.
So let’s eat!
(Please feel free to adapt this to say what you want to say. Or you can simply copy this into a document, format as you like, and print out.)
THANK YOU FOR THE DELICIOUS MEAL!
You may have noticed that I didn’t order any meat today. It’s not that I’m a vegetarian – I’m an eager carnivore – but I’ve made a commitment to only eat animal products from humane, sustainable, family farms.
I hope you’ll consider offering local, free-range, pasture-fed, and hormone- and antibiotic-free protein here soon. If you have trouble finding it, you might ask at the farmers’ market about wholesale buying, or visit www.EatWellGuide.org.
I look forward to coming back again soon – and thanks for listening!
(Diane Hatz is the Founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide. This is the 17th installment in her series Sustainable Table’s Guide to Good Food.)