Shop Sustainable – Finding Food

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When shopping for local, sustainable and/or organic food, there are several factors to take into account, including awareness, access, budget and time.

First, you need to know what to look for and to understand what local, sustainable and organic mean. Hopefully, the earlier Guide to Good Food posts have helped explain this.

In an ideal world, shopping sustainably would simply be a matter of learning about the issues and then finding your closest farmers’ market or local sustainable farm. But in reality, things aren’t always that simple. Once you’re aware of the issues and what the terms mean, and you’re motivated to buy sustainable food, you still have to go out and actually get it. And that can be challenging for some.

You need to find places to buy local sustainable food. As we mentioned last week, you can look for food in your regular grocery store, a farmers’ market, you can join a CSA or food buying club, or you can shop at a co-operative or health food store.

Aside from your regular grocery store, how do you find these places? First, look in the Eat Well Guide,, where all you have to do is enter your zip code to find great tasting food in your area. In addition, you can also try Local Harvest,, for the similar information, as well as for reviews. If you’ve tried both of these guides but didn’t find anything close to you, don’t give up! Try looking in your local yellow pages (printed or online) under “health food” to find both stores and co-operative groceries.

Health food stores and co-ops are also a good place to find information on local farmers’ markets, CSAs, and food buying clubs, so don’t be afraid to stop by one and ask questions. You also might find some great food while you’re there! Many health food stores and co-ops also have bulletin boards for the public to post information, so make sure to check for one to see what other food-related events and programs are going on in your area.

Other options are to search the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers’ Market database and the Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College database of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Food buying clubs tend to be set up by groups of friends, so you might have to check local bulletin boards to find out if there’s one in your area that’s looking for new members. If you have a coffee shop in your area that serves fair trade/organic/healthful drinks and food, ask the manager if they know of places to buy local or organic food and check to see if they have a bulletin board while you’re at it.

Knowing when food is in season is also important, so you’ll understand why you won’t see blueberries at a farmers market in Boston in December. The National Resources Defense Council has created a fantastic national database of food and when it’s in season in different areas. And the sustainable food movement is not about denying yourself – if you really want blueberries in December and they aren’t sold in your local area, look for them regionally, then nationally. Try to get your food as close to your home as possible – that’s the point.

If you’re looking for foods that generally aren’t grown in the United States, such as coffee and bananas, your best option is to look for a Fair Trade, Trans Fair USA, or Rainforest Alliance Certified label. These labels are all third-party certified, which means they’re regulated, and they ensure that they come from sources that use sustainable growing practices and offer fair working conditions to employees.

The reality, though, is that there simply aren’t sustainable food outlets in every part of the country yet. From Iowa to the Bronx, Mississippi to Wyoming, there are places where you simply might not be able to find the kind of food you’re looking for. These food deserts, as they’re called, are places without access to nutritious, healthy food. So what can you do if you live in one of these places?

First, you can try to order online. That might take the local out of your effort to eat better food, but, in the end, finding fresh, wholesome, healthy food for yourself and your family is the top priority. Try to go out in concentric circles. If you live in Iowa, for example, look for stores in Iowa that will ship to you, then look at surrounding states – don’t start by buying from California or Florida.

You can also look for the nearest store that sells local sustainable food. Try carpooling with neighbors to go shopping. See if there might be bus service. You can also contact the Community Food Security Coalition, a network of hundreds of groups around the country who are working on building food security in all communities, and see if they know of any local groups in your area that work on bringing in local sustainable food. If you have a convenience store near you, speak with the manager and see if s/he will stock some fresh food. Encourage your friends and neighbors to shop there. It could be a win/win for everyone.

And, in the end, if you can’t find the food you’re looking for, but you have access to some land, trying growing your own! You might find you have a knack for farming.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll talk about shopping sustainable with a budget and limited time.

(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 seventh installment in her series Guide to Good Food.)

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