Shop Sustainable

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Farmstand at Sass Family Farm, Iowa City, Iowa

So, you’ve learned a little about the issues, are convinced shopping sustainably is the way to go, but what do you do now?

First, figure out how much effort you want to put into your sustainable food adventure. We suggest you start simply, with one or two things, but below I’ll list a bunch of choices you can make.

General supermarket chain
If you’re interested in shopping for better food but aren’t ready or don’t want to go anywhere but your regular grocery store, you have a couple of options. The first and easiest is to look for organic food. Now when I say look for organic food, I’m generally talking unprocessed foods. Yes, I do believe it’s better to buy packaged organic snacks like crackers and cookies over non-organic, but, overall, that’s not really the healthiest option for you (even though I will admit I do eat organic snacks myself).

You want to look for the least processed food possible, which generally means fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat that you cook yourself. (Sorry, frozen organic food doesn’t really count either.) So, your number one goal is to buy some whole foods like meat, beans, cheese and vegetables, along with grains like rice or quinoa, and cook a meal for yourself.

When you choose that option, you’ll obviously need to set aside a little time to do the cooking. Many people find preparing food relaxing and meditative, so if you’re not used to it, don’t rule it out! But we’ll get to that in a later post. Right now, you’re in the store and you’re looking for the best food you can find. Look for the organic label or find out if the store has an organic section. (Some stores do and some have started to integrate organic food into their regular food aisles.)

If you’re on a budget, and you simply can’t buy all organic, make choices. My first suggestion would be to find the manager of the department, or even an employee working in that section, and ask them if they source any food locally. It might be a long shot, but my eyes were opened to this when I went shopping in Decherd, Tennessee, last year. The produce employee, who couldn’t have been more than 18, was able to point out all the food they sold that had been grown locally. And, to my surprise, there was quite a bit. So, ask if anything comes from a local farm. If they don’t have anything, suggest the store buy some things locally when they can. This can be difficult for some of the larger stores, but you might be surprised at how many are now looking to see what they can do to source more local fresh food thanks to increasing consumer demand.

The other point to remember is that whole foods – vegetables, fruits, grains, meats – are much, much cheaper than buying them prepared or processed. So, if you’re on a budget, cooking will help. (And, really, it can be fun!)

Farmers’ market
Farmers’ markets are a great option for you if you want to buy local sustainable food; in my opinion, they’re the best option. Not only do you get to choose great tasting food, by shopping at a farmers market you’re also buying food that’s in season and produced locally, usually harvested only a short time before you’ll be eating it (which means it should last longer in the fridge if you can’t cook it right away). You also get to meet the farmers in your area, and you may find that your local farmers’ markets is where a lot of people go to see each other and catch up on local news.

If you’re not sure where your closest farmers’ market is, visit the Eat Well Guide’s Advanced Search section, enter your zip code or city, and select farmers’ markets from the category section.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Basically, you pay for a share in a farmer’s crop up front before the growing season. This helps the farmer buy seeds and everything needed to grow the crop. Everyone who buys a share receives a portion of the bounty, usually on a weekly basis. In good years, there will be more; in not-so-good years, the portions will be less. Having done this for several years, I can tell you that even in the not-so-good years there was a lot of food.

CSA is great if you like to experiment with new foods, cook a lot, and don’t mind eating what you’re given. Some people believe that having a juicer really helps when you belong to a CSA program (so you won’t have to throw any food away). I have to say, I loved belonging to a CSA, loved having the connection with the farmer and knowing that the food was picked only hours before I was picking it up, but I found that even with one-third of a share, I was throwing food out. And some weeks, I just didn’t want zucchini or potatoes or whatever happened to be in abundance. So know that if you’re going to do this, you will have a lot of food and you’ll be doing a lot of cooking – which many people love.

Food co-op
A food co-operative, or co-op, is owned and controlled by members in order to provide low cost, healthy food. Co-ops are operated for members by members and are nonprofit, with members having a say in decisions about the how they are run. Many co-ops also have stores and sell to the general public, but members receive a discount.

To find a co-op in your area, check out Local Harvest’s co-op section.

Food buying club
A food buying club is a group of people who get together to buy food in bulk in order to get wholesale prices. Each member shares equally in the duties, from ordering the food to collecting money to distributing the order when it arrives. Usually, seven to ten households are needed to start up a club. Food is generally purchased through a natural foods distributor, though arrangements can be made with some local farms. Food buying clubs are basically a cross between a CSA and a co-op and are a good option if you don’t have any health food stores, CSAs, or co-ops in your area.

If you want to learn more about food buying clubs, visit the Co-op Directory.

Health food store
Health food stores usually sell sustainable, organic, natural, healthful foods – from whole foods like meat, vegetables and produce to packaged, frozen and bulk bin food. They’re usually independently owned, although some people consider the large chain Whole Foods a health food store. You can find foods for people with food sensitivities and allergies, such as gluten-free, wheat-free, dairy-free, vegan and raw foods. Health food stores may have a better selection of organic, local and sustainable foods than a large grocery chain.

Visit the Eat Well Guide’s Advanced Search, enter your zip code, then click on “stores” in the category section to find health food stores in your area.

It took me a while before I became comfortable with all of this, so don’t feel like you have to go out and join a food co-op tomorrow (although that would certainly be a great thing to do). But if you could continue shopping where you normally do, and perhaps look for a farmers’ market in your area and just visit it to see what it has to offer, that’s an amazing start to eating sustainably!

Next week, we’ll talk about some of the realities of shopping – like shopping on a budget. Hope you had a happy Earth Day this week!

(Diane Hatz is the Founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide.)

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