Perhaps nowhere has the environmental, social justice movement managed to grab the consciences of consumers so effectively than in the food aisles of America. Whether you buy organic or conventional, local or exotic, processed and packaged or bulk and ready for homemade, you’re casting a vote. And increasingly-a 20 percent increase each year-that vote is on the side of pesticide-free, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and genetically unmodified food. Simply put, a trip to the grocery store has become a political act.
But anyone who has spent some time in a grocery store knows it’s not that simple. Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor and author of the book What to Eat, states that “people are confused about everything about what to eat.” She says it’s no wonder. “Just think about the range of issues,” she says. “Can you believe health claims on package labels? Is it okay to eat farmed fish? When a product is “natural,” what does that mean? Isn’t everything that is vitamin-enriched, organic, and natural good for me? The questions are endless. And the answers are usually complicated.”
So let’s start with a cleanup in aisle four – some simple tips to ensure that your groceries are good for you…and the planet:
True, the price can seem unreasonable, given that a very similar looking item is just across the aisle for less. In particular, dairy and meat can cost considerably-sometimes 100 percent-more. Is it worth it?
The short answer is yes. Organic food remains one sure way to guarantee that the food you’re eating and feeding your family is free of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics and isn’t genetically modified.
Organic food’s strength lies in what it doesn’t contain – beyond excluding agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides, to prohibition of artificial preservatives, colors, sweeteners, residual antibiotics, hydrogenated fats, processing aids and meaningless starches.
And that’s a good thing, especially for little people. Because children eat two to four times more food per pound of body weight compared to adults, it only makes sense to ensure that they’re ingesting as few contaminants as possible, particularly when their immature systems have a harder time excreting those contaminants.
Buy Direct from Farmers
You may not live on a farm, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have farm-fresh produce at your door once a week. Community Shared Agriculture programs help support local organic farmers by ensuring they’re prepaid for a share of their annual produce. What’s more, by buying local, far less greenhouse gases are emitted because the food doesn’t travel as far. Farmers’ markets are another great option-you can meet the folks who grow your food, get some great deals, and reconnect with the rhythms of nature. To find CSAs or farmers’ markets near you, visit www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/map.htm, www.localharvest.org, or www.foodroutes.org.
Eat Family Meals
It seems that during the past few decades or so while we were busy scarfing down Big Macs in our car, wondering why the hell everybody around us was getting so damn fat-and now that you mention it, even my sweats are feeling a bit snug-a scary thing was happening to our food system. Call it the convenience coma. We’re crazy busy, the ads tell us. We nod in agreement. Far too busy to prepare a meal. But help is at hand-as close as the nearest prepared meal that requires we do little more than heat and eat.
Now before all you hardworking parents band together to create little voodoo dolls of me, hear me out: Plenty of other insanely busy people think that North Americans need to reconnect with the pleasure of good, fresh food and sharing a meal with family and friends. And to all you naysayers, get a load of this (I’m not making this up): A decade-long study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse revealed that teens who regularly have meals with their family are less likely to get into fights, think about suicide, smoke, drink, or use drugs, and are more likely to wait until they’re older to have sex, and perform better academically than teens who do not. The study also showed that eating with parents was associated with a higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
Become a Veg-head, at Least Part Time
I wasn’t really a vegetable fan. Can’t stand asparagus. Think cauliflower tastes weird. Won’t touch a Brussels sprout. And, I had to admit I viewed vegetarianism as somehow contrary to our position as top of the food chain, but frankly, the view from the top looked decidedly inhumane. Besides, I always imagined vegetarians to be these willowy, ethereal women, though in hindsight I guess counting on a vegetarian diet to make me grow three inches and lose ten pounds was expecting a bit much.
Nonetheless, four years ago, I discovered the delicacies of vegetarian cuisine. And I’ve never enjoyed food more.
The benefits of vegetarianism extend far beyond personal health (and emotional well-being-it feels really good to be able to look a cow straight in the eye). While a vegetarian diet is credited for providing a longer life with reduced risk of such diseases as diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and some cancers, it also makes sense from a environmental point of view to eat less or no meat, as the world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people-more than the entire population of the planet. And raising animals for food creates more water pollution in the U.S. than any other industry, with 87,000 pounds of excrement being produced each second (yep, you read that right), much of which enters streams and rivers.
There are a number of great cookbooks, books on raising vegetarian children, and more. Far from being a fringe movement, vegetarianism is growing, with an increase in restaurants, food choices, and acceptance. Just don’t expect to get taller and thinner.
From the book The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide to a Better, Kinder, Healthier World. Copyright 2007 by Leslie Garrett. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com.
Leslie Garrett is a national award-winning journalist, author and editor. Her work has appeared in Chatelaine, Today’s Parent and many other national publications. Her syndicated column The Virtuous Consumer runs monthly in City Parent, Big Apple Parent, About Families, and a number of other publications.
She also writes The Virtuous Traveler, a syndicated column that appears on petergreenberg.com, the online newsletter of NBC travel editor Peter Greenberg. It was also syndicated in The Globe & Mail and SCENE magazine. Together her columns reach close to two million readers.
Leslie is author of a dozen children’s books, including a biography of renowned environmentalist David Suzuki and EarthSmart, a book for early readers on protecting the environment. She resides near Toronto, Ontario, Canada and her website is, http://www.virtuousconsumer.com.