Choosing a Route to Good Food
What is your definition of good food? Good food can be characterized by its nutritional value, seasonality, or price. Another consideration might include where a food is grown—is it local, regional, grown somewhere in the U.S. or imported from another country? For many people the definition goes beyond flavor or convenience and may encompass ethical values as well. Labor issues can be part of this equation and include things like safe working conditions, fair wages, fair trade and worker health. Environmental concerns are important to many consumers and they may require good food to be both locally grown and organically raised. Good food is important for our physical health, but it is also important to the health of local economies, farmers and their employees, and the environment.
A nutritionist might say that good food is whole food, prepared simply and as unprocessed as possible. Certainly that is an excellent start on the road to finding good food. Choosing foods that meet that description will mean eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. You might also add dairy products, eggs, seafood, poultry, or other meat. Under this definition, if you buy bakery products, they will probably consist more of whole grain breads rather than cookies and pastries. Chances are your purchases of prepared snack-foods, soda and highly processed convenience foods will be very minimal.
As a Co-op shopper you probably already know where to find these types of good food here in the store—shopping the perimeter aisles of any store is a time-tested strategy for finding the foods that give you the best nutritional wallop for your dollar, while avoiding most of the processed items that might challenge your restraint and your budget. The Bulk aisle is the place to find all sorts of dry goods including grains, legumes, nuts, pasta and more. Shopping the Bulk aisle allows you to decide how much of any product you want to buy, which is a great strategy for sticking to your budget. Remember though, that the interior aisles here at the Co-op are stocked with a wide assortment of whole foods, packaged for your convenience.
Local and region food
If your definition of good food means eating food produced locally or regionally, you will want to watch for the purple signs that identify local products here at the Co-op. Fresh local produce is most abundant here in the summer and fall, but all kinds of locally produced goods are found throughout the store all year. Locally grown products may have higher nutritional value, and they ensure you will be eating food that is seasonal—the tastiest food!
The summer weather often entices us play outdoors rather than do our grocery shopping, so why not combine the two and visit a farmers’ market. Farmers’ markets are an excellent source of locally grown, good food. Whether you make an after-work stop at the Eastside Farmers’ Market on Tuesdays or get an early start at the Saturday market on the Capitol Square, you will be rewarded with a huge variety of locally grown produce, honey, cheese, eggs, meat and more. There are other farmers’ markets all over the region, and nationally, the number of markets has exploded in recent years. There were about 340 farmers markets in the U.S. in 1970; in 2006, the USDA listed 4,385!
CSAs and roadside stands
Community-supported agriculture farms (CSAs) are also a great resource for good food in this area. When you buy a CSA share, you contribute very personally and directly to a farmer’s annual income stream and you also absorb some of the risk of farming. If the weather is perfect, and there are no insect or disease problems, no major equipment failures or other problems, you will enjoy an abundance of very fresh food. If things aren’t so idyllic, you may not take home quite as much food, but you will know that the farmer and his family were paid fairly for their season’s work.
In addition to your Co-op, farmers’ markets and CSA farms, don’t overlook roadside farm stands and u-pick opportunities. Here again, the food will be incredibly fresh and there is a special kind of satisfaction found in opening a jar of jam, or cutting into a pie made with fruit you’ve picked yourself.
Your own backyard
The ultimate source for good food may be your own backyard. A vegetable garden can be large or small—even a window box can work. Growing your own vegetables means you choose the varieties you like best and it ensures that you always have the freshest food available. Gardens are great learning labs for children, and studies show that picky eaters are more likely to eat vegetables they’ve helped to grow and harvest. If you have a little extra space, start a compost pile with the non-meat food scraps from your kitchen. Compost will nourish the soil in your garden and improve the quality of your homegrown produce year after year.
Regardless of the point of purchase, locally produced food should be considered if you have environmental concerns about what constitutes good food. Food that is grown near its point of consumption has a much smaller environmental impact than food that is trucked in from thousands of miles away. The topography and climate in most areas of Wisconsin is more conducive to small farms than large factory operations, though those do also exist. The use of petroleum-based herbicides and pesticides may be reduced on non-organic small farms. Indeed, small produce farms often follow organic growing methods even if they are not certified organic. Small farms frequently employ more human labor and fewer machines, saving oil while providing meaningful work. Less fossil fuel is burned transporting locally grown products to market, reducing carbon emissions. Smaller farms tend to plant a wider variety of crops, which is beneficial to soil, insects, bees, and birds. Each crop variety takes different nutrients from the soil, but also returns different benefits; some even repel pests for neighboring plants, reducing the need for insecticides as well as fertilizers. This can result in less chemical runoff into streams and rivers, benefiting fish and other water-dwellers. Finally, locally produced food often requires less packaging on its journey from farm to consumer. That means less packaging material—which is often petroleum-based plastic—needs to be manufactured, and also that less packaging ends up in our landfills. Good food, locally grown, can have an influence in a wide range of environmental areas.
Is there a place for ethics in defining and finding good food? This is an important topic for many people and can include concerns about labor practices and fair trade. Environmental issues are considered to be an ethical sticking point for many consumers as well.
According to an article in The Nation (Sept. 11, 2006), workers on industrial-scale organic produce farms in California fare no better than workers on conventional farms when it comes to wages and benefits. It is rare for them to earn more than minimum wage and virtually none receive health or retirement benefits. Additionally, workers are often required to perform repetitive labor for 60 to 80 hours each week during the growing season. If your good food is local food, talk to staff here at the Co-op and to farmers directly to find out more about their operating policies.
Supporting fairly traded products is an ethical way to contribute to the economies of farmers in some of the poorest countries in the world and eliminate some labor abuses. Fair trade certification assures that farmers receive a guaranteed price for their crop and farm workers are paid a living wage for their labor. Additionally a fair trade product cannot be produced using forced or slave labor or child labor. Fair Trade growers and cooperatives invest some of their earnings back into their local community, supporting schools, health care, housing and other social initiatives. Fair trade products are grown in an environmentally sustainable manner, preserving the local environment and wildlife while safeguarding the health of farm workers and their families.
The number and variety of fairly traded products here at the Co-op is always expanding. Coffee might be the most familiar item for many shoppers, but we have long carried many varieties of fair trade bananas, tea and chocolate. Newer fair trade items include bulk cane sugar, packaged rice, and Holy Land olive oil. In season, the Produce department also stocks fair trade mangoes and is on the lookout for other fair trade items as they become available. Our house wares department carries an assortment of functional and decorative fair trade items as well.
Equal Exchange and Organic Valley are working with other agricultural groups to organize and promote Domestic Fair Trade as well. This movement would apply the same principles of fair wages, better working conditions and environmental policies to farmers and products from North America. If better working conditions and fair wages for U.S. farmers and laborers are important to you, then consider supporting domestic fair trade. For more information, visit the Equal Exchange website at: www.equalexchange.com/dft.
The price we pay
Is good food expensive? Like anything else it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. The cost of food is often measured in a relatively narrow way—how much cash does it take out of your pocket. If cheapness is the way we define good food, than we are apt to be eating “not so good.” The federal government subsidizes the conventional food system and its largest suppliers. Labeling requirements are minimal, safety inspectors too few. Manufacturers can even take tax deductions for the cost of transporting their goods to market. The foods they crank out may be enhanced with a variety of preservatives, coloring agents, fillers, “natural” and artificial flavors and a host of other things. These mass-produced, conventional foods are often priced to be very attractive to consumers, however.
If we broaden our view of what constitutes good food we are more likely to accept paying a fair price for food. That fair price provides better compensation for farmers and allows them to take more care with stewardship of land and water. Instead of paying for fillers and preservatives, we are paying for real nutrition and flavors that are truly natural.
There are ways that you can purchase good food without a major strain on your budget. First, if you aren’t a Co-op member, join, and save the non-member surcharge each time you shop. You can pay for your membership in installments if you like. Being a Co-op member also means you can take advantage of monthly Owner Rewards—big savings on popular items. Eat seasonally and preserve foods that are in season now to enjoy next winter. If you take a little time this summer to freeze, can or dry locally grown fruits and vegetables you won’t have to pay out-of-season prices later. Check with our Produce Buyers about ordering in quantity. Take advantage of the sales and discounts we offer—sometimes buying more than you planned can save money in the long run. Don’t forget about preorder discounts; maybe you can split a case of a locally or independently produced food with a friend or family member. Cooking with whole, fresh ingredients is almost always less expensive than buying something already prepared and packaged.
If good food still seems expensive, consider tracking all your food purchases for a month or two. Be sure to include snacks, convenience foods, lattes and restaurants. If you review your purchases objectively you will probably find some areas that could be trimmed or eliminated-maybe you could carry lunch to work some of the time; bake a batch of muffins instead of buying one every morning; have a plain coffee rather than a mocha latte or grill a burger in place of a steak. Once you have identified a few splurges in your food spending habits, shift those dollars to your new “good food” budget.
Doing our part
Ensuring a consistent supply of good food sometimes requires a little effort on our part—letter-writing campaigns for the labeling of genetically engineered foods and phone calls to Congressional representatives to encourage support for tough organic standards and country of origin labeling are a few areas of possible participation. Maybe you want to lobby for more local food to be used in the cafeteria of your neighborhood school or hospital. Some of the effort might just require us to get out of bed a little earlier on market day in order to have a conversation with our favorite farmers or we may need to create some new eating habits. If we try to be more intentional about what good food is and where it comes from, chances are we will have more really good food to enjoy.