Hooray, it’s officially springtime! Everyone in the Produce department has been enjoying the warmer weather and longer days, and we’re all looking forward to seeing our local springtime favorites arrive at the Co-op. Sweet, over-wintered spinach, spicy watercress, earthy morels, and tender asparagus will all be coming into season locally, and making their way to our tables.
This month, we’ll also be celebrating Earth Day, and, while many of the food choices we make are aimed at maintaining and improving our personal health, let’s look at how these choices can have a positive impact on the environment.

It’s somewhat ironic; 40 years after the first Earth Day, dealing with climate change is perhaps one of our greatest current challenges. Additionally, there’s concern over dwindling fresh water supplies. Our food choices may not be an answer, but they can be a component of the solution.

The organic factor
For over a decade, the Co-op’s produce aisle has primarily featured product sourced from certified organic farms. Organic methods incorporate systems that promote soil vitality to provide nutrients without the application of chemical fertilizers. Farmers also use strategies such as companion planting and beneficial insects to reduce weed and pest pressure without the application of chemical herbicides or pesticides. These practices produce soils that have a higher capacity to retain moisture, contributing to water conservation.

There are many reasons we choose to support organic production. The most basic motivating factor is perhaps the most obvious: let’s not eat poison. When we look beyond the personal health factor, we open the door to debate. Can we feed a nation with organic practices? Is it affordable? Does large-scale mono-crop production really support organic principals? These are all great questions, and certainly command attention and discussion.

From an environmental perspective, there are two key factors that differentiate the impacts of organic versus conventional methods: reduced carbon emissions and impact on water quality. Not only does the application of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides require fossil fuels, but so does their production. And, unlike organic methods that build soils to retain moisture, conventional methods produce soils that either promote topsoil erosion or can’t retain water. The fertilizers and herbicides are leaching into the ground water and running into our lakes and rivers.

In addition to seeking out organic items, you can also look for items that carry labels indicating a commitment to sustainability. Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Midwest Food Alliance, and National Wildlife Federation are among many organizations promoting products grown with environmentally responsible practices. Products that carry these labels are third-party certified. They are inspected by independent inspectors to ensure that farmers’ and producers’ practices are in compliance and support the organization’s principals.

Localize it
Purchasing locally grown goods is another great way to support the environment, and we know you like your local produce. The Co-op defines local as anything grown in Wisconsin, or within a 150-mile radius of the Capitol. On average, produce travels 1,500 miles to reach the shelves of the grocery store. Local produce is fresher and more nutritious. It tastes better and requires less fossil fuel to get to the grocery store. Additionally, the Co-op sources the majority of its local produce from certified organic farms. These farms are diversified, small-scale operations, which require less fossil fuel to produce their products. Farmers are using reusable boxes. All of these practices provide us an opportunity to purchase products have had a minimal, perhaps positive, impact on the environment!

Today, you can find local produce almost everywhere. Mainstream and independent retailers and restaurants are offering locally grown options. Farmers’ markets and CSA shares provide opportunities to purchase local goods directly from farmers. While the product may be billed as local, it never hurts to ask questions to ensure that you are getting sustainably produced goods and supporting sustainable farms. If you’re a dedicated locavore, maybe you’d want to know exactly just where that local item originated.

At the farmers’ market, ask the farmer:

  • Is their farm certified organic or biodynamic? If not, ask if they use sustainable practices. Is the farm diversified? Do they have a crop rotation plan?
  • What type of fertilizers they use?
  • How do they control pests and weeds?
  • Can you visit their farm?

If you’re dining out or in a grocery store advertising locally grown items, ask the clerk or chef:

  • Do they know the farmer?
  • Have they been to the farm?
  • What sustainable practices does the farm incorporate?

If they’re honest and forthcoming with information, they’re probably not trying to hide anything. If they don’t know the answers, maybe just asking these questions has made them aware that, as a customer, this is what you value.

Impacting the environment
There are many different ways our purchases impact the environment: packaging, how product is transported, how it was produced, where it was produced. Your efforts continue after you’ve made your purchase: are you composting your waste? Are you recycling your packaging? Everything we do has an impact. Individual efforts might seem insignificant, but remember, there are almost 20,000 of you out there who have committed to participating to the direction and success of the Co-op. Together we’re making a difference.