If you want to make a huge difference in your environmental impact, a good place to start is being responsible for what goes in your mouth. I don’t have all the scary facts, and I don’t intend to include much of them here, but I do encourage you to research more. Here I will simply list some things you can do to eat for the next 10 generations. To do this, we’ll go on a journey starting far away and ending up right at your home.
At the Grocery Store
Choosing a good store
The grocery store is where I made my first changes. Probably the most obvious is your fuel usage to the store. Pick a store that is close to you, which will cut down on your fuel usage when driving and also allow you to ride your bike (a bike trailer works perfectly to haul groceries and kids).
However, I balance that distance with the store’s environmentally conscious product range. I don’t care if I live a block from Walmart, I’m not getting groceries there. You’ll want organic food (less chemicals, enough said), non-GMO options (look up the effect of genetically modified crops on the environment, small farmers, and society), local options (the closer the farmer, the less fuel used to get it there), options with less packaging (reduce waste), bulk bins (obliterate waste) — the more of these the better. And as you probably know, “all natural” means nothing.
I’ve also noticed the smaller the store, the smaller the farmers it can accommodate. Walmart, Target, Costco — they run the gamut from not conscious at all to fairly crunchy, but they’re all gigantic corporations, and you’re not likely to find anything from small, sustainable farmers or local growers at any of them. Our local food co-op and health food store, however, both have tons of those options.
I’ve heard it dozens of times from fellow shoppers who see my bags and feel guilty. “I have bags, but I keep forgetting them in the trunk!” I keep telling them, “Get them out of the trunk!” I used to do the same thing. I would constantly forget my bags in the car. I started keeping my bags up front with me, and stopped forgetting them. Once it became a habit, I was able to start keeping them behind my seat. If you tend to forget your bags and are unable to keep your bags in plain view, write a note and tape it somewhere in view (your horn, near your door handle, etc.). If you do forget your bags, get paper, and then reuse them, and then compost them. Please, please don’t get plastic. If you are shopping at a store that doesn’t offer paper, consider shopping elsewhere.
Most stores offer a discount of five cents per reusable bag. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s better than nothing! They do this because plastic bags cost them money. They buy them from companies that make them from new plastic that comes from oil. Plastic bags do not readily break down in the environment. They hang from trees, drift in the wind, kill animals, fill giant garbage patches in the ocean, and otherwise pollute our land. Reusing plastic bags as small garbage bags (not necessary, we don’t line our little cans) or as a wet diaper or clothing carrier (look up wet bags) is not necessary and is no excuse for creating demand for them. If you like pictures, check out this quick search.
You can also find reusable produce bags most places now. Or better yet, crochet some out of the plastic bags that people put in the cans in the entryway of the store. For your bulk bin items, you can bring jars, plastic containers, produce bags, cotton bags, anything that will hold the item. Just make sure you have them weigh the jars and containers first (or tare out the scale if it’s available directly do you).
Try to buy items with as little packaging as possible. Avoid individually packaged items; if you want help with portion control, portion it out into reusable bags or containers at home. Also, if you are choosing between two items that are nearly identical, choose the one with better packaging. Maybe one is reusable for a long time. Maybe one is recyclable and the other is not. Maybe one is compostable and the other is only recyclable. Say you are shopping for mushrooms. They are the same price and same type of mushroom, only one comes in a plastic tray and the other comes in an unwaxed cardboard box. Hands down, choose the cardboard box and then throw it in the compost.
Another way to reduce waste is to cut out the packaging altogether. Those bulk bins may look intimidating, but you just need to get to know them; they are your new green friends. All you have to do is pick what you want, fill up your container, and label it. The stores at which I shop have different processes. A local chain grocery, HyVee, has a scale in their bulk section. If you brought a container, weight it first, push the tare button, fill up the container, then weigh it again. Then enter the code number on the label for that bin and print a label for your container. The checker will then just scan it when you check out. At the local health food stores, you have the clerk weigh your containers first, then you go fill them up and simply write (legibly) the item number on your container. The clerk will weigh them again and subtract the first weight when you check out. It’s easy, sometimes cheaper, and always satisfying.
Close to Home
This website has a whole list of reasons to eat local. My main reason is number 7, “Save the World. A study in Iowa found that a regional diet consumed 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country. The ingredients for a typical British meal, sourced locally, traveled 66 times fewer “food miles.””
In the spring, summer, and fall, check out the local farmer’s markets for weekly selection shopping. At farmer’s markets, you can meet the people who grow the food and ask them as many questions as you want. Since organic regulations are prohibitively expensive, many small farmers are not certified organic but often use even better practices. So talk to them, ask them how they farm. You can also tell them what you want. You can’t do that at the store.
It’s also a good idea to check out CSA’s, or Community Supported Agriculture. In a CSA, you buy a share with a local farmer. This share helps provide capital for a small farmer, but also provides you with regular rations of local, seasonal food. You can go out and see how the farm works, talk directly with your food supplier (farmer), and give your input. Pick farmers that use sustainable practices.
All communities are different, but there is hopefully some sort of local food co-op, local food directory, local food shed, or neighborhood food share somewhere near you. (If not, maybe now would be a good time to start one. Someone has to offer the idea or take the initiative!) These are all more great programs to utilize to reduce your food miles and take control of how your farmers grow your food.
Through all of these programs, you can also buy enough to do preserving at home so that you have locally grown food for winter use.
Even Closer to Home
Another way to reduce packaging and control the ingredients in your food is to make more homemade food. I make organic, whole wheat sourdough bread with only three ingredients. It uses no packaging, it’s cheaper than regular non-organic bread (I can’t even find organic whole wheat sourdough bread in this city), and its much better for my family. Utilize all that bulk food you bought at the store and local produce you just received from your CSA, and make healthy, homemade meals. Much less packaging will be involved, and much less processing will have taken place, thus saving energy and water that would be used at the factory.
Home is Where the Heart is — and the Best Food
And finally, grow as much food as you can. If you have a yard, replace some or all of that resource-intensive grass with a garden. Growing your own food is so rewarding, even if it does take you five years of failing before you start getting an appreciable yield. If you don’t have much time, plant a fruit tree. Anything is better than nothing. Growing your food is the cheapest, healthiest, most sustainable (if you do it correctly) way to eat. Period. Wild food is another option if you do it respectfully and sustainably, following all the rules of wild food harvesting.
The main thing to remember is to follow your food supply back to the absolute beginning. Consider everything in your calculations of cost, because the cash that you hand out at the store is only a very small portion of the real cost of our food.