Ever since I was a kid, going to the grocery store was a treat for me. My mom worked on Saturdays and, more often than not, my dad and I ended up making a day out of running errands. We’d hop in the car and start out at a neighborhood bakery where we’d buy a freshly baked treat to share in the car. (That bakery has since closed, undoubtedly wiped out by the popularity and “convenience” of big-box stores and supermarkets.)
Then we’d inevitably stop by the hardware store, swing over to the drive-thru car wash, and end up at the supermarket. Once we’d made our selections, we’d steer the cart into the aisle and start loading our items onto the conveyor belt. Meanwhile, we’d make guesses as to the total amount we (mom and dad) were going to end up spending that day.
As a kid, I never wondered how many items in our cart were from local farmers, food processors and vendors. It never crossed my mind to ask if we had made organic dairy, meat and produce selections. Did the concept of “organic” food as it pertains to fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and animal protein even exist in those days? Certainly, farmers, scientists, lobbyists, and pesticide and herbicide salespeople were quite familiar with the concept, but it is probably safe to say it just wasn’t on the general public’s radar at that time.
Today, things are a little different. According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), “sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010.” The OTA also conducted the 2011 U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs Study which found that 78 percent of U.S. families “say they are choosing organic foods.”
As I embark on the vast and wonderful journey that is environmental sustainability – as a consumer, graduate student and Analyst in sustainability consulting – I am struck by a newfound awareness of all things organic and sustainable and those that are mass produced, processed and pumped full of chemicals, in the realm of food and food products.
Why newfound? I’m a part-time graduate student pursuing a degree in Environmental Management and Sustainability. Although environmental sustainability has been on my radar since I was a kid, only recently have I started to make food choices based on my awareness of the agribusiness.
My new and growing awareness is coupled with an overwhelming sense of guilt. Why? Because I’ve been eating “irresponsibly” for so many years, initially without knowing it and later using my small pocketbook as an excuse.
These days, going to the grocery store is somewhat less of a treat than it was when I was a blissfully unwitting child, happily roaming the aisles with my dad and our clanging shopping cart. Still, I find myself dazzled by the bountiful array of choices, the smells, the talking misters, and the people watching. In my urban neighborhood, and in big cities all around the world, the food choices, even during the non-growing season, are endless: strawberries from California, avocados and tomatoes from Mexico, and clementines from Spain.
Certainly, having myriad options, especially on a cold winter’s day, is fun. Are the strawberries less juicy in December? Yeah, but sometimes a berry on a bleak, winter day makes you hopeful that spring won’t forget to return. Grapefruit is at its peak from January to June in Arizona and California. Does that mean that we folks in the Midwest and other parts of the country (and the world, for that matter) should be deprived of the tangy citrus fruit because we live too far away for it to be called “local” or “regional” produce?
Here’s where the pesky awareness, social consciousness, and guilty feelings come into play.
Imagine your average grocery store as it is today: displays filled with colorful, shiny produce; shelves stacked high with the best cuts of chicken, beef and pork; aisle upon aisle of flashy boxes of cereal and canned goods; and freezers filled with easy, cheesy, ice-creamy goodness.
Now take away all the fruits and veggies, all the pizzas and prime cutlets of pork, and all the fancy cereals and soups that aren’t local, organic or sustainable. Looks as bleak as a howling winter’s day in Chicago, right?
Some might say the answer is to be “less bad,” but most food and sustainability experts, would argue against that approach. For example, smoking fewer cigarettes is “less bad” and wearing your seatbelt a couple times a week is “less bad” than not at all, but is that the way we should live our lives? Probably not.
Others might say there’s a simple solution: Choose only foods that fall into the most stringent local, organic and sustainable categories. For those of us on a tight budget or with limited accessibility to stores with sustainable food options, this solution might be presumptuous.
At this point, it’s important to tap into our resources. First, we should decide what kinds of commitments we’re going to make concerning our food choices: Some/most/all organic, some/most/all local, etc. Second, we should research our options to locate the grocery stores, farmer’s markets, specialty stores, and Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs that are accessible to us. Third, we should grab our wallets and coupons and start to explore our neighborhood grocers. Instead of running to the store to race in and out in our usual harried fashion, we can budget in an extra 20 minutes to peruse the organic offerings. We can even go with a friend or family member to make the experience more enjoyable and interactive. In exploring our options, we can start to incorporate local, organic food into our weekly purchases and determine which brands and markets we like.
Talking with friends, neighbors and vendors will also help us identify all our options. We can look into growing our own food, whether we have a small backyard, access to a community garden, or live in an apartment with a south-facing window. Then, to prepare for the winter months, we can also experiment with freezing, canning and root-cellar storage options so that we have nearly-fresh produce options for the non-growing season.
As we explore our options, we might choose to designate 20% of our food purchase to local, organic and sustainable produce, grains, dairy and animal protein. Once we acclimate our minds and pocketbooks to this approach, we can ramp up our local and organic purchases to 40%, 50%, %65, 90% and eventually 100%, where making sustainable food choices becomes the standard, instead of a mental, moral or financial strain. Sustainability doesn’t have to be a pain.
Voting with our forks and our credit cards are effective ways to bring about change in the agribusiness – the vast network of consumers, farmers, food processors, suppliers and vendors.