Friday, June 26, 2009

A hierarchy of food choices

I have come to the realization that there is nothing in my life that is isolated from any other thing, and that means my eating habits aren't isolated from my politics. As important as food is to our lives, the politics of food isn't something most people think about, but what we eat and the food choices we make are directly related to our health and the health of the planet.

Trying to make food buying choices that put my money where my mouth is (and vice versa), I realized I had developed a kind of hierarchy of food buying options. My first choice is to be actively involved in the production of the food I eat, so my husband and I keep a garden. My next choice is to know the people who grow our food, and support them in their efforts to bring good food to the community. When I can't do that, I make choices that have the least impact on the earth in one way (buying organic foods) or another (buying local foods). Barring that option, I choose to support the community in other ways (buying from local or regional stores) or to support other causes (buying organic food from other sources).

But because I also think that vitality involves being an emotionally healthy individual, I can't beat myself up for not following a perfect buying plan or a perfect diet. I just can't be one of those people who makes life miserable for herself or others based on rigid ideologies. There is no joy in that. If I go to someone's home and they invite me for dinner and they don't know I'm a vegetarian, I don't make a big deal out of it. Sure, I do my best to avoid meat; I'll eat bread and salad and avoid the entree if that's an option. But if that is just impossible—if, for example, the only thing to eat that night is a soup with meat in it—I'll eat the soup. It would ruin the evening to not eat while everyone else is sharing a meal. It would offend my hosts. It would take the joy of the evening.

The ethical and environmental choices we make do impact our health and vitality, but the fact is, sometimes we don't make perfect choices. We are not perfect beings. We do the best we can. If we make it an all-or-nothing game, most people will choose to do nothing. I want to encourage everyone to start where they can and build on that. As for me, I try to keep my food purchases somewhat local and in season. Sometimes the best I can do is keep my purchases in the United States and Canada. But I haven't bought a grape from Chile or a cantaloupe from Costa Rica in years. (We aren't going to talk about the bananas. Though I just saw an article on Grist that does talk about bananas. And coffee. And tea.)

Here I offer my own hierarchy of food buying options:

1. Grow it ourselves. My husband and I have a very narrow yard in town. We don't have a lot of space, but we have taken advantage of the space we have. Our motto is "Every plant earns its keep." If we are going to take care of something, it's going to give us something in return. So we have blueberry bushes, strawberry beds, a blackberry bush, rhubarb, and asparagus beds around the perimeter of the yard. We intersperse those beds with herbs and a few other plantings. Then we have four 4x10 raised beds for our main garden, along with a variety of pots that hold peppers or whatever else we decide to stick in them. We also planted two dwarf apple trees, two dwarf pear trees, and a cherry tree. The yard is starting to pay us back for the effort.

2. Buy locally grown produce. We visit the Farmers' Market and see what the local farmers have for sale. But I'm still rather picky about who I buy from. I watched my dad go nuts on bugs with pesticide and I want to know what these hobby farmers have been doing to the plants. One time I saw some imperfect apples and figured they must be organic. I asked the farmer if he sprayed them to find out. His reply? "Not as often as I'd have liked." I didn't buy those apples. So even at the Farmers' Market, I ask plenty of questions. We're lucky here because we have a few people who are organic farmers; they might not be certified as such, but if you ask questions, you get to know how they see things and you can feel confident that you share the same views on the food you are buying from them.

3. Buy organic produce and other organic goods from a local store. Locally, we have three grocery stores. One is a local chain, one is a regional chain, and one is a big box national retailer. I don't shop the big box store; I don't agree with their business practices or the way they treat their employees. But I'll shop the other two and buy organic when I do. I also talk to the people in the produce section, the dairy manager, the folks in customer service, and other store employees to tell them that I buy organic and that I appreciate the options I'm finding in their store.

4. Buy organic by mail. Some people really have a fit when I tell them I do this. But you know what? Stuff gets shipped for purchase one way or another. If I buy a case of something online and have it shipped to my house, how is that any different than if it was shipped to the store?

5. Buy organic from a distant store. Distant for me is Indianapolis—about 50 miles away. We go to Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, stocking up on organic staples that will last for months. While we're in the Big City, we also visit several book stores and other specialty stores. My husband hits the beer-making supply place to get the goods to brew his soon-to-be-famous organic beer. We make sure to get lists from family and friends, and do shopping for them, too. Since we do this fewer than six times a year, I don't feel too bad about it. We look at it as an outing, not a shopping trip, and make a day of it.

6. Buy conventional food and non-local food. I still buy some things that aren't organic. And I still buy some things that aren't local. It's a process, not perfection. And life is just too short to beat myself up about the things that I haven't quite figured out.

Where do those bananas fit into the whole hierarchy? I guess they fall under #3. I buy organic bananas from a local grocery store. But I have to keep in mind that those favorite childhood fruits were shipped a long way to get to me here in Indiana. Maybe they will soon go the way of the long-forgotten Chilean grapes and the sadly missed Costa Rican melon. But for now, I still eat (organic, but imported) bananas. Like I said, it's a process, not perfection.


  1. Carmen's husband chiming in here. Don't forget about the basil plants to make pesto, and the few flowers we grow to add a little color and joy to the summer. You mention "process, not perfection," and I think of that in the same way the Cookie Monster now says that a cookie is a "sometimes food." Yes, I might occasionally have that banana imported from somewhere far away, but I try to view it as a sometimes treat and appreciate it that way, just like people up north used to treasure an orange or grapefruit at Christmas. That appreciation of an exotic fruit teams with an acknowledgement of the environmental impact of its long journey, and I enjoy the fruit more as I realize I will work harder to source my other food more locally (like my own personal carbon offset system).

    "LSPOF" is for local, sustainably-produced, organic food, and that's good enough for me! But cookies are still an awesome "sometimes food"!

  2. Do you ever forego the organic criteria? I've heard that some produce tends to be treated with more pesticides than others.

    I like your point of view Greg. I'm tired of feeling guilty for occasionally eating something that is not ideal and should think of it more as a treat.

  3. Thanks, cup 'n key, for following my blog!

    In answer to your question (assuming you were asking me and not Greg), there are lists that tell you which foods are more heavily treated with pesticides. I'll try to post something about that soon. On the other hand, there are good reasons to try and buy organic that have nothing to do with ingesting pesticides, like keeping them out of the environment and away from farm workers. So I do try and buy organic as much as possible.

    As time goes on I find it easier to just not buy things if they aren't organic and/or local and/or seasonal. At first it was more difficult. And I still buy tropical fruit in the winter when we don't have any growing up here, but not as often and not as much.

    It's an ongoing process. And an ongoing conversation. One I love to have! Thanks for commenting.