During my final year as a vegetarian, a friend of mine showed me this chart indicating the parent corporations of national organic brands (the original author has since updated his research here). Learning about these corporate connections was one of my final breaking points; it helped me understand that the food industry was so much more complicated than I’d thought. I couldn’t just assume that, by virtue of being vegetarian, I was boycotting the corporations that participated in harmful, pollutive, or exploitive agricultural practices.
Deciding to start eating meat again was, for me, a way of beginning to make more mindful, deliberate choices about the models of food production and distribution I was supporting. In short, I decided to vote with my food dollars for larger change.
I quickly discovered that navigating the world of sustainable food shopping wasn’t going to be much simpler. I didn’t know the difference between free-range and cage-free eggs. I didn’t know enough about the different certifying agencies to recognize the labels and seals I could trust to line up with my values. Moreover, I discovered that my local co-op grocery still sold some of those corporate organic brands, so I couldn’t just assume that the store where I shopped was culling the products that didn’t cut it in my book.
But beyond that, as I continued to research the food industry while beginning to buy meat again, I discovered just how many issues there were that no label was going to cover. There is not yet a fully transparent label for fair labor standards. Plenty of livestock corporations have figured out clever phrases that make their products sound antibiotic-free without actually requiring any certification, like “natural,” or “antibiotic-free”. Beyond that, I learned the complications behind the labels, like the fact that certified organic produce can still be grown under extensive pesticide use.
In addition to having to become a much more savvy shopper, I realized, there were issues endemic to the food industry that I couldn’t change on my own, with a simple trip to the grocery store.
I’ve become overwhelmed by these issues regularly, probably at least two or three times a year since I started researching them. There are so many questions: which foods are the best choice for the environment, for the local economy, for a sustainable future, for the animals being raised, for the workers participating in harvest and slaughter? And there are new concerns cropping up, or becoming increasingly significant, all the time. It’s easy to feel helpless, in the grocery aisles and on a larger scale, when it comes to the flaws in our industrial, American—and global—food system.
Then, and now, I periodically want to throw my hands up and forget. I just want to eat. I don’t want it to be so hard.
Whenever I start to feel this way, I try to channel my frustration outward. I want to work to make the system better, rather than berate myself for not being a perfect consumer. Over time, I’ve found a few actions that help me feel less helpless, both in terms of how I shop for food, and how I try to impact the food system at large.
Pick local, both in terms of what food you buy and from where you buy it. Local food became trendy because it was touted as having a lower environmental impact, and though that difference may be minimal, it’s not the only reason I prefer to buy as close to home as possible. Of course, buying local supports the local economy, and puts you more directly in touch with your community. But local often translates into transparent: when you pick local, you can usually see the food at its source, and this will help you feel assured that it’s the right choice for you. The same goes for patronizing farmer’s markets, farm stands, and locally-owned grocers: make friends with the owners and you get the real story about how and where the food comes from. You can cut through the tangle of labels and go with your gut in terms of what feels ethically sound.