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.
Flickr/U.S. Department of Agriculture
You can’t necessarily buy everything you need locally, and though I’m a big proponent of seasonal eating, we don’t all have access to markets and CSAs all year round. So if you need to shop at the grocery store, or a corporate chain, look for companies that offer information. Stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes are not without their flaws, they do make available a good deal of information regarding sourcing, so you can choose whether you’d rather buy an organic tomato from Chile or a conventional one from your home state.
Beyond the stores themselves, there are new businesses emerging to provide you with the information about food that matters to you. Alexander Gillett, co-founder and CEO of HowGood, one such rating agency, established HowGood with his brother Arthur specifically to fill in the gaps of consumer knowledge about corporate food structures. “There is a big gap between wanting to buy well and being able to,” Gillett told me. “There is so much to consider, and so many variables for each product. We want to reward the best producers, and so do consumers. We just make it easy.”
HowGood has researched more than 100,000 products so far, analyzing data regarding sourcing, and processing the food, as well as the company’s management and employment practices, and community impact, then winnows all that information down into a ranking. And it’s possible for a brand to receive no tag, which indicates that the basic standards of HowGood have not been met. A handful of stores around the country are using the HowGood ranking to label food in their stores, but there’s also a mobile app with a barcode scan that can be used anywhere.
As an ethical eater, the first step I took was to learn how to vote with my food dollars, and this is the principle behind HowGood. As Gillett says, “We believed that if people knew the impact of the food they bought, they would act on that knowledge. Informed consumers demand better products.”
Getting the tools and information to be a more conscientious shopper is important. But as our occasional feelings of being overwhelmed remind us, there are some obstacles we can only overcome on the national level. There comes a tipping point in any social movement when individual, small-scale change must coalesce into larger, systematic changes. Which is why I think ethical eaters should also take action to promote improved food policies.
The truth is, when it comes to issues like the link between industrial agriculture and climate change, and the lack of healthy food available in low-income areas, there is a limit to the amount of change we can affect as individuals. But we can all individually act to move large-scale change forward. First, we can remember that food issues aren’t elitist issues, or issues only those of us with a relative degree of privilege care about: food policies affect agriculture, nutritional health, the environment, and standards of living, and they are therefore issues of national policy.
Yet it’s rare, as Mark Bittman observed in a recent column, to hear a politician talk about food as a policy issue. And this is something consumers and citizens can do something about.
There are many ways to be part of a national policy conversation, but focus is key: rarely does a movement succeed by trying to fix everything all at once. To avoid burnout, pick a few key issues that matter to you, and devote your attention to them.
Simply writing letters and making phone calls to pressure your local legislative representatives to address these issues is a great way to start. Encouraging your neighbors and community members to do the same deepens the impact. But really, any way you can make the issue visible in your community, and therefore meaningful to your legislators, counts. Protest the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) in your region via town hall meetings. Vote on local ballot initiatives related to monitoring the treatment of workers and animals. Petition against the marketing of junk food in your children’s schools.
And remember what I try to remind myself of when I’m forced to make an imperfect food choice: you don’t have to be part of every fight to be part of the big one. Pick the issues, and the methods of getting involved, that mean the most to you, and take what action you can. Get as many other people as you can to do it, and the momentum towards large-scale food policy changes is already underway.
Big Organic Chart: Here’s the chart of national and regional organic and “natural” food brands that are owned by global parent corporations, and here’s a more complex, updated version.
Antibiotics in Meat: This Consumer Reports article clarifies the meanings behind terms on meat labels, including “natural” and “antibiotic-free”.
Mythbusting 101: Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture: A Scientific American article that challenges long-held myths about the unequivocal superiority of certified organic produce.
HowGood: Here’s a breakdown of the product database and rating system that startup HowGood uses.
The Lexicon of Sustainability: Part art project, part film series, part crowdsourcing empowerment, The Lexicon of Sustainability is a nonprofit that spotlights the grassroots actions of farmers, business owners, and community activists who strive to make positive changes in the food system. With its positive yet realistic vibe, it’s a good place to spend some time if you’re feeling overwhelmed or discouraged about the changes one person is able to make.
Marissa Landrigan’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where she completed a food memoir titled “The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat.” She currently lives in western Pennsylvania, where she runs the food-themed reading series Acquired Taste, and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.