How to shop for the earth

Here are some simple things you can do for health - yours and the earth's

by Wendy Gordon, reprinted from The Green Guide for Everyday Life, #13, with permission
hoosing food grown in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible isn't as difficult to put into practice as you might think. The following eight steps will help you in planning your family's diet and making healthier, greener food choices.

1. Eat a variety of food

When you eat a wide variety of food, a broad range of nutritional requirements is likely to be met. You also draw on biological diversity. The proliferating "variety" in supermarkets does not reflect biological variety, since so many of the hundreds of available products are made from the same relatively few raw food materials - corn, wheat, rice and potatoes. People today rely on just 20 varieties of plants for 90 percent of their food. Instead, you can eat a wider variety of whole foods instead of food novelties, whose claims to diversity are based on processing techniques and artificial colors and flavors.

2. Buy locally produced food

The average mouthful of food travels 1,300 miles from farm to factory to warehouse to supermarket to our plates. In comparison, food available from local farms is almost always fresher, tastier and closer to ripeness. Buying local products also supports growers in your region, thereby preserving farming near where you live, and requiring less energy for transport. Since the production of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is more economical if the farmers have outlets for their produce nearby, local marketing should be encouraged. And, because it isn't being shipped long distances, local food is less likely to have been treated with post-harvest pesticides.

3. Buy produce in season

Out-of-season produce is extravagant because it is energy-intensive to ship food long distances. Out-of-season produce is also more likely to have been imported, possibly from a country with less stringent pesticide regulations than the United States. Eating "winter" fruits and vegetables, such as root crops, and frozen produce, especially from local producers is your best option during the winter months. Frozen foods retain much of their nutritional content, in addition to cutting energy costs. Call your state's Department of Agriculture for a free seasonal harvest calendar for your area. Many states also offer a pick-your-own guide to the locale.

4. Buy organically produced food

Organically grown means that the food has been grown in a practical, ecological partnership with nature. Generally, organic food is minimally processed to maintain its integrity without artificial ingredients, preservatives or irradiation. Organic certification is the public's guarantee that the product has been grown and handled according to strict procedures without synthetic chemical inputs. Look for a certified organic label whenever buying organic food.

5. Eat fresh, whole foods with adequate starch and fiber

Whole foods - including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes (beans), nuts and seeds - are the healthiest foods we can eat. The National Cancer Institute recommends we each "strive for five" servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day since the complex carbohydrates and fiber they contain play a major beneficial role in protecting against cancer, heart disease and common digestive ailments.

6. Eat fewer & smaller portions of animal products

Modern meat production involves intensive use of grain, water, energy and grazing areas. It takes about 390 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. Almost half of the energy used in American agriculture goes into livestock production. Cattle and other livestock consume more than 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and about a third of the world's total grain harvest. Animal agriculture also produces surprisingly large amounts of air and water pollution. Animal products, especially beef, are also a major source of fat in the U.S. diet. Reducing meat consumption and eating lower on the food chain protects us against heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

7. Choose minimally processed and packaged foods

After it leaves the farm, food is subjected to a variety of processes (including packaging), most of which use fossil energy and remove naturally-occurring nutrients. A typical highly processed (and highly advertised) "food product" may contain on average only seven percent real food. Processing provides no value to the biological variety of the diet when the refined food fraction is converted into hundreds of products high in fat, salt or sugar.

8. Prepare your own meals at home

Cooking from scratch can involve a little more labor and a little more time, but you can be sure you'll save money and resources, because you're not paying someone else to prepare your food, to add nutrients removed in processing, to put it in a box or can, to ship it across the country and to advertise it in slick TV commercials. You will also provide your family with healthier, more nutritious food since you are starting with fresh ingredients. And, cooking from scratch can be its own reward, providing a truly creative outlet which brings you pleasure and joy, rejuvenates the family meal, and nourishes our bodies and souls.

Wendy Gordon is co-founder and Acting Executive Director of Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to translating environmental concerns to everyday life by providing practical, solutions-oriented information. The above steps have been excerpted from 8 Simple Steps to the New Green Diet (Mothers & Others, 1995). The booklet also includes recipes from leading chefs. For membership and ordering information, write to: 40 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011, or call 212-242-0010.

Where to Shop

Conventional supermarkets

For most of us, our food comes from conventional supermarkets. But these huge "super" food stores, for the most part, provide us with food from huge food conglomerates and industrial farms. But for all their drawbacks, supermarkets are improving. A smattering of them are adding whole and organic foods to their shelves. In fact, 23 percent of natural foods shoppers now buy their organic produce at large supermarket chains. You can support the improvements the stores are making by buying organic and local food whenever possible.

Green supermarkets and health food stores

The new green supermarkets - such as Whole Foods and Fresh Fields - and health food stores are doing a booming business. Many sell organic produce as well as organic packaged food. Encourage the managers to buy locally produced food. Locally, shop at OB People's Natural Foods, Jimbos.....Naturally, Greentree Grocers or Casady's.

Food buying cooperatives

These are generally informal groups organized to buy directly from a wholesaler and save substantially on groceries. They can range from small groups of friends to large stores that serve thousands of families. All purchase food together from wholesalers and divide their order among themselves. To join or create a food co-op near you, contact the National Cooperative Business Association at 202/638-6222, or write Co-op Directory Services, 919 21st Ave. So., Minneapolis, MN 55404.

Farmers' markets

Farmer's markets are in demand and returning to towns everywhere, providing urban and suburban consumers a rare chance to be in direct contact with the farmers who grow their food. They are a great way to support regional growers, many of whom farm organically, since they eliminate the need for distributors-and distributors' profits. To locate a farmer's market in your area, call your state Department of Agriculture.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs)

In CSAs, consumers buy shares in a farm's harvest and usually (but not necessarily) participate in the farming process by helping out either during harvest season or with other aspects of the farm operation. CSAs benefit the farmer, who is guaranteed a market for his or her harvest, and give shareholders access to fresh produce every week during harvest period. Locally, contact Be Wise Ranch at 756-3088. For more information on CSAs, call CSA of North America at 413/528-4374.
The Cost?
Organic produce can be more expensive, but believe it or not, on average, organic packaged food is not more expensive than conventional packaged food. An analysis by Mothers & Others found that when averaged out over a week's worth of meals, packaged organic food can be as affordable, and often less expensive, than conventional name brand products.


Chicken Little, Tomato Sauce and Agriculture, by Joan Gussow (The Bootstrap Press, 1991).

Farm House Cookbook, by Susan Hermann Loomis (Workman Publishing, 1991).
Good Food, The Complete Guide to Eating Well, by Margaret Wittenberg (The Crossing Press, 1995).

Green Groceries, A Mail Order Guide to Organic, by Jeanne Heifetz (Harper Perennial, 1992).

Recipes from an Ecological Kitchen, Healthy Meals for You and the Planet, by Lorna J. Sass (William Morrow & Co., 1992).

The Way We Grow, by Anne Witte Garland with Mothers & Others (Berkley Books, 1993).

Safe Food, Eating Wisely in a Risky World, by Michael K Jacobson, Ph.D., Lisa Lefferts & Anne Witte Garland (Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1991).