Friday, April 5, 2013

How to Make Sustainable Food Choices

If you pay enough attention to advice on sustainable living (yes, even mine), you may quickly get to the point where you can't eat anything at all, because nothing ticks all the boxes. As an example, the other day I wanted to find something to replace the wheat-based pasta that I have too frequently during the week, and I remembered Japanese buckwheat noodles.  The only kind I could get had been produced in Australia and imported here.  I bought them anyway.

When I'm trying to make food choices for my family, I tend to think of a hierarchy of priorities.  I make selections based on these criteria in order, but if I can't hit them all (and I usually can't), I don't worry so much about the ones I missed.

  1. Did I grow it?  This is the top choice.  If Mr. FC&G and I actually forked dirt, weeded, and harvested, that effort will not go to waste.  When in doubt for dinner, look at the produce basket on the counter, the table in the sunroom, and the garden just outside.  Eat everything that's ripe.
  2. What is the nutritional value?  Obviously, stuff from the garden is nutritious, but if I'm not in the garden, I have to think first of nutrition.  In the extreme, think of the pit stop at the Flying J or other similar truck stop/convenience store you might make on a long road trip.  If your choices are down to a candy bar or a box of raisins, take the raisins even if they were imported and grown by questionable means.
  3. Can I avoid unwanted additives?  Big things that I don't want to see in my food include HFCS, meat or dairy from animals raised with supplemental hormones and antibiotics given prophylactically, and produce raised with pesticides/herbicides.  I also try to avoid GMO soy products (that is to say, most products with soy) and products with multiple types of sugar in the ingredients (like a list that says sugar, fructose, dextrose -- I mean, really?).  
  4. Is it local? This is perhaps the first criterion that addresses global sustainability, but I try to buy as local as possible.  This means, the bulk of our meat comes from the farmer's market, and the majority of our yearly produce comes from my garden.  In some cases, this means I choose US-produced over something produced in a foreign country.  However, I don't worry too much about imports that are characteristic of a certain country and that we rarely purchase in any quantity; for example, Mr. FC&G has taken a liking to Digestive Biscuits after our recent orgy of watching British television shows, and I don't feel too bad about picking up a package imported from the U.K. every other shopping trip or so.
  5. Is it organic?  Surprised this is the last thing on the list?  I turn to the organic certification only as a proxy for some of the items above.  Specifically, an organic certification is shorthand for the third item above in the list, in general, in that organic products don't have HFCS, pesticide/herbicide exposure, or GMOs.  However, I'll take the word of an Amish baker at the farmer's market over an official certification any day.
And what about price?  Well, I'm price sensitive like everyone else, but I generally use price as a tie breaker or as something to tell me where to stop on this list.  For example, a gallon of Meijer brand milk (from cows not given growth hormones) is less expensive than Hartzler's milk (which is local, non-homogenized, and from cows raised under sustainable methods) which is less expensive than the boutique brand of organic, grass-fed cow milk in the little quart carafes.  Mr. FC&G drinks the Meijer milk; we make sour cream and yogurt from the Hartzler's brand (especially since it seems to have lots of cream).  We just chuckle at the boutique grass-fed brand, which, the last I checked, would come in at something like $16 a gallon.

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