How to ensure we are purchasing from local farmers.
January 23, 2012 4:09 PM   Subscribe

After watching Food Inc. how can my girlfriend and I ensure we are purchasing the right stuff?

My girlfriend and I recently watched Food Inc. and it's scared the heck out of us. Growing up around and helping on various farms myself I was never on board with buying organic or free range anything. Yet seeing that film made me feel uncomfortable with the state our food industry has reached. I feel very conflicted and on the edge of "conspiracy theorist" bug-nutty town.

At any rate we've decided to try to purchase from local farmers whenever we can and try to buy things that are in season. One line from the film really stuck with me in that every time you purchase something from the grocery store you are essentially voting for more of that product. We've found a local meat supplier that farms their own meat and are going to try purchasing in bulk and freezing it.

However what of everything else? We always try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables but I'm not adverse to buying snacks like chips, pop tarts, ritz crackers, etc. I know most of the "Organic" food lines are owned by the larger companies we'd like to avoid (Like Kashi being owned by Kellogs). Which ones are legit and which ones aren't?

How elaborate is this ruse? How far down the rabbit hole should I go?
posted by cassini to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I am a Community Supported Agriculture member in my area. A pay a weekly membership fee and get a box of local, organic produce delivered to my door. They bring me whatever they are currently picking at the farm that week.

The one I use has lots of options for how often and what kind of produce you get (veg only, fruit only, a mix, small box, large box, a blacklist of things you don't like, etc.). The only things I buy at the grocery store any more are staples like spices, oils, dairy, and bread.
posted by bradbane at 4:24 PM on January 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh another thing I am doing right now (as it is the season) is wild mushroom foraging. I took a class with a local mycology group where an expert showed us what edible and easy to identify mushrooms grow locally (things like chanterelles and oysters). I just go for a walk after it rains and bring home pounds and pounds of mushrooms without even really trying . I dry whatever I'm not going to eat immediately and have enough to last me until the next rainy season. Good excuse to get outdoors when you otherwise might not because of the wet weather too.

At farmer's markets you can usually get a really good deal on bruised produce, like tomatoes and fruit. I sometimes buy up 20-30lbs for almost nothing and make jam or tomato sauce to save for winter when the CSA box is full of potatoes and cauliflower every week.
posted by bradbane at 4:41 PM on January 23, 2012

Check around and see if there are any Farmers Markets or Food Co-ops in your area. Check out the Environmental Working Groups' Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 brochure for info about which fruits and veggies are better organic or not.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 4:45 PM on January 23, 2012

You might find this chart from the Cornucopia Institute helpful.

(And now I am sad because I love Muir Glen tomatoes.)
posted by calistasm at 4:51 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I believe a key to a major lifestyle change like this (which my wife and I are also making) is to take it one step at a time. You've made a couple of great changes already, stick with those for maybe a week or two, until you're really comfortable with that adjustment, then make another change or two. This can help keep you from falling off the wagon - completely revamping your entire diet (and all that's associated: shopping, preparation, food storage) in one fell swoop would be overwhelming, and there would be temptation to just chuck it and do something else (or not ever actually change).
I don't have any media recommendations; maybe there are good blogs about this? I'd love to start one (in my non-existent free time). I don't feel I can give you a good, concise version of what we've done here - though if you email me I'd be happy to discuss it with you at greater length. Again though I think some of the best advice is to take it a step at a time. Don't swear off store-bought bread before you've made your own at least a few times; don't buy huge amounts of new foods that you're unsure how to prepare (or whether you even like them). I would also seek out some other food snobs (as my wife and I call ourselves) to show you a few things from their experiences.
One last thing - allow some wiggle room. I still occasionally have a doughnut or eat at In&Out, and I don't beat myself up over it. If you're making great food choices at home, you can afford some cheating here and there.
posted by attercoppe at 5:12 PM on January 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am all the way down this rabbit hole myself, including becoming a pescetarian, so welcome. It is nice to know you aren't eating processed junk, contributing to animal cruelty, or helping to destroy the environment, I will tell you. Plus my food is a lot more delicious than it ever used to be.

I am lucky enough to live near this store, which does its own screening along the lines of the questions you have laid out. Their website may help you a lot. I'd also suggest looking for a similar store in your area.

I'd also recommend eliminating processed food whereever possible. Almost every snacky thing is tastier when home made. And really, chips and crackers and fruit filled pastries or cookies are not that tough to make.

Of course read, read, read. Labels especially. And I strongly second becoming a customer of a local CSA, local farms, and local food markets. Ask questions of these people, too. (E.g., do they spray their fruit? If you eat meat, eggs and/or dairy -- what do their animals eat? Where were these fish caught?)

Welcome to a healthier life with a whole lot less guilt.
posted by bearwife at 5:13 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

For processed foods, the rabbit hole pretty much ends when you decide to stop eating anything processed that you didn't make yourself. Short of that, you'll have to decide where to compromise.

If Mosanto and the rest of that situation bugs you, I recommend just focusing on avoiding anything with corn or soy ingredients, including vegetable oils (it's almost always made from soy). This will probably cut out the vast majority of processed foods (and many surprise foods like breads and butter), but if you search you can find replacements for brand names without those ingredients. It just might take a while and a lot of reading labels.

Since that does eliminate a lot, a smaller (but still pretty big) step would be cutting out just high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils/corn oil/soybean oil and see how that goes.

Also, find out what terms are regulated in Canada. Outside of meats, any product can describe itself as natural in the US as there's no legal definition or regulation of the term. If you know which terms are marketing terms and which ones actually denote certain standards, it will help you avoid companies that are just cashing in on the growing market. (For example, see: "vitamin water" from Coca-Cola).

I don't have any recommendations on brands for processed foods though. I've always lived in cities that have a lot of local candies/snacks for sale (crackers, fancy 'pop tarts', chocolates, plantain chips, etc) which may or may not be soy/corn free but at least are locally made. Obviously your mileage will vary depending on how big of a city you live in, how often you eat processed foods, and how much you miss the taste of particular brands.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 6:30 PM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're concerned about using environmental resources wisely you really must stop eating meat and eggs. There's no way around this.

And seconding the CSA, it's the perfect local solution, often delivered to your door.
posted by devymetal at 6:36 PM on January 23, 2012

My wife is a dietitian and she teaches her clients to avoid buying anything with more than 4 ingredients at a grocery store, and to not get anything with an ingredient that you can't recognize. The ingredient list is key as a lot of labeling is misleading. For instance, bread will say "made with whole grains" but have enriched flour as the first ingredient. It's easy to find the good stuff: we even buy potato chips with the ingredients of potatoes, oil, and salt. We rarely eat beef but get grassed when we do.
posted by toothless joe at 6:54 PM on January 23, 2012

I don't think a box of Ritz crackers every now and again are going to cause the earth to stop turning. My husband's a chef, we eat all sorts of specially raised meat, veggies, etc., but I still buy Doritos. I think stressing about all this stuff takes the pleasure out of eating and cooking.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:04 PM on January 23, 2012

How to ensure we are purchasing from local farmers.

A very basic and obvious answer for you is to ask someone local to you. Locavorism means consuming local food knowledge, too.

In your case (if your profile is correct), you need to talk to (and maybe join efforts with) Jennifer Cockrall-King, an Edmontonian very into locavorism and the author of Food And The City (coming out in February). If she doesn't have the time to show you where to go for the localest local stuff in your local neck of the local woods, she can surely point you to local people who do have the local time.
posted by pracowity at 12:41 AM on January 24, 2012

Follow attercoppe's advice. I understand the desire to be very gung-ho and adamant about the changes, but it's much easier to transition into big diet changes than it is to try to 180. That said, my reaction to watching Food Inc. was to wean myself gradually off products that labeled corn in their ingredients (much more difficult than you'd think). I'm not perfect about it, but the awareness is definitely there and makes for more informed choices. Have some counter space near a window? Grow your own herbs and vegetables! And if you can't find a CSA in your area, look into the local farms and coops to see if they have harvest-sharing or market programs. The closest, endearingly awful website I could find was Pick Your Own. Good luck!
posted by therewolf at 1:24 AM on January 24, 2012

At any rate we've decided to try to purchase from local farmers whenever we can and try to buy things that are in season. [...] We always try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables but I'm not adverse to buying snacks like chips, pop tarts, ritz crackers, etc.

The good you do by buying food that is local and in season might be largely canceled out by shopping in the snack aisles for food made in distant factories from ingredients refined in a hundred places. I think the standard advice is to stick to the perimeter of the store, where the actual food (fruit, vegetables, bread, dairy, and meat) is usually sold. A pear is either local or it isn't, whereas a processed snack has a million mysteries to solve.

You might have fun learning how to make tasty (plus healthy) snacks from local produce. Check out these recipes for a start. For baking, pick up some locally ground flour, get some locally grown fruit, and start playing around.
posted by pracowity at 4:13 AM on January 24, 2012

A good, effective place to start is to stop buying anything containing high-fructose corn syrup. This seemingly eliminates about 99% of everything in the store (I kid, but it IS a shit-ton of stuff) and opens your eyes to other options, often sitting right next to the hfcs-infected stuff.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:17 AM on January 24, 2012

As an alternative to shopping the snack aisle, I've been trying out a few of the recipes described in "Make the Bread, Buy the Butter", after I heard this story about the author. I'd recommend it (the google link includes the index, so you can see if she has any recipes similar to what you like eating) - she does a good job of identifying which items are easy to make, and which you should just go buy. The book is not limited to snack foods, so it'd be a useful companion to the other changes you're looking to make anyway
posted by darsh at 11:15 AM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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