I’ll cut right to the chase: Our food system in this country is broken—for many, many reasons.
For starters, it is built on government subsidies on five crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. This motocross provides an abundance of the wrong type of calories (sugar, starch, and refined oils) and forms the building blocks of ultra-processed foods that contribute to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, dementia, cancer, depression, sexual dysfunction, and more. Foods like these are responsible for an estimated 11 million deaths a year around the world.
The present food system doesn’t just pollute our bodies. It pollutes our land, water, and air with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and contributes massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions every step of the way. Glyphosate, anyone? Or how about a burger raised on antibiotics, hormones, and chicken poop? No thanks.
Food is also a social injustice issue. Many of the over 20 million food and farmworkers in the U.S. are people of color who struggle to make a living wage while performing dangerous work. They’re subject to harsh working and living conditions and exposed to toxic agricultural chemicals but lack adequate health care. In extreme cases, they can face modern forms of slavery, sexual harassment, and abuse.
While these are complex issues that won’t be solved overnight, I believe that a healthier, cleaner, smarter food system starts at the end of your fork. All you have to do is make a few simple conscious decisions about what you put on it.
How to help fix the food system every time you go grocery shopping.
Think about how often you’re buying food, whether it’s at the supermarket, convenience store, or a restaurant. Then remember that every time you eat, you vote. That’s why the No. 1 thing you can do to affect the food system is to become a more conscious shopper—and that doesn’t mean you have to exclusively shop at farmers markets. Here are a few ways to cast a vote for a healthier and more sustainable future at your local grocery store:
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1 – Avoid the center aisles of the store to avoid the ultra-processed variations of corn, soy, and wheat.
These are the ingredients that are responsible for those rising chronic diseases I mentioned earlier. Around the outside of the store, you’ll find the fresher options: produce, perishables like eggs, the bulk bins for nuts and whole grains, and the meat and seafood counter. Fresh foods without a label are what you want to focus on for optimal health.
2 – Look for organic and/or locally grown.
When you buy organic, you avoid the use of agricultural chemicals linked to pollution and the heavy use of fossil fuels. Opt for organic options that were locally grown to support your nearby farmers and reduce transportation emissions.
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3 – Look for animal products that are 100% grass-fed or pasture-raised.
This means the animals were free to roam and eat their natural diet of grasses (in the case of cows) or insects, seeds, and plants (for poultry). These animals make healthier meat for you and, contrary to popular belief, animals raised this way can be climate-friendly. When animals are raised on farms that use regenerative practices, their movements can help the soil suck carbon down from the atmosphere. Well-managed animals are an essential piece of changing our climate story, and some farms have even used them to achieve a net-neutral or net-negative carbon footprint.
There is no federal government standard for grass-fed and pasture-raised labels. Look for third-party certifications from the American Grassfed Association and Global Animal Partnership to be sure you’re really getting high-quality meat and poultry.
4 – Look for a few specific labels to support healthy farm workers.
Regenerative farms are a step ahead when it comes to worker safety, oftentimes with family or owners working alongside employees and teaching them how to run their own successful farms in the process. Food retailers like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s have agreed to sign the Fair Food Program, which pressures growers to adhere to basic tenets for workers’ rights including providing a minimum living wage, no sexual or verbal abuse, freedom from unsafe working conditions, and access to restrooms and water with adequate break time. Ask your local grocery store if they’re willing to commit to the Fair Food Program.
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5 – You can also look for Fairtrade products.
This is especially important for items including coffee, tea, chocolate, and bananas. Fairtrade International is an organization that supports farmers and workers in dozens of poor countries while also working to protect the environment. The organization requires that products were sustainably sourced, that they were made in a way that doesn’t pollute the land or waterways, and that farmers and workers receive fair prices. Look for their logo, and support the important work that they do.
All of these steps create a new and improved food system, one bite at a time. These solutions are the reason I wrote my upcoming book, Food Fix: How To Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet—One Bite at a Time. We have power; we have control; we just have to take action. I hope you’ll use your next trip to the grocery store as a chance to start changing the future of food.