A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping | Civil Eats

A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping

Author Sophie Egan on how to buy groceries that are good for you, for workers and animals, and for the planet. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the “Revitalizing Home Cooking” issue of The Deep Dish, our members-only newsletter. Become a member today and get the next issue directly in your inbox.

Between considering the impact of your food choices on your health and on the well-being of the planet—and accounting for the very real constraints of time, money, and accessibility—shopping for groceries can often feel daunting.

Purchasing food exclusively at farmers’ markets or local co-ops and buying 100-percent organic, animal- and earth-friendly products is not a realistic option for most people. So what do you prioritize? And when values conflict—like when a product is nutritious but hard on the environment (in the case of almonds) or produced humanely but packaged poorly (like Animal Welfare Approved milk in a plastic carton)—what do you do?

Sophie Egan, author of How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices that Are Good For You, Others, and the Planet and former director of the Health and Sustainability Leadership at The Culinary Institute of America, offers advice for how to shop for the benefit of yourself, others, and the environment—without feeling guilt for the compromises you have to make.

While Egan lays out numerous, specific guidelines in her book, she provides here some key, big-picture concepts to keep in mind as you strive to align your food shopping choices with your values.

Photo credit: Cristin Young

Photo credit: Cristin Young

Your shopping choices CAN make a difference in planetary health.

Embrace the incredible power of food choices as a daily climate solution. There’s an incredible call to action from leading global scientists, Project Drawdown in particular, which tells us that of all the climate solutions, the number one is reducing food waste. Number two is eating a plant-rich diet. And what I find so exciting about that is it’s something that every individual can contribute to on a daily basis.

Eat more fruits and vegetables, but drop the binary, all-or-nothing mindset, and don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

There’s too much black-and-white messaging and all-or-nothing mindsets. You do not have to go vegan to eat sustainably. As an individual or household, the more you’re generally aiming for plant-positive, plant-centric, flexitarian—basically just general emphasis on the delicious, abundant diverse foods from the plant kingdom—that’s great.

It’s a win-win that’s good for the planet and good for your health. It’s far more impactful to be a flexitarian for life than vegan for one summer.

One in 10 Americans eat the recommended value of fruits and vegetables. I often hear, “I don’t buy organic blueberries because they’re too expensive. So therefore, I just don’t buy blueberries.” The perceived hierarchy of produce just gets in the way of people eating more of it, in any form.

“Applaud yourself for eating foods that are supportive of your health and planetary health in whatever ways you have access to, and in whatever frequency is viable for your budget.”

I think whatever way you can enjoy access to fruits and vegetables—frozen, canned, if you grow them yourself—great. If they’re organic or regenerative—great. Truly, just eating more—some, any—is better than none. Applaud yourself for eating foods that are supportive of your health and planetary health in whatever ways you have access to, and in whatever frequency is viable for your budget. The goal is not 100 percent perfection.

From my perspective, conscious eating—trying to eat healthy, sustainably, equitably—is not about a diet. It’s not about hard-and-fast rules. It’s not about a no-no list or self-righteous over-emphasis on only a few foods. It’s not about giving up the foods you love. Food is also joy and deliciousness and heritage and family and connection and community. And don’t have blinders on in the pursuit of more sustainable eating to the crowd out those things that that are equally important.

Make small, strategic changes in your shopping habits that add up to the biggest cumulative impact.

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Start with the things you do frequently, the food you eat often. Don’t stress about what you eat on holidays or vacation or birthdays or when you’re traveling and so forth. It’s really the routinized, regular items. What do you and your family eat every weekday for breakfast? What’s your Friday dinner ritual? What are the 10 things that you always buy at the grocery store? That’s where the biggest cumulative impact of you as a conscious eater is really worth the effort.

Start with a simple swap. So, if my weekday lunch is a turkey sandwich every day, look at a couple of times a week swapping avocado toast or a bean-dip sandwich or pita and hummus.

Shop at whatever store is accessible and fits within your budget, and seek out the healthy, sustainable choices there.

If you have to take two buses to get to a certain store and another store you can walk to, that’s a relevant consideration. It’s not just more expensive co-ops and Whole Foods that have healthy, sustainable foods. A tub of plain oats from anywhere is a phenomenally healthy food. Same for a bag or can of beans. Keep in mind that although some stores are full of highly processed junk foods, pretty much all of them tend to have those staple whole grains, legumes, frozen vegetables, and fruits. Sometimes you may just feel more like a salmon swimming up steam to locate them.

Look for trusted third-party certifications.

Third-party certifications can be the referees of values-based marketing claims. If your goal was to have eggs from chickens that are not just cage-free, but truly have more space and are pasture-raised or in more humane living conditions, you would look for a third-party sticker such as Certified Humane Raised & Handled.

It’s not that everyone is expected to memorize all the little stickers. It’s just to know that when there is a third-party entity, it means they went to the trouble of auditing against an evidence-based standard that they deem worthy of the marketing claim, as opposed to taking the company’s word for it.

Editor’s note: Egan shared an excerpt about labels from her book. In “Stickers to Know,” she explains the various certifications you might encounter as you shop. From Certified Organic to Biodynamic to Animal Welfare Approved, she offers this guide to what each certification does or does not mean, who is behind it, and why it’s legit.

When values conflict—for example, when a healthy, organic food is packaged in plastic—in general, put more weight on agricultural practices than on packaging.

More often than not, what good for you is also good for others and the planet. So thankfully, I feel very comfortable saying that the majority of the time, they’re actually in concert. For the handful of times when they are in conflict, it is likely going to be case by case.

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Data actually shows that how foods are produced has a far bigger environmental footprint than packaging. Packaging is very popular to focus on because I think it is easier to see; it’s a more tangible concept. But question is, where’s the biggest bang for my buck, environmental impact-wise, and it actually does matter more—emissions, water, land use, biodiversity impacts—how the food is produced. [When choosing between organic milk in a plastic jug and conventional milk in cardboard], I would choose the organic milk and worry less about the packaging.

“If you’re making a choice that doesn’t reflect any of those three dimensions—if it’s not good for you, it’s not good for others, and it’s not good for the planet—how is that really worth your dollars?”

Sometimes, it’s also asking yourself the question, “As compared to what?” Almonds get a really bad rap for high water use, even though they’re super healthy. So that can feel like a conflict. But the problem is, the water use of almonds is looked at in isolation, instead of in comparison to foods like a hamburger or cheese. And when you compare it to those foods, which are not only much, much higher water use, they’re actually worse for you health-wise, you can actually reframe the almond equation to say, “OK, well, I’m eating something that’s healthy, and it uses some water to produce, but it’s better in both dimensions than some other things I might choose, like a beef jerky stick.”

The broader question if they’re in conflict comes down to which dimension you value more. If your own goal is more around supporting women-owned businesses than completely eliminating sugar from your diet, then maybe you feel great buying an indulgent cupcake from a woman-owned bakery for your kid’s birthday party.

If you’re making a choice that doesn’t reflect any of those three dimensions—if it’s not good for you, it’s not good for others, and it’s not good for the planet—how is that really worth your dollars? Maybe another way to navigate that conflict is just to ask yourself, “Is it at least checking one of the boxes on my personal checklist?” That’s a good starting point.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Christina Cooke is Civil Eats' associate editor. Based in North Carolina, she has also covered people, place, science, business, and culture for venues including The New Yorker, The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, The Guardian, Oxford American, and High Country News. In the past, she has worked as a staff writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee and a weekly paper in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of the documentary writing program at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies and the creative nonfiction writing MFA program at Portland State University, she teaches interviewing and nonfiction writing at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Find out more at www.christinacooke.com. Read more >

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