ColumnWant to change the world? Stop eating packaged food.
A block and a half from my apartment there is a Safeway. For the last few years it has been a dingy place with dark aisles and dusty shelves, the kind of grocery store where you might just see an unmentionable rodent scurry across the floor. Then it got a remodel.
Located in the heart of a neighborhood where bike commuting and raising chickens are of the norm, Safeway knew their demographic, and the remodel followed suite. A few weeks ago the new and improved version opened, complete with brick walls, high ceilings, an abundant organic produce section and even an outdoor patio with tables and chairs for sipping afternoon coffee. Take away the Safeway sign and replace the Starbucks something a little more hip – Blue Bottle for example – and it would look just like every other yuppie-centric food shopping center. Don’t pretend you don’t have an affinity for such things – we’re all slaves to marketing.
Having always avoided the store except for last minute shopping emergencies, I entered the remodeled edition with an open mind. Access to grocery stores is not something that should be taken for granted; the fact that I can buy whole grains, fruits and vegetables a block and a half away from where I live is a luxury, and I try my hardest not to take it for granted. After all, a full grocery cart from Safeway is leaps and bounds from a dinner at McDonald’s.
On first look I was impressed. Fresh looking carrots, apples and kale? Check. Bulk foods? Wow. Topping the charts on sustainable seafood ranking? Hat tip. But as I walked around the periphery and was offered a variety of samples - “Would you like to try some nonfat yogurt with fiber cereal?” – panic started to set in. That nonfat yogurt was strawberry flavored, with who knows how much sugar. And the fiber cereal? Just one of hundreds of packaged cereals in the breakfast aisle touting the benefits of vitamins and minerals and all that other stuff that is part of a complete breakfast.
A quick look down the aisles to see jars upon jars of peanut butter (only one brand made without sugar or high fructose corn syrup) and dozens of different chewy granola bars confirmed my fears: I was in packaged world hell. Yes, much of it was branded as “healthy” - I am sure we would all be better off if kids were eating 100% Fiber Bites instead of High Fructose Neon Colored Synthetic Gems – but is healthy food just a name? As it turns out, as Americans, we don’t have an understanding of what healthy is anymore. We think avocados are fattening and bran muffins and a non-fat vanilla latte are a good way to start the day. Time for a reality check?
To pretend that I normally shop at grocery stores that don’t sell packaged food would be ridiculous – we live in a world of convenience after all and no matter where we shop, packaged foods abound. But what happens in the large percentage of big box chain grocery stores is the quantity and messaging. There is an overabundance of food that isn’t really food; it’s food elements combined with a handful of synthetic nutrients that we’re told is good for us, and because we’re busy, overworked and need to eat, we buy it. Yet our addiction to pre-made products wrapped in plastic, boxed in cardboard and labeled with colorful messaging should certainly be put to question, because not only is our health at risk, so is the planet’s.
The more processed food we eat, the further we are distanced from the food’s source. Don’t ever show a child a farm and a cow, and they might think that meat just comes from the butcher. Artichoke hearts are delicious on wood fired pizza, but do you know how an artichoke plant grows? I didn’t until a couple of years ago. The more we eat out of boxes and determine our diets by nutritional guidelines, the more we pull ourselves away from nature, losing our connection with the earth that is providing us with the food in the first place.
Take a look at zero waste efforts. In the last several years we have seen everyone from No Impact Man to My Zero Waste set out to reduce their footprint on the planet by pursuing lifestyles that reduce their all around waste. At first sight, that may sound like it’s all trash related, but take a closer look and it’s clear how inextricably linked food and waste really are. You can’t talk about one without the other.
In the documentary film The Clean Bin Project, which follows a Canadian couple as they commit to living waste-free for a year, one of the first scenes is a trip to the grocery store and an attempt at buying cheese at the deli counter that’s simply cut off the block and not pre-packaged. Buying food that isn’t packaged, even if you’re on a steady diet of whole foods, is difficult. When even bananas come wrapped in plastic, you know there’s a serious problem at hand.
Talk all you want about being an environmentalist, but if you haven’t taken a serious look at what is in your pantry, you could just as well be running over endangered turtles with a Hummer. An addiction to packaged foods doesn’t just contribute to waste, it contributes to an entire infrastructure that doesn’t support local farmers, encourages us to overeat and leads to obesity and is destroying our environment by continuing a process that is fueled by monoculture, deforestation and a multitude of other things you learn about in Environmental Studies 101. If living more in balance with nature is the path we want to take towards a more sustainable world, we have to start with food.
Question what you eat, where it came from and commit to simplifying, because real food isn’t complicated. Just because the sea salt, fennel and olive oil crackers came from Trader Joe’s and not from Safeway doesn’t mean you should be buying them. They’re still packaged, probably full of preservatives, and do you even know how easy it is to make crackers yourself?
If we have time to devote to watching trashy reality television, we have time to devote to eating well. No excuses.
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.