Empowered Shopping Tips from the Green Side of the Aisle

Grocery shopping in greener pastures saves the environment from an onslaught of pesticides, hormones and other pollutants. Using simple strategies, you can make sure to reduce your footprint the next time you purchase food.

“One of the biggest energy uses in our food system involves the length of our food supply chain,” says Mickey Swisher, associate professor in the sustainable agriculture department at the University of Florida. “Many products travel hundreds or thousands of miles to arrive at their point of purchase. Often, moving the products expends more energy than growing them did. Buying local items eliminates some environmental transportation ex-pense. But don’t be fanatical. Buy locally only what it makes sense to buy locally.”

Kat James, a holistic beauty and lifestyle expert and bestselling author of The Truth About Beauty: Transform Your Looks and Your Life From the Inside Out, cautions, “Be aware that some national companies, such as Organic Valley, have local and regional producers.” So, brands with countrywide distribution may have community connections.

Beyond “Food Miles”

And buying local isn’t always the best solution. “A South American coffee cooperative or a spice company in the Philippines might be building lives, communities and futures for their impoverished populations,” says Barbara Haumann, the press secretary at the Organic Trade Association (OTA), a member-based business association focusing on supporting the organic business community in North America. So a faraway enterprise could be your greenest—and most compassionate—choice.

“Go for recycled products—like tissues and paper towels,” says Swisher. “And refuse to run to the store for just a few items.” Whittle shopping trips to the bare minimum with timeless tactics like keeping a running list of depleted, or nearly depleted, supplies.

“Sidestep processed foods,” says James. “They contain ingredients that create industrial pollution. Exotic perishables that travel from distant destinations also deserve your evasion.”

Ingredients in typical household supplies amount to a virtual catalogue of the most toxic chemicals in our universe.

“Switch to healthful cleaning products,” says Ashley Hawkins, a spokesperson for Whole Foods. When reading labels, look for a limited list of familiar, natural substances.

Shop Green Year “Round

“Organic berries have a very short season, but they’re always available frozen,” says Hawkins. And today’s flash-freezing technology assures that the produce has the same nutrients as their fresh-picked counterparts.

The presentation of the products involves another aspect of “green” grocery shopping. Packaging, both in its creation as well as its disposal, exacts a heavy environmental toll. Minimize the pollution and the trash caused by unnecessary wrapping. “Just reducing your waste by 10 percent, you can eliminate 1,200 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year,” says Hawkins.

“Purchase in bulk,” says Craig Minowa, an environmental scientist at the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Bring hard plastic containers from home and you won’t need disposable bags. Consider the pennies of extra weight a donation for a better world.

Buy mega sizes when available, and then divvy the food up at home into reusable individual portions containers. Voila, instant waste reduction!

Bag It

Also, bypass those flimsy, non-biodegradable plastic bags in the produce section. Instead, place your selections carefully in your cart. Or grab larger bags from the register area, and place produce directly into them. “Learn what kinds of containers your local recycling system collects and then buy foods wrapped in that material,” says Swisher.

Perhaps the tensest moment in any grocery store trip occurs when the bagger asks, “paper or plastic?” Even experts disagree on this issue. How does one measure plastic’s lighter landfill load against paper’s heavier, but compostable, constitution? With either form of packaging, the environment pays. Consumers take home one billion single-use plastic bags every day, says Hawkins. And a 15-year old tree produces just 700 paper bags.

You can curtail the cost of containing your purchases with good, better or best solutions.The good solution avoids new bags with every grocery store visit. “Stash bags in your car,” suggests Krista Coleman, a spokesperson for Wild Oats. “When you bring in your own shopping bags at Wild Oats, you can donate five cents per bag to local charities or, if you prefer, keep the nickel for yourself.” Other organic supermarkets motivate customers to reuse bags with similar incentives. Some Trader Joe’s stores put their reusable baggers” names into a lottery and award gift cards.

Another solution would be to locate venues in need of bags—like neighborhood rummage sales, church bazaars and school sales projects. “Vendors at farmer’s markets always need bags,” says Swisher. “So, I take the ones I collect to them.” Alternately, she suggests requesting managers at your local grocery stores to install bins for recycling bags.

Perhaps the most environmentally considerate solution for toting your provisions home involves ultra-reusable cloth. “Consider investing in organic fiber shopping bags,” says Haumann. You can find a list of suppliers by going to the Organic Pages Online and clicking on “Fiber and Textiles.”

Eating Green

When attempting to walk with lighter steps, consumers need to consider that they are what they eat. “Conventionally raised animals exact heavy environmental tolls,” says James. For this reason, as well as the knowledge that pesticide and drug residues collect in the fat of animals, purchasing their organic equivalents makes more sense, she says.

The general public apparently agrees. Organic meat and seafood sales grew by an explosive 67.4 percent in 2005, according to the Natural Food Merchandiser. “People don’t recognize the importance of organic dairy products,” saysMason Arnold, president of Greenling Organic Delivery, a delivery service based in Austin, Texas. More and more evidence points to a relationship between hormones in milk and early puberty in teens, preteens and even grade schoolers. “If you buy only one organic item for your kids, make it milk,” Arnold advises.

James says that eggs “are the most undervalued organic food,” a source of two of the hottest antioxidants going for health and beauty: zeaxanthin and lutein. Serve eggs at breakfast instead of unhealthy (and expensive!) cereals, she urges. That way you can conserve your money and the Earth, all the while elevating the nutritional profile of your family. Of course, vegans would disagree.

Some people point to the high cost of organics as a serious problem. “The price depends on the type of food,” Minowa says. Organic m

eat, poultry and dairy products have higher price tags than their conventional counterparts. But organic oats cost about the same as their chemically loaded cousins.

“And, remember, you’re not paying the true cost of conventional food,” says Haumann. What bill will we finally pay for removing pesticides from the water? And just how much time, money and energy will be needed to free this world of asthma triggers?

But, if higher price tags on organic foods conflict with your budget, be picky. “Opt for organic apples, bell peppers, cherries, peaches, potatoes, raspberries, strawberries and spinach,” says Coleman. “This produce packs the highest pesticide level when grown conventionally. And, by choosing the organic version of foods your family eats most often, you will further slash your family”s—and the Earth”s—exposure to any contaminants.”

While you’re searching for the best food options, don’t be fooled by colorful impersonators. “I do warn people to beware of the “all natural” or “green” labels,” says Swisher. “These terms are not regulated nationally so they have no legal meaning.”

Finally, “explore the personality of the companies you patronize to verify that their business practices don’t conflict with green values,” says Minowa. Trace the background of manufacturers or producers (guides such as The Better World can help) to see if their company actually supports missions in sync with your beliefs.

Knowing you’ve made the most environmentally sound and nutritious decisions regarding your family’s sustenance will let you eat meals with a clear conscience—except, perhaps, for the calorie count.