You know how this goes. Today is the day that you put into practice all those resolutions that have been percolating in your head since you ate that third piece of pie on Christmas Day.
In 2015, you’ll cut out sugar. You’ll enough with the alcohol. You’ll sacrifice sleep, so you can get to the gym. You’ll stop buying junk, stop detouring through the drive-through, stop reading Pinterest because it just makes you want to eat. You’ll do better, by doing less.
I have a different idea.
Like everyone else perched on the cusp of a new year, I fret about how my choices affect my well-being (and, let’s be honest, my dress size too). But as someone researching food policy, I worry as well over how my choices affect the food system: how what I eat supports—or discourages—the changes I want to see.
So instead of phrasing my resolutions as denial, this year I’m framing them as actions I can take on behalf of my health and the food shed’s health as well. And because the biggest way I interact with the food system is to spend money to purchase its products, I’m choosing five categories of foods to buy that I believe can make a difference, and that I want to see thrive.
In 2015, I’ll:
Buy meat raised without routine antibiotic use
Routine administration of antibiotics, as growth promoters or in disease-preventing prophylactic dosing, is a pillar of industrial-scale livestock raising; take them away, and better meat and better animal welfare naturally follow. (Note: Treatment doses, to cure sick animals, are fine.) Most of the major meat-production companies now include no-antibiotic meat in their offerings; key phrases to look for are “raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics ever.” Some companies, such as Perdue, are going entirely antibiotic-free. Fast-food companies offer this option too, from stalwart Chipotle, which has always purchased meat raised without routine use of antibiotics, to Chick-fil-A, which in 2014 announced it would go antibiotic-free in 5 years. An important note: Supporting antibiotic-free meat leads naturally to supporting grass-fed and pasture-based raising, and if you can afford it, those meats, and the farmers that produce them, are very worth your support.
Purchase only US-produced shrimp
We eat a lot of shrimp in the United States: More than 1 billion pounds per year, most of it imported from shrimp-farming nations in Asia. We eat so much in part because farmed shrimp are inexpensive—and what makes them inexpensive is the industrial conditions in which they are raised. Academic reviews and government audits have consistently shown that foreign-farmed shrimp contain high levels of antibiotics and banned chemicals, including carcinogens, and investigations by nonprofit organizations have demonstrated that shrimp farming is hugely destructive to coast environments. The sustainable alternative: Support U.S. shrimp. There are healthy wild shrimp-fisheries remaining in the US, particularly in Louisiana and Florida and also in Oregon. (The season for delicious pink Maine shrimp has sadly been suspended.) Buying wild-caught US shrimp protects you from drug and chemical residue while supporting the small towns that depend on the wild fisheries. A sustainable alternative, in some parts of the country, is US-farmed shrimp—which is produced without antibiotics, fungicides or hormones either in inland ponds, such as Alabama’s Greene Prairie Shrimp, or completely indoors like Massachusetts’ Sky 8 Shrimp.
Choose trash fish
The counter at the place where I buy fish showcases the same finny mega-fauna as most other supermarkets: salmon, cod, sea bass, tuna. Those varieties are delicious and healthy, but, unfortunately, over-fished and imperiled, precisely because they are the species that we like to eat and know how to cook. One thing that would lighten the burden on those essential fish would be for us to eat lower on the ocean’s food chain—and the more of us who do, the more of a market it will create. Where I shop, I’ll be asking for herring, sablefish, mackerel and lingcod. To help me identify which fish purchases will help the oceans recover, I plan to rely on the great Seafood Watch site and app built by the Monterey Aquarium. And because these fish are often smaller, bonier, oilier and otherwise different from what I am used to, I’ll hope that the nonprofit Chefs Collaborative stages one of its “Trash Fish Dinners” in my area, to give chefs (and me) ideas.
Look for local cheese and dairy
The collapse of local dairy economies and their struggling revival is one of the undertold stories of the food movement. (In 2013, the nonprofit FarmAid posted a great explanation of problems in federal milk pricing, which favors mega-dairies and works against small farms.) To support local producers, it is crucial is to secure a market for their products—so in 2015, I’ll be doing my best to buy local yogurt and cheese. In Atlanta, where I live most of the time, that means I’ll be looking for the products of established properties such as Sweet Grass Dairy and brilliant upstarts such as Many Fold Farm. Locating local cheese can take a bit of Googling: Try searching “[your state] cheese guild” or “[your state] cheese council” to uncover lists such as those maintained by the Vermont Cheese Council, Michigan Cheese Makers or the California Artisan Cheese Guild, or search by state at this page maintained by the American Cheese Society.
Seek out ethical chocolate
It’s a sad truth that one of the most delicious treats is produced by some of the worst practices. For more than a decade, investigations into the chocolate trade have documented rainforest destruction, child slavery, and multi-level corruption. Following on the recommendations in this great Valentine’s Day guide published by Grist, I plan to look for smaller companies making chocolate that is organic, ecologically certified, and committed to fair trade. It looks to me that a shorthand for that search is to find producers who work “bean to bar” (instead of buying products from middlemen) and who have carved out direct relationships with farmers. Some examples: Askinosie, Equal Exchange, and Theo.