Buying Criteria

Between Two Ends

“98% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than animal milk mozzarella!” boasts the advertisements for a new variety of vegan cheese I was recently excited to try. A product that is energy efficient, meets my dietary needs (gluten and dairy free), and tastes delicious? A win-win situation! But as I add it to my basket, I always feel conflicted. This cashew-based cheese is certainly not local. What is the true environmental and social impact of this product that is not boasted on the label? 

So what is a Co-op shopper to do? The truth is, there is no one way to eat. We all have to make informed compromises every time we fill our shopping carts. 

Sometimes I feel like there’s nothing left to eat that doesn’t conflict with at least one of my environmental, social, or dietary criteria. I recognize that statement isn’t true–choosing my foods through these criteria is something I’m able to do because I have the privilege of food security. And yet still, as a conscious consumer who also has dietary restrictions, I am often perplexed by the balancing act of feeding my family. The paradox of choice–a malady of the privileged–sneaks into my consciousness each time I grocery shop. 

People have been telling me how to eat for most of my life. Since I was diagnosed with a digestive disease at the age of 10, I’ve had people tell me everything from: “What you eat has no impact on your condition,” to people telling me to eat a highly limited diet. At different points, I’ve been told not to eat: dairy, gluten, all grains, sugar, peanuts, chocolate, onions, garlic, all raw vegetables, tropical fruit, and more. I’ve also had people tell me I could cure my condition without western medicine if I simply ate: beans at every meal and mostly cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage. Or if I just ate a lot of coconut oil. The list goes on. It’s exhausting. 

But my choices about what I eat go beyond myself. I believe that grocery shopping can be a radical act. I can use my dollars to support businesses–such as our Co-op–that make a difference in the world as a mission-based retail organization. 

I am grateful that the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op strives to meet a variety of people’s needs, wants, and perceptions of the world. The Co-op’s job is to provide a range of foods that meet the organization’s buying criteria, and also serve the Co-op’s Mission and Ends statement. Within that framework, the rest is up to us as shoppers to make our informed compromises–all of which are unique from other shoppers. 

To be honest, I’ve continued to buy the vegan cheese even though in some ways it represents a personal tension for me, and a tension between two of the Co-op’s Ends: “vibrant local economy” and “environmentally sustainable and energy efficient practices.” I’m curious: how do you, as member-owners, navigate this tightrope? Is there one End that resonates with you more deeply than another and drives your decisions? I’d love to know:

Amanda Warren is our Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op Board President

There’s No Trick to the Co-op’s Halloween Treats

When I was a kid, people in my neighborhood that wanted to hand out a healthier option on Halloween apparently had two choices: pennies or pencils. I can remember staring at those items, strewn on the carpet amongst my brightly colored loot, so out of context, I could barely understand what they were. What is this, a pencil? How’d that get in here? A penny? Weird.

Now that I have a kid who has an allergy to red food dye, though, I see things differently. Those unconventional neighbors have been recast in my mind as bold, progressive heroes in the Halloween battle against strange new allergens and high fructose corn syrup. I’ve even considered following suit—what alternative could I offer visiting children? The flimsy spider ring? The tiny box of raisins?

Nolike fun. Prohibition? That ain’t me. For kids, Halloween is pretty much about candy, with a little dress-up and staying up late thrown in for good measure. So as I often do as a parent, I turned to the co-op for help—I needed gummy bears made with plant dyes and I needed them now!

Food co-ops have come quite a distance towards meeting us halfway on our, uh, less-than-healthy cultural traditions. There are abundant options for Halloween treats and—psst—they are ridiculously good. Even I-hope-we-get-fewer-kids-than-usual good, if you know what I mean. With ingredients like organic sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, sustainable coconut and palm oils instead of trans fats, and fair trade chocolate, these treats aren’t sleeping on the job—they are accomplishing multiple goals!

I’m not kidding myself to think that any of that is necessarily healthier to eat (though I believe an argument could be made), but I do know that organic is healthier for our environment, and for the health of the people involved in making our candy, fair trade is best. In the chocolate industry, in particular, fair trade certification is the easiest way for us as shoppers to know that the cocoa beans used to make your chocolate were not farmed using unpaid child labor and other human rights abuses. Despite multiple news reports about unpaid child labor in cocoa production going back as far as 2001, the majority of chocolate we eat in the United States is still produced that way. I’m not in the business of bumming you out—so please do your own reading if you’re interested.

I am thankful that there are so many choices these days for how I spend my money; the ability to make a difference in the lives of the people in our communities and around the world that produce our food is abundant and, thanks to committed people all along the supply chain from farm to food co-op, readily available to me. Cultural holidays like Halloween knit our communities together—how great to live at a time where I can hand out candy and feel pretty good about it, too!

By Mandy Makinen of NCG Co-op