Co-op Ends

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

Eating Healthy in 2018

What comes to mind when you think of healthy foods? If you asked a dozen people this question, you’d likely get a dozen different answers. In fact, the FDA is in the process of redefining “healthy foods” and recently needed to extend the public comment period on the use of the term “healthy” with regard to labeling of food products in response to the overwhelming volume of feedback. It seems that we have a lot to say on the subject and those of us looking for guidance on how to eat a healthier diet find our heads spinning with often contradictory information about what it means for foods to be healthy.

Because one of our Co-op Ends is to provide the community with healthy foods, it’s a topic that we spend a lot of time thinking about, so when we learned that Michael Pollan would be giving a lecture at Dartmouth College we jumped at the chance to send a few staff to hear what he had to say. When Pollan gives lectures, it’s standing room only. Food and diet book writers quote him constantly, Time Magazine named him one of the most influential figures, and he’s the subject of many a food-related conversation. His broad appeal is probably an indication of how confused we are about food, and how much we love it when people make it very clear to us what we should and shouldn’t eat. He has a way of making it all sound so simple:  eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.

Following Pollan’s simple food rules “could render fad diets irrelevant, positively impact the environment, champion local food producers, and bring the processed food industry to its knees” says Eve Adamson of NCG. So why aren’t we busy toppling the $60 billion diet & weight loss industry and tackling Big Food? Certainly not because we’re busy cooking. The average American spends just 27 minutes a day cooking or preparing food. That’s less than half of the time we spent cooking in 1965. The average adult spends more time watching, scrolling and reading about food on TV and social media than they do cooking their daily meals! In 2015 and 2016, we spent more money at restaurants and bars than at grocery stores. The rise of convenience foods and ready-to-make meal services like Blue Apron points to the notion that we simply feel too busy to shop for and cook healthy meals at home. But, as Pollan points out, this isn’t so much about a lack of time and more about the way we use our time these days. “The phenomenon of Americans working more than ever is a myth”, says Pollan but “the sense that we have less time is real”.

So, what is lost when we as a society decide we’re too busy to cook? We lose skills, we lose confidence, and we lose control of our health. We’re outsourcing food preparation to big businesses and their priorities when feeding us are very different from the priorities we’d set when preparing a meal for our family at home. They’re interested in producing food as cheaply as possible yielding the highest profit possible. They would like us to believe that it’s very complicated so that we’ll leave it up to them. They’re also interested in making you a repeat customer, spending millions of dollars in a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and cheap but, unfortunately, not so healthy.

So, what is a health-conscious shopper to do? Skip the powders, pills, food-like substances, and wacky diets. Resolve to eat real food, not too much, and mostly plants. Reclaim your kitchen and choose to think of cooking as an act of revolution! Also, remember that it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition; even choosing to cook three meals a week at home can make a huge difference. Discard the narrative that you don’t have time, it isn’t fun, and you don’t know what you’re doing. Just keep it simple and enjoy every bite.