Buying food mindfully is an individual labour of love that benefits all of us.
‘Mindful shopping is a potentially important practice, a socially engaged act that could collectively help us save the world from its greatest threat: us’. ~ Daniel Goleman.
Floating pigs and heavy metal.
The recent eye-opening scandals have taught us how our food chain has become so complex, so geographically intricate that it seems to have escaped our control. This sends us back to our roots, to the simple truth that to know what food we’re eating, we need to buy it locally, grow it or forage it.
Keeping it local is very enjoyable when it comes to fresh products (fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy). Who doesn’t love strolling around farmer’s markets on a Sunday morning with a Latte?
When, however, you start thinking about the provenance of rice, tea, beans, cereals, spices, chocolate, and all the dry goods we need to buy in shops: there’s the rub.
This is where I hit a brick wall a few months ago when planning a veggie chilli and burrito night at home. I went to my local health shop and then to the British supermarket chain Waitrose to try and buy some black beans.
I soon found out that the only beans on the market appeared to be Chinese. My faith in Chinese agriculture has not exactly been bolstered by further alarming news this year about water pollution. In June, Bloomberg reported ‘abnormally high levels of cadmium, mercury, lead and arsenic in many Chinese rivers, and described how cadmium had then been discovered in rice.
Earlier this year, the BBC showed some disturbing images of dead pigs washed up on the banks of the Huangpu river. Thousands of them were found floating on several other rivers around Shanghai.
The reporter then added that 40 percent of rivers are polluted and 20 percent are unfit for human contact.
Alarmist or not, but unfortunately I now associate black beans with floating dead pigs on heavily polluted rivers.
Since I’ve started to be a more mindful consumer a few years ago—inspired by the Mind the Planet talk by Bernie Clark and also by David Goleman’s article, I’ve been trying to minimise my buying products that come from another county and another continent.
Starting to look at the provenance of our food opens the door to a lot of questions and dilemmas.
If we look into our dry food cupboards and have quick scan through the country of origin of our pulses, grains, hot drinks, dry fruit, we are often in for a trip around the world.
Also, ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ labels don’t protect us from agricultures with high water pollution. As Mike Adams at Natural News pointed out a few months ago, a lot of organic food comes from China, which poses ethical, environmental and potentially health problems. For example, Adams discovered that ” there is no limit to how much mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic and aluminum is allowed in “organic” products.’
Worried that my choice of black beans had shrunk to one, I raised the issue with Waitrose.
So began my Big Black Bean Battle.
When I wrote to them, Waitrose did a good impression of pretending they cared, feeding me all sorts of reassuring messages, half baked apologies and eventually dubious mysteries:
‘I’m sorry if this is disappointing, but there are certain things we keep confidential for commercial reasons.’
In other words, they could tell me but then they would have to kill me.
In the end, nothing came out of correspondence. I didn’t have delusions of my singular influence on their buying decisions. I simply wanted my voice as a conscientious consumer to be heard and to open a discussion. I did a fair bit of research, wrote to several institutions, associations and bean growers. The British Edible Pulse Association was incredibly helpful and informative. Now I feel like I’m becoming an authority on beans, latin names and all.
The world is our oyster.
Producers, importers, wholesalers, and supermarkets should support our choice to buy more responsibly. Over the last decade, we’ve come to understand that in many cases it isn’t so. Big institutions and companies are not always there to look after our interests as consumers.
This disappointing realisation doesn’t mean we should just throw in the towel in discontent. All the contrary, there is much motive to come out of our stupor and confusion.
Nothing is more important than what we eat and drink. There are many ways to defend our basic needs for healthy food grown by people who respect and value quality, us and the planet.
Being a mindful consumer means to be empowered. Once you become aware of your choices, the world is your oyster. Also, even if our decisions are individual, if we all try to make more steps in the right direction, we collectively contribute to change. Our simple everyday choices don’t go unnoticed on a global scale, as Daniel Goleman explains:
‘To the extent that more people shop mindfully, it will have a telling impact on the market. Market share will shift toward more ecologically virtuous products. Brand managers will pay attention, creating a virtuous cycle whereby our choices based on sound, transparent information influence the market. It will pay for companies to innovate, to change their practices, to go after our dollar by upgrading the ecological impacts of what they’re trying to sell us.’
1. Keep it simple, local and seasonal.
If you are confused when shopping for food, going local is the safest move to keep it clean and simple. Find out when the farmer’s market takes place, where your closest co-op is, which farmers sell direct.
This requires a bit of research but in many ways it is the exciting part. Shopping locally and direct is so much more interesting than trudging round your shiny and impersonal supermarket on automatic pilot.
Soon you will have identified where to buy your veg, fruits, dairy, and it will become a part of your food shopping routine.
2. Create new food networks.
Mindful buying is about creating new habits but also developing new networks.
My search for locally grown black beans has taken me to many great places. First of all, I’ve discovered BigBarn, a British community website that helps consumers find products grown in their area. Thanks to them I found a British grower of pulses who is bringing back fava beans and other indigenous variety of pulses.
Locally produced pulses is a great breakthrough in my conscious consumerism treasure hunt. We are big consumers of beans in our household. I always feel bad when I realise they have been shipped half way across the world to reach our kitchen. Indeed, when you start looking at the radius of provenance of your dry food it can range from ten miles (if you’re very lucky) to thousands of miles.
Reducing these distances requires craftiness but the internet is a great way to fill in the blanks in your shopping map.
3. Spend less than you think.
It is a common misperception that buying local is pricier than the supermarket. Because you’re going directly to the producer your food will often be cheaper than you think. My local co-op confirmed that their prices competed well with supermarkets. Only for products like potatoes did supermarkets always undercut them. Nothing compares however with the taste of a lovingly grown potato.
Even when farmer’s market food is more expensive than your supermarket, chances are you won’t waste it. Remember that sadly more than 30% of the food produced worldwide goes to waste. So, compare one gorgeous and juicy heirloom tomato and 5 hard and tasteless conventional tomatoes.
Which one are you likely to eat in the first two days you bought it? By buying fresh, local, healthy, appetising products, you are more likely to avoid food waste, and hence to save money.
4. Flea hops toward self-sufficiency.
The best way to avoid outsourcing is to grow your own. Not a gardener? Me neither!
My first effort towards self-sufficiency is to grow alfalfa. I’m hoping that by watching them sprout every day, I will develop a taste for gardening.
Starting small you might get hooked on the grower’s joy to pick and eat your crop, even if it’s just alfalfa.
You don’t have a garden? Then maybe micro gardening is for you.
The next best option is to forage: no planting, no watering, no weeding, and it’s free.
Another free food option is gleaning, which is collecting leftovers fruits and vegetables after the harvest is over. Check out if you have gleaning network in your area.
5. Don’t shop on auto-pilot.
The supermarket is the last place you might want to take your mindfulness practice to. For many of us, shopping for food is just another chore. Who wants to keep their awareness switched on during mundane activities? However because our decisions when buying food are determining, vigilance is of the essence.
Daniel Goleman writes:
‘The key step in socially engaged shopping is to be mindful in the moment we’re about to make a decision about whether to buy something rather than going through the store in our usual trance. At every point of buying, we need to pay attention rather than act on impulse.’
6. Pick a battle and fight it.
Pick a battle and start to campaign for it with shops, institutions, or even corporations.
Even if these Goliaths will barely feel the strain of your challenge, at least your voice will have been heard. Being assertive will help you regain confidence, instead of feeling vanquished/defeated by the tentacles of an increasingly complex food industry. You’ll take away a lot of unexpected benefits and victories from your food fights.
The by-product of many personal battles is a journey of self-discovery. So not only will you become more educated about food, but you will possibly find your voice and unearth some of your skills.
7. No silly quesitons.
The mindfulness practice invites us to be curious and inquisitive.
On your journey of conscious consumerism you may ask yourself simple questions: ‘where is this product from?’ ‘how many ingredients?’ ‘GMO or not?‘ In the end you might wonder: ‘should I really eat this?’ Any gap in knowledge can be addressed to customer services.
They might shrug off your queries with platitudes, but you might also be pleasantly surprised. For scrupulous sellers, transparency will not be an issue, and it’s always a joy to come across an enthusiastic retailer, as opposed to an unconvincing supermarket drone.
If your curiosity isn’t satisfied, the next stage will be: ‘how can I replace it?’ This is where your power lies as a mindful consumer.
8. Vote with your feet.
We always have a choice even if it is as basic as to buy or not to buy. We win a small battle each time we decide to bring our business to a more ethical seller.
Anytime we vote with our feet, we make an impact on the market. Despite the pink slimes, the horse meat, and other horror stories, the food industry has also been changing positively over the last decade. More organic food is available, and provenance is labelled more clearly in many shops.
This is the result of our behaviour and reactions as consumers.
9. Know a few rules of thumbs.
Mindful shopping takes time, structure and organisation. You will quickly realise that once you have done your research and developed new shopping habits it will become a second nature. A good way to systematise your shopping is to come prepared with a few rules of thumbs. It will help you to maintain focus once you are at the shops.
It can start of course with checking labels and provenance, as well as knowing your fruit and veg ‘Dirty Dozen‘.
Little mantras can be very efficient and they help to diffuse the marketing pressure we are submitted to in supermarkets. ‘If you can’t pronounce, it don’t eat it’ is a classic.
My list of rules includes a few nuggets of wisdom from Bernie Clark’s talk: ‘don’t eat an animal you can’t bench press’, (at home we’ve extended this to dairy i.e. no more cow’s products as they are the biggest responsible for gas emissions), and also ‘buy in bulk whenever you can’.
10. Educate yourself and others.
A great range of tools, from social networks to websites and apps, are available to keep us up-to-date on subjects like sustainable food, nutrition and conscious consumerism.
Save some bite size reads for your lunch break. When you make a discovery share it, hashtag it and spread the word.
11. DIY food.
It is always better to choose food that is minimally prepared and tampered. It is virtually impossible to keep track of provenance as soon as the list of ingredients grows. So you are better off doing the job yourself. This is why a whole array of timeless skills is re-emerging; from baking, to preserving, to jam and even cider making. Making your own also helps you staying way from additives, salt, sugar, bad fats and other nasties.
DIY food is a great opportunity to be playful, getting the whole family involved, coming back to our roots and regaining control of what is in our plates. My bible for DIY foods is the Rodale Whole Foods Cookbook.
12. What’s your treat?
The notion of treat and indulgence varies from one person to another. Many criteria are at stake, from calorie count to price. If we put our carbon footprint and ethics in the equation, this adds an extra challenge.
In his talk, Bernie Clark explains that ‘what you do once in a while is not the problem’. He recommends eating local apples or pears instead of bananas for example. He adds that he’s ‘not suggesting to never have a mango lassi’.
This means not buying exotic fruits regularly, and instead have some once in a blue moon as a treat.
This reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld where Kramer is excited about the Mackinaw peaches from Oregon that he buys once a year.
He describes eating them as ‘having a circus in your mouth’ and ‘a miracle of nature that exists for a brief period’.
Now that sounds like a treat to me! It shows how eating less of a good thing will keep it special.
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Ed: Cat Beekmans
Reference: In A Mindful Consumer Can Help Change The World – Mindfulness Revolution edited by Barry Boyce (Shambhala).