I’ve talked a fair amount on this blog already about frugality, health, and sustainability and the way all three of these concepts intersect. Biking, I believe, is the epitome of this intersection. Biking saves gas and car maintenance and repair costs, so is good for your wallet. Biking is exercise that is easily adapted into your daily schedule, so it is a convenient and consistent way to be physically active and thus healthier. Biking prevents CO2 from being released into the atmosphere by cars so is better for the environment than driving. Biking is the best! However, there are some situations in which these three concepts do not overlap as wonderfully, and where there are more items to consider when making decisions about what is best. One of these is surrounding food.
Food is important. Food is an expense that we all share and eating is an activity that we do every day (if we are fortunate and, say, not fasting for religious or other reasons). Food consumes a large proportion of your budget and food is what makes your body! Have you thought about that lately? You put something in your mouth and by magical intestinal efforts your body takes out what is useful and integrates it into your being. It’s easy to forget about this, as it is easy to forget that the food we eat comes from somewhere and, if we shop at mainstream grocery stores, likely has a less-than-ideal origin.
When you buy groceries from a big box grocery store like Rainbow, Cub, or Target the produce that you get has been treated with pesticides. These are chemicals that are bad for people and bad for the environment. Food grown with pesticides is acutely and chronically harmful for the farm workers who distribute the pesticides and work in areas where pesticides are used. Many of these farm workers are paid very low wages due to migrant status and do not have the resources to address health issues that might arise. Pesticides are bad for you too. Acute exposure to pesticides can cause death, and long term exposure to pesticides (even in small doses!) can lead to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as cancer and reproductive disorders. Pesticides can harm local ecosystems by killing of beneficial microbes and bugs opening the door for invasive species to intrude. Pesticides can travel far, contaminating drinking water sources.
Buying food from supermarkets often supports companies like ConAgra and Monsanto, which have been criticized and sued for their part in pollution and poisoning communities across the U.S. They have been responsible for hosts of food recalls due to contaminated meat and other food. They utilize antibiotics and growth hormones in meat to streamline operations while negatively affecting the public’s health. They have been known to target and systematically eliminate family farms.
Every single thing you buy is a vote. Let me say that again, every time you purchase something you are casting a vote of confidence for the way that product was manufactured, transported, and sold. When you support supermarkets that are not committed to environmental sustainability and health, you are essentially telling them that you support the work that they do and you give them the money to keep doing it.
This makes it very important to consciously vote with your dollars. Realize that your decisions contribute to the demand side of the supply and demand at the heart of our economic system. How do you demand safe, healthy, ethical food? Shop at co-ops, farmer’s markets, or purchase a CSA share. Learn where your food comes from, how it was grown or raised, and who grew or raised it. Food co-ops are usually worker owned, providing rewarding work opportunities for people in your community. They often buy produce from local, organic farms and invest money back into the community in various ways through courses and education initiatives. Farmer’s markets are great ways to skip the middle man and get to know your farmer and where your food came from. A CSA is community shared agriculture, where you purchase shares of a farm at the beginning of a growing season and reap the benefits in weekly boxes of whatever your farm is producing that week. All of these methods allow you to get closer to the production process and support healthy food and a healthy community.
There is a fundamental tension here for people who want to be frugal while still living in sustainable, environmentally ethical ways. Organic, local food is more expensive than food from supermarkets and is often out of reach for many people. There are various ways you can address this for yourself. Buying in bulk and insourcing is a way to reduce your grocery bill in other areas so you can purchase what you need from places you support. Utilizing farmer’s markets and CSAs are often cheaper options and allow you to get closer to your food source. Planting your own food in your yard or a community garden is a great way to really get your hands dirty (literally!) and begin understanding what it means to produce food for yourself.
You may say, “I can’t afford to buy organic food or shop at a co-op,” but what you’re really saying is that you value other things more than your health and the health of the environment. There are certainly people who cannot afford healthy, affordable food and this is an entirely different discussion of food justice, but having access to the internet and time to read this blog means that you likely are not one of these people. Cutting down on spending in other areas will allow you to act upon your values by voting with your dollars.
Voting with your dollars doesn’t stop at food either. Everything you buy supports something, you should do some research to find out what that is and then decide whether you’d like to continue supporting it.
In a capitalist economy, your money is your voice. Spend it wisely.