Can you help me simplify my food shopping in a way that still supports my values?

February 2007

Dear Laura,
It seems like I spend a lot more of my free time wandering around the grocery store trying to make the "right" choices these days and I can't help but thinking "Isn't there an easier way?" Can you help me simplify my food shopping in a way that still supports my values?

Edward Dixon
Warrenton, Mo.


Dear Edward,
I know exactly what you mean. The other night, I went to the store to buy an apple and a pork loin. Because I was buying meat, I went to a specialty store with the hopes of finding a certain brand that I know works with family farmers. I found the pork but the apple was another story. There were organic apples from far away and conventional apples from New York. I stood there, in a slight sweat, weighing my values and debating calling another Farm Aider to talk through my options. It was only one apple but it took me a full five minutes to decide which one I should buy. I finally decided that since I was going to peel the apple (less exposure to pesticides) and I know some apple growers in New York (personal connection to a certain farm), local was the best choice for me.

That was one piece of produce - if we all had to go through the store and stop at every bin to brainstorm, call a friend, consult a buying guide, and ask the grocer a couple of questions, we would never get out of the store and enjoy our purchases. All of these things are necessary and, in some cases, unavoidable but how can you reduce your time spent pondering and maximize your time spent cooking or eating good, fresh food from family farmers?

You, like myself and the rest of the Farm Aid crew, live in a place that does not have year round farmers markets. This means you're going to the store for most of your groceries in the winter months and probably for staples in the summer. I am assuming that you know about how to find local foods when they are in season so, for the time being, I am going to leave that part out of this piece. I have two ideas that might be helpful for you: buying clubs and neighborhood cooperatives. I think both of these options will allow you to consolidate more of your shopping and help streamline the choices that you need to make.

Buying clubs were popularized in the 1970's and are seeing a resurgence among consumers who are looking for high quality and organic food for a better price. Essentially, a group of people get together (most clubs recommend between eight and twelve families to start, and place monthly orders of bulk food which is delivered to a designated drop off point). Essentially, you are able to plan ahead for all of your staple groceries, buy in bulk to get a better price, and make selections based on your personal food values. Depending on which club you go through you will find a stronger emphasis on organic and family farm identified foods. One added benefit of joining a buying club is meeting people in your community who share your values. To find a buying club in your area or to learn how to start one, check out United Buying Clubs, which currently operates in 37 states.

Many buying clubs from way back eventually developed into neighborhood co-ops. Co-ops are member-owned grocery stores that often specialize in local, organic and natural foods. If you are used to a mega mart grocery shopping experience, a co-op will feel a little different. For the most part, they are smaller, organized differently and carry products and brands that you may have not seen before. On the other hand, you have a much better chance of finding family farmer identified or organic food within their walls. And, perhaps most importantly, co-ops are designed for you to give your input, get involved and stock the kind of foods that you want to eat.

The basic principals of a cooperative grocery store are that it be rooted in community and the needs and desires of its members by means of a democratic process - you cannot own more than one share of a co-op. This means that you can find a lot of the foods that you want under one roof and, if you can't, you can be sure that there is a way to make your voice heard. My local co-op has an annual membership fee of $25, a pretty minimal financial commitment that gets you access to a wide variety of benefits from discounts to a vote for the board of directors or you can even run for the board of directors yourself.

On a deeper level most co-ops subscribe to seven principals: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education and information, cooperation with other cooperatives and concern for community. You can read more about these principals at the National Cooperative Grocer's Association web site. Lists of member co-ops and information on how to start your own co-op can also be found on the site. Another good place to find a co-op near you is Local Harvest where you can search by zip code.

So in short, I think one way to limit shopping anxiety is to shop with businesses that you trust, that are interested in your opinion and that carry the products you want. If you can find such a place, then your dollars will support family farmers, companies that are supplying the food, and a business that is working in line with your values. There will always be difficult and confusing choices, but if you look for shopping opportunities that feel like shooting fish in a barrel instead of finding a needle in a haystack, you will save yourself a headache or two.

Thanks for the great question, and keep sending them!
Laura