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The No-Supermarket Challenge

Posted by Naomi Schoenfeld on

The No-Supermarket Challenge.

You may have noticed that I'm not fond of supermarkets. Over time, as our eating habits have changed, those pinnacles of modern efficiency have become strange places where I wander the aisles, looking for something to eat... but where there just doesn't seem to be any food.

(Caveat time! Big food companies don't really like being told their products may be less than healthful. In fact, as one writer from the Huffington Post discovered, they can get downright irritable about it. Therefore, this is a very good place to remind my readers that anything I say about a healthy diet is purely my biased, uninformed, and probably inaccurate personal opinion. Don't listen to me. In fact, you should probably to stop reading right here, and go get your information from the corn syrup industry's informational website instead. Oh, and from a licensed nutritionist. Consult that nutritionist before making any independent food choices. And now, back to our regularly scheduled broadcasting.)

Today we're going to do a little thought exercise to find out how much actual food is lurking in that mega-food-market of your choice.  Imagine your local supermarket in your mind's eye, the shelves packed with food. Get lots of detail in. The meat department. The snack food aisle. Canned goods. Prepared foods counter and produce department. Don't use a Whole Foods for this one, just yet... we'll cover that later.

You know what I'm talking about. This sort of thing.


Ready? Let's start with the basics:

  1. First, remove from those shelves anything that contains corn syrup. (Why? Here's a starting point.) Think crackers, cookies, breads and baked goods, prepared snacks, and most sodas. Just erase that stuff from the picture, leaving empty shelves instead.
  2. Next, wipe any produce from the 'dirty dozen' list, a list of the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues. Goodbye, pretty much all the basics in the typical produce aisle. 
  3. Back to the shelves. Time to erase all items that contain ingredients from that dirty dozen list. Think fruit juice, dried fruits, applesauce, pie fillings, and fruit leathers, as well as canned and frozen forms of those fruits and veggies, and any boxed or frozen foods that have them as ingredients.
  4. Now, remove anything that contains artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Don't forget artificial sweeteners. Goodbye, diet sodas, regular and low-calories candies, candy bars, and snacks, more baked goods, half of breakfast cereals, pop tarts, anything with icing, anything brightly colored, and pretty much all foods marketed to children. 
  5. Now it's time to remove anything that contains genetically modified ingredients, such as GMO soy and corn. Unless you're buying organic, that's pretty much anything you haven't already erased that contains corn or soy -- or an ingredient derived from corn or soy. And there are a lot of those. Check this list for the corn ingredients, and this one for the soy.
How's it looking in there? Pretty empty, isn't it. We're not done yet.
  1. Now remove everything that was created by feeding any of the above. Corn and soy chicken and animal feeds in the U.S. are nearly exclusively GMO, so erase all the eggs and products that contain eggs, as well as beef, chicken, and other meats, lunch meats and hot dogs, and any foods that contain those foods, unless they are specifically labeled as using non-GMO feed. Empty that dairy case, too, and get rid of anything else in the store that contains dairy or dairy-derived ingredients. Don't assume you can leave the organic brands untouched. If they're one of the larger suppliers, it's quite possible they practice cow rotation -- where cows spend most of their lives in conventional settings, except during brief rotations through one 'organic' facility that uses organic feed -- or, the brand can always just falsely label its products.
  2. Last but not least, edit what's left to fit your own personal food needs. Remove anything that you're allergic to. If you're gluten-free, erase anything left that has gluten. If you only eat whole grains, get rid of all the processed stuff. If you're all about fair treatment of workers, remove items made by companies with known abuses on their records.

If you're like me, your result looks something like this:

Oh, the abundance.


But what is the alternative?

Let me first say that our household is incredibly, hugely fortunate, both in having access to high-quality local foods, and being able to afford them. Between government subsidies of certain crops (such as corn destined to become corn syrup and substandard feed for animals crammed into feedlots - see above) and non-support for other crops (say, apples), the slow demise of the middle class, and the skew of our work and leisure schedules away from schedules that allow things like cooking, many -- too many -- parents and families face the choice between buying three-for-ten-bucks generic frozen pizzas and a bottle of cola that will fill their kids up, or giving them half an apple each and calling it supper. (Yeah, I know. That single mother over there, working three jobs at minimum wage, battling the stress of debt, and trying to fit in everything else at the same time, could be bulk-purchasing rice and beans and cooking them from scratch to feed her family healthier food for mere pennies a day. All I can say is, try her life on for size before making judgements. It's not that simple, and we all know it.)

Where we get our food:

  • From our own garden. Over the past five years, we've gradually turned our suburban back yard into a pretty substantial raised-bed vegetable garden. For about six months of the year we get all our fresh veggies from our back yard, not counting the surplus that we're still learning to preserve, or extras, like sprouting seeds, that give us greens during the cold months. The garden isn't large enough to produce significant amounts of the real winter staples (potatoes, turnips, winter squash, and the like), but it does better every year. 
It also provides kale chips. Lots and lots and lots of kale chips. Because there's only so much fresh kale you can eat in one day.
  • Our CSA. When you join a CSA, you pay an up-front cost for a share of the farmer's harvest that year, rather than a specific quantity of food. This usually takes the form of a basket or box each week, filled with your share of whatever was in season. Some CSAs deliver to your home, while others have centralized pick-up spots. You can use the Local Harvest website to find a CSA near you.

    I've participated in CSAs for years, but I have to say, in our present home, we've hit the jackpot in a big way. Brookford Farm, our current and favorite-ever CSA, doesn't just supply vegetables. You can sign up for eggs, dairy, pastured meats, local maple syrup, even a weekly loaf of fresh-baked bread. The quality is amazing, and their farm practices exactly the sort we want behind our food. 

    No garden? No problem.
  • The local farmer's market. In actuality, between our garden and the CSA, there's very little left for us to get at a farmer's market. It's a great backup resource, though, and just plain fun to visit. 
  • Bulk purchases, with a preference for local sources. We use to connect with some bulk sources, such as our whole grains and flours, as well as other online resources. Other things we get locally, such as bulk honey from a local beekeeper.
  • The natural foods market. In our pre-Brookford days, we did a lot more shopping at natural foods markets. We still pick up some perishable items there that aren't part of our garden or CSA share - like bananas, say, or fresh ginger - and it's great to have a way to get some extra milk if company's coming, but we really don't rely on them for our basic foods anymore.
  • The supermarket. Yes, now and then we do visit our local supermarket. We stock up on toilet paper, garbage bags, and the like, and then high-tail it out of there and back to our native habitat. 

Figuring out the best way to obtain fresh, healthy food is an ongoing process, but it feels good to have come this far.

How about you -- where do you get your hands on the foodstuffs of your choice? How do you juggle cost vs. quality? Leave a comment to share with the class.

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