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How 'Green' Shoppers Navigate the Neighborhood Grocery Store

The grocery store produce section—a haven for all green shoppers. Photos by Andy Kroll

The half-empty jar of pasta sauce and remaining few slices of cheddar sit there looking lonely on my shelf of the refrigerator, like two shy wallflowers at a middle school dance.

In other words, it’s time to hit the grocery store and restock.

I had intended to write my “Going Green”-themed grocery shopping post about buying my produce and bread at the local farmer’s market on Saturday mornings, but decided otherwise, out of the worry that students without easy access to a farmer’s market wouldn’t find help in the post. So instead, I went to the regular grocery store—that ubiquitous Midwest chain, Meijer—and attempted to shop there as green as possible.

Which was, of course, far greater of a challenge. Meijer does promote and sell its own “Natural” and “Organic” brands of, say, peanut butter or laundry detergent; but, as The New York Times’ Mark Bittman recently pointed out, these supposedly eco-friendly, sustainable products aren’t always the answer, having evolved into a fad more than a revolution in how we eat and live:

[E]ating “organic” offers no guarantee of [healthy eating]. And the truth is that most Americans eat so badly — we get 7 percent of our calories from soft drinks, more than we do from vegetables; the top food group by caloric intake is “sweets”; and one-third of nation’s adults are now obese — that the organic question is a secondary one. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the primary issue in the way Americans eat.

To eat well, says Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food,” means avoiding “edible food-like substances” and sticking to real ingredients, increasingly from the plant kingdom. (Americans each consume an average of nearly two pounds a day of animal products.) There’s plenty of evidence that both a person’s health — as well as the environment’s — will improve with a simple shift in eating habits away from animal products and highly processed foods to plant products and what might be called “real food.” (With all due respect to people in the “food movement,” the food need not be “slow,” either.)

Healthy shopping doesn't just mean "Natural" and "Organic"

If there’s one tip I can share about how to buy healthy food at regular grocery stores, one that I learned from both Michael Pollan and experience, it’s to shop from the perimeter walls of the grocery story and to avoid the inside lanes and shelves. After hearing Pollan mention this is in a great talk at Google’s headquarters, a lifetime of shopping with my mom became so much clearer in my head—the walls in most grocery stores are lined with coolers and freezers and shelves with watering devices, i.e., for the food that’s most fresh. The inside of most stores, on the other hand, contains food loaded with preservatives and chemicals and ingredient lists numbering fifty long with indecipherable words. The kind of food that would still look the same if it were left on those shelves for decades.

Fresh on the outside, most everything else on the inside.

So I shopped the walls, and left the inner aisles untrodden. The end result? My cart was filled with far fresher food, food that will go bad in a week if I don’t eat and food that costs quite a bit more. For college students, with our hectic schedules and erratic behaviors, the inner aisles are indeed more convenient—it’s food that keeps for longer, takes less time to cook, makes for easy on-the-go snacking.

But is it healthier? Not at all. Support local economies and local farmers? No chance. And it’s a matter of deciding whether you’re willing, as Pollan says, to vote with your fork: You shopping decisions impact how food policy in this country is developed, and supporting fresh-grown, local food not only keeps your healthier but communicates an important message.

A produce sale, ahem, ripe for the picking

And to be honest, shopping fresh can be done a budget. Here’s a tip of mine: When you’re at the store, look for fresh produce that’s nearing its expiration date. Usually, tomatoes or peppers or apples or pork chops (though I’m not eating many of those lately) that are close to their expiration are marked way down because the stores need to offload those products. A $4 bag of lettuce becomes a $1.50 bag of lettuce. A box of roma tomatoes for $3 becomes $1. For the Kroger chain grocery store near my house, I’ve found that most Friday afternoons there’s a lot of produce discounted throughout the store, and if I’m planning a dinner or even doing a bit of my own shopping, I can get great fresh food for cheap.

The catch is that you have to use the produce sooner—in the next day or so, if not that very evening. For someone like myself who likes to cook, that’s not a bad thing; for those averse to cooking, this may be a bit more of a problem. Either way, it’s a nice exception to pricey fresh food standard.

There’s always coupons, too, in the city and student newspaper, online, at the campus union or student center.

A major problem with shopping at this particular Meijer is that I have to drive there. It’s more than three miles away, and without a bike capable of holding five or six bags of groceries (I’ll get to those shortly) or a Zipcar membership, I had to fire up my little-used car parked in the driveway. I haven’t driven the car much at all in the past three weeks, but it was a necessary evil for this shopping excursion.

There were those bags, too. I ended up using plastic bags at the checkout counter—again, far from the best option (bringing your own reusable bags), but I will say that my roommates and I save our plastic bags and reuse them for other tasks around the house. Will they ultimately still end up in a landfill, though? Yes. Note to self: Time to invest in some reusable bags, Andy.

A reader from another post mentioned the issue of milk in the context of cattle producing greenhouse gases, that if we cut our milk consumption, like I’m trying to cut my meat intake, that would decrease animal-related emissions. On this particular trip, I did not buy any milk or milk products. I’m not much of a milk drinker (bad experience with a glass of curdled 2% milk), but the issue of buying milk or getting calcium from another source is a tough one: We need calcium and milk is a popular source of that nutrient, but the cattle that produce that milk for us do indeed have a substantial carbon footprint. It’s a dilemma on which I need to be better informed saying much else, though soy milk, which I take in all my coffee, is a potential alternative.

Shopping fresh may seem expensive, but with a bit of extra effort and flexibility, it can be done affordably for college students on slim budget. I picked up some fresh tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, bakery bread and peanut butter (the kind with only “Peanuts” as an ingredient and with the oil on top—the sign that it’s fresh) this time around.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I longed for some of those preservative-laden goodies lining the store’s interior—a bag of sour-cream-and-onion chips, some Keebler’s cookies, a frozen mac-and-cheese dinner. Though I’ve been pretty diligent in the past year or so to stick to fresh foods, the siren’s call emanating from those frozen pizza section (once a major vice) still tugs at me on occasion. Hopefully, the more I stick to healthy, fresh food, the more that will go away.

I’d love to hear from anyone with their own tips on shopping healthy on a budget that don’t necessarily involve farmer’s markets or more eco-friendly stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Market. To all you foodies out there, please do not hesitate to share your own tips or ideas, or send them to me at akroll [at] umich.edu. I’d be more than happy to write another post with suggestions!