College can be hard on the ethical eater. Most days we’re focused on making ends meet. Who has time to think about that free-range, grass-fed, organic yuppie stuff when your bank account is bottoming out?
And yet, small-footprint eating used to belong to us. Just think of your depression-reared grandmother’s waste not, want not sensibility–those with modest means have always been the masters of doing more with less, and I’m not going to have the food industry steal that out from under me with cheap convenience foods and factory farming.
I say that it’s time to reclaim ethical eating from the privileged few. If you’re with me, here are some tips:
Reuse, re-purpose, and re-imagine what you have
Yep, the aforementioned grandmother was right. It simply doesn’t make sense to buy something and not get the most use out of it that you possibly can, either for your wallet or the planet. Of course, this is a skill that takes time to develop. I know that I wasted my fair share of food during my first year of buying groceries for myself. But now I’m better at shopping with a game plan in mind: if I’m picking up a box of cornmeal to make muffins, maybe I’ll have cornmeal waffles the next day, a masa-based chili the next, and a few bowls of polenta after that. The internet can be a great resource for this sort of thing. Googling “uses for ______” has kept many an item in my kitchen from going unused. Once you know that your food isn’t going to go to waste, it makes more sense to spend a few extra bucks on something that’s not coming out of a factory farm.
Join your local co-op
For those with a strong interest in ethical eating, a membership at a co-op can be a great investment. Co-ops combine the ethical options of a farmer’s market with the selection of a grocery store, often at a lower price thanks to a community-owned business model. A membership at Central Co-op costs $60 and is payable in small installments. Members receive a slew of discounts at Central and other co-ops, so a membership will pay for itself in no time.
Like bulk shopping? Try bulk cooking
Ah, the indefatigable allure of Costco. Though they ostensibly offer lower prices, bulk stores can be minefields of impulse buys and excessive packaging–both of which we’re trying to avoid. However, stocking up is an undeniably smart strategy for college students on the go, so try making large batches of soups, stews, muffins and other freezer-friendly dishes from what you already have on your shelves. This is also a great way to use up leftovers and things that would otherwise be thrown away. For example, all vegetable ends and pieces that would otherwise be tossed can be saved and used to make a big batch of veggie stock to freeze, which can form the base for any number of dishes: minestrone, lentils, quinoa–you name it.
Do your homework
Feel-good labels can mean surprisingly little. “Free Range,” for example, simply means that birds are not caged and have some access to the outdoors, though there are “no requirements for the amount, duration, or quality of outdoor access,” according to the Humane Society. In addition, beak cutting and starvation-induced molting are both permitted under the “Free Range” label. Hardly the pastoral scene you’d imagine. Similarly, “Organic” does not necessarily mean that food was ethically grown, and many great family farms that are worth your business cannot afford official organic certification. This is not to say that these labels are always bogus–they’re helpful tools, but don’t go spending big money for them before you know what you’re really paying for.
Prioritize and take baby steps
Making the switch to mindful consumption isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen quickly. The best way to start is to decide what matters most to you, and prioritize it. Maybe you can’t afford to eat all organic, local products (let’s face it, none of us can). But if lowering food packaging waste is important to you, buy from bulk counters and bring reusable containers and bags. If you’re all about animal rights, lower your meat intake and buy small amounts of ethical meat to use wisely. If the idea of pesticides in your fruit gives you the heebie-jeebies, focus on going organic. It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but good habits beget better habits. Make it a process, not a destination.
If you have more affordable, earth-conscious grocery shopping tips, send them in to [email protected]!