Can You Really Save The Planet With The ‘Right’ Food Choices?

Food justice experts share what you should buy for dinner that'll make the biggest impact.
The-Tor via Getty Images

We hear it all the time — if you want to save the planet, you should “vote with your fork” when you’re shopping for groceries or ordering from a restaurant. But is it possible for your cart of groceries or your restaurant choice to make a difference in the environmental pressure that much of the food system puts on the planet?

While an individual’s impact may be small, it’s still a good idea to try to make smarter choices overall, experts said. And once those smaller choices are part of your routine, you can begin to move on to bigger issues with greater policy implications.

We talked to experts about why they’re more flexible than you might expect, what they put in their own shopping baskets, and what you should be doing to effect lasting change, long after you’ve finished eating.

Here’s the one best thing to do, if you have to choose.

If you want to make the world a generally nicer place to live, one simple step is to put more plants on your plate, especially if they’re as close to their original state as possible. “Steer clear of too many ultra-processed foods,” said Dan Crossley, executive director of the Food Ethics Council, a nonprofit providing independent advice on food and farming ethics.

He cited the food guidance offered by Eating Better, an alliance of nonprofits focused on food production: “Less and Better.” The goal is to eat fewer foods that come from industrial-type livestock farming (that’s the “less”) and more foods from growers who take good care of the earth (the “better”). If you follow the motto and put less meat on your plate, Crossley pointed out that another “better” can come from food choices like fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and pulses.

You can’t eat ‘perfectly,’ so relax a little.

As with just about every other aspect of food these days, we can tie ourselves in knots worrying about whether or not we’re making the right choices to support farmers, workers and the planet. The experts we spoke to acknowledged that and urged us to give ourselves a break.

“It can be hard and overwhelming to try to make good choices about food, even for me, and I spend my whole day thinking about these issues,” said Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the food studies program at Syracuse University.

When choosing between a processed veggie burger and whole-food vegetables, the veggies are the better choice.
Mint Images via Getty Images
When choosing between a processed veggie burger and whole-food vegetables, the veggies are the better choice.

“I do my best to seek out local and seasonal foods, but I live in upstate New York, so that’s not always possible,” she said. “So if I need to feed my family a balanced meal, I might buy fruit from California or Mexico in the winter, and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good parent or a good person if you need to make different choices, so don’t feel pressured or guilty.”

Economic limitations mean not everyone can make a huge change.

Even bringing up topics like food justice and sustainability carries along with it a whole host of assumptions that those selections are being made by people with the money, time and other resources needed to conduct careful, ethically minded shops. While that may be some of us, it’s not all of us, and the experts both acknowledged that and pointed to it as a reason that we need to be careful in the ways we center these types of conversations.

Sure, you can go to a farmer’s market, if there’s one close by, if it’s in season, if it’s open when you’re off work and if you can afford all those well-tended, gorgeous vegetables and pricy local meats. The hard fact is that fresh food often costs more, and organic food almost always does. So while it’s great to have lofty ideals, you also have to acknowledge the limitations of your life and budget. It can be hard to consistently make choices that tick all the boxes, and the big food manufacturers present many easier choices.

“We must stop thinking of ourselves as passive, helpless consumers at the end of a long chain, who can only buy good food if our wallets are big enough.”

- Dan Crossley, executive director of the Food Ethics Council

“With subsidies supporting monoculture farming, the most affordable foods are highly processed,” said Dr. Amy Sapola, a functional medicine practitioner (IFMCP) and doctor of pharmacy. “Only 10% of Americans consume recommended 2.5 servings of vegetables daily, and 60% of calories in the standard American diet comes from ultra-processed foods.”

Don’t put too much pressure on individual choices.

It turns out that food justice requires much more than just one thought-out grocery shopping trip or one plant-forward food order. The food industry has the power to start changing things from the inside out, but in the meantime, we can make choices we feel good about. Those choices may eventually influence sway some changes in the way food producers operate. But at the same time, it’s OK to offer yourself some grace. “We just can’t put too much pressure on individual choices, and we can’t purchase our way to a better food system,” Minkoff-Zern said.

The good news is that you can make a difference, but it’s going to take more work and commitment than swapping out conventional for organic produce and calling it a day. “For true change to happen, it’s going to take things like a change in policy, investment and regulation, just for starters,” she said. “We need much bigger thinking, not just concern about one food item or one part of our diets.”

But don’t give up hope, because these people haven’t. “We must stop thinking of ourselves as passive, helpless consumers at the end of a long chain, who can only buy good food if our wallets are big enough,” Crossley said. “Instead, we should think of ourselves — and treat each other — as food citizens who have genuine agency to shape food systems for the better.”

“The bright light I see is building community and shifting demand to products and services that are more in line with our needs and values individually, but also as a collective,” Sapola said. “We can collectively influence change.”

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