Shopping Sustainably

The choices you make when shopping for food affect your foodprint.

It starts with where you shop and extends to what you buy once you’re there. Whether you’re buying fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ market or meat and fish at the grocery store, there are questions you can ask to learn more about how that food was made or raised to make the most sustainable choice possible.

We have tips and resources for helping you navigate market stands and grocery aisles and for making sense of food labels and claims. You’ll become a more informed shopper and learn how you can lower your foodprint — buying food that is better for people, animals and the environment.

Farmers' Markets

Though they work on slim profit margins and are very busy, farmers take pride in their products and are generally happy to answer questions about how they raise their animals and grow their fruits and vegetables. In fact, it’s often farm staff (and not the farmers themselves) you’ll find at farmers’ markets, and these folks may or may not be as well informed. In any case, please be respectful when inquiring about farming practices even if not all of your questions get answered.

Farmers’ market websites might publish the standards for participating in the market. If they require participants to “grow your own,” that ensures the vendors are not merely purveyors of produce from other farms, or other countries. Check if standards about pesticide use or synthetic fertilizers are mentioned. Do they require vendors to be either no-spray or low-spray?

If you find produce that is not in season (see our Seasonal Food Guide) or that only grows in tropical climates (like bananas, pineapples, papayas and mangoes) — unless you’re in Florida or Hawaii — this is a good indication that this particular farmers’ market does not have universal standards. For more information, ask the person running the market.

CERTIFICATIONS AND PRACTICES

When you approach a stand at the market, keep your eyes peeled for any certifications or mentions of the farm’s practices highlighted on their signs or banners. Examples include Certified Organic, Animal Welfare Approved, Integrated Pest Management, etc. Keep in mind that some farms might use organic practices but have decided not to move forward with a certification process, due to cost or even philosophical objections. Some might even use processes that are “beyond organic.” This is a good reason to engage in a conversation!

Specific Farmers’ Market Questions

Is your farm Certified Organic? If not, do you use organic processes?

Organic agriculture uses farming practices that minimize pesticide use, build healthy soil and are free of genetically modified components, hormones and antibiotics. Organic farmers, ranchers and food processing facilities must follow standards established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), to label and market their products as USDA Organic. For livestock, this includes animal health and welfare standards. Some food producers may decide that USDA Organic certification is not worth it, because of cost or other reasons, even though they follow organic standards and beyond.

Read more about Organics here.

Are your animals raised on pasture?

At the heart of sustainable livestock production is the well-managed pasture, forest or rangeland, where animals can move and graze freely. Raising livestock on pasture is labor intensive and expensive, from pasture and farm management to securing reliable processing facilities — which means that the resulting meat, milk or eggs are more expensive, too.

Read more about Pastured Livestock here.

Do you feed your cows anything besides grass and hay?

Cattle are ruminants and graze on grass and other forages (plants that grow alongside grasses). However, no grass grows in feedlots. The diet of feedlot cattle primarily consists of grains. Their diets can also include animal byproducts or byproducts from the food system, such as candy, orange pulp from juice factories, cookie crumbs and other bakery waste. Grain increases the acidity of the digestive tract, a condition called acidosis, which causes physical discomfort, intestinal damage, dehydration, liver abscesses and even death.

How are your cows finished?

Finishing is the process an animal goes through as it’s readied for slaughter. If an animal is finished on pasture, it eats only grasses and hay up until its slaughter and is 100 percent pastured/grassfed. If an animal is finished on grain, it means that for a certain amount of time before processing, it was fed grain. The most common grain used is corn, which is the hardest for cows to digest.

What do you feed your chickens/turkeys?

Sustainable poultry are raised on pasture and eat grasses, greens, grains and insects; whereas factory farmed poultry may be fed feathers, blood, other animal byproducts and manure, as well as grain, mineral and vitamin supplements, arsenic and antibiotics.

How much time do your animals spend outdoors each day?

Claims about “access” to outdoors might be misleading, because what some companies may mean by access is a small opening onto a concrete patio. Find out if the animals go outside onto fields or pasture, and ask how much time each day the animals spend there. There’s a big difference between four minutes and four hours.

Are your animals ever given antibiotics?

The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics by the modern food animal industry is now responsible for the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria that pose a grave threat to public health. About 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the US are administered to livestock, and primarily to prevent disease, rather than to treat infection. By choosing to purchase products from animals that are never given non-therapeutic antibiotics you are helping to prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains.

Read more about antibiotic use in livestock agriculture here.

Which pest control methods do you use on your farm?

Insecticides (bug killers), herbicides (weed killers) and fungicides (fungus killers) are all pesticides. They are administered in great quantities in industrial agriculture and have negative implications for both environmental and human health. Many of the pesticides used today are taken up by roots and distributed throughout the plant. Organic farmers and those who use Integrated Pest Management manage to protect their crops from insects without using pesticides, or with extremely limited use.

Supermarkets

When you’re at the supermarket, keep your eye out for signs and labels on the food. If produce, pay attention to the state or country of origin. Is it labeled Organic? Does the store have an Organic section? If meat, look for labels like Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Grassfed or Certified Organic. If eggs, look for labels like Organic or Animal Welfare Approved.

User our Food Label Guide to see what those labels tell you about how the food was produced.

If your supermarket does not provide guidance on produce origins, or if you wish they carried more local and sustainable products throughout the store, speak with the manager. Encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. Supermarkets respond to customer demand, and you might convince them that it’s worth their while to shift their purchasing.

Specific Supermarket Questions For a Store Manager

Do you sell any sustainably raised or organic meat, poultry, dairy or eggs? Do you sell any sustainably grown or organic produce?

Many grocery stores now have an organic section, which is sometimes a subsection in a larger area of the market. For example, the organic produce might be all together, the organic dairy all together and/or organic canned goods all together.

If the manager says “No,” then ask if the store could order some sustainably raised and organic products, which you’d purchase. Keep in mind that meat, produce and dairy department managers, as well as butchers, are usually extremely busy and have a lot of products on their shelves. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t know anything about sustainably raised food. If enough people ask questions reflecting a desire for sustainably raised products, store managers will respond by stocking them.

Remember that stores operate on slim profit margins and have limited shelf space. If you convince a store manager to start selling a certain item, make sure that you buy it when it’s in stock.

Fishmongers

Making choices about seafood can be complicated. Whether you’re buying from a refrigerator or frozen case at a supermarket, or are lucky enough to have a store or farmers’ market stand dedicated to fish, there are certain key things to look out for.

You’ll want to know where the seafood is from, how it was raised and how it was caught or harvested.

Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide App for a handy, on-the-go reference for seafood sustainability.

Specific Fishmonger Questions

Where is your fish/seafood from?

More than 80 percent of the seafood purchased in the United States is imported from abroad, often from countries where standards for the fishing industry as relates to food safety, the environment and labor aren’t as reliable or perhaps don’t even exist. Look for fish/seafood that was caught domestically.

Is this shrimp from the US?

America’s favorite seafood is shrimp; we eat nearly four pounds per person per year. Unfortunately, the vast majority of shrimp is imported and therefore is not a good choice (as discussed). Stick with US shrimp and look for labels you can trust.

Is your seafood farmed or wild?

Overfishing has depleted the oceans of popular species (as well as other fish and ocean wildlife), while also damaging the marine environment and polluting our waters. To reduce this decline and replenish fish stocks, fish farming has become a popular alternative to wild fishing. If the fish you are purchasing is farmed, try to pick a fish that was raised in a closed system (a “recirculating farm”), which cuts down on pollution concerns and keep the farmed fish from escaping into the wild; also make sure that it was not fed a diet containing fish meal.

Shellfish farming (including oysters, clams and mussels) is not considered ecologically harmful; in fact, farmed shellfish can have big environmental benefits, making it a good seafood option for you.

Your fishmonger might not have that level of detail. Unless your fishmonger can assure you that their farmed fish has been raised in a sustainable way, choose wild or domestic finfish when you can, or choose farmed shellfish.

Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide App for a handy, on-the-go reference for determining seafood’s sustainability.

How was your fish/seafood caught?

Most conventional methods of fishing unintentionally result in the catching and killing of extra marine wildlife – known as bycatch – harming or eliminating excess fish and disrupting natural ecosystems. However, other methods of fishing exist that protect wild fish populations and are better for the environment. Ask your fishmonger if their method of fishing has high bycatch or habitat damage. If the fish is described as “line caught,” that’s a good sign.

See the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool to make sure that your fish wasn’t harvested by people working under slave-like conditions, especially children.

Other resources to help you be a more sustainable shopper:

Use these tools to find labels you can trust, food that’s in season, and information about the sustainability of specific foods you’re looking for.