When I shop for groceries, cook, and eat I try to think about the impact of my food decisions. I try to act in environmentally and socially responsible ways, though I’m the first to admit that I’m not always successful and could try harder. On a graduate student’s budget, however, local grass-fed beef and free-range, antibiotic-free poultry are out of my price range. And I’m not willing to go vegan. Goat cheese, steak, and smoked salmon are just too important to my taste buds.
I think that it’s important to make sustainable and ethical food choices when you can. But I’ve generally stopped judging and faulting individuals for their food decisions. It’s not that I don’t want Americans to stop buying farm-raised shrimp from Vietnam, Chilean seabass, or produce wrapped in an outrageous amount of plastic. While end consumers highlight problems within our food systems through their food choices, they are not the root cause of all those problems. Food systems cannot be boiled down to the simple supply and demand curves from college econ courses. Demand does drive supply, but production systems, marketing schemes, and socialization also influence consumer behavior.
Individuals should not always be held accountable for making decisions in their best interest, especially when environmentally and socially conscious decisions adversely affect them or their families in the short term, while having little impact on the entire system in the long run. An individual’s buying power is small. You might ask: what if everyone makes healthier decisions? Yes, the buying power of many individuals is much larger. But ask yourself this: which is the more efficient way to consolidate market leverage? Educating all consumers and convincing them to act in the interest of the commons, or demanding change on an institutional level so consumers can make responsible decisions even when they aren’t thinking about the implications?
A few months ago I joined a task force to connect healthcare institutions in New England to local, small-scale farmers, fishermen, and food businesses. Hospitals hold enormous buying power and have recently expressed an interest in making their food options more sustainable and local (and palatable?). Health Care Without Harm, a non-profit that works with institutions to leverage their buying power to create change, is trying to facilitate connections. This is good news for small-scale farmers and fishermen struggling to compete against industrial-scale operations. Selling produce at farmer’s markets can only take a business so far. By supporting local farms and fisheries, institutions act as consolidators, making healthy, local, responsibly harvested food available to a wider range of people, not just those who buy CSA/CSF shares or shop at the weekly market. Institutions that invest in a small potato farm in Vermont, a fishing co-op in Rhode Island, or an incubator kitchen in Boston send a signal to the market and consumers that healthy, fresh food grown and prepared by our neighbors is the best form of food.
People forget, or never fully appreciate, the massive role that institutions play in our food decisions. You and your fish are not the only ones involved in supermarket transactions. Institutions and businesses shape how systems work and we adjust our behavior to those systems. If Walmart stopped providing customers with grocery bags tomorrow (paper or plastic) people would grumble for a bit and then quickly adapt. If you’re laid up in the hospital and your family can’t bring you takeout, you either eat the hospital food or go hungry. So while it’s good to teach your friends and family about sustainable consumption, to encourage them to make responsible choices, it’s even more important to expect companies and institutions to make those responsible choices as well.