Patty Lovera is our Food Policy Program Director and has a wealth of knowledge on the ins and outs of all things food-related in our work, among many other things. We’re kicking off our drive for monthly supporters and thought it would be valuable to share with our members and readers one of our favorite perks of working with Patty — her advice for smart food consumption.
Angie Aker: Food & Water Watch has led the way in research, watchdog, and advocacy work to keep food trustable. What do you think would most surprise the average consumer to know about the food systems behind their grocery shopping?
Patty Lovera: The "illusion of choice." There are so few players now. There's been so many mergers and so much consolidation that if you go to the cereal aisle, there are a lot of choices, right? There's a thousand different types of flakes or nuggets or whatever is in your cereal but most of those products on those shelves are made by four companies. We have a report called "Grocery Goliaths" which made that point and it's like — you're choosing between three kinds of margarine and they might all be made by the same company so is that really a choice? That's one. We have lots of examples of that. I think another big area is people actually just don't really have a clear sense of where food comes from. We import more than we used to. That's not always clear. People don't know and this is by design. This is not because people are dumb; this is because it's very hard to get this information or —
AA: It's like purposeful obfuscation!
PL: Yes, exactly, and the way that happens is with the marketing, right? I think people are not super clear on how little information we're actually getting from a lot of food labels and the grocery store itself is super manipulative. Again, it's not people's fault because it's just really hard to do this. I've seen people be shocked when they realize the difference between the picture on the package — it’s happy, idyllic, always green grass, always a red pick up truck — and that picture is pretty far removed from the way a lot of foods are produced and it's really hard to figure that out for yourself.
AA: And don’t the corporations take advantage? They know that the consumer is there trying to get in and out of the store with the screaming kid in the shopping cart. And they're just looking at the really bright lines of what appeals to them at the moment.
PL: Right. And marketing works! There's a reason they spend so much money on marketing, because it's effective, they're good at it! So the level of self-defense you have to have as a shopper bums people out. But that is the state that we're in. That also takes us to the fact that — you'll hear from me a thousand times — we can't fix this stuff in the grocery store. It's such a terrible place to make decisions, it's super manipulated, the labels aren’t telling you anything. So we have to fix this stuff more systematically than just shopping well.
AA: Right. And so it’s really about fixing those things on the policy level so that corporations are forced to play fair in what they're presenting to all consumers versus the idea as a consumer that “As long as I know that what I'm looking for, I'm safe.”
PL: Yes, there is definitely an equity issue. You shouldn't have to do this much extra homework and be super well read and have 15 apps on your phone and be tuned into the current news. It shouldn't take that much work to get acceptable food whether it's a food safety issue or environmental impact or how workers were treated. If there are things that are unacceptable, they should be illegal and we shouldn't be dealing with them by letting people know which label is less yucky than the other. If things are unacceptable we should not do them, as opposed to putting that burden on consumers to sort it out yourself while they're playing the Muzak and you're being stabbed in the elbow by a child and someone's running you down with a cart and they're pumping bakery smells into the air. You're not going to fix food policy in the grocery store.
AA: That's the perfect way to say that. I think it's not fair to expect the consumers —
PL: It's a burden! Yeah. Why is it on me? I look frazzled when I go grocery shopping and I mutter to myself because I'm reliving meetings I just had in aisles of the grocery store. I regularly have to buy things I'm not totally clear on and I suspect are not what I want. But, one there's not a better option and I'm not going to another store or two I'm just not clear and I've done enough research that day and it shouldn't be on me. If they're doing something that's that bad it shouldn't be allowed, right? And it shouldn't be on you to protect yourself in that way.
AA: Absolutely. What are the top things that consumers should do to take back some control over their food options?
PL: So there's kind of two levels to answer — there's kind of home economic tips and some self defense-like shopping tips. We're all going to be in this system unless you're totally off the grid, which I don't know anybody who is — even farmers go buy some food at the store.
So there are tips, but then I think we're always going to drive home that the best thing you can do is think like a citizen when you're thinking about your food. So you get involved with Food & Water Watch and we tell you, “This, this, and this is happening. Let's change these rules.” That's the first thing. Support us and help us yell at them if they're doing it wrong or make it a political issue.
I think the other thing that people don't think about is that this is a midterm election year. There is going to be some politician at your parade or whatever event in your town and they don't get asked about food. They just don't — they get asked about Social Security and taxes and all the other stuff and all the stuff going on with the culture wars. They really don't get asked about food. They tell us, “I'm not getting asked these questions” — so put candidates or elected officials on the spot with something about food. I don't even care what it is — just asking them food questions would be real progress. It could be local, like, “What are you doing about school lunches in our town?” Or it could be, “What are you doing about trade deals and food imports?” or “Why don't I know this with food labels, why do these labels mislead me?” I don't even care what it is, just ask something that's related to food so that they start hearing about it because they really don't get asked.
AA: Right, to start signaling that the public is watching this.
PL: Exactly AND they expect them to do something about it! Because they're always like "food ehh, it's local” or, you know, like “Just make sure you shop better if you’re concerned about this problem.”
Grocery stores are terrible places to make decisions. So do your homework at home, if you have the internet at home, and pick one food. Think about what's important to you. Is it animal welfare? Is it food miles? Is it this, that, or the other and do your homework at home and figure out what's going to work for you. Is buying organic what matters to you? "Organic" tells you a lot but it doesn't tell you everything.
We get a lot of questions about animal welfare. So go look up the certifications and figure out which one is telling you the most, looks legit, and talks about how they inspect and really tells you what you're looking for and then go find that in the store. But the best place to do that is at home. Then a tip I usually give people is “Pick one food to start with,” otherwise you make yourself crazy. So if you buy something every week, start with that food. You may find your dream label, your dream company on the internet, but if they don't sell it in your town, it's not really a viable option. So you find the one that is actually going to work in your life.
Then the other tip — and again this is not a cure-all by any stretch — you can buy something direct from a farmer, so something at a farmer's market or a CSA. It's not advice I'm going to give to somebody in Boston in February because it's not going to be very feasible then. But summer is a great time. I don't get all my food from the farmers market, that doesn't work. But making the effort to buy some things direct from a producer is worth it. Going and having a conversation, you can get a hell of a lot more information with that direct exchange than you ever could from a label. So it's important for those farmers, it's a better economic exchange for them, builds up local economies, all that good stuff, but it also lets you learn more and I think it's educational for everybody involved just to think about what you can grow in your area and do it. We're not naive about the limitations of direct marketing, but I think you can learn a LOT and then that helps you go out into the food world and navigate it further.
AA: It seems like it's definitely a hybrid of taking steps to learn more as consumers while also knowing that we really each need to throw our weight behind organizations like Food & Water Watch that are changing things on the policy level. So it doesn't have to be this much work forever.
PL: Yeah, exactly. It's craziness.
AA: So a lot of foods have problematic production practices that lead to health threats for consumers personally or for public health in general, like environmental hazards that happen because of the way they're produced. If you could get consumers to change their shopping habits with just one food item what would you pick?
PL: This is hard. And it's loaded — any time people talk about what to eat there’s huge potential for people to feel judgment. One of those tricky ones is what to do about eating animal products. What we know is that the way we are raising animal products in the United States is really problematic (the vast, vast majority of them) and on average, we're probably going to need to eat less of them to do a better job on things like the climate. That doesn't mean I'm saying you can't ever have milk again. So IF you're choosing animal products, think hard about what system they're coming from, if they’re coming from factory farms. And if that shifts you to "I'm going to buy better stuff and budget-wise that means I'm going to buy less stuff," that seems like a good way to navigate that choice — “less and better.” It's not saying you have to go full vegan and that there isn’t a place for animals in agriculture, but if you're going to buy something and it's in a different cost category because they're doing a lot of things better [in the production], you can do that math and figure out, "Yes I'm going to invest my money in that way and that means I need to use that product differently." So I think kind of getting creative about not worrying about 1-to-1 substitutions, but buying better, and not eating giant mounds of meat at the center of every meal, is a shift more and more people are going to start making.
And then the other big one is people ask constantly, “What about organic? Is it worth it?" My not-short answer to that is “organic” is a meaningful label. The government regulates this word. There is enforcement behind it. But it's a meaningful label because there's been lots and lots and lots of people over the years who have worked on those standards and protected them, and the standards are always under attack. So it is not a cure-all for everything, but I think it does tell you a bunch of stuff — it's good, it means no GMO, it means no synthetic pesticides, no antibiotics for animals. So it's meaningful, It tells you lots of things that are worth knowing.
So it comes down to — use your head, take a step back from the marketing. Most of us buy a really standard grocery list. And if that's going to be your regular grocery list, then do the best you can with those foods, and there's probably improvements to make, right?
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