“Umm excuse me, is the chicken free range?” inquired a friendly professor-type when I asked for her order. I confirmed with our chef that, indeed, the roasted chicken had the requisite free range stamp. But as I dutifully jotted down her order, I wanted to ask: What exactly do you mean by that?
Do you know that the USDA definition of “free range” literally just means that the chickens have access to the outdoors? That “access to the outdoors” could easily be a tiny fenced-in patch of gravel for five minutes a day. Of course, Ms. Free Range could be well-informed of these facts and making a conscious choice about her preferred poultry lifestyle. On the other hand, she could be another green consumer swayed by a feel-good label that promises more than it delivers.
Everyone asks different questions when choosing what to eat. Our preferences are based on a wide range of criteria: taste, price, appearance, means of production, moral values, cultural values, tradition. The problem is, the adjectives we use to inform these decisions are often misleading, nebulous and politicized to the point of being meaningless. Think about the labels attached to food products. Organic. Local. Whole grain. Genetically modified. Natural. Fair trade. Pasture-raised. What do these terms mean to you? You may think of farmers markets, expensive grocery bills or “Frankenfoods.” You may associate some labels with a healthy diet or sustainability. You may seek out certain labels, avoid some and ignore others. As college students, we may eat by certain criteria while at home, but find that our preferred options are hard to find on campus.
If you’re like me, you aspire to eat with a particular set of values in mind, but find it difficult to choose the “right” foods. My value-laden questions have few simple answers. Does local produce always have a lower carbon footprint than imports? Are the purported health and environmental benefits of organic worth the higher prices? Where can one buy humanely produced beef in the Triangle Area? How can I be sure that my vegetables aren’t products of exploitative labor practices?
I’ve tried to solve some of these dilemmas for myself. I have been vegetarian for the better part of three years, originally for environmental reasons. For a long time, a meat-free lifestyle satisfied my conscience. Then I learned more and more about our food system’s many rotten secrets. Now I’m still vegetarian, but I view it as more of a convenient cop-out than a comprehensively “right” mode of operation. I would love to be the perfectly conscientious eater, carefully weighing the ethical, environmental and health implications of each bite. But like most college students, I am still rationally ignorant about much of my foods’ origins. It would take me longer to find out where my breakfast comes from than it takes to eat it. So I settle for generalized, easy-to-follow rules. No meat, no seafood—check. What’s that you say? This Dole banana might be complicit in the pesticide poisoning of workers in Nicaragua? Oh, well! It’s not animal flesh, so it’s still on the menu!
Overwhelmed yet? Yeah, me too. Some days I wish I could go back to eating indiscriminately, unbothered by notions of toxic agricultural runoff and sick cows. But I know I can’t simply look away. I know that I vote with my dollar and my fork. I want to vote for “real” food. But how?
Individual consumers are confused, and for good reason. We don’t have the time or resources to educate ourselves about every food item we pick up. Some progressive companies and organizations have begun to recognize that we need help. Fooducate, Good Guide and Better World Shopper are examples of guides that have compiled the health, sustainability, ethical and safety ratings of various brands and items. Many of the guides include apps that scan barcodes, making it even easier to evaluate your edibles.
But be honest—how many of us are going to whip out our EDF Pocket Seafood Selector in a restaurant and quiz the kitchen staff about the sushi? Trust me, eye rolls ensue. These guides are great if consumers actually use them, but systemic change would be even better. I’d like to see our federal government take more responsibility for the far-reaching effects of the industrial food system it subsidizes and regulates.
Eating is more complex than we’d like to admit. Certain food choices are better than others, but right now it’s hard to parse the information we need to make those decisions. We need food vocabulary that actually means something—legally, ethically and practically. More transparent, standardized labeling is a crucial step in creating a food system that is better for people, animals and the Earth.
Hannah Colton is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Friday. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @ColtonHannah.