Can we eat ethically?

Dear Readers, I’m going to veer into moderately controversial waters in an area where I am just beginning to become educated. Feel free to use the comments to agree, disagree, or “school me.” Talking about tough things is one of the ways we can move through them and become stronger.

Last week I had a small outburst in my nutritionist’s office. On the subject of seasonal produce and grocery shopping I found myself blurting out, “is it too much to ask to be able to buy ethical food!?!” This sentiment had been building for a while but I had reached the point that I couldn’t sit quietly any longer. In the moment I was speaking out of frustration, but, I really did want an answer.

What I should have included in my brief rant was my desire to purchase ethical food for the same price as the products supplied by highly subsidized mega corporations who engage in the practices I find most questionable. This is my real problem. I have become accustomed to bloated products at bargin basement prices. What I have to remind myself is, if I’m not paying the actual cost of my food – who is? It should not surprise anyone to open the newspaper (or their home page) and read about under valued factory workers cutting corners in their jobs. Reading news articles about production lines operating in unhealthy conditions is unsettling at best. But, how can I expect to have the best quality products in my kitchen if I am unwilling to reasonably compensate the companies who supply them?

I stand in the grocery store and choke at the price of pasture raised meat. I feel smug about my choice to avoid farm raised fish and then balk when their ocean caught cousins are above my price range. In my heart I do not want to devalue the efforts of any food producers who are committed to bringing customers an ethical product. In fact, I would prefer to purchase these products exclusively. It is just really difficult not to feel like consuming 100% ethical food is a choice only available to the elite of our society.

I can’t shake the feeling that grocery shopping is a politically charged activity. Navigating my cart through the produce section of my neighborhood supermarket I am not choosing between apples and oranges I am voting with my dollars. Artfully arranged signage indicates the items that are local, organic, seasonal, or all of the above. The market I frequent most often has designed it’s produce bins to resemble crates like you those you might find at a farm stand. While I am squeezing avocados and examining kale I can’t help feeling that perhaps I should have taken my business to an actual farm stand. I’d like to note that when I talk about ethical food I am not speaking exclusively of organic food. I think that there is room for “conventional” practices in the world of food production. Personally I used some fertilizer but no pest or herbicides when growing my vegetables this past summer.

I am doing my best to turn my kitchen into a better representation of my values. I see similarities between this current desire and the beginning of my weight loss journey. It took time and learning from missteps to learn how to feed my body for weight loss and now weight maintenance. Shifting my purchasing habits will also require time and learning from missteps. It helps that my habits have already begun to change as part of the natural progression of my weight loss.

Our family has already begun one of the most fundamental shifts of our consumption by choosing to consume less meat. Learning to grow some of my own food and taking the time to visit u-pick farms over the summer has been a great way reduce our family’s desire to purchase out of season imported produce to brighten the dark days of winter. It’s not much yet, but, I have found the only way to achieve long term changes are through specific and measurable actions, so I’m on my way.

Let’s build some community!

Who else struggles with how to make the best choices when purchasing food?

Please share ways your family balances budget with values:


  1. It’s easiest for me to reconcile these concerns when I shop as locally as possible. Subscribing to a CSA (meaning one farm’s CSA, not an aggregated box of organic veggies from all over, and either organic or grown in a way that you understand and are comfortable with) is a great way for me to know I’m getting a good price on fruits and veggies that are good for me, for farmers, and for the earth. (Of course, I don’t get to pick everything that goes in my box–but that means I’ve learned to love turnips over the years.) 🙂 I don’t eat meat, but I know you can also buy large portions of meat at lower cost if you purchase directly from the farmer; again, you have to figure out how to deal with the cuts you wouldn’t choose at the store, but that’s a fun challenge for a cook. 🙂

    And while us savvy food consumers can seek out these options, I also agree with you that more ethical options should be more widely available without so much effort needed to find them.

  2. Excellent topic, Rose. This is something that weighs on my heart often. When I purchase some lower price (and arguably, lower quality) food, I feel guilty that I’m not providing the best nutrition for my family and that I’m propagating a nation of industrialized food. Conversely, when I overspend on higher quality items, I also feel like I’ve done something wrong. It’s tough to balance all the variables and to spend my “votes” wisely.

    In September, I had the opportunity to travel to eastern Washington and tour apple orchards of a company that grows fruit via both organic and conventional means. As a result of what I learned there, I’ve come to hold a more moderate view, similar to what you described, that not all conventionally grown items are evil. One of my goals in the coming months is to research the sources of all (or most) of the food that I purchase and make individual buying choices from there. I want to support whole foods and companies that treat their employees and our world with respect, but I want to do so only when the value is really there in order to avoid paying an unnecessary premium.

  3. Really thoughtful post. I think our food has become so very commercialized that a lot of consumers don’t even think about the growers or the nurturers of the foods they eat. It seems as though most foods are produced and sold by a very few companies – even corn fields are owned by giant corporations in many cases.

    • Hi Diane thanks for stopping by and thank your for your thoughts. I am also concerned that the majority of our food is controlled by a small number of companies

  4. Questions of ethics are often complicated. Is it worth paying $5 for a gallon of milk from the dairy with happy cows instead of $1.50 from the mega-dairy? What if you donate the money you save to the food bank? Living below my means and sharing my income with others is also an ethical decision.

    That said, businesses that mistreat their workers should be called to account! And one great way to do that is by taking our business elsewhere.

    • You make two great points. 1. We get to decide where to spend our dollars. 2. Choosing to consume less expensive products can enable our family to share more of our comfort with others. Knowing that these choices will allow us to give within our community could assuage some of the guilt.

      These are both worth keeping in mind.

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