Sourcing Food

Towards a renewed respect for the beings who feed us, sustainable eating habits, and zero-waste food shopping.

Principles

In an ideal world, the food we buy would tick all these boxes:

  • Respectfully grown or farmed (traditional farming, permaculture, agroforestry)
  • Organic (no pesticides, no GMOs)
  • Seasonal
  • Grown locally, no air miles and as little transport as possible
  • Packaging-free
  • Animal well-being prioritized if any are involved

But our system is less than ideal and very often there is just no perfect solution. An absurd example of this is that organic produce is mostly sold packaged in plastic while any that we find package-free is not organic. Sometimes we’re forced to choose between two evils, or give up an item altogether. We can only do what we can do, and not go neurotic over what we can do nothing about.

So what are the best places to source food?

Farmer’s markets

If you are within reach of a farmer’s market, this is the best place for produce and other farm products (though you still have to check that their products are organic as this is not necessarily the case). This is where you can get foodstuffs directly from the people who grew, raised or prepared it, without the various intermediates that come into play when you buy from a supermarket, without the excessive packaging, or preservatives required to extend their shelf life. It is also without air miles or even excessive road miles, since growers mostly sell or distribute locally, and this means less waste (so much produce gets spoiled in transport). Your money goes directly to the producers, who can then afford to keep high standards, shun pesticides, and treat the soil and their animals well because they’re not under pressure to increase production. The alternative to this —if farmers could no longer make a living, and all food production fell into the hands of corporations— is terrifying. You are also face to face with them and a dialogue is possible: you can ask about the products, and even make special requests (a friend asked a dairy farmer for milk in glass bottles, rather than plastic, and they were very accommodating). Relationships form, and so farmer’s markets also contribute to creating community, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

The Food Assembly

The Food Assembly started in France, and is now a movement across Europe, with more than 700 Assemblies in France (La Ruche Qui Dit Oui!), Belgium (Boeren & Buren), the United Kingdom, Spain (La Colmena Que Dice Sí), Germany, Denmark (Madsamling) and Italy (L’Alveare Chi Dice Si). It’s a kind of specialized farmer’s market, with all the advantages of the above, and two major differences: you order in advance (so there’s no waste at all as they know exactly what to bring), and the order is brought to your closest Assembly venue, usually on an evening after work hours (which can be more convenient than going to a farmer’s market on the weekend). As the order deadline is two days before collection, you can’t be spontaneous on the day, but this shopping method can be complemented by others.

It works in the following way: you sign up (for free) to your nearest Assembly. Every week when it opens for orders, you select what you want from the products on offer by your local producers (farmers, growers, small food businesses), with no obligation to buy, minimum order or delivery charge. On the designated evening you go and collect your order, which is an opportunity to meet hosts, producers and neighbours! Each Assembly is independent but part of the network. If there are none in your area, you can even start your own and become a host.

Organic Box delivery

A weekly box of organic vegetables and fruits, as well as other products, delivered to your door once a week. This is another fine way to connect farmers and their clientele, that reduces waste (harvest is to order), is local, organic, and empowers small producers. My reservation with it is that because things are delivered in a box, some require plastic packaging that could be easily avoided (though compostable “plastic” is gaining ground). Another is that it can be tempting for a supplier to expand their catalogue with imported products or others that blatantly contradict claims to environmentalism (I’m looking at you, Abel & Cole with your pre-squeezed lemon juice packaged in plastic) so a bit of study is necessary (also, not all food box delivery services are organic or indeed have ecological concerns.) Boxes are usually picked up for reuse week after week, and the weekly delivery (as opposed to delivery at will) limits transport emissions.

Organic box deliveries exist around the world, so it’s best to google “organic box delivery” for your area. Here are some I’m aware of around London, and recommendations further afield are welcome:


Where to shop waste-free

(See the Suppliers Map, under “foodstuffs”, for an option near you.)

Shopping waste-free goes hand in hand with stepping away from industrial-scale food suppliers (supermarkets) and returning to a much more grounded experience of buying food, a direct relationship with both food and growers. It’s also much more fun. Start by putting together your zero-waste shopping kit, described here with instructions to make your own produce bags.

Bulk Bins / Loose foods

In this matter, “third world” countries are ahead of the game as food is still sold loose in many places, the way it always was. Today in the West it is much more challenging to source food that isn’t wrapped in plastic: although bulk food stores are multiplying, there are still too few of them. If you are within reach of one, though, it can solve most of your food shopping dilemmas in one fell swoop. You need to take your own containers with you: depending on how serious the place is about zero-waste, they may provide small plastic bags (missing the point) or they may provide nothing at all. Here are some of the things you will find in bulk food stores (though it does vary from shop to shop), and recommended containers:

Grains, cereals, nuts, rice, seeds, snack mixes: These are all well served by medium-sized produce bags: drawstring cloth bags that are almost weightless, and therefore allow you to weigh the contents without adding to your bill. Read more about them and how to make them here.

Teas*, whole spices: Smaller versions of the bags above, which can be muslin or a tighter weave. Ground coffee will require a paper bag or a tupperware; ground spices need either very small paper bags, or glassine envelopes.
* You don’t need a specialized bulk shop to buy loose tea: any tea shop that offers loose leaf tea should be happy to put it in your own bag. I go to Whittard’s for mine.

Pasta: A large produce bags is needed for short pasta (such as penne) which tend to require much volume. Long pasta are packed tighter and are much heavier, so if you want to get a good amount, you’ll need a sturdy bag.
If you can’t easily find plastic-free pasta, consider making them at home…

Oil, vinegar, wine, liquid soap, shampoo and other liquid products that may be on offer: Obviously a leak-proof container will be required, but make sure its capacity is clearly indicated (ideally, imprinted in the glass or plastic), as these goods are sold by volume rather than weight.

Eggs: In case no carton is provided (this is especially common at markets), keep an empty egg carton and bring it along, as it is by far the most secure was to transport eggs.

Farmers’ Markets and Delis

Produce is easier to find unpackaged, as even the most sinister supermarkets will still sell some loose fruit and veg. Typically they won’t be the organic ones, though, so it’s still best to get produce straight from a farmer’s market when possible. Unfortunately, with fruit and veg, you often find yourself having to decide between plastic and pesticides. It’s just one of those dilemmas with no perfect solution where you just have to choose what feels more important.

Beyond produce, farmers’ markets and delis also offer bread, cheese, eggs, meat, fish, canned goods in glass jars, honey, and food preparations you can take in your own container, rather than any plastic ones they may provide (this is a far superior solution, for busy people, to the dubious & overpackaged supermarket readymade/frozen meals). I bought a pair of tupperwares that are absolutely waterproof, and I turn up with them at the dairy to buy bulk feta and yogurt; for parmesan and other dry cheeses, I just ask the cheesemonger to wrap in paper and skip the cling film (though I carry waxed cloth as a backup just in case). I use the same tupperwares for olives and delicate fruits. Larger ones can be used for fish and meat. It pays to familiarize yourself with the market(s) closest to you so you know what is available and who is flexible. When you’re a regular, you can even make special requests, for instance, for milk in a glass bottle rather than plastic. As you’re dealing with the food producers themselves, negotiation is possible, quite unlike supermarkets.

Some challenges (and solutions)

A few items are particularly challenging to find plastic-free, and finding solutions for them is all the more urgent because they are staples we consume almost daily. It’s not the end of the world if something you buy once a year is only available in a plastic pack; it’s very problematic when it’s your weekly pint of milk. Here are some things I could find, but more solutions would be welcome.

Milk

  • In the UK, it’s easy to arrange for milk to be delivered to your door, old-fashioned, in a glass bottle that is then picked up again. Visit Find Me A Milkman to find your nearest service, and set up your delivery. In the US, I am told, you can similarly still buy milk in returnable glass bottles, but I don’t know how widespread this is.
  • If applicable, you can switch to homemade nut milk instead, which is quite simple to make from bulk-bought nuts: here’s a recipe. Avoid commercial nut milk: it doesn’t really solve the packaging problem, and unless specified otherwise, it will have been produced industrially.

Yogurt

  • Some UK brands such as Brown Cow Organics package their yogurt in reusable plastic containers with a tight-fitting lid. Once washed, they can be reused to store food, dry goods, anything really. That said, if you’re a big yogurt eater, you will quickly find yourself with more containers than you can use, so it’s a flimsy solution – though good for the occasional last-minute need. A list of stockists is offered on the website and they can also deliver.
  • River Cottage sells yogurt in glass jars. They don’t seem to be stocked in many places, but the delivery costs can be offset by sharing a large order with other people.
  • If labneh or Greek yogurt are your thing, and you are within reach of a Lebanese or other Middle-eastern food store, chances are they have a cheese counter where you can buy this (and other Eastern cheeses) in bulk; just take a tupperware along (and don’t let them shrinkwrap it after filling it!) One such place in London is Green Valley (W1H 5QF, Marble Arch/Edgware Road; their bulk products are listed on the website) and they have plenty of other bulk delicacies.
  • Make your own. If yogurt is a staple in your household, this will spare both the earth and your budget. I still remember my mom, who isn’t particularly domestic, making yogurt at home from powdered milk during the war: clearly it is a task within reach of everyone. Once you get the hang of it, it takes very little work. There are two possible ways of going about it:
    • Make it from scratch, which only requires a food thermometer.
    • Use a yogurt maker, which in its simplest (and in my opinion best) iteration is just a pot that regulates the cooling process (like this one) and makes the whole thing foolproof. (The brand sells yogurt-making packets, but they are absolutely not needed, all you need is milk and a starter, see below)

    In both cases, you need a starter culture, which can simply come from the last (probiotic) yogurt you bought. However, here are great resources to understand yogurt cultures (they determine what type you end up with) and how to make it at home:

Cream

  • In some places (France, USA), creams come in cartons and I don’t know why I can’t find any in the UK, but maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Cartons are not a perfect solution, but a lesser evil, being 80% made of paper. (What are cartons made of and how are they recycled?)
  • Cream may be hard to source plastic-free, but it’s incredibly easy to substitute. What is cream but milk with the butter still in it? Here are a few easy ways to replace it in your cooking.

    For 1C single/light cream:
    – 3T melted (unsalted) butter + 7/8C whole milk;
    – Or in baking, simply use whole milk instead.For 1C double/heavy cream:
    – 1/3C melted (unsalted) butter + 3/4C whole milk
    – Greek yogurt (which also reduces fat considerably, but it needs to be heated on low so it doesn’t curdle)
    – Better for baking: 1/2C greek yogurt + 1/2C whole milk (so the taste of fat is still present)For whipping cream:
    The above substitutes can’t be whipped, but coconut cream can! It makes fabulous, lactose-free whipped cream.

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