Posted 4:22 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021

UWL farmers market vegetables.

Eight tips to find food that is good for the Earth, health, workers and cultures

By Christine Hippert, UW-La Crosse Anthropology professor 

Marion Nestle, a prominent food activist, says "eat food that has a story." This means to eat food made by people we know, or in ways that we know are safe — not only for bodies and minds, but for environments, cultures and those who made the food. In these ways, we can keep ourselves healthy without compromising the planet, relationships with people or communities. But how do we do that? 

Coffee, bananas and chocolate are all examples of foods that UW-La Crosse Anthropology Professor Christine Hippert only buys fair trade. Through her travels around the world, connections with farm families and extensive intercultural research, Hippert has seen firsthand the impact of an international food system that prioritizes convenience and price over other considerations such as people and cultures. In many cases this has created conditions where the people who grow the food do not have high enough wages to feed their own families. Her research led to the publication of her latest book, “Not Even A Grain of Rice: Buying Food on Credit in Corner Stores in the Dominican Republic" (2021).  

Hippert says we all can take practical steps in our daily lives to eat more sustainably by paying attention to the four arms of sustainability that cultural anthropologists emphasize: 

  1. Good for the Earth. 
  2. Good for our health. 
  3. Good for the workers who make our food. 
  4. Good for sustaining our cultures.   

Tips to eat more sustainably

Rice farmers in their rice fields on the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
  1. Buy fair trade food. I know farmers who work for industrial plantations with foods such as bananas, coffee and chocolate. Their wages do not sustain their families, and the conditions they work in are horrendous. Fair trade is a wonderful alternative that takes the environment, health, and people's labor into account.  
  2. Join a CSA. Community supported agriculture is a way to buy local, seasonal foods from local farmers. Hundreds of CSAs are available in Wisconsin. This puts people in touch with their farmer, so they know exactly how the food is produced.   
  3. Shop at farmers markets and co-ops. Co-ops often make a commitment to feature local products and foods, creating fewer food miles attached to the products. This means more of your money stays in your community and helps the local economy. If you go to a farmers market, don't just buy food: talk to the farmer who is selling it. Almost always, the farmer who is selling the food is the farmer who grew the food. They can tell you if they use inorganic pesticides/herbicides, what types of fertilizer they use, how they pay their workers and more. 
  4. Raise/grow your own food. Grow food in pots. Herbs are a great starter if you've never grown food before as they usually don't die easily. Or put together a couple of raised beds to plant foods like tomatoes, carrots, onions, strawberries, kale, spinach, lettuce or other vegetables. A lot of people are raising chickens in cities. Although you might not be ready for that, you can find someone local who raises hens and buy their eggs.   
  5. Elevate sustainable eating. Studies show that it’s more expensive and time-consuming to eat using the four-pronged model of sustainability. This means that you may not be able to eat this way now or eat all of your meals this way. Because it is more time-consuming to eat foods that are cooked from scratch or to find alternative food economies, these tasks often fall on the shoulders of one person in the family or household — usually a woman. Regardless of your gender, you can take responsibility and elevate the importance of eating sustainably in your own life. Take a cooking class at your local Y, continuing education program, or a co-op (the People's Food Co-op in La Crosse has wonderful cooking classes that are low cost). This will teach you not only to cook your own food, but how to buy food in alternative locales. 
  6. Be intentional when you eat out. If you want to eat out, why not try a restaurant owned by people from marginalized communities? Look online for “Black-owned restaurants near me” or search for restaurants that provide cuisine from somewhere else around the world. If you are not part of that culture, don’t just eat their food. Instead, learn more about the culture behind it. Be intentional about learning more about the process by which the restaurant happens to be in your hometown. The migration of people and their foods is part of global social processes that include tourism, war and relocation efforts, the growing number of multinational corporations, land seizures that force high rates of rural to urban migration, decreased family-owned farms, environmental changes wrought by people and more. 
  7. Make your own "processed" foods. Try making yogurt (It's easiest to make kefir, a wonderful dairy product that is like yogurt), kombucha, kimchee or sourdough bread. All of these foods take time using live organisms that are wonderful for your gut health. These foods will teach patience in making good food. Convenience foods are what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances.” Instead, take time to make your own food as it’s good for you! The process of making foods like sourdough, kombucha, or kefir takes days, if not weeks. They are like little science experiments on your kitchen counter. 
  8. Work to dispel myths about immigration and food assistance. Industrial agriculture – the subsistence pattern that we all depend on for our food – is based upon a low price/low wage system. This means that we pay low prices for food because people who harvest, plant, pack, and serve us our food are paid low wages. When people are paid low wages, they sometimes receive “benefits” by the government to help them make ends meet such as food stamps (what is officially known as the SNAP program), subsidized housing, Medicaid, free or reduced meal program at school, or others. But these low-wage workers often work for very profitable companies. These workers aren’t the beneficiaries of these profits: people higher up in the company are. Relationships between these companies and their workers are much like past relationships between colonizers and colonized.  So, while companies and high-end managerial workers in the U.S. are making a lot of profits, wages, and bonuses, entry-level workers who are low-paid become eligible for these government programs to help make ends meet. Many people argue that this is an example of corporate welfare: governments are subsidizing companies by paying the difference between the minimum wage or sub-minimum wages and a real living wage – all the while the companies are making profits that could be used to pay a real living wage. 

Keep this in mind: if you only eat one meal a day with intention and attention to these issues, you are doing your body, your community, your environment, and the planet a world of good! You don't have to totally and radically change your lifestyle. You can baby-step your way into all of these things. Little by little, you may feel better emotionally and/or physically, and you might also feel better about your role in the food system. 

Public lecture

Christine Hippert

Hippert will present at talk on her book “Not Even A Grain of Rice: Buying Food on Credit in Corner Stores in the Dominican Republic (2021)” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 29, 1404 Centennial Hall, UWL, as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.  

About the book: Hippert examines buying food on credit in corner stores in Cabarete, an international tourism destination in the Dominican Republic and a hub for migrant laborers. The voices in this book highlight people’s experiences with food, debt, and survival to reveal emerging social changes related to race, gender, class, and citizenship.