Politically Correct Grocery Shopping Is Not a Sustainable Habit

I’m standing in the cereal aisle of my local supermarket, heavy decisions at hand. For years, I used to just cavalierly toss a few boxes of my family’s favorite sugar-laden cereals into the basket and move on to the school snack bars, pasta and milk. Those days are over. No more  cereals manufactured by Big Corporations and packed in boxes made of only partially recycled content. Now I am pressured to buy more politically, environmentally, nutritionally, and socially correct cereals, made with “just a hint” of raw brown sugar and packed in a 100-percent recycled box that used to be a box of lasagne. With names like “Fruity-Oatie-Yummies” or “Quinoa Krispies,” these breakfast concoctions include whole grains, seeds, nuts and twigs – at least, they look like twigs. As if my kids are going to eat this! Once, during a moment of insanity I bought one of these do-gooder cereals, which my family overwhelmingly rejected, but on the bright side, I found that when tossed into the blender with a little bit of water, the cereal made an excellent substitution for spackling paste, though it dulled the blade something awful.

It’s the same on nearly every aisle of the supermarket. Each week, I see fresh incursions of fair trade coffee, locally grown organic produce, wild-caught seafood with “sustainability ratings,” recycled bath tissue paper that promises green revolutions with exclamation marks (so you know they mean it), whole trade flowers, and compostable dog toys, the better to reduce your pet’s carbon paw-print. I am not kidding.

Don’t misunderstand: I also want to feed my family as healthfully as possible. I also want to join the sustainability bandwagon. But politically correct shampoo (“no animal testing”), oranges (“grown locally to reduce fossil fuel consumption”) and grass-fed milk (“pour a glass – change the world!”) are expensive, and this presents a quandary: Shopping for environmental sustainability is fine for the Land Rover crowd, but what if you can’t afford to sustain the habit.

Additionally, grocery shopping now takes me almost three hours, because I agonize over each environmentally, politically and nutritionally charged buying decision. Once I bought a charmingly packaged box of whole wheat crackers made by a guy named Lou. Lou explained his passionate vision for a better relationship with the planet, his commitment to having his employees feel fulfilled, and to make crackers that matter. There was so much philosophy on the box that I couldn’t even find the ingredients. Lou’s crackers cost two bucks more than our normal kind and has four fewer ounces. Passion is expensive.

I move along, determined to finish my shopping, and read a sign hanging in the produce section that says, “The more you know, the better.” I disagree. In this age of information overload, I don’t even have the brain capacity to absorb the biodiversity rating of every bunch of broccoli, the bioavailability of every vitamin, or the fact that the organic oranges were trucked from only 30 miles away. I pick less expensive, non-organic oranges that were trucked from 150 miles away, trying to ignore the sign that shouts, “Grown locally for reduced fossil fuel consumption!” As my late Nana would have said, “Stop dreying my kop!”

Some companies are so proud of all the things they leave out of their products, I wonder why they cost more than the products that are stuffed with more things. A new brand of organic spices, for example, requires a small billboard just to list what the spices don’t include, such as sugar, preservatives, corn starch, gluten, tree nuts, wheat, gluten, or polyester. Reading the sign, I feel a case of gluten-intolerance coming on.

I buy my meat from the kosher market, not at the regular grocery store. Still, I stop to read the signs on the meat counter for sheer amusement. They boast about how great those cows had it: They lived cage-free, crate-free, with “enhanced access” to pasture land, tax-free, with weekly manicures and other VIP treatment. What a shocker for those cows to discover that the good life was over and they were now ready for their close-up photographs as cold pink slabs under a glass case!

I have not given up on my quest to shop as an enlightened consumer, and will try to support spunky little upstart entrepreneurs named Lou or Skye who are working so hard to make meaningful cookies and pasta. But I admit, sometimes I pine for the old days, when shopping for food was simpler, and I didn’t have to shop till I dropped.

About the Author
Judy Gruen writes about culture, family, Jewish growth, and why bad contractors happen to good people. The author of four books, her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and 10 book anthologies. She is a regular columnist on, and her most recent book "Till We Eat Again: A Second Helping." She is an active member of Aish HaTorah Los Angeles.