Two weeks ago I wrote a post about finding healthy food at the dollar store. Readers both on the blog and on Facebook seemed to be concerned about the quality of food sold at dollar stores, or other similar reduced-price shops. Mainly, they were concerned that the food was coming from China.
They raise a very valid point. We should absolutely be concerned where our food comes from! So I did my due diligence. I went back to my local store, plus another dollar store in a nearby city (but a different chain), so I could flip cans around and turn over packages and see for myself just where exactly my food was coming from. The results?
Does Your Food Come From China?
Yes. But it also comes from Guatemala, Mexico, Vietnam and the United States… plus any other country that is exporting to the United States.
I don’t know if that helps at all, or just make matters worse.
There’s one side of the argument that says you should know exactly where your food comes from. To grow your own garden, shop at local farmers markets and shake hands with farmers that are within x-amount of miles from your house.
But here’s the thing: I have NEVER seen a local farmer sell bananas. Or limes, sweet corn, mangoes, coconuts or pineapples. I probably never will.
And I live in a part of the country where YOU likely get a big portion of your produce!
As a society, we’ve grown accustomed to being able to buy whatever food we want, whatever time of year we want. We plan our meals around this privilege and have thrown caution to the wind with regards to the true origins of our food. The fact that 50% of our fresh fruit, 20% of our fresh vegetables and 80% of our seafood are imported should speak volumes! The vast majority of consumers don’t care where our food comes from, as long as it looks pretty and is affordable.
And I’m just as guilty as everyone else!
The bananas in my kitchen? Some are from Ecuador, some from Guatamala and some from Mexico. I think I’ve even seen some from Venezuela before too.
I doubt the oranges I bought yesterday from the local Asian market are really from California, and the shrimp in my freezer are probably from Vietnam.
However, if we want to complain about our food being imported, then we shouldn’t complain about not having strawberries when the ground is covered in snow. We shouldn’t plan to make roasted butternut squash in May and expect to find a juicy grapefruit in Minnesota when it’s the middle of November.
The only way we can enjoy the luxury of eating what we want, when we want, is if out of season foods are imported from another region, where they are currently being grown and harvested because they are in season – there. If you’re willing to give up the indulgence of bananas year-round, then by all mean, support the United States economy and buy food grown and harvested in the United States.
However, the mere fact that food is grown in the United States doesn’t make it safe. Case(s) in point:
- ConAgra Foods Inc. is a US-based company and in 2005, they recalled their Peter Pan peanut butter because it was reported to have caused salmonella poisoning.
- Ready Pac, another US-based company, has been questioned regarding their spinach and green onions causing E.coli breakouts.
- The two largest suppliers of honey have been charged with illegally importing honey from China, and selling it as raw and processed harvested from the United States.
- In 2007, China sent back shipments of Sun-Maid Golden Raisins (exported by by US-based SuperValu) because the amounts of bacteria bacillus, fungi and sulfer dioxide did not meet their standard sanitary requirements. This was right after the China General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantines division officially banned ConAgra’s Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butters for the same salmonella concerns originally poised in 2005.
- South Korea has rejected US beef merely because of the fear of mad cow disease – without any actual confirmed cases!
Mr. Crumbs and I have discussed not buying food from China, but hearing these type of reports on food grown in your own country kinda makes me think twice about blaming China. In reality, the United States isn’t any better.
And we’re not alone.
In 2006-2007, the United States Department of Agriculture rejected 1,901 shipments of food and cosmetics from China. They also rejected 1,787 of shipments from India and 1,560 from Mexico that same year.
(India is known for exporting rice and cashews. Mexico tends to export produce that grows best in warm and tropical climates like tomato, avocado, broccoli, mango, pineapple, lemon, asparagus, eggplant, peppers and squash.)
So three of the major countries whose food our country imports have been rejected because their shipments are not up to our standards. Seriously, what are we supposed to do?
I wish there was a simple answer to this question, but there isn’t. How you all decide to purchase your food is going to look different for every family, for every budget. Some of you will continue to buy foods as if they never read this post. Some of you will be more diligent about visiting farmers markets more often. Some of you might even pick up the phone and actually call those farms you’ve seen listed on EatWellGuide.org or EatWild.com.
Whatever you decide to do, here’s what I’ve learned from this little rabbit trail of healthy food from the dollar store:
1. Always, always, ALWAYS read the label.
Foods should say either “made in” or “grown in” or “imported from” or “product of” and then a country. Know what country it is and be okay with your purchase.
Some foods simply say “distributed by” and then list a company. If that’s the case, you’ll need to research where that company sources its food from.
2. Frozen foods are more likely to be imported than canned, boxed or packaged.
I found frozen strawberries, frozen broccoli, frozen potatoes and frozen seafood from other countries. Most canned, boxed and packaged foods were from the United States.
Note 1: This doesn’t mean ALL frozen foods are imported, nor ALL canned, boxed and packaged foods are safe.
Note 2: When I say canned, boxed and packaged foods, I am referring to those that which are REAL FOOD, i.e. canned tomatoes or packages of rice or bags of beans. This is NOT your free-for-all to start eating processed foods.
3. Don’t assume entire brands are safe.
While browsing the aisles at the dollar store in a nearby town, I realized that the store had it’s own generic brand. Package after package I turned around, only to find them all from the United States. I thought that brand was “safe,” that anything from that brand would be originally from the United States and not imported. Wrong. Nearly everything from that brand in the frozen section was imported.
4. Start local.
Instead of turning to the local grocery store, first consider starting your own garden. Then consider your local farmers market. Talk to the farmers about where their harvest comes from. If you don’t see what you’re looking for at the market, ask a vendor if they know someone (i.e. another farmer) who can help you. Stop at road-side farm stands. Get to know your neighbors and see if they’ve found any hidden market gems. Look into local fishing and hunting and take matters in your own hands!
The One Baby Step I’m Making From This Research Experiment
I’ve decided to set aside $10-20 each week for shopping for fresh produce from the farmers market. My goal is to keep as much of my produce local or semi-local (i.e. within a 2-3 hour driving radius), with an exception or two. Here’s the plan:
- Continue to buy organic carrots, organic celery and organic baby kale from Costco. All three are coming from cities in California in the radius mentioned above.
- I will continue to buy other items at Costco that are not quite local, but are still close enough. Onions and potatoes are currently coming from Idaho.
- We love bananas for both taste and frugality. I don’t expect to ever find them truly local, so I will continue to buy from my local stores (although the fruit itself will be imported).
- We’re big on apples, but they’re very seasonal. I plan to make sure they’re grown in the United States.
- All other produce we buy each year will be from the farmers market.
- We’re no longer buying farmed seafood (a decision in the making, but now it’s official.)
I think this is a good plan, one that is attainable without us overspending our budget or spending too much time about the origin of our foods. After all, we all have to do what we can with what we have, right?