Shopping for Change

Under the slick supermarket packaging lies a food system that’s failing us. The good news is, we know how to build a better one.

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People get their food from lots of places—restaurants, farmstands, corner stores, sometimes even a backyard garden or kitchen windowsill. But for most US consumers, no food source is more familiar than the supermarket—that 20th-century invention where aisle after aisle bursts with colorful boxes, bags, jars and cans of conveniently packaged food products.

Usually we go to the supermarket with a simple agenda: to get what we need to put dinner on the table, at a price we can afford. But today we’re going on a different kind of shopping trip. Each time we pull an item off the shelf, we’ll learn about some of the ways the US food system is falling short of meeting our needs—and how we can turn it into a food system that works for all of us.

The Illusion of Choice

On the surface, a supermarket offers a breathtaking abundance of food options. But much of what lines those shelves is not good for our bodies, our communities, or our environment. If we want healthy, affordable food that’s produced fairly and sustainably, our choices are sadly limited.

This situation didn’t arise in a vacuum—it's the result of deliberate decisions by business leaders to maximize profits at the expense of farmers, workers, and eaters. Instead of promoting public health and thriving, sustainable farms and communities, our food system is making us sick, fouling our environment, exploiting workers, and forcing farmers out of business—with communities of color facing the worst of all these impacts. And federal food policy, heavily influenced by industry lobbying, helps maintain this destructive status quo.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Together, we can change the food system to one that provides healthy food for all, regenerates resources, promotes racial equity, and treats workers fairly at every stage in the system. In fact, this transformation is already underway—we just need to help it grow.

But all this talk about food is making us hungry.

Designed by LimeRed Studio

Image credits

Fruit
Panel 1: Marco Verch/CC BY 2.0
Panel 2: National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health
Panel 3: Erik Scheel
Panel 4: Lance Cheung/USDA
Coffee
Panel 1: Theo Crazzolara/CC BY 2.0
Panel 2: World Agroforestry Centre/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Panel 3: Kris Fricke/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Panel 4: Your Best Digs/CC BY 2.0
Meat
Panel 1: Lance Cheung/USDA
Panel 2: Darcy Maulsby/iStock
Panel 3: Lance Cheung/USDA
Panel 4: Montserrat Solis/Pexels
Cereal
Panel 1: mroach/CC BY-SA 2.0
Panel 2: vencavolrab/iStock
Panel 3: Ella Olsson/CC BY 2.0
Panel 4: Ocean Photography/veer
Vegetables
Panel 1: bmeabroad/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Panel 2: Preston Keres/USDA
Panel 3: Amelia Moore/UCS
Panel 4: Lance Cheung/USDA
Soda
Panel 1: marlith/CC BY-SA 3.0
Panel 2: Chelsea Browning/US Air Force
Panel 3: Arlington Department of Environmental Services
Panel 4: OcusFocus/iStock
Eggs
Panel 1: Marco Verch/CC BY 2.0
Panel 2: ITamar K.
Panel 3: Ryan Thompson/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Panel 4: Lance Cheung/USDA
Seafood
Panel 1: Justin Marx/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Panel 2: NOAA's National Ocean Service
Panel 3: Monterey Bay Aquarium
Panel 4: llee_wu/CC BY-ND 2.0
Legumes
Panel 1: Justinc/CC BY-SA 2.0
Panel 2: Jo Zimny/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Panel 3: David Oien
Panel 4: Michael Hilton/CC BY 2.0
The Dumpster
Panel 1: USDA/CC BY 2.0
Panel 2: Amber Karnes/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Panel 3: Produce Marketing Association/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Panel 4: Deborah Kane/USDA/CC BY 2.0
The Back Office
Panel 1: sirmichael/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Panel 2: Fibonacci Blue/CC BY 2.0
Panel 3: Lori Eanes
Panel 4: Lance Cheung/USDA
The Cash Register
Panel 1: pxhere
Panel 2: USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
Panel 3: US Air Force
Panel 4: Lance Cheung/USDA
The Union of Concerned Scientists

What’s In Your Shopping Cart—and What It Means

We went to the supermarket for some basic food items, and came out with more than we bargained for.

The problems we encountered on our food shopping trip have one thing in common: they're all symptoms of a system designed to prioritize corporate bottom lines over human needs.

The good news is that precisely because food system problems are closely connected, so are the solutions. The transformative policies and practices we advocate at UCS can be win-wins for workers, farmers, consumers, and our shared environment.

Of course, we’ve barely scratched the surface of all that could be said about both the problems and the promise of the US food system. We encourage you to learn more, and to join us in making change. (And then, have something good to eat!)

Are you ready to make an impact?

Learn more about what you can do to create a more healthy and sustainable future.

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