People ask me all the time what they can do to help improve the food system. Given that some of the problems that need fixing (like unsustainable agriculture, mistreatment of workers and animals, hunger, and diet-related disease, to name just a few) are so complex, widespread, and downright daunting, it's easy to overlook the things that any of us can do any day to move the needle in the right direction. Some of the items on this list are easy, some slightly harder (and some you may already be doing); all are important. (And if you're curious, I've got plenty more to say about our food system, why it's not working, and how we might fix it in my just-published book, A Bone to Pick.)
1. Cook. If you already do, teach someone else to cook. If you have or know kids, teach them. I could go on for pages about the importance of making your own food. Cooking not only benefits your health, your wallet, and the planet, but also makes you a much more conscious participant in the food system. When you're making choices every day about where to shop, what to buy, and what to cook, you become automatically attuned to all sorts of critical issues related to food: where it comes from, how it's produced, what's in it, how much it costs, how it tastes. The more active cooks (as opposed to passive eaters) we have, the better off we'll be.
2. Eat fewer animal products. The writing has been on the wall for years: overproducing and overconsuming meat and dairy is bad for the environment and bad for our health. Plus, the system of factory farming required to raise and kill 10 billion animals a year is necessarily inhumane (to put it mildly). You don't have to be a vegan (I'm only one until 6 p.m.) or vegetarian; you just have to shift the balance in your diet so that meat and dairy (and processed junk food, while we're at it) play a smaller role than vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Eating less meat also allows for eating better meat that's more responsibly raised; yes, it's more expensive, but you won't have to buy as much of it.
3. Reduce food waste. About 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted, and nearly half of that waste occurs in our own kitchens. The problems with this are self-explanatory. There are a number of things we can do to limit the amount of food we waste, like buying small quantities of perishable produce at a time, getting over our fear of foods that are past their "sell by" or "best by" dates, taking full advantage of our freezers, and composting food scraps. Hardcore people will dumpster dive, and I'm not suggesting you go there, but it is a pretty amazing experience.
4. Go to restaurants that treat workers well. And don't go to restaurants that treat workers poorly. To know which is which, check out this diners' guide app from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. In general, the realization among people who really care about food that you can't have a sustainable food system without fair labor practices for workers all along the food chain (farmers, processors, packers, supermarket and fast food workers, etc.) has been one of the most significant developments in the "food movement" over the last handful of years. Increasing the minimum wage is the most immediate thing we can do to help food workers (the food system employs the biggest number of low-wage workers in the country). This happens on the local level, and we've seen some successes of late. A little noise can go a long way.
5. Support a soda tax where you live. Now we're venturing beyond personal commitments and resolutions into the realm of political activism. I've written repeatedly that soda is the new cigarette, a dangerously unhealthy, mass-consumed product pedaled by a well-funded industry hell-bent on maintaining our addiction. The first soda tax in the country was passed last fall in Berkeley, California, and I think it's only a matter of time before other cities start to follow suit. With some grassroots organizing on your part, that time can be sooner rather than later.
6. Make elected officials and political candidates take a stand on food issues. It's a cliché, but the most powerful tool that each of us has to change the food system (or any system, for that matter) is a vote. The kinds of changes that so many of us would like to see (getting antibiotics out of the food supply, ending subsidies to processed foods, banning junk-food marketing to kids, outlawing concentrated animal feeding operations, etc.) will require politicians who have the guts, the will, and the mandate (that's where we come in) to fight for what's right. Eighteen months from now we're going to be electing house members, many of us will choose senators, and we'll also have to pick a new president. Whether it's picking up the phone, writing letters, asking tough questions at campaign events, canvassing, or anything else, do whatever you can to make sure that when it comes to food issues, the people taking office in 2016 are up to the task.