Food choices: “You can never do just one thing.”

If you decided to satiate your hunger this morning by eating breakfast, you didn’t just choose to nourish your body or fill it with empty calories. You also decided whether to eat food that would wake up your brain or clog your arteries. By intention or not, you chose to support a small farmer or industrial agriculture. Perhaps you decided to support a neighborhood grocer or a big box, super chain store. Maybe your breakfast had low- to no-impact on the animal kingdom; or perhaps you got your bacon from a distributor whose chain of meat comes from animals that barely have the opportunity to move and live in their waste.

Nope. You didn’t just eat breakfast this morning. Your breakfast nook food choices sent a ripple effect that collided or coalesced with millions of others’ decisions made by other consumers/breakfast eaters and their food budgets.

I remember years ago hearing what I thought was some ancient proverb, “You can never do just one thing.” It turns out it’s Hardin’s First Law of Human Ecology and is only several decades old. The Law often provides cautionary advice.  Your actions possess many implications and could accomplish/hurt many things. And those implications ripple outward to consequences you may never have thought of.

The Law’s cautionary advice is wise. But I think you can also put a more positive and proactive spin on it. Follow one of modern-day agrarian Wendell Berry‘s guidances on actions and solutions: “A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems. I am talking about health as opposed to almost any cure, coherence of pattern as opposed to almost any solution produced piecemeal or in isolation.”

When you take action, realize it has a ripple effect. That positive ripples can combine with other positive ripples to create an awesome wave — a gnarly wave, perhaps.

Taking this a bit further can be overwhelming. You can feel immobilized by future food choices as you try to map out, “What impact will this have?” I’d advise against this, at least when you first decide to try to put your decisions and budgets on a better path. Aspire for better, not perfect. As real food advocate and academic Marion Nestle notes of making good food choices, “More is better than less, and some is a lot better than none.”

Recognize, name, write down, say aloud how your decision is better than you would have done before.


Think of how you may have turned a bad decision (e.g., fast food equals suffering animals) into a positive one (e.g., some eggs from range free hens). And then think about the allies you have in making better decisions (e.g., “I supported a small farmer who benefited from my support” or “I just told my big box super chain grocer that I’m happy they offered a better choice of eggs.”)

As you get used to and more knowledgeable about how good food choices and actions can become even better, decide whether you want to take that next step.  By this, I mean — and I want to make clear — I see systemic changes as more impactful than the collection of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of individual food choices.  Our current food infrastructure is complex, of course. For example, as noted in my example beginning this post, parts of our society’s food infrastructure range from who grows our food and how it is grown, from how our food gets to us and who serves or sells it to us, from how much our food looks like something that came from the earth to how much of a role we play in preparing it.

While it is helpful to find ways to make better choices individually, we can also make demands of our leaders that they use their power to alter our food infrastructure to something more healthy for farmers and farm workers, for instance.

If you’ve decided to make better choices as an individual, chances are you’ve at least questioned how your food choices could be magnified by a system that makes your choices easier. This is something a better (healthier) food infrastructure could achieve.


Joyfully married to Rebecca. Friend to my pup, Luca. Passionate about justice. Love gardening, blogging, and dark chocolate.

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