Sunday, July 12, 2015

Putting the Eat Well Guide to the Corn Free Test

In a way, it's surprising that this didn't happen sooner. The Eat Well Guide, a project of Sustainable Table, is essentially Yelp for sustainable food, allowing users to search its database for eating establishments near them, specifying options such as farms, stores, or caterers. There's plenty of information, and as much transparency as can be expected on the Info section of the website, which states that

"We built the Eat Well Guide to make it easier to find good food and support local farmers, restaurateurs and others who are doing their best by their customers, their workers and the planet."

The site goes on to list the standards to which it holds the organizations in its database, but I had my doubts as to how "sustainable" these places really were, so I pulled up the full list of organizations on the guide within a mile radius of my house, and here's how a few of them check out:

  • Whole Foods Market This is an obvious one, and a place that greatly facilitates the Corn Free challenge, particularly with meat and dairy products. Be careful, though. Just because you bought it at Whole Foods doesn't mean it's "good." Like with any grocery store, stay away from those center aisles. The fact that the packaged snacks are Annie's brand instead of Nabisco doesn't make all that much of a difference at the end of the day. Grade: 4/5 corns
  • Life Alive Urban Oasis and Organic Cafe I've written about Life Alive on the blog before, and it's one of the only restaurants I cant think of where just about every menu item is corn free. And vegan, and nut free for that matter. If I remember correctly, at least half the options also don't have gluten. You'd have a hard time finding a dietary restrictions that prevented you from eating here. That said, the food is dynamic and nourishing, and never boring.
  • Harvest Co-Op I want so badly for this one to get a higher grade than it does. The principles of a co-op are so fantastic. In theory it's a community-owned grocery store that brings local food to urban areas at a reasonable price. And it is. Kind of. At Harvest, for an inexpensive yearly membership, you get perks like eligibility to run for a seat on the board of directors, and participation in "Member Appreciation Day," a monthly day when all the merchandise is discounted. The selection is pretty disappointing though, with little to no grass-fed meat available, and plenty of common junk food brands in the center aisles.
  • The Independent Located in the oh-so-hip neighborhood of Union Square in Somerville, The Independent offers a "seasonally influenced" menu prepared using "local, sustainable, and fresh ingredients." While all this is true, The Independent falls into a category of restaurant that proudly name-drops the source farms of their meat and vegetables, while cutting corners on staples like bread, dairy, and sweeteners. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. I love The Independent and what they're doing. Raising the sustainability bar would likely make the menu prohibitively expensive and potentially unreliable, but for the purposes of Corn Free July, just about every dish has something off-limits.
  • Savenor's Market Savenor's is exactly what you think of when you imagine a neighborhood grocery store. A favorite food shopping destination of Julia Child, it has a long standing reputation as a place to get your provisions if you're serious about food. Like just about any other place on this list, some cookies and condiments of questionable provenance have will sneaked onto the shelves from time to time, but they have an outstanding meat and produce selection, and knowledgeable staff happy to answer questions. It's also the only place I've ever found corn-free ice cream!
  • Chipotle Chipotle is doing something a little differently than most of the other places on this list by essentially trying to infiltrate the fast food scene and raise the bar a little, both in quality of the food and the dining experience. They have strong opinions on GMOs, and high standards regarding humane treatment of the pigs that go into their delicious, delicious carnitas. The idea that fast food can be (somewhat) sustainable has increased demand for that kind of thing, and put McDonald's on the defensive in that area. It's still fast food though, and I'm not sure how much it deserves a spot on a list like this.
  • Grendel's Den and Restaurant Located in the heart of Harvard Square and boasting a vaguely literary name, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that Grendel's has recently jumped on the green bandwagon. Menu items with an eye to environmental stewardship include local, seasonal veggies, and plenty of vegetarian menu items. (I especially like the portobello reuben.)
Overall, I think this guide is a fantastic step in the right direction. One of the biggest deterrents to eating green (or following through on anything, for that matter) is convenience, and having a user friendly tool to find what you're looking for in a hurry can be great. That said, plenty of the organizations the Eat Well Guide will help you find only have a handful of truly sustainable options. A responsible consumer will still have to read between the lines and work to find the information that's specifically important to them.

What do you think of the Eat Well Guide approved options in your city? Check it out and let me know in the comments section!

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