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How to Bake An Ethical Christmas Cookie

It’s the most wonderful time of the year–Christmas cookie making time!

It can be hard for Justice Oriented bakers on a budget to bake Justice Filled cookies. While ‘ethical’ consumption (e.g.the green economy or veganism) is touted as the ‘solution’ to an unjust food system, ‘ethical’ food stores like Whole Foods–more commonly known as ‘whole paycheck’– come with a whole set of problems around worker and farmer rights. Whole Foods, for example, is famously anti-union. And it was recently revealed that the fine gourmet cheese Whole Foods sells was crafted by prison labor for nearly free. Ethical answers like veganism, on the other hand, tend to focus ‘injustice’ almost exclusively on how animals are treated, and very rarely put effort into wondering how farmworkers or farmers are treated or even what plant based alternatives to non-vegan food like butter or lard are doing to the environment.

So what is a Justice Oriented baker to do? How do we bakers deal with the unjust nature of a global food system controlled by capitalism during the most wonderful time of the year? I’ve spent years working to bake the perfect Christmas cookies with ingredients that speak to my values and desire for justice, so I’ve learned a lot of tricks to negotiate capitalism in the grocery aisle, even while on a baking budget. Today I’m sharing some of those tricks with this handy guide to buying the key ingredients of cookie making easier and more justice centered!

Butter:

The No Flavor Flop: Butter comes from milk, and in the United States, milk is controlled by big business. What that means is that while milk farmers do the work of raising, feeding, and caring for the cows that produce the milk used to make butter, it is Wall Street (heavily influenced by big corporations like Land O’Lakes and Dean Foods) that set the price of milk. So it may cost a farmer, say, $10 to get milk from the farm to a customer’s table, but Land O’Lakes et al will only pay the farmer $8. The system is inherently unfair, and it’s one that milk farmers have long organized against, including suing Dean Foods and organizing co-ops that try to bypass the big corporations. Their activism has seen mixed results—while ‘gourmet’ milk such as non-pasteurized whole milk is seeing an increase in demand, the FDA has also cracked down on several farmers that were selling their milk directly to customers, pushing farmers to go through ‘gourmet’ groceries, like Whole Foods.

The Tasty Choice: If you look around your area, you might be able to find one of those farmer co-ops that sell directly to the customer through farmer’s markets and CSAs. While this choices is not necessarily inexpensive, you do get a close working relationship with the farmer and your money goes directly into the farmer’s pockets. However, these are hard to find, even in areas where organic and local products are in high demand.

Another choice is to look around in your regular grocery store for organic or locally produced butter. While you lose the direct connection to the farmer this way and very often, ‘locally produced’ comes with it’s own set of problems (just because they’re local doesn’t mean they use organic or even ethical farming methods), at the very least, you know your money will stay within your region and you’ll be letting your grocer know that there is a demand for local (and organic) products.

Vegans use plant based shortening, which can be just as tasty and effective in your baking as butter and has the benefit of being plant based–however, I’ve found this can be as expensive as organic butter and is often hard to find.

Sugar:

The No Flavor Flop: 60% of sugar in the US comes from beets and almost 100% of that is GMO. While there are still a few holdouts that insist that there’s nothing wrong with GMO food, most recognize that at the very least, there are unanswered questions about the safety of GMO food. Even more to the point, there is only one single corporation in the US that produces organic sugar. That means of the sugar we consume that doesn’t come from that single corporation is either incredibly bad for the environment (and thus, you) or has travelled thousands of miles to get to you (which comes back down to the ‘bad for the environment, and thus, you’ situation again).

The Tasty Choice: Sugar is a difficult situation to negotiate. While with most other foods you can find healthy and safe alternatives if you ferret around a bit, because sugar is a difficult product for local farmers to make themselves (at least the kind of sugar that you’re used to seeing in the stores), the easiest thing to do is to bypass the beet sugar industry all together and go with different types of sugars that you know you can trust, like molasses, honey, or even coconut sugar. But going this route is expensive—I bought a bag of coconut sugar to experiment with and it cost $13, whereas the regular bag of GMO beet sugar was $2.50. This is simply too big of a cost difference to negotiate when you are mass producing Christmas cookies.

Organic sugar is available and it’s starting to make its way into major grocery chains. While it is true that organic sugar from some far away country is doing local farmers no favors, organic sugar from some far away country at a major grocery chain will be less expensive than the $13 bag of coconut sugar, so it may be the way a great way to compromise.

Another choice that may not be available everywhere but is worth considering if your area has access to it, is to buy your sugar from local industrial farm (or more likely, your local factory that boxes up and ships the sugar), even if it does produce GMO sugar. While the product may not be what you want, you are able to more directly influence the market that way, while keeping your money within your region. Many times, these type of farms/factories have ‘visitor’ days that you can attend to make your desires as a consumer better known. And emails and petitions from local community that actually use the product often have a stronger influence than emails/petitions from people who never intended to use the product to begin with. Also, the sugar will be much cheaper this way.

Flour:

The No Flavor Flop: There are a few major corporations that own most of the flour mills in the US. Three of those corporations recently merged to form Ardent Mills. While the three corporations were required to sell off four mills in order for the merger to go through, critics point out that Ardent still owns 6 of 11 mills in one region where they sold off a mill and 5 of 8 mills in another. Ardent also still owns half of the mills in Minnesota, where they agreed to sell one mill. Unfortunately, major corporate control over the food system is nothing new (as we see with the milk industry) and it almost universally is a bad outcome for small farmers. But it’s bad for consumers as well. ConAgra, one of the corporations that merged in the deal, also was a major donor in the battle in California to keep GMO labelling off of food products.

The Tasty Choice: Believe it or not, you can find locally made/ground flours at your local farmer’s markets if your lucky enough to have a fairly established market. The quality of flour is often excellent, the taste is unsurpassed. The problems are, as usual, cost and availability. Being able to grind grains at a massive scale is a tremendous project—try grinding up a cup of dry corn kernels at home, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s back breaking work and now that most women don’t have all day to grind flours for their families, you either have to own a mill or have a small scale production set up that you can use to grind large amounts of grains fairly quickly. Which is to say that grinding flours takes an investment that many local small scale producers just don’t have. This means that locally produced organic flours can be extremely expensive—and that’s if you manage to find anybody in your area that actually does it.

Bob’s Red Mill is a fantastic resource for those of us who don’t have easy access to local flour producers. There are untold numbers of flours, grains, cereals and seeds available in organic, non-GMO and even gluten free varieties. The cost is usually manageable, and while you lose the ‘local’ aspect when you buy through Bob’s Red Mill, it is an employee owned company, which means that employees (rather than a very wealthy CEO) get the profit of your sale, which is always better for all concerned.

In the end, the most just way to make cookies to use whatever ingredients work best for you. If you can only afford the no flavor flops, don’t worry and don’t feel guilty. Trust that it’s on purpose that most of us can’t afford to buy justice, and that most of us will have to break out of the ‘ethical consumption’ model to fix what is wrong with our food system. Try whipping a little justice into your baking by signing petitions and supporting legislation that works to empower farmworkers and small farmers. Or better yet, once you get a new rack of cookies into the oven, pour yourself a warm mug of hot chocolate and enjoy a few cookies while you read a little bit about food sovereignty! There is a multitude of ways you can support farmworkers and small farmers that don’t include buying things or just not baking at all. And who wants to be a part of a revolution if there are no cookies?

Photo by Lindsey B, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license