Our Interview with Danielle Vogel, Eco-preneur, Grocer, and Environmental Lawyer

After spending a decade on Capitol Hill trying to enact comprehensive climate change legislation, Danielle Vogel opened Glen's Garden Market on Earth Day of 2013 to make incremental climate change progress. Glen's serves Good Food from Close By through partnerships with producers who treat their land, animals, and ingredients with respect. Every single decision they make for the business is made with the environment in mind, including rigorous sourcing standards, a no-food-waste mandate, a community compost program, and only offering reusable bags. Glen's Garden Market has also launched 89 local, small food businesses that share their commitment to sustainability, of which 53 are owned by women and 22 owned by people of color.

I’ve often said that my hope is for clothing to go the way of food. What do you think American food trends are getting right, and what are some areas where you’d like to see more growth?

There is a very promising trend in food right now that elegantly converges physical and environmental health: folks are choosing plant-based proteins, and they're displacing demand for energy-intensive, animal-based proteins in the process. This trend carries across several product categories from fresh and frozen "meats" to all manner of "dairy" products (milks, cheeses, yogurts and ice creams).

We've also seen many packaged beverage producers (alcoholic and non-alcoholic alike) move from heavy glass containers to lighter cans, which are less energy intensive to transport, and thus reduce transportation emissions. 

In terms of a trend we could stand to skip: single-serve and single-use plastics. Non-rigid plastics are typically non-recyclable, so when folks choose to buy bagged produce or mini... anything, frankly, they're needlessly increasing the carbon intensity of their basket.  The work-around: buy larger format items, or bring your own washable, reusable containers to the store to collect your produce and grains, rather than reaching for the convenience items. They're generally more expensive by volume, so choosing them is not only bad for the environment, it’s bad for your food budget too. And for the love of the future, please avoid those absurd mini plastic water bottles.   

What are three misconceptions the American consumer has around their food and social and environmental good?

  1. One person can't have an impact. 

Climate change is a huge and complex problem, but we all make decisions daily that either expand or contract our personal carbon footprint, and those decisions have a huge cumulative impact over time. Every choice matters, especially when it comes to materials that can take hundreds of years to decompose, if they decompose at all. You don't have to be perfect to do good, but coming to each consumption decision from a place of mindfulness is both empowering and impactful. 

  1. Good Food is "too expensive."

Good Food is food that's made thoughtfully, by people who treat their land, their animals, their ingredients and their workforce with respect. It's NOT mass-produced, commodity nonsense. If you care about climate change, shop your values. Choose local, choose organic, choose to skip single-use plastic and unnecessary packaging. Not always, but most of the time. 

  1. Food waste disappears once it's out of sight. 

We do a very, very bad job of recycling in this country, and even when we put our recycling in the proper waste container, there's no guarantee it will actually be recycled – much of it goes to landfill, despite our best efforts. The best bet: take small steps to reduce the amount of waste you’re generating in the first place -- replace plastic water bottles with reusable water bottles, save leftovers... and actually eat them before they decompose (making food is super energy intensive, but wasting it is much worse!), don't buy food you don't need (ever get a carton of eggs home, only to find you had one in the refrigerator already?), and eat the food you have. Twenty-one percent of our landfill volume is food waste, and when food decomposes it produces methane, which exacerbates climate change. Preventing food waste is good for your food budget AND good for the environment. 

How do you select the brands that will be in Glen’s? How have you set up systems for serving, packaging, and disposing of food and food waste?

When we opened the store on Earth Day of 2013, 99 percent of the products on our shelves were grown or created within the states of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. We made a very limited set of exceptions for things like salt and olive oil. Over the years, we’ve developed a robust set of sourcing standards, which were largely derived from the judging criteria for the Good Food Awards. We still have a very strong preference for locally made items – and won’t compete a local maker against a national brand – but we have allowed ourselves to make mindful exceptions to our locality rules for items that make it easier for our Neighbors to shop at Glen’s (things like bananas, avocados and boxed cereal).

In terms of packaging, we only use recyclable or compostable items, and we only offer reusable bags at check out (no paper or plastic). Our kitchen operates under a no food waste mandate, and we invite the community to compost with us, for free and in unlimited quantities.

Now for that “to go box.” What are your thoughts on eating out vs. cooking in and making each be more sustainable?

As a super busy small business owner, I eat out or call for delivery way more than I’d prefer, so I’ve done a lot of thinking about this issue. In DC, we’ve banned non-recyclable packaging, so take out containers are a lot less despicable than they used to be (and still are elsewhere). My cardinal rule is: if I bought it, I’m eating it, either as it arrived or as a next-day recipe (of which I have MANY). The bottom line is, food is energy intensive to grow, transport, prepare, and in the case of delivery – transport again, and then potentially refrigerate. Dropping leftovers into the trash or even the compost simply isn’t an option.

What is the next frontier for Glen’s and you?

We’re in our seventh year of business and we are beginning to approach our potential, but we’re not there yet. I envision a space where Neighbors convene to enjoy and engage with Good Food and one another. A space that is the true antidote to Amazon – an activated community center with classes, tastings, gatherings and an infinitely exciting and delicious selection of mindfully made, sustainably sourced food. A space where our team is confident, knowledgeable, happy and warm and where the folks, who choose to share our space, feel welcome, excited to be there, and nourished in every sense of the word. We’re working relentlessly toward that vision every day. 

For people not in DC, how can they make conscious food choices?

Location really doesn’t matter when it comes to making conscious food choices. Here are a few very simple rules of thumb, when it comes to minimizing your personal carbon footprint:

  • Eat less meat.
  • Seek out sustainably grown or certified organic produce.
  • Minimize your food waste.
  • Buy products that represent your values, especially when that means buying less, but better, food.

For more tips on small behavioral changes to minimize your personal carbon footprint, check out my podcast, Everyday Enviro, on Full Service Radio.

What do you seek in your clothing? What do you like about The Alicia?

Working in the grocery store every day means I’m regularly on my knees stocking, in the loading dock lifting boxes, in the dish pit scrubbing away and doing all sorts of other infinitely glamorous things. I really beat up on my clothes, so when choosing new pieces, I seek two important qualities: durability and fit. A 14-hour day is long enough without pants that are too tight, or shoes that are cutting up my feet. I’m looking for timeless, quality items that can hold up to machine washing and occasional nicks with a box-cutter. 

All of that aside, I occasionally get to wear a dress and I could not be more excited about the Alicia. The tailoring is perfection: the flare hits at exactly the right spot to conceal my midsection (always a plus), the pockets are large and functional, and the hemline is flawless on my 5’6 frame. I believe deeply in the mission of Maven Women, and I’m super excited to wear a dress that so closely aligns with my personal value set. It looks great, and I feel great about wearing it. Can’t beat that! 

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