Food shopping

Why I don’t eat everything organic

We recently returned from a 24-hour date to Lake Geneva–our first escape from the kids in more than a decade. We hiked, kayaked and shopped in all the cute little stores that our kids would dread.

A six-mile hike around Lake Geneva

A six-mile hike around Lake Geneva

And like every time we drive through Wisconsin, we followed one important rule: always stop at farm stands. This trip was no different, and since it’s prime strawberry season, it meant we stopped to pick fruit as well.

Thompson’s Strawberry Farm

Most people who know me assume that because we eat healthy, we must must buy everything organic. We certainly don’t. I try to buy the dirty dozen exclusively organic, and if I can’t find it organic, I don’t typically buy the food at all. When an organic product is not much more than the conventional one, I’ll go with the organic choice. Certainly, if money wasn’t an issue, I’d buy even more organic produce because it’s better for the environment.

But, come summer and fall, these rules fall to the wayside. Because my ultimate goal is to eat delicious, healthy food, and–while this may come as a surprise–organic is not a sure-fire way to eat healthy or deliciously. Plenty of products with all-organic ingredients are not much better than most other processed foods.

To me, local produce trumps organic any day. Small farmers, like those on the roadside in Wisconsin and those at the farmers’ market, are usually too small for organic certification. But a small farmer with a diversified crop is most likely using sustainable farming practices–like crop rotation and their own animals’ organic fertilizer to feed crops. And besides, the farmer is right there, ready to answer questions about the crops and farming practices.

I have to be honest, though, I almost never ask the farmer at a farm stand if there are any pesticides on the fruit and vegetables. Because a tomato directly from a farmer tastes like summer. And a farmer’s peach is so juicy that it drips down my arms. There’s just no comparison to produce picked in California before it’s ripe and then ripened in the trucking box or on my counter. Eggs from a small farmer come from chickens I can see are cage free, as opposed to organic eggs that often come from cages too small to ever be considered humane. Trust me, you can taste the difference.

A typical Wisconsin farm stand

Besides that, organic produce at a grocery store is often from a few large farms that are no longer in the spirit of the organic movement. In a New York Times article on big business organic, Mark Bittman writes, “Today, most farmers who practice truly sustainable farming, or what you might call ‘organic in spirit,’ operate on small scale, some so small they can’t afford the requirements to be certified organic by the government. Others say that certification isn’t meaningful enough to bother.”

So, you’ll have to excuse me while I munch on 8 pints of newly-picked strawberries. I’ve got no qualms about it.

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