Friday, April 3, 2009

Eating Well, Part One: Local and Organic Rules

“You pay now or you pay later.” Mary Ann Salas said this, years before the organic debate reached the national stage. Not as renowned as some of the experts below, Mary Ann was nonetheless a luminary amongst all who knew her. She was my mother’s sister and best friend, my Godmother, and my husband’s boss and mentor; and she was dying of breast cancer. I write these “Eating Well” segments in her honor.

Mary Ann was saying what is now more widely acknowledged: the true price of conventionally farmed food is our health and well-being. If you don’t need convincing, skip to the “To Market, To Market” portion below to get hooked into your local, organic community, and start eating well!
What is Organic?
What exactly is the difference between “organic” and “conventional”? Check out this sidebar from Go Organic! for Earth Day. and this one-page rundown from the Center for American Progress: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2008/09/organic_green.html


Need a selfish reason to eat locally-grown organic? Here are 5:

1. Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms. You are a living organism. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) warns, “every year, new research is published demonstrating the toxicity [to our nervous and hormone systems; as well as carcinogenic effects] of pesticides…often at doses previously declared ‘safe’ by the pesticide industry and our government.”
2. You want healthy children. Your unborn child, your newborn infant, your tiny toddler, with rapidly developing and immature systems, cannot metabolize and filter out toxic chemicals like an adult can, making our young the most vulnerable to pesticides’ physical damages. Note: the placenta does not protect the baby from toxins.
3. Antibiotic-resistant bugs (like MRSA) scare you. Animals raised in “factory farm” operations where they are packed together, fed unnatural grain-heavy diets and given synthetic growth hormones to increase their milk production, are uniformly given antibiotics to prevent the disease these conditions encourage. As the World Health Organization (WHO) has decried for more than a decade, this widespread use of antibiotics causes the rise of new antibiotic-resistant microbes that can infect humans. http://www.who.int/whr/1996/media_centre/press_release/en/index4.html
4. You want the nutrients you think you’re getting when you bite into something. Whether we’re talking antioxidants and vitamins in our vegetables and fruits, or Omega-3’s and minerals in our dairy and meat (http://www.npr.org/templates/player/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=100755362&m=100754237), though trade organizations on both sides are still paying for research to argue the issue, the U.S. government ultimately concedes that organic food is more nutrient-rich than conventionally farmed alternatives (see the next point for why). (http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/faq/BuyOrganicFoodsB.shtml#BuyB7).
5. Organic tastes better for scientifically-proven reasons. As recently published in the Journal of HortScience, U.S. conventional produce tastes worse and contains up to 40% less minerals than in our grandparents’ day. Why? Veggies bred to increase crop yield and vegetable size have high carbohydrate content, rather than increased phytochemicals (which give the plant its taste and nutrition). Also, chemically altered and non-rotated crops are produced and harvested faster than ever, which results in veggies that have had less time to absorb nutrients from photosynthesis or the mineral-depleted soil. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1880145,00.html?imw=Y

Seeing the interconnection amongst all life and ecosystems on the planet? Motivated to create a better future for the next generation? Then you may appreciate these ideological reasons to buy organic, local food:

1. You support fair and reasonable compensation for the farmer who grows your food, and can interview him directly to assure yourself that his farming practices are safe and conscientious.
2. You eat whatever is locally growing to reduce the fossil fuel typically consumed when farmers: a. heat greenhouses to grow veggies out of season and b. ship food to you from another part of the world where it is in season. The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (www.cuesa.org) in San Francisco reports that the average American meal travels about 1500 miles to get from farm to plate, putting almost 10 kcal fossil fuel energy into our food system for every 1 kcal of energy we derive as food.
3. You vote with your dollar against, and eliminate the demand for cloned, genetically-modified, gassed or irradiated food designed to withstand long-distance transport well.
4. You protect the long-term health of worldwide climate, air, water, soil and wildlife that are hurt by pesticides, and by CO2 emissions from shipping.
5. You uphold the community that preserves the animal breeds, heirloom fruits and vegetables, handcrafted wine and beer, and other artisanal products, which generations of Americans have cultivated.
6. You require humane animal management of livestock that promotes animals’ well-being and allows them to engage in their natural behaviors.


To Market, To Market

If not for the pesticide factor, purely eating locally is the way to go for the reasons outlined above. Also, we will happily welcome the day when our tax dollars subsidize our local, organic farms rather than industrialized conglomerates of farms – thus making local, organic produce as affordable as conventional. (Part Two of Eating Well will delve into the U.S.’s “Cheap Food Policy”).
In the meanwhile, what to buy, and where to buy it?
Here are two great resources for understanding the USDA’s labeling of organic/natural foods. It gets a little tricky (‘gotta love those marketers), but these sites help you decipher the labels:
a. Navigating Food Labels (see inset by scrolling down): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90914182#90910901
b. Consumer Reports' GreenerChoices Eco-labels: http://www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels/

If you’re not ready to switch to all organic, at least avoid what EWG defines as “The Dirty Dozen” – the 12 fruits and vegetables you should always buy organic due to their high pesticide content. http://foodnews.org/methodology.php. The most recent dirty dozen lists peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots and pears.

When my father buys conventional, he uses citrus-based Veggie Wash to scrub away pesticide residue. A good protective measure, and vinegar will do the trick too.

Wanting to dive into the local, organic food movement?

1. Become a member of a local organic or slow food organization. For example, for us Atlanta folks, Georgia Organics (http://www.georgiaorganics.org/) produces an annual local food guide, online directory to farms and restaurants, periodic newsletters, and now, best of all, I can follow them on Twitter where their postings help connect me to the day-to-day local organic food scene in Georgia. Also, check out Slow Food USA for a chapter near you: http://www.slowfoodusa.org/.
2. Join a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture). You pay for a share in a local farm, sometimes also helping work the farm, and you usually go to a designated pick-up spot weekly to get a box of whatever is in season. Find one here: http://www.localharvest.org/csa/
3. Shop or join a Co-op: http://www.coopdirectory.org/index.htm.
4. Go to Farmer’s Markets. These are always fun to explore because more than fruits and vegetables, you may also find organic, locally grown flowers, eggs, milk, honey, baby food, and personal care products. Go here for full farmer's market listings:
http://www.georgiaorganics.org/OrganicDirectory.aspx.

Throughout the year, we supplement our CSA boxes with trips to Your Dekalb Farmers Market, which is a standing indoor warehouse-esque international market, with a very complete organic selection (though not all local). http://www.dekalbfarmersmarket.com/

As we walk through the front doors, we pass their mission statement etched into the front of the building: “We declare the world is designed to work. We are responsible for what does not work. We make the difference. No matter how technologically advanced we become, we cannot escape our fundamental relationships with food and each other.” Yes, I agree. That is why to be well, we must eat well.

2 comments:

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  2. I'm joining Mooresfarmsandfriends.com today! I'm looking forward to seeing how the organic food will affect me and my future menus.

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