Monday, June 8, 2009

Why organic?

Mention organic food in any given social setting, and you're bound to get a mixed bag of responses, ranging from polite inquiry to defensive mumblings. Because it can be more expensive than conventionally grown or raised food, criticisms abound about how organic food is merely food for the wealthy. In many cases, this is true. However, organic food is likely closer to what our great-grandmothers fed their families, before small farms were overtaken by agribusiness. I can only answer the question of "Why organic?" for my family, just as you can only answer it for yours. I choose to view our choice to eat more organic food as a "pay now or pay later" approach, knowing that we're investing in our health now, to avoid paying later with the risks inherent in eating food that is not as safe for us. In addition, I feel that we're paying now by investing in organic farms to ensure their future, and therefore our future of eating safer food. Most, if not all, state food stamp programs allow purchases from farmers' markets, but where does that leave the rest of us, who don't have piles of money sitting around (even though we'd certainly be considered "wealthy" by global standards), but don't qualify for food stamps?

In order to truly understand my family's decision to eat organic and humanely grown food, I would highly recommend reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (reviewed here). I'm sure there are dozens of other books out there that describe the same issues, but I found these to be quite accessible, and also quite convincing. (For shorter reads about organic farming and eating, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. But most of all, here.) Of course, just because a food has an "organic" label does not mean that it's healthy, as much as I'd like to believe that the organic pop-tarts at Costco are going to change my life. And a food does not need to be certified organic to have been grown without pesticides and other chemicals. Organic certification is an expensive, highly regulated process, and many farmers can't afford the certification. The best way to know if food from the farmers' market is organic is to get to know the growers themselves.

My interest in organic food started when I started to wean my son last summer, and started offering him solid food. Organic baby food is relatively easy to find in jars, but I wanted to make most of his food at home, both for the cost savings, but also because I like to cook. I found this list of high-pesticide foods, and made it a priority to at least use organic varieties of those foods as I introduced them to the baby's diet. Then, I learned more about how conventionally grown foods are actually nutritionally different than organically grown foods. Because organically grown plants have to fend for themselves instead of allowing pesticides to do that work for them, they are richer in nutrients as a result. The case for eating organic food ourselves became more compelling. So, this spring we signed up for our very first Community-Supported Agriculture share. Last week, we picked up our first box, and we've feasted on purple kohlrabi, blue potatoes, arugula, green lettuce, green garlic, green onions, radishes, rosemary, and the greens from the kohlrabi, onions, garlic, and radishes. Our friends who have participated in CSAs in previous years have warned us that the first year can be overwhelming, not knowing what to do with all of the veggies. I have to say, I think we did pretty well for the first week. We have two more days to eat some of the lettuce and the radishes before we get our next box, and I'm confident we would not have had any lettuce left at all by now if I hadn't foolishly purchased a gigantic container of organic spring mix from Costco last week before the CSA box arrived. (The spring mix, I swear, has grown with each salad I've eaten, instead of shrinking.) It's another small step, for sure, but we're excited to see what the rest of the summer holds.

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