Popping your (organic) cherry
Hello again, fair, broke readers. Sorry to tease you with my column intro and then leave you hungering for more for all these weeks. Your resident brokeass took an unexpected journey to Utah to steal swag from well-heeled, earth-friendly-ish corporations and stalk eco-savvy celebs — and then returned and promptly got sick. So, the long-awaited second column, in which I actually answer some of your questions:
I’d love it if you could help clarify what sort of food I should be getting. Historically I’ve tried to buy organic food, even though it put a dent in my bank account, but now that I’m also trying to think about carbon footprints I’m all confused. Is it better to choose conventionally grown local food over organically grown long-distance food? Are there any foods which I should always try to buy organic, even if they’re very expensive? Are some organic foods simply not worth the money? Is it wrong to buy frozen food? Ice cream? Tea and coffee? Aaah!
So when I walk into the Safeway with my thin wallet and I want to buy smart, what is the one thing I should try to be consistent about? Organic milk? Organic veggies? Organic Oreos? Wine? Dog food? I’m feeding family of five … plus pets!
I picked these questions because they involve a consistent struggle for the broke and eco-savvy: filling our stomachs without guilt as a side dish. And even though I’m usually gung-ho on buying organic fruits and veggies, when it comes to the canned goods section, I find it very hard to pick the organic can of beans (and cans of beans are a staple in a brokeass vegetarian’s diet). In the end it all comes down to priorities, whatever yours may be.
If you’re going for impact on the environment and/or making a political statement about the agri-industrial complex, you might want to prioritize small-scale, local food over organic. It wasn’t hauled across the country, you might actually have some sort of relationship with the folks who grow it, and it’s often cheaper than the organics. Plus, local farms are usually smaller and more manageable, thus reducing the need for pesticide and herbicide use — meaning even if it isn’t organic, it could still be better than average. And when you buy local, you’re guaranteed to be buying whatever is in season where you live — always cheaper than stuff that has to be imported.
The best way to get local stuff? Farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), and independent grocers. I’ve noticed that if you hit the farmers market at the end of the day, the farmer folks are generally getting ready to pack up and head home, meaning they might give your broke ass a discount. But I think by far the best (and cheapest) way to do it is to invest in a CSA, especially if you live with other people. I share one with three other people in my house, and it comes out to less than $10 a week per person, which is way less than I’d be spending at the grocery store or the farmers market — and it’s all organic. In some places you can even have it delivered to your house — saving time, money, and fossil fuel.
From a health perspective — if you’re concerned about organics mainly from the “not wanting to put scary stuff in your body” angle — the priority is to buy organic produce. If you have a limited organic budget and have to buy some non-organic produce, pick fruits and veggies with thick peels. Pesticide residues are more problematic if you’re eating the whole fruit, but if you can peel off the thick outer layer, like with bananas or oranges, you’re safer. You can also peel the outer layer off things like apples and carrots, but then you’re losing some of their nutritional value.
Also, not all conventionally grown foods are treated equally — some require heftier doses of pesticides, and should be prioritized when you’re deciding what to buy organically. There’s more on that from the USDA Pesticide Data Program [PDF] if you’re really into the topic, and here’s a great, easy-to-use list from the Environmental Working Group. Some of the most heavily pesticide-ed: strawberries, bell peppers, spinach, apples, celery, and green beans. The biggest offender: peaches. So, you can put these at the top of your list of things to buy organic, or substitute to achieve the same nutritional benefits with other fruits and veggies. Lower on the list: grains, cookies, and dog food — which is mostly grains anyway. Plus they lick their own butts.
Also on the “to buy organic” list: meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Mad cow disease sucks. So does ingesting recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST). The good news on the milk front is that it’s getting more and more popular to cut the hormones, so even dairies that aren’t totally organic may be rBST/rBGH-free. And like with fruits and veggies, local is a priority (and often cheaper), and small dairies are easier to maintain, meaning less scary stuff is involved in the whole process. Consumer Reports has a good read on this. Also true for eggs — local hen houses are better, and cage-free brands are getting cheaper as their popularity rises.
Then, of course, there’s the “for the good of the land and everything on it” reason for buying organics — another good one, but one that makes cutting corners a little more complicated. In this case, bargain shopping is your best bet. Since everyone and their brother is pushing organics these days, you can usually catch deals at your local chain grocer. Even discount stores like the Grocery Outlet (known affectionately among my friends as “The Gross Out”) have organics.
As for some of the other questions thrown into your multifaceted letters, no, it’s not wrong to buy frozen food. Yes, you can drink coffee and tea. Please eat ice cream. A life of deprivation only makes us broke and angry environmentalists. We have a hard enough time making small talk at parties as it is. But being aware of the impacts of your consumer choices is the key, and allowing that to (non-dogmatically) shape your decisions is the imperative.
Concerned about the environment but don’t have the economic means to buy your way to carbon neutrality? Need some ideas on how to be savvy about the earth and your dollar? Add your questions and ideas to the comments section. And remember, as the old saying goes, it’s better to be broke than to further the break-up of the Arctic ice shelf.