It’s back-to-school week which has me thinking not only about education but about choices. For example, when you are shopping your local farmer’s market or grocery store, do you feel bombarded with choices? Free-range or barn raised? Locally produced or imported? Organic or conventionally grown? These days, grocery shopping is like taking the SATs – or in this case – the Shopping Aptitude Test. With so many decisions to make, how do we know we are making the healthiest choices for ourselves and our families? The simple answer is that you don’t know, unless you have done your homework. For those of you who haven’t studied, it’s time to grab your #2 pencils. I am going to lead you on a short course through the world of healthy food choices.
Part I: Organic?
You walk into a grocery store and see a beautiful, perfectly round, red tomato on display next to a smaller, organically grown tomato that looks a little like Abraham Lincoln’s profile. What do you do?
- Not knowing what the term organic really means, you throw up your hands in defeat and wander off towards the frozen foods section in search of a pint of Chunky Monkey.
- Buy the organic tomato because even though it looks like something grown on Mars, it has the Earthy aroma of a tomato.
- Buy the beautiful, conventionally grown tomato because it’s cheaper.
Correct Answer: #2
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) believes that there is mounting evidence that organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains may offer more of some nutrients including vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus with less exposure to nitrates and pesticide residues, than their counterparts grown using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. It just makes sense that foods grown without pesticide residue are healthier for you. Organic farmers are prohibited from using synthetic chemicals but conventional farmers can use around 200 approved synthetic chemicals-fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Pesticides on foods pose even more of a danger to young children. Because they are growing, they consume more food per pound of body weight than adults which means higher exposure to pesticide residues. Since many modern pesticides are neurotoxins designed to kill bugs by interfering with their nervous systems, even low levels could be potentially dangerous in children whose brains are developing.
Part II: Localvores? Choose the answer that best describes the term localvores.
- Legendary, dragon-like creatures that eat local villagers.
- People who eat food that meets the Authentic Food Standards.
- People who eat food produced within a certain radius of their home.
- Both (2.) and (3.)
Correct Answer: #4.
Because formal USDA certification can be expensive and complicated for small, independent farms, alternative organic standards are emerging. The Authentic Food Standard, proposed by author and organic farmer Eliot Coleman, included criteria that was incompatible with current agribusiness. He proposed that fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs and meat products be produced within a 50-mile radius of the place of their final sale and that grains, beans, nuts, and potatoes be produced within a 300-mile radius. Seasonal food can be brought to market more quickly than food that has to be transported long distances keeping it fresh for longer periods which allows for a better tasting and more nutritious food choice.
Part III. All of the above
The debate over organic versus conventionally produced food has waged for years with proponents saying that organic farming protects the environment and critics saying it has little effect. Organic advocates say pesticides can cause numerous health problems including cancers, neurological disorders, immune system weakening, autoimmune disorders, asthma, allergies, infertility, miscarriage, learning disabilities, mental retardation, hyperactivity and attention deficit disorders. Critics say there is little evidence that organic is healthier than conventionally grown food.
I think we can all agree that the local food movement has been gaining momentum for some time as more and more people discover that the best tasting, most sustainable and healthiest choices for their family are foods that are fresh, seasonal and locally grown. While localvores are drawing inspiration from books like the “The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating” by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver, others are following their consumer consciences to farmers’ markets, CSAs and food co-ops.
During back-to-school season, I am going to do my homework and educate myself about my local food choices before I head to the market so that the next time I find myself overwhelmed with choices, I will make the healthiest and best informed decisions.