Which is more important, eating local or organic? This question has been asked so many times over recent years and has many different answers, depending on who you ask. Even though you may not have asked, here is my version of an answer to this question.
The short answer is: ORGANIC. The long answer is: local but only if you can find a local source that grows their food using organic practices. If you can find both, that is the best possible source of food for you and your family. A local farmer who may not necessarily be certified organic but follows organic farming practices such as not using pesticides or antibiotics or growth hormones. This is the ideal. If this is not possible, I think it is actually more important to support organic than local. After all, local chemical farming still pollutes the earth and increases our carbon footprint and energy usage. Organic foods are cleaner, healthier, safer, and taste better than those that are farmed or raised with chemicals. Organic farming is more productive than chemical farming and can help clean up the planet at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly and consistently support our local farmers and our local economy whenever possible. I believe this to be an important step to healing much of what is broken and hurting in our society today. However, what ultimately convinced me to value organic over local sources was the fact that organic farming has the ability to pull excess carbon out of the air (of which we have too much of right now and, ironically, is largely attributed to chemical farming and the mass production of meat, both of which you could be avoiding by choosing to buy organic) and fix the carbon in the soil (where we do not have enough of it right now because of chemical farming processes that deplete the soil of its nutrients). So much so that it would offset any carbon footprint that was created during the transport of this organic food around the world to your grocery store (this same carbon footprint had previously swayed me towards favoring local foods to avoid the environmental costs involved in stocking the modern day grocery store). I feel like buying organic is a way for me to maybe make some small difference in a worldwide problem and, if everyone made that same choice, we could actually reverse the problem and start to heal the planet. That’s huge. But we cannot leave it up to the CEOs and politicians to make the “right” decision just because it feels good. The truth of the matter is that the decision would have to be based on what makes the most financial sense for those individuals or companies. Which brings me to my next point…
I firmly believe in the power of voting with our dollars and supporting organic farming is the most important way you can spend your voting dollars, in my opinion. The amount that you spend on this voting method will be different for every budget but the important thing is that you are making your vote known. And I believe that, by showing the world that we demand organic, we will start to see more and more local farmers using organic practices and move towards that ideal of local AND organic food on our dinner table.
Okay, so maybe you are ready to make a change in your food buying behavior. But where do you start? And how can you afford to switch to organic when it seems to cost so much more? Here are a few ideas to get you started today:
- Check out the “Dirty Dozen” of produce at EWG and start buying the organic versions of these twelve items. Here is the list for 2016:
Once you make the decision to start buying these items organic, start looking for sales and then buy as much of that item that you can handle. You can buy more than you need at the time and then preserve it for later by freezing, dehydrating, or canning.
- For any foods that you eat a lot of in your family, check to see if there is a way to buy that item in bulk and save yourself some time and money. For example, in our household, we buy pretty much all of our grains, flours, beans, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, honey, maple syrup, salt, and even coconut oil in bulk. We purchased food-grade buckets and bags to store these items in our basement – where it is cool and dry and usually dark – until we are ready to use them. Keep in mind that we did this over the course of several years though. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Just pick one thing at a time to work on. Little changes will still change your life!
- Choose one food item to investigate each month (preferably one that you buy and use regularly – maybe carrots or pears or milk or chicken?) and then do some research to find out where that item comes from, how it is grown or raised, and how it gets to your table. If it makes sense to switch to the organic version of that item (maybe because of heavy pesticide use, the use of antibiotics or hormones, or GMO seeds), then switch! Don’t forget to check to see if a local option exists before buying it at the grocery store.
Now, if you’re already doing some of the things above and want to work towards buying organic AND local, here are some ways to dig even deeper into the source of your food and start to support your local economy at the same time that you are putting healthier food options on your table:
- Look up the dates and times and locations of your local farmers’ markets and put a reminder on your calendar to visit a market next weekend. When you go to the market, be sure to bring your own shopping bags and cash in your wallet, just in case the farmer is not set up to accept credit cards. When you get there, take the time to walk around and ask questions of the farmers. Don’t hold back! A good farmer will be happy to share their farming practices and tell you about what they have for sale that day. So ask them things like, “Do you ever spray your crops with pesticides or use chemical fertilizer?” or “When did you harvest those greens?” (The answer to that last one is usually “This morning!”) And if you see something new that you want to try, ask the farmer, “How would you recommend storing and preparing these dandelion greens?” Sometimes they even have recipes available for you to take with you and try at home.
- Look up some local farms and orchards in your area, call them ahead of time to confirm organic practices, and then make a point to visit one of them in the next three months (preferably one that sells something that your family likes to eat…maybe a blueberry farm or an apple orchard?).
o BONUS: See if you can find a farm that offers a “Pick Your Own” option during the growing season. This is a great way to save money and have fun together as a family! Every year, we visit our local farms and pick as many strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and tomatoes as we can and then either freeze or can them to use for the rest of the year. (We have never been able to pick enough to match our annual consumption but hopefully as the boys get older and are able to help out more – instead of eating as many as they pick – we might just have enough!)
- Check or ask around for restaurants that support the farm-to-table mentality. Pick one that sounds yummy, call the babysitter, and set up a date with your favorite person! (NOTE: this option will definitely be more expensive than what you are used to spending on a meal so be prepared, make it a special occasion, and know that you are getting what you pay for! For example, Joe’s company gives him monetary awards as recognition for a job well done so, when he comes home with one of these awards, we like to celebrate by going out to dinner and letting the company pay for our farm-fresh food!)
- Sign up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in your area. These have come so far in the past 5 years that there is a good chance you can find an organic farm in your area that provides CSA shares throughout the summer or winter months. The way these usually work (every one is a little bit different) is that you sign up months in advance (usually as early as January or February for a summer CSA that runs from May through October) and pay the farmer the entire cost of the CSA season up front. (To give you an idea of what to expect, we pay about $600 for a full summer share of non-certified organic produce that is meant to feed a family of 4.) Then, every week during the CSA season, you either pick up your produce at the farm or sometimes it is delivered to another central location and you pick it up there. We have been participating in a CSA program for the past 8 years and we absolutely love it!
For all of the suggestions listed above, you can find out more by visiting the Local Harvest website or looking up your local chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local. Both of these organizations provide lists of farms, farmers’ markets, CSAs and restaurants in your area to get you started on your journey!
And if you are interested in learning more about this topic, here are some of my favorite books that have inspired me over the years to be more mindful of what we eat and where it comes from and how its production impacts the world.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – by Barbara Kingsolver
Omnivore’s Dilemma – by Michael Pollen
Organic Manifesto – by Maria Rodale
In Organic Manifesto, Maria Rodale states, “If you do just one thing – make one conscious choice – that can change the world, go organic.” “No other single choice you can make to improve the health of your family and the planet will have greater positive repercussions for our future.”
What change will you make in your life today?