We’re lucky, aren’t we, that at the turning point of the seasons we always have more to look forward to in the season to come?
For us, it’s softball in Town Park, hanging the hammock in the backyard and dusting off the Shasta trailer for the first of summer’s series of family camping trips.
For me particularly, summer is the promise of melons at the Telluride Farmer’s Market.
When I was pregnant with Elle, my summertime weeks revolved around Friday trips to the Farmer’s Market. They went something like this: Waddle directly to my favorite stall, stroke and sniff the melons I found there, waiting for a break in the bustle to ask the farmer to pick me out a few. Like four or five. You know, to last me through the week.
I would literally spend half my weekly grocery allowance on organic, locally grown melons, picked out for me by the person who had plucked them from the field the day before. Me and my melons would then make a beeline for home, where they’d be lucky to last until the next Friday market.
The family grocery allowance has been trimmed down considerably since my pre-kid days of pregnant melon cravings, so much so, in fact, that I’ve had to radically adjust the way I shop, and in effect, the way my family eats.
I started as the scrupulously organic-purchasing wife and mom, never batting an eyelash (well, batting fewer eyelashes) at the outrageously large sum of money I would fork over to Whole Foods when I had the opportunity to shop there. But after kid No. 1 and the subsequent costs of diapering, feeding, clothing, housing, and schooling another person cut into my once-portly grocery budget, I made the shift to Trader Joe’s and City Market organic brands.
This winter, I crossed over into the dark side. I started buying organics at Wal-Mart (yes, they actually have some organic products.) They were so cheap! I was being so thrifty! And, I was still maintaining some standard, buying organic brands, wasn’t I?
Our even-further-decimated grocery allowance this winter made me do it, I argued to myself after each trip. But despite the money I saved, I couldn’t feel good about what I had bought – even if it was stamped with an “organic” symbol.
I think I have a problem. More appropriately, a fetish – not unlike those fetishes some women have for shoes or handbags, but my fetish is for that “Certified Organic” stamp.
This is what I have realized this spring, thinking about summer and melons and farmer’s markets – and how I’m going to keep our grocery bill in check.
When the European Union funded a long-term study on the nutritional value of organically produced milk and produce, they found that organic products contained higher percentages of nutrients and antioxidants (such as carotenoids and alpha-linoleic acids) than their conventionally grown counterparts.
Conversely, fruits and vegetables grown in fields doused with synthetic, petroleum-based fertilizers have been shown to have up to 75 percent less minerals than those grown in organically fertilized fields, due to the synthetic fertilizers’ tendency to deplete the soil and, eventually, the plants grown there.
So buying organic is the right thing to do, if not for my bank account than at least for the health of my family and the environment, right?
I’m no longer so sure.
I recently had a conversation with Jeff Downs, a rancher outside of Montrose whose animals are raised humanely on open pasture, with unlimited access to pesticide and herbicide-free grass, fresh air and clean water. But his products are not certified organic. “Certified organic” isn’t, actually, a term Downs wants to apply to his Kinikin Heights products. He explained that large-scale organic meat operations aren’t required to provide fresh air or sunshine – or even room to roam – for their animals. Oftentimes, they’re treated the same way conventionally raised animals are treated, except that they won’t get antibiotics or steroids and are fed organic (albeit evolutionarily unnatural) feed. They’re sent to a massive slaughterhouse after which their various parts may or may not end up in the same package, on the grocer’s shelf thousands of miles away.
And what about large-scale organic fruit and vegetable producers?
They too operate within the same boundaries as the mass-production, mass-distribution system of conventionally raised produce. Of course, those organic apples haven’t been sprayed with toxic chemicals or raised in synthetically fertilized fields – and that’s definitely a good thing. But then again, how many carbon monoxide molecules were emitted during the transportation of those organic apples from New Zealand to my fruit basket?
The cracks in our country’s food system are wide and jagged, and thanks to a faltering economy, have threatened to eat up well-meaning families like ours. I’m thankful for my opportunity to speak with Downs, since it has prompted me to reexamine my own family’s eating practices – and, I’m hoping, will help rid me of my “organic” fetish (while hopefully saving us some money in the process.)
How about buying local, even if it isn’t organic? We’ve switched from Horizon Organic milk to Rocking W milk, which comes from a small dairy in Olathe that doesn’t give its cows growth hormones – and it’s right down the road, and I swear tastes so much better than any milk we’ve bought in an organic carton. It’s less expensive, too.
We’ve also started buying in-bulk things we can’t buy from local sources, from Black Canyon Foods. We have a stockpile of organic rice, coffee, raisins and dried bananas in our garage pantry, which has actually saved us a fair amount of money over buying things like individual boxes of rice and one-pound bags of coffee.
We bought a quarter of a cow this fall from a local rancher, and have been trading our frozen steaks for pork chops from the pig our neighbors bought this fall, too.
And I have to put a plug in for my husband, who each fall has trampled through the snow to gun down an elk, filling our freezer with enough native meat to lasts almost all year long.
These shifts aren’t nearly consequential enough to ignite a food revolution, nor will they free up significant amounts of extra cash for the family coffers. But I’m hoping they will, at least, pave a healthier path for my family, while teaching my daughter about being a responsible consumer – one who doesn’t buy her organics at Wal-Mart, but who can also limit herself to just one organic Farmers Market melon a week.