Does “real food” have to mean “organic?”
Can conventionally grown produce still be healthy for you?
Is buying organic worth foreclosure on your home?
I’m going to share some reader emails to open up these questions, and I’m looking forward to rousing conversation in the comments!
Should I Prioritize Organic?
I received this email from a reader a few years back (emphasis mine):
I live in SC, and the strawberry season has started here already. I am very anxious to pick and preserve them. I have started to be more real food-conscious since about a year ago. Not that I fed my family badly before, but my views on healthy have changed a lot since. So this is the first time I ever actually think about what kind of strawberries I am going to pick.
We have a few farms around here, and I called them to collect some information.
At one they said they don`t know what the farmer puts on the berries (sounded like it was either an employee or a wife), but “there is nothing on it that will hurt ya”.
The other place said, it was the farmer himself, that they put nitrites and fertilizers, and also some pesticides to keep the bugs down, because otherwise they would not be able to produce berries. He said that SC has strict government regulations on what can be used and they all have to keep track of it and report it, and he says they only use it when necessary.
The third place, that I also did CSA with, says they make their own compost, they only use natural stuff when needed, and they are not certified organic but their practices are organic.
The first two farms sells at $1.50/lb., this last one for $2.50/lb. Also, the first two are within 30minutes, while the last one is about over an hour away.
I am really struggling to decide my priorities here.
How can I really know what the first two farmers are saying? They seemed not even to understand my questions. The third farmer knew exactly what I was talking bout. With farmers markets opening soon, I am going to face the same problem, that they are not really sure how to answer my questions and I am not really sure they tell me the truth or that I can trust them.
Strawberries are on the dirty dozen list, so I should be careful. But it is so hard to keep organic/natural a priority when I have a much cheaper option, and I sometimes like to lie to myself, that I don`t see anything on that berry anyways, it might not even be so bad.
I feel like my head is full with all the info I read on all the real food blogs, and I feel overwhelmed. Sometimes downright scared that I am poisoning my family. Especially my baby.
I almost feel like I follow the rules like a religion, with faith, but not a lot of real reasons for myself. I want to know why I do it and also, not to be so scared. So I just don`t know which strawberries to pick. And while it might seem like a stupid problem to have, but for me it is big, because I feel so burdened by what I feed my loved ones.
My response at the time was:
You sound like you’re right in my head! We had the same problem with strawberries a few years back when I was making the switch to more clean eating. The organic farm’s berries were tiny and heinous to pick, to exacerbate the problem.
If it were me, I’d probably end up picking once at the organic place and once at the other and saving the organic for the kids. Because I would like to believe that it can’t hurt me THAT much either!
As for the questions, you’ll get a lot of answers like that second guy. Unless he seems super sincere on the “we only use it when we need it,” doesn’t seem to belittle your question, and gives at least one example of something natural they do, I’d guess he’s in the basic majority of how most farmers farm – with the chemicals as the norm.
No farmer would purposely use chemicals if they weren’t needed, because that wastes money. The bottom line determines that people use less, but it’s not necessarily a “green” or “safer” option.
So I have no idea which of the first two would be the best bet; you might want to call the first farm back and get someone who knows more.
SO tough. I know. But just remember that you’re doing good for your family even in buying locally and giving your kids the experience of being in the patch – at least your berries are picked and preserved freshest, and they aren’t sprayed with anything weird just to help them get trucked across the country and still look good in the store. These old posts might resonate with you:
God bless your efforts, and may we BOTH get less stressed about food…so we don’t die of stress! Bwah! 😉
More recently, I touched on the topic of “perfect nutrition” again, in We’re Not Just Bodies Walking Around.
Yes, this is a strawberry patch. Hard to find the berries through the weeds!
And these are the berries…now I don’t need Frankenberries like you find in the stores this time of year, the size of a toddler’s fist, but these are the BIG berries of the day, and they’re barely the size of my thumbnail.
The Respectful Disagreement
When I shared that email conversation in a KS monthly newsletter last year at this time, I received a pretty heartfelt email from a reader who disagreed with my “one foot on either side of the fence” stance for a number of reasons (emphasis mine):
I am sorry Katie but I disagree with your answer to the woman asking about whether or not to spend a little extra on organic strawberries. In general the state of our food supply is an abysmal mess.
In the United States we prioritize most things before quality food. Better cars, better blue jeans, better lipstick and shampoo but when it comes to food we wring our hands at spending a few dollars more on quality, something that is less tangible then a label on our butt.
We live in a culture that reveres big plates, buffets and dollar menus. And the state of our health reflects that. I think that there is a better answer . . . for our family I shop using the EWG’s clean fifteen and dirty dozen list and I stick to it.
If I can’t “afford” organic strawberries or I can’t find them at all we don’t eat strawberries.
Strawberries are on the top of the dirty dozen list – there is no good reason to make conventionally grown strawberries a staple in our home. By using these two lists I always have a variety of organic and non-organic but safer choices for my family, and this is an equally important point, I am supporting organic growers both local and not that are using sustainable growing practices.
Local in itself means nothing. It is a marketing buzz word just like the “Jersey Fresh” moniker in my home state.
I personally have no real interest in supporting a local farmer that relies heavily on pesticides and fungicides, why is that important? That farmer is polluting the water, air and general environment I live in – but because he is “local” I owe him something? Sorry, that grower is going to have to find someone else to sell to. Or maybe he will see that I drive by his farm to pick up my organic CSA share and he will begin the transition.
We are not just kitchen stewards, Katie, we are stewards of this planet and we are leaving a giant mess for our kids.
Thank you for your time.
She’s right on many accounts, but sometimes the ideal isn’t what I end up with…at my house. My response:
Thanks for your response… In my area at least, there are many non-organic farmers who use very little junk on the plants and nothing on the berries. So…I go with them. If I didn’t buy strawberries locally, I would buy them frozen and shipped thousands of miles, and how much better on the earth is that? There are no easy answers, I don’t think, when it comes to dealing with the food mess that we’ve created in the world.
This year, it just so happens that I did u-pick for about an hour by myself with the kids (so we only got 7 quarts, practically nothing once preserved for the winter), and it was at a local place that I didn’t even ask questions at. I was desperate to do some u-picking before the season ended unseasonally early!
I could tell by the patch that they were a low or no chemical farm, though, as the berries were small and there were some weeds that I was happy to see. Then I went to the Farmer’s Market and bought 2 flats (so far) from a guy who is “chemical free.” It’s $4 more than regular flats and wayyyy more than u-pick would be, but we rely on frozen fruit to get us our yogurt through the winter and the fruit rolls to be our emergency car snacks, so it was worth it to me. However – my budget is expanding, so I can do that. In other years, I would have pushed to u-pick elsewhere or bought conventionally grown flats. ???
We all do what we can with what God gives us and must remember that the earth is a temporary home for these bodies. Not that we should exploit or hurt it, ever, on purpose, but that we can’t go beyond our means just to avoid some chemicals.
I received an email just this month from another reader whose husband lost his job just after they bought their dream house. They have a large-ish family and eat only organic foods, plus GAPS, and their food budget is almost two times what they can honestly afford with their current situation.
I was so saddened to read of the family’s plight and the decisions the mother has to make on a daily basis – they’re living as frugally as they can within the confines of organic food, but it’s not even close to enough.
Their house is in danger of foreclosure…I tried to respond with as much love and practicality as I could, since she was asking my advice:
I do think that trusting God is paramount, but I agree that it’s hard! He will give you what you need, and maybe letting go of a little is what He’s trying to teach you…? I don’t personally buy 100% organic for our family, to tell you the truth, although we’re getting closer. I was just doing some research on the state of organics and how many of them are from China – and probably more contaminated that anything from the general pollution over there as well as the lack of oversight.
So even buying what you think is the best might not be in the long run…and I don’t say that to scare you or add any stress (you don’t need it!!) but to remind you that we’re not in charge. Even when we try to be. 😉
But ultimately, by experience I know that choosing organics increases the food budget by 33-50%…which is exactly what you need to cut. So embrace the idea that you’re going to eat FOOD, just food, and as long as it’s in its whole form, you’re okay with it until you get back on your feet.
I don’t know what kind of diet you were eating before, but I’m guessing that organics wasn’t the only thing you changed. If your journey was from processed foods to whole foods, it may have been that more than organics that made the difference. If you’re most concerned about GMO stuff, then skip corn and soy and a few other items (infographic here).
There’s really not that much on it. So your big question is going to be animal products: do you get animal products that have eaten GMO food? If not, you’ll have to get organic meat. I would say eat less of it, but with GAPS…you might just have to do some conventional, or buy some hens…which would make selling the house more difficult.
There’s rarely an easy black-and-white answer for your average American family when asking the question:
What do we eat?
Organic strawberries might be shipped across the continent.
Local strawberries might be sprayed, but at least they’re fresh – and oh, have you tasted the difference between “just picked” and “shipped from California?” No contest. Just picked = Heaven on earth.