They say parenting changes you. And they aren’t kidding.
I remember looking down at our firstborn when she was a tiny little bundle. Such a cute nose. And big, innocent eyes. And adorable smile. And…
Oh no! I’m now responsible for this little human!
Cue the parental panic.
Around the time that our first was born, the whole foods/slow foods movement was just beginning to blossom on the national scene. By the time my bubbly baby was ready to eat solids, documentaries like Food, Inc. were giving us the inside scoop on food-growing practices around the nation.
(Have you seen Food, Inc.? If not, it’s an interesting watch. Catch it on Youtube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.)
Suddenly I could feel the weight of my parenting choices. When I read that canned baby food was a concentrated source of pesticides, I was disheartened. But hearing that pureed pears have 26 pesticide residues and pureed baby food peaches have 22 residues rattled me. (source 1, 2) With the clear, scientifically-proven connection between certain pesticides and neurotoxicity, cancer, and hormone disruption, it seemed like organic was the clear savior to a (fallen?) food system.
So for years I loaded up my cart with organic produce from the grocery store, happily thinking that I was making the “best” choice for my family.
But as I mentioned in my post describing our family’s journey with nonstick cookware, life is rarely ever black and white.
Beginning To Question “Organic”
As a young parent, my concern for “all things organic” meant that I focused solely on that little USDA Organic Symbol – while ignoring other aspects of produce, like its country of origin. It’s not rocket science to say that a yellow pepper that traveled from Holland (where many of my organic yellow peppers come from) has the greater chance of nutrient loss than a conventional pepper grown in the US because of transportation distance and logistics.
A little over a year ago Katie wrote an article questioning organic pesticide use (yes, there are pesticides given the green light for use on organic crops) and whether conventional produce can be considered safe. She asked some really good questions and has research to back it up.
Hmmmm. Maybe “organic” produce from the grocery store wasn’t as clean as I assumed it was.
Lastly, I began learning more about farming/gardening as my dear friend builds her homestead and farm market. I’ve asked her hundreds of questions about lettuce, beans, tomatoes, apples, and every other crop you can imagine. I’ve learned that it’s not really necessary to buy organic onions (not too many critters want to attack onions) or avocados, but that organic apples are worth the purchase.
(Side note: Have you read my bio? Please don’t mistake me. I am NOT a vegetable gardener. I try and my garden hates me. As my bio states: my consolation is knowing that in a zombie apocalypse, my role would be the town baker and not farmer. God bless all farmers. I need you.)
And so, after 8 years of being on the organic bandwagon, I began to question myself and my purchasing habits. I found myself tossing more and more conventional veggies in my cart. Because even with less-than-ideal growing practices, a tomato is still just a tomato… right? What can go wrong with tomatoes?
When It’s About More Than Tomatoes and Pesticides
In the last few years my family has taken an intentional journey of stewardship. We’ve begun caring about where are things come from, who made them, and how they were made. Sometimes that means things are more expensive. But we find joy in owning fewer things that are of better quality.
This journey has caused us to pay closer attention to what clothing we buy.
We’re grieved by the conditions of sweatshops in poor countries like Bangladesh where 1,100 workers were killed in a factory fire due to unsafe working conditions. Or in Cambodia where a European reality TV show had Norwegian fashionistas work in factories for a month, which drove the participants to tears, horror, and shock.
I’d like to say that we’ve found our answer to purchasing clothes. We haven’t; it’s a continual struggle and journey. But we use tools like Free2Work.org which ranks companies on a lengthy metric based on their worker rights and supply chain. And Wildly Co is doing some fascinating stuff for kids clothing, using a capsule wardrobe.
Wondering more about the workers who made our clothes has led to wondering more about the invisible farm worker who helped pick our tomatoes.
Sadly, it wasn’t the picture we were expecting.
Earlier this year, the LA Times released a four-part story (“Product of Mexico”) on the conditions of farm laborers in Mexico, particularly the tomato industry. The series takes an indepth look at living conditions, the use of child labor, wage-paying practices and more. The problem is far reaching — one farm under investigation supplies tomatoes for Walmart, Target, and Whole Foods.
I encourage you to take a look. The pictures are both beautiful and sobering.
But there’s more.
This past spring we noticed something unusual about the strawberries in our grocery store. For a month the price was unseasonably high and the selection was significantly smaller. Meanwhile in Mexico, farmworkers were striking and protesting human rights abuse and their abysmal wages from BerryMex (sold under the name Driscoll in the US). There was a clear connection.
To put this issue in perspective: in one full DAY of hard labor a Mexican berry picker earns what I earn teaching a 20-minute piano lesson.
(And just because wages are less doesn’t mean the cost of living is cheaper. Many farmworkers are forced to buy from the company store. A 40-ct package of diapers – which would last my baby a week – can cost almost a day’s wages.)
So… Now What?
So what now? Are we really responsible? Do we have a role in the global economy? If I buy fruits and veggies produced by companies with questionable ethics, will I continue to hurt the farm worker? What if I don’t buy that produce – will it hurt them worse?
Argh! So many questions.
Honestly, this is an issue I’m still wrestling with. I don’t have all the answers. But here are some things my family is doing.
1. Don’t use “organic” as the end-all label.
According to Free2Work:
My local grocery store sells frozen organic blueberries from Argentina as well as Wyman’s Frozen Blueberries. Wyman’s (which aren’t organic) are grown in Maine. However, Wyman’s has a reputation and proven track record for stewardship, watching out for the rights of its workers (and even for bees).
So while the blueberries aren’t organic (gasp!) I put Wyman’s in my cart.
Aaaaaand I’m still learning. I just NOW pulled my favorite (organic) Antioxident Frozen Berry Blend from Costco out of my freezer. Guess where the organic strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, and pomegranates come from? The USA, Turkey, Argentina, Peru, and Chile.
2. Buy conventional produce to save money to buy local.
Kitchen Stewardship has talked many times about how to buy local (and why it matters).
- Strawberry Controversy: Organic, Local, or Just Don’t Eat?
- Monday Mission: Buy Local Produce
- Buy A Whole Chicken: Debunking 6 Objections to Buying A Whole Bird (see Objection #6)
We save money by buying local meat and eggs. Where I live, buying grass-feed beef in bulk (quarter of a cow) is cheaper per pound than buying discount packages of ground beef from Kroger.
But buying local isn’t always cheaper.
Home-grown veggies from the farmer’s market (whether organic-grown or conventional) can cost a fair penny more than at the grocery. However, few things can beat seeing the pride and joy on the farmer’s face when I pick out some of his precious tomatoes and hand him some crisp dollar bills.
While I’m still am strongly against all the –ides (pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, etc), I recognize that no growing method is considered flawless. Life isn’t about being perfect. This year I’m working on prioritizing any local veggies over the grocery store (even the organic section). So I’ll buy local-grown red pepper that with sprayed with pesticides… and enjoy it.
UPDATE: I really appreciated the comments from a local grower on our Facebook page – read them here. Thanks, Elizabeth.
3. Read labels and never stop asking questions.
Look for reputable brand labels that care about its employees. Hunt down company websites and see what others have to say about that brand. Check out what country your produce comes from. Call the customer service number and ask about company practices.
And, although it didn’t work for me, you can always give gardening a try for yourself! 😉
Images used with permission from GraphicStock.com.