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Go Organic: A Month of Organic Eating

Apple with organic sticker

I'll attempt to learn what organic really means by eating only organic food for 30 days. You can join me. Try it for a day, a week, or all month. Email me your questions, comments and suggestions.



Day 30: The Last Day
April 30, 2009

It’s the last official day of my month of organic eating. I didn’t quite accomplish what I set out to do—eat only organic food for 30 days—because of an unexpected trip. But I did learn a lot:

Eating organic food is more expensive. My grocery bills were significantly higher this month, but that’s because I was paying nearly the full cost of producing the food. As author Michael Pollan says:

“To index the price of organic to the price of conventional is to give up, right from the start, on the idea, once enshrined in the organic movement, that food should be priced not high or low but responsibly. As the organic movement has long maintained, cheap industrial food is cheap only because the real costs of producing it are not reflected in the price at the checkout.”

It’s challenging. I purchased groceries from several places (supermarkets, "organic chains," co-ops and farmers markets) each week because I couldn’t find everything I wanted in one place. It involved a lot of cooking. And avoiding restaurants. And occasionally pining for a food I couldn’t find. (The elusive organic pomegranate still evades me!)

But for those same reasons, it’s healthier—for me and the planet. Enough said.

Before this experiment, I realized how inconsistent I had been about buying organic food—I purchased organic products only when it was cheap and convenient. Now I’m more conscious about which foods I would like to buy organic—and which foods it’s okay not to. Though I live in a small apartment, I’m considering growing a few plants—the ultimate organic, local food.

Eating organic is definitely worth a try. You don’t have to eat organic food all month, but try it for a week, a day, or even just for dinner. You may discover it tastes better.

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Finding Organic Grass-fed Beef
April 28, 2009

Since moving to Seattle last August, I have noticed how difficult it is buy organic grass-fed beef in stores. I have three different grocery stores within blocks of my apartment, but none of them carry grass-fed beef. (Why grass-fed? Check out Madeline Ostrander's piece, Restoring the Range.) Neither does the food co-op down the hill. So what’s a Minnesota girl, who is used to purchasing organic, grass-fed, ground beef for a cheap $3.99/lb at her local co-op, to do? Turn to the farmers themselves.

Every Sunday I can buy an assortment of organic grass-fed meat at the Ballard Farmers Market. Sure it’s a drive, but it’s worth it. Not only is it cheaper than purchasing the same meat from the stores that do carry it (organic, grass-fed, ground beef at the farmers market typically costs $1.50 less per pound), I can meet the farmers and ask them about their products.

I'm a fan of the products of Skagit River Ranch, which is owned by George and Eiko Vojkovich. The ranch recently won Seattle Weekly's Sustainability Award. In a March newsletter, "Farmer George" defined sustainability:

"The image we often describe are links of chains in a circle. First in the circle is the healthy soil on the farm: healthy soil grows nutrient-rich grass and animals are raised on it. Then, manure from these animals naturally fertilizes the grass. The animals are harvested, and byproducts get composted, return to the soil as microbes and plant food, thus completing the circle. We also try to decrease our dependence on fossil fuel, which is not renewable. We have built a small bio-diesel plant, and we are happy to report that all of our tractors now run on bio-diesel produced on the farm. The used cooking oil to produce the diesel comes from local restaurants and our customers."

I couldn't think of a more compelling argument for sustainably-raised meat. It's too bad that it's not easily accessible to a wider population. If you don’t live in an area with farmers markets, you can find a grass-fed farm near you at eatwild.com. Where else do you find organic grass-fed meat?

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Deciphering Labels: Can "Wild" be "Organic"?
April 23, 2009

There’s Something Fishy…
Since beginning to eat all organic food, I have stayed away from fish. Why? Because I haven’t been able to locate fish labeled "organic." Apparently, the label is somewhat controversial.

Last November, the National Organic Standards Board approved criteria that would allow farmed fish to be labeled "organic," according to the Washington Post. So what’s the problem? That standard allows "organic fish farmers to use wild fish as part of their feed mix provided it did not exceed 25 percent of the total and did not come from forage species."

The decision upset many people:

"Activists questioned why up to 25 percent of fish feed could be made up of non-organic material, while all other animals certified as organic must eat 100 percent organic feed. They also noted that open-net pens can harm the environment by allowing fish waste and disease to pollute the ocean."

This decision puts consumers in a tricky position. While some fish are easily labeled "organic" because they are primarily vegetarians and farmed in a responsible manner (such as catfish and tilapia), carnivores are a different matter.

Take salmon, for example. When they are in the wild, it is impossible to control what they eat and what substances they come in contact with. But Seafood Watch, a program designed to raise consumer awareness about buying seafood from sustainable sources, has stamped an "Avoid" rating on farmed salmon. Instead, wild-caught salmon receives a "Best Choice" rating as an "ocean-friendly alternative."

According to the site, "pollution, chemicals, parasites and non-native farmed fish that escape from salmon farms can impact native salmon populations in surrounding areas." If wild salmon populations can be affected by these things, "wild" salmon isn't really "organic." But neither is "organic" salmon.

The Not-So-Sweet Side of Organic Honey
Last winter the Seattle PI did a series on honey, which is another "wild" food. If you are buying organic honey from the supermarket, beware:

"Government, academic and industry experts insist that U.S. organic honey is a myth. With rare exceptions, this country is too developed and uses too many agricultural and industrial chemicals to allow for the production of organic honey."

Bees travel several miles, so there is no way to ensure they don’t come in contact with pesticides and other chemicals. The article quotes Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center, a national advocacy group for the research and promotion of organic food:

"Like other foods from free-roaming, wild creatures, it is difficult—and in some places impossible—to assure that honey bees have not come in contact with prohibited substances, like pesticides."

The Bottom Line

When it comes to labeling, titles such as "wild" and "organic" can be deceiving. As a consumer, I'm trying to do my best to choose food that's good for me and the planet. But foods such as fish and honey show there are quite a few gray areas. Are there other "organic" or "wild" foods you have wondered about? What do you do to ensure you know what you are buying and where it comes from?

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Reader Suggestion: The Eat Well Guide Travel Map
April 22, 2009

I’m now home—back in familiar organic terrain. But here’s a tool I wish I knew about before I hit the road: Eat Well Guide’s travel map. Just plug in your starting address and your destination, and the site maps local, sustainable and organic food along the way. Reader Libby Batten, of Brooklyn, NY, suggested I check it out.

She says: "I've used it several times driving between NYC and where I'm from in NC to visit my mom, and I've found some amazing places to eat along the way that I never would have known existed."

Thanks, Libby! Do you have more suggestions? Send them to me.

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My Favorite Place to Find Organic Food: The Co-op
April 15, 2009

I made a pilgrimage to my favorite co-op in Minneapolis, which I was sorely missing on my trip. Surrounded by a wide array of (mostly) organic food, I went a little nuts, loading my basket to the brim.

I suddenly had options beyond the basic organic apple, broccoli and lettuce. Organic dates? Pick a variety. Organic pudding mix? Now I know where to get my sugar fix. But the find of the day? Organic mushrooms! For the past 15 days I have been searching for affordable, organic mushrooms. They were sitting on the shelf, $3.99 per eight ounces, calling my name. And they were raised just one state over.

Of all the places I have hunted for organic food, co-ops are my favorite. Farmers markets are fantastic places to find fresh, organic food, but they aren’t always convenient. At most farmers markets it’s difficult to buy anything other than meat or produce. Chain grocery stores don’t have a large selection of organic products, and when they do, I have my doubts. (Organic cheese from New Zealand? Healthy for me and the cows, but the carbon emissions released in transporting the cheese halfway across the globe surely negate some of the environmental benefits.) At co-ops I can consistently find all of the food I need in one place. Most co-ops also take the origin of the food into consideration, selling locally-grown food whenever they can. (Find a co-op near you.)

If I can’t get to a co-op, I have to bounce between farmers markets and grocery stores, making multiple trips each week. Where do you prefer to shop for organic food? And how often?

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5 Foods to Eat Organic
April 14, 2009

I ran across this older post from Tara Parker-Pope’s Well blog on the New York Times. She highlights five “strategic” organic foods from Dr. Alan Greene, author of Raising Baby Green, that can most impact your child’s diet. Even if you don’t have children, it’s a great start to eating organic:

1. Milk
2. Potatoes
3. Peanut Butter
4. Ketchup
5. Apples

Click through to find out more about each food.

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The "Organic" Road Trip
April 13, 2009

For the past few days, I have been bouncing my way across Minnesota and Wisconsin in the car. While traveling, I did my best to eat organic food whenever I could. But without easy access to a kitchen—coupled with my stay in small towns—I found it nearly impossible to eat organic food all the time. Here are some notes from the road:

  • Long car trips are easy if you don’t mind picnicking. Just pack a few grocery bags full of organic food, and you are set to snack your way across the country. I even caught my family munching on my stash of organic apples, cereal and cookies. Steer clear of stopping at anything other than a grocery store for organic food—it’s difficult to find organic food where you buy your fuel.
  • Even in my grandmother’s small town, the grocery store had a pretty good selection of organic fruits and veggies. Though residents of Wisconsin might be known as “cheeseheads,” the state’s dairy-producing history doesn't guarantee organic cheese is readily available.
  • Finding restaurants that serve organic food is tricky. While you can find a few restaurants in large cities that cater to an organic crowd—or at least serve a few organic items—I didn’t find any on my trip. Eating out while trying to eat organic is limiting. If you have food allergies, it’s possible to find a dish you can eat on the menu, or have the kitchen cook something you can eat. With organic food, the restaurant either has it, or it doesn't.

If you have time to plan your food stops, there are a few websites that can help you out. The Eat Well Guide finds nearby organic farms, markets and restaurants, while Local Harvest locates nearby farmers markets.

I finally have kitchen access again, so I’m back on track to eating all organic food. What tips do you have to share?

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Organic—and Non-Organic—at the Airport
April 10, 2009

Eating completely organic food while traveling is possible—it’s just difficult. It requires a lot of forethought, a little creativity and the patience of your fellow travelers. While I have all of the above (or so I like to think), I finally cracked at the airport. Here is what happened:

Before heading off, I ate a full (organic) meal and packed some (organic) snacks. But after arriving at my gate and devouring my snacks, I was hungry—with a long flight in front of me. My options at the small terminal weren’t promising: one fast food restaurant, one coffee shop and one newsstand. I decided to try my luck at the newsstand. After searching high and low, I finally found a small bag of organic dried apples. I’ll admit—I was surprised to find any organic food at the airport. I bought the apples for a hefty $4.99. But I also purchased some non-organic potato chips and chocolate (because of an intolerance, I eat gluten-free food, which already limits what I eat).

I could have purchased multiple bags of organic dried apples to munch on or waited through the flight and gorged on organic food at my destination. But the point of this blog isn’t to torture myself; it’s to see what is realistic when it comes to eating organic food. And without adequate preparation, eating organic food at the airport just isn’t a viable option.

What do you do when you travel? How do you adapt?

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Organic on the Road
April 8, 2009

Eating completely organic food forces you to consider every bite. After a full week of my new routine, I generally feel much healthier: I have been trying new foods, cooking at home and eating less junk food. The organic produce, dairy and meat products I eat are grown closer to home. (I’ll admit: I do crave some of the more exotic fruit that I can’t find organically grown, such as mango, pineapple and pomegranate).

But an unexpected trip has upset the proverbial (organic) apple cart. After eating organic food at home easily for a week, I’m traveling through the Midwest. Which raises the question: How do you eat organic food while traveling? I’ll be posting from the road…

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Produce: The "Clean 15" and the "Dirty Dozen"
April 3, 2009

Have you ever wondered which fruits and vegetables are most important to buy organic, and which ones you can buy conventionally grown without worrying? The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization that aims to protect public health and the environment, has this handy guide to pesticides on its site. The guide, which you can download and print for free, lists the "Dirty Dozen" (buy organic) and the "Clean 15" (lowest in pesticides). Onions top the "Clean 15" list, while peaches are the worst of the "Dirty Dozen."

According to the site:

"…people can lower their pesticide exposure by almost 80 percent by avoiding the top twelve most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated instead. Eating the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables will expose a person to about 10 pesticides per day, on average. Eating the 15 least contaminated will expose a person to less than 2 pesticides per day."

Pesticides can have adverse health effects, including nervous system effects, carcinogenic effects, hormone system effects, and skin, eye and lung irritation. It is important to limit the consumption of pesticides by young children, whose bodies are smaller and still developing.

Are you surprised by any of the fruits and veggies listed on the guide?

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Some Organic Cereal: Delicious, nutritious?
April 2, 2009

This morning I poured a large bowl of organic, gluten-free, preservative-free, additive-free, low-sodium cereal. And, according to the box, 1% of sales will be donated "to endangered species, habitat conservation and environmental education for kids."

Educating children never tasted so bad. After a few spoonfuls, my mouth acquired a gritty feel and a distinct aftertaste. For all the cereal’s organic, gluten-free goodness, it has little to no nutritional value. One serving of cereal contains 2% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A and 2% of the recommended daily intake of iron (based on a 2,000 calorie diet).

Now I’m not the type of person who regularly downs a bowl of sugar-coated, vitamin-fortified kid’s cereal, but looking at the nutrition label of my organic cereal made me wonder why I was eating it in the first place. It also reminded me of this discussion on the New York Times' Well blog about vitamins in organic cereal:

"For many kids, commercial breakfast cereal is the main source of daily vitamins and minerals. Take a look at Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes reduced-sugar cereal. A serving provides 25 percent of the recommended daily intake of seven essential nutrients, including iron, folic acid and other B vitamins. It also provides 10 percent of the recommended intake for vitamins A, C and D."

While I’m not sure Tony the Tiger should be the breakfast provider of choice, I do know that I’ll try fruit for breakfast tomorrow. What about you?

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Don't forget to pick up some organic air
April 1, 2009

organic air, Whole Foods Market website

For April Fool's, Whole Foods Market posted this ad on its homepage. Who—or what—are they poking fun at?

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Shopping for organic food at a chain grocery store
April 1, 2009

Before you can eat organic, you have to buy the food. For my first all-organic shopping trip, I decided to try the chain grocery store where I typically shop. Of course the pricing and availability at each store is different, but here is what I found—and didn’t—at mine:

Meat
Organic chicken and beef cost around $2 more per pound than conventionally-raised meat. That’s a pretty hefty spike, especially if you are buying food for a family. Looking for organic pork, turkey or fish? Forget about it.

Dairy
Both organic milk and yogurt were significantly more expensive. The cheese selection was pitiful (I could choose between a hunk of White Cheddar or individually wrapped sticks of Colby). But my jaw dropped at the cost of organic eggs: $5.89 per dozen instead of $1.99 per dozen—that’s nearly a 300 percent increase.

Produce
The store I visited had a small selection of basic staples, so I didn’t have the option of being picky. I bagged some apples, avocados, bananas, broccoli, garlic and lettuce—all of which were slightly more expensive than conventionally-grown produce. I typically leave the produce section with a full cart of fruits and veggies, but not today.

Non-perishable Goods
The grocery store where I shopped has an organic in-house label, which is a great way to save money. Products such as organic canned beans, pasta and peanut butter were actually less expensive than their conventionally-grown counterparts. If you are trying to bake with organic ingredients, beware. Items such as organic flour and sugar are not only steeply priced, but available only in smaller packages.

The Bottom Line
The overall shopping trip was moderately more expensive than my typical bill. I also couldn’t find the organic version of some of my basic staples such as cheddar cheese, mushrooms, nuts and ice cream. However, with the small amount of produce I purchased, I have a feeling I’ll be shopping again sooner than usual.

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Just what is organic, anyway?

The Official Definition:

The National Organic Program (NOP), which is part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), sets national organic standards. Here is the program’s definition:

"Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones."

NOP prohibits genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic production and handling.

The certified organic seal

When food meets NOP’s requirements and is certified, it may display the USDA’s official seal (shown at right). However, if you buy your food directly from farmers or at small co-ops, it is important to note:

"Producers and handling (processors) operations that sell less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products are exempt from certification. They may label their products organic if they abide by the standards, but cannot display the USDA organic seal."

The Unofficial Definition:

In his recent article “Eating Food That’s Better for You, Organic or Not,” New York Times columnist Mark Bittman neatly sums up the ideals behind the organic movement:

"Those requirements, which must be met in order for food to be labeled ‘U.S.D.A. Organic,’ are fine, of course. But they still fall short of the lofty dreams of early organic farmers and consumers who gave the word 'organic' its allure — of returning natural nutrients and substance to the soil in the same proportion used by the growing process (there is no requirement that this be done); of raising animals humanely in accordance with nature (animals must be given access to the outdoors, but for how long and under what conditions is not spelled out); and of producing the most nutritious food possible (the evidence is mixed on whether organic food is more nutritious) in the most ecologically conscious way."

How do you define organic?

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Go Organic: A Month of Organic Eating

Apple with organic sticker

Organic.

It’s a word that has become ubiquitous. Turn your shopping cart down almost any aisle of the grocery store and you’ll find organic stamped across food labels. New studies herald the health benefits of eating organic. Even Michelle Obama is making news by planting an organic garden at the White House.

We've all heard how difficult and expensive eating organic food can be. But is it really as challenging as it seems? And what does organic really mean? Is it a viable way for you to make your meals a little greener or a marketing ploy by food producers to cash in on a new trend?

In an attempt to learn what organic really means, I’ll eat only organic food for 30 days. I’ll explore organic food produced locally and abroad, compare costs of conventional and organic, and tell you what you really need to know about eating organic.

You can join me. Try it for a day, a week, or even all month. Email your questions, comments and suggestions and they could appear on the blog.


 

Laura Kaliebe wrote this blog for YES! Magazine. Laura is an online editorial intern at YES! Photo of Laura Kaliebe
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