These days, everything seems like it has its own catch phrase. “Heirloom.” “Artisanal.” “Organic.” From “natural” or “non-GMO” to “classic,” foods don’t only carry a brand name, but an often-convoluted description of what they are and the purpose they serve. Their nutrients are showcased regardless of the amount they actually contain, depending on the food purveyor’s goal. Products that are labeled “all-natural,” or “cage-free” can mean anything and nothing at the same time.
We’re taught to “shop local” or “buy organic.” Look for the “non-GMO” label or to buy from a certain region. We are fed so much different info from so many sources that it seems nearly impossible not to turn into a skeptic when trying to eat healthily. I often hear at farmers markets that the produce is “pesticide-free,” but what does that mean? Is it herbicide-free and fungicide- and chemical fertilizer-free? The more free our food gets, the more it seems to cost.
We hosted a Halloween Tea party this past weekend, where I attempted to walk my fine line with my daughter’s sugar intake. We made homemade hot chocolate with mostly organic ingredients (which the moms told their children to drink up, ‘cause this was the best hot cocoa they were ever going to have). My daughter had specifically requested marshmallows and, seeking to avoid many years of therapy for her as a result of my eating rules, I tried to oblige. But even the natural marshmallow ingredients made me shudder, so we topped it with maple syrup-sweetened hand-whipped cream instead (which the parents also urged their children to eat while they could). We had homemade sugar cookies in the shapes of bats, spider webs and pumpkins, which we had frosted with mostly organic, homemade frosting.
“This will do it,” I thought to myself, wishing I could follow it up with a wicked laugh. “She’ll finally have enough sugar and she won’t feel like I micromanage her eating! She’ll feel like she can have sugary opportunities just like her friends.” Now I did utter a little “mwa ha ha” … and I may have tapped my fingers together for good measure. My plan was in the works. She was appreciative of the hot cocoa and whipped cream dollop I served her, but almost immediately, she asked for more … and more … and more. I get it. I read my own column — sugar is addictive. But sourcing our food is important, too. Pivotal, some might say.
Small town farmers markets are a gift and many of them participate in a program called Crop Cash, sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT). Crop Cash, ever more a gift, matches as much as an extra $20 in famers’ market purchases for families enrolled in 3SquaresVT. One of NOFA’s missions is to give people access to local and organic food, regardless of their circumstances.
The fact that many families find it less expensive to eat at a fast-food restaurant than to buy groceries and prepare food themselves is a testament to the travesty that has become our food system and the government subsidies that go along with it.
Growth in growing
Some small local farmers markets are filled with growers who grow because they enjoy it and want to share their bounty with others. Taking farms to scale as a large business that serves the public, whether locally or nationally, is no small feat. “Mo money mo problems” may translate into “mo money, mo pests” when growing on a bigger scale. After all, how can you tend the rows personally when you decide to grow big?
Puns aside, I run into farmers at large farmers markets in LA who claim they don’t spray and that their produce is “pesticide-free,” but what does that claim actually mean? Without the organic certification to back it up, it can mean something or very little.
Here are a few things to look out for when buying produce:
We’ve heard about soil health time and time again, but the truth is in the soil and what it yields. Ask your farmers if they use chemical pesticides or organic fertilizers. Many regenerative or sustainable farms focus on soil health by returning organic matter to the soil. (Cow patties, anyone?) Chemical fertilizers wreck the soil and are harmful for our health. It’s important to identify which ones farmers use.
You can tell the difference in produce grown in healthy soil. I was recently sent some beautiful organic produce from a small business called Farmfluence that is based in Southern California. Like NOFA-VT, their mission is to get delicious, nutritious, organic produce into people’s hands. They sent me some beautiful purple carrots and purple cauliflower and their color was electric, almost as if someone had dyed them. The farmers attribute the color to the “density of nutrients in the soil, optimum phosphorus levels and richness in organic matter.” The proof is in the color.
What really matters
Shop local, buy organic. Sometimes we can’t have our cake and eat it too. Buying local mitigates the harmful effects on the environment when food travels a long distance, but it’s not the only thing to consider. Conventional farming is tougher on the earth and on soil than organic farming is, as it captures less carbon and pours more contaminants into the soil, which ultimately run into our rivers, streams and oceans.
Multiple chemicals used in conventional farming have been linked to cancer and many scientists speculate that they’re contributing to the rise of ADHD in young people. When we can’t buy local, organic produce, what factors should go into our choices?
Talk to the farmers. Many farmers at larger markets say they “don’t spray” or use “no pesticides.” Call me a skeptic, but I’m beginning to smell a rat at some of the markets I visit in Los Angeles. If they can grow beautiful strawberries year-round without any sprays or pesticides, why isn’t everyone doing that? So what else are they using on their produce? How do they grow their crops while avoiding sprays? Are they using pest management? Crop rotation? Ask if they use herbicides or fungicides. Fungicide residues were recently detected on 90 percent of conventional citrus samples that were studied.
Getting certified organic is expensive and time-consuming and it’s not fool-proof. Organic farming still uses sprays and there are tons of loopholes to get through, should farmers like to.
Farmers market fare is bound to be fresher, since it’s not traveling to get to us. In a perfect world, we are presented with organic produce from local farmers at various markets, but when the snow is knee-deep, that ain’t happening.
Buy as locally as possible and always try to buy thin-skinned fruits and veggies (aka the dirty dozen*), and organic, if possible … and if your wallet permits.
* visit ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php for a list of fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residue as measured by the Environmental Working Group.
Purple carrot ginger dressingIngredients
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup rice vinegar
3 medium purple carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 knob fresh ginger, peeled and roughly cut – about 2 tablespoons
½ lime – juiced – about 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons raw honey
2 teaspoons sesame oil
¼ teaspoon salt
Blend all ingredients together until smooth.
Store for up to a week … if it lasts that long!