Sunday, May 5, 2013

Musings: Eat organic or not?

Honestly, I don't really care.   I just thought it'd catch your attention, dear reader.  ;)

There seems to be A LOT of talk about this topic out there right now.  At least, it seems to be everywhere I normally look to for information - online news sites, Facebook posts by friends, other blogs I read......for some reason, everyone seems to be discussing whether or not organic food is a good choice.   I thought I'd add one more blog to the mix and put into words our thought process and decision making.   Maybe it'll resonate with you, who knows.  Feel free to ignore it....

We currently purchase mostly organic food.   It didn't used to be that way - it's been a gradual shift for us, as our diet and lifestyle changed in other ways.    Here's how it happened.

If you took a snapshot of my kitchen six years ago, it would have looked VERY different from now.   Back then, my fridge, freezer, and pantry was overflowing with items that you could purchase only at Sam's.  You know the ones - the bulk, plastic-wrapped packages of bananas.  The ginormous boxes of goldfish in the pantry.   The stockpile-sized bag of spaghetti noodles.  We went through milk (also purchased at Sam's) at the rate of about 3 gallons a week.

Then life changed.   We moved to Maine.   Mike started a wonderful residency that had the one downside of coming with a salary that worked out to be about $3/hour, after factoring how many hours he was actually WORKING.   Cost of living didn't really factor into the equation when we were looking at potential residency locations way back in the golden years of medical school.    It should have.  It was our one major mistake when ranking residency programs - we didn't really think about the salary and cost of living.    Honestly, I don't know if we would have changed a thing if we HAD looked at the financial piece (because Mike felt that strongly about the residency program after his interview), but it may have.  If nothing else, it probably would have changed where we chose to live in relation to the residency program.  

Anywho, we moved to the amazingly beautiful state of Maine and became immediately overwhelmed with sticker shock.   Everything was SO.MUCH.MORE.EXPENSIVE here - that three gallon of milk a week habit translated into about $45/month - and our budget was not prepared.

Meal times became quickly based around cheap starches - potatoes, pasta, rice - and cheap proteins, like beans.   Produce became a luxury, really, and was purchased solely based on sales and how long it lasted (oranges in winter - yes.   Strawberries in winter?  Not by a long shot).    Conventional produce was really our only option.

Then....we moved to the glorious state of Arizona.  Folks, Arizona was CHEAP.   We could translate our $600/month grocery budget (that previously meant beans and rice at *least* twice a week) to completely organic produce and MEAT EVERY SINGLE DAY.   And cheese.  Ahhh, cheese.  I could eat cheese with EVERY meal if I wanted to.   

***embarrassing Heidi story alert***

I actually called Mike from the grocery store the first time I went shopping in Arizona.   Crying.   Folks, I was CRYING WITH JOY at the grocery store the first time I went shopping.   It was that much of a change for us.

***okay, back to the regularly scheduled programming***

For the first time ever, we had to seriously sit down and think: "Is buying organic worth the money?"

The research began.   And, honestly, the research made it a much harder decision.   Why?   Well....because the research really isn't definitive.  By the time you wade through who paid for each study and who is the parent company of the company that paid for the study (since the majority of the common organic food companies are actually owned by traditional agriculture/food companies)'d get to the conclusions section and find that, guess what?   The study didn't really find anything, other than the urine of the participants in the study contained higher levels of pesticides (umm..duh, really).    There was no conclusive evidence saying that pesticides were harmful, medically-speaking....but there was no conclusive evidence saying that they were safe, medically-speaking.   The best most of the studies could come up with were that the data didn't show that there were additional risks of eating the pesticides (Basic Study Reading 101:   "no known risks" does NOT equal "proven safe."  Kinda like how "innocent" and "not guilty" don't really mean the same thing, either).

Anywho, we were sitting there with a budget that *could* finally afford to purchase organic food....and no real clear, definitive answer to whether or not we *should* be buying organic food for health reasons.

So we started trying to figure out what was important to us, as a family.    Our list really boiled down to a few things:

- that our kids ate well-balanced meals that provided a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and protein sources, with the emphasis being on plant-based nutrition

- that our kids were not ingesting a ton of processed food.  A box of mac and cheese here and there would be a treat, not a regular thing.   We wanted their diets (and ours) to be focused on fresh ingredients turned into made-from-scratch meals.

- that our kids (and ourselves) knew how food was grown and where it came from.   We didn't fall into the "locavore" movement, really (I wasn't setting requirements as to how close to our house our food was grown or produced, so we weren't hardcore), but we wanted the kids to recognize the natural rhythms built into our area's agriculture, and as much as possible, we wanted them to have the experience of going to the farm and being active participants in the production of food.    

This last one - that our kids knew how food was grown and where it came from - was of primary importance for us.  We wanted our kids to respect and support the people who worked their tails off so that we could eat every day.    As much as possible, we wanted the kids to participate in that - which usually meant we did as much "pick-your-own" options as possible.   Homeschooling tends to lend itself well to this idea, and a lot of our lesson plans involved a trip to a local farm or orchard.  This last goal also dictated whether or not we ate organic food when we lived in Arizona.    You see, we lived about 15 minutes from a beautiful, organic farm that had an amazing selection of "pick-your-own" fruits and veggies.    It oftentimes took me just as long to get to the "big box" grocery store to go shopping as it did to drive to the the majority of our food came from this farm.   Using this farm as our main source of food also allowed us to eat almost completely organic produce, while keeping within our budget....but that was more of a secondary effect. 

Did we feel healthier?   Yep.   But we also greatly adjusted our diet to live seasonally (forcing us to increase the variety of our nutrient intake) and primarily plant based.   Was it the organic food, or was it the overall change in our diet?   Honestly, my gut tells me (pun intended) that it was probably a little of all of that, and more.   I can't definitively say what our increased health was due to.   (We'd also have to take into account other lifestyle changes:   going from traditional schooling to homeschooling or moving from Maine to Arizona, for example).   All I know is that we no longer had sick visits at the doctor (we haven't had one in 3 years) and no more asthma attacks for Rascal #1.   Maybe it was the food, maybe it was the environment, maybe it was the lifestyle.  I have no clue - I just know that I'm grateful for the change in our family's health!

Then....we moved back to Maine.   Suddenly, our $600/month grocery budget for a family of five was no longer going to provide for things like organic produce and meat more than once or twice a week.   Again, we had to sit down and figure out what was most important to us when it came to feeding our family.....and look through the body of research that had appeared in the year and a half we'd been living in the desert.

Guess what?  The research still doesn't have a definitive answer.   All they can tell us is the same thing: there's no clear evidence (yet) for one side or the other of the argument.    

So we had to sit down and analyze - again - what was most important to us.   The list really hadn't changed in the year and a half of "luxury" grocery shopping (although, honestly, nothing FELT luxurious about picking peaches in the 100º heat with the sun beating down on you).    Our most important goals were still:  eat a mostly plant-based diet, focusing on variety, and try to keep as close to the source of the food as possible so that the boys would continue to recognize the importance of the farmer to our ability to eat healthily.  We didn't really feel comfortable pumping our kids full of pesticides (after all, we'd removed pretty much all chemicals from our house in the previous felt slightly "wrong" to add more back in).

How could we go about doing that in Maine?   Well, it really came down to prioritizing.

We gardened - and are expanding our plot this summer - trying to focus on the items that we base a lot of our meals around (things like kale, tomatoes, and squashes, for example).    We try to buy as local as possible - stopping at the local dairy for our milk and cheese  - or heading to a nearby farm to pick up our meats, lettuces and eggs (well, soon these will also come from our backyard).   Some organic items, like Maine potatoes,  have a cost that is within pennies of the conventional items.    In that case, I'll pay the extra $0.50 to buy the organic Maine potatoes over the conventional Idaho ones.

Our local community, in our tiny little village, is pretty reliant on the economical support of these local farms, many (if not most) of which are organic - Maine is a pretty "crunchy" state.   I play with our weekly menus to reflect what is "in season" in our little village.   In our eyes, this accomplishes our goals:   we're eating a larger variety of food (when looking at the "big" picture, or over the course of a year's time), our diets are mainly plant-based (because that's what our local economy is focused on), and our kids know where our food comes from.   A lot of the local choices are organic - but not all of them are.   We're still buying mostly (if not all) organic every week.....but again, it's more of a secondary result of our eating habits.

Is buying organic stretch sometimes for our budget?  Not really.   I know, it seems to go against everything you read out there, but isn't.  

Here's why:   we changed our diet and lifestyle.   Instead of buying the $5/pint organic strawberries when it's not strawberry season....I wait until the local strawberry farm (which happens to be pesticide-free) is opened up for picking.   We'll go every day of the week to pick berries - and I'll freeze and can everything I can get my hands on.     Instead of buying something because it "sounds good"....I'll go to the local farm stand and buy what they have - and work our menu around that.    Instead of buying organic lettuce - we grow our own and don't add any fertilizers or pesticides to it (it means we get less than the farms that do - but we get enough for our family).   

Not everyone can do this, I recognize that.   I feel very grateful that we are able to do so, and I say a prayer of thanksgiving every day when I am able to pull out a can of home-grown tomatoes to make dinner.    

So, yes, we eat organic (mostly)........but more primarily....we choose to grow our own, pick our own, and support our own.   It works for us.

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