Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Organic, Sustainable, Local - Oh My!

I've been sitting on this post for over a week, so I figured it was about time to get it out there.

I posted a few weeks ago about the difficulty of finding sufficient organic options at the grocery store. Since food labeled "organic" can still be produced in a wide variety of ways - some better than others - I would ideally like to buy from companies that are willing to disclose their production methods. Add to that my commitment to buying locally - that means I prefer companies that not only tell me where they're located, but the areas where they source their products. Finally, there are considerations like buying fair trade, or products with the least amount of packaging, or packaging made from recyclable materials.

When you think about all of the different considerations involved in eating in a sustainable, ethical way, it's no wonder that most people don't bother to think about these things. It seems impossible to truly know what these companies are doing, and to know whether you are making the best possible decision.

The canny readers among you might have noticed that I haven't mentioned money. That's because I don't believe that, at this time at least, there are products out there that fit all these criteria AND are inexpensive. As Mark Bittman pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed (thanks Maggie!), the government currently subsidizes processed food rather than small, organic farmers. That's why a bag of Doritos and a fast food burger made with corn-fed beef is such a cheap lunch option. But the problem is, it's only artificially cheap. There are other costs to be factored in: medical expenses to fix the health problems such a diet will ultimately cause; the toll on the environment (as well as the animals!) that a large-scale concentrated animal feeding operation takes, not to mention the people who live in the same neighborhoods; the list goes on - I'm sure you get the point. Conventionally-produced, processed food is artificially inexpensive. I am thoroughly convinced of this and am trying to take responsibility for changing my own eating habits to remedy it.

This month, I switched to Whole Foods. But I am still trying to get over the sticker shock. Don't get me wrong - I'm thrilled about this. They label their produce well, so I can choose the most local products available. They have organic everything, and a great selection of non-toxic, environmentally-friendly cleaning products. I know the choices I'm making are better - not only for me, but for the people who produced them, the people living near the factories and farms, the animals, and the environment. Definitely a win-win-WIN. If, that is, I can get over the sticker shock. I am literally spending twice as much as I was on groceries - and that's with a reduction in our meat consumption. I suppose it means I might have to start shopping smarter and planning more inexpensive meals. I know it's worth it, so the price is just something I'm going to have to get over.

One thing that will help is the new dairy I found. I mentioned above how difficult it seems to find a company that meets all of these criteria. Well, I found one. I mentioned in my previous post on organic food that I started buying Organic Valley milk. I still think Organic Valley is a great company and will continue to buy their products, but I found an even better milk supplier: Trickling Springs Creamery. For me, this option is even more local than Organic Valley - the facility is under 200 miles from my house, and they get their milk from local farmers in southern Pennsylvania. They make sure their suppliers treat their animals ethically and use organic farming practices. Even better, since they only supply milk locally, they use low temperature pasturization, which kills off bacteria without destroying all the helpful enzymes in the milk. It has a shorter shelf-life (2-3 weeks), but it is healthier and much better tasting. Their chocolate milk is to die for! And what really sweetens the deal is that they use reusable glass containers for the milk, which I can return to Whole Foods for a deposit. Their website says that each glass bottle can take the place of 40 plastic ones. And as you can see in the above picture, they're also pretty.

This company meets all of my criteria. Yes, it is also expensive, although if you take the bottle deposit out of the equation, it's comparable to other organic milk producers. And it delivers so much more. This gives me hope that there are more companies like this out there. It is possible to make sustainable, ethical food choices (if you're willing to spend a little money, but hopefully that will change as more people do it). You just have to be willing to pay attention and do a little research.

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