March 29, 2011 by Leah
I’ve been wondering lately if there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to knowing about the food system, and, if so, whether I’ve reached it.
I had a revelatory experience at the farmers’ market on Sunday. Having just paid $6 for two bunches of asparagus (seasonal eating, yay!) and some early Brussels sprouts, I heard someone ask the farmer when he might have organic asparagus. The farmer said next week. I was in this specific stall buying asparagus because it is one of the few stalls at the farmers’ market that has a banner that includes the word “organic.” What I failed to realize is that said banner also includes the words “conventionally grown,” and one has to look at the little cardboard placards by every crop to discover whether that particular crop is organic on that particular day. I felt a little silly, and a little gypped (“fool me once,” etc.). There was no reason for me not to be buying from the stall that generally has the lowest prices and where I know they at least don’t use chemical sprays on any of their crops, and are, in fact, a year or two into the three-year waiting period farmers have to go through before applying to become certified organic.
Added to this, I’ve been thinking about tomatoes a lot after my post on homemade tomato sauce, where I discovered that almost anything you do with whole tomatoes other than eat them whole is going to be a LOT more expensive than buying the corresponding tomato product at the store. I’ve given myself permission to buy tomatoes in processed forms, which has since translated to half an hour in the pasta sauce aisle, reading labels in an attempt to decide whether organic or fewer ingredients and lower sodium were more important to me (fewer ingredients won). It has also translated into me extrapolating from tomatoes to fish (where I see the same fresh vs. canned price conundrum) and buying more canned fish. (I love snacking on a can of smoked oysters or sardines.)
I’ve even decided to make a recipe from “Eating Well” tonight. This is not something I usually do without making major modifications, because while this magazine is supposed to be about healthy eating, I find it relies on processed foods like low-fat dairy (unnatural! additives! from industrially produced milk!) and canned goods (BPA! sodium!) far too much. Now that I’m okay with buying canned fish and tomatoes, though, “Tuna Tomato Mac ‘n’ Cheese” sounded pretty good. (It may not help that we’ve been devouring “Mad Men” at the rate of about one season per week, so I’ve been channeling my inner Betty Draper and even made a real-food version of fish sticks last night: snapper rolled in almond meal.)
So, after my run this morning, I went to the grocery store across the street and spent about 10 disappointing minutes. I ended up with a $1.50 can of conventionally produced diced tomatoes and chilies (vs. $4 for a pound of organic tomatoes and a jalapeno), a $2.99 tub of cottage cheese (with the highest fat content and fewest ingredients I could find), and some store-brand pepper jack and “natural” blue corn tortilla chips. I probably should have thought this through a bit more, perhaps used some chicken stock thickened with flour as a binder instead of cottage cheese (which I don’t think I’ve eaten in almost a year due to the high sodium content and fact that it’s usually so processed), or given myself more time to explore grass-fed or artisan cheese options (except then I would have spent $8 for eight ounces instead of $3). Overall, though, I don’t think tonight’s meal will be too different than usual, and many of the ingredients were cheaper and took less time to shop for.
The shorter period of time I spent in the store wasn’t really my choice (well, I was trying to get home to allow time to make French onion soup for lunch), but was due to the fact that Ralph’s, the grocery store with the best organic produce, has very few organic options on the shelves. No organic canned tomatoes (and certainly no elusive BPA-free cans). No organic milk products (although the vast majority of those products come from cows that eat things other than grass – you know, like potato chips). The worst thing is, with at least eight major grocery chains in this area, the inventory at all of them is virtually the same. I’ve had a heck of a time finding tahini, which may not be surprising but which the regular stores in Anchorage carry, and I have to do a city-wide search for lemon juice every time I want a bottle of the stuff. (I usually end up paying $5 for a bottle of organic lemon juice at Whole Foods since I know they carry it.)
I guess my frustration comes down to the fact that I really need to prioritize and make some decisions. What’s most important to me? Organic, grass-fed, food? Local food? Lower-priced food? The time I spend driving and shopping? One can make arguments for all of these factors being important, either individually or in various combinations. I’ve read countless articles that say food harmony, i.e. reducing your budget while eating real, unprocessed, organic, grass fed, and local food is eminently achievable in 30 minutes a day. I live in one of the most populous areas in the country, and it’s not that easy. Sometimes it’s downright hard – and I have no job, no kids, and a master’s degree. What about for people who work, have kids, have erroneous or limited information or lack access to even the most basic grocery store?
I’d be happy to pay $20 for a pastured, five pound chicken, but I am rarely happy to take two or three hours out of my weekend to go get one. And then I feel guilty because my chicken is STILL expensive and only had “enhanced access to the outdoors.” And that’s just from an animal-rights perspective. When I factor in potential exposure to chemicals, optimal nutrition, and the amount of money we spend on food, it’s enough to make me wonder when feeding my family became my full-time job and whether it’s good for my mental health.