Thursday, September 17, 2009

Food in America: The Reality

A recent op-ed in the LA Times by Charlotte Allen brought to light the current challenges facing Americans when it comes to eating sustainable, organic foods in this country:
Just in time for the worst economic downturn since the Depression, here comes a new crop of social critics to inform us that we're actually spending too little for the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the furniture we sit on and the gasoline that runs our automobiles.
Never mind that U.S. job losses these days range from 200,000 to 500,000 a month, that foreclosures are up 32% over this time last year and that people are re-learning how to clip newspaper coupons so as to save at the supermarket. Dire economic circumstances don't seem to faze these spending enthusiasts, who scold us for shopping at supermarkets instead of at farmer's markets, where a loaf of "artisanal" (and also "sustainable") rye bread sells for $8, ice cream for $6 a cup and organic tomatoes go for $4 a pound.
As a dietitian, I appreciate this
piece. I've encountered too many of these food critics, including a crop of dietitians, in the last several years who have a completely unrealistic perception of how the American people live. My beef with the push to eat foods with a marked-up price tag and the "organic" label is that often they are not truly organic. Like anything else, food processors and producers have seized the marketing opportunity to grab more sales... which is not a bad thing, as long as you know what's facing you at the supermarket.

Supermarkets aren't alone in this. I've been to my share of farmers markets that "import" their foods from wholesale warehouses like Costco and sell them at a premium as "local". Have you ever stopped to think about what can actually be grown in your neck of the "local" woods? Americans are easily taken advantage of because most of us have no idea what seasonal foods are or what different growing conditions are necessary. It's just impractical to think that you can get all your foods from within 100 miles of your house, especially living on the eastern seaboard like I do, or that all your food can be organic. This is not California.

In fact, last year when I purchased some "organic" New England" apples from Trader Joe's I found worms were still living in them. For some, that might be okay but I prefer to keep my protein separate from my fruit. Not to mention these foods often don't keep nearly as long - rotting food can be costly to families. I've come home with organic food that has gone bad 2 days from it's purchasing date, only to be thrown away along with my money. Visit any U.S. produce farm and you'll find that most "conventional" produce growers use very minimal pesticides (READ: pesticides = added cost to farmers) and instead opt for natural integrate pest management techniques whenever possible. The main difference is that these growers don't jump through the hoops and pay the added cost to become certified "organic" and pass that cost on to you.

As a new mom (and former food marketer), I see how especially susceptible moms are to the guilt that these "cheerleaders" impose. Unfortunately, you don't always get what you pay for. I often tell my friends to avoid falling into the trap of only eating "organic" and to shop smart. How do you shop for your family without feeling guilty if you don't spend $8 on a gallon of milk?
  • Read labels carefully - here are the USDA guidelines for what those labels really mean.
  • Do your homework - did you know that the hormones found in milk are naturally occurring? The same level of hormone can be found in conventional and organic milk, meaning there's no difference between the two but the price. Look for both sides of the story before you commit to one product.
  • Look for what's in season - in-season produce is going to be more affordable, going to taste better and will have likely traveled less than if it's not in season. While some are grown in the U.S., many exotic fruits like bananas (yes, the number one fruit in the U.S.), pineapples and mangoes likely come from another country.
  • Mix convenience with fresh - it's inevitable that we'll eat some processed foods no matter how hard we try not to out of sheer convenience. Canned and frozen fruits and veggies are often less expensive than fresh and keep for longer - and they have the same nutritional value as fresh. Keep them on hand when your favorite produce is out of season and feel good about the fact that your family is getting good nutrition! My favorite quick meal involves making a stir-fry of a micro-steamer bag of mixed veggies, rice, and frozen chicken - frozen meat is easier to slice then and can be thrown right into the wok with your favorite sauce. Toss the cooked veggies in at the end and serve with rice.
  • Plan ahead - If you're making your favorite meal, double the recipe and freeze the rest in single-serve containers. Homemade "processed" foods always win out in taste!

No comments:

Post a Comment