Making "Green" Food Choices

Your food choices play an important part in creating a greener home and a greener community. Choosing locally grown food supports open space in your area. Organically grown local food does even more to protect the environment and your health. Studies show that organically grown produce is healthier for you and supports a healthier you.

There is ongoing debate around the issue of organic food being of a higher quality and providing more nutrients. The discussion has been tainted by misinformation provided by the mainstream media. A report aired in February, 2000 on the show "20/20" contained many inaccuracies and outright falsehoods, including tests result for tests that were never conducted stating there was no difference in the pesticide levels of conventionally grown produce and organically grown. Awareness and education are key components in helping consumers make better food choices for the health of their bodies and our environment.

First , let’s explore what some of the labels and keywords are in the healthy foods industry.

Organic. At one time the label could be used by anyone because there was no law outlining what organic growing entailed. Now there is an USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Organic Label that outlines what growing practices can be defined as organic. If you want to be sure it’s organic, look for the certified organic growers label.

Transitional growers. These are growers who are in the process of obtaining organic certification. They haven’t met all of the standards yet; it may simply be they haven’t been farming enough. Ask questions such as where they are in the transition, was the land used conventionally the previous growing season, or have they met all the standards and are simply waiting for the paperwork to process. You will usually find that food from a transitional grower is high quality.

Sustainable grower. These are growers that for one reason or another are not pursuing the organic label certification. It may be the expense involved or it may be that some aspect of the certification is beyond their ability to comply with. If someone describes themselves as a sustainable grower it can really mean many different things, so engage them in a discussion on what their philosophy is. The sustainable growers that I have met are people with high standards that are primarily interested in seeing locally grown produce and meat products being consumed by local people.

Conventional farmers.This category covers a wide range of farming practices. Many small-scale farmers instinctively limit the chemical inputs to their farmland. In my opinion, there is vast difference between the local farmer doing the best he/she can to earn a living while keeping a family farm functioning and the huge agribusinesses we see producing much of the food found in the supermarket chains. Personally, I prefer conventional strawberries grown in my community over organic strawberries shipped across the country.

Genetically engineered foods. Certified organic food must be free from all genetically modified organisms (GMO). Millions of acres of genetically engineered (GE) crops are planted in this country each year. There have been reports of butterflies landing in GE cornfields to feed on the pollen and large numbers of the dying. There are also issues with the GE crops cross-pollinating with nearby weeds creating the possibility of super weeds that will be even more difficult to control.

Nearly two-thirds of the products on our supermarket shelves contain GE ingredients. GE foods remain poorly studied; scientists simply can’t say with any authority that they are absolutely safe for human consumption. With so many questions remaining it is important that we don’t allow ourselves and our children to be the case study for these "frankenfoods."

Pesticides

Supermarket foods found to have the highest levels of pesticides include peaches, grapes, apples, pears and strawberries. Finding a locally grown source can help cut your exposure and with summer here, roadside stands will be popping up. When you stop at a farm stand speak with the growers as to what their attitude is towards pesticides and fertilizers. Let them know that you are interested in buying "clean" produce.

When you find a food grower help them to be successful by sharing the information with others. I once stopped at a roadside stand selling peaches. I was happy to have found a local source, but after speaking with the grower I left empty-handed. His attitude of "the more chemicals, the better" and "kill any bug — beneficial or otherwise" — was disconcerting, to say the least. Not long after, I found another grower (aimless country rides pay off!) who told me how he was careful as to when he applied pesticides and fungicides. He paid attention to weather reports and to the stage of development of his plants. He worked to create healthier trees that could withstand infestations. I bought his fruit and returned for more.

Before feeding your children, wash and peel fruit. My mother always told me to eat the apple skin because that is where the most nutrients were. Unfortunately that is also the place where pesticides are concentrated. There are products on the market that will help remove pesticide residue from the outside of fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately some vegetables like winter squash absorb the pesticides.

Pesticides

that have saturated a food cannot be removed.

We cannot expect the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect us from pesticide exposure. Often products are on the market for years before the EPA recognizes problems. Products are considered safe until proven otherwise and little consideration is given as to how various products are interacting in the environment.

Pesticides

produce a variety of negative affects on your health. Issues around exposure include disruption of the endocrine system and suppression of the immune system. Exposure may also affect male reproductive functions. Fish are being found with both male and female reproductive organs, thereby rendering them sterile. Just recently, the town of Stoughton, MA had to shut down a well because of a high concentration of nitrates. It is suspected that someone dumped a quantity of fertilizer within the watershed. I imagine the shock of someone discovering that their dumping of an EPA-approved product had caused a well to be shut down and endangered the health of small children.

When I worked for the Department of Public Works in my town, the biggest expense at our hazardous waste collection was the disposal of lawn fertilizers and the herbicides used to fight the weeds. I often wondered how people could, in good conscience, use a product on their lawn where their children and pets spent so much time, which needed to be disposed of at a hazardous waste collection site.

Don’t let anyone tell you the GE foods and chemical fertilizers are necessary to combat world hunger. World hunger has often been more a matter of food distribution rather than food production. Surplus food is destroyed in this country every day.

Community Supported Agriculture

A wonderful way to connect with your food source is by joining a CSA — Consumer Supported Agriculture. A CSA functions by consumers entering into an agreement with a farmer. You agree to pay a set price for produce produced throughout the growing season. Many farmers will divide the payments equally over a growing period while some prefer to receive half the payment up front and the rest halfway through the season.

The benefits of a CSA work to the advantage of both the farmer and the consumer. The farmer receives a guaranteed income that he/she can count on throughout the season. He is not as susceptible to the ups and downs inherent in farming. Receiving funding at the beginning of the growing season is critical as it provides the capital to purchase seed, pay land leases or to share in the risks involved in farming. The consumer shares in the bounty of a season’s local harvest with a full variety of produce, without the farming work.

The CSA I belonged to had bartering agreement with a baker so that in addition to the lovely bag of produce, we receive a loaf of bread and always a sweet bouquet of flowers. In the beginning the bags were a little light but as the season progressed, they grew heavier and heavier. It was great fun each week to see what was being harvested. The growers were kind enough to provide recipes for some of the more unusual vegetables and my family’s palate was greatly expanded. I also enjoyed seeing and meeting so many different people in my town that were interested in quality food.

A CSA isn’t limited to the suburbs or rural areas. I have heard of several successful CSAs in New York city. The farmer trucks his produce to a pre-arranged meeting place and is assured he won’t be left with an excess to truck back. Many cities and towns sponsor farmer’s markets. If your town doesn’t have one, perhaps you are just the person to organize it.

NOFA MA (Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association in Massachusetts) produces a map every spring detailing where the organic growers are. All the New England states have a NOFA chapter and they are a good source of information. (http://www.nofamaa.org) Other states have their own version and an organic certifying agency. Visit your local farmer’s market and speak with the growers. You may not find a certified organic grower but the possibilities are good that you will find someone who is following the practices. As conventional growers hear from people that they are interested in organically grown food they may choose to change their practices.

Options are available to you. Hunt out local sources; share a garden and the work with a neighbor. If you lack the space for a garden, using planters can expand your growing area. Get to know people responsible for your food. Knowing that Irene provides your eggs, Donna your chickens and Frank your vegetables will connect you to your community in a new and greener way. Keep your cabinets in your home filled with plenty of healthy, "green" food.

Resources to explore

http://www.foodnews.org
http://www.purefood.org
http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop

Mary Farrell is an environmentalist, writer, student of herbalism and presenter of self-empowerment techniques. Mary can be reached at farrpmar@hotmail.com.