The Grocery Store Puzzle: Local, Organic, Cruelty-Free, Non-GMO…Who Has Time for This?

| November 1, 2013 | 3 Comments

I will, from time to time, stop into Costco to buy a few things.   99% of what they sell are things we will never eat, most in the processed food aisles.  But they also sell great things like organic olive oil in huge quantities, healthy meat and seafood, and organic frozen produce.  So on a recent trip, at the checkout you would’ve found my meager cart-full with frozen chopped organic kale, olive oil, sliced almonds, cage-free eggs, and my favorite, a mega-bag of Townsend Farms Organic Frozen Blueberries from Oregon.

Here’s a favorite smoothie I’ve been drinking for months: (gratuitous recipe inclusion!)

2 cups chopped kale
1 cup frozen blueberries (those Townsend Farms Organic Blueberries)
1 orange, peeled and broken into segments
a spoonful of almond butter
a spoonful of ground flax seed
a cup or two of almond, coconut, or soy milk
half a banana if I’m feeling a jones for a lil’ sweetness

The fact that it’s super-delicious is the only thing that keeps me consuming these at an alarming rate — because it comes out an interesting green-black color not usually indicative of something being edible.  But goodness it’s tasty.

Okay, back to the story.  I had been pretty darned smug about these things, between sometimes being able to use our own fresh kale, and those spiffy berries:  Reasonably local (Oregon) AND organic, AND a superfood.   Yay me.

Then, two things happened.  First, in June, they traced a nasty Hepatitis A outbreak back to Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend of frozen fruit.  Townsend Farms, in turn, blamed the pomegranate seeds in the mix, which they imported from….Turkey?  The news reports said that the fruit in the mix was said to originate in Argentina, Chile, Turkey and Mexico.  Hm. Second thing: I went to the freezer and examined the bag of blueberries, and found, embedded in a block of small type on the back,

“A six-generation family-owned operation located in Oregon’s beautiful Columbia Gorge. The fertile, sandy loam and temperate Oregon climate yields an abundant harvest of luscious berries….We also work with berry farmers around the world that have the same values as we do about food safety, to source and pack exceptional berries for your table.”

And in teeny-tiny mouse type, “Product of Chile.”

So, to recap:  Not local, and in the case of the other berry blend they sell, certainly not good for your health.

Cue profanity.

If I – an inveterate label-reader – was fooled by the Local Food hocus-pocus, I can only imagine how it is for someone like a frazzled working mom desperate to grab groceries in time to grab the kids from soccer practice, trying hard to keep it healthy and maybe even local.  It’s no wonder so many people just stop trying sometimes.  It’s too damned hard.

During September’s Whole Food Market Food Stamp Challenge, I grew a few new synapses trying to keep up with this.  It took me forever to get through the produce aisles, even though they do a great job of labeling where things are from.

Endless decision points just burned me out.  Do I buy the organic apples from New Zealand, or the conventional apples grown in my own state?  If I want an organic salad mix, I am stuck with another rectangular clamshell container to either recycle or try to repurpose somehow (after the twentieth one this year, I started getting really bugged by that).  When buying eggs, you can choose white and brown versions of conventional, cage-free, organic, Omega-3, and other options I won’t even consider.  Let’s not even talk about milk products.

How do you even begin to decide?  And how do we avoid spending two hours in the damned grocery store? Don’t we all have something better to do?

Obviously there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.  But because this dilemma has been one of my priorities this year, I wanted to share my own process in the hopes it may help you design your own:

1. Prioritize. Decide what’s most important to YOU.

This takes a little soul-searching.  What is your top priority in feeding yourself and your family?  Put them in order of importance for YOU, and feel free to add your own factors:

  • Avoiding pesticides, herbicides, etc.
  • Avoiding ingestion of things like rbST (bovine growth hormone)
  • Other health factors like pasture-raised animal products for Omega-3 and -6 balance
  • Supporting local or regional businesses & farmers to keep them thriving
  • Ceasing to buy food that has a huge carbon footprint (having traveled thousands of miles to reach us)
  • Ceasing to buy animal foods that are inhumanely raised
  • Spending the least amount of money for acceptably healthy food
  • Etc.

2.  If health is high on your list, know the Dirty Dozen+ and the Clean Fifteen in the produce department.

Use the mobile app (google Dirty Dozen app) or write it on a tiny piece of paper and keep it in your wallet. You won’t find it posted in conventional grocery stores.

3.  Start your own A-List of foods that meet your criteria, and where to get them.

Okay, don’t shy away from this just because it involved spending a little time at first, promise?

Example:  I’ve found that buying bulk quinoa from a local bulk supplier, Golden Organics, meets a bunch of my own criteria:

–Local, didn’t have to spew a lot of CO2 to get it
–Supports local business, AND local growers
–Cheapest per-pound price available

So in my nifty Excel spreadsheet (and I’m sure there are mobile apps available as well)  I have five simple columns:

Food | Description | Store | Why | Last Date

Quinoa | Organic white Colorado quinoa | Golden Organics | Local, organic, best price | 9/22/13

Butter | Organic Valley Pasture Butter | Natural Grocers | Local, organic, healthy | 9/4/13

….and so on.   It sounds like work but it really isn’t, at least not after the first time through. Using the receipt from the grocery store, the first entry took about fifteen minutes.

Nowadays, I just take a couple of minutes to update it when I find something new that’s WAY better than what I’d had there before, or when something changes.  Produce, for example, will change frequently, but you will start to get a good feel for the best store for what you’re after.  If your store choices are limited, you will have to make some hard decisions.

4. Decide how hard-line you’re going to be. No judgment here.

If your daughter will only eat bananas, even though they’re flown in from Ecuador on a 747, seek out organic ones if you can. Or try to sneakily get her addicted to something that’s grown a little more locally.

If you’re dying for raspberries in January, it’s sometimes better to indulge a little bit rather than risk falling into an emotional pattern of self-denial, which (like hardcore dieters) might lead to a binge.  Can you picture a raspberry binge?  It wouldn’t be pretty.

Anyway, the point is this:  It’s up to you to decide what you can live with.  I consider myself about 80% true to my ideals when it comes to food shopping.  But we are able to avoid a lot of chemicals in our diet, we stay within our budget, we support local farmers whenever we can, and for those Banana Times, we forgive ourselves and get on with it.  Even that 20% out of bounds has shrunk considerably in recent years, as we’ve come to realize that living without certain things — like apples in June — isn’t the end of the world.

5.  Try alternate sources to get your grub, and grab what’s good while you can.

Farmer’s markets, in season, are amazing places.  Just sayin’.  Also, if you have an 8′ x 8′ square of yard that you wouldn’t miss mowing, consider putting in an organic garden to grow the things that are either a) hard to find or afford when purchased organically in stores, or b) just taste about 10,000% better just-picked than after being on a truck for days.  There are many ways to do that that aren’t that hard, and it’s hugely gratifying to grow and pick your own stuff.

For example, we put in a little bed of blueberries this year.  So within a couple of years, we hope to bid (not)local sources of those succulent little gems adieu.

We also grew corn, which gets super-expensive to get locally outside of a certain time window in summer.  For the first time, we were able to freeze it up – a boatload of frozen organic local corn, put up within hours of harvest. Can’t beat it.

Consider, during the times of year when certain things are inexpensive in the form you like (local, organic, whatever)  buying a bunch and freezing them.  Things like green beans, snow peas, corn, even greens (which go below $1 a bunch in my area in September) keep well and you’ll save a lot.  We purchased a little chest freezer a couple of years back that costs about $3 a month to run, and it’s saved us a ton of money — really, a ton.

And in more and more cities, you have services like our Mile High Organics and Door-to-Door Organics, which can help simplify a lot of really good choices for you, if you can afford their service.

6.  Take pride in caring at all, and be grateful for the choices you’ve got

The fact that you even took the time to read this article gives you a better-than-average chance of being Someone Who Gives a Shit, and believe me when I say the vast majority of consumers simply don’t.  So thanks for caring, no matter how deeply into this stuff you choose to go.

And the next time you’re at the store and find the perfect, in-season beauty of an organic apple or tomato or head of broccoli, take two seconds to consider how fortunate we are to have so much good food all around us.  Enjoy that sweet crunch, take several minutes to just enjoy the perfection of choosing good food.  Life is good.



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Category: Food, Home, Local, Money Saving, Organic, Sustainable

Comments (3)

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  1. Holly says:

    Thanks for the Dirty Dozen app–it makes me aware; I downloaded it. I don’t know if I can do much about it. Sometimes just getting a meat-and-potatoes man, who thinks carrot cake is a vegetable serving, to eat fruit is a challenge, but I keep trying. He’ll eat bananas, so I don’t care where they come from.

    We do buy organic milk! The cat won’t drink anything else–go figure–yes, he is spoiled! So he wins and so do I! I insist on cage free chicken and eggs, and hormone-free, grass-fed beef, when I eat it–once a quarter. So that’s something!

    The food commentary from my oncologist: balance and moderation. If you can find organic and can afford it–do so, but if not, it’s better to eat any fruits and veggies, than not at all. Kale and blueberries are her recommended foods for cancer-prevention. And wine…an occasional glass isn’t going to kill me. Good to know! But how do you know if the grapes are organic? And at that point, do I really care? I just want my occasional indulgence to taste good.

    So I guess my priorities are healthy, convenient and cost-effective in changing priorities depending on the food item.

    Oh and chocolate especially dark chocolate is an approved cancer-prevention food. Hurray, something tasty is good for you!

    You’re right! It is exhausting! Would you just do my shopping and cooking for me and save me the brain damage?

    • greenhedonist says:

      I hear you, Holly. My fall-back, when I shop, is to use that app/list to identify which foods I HAVE to buy organic, or not at all. If I do nothing else in the store, I try to do that…and it’s easy enough to remember even when I’m braindead. The EWG (who publishes the Shoppers Guide/Dirty Dozen) agrees with your doctor, and so do I: “…Use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides to reduce your exposures as much as possible, but eating conventionally-grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.” And though I know I should worry about wine — trust me, I should worry about wine 🙂 — I have not yet even TRIED biodynamically grown wines. Adding that to my to-do-some-time list!

    • greenhedonist says:

      P.S. My favorite guilt-free chocolate is still Green & Black, which goes on sale at Natural Grocers pretty often. Fun article that made my mouth water:

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