This Saturday at my local grocery store in New York City, strawberries were priced at $4.29 per pound. Organic strawberries were priced at $6.29 per pound. Looking at them through their identical sad plastic packages, there wasn’t much difference — the organic models may have been a little more irregularly shaped, possibly a Pantone number or two brighter in color than the standard models, but those differences just as easily could have been my projections.
I generally don’t eat strawberries, unless they’re seductively arrayed atop of some form of cake—e.g. pan-, short-. But my two-year-old son shovels down a bowl of strawberries every morning, so we go through about a pound of them each week. As I stood there in the grocery store staring at my options, the only real, tangible disparity was that if I chose the organic strawberries, I’d be paying two dollars more that day. Which meant over the course of a year I’d be paying a premium of over $100 just to ensure a portion of my son’s breakfasts were organic.
But to what end? When should you buy organic? Why should you buy organic? Why would you not buy organic? In a perfect world, wouldn’t you want to eat organic at every opportunity? If you could eat food of a high pedigree, with a traceable provenance, who would choose against that? If it’s such an obvious decision, why is there even a choice involved?
"There is no right answer, there is so much information," says Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy, the wildly popular vegetable restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. "There’s no consensus — that’s one of the things that makes it so hard, too, is you have different information every day, and you feel like at some point, everybody has something they’re selling you."
Certainly, there are people who only eat organic. And there are probably also people who never eat organic. But there’s plenty of room in the middle, too, for people like myself who are feeling our way through this.
Eating organic requires a commitment, financially and to a certain extent, socially. If I have to buy non-organic sometimes, what’s the downside to eating non-organic foods? Surely the non-organic strawberries aren’t terrible for my health. I mean, they sell them in any store, right there next to the organic strawberries. Can my son discern a difference between organic and non-organic foods? I doubt it, although to be fair, my son also can’t tell the difference between farting and pooping, so perhaps he isn’t the best judge.
I took notice of the organic food movement when I read Forrest Pritchard’s lovely memoir, Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmer’s Markets, Local Food and Saving The Family. As a recent college graduate, Pritchard moved home to his family’s failing farm in Virginia, determined to turn a profit. After years of often-hilarious trial and error, Smith Meadows is now a thriving farm producing several types of grass-fed products.
"The first thing is, I don’t eat meat if I don’t know where it comes from," said Pritchard when I called him last week. "I think fruits and vegetables are really important because of the pesticide residues. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, I definitely do organic."
Cohen also has certain foods she always aims to buy organic. "At the restaurant we try to focus more on organic dairy," she says. "And then personally, the softer the fruit or the vegetable, the better to go organic. Like, it’s better to have an organic raspberry than it is to have an organic orange, if I were to have to make the choice."
So our experts suggest going organic with fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy. Which basically covers...everything. But eating solely organic can be difficult, even for the most committed. "Organics is three percent of our food system," says Pritchard, "so it’s unrealistic, even if you’re growing it yourself, to expect to only consume organic food. Unless you’re, like, born with a trust fund and fly around in a helicopter."
"The best choice, besides growing it yourself, is always a farmers market," says Pritchard, "or shopping at the farm. I’m well aware that the knee-jerk reaction might be that this is inconvenient, but how about this statistic: There are presently over 8,500 farmers markets in the country... more than all the Walmarts, Targets, and Whole Foods combined."
"Just buy food," says Cohen. "That’s great. That’s always my starting point. Just getting people to go to the grocery store and to buy vegetables is a big deal. If you buy something from a small farm at the greenmarket, even if they’re not ’organic,’ chances are they have really good practices. Putting the onus on people that vegetables must be from a specialized farm or that they have to be organic or in a certain season, all of that puts so much pressure on people. It’s really just getting people to eat better food. That should be the goal."
I don’t know if I’ll ever go all-in with the organic movement, but perhaps I don’t have to dive deep. Accepting even the broadest definition of the term, organic foods promise us that we are making a safe, considered decision. So I buy food, and when I can, I buy organic. Being a mostly-occasional organic is the option that works best for me, and has no real downsides.
Well, other than on my wallet. Those strawberries don’t pay for themselves, man.