Thursday, June 19, 2008

Veggie Might: Organic Foods - When to Splurge

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

Everyone knows that organic is the way to go, but let’s be practical. Organic foods can be pretty cost-prohibitive and, depending on your locus, hard to come by. Take a quick tool around the natural foods store or even a mainstream grocery chain, and you’ll see a huge price disparity between the organic and “conventional” produce. Shopping at local farm stands, farmer’s markets, and food coops are the wisest options—and very often the cheapest—but, what do you do in a pinch or when you live in an underserved area?

I remember reading (or seeing on the tube) somewhere that fruits and veggies with inedible rinds are safer than those without, pesticide-wise. That makes sense. Peel of the bad stuff on the outside; eat the good stuff on the inside. But is it true or did I imagine it? On a fun vegetarian blog, Veggie Chic, I found a link to a colorful list with handy wallet card that (kind of) confirmed my waking dream, but carried the notion even further.

Compiled by the Environmental Working Group, the produce shopping guide is a list of the Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables that tested highest for pesticide residue. The Cleanest 12 are the iron-clad garden varieties that scored the lowest. The complete list tops out at 43.

Buy These Organic
Sweet Bell Peppers
Grapes (Imported)

Lowest in Pesticides
Sweet Corn (Frozen)
Sweet Peas (Frozen)

EWG, the awesome Washington, DC-based 501(c)(3) that brings us Skin Deep: the Cosmetic Safety Database, has done research that is extensively cited in several other articles, including an amazingly comprehensive piece from Consumer Reports, When It Pays to Buy Organic.

In addition to in-depth reporting on organic standards and a great breakdown of labeling, the CR article also has great tips for finding real organic deals. A neighbor of mine told me months ago about a community-supported farm (CSA) that delivers to our ‘hood, and I promptly forgot about it. Then through Local Harvest, I discovered that the very same farm was still taking members this season.

Just days away from the registration deadline, I did some quick math and realized that for around $17.00 a week, I can have a bounty of locally grown (northern NJ), seasonal, organic produce all summer and fall. That’s the same or less than I spend on produce now—and most of what I buy is conventional. If I’d joined earlier, I would have started reaping the benefits two weeks ago, for even more savings.

It’s a big commitment to pay for five months of groceries in one chunk (gulp!)—not something I would have been able to do months ago. But cutting corners on things like lunches out, cable, and subway fare (I cycle most places in the city) have added up to more than realized. Now I can put that savings into affordable, healthful food, and local, sustainable agriculture.

How do you balance your budget and organics? Are any city (or suburban or country) folk part of a food coop or CSA? What are your experiences? I’m curious about the community part, especially for city dwellers. There is a volunteer aspect to my membership that sounds like fun too. Plus, each week’s farm offering will be somewhat of a surprise. Oh, the organic culinary adventures we will have!

(Photos courtesy of Flickr members monitorpop, idp05, and graygoosie.)

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Anonymous said...

Hey Folks, I commented last week on the AC dilemma, there were a few people from DC that commented.

Does anyone on this site know of any reputable CSA associations here in the District? I would love to join one but here are quite a few to choose from so was just wondering if anyone had any ideas from personal experience.

DMBY said...

I adore my weekly veggie box. I've been doing it for a couple months now, and at first I thought it seemed a little pricey, but it's actually helped - I eat more veggies, cook at home more, and tried new things (like kale - wow!). And the best part is, farm veggies even TASTE better than the conventional ones. Seriously, the best carrots I've ever eaten.

I'm in the SF Bay Area and use Farm Fresh To You.

Milehimama said...

You might also avoid Mexican produce. It is often irrigated with sewage and/or industrial effluent - who knows what kind of chemicals the plants absorb?

Ashley said...

I joined a CSA for the first time this year, and I'm loving it. For $12 a week I get a pretty big box of veggies. I've been cooking so much and learning so many new recipes. Other than the fact that am getting a bit tired of zucchini/squash - I've gotten some every week for 6 weeks now - its been great. I've also saved a lot of money by not going to the grocery store as often. I used to go a couple times a week to get fresh produce,now I go once every week or two. I'm going to be very sad this winter when I have to start going back to the grocery store all the time for veggies that aren't nearly as good...

j said...

hiya-to the person asking about CSAs in DC, instead of a CSA i get deliveries from washington's green grocer. it's more expensive (~$30/wk for small mix box, $36 for small organic box) but it comes to your door and you can also add things like organic milk, local eggs, lemons, spices, etc. i don't know what i would do without it. love, love, love them!

nyjlm said...

while bananas are on the 'good' list as far as not having pesticides in the part of the fruit that we eat, banana farming is very hard on the ecosystem they are grown in. Hard on the plants, hard on the birds.
Bananas are just one example, but I'm sure there are others, that show what a complex issue this is.

Cam said...

Hullo, Anonymous in the District - I can wholeheartedly and with no qualms whatsoever recommend Claggett Farm in Upper Marlboro, MD. They deliver to Dupont (it used to be for an extra $50 per year) and Anacostia. Or you can make it out to the farm, which I recommend - it's impressive! If they don't have any shares left, ask if you can work 4 hrs some Sat - they'll let you have a share after working, so you can get an idea of what you have to look forward to next year. Their haul is impressive, too!

I'm now in Baltimore, and with Cromwell Valley CSA, and I love it. We have a volunteer component as well, and it really is wonderful to go and work on the farm and see where your veg actually comes from. Ours costs a little under $20/week, and it is so worth it. I don't think I ever would have tried chard or winter squash if we hadn't done this. You will want to make sure you have a good vegetarian cookbook (or website) available - b/c you'll probably get something you have no idea how to cook!

Brigid said...

I am just starting my third year with my local CSA, and I love it. My only complaint is that we often don't get enough of a particular vegetable to do much with; most portions are limited to one pound or one item (i.e. one eggplant). We also get fruit, herbs, and cheese from our CSA, and we have frozen meat delivered once a month by a small farmer from Vermont.

In terms of price, I feel that eating well is important and that it's worth it to spend money on quality ingredients. We eat very few processed foods, and I do my best to cook from scratch. We live about 20 minutes away from a Whole Foods, so I go there every Sunday to do my week's grocery shopping. The CSA delivery and our local farmers' market are both on Thursday. I will go to our local supermarket, which is next to my workplace, maybe once a week for milk and a few things, like toilet paper, that are cheaper there. I find WF a much more relaxing place to shop than my local supermarket, with its fluorescent lights, orange-and-green decor, and persistent smell of chemicals. Plus I seldom have to wait for a cashier at Whole Foods. And shopping once a week has really freed up my time for more important things (like cooking).

Marcia said...

My husband and I have been members of an organic CSA here in Southern California for about 8 years (we were drawn to it by the strawberries).

It was difficult at first to learn what to do with all the new stuff (fava beans? kale?). By now we have a few good recipes for everything except fennel. And we don't waste any food anymore.

Ours comes out to about $20/week. The volunteer aspect is either 3 hours to help distribute (once/year) or help pull weeds, etc. on special "volunteer days".

I find it to be pretty reasonably priced. My budget is $50/week plus $20 for the CSA, family of three.

Anonymous said...

I live in downtown burlington, vermont and belong to a csa. I love it because I get to visit a farm and feel like I'm in a rural area, which is just 2 minutes from downtown. The veggies can't be beat, and I get to pick my own herbs every week. The produce is so much fresher than anything you could buy in the store, no matter what the price. Plus I get to expand my horizons by eating veggies and fruits I would never buy. I highly reccomend CSA's to everyone. It's economical and helps organic farms thrive. It's also way easier than grocery shopping, no lines no tough decisions on what to buy:)