Making the Best Health Food Choices for Wellness and the Environment Organic foods are big business, and for good reason: they are safer, easier on the environment, and often more nutritious than their “conventionally grown,” pesticide-laden counterparts. In recent years, however, locally grown produce has become a competitor for organic food, prompting the question: Is local or organic food a better choice for the average consumer? Local and Organic Foods: Definitions Organic meat, produce, and packaged foods are sold with the guarantee of their organic label – a government-regulated certification that says that these foods and their ingredients have been grown without dangerous pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, or any other artificial agents. Local produce means foods that have been produced locally, usually by small family farms rather than big agribusiness. Local foods support the local economy and may be fresher or cheaper than foods that have been shipped cross-country or from overseas. Organic Foods and Health Most people buy organic for the sake of their own and their families’ health. Dozens of studies have highlighted that there are very serious risks associated with pesticides, from hormone disruption to birth defects, cancer, and autoimmune disorders. Organic foods are free and clear of any chemical additives that might pose a risk to health. Studies show that organic produce has an additional benefit: organic fruits and veggies are often higher in nutrition (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants) than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. Organic Foods, Local Produce, and the Environment Another important aspect of organic farming is the care taken in preserving the earth’s ability to grow food crops and support health ecosystems. Run-off from pesticides can kill animals and disrupt the food chain near conventional farms, but organic farming doesn’t poison the land. However, organic produce is usually shipped significant distances before being sold – using fossil fuel resources and creating pollution as it travels from farm to table. Local produce avoids this evil if it’s grown, sold, and eaten within a few hours’ drive (or less). The shorter travel distance also means that local produce is fresher – and often less expensive – than fruit and veggies that are grown across the country. Local vs. Organic and the Impact on Local Economies Proponents of local food believe in supporting “local economies” by buying from your neighborhood strawberry farmer instead of an organic strawberry giant down in California. The concept of social responsibility plays a big role in the organic vs. local food debate. Finding Food that is Healthy, Local, and Organic Which natural food shopping pick is best for health, budgets, farmers, and the environment? It’s not an easy question to answer. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to enjoy fresh, local, organic produce all at once and all the time. In the real world, it’s sometimes possible to find food that is both (by asking around at farmers’ markets, for instance). Often, though, the choice between local and organic produce is a personal decision based on many factors. Organic food isn’t always available, and neither is local food (especially if you live in a large city). The best anyone can do is learn about the issues and follow his or her own conscience.
Organic food can be very expensive, but there are ways to save money and make a healthy lifestyle easier to maintain. Most of these methods involve dusting off the skills of a previous generation, coupled with some modern conveniences to save a little time! Even a simple staple, such as five pound bag of organic whole wheat flour, can come at a dear price. Ready-to-eat organic foods are both worth every penny and simply not affordable for everyone. There is a solution – one that requires an investment of time and the purchase of some equipment, in order to save money long term. The benefit is the peace of mind that comes from knowing the family eats food that was not soaked in herbicides, pesticides, or strong chemical fertilizers. Buy From Farmers and Make it From Scratch In Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Food Cooperative allows local family farms to sell their goods directly to the consumer. This organization has created a state-wide farmer’s market that allows customers to order and pick up food on a monthly basis. Now, remember the price of a five pound bag of organic, whole wheat flour? For a little more than twice that amount, one of the producers in the Oklahoma Food Cooperative sells a twenty-five pound bucket of wheat berries. An electric grinder quickly pays for itself and over time reduces the cost of organic flour (compared to the store price) by more than half. With a little more labor, some of that wheat flour can be white flour instead, if light, flaky pastries happen to be on the menu in the near future. Milling flour and baking isn’t for everyone, obviously, despite the savings. The cooperative also sells frozen foods for those that desire local or organic food without needing to learn the mysterious art of cooking it. Buy in Bulk and Preserve Seasonal produce is always cheaper, for both organic and regular food. Look for local farmer’s markets or natural food suppliers to buy fresh, in-season produce. Buy produce by the bushel, if that option is available, and spend a weekend canning or freezing anything that can’t be eaten fresh before it spoils. It can even be a novel and fun experience for children to see how food gets processed. Stocking up for winter on summer’s cheaper prices – as families did for generations before the modern supermarket – can reduce the cost of food significantly for anyone willing to make the time investment. That hard work can also be turned into a source of income. Local food cooperatives will enthusiastically welcome producers of frozen and canned goods. The demand for such items often exceeds supply. To find local coops or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Organic Consumer’s Association websites. Buy Seeds and Plant a Garden Planting a garden is, perhaps, the simplest way to save money on organic food. It requires the most time and effort, but little in the way of actual equipment. It also requires a bit of knowledge about organic growing practices in order to keep from resorting to the rows of insecticides and other chemicals that line the shelves of the local hardware store. Gardening used in combination with canning and freezing saves the most money of all. If the amount of time required to keep up with a garden seems daunting, keep in mind that healthy food isn’t the only benefit. Planting and weeding burns quite a few calories – so that flaky pastry on the menu can be tasty and guilt-free.
You open up your refrigerator to grab a snack. You then begin to wonder… How old is that cheese? When did I buy that juice? When are those leftovers from? Are they still fresh? Food safety concern is popular for many families. Basic Rules to Follow when Shopping for the Freshest, Long-Lasting and Safest Foods Groceries When you go to the supermarket to do your big shopping, pick out your groceries first. While it might be hard to avoid the perimeter with all those great fresh foods, try to stock your cart first with paper goods, boxes, bottles, jars and cans. Make sure to always check for expiration dates and never buy a dented can or a leaky jar. Fruits and Vegetables The next stop should be the fruits and vegetables. When shopping for fruits and vegetables, try to determine when you will use them during the week. Make sure to buy with ripeness in mind. Some fruits and vegetables continue to ripen, while others do not. If you want something to continue to ripen at home, put it in a paper bag outside of the refrigerator for 1-4 days. Make sure to wash the fruits and vegetables just before you are about to eat them. Otherwise, the additional moisture may increase the rate of spoilage. Frozen Foods The next section should be the frozen food area. Again, be sure to check the expiration date on these products. Also inspect the package carefully to make sure there are no leaks and that the package is fully frozen. Sometimes packages may be thawed and frozen due to improper freezer temperatures. When this happens, there is usually crystallization on both the inside and outside of the package. You should never purchase this items. Chilled Foods The last items to shop for are the chilled products. These include meat, dairy, and seafood. These foods are the most susceptible to temperature change. Try to get these items back to their proper temperature as soon as possible. During the summer months, it might be a good idea to leave a cooler filled with ice packs in your car. Since the trunk temperature of a car can exceed to 120 degrees, food should never be placed inside the trunk. Keeping Foods Fresh in the Refrigerator Use a Thermometer There is good reason that refrigerators are built and designed the way they are. Since many of us fail to read the manual when we purchase a refrigerator, we do not know everything it is equipped with. The most important “accessory” is a thermometer for the refrigerator . For a few dollars, a refrigerator thermometer can be the best investment you make. The thermometer should be placed it in the middle of there refrigerator, not on the door or in the back. The temperature needs to be around 38 degrees and never over 40 degrees and should be checked weekly. Don’t Block Air Vents Proper air circulation is critical. Check where the air vents are in your refrigerator and make sure not to block them when stocking it with food. Don’t Overpack the Shelves Don’t pack your refrigerator as you do your kitchen cabinets. There needs to be spaces between the items on the shelves. By doing so, this helps to make the compressor work better. Mark Expiration Dates Mark the expiration dates on all food in the refrigerator. You should label each item with a marker so the dates stand out. This helps to make you are aware of the dates on all food items in the refrigerator. Keep Foods on Designated Shelves You should use the shelves in the refrigerator for items that are more sensitive to temperature changes. Make sure to place a clean paper towel in all of the drawers. This will not only absorb the extra moisture, but it will also keep produce fresh longer. The paper towel should be changed once a week. The drawers that are specifically designed for meats and cheeses have a perfect temperature setting for these products so make sure to place the correct items in these drawers. No Perishable Foods on Door Shelves The door shelves are the most convenient, but also the area that is the warmest. You should never place highly perishable foods on the doors. Instead, use this location for salad dressings and other condiments that do not spoil easily. Every time the door is opened, the temperatures change once the kitchen air hits them. These products should be checked regularly since they have a tendency to spoil at a faster rate. Keep Refrigerator Clean This does not mean you should clean it once a year. Your refrigerator should have a thorough cleaning at least once a season. Even though the refrigerator is below 40 degrees, bacteria can still survive and create a food safety issue. You will need to take the shelves out and clean both sides with hot, soapy water. Many refrigerators come with spill-proof shelves. This is a perfect place for bacteria to grow. Make sure to clean it immediately after every spill. A cool, clean refrigerator will help you get the best value and nutrition out of all your foods.