A common sense guide to
decision-making in the produce aisle
Illustration By Virginia Perry-Unger
In my kitchen, a food fight is brewing. Peaches from a local farm are ripening in the fruit bowl next to certified-organic bananas. Potatoes and onions of unknown provenance nestle together in a dish on the counter, while the refrigerator crisper contains bagged mixed greens from a nationally known, brand-name organic farm. At any given moment, a bag of zucchini, tomatoes and other goodies from my mom’s latest stop at her Produce Junction discount outlet could cause a stir among their more highly sourced brethren.
As the referee, I can only hope for a fair contest, but I’m not even sure where my allegiances should lie. In a perfect world, I would buy only organic products from local farmers. But given their high cost and unreliable availability, I try to strike a balance between organic and conventional, while keeping the emphasis on local. The fact that many mom-and-pop farmers follow organic practices without going to the expense and trouble of getting certified only makes these decisions more difficult. Meanwhile, conventional farmers aren’t necessarily dousing our veggies with unsafe chemicals. So who’s to say what’s best to buy?
“It’s complicated,” acknowledges Dr. Jackie Ricotta, a professor at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
For Ricotta—who knows more about this topic than most, considering she teaches courses on vegetable production, organic food, and the principles of sustainable agriculture—local is her personal mantra. With food coming from on average 1,500 miles away, the stuff that’s grown by the farmer down the street holds much more appeal for her. “You’re supporting your local economy,” Ricotta says. “You know that farmer. When you pick up a box of organic lettuce at the supermarket, who touched it? How many hands touched it? Certainly, knowing the farmer, you’re able to judge its integrity.”
From my home in the city’s Bella Vista section, I have almost too many veggie and fruit sources within an easy walk. I can go from bargain-basement and conventional goods at the stalls at the Italian Market or the No. 1 Oriental Supermarket to mid-priced fare at my local Superfresh or Acme to boutique-priced organic produce at Whole Foods and Essene. That’s not to mention the bounty of produce at Iovine Brothers at the Reading Terminal Market or at smaller stores like Sue’s. For truly local produce, I subscribe to a CSA from Greensgrow Farms, have several farmers’ markets on my radar, and grow tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, basil and herbs in my patch in an organics-only community garden.
Having all these options so close at hand means each shopping trip is fraught with dilemmas. This time of year, it’s easy to buy local tomatoes, but should I look for certified-organic ones and can I afford them? Soon, fresh local tomatoes won’t be available—do I go without or satisfy my craving for a tomato in the off-season by picking up that hothouse-grown one from Florida?
“The most important thing is to have a lot of produce in your diet,” Ricotta says. “If you don’t feel like you can afford local organic, try to eat locally. If you can’t afford that, buy the produce you can afford. You have to decide where to spend your local food dollars.”
WHAT CHEFS DO
There’s also the simple matter of what tastes good. For Jeremy Mc- Millan, chef at Talula’s Garden on Washington Square, the shorter the route from farm to table, the better the taste.
Consider the trajectory of an organic apple grown at a large commercial farm.
“It may be grown organically, but then it’s shipped on a truck 1,000 to 3,000 miles,” McMillan says. “Then it sits in a warehouse for a day or two and then goes to the grocery store. Then it’s rotated into stock. Does it really taste better by then?”
For McMillan’s seasonal menu, local farmers and purveyors, conventional and organic, drive the selections. Whether McMillan is looking to change up his pasta dishes or fill out his list of mains, he starts by asking people like Tom Culton, a gregarious figure at Headhouse Farmers’ Market, what’s next in the growing season. “We’re not changing the menu because we have to, but because we want to,” says McMillan. “We’re always trying to get better. We want to have the best food we can cook. The food is intentionally simple. We have to have great products.”
Veteran chef and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Aliza Green has adopted a similar approach for her current gig at Baba Olga’s Café & Supper Club, a restaurant and catering operation set among the exotic furniture, rugs and accessories at the Material Culture store. The focus for Green, whose books include the Bible-sized primer Starting with Ingredients, is to keep it local, where feasible, and be as informed as possible.
Her shopping list for her menu of globally inspired soups, sandwiches, salads and desserts also includes antibiotic-free chicken, Pennsylvania-raised beef, sustainably raised tuna and farm eggs— items for which she gladly pays a premium. “I do the best I can, but I feel that it’s more important for me to have a personal relationship with growers and support the direct thing,” Green says. “You’re the grower, I buy direct from you, I love that—I feel good about helping to keep this going.”
But Green doesn’t worry so much about items being stamped organic. “The thing to me with organic is that it’s institutionalized,” Green says. “If you want to be certified, it’s very complicated and very expensive.”
When it comes to produce, Green likes to shop local—Green Meadow Farm, the Glenside Farmers Market and the CreekSide Coop. “I said to myself when that co-op opened, I would take whatever money I was spending at [large grocers] and it would go there,” she says. “I still need cat food and litter—they’re not getting organic cat food, but I have Acme for that stuff.”
While Green draws certain lines—like only buying local strawberries this year, none from California— she can’t go without lemons and oranges, among other items that can’t be grown here. “To think this world can be perfect is unrealistic,” she says. “I think of the vibrancy of the whole farmers’ market scene and co-ops. If all of them were only getting organic, there would be more trucks coming from California, and there wouldn’t be enough customers.”
ORGANIC WHERE IT COUNTS
Gina Humphreys of Urban Girls Produce is a farmer who is organic in practice, but lacks the official status. Humphreys, who sells her wares through a CSA and at the Food Trust’s farmers’ market in Clark Park in West Philadelphia, Northern Liberties and Palmer Park, is firm in her environmental commitment to her one-acre plot at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.
“I wouldn’t put something in the ground that would kill the ground, because the ground is a living thing,” she says. “To me, it’s all combined. If I didn’t have the birds, if I didn’t have toads, if I didn’t have beneficial insects, I would be hurt, I wouldn’t be in business. It’s all connected—it’s a circle.”
At the same time, Humphreys, who grew up visiting and working her grandparents’ farm in the small South Jersey hamlet of Pennsville, doesn’t put much stock in actually going through the paperwork or expense of getting certified. The process, via an agency like Pennsylvania Certified Organic, takes two to three months, with fees starting at $695.
The proof for Humphreys is in her decade-long commitment to her pristine crops, which include heirloom tomatoes, lettuces, sweet potatoes, okra and lima beans. “I’m focused on farming—not paperwork and bureaucracy,” she says. “It’s just a matter of trust. I’ve been selling at the same place for a long time. If you’re certified organic, I believe you’re allowed to use some kind of herbicides certain times of the year and certain pesticides certain times of the year. I don’t use any of it.”
CONVENTIONAL IS NOT A DIRTY WORD
Adding more confusion to the debate is that conventional at the local level may not mean the same thing as it does for produce shipped in from large farms in the United States and South America, according to Mukethe Kawinzi, project manager for The Food Trust’s Farmers’ Market Program. The Food Trust promotes healthy eating and local growers by sponsoring 29 markets around the city staffed supplied by farms following organic and conventional practices.
“Our farmers consider themselves stewards of the land,” Kawinzi says. “They don’t use the same methods that large-scale agriculture uses. They are using land year after year. They understand the effects pesticides and other products can have. They try to use more organic pest-management products. They try not to spray when they’re bringing things to market. With most conventional produce in the grocery store, you don’t know what they’ve done.”
Even the best-intentioned farmers may not be able to follow organic practices 100% of the time. The cool climate, for example, perfectly suits insects that infest certain fruit trees, including apples and peaches, requiring a certain amount of spraying, Kawinzi points out. Other crops, including corn, strawberries and root vegetables, are more feasible to grow organically.
“Organic has become very industrialized,” Kawinzi notes. “Buying organic from the grocery store doesn’t necessarily mean what it meant ten or 20 years ago. People want to believe they’re supporting smaller farms, but Walmart is moving into organic foods, too.”
It comes back to knowing your farmer and trusting his or her practices. Ricotta, for example, buys eggs regularly from a Bucks County farmer, so when the grower offers conventional items like asparagus, she is confident they were produced following proper practices.
“I know a lot of really good farmers who use pesticides and fertilizers,” Ricotta says. “Through my job as a farmer and as a scientist, I’m familiar with EPA rules for approval for a pesticide to be used. It goes through a lengthy testing process, so if you have a farmer who’s applying things at the correct rate and correct timing, there’s probably a good chance that you are safe.”
Back at home, I feel somewhat assured about what’s on my personal dirt list and my on-again, off-again relationship with organics.
I vow to get to know my local farmers better, and have that extra helping of greens with dinner tonight. Hopefully, the peaches and bananas will come to a similar peace.
WHAT NOT TO BUY CONVENTIONAL
Buying only organic produce not only can break your budget, but it may not be feasible, depending on the season and where you shop.
Here is a list of veggies and fruits, however, that you should try to buy organic because of the variety and concentration of pesticides used by conventional growers, and another list of ones that are safer to buy conventional, as compiled by the Environmental Working Group.
2014 “DIRTY DOZEN”
When grown conventionally, these produce items tend to have a high concentration of pesticides. Choose organic whenever possible.
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Nectarines (imported)
- Snap Peas (imported)
- Sweet Bell Peppers
In addition, the EWG cautions against buying conventionally grown kale, collards and other leafy greens, as well as hot peppers, because they often contain insecticides that are poisonous to the nervous system.
2014 “CLEAN FIFTEEN”
These fruits and vegetables tend to be easier to grow and less fragile. As a result, there is usually less need for protective pesticide and insecticide use, even when they’re conventionally grown, so it’s not as important to choose organic for these.
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet Peas (frozen)
- Sweet Potatoes