Recent and not-so-recent news that portions of Whole Foods' "organic" products are indeed a product of China has a lot of people reeling right now, disappointed in a favorite retailer with a typically sparkling image, at least compared to conventional markets and beef from feed lots, chicken from factory farms and produce laden with pesticides and other chemicals. But I've always had my reservations about Whole Foods, and not just because of its reputation as "Whole Paycheck." Why? An organic apple is better than a conventional apple, if both come from, say, Wisconsin. But what if the organic apple comes from New Zealand? What if the organic grapes are from Chile? Mangoes from Haiti? Peppers from Mexico? It's a now-typical battle of organic versus local, and a lot of people — like me — feel like their healthy, responsible food choices are dwindling while the interior supermarket shelves are exploding with newfangled products, cookies with vitamins, bright colors and crisp aluminum packaging.
If it doesn't bother you to know that your pears were shipped from Argentina because of the irony found smack dab in the middle of the organic argument — that it's both good for you AND good for the environment, which arguably shipping food halfway across the world is not — it should at least bother you that, if you are buying organic zucchini from Australia, you may be paying more for the word "organic" than you are for the standards another country holds when producing that so-called responsibly farmed food. If your morals don't get you in the gut, maybe your wallet will.
But the thing is, organic has become — has been now, for a while — another health buzzword. First it was low-fat; then came low-carb; 100-calorie is pretty new and we also have "antioxidants," "super foods" and "all natural." That organic got lumped into this category doesn't surprise me; we are a culture of trying to fit in, trying to look good without much effort. Buying the organic option at the market isn't always about what's healthier for the family; sometimes it's just about fitting an image you and your peers hold as healthy, trendy, smart. And we're playing right into the hands of every organic factory farmer, just like they got us the first time around by putting pretty pictures of farms and animals on conventional factory-farmed meats, eggs and cheeses and typing the latest buzzword right on the front of the package, in bright yellow ovals and big red letters. Organic now means little more than more expensive, if you don't do your research.
Which is why you can either flounder in the food store, like I sometimes feel I'm doing, trying to pick the best option for myself and my family, or you can rely on common sense — which would tell you not to buy a "California blend" of vegetables that actually comes from China. Michael Pollan would tell you, for example, not to eat something your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food, but I'd also go so far as to say that she wouldn't have had access to pineapple from New Mexico living in Chicago in March. And although it can be tempting to just eat "whatever" until the farmer's market rolls around each year, you're not safe there, either, unless you start talking to your local farmers and finding out how they treat their crops, with what natural or synthetic pesticides, and why they even have avocados shipped in from California.
Back to common sense — read labels, ask questions, start conversations with people. If you care even one iota about what goes into your body, or at least your child's body, I like to rely on the idea that your values should drive what you eat. If you don't like something about the food industry, don't support it. And if you're unsure about what to eat, aside from relying on common sense and, well, your gut to help you plan out meals and snacks, do some research. That box of crackers will be there when you come back to the market next week. There will always be organic chicken, conventional chicken, grass-fed beef and ricotta cheese from pastured cows. What will change is, perhaps, where the fish was shipped from this week, who has the best raspberries at the farmer's market and just what exactly you're in the mood to eat tonight for dinner. It should be enjoyable, making that decision each day, not stressful or confusing. If you feel good about what you're cooking, your body will feel good about what you're feeding it.
Next up: Natural Deodorant...Do I Use It Or Not?