One of my mother's favorite family dinners is "Shake and Bake" chicken, made with a store-bought box of flavored bread crumbs used to coat the chicken pieces. Mom always serves "Shake and Bake" chicken with a side of canned corn and a baked potato lavishly topped with margarine and salt.
My parents, products of the early 1960s, have always believed in the value of convenience food: frozen dinners, canned vegetables, boxed mixes and pre-packaged ingredients. When I entered college and began making food choices for myself, I was shocked to learn the amount of salt, sugar and chemicals that helped create our family-dinner favorite. My discovery began a long difficult journey toward healthy, organic eating. This journey has been difficult. Aside from my limited budget, many challenges arise when one eats and lives in a fast paced, culinary society where getting more "bang for your buck" sometimes trumps the quality of food.
Above the customer-service desk at Rainbow Whole Foods Co-operative Grocery, a sign declares, "The bitter taste of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten." One employee, Tre Pepper, admits organic food can sometimes cost more, but the quality and taste of the product far exceeds its non-organic counterpart.
"The first time I had an (organic) apple, I was like, 'Wow, this is what an apple was meant to taste like,'" he says. "When you buy organic, you are definitely getting what you paid for."
Besides the difference in taste, people choose to go organic for several reasons. Patrick Jerome, a buyer and seller of produce at Rainbow, says most people shop organic for health reasons. "They are trying to avoid the chemicals that wind up inevitably in (conventionally made) food," Jerome says. For many, it's also an environmental decision.
And it's not just a fad. Organic farming is the oldest form of agriculture. It wasn't until after World War II that farmers began using petroleum-based chemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides. As technology progressed, farmers began to use these chemicals to increase agricultural production. The organic farming movement refuses to use these synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, opting instead to use other biofriendly methods, such as crop rotation, natural products to enhance the soil's fertility and insect predators to guard against pests.
As for livestock, organic farmers do not keep animals in feed lots or in confinement, which is often how they are raised on a conventional farm. Conventional farmers can offer cuts of steak for a lower price because they can feed their cows corn, which is highly subsidized by the taxpayer. Cows on organic farms graze on grass and therefore, need far more land to feed the cows, creating a higher cost for their beef.
When one learns of the different methods used in farming and raising livestock on a conventional farm, it becomes increasingly clear why organic food generally costs more. When a conventional farm force-feeds its livestock and injects the animals with hormones to yield more meat, they can charge less money.
"The biggest part of the price you're seeing out there is supply. There is a lot less organic produce and product than there is non-organic," Jerome says. "Also, there is not a huge supply chain for organics and that often means that produce has to make more stops. It has to come from a guy, to a distributor, to a larger distributor, to a local distributor, to you. And that adds to the cost as well. But it also adds to more businesses making a profit."
Shopping organic can be more expensive, on average, but leading an organic lifestyle can save you more money in the end. By becoming more self-sufficient, one can eat healthy organic foods and save money. The answer is not to simply switch your shopping habits to buying only organic products. Rather, it's about changing your lifestyle. Instead of buying organic bread, for example, you can learn to bake your own bread. Or, plant your own herb and vegetable garden.
"You are not going to be able to walk into a store and buy a bunch of boxed things, frozen dinners, and sliced meat and still be able to afford to eat all organic," Jerome says. "You are going to have to do your own cooking, buy lots of raw ingredients, maybe make things and freeze them yourself."
What Does It Mean?
When you see "organic" on a food label, what does it really mean? Here's the scoop, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
• Organic producers do not use any genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and do not use most conventional pesticides and herbicides, antibiotics, growth hormones or irradiation techniques.
• Organic producers must record all of their procedures and must maintain cropland free of the above substances for three years before earning the "organic" seal.
• The "organic" seal can only be used on products that are 100 percent organic or made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
• To certify meat, poultry, dairy and eggs as organic, farmers must feed their animals with 100 percent organic feed. They must never give the animals growth hormones or antibiotics, and they cannot be routinely confined. Cloned animals or their offspring cannot qualify for the seal.
Make Your Own Tomato Sauce
To avoid unnecessary preservatives and added sugar found in store-bought pasta sauce, create your own homemade tomato sauce.
Fill a pot with just enough water to cover several large peeled tomatoes.
Bring water to a boil and drop tomatoes in for just a few seconds.
Add tomatoes to a pot of sauteed garlic, onions, bell peppers and olive oil in a separate pan. Add tomatoes. Season to taste with basil, dill, fennel, oregano, pepper and salt.
Simmer sauce on low until tomatoes have dissolved and sauce has thickened. If you plan to use the tomato sauce another time, or have made more sauce then needed, freeze the extra tomato sauce in a Ziploc bag. Be sure to squeeze all of the air out of the bag to avoid freezer burn.