What food should your family eat?
I have just had a great opportunity to visit New York City and spend a few days talking to Editors about food, farming and even some political issues facing the farm.
The questions I have heard over and over are about Organic, Local and food safety. I want to break down my thoughts on these issues and I hope it helps you out the next time you go to spend your hard-earned dollars on food. I also hope that you remember that no matter if you buy fresh produce, meat at the market or even canned foods, a Farmer somewhere worked really hard to put that food on your table.
First, food is an important thing for every parent to consider based on the specific values, nutritional needs, and budget of the household. And, while food choices are very important, they can also be very confusing. How can you know that you are feeding your family healthy or nutritious food with all of the marketing gimmicks and farm-related terms that fill the grocery?
I think the easiest way to share what I know is to tell you what I eat and feed my family, based upon my lifetime of involvement with agriculture. We do raise most of our food in the summer. I would say 95% of the time we raise our own meat or I buy direct from the farmer. I do this because I know lots of farmers and I have the freezer space. I also budget more for meat to buy the whole or half of the animal at one time. I understand not everyone has the means or freezer space to do this.
If you want to go above and beyond the grocery store with your food purchases, I think the biggest bang for your buck is by buying your meat locally. This provides a great connection with your food and a great quality product. I have found that especially beef and chicken are hard to beat in terms of cost savings and quality when purchased from a hard working local farmer you know.
I buy all my milk and dairy at this point from the grocery store. I buy the store brand milk 2%. When the kids were smaller I bought Vitamin D. I have been to many dairy farms and those are the hardest working families I know. Large dairy farms, especially, are very clean, cow care is top-notch and they are quite impressive. They milk two and even three times a day and their cows live a wonderful happy life! I have no idea what farm my milk comes from but I have never once worried about what my kids are drinking. Frankly I think kids drinking pop should be a greater concern to the public than concerns about the safety of our milk. There are some small dairies out there, and I occasionally buy milk from there for fun, but it is expensive. It does taste a bit better, but most of the time I go with the better value, and also safe and nutritious store-brand milk.
When fruits and vegetables are not in season I buy from the grocery store. I can honestly say I have never worried about what I put in my grocery cart with regard to these items either. Just be sure to properly wash and prepare your food properly to maximize food safety. It can be really fun to buy your produce when in season from the Local Market, but, when in a hurry, do not fret over a grocery store purchase.
We raise our own eggs, but I do buy them from the grocery on occasion as well. Large poultry farms actually have a number of advantages in terms of food safety over small farms like ours. If you do get eggs from a small farm (which is great) take extra care to avoid eating them uncooked (like my husband eating the cookie dough) and make sure they are cooked properly.
If you want you and your family to be healthy eat a good mix of food. Go for less processed foods and eat lots of colorful foods. Remember portion control and whole grains! Do not forget to add in a bit of exercise too!
Now, at the grocery you can find all kinds of labels for all kinds of foods. The one I get the most questions about is organic.
It seems that there are many mothers out there who feel guilty if they are feeding their families anything other than organic. There is no need for this.
Organic is simply a term that describes the way the food was produced, not the end food product itself. Research from USDA has shown there is no nutritional difference in organic verses conventionally produced. There are also no food safety differences between organic and non-organic foods. The ONLY thing organic means is that is was produced following a strict set of production standards outlined at http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop. There are many standards, but organic basically means that the food was produced without the use of synthetic chemical pest control, fertilizers for crops. Livestock are not treated with medicine and are fed organically produced feeds.
If these things are important to you, then organic foods are a great option. Do I ever buy organic? Yes and No. To me, I buy whichever is more cost effective at the time I am in the store. I will not pay extra for organic lettuce when I can buy an equally safe and nutritious lettuce for less.
Why does organic cost more? The risks for organic farmers are much greater and production costs can be higher, which is one reason why organic production is a very small portion of our food supply. Organic farmers have a niche market and there is a certain segment of consumers who feel a passion for organically grown food. Go for it! If you can afford it in your budget and it aligns with your family values, then buying organic is a great decision. The bottom line is, all types of agricultural production have pros and cons for the consumer, the environment and for food safety.
First off, Local does not automatically mean organic. Please know the difference. Local can mean whatever you want it to mean. If you want to buy seasonally at the farmers market or right off the farm, go for it! When I have time, I love to visit the farmers market. It is a great experience for the entire family to make that connection. In the warmer months, the farmers market seems to be the in thing to do. Fresh food is typically more nutritious and often of better taste and quality. So if you want the more nutritious food, go with the fresher option.
Of course, this is not always possible in Ohio. So, reminder, do not have guilt if you are in a pinch on time or money and buy apples from the store and not the orchard or if you buy a tomato from the grocery store in January. Not buying local is not a bad thing either.
Every time you take a bite, you are taking a risk, whether it is organic, local or from the grocery. Eating is, and always has been, risky business. But today in the United States we have the safest food supply in the history of the world. Yes, there are certainly problems, but really not all that many. For example, the recent BSE case in California was caught. This cow was never going to enter into our food supply. I am personally glad the media was talking about it. This is a great example of a system that did not fail but thrived! If they were not talking about it, I think I may be a little more concerned. Remember, farmers are consumers too, just like you. They eat what they raise. Like you, our families come first. If our families are eating it, than you can rest assured that it is safe for the consumer.
We have enough worries and fear in our lives. I am here to say you should not fear when it comes to your food. Ask questions, be an educated consumer and take care to use all standard food safety precautions when preparing your food. Be sure to get the whole story, not just what you hear or read in the media. When in doubt, talk to a farmer.
And finally, please do not let people make you feel guilty for whatever educated food decision you make for your family.