Food Buying Habits

It wasn't till we moved to Colorado that I started thinking more seriously about the food we eat: where it is grown, how it is grown, and where I buy it. My preferences evolved slowly: local over organic, organic over standard supermarket produce, and imported over local depending on the product. I am all over the place when it comes to choices. And, after following some food bloggers on the Eat on $30 challenge, I am deeply grateful that I am able to make these choices.

It took me a while to start frequenting Farmers Markets. My first visit to the Boulder Farmers Market was very disappointing. It was on one of the hottest days of that year where I watched expensive produce wilt in the heat. It didn't help that I didn't have a cute puppy in tow - dogs are great conversation starters and ice-breakers at Farmers Markets and street fairs. I saw hitherto strangers becoming friends over talk of food, pets, music and art. Me? I felt out of place and couldn't understand the excitement or fawning over the limited produce. After all, I had bought fresh seasonal produce off the streets and in bazaars in Bombay and in Nairobi, before that.

It was only a couple of years later when Louisville Farmers Market opened that I started enjoying the concept. I had also, by then, discovered how hard it is to grow anything in my backyard. Sticking saplings in the soil and expecting them to grow no longer worked. Soil pH, sun radiance and weather in general, coupled with a short growing season, play such a huge role that a veggie bed is a monumental task for a lazy person like me. My respect for farmers in my area grew by leaps and bounds. To me, Farmers Markets soon became more about supporting local farmers and strengthening community. It is not about eating local or organic or reducing the carbon footprint of the food we eat. That in turn raised some questions in my mind: how concerned should I be about the carbon footprint of our food? If the food or product is locally grown or made, does it mean it is more energy-efficient?

How could I explain why I bought New Zealand lamb even though I live in a state known for its lamb?

I was heartened when I chanced upon James E. McWilliams' article Food That Travels Well in the NY Times. He writes:

lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard.
I wondered if a similar comparison were made with Colorado lamb, which would be more energy-efficient. I have no clue. But price and accessibility put New Zealand lamb in my shopping cart as Colorado lamb is more expensive and harder to find. The truth is that I felt a little less guilty about it, too.

The article makes for some excellent reading, drawing attention to the fact that eating local is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle than during transport. (quote from the same article). He puts forth solutions that will take long-term planning towards achieving sustainable produce for all parts of the nation.

Williams' Op-Ed article unleashed equally thought-provoking letters.

I am sending this article to The Write Taste, if Sra will let me.

What are your food buying habits and what do you pay more attention to: local, organic, price, assumed carbon footprint?

13 comments:

purplepaperplanes said...

Interesting post, Manisha!

When it comes to food, I usually buy local (Farmer's Market), a lot of times organic. I pay attention to but am less conscious of the assumed carbon foot print in the way that you detailed (when it comes to food). I have tried to and I think have almost completely cut out processed food which I am imagine contributes to an emphatic carbon foot print?

Lavanya

maybelle's mom said...

very thought-provoking. this is something i think about every week at the market.

One of the other issues in my food buying habits deal with the local economy. ohio farmers have been hit particularly hard by the economy and then by the crazy rainy summer. So, we usually buy oraganic local vegetables to help those local farmers. Similarly, I would probably buy ohio conventional milk over organic though luckily we have two great local organic dairies.

There was a good discussion on this topic on NPR with Michael Pollan and this author. I must say though that having heard that and reading this article I am still unsure about what choice to make when it comes to meats. this whole issue to me is very gray.

Not Hannah said...

I try to buy organic and am hoping to move to local organic, but unfortunately, there aren't a lot of organic farms around here, so organic produce can be verrrry expensive. I have a garden that offsets this price.

It's tougher with processed foods and meats. I try not to buy a lot of processed foods, but I can't find local flour that won't be incredibly expensive to buy given that I use so much in breads and desserts. Hopefully, next year I'll bump up my produce haul so that I can offset this cost.

Thought provoking. Have you read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?

purplepaperplanes said...

I mean " which I imagine', not I am imagine..lol

Lavanya

sra said...

We don't have farmers markets where I live and organic is available only 6-7 km away. So I get it only when I go that way, and then the rice has insects. I wouldn't mind so much if it grew insects AFTER i bought it, but not when I buy it. If I see a new vegetable or fruit, even imported, I would buy it once, perhaps, but so far, nothing has been so enticing that I want to buy it over and over. And most of them are shrivelled and dark by the time they come here, so that's a natural check.

I have almost stopped buying apples, though, all we get are Chinese, Australian - there was a time when Indian apples disappeared from the scene totally. And they never go bad - is that a mark of being fortified with pesticides? I try to buy what's in season and what hasn't travelled too far, but I'm aware that travel is not often a sign of ecological efficiency (if there is such a term). But I am more aware of all these issues, than, say, three years ago.

aquadaze said...

That was an interesting read, Manisha.

Walk into any supermarket in singapore and dubai (and i name these two place because i live and have lived there respectively) and you will see produce from all over the world. There is nothing 'seasonal' about food in these places because there is (almost) no local produce. One has to wonder what the cost of producing food will be for a land starved country like Singapore or a desert like Dubai!

Happy cook said...

I totally agree back at home we always bought seasonal from the street market etc.........I try to go once a week to the local open market to look for fresh produce and also it is far cheaper in my opinion, my inlas do a step further they sometimes go to the farm house it self so that it is a fraction of price, and then they brung them for me too.
Last week they brought me 20 kg potato from the farm house for 6 euros :-)

Tasty Eats At Home said...

I've made a shift over the years abotu how I buy our food. I strive to buy local and/or organic when I can. But I am curious about this article...because as you said, there are certain exceptions. Going to read now, thanks for sharing it!

Bong Mom said...

Going local is not always prudent. I had a post here http://www.bongcookbook.com/2009/05/brown-rice-tomato-rice.html triggered by a NatGeo article

Honestly buying everything Organic is not within my budget and I restrict organic to poultry/dairy/eggs/veggies I buy for the kids.

Dairy & eggs & limited fruits/veggies is bought organic for everyone because they taste good.

Surprisingly we have no Co-ops and the Farmers Market here do not sell produce by local farms !!!

Anita said...

It is hard to make informed choices here. I pray they will let us know if they start maeketing Bt Brinjal. Forget organic - we are lucky if we are not eating GM food!
What helps decide is the pricing - food that has traveled long distances is usually pricier; only on occasion will I indulge myself with a piece of (expensive) galangal or celery, which has likely traveled all the way from Bangalore.

Sonia said...

Hi Manisha,

I thoroughly enjoy your thought provoking writing style and am glad that you have opened this discussion topic. When in the US, I mostly purchase organic produce however, when something is very expensive I do not purchase it at all. Our grocery bill for a family of two averaged $60 per week. I always purchase organic oils because most oil seeds in the US are GM. Organic oils are indeed expensive but I use very little oil in my cooking and I never fry. Also, I try to desist from purchasing produce that comes with a lot of plastic packaging. I do not buy any processed food.

I realize that purchasing organic and/or local can be too expensive or unavailable in other countries. Here in Barbados you can get good local produce but the farmers here use a lot of fertilizers. So, my priorities have shifted. I buy local but do not buy root vegetables because that is where most of the chemical byproducts get deposited. I try to buy fruits from small growers who mainly grow for their own families and sell excess in the market.

I am always willing to spend a little more or make some sacrifices when it comes to food because it is something I am putting in my body. I just have to keep altering my strategies based on where I am living knowing that a better choice is always possible.

Jaya Wagle said...

I don't think there is any rule of thumb anymore for buying produce and groceries.

I miss India when it comes to buying vegetable and fruits. The local market in our part of the town has farmers from neighboring villages bring their produce and sell it at the Sabzi mandi. Nobody really knows if chemicals are used to grow them but I now understand mom's rule of washing everything before eating.

In the US, I buy organic milk and eggs and depending on price organic vegetables. Miss the farmer's market near the previous homes though.

And yes, I agree with Hannah, I try to limit my processed foods to a minimum, which is not too tough with our awesome Indian Food preparation.

Plus, I am a recycle fanatic when it comes to cans, bottles and plastic milk cartons. Would you believe, I wash all the dirty disposable plastic dishes and spoon and forks after a party before throwing them in the recycle cart!

Mamatha said...

I'm dreading the end of Farmer's Market for this year, which is just a coupe of weeks away. For me it's the quality of food that I get at the market that makes me go there week after week. I get all that I want in one place - organic and/or local veggies, raw dairy, grass-fed/pastured meat and free range eggs - and I rarely ever need to go the grocery store. And the farmers are very friendly and answer all your questions about how the meat is raised and what the chickens eat etc. I think I get great value for my money at the Farmer's market.