When to Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables, When to Buy Local

As a longtime The Daily Green blogger, on the occasion of the publication of my second book, The Conscious Kitchen, I'm using my "Ask An Organic Mom" space for the next 8 weeks give or take to invite you to join me on the Conscious Kitchen Challenge.

What does it mean to have a Conscious Kitchen? It's a little different for every person, but at its heart, it means knowing where your food comes from, what it is, and how good it is (or isn't) for you and for the environment. It also encompasses the energy it takes to cook, what you're cooking on and storing food in, and even how you clean up and handle waste.

We all know we need to be eating better foods local, organic, local and organic, humanely raised meat, wild and well-caught fish, packaged foods containing five pronounceable ingredients or less but they're not always so easy to find. Or it's not always so easy to motivate to find them. Think of this like you think of New Year's resolutions. Choose your own personal goal make it attainable for better success and then together we'll methodically get you there. Keep in mind that any conscious steps are better than no conscious steps 10 percent is better than no percent.

Week 1: The Kitchen Self-Exam
Week 2: Food Shopping

Week 3 Challenge: Fruits and Vegetables strawberries

So by now you've checked out what is or isn't in your crisper and fruit bowl (Week 1) and found the store, farmers' market, or CSA you'd like to be getting your fruits and vegetables from (Week 2). This week's challenge is to stock up consistently on the good stuff. And (you can do it!) to cook and eat it.

Pick your shopping day(s) and get going. In The Conscious Kitchen, I mention a bunch of online places where you can find out what's in season near you, or you can head to the farmers' market and see for yourself. Once there, stock up on the widest range of color you can find green, red, orange, brown to get all of the flavor and nutrients in. Spring is such a lovely moment for this there will be new seasonal items rolling into markets weekly. Pea shoots and ramps, then asparagus, and before you know it: strawberries! Yum. But not all produce (even local produce) is created equal and not all venues will have the same range or variety.

Here's how to choose your fruits and vegetables at the where-to-shop spots discussed in Week Two of The Conscious Kitchen Challenge.

FARMERS MARKET
The farmers' market always feels like a safe zone, but, even here, a shopper will run into a variety of farming methods used. If you want organically grown fruits and vegetables, look for the label. It's the only guarantee you're getting what you want and if a farmer has gone through the trouble and expense to be organically certified, they will proudly display their certificate at their stand. That said, many farmers at farmers' markets grow organically but aren't certified organic. Ask around. If you run into this scenario, ask why they haven't bothered with certification. See how you feel about their answer. Ask any farmer what they spray. If they say a name of a pesticide and you don't know what it is, jot it down and look it up once home at WhatsOnMyFood.org. You will likely encounter a sliding scale of no- to low-spray produce. There are absolutely farms using very conventional growing methods at most farmers' markets. Avoid these and buy from the farms that spray the least. Some larger markets that take place several times a week might have one designated day that has more organic or low spray farmers. Get to know your market to find out these nuances, and make that your chosen market day.

csa share of vegetables

CSA
With a CSA, you get weekly deliveries of whatever the farm is growing. The best option here is to choose a certified organic farm, second best is one that grows organically and/or one that sprays only the most minimal amount. Ask questions about a CSA farm's spraying practices to make sure you're comfortable with them before signing up. If you live in a part of the country where organic fruit is rare (like the Northeast, where the climate makes this a particular challenge), your fruit share may be low-spray even if your veggie share is certified organic. If you don't want to be eating fruit that has been sprayed at all, look for it elsewhere.

FARMS AND FARM STANDS
Ask the same questions here as you're asking at the farmers market: what's organic? What's local? What are the sprays used? Even though farm stands make you think of local produce, some items could be from far away. Check labels and packaging. Domestic organic is preferable to foreign; it's more strictly regulated.

SUPERMARKET
There are four conscious ways to navigate the fruits and vegetables available in any supermarket be it one that is known for stocking more natural options or a completely conventional chain.

supermarket produce
  1. Buy local if they have it, especially if you can find a manager to answer any questions about sprays that you might have. If they have local and organic, snatch it up.
  2. Look for domestic certified organic. And try to buy items that are in season and growing near you.
  3. Certified organic but not domestic can be a solid third choice. It isn't hugely regulated outside of the U.S., and certain countries are known to be worse at regulating than others. Be mindful.
  4. When choosing conventional fruits and vegetables here or, for that matter, at a farm or farmers' market adhere to the Environmental Working Group's invaluable and widely quoted lists: The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen. These rank pesticide contamination for popular fruits and vegetables to let consumers know what they should absolutely buy organic, and which conventional ones are the least contaminated. Find them and more information on EWG's ranking methods at FoodNews.org.
conscious kitchen book

No discussion of produce is complete without a mention of exotics. If you live in Hawaii, or a similar locale, feel free to ignore this but mangoes, bananas, pineapples and similar deliciousness may not be the most conscious options to fill the fruit bowl with. I discuss exotics on page 44 of The Conscious Kitchen.

Next week, we'll move onto meat. Meanwhile, I'm curious to know how you're faring. Let me know in comments. Or, if you happen to be in the New York area, come tell me in person. I'm doing several Conscious Kitchen events in April.

The Conscious Kitchen: The New Way to Buy and Cook Food - to Protect the Earth, Improve Your Health, and Eat Deliciously is an invaluable resource filled with real world, practical solutions for anyone who has read The Omnivore's Dilemma or seen Food, Inc. and longs to effect easy green changes when it comes to the food they buy, cook, and eat.


posted by Alexandra

Reprinted with Permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.