Eating is no longer simple.  It is a complex process of choices and purchases.  Gone are the days of the local butcher, farmer and milk man in every town.  In today’s society we talk more of farmer’s markets, co-ops, organics and raising your own food.  Each category has its ups and downs.  The individual eater needs to make the decision which method or combinations of methods to us.  They sound well and good but being informed about each choice is key.  How can you get the best quality of food for your budget?

Let’s start from the beginning of growing your own.  Our ancestors did it and we’ve gotten away from that in favor of farmers doing the work while we slave away in some office.  However growing your own has great physical and environmental benefits.  You plant, work and harvest what you want to eat so there is no waste and no doubt about what is being used in the process.  Not too much can go wrong.  I would love the time to devote to my own tomatoes, spinach and carrots for a fresh summer salad.  Chelle at Little House on the Great Flats as well as Julie from Savvy Eats have a passion for working the earth to bring forth their own food.  I’ve tasted fresher food from Chelle’s garden that anywhere else.  So that’s what a tomato is supposed to taste like?

Like being in Willie Wonka’s factory where a schnozberry really tastes like a schnozberry.  The time involved with producing good quality food is the only downside.  Hours of weeding and pruning are needed to produce the best goods without the use of preservatives and pesticides used on commercial farms.  Even harvesting and preserving your good eats can be time consuming.  If you have the time it is a wonderful endeavor.

For those of us without the time or space to garden there are options.  Container gardens in large pots, hanging planters, or even a small herb garden on a window sill can go a long way to great taste in anything you cook.  Just a warning, once you grow your own and see what good fresh food tastes like you may never go back.

Of course there are other options where you can buy healthy food.  Where I live in Western Massachusetts there are two nearby farmer’s markets.  Both offer a small selection of goods varying from fruits and veggie to cheese and flowers.  Farmers markets allow you to learn more about local purveyors who take great pride in the food they offer.  Grown on their own farms and picked fresh that morning they can tell you the best way to use that white eggplant you think is strange or the summer sweet corn.  Many smaller local farms are not USDA certified organic due to the length of the process as well as time and money involved.  However they do follow the organic standards…who needs that little label anyway?  You can often check out the farms themselves to see how your food is produced. Sometimes you even find interesting offerings like goat’s milk soap, quail eggs and fresh ground whole wheat flour.  You won’t find those things in your big box stores like Wal-mart and Target.

The downside of a farmer’s market is once the season is over for the local fruits, vegetables and herbs so is our farmer’s market.  Then it is back to the grocery store.  Larger areas may have winter markets with a smaller selection but they are rare.  You can take and afternoon to preserve many of the fresh offerings of the warmer months to enjoy through the colder from your pantry.  But that is an entirely different topic.  Check out my post on making homemade blueberry jam for an idea.

Co-ops occupy the middle ground between the regular grocery store, the farmer’s market and growing your own.  Most sell many of the fruits and vegetable from the local growers that you would also find at the farmer’s market along with items you may not.  Our local co-op has a large selection of bulk goods, especially grains and nuts, not found at the local Stop & Shop, Shaws, Hy-vee or your local grocery.

Dried red lentils, whole cashews and candied ginger live side by side with fresh ground nut butters in my local co-op.  In addition to all this you often find things usually available at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s such as almond milk and jarred almond butter, a variety of cheeses and milks, often organic from sheep, goat or cow.  Vegan products usually abound as well as natural health and beauty aids made with eco friendly products.  The larger the food co-op the larger the selection and possibility of prepared foods for on the go similar to the Whole Foods salad bar.

The convenient local co-op is great but I believe there is a downside.  Their selection is oven limited to member requested items. Sales often are limited to co-op members as well as various specials through the year.  Membership is a worthwhile if the co-op carries the majority of your food needs.  Take in mind that membership to a co-op requires a time commitment as well to work hours on a register or stocking shelves.  For someone like me however, the co-op is a convenience I use if I don’t have the time to make a trip to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s a few towns over for the same or lower prices.  You have to weigh the local ideal with the budget you can afford.

Organics is the trickiest topic of all and thus I’ve saved if for last.  If you have never read Michael Pollan’s An Omnivores Dilemma or In Defense of Food reserve them at your local library now or make a trip to Barnes and Noble…I’ll wait.  You did get them right?  Trust me they will change how you look at the food we eat in America, organic or otherwise.  Some of the healthy food you think you are eating is just food like substances.  Mr. Pollan does a much better job explaining than I ever could so check it out.

Lest you think I make a profit from the sale of his books I’ll give you my short synopsis on organics and what is worth the price.  Anything…yes anything…can carry the label organic if the company has checked off all the government’s yes’s and no’s.  Of course an organic strawberry or peach are great.  They have been grown in pesticide free environments with no harmful chemical fertilizer.

Then there are the weird things with an organic label because some or all of the ingredients are considered organic.  Yes if there are some organic ingredients in your granola the packaging may have a seal saying “Made with certified organic ingredients.”  It is not entirely organic.  Think does that cereal 12 grams of organic sugar do your body any more favors than the Captain Crunch normally buy?  Yes there is no High Fructose Corn Syrup we’ve heard the evils of but what about 12 grams of evaporated cane sugar isn’t probably doing your body any good either.

Organic in this case is merely an excuse to eat higher priced junk food.

Want to buy organic?  Choose items where organic ingredients make them healthier not more expensive.

Eating is no longer as simple a simple process of buy the food and eat it.  Many little choices are needed for each purchase.  Farmer’s market or Supermarket.  Local or organic.  Organic or less expensive.  Each decision affects how we eat and how that in turn affects our bodies.  There are no perfect meals.  How we handle our choices to best suit our families and budgets make for the best dining experience for us.  So the next time you feel compelled to only shop at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or the farmer’s market remember that good food can be found anywhere…you just have to look for it and decide.

Thanks Cynthia!

7 comments

  1. Definitely true! I think you can find unhealthy offerings ANYWHERE (and, similarly, if you look hard enough, healthy things anywhere too!) Thanks for the rundown of the more non-conventional shopping places – I’m definitely trying to pull away from the grocery stores whenever possible.

  2. Thanks Brandi for the opportunity. I hope you are having a blast in Honduras!

  3. Important post – I think that one of the ways we can go about transforming our society into something far more equitable and just is through informed food choices. It’s no longer just about animals and the planet; human rights are directly tied in to who makes/grows/ships what we eat, and I for one want to hold myself as accountable as I can be. That being said, sometimes life gets in the way a wee bit, but I’ll always be a farmer’s market, small farms and co-op girl at heart (and in practice whenever humanly possible).

  4. There are so many health trends and fads going around, and it’s upsetting that many food companies utilize these through marketing to benefit the sales of their products, when alot of those products aren’t necessarily healthy. I personally try to be aware of this but I still have trouble deciding whether I should buy organic or not, and if it’s worth paying the few extra bucks because something is labeled as such.

    Guess we gotta be on a constant lookout for the “bad” ingredients on nutrition labels. Thanks for such an informative post!

  5. You made some good points here…one thing I’d mention (being a former co-op employee) that co-ops are member-owned and therefore, locally owned. Your dollars go back to support your community much more by choosing to shop at the local co-op rather than a national company like Whole Foods. And not all co-ops require you to be a working member. My local co-op was actually cheaper than Whole Foods and had better quality produce. Go co-ops! :)

  6. Wow, I found this post very informative! I will be thinking twice now at the grocery store…

  7. I’ll continue shopping at my Safeway across the street.

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