The Great Food Revolution of 2012: Demystifying the produce aisle + fabulous local options

by Melody on June 7, 2012

Welcome to the Great Food Revolution of 2012.  You can read more about where our food journey started and resources we have used along the way to make our decisions.

One of the biggest decisions we have had to make so far is in regards to the produce we buy.  There’s no way to get around the fact that a mainly whole foods diet will include a LOT of fresh fruit and vegetables.  Deciding what and where to buy and how much to spend on these items is a hard choice.  I can tell you with 100% honesty that there is just no way we could make our grocery budget stretch enough to include an all-organic budget.

Here’s the best part about produce: There is some flexibility and leeway, it’s not completely black and white.  While there are some items we insist on buying organic, there are others we have chosen not to.  Here’s why.

The Dirty Dozen/Clean 15 List

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has established the top 12 most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables list (the Dirty Dozen), which is what we use as a guide when purchasing produce.  For example, we watch for the best prices on organic apples, strawberries and potatoes, otherwise we choose not to buy them.  Based on the list, we chose to grow spinach, lettuce, sweet peppers and kale in our garden this year as they are high on the contaminants list as well.

On the other hand, they have also established the Clean 15 list, which are the lowest in contaminant rankings.  If I buy any of these items, I feel comfortable saving money in our grocery budget by buying conventional over organic.

There is a lot of information out there about pesticides in produce, but if you are just getting started, this is a simple way to help make your produce decisions.  You can also download the Dirty Dozen app for your iPhone or iPad to help look up produce while you’re at the store.

Growing our own “organic” produce

Last year was the first year I really attempted a backyard garden.  My husband and I had been talking about diversifying our diet and starting to head more towards a whole foods diet and we both knew it would totally blow our current budget to smithereens.  Starting a garden seemed like a fairly inexpensive way to help with our produce intake.

One year and several mistakes later, we seem to be on the right track.  I kept a journal last year of all the things that did (and didn’t) go well, so was able to adjust for this year.  My husband built me three glorious raised beds and we have filled those to the brim.  I started adding herbs and other greens in pots to supplement my beds.  While we’re definitely not at the point that we can truly live off our garden, it has been a wonderful addition to our other produce sources. We have harvested lettuce, kale, spinach, some radishes and strawberries so far this year.  If nothing else, it is teaching our kids about where our food comes from and a little on how to be patient.

Plant some seeds, friends.  It’s a little challenging and extremely rewarding.  We started using Sunset.com’s gardening lists and tips and just branched out from there.  You can check out our last gardening update here.

For more fantastic gardening updates (including hilarious accounts of all her bug problems), check out Angela over at The Coupon Project.  She is who initially got me motivated to garden!

Buying Local

Once we committed to this food journey, I started doing some research on buying more local produce.  We really love the farmer’s markets, but I wanted a more long-term approach.  I started at the fabulous website Localharvest.org. You can enter your location and search for farms in your area, markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and much more.  This will give you a great idea of where to start in your area.

Emilie also just introduced me to a site called Farmigo.  You just enter your zip code and you will see tons of local farms, CSA programs, farmer’s markets and much more in your area.

We are now on our second year using Finley’s Fresh Produce out of Hermiston for our CSA program and couldn’t be happier.  While they are not certified organic, they are Food Alliance Certified and use organic practices.  Each week at our produce pick-up, both John and Chris Finley are available to chat with, ask questions or just for produce suggestions.  I asked if I could bring the kids down to tour the farm and they were delighted to have us!  If you can’t find a program near you or just don’t know where to start, ask your friends.  I recommend Finley’s to everyone who will listen.  You can read my initial review here.

We have also started using a box-a-week produce program called Fresh Picks WA.  They deliver to our area weekly and we can choose a full fruit box or mixed fruit/vegetable.  It’s been a great way to supplement our CSA and we’ve tried out some new things we wouldn’t normally pick up at the store.  I can’t be the only one who gets in a produce buying rut?  I would never pick up beet greens on my own, but my goodness they are delicious.  For more details and my review on the program, click here.

Also check out U-Pick options in your area.  We have been visiting Bill’s Berry Farm in Grandview, WA for a few years and they offer U-Pick blueberries, cherries and apples for a very reasonable price.  Plus, it’s just fun.  My kids get a kick out of it and the produce is amazingly fresh right off the vine/tree.

Last, but certainly not least, we attend our local Tri-Cities Farmer’s Markets.  These are a fantastic way to supplement our weekly produce without a trip to the grocery store.  A bonus is that we get to actually chat with the local farmers or business owners, ask questions about how things were made or grown and immerse ourselves in our community a little bit.

Conventional vs Organic vs Local

Here are my thoughts, coming from a few years of research and after finishing Real Food by Nina Planck (Amazon).

While organic sounds like it should be the way to go, that’s not always the case.  If I had the choice between an organic strawberry that was picked before it was ripe and trucked in halfway across the country or a locally-grown strawberry, I would choose local all the way.  Even if produce is organic, if it isn’t local, you can’t be guaranteed that it is super fresh.  There is just nothing like a freshly picked head of lettuce or a radish straight out of the dirt.

If you aren’t comfortable with buying “conventional”, get to know your local farmers.  Talk to them at the market, email them, ask on Facebook.  You may be surprised to find out that while they aren’t technically certified organic, they may use organic practices.  An organic certification is extremely expensive and may not be worth it for some of the smaller farmers, but if you chat them up and get comfortable with how they farm, you will feel much better about buying local over organic.

As I mentioned above, there are some produce items we will buy that are conventionally grown that aren’t available locally.  For example, we don’t grow bananas here in Eastern Washington (or anywhere in Washington for that matter).  As they are ranked #30 on the Dirty Dozen list, I’m comfortable buying them conventional.

As would probably seem obvious, pesticides and hormones used in produce  are not good for your body or for the environment.  From what I have read, most of the pre-packaged or pre-washed produce in the store has been treated with some kind of preservative or chemical to keep it looking fresh.  While I knew about what I didn’t want in my produce, I didn’t really realize that eating locally grown or organic produce can actually be better for you.  Fruits and vegetables are full of nutrients and vitamins, but the farther they get from “just picked”, they start to lose some of these essentials.  Eating straight from the ground not only tastes better, but is better for your body.  Who knew?

I’m excited to share our journey with you!  In the next post of this series, I will be talking about The Big Dairy Switch and why I have the most patient husband in the world.

In case you missed it:

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