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The taste and appearance of "discount" produce just
can't compare to that of the freshly harvested, locally
grown vegetables in this beautiful salad.

Discount Organic: A Shopper's Dilemma

First published on on March 30, 2006, by Suzanne DeJohn

Just this morning I read in the newspaper that one of the big discount stores nearby is now selling organically grown produce and related products. Being both organic-minded and very frugal, I should be celebrating. So why don't I feel happy?

Grocery shopping is a love-hate affair with me. All shopping is wrapped up in issues of social and environmental responsibility. When I look at a product, I think, "Where is it made? How was it grown? Did the farmers/workers receive a fair wage? Is it overpackaged? Do I really need it? Can I really afford it?" Frankly, I drive myself a little crazy. Fortunately, I don't buy much ... except food. I love to cook, and I love to eat. And basically I enjoy grocery shopping. Still, I ask the same questions about the food products I buy.

I used to think that if money were no issue, I would buy all organic. I was convinced that organically grown food was better for me, but that wasn't the primary reason. (If health were my focus, I'd exercise more and eat less.) Rather, my main reasons were that I believed organic farming resulted in better stewardship of the land and better treatment of livestock, supported the local economy, and was, overall, more environmentally responsible. But does this still hold true?

In years past, organic farms were relatively small and usually located in the communities near their customers. Local farmers would sell their produce at farmers' markets, and a connection between farmer and consumer was inherent in the transaction. In contrast, the organic produce available in big chain grocery stores is likely grown thousands of miles away from its point of sale. Is this necessarily bad?

Some would argue it's a good thing that organic has gone "mainstream." More and more consumers are opting for organic choices, and therefore more and more farms are converting to organic methods. Good, yes, but the downside is that mass production of organic food may jeopardize the local farm economy. For example, with organic produce available in large stores, consumers may be less likely to patronize local farmers' markets. This could jeopardize the survival of local farms, many of which already operate on a shoestring budget.

In addition, mass production of organic food results in decreased prices. Good for consumers, perhaps, but not so good for local farmers whose profit margins are already tight. Many small farmers have converted to organic growing in part because of the premium prices consumers are willing to pay for their products. Small family farms don't have the economies of scale that huge farms do, so their costs for production are higher.

Why should we care about the local farm economy?

1. Local farms and farmers' markets nurture the relationship between farmer and consumer. This connection is all but eliminated when local farmers' markets cease to exist and food is grown far away. Local farmers are directly accountable to their customers: You can visit the farm and see how the food is grown, how the livestock are treated.

2. Many owners of small farms are being lured into selling their land to developers. Just a few weeks ago, a beautiful stretch of farmland along an otherwise heavily strip-developed corridor near us was sold. Where cows once roamed, yet another large shopping center will be built. Yes, we need places to shop, but how many? Our region depends heavily on tourism, so there are economic as well as aesthetic reasons to be concerned about the loss of small farms.

3. There is a measure of security inherent in having food produced locally. When local farms fail, we become dependent on distant, anonymous farms and trucking companies to supply us. If anything were to happen to the transportation infrastructure, or if fuel prices continue to rise, we'll all be affected.

4. Food produced thousands of miles away isn't as fresh as crops harvested the morning of the farmers' market. There is a loss in both taste and nutritional value. Local farms can sell flavorful heirloom tomato varieties harvested at peak ripeness. Tomatoes grown for transporting nationwide are bred as much for their ability to withstand shipping as for their flavor, and are harvested when they are still hard and green. There's just no comparison.

The reality is, however, that locally produced food is usually more expensive than food at discount outlets. So what's a shopper -- especially a frugal one -- to do? I don't have the answer. All I can do is suggest that you consider not just the price of a product, and not even just whether or not it's organic, but also the larger effects of your purchasing decisions. Is supporting your local economy important? Is the presence of small farms in your community of value to you? Is the fact that something is organically grown more important to you than the fact that it is produced locally? Then, consider if, and how much, you are willing to pay for something that reflects your values.

These are the thoughts that go through my head when I pick up a tomato or a package of strawberries. Believe it or not, I still love to shop for food!

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