Since early fall, when the new Whole Foods Market opened up near the Inner Harbor, I've been visiting it every two weeks or so to stock up on pesticide-free baby spinach, wild blueberries, free-range chicken, hormone-free beef, grass-fed lamb, steel-cut oatmeal, goat's milk feta . . . a long list of expensive items that have become my household staples.
I've always been an extravagant grocery shopper, even before I could afford to do so, and even though in other key areas of consumerism--clothes, for example--I'm pretty parsimonious, compared with most people I know in my age and income bracket. Extravagance is relative, of course. Even nonorganic fresh produce and meats can be costly, but since I do a lot of cooking and eat a lot of leftovers, I probably spend less money on food than people who thrive solely on restaurant meals, fast food, and allegedly "healthy" frozen dinners consisting of a few ounces of low-grade meat, flour-based gravy, and some carrot scrapings.
Still, even for an ardent fan of fresh food, going organic means both additional expense and a discomfiting twinge of class-consciousness. I was listening to the first hour of the Nov. 20 edition of WYPR-FM's The Marc Steiner Show, which focused on some of the possible environmental causes of breast cancer and other diseases. At one point, a guest on the show asserted that estrogen exposure has been definitively linked to breast cancer, and noted that almost all American chickens and cows are pumped full of estrogen to increase their fat content. When another guest suggested that we should therefore all either become vegetarians or eat only organically produced meats, Steiner got pretty worked up. First he made a rueful joke about the wealth required to buy organic. Then he verged on genuine anger--more anger than he usually expresses in his talk-show-host capacity--that, as he put it, a scrawny free-range organic chicken costs a dollar more per pound than an artificially fattened one.
Steiner was exaggerating on the price issue, but only up to a point. At the downtown Whole Foods Market, for example, I can get an organically raised whole fryer chicken from Bell & Evans for $1.49 a pound, while a comparable bird from Wampler Farms at my local Metro in South Baltimore costs about 98 cents a pound. Similarly, the no-hormone, no-antibiotic chuck eye steak at Whole Foods was about 10 cents per pound more than the conventionally produced chuck eye at Metro; the free-range whole turkey at Whole Foods was $1.79 per pound compared to Metro's prices of 67 cents, 77 cents, or $1.18 per pound for Shady Brook Farms, Perdue, or Butterball brands, respectively, at least on the day I shopped around.
My recent "premium" shopping experiences at Whole Foods, however, haven't been characterized by foods that are "scrawny" or in any way inferior to what I get at my local conventional market. True, I've been to farmers' markets and noticed the difference between, say, the small, relatively tasteless organic bell peppers and their nonorganic, pesticide-laden cousins, bursting with color, scent, and flavor. But most of the organic food I've eaten lately is actually much fresher and tastier than its conventional counterpart.
Thus, the injustice of organic foods isn't that wealthy people pay more just for something akin to a trendy designer label; it's that they pay more and actually get a better product.
It's been suggested that if those of us who can buy organic start doing so en masse, eventually prices will have to come down. Ideally, as one of Steiner's guests suggested, people will also become politically active on this issue and start to demand that our federal tax dollars go to support the growing organic farming industry rather than conventional, chemically dependent agribusiness.
I've seen different opinions as to whether the pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other additives to conventional food really do have a significant impact on public health, especially since it's impossible to factor out all the other kinds of environmental toxins in our air and water coming from our buildings, computers, toys, medical equipment, etc. It's also likely that things we consume in childhood or adolescence have already affected us in some unidentified but irreparable way, and no amount of middle-age vigilance will ward off diseases. Still, I'm willing to make an educated guess in favor of the long-term health benefits of organics--while realizing it's a somewhat abstract gamble few can afford to make right now.
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