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Organic vs Local: What’s a Parent to Choose?

June 15, 2010

It’s that time of year again, when the greenmarket begins to overflow with bounty. I love when I can get all of my fruits and veggies from my local market. Except for one lingering, nagging concern: most of the food is local (great!), but conventionally grown (not great, especially with a very little eater in the house).

We’re all familiar with the organic vs local debate. Or at least know that there is one. But, if you’re anything like me, making sense of it all can be overwhelming. (And I live, work and breathe this stuff.) Each “side” makes a compelling argument about why they are the better, healthier, more sustainable choice. (Here is a brief listing of the pro’s and con’s of each.) And, then there are arguments like this one that suggest neither is particularly sustainable. What are parents—who barely have time to read, much less analyze the net health and environmental impact of our food choices—to do?

I usually tackle complicated topics like this when I have a firm opinion to share and resources to point to (so that you can come up with your own opinion). But, the truth is, I’ve been thinking about this for ages and haven’t come up with anything convincingly definitive. I have a gut feeling about what’s best for my family and, though I have no idea if it’ll be helpful, I thought it might be worth sharing. And no time like the present, as we find ourselves at the start of farmer’s market season, opting for perfectly ripe, just picked, local—but conventionally grown—produce.

Like so many food labels these days, “organic” can be hard to trust. Many major organic brands are run by larger conventional food conglomerates that perpetuate industrialized food production and/or support chemical farming. And some say that with such lax FDA oversight, the organic label may not actually guarantee organic food. That said, the idea is that organic foods are free of pesticides and possibly even more nutritious (though, if that’s true, it may depend on how long it’s taken the food to get from the farm to your plate).

Local food is just that: food grown near you. It’s often more delicious since you get it much closer to the time that it’s been picked. And it’s said that it’s better for the planet since fewer fossil fuels are burned in transport from farm to consumer. (Though, if it’s conventional local food, what about the shipping of pesticides? This is not an easy issue, folks.)

In general, I have decided that, at least while feeding small children, it makes sense to buy organic as often as possible. Though some say it’s no guarantee that I’m feeding my family toxic free foods, it’s the best bet. With children who have still-developing immune systems and who eat a larger proportion of fruits and veggies compared to their body weight (as opposed to adults), keeping pesticides off of our dinner plates is of paramount importance.

But then there’s the incredible value of making sure that my Hungry Boys get to taste the perfection of a just picked plum, peach or summer squash. What better way to learn about how delicious and versatile natural foods can be?! When I have the opportunity to provide that to them—which is usually when we get produce from our local farmer’s market—I can’t resist.

When buying conventional foods, local or not, I try to avoid the organic dirty dozen (listed here). Otherwise, especially in winter when local produce is extremely limited here in Brooklyn, I stick to organic as strictly as possible. I get a little lax in summer. Local cherries, for one, are just too scrumptious to resist.

So there you have it. Because I have kids, I mostly opt for organic over local, except at peak produce times when delicious freshness trumps everything else.

What about you? Do you think about organic vs. local? What do you choose? How does cost factor in? Chime in! And, in the meantime, here are some recipes to make with your produce, whether it’s local or organic or (if you’re lucky) both!

Whatever produce you choose, whatever you decide to cook, ENJOY!

Kids change the way we cook, but they don’t have to change how well we eat. Get more family-friendly recipes, tips and techniques to satisfy your own hunger and inspire healthy hungers in your children on Stacie’s blog, One Hungry Mama.