Friday, May 20, 2005

To Buy Organic or Pay the Bills, that is the Question

Motherhood changes your priorities. That's (hopefully) an obvious statement. For me, this is partially manifested in a horrible sense of guilt each and every time that I do the grocery shopping. Why? Organics. Now, I grew up a vegetarian in southern California. My parents were from San Francisco (Britain originally, but they moved to San Francisco in the 60s -- you get the picture). I grew up eating organics. We had our own garden and citrus/avocado orchard at home and didn't have to buy much in the way of fruits and vegetables. When I was older and shopped for myself, I always bought organic fruits, vegetables, milk, and eggs. Sure, it was a little bit more expensive, but not unreasonably so. I understand that the costs of producing organic foods are higher than those of mass-producing against the laws of nature.

However, in the past few years, I have stopped buying organic. Why, you ask? Because, quite frankly, I can no longer afford it. It all started with the opening of Whole Foods Market or Freshfields (same store). In San Diego, these opened in the most exclusive neighbourhoods only. And they had prices to match. They were shops for the wealthy and privileged. We all laughed at them, wearing their Armani suits and Rolex watches, paying a fortune for the fresh food that we grew or bought locally every week. They were buying an image. We were buying healthy whole foods. But then, quite suddenly, these foods started making their way into the local supermarkets. The price was a bit lower than the exclusive stores and allowed the average upper middle class family to feel that they too were buying into the whole foods image. Before long, there were whole aisles of the supermarket dedicated to organic products with mark-ups to validate their trendy status. The local places either increased their prices to match (why not?), or shut down in favour of selling to the larger market.

And that's where we are today. Organics remain trendy, the food of the stars, and incredibly overpriced. Its a business. It is no longer about good farming practises and sustainable agriculture. It is about money, and Gwyneth Paltrow, and $6 smoothies. And darn it, I can't afford it! I am an earth scientist and I don't earn much. My husband is working around stay-at-home fatherhood, so doesn't earn much at the moment either. I want to provide my son with many opportunities to grow and learn, but classes aren't free. I need to put money away for retirement. I need to pay the bills. I will soon need a new car (lets not even get into the "hybrid or dinner this year" discussion now!). I want to provide my son with the best foods, fresh foods, a good good variety, and I want to protect the planet from destructive farming practises. But can I afford to do both?

Not at the moment. And that makes me feel incredibly sad. And guilty. And angry. Food should not be big business. Nor should sustainable agriculture. It should simply be "the way that it is".


betty said...

Interesting post!

In the beginning, I rarely bought organic foods because I was under the impression that it was exorbitantly priced!

We actually have a local organic food store right in our neighborhood. I would occasionally go in there to buy needed staples (like milk) for convenience sake because it would save me time from walking much further to the other supermarket.

Over time, I noticed that the prices in the organic food store started to drop as the store became more and more popular. Now, I shop there fairly regularly, but I still try to comparison shop where possible. What surprised me was that milk and yogurt are much, much cheaper at the organic food store than at the larger supermarket store, almost by as much as 60 cents each! Who would have believed that! I really believe that the larger chain stores probably overprice certain items to account for decreased profits as a result of increased usage of double-coupons by customers. :(

Fruits and vegetables seem to be a little more costly at my organic food stores I've noticed that our local corner mini-markets are beginning to sell more organic fruits that are fairly reasonably priced. So, I feel that I've got a more few shopping options available to me now than before.

Nicola said...

Must be a California thing. Here, its still ridiculous. At least twice as much for any organic product. For instance, I buy Dannon yogurt instead of Stoneyfield, as its price is exactly twice that of the Dannon.

Nicole said...

Have you gone to a food co-op near your town? Most have membership programs where you can get a bit of a discount.

Nicola said...

Nicole, I don't know of any in this area. They used to have them in Britain and had some great organic stuff. Are they common in the US as well? I'll have to look into that. Thanks for the idea!

Nicole said...

I live in Massachusetts, so they may be more common here than in, say, Illinois :)

You can try this list, but it doesn't appear to be comprehensive by any means:

Also, Trader Joe's usually has reasonably priced organic/natural stuff; is there one near you? (You can tell that I've only been to (northern) Illinois/Indiana for about three days, so I know nothing about where you are.)

Nicola said...

Thanks for the link, Nicole. As for Trader Joe's, the nearest is on the west side of St Louis (over two hours away). We live in the true red meat eating heartland of America. Its different here in Central Illinois. Not all bad, but different, we'll just keep it at that.