Manic About Organic

We are a little out of touch with the spacious skies and amber waves of grain around here. Josie can tell you what train to take to Coney Island (the Q, silly) and Max understands that when we find torn bits of candy wrapper on the playground, we give them to Mommy; we do not ingest them, no matter how crinkly and tempting they are. But seeing the whole circle of life in nature? Understanding where food comes from? Not so much. (They’d be baffled by this entire line of inquiry. Food comes from Prakash at the bodega, duh.)

The wee ones may not care, but we parents sure do. Back when we were solo travelers, we happily ingested our share of McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes, and saggy microwave burritos procured at pee-redolent gas stations on the interstate. But now we want better for our kids. And for good reason: Children may be far more susceptible to chemicals, hormones and pesticides in food than we adults are. Their organs and nervous system are still developing, and they eat way more food relative to their body weight than adults do. (No one who has seen Maxine instantly inhale an entire avocado or a hunk of cheese about the size of her own head could deny this.) A 2003 University of Washington study found that kids who ate primarily organic had levels of pesticides in their bodies one-sixth that of kids who ate mostly conventionally produced food. And a 2003 study at the University of California, Davis, found that organic corn and berries had up to 58% more antioxidants (compounds that help prevent heart disease and cancer) than their conventionally grown counterparts.

Admittedly, Jonathan and I are perhaps a little crunchier on the foodie front than most people. We used to live in California’s Bay Area, where the Slow Food ethos took root in this country. Through osmosis, we picked up its values of buying locally grown and organic wherever possible, eschewing out-of-season foods, and appreciating the fresh, healthy taste of just-picked fruits and vegetables instead of ongepotchke-ing them up with heavy sauces most likely concocted by, in the timeless words of Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons, cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

Back in San Francisco, we learned that organic milk is not only free of creepy growth hormones and antibiotics (which could contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant superbugs — not to freak you out or anything), but also tastes way better than the conventional stuff. Sweet, creamy, a little herbal… mmm. In San Francisco, we also subscribed to a local organic fruit-and-veggie delivery service, which included a goofily charming newsletter offering recipes and anecdotes about what was going on at the farm that week: Hey, we’re fixing the henhouse roof! Lambs were born! The heirloom tomato tasting’s coming up! One time I sent them a recipe, and the next week there was a little thank-you note and bottle of honey in my basket.

After we moved to New York and had Josie, we switched to kosher meat. Okay, kosher beef usually comes from animals that eat the same disgusting animal-byproduct-laden feed as nonkosher animals, but at least they’re killed more humanely (and in a way that may be less likely to cause mad cow disease, what with the brain tissue being less likely to end up in the animal’s bloodstream and all — not to gross you out or anything).

The Slow Food philosophy is pretty darn Jewish, I think. Metaphorically speaking, we came from a garden. We’re custodians of God’s creation. We’re not supposed to muck it up with toxins, destroy its forests, make its animals suffer. The idea of za’ar ba’alei hayyim, not causing unnecessary pain to living things, is in keeping with kosher slaughtering practice and with making sure our animals live well in addition to dying well. Free range is better than caged, if you’re a chicken; grass fed is better than grain-fed, if you’re a cow. And respecting seasonality and time is a huge part of Judaism.

The Forward has written about organic farms around the country that are run by Hasidim: Sweet Whisper Farms in Readsboro, Vt.; Mitzva Farms (purveyors of entertainingly named cheeses like Yetta’s Chedda, A Bis’l Swiss’l and Mazel Rella) in Waukon, Iowa, and Eretz Ha’Chaim, the living land, in Sunderland, Mass. Farmers there observe the commandments to let their animals rest on the Sabbath and to refrain from overworking the land by letting it lie fallow every seventh year.

Other countries (even ones without Hasidim bearing milking stools) are way ahead of us on the unmodified food front. When we were in Italy earlier this year (what, you think I tell you people everything?), I was shocked that even in tiny towns, every drugstore and corner market carried organic baby food. On our Lufthansa flight, it was ceremoniously presented to Maxine, along with a pre-warmed, adorably cartoon-adorned, ergonomic baby bottle. I almost forgave them the Holocaust right there. (In Germany, nearly 100% of the baby food is organic, compared to about 5% here. But sales of organic baby food in the United States grew nearly 18% in the past year alone, so watch your backs, lederhosen wearers!)

Of course, our government says that there’s no need for concern about current pesticides, hormones or genetically modified foods. (And there was nothing to worry about with Thalidomide or lead paint, either.) Though research shows that pesticides can contribute to certain cancers and respiratory illnesses, block the absorption of nutrients from food, and cause brain and nervous system damage, the government argues that the scariest pesticides have been banned already, and that the Environmental Protection Agency limits the amounts of still-legal pesticides that can be used on any given crop. (Which doesn’t solve the sticky problem of residue hanging around for years in soil. Which is why, to be certified organic, crops must come from land that’s been pesticide free for three years.) And lest you think I’m going way too granola on you, the EPA itself points out that in the past 40 years, pesticide use has increased tenfold but crop loss has almost doubled. So alternative farming methods may not only be healthier, but also more economically beneficial (for the farmers themselves, for taxpayers who pay farm subsidies and for consumers who’ll end up paying less for their produce). Sound good, Republicans?

Another bit of good news: It doesn’t seem to take long for a switch to organic from conventional to have a big impact. A small study (partly funded by the EPA) this year at Emory University of kids whose diets were changed from conventional to primarily organic found their pesticide levels plunged dramatically and immediately to non-detectable amounts. These findings will be published in February 2006 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, so be sure to rush right out and buy your copy.

But we live in the real world. Organic, free-range, grass-fed yadda yadda can be crazy expensive and hard to find. And with big businesses figuring out that slapping the label “organic” on anything can make consumers salivate (sales of organic milk grew 23% last year, at a time when overall milk consumption is dipping 8% a year; Americans spent $68 billion on organic foods and supplements last year, compared with $55.1 billion four years ago), it’s hard to know what the term “organic” even means. Conventional food companies getting into the biz have been trying to get artificial thickeners, leavening agents and chemical additives allowed in foods labeled organic. So I think it’s just as important, if not more so, to eat stuff that’s local and fresh and comes from little farms nearby. When the weather is nice, I love to shop at the Tompkins Square Greenmarket, where the nice tomato man slices off big, red seedy chunks for the kids to sample, and the growers are happy to talk about the taste differences between a white and a yellow peach. Ronnybrook Farm in the Hudson Valley isn’t certified organic and treats its sick cows with antibiotics, but the milk contains no artificial growth hormones and comes from cows that get pasture time and are treated humanely. Good enough? Your call.

Oh, and just FYI: The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, offers a guide to pesticide levels in fruits and vegetables, based on data from more than 100,000 tests by the Department of Agriculture and the FDA. The EWG says that the lowest pesticide levels are found in asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangoes, onions, papaya, pineapples and sweet peas. (And low does mean low: There were no detectable residues on 90% or more of most of those items.) The highest pesticide levels are found in apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries. So splurge on the organic berries, scrimp on the conventional bananas.

With kids, of course, if it doesn’t taste good, no matter how healthy it is, they won’t eat it. So it’s a joy to hang out at the farmer’s market, watching my kids suck down just-picked strawberries that taste like sunshine. And if we have to wait for summer to get them, that’s fine. When we read the classic children’s book “Blueberries for Sal,” Josie learns that once people couldn’t even get fresh fruit in the winter (and she also learns that humans have to share natural resources with cute bears). Good things are worth waiting for. And on those rare and lovely occasions when we actually do get back to the land, such as the time this past summer when we went raspberry picking in Rhode Island with Bubbe, it has a huge impact. Watching Max’s eyes get huge as she ate her first newly plucked berry, seeing Josie focus on finding the darkest, plumpest berries to fill her green basket… well, that’s pretty cool. And Josie’s watercolor painting of herself and Bubbe and a raspberry bush, made two months after our farm adventure, will remind us of that sweetness throughout this long winter.

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