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Organic : A Smart Investment in Your Family's Health and Children's Future

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

When it comes to bargain shopping, I always choose organic.

Yes, you read right. I used the word "bargain" and "organic" in the same sentence, and no, I'm not crazy. I'm simply trying to get the most bang for my nutrition buck, and I want to help you do the same.

First and foremost, let's face it: Americans love a good deal. And in hard economic times it's especially important to get the most out of our hard-earned and ever-shrinking dollars.

But unlike hunting for a cashmere sweater at a yard sale, seeking out the cheapest food may not be such a bargain at the end of the day, especially if we value our family's health and our children's future.

We have to ask: What are we really getting for our money?

According to Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," price tags can be deceptive. (1) Lower prices often don't equate with higher quality or better value in the long run.

Take milk for example. When facing the choice between conventional or organic milk, it would be tempting to make a decision based on price alone. After all, there are no shelf tags with information explaining how the higher-priced organic choice delivers superior nutrition, supports truly sustainable farming methods, and contributes to a cleaner planet. (2,3)

While the conventional milk might seem like a better deal at first, the organic milk is the smarter choice, because it pays dividends in terms of protecting our health and environment.

Price vs. Cost

Sandra Steingraber, the author of "Living Downstream," mother, and cancer survivor, explains how lower prices of conventional groceries don't reflect their true cost to our family's health and our larger society. (4)

In fact, Steingraber makes a great case study. She's a writer, and her husband is an elementary school art teacher, so they're not exactly rolling in the dough. They live frugally, pinching pennies, stretching dollars and making trade-offs like most of us.

But when it comes to grocery shopping, Steingraber invests in organic foods for her family. Sure, she says, it's absolutely more expensive at the checkout. However, the lower price we pay for non-organic groceries does not reflect the "external" costs we all bear as a society down the road.

External costs include antibiotic resistance from the routine use of antibiotics in conventional animal agriculture. Or the dead bees, polluted water and contaminated soil from toxic pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

What we're talking about here is "full-cost accounting," which helps us look "beyond the price tag" and factor in those unseen and often disconnected environmental, health, and social costs that don't ring up at the register. (5)

Uncle Sam Wants YOU to Eat Organic:
Notes from the President’s Cancer Panel Report

"Food Costs vs. Healthcare Expenditures" - from David Wallinga, MD, "Today’s Food System: How Healthy Is it?" (6)

As a nation, we spend more on healthcare than food (6), which should be our most treasured preventive medicine. Today, a growing number of diseases from diabetes to cancer, autism and birth defects have been linked to pesticides commonly used in our industrial food system. (7)

Last April, the President's Cancer Panel Report recognized that the "true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated. " (8) The panel's revolutionary recommendations never made front page news, nor was the panel's advice woven into our national dietary guidelines. However, we can be the megaphones for this important report.

Here are the panel's key food and water recommendations to reduce cancer risk:

  • Filter your home tap or well water.
  • Choose food grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
  • Eat free-range meat raised without antibiotics and growth hormones.

In other words, to protect against cancer, invest in organic food.

Voting with our food dollars

Our food dollars may not seem like much on an individual basis, but collectively, they are our strongest votes for the kind of food and farming we want to take hold in our country.

Like Steingraber, I'm using my food dollars to show my support for farmers who work extra hard to protect our natural resources and public health. Let's spend less on health care, and invest in organic food instead. Talk about a great tasting bargain!

References and Resources

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1. Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell, Penquin Press, 2009.

2. Wake Up America! Benefits of Organic Milk Go Beyond Nutrition.

3.The Organic Center, State of Science Reports.

4. Food Sleuth Radio interview with Sandra Steingraber, July 22, 2010.

5. Full Cost Accounting: An Agenda for Action, 2001.

6. “Today’s Food System: How Healthy Is it?” David Wallinga, MD., Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, Vol. 4, 2009.

7. Pesticide- Induced Diseases Database. Beyond Pesticides.

8. President's Cancer Panel Report: "Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now."

9. “The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and its Environmental Impact,” Kevin Hall, et. al. PLoS ONE, November 2009.

10. “Organic Dairy Sector Evolves to Meet Changing Demand,” Amber Waves, USDA, March 2010.

Show Me the Money:

How to Make Your Food Dollars Count Towards Feeding Your Family Well

Share these seven strategies for stretching, but not sacrificing, your family’s food budget:

1. Learn to cook... from scratch. Invest in a basic cookbook and a few good kitchen tools. Cook with your kids to create fun family memories. Think you don’t have time to cook? Here’s my secret: – Prepare extra for leftovers, which you can freeze and quickly reheat for busy nights.

2. Eat at home. Once you learn to cook you can say good-bye to inferior fast and processed foods. They may seem "cheap," but we get what we pay for. People who eat fast food every week are more likely to be overweight and bear the related costs of high blood pressure and diabetes. When we prepare our own meals, we control the ingredients, protect our family’s health, and pocket the savings.

3. Eat with the seasons. If you already have your own garden, you know the fun and satisfaction of producing and preserving your own food. Alternatively, buy directly from organic farmers -- join a CSA, or shop at your local farmers’ market where the seasonal bounty is most nutritious and affordable. Buy extra to can or freeze. Right now, I’m canning salsa and freezing colorful peppers and corn, which will perk up egg and cheese dishes in the winter months ahead.

4. Invest in organic but don’t pay more for “natural.” The organic label is your best legal guarantee for protecting your family against genetically modified ingredients, toxic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotic and hormone residues. On the other hand, the “natural” label is largely “greenwash,” and means next to nothing.

5. Shop with a list and stick to it. Never shop hungry, and leave impulse buyers at home.

6. Waste less. Americans waste about 1400 calories per person per day. (9) Food is no bargain if it spoils and we end up throwing it away. Make use of leftovers and avoid bulk purchases that could be forgotten or spoil before using.

7. Rethink your budget. Keep a log of your spending to see where your money really goes. Look at organic food like preventive, cost-effective medicine. Make your family’s health your number one priority; nothing is more important.

Why Does Organic Milk Cost More at the Store?

(Or: How Can Conventional Milk be so Cheap?)

The US Department of Agriculture reports that organic milk production has been one of the fastest growing segments of organic agriculture. (10) No wonder consumer demand is high. Certified organic milk production requires that cows have access to organic pasture, and prohibits the use of antibiotics, hormones, synthetic chemicals, and genetically modified feed.

Despite higher retail prices of organic milk, more consumers understand that “cheap food” is no bargain. We want integrity with our food, and we are willing to pay what it costs to produce, in order to invest in our family’s health.

Still, many consumers facing the dairy case scratch their heads and wonder: why does organic milk cost more than conventional?

Below are a few reasons to help explain the price differences.

  • Higher feed costs. Certified organic feed costs more than conventional.
  • Size and scale. Organic dairies tend to be smaller, with higher labor and capital costs.
  • Logistics of processing and distribution.Organic milk is produced in smaller quantities, with fewer processing and distribution channels.
  • Retail price margins. Retail markups vary by state and retailer, but have the single greatest influence on final cost to consumers.
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