You Eat What You Pay For

I have something of a dim view of the organic food industry, inasmuch as, in many cases, it has strayed from its roots in the worst ways possible: what began as an effort to get healthier food onto peoples’ plates has become a marketing ploy for selling overpriced commodities and frozen home meal replacements. Just the same, I encourage people to shop and eat organic whenever they can, and to do so smartly: buy local whenever possible, stick to whole ingredients, avoid regularly buying trendy boutique items like New York strips and pork tenderloin. Buy simple and close to home: that’s the easiest way to do organic, if you’re going to do it.

Still, it’s easy to miss the point. At Prevention, Amy Schlinger explains how she “tried to eat organic for a month without spending extra on food.” The plan was mostly a success, though, as she tells us, there was some difficulty:

I live in New York City, where groceries—and pretty much everything else—tends to be pretty expensive. But when you don’t have a car to carry home a trunk-load of food at a time, convenience is also a factor. For that reason, I’ve been getting groceries from an online food delivery service, FreshDirect, for a while now. The delivery fee is minimal, and my bill has always been comparable to what I’d pay if I went to the store myself. But once I went organic, I had to reconsider whether I could really afford this luxury.

For example, chicken is a staple that I buy all the time. I normally buy chicken that’s raised without antibiotics, but not organic, which FreshDirect usually sells for $5.99 a pound. The organic version? $8.99 a pound. Since I only shop for myself I just need a pound at a time, so three extra dollars might not sound like much. But when the organic version of just about everything you buy costs a few dollars more you have a problem. I realized I was going to have to switch things up if I was going to make it through the month without busting my budget.

Now, to be perfectly fair, there are folks for whom the organic price tag is a hurdle (though to be fair those usually aren’t the same folks who are ordering their groceries through a delivery service). But for the most part, most of us are capable of affording food that’s a bit more expensive. And that’s really the point: if you want better food—and organic food is indeed better, particularly the fresher and more local it gets—then you’re going to have to pay more. It should come as no surprise to anyone that higher-quality products are more expensive: nobody is shocked that a Mercedes-Benz costs more than a Honda Accord, after all. It is only where food is concerned that we have this strange notion that better should also be cheap, or that the cheap stuff should be just as good for us as the better stuff.

Unfortunately, the market doesn’t really work that way. And so a commitment to eating better is invariably going to have to be accompanied by a higher price tag. It’s no scandal; it’s simply a matter of priorities, and deciding whether you want to pay more for food and less for other things, or vice versa. Amy Schlinger surely understands the trade-off: for instance, she recently spoke favorably of a $165 pair of shoes, a price tag about three times higher than what I’m willing to pay for new kicks. We all make trade-offs. Choosing to buy cheaper food doesn’t make you a bad person, but complaining about the higher price of good food when you’re willing to pay high prices for other things makes you look, at the very least, silly.

One comment

  1. David

    Given that growing organic is generally more labor intensive it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the cost is higher. I have been preferring organic since the early 1980’s & while I am no purist I have found several tactics that one can use.

    One approach is to learn to prioritize your organic purchases. Apples are heavily sprayed whereas oranges are peeled before eating. I will only buy organic apples but I’m not as concerned when it comes to oranges or other peelable fruit.

    Commercially raised animals are often raised under conditions that have little resemblance to how God evolved them. I would strongly urge your readers to prioritize purchasing animal products from sources that maintain their animals in humane conditions. There is much about biological chemistry that we do not fully understand. The stress chemicals that are released in a body when subjected to less than comfortable conditions effect the quality of the meat & may result in adding stress chemicals in to your body when you eat it.

    Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is not well communicated in the marketplace but is often practiced by small farmers & is a good intermediary between conventional produce & organic. Transitioning to organic is a costly proposition for a small farmer. They have to grow organic for several years while still marketing their products as conventional, while the chemicals are worked out of their soil. IPM produce may have some chemicals but will normally have much less than conventional produce since the farmer will try to control pests naturally and only apply chemicals in a limited fashion when a problem arises. IPM produce often has the image of a ladybug on the sticker attached to the produce. You can ask about if when you shop a farmers market or try to urge your local grocers to consider it when they make their decisions.

    Much of the cost of groceries is due to the cost of the supply chain. Every time a product changes hands, the cost goes up. Additionally, the longer the chain, the less fresh. Try to find a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program near where you live. Such programs shrink the supply chain, increase freshness & by keeping you close to the person who originated the food on your table, allows you to be better informed about the quality of what goes on your table. Furthermore, it serves farmers well because it helps to protect them against market fluctuations. I urge your readers to research the topic more.
    Here’s a link to find CSA’s near DC:
    & CSA’s in NYC: