By Diane Di Costanzo. Photographed by Brad Barket and Daniel Root
What's it like to feed a family an all-organic diet for a week? Diane Di Costanzo finds out.
For one week, I agreed that I would purchase only organic groceries for my family and report to Country Living on how it went. Like most Americans, I don't have an organic supermarket around the corner from my home. Nor do I have an unlimited grocery budget, so logistics as well as cost and time were factors I considered. The first order of business was determining exactly what "organic" means. According to standards set by the USDA, the label "100% Organic" indicates that the meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products you're buying are free of antibiotics and artificial growth hormones and that produce has been cultivated without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or sewage sludge. Likewise, any product that has been irradiated or that contains bioengineered ingredients cannot be labeled organic (to learn more, go to ams.usda.gov).
Day 1: Stocking Up
"On Day 1, my fridge is empty and totally sponged down in anticipation of filling it with a week's worth of organic food." To do so, I drive 15 miles from my home, in Redding, Conn., to Westport's Wild Oats, a national chain of grocery stores in which 70 percent of the produce and 40 percent of packaged goods are organic. The 40-minute round trip takes more time and gas than I'd normally budget to buy groceries, but the store is incredibly clean, manned by knowledgeable personnel, and stocked with everything from organic oregano and frozen waffles to organic cream cheese, cantaloupes, tea bags, garbanzo beans, and oatmeal cookies. I purchase $157.32 worth of organic food.
Day 2: Corner Store
Despite yesterday's shopping spree, I still need to pick up a few items. During a quick stop at my regular grocery, I calculate that roughly one percent of the entire store is devoted to organic packaged goods, dairy products, and produce. Finding what I need is not a problem, but there aren't many choices. There are only two organic cereals, for instance, one organic tomato sauce, and one brand of organic milk.
Day 3: Eating Out
Eating organic at home is easy. Finding a quick meal out, even in New York City, proves harder. I head to Savoy, a downtown bistro that serves organic food. Although the word "organic" does not appear on the menu, chef/owner Peter Hoffman says the food is not only organic, it's grown locally and served in season. I can't taste the absence of pesticides, of course, but the beef with fried yucca and crème caramel are wonderful.
Day 4: Taste Test
Lily, 13, skips her usual lunch of a PB&J sandwich and chips and packs an all-organic one — Stonyfield Farm yogurt and a turkey sandwich — instead. Oliver, 11, misses his Total, but says the Kashi Organic Promise Strawberry Fields cereal is pretty good. He deems Amy's Kitchen Organic Cheese Pizza "the best pizza he's ever had." We all enjoy a dinner of organic chicken sausages grilled by my husband, Steve. So far, so good.
Day 5: At the Farm
Even in winter, my local farm stand — Holbrook's, in Bethel — sells organic hothouse greens. Owners John and Lynn Holbrook have not yet sought organic certification for their farm, as it would be too costly (about $20,000 they estimate). Although John says his produce is grown — and has been grown for decades — without pesticides, he is no longer legally allowed to label his vegetables "organic."
Day 6: $$ Matters
"Why do most organic meats, produce, and packaged goods cost 20 percent more than conventional?" I ask Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and author of Living Downstream (Random House; 1998). Organic farming relies on labor — which is costly — instead of chemicals, Steingraber explains. But modern farming practices can exact a price we don't tally at the register. Among its costs: polluted water and soil and depleted ozone.
Day 7: Last Supper
Overall, I paid $50 more this week for groceries I know to be pesticide free and easier on the environment. More than anything else, the week has taught me that the little decisions I make while grocery shopping have a huge impact on the long-term health of my kids. In that light, the 50 bucks seems well spent.
Although I spent more than usual on my weekly groceries, organic food was readily available and not quite as expensive as I had originally thought. Organic packaged goods and snack foods — rice mixes, chips, salsa, ice cream, wine, even dog food — were pricey and added up quickly. If, however, you stick to more wholesome fare and purchase grains, nuts, cereal, flour, and sugar from the bulk bins, you can reduce your grocery bill considerably.
Other Things Organic
Many of our favorite products were found outside of the produce bin and dairy case. Steaz organic sodas, brewed with organic green tea, were a hit with the kids, especially the root beer. Wolaver Organic Ales were Steve's favorite.
Seventh Generation dishwashing liquid is biodegradable, works as well as conventional products, and has a fresh, clean scent. And Lady, our family's pit bull mix, gobbled up Newman's Own Organics Dog Food, one of the first organic pet food lines available nationwide (newmansownorganics.com).
Tips + Trade-Offs
My all-organic week required frequent forays to more kinds of stores than I typically visit in a week. I spent more on groceries, and I was in the car, driving back and forth, an extra hour. With that said, I was impressed by the many committed people — restaurant owners, farmers, grocery clerks — who are working, one apple at a time, to make organic food more accessible.
It's possible to buy organic for your family without spending a fortune. Purchase grains, dried fruit, cereal, pastas, and sugar from the bulk bins at health-food store or chains such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods. Because organic manufacturers eliminate artificial preservatives, buy only the amount you'll need to avoid spoilage.
I gladly pay the premium for organic milk — $3.69 a half gallon versus $1.99 for regular milk — since I'm concerned about the possible long-term human effects of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a synthetic hormone given to conventional dairy cattle to increase milk production. If you have limited funds to spend on organic produce, focus on the fruits and vegetables whose conventionally grown counterparts are most likely to contain high pesticide residue levels. According to the Environmental Working Group, this list includes apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries. Visit ewg.org for a free produce wallet guide.
Consider joining a community-supported agriculture group. Members contribute to the up-front costs of a local organic farm in exchange for a weekly share of the harvest during the growing season (go to nal.usda.gov/afsic/csa).