Is healthy, organic food too expensive for “most people?” What is healthy food? What is organic food? What is healthy, organic food? More importantly, who are “most people?” These questions are probably already overwhelming the reader and causing headaches.
Before meeting as one big group, individual students taking a residency titled Urban Environmental Sustainability, with a focus on citizen journalism, conducted interviews in their local neighborhoods. Those interviewed are from both urban and suburban/rural areas, and they led us all to one main question: Is healthy, organic food too expensive for most people? Imagine a group of students from all walks of life collectively searching for the answer to that question. Confusion, disagreement and debate ensued. Alas, we had to start somewhere so when we met as a group some conducted research online, and others explored neighborhoods in Manhattan. Speaking with young and old alike about their thoughts on food in the area, what we discovered is that it’s not that simple.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an informative website with answers to many of the questions we had. It even helped us—forced us, rather,–to ask even more questions. Breaking our main question into sections, we sought the USDA’s assistance in defining organic. The USDA gave us three separate definitions:
100% organic: made with 100% organic ingredients,
made with at least 95% organic ingredients, and
made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with restrictions on the remaining 30% including no Genetically Modified Organsims (GMO) (http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004346&acct=nopgeninfo). (http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004446&acct=nopgeninfo)
The three main definitions that are provided by the government site did not specifically define organic, but only the classifications used to label something organic. While the USDA’s website proved useful, it ultimately left us with more questions than we originally had.
What is the difference between natural and organic foods? Although organic foods are classified as natural, the term natural is used to broadly describe foods which are:
free of synthetic preservatives such as: artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and
other artificial additives, such as: growth hormones, antibiotics, hydrogenated oils, stabilizers and emulsifiers.
The problem with the current system is that many of the foods which are labeled as natural are not subject to government controls with the exception of the regulations and health codes that apply to all food products.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSTS) of the USDA require different requirements for meat and poultry. Meat and poultry are required to be free of artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and ingredients which are not part of the natural process in food (http://www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/dockets/06p0094/06p-0094-cp00001-05-Tab-04-Food-Marketing-Institute-vol1.pdf).
We asked, what is healthy food? In essence, the Access to Healthy Foods Coalition (which was dissolved in 2013) follows the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans which tie in directly to the food guide pyramid. Access’s definition for healthy foods:
A healthy food is a plant or animal product that provides essential nutrients and energy to sustain growth, health, and life while satiating hunger.
Healthy foods are usually fresh or minimally processed foods, naturally dense in nutrients, that when eaten in moderation and in combination with other foods, sustain growth, repair and maintain vital processes, promote longevity, reduce disease, and strengthen and maintain the body and its functions.
Healthy foods do not contain ingredients that contribute to disease or impede recovery when consumes at normal levels (Partners in Action, Appendix G, Para II).
The word healthy becomes problematic when it is used on a food label because manufacturers are allowed to make claims about having healthy food on their labels even if it is not accurate. The Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) and the USDA’s definition of healthy vary because of the different foods that are regulated by each agency. The FDA says that a food label can use the word healthy if the food is:
1. low in fat and saturated fat
2. limited in amount of sodium and cholesterol
3. provides at least 10 percent of one or more of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein, and fiber (for single-item foods) (http://depts.washington.edu/waaction/plan/append/g.html, Partners in Action, Appendix G, Para III).
It has taken a long time for the idea that food should be organic, healthy and natural to be taken seriously. Forty years ago, those who made a choice to eat a healthy diet, were called “health food nuts.” People were very concerned about using lead free gasoline but those who were concerned with what they put into their body were called crazy. It has taken decades for people to catch on that they may be poisoning themselves with the food they eat. (1)
We eat to gain the vital life force from the sun and nutrients from the earth. Unfortunately, modern food production, designed to improve the appearance of food as well as prolong its shelf life, uses processes such as irradiation, bleaching, homogenization and others, which destroy the energy and nutrition in food. Microwaving is a great example of one of these processes. (2)
Our digestive system is designed to absorb and utilize food in specific nutrient forms. Unfortunately, processing changes food so drastically that it has “empty” (no nutrition) calories and in many cases is so different from what Mother Nature designed that it is unrecognizable to our digestive system and becomes toxic in the body. Nutrients are often added after processing and considered “fortifying.” But fortifying, or enriching food with minerals or vitamins, although it sounds good as a sales pitch, is just another form of processing.
Raw, canned, or frozen fruits and vegetables and certain cereal-grain products do not necessarily need to meet these criteria and can be labeled healthy if:
they do not contain ingredients that change the nutritional profile, and
they conform to the standards of identity
(1) enriched grain products which call for certain required ingredients (vitamins, minerals, protein, or fiber).
(2) meal-type products (large enough [6 ounces] to be considered a meal) provide 10 percent of the Daily Value of two or three of these ingredients, in addition to meeting the other criteria:
sodium content does not exceed 360 mg (milligrams) for individual foods and 480 mg for meal-type foods.
The digestive system cannot recognize most processed food and therefore cannot absorb it properly. The result is that this foreign substance in turn clogs up our system. As a consequence of this, we are seeing a whole slew of chronic digestive problems and allergies to the same foods that our ancestors ate. “If your cells cannot operate efficiently, the functioning of your tissues and organs, which are built of your cells, will become compromised, and you can experience a diminishing of physical functioning and the onset of a host of health conditions and diseases.” (3)
But it is not always easy to know which foods are unadulterated. For instance, corporations are in opposition to truthful food labeling are making it more difficult to eat a diet based on simple, whole, pure foods. “The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) had been, apparently in violation of state election law, hiding the identity of its donors who had provided more than $7.2 million to fight the consumer’s right to know what is in their food.” (4)
And helping make good food choices even more difficult, the term “healthy” is so subjective that it can be claimed for almost any food, and the legal definition “natural” is not much better: “may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals.” (5)
Add this to no GMO food labeling and we find ourselves guinea pigs in what is called the largest uncontrolled experiment in history. “The companies say gene modified crops help farmers be more productive, and they say hundreds of studies show the foods from these crops are safe. But critics say there are hundreds of studies showing that GMO crops are not safe for people and the animals who consume them.” (6)
But is it worth it to make the effort necessary to eat right? For example, Mary Ellen, a 55 year old downtown animal advocate says, “If it’s organic it is good.” She stated that when she can afford it she shops in the health food store and believes this pays off as she “feels better when I eat organic food. I have no health problems and I think that good eating helps,” she adds, “People compliment me that I look good. I like that.”
On the other hand, Ed, a 65 years old homeless man who lives in a van, doesn’t believe the organic labeling. Instead he says that it is the same food as the non-organic. “It is pseudo-science!” “I am not going to pay $3 for a quart of milk that comes from the same cows!’ “I am a Walmart man!”
This chart shows the difference in price between organic food versus non-organic food from one food retailer (FreshDirect.) An entire organic shopping list for a family of 2.5 for one week could cost as much as fifty dollars more than its non-organic counterpart. Organic food is undoubtedly more expensive than non-organic food and it is also less available in lower income neighborhoods. With healthy, organic food, the marketplace works the same as every other industry in the country – supply and demand. The very fact that organic food is less available in lower income areas may be evidence that it is unaffordable to lower income brackets because the suppliers do not think they will be able to sell their wares in those areas.
Indeed, for those in lower income areas, the problem is compounded even further for those living on public assistance; specifically, on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as Food Stamps, eating healthy becomes exponentially more difficult. As we discovered during our research, even purchasing healthy, organic food from New York City’s (NYC) many greenmarkets is not as simple as one might think.
While most greenmarkets in NYC accept SNAP benefits by way of Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) (7), the acceptance of such exchanges is neither coherent nor consistent. For instance, we found at the Tribeca Greenmarket, located on Greenwich Street between Chambers and Duane in Manhattan, accepts EBT on Saturdays year round but it is only accepted on Wednesdays from Thanksgiving to April. Furthermore, the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), part of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, is only accepted July through November (8).
Given the shame that often accompanies those on public assistance, it is easy to see why such confusing schedules of benefit acceptance could cause those most vulnerable and in need to stay away, lest they attempt to make a purchase and be denied, perhaps furthering their shame (9).
Contrast Tribeca’s acceptance schedule with that of the Union Square Greenmarket where EBT purchases are accepted anytime the market is open and year round, how the confusion must grow for making purchases for those on public assistance (10).
For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a mother of two, struggling to make ends meet, on public assistance, with a full time job (or two), trying to provide some semblance of a healthy life for her children, including a healthy diet. Let’s call her Sarah. Now imagine Sarah going to a greenmarket where EBT benefits are accepted on a scattered and sporadic basis. It is easy to see how Sarah might never return if she happened to arrive when benefits are not accepted, lest she waste her time — time she does not have to spare — again. Let’s take this example even further:
One might argue that Sarah could simply look up the benefits schedule online. This assumption doesn’t take into account the very real problem of the “digital divide” for those living on public assistance.Many people on public assistance, people just like Sarah, have no access to the internet due to lack of a computer or internet capabilities in their home (11). Therefore, Sarah can’t “simply look up” anything, something most of take for granted.
Sarah’s story is a story told a thousand times over in neighborhoods across the country. As we discover below, even those not necessarily on public assistance struggle to find inexpensive organic and healthy food.
Ling, a citizen journalist involved in the study, explored East Harlem to research information and opinions on the topic-at-hand. It is a predominantly lower income, Latino community with an average annual income of $34,379, 40% without a high school diploma (compared to rest of NYC at 20%) with 33.4 percent of the population is below the poverty line (city-data.com).
Three neighborhood residents were interviewed with regards to organic food, and whether they considered it to be too expensive. The first did not care about, nor does she consume “organic” food. She claimed to not know where should could purchase some either.
Resident’s 2 and 3, a couple, said that they ate healthy, but not organic. Resident 2, Lyz said “An apple is an apple.” She also added that organic foods were too far away to purchase and too expensive. She said her local supermarkets are disgusting.
Resident 3 didn’t believe that organic foods were really organic, and thought that they could be anything.
There is a local supermarket a short walk from where the interviews were conducted and there is an “organic”section next to the fresh produce in the store. However, it was a very small selection with an unkempt presentation with the food and boxes unorganized, as can be seen from the photos below.
Little proximity to organic food purveyors is definitely a preventative consideration for many neighborhoods. One alternative to traveling from one part of the city to another comes in the form of a business called Farm Box Direct (http://www.farmboxdirect.com/). This small company offers a weekly delivery service of organic fruits and produce. Customers can choose from three sizes of deliveries that range in price from $32.95 – $54.95. Assuming a large box would be purchased for a family of four at a cost of $54.95 we can look at the contents and see how well the family would eat.
Included in the large box are 5 avocados, 1 bunch of asparagus, 1 head of butter lettuce, 1 bunch of rainbow carrots, 2 8 ounce boxes of mushrooms, 4 Roma tomatoes, 3 zucchini squash, 1 head of chard, and 1 head of kale. From this it seems like the family would have salad fixings for at least two dinners and veggies for maybe two more. It is hard to know whether this amount of food could be stretched farther. Cost wise we could deduce that the family spends $7.50 per day on vegetables. This does not include any fruits, which are available but come at a much lower quantity ratio than the vegetables.
In the event that the cost fits into a family budget, there might be another obstacle to shopping with Farm Box Direct. At this time, delivery is available in limited neighborhoods. A test with the zip code of a co-researcher determined that no delivery was available to his home at this time. Farm Box Direct says it is expanding delivery districts as quickly as possible.
There are other delivery services that function in the same manner as Far Box Direct. One is Go Organic NY (http://goorganicnyc.com/). This company seems to have a broader delivery area but requires larger minimum purchases. Also, if we look at the prices from the Fresh Direct the costs of both a dozen organic eggs or half gallon of organic milk are listed at $3.99. On the Go Organic NY site eggs are listed at $4.59 and milk is listed at $4.49. It appears that costs will be higher for items on this site.
Another factor to consider is that none of these sites accept SNAP benefits so that families with the tightest budgets are unlikely to use these services. Often the neighborhoods with the lowest income factors are those with the least amount of natural food resources. While delivery services are nice, at this time, it seems that they are not a solution for those with limited grocery budgets.
So how do the inequities in food quality choices play out in different communities in New York City? According to the New York State website, NYC.GOV, Harlem has a major obesity epidemic going on, but then so does all of New York City. Thirty-four percent of New Yorkers are overweight and 22% are obese, they say. In East and Central Harlem, 4 in 10 children, kindergarten age are obese. One in 7 high school age kids are obese, and one in 4 adults are even more are overweight if not obese. So it’s not shocking that 8 in 10 adolescents and 9 in 10 adults report eating fewer than 5 servings of fruit and vegetables. It goes without saying, at this point, that there is an increased cost for eating healthy, let alone organic or locally grown. But what if you can’t even get these healthy and or more sustainably minded, foods anywhere near to where you live? The issue of exercise and having the leisure time to partake in it is another yet connected factor in this obesity epidemic. (http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/dpho/dpho-harlem-obesity.pdf).
My colleagues have done a tremendous job of giving you some facts about organic food and making healthy choices in regards to your food selection. However, after all the information has sifted through your brain you must now make a decision. A healthy declaration of sorts as to whether you will buy organic products or not. That’s why I’m here to help you gain some perspective in terms of how organic food and healthy food choices can affect a family in a positive way.
As a single morbidly obese father of 3 children, I was forced to make some decisions. I was tipping the scales at over 550 lbs and needed an immediate change. My children had food allergies that made them hate vegetables and fruits. Food that I grew up adoring pears, bananas, and apples made my children violently sick. Fortunately, they were not overweight but if I let the situation get any worse they could easily have shared my fate. So the first thing I did was get back to basics. My nutritionist gave me a site that linked back to something I learned in my childhood. The food pyramid, now modernized site http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ gave me great resources on how my family should be eating. On my plate was two parts meat, one part rice or another starch and maybe a vegetable. From this site I learned that my eating portions were really out of prospective. Thus, from then on our family portions adjusted.
Then we had to find vegetables that not only provided proper nutrients but also allowed us to eat them without rashes and other physical reactions. My children suffered from food allergies that started when we bought vegetables and fruits locally from corner vendors and our local supermaket. After trying frozen food alternative and finding them mainly inedible I was confounded on what to do in terms of healthy food choices for my family. That is where the word organic came into my vocabulary. The USDA has their own standard for what is organic and what’s not. However, after reading their definitions all I had for my trouble was a headache. Yet feel free to read them at your own peril, http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml.
Then, a friend of mine told me about small farmers and farmers markets that frequented the NYC area. Living in the Bronx these are hard to come by. So as a family we had to make food shopping an all-day affair. We would go to big box stores, local markets, even take regular trips to Chinatown to get not only organic but fresh vegetables in bulk at a fair price. So the results are, my children eat fruits and vegetables every day. Actually, we have no sugar treats in the house just fresh fruits and a plethora of sorbets in the freezer.
My weight loss is still a work in progress. From the starting point of 550 lbs, I am now down to 470 lbs. Not bad for only thirteen months of eating healthy. Now we eat organic food as often as possible but we have also learned how to thoroughly wash and prepare non-organic food in a way where food allergies are now in the past. Please also understand that many farmers cannot get the label “organic” but using many of the same organic food processes to produce their product. I know it sounds like a mouthful . Yet, as the defintion of “organic “ is so unclear and the paperwork so cumbersome many growers forgo the process. So your best bet is to ask the farmer or produce manager where the food come from and do your own research.
Now let me be clear, veggies alone did not help me shed the pounds. However, it was the overall rethinking of everything that I ate and how it affected me overall. So we reduced the amount of processed foods we ate. We rarely drink sodas. if any. One healthy choice in the right direction helped me to see a lucid path toward my own eating choices and healthy lifestyle.
So in conclusion, we can gather all the data for you in terms of organic food and healthy living. However, in the end you must make the choice for yourself regarding what food is right for you and your family. As for me I am starting phase two of my slim down. Starting April 1, I will be drinking nothing but juices for 30 days. I wish I could claim this thought as my own but my former football playing friends and I watched a documentary entitled Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead (http://www.fatsickandnearlydead.com/). After watching this film we were inspired to try this ourselves. Look for my blogs in the next few weeks.
1. (http://www.sustainlv.org/focus_on/50-toxic-food-additives/, pkc, 9, 27, 2012).
2. (http://www.relfe.com/microwave.html, Microwave Cooking is Killing People!, Stephanie Relfe B.Sc., n.d.).
3. (http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?dbid=19&tname=faq, How Healthy Nutrition Builds Health Starting With The Cells, pkc, para 3).
4. (http://www.cornucopia.org/2013/10/unveiled-gmo-labeling-opponents-come-shadows/, Unveiled: GMO Labeling Opponents Come Out of the Shadows, 10, 22nd, 2013, para 2).
5. (http://www.gcbl.org/live/food/healthy-diet/what-do-food-labels-really-mean, What do food labels really mean? , n.d., para 2).
6. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/29/food-giants-pour-millions_n_4175592.html, Food Corporations Fight GMO Labeling Measure With Big Money, Eric M. Johnson and Carey Gillam, 10,29,13, para 18 and 18).fresh direct chart.jpg
7.”Our Markets | GrowNYC.” Our Markets | GrowNYC. Grown NYC, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. .
8. “Calendar of Events.” Tribeca Greenmarket. Grow NYC, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. .
9. Walker, Robert, et al. “Poverty in Global Perspective: Is Shame a Common Denominator?” Journal of Social Policy 42.02 (2013): n. pag. Social Policy Institute. Oxford Institute of Social Policy. Web. 27 Mar. 2014. .
10. “Calendar of Events.” Union Square Green Market. Grow NYC, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. .
11. “Exploring the Digital Nation: America’s Emerging Online Experience.” National Telecommunications and Information Administration, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. .