Living a Life Organic, A Discussion at the Chicago History Museum

As a young, starry-eyed chef, I spend a lot of time thinking about the social and environmental implications of the decisions that I make at the market and in my kitchen, particularly when it comes to negotiating my gourmand ambitions with my peasant wallet.  So I was eager to attend a panel discussion at the Chicago History Museum last night on the organic movement and its developments in Chicago that brought together panelists from the fields of journalism, retail and farming.  All the panelists were advocates of organic food, which means food that is produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones and antibiotics, and is not genetically modified or irradiated.   The panelists agreed on major reasons to choose organic, reasoning that reducing the amount of chemicals in our personal environments is good for our own personal health, good for the environment as a whole and its long-term ability to provide for us, and good for the farmers and factory workers who produce and distribute our food.

Paula Walker Miller, an education coordinator at Whole Foods Market, defined the three levels of organic according to the USDA: products can be labeled “100% organic,” “organic” (which means that 95% of the ingredients or more are organic) or “made with organic ingredients” (which means that 70% of the ingredients need to be organic).  Unlike almost meaningless terms like “natural” and “free-range”, the word “organic” is regulated by the government, so it’s a term you can trust in the grocery store or at a farm stand.

Urban Farmer Tim Murakami gave a tip about shopping at local farmer’s markets: take advantage of the opportunity to interact with the farmer directly and ask a whether they use synthetic pesticides on their crops.  Small producers are sometimes unable to undergo USDA certification due to the cost, but their farming practices may parallel or be close to organic.  Products from small, local producers also require less shipping and packaging, making them a good environmental choice.

One of the discussion’s most interesting moments was in response to a question regarding the preceived elitism of organic consumers.  Journalist Alison Neumer Lara, who writes for Earth911 and Crain’s Chicago Business, admitted to not always being able to afford to eat everything organic.  However, after the birth of her daughter, she became more conscious about reducing chemicals in her home and food, rationalizing that a 7-pound baby could not process the same amount of toxins as an adult, and that choosing conventional over organic produce was perhaps only a short-term savings.

The most convincing argument against the elitism of organics, however, came from Murakami, who pointed to Growing Home, the Chicago non-profit where he works that runs a year-round urban farm and provides job training and transitional employment for individuals facing significant barriers to employment.   In addition to selling produce at the Green City Market, the organization also sells to neighboorhood residents at a reduced cost right at the farm in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.  An organization like this shows how organics can both engage and serve diverse communities.

Chicago Public Radio recorded the discussion and will have a podcast available in about a week.  I’ll post a link to it on Urban Chickpea’s Facebook page when it’s up.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic: Do you choose to eat organic, and if so, why?  Are there any compelling arguments for pesticide use?  I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have about organics!

Images: (top) Courtesy of Chicago History Museum; (middle) Growing Home’s Wood Street Urban Farm, photo by Andrew Collings; (bottom) Growing Home’s Wood Street Urban Farm, photo by Andrew Collings

2 responses to “Living a Life Organic, A Discussion at the Chicago History Museum

  1. My cousin was spooked into organics about a decade ago, after our moms were diagnosed with cancers within a year of each other.

    In my quest for health, I think that switching from processed to whole foods will provide me a greater return than that of switching from conventional to organics. I have been trying to incorporate more organics into my cooking because I find that they taste better, but with my budget, I balk at the cost of the meat and dairy.

  2. Hi Aaditi, I agree with you that switching from processed to whole foods is an important switch to make when it comes to your personal health, and that it probably has a much greater effect on your health than organic versus conventional produce.

    My reasons for choosing organic (when I can) are more environmentally and politically based. For example, fertilizers and pesticides run-off the farms where they are sprayed and contribute to algae blooms in the oceans that kill fish. For animals and animal products, the cost is much higher since all of the animals feed needs to be organic (and non GMO) as well. I’ll try to share some recipes that feature meat or dairy in small portions but flavorful ways, so the impact to your wallet is about the same as if you were purchasing a large portion of conventional.

    Thanks for your thoughtful input! I look forward to your comments!

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