I recently had occasion to do something I haven’t done in many years; rely on a regular grocery store for my food. It was an eye-opening experience, and gave me some insight into the challenges faced by those who advocate for local and/or organic food, or even an increase in home cooking.
In December, I travelled to North Carolina to spend 10 days or so caring for my ailing grandparents as part of a family rotation among myself and my aunts & uncles (I’m the oldest of my generation). Among other things, this involved preparing all meals, which I was naturally happy to do. It did of course involve the use of a grocery store, which I haven’t done at any meaningful scale for years. Those who read our What We Eat series know that our year-round food is largely farm-grown and preserved, with most of the rest purchased in bulk or sourced from small local stores (such as our winter milk supply). We make quick trips to “normal” groceries for some toiletries or occasional items like orange juice or lemons, but that’s about it.
The NC store in question was a relatively upscale one, about equivalent to Hy-Vee in Columbia. The produce section had wide selections of organic fruit and produce, locally bottled milk was available, as was free-range chicken and so on. I decided that this was an opportunity to experiment with comparing quality and prices of conventional vs. organic items, something I would otherwise have no reason to do.
What I found was rather disturbing, though not terribly surprising. None of the organic produce I bought was at all distinguishable from the non-organic, and much of it was worse. The organic grapes went moldy within several days, the shrink-wrapped lettuce started growing brown almost as soon as it was opened, and the garlic was dull and rubbery. Not that the non-organic stuff was stellar either, but it generally seemed fresher and longer-lasting. Everything was, of course, sourced from California or equally distant lands and I had no information regarding its date of harvest, shipment, packaging, or arrival on shelf to guide me as to its potential quality and freshness.
I bought all sorts of out-of-season stuff; tomatoes, melons, etc. Regardless of organic status, it was all pretty bland. The main difference in the organic produce was its non-existant shelf life. I was able to make plenty of scratch cooked, healthy, varied meals, but none of them tasted remotely like they do with fresh farm produce or even our (fresh-) frozen or canned goods in the winter.
The “free-range organic” whole chicken I bought was flabby, watery, and fairly tasteless. So much water ran out of it during roasting that I had to bail out the shallow pan. I had no interest in buying a medication-laced conventional chicken for comparison, but it couldn’t have been much worse. Compared to the solid, properly moist, richly flavored meat we get from our own chickens (or from Pierpont Farms in the past), it was crap. And thus way overpriced.
So here are some observations/conclusions from this experience:
1) I’m not surprised more people don’t cook from scratch. When the ingredients at the store aren’t very good or very fresh, the food either doesn’t taste very good or needs the additive of lots of salt or flavorings. At that point, maybe you’re better off just purchasing the processed/pre-made stuff and saving the effort of recreating it at greater expense. Because neither of the grandparents eat much, I was effectively cooking the same amount of food as for two, and I spent an astounding amount of money just producing basic, healthy meals with no snacks or unnecessary luxury items, and relying on lots of items they already had. If that’s what it costs to cook healthily from a grocery store (I was making things like pasta, salads, fish, soups, etc.) no wonder Americans are obese and reliant on cheap processed food.
2) I’m not surprised organics can be a tough sell. I suspect that the low quality of the organic produce in this case was not due to its organic-ness per se, but to the fact that it probably doesn’t sell as well or as quickly as the regular stuff, and so sits on the shelf longer. This is especially true in the current economic climate; folks who are cutting back are certainly going to trim the more expensive organic stuff when its actual quality and taste are no different. Vague food ethics rightly take a back seat to imminent pocketbooks in such times. So in a store like this, which is trying to push organics, you get grapes sitting on the shelf for far longer than conventional grapes, and of course turn out to be worse. This is especially true when you have no idea how old the produce it because there are no labels of such. Thus customers who do try them conclude, naturally, that organics are a crock and a scam. It’s a vicious cycle.
3) This explains part of the continued perception of farmers markets as “expensive” or “elitist” in some circles. If you haven’t actually bought produce from a producer-only market, you probably haven’t had the experience of opening up your fridge two weeks later to find that lettuce from the market still looking perfectly fresh and still tasting better. I got multiple comments from customers last year that my greens lasted three weeks or more after purchase, and I’m hardly alone in that. But if your experience of “alternative” produce is high-mileage, long-shelf-sitting organic that isn’t worth the price, no wonder you see farmers markets as potentially the same.
Keep in mind that this is based on one store. Maybe Hy-Vee or other stores do a better job of turning over the product (though consider the potential food waste in such a system). But, to me, this was pretty eye-opening experience as to the challenges facing cooks, eaters, and shoppers in our standard food system. It made me happier than ever with our own choices, and truly grateful to return to the farm and go back to eating traditional, farm-raised food about which I knew everything.