Yesterday, I didn’t order my Thanksgiving turkey. The yellow sticky note had been sitting on the kitchen counter — and then hidden on my desk when I didn’t want to hear my husband ask again “have you called this guy back yet?”— for several weeks before I finally summoned the courage to call the friendly farmer in the ramshackle house surrounded by happily grazing free-range livestock. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it’s in my budget this year,” I finally confessed over the phone. “Okay,” he said cheerfully. That was it. No, “but why not?” Or “but my turkeys are tastier/happier/healthier (choose one) than all the rest.” I was a little disappointed at his nonchalant response. “I need to talk this through,” I thought. “Can’t we commiserate together?”
Well, it’s not like I’m going to buy a Butterball at the supermarket or anything. I’ll get a less expensive – but still supposedly “happy” turkey through the meat guy at our local farmer’s market, who in turn orders them from a colleague 70 miles away. I had done that in the past but switched when I found ice crystals in the cavity one Thanksgiving morning as I was washing out our now (admittedly) not-so-happy turkey. Fresh? Then why the crystals? If it’s not fresh, then what about the claim that it’s free-range? And “natural?” (Whatever that means.) So, on the recommendation of a totally greenie friend with serious bona fides (he and his wife built their own straw bale house), I switched the following year to a smaller-scale, more local source.
I visited this guy’s farm (it’s less than 10 miles from my house), heard his spiel about what his turkeys eat (including lots of bugs from his pastures) and picked up my definitely fresh bird (taking care not to spill the blood pooling on the bottom of the bag) a few days before Thanksgiving. But I got sticker shock when I wrote the check: more than $80 for a Thanksgiving turkey (yes, it was big, but not that big). The price was almost twice what I had been paying. This year, I’m going back to the more affordable, if more ambiguous, source.
No doubt others struggle with the same competing values: the desire for environmentally sustainable, humanely-produced food versus the realities of a limited budget (and in my case, a frugal upbringing deeply imprinted on my brain). Organically-produced, environmentally-friendly products often cost more. Many of us are willing pay extra for the added benefits of a cleaner, healthier planet, but how much more?
I’ve developed a few rules of thumb to help me navigate my own personal minefield of dinnertime dissonance.
One is that I don’t – nay, can’t – pay twice as much for a more environmentally-friendly product than a conventional one. It’s not just a budget issue; it’s part of my makeup. I find repeatedly that I just can’t bring myself to pay so much more when faced with two otherwise identical products in the supermarket. I free myself of that struggle in advance with a blanket rule: don’t pay twice as much.
The other is that not all conventional products are created equal. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) developed a Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce that ranks 48 popular fruits and vegetables based on pesticide residues detected through USDA and FDA testing. They consider the percentage of tested samples that register pesticide residue, the number of pesticides found, and the concentrations of each. I consider these ranks when deciding whether to choose the organic option over the conventional. Broccoli, cauliflower and mushrooms rank well, and so I don’t spend the extra money for organic. Conventional strawberries rank horribly (methyl bromide has been linked to numerous health and environmental problems – this one is just the latest) and so I buy organic when available. Other foods I simply won’t buy. Seafood guides from conservation groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium make it easy to eliminate the most destructive fisheries from your diet.
To be honest, even these rules get a little confused when I add local food to the mix. In Jefferson County, WV where I live, we’re lucky to be surrounded by some wonderful family farms that provide eggs, meat, fruit, greens and vegetables for much of the year. Most of our local farms are not certified organic (although many claim they farm without pesticides, antibiotics or growth hormones). But buying from my neighbors at one of our weekly farmer’s markets is more than an investment in healthy food. It’s an investment in landscape, community and quality of life. In some cases, that means paying more even for conventional foods. And it definitely means buying fresh local (usually conventional) berries for the few precious weeks they’re in season each year.
I know why the turkey farmer was so copacetic when I called the other day. He was checking in with me because he had a long list of well-off city-folks from DC and Baltimore ready to hop in their cars and pick up their genuine West Virginia-raised Thanksgiving turkey directly from the farm. It had become part of their holiday tradition, and (CO2 emissions to transport a single turkey 80 miles into the city notwithstanding) I was glad this farmer had so many customers that he could cross me cheerfully off his list. It freed up a bird for someone more deserving, and absolved me somewhat of my frugal foodie sins.
At least until next year.