Food choices - what and from where?

19 March 2018
March, week 3 in The Simple Home

There has been a sharp rise in the number of products labelled 'organic' and 'free range' on supermarket shelves in the past few years. Often I am asked if the weekly shopping should include organic or free range fruit, vegetables, meat and chicken, as well as the newer organic products we’re seeing now – butter, cheese, wine and tinned goods. It’s a tricky one to answer because there is never just one clear path to follow, we’re all so different; we have different needs, tastes and incomes, and we all know that 'organic' and 'free range' come at a price.

I’m lucky to live in Australia – and to pinpoint it more closely, in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. Not only do we have a beautiful climate and adequate rainfall here to grow a wide variety of backyard food all year long, we also have a lot of producers’ markets and small local markets. Within a short distance of where I live there is a dairy, an organic supermarket and butcher and a food co-op with a lot of organic produce such as milk, cheese, grains, flour, dried fruit, chocolate, tea, coffee, fruit and vegetables. So for me, it’s not a question of, Where do I find organic food? It’s easy to find. The question here is, Do I buy it?

Like many of us, I didn’t question whether to choose organic when I first came to this way of living. But in the years since then, I’ve thought a lot about what 'organic' means and if I should tweak my budget, and go without other things, to buy mainly organic food. The answer for me now is no. When I have a choice, I prefer to buy fresh and local and in doing that, I have the added bonus of keeping my food dollars in my community, supporting our local producers.

I'm growing many herbs and ginger in pots and boxes now.

When I consider whether I should buy organic food now, I think not only of the synthetic chemical means of production but also social factors and logistics. It’s not only a question about how food is grown; it’s much more than that. Do I want to buy organic food if the people producing it are paid next to nothing? Is organic food the best option if it’s been flown across the world from place of production to place of sale? Shouldn’t food miles play a part in my food choices? Should I still buy organic apples, potatoes and onions if they have been stored for months in a coldroom?

And what about 'free range'? We all think we know what free range means but you can check what it means in Australia. If you live in a rural or semi-rural area like me, you probably know the types of producers in the local area so if you're buying local, make your buying decisions based on your local knowledge.

Here is one of my new free rangers, this is Jean, a Barnevelder, who will start laying the most beautiful golden-yolked eggs in the next six weeks.  Our chickens are locked in a safe house at night and wander out onto the grass during the day. Their house remains open so when they wish to lay an egg, eat grain or have a drink, or if they see an eagle overhead, they go back in. Eating grass adds natural Omega oils to the eggs.

I have had a shift in thinking, and now I don’t just rely on a label to tell me about the product. When we buy our food, I think we should not only look at the health component, which takes in whether it was grown organically or not, but we should also consider how far it’s travelled from point of production to our door, how it’s packaged, and where that packaging came from. We should consider the means of production and the workers who produced it. A premium choice should be about more than chemicals and price. I think it should also include social justice and sustainability.  That's one of the reasons it's good to shop at a farmers' market.  If it's a genuine farmer's market, farmers will be there and you can ask them face-to-face about their produce.

Some of our new girls mixing with the older hens.

We need to think about animals slaughtered for our food. I want the eggs and meat I eat to come from creatures that have lived a decent life. I’d rather never eat those products again if it meant I was supporting and helping to perpetuate cruelty in the form of caged poultry, gestation pens or whatever else. For me, genuine free-range, fresh and local are premium products and they outweigh organic from another country, or even another state.

I make these pickled cucumbers because I can no longer find jars of Australian ones. If any country can consistently grow good produce, it's us, so I don't understand how it got to this.

It may sound like I’m trying to complicate buying a bag of potatoes and a pork chop, but I believe it’s important to shop ethically, and that using our consumer dollars thoughtfully is one of the best ways we have to bring about the changes we want to see. There is no right or wrong answer because the solution that works for all of us will be dependent on budget and supply, and possibly other factors for some people.  

Hanno and I partially deal with this choice by growing some of our own herbs, fruit and vegetables, as well as the eggs our hens give us.  Doing the gardening and tending the chickens produces the freshest of all food. Even if we were millionaires, no amount of money would routinely give us fresher organic food than our backyard produce.  Often it's eaten within an hour of being picked.  It's not the solution for everyone, but it certainly works for us and for many other readers as well.  Our topic next month will be growing food in containers so if you want to do what we do, stick around when we dive into the wonderful world of compost, worms, seeds and food plants.