Nutrition Connection: Down on the Farm • Fall 2008
Each Nutrition Connection article is approved for 1 hr CE for CDM, CFPPs and 1 CPE hour (level 1) for RDs and DTRs.
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Purchasing Locally Grown and Organic Products for Your Menu
Going green is in style. In case you haven’t noticed, your teenage daughter will be wearing organic t-shirts to school, people will be carrying cloth reusable bags to the grocery store, and gardens will be popping up in your neighbors’ back yards. You will now need to know how to use words such as “locally grown,” “environmentally friendly,” “all natural,” and “organic” in a sentence when asked about what you are doing to improve the environmental impact on our planet. These new trends have become part of a cultural movement toward sustainability, reusability and environmentally sound products, services, and lifestyles. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 83% of Americans want to reduce their energy use, 74% also want to use less water, 73% aim to avoid environmentally harmful products, and 73% want to buy environmentally beneficial products.
Do you think this doesn’t affect the Dietary Manager? Think again. As the person on the forefront of purchasing and planning the menus, this issue will undoubtedly become important as you make decisions for your family, and your facility. Traditional companies such as Wal-mart, General Mills, and even Kellogg are getting into the game. Increasing consumer demand for healthy and nutritious food availability at the retail level, will drive these same demands in foodservice in dramatic ways over the next few years. Are you aware of the issues? Will you be ready?
A Quick Blast to the Past
Around the time of World War II, food producers started to see the benefits of large-scale farming operations, synthetic pesticides and hormone use to increase yield per acre of land. The average harvested acre of farmland now yields 200% more wheat than it did 70 years prior. Chickens have grown 25% larger and in less time, while being fed less food. Advances in breeding, nutrition and the use of synthetic hormones allow cows to produce 60% more milk. These amazing production increases allow us to purchase food at a fraction of what we spent in the first part of the 20th century. Local farmers raising food that fed communities became a thing of the past, and we no longer know where most of the food on our plate comes from, or how it arrived at our local grocery store.
Although some of these changes seemed necessary to support an ever-growing demand for inexpensive and available food, even when not in season locally, no one has stopped to examine the effects on energy use, our food supply, or our bodies as these new methods evolved, until now.
What is Organic?
The word “organic” refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and meat. This system of agriculture is designed to encourage soil and water conservation while reducing pollution. The differences between organic farming and conventional farming include the absence of conventional methods for fertilization, controlling weeds, preventing livestock disease through antibiotics, and prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Crop rotations and spreading mulch can assist organic farmers in killing weeds without the use of chemicals.
How do you know if it’s Organic? - Look for the Symbol
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the certification program which requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate the item from farm to table, including how the food is grown, handled and processes before finally reaching a consumer.
Consequently, all foods bearing the USDA symbol must be certified organic and have been proven to meet the standards. If the food is a single ingredient such as fruits or vegetables, it can and should be labeled as 100% organic and carry the USDA seal (top-left). If the food contains multiple ingredients, such as bread, or cereals etc., it is able to carry the USDA organic seal if 95% of its ingredients are certified organic.
The following terms are also used on the food label as identifiers:
- “100% organic” defines products that are completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
- “Organic” defines products that are made with at least 95% organic ingredients.
- “Made with organic ingredients” defines products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients. These products cannot use the organic seal on their packaging.
If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, it cannot bear the label or any claims, but can list the ingredients as organic within the ingredient ledger.
Other terms such as “all-natural,” “antibiotic & hormone-free,” “free-range” may appear on the label, but don’t confuse these with meaning organic. These terms describe other methods of growing or processing the food and are not regulated by the USDA in their use on the label.
To Buy, or Not To Buy
When standing in the grocery store, or ordering food for your facility, comparing organic tomatoes to traditionally grown tomatoes, many issues may cross your mind as deciding factors. One tomato may be shiny and near perfection in its appearance, while the other may be locally grown, and retain a dull and dingy outer coating with a few bumps and blemishes. One of the hallmarks of organic foods is their imperfections and inconsistencies. They were not genetically engineered to be perfect, nor were the traditional means of protecting them from bugs and insects used while growing. Still, what are the differences between these two tomatoes? What will help you make your choice on which to purchase for you, your family, or your facility?
The answer depends on to whom you speak with. Although conclusive evidence has not shown organic foods to be more nutritious than its traditional grown counterpart, a recent study compared nutritional content of conventional fruits, vegetables and some crops grown in the US 50 years ago to organically grown today and found a drastic reduction in nutrient content of today’s traditionally grown food. This could be due in part to crop rotations performed by organic farmers which result in heartier soil rich in vitamins and minerals etc. In addition, the length of time the vegetables remain in the soil is longer, and therefore provides an increased transfer time for nutrients from soil to crop. Currently, the USDA does not claim these products are more nutritious.
Quality and Appearance
Although organic foods are required to meet the same quality and safety standards as conventional foods, you may notice, as with the tomato example, they look slightly different due to their differing growing, handling and processing methods. Differing colors, shapes, or being a bit smaller might also be something to note with organic items. In addition, they also may spoil faster because of the lack of chemical waxes, preservatives or mold inhibitors. Other than these changes, they are essentially the same in terms of quality.
Reducing pollution and using methods to conserve soil fertility and water are hallmarks of organic farming. For some people, this alone could be enough to sway their decision to buy organic foods.
The Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 supported the need to significantly reduce pesticide levels in the food supply. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was responsible for this action and has helped to eliminate many residential uses of organophosphate insecticides, which are the most widely used pesticides in the world and are known to pose a potential hazard in both residential and commercial use.
How does cumulative consumption of pesticides impact the human body? Unfortunately, this has not been well studied. Certain studies show that eating organic foods results in a ‘dramatic and immediate’ reduction in exposure to pesticides used on crops. Of most concern when examining the effects of pesticide buildup are infants, children, and pregnant women because of the critical development that occurs during these stages. In one particular study, funded by the EPA, children between the ages of three and eleven who consumed organic foods for 15 days experienced a decrease in non-detectable levels of two organophosphate pesticides. However, this level returned to normal once they switched back to a conventional diet. The need for more research on this topic is necessary, as the majority of consumers will never eat strictly organic foods.
As many of us are already aware, organic food costs more than conventionally grown food. Factors such as lower crop yields, additional labor required for farming practices, and complying with government regulations drive prices upward, sometimes to 50% more than similar non-organic products.
Some people say you can just plain taste the difference. Others don’t agree with this subjective statement. In this case, you’ll just have to decide for yourself and buying local fresh foods during their peak seasons is the best way to add flavor and taste to your menu.
There is a difference between sustainable and non-sustainable organic. Consumers may think because a product like watermelons are organic, they were grown right down the street at a local farm. Don’t be fooled. The demand for organic produce, milk and other items are growing at a rate which exceeds production. Sales of organic foods have been surging over recent years at a rate which far exceeds that of conventional groceries. Companies that started as small dairy farms, have had to increase production to a point where serving just local customers is impossible. As a result, milk from organically fed cows in New Zealand could be turned into powder and shipped 9,000 miles to a producer of organic yogurt here in the United States. After becoming yogurt, it will travel a great distance to reach your grocery store shelves. It is getting harder and harder to source organic ingredients, and as a result, energy used to import ingredients is at an all-time high. For those concerned about reducing energy use and “going green,” this can make or break their choice of organic options.
The “gold standard” has become local organic because of it’s ability to “involve food production methods that do not harm the environment, respect workers, are humane to animals, provide fair wages to farmers, and support farming communities” as stated by Sustainable Table, an organization who supports this way of eating. By sourcing places within your community to buy local food items in season you can talk directly to the source, the farmer, to find out what farming practices he supports. Buying local also allows you to buy food when it is at its prime in terms of freshness and nutrient content. Time in transit for foods within trucks and freightliners means loss of freshness, and nutrients due to heat, light and other environmental factors.
The Glynwood Center, which “helps communities address change in ways that conserve local culture and natural resources while strengthening economic well-being”, published A Guide to Serving Local Food on Your Menu in April of 2007. This is a wonderful resource when trying to start buying locally and serving foods in a foodservice setting. The guide covers everything from analyzing your current menu, customer base and how to involve key players, to sourcing the right suppliers and working with distributors you currently have in place to buy locally.
The Bigger Picture
For additional information on buying organic and local, check out the resources below...
- Organic Consumers Association - www.organicconsumers.org
- Local Harvest - www.localharvest.com
- FoodRoutes Network - www.foodroutes.org
- National Organic Standards Program - www.ams.usda.gov/NOP
- Organic Trade Association - www.ota.com
- Slow Food USA - www.slowfoodusa.org
While Dietary Managers have traditionally focused on managing operations, menu development, customer service, and employee relations, all while retaining a working budget – it is now the time to look at the bigger picture. Your scope of influence can range from where you buy your foods, what type of foods you buy, and how you communicate the messages behind these choices to your staff, customers and even to your own family. By supporting local farmers markets, teaching your family, friends, children and staff about the benefits of buying organic and local, and speaking up at city council and other meetings, you can see positive changes that make these foods more accessible and acceptable within your community. There are numerous resources available on how to begin your journey of “going green.” A few small steps can be very powerful in taking care of not only your own heath, but the health of the land and animals that share it.
Kimberly Schwabenbauer, RD, LDN
About this author: Kimberly Schwabenbauer, RD, LDN, is a corporate dietitian with Super Bakery Inc, and a member of sports,cardiovascular, and wellness nutritionists (SCAN), dietitians in business and communications (DBC), and school nutrition services dietetic practice groups of the American Dietetic Association. Kim also provides sales and marketing development for Super Bakery's line of Organic Whole Grain Breads which are tailored to foodservice establishments' needs. Kim will be completing her first Ironman triathlon in Hawaii on October 11th, 2008.
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