If you’re eating USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) certified organic food, you’re doing your part to reduce the amount of unhealthy chemicals in our environment. You’re protecting bees, promoting better treatment of animals, and making the soil healthier, which means more nutrient-dense food. So now what? If you’re fully committed to an all organic lifestyle and you want the highest quality organic food you can buy, here are a few things you can do to go to the next level.
Buy from local, organic, and family-run farms
As more and more large-scale corporate farms begin to grow organic food, some have pressured the USDA to loosen a few of the organic standards that make organic food production more costly. Small and family-run organic farms tend to be less likely to take shortcuts that could threaten the integrity of the organic food you eat. Ask your farmer where their farm is, the size of the farm, how they treat their soil, and how they handle pests and weeds. Getting to know your local farmer helps you develop a deeper level of trust and understanding about how your food is grown.
Buying from local farms not only supports your local economy, it means your produce is more likely to be fresh, not stored and refrigerated in large warehouses or transported long distances. You’re also more likely to get food that’s ripe and in season.
Source local, organic, and family-run farms in your area and ask where they sell their produce, eggs, and/or meat. If you can, buy from the farm directly or ask if they are part of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.
Contact the farm
If you buy organic meat from a grocery store, ask the grocery store manager for the name of the organic farm they purchase the meat from. Call, email, or visit the farm and ask a few questions to help you determine whether the farm adheres to the highestUSDA organic livestock requirements. If you can’t visit in person, try to find pictures of the farm online. Do you see animals grazing naturally?
It’s a good sign if the farm representative is friendly and willing to share information about the farm. If you aren’t satisfied with their answers, get your meat elsewhere and let the grocery manager know. If you suspect that the farm may be in violation of USDA regulations, report them (see below for how). If you aren’t satisfied with the meat or fish sold at your local markets, search online for farms or ranches that will ship directly to consumers.
Shop at ethnic markets
This is a great way to discover new and possibly more nutritious food than what you’ll find at your traditional supermarket chain. Traditional grocery stores tend to carry produce that’s easy to grow and transport, not necessarily the most nutritious. Trying exotic varieties of food at ethnic markets, may expose you to food with higher levels of nutrition.
Buy from small organic brands
Many of the small organic brands we know and love have been purchased by big companies. Annie’s Homegrown was sold to General Mills. Coca-Cola has a 40 percent stake in Honest Tea. Applegate Farms was sold to Hormel. Large companies may not keep the same high standards and may even change recipes to make products less expensive to mass produce. If you want the highest quality, buy from small, family-owned organic companies that are fully committed to organic farming principles (see the “Learn More” section below for help).
Look for additional certification
Demeter Certified Biodynamic
If you’re looking to go “beyond organic,” biodynamic may be for you. Biodynamic farming surpasses the USDA organic standards, as it’s a holistic approach that balances the spiritual, ethical, and ecological aspects of farming. Biodynamic farmers never use synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides and they put an emphasis on biodiversity and animal welfare—no cages for chickens and no antibiotics for animals.
Non-GMO Project Verified means the food has little to no GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Although USDA certification also means that the food is non-GMO, many consumers don’t realize that. That’s why some farmers take the time and spend the extra money to get the Non-GMO Project Verified seal as well. It’s important to note that the Non-GMO Project Verified label tests for GMOs and that’s it. It doesn’t verify that good soil practices were used or that the food is organic or grown without pesticides.
Animal Welfare Approved
If you care about animal welfare (and who doesn’t?), this group claims to have the most rigorous standards. And only family-run farms can bear their seal. USDA certified organic does cover animal welfare issues, including what the animal eats, but if you want another level of accountability, look for this label.
Certified Naturally Grown (CNG)
Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) targets very small, local farmers who can’t afford the cost or commit to doing the paperwork required to get the USDA certification. They claim the standards are just as high, if not higher, than USDA organic. The farmers are peer reviewed, or inspected by other farmers. You can find their certified farms online.
Not all strawberries are the same. Depending on the farming practices and the health of the soil, some can be far more nutritious than others. How can you tell which basket of organic strawberries is the most nutritious when faced with a gazillion choices at the farmers market?
Buy a refractometer. First, use a garlic press to extract the juice from the piece of vegetable or fruit you want to test. Then put a few drops of juice in the meter and point it toward the light. The refractometer will give you a number, or a “brix reading,” which measures the pounds of sucrose, fructose, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins, hormones, and other solids in one hundred pounds of plant juice. Typically, the higher the number, the more nutritious the food, but use this “brix chart” as your guide. If one strawberry sample scores an 8 and another scores a 15, you’ll know which one to buy (the one that scores a 15). If the produce has a low reading, the farmer isn’t adequately addressing soil health.
Grow your own food
Growing your own food is the best way to know what you’re eating. You can start a garden on any budget and in any house or apartment size. Go to your local nursery or look online for ideas. If you need seeds, check out the Seed Savers Exchange, Sustainable Seed Company, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. For more info about seeds, go to Organic Seed Alliance FAQ.
Contact the USDA
If you suspect that a farm is violating USDA organic standards, you may file a complaint in the following ways:
Mail: USDA Agricultural Marketing Service
NOP Compliance and Enforcement Branch 1400 Independence Avenue SW
Room 2648-S; Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250-0268
Organic Authority – “The 20 Most Credible Natural Food Brands”
Mental_Floss – “12 Natural and Organic Brands Owned By Big Food”
Alternate – “Court Rules Consumers and Farmers Can Sue USDA for Weakening Standard That Allows Synthetics in Organic”
Truthout – “USDA Accused of Weakening Organic Standards – New Rules Accommodate Big Agribusiness”
Rodale’s Organic Life – “The Best Farm Stands In The U.S.”
United States Department of Agriculture – “Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means”
USDA – “Community Supported Agriculture”
USDA – “Organic Standards”
Bionutrient Food Association – “Brix”
New York Times – “Breeding the Nutrition Out Of Our Food”
UC Davis – “Soil Fertility Management For Organic Crops”
University of Minnesota – “Organic Matter Management”
Feature Image courtesy of Attila Siha on Flickr at Creative Commons