Farmers’ Markets vs. Whole Foods

When eating organic turns to eating neurotic

Like many people today who fit in the same general census demographic as myself, I have increasingly become obsessed with food. Not in the typical Main Line, Starbucks-toting, “I’m on a diet” kind of way, but more of an over-thinking way. Seeking organic, while avoiding processed and factory farming, being a locavore, kind-to-animals-and-the-earth, ethical and quasi-vegetarian kind of way. And being this way has really started to feel like a neurosis. It’s also time-consuming and a lot of work.

[SIGNUP]It began so innocently. Upon discovering the methods of raising veal, many years ago, I refused to support it and stopped eating it. Slowly this expanded into not liking the means employed in the factory farming of pigs and cows. Then, along came mad cow disease, the horrible videos on the news and, of course, Oprah—Patron Saint of the Anti-Burger, though I’m not altogether sure she doesn’t actually eat burgers these days because it sure looked like she and Gail would eat just about anything on their camping trip (and no, I’m not going there). Then there was a piece on “60 Minutes” about the pork industry and its unpleasant conditions and toxic runoff and pollution of ground water, and finally I just stopped eating pork and beef because the enjoyment was gone. Meat didn’t taste as good once I got my damn conscience involved.

The next thing I knew I was reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and worrying about corn in everything. Really, it’s ubiquitous. Once I found out that farmed fish are being fed corn—seriously—that’s when I had to download the Monterey Aquarium’s Sustainable Fish App. That won’t slow you down at all when ordering dinner in a restaurant. And as if it weren’t bad enough that the government subsidizing of corn secretly landed it as a major ingredient of almost everything we eat, then they genetically modified it. So that became a new concern. Apparently I wasn’t concerned enough already.

So of course the next step was going to farmers’ markets on Saturdays with my reusable bags, and I even joined a farm co-op to buy the smallest heads of broccoli ever harvested at three times the normal price because they were grown 20 minutes away without pesticides. To hell with giant, chemical-laden, genetically modified Acme produce that I could actually make a whole meal with. I’m supporting our local farmers! So what if the vegetable soup only serves two. Or one and a half. We can supplement with the really expensive, healthy organic bread that’s hard as a rock.

But the whole local-produce thing started to spiral out of control. I was ending up with a vegetable drawer full of things I never ended up cooking, because I’m not quite as creative in the kitchen as I kid myself into believing I will be. Week after week, seasonal things like 10 tiny turnips, a $5 Romanesco cauliflower the size of a golf ball, or local artichokes that I still haven’t figured out how to manipulate into dinner went bad. Bags of unwashed organic lettuces would be trumped by the supermarket bag of pre-washed lettuce my husband bought because it’s easier to just rip open and serve. Plus I never seemed to have the ingredients I actually needed for all my old standby recipes. I had to worry less about the local farmers and go back to supporting Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods with an actual shopping list.

Still, the meat thing is an ongoing issue. I’m down to organic, free-range poultry and wild, sustainable fish, and while I don’t feel particularly good about eating even those, I can’t seem to figure out how to live without them. God help me if I get to know any chickens personally or my daughter gets a goldfish, because then I’ll have to go vegan, and that just seems like something that requires even more effort than I’m already exerting. Which is a lot.

In a perfect world, I would like to be “vegan-ish” like vegan guru and cookbook author Kathy Preston. She’s the Juvedermed one who turned Oprah and her staff vegan-ish for a few weeks; they claimed to love it, but probably went for burgers after the show. The problem is, every time I go to Whole Foods and look at the soy cheese and the fake meat products, I can’t help but recoil. They seem so … processed—the exact thing I’m trying so hard to get away from. The vegan foods seem like a paradox because anything that’s made to look like something it isn’t gives the impression of being unhealthy. I can’t bring myself to buy Tofurkey. I’m just not there yet.

Of course, there are the days when I’ve gone to three grocery stores for organics or crossed the region to buy my husband a grass-fed steak (because I can’t take everyone else down with me in my meatless obsession), I just want to say “fuck it” and hit the McDonald’s Drive-Thru for a Big Mac. For those moments, I keep the organic raw almonds in the console of the car.

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  • Tricia

    THANK YOU!! It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one struggling to eat better, for myself and the environment. After I read up on the subject, I was a strict vegetarian for a year, but I can’t stomach fake meat and I’ve read that some soy is also genetically modified, so it’s a constant dilemma. At this point I’m mostly meat free and hoping that small changes make a difference.

  • andy

    I don’t understand why the Farmer’s Markets (that are sometimes outside, like Clark Park) are so expensive. They are not paying rent. The products are good, don’t get me wrong, but who can afford it? I realize that most of it comes here from the Lancaster area but still …

  • Jen H

    Agreed! I can’t stand meat substitutes. I’d just rather make a meal with whole grains and veggies and skip the fake meat altogether.
    All those processed substitutes really aren’t healthy. Stick to whole foods in their natural state and you’re much safer – and it’s easier to cook with them!

  • wake up

    If you think it is expensive now – just wait!

    There has never been a more important time to get to know your farmer and the real price of food.

    We will soon see the rise of everything on the wholefoods and TJs shelves as gas prices climb.

    Soon Farmer’s markets will not only offer the best food but the best prices.

    And it is not the growers fault that you do not know how to cook. If only Oprah could team up with Jamie Oliver and get Americans shopping and cooking right.

    for more info http://www.sierraclub.org/truecostoffood/

    Philadelphians like most American”s have it all wrong and are about to get a rude wake up call about cheap food.

  • http://southphillyfoodcoop.org/blog/ Dan

    Andy,
    It’s a subtle but important point. The Farmer’s Markets products are not expensive so much as the industrially produced stuff in the super markets is artificially and unsustainably cheap. The industrial products don’t reflect the costs we all pay anyway in farm subsidies, environmental mitigation for the damage they do, health care costs and even what we pay to defend our interests in oil producing countries. And most of that money ends up going to wealthy corporate interests already. If those costs were printed somewhere on the price tag, you’d quickly see how really expensive that stuff is.

    The money we pay for farmer’s market items goes directly to the farmer who raised the food. And my experience with that food (through a CSA) is a lot better than the author’s. Our broccoli has been great.

  • Dan from Reading

    Excellent post! I think you captured the feelings and struggles of a lot of people, including me!

    Thank you.

  • julie

    Misleading title..Whole foods is mentioned once and only in regard to its fake meat, not its availability of produce and other things found at a farmer’s market..

  • Angie

    Love it! I’ve turned this lifestyle into my own little adventure. This is how I have had success (and hopefully others will, too!). I use a local organic grocery delivery service that brings a box of local or sustainibly grown organic fruits and veggies to my door every week! And, with the help of my two favorite cookbooks – VEGANOMICON, and APPETITE FOR REDUCTION, I use all the new/quirky produce and have expanded my palette and my culinary skills. I don’t miss meat at all (unless I had one too many martinis , and then the Chick Filet still haunts my mind!).

  • Jen

    I agree with Dan- it’s not so much that good food is expensive, but that crappy food is cheap. Yes, eating healthy requires effort. It requires determination, but it’s worth it in the end.

    CSA’s aren’t for everyone. If you aren’t adventurous, don’t like to try new things and don’t like to/know how to cook, then don’t join. Just buy items from the farmers market instead.

    And it is possible to eat organic/local foods on a budget. I know, I do it. It all depends on where one’s priorities lie. Most Americans have no problem dropping hundreds on a fancy car payment, bling, huge TV’s, fancy shoes/clothing, expensive nights out… but when it comes to eating well, everyone complains about the price. Give me a break.

    I would much rather give my hard-earned money to a local farmer than a huge company.

  • Ann

    While the term “free range” implies a nice flock of chickens enjoying a day in the sun, please do a little reading about conditions which may be imposed on farmed poultry while still allowing for it to be labeled “free range.” A good current read is Kathy Freston’s “Veganist.” Once you make a committment to a plant-based diet, it really doesn’t have to be inconvenient or expensive. A Vegan lifestyle is a lot kinder to the wallet than one that includes animal protein.

  • LeBoulavardier

    “in the typical Main Line, Starbucks-toting “I’m on a diet” …You start with that giant grain of salt and then emphasize your culinary and Market illiteracy. You’re perfect for Philly Mag. The journalistic twinkie you penned is as vacuous as your “food obsession”.

  • Nancy

    Congrats, Kelly. Now you’re vapid, vacuous, and vegan-lite.

  • Melissa

    I am a level 5 vegan and I do not eat anything that casts a shadow!

    Seriously though. . . if you do not like the idea of processed fake meats maybe you should look into a Raw Food Vegan diet. It is the best thing that anyone could ever do for their body and mind.

  • Smriti k

    I have been a raw vegan eater for almost 7 years. This article reflects my state now. But I just get greens and fruits from FM and make a list on what’s needed. If anything is missing then do WF. It is a tedious job following a healthy lifestyle…..xo