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Organic Food: Fad or Healthy Eating?

Some would say organic food has become a fad. When it comes to shopping at grocery stores in Chicago, there are a plethora of organic markets to choose from. But what are organic grocers, really? And are they worth the few extra bucks? Which stores are truly organic?

Along with the question of being organic, many consumers ask whether food is grown locally. They also ask whether it is fair trade, meaning workers receive just compensation and work in adequate conditions, often on farms outside of the U.S.

Before you decide whether to shop organic, bear in mind that for food in the U.S. to meet organic standards it must meet conditions of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. The act states that food must be produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals such as insecticide, fungicide and rodenticide — chemicals that are meant to keep produce from rotting, being tampered with or discolored.

Virtually all food was organic until the 1930s, when people began introducing synthetic chemicals to the food supply. The first synthetic organic pesticide was DDT, which was discovered in 1939 by Swiss chemist Paul Muller.  It was considered a miracle treatment because it was toxic to a wide range of insects, it didn’t break down in the environment, it was not water-soluble, and was inexpensive. But in 1962, scientist Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” which reported that insect- and worm-eating birds were dying in areas where pesticides had been aerially applied.

In past decades, genetically modified crops became prevalent as a way to increase yields. In the 1990s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved a genetically modified crop for commercial use — a tomato that was genetically altered to be firmer longer than an average tomato.

Many scientists have demanded an executive ban on crop trials until effects of GMOs on health are studied.

Green Grocer Chicago, located at 1402 W. Grand Ave., sells organic food. According to owner and “head stock girl” Cassie Green, 95 percent of the produce they sell is organic. Green said they get their food from providers who use a standard third party certification such as the USDA, Oregon Tilth and The Midwest Organic Services Association. She said Green Grocer Chicago values fair trade, but doesn’t necessarily see it as relevant to their operation because they buy produce within the U.S., where labor laws are stricter than the developing countries central to the fair trade movement.

Green believes that local and organic food both have their value, but what’s important is to carry items that are not treated with pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.

“If you have a local grower who is using the worst of the worst chemicals and subjecting their employees to them, that’s not a good choice,” said Green. “Of course if you are shipping organic apples from New Zealand, then you have to ask if the health pros of not using chemicals are worth it. You have to consider the fossil fuels used to transport those items and how much time has elapsed since they have been picked.”

Whole Foods, perhaps the most popular choice among Chicagoans, reached number five on the 2007 list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” in Fortune Magazine.

Kate Klotz, Whole Foods’ public relations manager and copywriter for the Midwest Region, said that they shoot for 100 percent organic produce — but that the average is only 65 percent.

To those who would say Whole Foods is only accessible to the wealthy, she said: “I’ve never heard it worded that way. We carry a variety of products that cater to a broad spectrum of shoppers. For those on a specific budget, we have coupons, our private label brand and our weekly sales flier to help them.”

Not all Chicago shoppers have the same values when it comes to shopping for their food.

J.R. Encarnacion, 26, a financial service representative at Fifth Third Bank in Chicago, looks for quality produce, not necessarily organic food, when he shops.

“I know there are some healthy qualities to doing organic, but my opinion always resides in if you have too much in quantity of anything, you’ll end up harming yourself somehow,” Encarnacion said. “For me, shopping boils down to whether or not something isn’t rotten and is good enough to cook with.”

Elizabeth Nerat, a vegan activist and artist in Logan Square, said she does her shopping at local and organic markets.

“I am geared toward organic and the small independent local guys,” Nerat said. “But when I travel I am happy when I see a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. I think it’s a really beautiful thing that so many people are trying to give back to the earth and get away from mindless consumerism and disgusting, unhealthy, mass-produced food.”

Emily Cooke, 23, a stage director in Chicago, is gluten-intolerant and said she has to shop at organic grocers to find products that are gluten-free. She is an advocate of shopping organic, and she said that shopping local is better than shopping at Whole Foods, although she acknowledged that Whole Foods sells their share of local food.

“I try to eat as organically as possible because I don’t know what all of those chemicals and GMOs will do to me years down the line,” Cooke said. “But I have a good idea. So why not spend a bit more money now and prevent spending lots of money later on health bills? If I get really sick, at least I’ll know it wasn’t because of something I could have done differently, and I’ll have enjoyed eating really delicious, fresh food.”

Some Chicagoans see organic food as a fad, others take organic shopping seriously.

Steven Haschke, 26, a student at Moody Bible Institute, said he doesn’t notice a difference in the quality of organic food.

“I’ve always been skeptical of the whole organic fad,” he said. “There’s truth to (stand-up comedian) Jim Gaffigan’s sentiment that it’s just a euphemism for ‘twice as expensive.’ I’ve never been able to afford to shop at Whole Foods. If those who work in the food industry want to make organic products more mainstream, they’d better start charging less for it or they won’t succeed.”

Evanston resident Avital Rachmilevitch, 33, disagrees.

“Forget about the price for a moment,” said Rachmilevitch, a teacher at The Princeton Review. “Organic actually means something: These foods are grown without dangerous chemicals in soil that’s not treated with harmful fertilizers that have a very serious long-term effect on the earth.”

Rachmilevitch said organic farming should replace conventional farming practices. “Obviously, price is an issue,” she said.  “I think the government should offer the same subsidies for organics that giant agricultural businesses receive for their destructive farming practices. There needs to be a market incentive to buy organic, because it is clearly objectively better.”

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