Whatever I do, it's probably wrong

  • Charles Finn


I try to do my best, I really do, but it seems harder than it should be.

I'm in the grocery store, where the shiny plastic packaging stretches as far as the eye can see, and parents and kids seem larger than life – in fact, some seem the size of NFL linemen. With my cloth bag I hike down avenues of MSG and boulevards of white sugar, all arranged at the eye level of a 5-year-old. I pass banks of freezers of TV dinners and pizzas, the latter looking like painted cardboard.

I wonder: Is there any food here? Everything looks so antiseptic, swathed in protective wrapping. There's the radioactive-colored potato chips, the too-perfect apples, and the bright pink meat, bloodless, almost, on its absorbent pad. Does this have anything to do with a farm or ranch?

I arrive at the dairy section where a whole herd of cartoon cows with dewy eyes and bloated udders looks at me from their cartons. On my list, which I left at home, again, I remember I need cream, half-and-half really, for coffee. Scanning the refrigerated bays I spot it, but immediately get a sinking feeling. It's that same sinking feeling I get every time I enter one of these stores, because once again I've come up against "the problem."

Do I buy the store brand cream for half the price of the organic, or do I sacrifice what I know is good for me for what I know is good for my bank account? In this case, it's the difference of a dollar, not exactly a big deal, but add that up over a year, or a month, or even one shopping trip combined with all the other similar choices I make, and it's substantial. Being "green," which for me means buying local, organic food, is always fraught with indecision. The green choice is almost always expensive, too often prohibitively so, and to my way of thinking, that's just downright wrong.

Righteous anger. Sad disgust. Helpless indignation. These feelings are all old friends and frequent visitors. This time I decide to take the high road, and with smug satisfaction I place a carton of organic half-and-half in my bag (miracle of miracles, I remembered it) tucking it in next to the recycled toilet paper and on top of the fair-trade coffee. My, my, I'm feeling good about myself today. It doesn't hurt that this is the first week of the month. If it was the last it would be a different story.

What else? Eggs, another hard choice. This year I'm supplying a friend's coffee shop with brownies for the holiday season, so I need a lot of eggs and butter, too. The problem is that if I buy the free-range eggs, I'll have to charge twice as much for the brownies to cover my costs. And it's this that drives me crazy, because it should be an easy decision. I know what chickens endure in factories; I've heard and read the horror stories, and I know about the antibiotics and hormones that get fed to cows and end up in their milk. But once again it comes down to the bottom line. Sure, I value the homemade over the factory produced, the local over the imported. But I also value paying my mortgage and electricity bill. And why does it always come down to this? Doing what is ethically right and better in terms of health competes against doing what I can afford. It makes me want to scream.

But I don't, and as usual, I compromise. I buy one package of "good" eggs and another of "bad" eggs. The twisted rationale is that I'll eat the good ones and bake with the bad ones. That logic only gets me so far, but at least it gets me out the door and driving home, where I can forget about this painful process. I can also forget that I passed on the organic broccoli and the organic garlic, but picked up the local organic honey. I can forget that there's no rhyme to my purchases and that the reasons change from week to week. Does this make me a hypocrite, or am I just another person who talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk -- or walks it only when it's convenient -- and when I have the money?

What I do know is that try as I might, I can't afford to be the person I want to be.

Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Bend, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Been there
Malcolm Morrison
Malcolm Morrison
Dec 29, 2009 04:05 PM
Your last two sentences say it all. You can (a) give up your virtue and decide not be be a organic foodie, or (b) give up your virtue and get a job on Wall Street, or (c) wait 5 years or so when nearly all the organic food sold will be flown in from China, where the necessary very high labor costs associated with organic foods are quite low, and thus the consumer price for feeding your virtue streak will be substantially reduced that time. Option "C" is happening as we speak. Oh, yea, (c) means giving up your virtue then, but at least less of your money. Hummm.... Seems to be a constant thread here. I hung it up and joined The Dark Side. With my hangups gone, I have more disposable income, and I feel fine. Can't say the farm animals feel the same, I bet. Sometimes reality sucks.
no excuses?
Dec 29, 2009 04:48 PM
Are you sure it's about what you can afford? Not only financially, but spiritually? Do you manage to afford a cell phone, cable or satellite TV and/or internet? Movies? Meals out? If you choose to spend money on such things, you could choose to spend money on what you know is right instead. Own up to your choices without making excuses.
systemic changes needed
Dec 29, 2009 05:41 PM
i can relate to the author of this article. i often have these same internal debates at the grocery store. sometimes if the price point is too high, i just can't do organic... i work at a non-profit so there are limits to what i can spend. this reader also makes an excellent point. however, part of the problem is that in the US we've become accustomed to incredibly low food prices. a hamburger for $1?! milk for less than it costs to produce! this is one of michael pollan's arguments. as a society we pay too little for food. i think that we each should do what we can at an individual level, but we can't do it all... hopefully, with time, we'll recognize that the benefits of paying more for better products far outweigh the costs and we'll adjust our other spending accordingly. but, it's a process.
reply to "No Excuses"
charles finn
charles finn
Dec 30, 2009 03:27 PM
To reply to "No Excuses?" your point is more than valid. In my defense I wasn't trying to make excuses, only an observation. I face the same feeling and choices every time I go to the grocery store and I believe the pricing should be reversed. I wrote the essay in forty minutes after one such trip and didn't take time (or have the space) to speak to every angle of the problem. I do agree with you I could drop the luxuries of cell phone, Internet, ect. and have in fact lived in this modern age off-the-grid, with no running water, no car, no booze and all the rest, and did just fine. And still I had to make the choice about buying good, locally grown food verses junk. For some of us living pay check to paycheck (or not even that) it can be hard to eat well. That's all I was trying to say. Thanks for your comment. Charles.
Dec 31, 2009 04:41 PM
Charles, I just have to tell you that I am relieved. I thought I was getting old and fussy or something. It's nice to know I'm not the only one that goes through the agony of choosing the "right" thing during trips to the store. I can really work myself into a good fret about which to pick up--the organic version? the non-organic but local version? the mega-farm organic version? the cheaper version? or maybe I should just skip it all together? Oh the agony...at least I'm not the only one. All we can do is what we can do. Here's to a good new year.
Exactly my experience.....
Renee DeMartin
Renee DeMartin
Dec 29, 2009 07:52 PM
Luckily, here in Seattle we have assorted Trader Joe's markets, selling alot of
organic foods at reasonable prices. Even they are not trouble free, however, as
their sea food choices are questionable. I do not eat red meat, so I can splurge
on the occasional free range organic chicken, but mostly eat tofu. Mainstream supermarkets have ridiculous prices on organic foods and the markets that sell organic only foods have even more absurd pricing. I would love to support local
farmers at the farmers' markets here, but that's not in my budget either. So I,
also, choose a mixture of organic and non-organic. And believe me, there is nothing I can cut back on in my life...no cable TV, no eating out, no alcohol.
But, hey, I do have Netflix.
Trader Joes
Jan 07, 2010 12:06 PM
Trader Joe's certainly appeals to a certain socio-economic segment with their glossy-granola hybrid, but they really don't hold up to much scrutiny. When they advertise their Grass-Fed/Grain Finished Beef, what that actually means is that the cows were free range long enough to be able to say it & spent their last few months in feed lots. Their 'organic' garlic comes from China, they over-package their produce. I find I go there less & less often, because at least Fred Meyer lets me support my local organic dairy industry, instead of California's.

Back when I was on a fresh-out-of-school, working for a nonprofit budget, I found that my most cost-effective organic option was joining a CSA, which you can certainly do in Seattle. You get to support local agriculture, eat organic & seasonal, and get creative about uses for root vegetables. All in all, a good way to go.
In the end it doesn’t matter either if it is free range or not if the killing is done improperly.
Will Law
Will Law
Dec 30, 2009 06:54 AM
I was “organic” before it became stylish - when it became stylish to the upper middle class to be “Green” is when it became expensive. Although it is good in some ways more people went organic we do in the end pay for style. As for food costs over all - I am not that convinced I want my “organic” food coming from China just because the labor costs are low. The Chinese record on food purity and the overall attitude toward the environment (say “Rhino horn”) is deplorable. Food costs are unnaturally low when we eat out where they make up the loss with volume. One pays a great deal for food at the supermarket however.

The issue we really need to focus on is our overall life style - too much packaging, too much glitter, too much stylishness about basics.

As for the virtue of it all - 40 years ago when I was 18 I worked for three days in a chicken processing plant. I was right off of the farm where my Grandfather raised most of his own food and I was involved in the butchering for the table so death was not unknown to me. The manner in which factory chickens are handled is not the same as farm-based slaughter - the disconnect in the processing plant allowed many of the workers too much joy in the slaughter. It was in that processing plant that I first really learned that most people are not fundamentally good. (20 years as a psychotherapist has born this out). I don’t eat chickens unless I have no other choice and try not to think about what led a piece of meat to my table - In the end it doesn’t matter either if it is free range or not if the killing is done improperly.
Bible history and Koran information on meat eating
Peter Amschel
Peter Amschel
Dec 30, 2009 10:51 PM
Thanks for the inside information on those factory farms and their processes for killing beasts to sell to us to eat.
The bible and koran provide important information on this subject. Before the onset of the world-wide flood that submerged the earth, Noah and his seven (7) friends and family members were the only ones on earth doing good deeds for others and who always refused to vioate God's prohibitions and who kept the faith that Allah would provide for them. All the others on the earth persistently violated God's unambiguous prohbitions. This disobedient conduct was especially true among the Nephilim, the critters of human/angel extraction. God was dismayed. God notified Noah about the upcoming total submersion of all the earth.
Noah and the others began construction of a safety boat per God's specifications and at the same time they warned the others that there would be existential consequences for them if they failed or refused to become submissive to the divine sharias, but to no avail.
After 40 days of the earth's complete submersion, the little groups' safety boat floated down onto on some of the first parts of the earth to emerge from the water. As the waters rapidly receded, God gave the survivors the word that humans were going to be allowed to eat meat but with two stipulations that 1.the animal had to be slaughtered in such a way that its blood would be drained out of its flesh and 2. at the time of the slaughter appreciation would be expressed to Allah for having provided the animal and for having permitted us to eat it.

I wonder if the factory farmer craporations could mechanize these two requirements?

Thanks again;
Jan 07, 2010 09:58 AM
no disrespect, but i am getting pretty tired of this kinda story. working as an organic farmer and selling at a local market i hear it all the time, "organic food is so expensive!" people who complain about food costs should spend some time growing food themselves and then judge the prices, i imagine they will then find even the spendy local/organic foods quite a deal.

and i have to agree with the other commenter who wondered what other stuff does your money go to? entertainment? war taxes? technology? travel?

i pretty much eat only local and organic foods and do not pay a dime for them. yes i grow much of my own but i also hunt, gather and glean. the world is made of food. supermarkets, organic or conventional, are made of oil and concrete and industrialism.

we are watching the greatest extinctions happen in millions of years, climate change, rainforest destruction, and the genocide of the earth's last indigenous peoples. it is a deeply unsettling time. if we are still caught up in the "should i buy organic?" debate then i really cant have much hope. minor league life style changes don't exactly encompass the radical action that the earth needs right now.

how about we switch sides. kill the old egos, do the hard work, learn the skills and reintegrate ourselves into the whole. maybe as we change our fundamental allegiance from the industrial to the natural world and demonstrate that in the way we live our lives we'll become more aware of and secure in the world, no longer in need of supermarkets or excuses.
high cost of organic? no longer for me
Jeannette Leduc
Jeannette Leduc
Feb 03, 2010 03:19 AM
I have found with the exception of some items, organics here in BC, Canada have dropped so often, in Safeway, organic broccoli, celery, lettuce can be less than conventional and many others not much higher.

I grow a garden so I have all my summer veggies fresh from the garden and some of my root vegetables for part of the winter. I have found a solution of getting more of my organics for even less starting this year. A new company out of Oregon has started a leased organic garden network where members can lease either a full (240 sq ft) garden or half (120 sq. ft.) garden for a year grown for you with your choice of vegetables. There is a yearly lease fee then a monthly maintainence fee BUT the equivalent of the maintainence fee is placed as credits in the General Store of currently over 7000 plus organic and natural foods, cleaners, personal care products, etc, to buy your dry groceries, seasonal USA grown organic fruit like avocadoes, apples, citrus, etc. The General Store will open this month but members can browse what is available already. Many items are available in case lots for more savings.

You receive a rebate of half the garden lease after 12 months so your organics from your garden and the General Store combined actually drop your food cost 30 to 50% overall! You can save more from the Bargain Bin and buying discounted credit packages of up to 25%.

Garden members can sell excess garden produce to other members in the Farmer's market, donate some to foodbanks or have it all shipped with hub shipping by refigerigrated trucks and rail with home delivery by Fedex for as low as $30 for 60 pounds to most of the USA. They are trying to arrange similar shipping arrangements to Canada.

There is a discount on the leases until they sell the first 100 full gardens and half gardens. They have also introduced 1000 year round herb gardens grown in farm greenhouses.

You can check out the program at http://organicsplus.info/ It is free to join to see all the benefits or attend live presentation re the Live Event calendar in the member area to ask questions, held at 4 pm PST on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.