FOOD: Local, Free-Range or Organic?

Tip of month – june 2012

By Cynthia Ruzzi, President Sustainable Danville Area

Doesn’t it seem like feeding ourselves and our family has gotten a lot more complex in the last few years? Deciding on the best food options at the grocery store is time consuming and sometimes difficult. Is the fresh, organic broccoli trucked from thousands of miles away better for you than the conventional broccoli grown and frozen 200 miles from your home?

We want to feed ourselves and our family well. We want to do right by our farmers and their workers, our environment and our local economy. Yet, if we’re going to spend more of our paycheck on food, then don’t we want to make sure that there’s a payback in taste and nutrition? Hence the dilemma: when shopping, should you buy local, free-range or organic food?

So why is eating local a big deal?  According to the WorldWatch Institute, food consumed in the U.S. typically travels 1,500-2,500 miles to reach our plates.  In fact, the energy used for food production accounts for about 20% of all fossil fuel used in the United States.  A local-eating pioneer, Joan Gussow, once said that shipping a strawberry from California to New York requires 435 calories of fossil fuel but provides the eater with only 5 calories of nutrition. Based on that, what you eat may be as important as what you drive.

When you shift your diet toward local foods, you are protecting nearby farms, reducing carbon emissions and supporting your local economy.  Besides being better for the environment, local food generally tastes much better because it is picked when it is ripe and is much fresher when we eat it.  Eating fresh, local food allows you to capture nutrients that will have otherwise diminished over the many miles conventional foods normally take to reach your plate.  However, it seems to me that if the ‘fresh, local food’ is grown conventionally using chemical pesticides (or in the case of meat antibiotics and hormones) it defeats the benefits of buying ‘fresh’.

When I shop at local farmers market, I ask vendors, ‘How do you grow your vegetables (or raise your meat)?  These open-ended questions (instead of ‘do you spray pesticides on your crop?) usually reveal which farms are passionate about sustainable, healthy growing practices.   And let’s face it, if I’m going to pay more for farmers’ market products then I want to make sure I’m not just paying for atmosphere.

Is free-range the ‘wild west’ of eating? The term ‘free range’ implies that the animal is allowed to roam freely instead of being contained in any manner.  However, USDA regulations apply only to poultry and indicate that the animal has been ‘allowed access to’ the outside. The USDA regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range, nor the duration of time that an animal must have access to the outside. So cowboy, free-range isn’t a guarantee that your chick has ever left the hen house – where they have been trained to find food and water.  Hence, that grass stomping hen may only be more nutritious for you when the term free-range is partnered with ‘no antibiotics, no hormones, organically-fed and/or grass-fed’.

Do you need to eat only organic food?  Did you know that if your food doesn’t say 100% organic it can contain unhealthy chemicals? If a product label says ‘Made with Organic Products’ it means that only 70% of the products need to be organic in that food item.  However, organic products can be twice as much as conventional items, so if you must make a trade-off between which products to buy organic then use a resource like the Dirty Dozen List from the Environmental Working Group.  They offer a downloadable list for your wallet and you can find the complete list at

In the end, it’s pretty basic.  The more you know about your food sources and the more you eat whole, unprocessed foods, the healthy you’ll be. If you are interested in learning more about how our food choices affect ourselves, our family and our community, then please join us Thursday, June 21st 6:30 pm.

The Danville Library is sponsoring this month’s Sustainable Danville Area Forum with two special speakers.

Linda Riebel, author of ‘The Green Foodprint: Food Choices for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet’ will talk about the main guidelines to environmentally wiser food and share many options, so you can tailor Earth-friendly eating to your own lifestyle.  Linda Riebel, Ph.D., is an environmental educator on the faculty of Saybrook University, where she helped create the sustainability program. She serves on the board of Sustainable Lafayette (helping create the farmers’ market, Earth Day and Food Day events, among other things), and has published and lectured about sustainable food for over ten years.

Danville Area Sustainble Business leader Joey Mazzera from Green Apple Acupuncture ( will reveal the ten most important herbs to integrate into your diet for a holistic approach to healthy living.  Joey is a licensed Acupuncturist and received her Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from The American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco.  For more information visit us at and

Reprinted with permission from Danville Today News


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