Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Student Scribes: When Life Gives You Lemons

Grocery shopping was never something I enjoyed, but my disdain has intensified in the last 10 months for two reasons: one, my daughter has moved back home after living in Los Angeles four years; and, two, there is a debate over the benefits of choosing organic, non-GMO and antibiotic-free foods.

Before January of 2015, I could whip through the grocery store and be done in less than 45 minutes! Upon entering Giant, I would head left toward the fruits and vegetables. I would quickly select my bananas, oranges, salad fixings, onions and potatoes and move on. When choosing lemons, I would only concern myself with which ones have the better price, the bagged ones or the loose ones. Next I would work my way along the perimeter towards the deli counter. I heard somewhere, probably on TV, that the healthier foods, in general, are situated along the perimeter of the stores while the less healthy and processed foods are up and down the many aisles. At the deli counter, I would always get a pound of American cheese for my husband Mike. He likes cheese in his eggs and grits, and he likes grilled cheese sandwiches. Next, I would make my way over to the seafood counter for shrimp and fish.

I would quickly look to the right as I moved past the forbidden inside aisles, resisting the temptation to go down aisle 3, the cookie aisle. I would find myself going up and down other aisles of Babylon anyway in pursuit of tea bags or pasta or some condiment like relish that I’ll need for making potato salad. I gave up processed foods like Hamburger Helper, instant-flavored potatoes, sugary cereals and Oodles of Noodles a long time ago, too much sodium and carbs. Then I would head toward the cranberry juice, passing over many varieties of sugar-filled drinks, juice from concentrate, blue juice, red juice, juice that claims to be 100-percent juice, Juicy-Juice and many other dye-filled drinks. Even the cranberry juice that I would purchase isn’t 100-percent juice, but I would get it anyway because something in it is supposed to be good for me. Then I would continue to the right of the store to get what I needed from the dairy section: fat-free milk, a few yogurts, butter, and for a treat, Breyers Vanilla Bean ice-cream. I would grab a dozen or two of eggs, a loaf of whole grain wheat bread and I would be done!

Shopping before Ashley’s move back home was painless.

However, now that she’s back, I’m hit with questions like, “Mom, are these lemons organic?” Me: “I don’t know, probably not, why?” Then she goes on a long spiel about why organic is better! Next, she questions the potatoes and the onions: “Mom what about these? You should especially buy organic onions and potatoes!” The conversation continues with a lecture on the top 10 things you should buy organic and a list of things that’s OK to buy non-organic. Then I pull out the meat, Lord help me! “Were these animals treated with antibiotics? Were they grass fed or free range?”

All of these questions have me wondering–what’s the big deal about organic, non-GMO, antibiotic-free and free range? Am I helping myself into an early grave because I eat pesticide-filled fruits and vegetables, genetically modified corn, and meat from animals that are caged and have been injected with antibiotics?

What I’ve learned thus far is that “organic” is more than just about eating foods free of pesticides. It is a lifestyle, a movement, a call-to-action to go back to the traditional way of farming, pre-Industrial Age. Wikipedia has this to say about organic farming:

“While the standards differ worldwide, organic farming in general features cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not allowed, although certain approved pesticides may be used. In general, organic foods are also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or synthetic food additives.”

There are non-synthetic pesticides that are allowed to be used; food grown with allowed pesticides is also considered organic. According to the USDA, organic farmers and processors are held to a set of standards that read like this:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
  • Support animal health and welfare
  • Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
  • Only use approved materials
  • Do not use genetically modified ingredients
  • Receive annual onsite inspections
  • Separate organic food from non-organic food

After reading this, I thought of communes where everyone was “of the earth.” Everything that was consumed was grown or raised by the residents. Natural deodorants would be used, like baking soda; no aluminum-filled deodorants for them. Residents would bathe once a week to conserve water. Even medicinal necessities would be grown organically right on the compound. Clothes would be hand-me-downs and only purchased from thrift stores. Then I started thinking about red Kool-Aid, no thank you! But what does this all really mean? How am I affected by pesticides?

The website for the Environmental Protection Agency says, “The health effects of pesticides depend on the type of pesticide. Some, such as the organophosphates and carbamates, affect the nervous system. Others may irritate the skin or eyes. Some pesticides may be carcinogens. Others may affect the hormone or endocrine system in the body.” There is a link on this site to a human health risk assessment for many pesticides. However, unless you are a chemist, deciphering this material is daunting. Each pesticide is broken down by its chemical components. There are hundreds of chemicals that, when combined, make up any number of pesticides.

Then I wanted to understand how the Environmental Protection Agency was protecting our food. I went to a link on their site, “Setting Tolerances for Pesticide Residues in Foods,” and the opening statement read, “Pesticides are widely used in producing food. These pesticides may remain in small amounts (called residues) in or on fruits, vegetables, grains and other foods. To ensure the safety of the food supply, EPA regulates the amount of each pesticide that may remain in and on foods. This fact sheet briefly describes how EPA sets limits, called tolerances, for pesticide residues in food.” As consumers we should feel safe knowing that the EPA has tested our fruits and vegetables and the residue left behind is safe for consumption, right? Not! But what is one to do?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States (FAO) discusses pesticides toxicity in aquatic systems; the human health effects of pesticides; the ecological effects of pesticides and the natural factors that degrade pesticides. This “organic” thing is snow-balling! There is so much more to know and I’ve not yet begun to look into non-genetically modified foods, or free range and antibiotic-free meats!

I had not had one grape, green or otherwise last summer. I used to go to Sam’s Club regularly and purchase a container of green seedless grapes, but not anymore. Now I look over at them and briefly consider “what if?” I can purchase them and wash them really well or soak them in vinegar and water as suggested by Ashley. She says the vinegar helps break down any pesticides left behind. I look hopelessly for the organic symbol, then I think to myself, if I eat these I’m gonna die! The organic, green, seedless grapes at the Giant are too expensive and come in very small quantities, hence no grapes last summer.

One organic lemon is $1.49. In comparison, I can get a bag of six lemons with residual pesticides for $3.99. I must admit that I’ve spent a small bundle on lemons this year. I really enjoy a cup of hot tea with lemon and honey. I like vodka and cranberry juice with lemon, and my favorite cake to make is a lemon pound cake. The fruit drawer in my refrigerator always holds lemons; they were mostly non-organic, but post-Ashley’s return, all are now organic. I never understood how people could save and re-use teabags. I thought that was so cheap, but now I re-use a slice of lemon. Don’t you dare throw away that organic lemon slice after one use! My love for lemons and lemon flavored foods go back as far as I can remember, because aside from tasting good, lemons, (citrus limon is the scientific name), are good for you. They are high in vitamin C and potassium; some studies show that lemons can reduce the risk of diseases like cancer; and they are anti-microbial. So, since I want to start incorporating organic foods into my diet, lemons are a good choice to begin with.

The mission of the Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) is to “To ensure the integrity of organic products and provide education, inspection, and certification services that meet the needs of our members.” This is great; however, I do wonder just how many farmers claim to be organic but really are not? To qualify as organic the PCO explains that, “All farmland must be free of prohibited materials for at least three years prior to harvest of an organic crop. Prohibited materials include, but are not limited to: chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, sewage sludge and genetically modified organisms.”

I would love to say, “What does it matter, we’re all going to die anyway.” But while I am here I do want to live a good life. Even though I feel like a hamster on a wheel trying to get concrete answers to why I should eat organic or non-GMO, and buy free range and antibiotic-free meats, I will be pro-active and buy organic where my pocketbook dictates. It’s sad to think that eating healthy for some comes down to whether or not one can afford to.

My trips to the grocery store now are painful, and what I used to be able to purchase with $200 has expeditiously dwindled. I spend more time seeking out organic labels; Ashley has also shared with me that the PLU codes on organic fruits and vegetable have five digits. I verified this by going to a site called Life Hacker:

  • Organic produce has a 5-digit PLU number that begins with the number 9.
  • Conventional produce has a 4-digit PLU number that begins with the number 4.
  • Genetically modified (GMO) produce has a 5-digit PLU number that begins with the number 8.

Now, shopping for lemons looks like this: I pick up the larger, less-expensive, four-digit coded lemon and for a moment contemplate buying it. Then I remember the effects of some pesticides or residual toxins that may have entered the lemon and put the cheap thing down. I opt for the $1.49 smaller one, checking first to make sure it bears a five-digit code, and then I move on to the next fruit or vegetable. I try to remember if the next item is on the approved “OK to buy non-organic” list.

I now purchase organic eggs, milk, herbs and spices, vinegar, sometimes honey, chicken that is grass-feed and free range, organic butter, organic tea and non-genetically modified corn. Fortunately for me, I have options. I’m in a position to be able to make informed decisions about the foods that I purchase for my family.

Not everyone has that luxury.

Angela Larks is a senior communications major at Penn State Harrisburg.


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