3 Steps to Safer Food

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Learn simple habits that parents can adopt to ensure that their children eat the highest quality food possible.

Most parents are concerned with getting their children to eat what’s good for them and aware of the impact that food consumed today can have on their children’s health down the road. Now that the market for certified organic food is well established, with an annual US growth rate of more than 20 percent, the next big trend may be going local. “If price and appearance are the same, we found that consumers prefer to buy food that’s locally grown,” says Rich Pirog, coauthor of a 2003 study at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. “People want to know where their food comes from,” Pirog adds. This knowledge can promote safer (and smarter) food choices.

The main appeal of local food to consumers lies in its freshness, Pirog notes, explaining that local produce is picked at peak ripeness, rather than prematurely. Some produce that is shipped long-distance is treated with fungicides, he adds. “Watch a crate of Chilean grapes being unpacked and you’ll notice that the boxes contain sulfur-dioxide pads.” And, unlike food that’s transported long distances, local food doesn’t squander fossil fuels.”

There are now “Farm to School” lunch programs in over 400 school districts and 22 states, including one starting up in Madison, Wisconsin, where three pilot elementary schools are serving locally-grown produce on special days. Farming can also provide an ideal vehicle for hands-on, experiential learning Take the Edible Schoolyard program, for instance. Started by restaurateur Alice Waters in Berkeley, California, the program involves students at a local school who learn to grow and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables in an organic garden and cooking classroom.

Although these efforts start small, the need for them is great. Pound for pound, children not only consume more food and water than adults, but if they’re hit with toxicants during critical windows of development, diseases can occur later in life. But feeding kids healthy food can be difficult when you can’t always find or afford organic and are up against a food industry spending billions of dollars annually to convince kids that products low in nutrition and high in sugars and fats are “cool.” Since the 1970s, when the US adopted a farm policy resulting in cheap corn and corn-syrup sweeteners, Americans have been eating about 200 extra calories a day, Michael Pollan writes in The New York Times Magazine. No wonder 64 percent of us are overweight.

Still, you can improve the odds for your children each time you shop for and prepare a meal. Here are seven small ways that add up to big change.

1. Buy Organic Where It Counts Most

Produce
Recognizing that it’s not possible to eat organic produce 100 percent of the time, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) report helps consumers prioritize. EWG’s Shopper’s Guide identifies the 12 fruits and vegetables that are most often contaminated by pesticide residues and thus best bought organic:

  • peaches
  • apples
  • bell peppers
  • celery
  • nectarines
  • strawberries
  • cherries
  • lettuce
  • grapes (imported)
  • pears
  • spinach
  • potatoes

Animal Products
For meat, eggs, and dairy, certified organic is your best choice because federal standards mandate 100 percent organic feed (eliminating the risk of mad cow disease, for one thing).

But when organic isn’t available or affordable, ask the following questions:

  • Was the animal fed only grass and/or 100 percent vegetarian grain?
  • Were growth hormones used (in cattle)?
  • Were antibiotics routinely given?
  • Were the animals confined?

In addition, “If your local producer allows visits, go and check it out themselves,” suggests Dr. Urvashi Rangan of Consumers Union.

2. Buy Food Directly from Local Farms

In a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, each member buys a share of the entire harvest (usually $300 to $600) from the farmer before the growing season starts and is rewarded with weekly produce gathered at peak ripeness. There are more than 1,000 CSAs across the US.

Farmers markets also give you—and your children—a chance to talk to and support the people who grow local food. The USDA reports that there are more than 3,100 farmers markets nationwide, a 79 percent increase between 1994 and 2002.

The environment benefits from CSAs, too. According to the Leopold Center’s 2003 report on food miles in Iowa, “Checking the Food Odometer,” when produce is sold locally in Iowa it travels an average of 56 miles. When sold elsewhere, it travels an average of 1,494 miles—nearly 27 times farther. And an estimated 39 percent of fruits, 40 percent of lamb and 78 percent of fish and shellfish that Americans consume comes from abroad. “We’re all trying to minimize our footprint, and the way to do that is to buy locally,” Rich Pirog says.

3. Sidestep Easily Contaminated Foods

Contaminated food causes an estimated 76 million illnesses in humans and 5,000 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To be safe, limit your family’s consumption of raw or undercooked meat (E. coli is one threat), shellfish (vibrio bacteria), poultry (campylobacter) and eggs (salmonella). The CDC also warns against foods such as ground beef, because it mingles products from many animals, and cold cuts, which can be contaminated with listeria. Raw, unwashed produce and unpasteurized fruit juice can also carry E. coli, hepatitis, and other diseases.

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