The Grocery Gauntlet

Leslie Carlson


It’s August, a time of incredible bounty if you love Oregon fruits and vegetables as much as I do. Our meals have been chock-full of fresh greens, vine-ripened tomatoes, sweet berries, juicy peaches and tart plums—most all of them grown in Oregon or Washington. In my efforts to support local farmers and growers, however, I’ve recently found myself spending way too much time trying to decide what to buy.

Because of my efforts to buy local, grocery shopping can throw me into a state of indecision as I weigh (silently) what’s best for the planet, for local growers and for my family.

As a result, my weekly shopping trip has become something of a chore.

My quandary centers around my twin desires to support local farmers and to buy organic products. Many times, I’m faced with this decision: should I buy local, conventionally grown Oregon produce (meaning that pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers are used) or to buy out-of-state produce that’s grown organically?

Buying the former supports local farmers and reduces carbon emissions that cause global warming, but the chemicals used to grow these veggies are hard on the environment and bad for my kids. Buying the latter is easier on the environment where the produce is grown, but it doesn’t help local farmers, contributes to global warming and continues our reliance on oil to supply our food.

This dilemma came to a head recently as I stood for perhaps five minutes in front of a display of two kinds of strawberries: conventionally grown Oregon strawberries and organically grown California strawberries. (I chose the Oregon berries, partially out of loyalty to local farmers but mostly because the California berries taste like straw.)

Luckily, the organic produce market is growing by leaps and bounds every year, and more and more I hit the grocery jackpot and find local varieties of organically grown produce. But sometimes, I find myself in the ridiculous position of viewing the global problems of pollution, health and economics through a small hallock of fresh Oregon berries.

  • (Show?)

    Try a subscription farm - get organic stuff delivered weekly. You will support local and small scale (vs. agribiz) agriculture, and eat healthy.

  • (Show?)

    Try a subscription farm - get organic stuff delivered weekly. You will support local and small scale (vs. agribiz) agriculture, and eat healthy.

  • (Show?)

    bravo Leslie. We face the same dilemmas daily and not just as it relates to food.

    I just got back from the local Sandy hardware store, where I ordered some gutter screens for my house. The contractor had told me to get it at Home Depot, but the danged plastic is probably all extruded at the same location, and buying it from the local Mom and Pop at least gives them a bit more cushion, but also saves me from having to drive to Oregon City or wherever.......

    Last year, though, I hired a local contractor to redo our roof. As it turns out, he and his crew of illegal immigrants did a great job, but I think that I failed in my secondary goal of keeping the money in the local economy.........

    Anyhow, we look for organic and local food as well, but it requires visits to:

    Wild Oats Fred Meyer (Gresham, because I won't set foot in our new local Fred Meyer here in Sandy........) Safeway Gresham Farmer's Market

    It's a complicated old world out there.

  • Jonathan Radmacher (unverified)

    Two words (repeated over and over): New Seasons, New Seasons, New Seasons. It sets a high bar for quality of produce, large amount of local and organic produce, and outrageously friendly and helpful staff (and I don't work there, I just love the place).

  • David White (unverified)

    Check out the Food Alliance - . Their mission is to certify local foods and farms that are grown and distributed using sustainable processes and fair labor practices. They have a "Where to buy" directory on the site. This org started Portland and has expanded into the Midwest.

  • (Show?)

    I have been feeling for the last year or so that Oregon should make a big push to become the organic state. Vermont, by way of example, managed to do this in a number of areas. They cornered the market on maple syrup and autumn leaves. Do New Hampshire sugar maples really produce inferior syrup? Are the leaves in Upstate New York any less spectacular? Well, never matter--Vermont's already staked out that real estate in our minds. Now we think of Vermont when we want the best maple syrup.

    Oregon has already achieved some fame for it's naturalness. In the coming decades, organics will begin to vie with commercial produce at the grocery store. Oregon already has one of the most famous certification systems for organics--Oregon tilth--which puts our name on food across the country. Wouldn't it be cool if our produce also came to people's minds when they thought of organic produce.

    This would benefit small farmers and give them a leg up in their efforts to stay afloat in an age of industrial farming. It would benefit consumers, who would have access to fresh, organic produce, not that flavorless crap they ship from halfway around the planet. And it would benefit ancillary industries like wine, seafood, and tourism because Oregon would be "branding" freshness, wholesomeness, and naturalness.

    And of course it would benefit Leslie, who wouldn't have to choose between non-organic Oregon and organic California berries.

  • Tyson K (unverified)

    I have to agree with Jonathan R.... New Seasons consistently stocks local AND organic produce, so you shouldn't have to make a decision at all. And I don't think their prices are much, if any, different than Safeway, Fred Meyer or the like. I love that their ethos is carried out to every corner of the store... they buy local and organic when it's available to them. You gotta love Portland.

  • britta lundin (unverified)

    The market for organic produce is growing, which is wonderful. But the fact that you could not find organic Oregon strawberries in the store means that it has not grown large enough. I support the organic market, even if it means higher emissions in the short run because I know that in the long run, it encourages more farmers to turn organic.

  • McBain (unverified)

    I think that strawberries are difficult to factor into the debate this year due to (as I understand it) a poor yield this year. (would that be a bumper crop? i'll ask Al Gore...)

    Seriously though, I think that Chuck had a good point above, buy from a family farm. Perhaps not all the time but as much as you can afford it makes a big difference.

  • Sid (unverified)

    Don't forget about the farmers markets. I can't emphasize enough how great these markets are for everyone. You get to meet the farmer directly, in most cases. There's lots of choice. And your money goes directly to the farmer.

    I'm biased of course, my mom is a farmer who sells at the market.

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    One of the sentences that caught my eye in Leslie's piece referred to her "weekly shopping trip." I go food shopping every day--sometimes to farmer's markets (there's a farmer's market almost every day somewhere in Portland), sometimes to New Seasons or Wild Oats, sometimes to Trader Joe's or Fred's, and often to farm stands on weekends. Okay, I'm a bit of a foodie, but I think people in civilized cultures go to market on a daily basis. If you don't have time to do that, you can't just blame the food distribution system for failure to get all the food you want to your most convenient outlet. You also should blame the work environment that prevents you from having enough time to shop like a Parisian.

    But if you don't have time to shop at a lot of places, New Seasons is the best place to go. It has almost everything you need, really good organic produce, really really good natural and organic meat and wonderful people. I go into New Seasons and come out happy. If I go into Safeway, I come out feeling like I just escaped the Stepford Grocery, where all the employes are trained to recite a corporate litany: "Hi. Are you finding everything you need? Blah blah blah."

    Strawberries: I find organic or at least pesticide free strawberries all over the farmers markets. Oregon strawberry production continues to decline, as does the acreage in strawberries. Problem is that most substantial growers need to sell the bulk of their crops to food processors and they are getting undercut by Californian and foreign crops. And that trend is exascerbated by the decline of Oregon-based agricultural processors. It would be a great boon to Oregon's organic food industry, and to the the state's economy in general, to attract or develop local food packing and processing companies.

    It would be a terrible shame if the famed Hood strawberry and its other local counterparts became extinct because of cheap imports from California.

  • (Show?)

    One of the sentences that caught my eye in Leslie's piece referred to her "weekly shopping trip."

    I agree that shopping more often is better; in fact, I do supplement my weekly trips (for staples) with the occasional daily walks to our local New Seasons (I join y'all in the New Seasons lovefest). But oddly, this year, there weren't a lot of organic Oregon berries of any type, leading me to think that either (as Britta said) 1) the organic berry market here has not developed enough to meet demand or (as McBain pointed out) 2) there was some sort of crop problem.

    Like all of you, I spend a lot of time thinking about food and how to best feed my family of five with the least negative impact on the earth. But none of us on this board are typical Americans in this respect -- how do we carry this "local, organic" revolution to the rest of the country?

  • (Show?)

    Clearly, I need to learn better how to turn off the italics.

  • Jonathan Radmacher (unverified)

    BTW, I did not want to suggest that I oppose the larger grocery chains. My Safeway (Hawthorne) seems to have done an extensive amount of work to bring in produce and groceries that are organic. I think that usually means that even if not all are local, they are more likely to be closer to here in origin than if they were not organic.

    So go ahead and bash me, but I also shop at Safeway, and feel proud to support local workers there.

  • Eric Berg (unverified)

    Willy Week's cover story this week is titled ATTACK OF THE $3 TOMATO: How Portland's snooty tastes are saving Oregon farms, luring kids back to the land and even-gasp!-teaching Republicans and Democrats to get along. It addresses many of the things brought up in this thread.

    What hasn't been addressed about fresh, local, organic food in thi s thread: grow your own. It's not that hard. It doesn't take much time. It doesn't take a lot of room. Just a few square yards or a few containers is all you need to supply yourself all the salad fixins you'll need for six months.

    In general - for food, home, clothes, whatever - I try to buy local and/or buy union. Stocking up at Trader Joes is about the only exception to this. Most local Safeway, Thriftway, Albertsons, and Fred Meyer have mostly union employees. New Seasons is non-union, but as long as it's the employees free choice, it's alright by me (New Seasons founder did direct anti-union activities at Natures.). I don't shop that much at New Seasons only because so many other stores are closer to my house.

    My favorite place for great food in a locally-owned union store: Gartners Meats.

  • (Show?)


    I'm with you but I just can't afford it. Contrary to the posting above, I know that produce at New Seasons is a lot more expensive than the locally grown (but with pesticides I'm sure) stuff I get at the fruit stand on 28th near Steele.

    I also haunt the farmers markets, but with 6 mouths to feed, we tend toward the local yet not organic stands becuase (for instance) I could get a tomatoes there or $1.50/lb vs. the $2.50 or more at the organic booths next door.

    And Organic is no guarantee of quality--ever gone to Limbo, that place near Trader Joe's? Ugh. Flies, rotting produce, yuch! I wish someone would buy that place and stock it with fresh produce!

    We're actually moving more toward buying organic dairy and meat than vegetables, where at least we figure we can rinse and peel.

  • Mossback Farm (unverified)

    As a local non-organic farmer, I too am biased, but another option for good quality local produce is to join a CSA operation. The Portland Area CSA Coalition is a group of farmers that participate in these programs. Only a few are certified organic, but that is more a function of scale and paperwork hassle than intent and practices.

    We are finding that organic certification is not worth it to us when our local customers can visit the farm themselves. Plus, the agribusinessification of the organic sector takes away a lot of the faith that we once had in the 'Certified Organic' label.

    We end up eating a lot of non-organic local food, since we like to support fellow Oregon farmers, even the non-organic ones. You'll find that once you become a good customer, they will listen to your concerns. It's also easier to keep an eye on them than the organic tomato farm in Chile, paying workers a few dollars a day and burning tons of fossil fuel to get your food to the store.

connect with blueoregon