I grew up as a chef under the tutelage of male European chefs, because in 1977 when I entered the esteemed halls of the Culinary Institute of America – male European chefs dominated the educational staff. So it is probably no surprise that I learned that all great food came from Europe – all great food came from far away and if I wanted to become a great chef – then I needed to cook like the masters and that meant not cooking with local ingredients.
Fast Forward to 1990 when I became the Executive Chef of the Putney Inn in Vermont and my journey toward local – sustainable food truly began. The transition wasn’t an easy one and one day I found myself in Puerto Rico with Chef’s Collaborative, sitting on the grass listening to Joan Gussow talk about what was happening with the fledgling Organic movement and she warned that if we weren’t careful – the Organic Industry would be filled with the likes of Organic Twinkies.
Along my own path of organic – local – sustainable, I wrote “Bitter Harvest” and became a member of the National Organic Standards Board; a position I resigned from in large part, because all we ever discussed was what chemicals could be used in Organics. As my journey and knowledge of these issues has progressed I became a “lunch lady” and started to dedicate my time to changing children’s relationship to food and school food advocacy work.
All of which lead me to spending two days at the Natural Products Expo this year and Organic Gummy Worms, which some unwitting producer proudly showed me as he crowed that these were the first certified Organic Gummy Worms – an idea to showcase sustainable agriculture to children. At which point my head exploded. But as I kept walking the show of almost 2,000 presenters and attendees totally ten’s of thousands, I was struck by the plethora of organic junk food – I’m only glad Joan wasn’t there to witness this – although I’m sure she wouldn’t have been surprised.
I think that the Organic and Natural foods industry, which has come under fire recently for food safety issues, needs to lead the way toward a healthier more sustainable food system. A system where our children’s health is of utmost import – not just more business as usual that puts a higher priority on corporate profits than our children’s health. During the show as I was “railing” about Organic junk food a friend said that organic junk food is somewhat better than its non-organic namesake.
With that in mind I share the following which is an excerpt from my book “Lunch Lessons” that speaks to these issues.
Organic Pop Tarts? Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes
We have been writing together for many years and have grown to respect each other tremendously and most often think very alike, however we agree to disagree ever so slightly on organic junk/processed food.
AC: My initial exposure to Chefs Collaborative was at a symposium in Puerto Rico in 1996. On the very first day I found myself sitting under a tent listening to Joan Gussow talk about the growing trend toward organics and the USDA’s forthcoming Organic Standards Act. One of the most powerful moments for me, was when, as part of her speech, she asked whether “organic food should simply mirror the existing food system, with its highly processed sugary junk food; or should it be something more? Should it also reflect the socially responsible farming practices that were traditionally part of organic and family farming?”
A decade later, I feel strongly that organic junk food is antithetic to healthy food. Every year I go to the Natural Foods Expo and see aisle after aisle after aisle of organic candy, organic fat and salt laden chips, organic sugar coated cereals and I’m appalled. We need to be teaching our children about healthy food choices—we just don’t need an Organic Twinkie—we don’t!
Sure, I can understand that if McDonalds only served organic french fries all the potatoes in this country would be grown without chemicals, and that would be a good thing. But just because a Twinkie or a gummy bear or an M&M can be organic, doesn’t mean that we should promote them to our children. Junk food is junk food—organic or not!
LH: Of course, I agree with her on a very fundamental level. Junk food is junk food and why bother to make it organic. But I tend to think there are varying degrees of junk food out there and I also believe that not all processed food is junk. As the busy mother of two children I like to know that I can offer them an organic alternative to some of the conventionally processed snack foods that take up so much aisle space in the grocery store. Sometimes kids like to have a treat and maybe the best we can do with the limited time we have is a processed organic cookie. Personally, I’d rather know there are organic choices out there for my kids than not. Fig Newmans over Fig Newtons? You bet. I work, take care of two kids, run a household and participate in a host of community activities. I don’t have time to bake fig bars every day, and to be honest, it’s not even possible for me to procure all the organic ingredients I’d need in order to bake the equivalent here in my own home. I was faced with a similar dilemma when I started thinking about my son and daughter’s first foods. I wanted to make my own, but then I realized that there was no way I’d find organic blueberries and winter squash and pears and zucchini in my local market. There may have been a few organic produce items available, but if I stuck with those my children wouldn’t have been able to get the variety that is so important to developing bodies and palates. Because I preferred knowing that my kids were getting 100% organic food I opted to buy Earth’s Best baby food and recommended it to everyone I know.
Have I fallen into the organic sugared cereal trap? I will sheepishly admit here that yes, I absolutely have because I was in a hurry and being tortured by a four year old who wouldn’t stop hopping on one leg while begging for a particular sugar-coated chocolate puffed rice cereal. I bought it, we tasted it, and we both came to the conclusion that it was disgusting (while my husband needled me in the background over having paid more for a box of organic junk as opposed to regular junk) and we threw it out. And I learned my lesson.
Just as with everything else in life, it makes little sense to condemn the entire organic processed foods industry because some of what’s out there is junk. It’s up to us, as parents, to determine which products are good and which aren’t. There are some merits to a great many of the processed products we’re seeing out there. I’m all for embracing the ones that make sense for my family and, as Ann pointed out, organic on a larger scale is better for the planet anyway.