The Privilege of Prioritizing Organic Food

Flickr: ehpien

Farmer's Market, Dupont Circle.

Writing about Walmart earlier today reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to discuss on DCentric; I had an eye-opening experience at the beginning of the year, and all I could think about was “Race and class! Race and class!”, as it was happening. Despite my ethnicity, I’m not a huge fan of yoga, but I heard from a trusted friend that a local yogi was known for holding a workshop that helped people go beyond making resolutions. The all-day event included stuff one does on a rectangular mat, nutrition advice, life coaching, art and a vegetarian brunch.

I went and I have to agree, it was restorative and inspiring, so much so that I didn’t even mind twisting my body like a pretzel while trying to remember to breathe. What stands out to me most, however, is the nutrition-focused portion of the programming. While I expected to hear about the virtues of organic produce and embracing healthier diets which had few or no animal products, I did not expect for race and class to collide during the Q + A period, which came right after a recitation of the “dirty dozen”, or the list of produce that is most affected by pesticides.

Since I keep mentioning race, I’ll disclose that I was impressed that a quarter of the attendees were women of color; basically, it was me holding it down for Asian-America plus five African-American women.

One of them raised her hand, tentatively.

“Thank you so much for this information,” she began. “It’s so worrisome…all these chemicals and pesticides in our food. I would like to be healthier by eating organically but…it’s so expensive. Do you have any advice for dealing with that?” She looked hopeful; her hand was poised over her notebook, pen aquiver, ready to jot down wise words which would not come.

“Well…” the facilitator drawled, “you really need to make it a priority to eat Organic. It IS more expensive, but it’s worth it.” She beamed decisively; her smile was like an exclamation point to a brilliant, unassailable point. I started to feel uncomfortable, but that feeling was eclipsed by sympathy for and solidarity with my fellow attendee, who cleared her throat uneasily and raised her hand, again.

“I agree that it’s worth it. What I’m saying is, what if you can’t afford it? Some people just don’t have that kind of money. I guess what I’m asking is, what if you can’t afford the more expensive organic fruits and veggies, even though you want to? Do you have any practical advice for that situation? Would washing the produce help?”

The graceful woman at the front of the room stiffened slightly. I don’t think she was expecting the follow-up question or the very real and serious issues this discussion was exploring. She started to speak, then thought better of it, and paused. Then the words came out in a jumbled rush:

“I don’t think so, so even if you need to cut back on certain things, you should realize that it’s worth it, because this is about your health. That needs to be the priority. I don’t have any tips about conventional produce because I don’t think it’s healthy, period.”

The African-American woman nodded slightly and put down her pen. I was feeling anything but relaxed and rejuvenated at this point. I was disappointed, because I expected to hear something like this:

…when you just can’t afford it, here’s what to do…Wash your fruits and veggies well, of course (and don’t be afraid to use a little mild soap and warm water, even). But, here’s the interesting trick: Rachel says most of the pesticide residue is often concentrated at the top of the fruit or veggie, where the stem is. So, if you’re eating an apple, for example, just slice off the top section, or cut around the core a bit and discard. Same thing goes with eggplant, peppers, etc.

It’s amazing, this inability on the part of some to grasp that for many people, organic just isn’t an option. If you have a very limited budget, it’s not really about denying yourself that extra Bikram class or pedicure, it’s about being food insecure because the organic produce you bought consumed an onerous chunk of your money. Sure, we were all at a lovely retreat in the middle of one of the wealthiest parts of the country, but that doesn’t mean that everyone listening could afford to follow the “expert’s” advice. I found the entire exchange insensitive. Is eating well only possible for the affluent?

If you looked at some of the information that’s out there, you might think so. I searched for “can’t afford organic” and came across this compassionate sermon:

Many people who complain about the price of organic food also drive expensive cars and live in luxurious houses, perhaps beyond their means. Others simply can’t afford anything beyond the bare essentials. Either way, to live a long and happy life, health needs to be a priority, and this needs to be reflected in your budget. In 10 or 20 years from now, would you rather have excellent health and abundant energy, or memories of all the unnecessary things you spent your money on instead of good food?

Okay, so the author of this piece acknowledges that some people are living with the “bare essentials”, but then he’s right back to assuming that “making it a priority” for your budget is all that needs to happen…as if the budgets of lower-income people are just cluttered with unnecessary things. Maybe some are, but many aren’t. Some people can prioritize their health every minute of every day, but that prioritizing isn’t legal tender down at Safeway or the Teeter.

After the retreat, I approached the woman who dared ask for options and thanked her for being both bold and pragmatic. I told her what meager facts I knew– that if she had to “prioritize”, I had read that root veggies are exposed to more pesticides than say, a pineapple or a banana. And that the reason why pineapples and bananas are safer is because we don’t consume their skins. And speaking of fruit skins, if she bought conventional apples, she might want to peel them, even though that’s not perfect at removing all traces of pesticides. She looked half-resigned, half-amused.

“Thanks. That’s the kind of advice I was hoping to hear…where did you get all that?”

“Honestly? Twitter! I remember seeing tweets about root vegetables and fruit.”

“That’s it. I’m joining Twitter. I didn’t know it had such useful information!”

The woman thanked me again and walked away. The room was abuzz with recipe-swapping, CSA-talk and comparisons of various Whole Foods.

I suddenly remembered a similar conversation I had participated in, at one of those painful networking/happy hour events which occur every night in this city. A woman overheard me mention that I was a vegetarian as I inquired about whether a certain appetizer was meat-free and she intervened, cutting off the waiter, mid-sentence: “It’s not vegan. It’s totally got cheese in it.”

“Oh, I’m not vegan, I’m vegetarian.”

Blank stares.

“I eat cheese. Dairy. I love it, actually. I guess I’m technically a lacto-ovo vegetarian since I won’t turn down a cupcake, either!” I laughed nervously, and suddenly noticed that the three women who were looking at me were exceptionally thin.

The one in the middle spoke up, “We were just talking about how important it is to eat organic.” Her peers nodded, then one added, “That’s why we’re not eating or drinking anything here– it’s all conventional.”

“Wow,” I responded. “That’s hard-core.”

“No,” one replied seriously. “That’s just how it should be.”

“Well…not everyone can afford organic, right?” I was speaking for myself at that point. My unemployment checks barely covered my bills, let alone free-range strawberries that had been lovingly petted and treated to flute music. And that’s when the “P”-word, ever-present in these discussions, was employed.

“Well…you have to make it a Priority.” The three nodded at me as I tried to extricate myself from the conversation. They were closing in and my back was to the bar. No luck.

“Not everyone can do that, you know. People don’t have a ton of money these days. It’s better to eat some produce than none at all,” I replied.

“You know what I don’t understand,” one of them began. “Why don’t poor people just grow their own vegetables? Because then they don’t have an excuse for how expensive it is and they’d be able to raise them organically!”

The sound heard next at that bar was my mind exploding. Indeed, why don’t more poor people grow their own vegetables, in their expansive yards in the middle of this city, since they have so much time between commuting from their first job to their second while trying to find a minute to make sure their kids’ homework is getting done. Oh, right…it must be because of their lack of priorities. Sometimes, I am very struck by how insular certain circles of this city are, and how many people are unable to imagine a life or a budget or a diet that is different from their own.

  • Alpaze

    I don’t have too much of answer, can’t afford all organic, but for what it’s worth they have dirty dozen list and clean fifteen ( and, respectively). The dirty dozen you should “always” buy organic and the clean 15 you can buy “regular”. Sometimes it seems we all live in completely different stratospheres in the same plane!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the links! So helpful.

  • OrganicTrade

    Thanks to the growth of private label products, farmers’ markets, manufacturers’ coupons, and customer loyalty programs, buying organic is easier and more affordable than ever. One easy way to save is to consider choosing organic versions of the products you buy most. Whether that is milk, produce, or personal care products, buying organic will not only help reduce your exposure to harmful synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but also support a system of agricultural management that is great for the planet.

    For more tips on how to stretch your organic dollars, visit Also check out the Organic Trade Association’s Savvy Organic Shopper blog (, which offers price comparisons between organic and conventional products from retail outlets across the U.S. and illustrates that choosing organic is the better bargain.

    Organic. It’s worth it.

  • Jacob PattersonStein

    Great piece. You probably have heard this, but Intelligence Squared did a good debate on Organic food. Class issues seem to be inherent when talking about food privilege.

  • S P

    I feel like this misses the point. A gallon of organic milk at my local chain store costs 5.99, a gallon of standard milk costs 2.97. That’s over twice as much for organic. Given that our family goes through at least 5 gallons a month, that’s 15.10 I could be buying new socks without holes with. And don’t get me started on the price difference between organic socks and Hanes. Or for that amount of money I could not buy my son his medication every month, with health insurance.

    This attitude is precisely what is being talked about. If you can barely afford to buy the necessary things for your family as is, that 3 dollars is huge and really adds up. A large section of this country is really disadvantaged financially and telling them to spend more money they don’t have to begin with is cruel. You don’t think we’d all like to buy the very best for our families? It’s not that we don’t care or understand, it’s that we’re poor.

  • Wesley Gant

    for people interested in organic farming NPS has community gardens with plots avialabel for the upcoming year. this is a copy of a newsletter with information about organic farming and community gardens around the District.

  • Singularity2050

    Some organic products are more expensive than non-organic. Some are the same and actually cheaper! Processed “snacks” that are organic will be more expensive in general while many produce are the same or just a little more expensive, sometimes even cheaper when sales are taking place. You can use food stamps at all of the health food stores in my area of the country.
    I buy non-organic processed foods and organic produce. Since much of my produce is eaten raw or just slightly cooked, it’s important that it not be chemical laden. As far as the processed food, well, its processed anyway so therefore I’m not as particular about it being organic. You can buy your processed foods at a really cheap store such as Aldi, and that will save you extra cash to spend on organic produce at health food stores.

  • Singularlity2050

    And oh yeah, the women at the happy hour networking meetup were just trying to “one up” you. They heard you were a vegetarian and feeling guilty thought they would make better than you by not ordering ANYTHING because they are “100% organic”. That means they eat organic meat. You should have laid into them about murdering animals, since they were trying to be self-righteous with you.

  • Golden Silence

    Had I been at this happy hour, I would’ve put these sanctimoniously smug women in their places. You’re right, they just wanted to one up Anna to make themselves feel good. Who are they to judge how and what people eat? It’s not their problem!

  • Ndejonge17

    I think that people who have the organic food places need to space them out way more and not just have them in one space. For example there is only 1 grocery store open in ward 4 so people there don’t have access to good food.

  • Ashlinn

    About 40% of Americans dip under the poverty line at least once a decade. How can these people expect to buy only organic foods? I feel like OrganicTrade didn’t even read your article. Yes, organic is better for you, but the big problem we’re all noticing these days is that some people just can’t have access to it. It’s the way life is. There’s always going to be someone who can’t reach the goal. In the yoga class, the instructor (instead of answering the lady’s question) reinforced the necessity of eating organic. That wasn’t an answer. It was a statement, a true one, but not a helpful one.

  • Lia

    I was so surprised about how much money the organic foods were than the regular foods. I realized how lucky I was to have access to organic foods.

  • Artemis

    Not everyone has the amount of money needed for organic food. They need to make choices about the food they eat. If it’s a big family they may need to buy ten apples with pesticides rather than five apples without pesticides.

  • Chezyman888

    I was so surprised about how much more money the organic foods cost compared to conventional. Yes organic is better for you, but the big problem we are all noticing these days, is that some people just can’t have access to it. It cost almost TWICE as much. A family in poverty might not even have enough money to buy conventional food, let along organic.

  • Deborah Pannell

    You have articulated this issue so well. I have been one of those who has exercised my privilege to eat organic for many years. Now that things have gotten tighter, I’m finding that I can’t always afford the organic stuff anymore and am compromising more and more. Bravo for putting this out here. I too feel alienated from people who just assume that all choices are based on intelligence or commitment or having your priorities in the right place. There are plenty of us who want to do better, but just don’t have the means. And I know that there are multitudes of people who have it worse than me.

    PS – A little humility goes a long way…

  • Elaine

    Thank you. You have spoken for poor people. I suppose I could prioritize my life in order to buy organic. Let’s see….I could pay only half my light bill, or water bill. I can’t stop eating out because I don’t eat out in the first place. Should I cut out those pricey dried beans that make up the main part of my diet? I’m so sick of hearing all the whimsical ways to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. Should I get rid of the cable? There is no cable to get rid of. How about this computer? It’s not mine, so I can’t. Should I find a cheaper place to buy clothes? Mine are all from yard sales and the Goodwill. How about cheaper makeup? I don’t wear makeup. After my bills are paid there is little left and that goes to food. I can’t buy organic, for two people, on about thirty dollars a week. I can’t even make my own bread because (1) I don’t have an oven and (2) the price of the yeast is higher than the cheap bread. I feel sorry for these people who make these smarmy, holier-than-thou remarks towards those who cannot afford to buy organic. One day they may be digging a hole in the ground, gathering dowfall, burning it to coals, so that they can cook their dried beans. They may be wearing clothes that don’t quite fit and don’t go together. They may be getting the sermons from those who have never gone hungry or without enough heat in the winter. The poor are hidden. No one sees us, except for the other poor in our non-organic grocery stores, and in our second hand stores. There’s a lot of us. These preachers of organicness may be one of us some day.

  • DanaeK

    Thank you, so so much for this. I am a freshman in college that is trying hard to make this issue more prominent and noticed rather than constantly getting shut down with the “make it a priority” comment in response to my arguments of having privilege while eating organic, natural etc. Those like me, living paycheck to paycheck prioritizing means simply getting food in my stomach no matter what it is, and keeping a roof over my head. I am taking a class on food/economics and sustainability currently and have to write a paper on anything having to do with these topics. I am focusing mine on this issue, hoping to make it a more visible issue.

  • Anonymous

    Anna, I hope that you get paid to write this and other articles and can pay your bills.  Because you are wonderfully articulate.

  • Lori

    While this yoga community doesn’t have a clue, there’s one aspect you failed to address. Eating organic  and local is not just about a person’s health, it’s about the health of the planet. Growing conventional is just too polluting. We owe it to the environment to eat as sustainably as we can.

    That said, I’m about as broke as broke can be. And I mean, broke! But I eat mostly vegan and organic and preferably local when I can. The yoganistas were right about one thing…you have to make it a priority. For me that means going to several different places to shop, including visiting the farmers’ market around closing to get good deals,  and planning my meals around what is cheap. It’s time consuming yes, but it’s a priority for me.