a peek inside the fishbowl

15 Apr, 2008

The tomatoes that spurred an entire post

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Recipes and Food

Groceries

As part of this Healthy Eating challenge I’ve decided to increase the amount of organic foods we’re bringing into the house. There are conflicting reports whether organic produce contains more vitamins and minerals and is healthier for you. And we’ve all read the articles that instruct us to buy organic apples and strawberries and forget about organic bananas, but I don’t believe that we should ignore the organic bananas just because there’s less of a chance some of the pesticides they use on them penetrated the skin. The way I see it, organic farming is better for the environment overall so we should be buying it anyway. We should all support organic farmers and manufacturers of organic foods as much as we can… even if it means just buying ONE organic product while we’re at the grocery store.

But what about fruits and vegetables? It’s still pretty much winter here in Ottawa and all of our produce is imported from somewhere. What then?

I was faced with the purchase of tomatoes the other day. I have to say, I’m not crazy about the produce at the Superstore. I’ve had better results shopping at Farm Boy on Merivale and Produce Depot on Carling, but since I have little time to go to multiple stores the Superstore will usually have to do.

All of the tomatoes I was looking at the other day – regardless of where they were from – were the kind that don’t really even smell like a proper tomato. They were failing the sniff test, badly. So I wandered to the organic produce aisle to see what was there. Before me lay a bag (yes, they were prepackaged) of five “on the vine” tomatoes. They were ripe (good!), and organic (yay!), nestled in their own thick plastic bag (bad) and flown from Israel (ugh). So which is better? Buying organic from halfway across the world, or non-organic from somewhere else on the continent?

I thought about those tomatoes long and hard. I decided to buy them despite the fact I didn’t know how much they cost. But really, I thought, how much could they want for a few tomatoes?

Ha. I watched the cashier ring them in, they were $7.00.

You know what, they taste pretty good. I’m not sure if I’ll buy them again, but I might. Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food writes about how little Americans (and probably by extension, Canadians) spend on food. Other countries (France springs to mind) spend a higher percentage of their income on groceries and eating. Shouldn’t we?

But seeing as my tomatoes arrived from the other side of the world… I’m torn.

Isn’t good food worth spending your money on?

What do you think? What’s your experience? And should big stores like Loblaws work harder to promote local produce when it’s in season? And what about when it’s not?

What do you do?

p.s. the photo at the top of this post shows the produce bags I made. I took Kristina’s advice and used colourful shoelaces. They turned out pretty well if I do say so myself!

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21 Responses to "The tomatoes that spurred an entire post"

1 | ciaochow

April 15th, 2008 at 4:21 pm

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We buy our groceries at Loblaws but our produce (for the most part) is from Ottawa Organics. Having our fruits and veg delivered to us each week (well, we pick it up) has made life easier and I enjoy the variety of produce we get. Sometimes we get lovely rainbow carrots and other times we are treated to veg we wouldn’t see elsewhere like romanescu.

Also, they deliver Art-Is-In bread and organic dairy (if that’s your persuasion). And coffee and chocolate too if you like.

Some of the veg is local, sometimes it’s foreign. I like it better when it’s local but I am happy to support a local company distributing organic food no matter what.

2 | robyn

April 15th, 2008 at 4:49 pm

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Like ciao-chow, I buy most of my groceries from the usual suspects – the superstore, loblaws, hartmans – but most of our produce comes from Ottawa Organics too. A weekly small box for $25 would go a good way towards filling one of those Loblaws bins you’ve pictured above. I LOVE it. And I have a rough idea of what’s coming every week, but there are always surprises that force me to try new things.

This year we thought about investing in a CSA plan, but didn’t get around to it fast enough!

3 | Jenn

April 15th, 2008 at 7:17 pm

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We had great fun getting to know some farmers last year at a local organic farmers market. One farm in particular always had stellar vegetables and I have thought long and hard about joining their coop this summer. They group with several other farms to give quite and extensive variety of vegetables but you need to pick it up each Thursday or Saturday. Same problem as your tomatoes only on a slightly smaller scale. While I know I would love the drive out to get the produce, and as an aside we could make it a family outingsince you are welcome to pick your own beans, peas and flowers free of charge for members because they are far too labour intensive to have done for you- I hate the idea of driving 30 minutes each way, once a week, all growing season.
I love the concept of eating local, the 100 mile diet, organic, fair trade… but very few can do any or all those all the time. We make choices. All we can hope is that those choices influence change for the better.
Back on to tomatoes- I recall reading about a tomato grower in the Ottawa area who produced fruit year round and they are supposed to be outstanding. I wonder where they are sold. Israel perhaps? ;o)

4 | mel

April 15th, 2008 at 7:19 pm

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Michael Pollan asserts that we are now spending about 10% less of our income on food (as compared to 1960), but 10% MORE on health care. Crazy, huh?

I agree that spending money on food is absolutely worth it, but on a just-scraping-by income, we have to settle for doing the best we can within our budget… which means $7 for tomatoes could not work for us. So I buy organic when I can, avoid processed as much as possible (which means I can buy high-quality ingredients to make my own stuff). I shop the farmer’s market nearly every week. We’ve also signed up for a CSA this year and I’m hoping to put in a little vegetable garden of our own.

Loblaws (and other grocery chains) MUST do better at supporting local farmers. It is unconscionable to ship produce from far-flung locales when small-scale farmers have the produce and are struggling to make ends meet.

5 | Marla

April 15th, 2008 at 7:30 pm

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Well, since you asked…

I think that part of the organic/local equation is also deciding to eat seasonally. So, using tomatoes as an example, we buy them pretty much only in season at the farmer’s market, and even prefer the heirloom varieties. I may buy the odd small package of grape tomatoes infrequently throughout the rest of the year, as they seem to have better flavour than the larger ones and because I just yearn for colour on my plate.

But in “the good old days”, there was canning those organic local homegrown tomatoes. That’s what we did when I was a kid. I am not going to do it now, though I recently unearthed all my mom’s canning stuff in her basement. But I remember those weeks in the summer, cranking and cranking the grinder and getting the skin off after my mom blanched them…so…much…work. If she had to charge per jar…

So, instead of regretting tepid, mealy tomatoes or luxuriously priced imported stuff, I figure our tomato meal quotient comes from sun-dried, or tins for part of the year – and the when they’re in season, I gorge on the good stuff and have tomato salad at nearly every meal.

And so follows the rest of the meals, with the exception of red peppers and onions. I NEED those too much.

6 | Barrie Summy

April 16th, 2008 at 3:16 am

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Great bags! Yes, I do think stores should promote local produce. And, a question: do you have a vegetable garden? Have you ever tried growing tomatoes in an Earth Box? Because they are amazing!

7 | Tosca

April 16th, 2008 at 6:26 am

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Like so much in life, this is about weighing interests (I’m a Libra so I’m rather obsessed with this!) and what your priorities are, which we all know can shift. I grew up with a large veggie garden in the summer and I simply accepted that we didn’t eat tomatoes in the winter. I learned to can. I still garden and can even with young kids. It’s what I do the first two weeks they are back in school. Anyhow, I still don’t generally buy the $7.00 winter tomatoes, except for once in a very odd while when i am having a totally PMS craving for a BLT :)

8 | Cath

April 16th, 2008 at 7:49 am

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Funny you raise tomatoes … we too use an organic delivery service – Bryson Farms out of Shawville. We love them so much – great local produce all year long (including salad greens every single week). I decided last year to not buy local tomatoes all winter, so I went to Parkdale market in the fall, stocked up on Bryson tomatoes, and made tons of tomato sauce as well as bags of whole tomatoes, which I froze (not having the canning thing down pat). I’ve caved in a few times, but we’ve basically had tomato sauce all winter at a fraction of the cost of buying organic all winter.

9 | Chantal

April 16th, 2008 at 8:32 am

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Another Ottawa organic produce delivery service is Life Organic. We use them.

10 | andrea

April 16th, 2008 at 8:41 am

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We do our best to eat seasonally but if we really wanted to stick to our guns we’d only be eating apples this time of year.

The flip side of all this is that we’re supposed to be eating a variety of fruits and veggies (10 servings daily). And the choices are rather subjective, aren’t they? For some, tomatoes aren’t deemed to be a “need” … yet I am willing to bet that garlic (which almost always comes on a slow boat from China*) is.

It’s a tough call.

Perhaps the solution is a deep freezer and a cold cellar? Hmm.

In theory I like the idea of the organic veggie delivery service. But my experience with it has been so-so. We’d order the small box – having somewhat pre-selected the contents – but with three “selective” eaters in the house, well, let’s just say I was the one who ended up eating a lot of those veggies. Also, we’d get something like three apples in our order, and they’d arrived on our doorstep all battered. If I’m going to shell out for apples sight unseen I’d like them to not be bruised. Sorry. I’m so picky, aren’t I?

* have you ever tried local garlic when it’s in season? It’s the loveliest juiciest most garlicy thing you’ll ever experience. You’ll find it hard to go back to the ordinary stuff.

11 | Ln

April 16th, 2008 at 8:46 am

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We’re in Wisconsin, not Ottawa, but we don’t eat much fresh produce during the winter. Lots of frozen and (for tomatoes) canned. The produce here in the winter is kind of sad, and expensive too, so it makes it easier to decide to wait. We belong to a CSA that gives us great fresh produce all summer. This year I WILL manage to preserve the stuff we don’t manage to eat somehow.

12 | Lynn

April 16th, 2008 at 9:06 am

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I just made a post last weekend about the sadness of the produce at the Superstore. We decided to try the Farm Boy instead and it was so, so worth it. Even though we’re really too busy to make two grocery stops per week, we’re going to try to make time for the Farm Boy now.

I prefer to buy locally, if possible — getting organic produce isn’t as important to me as supporting our local farmers. But I also have some picky kids who only like certain things, and since we need to get what veggies we can into them, we do buy some things out of season. I’m hoping our trips to the Farm Boy will become both educational and create some excitement about new fruits and veggies, though.

By the way, I loved your column about using reuseable produce bags. I can’t believe the thought never occurred to me before. I ordered some from the Etsy shop you linked to. Apparently they are in the mail now — when they arrive I’ll let you know what I think.

13 | Miss Vicky

April 16th, 2008 at 9:28 am

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I too have given a lot of thought to the organic vs local issue and I am coming down on the side of local. There is plenty of organic local produce – farmers here are really committed, and we should be supporting them. My only problem right now is our family’s addiction to avocadoes and bananas… I suspect we will continue to eat those but try to balance it out by buying local everything else.

I am not sure it is too late to find a CSA for this summer- it’s just a matter of calling around. Who knows; someone may have space. Just Food has a list . Our CSA (Teamwork) delivers weekly to a West Wellington location, for a small extra cost. We were very happy with the variety and quality of veggies we got last year.

This winter, we started getting bi-weekly Ottawa Organics deliveries and were pretty happy with those as well – although their stuff is not always local.

I think the next step for our family will be to start eating seasonally – which means changing how we eat in the winter, mostly.

14 | tali

April 16th, 2008 at 11:22 am

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I’ve been thinking about this too, especially went confronted with the grape selection at superstore recently – there were regular grapes (from chile), organic grapes (from south africa), and fair trade grapes (from south africa as well). It was too confusing, and I ended up buying pesticide-laden strawberries from the US.

Looking at our groceries, about half of what we eat monetarily speaking is vegetables and fruit. That’s what the girls love to eat, and I’m hard pressed to discourage that by buying fewer of them – I’ve also hemmed and hawed over ottawa organics…I wasn’t really happy with the variety, and the fact that alot of it was shipped from far away as well.

Either way, I absolutely think that it is worth money to eat good food – we are trying to cut back on expenses here as well, but I won’t cut into the fruit/vegetable/healthy fish budget. We’ll just have to eat out less and buy less other crap.
Probably what we should be doing anyway!

15 | a peek inside the fish bowl

April 16th, 2008 at 1:20 pm

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[…] There’s some organic baby spinach there, half a tomato (yes, that tomato), and some cold leftover salmon from the night before. The recipe is called “Broiled Maple Salmon Fillet” and it’s listed among the Healthy Eating collection here (link launches PDF). It’s definitely a keeper. […]

16 | DaniGirl

April 16th, 2008 at 3:45 pm

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Ooo, I often struggle with the organic/local conundrum. Glad to see there are a few local organic options — I’ll look into this. Thanks!

17 | Lee

April 16th, 2008 at 4:08 pm

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Gosh that’s a tough choice. I know that I don’t have nearly enough information to make anything but a well intentioned guess. Which is worse to the Earth? Excessive travel (air or otherwise) vs chemical agriculture? Spending less on (chemical agriculture) food and working from home vs spending more on (organic) food, thus requiring an out of the home job and therefore commuting? I’m guessing the answer is a well defined: it depends.

I’m working on developing a series of posts with a similar theme. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

18 | jenn

April 16th, 2008 at 7:36 pm

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love how the bags turned out! :)

19 | BeachMama

April 16th, 2008 at 7:42 pm

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I enjoyed this post. I too have been struggling between organic and not. And where to buy. We have four, soon to be five picky eaters here and getting them to eat any fresh veggies is hard. Very hard.

I try to get most of my produce at Farm Boy, which, when they opened supported mostly (if not all) local or Canadian produce and had more season veggies (I am going back to 1989/90 when the first store opened in Orleans, I worked next door and frequented often). Now I find it a shame that last summer they had California strawberries, when just up the road a half a km there were fresh from the field strawberries. I went to the field to get mine.

Organic. Here I have a dilema. I tried for a few weeks to go only organic with my veggies and fruit. And honesty, they weren’t as good. Tasting or lasting or colour. Maybe I have been spoiled by gorgeous looking fruit, but I like it to look nice, not soft and limpy. So, I still struggle with this, but I am trying my best. And yes, I wonder if it is better to drive to two stores or go to just one. Although with Winter finally gone, I have already walked to Farm Boy twice. If only I could get all I needed there alone. I would be in great shape.

20 | The Veg Next Door

April 17th, 2008 at 7:18 pm

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Doesn’t this whole topic just make your head spin?

I often think about this when I shop. I think the produce at any local Loblaws is the pits. I also don’t shop at Food Basics or other stores that advertise low prices for produce because the prices, frankly, are too low. Just makes me wonder about the quality. I love Farm Boy — good quality and good prices.

As for local vs organic — I check out the organic section first and see if they have anything that I need. If they don’t then I buy the non-organic.

However, eating organically raised meat is more important than eating organic produce since meat is in the food chain longer.

I too was disappointed last year when I saw that Farm Boy rarely sold local produce but I guess it has something to do with their suppliers. There are a few local farms near where I live but they also grow their produce next to a major road…

Last year we got our produce from a local co-op and what a disappointment that was on many levels!

Lots to think about.

21 | Robert

April 20th, 2008 at 7:22 pm

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I’m with Marla on this one. And we’ve been able to find sufficient patches of wild blueberries, raspberries, black and red thimbleberries…well, you get the idea. Preserved for the year.

Had a twenties something ‘kid’ show us up last year – didn’t visit a grocery store for several months throughout the summer by buying local and getting to know farmers.

Anothwer good book: Stuffed and starved : markets, power and the hidden battle for the world food system /
by Patel, Rajeev Charles.

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