Friday, February 10, 2012

Breaking the Bank? Not really.

Some of the pastured animals at Green Gate Farms in Austin, Texas.
Sunday mornings are big breakfast mornings at our house. You know the type: breakfasts that take time to make, smell good while you're making them, and result in everyone lingering at the table. Recently, in anticipation of one of those breakfasts, I bought bacon at my nearby farm market, along with a dozen eggs, and other odds and ends.

Over the years, I have learned to take cash when I go to the farm market, for a couple of reasons. Paying by cash is  easier than writing checks at individual booths and, importantly, cash helps me keep track of how much I'm spending. This is really important because at this farm market, the bacon was $11.00 per pound and the eggs were $6.00 per dozen.

That's a lot of money for bacon and eggs. Some might say too much. But in a classic case of getting what you pay for, the meat was incredible - smoky and fatty and chewy and not overly greasy with a clean, bacon-y smell. Even the teenage eating machines living in my house were satiated after two or three pieces. Scrambling the eggs required getting tough with the shells - you really had to whack them against the edge of the counter to crack them - and being similarly no-nonsense with the resilient membranes around the vibrant orange yolks. It takes a lot of nutrient input to make eggs like that. Over at The Lunch Tray, you can see the difference between true pastured eggs and those from chickens that may be organically fed and "cage-free," but are probably still housed in massive group homes. Our eggs looked like the orange one.

That breakfast delivered the goods to our smell, sight, and taste senses. But the sense that governs my pocketbook - my common sense - was left questioning. After all, this was a majorly expensive breakfast. I wondered if it was worth it.

So I started reading. Specifically, I read Joel Salatin's latest book, "Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Healthier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World." And that book gave me some tools to help reframe the issue.

My main roadblock was that I was looking at these foods in the traditional way - a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon. I needed, instead, to get away from those measurements and look at the nutrition profile of the foods. Because, as it turns out, if you bought food based on its nutritional profile, rather than on gross poundage or number of eggs, these local, farm-raised, organics are a good deal. Or perhaps it is better to say that typical, mass-produced supermarket fare is a bad deal.

If you've heard of Mr. Salatin, you know that the chickens on his family's Polyface Farms roam about, eating bugs, picking up after pigs. The eggs they produce are similar to the ones that I purchased at my local farm market. Mr. Salatin once had his eggs characterized compared to the USDA's standard nutritional egg profile. Here are some of the findings:*

  • the USDA's standard nutritional egg profile for Vitamin E is 0.97 mg per egg. Polyface Farms'  eggs have 7.37 mg of Vitamin E per egg. 
  • Regular eggs have 487 IU of Vitamin A. PolyFace Farms' have 763 IU. 
  • Similar differences are shown for beta-carotine, folate, and omega 3s. 
  • Conversely, the standard egg has 423 mg of cholesterol and 3.1 g of saturated fat. Polyface Farms' eggs have 292 mg of cholesterol and 2.31 g of saturated fat.

In other words, these organic, pastured eggs have lots of more of the good stuff, and a lot less of the bad stuff. So, if we were buying eggs based on milligrams or international units of vitamins, the organic eggs are a good investment in healthy eating. (side note: wouldn't it be interesting if food were labeled by  nutrient quantity per ounce rather than price per ounce? Then you'd really know what you were paying for.)

I'm still bothered by the expense of organics, but believe in them enough to adjust our budget in other ways to accommodate them. And, we don't eat fully organic. We pay attention to Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen," to minimize pesticide exposure, we don't eat much meat, and we try to take advantage of the lower prices of in-season fruits and vegetables to stock up.

We think it's worth it to support our local farmers, and believe me, their bacon is gooood. But it's a conscious decision, and one we recognize not everyone can make.


* these findings are reprinted from Mr. Salatin's book.

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