Growing Local Roots

To Eat or Not to Eat?  Buying Organic Foods in Kalamazoo


Local farmers, store owners and Western Michigan University students discuss the differences between organic foods and non-organic foods.


By Alexandra Batson


Several Western Michigan University college students acknowledge that they have noticed that eating at least one item of organic food regularly may influence their health in a positive way despite the extra cost.


 WMU students, Kalamazoo store owners and farmers have differing opinions on the influence of organic foods on people’s health and wallets.


 Mark Sawall, director of operations and a member of the Sawall Board of Directors at Sawall Health Foods in Kalamazoo, Mich., discussed what organic food should and should not be.


Sawall said chemicals used on animals or produce can have harmful effects on the people who eat them, and he said the extreme growth of children in recent years could be due to what’s being put into meat sources around the nation.


 “[With organic food] you’re just looking at cleaner products and that’s the biggest thing. It’s the same thing when you’re looking at a loaf of bread.  Usually it’s supposed to be wheat, flour, salt, water and maybe yeast, but if you go to a regular grocery store it’s got 46 different ingredients in it plus sugar,” Sawall said. “Now you’re looking at a high influx of diabetes obesity and all these different things because they’re putting so much extra stuff into the products.”


 These are important factors to consider when looking at how foods are produced, but knowing how the food affects your body is equally important.


I think that organic foods have improved my health. It's also a mind thing -- I might not necessarily always feel a huge difference as compared to when I never ate anything organic, but I know that I am eating healthier so I feel better,” said Catherine Pastrick, a junior at Western Michigan University. “I've noticed that my skin has cleared up and I just feel all around healthier and have more energy.”


 Kiah Dana, a graduate teaching assistant at WMU, said he also notices a difference in his health.


Dana said there are a lot of foods that have similar nutritional value as organic foods.  But he said feeling a difference in health comes from changing the kinds of food you eat, for example, junk food versus fruits or vegetables.


 “Worry about the quality of those foods, which is where the organic debate comes in.  I've noticed a difference in taste between organic and non-organic products, particularly meats and dairy,” Dana said.


 Actually feeling a difference in body health and energy isn’t just what organic food is all about.


Chris Dilley, general manager of the Kalamazoo People’s Food Co-Op, said there are two main reasons organic foods are better for the body. The first is that the foods are grown in soil that is treated better:  more nutrition and vitamins are in the soil in which the foods are grown, giving the plants more access, which then give bodies the same nutrition and vitamins. The second is the absence of pesticides and herbicides, which he described as “poison.”


 According to a United States Environmental Protection Agency report titled, “Pesticides and Food: Health Problems Pesticides May Pose,” these same pesticides and herbicides Dilley discussed can cause health risks such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer and other health problems.


Sawall also said he is against chemicals used in conventional farming and also notes the direct effects soil has on its plants.


 “If anybody puts anything into the soil, it’s going into the food and, of course, over the years all these chemicals that a lot of companies have used to grow their vegetables have been banned once they find out there are adverse effects 20 years down the road,” Sawall said.


Although there are many people, researchers, students and professionals who say organic foods are better for the overall health of the U.S., some believe it doesn’t make a difference.


 Jon Watson, a senior at WMU, said he thinks that pesticide use is not as bad as some people may think.


 “We have to think also about how much more food we produce today versus 100 years ago.  Because of the pesticides and scientific processes farmers add, they’re producing more crops and keeping their livestock healthy which is a monumental achievement. If the processes were not healthy, they would not be allowed by the Department of Commerce,” Watson said.


Watson also said if someone has the desire to shop and eat organic foods, going to a local store is better than going to a chain.


 “If someone really wants to eat organic, go to a local farmers’ market and buy produce from them, most of them are small-time farmers that do this on the side.  That is the only way I would support buying organic foods. To me, organic foods purchased from a large supermarket chain seem like a waste of time; you are buying into the marketing ploy,” Watson said.


Samantha Rafacz, produce manager at Meijer, agrees with Watson.

“We carry an organic version of just about everything. It sells really well. It’s good to have it because when people want it, it’s here. I’m not against the pesticides they use on plants. My family has always grown our own foods and we’ve used pesticides and as far as we know, they’ve never caused harm,” Rafacz said.


 Conventional farmers share similar thoughts.


Jarod Knuth, owner of Knuth Farms LLC. in St. Joseph, Mich., said crops need pesticides for protection, and the chemicals needed to properly shield the plants are not available in an organic form. Using pesticides on plants is very important, Knuth said, because without them there could be any kind of outbreak which could devastate crop cycles that could then mess up the whole county’s crops, or even the whole Midwest, depending on how bad the condition is. Knuth also noted that in order for a farm to be certified as an organic farm, the ground needs to have been free of any chemical or fertilizer for the past five years.


 “The plants still need the same nutrients whether it’s from organic or chemical fertilizers, organic fertilizers are extracted through natural sources -- you could take cow manure and extract nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, which are the main three nutrients any plant needs to live,” Knuth said.


“The chemicals don’t hurt the plants.  The plant is still getting what it wants with pesticides. Organic farming is nicer to think about, it’s a little easier on the head, but in reality it is more expensive and there isn’t that big of a difference,” Knuth said.


Despite health or farming when it comes to organic food, WMU students must also worry about spending the extra money it costs, especially on a student budget.


 “I keep my monthly grocery expense at 80 to $100. I don’t find that buying organic raises the amount of my grocery cost significantly. It might mean that I end up with less food for the amount of money I spend, but that just means I buy less junk/worthless food,” said Ashley Herrington, a senior at WMU.


Other students said the increased cost is worth it.


“It's more difficult because the price for organic foods is more expensive, but I feel like it's worth the extra cost,” Pastrick said.


 Some students have found way to save money while buying organic.


“Per month I spend about $115 on these staple items.  However, I live with others who pool their money with me to buy food, so it becomes ‘cheaper,’” Dana said.


 Store owners like Dilley also say the extra cost is worth it for peoples’ health. Dilley said there is a line between the cost of food and the cost of healthcare: the two impact each other.  If people are willing to pay more for food, they’ll be paying less for healthcare in the long run, he said.


 “We also sell in bulk -- like rice, beans, grains, cereal -- with things in bulk you don’t pay for packaging. You can buy as much or as little as you want.  You can buy just a cup of what you want, therefore, you can get what you need or want for a reasonable price especially if you’re willing to cook and not just bring it home and throw it in the microwave,” Dilley said.

Sawall advocates that consumers buy organic foods despite the cost.

 “I think one of the things is if you’re looking to shop organic, you can always price compare. We’ve been here since 1936, we give a senior discount and we give a 10 percent discount to the students every day, but the other thing is when we deal with distributors they have different deals that they run monthly. Anything we can get at a discounted price from a distributor we sale price it and give it back to our customers.  Our job is to help our customers maintain the ability to eat the food.  If we took it and marked it up to the retail everyone thinks it’s supposed to be, then we would be Whole Foods,” Sawall said.