Over 24 years ago, I found myself in the epicenter of the holistic movement – Boulder, Colorado. The soundtrack of the mid-90’s was anything from The Grateful Dead, and the scent of patchouli punctuated every riff, emanating from the heads of dreadlocks spreading the message of peace and love. Looking back, I realize it was a groundbreaking time for spreading the seeds of sustainability, too. The term ‘organic’ was just getting defined, and it was a welcome change from the bomb shelter, post-apocalyptic packaged food craze, towards going back to our food roots. After years of industrialized farming for fast, cheap production, a new breed of earth-centered pioneers sprouted up and an effort to fix the decades of environmental damage began to flourish.
Over time, ‘organic’ became synonymous with sustainability, foods raised without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, added antibiotics and hormones and chemical additives. It wasn’t long before manufacturers jumped onto the bullet train of big dollar opportunity as the organic category began jumping in double digits sales annually. Now, you’ll find the organic seal emblazoned across labels in every aisle of your grocery store, from produce to pancake mix, chicken to chocolate – even potato chips, candy, cake mix and cookies.
I knew I was in trouble the day my son, sitting on his perch in the grocery cart rolling through the snack aisle, spotted the organic label on what appeared to him to be a very decadent package of chocolate, cream-filled cookies, followed by a parade of chips, candy and soda. “Now, we can have all those, mom. They’re organic. That means they’re good for us.” And there it hit me like a can of Spam. The food industry has done an incredible job of equating certain buzzwords like ‘organic’ with healthy. Organic foods can still deliver a hefty load of refined sugar, saturated fat and empty calories. They can even come with pesticides, and they’re not necessarily better for the environment.
And then everyone choked on their organic Oreos. Before you shoot the messenger, don’t get me wrong. I’m not bashing organics, and there’s no denying that it comes from a good philosophical place. Yet, some synthetic substances are listed as exceptions to the basic rule and are allowed for use in organic agriculture according to the USDA’s website, and not all ‘organic’ pesticides are great for mother nature. In a study focused on soybeans, Canadian scientists found the organic pesticides were more ecologically damaging to the predators that control the pesky aphids they were trying to mitigate.
So, if we can’t count on the term to define health and sustainability because of all the exceptions and misnomers, is the definition of organic 2.0 on the horizon?
When I pulled up to Urban Produce in Irvine and their 5,000+ square foot warehouse in an office park, I thought my GPS was messing with me. No fields and no cropdusters. I’m greeted by Danielle Horton, Director of Marketing and assured I’m in the right spot. Inside, I find an entirely unique approach to growing a whole lot of fresh greens within a closed, automated environment that can accommodate 16 acres of plants in an acre space. That’s getting high, and I’m not talking about Colorado anymore.
Using hydroponic technology and stacking their produce in their patented High-Density Growing System, they’re able to control the light, air and space with significant yields. Danielle explains that the HDVGS system has the ability to be sustabinable and replicable in any urban growing environmental worldwide.
There are no pests, so there are no pesticides used. They’re also using 80% less fertilizer and 90% less water than conventional agriculture, which in our neck of the California woods, is a BFD. And it’s just good ‘ole fresh produce, so the certified organic term is a valid description of clean, real, nutritious food.
For now, Urban Produce is focused on microgreens, which seem to be a miracle in and of themselves. While microgreens used to have the association with just being featured as a garnish at fussy restaurants, Urban Produce is setting out to change that perception and make them more available to the masses.
With varieties like Wasabi-Bok Choy, Kale-ifornia, a superfood blend of organic kale and amaranth, and my favorite, Hot Mama, a spicy blend of white, pink, purple and red radish, there is no shortage of flavor and culinary exploration. Danielle sends me home with a few DIY plant your own varieties along with some instant gratification green. Over the next couple of weeks, I marvel at the miraculous sprouting at the end of these not-so-green thumbs, where my family got to enjoy the bounty of our harvest. I’m impressed and even more importantly, my 10-year old son is eating them and digging them, hard. I think I may even be experiencing a burst of energy when I eat them.
Now that’s a green buzz I can get behind.
5 Ways to Make Sound Food Choices:
1) Read the nutritional panel. Even certified organic packaged foods can be filled with sodium, saturated fat and sugar, wreaking havoc on your heart and health. Make sure to observe the total dietary percentage of nutrients delivered in a serving.
2) Ask where it came from. Don’t be shy to ask your green grocer where your tomatoes and lettuce were grown. Evaluate how far they traveled on the road to your store. Getting fresh, sustainable produce from farmer’s markets is good option, as you’ll know it’s in season, too.
3) Look for farmstands. Knowing exactly where your food comes from can be as simple as making friends with the farmers. Seek out farmstands and local farms that sell fresh produce, eggs and even meat. You’ll know it hasn’t circled the globe on its way to your plate.
4) Grow your own. Whether you have an expansive backyard or a windowsill, growing a garden of veggies or a single pot of microgreens will help you enjoy the fruit of your own label, knowing exactly where it came from. There’s a lot of pride in that.
5) Fill up on the Fresh Stuff. Dedicate half your plate with an array of fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal, and make sure to wash them properly with a product that’s lab-proven effective. Even organic produce can be treated with pesticides and water alone will not remove non water-soluble chemicals and wax.
Hot Mama Guac Nachos
8 Miniature Sweet Bell Peppers
2 ripe avocados, stone removed and flesh scooped out
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
Juice of a fresh lime
½ teaspoon white pepper
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped
½ cup grape tomatoes, chopped
4 Tablespoons Urban Produce Hot Mama microgreens
- Wash all produce properly
- Slice tops off bell pepper, cut in half and seed
- In a bowl, combine avocado with all seasonings until smooth and well incorporated. Mix in cilantro and grape tomatoes.
Arrange peppers onto a plate and scoop each half with a dollop of the guacamole mixture. Top each one with Hot Mama microgreens.