EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ -Can a resident of East Brunswick purchase enough of the right products and produce in town to lead an organic lifestyle? Local interest in organic foods, farming, and lifestyles is booming here in East Brunswick. Last week, TAPinto East Brunswick grabbed local organic farmer Theresa Lam of Lonicera Farm and locally-grown Organic Allie and visited our 4 in-town supermarkets – Wal-Mart, Shop-Rite, Stop & Shop, and Aldi (in geographical order) – to look for organic foods, assess their sources and quality, and check their prices to see if your average Bear can access and eat organic. The results were surprising.
“Organic” is a title given by the United States Department of Agriculture to products that have strict production and labeling requirements. Organic products must meet the following requirements:
- Produced without excluded methods (e.g., genetic engineering), ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.
- Produced per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
- Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.
Basically, the appellation “organic” is given to foods produced without poisonous pesticides; farmed in the soil; and grown without genetic interference.
On our Route 18 trek, we stopped first at Wal-Mart, as the national chain houses a full supermarket. The initial display we saw was one that referred to “Locally Grown” products. Although the local label did not indicate an organic status, we hoped for some fresh products.
Upon inspection, there were no local products available at all. The closest item was the blueberries from Hammondton, New Jersey, which appear everywhere at this time of year.
Theresa Lam asked the Assistant Manager to show her local produce and he could not. “I told him I am an organic local farmer and that I might be interested in selling him my produce. He said that I would have to contact Wal-Mart’s local distribution center and the corporate office.”
Some produce labeled organic was in “terrible, rotten, unbelievable” condition, said Lam, examining some lettuce that hung limply on nearly-empty shelves. Some items were also heavily-packaged in thick plastic, like the zucchini selling for $1.99 each. “For most organic customers, the carbon footprint of a product is important, too.”
Lam also noted that the label “natural” has very little meaning and should not be confused with organic. Lam also took exception with ‘hydroponic” foods that are grown in water. “They do not replenish the carbon in the soil,” she said.
Having no unique organic section, some boxed items were mixed in with other products on the Wal-Mart shelves.
In the meat department, Wal-Mart offered Perdue’s “Harvestland” line with organic chicken breasts at $4.94 per pound. Regular Purdue chicken breasts were $3.88. Crescent Halal chicken breasts were $5.08 per pound.
In the dairy department, Wal-Mart’s “Great Value” brand priced organic 2% milk at $3.38. National organic brand Stonyfield was $4.24. At $4.46 per half-gallon, Horizon Organic was the most expensive. Regular Wal-Mart milk was $3.19 for the same amount.
Overall, the experience at Wal-Mart was “as expected,” said Lam, indicating some availability of packaged products – Organic Similac baby formula – at low prices, yet no local products or desirable organic produce.
Our visit to Shop-Rite, the oldest supermarket in town, proved to be quite a different matter. Organic produce was well-displayed, appeared fresh, and varied. Lam noted that it was “moved to the front for eye appeal.”
As in all stores, organic produce cost more. Organic zucchini was $2.99 per pound, while “regular” zucchini was $1.49.
Unlike other local Shop-Rite stores in North Brunswick and Spotswood, the EB Shop-Rite had no designated “organic” section yet, but many items are imbedded within the “natural” or regular items on the stocked shelves.
The offerings and prices for chicken breast varied widely. Coleman Organics chicken was $5.49, yet the Shop-Rite brand “Wholesome Pantry” was $6.49. Even more expensive was the Empire Kosher chicken at $6.99
Shop-Rite also offered a “natural” chicken at $3.96 per pound, along with Purdue at $3.99 and Tyson, the brand most opposed by organic consumers, at $3.53.
Theresa Lam pointed out that all labels indicated that packaged chicken was “antibiotic and hormone free,” a requirement by the USDA and no special designation for any brand. “That status is nothing to boast about. It’s the law,” said Lam.
The variety of milk available at Shop-Rite was matched only by the range of prices that the products drew. Regular Shop-Rite milk costs $2.39 for a half-gallon of 2%. The “Wholesome Pantry” organic milk – the Shop-Rite organic brand – was $3.99. Horizon Organic was $5.19. The most expensive organic product was Organic Valley’s “Grassmilk” –from grass-fed cows – was $5.99 per half gallon.
Theresa Lam’s take on Shop-Rite organics was that it presented good shopping option for the greatest number of people in the area. “The organic vegetables look beautiful and there are some great options. The vegetables and fruit are mostly from California, but it was good to see some produce from Lancaster farm in Pennsylvania.”
“Shop-Rite has very good organic options overall – ice cream, dairy milk, veggies, meat cereal, tomato sauce – lots of organics in the aisles,” added Lam.
As for dairy and meat, Lam kept reminding to consumers to ask questions about how the animals are kept and what they are fed. “Pasture or organic-fed is best, “ she said.
Our next destination was Stop and Shop, the only local store with a designated organic section. Stop & Shop’s organic line “Nature’s Promise” is featured throughout the store as well.
Organics were lodged together so that consumers could literally “stop and shop” in one place. Frozen foods, dairy, snacks, cereals, oils, and staples located in one place “made for easy organic shopping, “ said Lam.
The farmer was pleased to see Wallaby organic Greek yogurt available at the store, as the brand is a “foodie” favorite. (The price for a large container was $8.19 at Stop and Shop and $7.99 at Whole Foods.)
The produce section had organic offerings, but the biggest drawback, said Lam, was “excessive packaging.” Many foods were packed in larger-sized portions or were packed individually, leading to the production of more garbage. In-season local vegetables such as kale were not among the organic offerings.
Nature’s Promise organic chicken breasts were not available on the day we shopped, but they are usually priced around $7.99 per pound. That makes it East Brunswick's most expensive chicken. By comparison, a “value pack” of Tyson chicken breasts went for $2.99 per pound.
Organic milks ranged in price from the $3.99 cost of a half-gallon of 2% Horizon Organic at $5.19 and the Organic Valley Grassmilk at $5.99.
At East Brunswick’s newest supermarket, the international chain store Aldi, Theresa Lam noted that it was important to “read the labels” and understand the difference between the chain’s “Fit and Active” and “Simply Nature” lines. “Fit and Active” is a low-calorie product with lots of individualized packaging to make it easier to count portions.
“Simply Nature” is, according to the company’s website, “about giving you everything you want, and nothing you don’t. Our Simply Nature products are all organic or Non-GMO Project verified. You also won’t find any added artificial ingredients and preservatives including artificial flavors, artificial colors, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and partially-hydrogenated oils.”
“Aldi is a good, low-cost option for organic foods in the Simply Nature line. I am not very comfortable about the “Fit and Healthy “ line of products. Not too many truly healthy foods,” said Lam.
The produce at Aldi varied in quality, with very few fresh products labeled as organic. Some bagged vegetables and fruits were rotting while others looked fresh and new.
Red Wheelbarrow organic chicken breasts were $5.99 per pound. They are produced by the family business Shenandoah Valley Organic Farms and the chickens are free-roaming.
Aldi offered only its own brand of organic milk – in packaging that looks remarkably similar to that of Horizon Organic – at $2.95 per half-gallon.
Over the course of our Organic East Brunswick Day, we discovered a few things that will be helpful to local shoppers in search of quality and value:
- Organic food is almost always more expensive than food produced in a traditional or corporate way. Be prepared to pay extra for what you want. Start early with that organic Similac, but understand why Wal-Mart has to keep that locked in a cabinet.
- Shop-Rite has the most to offer organically with regard to chicken, but the price range is also the most confusing and wide-ranging. Read all the packages.
- Stop & Shop’s organic aisle makes life easier for people looking to spend less time looking through the “regular” products to find what they want. Imagine if Kosher foods were imbedded in the regular stock?
- Wal-Mart is an international chain with lots of buying power, therefore it can offer lower prices on many items. If there are some organic brands you like, you may find them there. Stonyfield? Horizon?
- Locally-grown, however, means just that – local. Ask questions about sources.
- Understand labels. “”Fit and Active” does not mean “Organic and Hormone-Free.”
- Embrace the full meaning of organic living - having a positive impact on the world and behaving humanely. Aldi does not give out plastic or paper bags, so there’s less garbage in the environment. Stop & Shop and Shop-Rite participate in the local East Brunswick community.
East Brunswick presents new opportunities to engage in an organic lifestyle by encouraging residents to shop local and pay attention to what goes in that cart. Theresa the Farmer, Organic Allie, and TAPinto East Brunswick know where to shop and what to look for. *
*TAPinto East Brunswick will also visit local organic and traditional farmer’s markets soon to see what’s growing in town.