A: This is a hard question, and the answer is that it depends. Organic tells you specific things about how the food was raised, that's what the USDA organic seal indicates. Local is great, but I usually want to know more than that—like how was the animal raised, or how was the crop produced? So it's kind of a judgment call. The Food & Water Watch website has a fact sheet that talks about how to navigate labels for meat and poultry [and] that discusses this is more depth.
Q: The labels on packages, particularly meat and eggs, were confusing. Is it safe to assume that anything labeled "USDA approved" is a good buy? Are there any exceptions or other labels that are particularly important or misleading?
A: For meat and poultry, the USDA stamp just means it was processed in a plant that was inspected by USDA (which is required by law). So that is not really useful in distinguishing between brands. Some companies make other claims (like "antibiotic-free") that the USDA then certifies to be true. So that is an additional piece of information you can use. One important flag is that "natural" does not mean much when it comes to meat and poultry (or really any food). There is no meaningful standard for what products can use that label, so we at Food & Water Watch don't recommend looking for it. The fact sheet I mentioned above discusses a lot more of these.
Q: Many of our readers shop on a budget and may not be able to afford to completely change the way they shop. What is one change that is easy and affordable to make?
A: One way to think about it is to not focus specifically on the price of the organic version of a product compared to the conventional version, but to think about your overall budget. Are you willing to do without some processed snack food in order to spend more money on healthy produce or meat? Can you cut down on soda and use that money on other whole foods or frozen prepared foods, which tend to be expensive for the amount of food you get? One way to think about it is to try to spend as little time as possible in the middle of the grocery store (where the processed foods are) and try to get as much as you can from the edge of the store (produce, dairy, meat, bread).
Another tip that might help is to think about stocking up on things when the price is good. This is when thinking about what is in season can help. If you can stock up on corn or berries or some other produce in the summer when it is plentiful and cheaper, you can put some in the freezer at home and use it later.