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Kristin Schafer's picture

Personally, I like my cranberries and pumpkin pie chemical-free.

It’s not that you can taste or smell pesticides on food – the levels are much too low for that. It’s just that I sleep better knowing I’ve done all I can to minimize the number of chemicals I put into my body and feed to my kids.

I've been a mom for 15 years and a pesticide reform advocate for almost as long. I've organized around international treaties, lobbied government officials, and cheered at a lot of swim meets and baseball games. For me, these two worlds come together most clearly around food – in our backyard garden, in the produce aisle and at the dinner table.

My personal strategy? Buy organic and local whenever I can manage it. This keeps pesticides off our plates and helps small organic farmers. My family’s demand for organic sweet potatoes helps spur supply, building a market for produce that doesn’t put farmers, farmworkers and rural families in harm’s way.

But sometimes organic just isn’t available, and that’s where WhatsOnMyFood? comes in. Pesticide Action Network just released a new iPhone App that makes the invisible problem of pesticides more visible to food shoppers. The tool shows which pesticides are found on what foods, and how those chemicals can harm human health.

The iPhone App is a streamlined version of PAN’s website. Click on any of the 87 foods listed – cranberries, winter squash, broccoli – to find out how many chemicals were found in samples taken by the federal government, and of those, how many scientists say can cause cancer. Or harm the nervous system of a child. Or wreak havoc on developing reproductive organs.

Conventional sweet potatoes? Fourteen pesticides found among the samples tested: four have been linked to cancer; six can harm the human nervous system. Sheesh.

PAN specializes in getting scientific information like this into the hands of people making choices. That includes people making policy decisions, people who grow food and, well, people who eat. I’ve done policy work with PAN for more than a decade now, and to be honest this latest tool is more exciting to me as a mom than as a policy analyst.

But it helps in both worlds. If the global food movement keeps gaining momentum, policies will have to shift. We seem to be heading in the right direction with the incredible growth of organics in recent years - but we have a very long way to go. Organic farms remain a tiny percentage of U.S. agriculture, and millions of pounds of pesticides are still sprayed in this country every year. Some drift off fields into neighborhoods and schools, some soak into nearby soil and water - and some end up saturating fruits and veggies in the produce aisle.

We’ll have to go well beyond savvy shopping to solve the pesticide problem. The system is truly broken when we as consumers have to teach ourselves how chemicals like endosulfan, chlorpyrifos and malathion affect the health of our kids. We simply shouldn’t have to know which fruits have the most cancer-causing chemicals, or choose between developmental toxicants and neurotoxins. I mean, really.

Maybe someday we won’t have to worry about toxic chemicals on our Thanksgiving tables at all. But for the time being, shopping smart really can make a difference. Choosing foods that are healthier for my family also protects farmworkers and rural communities – and moves us all closer to that future day when chemical-free sweet potatoes are the only kind on the shelf.

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