Friday, July 22, 2011

Getting What We Pay For

About two and a half years ago, I wrote a piece (one of several I contributed over a couple of years) for my local food co-op's "Eat Local" blog. I recently came across it again and thought I would take the liberty of rerunning it here. As I explain in the tab at the top of this page called "The bookcase that became a blog," while these days I mainly write about birds and other encounters with nature, I see those interests as absolutely related to my interest in organic gardening, sustainable agriculture and the local food movement (for one thing, there are not a lot of birds that thrive when there is nothing but corn or soybean fields to be seen from horizon to horizon), and it was in writing about those things that Penelopedia first took shape. So here's a return to my blogging roots. If you find this post interesting, you can find others on related themes by perusing the list of tags that appears toward the bottom of the sidebar. (If you don't find it interesting, never fear, we will return to our regular programming after this brief interruption.)

One of my favorite writers on the subject of food and gardening is Joan Dye Gussow. In her book This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, she recounts,
“I came across a… cartoon of an angry housewife holding a bag of groceries and shouting at a man in a cowboy hat, ‘What do I care if a bunch of farmers go broke? I buy my food at a grocery store!’ The conviction that she’s expressing is close enough to how most of us act that discomfort makes us laugh. Most of us buy food as if the only question that needs asking is whether we have enough money to pay for it.”
It’s so true. In fact, what many of us have been taught about being a good provider or a careful shopper revolves largely around paying as little as possible for our family’s food. Sure, we know how to check for ripeness, or spoilage, or bruises, or sell-by dates. And sure, we know our basic food pyramid facts and the importance of eating enough produce or whole grains. But most Americans shop once a week in the big box stores; we use our manufacturer’s coupons carefully clipped from the paper, buying the name-brand packaged goods that have come to mean food and home and the American way of life. And we feel virtuous at the thought of the full refrigerator and the dollars carefully saved on the family-size pack of pork chops or the 2-for-the-price-of-1 cookies or the hard, pink strawberries on sale.

When we’ve been taught like this, it’s easy to feel an initial sense of shock at the thought of deliberately paying more than the minimum for food. But it’s worthwhile to see what happens when we start to ask ourselves, “What am I buying with my food dollars? When I save a few dollars on my grocery bill, how are those savings achieved? Does my spending support my values, or contradict them?”

When I know that mass-market meat is relatively cheap because animals are constrained and crowded together in huge quantities for “efficiency,” living in conditions that no animal would choose and creating lagoons of manure that must be managed, I generally can’t bring myself to “save” those few dollars. And when I know that produce or grain-based foods are relatively cheap because they are grown in vast monocultures that require large amounts of pesticides and leave the soil depleted rather than enriched with organic matter, I really don’t want my savings to be bought at that price.

On the other hand, I feel positive pleasure when I know that my food dollars are going to small-scale local producers of grass-fed cows who practice rotational grazing, so that the animals fertilize the very ground that produces the grass they eat. I feel good when I support local farmers who take the trouble to use row covers and diversified crops to manage insects, and who plant the best-tasting, most nutritious varieties because their fruit and vegetables will be sold nearby,  at the peak of ripeness, and so they don’t have to sacrifice those qualities in favor of those that best survive long-distance transportation.

So let’s encourage those around us to question the assumption that food should cost as little as possible. Speaking for myself — and I have plenty of reasons to be quite careful about my spending — I don’t feel I can afford to buy food as if the only question that needs asking is how cheap it is.

1 comment:

Billie Jo said...

Good "food for thought!"