After a month of discussing intentional eating, Hannah Hauptman reflects on the tensions of conscious and conventional consumption.
Hannah Hauptman is a rising sophomore at Yale. She is a current Lazarus Summer Intern on the Yale Farm.
It almost goes without saying; on the Farm, food is important.
Both physically and intellectually—or perhaps even philosophically, according to Bernardo [another Lazarus Summer intern] —food provides the interns with indispensable nourishment. While the more formal, academic discussions of weekly readings take up a relatively small share of our time, informal discussions of the merits and pitfalls of alternative consumer-consciousness food movements, such as vegetarianism, “localism,” and the rise of “industrial organic,” constantly fill the spaces for conversation created by the more ubiquitous and time-consuming activities like weeding or #broadforking. Sometimes these conversations wax romantic, as we picture the various robust futures contained in the promise of urban farming. Other times, our conversations are more somber, confronting the often frustratingly elitist or unrealistic elements of social movements that emphasize conscious, if not necessarily conspicuous, consumption.
The farm provides an ideal environment for romanticizing the food revolution. It’s easy to both internalize and preach the merits of eating fresh, local, and pesticide-free when the sugar snap peas are in field 2U, the carrots in 3L, and both fields lie within three hundred feet of the Farm’s table. We spend our days discussing how, both as burgeoning food activists—a label that Smita Narula reminds us we should not be afraid to use—and as a general society, we can allow people to purchase “real food” (an adjective that has grown beyond just a buzzword to become a well-defined movement) and eat well. Principles and ideals, shaped somewhat by realistic considerations, govern our debates. But how do these principles manifest themselves when I leave 345 Edwards and head home after a long day of work, or when I make the trip to Stop & Shop on a day off? How do abstracted principles of good food interact with my mundane reality of grocery shopping?
Now, I would usually be the last to call grocery shopping “mundane.” For anyone from back home reading this, I’m sure you’re not surprised that this is the topic on which I chose to write. My love affair with the bright, fluorescent lights and the symphony of choices that mark the modern American supermarket was a relationship well known amongst my friends—and well-loved by my parents. I always found the suburban grocery store to be a strangely cathartic and fascinating place. The inner child in me was excited by the shiny, colorful display of apples; the restless teenager relished the independence and the control over choice.
This summer, however, grocery shopping as a personal adventure for me has changed dramatically, as one might expect after spending a month learning about alternative food movements, industrial agriculture and grower-packer-shipper conglomerates. First, of course, there’s the fact that I buy all my own groceries now, so I pay a lot more attention to a price difference of a dollar or two than I usually would have at home. More importantly, however, the illusion of disassociation that the supermarket’s marketers cultivate more carefully than anything else has started to fall apart for me. By disassociation, I mean the intentional separation of farms and food for which grocery stores aim. The waxy, perfectly blemish-free Honeycrisp apples in the produce aisle carry no connection to a specific farm, region, or growing style, nor do they sport a visible label of the type of pesticides, fertilizers and labor practices used in cultivation. Similarly, the Light Brown Grade-A Extra Large Eggs do not come with any description of the breed of chicken that laid those eggs, and certainly not of said chickens’ living environment. They are a product and a commodity just as much as they are food. Variation can scare consumers, as it signifies difference, imperfection—insecurity, even. Thus, the grocery store, and the infrastructure of industrial ag more broadly, has prioritized standardization over heterogeneity, even when variation is natural.
However, as I become more conscious, whether through readings, field trips, or through my own experiments in cultivation, of the immense effort that it takes to grow food, this lack of variation becomes more striking—and more alarming. A pint of blueberries can’t all be this round, not without pounds of nitrogen fertilizers. And how can strawberries have such a consistent, firm and bright skin; even the very best of the Massaro Farm strawberries I helped harvest last week had slight nicks and bumps. I’m stuck thinking about how many of the rejects must be rotting away on a California hectare… But right here, in the supermarket, they’re 2 for $5. Meanwhile, the organic berries seem to look a bit smushed. And they definitely look more expensive. And the berries at the Wooster Square farmers’ market? They’re local, they’re beautiful, but they’re even pricier.
The bright, appetizing, conventionally grown blueberries don’t come with signs discussing pesticide usage or hourly wages for farm workers. Instead, they come with, “New Low Price, $2.99!” Even as a quite conscientious consumer—which, after spending at least five hours a day discussing food in all its forms, I would say I am becoming—its hard to really envision the consequences of a choice that provides such a clear short-term benefit. When I put the Driscoll berries in my cart, I wasn’t focusing on pesticide runoff, or body burdens, or labor costs kept artificially low by exploitative practices, or the marketing efforts that go into making sure consumers associate “fresh” and “all-natural” with their produce. I was thinking “2 for $5” and “only $2.99.”
I don’t plan on going into economics, but the grocery store has a very powerful way of making me think about the value of a dollar and, on a more macro scale, the intensely lopsided power of money over other forms of social and environmental currency. It’s incredibly hard, even as an ever-more conscious consumer, to internalize the importance and magnitude of long-term costs when you are only confronted directly with short-term trade-offs. The grocery store disassociates food products from farming, obscuring the non-economic costs and making cheap, homogenous produce and packaged goods seem irresistibly appealing. Before the store, I already knew, theoretically, that if we want to get the general population to move away from industrially farmed produce and ultra-processed, packaged goods, we have to change the U.S.’s agricultural structure to allow farmers’ market and organic prices to compete with agro-industrial economies of scale.
However, this personal, physical confrontation with the trade-offs of alternative and conventional agriculture provided an equally important lesson to me about how difficult is it, even from a relatively privileged position of awareness and ability, to equally weigh the short-term and the long-term, the indirect and the direct, the economic and the environmental. It’s something I have to keep working on, as do many who strive to become more conscious consumers. I’m sure it will be a long and ever-evolving process. And in that process, I think I may lose much of my wondrous love for the grocery store, a place I used to consider such a magical destination and now see as a place that has simply mastered the art of sleight-of-hand.
A Diet For a Warmer Planet: The choices we make at the grocery store can help reduce climate change (via Yale Climate Connections)
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Original source: published July 7, 2015 on the Yale Sustainable Food Program tumblr >> http://ysfp.tumblr.com/post/123462194909/intentional-eating