Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Poverty and Sustainability

I'm just wondering this honestly, and with no sense of judgment (quelle surprise!), but honestly, as middle and upper-class Americans are running around trying to eat organic everything and grass-fed beef (if they eat beef) and full-moon harvested herbs and drinking biodynamic wine, isn't it true that most of the people in our country are still eating mostly crap?

Shouldn't we be working on justice issues that make basically, minimally healthful food available to more people before scurrying about trying to fill our own larders exclusively with organic and perfectly nutritious foodstuffs?

I get to go to Whole Foods in my car and read labels and purchase the best, best, best nutrients for my precious bod. Meanwhile, people in Boston nearby have trouble getting a regular old supermarket into their neighborhood, and have to subsist on convenience store fare.

Shouldn't we stop the presses, so to speak, when this is the case around us? I'm not saying I know how to, but I wonder sometimes if all this emphasis on sustainable, fabulously healthful, perfectly produced food is more about the fact that "I, Privileged and Educated White Woman, Deserve To Live Longer and Better Than The Average Joe" than "I Care Deeply About How the Earth Is Being Plundered To Feed Humans." If there was a special Food Gandhi among us, what would he say?
Would he say, "This is like the airplane scenario: use your oxygen mask on yourself first so you can assist someone else?" or would he say, "Hey, before you get to fill your own plates with impeccable offerings, make sure your sisters and brothers nearby at least get to have something better than Doritoes and McDonald's on theirs."

I really don't know. I understand that food is not just political, it is also cultural, and some people want to eat decidedly unsustainable items and want Miss GoodyTwoShoesPants over here to butt out.

I just thought about it yesterday when I was cruising through Whole Foods thinking wow, I have access to all of this. I could walk out of here with nothing but the finest and most healthful food available to any American. Meanwhile, 15 miles from here, I know they don't even have access to a grocery store. Is my shopping at Whole Foods so much about stewardship of the Earth as it is about my own ego-based survival instinct? And if it's the latter, isn't there a more egalitarian way to approach the greening of the food supply question?

Dear God,
In the dark of this Lenten season, I confront my own fear of death. I pray to be brought into deeper spiritual fellowship with all my brother and sister creatures, with a sense of our interconnectedness and mutuality.
Let my unquenchable desire for life not blind me to responsibility to those around me. Make my consciousness of the toxicity of our environment bind me more deeply to others, not flee to the false haven of imagined safety of purchased health. If my neighbor cannot be healthy, then neither can I be. Make us courageous, God, to make necessary sacrifices where we have heedlessly laid waste to Your creation. Amen.



Anonymous Jess said...

Thank you. Been pondering many similar thoughts and haven't been able to articulate them to my satisfaction - you hit the nail right on the head, there.

Blogger Obijuan said...

G*dd***t, PB! I was in the middle of composing this exact post!

Get outta my head!

Seriously, between UUWorld and Time's cover story this week, I keep coming back to justice issues. I may put my stuff up anyway, but for me it's coming back to the larger issue of helping the wider world meet basic needs before we move onto the hight consciousness issues, or at least contributing to both at the same time (by all means, pay the exorbitant prices for organic foods, but do something constructive in the way of alleviating poverty/hunger. The two must go hand in hand).

Blogger PeaceBang said...

:::scary possession music:::



Or hey, maybe it's just that old saying, "Great minds think alike."


Anonymous Philocrites said...

Two thoughts (from a non-righteous omnivore who is also a fan of locally grown produce):

Helping to bring farmers' markets into low-income communities would be an excellent step in the right direction. A few UU churches provide organic produce for food banks and food pantries near them, but those programs don't go as far as helping to build a market for locally grown organic produce. Here's a 2005 story from NPR about an initiative to bring a farmer's market to West Oakland, Calif.

The other thing, though, is that even Whole Foods shoppers are building demand for better produce -- and as Whole Foods starts making connections with local food growers, the economic incentives for better food increase. That shift doesn't translate immediately into better food for lower-income people, but now even WalMart offers organic produce in its grocery stores. That's a kind of progress, even though it doesn't please righteous vegan warriors.

Best source on all this: "The United States of Arugula."

Blogger Ian said...

Organic growing methods are gentler on the environment, it is only ironic that it costs more. I see this issue more as a both/and than an either/or. It is also sheer foolishness that we grow vast monocultures and then burn tons of fossil fuels to move the feed to the livestock and then waste the best fertilizer (the stuff that comes out of the livestock) since it is no where near the fields that need it. And that's just one messed up system. Local farmer's markets are indeed one of the most important links in this puzzle. Our church is considering starting one up.

Blogger robiewankenobie said...

our farmer's market takes food stamps, as does our local co-op, i believe. it is possible to eat healthily and cheaply at our co-op. we don't have a large budget, and we're able to do it. the problem in kentucky, is that culturally, most folks are prone to think that vegetables cooked in lard are healthy.

Blogger shannon.baker said...

I live in the Ky and in both Lexington and Louisville (the two largest cities in the state) our farmers market has worked with the government to ensure customers who have food stamps are able to use them to get fresh produce. There is also an initiative, driven by our schools, to educate parents about healthy food choices. They send home recipes that take less that 30min to make and require very little culinary knowledge.

Blogger jfield said...

A key feature of the Berkeley (all organic) and Oakland Farmers Markets is that they take food stamps. This is a very big deal.

Also, as one of the two (next step world hegemony) vegan UU bloggers that I know of, I think in general "righteous vegan warriors" are at least somewhat happy when WalMart or other mainstream retailers sell more organic and recycled goods. Its not necessarily a core issue for vegans but I think you mean vegan as shorthand for extremist anyway.

I have taken some joy in being able to buy organic food at Safeway (at least when it is on sale) and spend far less money at my overpriced health food store.

Spending last summer in Transylvania was a real eye opener when it came to food quality. The poorest villagers had food of so much greater quality than all but the greatest organic gourmets I knew in the states.

The varosi piac/famers market was incredibly affordable and the small village markets used by people without means to go to the city sold produce bought in bulk at the city market at slightly marked up prices.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In this world their are some people who are not able to get even for there livelihood and the people who has enough should feel concern about their starvation and should help.similarChristianity Today

Blogger Andrew said...

Just speaking more along the lines of sustainability, organic does *not* equal sustainable. Much of the organic produce available in places like Whole Foods has been trucked or flown 2,000 miles (especially for those of us living in the Northeast; Philocrates alluded to this). I'll take local over organic any day (and locally grown organic over any of the rest!).

That aside, I completely agree with PB's comments - it's very easy to get caught up in the self-righteousness of buying free-range organic carrots, and forget our neighbors.

Blogger ms. kitty said...

My farmer friend Sarah here on Whidbey Island reminds me that local farmers have to be able to make a buck, when I complain about the price of farmers' market produce.

My congregation here on WI is plotting (literally) organic pea patches for community use. There are very few here. We may put one in at our new building and offer free or extra-low-cost produce at some point.

It also occurs to me that low income folks don't necessarily feel comfortable using the food stamps, even though they are an option here. Some states have a debit-like card instead of stamps. We need to make the whole process less demeaning.

Blogger Maggie said...

Amen, Peacebang. I have had the same unease about my buying organic when lots of folks just plain can't buy for lack of supply or funds. It's hard for those who aren't affluent to imagine, but there are folks--like those who eat in soup kitchens--for whom just getting basic calories and nutrients is a challenge. In my big liberal university town, the food pantry receives contributions of organic food from very well-meaning folks, when what the food pantry needs is just more basic food.

Thanks for calling attention to this issue!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Food Project in Weston MA grows organic food, largely with youth paid labor, plus volunteers. Harvest is given and or sold in urban neighborhoods of Boston. It is a good place for youth to work for a summer.

Also, legislative work to eliminate transfats should make a real difference in public health.

A Woman of the Cloth

Blogger UU Soul said...

I too have had a sense of "Whole Foods decadence" when I stop and look at what we have at middle-class/affluent American grocery stores (the regular grocery stores are like that too where I shop). I vacillate between gratitude for what I have available to me and a sense of shame for the unnecessary volume of options for our consumer lifestyles. I hope some of the trend towards wider availability of organic foods is trickling into our public schools.

Blogger greenseagirl said...

Whole Foods is my Tiffany's (as in Breakfast at). Sometimes I like to go there and just look at all the beautiful things that can be grown, and absorb the feeling of hope that people are working to improve the world. I eat my local/organic food (local and organic is first choice, than local, than organic from someplace else) with an easy conscience... largely because I think that supporting small farms and organic farms is a social justice issue. The children of migrant farmworkers have an extraordinarily high incidence of birth defects due to exposure to pesticides. If I buy eggs from the woman at the Carrboro farmer's market, I know that the people raising those chickens haven't been hideously exploited. I am happy to pay more for food if it helps buy good working conditions for those who grew the food and harvested it.

Blogger ogre said...



Permit me to dispute (I just like arguing with Peacebang, in part).

It is true that the bulk (yeah, that's a pun of mild intent) of the population is eating junk. It's also true that the American population at large (oh, again) is not yet so economically stressed that we are driven to having no choice. We are not unable to find, or afford, better choices than we currently make.

Not perfect choices, just better ones.

So I think that decrying the efforts of those who are trying to eat in ways that are demonstrably more healthy (even as we dispute amongst ourselves about which more healthy is most healthy, most ethical, most ecologically pure) is unfair. If that class of people, who are disproportionately (but far from exclusively the upper middle class (and some of the upper, but still middle-middle, class) doesn't start paying to make these choices... essentially no one farther down the economic spectrum will be able to.

Those with the disposable income to afford eating better and more responsibly will drive down the price. In the same way that early adopters of DVD players allowed the market to develop, these folks are making the market for better food options something that people can find... even if it is, for now, in many (but not all) places more expensive to do so.

And sometimes, the outrageous cost is simply gouging; you might find those local-grown, organic fruits and vegetables at some less obvious and upscale source... for significantly less. We often pay more for... um... fashion and style (oh, sorry, PB...) and for convenience. Especially for convenience.

Economic justice doesn't mean that you can't spend your income to have something that someone else can't afford, or something that someone else can't find--or doesn't know exists. It means working to help the rest of the world get access to the resources so that they too are able to make THEIR own choices, so that they have a fair degree of control over their lives as well.

In this case, I see an ethic of self-deprivation developing that won't serve any meaningful purpose, beyond fueling a Very Model of A Modern Unitarian attitude. Depriving ourselves of foods and food choices that we see and understand to be better for our own health and better for the planet's health... because those choices are not yet available equitably to all... isn't going to make them become more available or more affordable.

It's important to hit multiple problems at the same time. If someone's starving, then the fact that the food they can get, that someone can afford to give them, isn't as high-quality, high-morality, as one would like... is really trivial. One must do the best one can, now. And at the same time be pushing to make the options the next time--or the next--be better.

I'm pragmatic before I'm purist.

PB asks:
"Shouldn't we be working on justice issues that make basically, minimally healthful food available to more people before scurrying about trying to fill our own larders exclusively with organic and perfectly nutritious foodstuffs?"

Insofar as that's either or, I abjure the question as a false (and unfair) dichotomy. If it were "shouldn't we feed the crying, hungry baby before we make ourselves dinner?" I would not complain. But the truth is that we're not going to solve either... no, it's not just two... ANY of the entangled problems here in one swoop. Not in a day, or week, or month--or year. I'll go on record doubting that it can be done in a decade (alas!).

So I opt for a pragmatic effort to roll back each of these at the same time, in the firm belief that there are synergies that we'll find, improvements in each will make improvements in the others more possible.

And... no. I've rambled enough. If I'm going to get on a soapbox, I should actually sit down and write and think and edit instead of just pouring my head into a post. I've still got all the dense stuff from a sermon I gave today on classism and sin in my head, and it's pinging around with all the food projectiles.

I'm going to go have some soup and salad and maybe find enough motivation for a post on my own blog. Or if not, a nap.

s/ Defensor Omnivores

Blogger Phillip said...

Here is St. Paul on of our local congregations has a task for on sustainable agriculture, and one of the things it does is act as a pick up site for folks to buy food from local farmers. And not far away is Mississippi Market, one of the Twin Cities many food co-ops, which deliberately located their building in a marginal neighborhood to be more accessible to folks who normally don't shop at natural food stores...and their prices are WAY lower than Whole Foods.


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