Monday, April 28, 2008

you are what you buy

Have you heard of Fresh and Easy? Not yo mama -- the new grocery store craze that's sweeping the nation.

Fresh and Easy Neighborhood Markets are small grocery stores that are run by Tesco. Philosophy-wise, they support fresh foods, organics, sustainable growth, all that cool green stuff -- however, they are distinctly different from Whole Foods/Trader Joe's. Mostly, there's no pretension or smugness; Fresh and Easy isn't marketing itself to foodies and yuppies. "We think fresh, wholesome food should be accessible and affordable to everyone," they say on their website.

The stores are brightly lit and simply laid out -- and did I mention that they're small? They still cover pretty much everything bigger stores do; I did my weekly shopping there last week and didn't notice the absence of anything at all. Options are fairly limited -- usually there will be one or two brands per product -- but it certainly didn't bother me. The prices were good, even on national brands, and their cage-free eggs were way more affordable than any ethical choices at Fry's. They also offer a large variety of prepared foods, from whole meals to precooked cubes of chicken, that promise they are made of fresh, healthy, wholesome ingredients. I didn't buy any, but some of them looked quite good; a reasonable alternative to junky frozen dinners, for sure.

I quite enjoyed shopping at Fresh and Easy -- however.

However. I don't even know how to say this in a way that communicates the full horror of the situation. I will give it a shot --

Their produce is packaged.

No, see, I'm failing. That doesn't sound so bad. Sealed up! Encased in plastic!


I wanted a green bell pepper. I had to buy three, in a plastic sleeve. I wanted a squash -- I had to buy two, in a plastic tray encased in a plastic case. I wanted 5 apples; I had to buy four, in a little plastic square tray, encased in a thick plastic envelope.

It was so very, very wrong. Produce, as Barbara Kingsolver mentioned in "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral," is the last section of the supermarket where most Americans can still see the connection between the food we eat and the earth it came from. The plants we buy have stems, leaves, stalks, skins, sometimes bruises, sometimes traces of dirt.

It's also the last section of the store where we really have any control over what we buy. Quality control -- squeezing eggplant, sniffing melons, turning apples over to check for bruises. I think that choice is important, on some level; retaining a sense of control over our food can be empowering.

To take all that away? I couldn't smell, squeeze, select -- none of that. Only the bananas were available outside of a package.

It was in stark contrast to the shopping I did yesterday, when William and I went to a farmer's market in Ahwatukee. The market wasn't spectacular -- I can honestly say that the one in Harrisonburg is much, much better, but I guess that's what I get for living in the desert. Still, there was a decent selection of produce, all laid out -- covered in dirt, stalks and roots still attached, in wooden trays or plastic crates. I could squeeze and smell to my heart's delight.

Around me, other shoppers were asking for advice on how to cook the beets, or where exactly were the potatoes grown, and which were the best tomatoes, and how long until they could find... It was downright inspiring, all those people getting to know their food.

At Fresh and Easy, the plastic packaging on my squash said, "Grown in MEXICO." At the farmer's market, I asked about the different colors of baby eggplant, and the farmer rolled them into piles, saying, "now, these came from one tree," (eggplants grow in bushes -- who knew?) gathering the white ones "and these from another," gathering a darker shade, "and believe it or not, these all came from the same tree," -- dark green, deep purple, striped. "I don't know how it happened," he said, grinning like he'd just presented a magic trick.

I bought one of each color.

Any karmic benefit I got from buying local was immediately erased when I went straight from the market to Fry's, where I bought grapes from Chile, bananas from Costa Rica... but that's not the point. The point is that the difference between the two buying processes -- one avowedly green and plastic-wrapped, the other eco-friendly and covered with dirt -- mirrors a much larger split in the enviroconscious movement in general.

Organic foods: grown without the use of synthetic agricultural inputs, like fertilizers, pesticides and hormones. No GMOs. Clearly much, much better for the environment, and for your health.

But best of all, they are painless to buy, and relatively pain-free to grow. You don't think so? Any major grocery store in the country carries organic food these days. It costs more, but you are paying for a personal benefit, as well as an environmental one; nobody really likes ingesting petrochemicals. A justifiable upfront cost, and as easy as grabbing a different gallon of milk off the shelf.

As easy as going to Fresh and Easy.

Painfree to grow? Sure thing. Fits right there into the industrial model; you're spreading manure-based fertilizer instead of a petroleum product, but the process is the same. You double-till or use cover crops or rotate, but you have the same land, the same harvesting techniques; the same trucks take the same food to the same processing plant; if you are raising cows, you can keep them in the same pens, as long as the feed you give them is certified and you go easy on the antibiotics.

Michael Pollan did a really interesting section on industrial organics in "The Omnivore's Dilemma." His conclusion? Industrial organic agriculture is indeed better for the land than traditional chemical farming, but they look an awful lot alike.

Buying local, on the other hand, hurts. It's not just a higher upfront cost; it's a sacrifice of variety, of convenience, of availability, sometimes of quality. To eat local, you can't shop at the same grocery stores; you'll almost always have to seek out markets or CSAs or buying clubs. To eat local, you can't eat the same foods; you can't cook the same recipes. You need new skills: cooking, canning, baking. Some things you will just have to give up.

The organic movement asks for change that works within the system. The local food movement asks you to abandon the system.

That right there is the central struggle, I think, of the entire green movement. Is it easy, or is it hard? Can we do what we've always done, but better, or do we have to do something different altogether?

Take CFLs. People are really starting to get the message about CFLs. Undeniably better for the environment than incandescents. Readily available. No major lifestyle changes -- screws right in to your old sockets, thanks-very-much. The upfront cost is made up for by long-term energy savings. Good for the environment. Good for you. Easy!

And not nearly enough. What we really need is for people to turn off more lights. We need to live in smaller houses. I read an article in the newspaper a month or two ago where a man was lamenting his family's high energy bills. He had a 2,000-3,000 square foot house, two stories, two air conditioning systems, several TVs with video game systems... his comment? "But we haven't got a normal light bulb in the entire place!"

That's the problem. So we raise awareness about CFLs -- and do people think they're done? Because CFLs are a tiny, tiny start, and the more we convince people that going green is as easy as switching their lightbulbs, the more we lie. Marketing corn-based plastic products as being the "green" alternative is doing society a disservice. We will need to use less plastic; we can't just make it out of corn.

Buying organic produce is great. But when it is raised in a massive, vulnerable monoculture, trucked across the continent, washed in a factory, packaged in plastic... this is not the face of sustainability. The sustainable option is available once a week, in a wooden crate, covered in specks of dirt. We need to eat locally... but it hurts!

Hybrids are great, but we really need to drive less. Walking, biking, public transportation -- but it hurts!

You can buy a hybrid at your favorite dealership, drive your same route, use your same parking place, leave at the same time, justify the cost in the gas savings. It's easy. You pay with your money, not with your time or your convenience or your comfort.

It's easy, and it's not enough.

So here's the question: do we do this gradually? Do we start with organic pretzels and organic yogurt cups and plastic-packaged organic produce, with CFLs and hybrids and bamboo flooring and hemp clothes, and slowly work our way up to the real lifestyle changes? Do we gloss over the need for smaller houses, fewer cars, closer vacations, less shopping, less exotic food, smaller families -- less, fewer and smaller of everything? Or do we need to start, right now, hammering in the fact that the way we live is not sustainable, and the changes we have to make will, indeed, hurt?

I see the value in not scaring people away from the green movement. Heck, it's working really well. But at the same time, I am terrified that we will grow complacent well before we really can.

Economic forces will help us, if we let them. Gas prices are going up! It's fantastic! (please don't shoot me!) But it would be much more comfortable if we can start adjusting before we absolutely have to.

As I say this, of course, I don't buy organic all the time. I don't buy local all the time. William and I drive to Mesa two to three times a week. I am speaking not as a perfect carbon-neutral angel passing judgment on others, but as a fellow human being who also wishes that living sustainably hurt a little less.

But all the same, it will hurt. Should we be pretending that it won't?

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