Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Moment of Unsettledness

I’m not sure where to start with this post.  It’s about what’s been going through my mind as far as making more conscious food shopping practical.  It’s hard to say certain things online without people knowing the tone of your voice, body language and look on your face.  I fear coming across in a negative way when that is not my intent at all.  Please know that in this post that I am just sharing with you some of the thoughts that I’ve encountered along the way and how they tie into each other.

Pre-Thanksgiving 2009 I was listening to NPR as I was doing errands one day.  I listened intently as they talked with an author who described how he had tried to get into a meat processing plant to witness what goes on to bring meat to our table.  He spoke of how he was refused access and this left him wondering what they did not want him to see.  This all was leading the conversation to the turkeys that end up on our tables during the holidays.

The interview resonated with me.  I’ve always loved food…making it, buying it and eating it.  And while I have given some thought in the past about where it comes from, I had never let it be more than a passing thought.  I had mentioned this interview in a comment on a friend’s Facebook saying that I could not recall who the author was.  I was told that it was likely Michael Pollan.  I was also given some other suggestions as to things to read and watch regarding this whole area of interest.

This is the short path of what lead me to my current thoughts on buying food.  You see, I read Pollan’s book and I watched the documentaries that were suggested.  It all bothered me.  I wasn’t sure what I could do about it in my own situation but I decided to take it seriously enough and investigate to see what I could change about the way my family ate.

I’ve always been a bargain shopper.  This was also true of my grocery shopping.  I would thrive on clipping and printing coupons then pairing them up with all the grocery store ads and seeing what I could get for the least amount.  I’d walk out of the grocery store feeling vindicated.  After all, I had just paid next to nothing for the things I had acquired.  But what was it that I had acquired?  I never questioned that until I started to learn what I now know.

One of the first things I did was email a farm close by and ask them about the eggs they had for sale.  For years I had driven by this farm noticing the “eggs” sign out front but was always too afraid to pull in.  It was a farmhouse with horses to the side and a bunch of little buildings in between the two.  I searched for them online and luckily they had a website with contact information.  I emailed them and received a reply a few days later indicating how to purchase their eggs.  It was easy.  One of the buildings held a refrigerator full of their eggs; you dropped your $2.50 in the basket next to the fridge and took a dozen with you as you left.  Easy enough.  I now had a source for local, free range eggs.  This inspired me to keep looking for ways to change. 

Next, I had the  hard task of going from coupon shopping to walking into Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and the natural food sections of the grocery stores I had always used and consider purchasing things that were not on sale and that I did not have a coupon for.  It was a tough transition.

I’ve been going into Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s ever since we moved to an area that had these two stores, which was 1997.  Because I love the entire idea of food it never bothered me to at least go look at what these two stores had even if I felt I could not afford it.  We’d walk out of these stores with a few snacky things and in the case of Trader Joe’s, a few grocery items as their prices really aren’t that bad at all.   But you have to remember, I was an ad/coupon shopper so it was still sometimes a stretch for me to buy those few things at Trader Joe’s.  My husband and I would kind of chuckle as we looked at the prices on some of the items, mostly at Whole Foods.  Who shopped like this?  Well, the wealthy, of course.  After all, most of the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in my part of the country were in more affluent communities than the one I lived in.  We would comment on how the parking lot at one Whole Foods was like a “who’s who” of luxury cars.  What I would always notice at both stores though was that there were people who seriously did all their grocery shopping there.  It amazed me that people would spend that kind of money on their food when they could be doing what I was doing at the time.

Well, all that changed.  It was a slow transition though, that’s for sure.  At one point while I was reading and watching all the things that fueled my yearning for change, I heard the word “elitism” mentioned.  I wish I could recall where I had heard it but I do remember the context.  Whomever it was, was referring to the way in which I had felt when I would go into one of these stores in an affluent community, look at all the expensive cars in the parking lot and see cartful’s of expensive groceries being purchased.  I felt these people were, if not elite, more elite than I was.  I don’t live in that type of community, a Toyota sits in the driveway of our very modest 1200 square foot home as our one and only family car and I only bought a few things that were very likely on sale at those stores.

Unfortunately, there are many more people out there with thoughts of that like the “old” me.  And while I reevaluated the way in which I thought about food and found that I was able to make some changes, I do understand that there are people who just cannot financially make the switch, even to just an item or two.  This is where I feel a lot of unrest.

Because I had heard that word “elitism” and had at one time felt what they were talking about, I had a hard time getting over the fact that I was buying more and more of my groceries that were all those things-organic, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, free-range.  This of course was costing me more and was redirecting me to the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s world of stores.  I never even used a cart in the past at these stores because I bought so little and now, here I was, using a cart and filling it to some extent.  It’s still not a full cart, at least at Whole Foods it is not, but the fact that I am buying enough for it to be too much to hold or put in a hand basket was making me uncomfortable.  I would walk out of Whole Foods with mixed feelings…I can see a particular visit there in  my head as I type this.  I was thrilled I had just bought wholesome things for my family yet on the other hand, I felt as if I had done something wrong by spending money the way I had done that day.

As time passed and I became more comfortable that our grocery bill was just going to be higher in order to accommodate what I believed in, I had no issues with doing what I was doing.  I felt a peace about it.  I knew my place.  I was NOT elite in any sense of the word.  I just had made a realization that the “cheap” food I used to feel so proud of buying was just that, cheap food.  My grocery bill may have been pretty low but at what cost?  How was the cheap food I was buying affecting my family, the environment, the animals, the farmers?  I felt like the things I made the decision to change were beneficial in many ways and it was worth the extra investment.  It’s been a while now that I’ve had a good comfort level.  However, I found myself feeling uncomfortable not too long ago.  I’ll tell you my story if you’ll give me just a bit more of your time.

This is where things get tricky in my mind and I hope not to offend in any way, shape or form.

When I said that the community I live in is not affluent, I meant it.  It’s a large city, nearly 100,000 people of all religions, ethnicities and soci-economic levels.  I love the diversity of my city as I feel like my son is growing up in an environment in which he judges no one for what they look like, what they believe in or how much money they have.  He’s had a great range of friends over the years and I see him make no judgment whatsoever of the people he meets and that makes my heart very happy.  While I do not make any judgments of the people I see on a daily basis in my community, I cannot help but notice things.  I see people who are struggling for everything they’ve got and feel badly that things are that way for them.

At the beginning of this month I was out meeting a friend.  My son had a half day so I knew that my time was limited for errands when I got done with my meet-up.  I needed to go to Price Rite at some point that week and I was already about half way there at our meet-up spot but would I make it over to the school on time to pick up my son?  He normally takes the bus which would get him home later and leave me more time but needed to bring a project home with him so I was going right to the school to pick him up.  I decided to try it, why not?

I pulled into the parking lot and it was jam-packed.  I wasn’t expecting that as it was not early morning, was not quite yet lunchtime and was not a weekend day.  I was concerned that once I grabbed the few items I needed (dried pineapple and banana chips for the snack mix my husband makes for himself every night) that the lines would be so long that I would not get out of there on time.  Then, it occurred to me.  It was the first day of the month. 

Price Rite is, I suppose, a discount type of grocery store.  I am not sure if that’s what they’d like to be called or not.  If you are familiar with Sav-A-Lot or Aldi’s, it’s along the lines of those stores.  I love Price Rite and have found it a vital part to my grocery shopping just as much as the higher end Whole Foods is.  Because it is a store that costs less than the bigger chains, it is always packed at the first of the month and this is where I meet my discomfort head-on.

Please know that I am not uncomfortable with people who shop there.  Without going into too much detail, I can say that I truly understand what it’s like to know what the first of the month shopping means to a family who receives benefits.  I know that stores like Price-Rite, Sav-A-Lot and Aldi are very helpful not only to people who receive benefits, but for those that have to or choose to carefully manage every penny of their food budgets.  I love this store because while their offerings for the things I look for are few and far between, their prices are amazing on what I do find; like free-range beef for $3.99 a pound!  With that being said, I will continue.

I walked in and the store was buzzing with customers.  Even though I only had a few things to get, I grabbed a shopping cart and went up and down most of the aisles as I love to see what’s new there.  I have found so many fantastic and unexpected things there over time and that day I did find more than what was on my shopping list including organic skim milk.

As I proceeded to the checkouts, I got in line behind two women who had what looked to be about a 3 year old little boy sitting in the seat part of the cart.  The line was barely moving and as I stood there I couldn’t help but notice their cart.  This is where I fear I will sound critical.  I am not, I am observing.  Just about everything in the cart besides a bag of Granny Smith apples was processed.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  In my own cart I had a couple bags of Nathan’s French fries.  I love these things and I love that Price Rite has them for such a crazy low price.  We eat them a couple times a month and I don’t feel badly about it.  I know the potatoes are not organic and that’s one vegetable that I insist on buying organic when I buy them in the produce section but I allow myself to indulge in my frozen French fries once in a while. (I just had to clarify that I am not a snob when it comes to processed food.  I still buy it and I probably always will buy it.  However, there is not as much of it in my cart as there used to be.)

Back to the customers in front of me.  I have no idea if these people were at Price Rite on that particular day for a reason or not.  I did not notice how they paid for their groceries and it’s none of my business.  I feel though that their cart is an example of how those who have to budget for food in a very serious way get trapped into buying cheap, processed food.  Again, I have no idea if they were buying that food because it fit into their budget or they just had a preference for junk food.  I will say that their cart was not the only cart in the store that day that looked like that, I just happened to get a good look at it because I was standing behind them for so long in line.  And while I know I should not ever assume, I can only guess that someone in that store that day was shopping that way because it was what they could afford.             

This is where my uncomfortable feelings come into play.  After watching King Corn and Food, Inc. I learned how government subsidized corn is turned into a multitude of ingredients that are then turned into processed foods.  This whole topic would fill up another blog post and then some as it is so involved so I will not go into too much detail about it now as this is already a long post.  The end result is inexpensive, processed food.  There is a scene in Food, Inc. that shows a family who is torn between inexpensive fast food and buying fresh food at the supermarket. The father is on diabetes medicine as it is and that costs the family a lot of money.  The cameras follow them into the supermarket as the kids look at broccoli and the family determines that they cannot afford it and end up at a fast food drive through ordering a meal for less money than buying food to make a dinner at home.   

I find this all very frustrating.  At a time in our country where the cost of healthcare is such a heated topic, our government is subsidizing these “raw material” type of crops instead of helping out more farmers with the cost of growing wholesome produce that would ideally in turn drive down the cost to the consumer.  I walk into Price Rite and they have an excellent and well-priced produce section but even so, a bag of apples still costs more than a box of processed snacks.  I see this and certainly others see it too and that’s what ends up in the carts of an awful lot of people because it’s more affordable. 

So here I was settling into the peace of my decisions only to question it all as I left Price Rite that day.  I knew I would not be turning back to my old ways but it left me feeling badly that making more conscious decisions has to cost more money.  We don’t exclusively shop “consciously” because we cannot afford to.  I feel good about the point in which I’ve reached with our shopping decisions.  Yet, I know that there are those who can’t even begin to consider any of this as an option.  Meanwhile, our government pumps money into farm subsidies that continue to turn out foods that are seemingly cheap yet have the possibility of harming the health later on of those who are eating them.  There’s a saying I heard along the way, “pay now or pay later”.  For myself I know that it’s hard to pay “now” and I know for a lot of others, it’s impossible. 

I have no real conclusion here as I wrap this up but I did want to put out there some of the things that I have encountered and continue to encounter as I venture on here with this newer way of shopping.  This particular topic of getting over the guilt-like feelings of what I buy will be an on-going battle for me.  I come from a place where there was never a lot and while things are more comfortable now in my adult life, I still clearly recall money struggles and how you do what you have to do with what you have….sometimes there is no choice.  I can only hope that in my lifetime that we see a gradual change towards more affordable food options for everyone.

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