There’s something wrong with the food in supermarkets. Pretty obvious, right? Soda, chips and doughnuts have already been on the hit-list of anyone who cares about the unhealthy food epidemic in America. No, I’m talking about the produce aisle, the very aisle we’re advised to visit more often while avoiding those middle, non-fresh food, aisles.
The Convenience of the Produce Aisle
There’s something a little too perfect about the produce aisle in supermarkets, which I suspect we all know deep down inside. Perfectly- or near-ripe, no dimpled, dirty or blemished fruits and vegetables line the bins, often stacked in neatly symmetrical rows. Strawberries and watermelon year-round, exotic foreign fruits, and washed-then-bagged greens are just some of the conveniences we’ve come to expect at local supermarkets, no matter where we live, no matter the regional climate. But the voice of conscience within the animal rights and environmental movements is asking us all to reconsider convenience. Convenience, we’re beginning to realize, may just be unchecked greed that’s ultimately unsustainable and indefensible.
Redefining our Relationship with Nature
While we might have a vague sense of this theoretically, what does it mean practically in our everyday lives? That all became readily apparent for me recently. As a philosophy professor, I taught an environmental philosophy course for the first time this spring. One particular point from our textbook stood out as something I mentally kept coming back to. Most environmentalists argue we need to change something about our behavior towards the non-human world, but one article went slightly further. In discussing how Native American belief systems have historically embodied an implicit environmental ideology, Annie Booth and Harvey Jacobs note, “They respected and took pleasure in the life to be found around them, in all its diversity, inconsistency or inconvenience….Nature is both nurturing and attractive as well as destructive and dangerous.” [i] Native American tribes tacitly understood that being part of nature (as opposed to always trying to control it) means sometimes dealing with the not-so pretty aspects. Our interaction with nature, Booth and Jacobs suggest, can’t always be puppies and rainbows, because that’s not the full spectrum of what nature authentically is. Nature is also thunderstorms and frigid cold, disappointing harvests and sometimes dimpled, pocked apples.
Community Supported Agriculture to the Rescue
I didn’t make much of a practical connection in my everyday life until much later when faced with the opportunity of joining a CSA. A friend asked if I’d be interested in splitting a share. I loved the idea of fresh, locally grown organic fruits and vegetables for me and my sons. Our share involves driving out to the farm together (about 5 miles away) once a week to pick out 10 units from that day’s harvest, sometimes with the option of picking one of the units ourselves (like herbs, flowers, or berries).
As spring approached and our 6 month seasonal membership was about to begin, I started feeling some anxiety. I pondered the Great Unknown I was entering into: What would be offered each week and how much? What if I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the options? Would I face the classic CSA complaint of “too much” of something unusual, struggling to figure out a way to eat it all? It wasn’t until then that I made the connection that I was getting a sense of what a Native American outlook on nature actually feels like. Unlike my visits to the supermarket, I couldn’t expect my weekly CSA visit to have everything on hand. I started thinking about the natural rhythms of food growth: when something is in season and at its peak, you get a lot of it until it passes out of season. That may depend on varying amounts of rain, heat, and other uncontrollable factors. Sure enough, our visits to the farm confirmed just that. The raspberries we picked, for instance, were heavenly and my sons couldn’t get enough of them. And just as quickly as they appeared in season, the disappeared again. But then something like kale has had a much longer season, remaining an option at our pick-ups for over a month. I reminded myself, isn’t that the natural rhythms of things – to eat what’s readily available until it too is no longer in season? And isn’t that how billions of the world’s poor eat? Convenience was beginning to look like the trappings of affluence.
We Want it Bigger, Easier and Faster
Speaking of the trappings of affluence, I’ve read that Americans typically want their strawberries to be huge, even though these ones tend to be less sweet and near tasteless (following the general American assumption that “Big is better. And even bigger is still better”). The strawberries we picked were small and tartly sweet, and we enjoyed the few we harvested each week. That’s right, few: we couldn’t over-pick them and take as much as we may have wanted because we needed to share what little was available with the other CSA members.
The CSA’s strawberries, blackberries and raspberries contrasted with another convenience Americans have become accustomed to: in order to get them, we needed to go out to the fields to pick the fruit ourselves. On one hundred degree summer days, we searched low on prickly blackberry plants for the fruit in what became a determined (and scorching) effort. As difficult as it was, I’m glad my children were there searching for fruit along-side me. Of course, to them it seemed torturous, but what better opportunity to point out to them it’s only the world’s affluent for which this type of thing isn’t a regular experience?
My experience with a CSA has been a mixed bag of wondrously fresh produce as well as learning to accept a lack of control and a certain level of inconvenience. And that’s ok. Native Americanism celebrates that type of complexity in the natural world.
Life Lessons About Food…
Veganism proclaims the all-around superiority of a plant and whole foods based diet. That message is good, but perhaps we need to push it even further: a diet of fruits and vegetables that reach our table through community or backyard farms in all their diminutive or plentiful inconvenience. Perhaps it’s not enough just to move away from a meat-based diet. It may be equally as important to move towards a more authentically natural experience with the plant life we do eat.
Robert Fulghum’s famous meditative poem “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” includes life lessons like “Clean up your own mess” and “Say sorry when you hurt someone.” It occurred to me that my experience with a CSA equally offered some important life lessons about food: Good food isn’t cheap. Getting good food sometimes involves hard labor. Cosmetic perfection is superficial, misleading and often comes at a price. Share a small harvest. Fresh is best. (And, most importantly) convenience isn’t convenient anymore.