The most recent family member to garden, my paternal grandfather was known for his bulbous tomatoes and ears of corn that were often coupled with a second tiny ear within the husk. Despite coming from a proud gardening tradition, I do not grow my own veggies. There are myriad reasons, mostly excuses, and I hope one day this will change. Since my diet is pretty veg-heavy, this causes me to often consider the source of my meals. I almost exclusively cook at home right now, and because I lean on items like beans, legumes, and canned tomatoes in the winter, I'm curious about how my vegan ways impact communities beyond my own. When I want fresh produce, I can either choose to buy locally grown (within the country, that is, since I live in a land of five million people) produce, organic veggies that may or may not be local, or food that was shipped in from someplace else.
Recently, I was writing with a former-chef friend about her own organic crop cultivation. When comparing her own organic heirloom varieties to the pathetically pale tomatoes for sale in her Canadian market, she said the following:
Tomato production is a truly shocking field. Have you ever been to southern Spain? Huge strips of land under black tarps to quick-grow tomatoes that taste like water are sprayed with pesticides and leave behind nothing but wasteland when the tarp is removed and the plants die off, and all heavily subsidized by the EU. Ugh.
The U.S. and Canada don't fare much better. In reading Deborah Barndt's Tangled Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail, I learned all sorts of horrifying facts about worker exploitation in agribusiness, the overabundance of pesticide use, and the ways Western countries commodify food. The book covers a lot of common food justice issues but also tells the stories of real workers along the production chain, from farm to factory to our own local markets. Many of us know the basics of how food is now shipped all over the world, decentralizing the process and—according to an awful lot of people I respect and trust—pushing us further into a global food crisis than ever before.
It isn't just that we fetishize foods. Our industrial-era demand for out-of-season produce produces all sorts of disgusting environmental effects, as does our reliance on bizarre transnational trade agreements. When I spent a day at the COP15 with Dr. Vandana Shiva in December, she told me, "If we were to have more local food distribution, half of the traffic across Europe could be shut down tomorrow. When I travel, I see mostly trucks. Most trucks are just carrying food around, probably carrying the same food from one country to another. It's a big food swap where there isn't really additional food, just additional trade." (If you're interested, you'll be able to read our full conversation in the summer issue of Herizons magazine.)
When I was growing up, my family—meaning both of my parents, since they're divorced—was very poor for a number of years. The only time I remember ever going to a farmer's market as a kid with my mom's slightly well-off boyfriend after church on Sundays because it was "on the way home." (I'm pretty sure that he made an average amount of money for a middle class guy in the 1980s, but back then, he seemed loaded!) But the farmer's market—which was a semi-permanent storefront attached to a local farming couple's house—wasn't so much about owning the experience as it was about buying something delicious. We also lived in a trailer park for a number of years, right next a cornfield. The local farmer, who was retired by then, grew the most delicious corn in the county, and we'd go take six ears off his unmanned truck and leave $1 in the coffee can with a slot cut in the lid. Not to romanticize my impoverished childhood—and certainly, these issues have been present for decades—but some aspects of my own consumption, like buying produce next door or getting a sack of green beans from my grandpa, seemed a lot simpler when I was a kid, albeit a poor one.
Now, as an adult, it seems like no matter what I want to eat, I run into issues of globalization. Coffee beans, chocolate, and bananas are only the most obvious examples of foods that rely on worker exploitation, unequal (arguably unethical) international trade agreements, and environmental degradation at nearly every level of production. And while I worry about the classist implications of shopping locally, I can't just run down to a local farmer's market—for one thing, I don't have one. Knowledge is power, even if it feels limiting when you're trying to cook dinner. What's more personally empowering that being knowledgeable about what you consume? What's more political than who harvested what you consume? But how to juggle all the issues?
Whether you're vegan, vegetarian, or a straight up omnivore, how do you navigate these issues? Do you buy organic, local, or whatever's on sale? Do you garden or grow your own food? Is it just privilege to spend so much time choosing your food, or is food the ultimate personal/political decision? And as feminists, how do we navigate being empowered from traditional "women's work" in the kitchen while still owning our domestic skills and nourishing our bodies?
NOTE: In a forthcoming post, I'll be talking specifically about health/illness/wellness and how food and consumption are related to folks (myself included) living with illness or medical conditions.