The Biotic Woman: You Say Tomato...

Brittany Shoot
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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.

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3 Comments Have Been Posted

A little of this, a little of that

I blend all of my strategies. I garden a little, mostly herbs because, well, I'm not the best at growing things. There are some things I absolutely insist on buying organic like eggs, some things like milk I aim for no hormones, other things I price compare and decide if the organic is worth the difference. If it is about 10% more, sure, of course. If it is two or three times more expensive, I wont do it.
I put a lot of my time into WHERE I shop. There is a farmers market that is not really local or from farmers, but distributors. There is a yuppie farmers market that is local but is also twice the price or more and a see-and-be-seen crowd that annoys me because healthy local food should be available to everyone, not just the gentrification set. We have a mega-hippie-food-store (Whole Foods, a.k.a Whole Paycheck, a.k.a the aFOODment park) that is more expensive than anything in town and is the third iteration of big companies swallowing a more local supplier. We have a couple of little health food stores that are expensive. And then we have the usual chains of grocery stores, which is where I end up shopping because if I buy there and reward them for carrying organic and healthy food, then they are more likely to continue supplying it in all neighborhoods and at more affordable prices than the specialty and green-gimmick stores.

I live well below the poverty line, so I have to weigh all my options, and it is hard to satisfy all my ideals and get what I need at prices I can afford at the same time. If I had the time to grow my own, that would be awesome, but that takes other resources I just dont quite have, and I will have to move in the middle of the growing season, so putting in a big garden isnt going to be worth it this year.

Some ideas

I try to do a few different things. It is hard to find food to eat inexpensively that hasn't been overgrown with pesticides, hormones or other chemicals that we can't even pronounce. I think it's extremely gratifying to plant and maintain your own garden if possible. I live in suburbia and even though I have a relatively small backyard, my husband and I did our best to dig up part of our yard to plant vegetables last year. There's a fantastic feeling that you get from start to finish- from working the soil by hand, planting the vegetables and then eventually harvesting. It reminds you how vegetables are actually supposed to taste. After a long winter, planting the garden is one of the things I'm looking forward to the most. Container gardening may be an idea for people who don't have access to a patch of soil. Tomatoes do well that way at least.

I'm disappointed that the idea of community gardens have not spread through many communities. Not only would they provide affordable (and organic) vegetables to community members, but also allow people to participate in the awesome experience of growing your own food. Local farmer's markets are also very helpful. We have several in the area and most of the vegetables are a great price. Some of our local grocery stores have even starting selling organic produce.

Another thought is to participate in Community Supported Agriculture- where you pay a certain amount to a local farmer that participates and he/she provides you with vegetables that are in season at that time. These can be expensive, but if you can share the cost with a few other people, it might be a good option. You can find reviews of good CSA's at

I love good food

I'm one of those straight-up omnivores and my not-well-thought-out strategy is to try to make it local/seasonal, then organic, and then hope it's on sale or try to balance it out between the three. Plus I try to supplement whatever I get with a pretty basic vegetable garden - peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, onions. I'm not a good gardener but the garden gets better each year. I recently moved to an area where unfortunately all of my local shops are megagrocers (and I just finished reading Tescopoly, which I recommend) but there's a really fantastic biweekly farmer's market which includes meats and other food goods. I'm trying to base my shopping around what I can get there.

I hate the conception that those who care about what they put in their bodies are the ones who have the luxury to do so, or those who are yuppified/gentrified, etc. The yuppification thing is something that I think is hoisted upon people who try to think this way, regardless, though stepping into Whole Foods does makes me feel poor and not good enough to be there. Food to me is a personal decision and to a lesser degree, a socio-political one. I'm a full time graduate student so money is of course an issue, and for years before that I worked for beans (no pun intended) for a nonprofit, but I tried to make certain that what I was putting in my body was good for me and good for the planet. I've been lucky enough to live around places that support thriving farmer's markets and I've found with strategic shopping my bills aren't higher for trying my best to go local and/or organic. I do have to prioritise - I definitely won't skimp on purchasing meats and fish, whereas breads and grains come in a lower priority bracket in the local/organic scheme in my head. I don't necessarily think my way is the best way or the only way - by far - I just try to do my best about keeping educated about what I put in my body and how it got to my table.

What's with the LV ads in the comments? Spambots?

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