I have been shopping at food coops and farmers markets since the 1970s when I was a student in California. I started a modest vegetable garden in high school, stopped during college, and resumed gardening when we bought our first house. I did graduate research on the effect of crop rotation on insect populations in farms in northern Illinois so have spent a fair amount of time traipsing around rural landscapes talking to farmers. After grad school, my husband and I moved “back to the land” in the mid 1980s when everyone else was moving back into town. In 1988, I apprenticed two days a week at Slack Hollow Farm in Argyle, New York, to learn how to garden effectively. My husband and I milked goats, made maple syrup and apple cider, raised chickens and were the companions of a soulful twenty-year-old horse. We cultivated a half-acre garden, necessarily learning to can and preserve food, and paid taxes on 16 more acres of woods, streams and abandoned fields where woodpeckers and puffballs flourished in peace. Living in the country also made us aware of the extent of rural poverty, which I hadn’t quite grasped before.
Although we no longer have our own big garden, we share-crop on other people’s lawns so that we can keep our private stock of garlic and weird old variety of potato going, as well as provide ourselves and the lawn owners with a stream of vegetables all summer long. Our relationship to food growing has been an odd long-term commitment, caused in part by our love of messing around in dirt and in part by our sense that we like being self-sufficient in a corner of our lives.
I have recently been informed that I am some kind of Uhr-foodie. I objected strongly to the label. I consider myself as more of a left wing intellectual interested in farming than a foodie. Personally, I like to eat high quality food that tastes good and doesn’t take up too much time.
This week I have tried to think harder about my relationship to the foodie movement. Just before Yom Kippur, when I didn’t eat at all, I was staying in New York for a couple of days to check up on two of my three sons. I went to Occupy Wall Street with one of my kids and looked at the encampment of young unemployed anarchists or whatever they are with sympathy and affection. I did not dance in their drum circle, but I wiggled my shoulders a little and had there been a march at that moment, I would have joined it. I considered smoking a hand-rolled cigarette made by a dedicated trio of young men at the People’s Tobacco table, even though I don’t smoke. I avoided the donated sub sandwiches but ate a bite of donated pizza and left a $27 dollar contribution in the box duct-taped to the pizza table. There were people camping out and people giving speeches and people picking up specks of imagined trash from the very clean park and people making buttons saying “I support the occupation of Wall Street” which were free if you promised to wear it for the rest of your life. I took one.
That night my other son made dinner for the three of us and an old friend, temporarily converting his studio apartment in Williamsburg into a dining room. Being a good mother, I bought the food for Max to cook at a locavore dream store. Hudson Valley grass-fed beef, locally baked organic bread, Adirondack goat cheese and local organic sweet potatoes. I happen to know that the farm where the beef was raised is owned by rich people from New York who hired farmers to run the operation. The meat was $15 a pound and my total bill for dinner plus a few miscellaneous items was $72. It did not include dessert or wine, since Max, king of chocolate, made his own truffles for dessert and had taken a large bottle of wine from home last time he had visited us.
The next day I took my younger son to the grocery store on his block in the lower east side of Manhattan. He lives next to some pretty big projects so the grocery store caters to people of limited means. We bought non-local cucumbers, broccoli, apples, avocados and lettuce, frozen berries, milk, bread, cheese, chicken and tortillas as well as some dried, canned and bottled food. We also bought shampoo, laundry detergent (the most expensive item) and toilet paper. The quality of the fresh food was not great, the prices not great either, but we stocked up and bought as much as we could drag home to his fourth story walk up. It cost $101 and would last him and his roommate for about a week, as far as fresh food went. The toilet paper and laundry detergent will last longer.
After shopping, Jacob and I went to our favorite vegan restaurant in Manhattan, Gobo, and blew $50 on lunch, twelve dollars of which was for fair trade organic coffee with soy milk. It was fabulous, it always is.
Looking at the juxtaposition of food expenditures in my brief NYC visit made me again aware that I am not a fan of fancy local food for the affluent. I would rather support the anarchists sleeping in the park than the ecologically correct rich people with their hired-help farmers, yet I gave more money to the rich people. I am interested in economic justice but am also interested in the environment and in living a healthy, non-materialist life style. I don’t want to be food-obsessed but am willing to put some time into food in order to promote our own healthy eating, sustainability of the human population and decreased environmental degradation. As I was trying to think about how to work out my position on food expenditures, I remembered a saying from the 1970s that could use resurrecting about now: Live simply so others may simply live.
While it is hard to declare myself a simple-lifer since I am also a lawyer who commutes 30 miles to a full time job, it is as close as I can get to a declaration of my relationship to the foodie movement. I decided that I would take on a new pledge, not a locavore pledge, but an economic and environmental justice pledge.
For the next month I am going to buy sustainable foods while bringing our food costs down to $10 a day, $70 a week, roughly the amount I spent in the inner city super market buying a week’s worth of food for Jacob and, coincidentally, the amount I spent on our upscale locavore dinner. I normally spend about $120 a week for food, or even more depending on what is happening and who is home. The saved $50 a week will go to support Occupy Wall Street and other economic or environmental justice programs through one of my favorite web sites, Philanthroper.com. It will take some adjustment to live on $70 a week for environmentally sustainable groceries when I am used to profligate spending. I will have to dust off my dried bean collection. But it will be a good experience and will hopefully help me clarify my personal goal of avoiding upper middle class food fetishim while living well. And if I am unlucky enough to actually have to live on Social Security when I retire after the stock market completely tanks, it will be a useful practice run.
I’ll report back.
DISCLAMER: This is an Op-Ed piece. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by any or all of the members of From Scratch Club.