What Now, America?
Like most Americans, I’ve been consumed with news about the circus our financial system has become, realizing this is probably just the first act of a much bigger show. And like many, I’ll admit my extremely limited knowledge of Wall Street dealings was never much of a concern to me. Yes, I’ve read Matt Taibbi’s enlightening piece in Rolling Stone (April 2009 issue) and Jake DeSantis’ resignation letter to AIG reprinted in the New York Times. I watch The Daily Show and even caught the hilarious latest episode of South Park where Stan tries desperately to return his father’s “Margaritaville” machine all the way down the line to the Treasury Department. And while I now have a much better understanding of what actually is happening to our economy, I’m even more confused as to what I should feel about it all. If I’m angry, who exactly am I angry with? Certainly the greedy criminals who gambled with millions of people's money deserve any and all punishment that comes their way, but weren’t most of their actions perfectly legal? Should I be disappointed at a political system that bends to lobbyists and corporations that bankroll elected officials so that they can continue doing the things that they’ve done? Should I be chagrined with myself and my fellow Americans for not really paying attention to what we were allowing to happen?
Perhaps because I grew up without much money, I learned to find wealth in things other than yachts, private jets, gaudy jewels or fur coats. I likened those possessions to movie-stuffs, not real goals for real people. I consider myself more of a laughing-listening-to the-birds-on-spring-mornings-singing-songs-in-the-sun kind of gal. Sure, this won’t pay the bills, but it won’t create new ones either. It feels more like a straight karmic exchange of finding incredible value in the simplicity of the moment, and I feel better and clearer and more connected to the world around me when the joys of life come without a price tag. My naivete about the wealthy people allowed me to believe they are philanthropists, spending their time volunteering at hospitals, not really out spending $3000 on a single pair of shoes. That is simply too preposterous to be true, in any economic state.
At times, I’ve had a comfortable amount of savings in the bank, affording me the options of going where I wanted, or buying what I needed from Whole Foods without worrying (too much) about the cost. But most often, I’ve lived needing a regular job just to keep a roof over my head. It seemed perfectly fine to me to measure my riches by waking up in a warm bed and having a hot shower and cup of tea every morning before I start my day. I’m painfully aware of the number of people in the world, and in our own country, who go without these things.
As the market keeps holding its breath, the industry I have made my living in has begun to show the first signs of slowing down since I started working in a food co-op eighteen years ago. My last job, doing marketing and promotions for a leading organic juice company, was eliminated a few weeks ago. It made perfectly legitimate sense to me: operations are key for a business to run effectively, and you must have sales people to keep revenue coming in, but marketing is abstract, hard to measure, especially when every single dollar feels more sacred than ever before. Admittedly, I felt somewhat relieved by the news. I had begun to question the very industry I’d literally grown up in.
From the time I was very young, I was quite particular about food. It’s never been clear to me (or anyone in my family) why I was like this. Maybe because I was the oldest there was some kind of entitlement issue, and I’m willing to accept that it’s possible there were times that I was just being a stubborn brat. But still, that would not explain why I felt horrified staring at the chicken leg on my plate, or why the smell of liver cooking was so repulsive that I impetuously ran out of the house barefoot and carelessly stepped on a bee who stung me. Once, in kindergarten, I was forced to sit in the cafeteria long after lunch had ended because I wouldn’t eat the piece of bread and butter my teacher insisted I eat. Butter has always tasted disgusting to me. I watch people thoroughly enjoy it and know I must be missing some gene or something that would make me hate such an apparently delicious food -- I Can't Believe I Hate Butter. In fact, I pretty much hate the smell, taste or texture of anything that was once part of an animal. This was true long before I understood what being sentient meant, or knew of the egregious conditions factory “farm” animals live in.
Out of necessity, by my late teenage years I found salvation at the East End Food Co-op in the Wilkinsburg section of Pittsburgh, PA. The co-op was (and still is) a community-owned Mecca for the highest quality organic and natural food options. I worked in the café and loved learning how to prepare vegetarian foods that actually tasted good and were healthy for me. I knew I would not be able to sustain myself on French fries and salad as I had for most of my vegetarian years up to that point. As I became more familiar with the companies and products that surrounded me, my disdain for regular grocery store “food” grew. Yes, I became a food snob. It wasn’t intentional. It just sort of happened after being surrounded by such delicious, whole foods daily.
As the industry grew, so did the number of job openings, and I have been extremely fortunate to be offered one exciting opportunity after another. My first job outside of the retail store setting was as a natural products broker. I represented anywhere from 50-100 different brands at a time: from Clif Bars to Organic Valley, Guayaki to Boca Burgers, Yogi Tea to Earth Friendly cleaning products. We were the liaison between the manufacturer to the distributor and retailer. It was shocking to learn rather quickly that my die-hard organic flag-waving was a rarity in an industry of the same name. Various vendors would be riding along in my territory to visit accounts, and they’d want to go to Chili’s or some steak house instead of the salad bar at Whole Foods for lunch. It was horrifying and frustrating learning that people pulling a lot of weight in the business didn’t practice what they preached.
As the USDA organic certification came into effect in 2002, so did the number of brands promoting how-can-you-call-that-food-let-alone-organic products. I remember feeling not unlike I did as a child staring at dead bird parts on my plate while standing in Westerly’s market on 8th avenue in New York City staring at a display of what had to be five hundred boxes of Certified Organic Pop Tarts.
Something did not feel right.
I was so disenchanted by what was happening to the word -- and world of -- organic, that even though I felt everyone should have access to these foods, a Pop Tart would always be a Pop Tart and a Pop Tart, no way, no how should ever be considered food. In the same way the big food manufacturing giants had convinced us that eating “fortified” cereals and breads was as healthy as eating foods that still contain their actual nutrients, I could see the writing on the wall for organic: convincing shoppers that they were somehow taking care of themselves and their families with that Pop Tart because it was (gasp) organic.
Granted, many companies in the industry are not glorified organic junk food pushers. There are also slews of other attributes driving core values and missions of ethical and forward thinking manufacturers. Even Whole Foods has adopted a value system that includes: no high fructose corn syrup, no trans fats, and no artificial colors or flavors or preservatives. And many of the products also contain less salt, less sugar, no animal by-products or animal products processed with antibiotics, growth hormones or other awful factory farm ingredients you find in a bag of Doritos. Many companies go beyond organic and are certified fair-trade, ensuring the farmers and harvesters in less fortunate parts of the world are paid a livable wage. Many companies use 100% post-consumer recycled materials for their packaging, or have significantly reduced packaging altogether. Many companies support various non-profit organizations, foundations and missions dedicated to the betterment of our planet, people and future. There are dozens, if not hundreds of reasons to support a company that is aligned with the principles of being socially responsible. We do truly vote with our dollars. I reckon we’ve learned that lesson all too humbly these last few months.
All that being said, it doesn’t change the mess we’re in.
The other day, I was in line at the ATM machine at my local ShopRite supermarket. Shopping there is a change I made in my life as organic food started to become more mainstream. I opt to purchase as much of it as I can from the local conventional supermarkets in an effort to keep it accessible to the people who wouldn’t shop at a Whole Foods or co-op. And I guess in retrospect, the bubble I had been living in was getting too tight. I needed to see -- and possibly even buy -- the foods that most of America is living on. Even with organic’s explosive boom, sales represent less than 4% of total food purchased in this country. Less than 4%!
So I’m standing there patiently waiting, finding distraction in the giant Froot Loops cereal display I can see up ahead at the end of an aisle, when I realize this woman is taking an extra long time at the ATM. She’s about 45 or so, looks like she probably has a family and is trying card after card in the machine. I didn’t intend to read the screen, but it was one of those ATM’s that you find in a convenience mart and the screen was in plain view and well lit and I couldn’t help but see “insufficient funds” flash for her the two times I was paying attention. My heart sank. I wanted to give her my card or scream for help or say something sweet and kind that would make her feel better, but I just stood there, stunned and ashamed and watched her walk away.
I took some money from the ATM, but didn’t feel much like shopping. I couldn’t shake the image of this woman leaving the grocery store broke and hungry. The $30 or so I spent felt undeserved. Besides, I haven’t had much of an appetite lately anyway. Maybe she could have used my money and I could have skipped dinner that night. And this woman didn’t look like she just lost her life savings to Bernie Madoff. No, she looked more like a life-long victim of a system that separates the Haves from the Never-Wills at birth. She probably struggles to put food on the table even with a job or three, as so many Americans do. Her high-interest rate credit cards were tapped; maybe she was even out of work. Organic or not, she was probably only hoping that her food didn’t have to come from a dumpster that night.
As the urgency of finding steady income has become an unavoidable force I must reconcile, I have found myself at some sort of an impasse. The job I was let go from actually greatly confused me. I was responsible for marketing and promoting juices and frozen products made from a nutritious berry that only grows in Brazil, which is processed and frozen down in the Amazon and then shipped thousands of miles to the U.S. -- while staying frozen -- where it is then re-processed into juices and smoothies, bottled and shipped around the country still kept frozen. Sure it tastes good, and boasts many healthy benefits, but is all that really worth it? Just because a product has a checklist full of attributes like organic, sustainable and fair trade, does the excessive travel and processing ever really get cancelled out? I mean, if there are not good tasting, healthy foods growing within a few hundred miles of, well, anywhere, then we might have some seriously bigger problems to deal with than the economy.
I’ve been looking for work outside of the “industry,” but the truth is, it’s all I’ve really ever known. It feels strange to translate my skills for another platform that I'm not sure I'd even understand or care about at the end of the day. Even when I walk down the aisles of ShopRite or A+P, I can’t help but be drawn to the items that are organic despite my current state of confusion about the necessity of it all. So, this last month I’ve forced myself to purchase the cheapest versions of whatever I need, and as refined as I thought my pallet was, I honestly cannot taste a difference between an organic tomato sauce ($1.19 per can) and the private label non-organic brand (.59 a can). Carrots all seem to taste surprisingly like carrots. And though the taste is indistinguishable, there is a feeling that strikes me. Something deeply visceral confounds me every time I drop an item into my shopping basket, and I think of all sorts of things, like the farmers who benefit from my organic choices. Sparing them exposure to synthetic chemicals and fertilizers is the least I can do to offer my thanks to them for growing my food.
But when the choice comes down to eating organic or not eating at all, well, it’s not really a choice for any of us, now is it? I guess, unless we flip the picture so that organic, local and minimally processed becomes the great tasting, accessible norm. That future though, is still far away, if it exists at all. As it stands now, in the face of the turning economic tides, organic and specialty foods, no matter how much healthier they may be for us, feel like a luxury fit for the pallets of the decadent and greedy rather than for the 200,000 people laid off in February.
Despite the fact that we are currently a nation clipping coupons and making sacrifices, there are a number of reasons to support the growth of organic in our country. There is a parallel between the awakening we’ve had about the selfish greed on Wall Street and the slower one we’ve been resisting opening our eyes to in our grocery stores. The former was too removed and cerebral for a lot of people. Or at least we let ourselves think finance was something we couldn't understand. But I think we get it now. It was as ridiculous as it sounded. A “High Risk” 401K, really means it’s a high freaking risk, as in, “dealer takes all.” People didn’t pay attention to what was going on in the stock market because they didn’t think it directly affected them. And that’s not to say that if we had all been paying attention this wouldn’t have happened. But I think it means that we at least like to know when we’re being robbed. Give us a freaking chance to try and run or wrestle the gun out of your hands before we just give you our wallets. No, this was like pickpockets smiling in our face as they walked off with the American economy, got into private jets, and flew to their summer homes to stash our cash under the floor boards before the butler brings the caviar lunch.
Food of course is a much different issue. Everyone relates to food. We are essentially walking-talking-feeling containers of food, and what we choose to put inside of us becomes us. Literally. It is an identity in the most personal of ways. We abuse it and indulge it like the extension of our personal struggles that it most indeed is. But we also nurture it, raise it with love and respect. We sow it seed by seed in hopes that our grandchildren will one day eat from the trees our own two hands planted. And as hard as it may be to justify in a time when things are scary and even scarce, we’ve a choice now. Either we sacrifice our health, gambling it away by choosing the 2 liter bottle of Coca Cola because it's a dollar or two cheaper than the fresh juice today, but infinitely more costly for our health and our environment down the very short dead-end road ahead, or we choose to become a society that plants, nurtures, and eats for our future.
Like we’d have preferred the situation on Wall Street, we should all want and demand that in-our-face moment with the criminals who keep finding clever ways of telling us high fructose corn syrup is safe, and hydrogenated oils are fine, and that excessive amounts of salt taste great, and that downed cows make juicy burgers, and that eating raw, fresh fruits and vegetables is risky, but less so and definitely more delicious once they've visited a deep fry.
Food should reflect the real costs -- from the chemical exposure that gives cancer to farmers, to the thousands of fossil-fuel spewing miles it’s transported, to the layers and layers of processing that renders it no more nutritious than cardboard -- and then, perhaps, we’d realize that buying local, unprocessed and growing our own is what we’re designed for. It is all that we can afford.
When we realize that we are all the woman at the ATM hoping to find a card with some money left on it, and the small organic farmer sacrificing in order to survive against the big conventional (and organic) agri-farms that can sell for less cost as well as less taste and nutrition, maybe we'll begin to see ourselves as the nation we're supposed to be, so that we may find solutions and advance our world for the next generation. We can protect our assets and ourselves by being prudent and healthy, aware and wise. If we opt to treat our bodies the way we’ve let others treat our money, we will devolve ourselves into a weaker state of compliance and indifference, and let them do it again, and again. We’ve let status and money and make-believe ways of alienating ourselves from each other come to define us. But that’s not us, America. That isn't what we want anymore. Is it?
Photo by John Flinchbaugh, courtesy of Creative Commons license.