Let’s start with The Question. It is asked in different ways. Sometimes it is posed as “What can I do?” or “How do I make a difference?” or “What types of things should I buy that make the biggest difference?” or as a recent student asked “I’m all about the use of foods from sustainable sources but for the poor college kid this is tough. How do you pinch a penny and still make a difference?” This last question has become even more salient in our failing economy and this blog is devoted to exploring the answers to that question (Part 1) and questioning whether that question is the best question to be asked (Part 2 – which is really the best part, I think).
Part 1 - For the Consumer
This morning my room mates and I were eating some yogurt from a particularly green and organic company. We were discussing how we would like to be able to get yogurt in bulk because of the growing stacks of plastic containers we were amassing. My room mate pointed out that a local yogurt maker sells yogurt in re-useable jars that can be returned to the store and they will give you a dollar deposit back. But the yogurt is just so expensive that even with the deposit return it’s totally not feasible for us to afford buying that yogurt.
So in no particular order here are my practical thoughts on saving money and buying food and making a difference:
1. Cherish food more: Let’s be honest, food just doesn’t matter as much to most folks. A dollar for a song on Itunes seems reasonable to many but what about a dollar for an apple? The percent of our income that we spend on food has drastically decreased over this century. And it’s funny because you can’t eat a CD or a survive off of a wide screen TV. Food keeps us alive.
2. Volunteer: Nonetheless, many of us still struggle with making money ends meet. Volunteering on farms, in co-op grocery stores, and at farmer’s markets are all viable alternatives to spending money on food since most farms, farm stands, and food co-ops have a deal: work for food. Plus it’s a great way to learn about marketing, food systems, and how to…
3. Grow your own: Whether you have a whole backyard garden, pots on your porch, or sprouts in a box in your living room, there’s this wonderfully special thing about food, you can grow it yourself!
4. Join a CSA: Community Supported Agriculture is a great way to get good food. Though the price comparison is probably arguable, I split a CSA box with my roommates, paid $9 a week and had more vegetables than I knew what to do with.
5. Make your own guidelines: Some people I know won’t buy any “green” food that is double the conventional price. Some people spend more but only for organic dairy. Others get all their fruits and veggies from local sources and buy everything else from a supermarket. Some people eat less meat and then eat more expensive grass fed beef. Pick one thing that you can do and do it.
6. Eat simple and eat in: Restaurant food is more expensive and though supporting locally owned restaurants is nice, if you’re really trying to save money eating in and eating simple is the way to go. Make a big pot of beans, a big pot of rice and you’ll be set with the basics for the week.
7. Make food gifts: You know how it’s easier to spend money for other people sometimes? When you’re going to splurge on a gift, make it a food gift. Local honey, artisan cheeses, specialty jams, and handmade yogurt in reuseable containers are all delicious ways to love your loved ones.
8. Buy bulk: My mom buys cases of bread and then freezes loaves. My neighbors order cases of their favorite teas. Buying bulk saves money and sometimes packaging and gives you the incentive to start sharing bulk purchases with roommates, neighbors, and family. It’s kind of the same reasoning behind Costco but go to your local grocer instead.
9. Glean and forage: Gleaning projects are popping up around the country with the recognition that when food grows, it often grows abundantly. Gleaning is the art and practice of harvesting fruit that would otherwise go unused – think your neighbor’s fruit tree or zucchini plant. I still haven’t figured out why people buy rosemary in my town considering it grows on every street corner; start tapping into your hunting/gathing self. Did you know you can eat most weeds? Obviously, make sure you know what you’re eating since some weeds are also severely toxic but find some lambs quarter, dandelion, and purselane and you have a gourmet, local, healthy salad mix. As for hunting squirrels, I wont give any advice on that one.
Part 2 – Beyond Consumption
If Part 1 is dedicated to thinking about your choices as a consumer, Part 2 explores ideas for “making a difference” beyond consuming. The fact is, it sucks to feel guilty about not being green enough because you don’t have the money to buy, for example, local, organic, yogurt packaged in re-useable containers. As much as I’m a fan of the slogan “Vote with your fork!” and as much as I believe that our food choices have far reaching effects on our world, I am more than a consumer. We’ve learned to define ourselves in terms of what we buy, eat, wear, and drink but we’re not just vortexes for widgets and bananas; we’re thinking, creating, producing, political beings that can affect change beyond what we hoover up at the supermarket or the dining halls.
As I started thinking about writing this blog I started talking and listening to people for clues on how to go beyond being a consumer. In the process, of discovering some gems to this answer, I also waded through the “Tell me what brands to buy” and “I just want to buy good stuff” comments which I realized are more ubiquitous than I might have originally guessed. In no way have I found the answer to my question of moving beyond consumption (I’m guessing it’s one of those answers that is going to be ever evolving) but I think I found some worthwhile directions to pursue.
One of the most useful tools I’ve found to think about the importance and wide ranging effects of food, and therefore the wide range of choices to interact with food comes from an organization that I’ve been working with called the Real Food Challenge. The goal of the Real Food Challenge is to unite students to build a more just and sustainable food system. We use what we call the Real Food Wheel to illustrate many of the facets of life that connects to food.
People are passionate about different portions of this wheel. Some people work to create connections between coffee farmers abroad and coffee drinkers in the US like the Community Agroecology Network, others are focusing on nutrition in grade school curriculum, others make sure people have access to food by making local grocery stores like People’s Grocery, some folks are building backyard gardens, while some are boycotting food chains and dining services to ensure laborers get paid fairly like the Student/Farmworker Alliance and some people are throwing potluck parties and eating food together.
This last activity is one of my favorites and I think one of the most important and simple ways of acting beyond consumerism. In a conversation I was having with my best friend about being more than consumers she said, “I think a big part of it is ending isolation”. This got me thinking, perhaps what we consume is just as important as who we share it with. As I suggested before, we are more than what we buy, eat, wear and drink; we are friends, family, lovers, and community members to other people. We can create our own entertainment for each other by just being together. Therefore I stand behind the idea that throwing a party is a great way to make a difference. As a good friend of mine said, “Let’s not be force-fed music and food, let’s make it from our places and times.”
The other day, Erik Knudtsen, an urban homesteader in LA who grows food, raises chickens, builds his own grey water treatment systems and maintains a rockin’ blog came and spoke at my school. He was encouraging the audience to do what they could; he didn’t urge people to grow all their own food but to just start with one project. One of the students raised their hands and said “Okay, so if I grow a tomato plant and get like seven tomatoes, so what? Why is that important? I’m probably not really offsetting many costs or making the world more environmentally friendly”. Erik Knudtsen responded by saying that first off those will be the best seven tomatoes you ever ate and secondly these acts (i.e. growing one tomato plant) are symbolic. They’re small but important because they start changing things in your world. They change your experience (even if just a little) and the experience of others who walk by and see your lone tomato plant growing. “It’s like alchemy” he said “turning base metals into gold.” That got me thinking about this house plant I have growing over my bed that I really love. And it’s not sucking up a whole bunch of carbon dioxide and going to fix global warming but it’s important because I love it and it makes me happy. And I love my rosemary and fig tree that I planted also.
The thing about consumption is that it requires money. And most of these things that I’m suggesting also require a certain amount of money though my point is that money is not central to their existence. The truth is our food system is classist and organic food consumption often times verges on elitist. Overcoming isolation and practicing symbolic acts of food growing have the potential to be inclusive practices where we challenge histories and social boundaries that have traditionally separated us from each other. Parties can be thrown in parks and open spaces; plants (like fig and rosemary) can be grown from cuttings; public lands are susceptible to guerilla gardening; and many schools and communities are starting or maintaining farms and gardens where you can grow all sorts of things. The wonderful thing about seeds is that they can be saved! Which gets me to the point that there are perfectly free and extremely important things you can do to make a difference.
I would say that educating yourself and then others is number one. Without gaining knowledge about food systems and agriculture we cannot expect anything to change. The powers that be have converged to invisiblize (not a real word but one that I like) all sorts of really important things about our food like where it came from, how it was made, what’s in it, who made it, who made money from it, and who got the short end of the stick out of the whole deal. Your dining services for instances has contracts and purchasing orders that detail the rules by which the game is played. No matter how much food you consume you will not change those rules without knowing them. Unraveling the stories behind food is necessary to make demands for a new order. Which gets me to making demands for a new order.
Get political! Whether it’s collaborating with or boycotting against your dining services, local government or state and national policy, do something. There’s a host of activities that anyone can do to partake in the creation of a world that’s reflective of what they believe in: writing letters to the editor, attending campus stakeholder meetings, writing comment cards in your dining halls, showing up at city council meetings, forming or joining a student group on campus, calling your senators, and running for office yourself to name a few. As it turns out we live in a democracy which means we have the power to make our voices and values heard. When Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, came to speak at my school about our extremely unhealthy, illogical, fuel-dependent, inequitable food system one student asked him The Question, “What do you suggest I buy to make a difference?” Raj answered that was the wrong question to be asking and suggested instead that “we are not consumers of democracy but its proprietors.”
I haven’t quite figured out a conclusion for this blog so in a way I guess there just isn’t one. Which means the discussion is still going. Write your comments, agree, disagree, talk to your friends, heck, talk to the plants and let’s keep building on this…