Monday, November 16, 2009

A question that lingered

Lisa participated on a panel that answered questions after showing portions of the movie Food, Inc. at All Souls Unitarian Church yesterday. The panel included Wes Downing of Downing Family Farm and Doug Walton who works with the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The questions that came after the film were interesting, different than I expected. One question in particular has lingered with me.

A woman who works with seniors in Tulsa asked the question, "What should they buy when they shop at Walmart to be sure they're getting the safest food possible?" I found myself wondering why they're shopping at Walmart, but I realize there is likely a complex answer behind that. There's a certain appeal to the one-stop shopping Walmart offers, particularly when people rely on others for transportation. My mom who is nealry 80 years and would hardly be characterized as a revolutionary or activist is on a one-woman campaign to boycott Walmart in the small town where she lives. She sees them as a threat to the small grocery store in town and while the selection at the grocery store is more limited and may, in some cases, provide less healthy and less safe options simply because there's a smaller customer base to demand such options, she is firmly committed to doing her part to keep small businesses alive. I know there are options. Walmart isn't the only choice, but even if it was, the answer to the woman's question is more complicated than that.

Doug Walton attempted to answer it on several levels. First, he talked about choices between processed foods and whole foods. Second, he tried to discuss the difference between organic and non-organic products. His attempt to highlight the multidimensional nature of the issue irritated her, I think. She fired back at him with several more questions and seemed frustrated. I'm not really sure what her frustration was. Is it the cost of those products versus the cost of processed foods that use commodities that are highly subsidized and can be provided at below-cost-of-production prices? Is it anger that we're caught in a situation of having to even concern ourselves with the safety of food to begin with?

My dad had a big vegetable garden nearly every summer. He planted tomatoes, corn, green beans, okra, beets, potatoes, and other assorted goodies. The garden was always much bigger than needed to feed us and provide produce for my mom to can for the winter months. We used to tease about his ambitious planting, but I think there was often more behind his intent than he ever let on. He loved to share what he grew. Neighbors would come pick for themselves after he'd harvested for us. And he loved to take bags of stuff to people he knew couldn't come pick for themselves. He didn't do it because it was trendy or an act of social justice. He did it because he loved to garden and believed none of what he produced should go to waste.

After he retired, he and my mom volunteered with Meals on Wheels, delivering meals to homebound people in the small town where they lived every other week. When his garden was producing, he took extras along with him and delivered fresh vegetables to everyone on his route. Now, my mom doesn't drive much and can't garden for herself, but a couple from town who delivered Meals on Wheels with them have taken to bringing her regular deliveries of vegetables from their garden during the summer months.

The problem in the woman's question isn't just about the safety of food. I think it's also about the breakdown of community and a demonstration of what we value most. We've sacrificed small community-based businesses and our own health on the altar of convenience. On one level the answer to her question seems simple non-processed, organic foods from local producers whenever possible. It gets more complex only because it means challenging our values. To do so means budgeting for our health. It means allowing time to find the products that are safe. It also means being aware of those who are most vulnerable and susceptible to relying on unsafe food as the staple of their diet simply because they truly can't afford or gain access to good, clean food.

That feels complex. It's hard to challenge our values. I don't think it was ever so complicated for my dad or for the couple who pass things along to my mom. They just simply planted more than they needed and looked for those who didn't have access to it. Maybe it really is that simple.