I love to grocery shop. It’s grounding, sensual, creative and pragmatic. In a world full of anxiety, filling my cupboards with a week’s worth of healthy meals feels like putting a carabiner in the cliff face of my life.
But I’m also a professional health-news junkie. And now my local Superfresh is a minefield.
Top priority: fresh fruits and vegetables, of course. Except that I will no longer buy commercial tomatoes. Aside from the fact that they’re tasteless, odorless and have the texture of moist sand, they’re produced by slave labor under brutally toxic working conditions that lay waste to Florida’s wetlands. (This is not remotely hyperbolic. Read the book.)
I try to buy locally grown, semi-organic, in-season produce, without bankrupting myself by insisting on Organic Everything. But lurking in the back of my mind is the knowledge that I’m almost certainly buying something that was sprayed with something poisonous by a person making starvation wages, with no civil rights and no healthcare.
On to the deli. Home of nitrate- and MSG-ridden processed meats, with bread made with toxic dough conditioners. Salami made in countries where those things are banned costs twice as much, but occasionally I buy it anyway, because my family really likes it.
People ask me all the time if I’m a vegetarian. The answer is a resounding ‘no.’ Aside from the fact that cooking vegetarian/vegan is tricky and time-consuming if you do it well, new research is continually coming to light about the value of cholesterol in brain health, the role of high-carb diets in contributing to obesity and diabetes, and the difficulty of getting necessary amino acids from a vegetarian diet.
But then Andrew Sullivan posted about about the lives of factory-farmed pigs–how they spend their entire lives in cages too small to turn around in. About the body parts that get cut off of chickens because they’re crushed into boxes too closely to avoid injuring one another, otherwise. And then there are the super-viruses which are created when we routinely pump animals full of antibiotics, and the health risks that come from eating meat and dairy full of added hormones.
So pork and bacon are off the list, unless I know the farmer who raised the pig. Instead of getting big packages of cheap chicken, I get small ones that claim to be humane and antibiotic-free. I get frozen seafood on sale, closing my eyes to the problems of overfishing, ocean pollution and the potential disease and toxicity of factory-farmed fish. Occasionally, wracked with guilt, I grab a steak, but I never buy frozen processed food-like objects made of ground-up gristle or Pink Slime, even when my daughter points them out.
For it is a fact of modern life that any package which bears an adorable cartoon character on it contains more than 50% sugar, high-fructose corn sweetener, artificial coloring, trans fats, and any number of other nutrition-free, metabolism-wrecking substances. When I say to my four-year-old, “No, we’re not getting that, honey, because it’s poisonous,” I am not joking. I read too freaking much.
I do not want to be a rigid, humorless hippie mom whose kid has never tasted candy. Neither do I want my child to grow up at increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, obesity, kidney disease, autoimmune disease, and mental health issues (!). The twelfth time I have to say “No, you can’t have that, because it’s got TOO MUCH SUGAR,” I start to think that these goals are mutually incompatible.
By the time we get to the eggs (cage and cruelty-free, no antibiotics or hormones), cheese, milk and yogurt (organic? Not enough money in the bank this month–or this year, or this decade), I’m exhausted. I feel like a criminal. I want to grab the grocery conglomerates by the throat and scream, “DO YOU HAVE SOULS??? WHY, THEN, WHY????” Why is it so easy to obtain food that harms your body, other people, animals and the planet, and so difficult (and expensive!) to find food that nourishes and heals?
This, then, is why I braved the suffocating claustrophobia and militaristic organizational structure of the Park Slope Food Coop for nearly a decade. This, my friends, is why I joined the Kensington Community Food Coop when I moved to Philadelphia, and why I give a 10% discount to members. Food is important. It’s what we’re made of. We HAVE to spend our money on it, and money is a powerful force for good or evil.
And we can’t put the supermarket Pandora back in the box alone.