Shopping for Justice

“Lord, to those who hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice.”
—Latin American prayer

I love grocery shopping. The tidy rows of boxes and cans, the perfect mounds of fruit, the wheeling of carts, the checking of lists, the whoosh of the automatic mister that leaves the leafy greens sparkling. I even like the Muzak.

So last summer, to celebrate the grand opening of a Super Giant grocery store in Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, I walked five blocks to buy flour for my fiancé’s birthday cake. Behind the renovated Tivoli Square complex, which now houses the Sojourners office, I found a gala underway: red, white, and blue bunting, a live salsa band, and shoppers scrambling for the opening-day sales.

I was impressed by the row of gleaming registers (no more long lines at the dingy Safeway on Columbia Road), the piles of fresh produce (no more wilted lettuce from the tiny SuperSave on Mount Pleasant Street, though it did have homemade tamales and a cashier who knew my name), and an entire aisle of organic options (no more car trips to Glut food co-op in Mount Rainier, Maryland). Also, I’d heard talk in the neighborhood about all the new jobs, and sure enough, there was an army of green-aproned cashiers and stockers.

When we got married, Micah and I moved a mile northeast to the Petworth neighborhood, but we still bike over to the new Giant at least twice a week. So I was surprised last fall by a rambling road-trip conversation on the way home from my parents’ farm in Pennsylvania. The topic was guilt: Does it help or hurt? Should you ignore it or admit it? And what makes you guilty, anyway?

“Shopping at Giant,” I said suddenly. “I feel guilty about shopping at Giant.”

I don’t really recommend guilt, especially around food, especially for women. Eating is intended for sustenance and celebration, after all. The blame for a food system that has pretty well perverted that intention is too much to put on anyone’s plate. (And goodness knows I’m liable for sins more egregious than grocery shopping.) Still, I decided that day in the car that my Giant guilt was worth examining, intentionally and curiously, to see what I could learn.

What’s in the ground beef? The typical supermarket contains 30,000 different items, according to Frances and Anna Lappé in their book Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. How did I choose only eight on my last Super Giant run? Just for fun, I try recalling the split-second, subconscious deliberations.

I shove aside the FEB 22 milks to find one labeled FEB 27. I pick up five loaves of bread and choose Arnold, for the sunflower seeds. Gala apples, because the Romes look waxy. Welch’s grape juice, for the attractive label. Quaker oats, because that’s what mom buys. Collard greens, because the sign says “Locally Grown.” (I ignore the rubber band that reads “Buy Texas.”)

I am stumped by the eggs. You can get white eggs or brown eggs; small, medium, large, or jumbo eggs; vegetarian-fed (but not cage-free) eggs, or soy-fed (but not necessarily vegetarian) cage-free eggs. I choose cage-free, even though I suspect it means barn-floor. En route to the register, I also choose some Oreo cookies, because—ahem—the display case is in my way.

In retrospect, my decisions were a shot in the dark. I couldn’t tell you where anything began, how it ended up at Giant, who baked or picked or laid it, or how they were treated. For all I know, everything sprouted in the aisles. My choices, then, were based on appearances, mostly, and any other information provided on packages or signs.

On Feb. 22, 2006, The Washington Post featured a photo of two 1-pound portions of ground beef, both crawling with E. coli. One was gray-green, and the other—treated with carbon monoxide—was bright red. Is it deceptive, the Post asked, to artificially prolong meat color? In reply, a Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman encouraged shoppers to “use the skills you have as a consumer to be aware of what is a safe and fresh meat product.” My question: If you can’t judge beef by its color, what skills are left?

And as it turns out, I may have wasted my supermarket deliberations. According to the Lappés, half of those 30,000 items are produced by 10 multinational food corporations. So Giant’s plethora of products is likely selected from similar sources for uniform quality and maximum profit.

Any more, Brian Halweil writes in Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, food distinctives are created by branding. We are, he says, “raising all the world’s food in a declining number of places, planted with a dwindling number of crop varieties, and controlled by a shrinking number of companies.” In the process, he adds, we’re losing local plant and animal species, along with regional culinary traditions.

Meanwhile, writes Marion Nestle in Food Politics, Big Food spends more than $11 billion annually to proliferate “options.” I read in the newspaper recently that the latest thing is packaging that wafts scents at customers, beeps at them, or even talks through tiny speakers. If you think it’s hard to choose oatmeal now, imagine a cereal aisle where everything hollers.

So, simply stated, my Muzak-themed grocery shopping “experience” is mostly a label-designing, meat-coloring, cookie-positioning scheme to keep me occupied and largely ignorant about what’s in my cart.

How much for the white bread? When I was a Sojourners intern in 2001, the ground where the Super Giant stands was a community garden. There were peach trees, rosebushes, lawn chairs, and the best soil I’ve ever seen in a city. Just before the bulldozers came, I sneaked in and dug up some dirt for the intern house garden.

It’s no accident that Giant showed up in Columbia Heights right behind luxury condos “from the low $400s.” I’m guessing that the community gardeners have moved on, likely somewhere farther from a supermarket. Here in Petworth, the next neighborhood in line for gentrification, it’s a hike to the nearest Safeway if you lack transportation, which sounds fine until you walk a mile with a gallon of milk. There are, however, plenty of corner stores offering candy, chips, and overpriced canned goods, as well as the ubiquitous carryout joints with hundreds of options—if you like it fried.

Much has been made of the nation’s obesity epidemic, less of the equally dangerous type 2 diabetes epidemic, but both are linked to diets with too many refined starches and sugars and too few whole grains and fresh veggies. Both diseases disproportionately affect low-income communities, where low wages and high housing and health-care costs squeeze food budgets.

In fact, for those on the edge of hunger, leafy greens may be a luxury. A University of Washington study showed that low-income shoppers would rather spend 20 cents on cookies than 95 cents for the equivalent calories in carrots. “The poor cannot afford to water down their calories,” noted a 2004 Associated Press article, paraphrasing the study. “Foods such as pasta...provide more energy for the buck than fruits and vegetables.”

Government programs don’t encourage healthier choices. Food stamp allotments are tied to the Thrifty Food Plan, USDA’s low-cost menu suggestions that lean heavily toward white pasta, bread, and rice. For many, food stamps don’t stretch to cover whole grains (let alone the whole month). What’s more, at the local elementary school where my husband teaches, a typical breakfast is Berry Berry Kix, half sugar by weight.

A Washington Post article this winter announced that Medicare now endorses three types of stomach-shrinking surgery to “offer Americans safe and effective ways to treat obesity.” Call me naïve, but I can think of some safer (and cheaper) obesity-beating alternatives. How about a few tax incentives for inner-city supermarkets, a little vegetable-buying power for food-stamp recipients, some bran muffins for the D.C. public schools?

Clearly, it’s not that simple. Food and agriculture corporations spend millions to make friends and disarm critics in defense of the status quo: farm subsidies that perpetuate cheap commodities so corporations can buy low (corn, soybeans, and rice) and sell high (TV dinners, soft drinks, and—you guessed it—Berry Berry Kix).

Consider fast food, Michael Pollan advises in the Oct. 12, 2004, New York Times Magazine: corn-syrup sodas, corn-oil fries, corn-fed beef burgers, and chicken nuggets. In “The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity,” Pollan explains that when U.S. farm policy began promoting grain overproduction in the 1970s, the system started producing a whopping 500 additional calories per person per day.

The abundant, cheap commodities allow Big Food to compete for consumer dollars, not by lowering prices but by increasing portion sizes, inviting overeating. The surplus also encourages creativity: Witness the past decades’ explosion of snack food. “The game,” Pollan writes, “is in figuring out how to transform a penny’s worth of corn and additives into a $3 bag of gingko biloba-fortified brain-functioning puffs.”

Sadly, the game extends to food banks, where more and more working families are lining up for daily bread. Donations to charities by food companies are often either damaged goods or test products, mostly junk food and sugary drinks. Still, along with great PR, companies get giant windfalls: up to twice the cost of production in tax deductions, according to Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy.

In short, then, the food system that stocks the Super Giant turns a profit when the overweight buy Oreos, the undernourished eat Wonder Bread—and the taxpayer picks up the tab.

Time to check out? This isn’t only about Super Giant, of course. From seed to shelf, the food and agriculture industry has largely abandoned its mandate to serve the public interest. Nor is this entirely about deception; I chose the Oreos, after all. And I’m equally capable of choosing conscientious objection to a food system that prioritizes talking cereal boxes over kids at risk of diabetes.

This isn’t just about purity, either. In my job, I lobby along with supermarkets to fund food stamps, and with agribusiness to expand distribution of surplus commodities. Until we all get vines and fig trees, as in the prophet’s vision, everyone must eat. Still, like Isaiah, I’m tired of spending my labor on what does not satisfy. So how am I prepared to change?

Micah and I are already arguably smart shoppers. We buy fresh veggies, cook dry beans, and pack leftovers for lunch. Plus we save plastic bags. Still, I don’t hunger for justice like I crave dessert. I eat whatever and whenever I want. As Doris Janzen Longacre writes in the More-with-Less Cookbook, feasting is good, but without seasons of restraint, “we require more and more trimmings to turn any celebration into a meal distinguishable from our daily diet.”

So once in a while I could fast—to pray, yes, but also to remember what it’s like to come home hungry for supper. I could skip seconds. I could eat fruit in season. I could join our friends, Lora and Adam, who buy food without corn sweeteners and hydrogenated fats. I could quite possibly say no to Oreos. And I could steer my grocery cart away from Giant toward D.C.’s thriving market for locally grown and fairly traded food.

Here in the city, food co-ops, community-supported agriculture (CSA) projects, and farmers markets are flourishing, along with urban gardens, gleaning operations, and community kitchens, many of which exist to empower low-income eaters. Across the country, farmers are forming regional cooperatives to process, market, and distribute what they grow, and communities are establishing food policy councils to improve access to the harvest. Worldwide, a growing food sovereignty movement is working to restrict exports until all the locals are fed, and limit imports of foods already grown at home.

At the same time, on Capitol Hill, the 2007 farm bill talks are already underway, and it’s not just the Corn Belt keeping track. Grain traders, shipping companies, agrochemical manufacturers, equipment dealers, food processors, grocery stores, livestock operations, and investment bankers all have a stake in agriculture policies that encourage corporate consolidation, hasten environmental degradation, undermine local markets, and threaten public health at home and abroad.

So it’s not enough to stock my own pantry and then wash my hands. I don’t have to understand counter-cyclical payments to call my legislators about shifting farm subsidies toward land conservation and rural development. While I’m at it, I might mention expanded vouchers for low-income shoppers to buy from farmers markets and increased start-up grants for school cafeterias to link with local farms—small steps toward vines and fig trees for all.

Meanwhile, winter is over, and the farmers markets have returned to D.C. Much as I love grocery shopping, I’ll gladly give up flawless produce for a plump tomato picked yesterday, or an asymmetrical apple grown locally. And forget tidy aisles: I’ll take my potatoes with the dirt. You can ask the vendors at the Columbia Heights market who picked the cucumbers. The Mount Pleasant market farmers will tell you just how happy their hens are. I don’t even miss the Muzak.

Bethany Spicher Schonberg is a legislative assistant for domestic affairs in the Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office and a former Sojourners intern. She shares a vegetable garden with the nearby Dorothy Day Catholic Worker community.

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