"God showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: 'What can this be?' And it was generally answered thus: 'It is all that was made.' It was so small I thought it might disappear, but I was answered... everything has being through the love of God." --Julian of Norwich

Friday, June 18, 2010

Food and Me, #5: The Supermarket Experience

So why have I been telling you so many of the details of my food nostalgia?  For a higher purpose.  In his book Desiring the Kingdom, author James K. A. Smith argues that we are more formed by our repeated practices than by ideas (for a great review of the book see my friend Josh's blog).  For the first 25 years of my life or so, the most formative practice for determining what I ate was going to chain grocery stores.  It's something that we repeated at least once a week (I imagine), week after week.

You probably know the kind of experience that I'm referring to:  You run out of milk or eggs or something else you need, so you run to the store.  You park your car outside the big, warehouse-like building.  You grab a cart or a basket from the front of the store and dash to the back of the store where the Milk is stored, perhaps running past the produce and bread (on the fast-track around the outside of the store) or perhaps cutting through an aisle (where the colorful boxes all vie for your attention:  Low in fat!  High in omega 3!  Sugar free!). Once you've found your item, bring it to the front where you can look at magazine covers while you wait to check out, pay, and get out of here.

But recently I read a book which reminded me of a different kind of store.  The small general store in the book Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was owned by a couple, and its front porch was the town's hub of gossip and storytelling and checkers and fun.  When you needed something, you brought your list to the store, and it was served to you in the proportion you needed (not pre-packaged).  The store owners could give their personal advice about the products, could give you a little more than you paid for to bless you, or could allow you some credit if you had a rough week.  The downsides were that they could also cheat you, the store didn't always seem sanitary (perhaps there were rodents in the bottom of the cracker barrel) and often there weren't too many choices.  Because there were only so many people working behind the counter, there could be a longer wait as they fetched all the goods for you.

These downsides were what inspired Clarence Saunders to found the first Piggly Wiggly Supermarket and patent his design.  He had admirable goals:  to make shopping more efficient, to increase product competition (which could potentially help bring prices down), and to cut some of the overhead costs of individualized service.  At first shoppers were overwhelmed by all the choices and had to be "trained" how to help themselves as they followed the arrows through the aisles, but eventually it's caught on as the supermarkets we know and love.

I don't think I'm the only one to feel guilty about shopping at the supermarket.  Whether its for personal health reasons (seeking food with fewer chemicals like MSG and HFCS), or for reasons of justice (fair trade, concern for environmental impact of foods shipped long distances) a lot of us are asking questions.  But I've found that the habits of supermarket shopping are hard to break (obsessively looking for the lowest prices so I can spend my wealth on other things, trying new foods based on their packaging, ignoring veggies because they're not "new and improved" nor packaged nor "easy"). As I study a little bit about healthy farming practices and healthy eating, I'm starting to wonder, has our obsession with cheap food made food too cheap, that is, so cheap that farmers with sustainable practices like avoiding genetically modified seeds and pesticides, and growing organically can't make ends meet anymore?  And so cheap that the food is stripped of a lot of what nourishes us?  Has the supermarket separated us too much from our food?

I'm still processing a lot of this so push back on me!  I want you to tell me what you think!

Resources on the supermarket:
Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel, chap 8
Revolution at the Table by Harvey A. Levenstein, chap 3
An Ontology of Trash by Greg Kennedy

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