This year for Lent I knew I wanted to do something revolving around food. A few years back I gave up meat for Lent and I considered doing that again. I also considered giving up, sugar, alcohol. processed food, and fast food. After careful consideration, I decided that I wasn’t so much seeking a discipline of what I eat, but of how I eat. i wanted to think more deeply about the sources of my food and the impact that my eating had on the community that surrounds me. So, I did a Lenten discipline of eating locally sourced food when I could and when not possible, to make sure that what I was eating was organic.
- Fast food is out! Most major chains were eliminated as well. Chipotle was the only big chain that has much reliable information about how they source their food. Baja Fresh and Panera Bread were also reasonable options, but I virtually had no options with a drive thru window. Though not surprising, it did give me pause to think about where these chains that serve millions of people get their produce and meat and the scale of agricultural businesses required to provide for that kind of demand. It’s frightening to think about.
- Cha-ching! My options were primarily limited by what I was willing to pay for. I suppose that’s always true, but it was interesting to note that very few things were off the table. Locally, we have MOM’s organic market. Not only is it a great source of local vegetables and meats, it has a wide range of organic, fair trade, and locally sourced snacks, frozen foods, and value added items. The major difference between shopping at MOM’s and any other grocery store was the price tag. Everything was just a bit more expensive which added up when you finally got to the cash register. Still, I can’t really argue that I was deprived of anything.
- Drink up! During Lent I also endeavored to keep my beverages local and/or organic. For coffee, seeing as how Baltimore is in no way tropical, that meant going organic. Again, only a hardship at the cash register. But for my adult beverages, I can’t say that I made much of a sacrifice. It seems like there are hundreds of breweries within a fifty mile radius of me and more than a few distilleries. I probably could have done a bit more sleuthing about how my local booze providers sourced their ingredients, but I contented myself with keeping money circulating in the local economy on my end.
- Alienation. There were two moments early in Lent that were more than a little isolating. The first was when I made a pot of spaghetti for the kids then a second pot of “organic” spaghetti for me. By the time mine was finished, the kids were ready to run away from the dinner table. Organic spaghetti for one, please! The second was similar, a taco night when I had different shells, meat, and cheese than the rest off the tribe. As Lent went on, more and more of the family’s everyday products became organic and I didn’t have to feel like I was on a “special” diet, but it did make me think of how lonely it can feel to not eat what everyone else is eating.
- Finding Farmers. When Lent began, I had grand aspirations about going to visit farms, getting to know the animals I was going to eat, and making lifetime friendships with the people who work so hard to food on our tables. It didn’t seem all that ambitious at the time, but it never materialized. In part, I blame the weather. Our Lenten weeks were among our coldest and grayest of the year. I confess to losing motivation to visit farms during the wind and snow. The other thing is that farmers are generally invisible when it’s not farmers’ market season. Now “invisible” is often more about what you choose to see, but in my normal day to day, I don’t pass many farms. Now that we are actually entering farmers’ market season (THANK GOD!!!!), I do plan on being a bit more diligent about my grand ambitions to make friends with farmers.
- Pretentious? More often than feeling like I was making a sacrifice, I often just felt like I was being bougee. (boujee? bougie? whatever). Let’s face it, the food I ate during this period was better quality, more expensive, and harder to find. There is an air of class superiority in places like MOM’s that I think goes unspoken but is very real. Again, this is part of why I want to see the healthier side of our food system more democratized. You shouldn’t have to pay extra to make sure your beef isn’t pumped with antibiotics or that your broccoli hasn’t been doused in pesticides.
- Read the signs. The final thing I will say about eating “organic” is that not all organic is created equal. The USDA is continually easing the restrictions on what is considered “organic”, so much so that Wal-Mart is the largest supplier of organic meat and vegetables in the country. At the same time, many local farmers who use organic and sustainable practices aren’t willing to pay the expense for the official USDA certification. If given the chance, I would rather buy from a farmer I know than to buy a certified organic tomato that had to be transported 2000 miles to get to me, especially since transportation is where most of the fossil fuels are used in industrial agriculture.
As Americans, we’re addicted to cheap food. We spend the smallest percentage of our income on food of any developed country in the world. And, generally speaking, we get what we’ve paid for: diabetes, obesity, hypertension, bland strawberries flown in from South America, and pineapples in places where they are not native. The bottom line for me is that we could eat in ways that are better for our health, better for our communities, and better for the planet if we were just willing to pay a bit more. My faith asks me to love my neighbor, and if loving my neighbor means paying a bit extra for produce, isn’t that worth it?