By Lisa Graham McMinn
Flourish magazine, Winter 2011
I used to think being a responsible shopper meant that I was frugal with our family dollars. So I clipped coupons and shopped where I could get the best deals on canned tomatoes, frozen corn, boxes of breakfast cereal, milk, eggs, chicken breasts, and hamburger. Early on in our marriage I stopped at a farm stand and felt irked that the farmer charged the same or more than the grocery store for his produce. After all, the farmer didn’t have to pay stockers, cashiers, and truckers—so why did he demand so much more profit? For a long time, way too long, I sent our family grocery and houseware dollars to corporations with no ties or interest in the wellbeing of my community, unknowingly undermining the economic strength of my own community and my local farmers and businesses.
Now, nearly 30 years later, I shop at farmers markets and buy hazelnuts and pick or buy berries from Newberg-area farms. My sense of citizenship has been changed. I have a greater awareness of the uncomfortable issues that I can no longer ignore surrounding big agribusiness and the global food trade.
My husband, Mark, and I caught a vision for eating food that is not only grown sustainably, but that is grown in restorative ways that heal the land and benefit insect colonies, animals, water, air, and people.
We have become grateful for the farmers whose labor keeps us fed throughout the year, for the hens and bees we tend on the five acres we call Fern Creek, and even for the myriad worms, mycelium, and soil microbes that contribute to the wellbeing of life.
For some time now, Mark and I have been striving to make our gratitude to God for all of this goodness tangible, to run our daily choices by asking ourselves queries that take seriously our role as God ‘s representatives on earth. Quakers and Friends historically have used—and still use—queries, sets of questions that help communities reflect on the intersections of faith and life. The following are three queries that reflect our efforts to make responsible choices from grateful hearts.
Query One: Does this choice help me meet my obligation to be a good citizen?
Mark and I have our own small-scale farming endeavor these days, an enterprise we started for my research into family farms, farm policy, and the exploding demand for stronger local food industries. We run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), which means we grow food for families who hire us as their farmers.
As a producer of honey, eggs, and other food, I also better understand how being a responsible local citizen means supporting local neighbors and the local economy. So we buy locally and ethically raised meat from small farms and only eat tomatoes when they are in season, except for the ones we can, dry, and freeze. Why buy honey from across the nation if you can get honey from your region, which, if you have allergies, may do you a bit of good in fighting them? Why buy furniture made in China if someone makes and sells furniture in your hometown state?
I hear a disagreement rising: Shouldn’t our obligation as citizens include helping people from other parts of the world by purchasing their imported goods? The argument for local does beg the ultimate question of citizenship: How far does our obligation extend?
Surprising as this may sound given what I’ve said so far, I’d answer that our obligation to citizenship extends to the ends of the earth. To tea and coffee growers in Ecuador. Cocoa farmers and field laborers in Ghana. Factory workers in China.
Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. When asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the Good Samaritan story, telling listeners that the question of who is irrelevant; the command is to be neighborly.
Being neighborly requires something of us. We may need to work a bit to make visible the mostly invisible links between product origins and our store shelves: a bit of self-education, for instance, to uncover whether or not buying Hershey chocolate bars is, in fact, an act of neighborliness for cocoa-producing communities in Ghana. And all that research may mean we have to be willing to seek out neighborly sources for eggs that give appropriate care to God’s creatures who supply them. Being a good citizen may mean we will spend more of our discretionary money on coffee and cocoa that is produced by laborers earning fair wages and that does not support the trafficking of children working in the cocoa fields of Ghana. Maybe being a good citizen means we eat less of some things if we can’t afford to pay a fair wage for them or even stop eating some foods altogether (bananas for instance) if none untainted with injustice are available.
Yes, certainly, our obligation as citizens extends beyond our borders, which is what can make this conversation complex and uncomfortable. I don’t intend to induce guilt for banana, Folgers, and M&M lovers, but to boldly call us to good citizenship, which involves making visible what has been invisible. Good citizenship links gratitude to God with choices that encourage and support life.
This not about depriving ourselves, but about eating, living, and choosing from grateful hearts. We have abundance at our fingertips. Drinking a mocha made with coffee, cocoa, and milk harvested in neighborly ways that are restorative, and that help communities and animals flourish, tastes divine. Mark and I sit down for dinner and many nights one of us says, “I can’t believe how well we eat, how good our food tastes.” Our food tastes good partly because we know it comes from land farmed in sustainable, restorative ways and that by eating, living, and choosing well we show God gratitude for this abundant, nourishing earth that fosters life.
Query Two: Does this choice contribute to another’s misery?
Corey Beals, a philosophy professor and colleague of mine at George Fox University, asks his students what they would do if at the check-out counter of their grocery store they saw a sign reading: “Kick the chicken (the live one tied up below) and get a dollar off your groceries.” Would you, Corey asks, kick the chicken? Except for the occasional student resenting the pedagogical style used to make the point, they say of course not. Corey then makes visible the links between us and our food to demonstrate that we kick the chicken, pig, cow, and even cocoa, banana and coffee farmers when we purchase the “best deal” instead of “just food.”
As Americans, we got used to cheap food over the last century. Industrializing our food system (and much of our production) meant we made all sorts of stuff more efficiently and could produce a lot more of it. But that efficiency came at a price.
Farmers’ percentage of every dollar spent on food coming from their fields shrank considerably throughout the 20th century, and animals were removed from pastures and fields into egregious conditions in concentrated feedlots. Even the land, water, and air bore the cost of our cheap food when healthy, diverse farming practices were replaced with monocultures dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides intended to produce higher-yields per acre.
We do not intentionally harm others. We are not evil shoppers out to abuse whoever or whatever gets in the way of our saving a dime. Anytime someone accuses me of contributing to another’s misery, I get defensive. It took humility on my part to let our vegan daughter make visible the invisible processes involved in getting the inexpensive eggs, hamburger, and those skinless, boneless chicken breasts that I served our family. Partly I think I preferred to stay in the dark because I didn’t believe I could be held responsible for what I didn’t know. It felt overwhelming to investigate the back-stories of our food (or clothing, diamonds, and oil), not knowing how much it would cost me in convenience and lifestyle, or what one person could really do, anyway.
So for a time I refused to feel responsible for learning about controversies like climate change and mountain top removal mining, or about the inhumane lives lived by hens whose eggs I scrambled. Nor did I have any idea about how farm families in banana export countries lived—I now know more about their hazardous working conditions and the mercenaries (hired by companies like Dole and Chiquita) who use brutality and fear to keep communities from successfully joining together to demand a liveable wage for their bananas. I shopped for cheap bananas and chose to focus on the livelihood I helped provide for the poor in Ecuador rather than the greater complexities surrounding food sovereignty, tyrannical governments, and livable wages. And while I opposed the global slave trade in theory, it felt overwhelming to learn that Nestle and Hershey kept Mars Candy and Hershey bars so cheap by purchasing cocoa from sellers who used trafficked children to work in their fields.
How could I, as God’s steward and representative on earth, refuse to look into these global sorrows? And how could I live a life of gratitude for God’s good gifts once I knew the injustice that tainted them?
The good news is that with the growing awareness have come corresponding surges to bring justice and to make these kinds of products available in ways that strengthen families and communities rather than undermine them—ways that treat God’s creatures and earth responsibly, reflecting gratitude for abundance and goodness.
Query Three: Am I committed to being a life-long learner?
To make gratitude our founding principle for consumer choices, we need a way to learn which choices contribute to abundance and which do harm. It can be overwhelming.
I started with one issue at a time, and since it is something we buy over and over again, we started with food. We stopped buying bananas because we learned that no fairly traded bananas were available in our town. If you want bananas to be your focus, then gather signatures from others who want responsibly purchased bananas and take the request to your local grocer, keeping the issue alive until fairly traded bananas become available. They are widely available in Europe, and in some places in the US, because people demanded them.
I could forgo bananas, but not cocoa. When we first started buying fair trade cocoa and chocolate, we had to order it online, but now our local grocery carries fair trade baking chips, chocolate bars, and baking cocoa (because people demanded it). The coffee and cocoa trades can help communities around the equator flourish by gaining more control over their own products, especially if and when international trade laws change. People are making that happen. Googling “Divine Chocolate” reveals lots of information about the cocoa trade and a very inspiring company owned by a cooperative of African cocoa farmers.
Direct trade and fair trade coffee is now available in many food stores and coffee shops, making it easy to enjoy abundance in ways that help others flourish. Yes, the issues are complex, and a label does not always mean justice is being meted out. Life-long learning means I continue to investigate which labels to trust and which ones are mostly meaningless. Meanwhile, I’d rather err on the side of generosity and grace than be paralyzed by the fear of being snookered.
Commit to becoming a life-long learner, and share what you learn with others. The Internet makes learning easy, but our norms about privacy make sharing what we learn uncomfortable. One way to share what we learn is to give fair-trade gifts. Include a bit of information about how the gift contributes to the flourishing of the community from which it came and where the recipient can purchase more of it.
Justice for all
When I speak in groups about being a conscientious consumer, the issue of social class often comes up. How can I tell a single mother struggling on a minimum wage salary that she should pay $3.25 for a dozen eggs? These are complex issues and I don’t mean to over-simplify them. I’ll make two observations here.
First, I’m writing and speaking primarily to people living in the middle class and above. We who do have discretionary money can pay the real cost of our food (as well as our fuel, clothes, electronics, etc.) and not expect factory and field laborers, animals, rivers, oceans, and the atmosphere to pick up the tab. (These are parts of other conversations—all worthy of attention—that I’ve not unpacked here). Paying the full cost of our stuff is being a responsible shopper, a good citizen, and most of all, a grateful soul. So even if being all those things means I’ll eat less chocolate, fewer eggs, and vegetables and fruits in season, at least I’ll be eating with a gratitude that calls me to responsible choices.
Second, there is something decidedly wrong with a food system when a hamburger, French fries and a Coke cost less than the ingredients to make a healthier meal at home. That something starts with farm subsidies for corn in our country. It’s more complicated than that, but making wholesome food affordable to the working poor and lower class will require national food and farm policy changes.
In spite of the challenges, I am hopeful. Gratitude and hope reside together. I see justice, restoration, and community building everywhere. Urban community gardens and farmers markets are popping up in nearly every major U.S. city, giving urban dwellers access to fresh vegetables. We’re seeing a resurgence of small family farms and growth in organizations like SERRV and Ten Thousand Villages, which link artisans in the Global South with buyers in the West. Although passing bills has been challenging, we continue to see efforts to reform farm policy, and small victories abound, such as the banning of battery cages—cruelly restrictive cages used in the laying hen industry—in many states. I see hope in the greater availability of fair trade products in my local grocery store, which tangibly reminds me that individuals working together bring about change.
For all of this I give thanks. And when Mark and I say grace over our evening meal, we thank God for change, as well as for the ongoing work of farmers, laborers, and animals, and the amazing way God designed sun, soil, and water to produce such abundance.
- To find local area farms, CSAs and farmers markets: www.localharvest.com
- Banana trade: http://www.globalissues.org/article/63/the-banana-trade-war
- SERRV – An organization committed to eradicating poverty through fair trade: http://www.serrv.org
- Cocoa trade: www.divinechocolate.com
- Animal treatment in the factory farm industry: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/campaigns/factory_farming/
Lisa Graham McMinn is a Professor of Sociology at George Fox University. She and her husband, Mark tend four hives of bees, a small flock of chickens, gardens, orchards and forest, observing how they come together in delightful ways at Fern Creek. She is the recent author of Walking Gently on the Earth (IVP, 2010). You can learn about her CSA and follow life at Fern Creek at www.ferncreekfarm.us