The coffee-and-chocolate experiment had forced me to confront an uncomfortable fact to which I suspect most Americans can relate: I had absolutely no idea where the majority of my food came from. I didn’t know how much it should actually cost, how it affected the people who harvested and prepared it, or what sort of toll its production took on the planet. I never thought to question the fact that I could purchase a plump red tomato in the middle of January or that I regularly ingest a product called “cheese food.”
No more. Armed with the information I needed to make better decisions as a consumer, I declared the second week of July the “Week of Eating Justly.” We wouldn’t put anything in our mouths unless we knew exactly where it came from, and, to the best of our knowledge, that no one had been exploited in the process.
A brazen plan like this one required I get my crunchy on and make a trip to Chattanooga to the only Whole Foods store within a one-hundred-mile radius—Greenlife.
Greenlife intimidated the heck out of me. Located on the hip side of the river in downtown Chattanooga, its patrons consist of a smattering of hippies who receive employee discounts and a bunch of well-to-do, Prius-driving, skinny-jean-wearing, Atlantic Monthly–reading liberals who have strong opinions about things like tort reform and cheese and who can afford to pay four dollars for a can of organic diced tomatoes. (Basically, the sort of people I want to be when I grow up.) The last time we visited Greenlife, we met a group of Episcopalians for lunch, and I kept getting the stink eye through thick-rimmed glasses because I couldn’t figure out how the buffet line worked. I always feel like such a poser at Greenlife, as if the rest of the customers can tell just by looking at me that I normally shop at Wal-Mart. (Maybe it’s my Wal-Mart-brand canvas grocery bags.)
Anyway, I arrived at Greenlife on a muggy Sunday afternoon, and the only parking space available was one designated for “low-emitting and fuel efficient vehicles only.” This seemed like a somewhat relative description, especially considering the fact that I’d be parking next to an Escalade, but I did my civic duty and drove round and round the parking lot until someone with a COEXIST bumper sticker finally opened up a spot.
My list included the sort of groceries we would get during a normal week, but with adjectives such as “organic,” “local,” “fair trade,” and “free range” scribbled in front of them. I’d done most of my vegetable shopping in Dayton at the row of dusty pickup trucks lined up outside the courthouse—our version of a farmer’s market. There I found fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, corn, and peaches, all at reasonable prices. Best of all, I could look the farmers who grew them in the eye and say, “Hey, didn’t we go to high school together?”
I grabbed a few extra things from the produce section of Greenlife—herbs, spinach, and arugula— always checking the labels to make sure they were grown nearby. The nice thing about Greenlife stores is they really make an effort to let you know where the products you buy originate. They even had a picture of a smiling East Tennessee chicken farmer in overalls displayed next to the cartons of eggs his hens had laid. I suppose it could all be one big racket and the Greenlife people just cut the guy’s photo out of an L.L. Bean catalog, but I doubt it. These eggs were small and brown, and when we cooked them up, their color was brighter. They also cost three dollars a dozen.
At the meat section, a goateed butcher asked if he could help me pick out my chicken and ground beef. Of course I said no, because I don’t like bothering people, which is why we ended up eating frozen chicken (and/or turkey) cutlets for Passover. Fortunately, the glass display case included a color-coded chart outlining the Global Animal Partnership five-point rating system for animal welfare standards. This sliding-scale system lets you know whether the chicken you’re about to eat came from an “enriched environment” where she had access to a bale of straw to play with (Step 2), or a “pasture centered” environment in which she was given enough room to forage (Step 4), or an “animal-centered” environment in which I can only assume she was given spa treatments twice a week and unlimited access to the Oprah Winfrey Network (Step 5). I finally decided on some Step 4 chicken cutlets and some Step 3 ground beef. In the deli, I found some sliced, Step 3 turkey breast, which tasted better than any sandwich meat I’ve had in a long time, but which cost more than twice as much as we usually spend on that sort of thing. The bill was mounting.
The hardest part was finding prepackaged items like cereal and taco seasoning that made it clear where all the ingredients in the product originated and that didn’t require we take out a second mortgage on the house. (A can of free-range chicken broth cost $3.69, people—$3.69!) So for a few items, I simply settled for the “organic” label and hoped for the best. Still, it pleased me to see that after nearly every item on my list, I’d scribbled down its place of origin:
Chicken: Sequatchie Cove Farm, Sequatchie, Tennessee
Beef: Cloudcrest Farm, north Georgia
Eggs: Pittsboro, North Carolina
Chocolate: Conacoado Co-op, Dominican Republic (Fair Trade)
I expected to indulge in some serious wailing and gnashing of teeth at the checkout counter, but to my surprise, the bill came to only about fifteen dollars more than usual, probably because I’d already bought most my produce in Dayton and cut out a lot of extra stuff, like snacks. I picked up a few extra Greenlife canvas bags so I could look too good for Wal-Mart the next time I went there, edged out of the parking lot, and sped home to keep the meat from spoiling.
To say we could taste a difference in the quality of the food would be an understatement.
There’s an episode of King of the Hill in which the Hill family discovers the local co-op, and upon biting into a fresh, organic tomato at dinner one night, Peggy Hill cries, “Hank, if this is food, what have we been eating?”
That’s exactly how we felt.
The first night I made two spinach and Gruyère stratas—one for us and one for a friend who just had a baby. The second night we ate baked chicken and fresh vegetables, the third night taco salad. On Thursday we went to Mom and Dad’s, where everyone else ate ribeyes, but I dutifully stuck with veggies. Over the weekend, we nibbled on leftovers and ate breakfast for dinner.
Everything tasted so fresh, flavorful, and natural. If this was food, what had we been eating?
The following week, I spent a little extra time browsing local supermarkets to see what sort of local/organic/fair trade/ free-range options they had to offer, and was pleasantly surprised to find I didn’t have to drive all the way to Greenlife for staples such as milk, chicken, eggs, and produce. Our ability to afford these products would wax and wane over the next few months, but we managed to make the adjustments necessary to sustain a more just way of eating, particularly when it came to coffee, chocolate, meat, and vegetables. It would be one of the most important long-term changes to come out of the project.