Local Apples: Food Justice in Gift Giving

two jars of jamI am a YAV in Boston, working with and learning about food justice and economic discipleship.  These topics have me examining how to live out our biblical calls to love our neighbor, care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and do justice in terms of our food and economic decisions.  It gets pretty complex because our food system and economy are so complex in recent decades.

As food justice advocates we must add our voice to all the Christmas festivities.  Food is a big part of the Christmas gift giving.  People volunteer at Christmas to serve meals to the needy, donate time and food to food pantries, or even deliver meals to people’s homes on Christmas day.  The Christmas dinner with friends and family is part of the tradition.  My mom always made fudge to give to our school teachers.  Cookie tins, Andes mints, oranges, chocolate peanuts, the famous fruit cake and many others are common gifts to those close to us, or maybe to those we don’t like so much but “need to give them something”.

Using food as a just gift is just one way to bring food justice to the Christmas scene.  As an edible gift it cuts down on waste because it won’t break and fall apart eventually like any toy.  I learned to make apple butter as part of an internship with Nu Beginning Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and gave it as gifts for my friends last Christmas.  It was new, different, and a way to show off my work.  I wanted to make blueberry jam for Christmas gifts, but the only fresh blueberries in December in VA were from Mexico.  Even though Shenandoah Presbytery’s annual trip to Baja Mexico, (that I’ve been on) probably built a house for one of the workers who picked the berries, I decided to find some local fruit instead, hence the apples.

In the Boston YAV house we are making applesauce and apple butter to send to friends and family for Christmas because it’s new, different, and a way to show off our work with food justice, and local food.  All of our apples were grown in Massachusetts orchards, and we’ve discovered that the different apple varieties make different flavors, and even different colors of applesauce and apple butter.

Applesauce is very versatile and healthful in recipes, since it can be substituted for oil in baking, and making it yourself you control the sugar.  Honestly you don’t need that much, apples have natural sugar, or you could sweeten it with other fruit like a little plum or pear, maybe even some honey and not use any sugar.  My roommate Libby does this, and she only started making applesauce in September.  It’s not hard to make and you can experiment with the flavor.  I wouldn’t recommend adding vinegar like I did, maybe a little is fine, but too much makes it more like cough syrup.  Cooking apples brings us closer to our food than just buying a jar of it from the store, and adds personality and stories to it, which always makes better gifts.

But food justice goes beyond low sugar, experimenting and storytelling.  As part of my internship, and this YAV year, I’ve learned food’s deeper connections with justice.  In many places, grocery stores are filling up with apples from large orchards from places like Washington state or California, mainly for the large supply.  Think about it. It’s much easier to have fewer suppliers with more apples for ease and efficiency, unfortunately some quality gets cut when apples sit in storage for so long and on a refrigerated truck for so long, and sometimes fruit is picked before it ripens for a longer shelf life.  From a biodiversity perspective, rare apple varieties are being lost with this model.  The worst of it is small local apple farmers in the Shenandoah Valley, VA and even here in Massachusetts, among other places are struggling to stay in business because workers are so expensive for them with less demand.  Many sell wholesale to restaurants but not to grocery chains.  Most grocery chains won’t buy local apples.  We YAVs  have seen this personally in Massachusetts visiting an orchard where the farmer only can make it because he hires Jamaican workers and the state has a law that allows him to pay them a fair wage and provide housing (less expensive than hiring US citizens).  He is also lucky that Whole Foods hires a special person to source local food who buys his apples and cider, something no other large grocery chain will do any more.  Whole Foods is the only large one we’ve found with local fresh produce, and they don’t look for apple orchards much smaller than his.

Why is it that people can buy apples in the supermarket from hundreds of miles away while apple farmers within fifty miles are struggling to pay their workers?

At this rate the best way to keep local farms in business is to buy from the farm directly if they can’t make it in the large grocery chains.  This is just a product of the times and an example of the complexities of food and food justice.

So right there in choosing which apple to buy for a holiday gift opened a world of options to show justice.  How complex does it get if we look at multiple ingredients, or if we trace the origin of everything in mom’s fudge, or that wonderful fruitcake?   Come Lord Jesus.  We have personally avoided this complexity by buying apples from farmers we’ve met and talked with about food justice.

Learn the names of your farmers, what grows locally and how you can show them justice.  I think you will be surprised.

I’d encourage you to think of ways to use food as a gift that supports producers and growers you want to support, cook it yourself if you can, control the ingredients as best you can.  Try apple butter or applesauce perhaps.  If we can do it so can you!

Bring food justice to the table this Christmas.