Choice: Freedom or Manipulation

Saturday, February 1st 2014- Junk Food Appreciation Day

Don’t worry if you don’t recognize this holiday, it was probably only celebrated by the YAVs (Presbyterian young adult volunteers) in Boston. While a typical, uneventful Saturday for most, it marked the end of our locavore experiment and the beginning of a new era- one of choice in what we eat and buy. (Or as much as we can on a small stipend and SNAP benefits.) Excitement would be an understatement; we had been counting down the days for weeks.

The day finally arrived. We had a feast on Friday night with recipes that had become the norm for us– lemon dill roasted chicken, hand-made pasta, with peach crisp (with peaches we preserved our first week in Boston) for dessert. It was truly a celebration of everything we’ve learned the past 5 months. I can now cook, with ease, dishes I would have been too scared to try a year ago.

Now that our local eating challenge is over we are faced with figuring out what our community will look like. We asked ourselves the most important question- what will we eat? Once we actually sat down and thought and talked about it, we realized we wanted to keep a lot of our new local habits.

Am I happy that I can have ketchup whenever I want? Definitely. Am I over the moon about having oranges in the kitchen? Of course. Am I excited about shopping at normal grocery stores? Well… not as much as you might think.

I now find shopping at our local Shaw’s grocery store extremely stressful. Before we would grab dairy and peanut butter, and occasionally olive oil, and get out. Our toughest choice was between two different bag sizes of fair trade organic rice. Now? There are rows upon rows of different varieties of chips and aisles of carbonated sugary drinks. We are sold these products with the idea that choice, the ability to pick between 20 different colorful cereal boxes, will allow us to exercise freedom and autonomy and make us happy.

But does it really?

Or are we being distracted by the fact that most of what’s in the box is subsidized corn and chemicals and preservatives that we can’t pronounce? Or that the sugar in the processed cake was farmed with essentially slave labor? Or that buying the super cheap vegetables from Mexico and South America is putting the farmers in your county out of business? (And who knows what GMOs they used, chemicals they were treated with, and what/if the workers were paid?)

When we think we have the ability to exercise choice, are we really able to make our own informed decisions or are we choosing between what the industry is putting on the shelves in front of our faces.

So how do we change the system? How do we really pay attention and make meaningful decisions about eating “real” food?

Our Boston YAV program went all in. We were forced to seek out farmers and learn about their farming practices and see their fields. When we pray for the hands that picked our food we have actual names and faces to go along with it. We had to learn about growing seasons and when different crops are available in New England. We were able to learn about how to make everything (and I do mean everything) from scratch. Once we were forced to get over the learning curve and were really aware of all of the choices we have to make, we realized that we actually wanted to keep a lot of the locavore lifestyle. I’m not saying this is for everyone and that we all need to immediately change how we eat and live. But it’s something I think we all need to think about. Once we are aware of the real choices we have, we can make genuine and meaningful decisions.