As proud as I was of managing a thrifty food budget, in the intervening years, I’ve developed a greater awareness of the social cost of food. The price that pops up with a bar code scan at the register is not the only thing that differentiates one choice from another.
When my younger sister, Sierra, moved in with me a few weeks ago while she does an internship in my city, she brought all of the usual things with her. Clothes, toiletries, books, slippers.
But we laughed about all of the preservatives she also brought with her. I shop at farmers’ markets and have organic vegetables and groceries delivered to my home every other week. She bought frozen dinners and canned ravioli from Wal-Mart.
I haven’t always had the same food values as I do now. When I first graduated from college and was making $13,000 a year, my primary food value was frugality. I needed to buy as much food as possible for as few dollars from my pocket.
In this way, my food journey began similarly to Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma‘s, who writes about hers in “Choice Cuisine,” one of 34 essays in The Spirit of Food. “I took pride my sophomore year of college in coordinating a grocery list for eight housemates on a budget less than a quarter of what the cafeteria meal plan cost,” she recounts.
Eventually, however, Vander Giessen-Reitsma learned that the price of food and the cost of food were two different matters altogether.
I came to a similar conclusion several years after college and years after I was making $6.35 an hour. The change began slowly as I started growing some of my own food and shopping at farmers’ markets where I met other people who grew or raised the food I ate. My philosophy grew through research and meeting others who were making similar choices. But the truth is, my philosophy also grew as my salary did.
Were I not making considerably more than that starting salary just out of college, I wouldn’t be able to afford to be so philosophical about the food I eat.
My food choices also involve another cost, though. One that’s nearly impossible to quantify.
Each time my mom and step-dad offer me a bag of meat from their own freezer – from the their own herd, in fact — I have to choose whether I will risk my relationship with them over the fact that their animals are grain fed. And each time my dad offers me a bag of apples shipped thousands of miles cross country, “extras” from the trucking company he works for, I have to choose whether I will risk my relationship with him over the fact that the apples weren’t locally grown and now have a large carbon foot print larger than I do.
Or even when my sister offers to make dinner for us, using refrigerated dough and canned soup. Will I risk it? Will I let my food choices cost me my relationships with family?
In this food value, also, I have come to the same conclusion as Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma. Later in her same essay, “Choice Cuisine,” she discusses a pork loin her father bought for her, knowing that she and her husband were cash-strapped and barely making it. “I chopped carrots, potatoes, and onions for the Crock-Pot, looking forward to the delicious product of my labor but also reflecting with some amount of guilt on how the pork loin from the grocery store didn’t reflect the food values I would live out if we could afford to do so.”
She had asked herself, “Should I have refused the gift from my dad, excited as he was and as hungry as we were?” I have asked myself the same question hundreds of times.
Her conclusion (and mine) was simply this: “As much as I try to invite my family to participate in the joyful realization of our shared Christian faith values at the table, I’m committed to never reject – or even fail to appreciate and sincerely bless – a meal we eat together.”
That’s a food value worth its salt.
I am writing today in community with my friends at thehighcalling.org. We are working our way through the book, The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God, edited by Leslie Leyland Fields. This week, we considered essays 13-16, in a section called “The Ways We Eat.” Click on the button above to see what others are writing. Then, pick up the book yourself and join us for next Monday’s discussion.