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 Boston YAVs. While a typical, uneventful Saturday for most, it marked the end of our locavore experiment and the beginning of a new era for myself and fellow YAVs- 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. We may or may not have splurged and made some whiskey raspberry lemonade. 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.

The kitchen has become the gathering place in our home. Where we spend hours experimenting with new recipes, sifting 50 pounds of flour (luckily not all at once), singing our hearts out to Indigo Girls and Phillip Phillips, and laughing over countless inside jokes.

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?

We created a list titled “How to eat non-local food,” but as we discussed what we want to keep… we learned that we really don’t want to eat non-locally. Sure, box pasta is acceptable. And I’m tired of buying super expensive tiny bottles of organic olive oil. But we want to eat “real” food. And to us that means knowing the farmer who grew the vegetables, keeping our dairy as local as possible, and at least being able to pronounce all of the ingredients on the label.

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. And along the way we learned about their family history, their kids, their struggles, their passions, and due to Alex’s now famous question, their spiritual relationship with food. 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 want to keep a lot of our new local eating habits. 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 be aware of.

So you must be wondering, just how did we celebrate our junk food awareness day? By going out for Thai food and Dunkin Donuts, of course 🙂

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