On December 6, 2014, I made a 30-hour trip across two continents and one ocean to be home for Christmas. This was my first time in the U.S. after 13 months in Mozambique, and the transition from my little village to a highly developed nation was a bit jarring. During my three-week vacation however, I vowed to keep busy, hoping to deter processing the reverse culture shock, or perhaps avoid it entirely. In this I was unsuccessful.
If you browse through my pre-Peace Corps blog posts (which I do not advise), you will find hundreds of vegan/vegetarian/raw/organic/gluten-free/fill-in-the-blank-with-your-white-middle-class-health-conscious-diet-of-choice recipes and instagrammed photos. I love to cook, and I love to create healthy meals. Thus, upon my return home, I quickly reverted back to my position as the primary chef of the household. I poured over recipe books and food blogs, dazzled by the huge variety of options and innovative ingredient combinations. Being in the comfort of my childhood home, it was easier than I expected to readjust to the privileges of cooking with unlimited resources and slip back into a healthy routine. But trouble found me when I went to buy the groceries.
It happened in a Kroger. This Kroger was a beautiful, giant box, brightly lit and organized into twenty-five rows of conveniently packaged shelf foods, as well as refrigerated foods, frozen foods, health foods, fresh produce, a bakery, a deli, a sushi counter, a Starbucks, a wine and beer section, a pharmacy, plus a couple extra aisles of magazines, dishes, and toiletries. In comparison to my usual market, (see photo below) this was clearly a step up. Actually, it was more of a giant leap. To the moon.
My first emotion was excitement. The options were endless! In Mapinhane, whole wheat bread does not exist. Nor does sliced bread. In Kroger, there is an entire aisle devoted to whole wheat sliced bread. I didn’t count, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say there were hundreds, maybe even thousands of loaves.
My second emotion was awe. The options were overwhelming. I wandered down the ice cream aisle in wonderment. First there were the brands: Blue Bell, Edy’s, Ben & Jerry’s, Häagen-Dazs, Breyer’s, Talenti, Starbucks, Mayfield, Magnum, the list never seemed to end. Once I had chosen a brand I had to decide on a style – Did I want frozen yogurt? Greek yogurt? Slow-churned? Reduced fat? Gelato? Small batch? Vegan? After that came the flavors: Dark Chocolate Raspberry Swirl, Sea Salt Crème Caramel, Cookie Dough Fudge Brownie Fusion, Blackberry Cheesecake, Blueberry Cheesecake, Strawberry Cheesecake, there were variations upon variations upon variations of flavors. After a good fifteen minutes, I left the frozen foods section empty-handed.
My third emotion was outrage. The options were wrong. Perhaps it was easier for me to justify the variety and the excess in the packaged and frozen foods sections, but once I entered the produce section I immediately felt a sense of disapproval. There I was in the U.S.A. in the middle of winter, and they had watermelon and mango and PAPAYA and AVOCADO!! Did they know how much better the papayas are in Mozambique, plucked fresh from your neighbor’s tree? Did they know how long I waited in anticipation for avocado season? They also had pretty much every other fruit and vegetable you can think of – about half of which were not in season, and most not grown within 200 miles of that Kroger. Produce doesn’t have a long shelf life; it has to be transported weekly (if not daily) from where it is grown. That’s a lot of gas. They also had free samples set out of clementine wedges, individually wrapped in plastic Ziploc bags. In Mozambique, I wash and reuse Ziploc bags… which is probably giving me cancer or something.
Anyways, the extravagance of it all was nauseating. It’s important for me to remember that I used to get profoundly annoyed when a grocery store didn’t carry some obscure ingredient I required for a new recipe. I felt entitled to my rainbow swiss chard and alfalfa sprouts. What I didn’t care to know then was the true cost of the variety I had so naively come to expect. And that’s something I want to start paying more attention to. It’s easy in Mozambique to know exactly where my food comes from, but in the states that information is kept to hushed conversations behind closed doors. And most folks prefer to walk unassumingly past those doors straight to the checkout counter where they can tap a screen, swipe their credit cards, and continue on with their day.
And I understand that. Convenience is king. There are a million problems with the world, a million things to care about, a million little changes you can make. One swipe to end child hunger! Buy this recycled bag to stop deforestation! Donate today to help victims of human trafficking! March for gender equality! Bike to work to reduce your carbon emissions! Change your light bulbs to fluorescents! Volunteer at the animal shelter! Buy organic! Compost! Somehow you end up trying to solve this equation that you can’t stop adding to, and your efforts never seem to amount to anything because you can’t directly see the results of your actions. You donated to the International Red Cross, now you’re fifty dollars poorer, and Ebola still seems unstoppable. You bought a Prius back in 2010, but you still wait at the traffic light every morning with fifteen soccer moms in their giant Chevrolet Suburbans, and the U.S. still puffs out 5,300,000 kt in carbon emissions every year. You start thinking that the fate of the world is predetermined. We’re all doomed. There is no solution. Forget the equation. It’s hard not to do this. But please don’t do this. You don’t have to forget the equation, just simplify it.
I may be a little late on the New Year’s resolution train, but hear me out. For 2015, I urge you to pick one thing. Just ONE. Something you care about. Research it, inform others, and take action. Be passionate about it. Maybe you will decide to learn more about the food industry, maybe not. Don’t feel guilty for all the problems in the world you feel you can’t change. Choose something small in your life and change it. Next year choose something else.