At the grocery store, I bought some strawberries to be used as ingredients for a dessert. Ordinarily this would not be noteworthy except that I’d just read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver.
You may recognize Barbara Kingsolver as the author of novels The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna and Prodigal Summer, among others. She lives on a sizable plot of land in Southwestern Virginia. This latest book was the result of her family’s attempt to live only on local foods for one year, most of which they would farm themselves and the rest would be purchased from sources within 100 miles from their homestead.
It is safe to say that, as a person who can’t keep an indoor plant alive from one season to the next, I would starve. But Kingsolver and her husband, Steven Hopp, have the greenest of green thumbs and keep their 40 acre farm humming with everything from zucchini to tomatoes to asparagus.
What Kingsolver points out in her characteristic graceful style, is that most of us have become quite disconnected from our food. Not the eating of it, as is evidenced by the general obesity problem, but from its source. Quick, what month are tomatoes in season? Many people have no idea because they are available in grocery stores year-round. If you want a tomato in February, no problem. (Here in the Northeastern U.S.,harvesting season is late July – early September.) It’s possible to have tomatoes in February because they are transported from far, far away.
I had a lightbulb moment last fall when, about to buy some apples at the grocery store, I noticed the label said they were grown in Washington state. It still seems incomprehensible that apples would be trucked more than 3,000 miles when the orchards of upstate New York are plentiful and delicious (probably more so, not having been transported). This week the grocery store had apples from New Zealand.
So, to the strawberries. I saw them all luscious and red and perfectly shaped in their little plastic container. I was rushing after work, breezed through the store, popped them in my cart and headed home. Only then did I realize that they were from California. Of course they were. Strawberries are just coming into season here. In fact, it was only a few days earlier at the farmer’s market when I overheard one of the growers say that she had only 4 pints of strawberries right now. It would be several weeks before there was a bountiful harvest.
Part of the problem, Kingsolver suggests, is that we spend more time analyzing what kind of vacuum cleaner to buy (guilty as charged!) than the food that keeps us alive and healthy. I suddenly felt terrible about the strawberries and now I have a dilemma. I want to eat seasonally and locally, but does that mean I can never again eat a banana? Does that mean I have to start canning every conceivable fruit and vegetable to sustain me through the winter? Do I have to (Horror!) give up coffee, which grows thousands of miles away? I will have to look for a balance. I don’t think I can take it as far as the Kingsolver clan. I’m not inclined, for example, to make my own cheese (though she did make it sound easy). Nor do I think I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time to make my own pumpkin puree (this sounded much more difficult than the cheese).
I don’t want to make this book sound preachy. It wasn’t. Of course not everyone can have the land or know-how to grow almost all of their own food, and some of us live in non-growing climes such as the desert Southwestern U.S. But, the book points out that the current mindset has led to fewer than 1/3 of U.S. farms remaining family owned and every week on average a dozen more close or succumb to buy-outs from agribusiness. The way to help them is by becoming more deliberate in our purchases.
Your turn: Do you have a backyard garden? Have you made an effort to get more of your food from farmers’ markets or CSA? Have you stopped buying foods that are “out of season” in your area?