Clean Your Plate, They’re Starving In China 

On Green Markets and the American Food Deficit

Ok, I’ll admit it. I like Trader Joe’s. No, I really like
Trader Joe’s. As a person who prides herself on
knowing my way around Zabar’s, Sahadi’s and
Kalustyan’s, it pains me to admit that my latest
food fetish is a chain store, and a California-based,
occupying-the-formerly-holy-ground-that-was-
The-Palladium chain store. But so it goes. I held
off for a few months, trying hard to ignore all the
hype that surrounded the grocery store’s opening
in mid March, but finally broke down a few weeks
ago; on entering the place, I was amazed and unexpectedly
delighted at all I saw. That is, until this
past Wednesday.

Happily toting my mole sauce and a bottle of
walnut oil, I paused by the freezers on my way to
check out. I’ve always been a fresh vegetable person,
but it had occurred to me recently that the
odd bag of frozen spinach might help me out in
a jam, as the produce selection close to home
just isn’t very good. So there I was, poised on the
edge of epochal change, ready to enter an ice age
in my own kitchen, when I noticed that almost
all the bags bore the legend “Produce of China.”
CHINA?

Indeed. And the more I looked around, the
more food I saw that had been shipped halfway
around the world. And at that selfsame moment
I could have crawled over to the Union Square
Green Market and buried myself, literally, in produce
that had traveled less than 100 miles to get
to my table. What gives?

Well, I’ll tell you, and I hope you find it as alarming
as I do. Depending on who you listen to, the
U.S. is either on the brink of becoming, or has
already become, a net importer of food; i.e. we
import more food than we export. Apparently it
is cheaper to grow and ship spinach from China
than it is to truck it in from New Jersey or Upstate.
Can you even conceive of the amount of energy
that uses up? One of my favorite environmentalist
one-liners is the old “It takes 35 calories of fuel
to bring a 5-calorie strawberry from California to
New York.” How many calories of fuel does it take
to bring a pound of frozen broccoli from China? (I
tried, but failed, to figure that one out. If anyone
does know...)

Apart from the question of energy consumed,
there’s a whole host of other issues. Farmers in
this country can barely make a living, and are quitting
the business at an alarming rate. The more
farms we lose and the more food we get from
overseas, the more precarious our situation if we
stop being able to import food (due to fuel shortages,
or costs, Katrina-like weather, or political
conflict). National security, anyone? Trust me, the
nice folks from Dutchess County are much more
likely to make it into the city if there are problems
than those shipments from China. But they have
to still be working the land. If they quit farming before
the shit hits the fan, well, errr... you can’t eat
asphalt.

And experts of all political stripes agree that
China may be facing a food crisis of massive proportions.
Why should a few businessfolks make
money sending all their food over here, deepening
food shortages at home?

So do me a favor. Do us all a favor. Hit your local
greenmarket, as often as you can. Suck up
the extra couple of bucks it might set you back.
Learn to eat seasonally — cherries now, peaches
in a few weeks, instead of bananas all the livelong
day. Hudson Valley apple cider is yummier than
orange juice. Join a CSA (Community Supported
Agriculture) and help a local farm stay in business.
And please, please, please get your spinach
a little closer to home.

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