For many years, David and I have talked about the politics of food with his parents. Before this year, those conversations have gone nowhere. Usually, they just humor us as we buy whole wheat bread and organic milk when we visit them. They nod mindlessly as we drone on about sustainable local, seasonal, or organic “real” food. Those kids! Once the discussion erupted into the closest thing to an argument I have had with them in all the time I have loved their son.
Both of David's parents grew up in post-WWII New York City immigrant communities. Although food was an incredibly important part of Jewish culture and even Jewish religion, the people in their community had relatively little direct connection with the actual growing of the food they ate. Both my MIL and FIL were instilled with beliefs in Americanization, in progress, and in a post-rural economy. They are loyal and trusting people who believe deeply in justice—but I think they have trouble believing that anything that looks to the future could possibly be wrong, that anything that is a convenience or a small luxury could possibly be bad for them or the world.
I first met Jay when he was in the ICU after a heart attack. (Interestingly, the day I was supposed to meet David’s parents was two months earlier--the day I was admitted for my brain surgery.) He is a diabetic who has lost much of his sight and had other complications from the disease as well. Sue--the recipient of some of my finest knitting (like this silk lace shawl, and this beaded one, and this lightly multicolored one) because of her petite size--carefully watches her weight and her family member’s weights. Recently, she has some recurring heart issues--and had a somewhat high blood sugar reading at her last appointment as well. Eating a healthy diet is something extremely important to her—although she approaches healthy eating with a shopping cart full of iceberg lettuce, margarine, low-fat American cheese, artificial sweeteners, and diet sodas. Her sweet tooth doesn’t always make it easy to avoid the highly processed goodies she can find in the local grocery stores here in south Florida (like chocolate babka and rugelach, or that fat-free/sugar-free chocolate that tastes like Styrofoam to me).
When the movie Food, Inc. came out this year, we wondered if this might be the perfect way to bring up these issues again. But after much thought and discussion, we decided not to mention it this year. Yes, we’d buy our own milk and the like, but this time we wouldn’t say a word about their choices. They've suffered through that discussion quite enough. At some point, we recognized that our connection with them had to lead us to at least try to respect their food decisions.
But then Sue surprised us by describing a show she had watched on Ellen Degeneris. What she could remember is that it was a young man with a new baby who talked about how industry is doing bad things to food and that we need to use our dollars to support what we believed in. She was excited to pass this information on to us. After searching on Ellen's site, I think the interview she saw might have been with Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals. You can watch the clip over at Ellen's site.
I was thrilled--and immediately started thinking that perhaps this was the right time to do a little proselytizing after all!
We started telling them about Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma, his next book In Defense of Food, and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. As we were talking, Jay picked up the phone and dialed the number of the service that provides audio books for the blind to him at his request. He ordered all three. If after listening to these he is still itching for more, I think I'll recommend Fast Food Nation to him. It was the book that really pushed us into this issue when it first came out.
Jay commented to Sue that it would be hard for them to listen to the books together because of the way the technology works. So we also bought paper copies of In Defense of Food and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for Sue to read in print. When she finishes those two, if she wants more I might give her the new young reader's adaptation of The Omnivore's Dilemma which my son has enjoyed. I’ve also heard about the guidebook that accompanies the Food Inc. (Anyone know if any good? I think I'll have to go check it out.)
After seeing their interest, we started to reconsider showing Food Inc. It is currently available for instant watch on Netflix, so we pulled it up on their large-screen computer and gathered our chairs around.
After watching the film, we sat at the kitchen table and talked a bit. Sue was very moved by the film and interested in making changes, but she was at a loss as to how to go about it. “Are there still any farms around here?” she asked—a good question since gated retirement communities (including their own) are replacing farms everywhere you look.
Immediately I popped on Local Harvest and found the address of the farmer’s market nearby, a farm stand, and even a CSA. I don’t think they are quite ready for a CSA since they are not yet serious fresh vegetable eaters and Jay is pretty picky about what vegetables he’ll even taste. (Serving broccoli and asparagus to him will illicit cries of “Are you trying to poison me?!”) Nevertheless, I do think finding places where they could make their own choices might work.
The south Florida growing season is during the winter, so the markets are open and full of abundance right now:
As a DC gal, I'm blown away by their "homegrown" labels on things like mangos, avocados, and bananas!
For New York transplants, these pickles are a welcome sight.
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David knows it won’t be easy for his parents to break habits they have had for decades. And we’ll be miles away from them as they navigate this new terrain, unable to offer regular shopping support. We tried to think of a few first steps to help them out.
1. Buy organic milk when you go to the grocery store.
2. Commit to going to the farmer’s market or a farmstand at least every two weeks. Plan to spend at least $20 of your food budget on foods you can buy from a local grower.
Do y’all have any other suggestions for those just getting started on this path?