Last week I heard a story on the radio about avocados and how we might have a shortage because of the drought in California. Apparently, it takes 50 gallons of water to produce a single avocado. California and Mexico are the top producers of the avocados sold in the US. Listening to this story, I also learned that US demand for avocados has made them so valuable that the Mexican growers can no longer afford to eat the fatty green fruits themselves. Avocados have reached what the radio story and this National Geographic “Onward” article refers to as “a quinoa moment”—when demand outstrips production, and the indigenous farmers can no longer eat their native food because of the need for the money to be made selling it to us.
This story saddened me. It stripped me of yet another layer of innocence and ignorance. Each time a particular food is “discovered,” marketed, and popularized, we shift the balance of food production and consumption. And we wealthy Americans, fed by our media diet of what we should be eating for health reasons (avocados are rich in good fats) as well as by our desire to eat what tastes good (who doesn’t love guacamole?), send demand into orbit to satisfy our voracious appetites.
Meanwhile, we discard food that looks less than perfect. This NPR article refers to a National Resources Defense Council report estimating that “anywhere from 1 to 30 percent of food grown by farmers doesn’t get to the grocery store.” Much of what doesn’t look good enough to be marketable is plowed under; other wasted food ends up in landfills. The article goes on to state that “Food waste is among the biggest contributors to landfills in the U.S.”
All this while 49 million Americans have difficulty providing food for their families, and worldwide, one in nine people live in hunger.
It’s not all bad news. That same NPR article reports that some food producers donate the not-so-perfect produce to food banks, a group of US entrepreneurs have started a venture they’ve dubbed Imperfect Produce to create a market for misshapen or discolored vegetables and fruits, and the Raley’s grocery store chain is launching a program to sell what were once produce rejects in their stores. Those of us who grew up on farms or shop at our local farmers’ markets know that imperfect looking fruits and vegetables taste perfectly fine—and frequently taste better than the so-called perfect ones. If you’ve ever compared the taste of a knotty heirloom tomato to a perfect red globe-shaped hot house one, you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps these movements will help alleviate our superficiality about appearance—at least where food is concerned. In addition, Food Justice efforts are increasing (see Food Justice by Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi and these websites for examples: https://cagj.org/food-justice/, http://www.detroitfoodjustice.org/).
Still, I am disheartened, because most of us—and I include myself here—don’t stop to consider the wider ripples caused by all our food choices. In my middle class way, I’ve tried to do my part by participating in Community Supported Agriculture farm shares, shopping at farmers’ markets, frequenting restaurants that feature locally grown foods, and buying organic. But I haven’t ever limited my food consumption to what’s grown locally and seasonally. And I love avocados. Guacamole and chips. Avocado on toast. Avocado and onion sandwiches dressed with red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Avocado in salads. Half an avocado with a squeeze of lemon juice eaten with a spoon. Perhaps to my shame, I probably won’t stop eating them, but my enjoyment of that luscious, green goodness can no longer be innocent.
Ursula K. LeGuin’s powerful short story called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (you can read it here) tells of an idyllic community whose perfection is sustained by a sacrifice that some see as too great. I keep thinking about that story. Everything is connected; eating is a political act; and my privileged ability to buy an avocado whenever I want one must entail some responsibility to give back or try to restore some balance. Right?
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I am the author of the New Adult/Young Adult urban fantasy series, The Light-Bringer:
I have also contributed stories (one fictional and one true) to the following volumes: