Walking down the aisles of my local supermarket, mask securely fashioned, and hands gloved, I scanned the shelves with concern. I was not looking for what was there, I had already finished the lists from my family and for my grandpa. Instead, I was looking for what was missing. All that the shelves lacked, and continue to lack, hold the truth of our food system. Each and every one of us can see, today, the truth of what the American consumer demands and what the American mind believes its collective body cannot live without. And you do not only see it in the rows and rows of empty shelves, you see it in the meat products with purchase limits in an effort to prevent hoarding and subsequent shortages. One packet of each type of meat and one carton of eggs per family. Today, many shelves are empty, shelves that once held the heavily processed snack foods, the dairy and the meat products. Products that are safely tucked away into the American refrigerator and diet, into our subconscious even during, especially during, a health crisis.
Thus, during a global pandemic, as Trump issues an executive order that aims to keep meat processors working in overdrive, and that declares meatpacking plants as “critical infrastructure” under the Defense Production Act, the priorities of a few over the needs of the many becomes blatantly clear. Even as meatpacking and poultry processing facilities become hotspots for the spread of COVID-19 throughout nineteen states, they continue to work to satisfy such demand. Such blatant disregard for human life is deplorable, to say the least, especially in such places where working conditions continue to be so damaging.
Thus, I begin to wonder at the American mindset and its potential for change—what is the role of the consumer in initiating such change? In 2018, Americans ate 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry per person in one year, nearly doubling the recommended intake per day to reach such numbers. This website by the WWF provides some helpful tips as well as a carbon footprint tracker to making a diet more sustainable. This interactive program offers three pieces of advice, amidst so many other health, cost and access considerations:
“Eat “in season”: Buying seasonally produced food supports your local agricultural economy, but it also helps the environment by cutting down on the packaging, transport and high intensity farming process needed for out of season foods. Seasonal food is also cheaper.
“Eat Less Meat and Dairy: One of the most important changes you can make to the environment is changing your diet. The production of meat and dairy products is one of the major causes of greenhouse gas emissions. So why not cut out some meat from your diet and have a more carbon friendly dinner.”
“Add some variety: The way a food is farmed is a hugely important part of how sustainable that type of food is. Constant farming of the same crop types will drain nutrients from the soil. Then farming this crop all year long will give no time for the soil to recover. By having a colorful plate, we will be ensuring a more nutritious, natural, flavorful and exciting meal—one that is in sync with your ecosystem.”
It is necessary for those of us who have the ability and means to take action by adding environmental considerations to our diet choices. The WWF does not profess that we eliminate meat and dairy entirely from our diets—it is about reduction and changing our food system. Every single person’s food culture is a complex set of decision making that involves allergies, cost, diet, health, access and heritage. Thus, it is important to recognize the way many people are limited in making consumer-based change. Therefore, those who are able can effectuate change, but only together. While much of my own food culture is directly tied to my Spanish heritage, making meat elimination difficult, I have cut down on meat and dairy in the meals where it is possible. Paella, puchero, arroz al horno will always be a part of life, as will sustainability. Luckily, health for our bodies and for our planet often coincide.
As I moved to check out, I slowed my cart because of a hold up at one of the checkout counters. I watched as a family began to gesticulate wildly and raise their voices at the supermarket worker. They were arguing over a cart full of meat—pork, beef, poultry, sausage and multiple packages of each. The employee continued to explain to them that they couldn’t purchase it all at once. The family was unrelenting, unapologetic.
Our grocery store employees are providing us with a great service during these times. It is crucial to continue to thank our essential workers, show our appreciation for all that they are giving and risking. These individuals are on the frontlines of feeding us in our times of need. They are the essential part of our survival during this time, not a package of meat.
After a couple months studying sustainable food systems abroad in Denmark, I brought back home with me all that I learned as a means to reflect upon the systems that exist in the United States. I realize now that sustainability does not have one formula or definition. Sustainability does not mean following a set of steps to produce the desired outcome. It is about systems and holistic thinking, but it is also about locality and regional food culture. It is about ingenuity, creativity, vision and open mindedness. It is about looking forward and looking back, even as we remain grateful for the world we do have. Above all us it is about values—about recognizing that we are not alone, rather the ways in which we exist, dependent upon entangled webs and ecologies of care.
Our own minds hold the power of ecological harmony with ourselves and with all else. In holding these values of care, we begin to see the way it infiltrates our entire lives, and the way we treat others. Our values are seen in the way we treat the earth, the animals, and the people around us. We must put our minds and hearts together to truly begin to envision a world in which we can begin to give care to our world. Sustainability is more than simply sustaining—it is about revolutionizing, re-envisioning, deconstructing old patterns of degradation and changing our notions of progress.
As one of my Professors abroad said, in her heavy Danish accent, “Sustainability is not where we end. Sustainability is where we begin.”
Thank you for reading. I feel incredibly blessed to have been able to go on this adventure this semester, no matter the length.