Ask a child where their food comes from and they will probably tell you "the grocery store." For most people, adults and children alike, the grocery store is the sole point of access to food. Little thought is put into its life beyond the shelves. Vegetables don’t come from the Earth; they come from the refrigerated truck that delivered them. Crackers, chips, and beans materialize magically and are presented, neatly packaged. Most of us don’t know a farmer, but we may know someone who stocks the shelves.
With less than two percent of U.S. residents employed in farming, and the vast majority of our food controlled by a few enormous companies, there is a great divide between the masses and the food they consume. That is why I believe we should declare our independence from grocery store chains. Shop at the farmers market, join a CSA, grow a garden! In doing so, we can reclaim our independence and choice concerning one of our most basic necessities.
In a 1785 letter to John Jay, who was then serving as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Thomas Jefferson wrote,
"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans or anything else."
But employment they lacked, and converted they have been. While some have been lured by the glitz and glam of urban life, many have simply been unable to sustain their farms against fierce competition from large, monopolizing businesses.
Our current condition does not reflect the agricultural and culinary habits of our past. When this fine nation was established, we were all farmers. Our founding fathers and mothers raised corn, beans, and many varieties of wheat and grain. Nearly everyone had a kitchen garden as there was no grocery store to drive on down to. In 1790, 90 percent of the U.S. work force was involved in agriculture. A century later, it had halved to just 43 percent. Today, less than 2 percent of the U.S. labor force farms for a living.
Granted, we have come a long way in agricultural production methods. I'm not speaking of chemical fertilizers and pesticides – which hardly represent progress – but it is obvious that we would have fewer farmers with the advent of tractors and modern irrigation. That said, many who wished to remain farmers have been forced out – not by mechanization – but by the competition of massive corporations subsidized with our tax dollars. Meanwhile, small independent farmers struggle to pay the bills and most work additional jobs off the farm to make ends meet.
Whether or not your sympathies lie with small farmers, our self-interest is firmly at stake in the massive takeover of agriculture. Large corporate farms making over $250,000 a year make up only nine percent of the nation’s total number of farms – yet produce 63 percent of the nation’s food. That leaves us, as consumers, little choice over what foods are produced and how they are raised – in essence, big agribusiness has a stranglehold on our food supply.
Large chain grocery stores – vast, impersonal warehouses filled with chemical-laden food – have been a force in pushing farmers off their land. But they weren’t always this way. At one point, each small, local store carried a specific group of items. There was a store for baked goods, another for cheese, a butcher, a fish monger and a green grocer. In many parts of the world, this is still the case. However, the United States, unfortunately, has been a leader in the quest for faster, cheaper, factory-produced food – a trend that continues to spread throughout the developed and developing world, although not without resistance from some communities.
Today most grocers search far and wide for the cheapest product possible, whether it comes from right down the street or from thousands of miles away. In Barbara Kingsolver’s tremendous book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" she recounts the story of a group of tomato farmers in Virginia who worked for several years to produce an organic crop for a grocery store chain, only to have the order canceled when the tomatoes were harvested, packaged and ready to ship. The grocery left the farmers with tons of beautiful, quickly rotting fruit – they had arranged to buy cheaper tomatoes from California.
Many grocery chains have developed methods of seducing customers into buying more products than they actually need. Think about the many winding rows involved in getting to the necessities such as eggs and cheese. The most expensive items are placed at eye level while the cheaper goods are hidden at your feet and above your head. Sugar laden children’s cereals are placed at their eye level where they will be more inclined to see the happy characters hawking the brand. Many stores pipe in canned smells in order to make you hungry and persuade you to buy more. Other sales-increasing techniques include manipulating lighting and music.
While grocery store chains seem to offer a wide variety of food, the options are actually quiet limited. Since fruit and vegetables generally travel a long way, they have been bred to be tough and sturdy, not tasty and nutritious. Farmers who want to sell to big distributors are forced to grow these inferior products, which markets value due to their long "shelf life." Forcing farmers to grow just one or two varieties that travel well not only cuts down on consumer choice, it results in higher use of harmful chemicals and fertilizers because large swaths of land growing only one or two plants are more vulnerable to destructive pests. Shopping at a farmer’s market and buying the heirloom varieties many small independent farmers are growing today encourages them to grow more, preserving the biodiversity and wonderful flavors that are everyone’s rightful heritage, while eliminating the middleman, and leaving more of a profit for the farmer.
This country was founded on the idea of free choice and independence, but our most common activity, eating, is shackled to big business today. It’s time to reclaim our food democracy, reclaim more choice in what we eat, and get back in touch with America’s original profession, farming, so that we can start to close the divide between the American consumer and the farm.