Responding to the call of good citizenship, I was in a Santa Ana courthouse last Wednesday as a member of a huge jury pool. Because the case in question involved a capital crime, jury selection was arduous, but late in the day on Wednesday, I was excused and thanked for my service.
I left the courthouse a free person, as it were, but stuck in a parallel universe. Normally, I am at the farmers’ market each Wednesday, filling my shopping needs and in general relating to the universe as I understand it. But this particular Wednesday, I was adrift in the OC, near enough to the Tustin Whole Foods to pick up one or two raw milk items, but not in the proper frame of mind to do any substitute shopping to hold me over till next market.
Living in the OC makes it difficult to shop in Santa Monica on weekends, so I felt I had to make do with the resources I had on hand for the next seven days.
I stopped in at my local supermarket on the way home to get pet food, and noticed for the umteenth time that all of the store lights were on. As I shaded my eyes and approached the checkout line, I asked to speak to the manager. During the time of the so-called energy crisis during the reign of Gray Davis, I had been told that large supermarkets like mine were taking steps to reduce energy consumption by turning off half of the wall-to-wall overhead fluorescent light banks. Half of them — three bulbs across, twenty long, by eighteen rows wide – a total of 540 bulbs – should have been left off. When half the lights were out, the store was more than adequately lit and the light was much easier on the eyes.
The manager happened to be on duty that day, and explained that all the lights were on a timer that was controlled at the central office in Carson. There was absolutely no way to turn lights on or off at the store, but if I were interested I could contact corporate HQ via an 800 number to discuss my concerns, and I was helpfully provided with a “customer care card” that listed that number. The manager went on to point out that he had no control over the music that was playing, either. Store music was beamed in via satellite radio 24/7. Gone were the days when staff brought boom boxes and personal CD’s to play to their hearts’ content while restocking shelves during the graveyard shift. I marveled at how efficient supermarket chains were at controlling everything from the top down and how as a consumer I personally felt alarmed, rather than comforted, by this prospect.
Returning home I checked my reserves. Since I have been making a conscious effort to shop only for what I plan to consume each week, I found I was pretty low on fresh vegetables, greens and my beloved Gouda cheese. I had plenty of garlic, but my last few onions, the ones I kept piling the fresh ones on top of, were sprouting and had turned soft. All in all, my stores were pretty sparse. I started to feel the thrill of a challenge coming on.
What if, just like the pioneers, I truly was at the mercy of circumstance for my food supply? How resourceful can one be with finite supplies of basic necessities? And here I arrived at the crucial distinction between “basic necessities” and so-called “luxury items.”
At what level must a luxury (Redwood Hill Crottin cheese, fresh wild mushrooms, delicate Spring tulips) be foregone for the sake of mere survival? By shopping at a supermarket — even at the distant Whole Foods in Tustin –I would be able to buy anything I needed for the week, but what I realized was that I actually preferred to wait a week than to simply go buy something somewhere else. Call it force of habit, or law of diminishing returns, but I was just not ready to stock up on what I considered counterfeit food.Fortunately for us consumers, we are offered a choice of where to buy produce each week by the existence of farmers’ markets in cities throughout California. The aggressive forces of corporate marketing, stealth food gene modification by agribusiness, and a host of issues that affect the viability of farmers making a living by growing crops locally are absent from farmers markets. Farmers’ markets are the last best place for farmers to gain an economically viable return on their labor, and farmers’ markets are the single factor most cited by farmers as the reason they are able to continue to farm. I choose to survive, as it were, as do the farmers, by participating in my local farmers’ market. And, by knowing the farmers and by partaking of the seasonal specialties they have to offer, I don’t need to distinguish between items of “luxury” and “necessity.” I find that all of these items are available each week, and that the purchase of any one of them will directly benefit a farmer. Call it a value added benefit, if you will, that also works to support a sustainable food system that is equally good for producers and consumers. That’s a civic duty we can do our part for every day.