Writing about Walmart earlier today reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to discuss on DCentric; I had an eye-opening experience at the beginning of the year, and all I could think about was “Race and class! Race and class!”, as it was happening. Despite my ethnicity, I’m not a huge fan of yoga, but I heard from a trusted friend that a local yogi was known for holding a workshop that helped people go beyond making resolutions. The all-day event included stuff one does on a rectangular mat, nutrition advice, life coaching, art and a vegetarian brunch.
I went and I have to agree, it was restorative and inspiring, so much so that I didn’t even mind twisting my body like a pretzel while trying to remember to breathe. What stands out to me most, however, is the nutrition-focused portion of the programming. While I expected to hear about the virtues of organic produce and embracing healthier diets which had few or no animal products, I did not expect for race and class to collide during the Q + A period, which came right after a recitation of the “dirty dozen”, or the list of produce that is most affected by pesticides.
Since I keep mentioning race, I’ll disclose that I was impressed that a quarter of the attendees were women of color; basically, it was me holding it down for Asian-America plus five African-American women.
One of them raised her hand, tentatively.
“Thank you so much for this information,” she began. “It’s so worrisome…all these chemicals and pesticides in our food. I would like to be healthier by eating organically but…it’s so expensive. Do you have any advice for dealing with that?” She looked hopeful; her hand was poised over her notebook, pen aquiver, ready to jot down wise words which would not come.
“Well…” the facilitator drawled, “you really need to make it a priority to eat Organic. It IS more expensive, but it’s worth it.” She beamed decisively; her smile was like an exclamation point to a brilliant, unassailable point. I started to feel uncomfortable, but that feeling was eclipsed by sympathy for and solidarity with my fellow attendee, who cleared her throat uneasily and raised her hand, again.
“I agree that it’s worth it. What I’m saying is, what if you can’t afford it? Some people just don’t have that kind of money. I guess what I’m asking is, what if you can’t afford the more expensive organic fruits and veggies, even though you want to? Do you have any practical advice for that situation? Would washing the produce help?”
The graceful woman at the front of the room stiffened slightly. I don’t think she was expecting the follow-up question or the very real and serious issues this discussion was exploring. She started to speak, then thought better of it, and paused. Then the words came out in a jumbled rush:
“I don’t think so, so even if you need to cut back on certain things, you should realize that it’s worth it, because this is about your health. That needs to be the priority. I don’t have any tips about conventional produce because I don’t think it’s healthy, period.”
The African-American woman nodded slightly and put down her pen. I was feeling anything but relaxed and rejuvenated at this point. I was disappointed, because I expected to hear something like this:
…when you just can’t afford it, here’s what to do…Wash your fruits and veggies well, of course (and don’t be afraid to use a little mild soap and warm water, even). But, here’s the interesting trick: Rachel says most of the pesticide residue is often concentrated at the top of the fruit or veggie, where the stem is. So, if you’re eating an apple, for example, just slice off the top section, or cut around the core a bit and discard. Same thing goes with eggplant, peppers, etc.
It’s amazing, this inability on the part of some to grasp that for many people, organic just isn’t an option. If you have a very limited budget, it’s not really about denying yourself that extra Bikram class or pedicure, it’s about being food insecure because the organic produce you bought consumed an onerous chunk of your money. Sure, we were all at a lovely retreat in the middle of one of the wealthiest parts of the country, but that doesn’t mean that everyone listening could afford to follow the “expert’s” advice. I found the entire exchange insensitive. Is eating well only possible for the affluent?
If you looked at some of the information that’s out there, you might think so. I searched for “can’t afford organic” and came across this compassionate sermon:
Many people who complain about the price of organic food also drive expensive cars and live in luxurious houses, perhaps beyond their means. Others simply can’t afford anything beyond the bare essentials. Either way, to live a long and happy life, health needs to be a priority, and this needs to be reflected in your budget. In 10 or 20 years from now, would you rather have excellent health and abundant energy, or memories of all the unnecessary things you spent your money on instead of good food?
Okay, so the author of this piece acknowledges that some people are living with the “bare essentials”, but then he’s right back to assuming that “making it a priority” for your budget is all that needs to happen…as if the budgets of lower-income people are just cluttered with unnecessary things. Maybe some are, but many aren’t. Some people can prioritize their health every minute of every day, but that prioritizing isn’t legal tender down at Safeway or the Teeter.
After the retreat, I approached the woman who dared ask for options and thanked her for being both bold and pragmatic. I told her what meager facts I knew– that if she had to “prioritize”, I had read that root veggies are exposed to more pesticides than say, a pineapple or a banana. And that the reason why pineapples and bananas are safer is because we don’t consume their skins. And speaking of fruit skins, if she bought conventional apples, she might want to peel them, even though that’s not perfect at removing all traces of pesticides. She looked half-resigned, half-amused.
“Thanks. That’s the kind of advice I was hoping to hear…where did you get all that?”
“Honestly? Twitter! I remember seeing tweets about root vegetables and fruit.”
“That’s it. I’m joining Twitter. I didn’t know it had such useful information!”
The woman thanked me again and walked away. The room was abuzz with recipe-swapping, CSA-talk and comparisons of various Whole Foods.
I suddenly remembered a similar conversation I had participated in, at one of those painful networking/happy hour events which occur every night in this city. A woman overheard me mention that I was a vegetarian as I inquired about whether a certain appetizer was meat-free and she intervened, cutting off the waiter, mid-sentence: “It’s not vegan. It’s totally got cheese in it.”
“Oh, I’m not vegan, I’m vegetarian.”
“I eat cheese. Dairy. I love it, actually. I guess I’m technically a lacto-ovo vegetarian since I won’t turn down a cupcake, either!” I laughed nervously, and suddenly noticed that the three women who were looking at me were exceptionally thin.
The one in the middle spoke up, “We were just talking about how important it is to eat organic.” Her peers nodded, then one added, “That’s why we’re not eating or drinking anything here– it’s all conventional.”
“Wow,” I responded. “That’s hard-core.”
“No,” one replied seriously. “That’s just how it should be.”
“Well…not everyone can afford organic, right?” I was speaking for myself at that point. My unemployment checks barely covered my bills, let alone free-range strawberries that had been lovingly petted and treated to flute music. And that’s when the “P”-word, ever-present in these discussions, was employed.
“Well…you have to make it a Priority.” The three nodded at me as I tried to extricate myself from the conversation. They were closing in and my back was to the bar. No luck.
“Not everyone can do that, you know. People don’t have a ton of money these days. It’s better to eat some produce than none at all,” I replied.
“You know what I don’t understand,” one of them began. “Why don’t poor people just grow their own vegetables? Because then they don’t have an excuse for how expensive it is and they’d be able to raise them organically!”
The sound heard next at that bar was my mind exploding. Indeed, why don’t more poor people grow their own vegetables, in their expansive yards in the middle of this city, since they have so much time between commuting from their first job to their second while trying to find a minute to make sure their kids’ homework is getting done. Oh, right…it must be because of their lack of priorities. Sometimes, I am very struck by how insular certain circles of this city are, and how many people are unable to imagine a life or a budget or a diet that is different from their own.