The Hidden Cost of Food

We are a nation of excess. From mega grocery stores to cable companies offering hundreds of channels, America has become a nation of gluttonous consumerism.  If we continue to use our natural resources at the rate we are going, our way of life will come crashing down. But, is this a bad thing? After all, we haven’t always had so many goods to choose from.

I’m brining this up because of a recent trip to my local Trader Joe’s. Friday night, right after work, I headed over there for some fresh produce and needed staples .

A sign greeted customers at the front door that read “Our refrigerators broke down last night, we lost our perishables, please bear with us as we restock”. I sighed as I walked in. “Great”, I thought, “it figures the night I decide to shop they are out of produce”. To my surprise the store was fully stocked, if it wasn’t for the sign, I wouldn’t have had any idea that they had experienced mechanical failures. I had my choice of produce.  The dairy section offered a variety of milk, yogurt and butter. The freezer sections was full, if anything, there was more than usual. I had to ask, “what’s up with that sign”?

Turns out, someone had noticed the freezers had shut down Thursday night. A few employees stayed late, throwing out food, not knowing how long the perishables had sat “warm”. By 5am Friday morning, trucks had arrived with replacements, as had a technician who fixed the power supply to the freezers. By the time I arrived to shop, 12 hours later, everything in the store was “fresh” a clerk proudly explained.

As I stood in line to pay for my food, I thought about this and the food I had in my cart. It dawned on me, that not only did the store throw out perfectly good food, the company was able to replenish its supplies within hours. I noticed the produce in the cart in front of me. Did the lady know most of what she had was out of season? That we now come to not only expect a well-stocked store, but also food that once would have not been available year round and that it comes with a hidden cost?

It wasn’t all that long ago, we consumers knew that peaches in the winter meant eating them out of cans, and that tomatoes only tasted vine ripened in the dog days of summer. Once you could set your “seasonal” clock by the items in your local grocery store. Just about the time you thought you couldn’t eat another dry orange or soft apple without losing your mind, in came the strawberries, blackberries and peaches. Spring had arrived! For a child, this could be almost as magical as Christmas. No more canned fruit, heavy on the syrup but light in taste. One bite of a fresh berry could put any child in ecstasy.

Now, we come to expect stores to stock our favorite foods year round and will seek out those who stock the most, without thinking about the true cost of eating out of season. That produce we expect to have ready available comes to our tables from hundreds of miles away, and at an expense many do not realize. From the over use of pesticides for bigger harvest yields to the fuel it takes to truck in all that food, the foods we eat are coming to us at a price we may soon not be able to pay. It’s coming to us at an expense to our environment.

So what’s my point? Why even bring this up? I bring it up because if we don’t start setting self-limits on what we eat and when we eat it, very soon the choice will be out of our hands, either by rising food prices or by a tightening of fuel usage; at some point it may not make economical sense to truck food hundreds of miles.  It is time to think globally, act locally, at least for me. This is the realization I came to as I stood in line. I’m going to learn how to can seasonal food, so that at least during the winter months, as I open yet another can of peaches or beans, I will be assured my food did not come with a hidden cost.

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