Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why I Eat Locally and In Season- or- Why I’m not Just Totally Bananas

When I leave Dominica and get back to Chattanooga I am going to give up bananas .  I have never been a huge banana fan but you know how they are- they’re cheap, they’re easy to eat, they taste good (to some), and they’ve got SO much potassium.  Of course, the more I learn about food and the more I am around people who grow it, I have learned to be suspicious of the first part of the banana campaign- the cheap part.  Cheap food is to be suspected, and looked into.  Every time we eat something that seems “cheap” we should ask ourselves, ‘why exactly is this so cheap?  Is it super easy to grow, nearing the end of it’s season and massively abundant, or is something amiss?”  If you really sit down to think about bananas in Tennessee they seem totally ridiculous.  Don’t even think about all of the moral strings tied to bananas, we’ve all heard about the horrors of the big banana distributors.  Even the Buendias and their village in One Hundred Years Of Solitude know about what banana farming and distributing means.  Think just now of where bananas belong in Tennessee.  For one thing, the whole ‘taste good’ myth is just that- a myth.  Compared to the bananas that grow in tropical countries they are large bright yellow hulking slime machines.  They don’t have the delicate fruity tastes, the varying colors from yellow to red, and the different creaminess that the bananas here do.  It’s like trying to eat a tomato in winter from a big grocery store and expecting to meet the warm juicy sweet acidic flavorful burst of a summer heirloom.    So why do we even try? 

I’ll tell you why I tried and it’s the honest truth.  First off, they were cheap snacks.  If I couldn’t eat anything else for breakfast I would force down a banana (seriously, I have never liked bananas but truly believed they were ‘good for me’.  I thought maybe they were some kind of bright yellow hulking slime machine multi vitamin).   Secondly, I had never had REAL bananas so I had nothing to compare them to.  I didn’t know I was getting fed rock hard red tomatoes.  And the third, and very sad truth, is that although I have been aware of the horrors of banana production pretty much my entire conscious life, I just didn’t really think about it.  It is certainly not that I didn’t care..  I bought fair trade when it was available (not often in Chattanooga, I know a grocery store manager who won’t let her produce manager buy fair-trade bananas because they look “icky” and people won’t buy them ), and always have bought organic.  But as we know, what does ‘organic’ even mean anymore?  If you can’t see they farmer or meet the person who knows the farmer, don’t trust a word.  Of course that sounds terrible and cynical but it is true.   

So why care now?  Of course they grow bananas down here, that is why I know what they actually taste like.  Dominica is not like the South and Central American countries who are ruled by cheap bananas but they are effected.  The way it started was this: Dominica is a very rich and diverse land, they are basically self sufficient, especially in the fruit and veggie world.  When England colonized Dominica they said to themselves, well we love bananas and bananas love Dominica so let’s get the farmers to grow our bananas.  And so many farmers left whatever wonderful sustainable crops they had grown for generations to go full-time into producing England’s bananas.  Which was hunky dory with everyone because England had a steady supply of bananas and Dominica had a steady export.  But then Dominica gained their independence and the WTO (World Trade Org) stepped in and said, hey wait a minute England, you can’t just buy from Dominica, you have to buy from everyone else, meaning the poor Central and South American banana farmers, but actually their massive distributors.  Of course, those bananas are cheaper anyway because of the vast ocean of a market and so Dominica got cold dropped.  As Isoline, our co-worker/housekeeper/boss of the house said about banana farming “A lot of work, no money!” (which was followed by her laughter- a kind of reflex that she seems to have after ever sentence, but in this context it just sounded eerie as though it were echoing around the walls of empty banana storage huts).  Fortunately Dominica ain’t countin too hard on nobody.  They don’t have much of a tourism market and the banana market is nothing that they can’t work out of.  It hasn’t taken over the entire country because the landscape just can’t hold up to it.  Of course, the farmers here have some hard hard times ahead but hopefully someone will suggest to them that they just forget about the western buying powers and continue to putter around this gorgeous relatively untainted island in all it’s splendor.  I don’t see that happening but it is ok to dream I guess.  Really, why I care now has not a whole lot to do with the “lot of work, no money” joke, although that is very important to me and should never be the definition of a farmer.  Why I care is because I now see no reason to eat such a morally charged fruit.  I am pretty sure I am not going to develop a raging potassium deficiency if I give up bananas.  I would assume that the lush lands of Tennessee carries all the nutrients I need if I just know where to look.

I am truly humbled.  I have fallen off the high horse of going around saying things like “how can a person be a vegan for moral reasons concerning the animals and then turn around and drink mass produced soy milk from god knows where and eat conventional or organic lettuce mix potentially grown by neo-slaves?, how can someone KNOW how factory farmed meat is raised and continue to eat at fast food restaurants or order a steak at a fancy hotel?,  how can people eat processed cheese, baloney, margarine, white bread,  da-de-da-de-da and not care it is killing them and their grandchildren a little more every day?, how can people expect their food to be cheap cheap cheap and feel totally fine about paying the hospital and medical bills that come as a result from eating the cheap cheap cheap?”.  I fell right off that horse into a pile of rotting bananas that were cheaper for the farmer to waste than try to harvest and sell and when I stood up I realized- whoa, I am one of those people

The reason is not because I don’t care, as I said, or that I don’t try.  It’s just that after one thing there is another to learn.  I hope I never stop learning til the day I die (and who knows what will happen then).   I will never be ‘right’, I can only strive everyday to learn about my impact on the world around me.  As the butterfly effect says, every tiny movement we make impacts something somewhere.  Every article of clothing we buy, the roofs over our heads, and the bananas we grab as an on-the-run snack mean SOMETHING and someone is affected by it.  In Tennessee there is a whole lot to learn.  Not because it is “backerds Tennessee” but because it is quite the opposite- it is the “civilized” world.  We are constantly being bombarded by huge decisions everyday.   To me of course knowing our farmers is one of the most important.  If we don’t know where the fuel with which we feed ourselves is from- if we don’t REALLY think about it- then we really can’t move forward. 

Just one last thing about bananas.   Because bananas are so cheap it is like free advertising for grocery stores.  People love cheap things, be it food, kitchen ware, clothes, shoes, or toilet paper.  Value packed doesn’t actually mean it has any moral value.  Anyway, the most advertised “sale” items in grocery stores are bananas.  Come right in, step this way, bananas for only 39 cents a pound (you might get a free turkey with that if you hurry)!.  So we have been trained to walk in a store, look at the banana prices that greet us at the front door and judge the entire store by this one display.  The cheaper the bananas the better ‘deals and steals’ you will be getting in the store.  A “steal” is a perfect description, just think of who and what we are stealing from- it‘s not the grocery store, I can tell you that.    But this  free advertising is on who’s dollar, livelihood, and actual living life?   

So, now, in conclusion, I am preparing to march back to Tennessee with a gentler, more thoughtful way of looking at things.  Unfortunately we humans “don’t believe it til we see it” and I am very heavily guilty of that.  But seeing doesn’t have to be the whole reason for believing and believing doesn’t have to all come from what we’re told.  It is important to please pass the bananas with open eyes, but they better at least be fair trade, and we better have a dern good reason.

P.S.  If you are really interested in bananas and what they mean I would suggest looking into the book "Bananas!: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World" by Peter Chapman. Here is an interview with him from NPR, there is also a link that will take you straight to Amazon, where you can buy or at least check out his book.  I would.  I haven't read it yet but I aim to now....

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