An Imperfect Food System: Grocery Privilege

This is part 1 of a 4-part series on the connection between food waste and food insecurity.

This had a profound influence on his life as he came to know the gnawing pangs of hunger and fell behind in school because of the listlessness it produced; it also led him to make a vow, at age eleven, to dedicate his life to the struggle against hunger, so that other children would not have to know the agony he was then experiencing. -Donaldo Macedo (about Paulo Freire) in his introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed

An abundant display of uniform vegetables at a grocery store
Photo by Nrd on Unsplash

You may have heard of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s a highly-revered critique and theory on education, written in the late ‘60’s by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Recently I started reading it, but at a distance. I am leery of theory, and the way academia will take any old word and freely add an “ism” or “ality” to the end makes me wonder if there’s no other purpose than to sound more scholarly. 

I was mistrustful for another reason… out of two polarizing categories, I seemed to fall into the bad one: if you’re not the “oppressed”, Freire suggests, you are the oppressor. I resisted the simplification and the accusation. 

His ideas didn’t begin to resonate with me until I could put them into the context of an issue I was more intimate with: food waste. When I thought about our roles in conquering our natural world and its animal inhabitants through the excess we’re accustomed to living in, I realized that even in this space, we play a role in the subjugation of other humans. Through small acts of carelessness and habits of lifestyle, we are unconsciously raising ourselves up (in our display of wealth and status, and our monopolizing of limited resources) at the expense of others. 

When it comes to food, the system we’ve designed has evolved out of deep racism and violence. This system now presents as a welcoming, modern symbol of service and abundance, with gleaming grocery store aisles, mounds of polished and uniform apples, and pictures of green sprawling fields on egg cartons. Of course, though the conscious hostility of before is suppressed, it takes form in the injustices that both farm workers and residents of food deserts face, and in underlying, unconscious alienation. 

Photo by Brittani Burns

Unfortunately, the role we play within our food system often perpetuates the injustices within it. Though we’ve grown familiar with the terms “food injustice” or “food inequity” or “food insecurity,” it is outrageous that these descriptions should be attached to food at all. Food is not only an emotionally and culturally essential aspect of existence, but a basic human right—and since the beginning of civilization, people have been deprived of it. Now is no exception.

Benefitting from inequality

When I hear someone say “white people benefit from racism,” it’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around how this specifically plays out in my life. It’s hard to accept this notion of benefit when we all battle with our differences in the struggle to conform to an inherently prescriptive society. Is there ever a point where we feel high enough in the food chain to recognize the benefits of our luxuries, in whatever way they present? 

No matter our situation, we always feel a little oppressed. It’s human nature to notice lack over plentitude. But the struggles of the comparatively-privileged are of a completely different proportion than the struggles historically disadvantaged groups experience. If we have privilege (be it whiteness, maleness, straightness, money, education, health, youth, community, opportunity…), our search for belonging is accompanied by protections that tip the odds of success in our favor.

A display of organic cherry tomatoes advertises $4.00/box.
Photo by Anne Preble

If we have privilege, we do benefit from the oppression of others in certain ways. In the case of food security, those of us who are able to make more varied choices in our purchasing benefit from “belonging” in the societal world of food. With VIP access to any product in our grocery store and endless dining choices at our fingertips, we can fully participate within a system whose foremost priority is to please us.

While most food insecure families shop at grocery stores as well, these trips can be limited in frequency. Their grocery selection may be constrained within a particular supermarket and budget, purchases are often supported by SNAP (government food assistance), and groceries are sometimes supplemented by items from food donation programs. Yet, there might still be a lack in quantity or nutrition. Families often need to prioritize one at the sacrifice of the other.

If you’re food secure, you probably walk the aisles with a sense of possibility. Especially when it comes to higher-end or more intimate markets, your identity as customer means you are there to be served and valued: imagine what this alone does for your sense of worth. 

But while the food insecure might share the same spaces as the food secure, their experience of these spaces is altogether different: the food insecure are constantly reminded of their precariousness in this system. They are looking in from the outside, estranged from a basic human need.

What’s the objective?

Cucumbers and carrots have replaced the pieces on a chess board.

Our retail system shelters us from the realities of agriculture, keeping us blissfully ignorant of cosmetic imperfection; it keeps us satiated by stocking shelves year-round with our favorite fruits and vegetables, despite inhospitable local growing climates and short harvest seasons; it entertains our need for security by providing us with an unbelievable amount of choice (sometimes too much, which leaves us standing in a grocery store aisle wondering what the heck the difference is between two brands of applesauce when their ingredients are simply “apples”).

Keeping shelves stocked with hundreds of niche products at any given time—many perishable or stamped with expiration dates that stores must adhere to, not because of food safety, but for standards of quality—is wasteful and unsustainable. We benefit from this availability at the expense of those who have difficulty accessing food at all; those who rely on pantries to survive. Breadth and convenience are luxuries we could easily adapt to live with less of, but our sense of entitlement to retain these freedoms is deeply entrenched in the idea of modern consumer culture. 

In this particular game of buying and selling, we need to clarify for ourselves: am I playing solo, or on a team? Is my objective to collect the most and the prettiest pieces for myself, or to contribute sustainably toward mutual success?

Read part 2: How Food Waste Perpetuates Food Insecurity

Related Posts:

Re-Empowering Food in this Totally Confusing Modern World of Eating

Published by Yenny

I want to share with you what I’ve learned from my work as a food rescuer and from my personal waste-reduction journey, while bringing you perspectives from my network of wise industry professionals. Let’s push full-steam ahead toward building the tools and systems we need to conserve, preserve, and value our resources.

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