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    people shopping at an open air farmers market

    Is Ethical Shopping Only for Hipsters?

    The farmer’s market always trumps the faraway factory. Or does it?

    By Kate Lucky

    April 29, 2024
    • Michael Nacrelli

      We shop at New Seasons for a handful of items. Most of their stuff is just overpriced and trendy. We do most of our shopping at Winco or Costco, and we don't buy junk food or fast food. Healthy and environmentally responsible shopping can be done in a cost-effective manner. Moreover, Costco pays their workers pretty well.

    • Cara

      Thoughtful struggle here; I appreciate how you did not land neatly on one side or the other. Beautiful both/and nuance.

    • Margaret Kerry

      My mom buys and boils 48 eggs a week for the food line. She is very frugal in her own choice of food always buying organic if she can from the local grocer. She's happy that those who need food and get many donuts and white bread will also have at least one hard-boiled egg a week. We had a Blessing Box in South Carolina and I was amazed that people purchased food from Trader Joe's and Whole Foods for those who would take from that Blessing Box.

    • Mary Sharon Moore

      Thank you, Kate, for this fine and insightful piece. My happy place is downtown Eugene on a Sunday morning, looking for two people who look like they could use a peanut butter sandwich: homemade bread, fresh ground peanut butter. And often I fetch them a 16-ounce coffee--extra cream and sugar, please--or a bottle of orange or apple juice from the local market where I shop. A couple of folks get fed, I enjoy some fascinating conversations, and then I go home and have the same fare for my lunch. Eucharist comes alive!

    There’s no place I’m more liable to splurge than at the Saturday farmer’s market. Tart baking apples and baskets of figs and tiny strawberries, immaculate as jewels. Lemon cucumbers and heritage tomatoes and crimson dahlias from the farm down the coast. So healthy! So fresh! Organic and local! Buying corn and squash supports the livelihoods of farmers I can see and speak with, farmers who took time to drive their wares from the fields and orchards up north and down south. They lay out their products in the parking lot, and I buy them up like penance. I’m sorry you had to leave your land and come to a town with Warby Parker, Lululemon, Blue Bottle.

    The olive bread is preservative-free; the coffee comes through well-scrutinized routes. Yes, yes! I visit the fishmonger’s booth, and survey its trays of ice. There are sides of salmon and baggies of scallops, pulled days ago from Half Moon Bay. Fresher than what I could get from the grocery store. And who knows how those faraway fisheries operate! Whereas this man, with his kindly smile and eyes the color of the sea, I can trust. Of course, his fish is more expensive.

    It’s a splurge: But not a selfish one. One could even argue it’s my moral obligation.

    people shopping at an open air farmers market

    Photograph by Chuck Place / Alamy Stock Photo

    In our age of free shipping and global supply chains, cheap-labor sweatshops and a fast-warming climate, it’s important to be a good consumer. Not good as in savvy, clipping coupons. Not good as in profligate, stimulating the economy. But good as in ethical. Cutting back on meat – and when indulging, going grass-fed. Buying organic, buying local, favoring the artisanal over the mass-produced. This is Wendell Berry-style localism, in which community members depend on each other’s trades and crafts. It’s also tasteful, and classy, and of course, “aesthetic.” How convenient that the tennis shoes everyone loves are also sustainably made from “wool, trees, and sugar,” that the fancy sheets are manufactured in safe factories. When I buy a birthday card from the shop down the street, from the small-business owner with the strong perfume, I do a good thing – as opposed to the neutral (maybe bad!) act of buying from Hallmark, and thus, from CVS, which is owned in part by Vanguard and BlackRock.

    For the Christian, there doesn’t seem to be conflict here. After all, the roots of the fair-trade movement started with believers offering opportunities to marginalized craftspeople. We are called to care for creation, and for the poor, and for people in faraway places. Thus, we take a look at environmental impact scores. Thus, we don’t buy products made by children, or exploited laborers. We are told to treat our bodies as temples. Thus, we scorn the processed food that makes us sick.

    The farmer’s market trumps the faraway factory. Always.

    Or does it?

    Try to feed a lot of people, and you’ll quickly see the other side. A dollar only goes so far for pasture-raised, probiotic-free turkey, raised at the tiny family farm. Buy the regular chuck, and you’ll stretch the budget. More chili for everyone.

    For ministries that serve hungry people all the time, fast and cheap are necessary. When I worked at a local newspaper, I reported on a tiny nonprofit that gave sleeping bags and water to people living on the streets. It also distributed cans of Chef Boyardee, packages of Pop-Tarts, and cups of fruit in sugar water. On the same Saturdays as my farmer’s market, in another parking lot, in a poorer neighborhood, these volunteers gave out processed, sugary, salty food. Their patrons came on foot, on bikes, and in cars packed with all their possessions. Cheaper food. Unhealthy food. Food with preservatives, food made in factories, food that could be bought in bulk from Costco. This food kept people alive. And those fruit cups were easier on their teeth than an apple.

    If Chef Boyardee and soda is fine for them, why isn’t it fine for me and my family?

    Here’s where the Christian position gets complicated. When we spend our money on “nice” products, most of us have less to spend elsewhere. A month’s supply of “cruelty-free” size-1 diapers costs $76.50. A month’s supply of Huggies cost $52.99. Kirkland brand costs $34.99. Compare a vat of Folgers to one pot of third-wave coffee. Or a $30 T-shirt from Everlane to five T-shirts for $25 from an online superstore. All that accounting comes out to fewer babies diapered at the ministry for young mothers, fewer pots brewed at the halfway house, fewer backs clothed at the refugee center.

    Pre-prepared, mass-produced, and downright wasteful products are often immediately necessary to serve those in our midst.

    To the people really doing the Lord’s work, serving the poor and the marginalized, higher ideals around ethical consumption might be nice but naive. Pre-prepared, mass-produced, and downright wasteful products are often immediately necessary to serve those in our midst. Planet aside, there’s not enough time to wash the cutlery, or make sure to get it returned from the residents of an encampment. Disposable forks will have to do. The local bakery could make a birthday cake for eight – or, Costco could frost one up for fifty. Too many people need a new shirt now. In fact, they need five, delivered in just two days, in a package from Amazon Prime.

    Our care for the earth, the animal, and the worker can come into tension with care for nearby neighbors. Our right affinities – for the local, the organic, the artisanal – sometimes take a human toll.

    At least, that’s how it feels to me, living in an unequal place, all abundant resources and utter, desperate lack. At the food line, I load the trunks of cars with sliced white bread, each loaf pumped with inscrutable chemicals. I wouldn’t buy this for myself. But if I spent less on my artisan boules, I’d have more to give to others’ daily sustenance. Of course, it’d be great if we could all have whole wheat. But in the scheme of things, maybe the white bread isn’t so bad.

    Or take my favorite Palo Alto restaurant. “Farm-to-table” and proudly vegan, it lists the provenance of its berries and lettuce. It sells its entrees for $28. Why don’t I eat at McDonald’s instead, and put the extra $20 elsewhere? In a world of finite resources, it seems there’s only so much good to go around, and the good that exists becomes a luxury.

    Of course, we can operate within this reality – a reality that necessitates white bread and plastic forks – even as we seek to change it. Perhaps the answer isn’t to forgo “nice things” altogether, but to make do with less of them so that others get a share. The widow and her mite should make us ashamed. Confronted with such an enormous gift, what’s one $30 T-shirt instead of five? Or one choice cut of meat, split with our friends? Restraint in purchasing. Profligate hospitality. These practices are easier suggested than followed, even for the committed Christian. Jesus asks the wealthy young man to sell all he has; the man leaves crestfallen. Jesus blesses the poor and warns the rich – and yet, the rich are always among us.

    But even if we were more radically generous, giving away our good food and America-made clothes, these problems around food, shoes, and coffee wouldn’t be solved by mere redistribution. Redistribution, to be sure, is a start, even on a small, local scale, within the daily habits of families and churches. Buy less here, give more here. The middle-class sheds some excess. The poor get more, and of better, higher quality. Market incentives gradually shift. The food bank partners with farmers to provide fresh produce in addition to canned goods. The church does without the bougie doughnuts on a Sunday, and buys bargain hand soap for the bathroom. The CEOs bring home a smaller profit; the worker earns a living wage. The farmer’s market still takes SNAP; someday, that government assistance goes farther, and a family gets fed on what they can buy there. Gem lettuce instead of McNuggets, for everyone! Come, Lord Jesus!

    We anticipate an abundant new earth, and pray for its arrival. Also, we accommodate the world we have now. I aim to give up more meals at restaurants and send more to the food pantry instead, to buy thrift-store clothes instead of new, “sustainable” ones. These are practices I’ve long preached to myself. They align the ecological and the economic, the beautiful and the good. Everyone wins (except the corporations).

    But the change that we need (that I need) isn’t only external, a matter of shifting line items on a budget. The trickier shift needs to happen in the heart.

    The diner down the street doesn’t list its ingredients. It serves pancakes and sausage and pale pieces of melon. Who knows where all of it comes from? On this Saturday morning, that doesn’t matter. I don’t want to know how this sausage is made. The diner is filled with children coloring, and children screaming, and elderly couples eating together. Down the street, my favorite vegan place prepares beetroot pancakes and JUST Egg omelets for young millennials with neutral outfits and Apple Watches, very few kids, nobody who doesn’t already have a reservation.

    It’s all too easy to conclude that my class-driven aesthetic preferences line up neatly with my Christian duty. Of course, my allegiance to #slowliving and yuppie lifestyle brands works itself out to solidarity with the marginalized. We worship the God of sabbath and stillness, the God who made things from clay, the God who deploys pastoral images, who blessed a wedding with choice wine. Of course we should serve craft beer at the church function!

    And yet. My love for the farmer’s market might have less to do with concerns about justice and more to do with being the kind of person who goes to the farmer’s market. My desire to buy the wool-and-tree tennis shoes might be just that: A desire to buy those tennis shoes. Pretending that idolatry can’t corrupt even our most ethical purchases doesn’t do our rich church any favors. The people we’re trying to serve might be more comfortable in a Dunkin than in a Blue Bottle, happier in a Cracker Barrel than in a joint with a five-star-Yelp review. We bring the steaming pots and a green salad and some pans of cornbread and boxes of seltzer water to the temporary shelter at the church down the street. Guests eat the salad, the cornbread, the chili – but nobody touches that seltzer. Turns out, we’ve also brought something else: Our out-of-touch preferences, our middle-class bias toward what’s “healthy” and “good.” Our guests prefer the cans of soda another group has left behind.

    The change that we need isn’t only external, a matter of shifting line items on a budget. The trickier shift needs to happen in the heart.

    Some might argue it’s elitist to acknowledge these differences, the preferences that divide us by socioeconomic status. Of course, quality food and drink and art belong to everyone; nobody deserves less than “the best.” But the best can be debatable, more a product of marketing than anything else. And it’s worse to pretend that these class preferences don’t exist: Especially in Silicon Valley, where lifestyle too often takes on a moral valence. People who drink Coke instead of LaCroix, or eat Pop-Tarts, or smoke cigarettes, aren’t “like us” at all. They’re an exploited class, in need of enlightening! And also: Those things are icky! Even in the church, our righteous beliefs about what enables human flourishing – nutritious food, noble work, the clean water and air that eco-friendly products promise – too quickly corrodes into disgust. If we’re not careful, the mass-produced isn’t just dehumanizing, or unhealthy, bad for workers and consumers alike. It’s gauche; it’s ugly. Suddenly, our distaste isn’t righteous. It’s just snobby.

    Our focus on material culture can keep us from seeing the people those materials are meant to serve. The beautiful really can be the enemy of the good. Not only money, but time, too, is scarce: Time spent vetting worker-collective restaurants and fair-trade lotions and BPA-free, Montessori toys on the internet could be spent in conversation, in silence, in prayer. Not only do we spend too much on what we consume – there’s a limit to how much we should think about what we consume. All too easily, even homespun hospitality becomes a show of status. I host dinner parties with homemade soup, not salty sludge poured from a can, and a cake baked from scratch, not bought at a superstore. What does that say about me? At its best, my making is my act of love, an offering to my community. At worst, it’s an overemphasis on what we’re eating rather than gratitude that we’re eating at all, an obsession with the physical world that sets the spiritual aside.

    People of faith should care about what they buy, and how it’s made. We want workers treated fairly and creation stewarded well. Craftsmanship is blessed. Waste is lamentable. Food shouldn’t be chemical.

    We should care about what we consume. (First and foremost, by consuming less.) But that consumption shouldn’t keep us from actual community. The farmer’s market may not always trump the factory. But people always trump products.

    Contributed By Kate Lucky Kate Lucky

    Kate Lucky is senior editor of culture and engagement at Christianity Today. Her writing appears in Commonweal, The Point, and elsewhere.

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