East vs. West: The skewed consumption from farm to fridge

With an ongoing debate on sustainability of organic farming, seasonal and local produce trumps the organic formula to healthy consumption.

“Keera ma Keera” – The shrill voice of the Keeraikara ma (spinach vendor) was the first thing we heard on January mornings. I would collect the required money and skip to the gate to hold the bright green bunches in my hands. As she foraged the best harvest she would smile, her tobacco stained teeth a direct contrast to the lush green produce piled up in her basket.

Indian vegetable market
Pic – jugalbandi.info

Seasonal cooking was the intrinsic and instinctive cooking guideline that our ancestors followed. Not only was it easy on the wallet, but also superior in taste. Eating mangoes in winter, when the fruit is bursting with flavours in the peak of summer, was blasphemous. Indians still cook along with the seasons – water vegetables in summer, roots in winter, and eat all colours of the rainbow. When we migrate we not only degrade our taste buds, but also forget this implicit rulebook that should steer our meals.

In our defence, while my mother did all her vegetable shopping down the road, I drove a couple of miles to the grocery store. Unlike her vegetable vendor, our stores have all vegetables available throughout the year. Some of us think of this as a privilege that we earn by living in a developed country, but most are privy to the pitfalls of cooking out of season. Although the number of farmers markets increased steadily, the number of people buying from here is yet to reach a satisfied figure. Except in states like California, Seattle, and New York, where farmer’s markets are popular throughout the year, in most other states they are in vogue only during spring and summer. Even if weather conditions discourage us from scouting for the market, it is imperative for us to visit stores that support local farms instead of striding through big name chains that lug our food from different continents.

US produce aisle
Pic – rapgenius.com

Most of the produce that my mother’s vendor procures is from farms within a 5 mile radius. Almost all the items on my grocery store are transported across states or countries. Eating locally grown fruits and vegetables not only benefits the local farms that are struggling to compete with national and international firms but also greatly reduces our carbon footprint. Food miles is an important factor that many of us ignore when stocking up our weekly supply. Every time you buy an Idaho potato or California strawberry in Connecticut, think of how many miles this particular food item has travelled. Also the produce has to be harvested and packed ahead to weather the long journey to grocer’s display. Such food items are almost always tampered with to maintain a perfect appearance that compromises on taste. Shopping from your local farm ensures that the vegetables and fruits are picked when perfectly ripe and are superior in taste and flavour. The fuel and distance travelled is what represents the food miles, and should be an important criterion before your stock your refrigerator. (The US mandated the ‘Country of origin’ labelling on certain foods [in the 2002 farm bill] making it easier for you to comprehend and calculate this.)

Dairy and meat products are a huge cause of paranoia for immigrants in the US; organic or all natural? Farm fed or pesticide free? While buying organic milk, eggs, poultry, fish and meat may cause a huge dent to our finances, it is mandatory for us to be knowledgeable about the brands and ingredients that constitute each product. For eg., the US allows farm raised salmon to be sold in grocery stores. Farm raised salmon are fed synthetic astaxanthin to guarantee their pinkish red colour. Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is the largest selling dairy animal drug in America. RBGH is a synthetic version of natural bovine somatotropin (BST), a hormone produced in cows’ pituitary glands. It is injected into cows to increase milk production, but it is banned in at least 30 other nations because of its dangers to human health. While organic may not be the default choice for many of us, it is worthwhile to be informed about potentially harmful brands that use politically ploys to stay in the market.

Food miles
Pic – eduardojones.wordpress.com

India, on the other hand suffers from poor food storage facilities. The journey of an onion from Lasalgaon in Western India (Asia’s biggest onion market) to the city of Mumbai (a day drive) will make you weep. Although India is tiptoeing on FDI in Retail, it has already reduced the Beast of Betonville (Walmart) to a state of bewilderment. Without proper storage and processing facilities, the price of vegetables hinge on few individuals. Warehouses, cold storage facilities, improved logistic chains, and a strict peeling of the middlemen layer is the need of the hour. Many of this resides in the threshold of elected officials who seem more focused on filling their own coffers.

My mother probably has heard of the term ‘organic’ only a few years back. But in her fifty year sojourn in the kitchen she has enjoyed a fully sustainable feast. Seasonal and local has been her philosophy, which trumps my ‘only organic’ formula. She knew the seasons like the back of her hand, while I have a growing guide stuck on the refrigerator. She grew her greens, while I house many indoor plant ghosts. She shopped in the farmers market every day, while I still scout for them only in the summers. Eating is the single common political act that all of us commit. She has been a beacon, while I continue to strive for a better alternative.

Featured image courtesy: hardworkinghippy | Flickr

East Vs West is a series that introspects the sustainable and superfluous choices we make by reflecting and juxtaposing the Indian and Immigrant (domestic) lifestyles.

Meera Ramanathan is a freelance writer dabbling in food, cinema and travel. She lives in Connecticut while maintaining roots in Chennai and is often caught in the immigration melodrama. She blogs ardently at http://dreamzwild.wordpress.com. more


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Meera Ramanathan is a freelance writer dabbling in food, cinema and travel. She lives in Connecticut while maintaining roots in Chennai and is often caught in the immigration melodrama. She blogs ardently at http://dreamzwild.wordpress.com. more

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