Memories of my grandmother and her home are of an almost-constant state of gardening, baking, cooking, canning, freezing, and pickling. To be at Grandma’s house was to eat...everything homemade, much of it either picked from her backyard or from a neighbor’s. This time of year, when gardens have reached their peak and winter is just around the corner, Grandma’s basement would be in its full glory—shelves and freezers stocked to capacity with the goodness of a bountiful summer.
My grandmother was a child of the Great Depression. Having grown up during a time of incredible scarcity, she learned to save for a rainy day: “Waste not, want not.” She seemed to value every vegetable from the garden, every egg in the basket, and every drop of milk in the carton. She would even swipe her finger along the inside of the emptied egg shell to make sure she got every last drop. Wasting food was unheard of and you finished everything on your plate, whether you were full or not. This mindset is often referred to as a “psychology of scarcity,” where one’s entire outlook on life is based on having and living on next to nothing.
Contrast my grandmother’s childhood to that of the generations that have followed. After World War II and the unprecedented prosperity that has followed, we have all grown up during a time of great abundance. There has been truly no need to save your seeds for next year’s garden, can your tomatoes for winter sauces or make soup with the bones from last night’s meal. We no longer save coffee grounds for a second pot of coffee or use our tea bags until they no longer “color the water”. Food is cheap and abundant and as easy as a trip to the grocery store or drive-thru window.
The “psychology of abundance” makes us feel that we have everything we need, in unlimited quantities. How does this mindset affect us as individuals and as a nation? It certainly does little to encourage frugality. According to the USDA, we waste more than 360 million tons of food per day in the US, just under 40% of the foods produced. When we believe that we have an unlimited supply of something—in this case, food—we do not value it and are more prone to waste it. We consume far too many empty calories, as evidenced by our waistlines (mine included!) and are developing diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and arteriosclerosis at break-neck speed. I’m embarrassed to admit (although I suspect many are guilty of the same) that when we have a family-sized carton of Oreos in the house or I caved and purchased the buy-2-get-1-free Doritos deal, we practically inhale the stuff. They are not savored or cherished or squirreled away for a special day; they are consumed without thought and without hesitation.
After the Great Depression, we decided as a nation that none of our citizens should ever starve again—an admirable and understandable response. Federal farm policy has since sought to keep food cheap and abundant via specific pricing structures, loan programs, and various supports. The end result is rock-bottom prices for commodities (and the farmers who grow them), with the bulk of profits going to processors, distributors and retailers. As consumers, we have happily responded by buying our cereals and chips in bulk and super-sizing our soft drinks and fries. We expect food to be cheap.
Imagine, then, how difficult it is for me to convince shoppers at the farmer’s market that they should buy our chicken at $4.50 per pound, when they can get chicken at the grocery store for as little as $0.69 per pound. The lady next to me is selling beautiful heirloom tomatoes at easily three times the price of those in the grocery store. Customers that have eaten our chicken and our neighbor’s tomatoes will attest that there is no comparison—that the flavor, freshness and quality are worth every penny. For the vast majority of consumers, however, the argument that small-scale, lovingly grown local foods are better and are worth paying more for is a difficult one to make. We’ve all been trained to expect food to be cheap and by extension, to not value it or the farmers that raised it…a sad thought, indeed.
In all fairness, I should be careful not to over-romanticize my grandmother’s kitchen. While hulling strawberries with my mom not too long ago, she had a flashback—a vivid memory of her mother (my grandmother) standing over her when she was a little girl hulling strawberries with a small paring knife. She could distinctly remember my grandmother scolding her severely for cutting too much of the strawberry away. The red part was not to be wasted! Yes, we should value our food and the farmers that helped put it there. More importantly, we should seek to nurture a love of good food—and understand the true costs when we value quantity over quality.