I wrote in the Introduction to this ‘Intentional Living’ category that even though our lifestyle in Era was hard work, there was a lot about it that we learned from and wanted to translate back into our life here in the UK. Some of that was immediately recognisable as big, important stuff, but a lot of it was seemingly trivial, because one of the fascinating and eye-opening things I learned was that that the seemingly trivial is closely related to the big, important stuff. The practical, everyday things we do are deeply, inextricably related to our values, our relationships and our spirituality.
One of these seemingly trivial things that we knew we wanted to address when we came back from Era was food shopping. Now trust me, I’m the last person who would normally click on a link with the word ‘groceries’ in the title – I find food shopping boring to do, yet alone to read about – but hear me out, because this turned out to be about more than just a weekly chore.
In Era, as there weren’t really any shops locally, we did a big shop in town for toiletries, medicines and dry food goods about once every three months or so, and the rest of our food came from our garden (minimally) and our neighbours’ generosity (maximally). As a result, we were very closely related to most of the food we consumed. Not as closely, admittedly, as our neighbours whose time, sweat and attention had gone into growing the stuff, but far more closely than we had ever been before. We personally knew the people who grew most of what we ate, and the food itself was offered to us as an invitation into relationship. Accepting it obligated us to take a step into that personal relationship – sometimes in very uncomfortable ways. We were dependent, quite literally for the food on our plates, on both the community we lived in and also on the land. We were limited by the seasons, and by the agricultural choices and practices of that particular culture.
It would be easy to make this sound idyllic – we ate mostly organic, sustainable and locally grown vegetables with zero food miles – but I didn’t love our diet in Era. Generally, there wasn’t much available for flavouring or seasoning, quite a few of the greens were either bland or bitter, and I found the lack of variety hard to stomach. A lot of it was delicious, but I’d been spoiled my whole life with different flavours every day (no, every meal!) and as much as I like sweet potato, I didn’t fancy it as often as I was offered it. We didn’t get a lot of choice over what we ate, and we didn’t always want the limitations or obligations that came with the way we had to eat. We also found the lack of protein hard to adjust to and couldn’t really keep up physically until we started supplementing our diet with a spoonful of peanut butter or a handful of nuts a day. Who am I kidding? Protein or no protein, we still couldn’t keep up physically, but at least with protein we weren’t sleeping 12 or more hours a day!
Despite these challenges, and in some cases even because of them, we slowly began to change how we thought about food. We thought about meals in terms of how they would fuel our bodies, and for how long, as well as who we would eat them with and what they would taste like. We grew leaner and stronger. Meat became a sociable shareable treat for feasts, funerals and fun nights. We began to realise that what we eat has a profound effect on the land its grown on and on the people who grow it. We started feeling more connected to the land, to the seasons, and to the weather. Waste became a relational, rather than just a mindless, matter. Burying the waste packaging from our town products in the very earth that we were all eating from made me feel sick. I think we just became very aware that we are interconnected systems – our bodies are systems, our communities are systems, and our environments are systems too – and that we really betray ourselves, our communities, our planet and our God who has given them all to us, when we sabotage the systems.
The trivial, in short, didn’t seem so trivial any more.
Also, our food shopping chores had been reduced to about four days a year. We undoubtedly spent less, ate more healthily, created less waste, saved time and didn’t have to do nearly as much of one of our least-loved chores, and if that isn’t a multi-win then I don’t know what is. So we knew, when we came back to the UK, that we wanted to change our shopping habits, and one little trip to a supermarket wherein both of us stood paralysed in front of an overwhelming array of choices confirmed our instincts instantly.
Now, for those of you who love filling up that cage on wheels in amongst the hustle and bustle of strangers, feel free not to read on. For me, supermarket shopping is a time-consuming, mind-numbing chore that leaves me feeling empty. Clever marketing either leads to spending a lot of money on things we didn’t need or want or being sufficiently conscious to avoid that that we come home – after a painfully heavy-laden walk – burnt out on resisting advertising, brain dead from decision fatigue, and tired from processing all the data that bombards us via tannoys, car parks, ATMs, billboards, posters, nutrition labels and price tags.
So we dumped supermarket shopping. After all, we’d shopped every three to four months in Era and we didn’t even have a fridge or freezer there. “Seriously,” I thought to myself, “WHY do we shop every week?” So I sat down with a list of foods items that we’d be likely to buy and went through them one-by-one.
The immediately obviously difference was no longer having an entire community of agriculturalists on our doorstep. We considered growing our own veg, but ruled it out pretty quickly. I’d like to do it in theory, but a bit of research made it clear that we’d need more time, support, and probably some, you know, land, to make it in any way viable as our primary source of vegetables. To be honest, even in super-fertile Era, we were pretty lame at growing our own food. I wish that weren’t true, but it is.
If only, we thought, there were a service that supported local growers and would automatically deliver fresh, local, in-season, organic vegetables to your door, just like in Era, except that, since we’re in a more complex economy, it would include lots of easy-to-understand information about how the company has made difficult ethical decisions in this agricultural industry we know so little about…
Now I do have to let you know that the fresh, local, in-season organic vegetables delivered to your door are not yet delivered to you by one of your actual besties, but I’m sure they’re working on it.
And yes, it is also true that to get fresh, local, in-season organic vegetables delivered to your door (I’m pretty excited about the delivery part) is slightly more expensive than the alternatives, but after playing around with the options a bit, the difference is less than I imagined, because, inevitably the quality of less fresh veg is lower, which means you throw more away, which means you have to buy more of it, which means you have to spend more. If you wanted to justify a veg box to yourself, you could also value your time at minimum wage – the price difference will disappear.
However, we’re lucky, because as well as living in the magical land we also have a very cool, renowned-for-being-cheap local fruit and veg shop about five minutes walk from our house, and it has its advantages too. It lets us shop alongside our neighbours. It helps us support a very local business. It is slightly cheaper. Rather compellingly, we get to choose our veg. Frequenting the widely adored local fruit and veg shop does involve engaging with the dreaded food-shopping chore, and it does leave me feeling more disconnected from where the food comes from, but it can be done in half an hour round trip when we need to save some money.
Having resolved this, we moved on to the rest of our food-desirables list. The big grocery revelation in Era had been that most food items keep for months. We bought in bulk, thereby saving money and packaging. Even eggs stayed good a long time, and when we ran out of something we simply ate what was still available. Surely this system was workable here, where we wouldn’t even have to go to the supermarket but could simply set up an online list, and then tick off the items we needed every few months, click order and have them, once again, delivered to our door.
Well, these were the sticking points:
- cheese, yoghurt, bread
In Era we’d used powdered milk, very rarely had cheese, yoghurt or bread, had freshly killed meat occasionally, and stored the bulk food in boxes in our ‘spare room.’
We couldn’t really imagine offering a British guest a cup of tea with a teaspoon of powdered milk, and also we kind of love milk, so we did some research into using a milkman. I really wanted to do this (they deliver to your door! And the ones I spoke to are such cool dudes!), but in the end we couldn’t afford it. Nor could we afford to have organic milk tagged on to a veg box, but we found a solution: milk freezes really well. We reckoned if we did the bulk-buy monthly instead of every three months, we could fit enough milk in our freezer, and monthly shops didn’t seem so bad when it was just a few clicks online instead of a hike and then off-road drive on a 4×4 to a town several hours away.
Cheese, yoghurt and bread were definitely items we could live without, but since we’ve got a fridge and a freezer, it’s simple to keep yoghurt and cheese in the fridge where they last a really long time – and bread could join milk in the freezer. One day I’ll totally make our bread, like I did when I was a kid, but today is not yet that day.
Making the meat decision was pretty straightforward. Whilst we certainly couldn’t shoot pigs in the back yard with our bow and arrow, we could choose not to buy meat regularly – the money we saved could fund any extra costs from getting an organic vegetable boxes and the freezer space saved could be used for milk – and instead treat ourselves to meat for feasts and fun nights: birthdays, holidays, guests and eating out.
With these decisions made, we simply had to find storage, which wasn’t so hard for a monthly shop – we just put boxes in the back from which we fill up the cupboards.
And so we had it, our grocery shopping plan which doesn’t involve setting foot in a supermarket very often and allows us to eat fresh, local, in-season organic vegetables on a budget:
|Monthly Shop from an Online Delivery Service||Organic Veg Box OR Local Fruit & Veg Shop|
OR anywhere we feel like at the time
Obviously, there isn’t anything particularly original about doing it this way, and it’s certainly got nothing on all you allotment owners, but I hope that sharing it might be helpful for those of you who, like us, just never enjoyed those supermarket runs.
More importantly, I also hope it will be a reminder for those who, like us, find it all too easy to forget in the busyness of life that our bodies, our communities and our environments really are integrated systems, and how we get and consume our food is a really important part of what happens to them. Although it still feels like we’ve got a long way to go, especially on some of the items in our left-hand column, simply thinking consciously about where we shop, whether we really want that food item, and what our values are has helped us take small steps in the direction of not sabotaging the systems we depend on, but thinking instead about how we can work with and within them, appreciatively. The surprising thing, perhaps, is that so far the small steps we have taken have made our life more convenient, less expensive and more enjoyable.
Whatever way you shop and whatever you like to eat, let’s remember today and be grateful for the living, breathing systems that provide us with the food we eat.
Featured Image by Rachel Hughes Shah