Monday, January 08, 2007

On frugality, economy and preparations

It has occurred to me that by suggesting people store food and stock up on items that may rise in price in the long term (since we are both in a slightly inflationary cycle at the moment, and in danger of major currency devaluation, any food you buy now is odds on to be a long-term savings), I'm implicitly suggesting that people engage in consumerism to preserve their economic status. If you have a limited food budget, and you need to store food, I think it not unlikely that you will end up shopping at Wallyworld, or somewhere cheap. And the problem with doing that is that in the end, the act of shopping at Walmart (or its many equivalents) is as antithetical to our security as not storing food at all.

By that I mean that it is completely natural, when faced with a threat to our security, to think of preserving "me and mine," and to focus on that first. When we first started storing food for ourselves and our families we were thinking largely about personal self-preservation, and we bought our food wherever we could find it most cheaply. Our primary concern, besides palatability, was that we get the most food for the least money. We bought large quantities of things like peanut butter and rice at the cheapest price we could find, in addition to things we put up ourselves. But for folks without gardens, I imagine canned goods from Sam's club sometimes look pretty good.

Now the problem with that is that in many cases, the cheapest forms food comes in are not either the best ones for you or the ones that best support the other most basic need for human security - strong communities. Think about it this way - if you had no food, no shelter, no warm clothes, and your children were weeping and hungry and cold, how long do you think it would take you to overcome any serious moral scruples you have against doing just about anything to get them warm and fed? I can tell you from my own perspective the answer is "not too damned long." I'd like to believe I'd draw the line at harming my fellow person, but I'm not totally sure that's true, if they had food and I had none.

Now it isn't possible to feed millions off of your food storage, but poor societies all over the world have actually developed solutions to this, including sets of customs, practices and taboos that are designed to ensure that within communities, and with travelling strangers, you had a set of obligations to others that are very central to how you live. Thus, for example, Jews were exhorted to make sure their sabbath bread was pareve (that is, neither meat nor dairy) so that if a stranger or a neighbor were to come to your house for the sabbath, he could partake of your bread. We are required to have festival meals at which we invite anyone who has nowhere to go, to the point that at Pesach we cast open the door and call out that all who are hungry must come and eat. Well, in a poor society, where feasts are rare, opening your door represents a deep and primal risk - if too many are hungry, there might not be enough for us. But there's a risk, too, to not opening the door - the risk being the anger and resentment of those who are hungry. Your community are the people you depend upon, the people who share your circumstances, and the people who eat when you have food, are hungry when neither of you has food, and who shares what they have with you.

Fairy tales and stories from every faith contain the tale of the selfish rich man, or the family that did not welcome the stranger, the good woman or child who shared her last crust or welcomed in the hungry wanderer. The generous are rewarded, the stingy are always punished, and the reasons for this are quite simple - these tales were meant to teach the absolute urgency of generosity, even in times of scarcity. These are moral tales, and their morals are ones we've forgotten. Americans are some of the least generous people in the world - we like to say otherwise, but if you look at the statistics, we're unbelievably selfish. We donate a smaller portion of our incomes to charity than people in impoverished nations like Guatemala and Nigeria. We volunteer in our communities less often than many of India's rural poor. Our nation gives a smaller portion of its income in aid than any other wealthy nation in the world. We have forgotten the messages of the fairy tales - that is, if you do not share, you will be punished. People buy cute little plaques about angels, but they have forgotten that angels, if they exist, arrive unexpected and must be greeted and fed.

Joetta Handrich Schlabach, writing in _Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook_ (a wonderful book) writes of a story a friend of hers who was visiting Lesotho. She visited a friend 'Me Malebohang. They discussed the bad pumpkin harvest, and how 'Me Malebohang had only 8 pumpkins for the whole winter. As the friend got up to leave, 'Me Malebohang offered her guest the largest of the pumpkins. When the guest refused, saying she couldn't take one of her pumpkins, 'Me Malabohang answered, "We Basotho know that this is the way to do it. Next year I may have nothing in my field, and if I don't share with you now, who will share with me then?"

I am not suggesting we shouldn't store food - I think we must. But it is a request that we view food storage not as solely a personal preparation, but as a collective one, that enriches, rather than impoverishes our own communities. If we choose to buy from multinational corporations and big box stores, we are voting with our dollars in their favor, no matter what harm they do to our local communities, food systems and hope of sustainability. If we choose to hoard, rather than share in hard times, we know what will be our own fate if someday, our neighbor has something to share. If we spend our money in a place that is already working to impoverish our local economies and extract wealth from our communities, we are not making ourselves secure, but insecure.

We need to begin listening to the stories we grew up with again - the ones from our faiths if we have them, the collective narratives of our culture otherwise. Because they all tell the same story - generosity is not a luxury of the rich, but a necessity for the poor.

In practical terms, this means that instead of buying surplus MREs, a giant box of ramen and 50lbs of HiC from the bulk warehouse, we need to treat our food storage the way we treat our food in general - and go for locally produced, and/or organically and sustainably grown food, sacks of local potatoes in the root cellar and local grains in our storage areas whenever possible. We should look for whole, rather than processed foods, which means figuring out how to cook and eat them. Our food storage, and our other stored supplies wherever possible should support our values, and nurture our community. That means we should be donating some of it when need arises, and inviting guests to share whenever we can. It means we should be both hospitable and generous from our position of wealth and from a position of poverty.



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