Earlier this week, my boss, Jane, walked into the office carrying a big basket of pears. Picked from her tree and lovingly wrapped in orange towels — like babies in a Moses basket — they were small and a little dark. They reminded me of the food you get from a local farm, not quite as shiny and unblemished as the stuff in the grocery aisles, but better-tasting, perhaps, thanks to all that character.
It got me thinking of food and where it comes from. I’m lucky. My husband, John, does all the cooking in our house, so I don’t usually put much thought into what to buy and what to do with it, let alone where it came from. But this week, thanks to a new law requiring US retailers to notify their customers of the country of origin of certain foods, I’ve been on the lookout for labels. The COOL law (for country-of-origin labeling) is part of an effort to protect consumers from health risks — like the industrial chemical melamine recently found in some milk products from China. But, it also helps consumers buy local or satisfy their more exotic cravings, if that’s what the menu requires.The new labels, signs, and stickers have an additional benefit; they remind us how far our food travels, and who we have to thank for worrying about the irrigation, the sunlight, the pests, the weeding, and everything else that goes into growing and processing our food.
Before I came to Oxfam, my experience with farms was, let’s say, scant. I grew up in the Los Angeles ‘burbs. The closest I got to farming was watching my parents work in their jungle-like garden. Since then, I’ve slogged through muddy rice paddies in Cambodia, hiked to sun-soaked coffee tree plantations in Guatemala, and absorbed the smells and sounds (not all of them good) of a cow barn in Vermont. I’ve watched back-breaking work and recorded the worries and concerns of people who depend on the land to make a living. Many of world’s poorest people are farmers, making only $1 or $2 a day for their efforts. While they feed the world, some struggle to feed their own families. Things are especially tough right now, with climate change disrupting weather patterns and the rising costs of food and energy sapping up more and more of their incomes.
Experience has taught me that my husband will keep cooking as long as I acknowledge the effort he puts into the meals. It is fitting then, that at the very least, we recognize the countries which produce much of the food we eat. For my part, when I’m buying food that’s not farmed in the states, I’ll definitely pay special attention to the stickers on my Peruvian oranges and the fine print on my sack of Thai Jasmine rice. Taking a second to give those farmers some credit seems like the least I can do.