Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mega Markets: Pilgrim’s REgress

When I was thirteen, Westheimer Road between Loop 610 and Fondren was nothing but undeveloped land. It was the country. It was the road to horseback riding on Saturday mornings. Apart from the subdivision in Walnut Bend, the closest thing to civilization was the tea room at Sakowitz on South Post Oak and the Weingarten’s grocery store across the street from it. Houstonians, at that time, psychologically perceived this drive in the same way one might today consider the daily commute from Magnolia into Downtown; it’s done, but not without preparation. For example, before the road trip can begin today, one must first stop for a steaming hot latte from Starbucks, then grab an egg and bacon breakfast sandwich from McDonald’s, plug in the latest technology, set the dial to music, talk radio, or the most recent in a spellbinding book on tape, turn on the cell phone and adjust the ear piece, and not until these tasks are completed is one properly prepared to take the leap of faith required to chart the hour and a half of pavement, toll roads, other drivers, road rage and traffic to make the commute from Magnolia to Downtown and back home again tolerable.

In 1967, before Houston was divided by a loop, the preparation from Downtown to South Post Oak Road was usually by invitation to a ladies luncheon at the Sakowitz tea room, the border crossing between civilization and the country and you had one month to prepare for it. From that point on, it was horses and hay and roadside fruit and veg stands. (My father was known to drive out there occasionally to buy Tyler roses for my mother, which has nothing to do with this story apart from the sweet memory of it).

So what’s your point, granny? Did you expect Houston to stay a cow town forever? Did you not think that some clever marketing personality wouldn’t eventually give birth to one stop shopping? We don’t have time anymore to conduct our lives in the old fashioned way of supporting individually owned markets, hardware stores and bookstores. What if they don’t have what we want at the very moment we want it? I’ll tell you what happens; it’s a waste of our time, that’s what. We don’t have time to court those kinds of relationships anymore, to wait while some old fool, some old Mr. Sanders orders a part for the washing machine or a book to be sent by mail. For goodness sake, this is the 21st Century where we can either order it online or go to Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Border’s to meet the needs of our modern lifestyle. We don’t have time for Mr. Sanders because we’re too busy building Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Border’s while we move further and further into what little patch of land is still available, building our houses near what trees survive, and preparing for our hour and a half to two hour commute so we can continue to support Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Border’s; because we don’t have the time to wait anymore, we want it when we want it; we want it now.

In the small Scottish community of Glass, burrowed in a valley between Huntly and Keith, is our new home, Cottarton Cottage. We are one of the elite who can move to the country and have a patch of land surrounded by a 360 degree panoramic view of hillside, woods, and grazing livestock. We are not rich, but fortunate, elitist, able to leave the congestion of the city, the traffic, the fast pace and simplify our lives in the country.

Yet, not more than seven miles down the road is the mega market, Tesco and within a literal stone’s throw is its competitor ASDA, better known in the States as Wal-Mart.

I could write for hours about the sociological reasons for this and their legitimate purpose which seems to ease the very stressful lives of the young and their growing families. Today’s modern family requires two and half incomes and housing is expensive, forcing people to grab what little space they can in the city for easy access to employment, holding on to what little security modern business offers the common worker which isn’t much. Technology is so fast paced that one might say a worker who doesn’t stay on top of things could potentially suffer what is called in this country redundancy, not marketable or obsolete in the States. But in any language, the outcome results in a very similar lifestyle: rushing out the door to work, getting the kids to school, picking them up, racing to football practice, choir, violin, swim meet, etc., home late shoving some processed something into the microwave for what we erroneously call dinner, homework, bedtime, a bit of sleep to resuscitate the muscle to do it all over again on Tuesday.

Sadly, we have been deceived and manipulated by nothing less than – Advertising. We are told what to eat and are blatantly lied to by those who process our “home bake dinners”, teeming with preservatives, that eating like this won’t harm us. The American farmer has already ceded to the strong arm of the fast food companies, raising their chickens and cattle in factories that never see the light of day or experience anything natural like grass or rain, are injected with hormones to stimulate rapid growth, and not carefully transported from factory to slaughter house, increasing the stress levels of the animal; a nasty formula for tainted meat which is not meticulously regulated by the FDA. This very scenario now threatens the British farmer into a perilous position of being forced into either producing for the Mega Markets or being driven into bankruptcy.* Unfortunately, this is the 21st Century blueprint of the kitchen table. “What’s for dinner tonight, Mom?” “Poison, dear.” As our waistlines expand, ironically our knowledge of food diminishes. As the latest fad diets betray us, we are inconsolably in search of an answer as to why we remain fat and unhealthy.

I’m not suggesting that we stop eating meat, just know where it comes from. Buy as close to your back door as is possible. Get to know your butcher. Ask him where the meat comes from. Are you eating a happy cow? If so, the likelihood of residual illness is less probable.

But the ongoing debate between carnivores and vegetarians is not, in my opinion, as paramount a debate as the one which challenges where the food comes from. If we continue to depend on advertising and the latest scam diet to direct us, we’ll never come out victorious and we will poison our children in the process.

I have stopped shopping at all Mega Markets. I will not go into a Tesco, Costco, Wal-Mart, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, ASDA, Somerfield’s or Sam’s Wholesale. These stores are designed to drive out the local farmer or merchant and provide the consumer with a product whose origin is unknown. Whose hands kneaded that bread? Where does the chicken live that brings me my omelet? These questions may sound a bit eccentric, but when modern man can begin to see the connection between the earth and what we put into our bodies, as we are as organic as the chicken, the cow and the beetroot, then I think we stand a chance of reclaiming our better health.

Fortunately, Scotland boasts of Co-Op Markets which is a friendly food source, mostly fair trade and all produce, excepting bananas, are locally grown. It takes time to organize your kitchen like this, but in the long term, everybody wins. Not to mention the impact of the carbon foot print eased somewhat if we buy what’s in season and we buy locally. The hardest hit, of course, is the poor. Those who don’t have more than five dollars until pay day and have children to feed. What are they supposed to do? Drive through McDonald’s and at least they can grab something from the dollar menu and fill up until Mom can get to the store.

The Corporate West should be so ashamed. I’d venture a guess that the CEO of McDonald’s, Jack in the Box and Burger King don’t eat there. I have a feeling they probably eat organic vegetables, free range chickens and drink fabulously expensive champagne. If they’re not eating it, why should we?


*This boycott of mine spawned after watching a BBC One program about a local English farmer who had been growing butter lettuce for Somerfield’s for many years (his biggest client actually). The lettuces were carefully cultivated, beautifully packaged and delivered on time; no previous signs of distress between client and farmer, when out of the blue, the marketing rep from Somerfield’s called him to say his services were no longer needed. It was during his peak season, when his greenhouse was bulging with lettuces and he was depending on this income for his livelihood, but that didn’t faze Somerfield’s and their decision to remove his product from the shelf on a whim. The farmer did seek legal counsel, however, and fortunately the crop in the greenhouse was salvaged and Somerfield’s was obliged to honor the contract to the season’s end, but after that, the local English farmer had to close his operation. On that same program, a dairy farmer was profiled after Tesco drove him out of business forcing his cattle to auction. Tesco can afford to sell milk cheaper than bottled water and have enough market share to dictate the price of milk. It’s heartbreaking to see and it can be stopped. We can learn to live locally, seasonally, and ethically again. We have more power as a consumer than any CEO of any corporation anywhere. If we say no, they have to listen.

nice post, amber! I think that even more than eating organically (which can be expensive and not always practical, etc) it's important to eat locally. You can now get organic strawberries year round at whole foods, which during the off season are flown in from South America. Think of all of the energy that was used in getting them to you so you could pay $8/lb! Whereas, if you buy local, even conventional strawberries when they're in season, you are using less resources and benefitting people in your own community!
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