I try to do my best, I really do, but it seems harder than it should be.
I'm in the grocery store, where the shiny plastic packaging stretches as far as the eye can see, and parents and kids seem larger than life – in fact, some seem the size of NFL linemen. With my cloth bag I hike down avenues of MSG and boulevards of white sugar, all arranged at the eye level of a 5-year-old. I pass banks of freezers of TV dinners and pizzas, the latter looking like painted cardboard.
I wonder: Is there any food here? Everything looks so antiseptic, swathed in protective wrapping. There's the radioactive-colored potato chips, the too-perfect apples, and the bright pink meat, bloodless, almost, on its absorbent pad. Does this have anything to do with a farm or ranch?
I arrive at the dairy section where a whole herd of cartoon cows with dewy eyes and bloated udders looks at me from their cartons. On my list, which I left at home, again, I remember I need cream, half-and-half really, for coffee. Scanning the refrigerated bays I spot it, but immediately get a sinking feeling. It's that same sinking feeling I get every time I enter one of these stores, because once again I've come up against "the problem."
Do I buy the store brand cream for half the price of the organic, or do I sacrifice what I know is good for me for what I know is good for my bank account? In this case, it's the difference of a dollar, not exactly a big deal, but add that up over a year, or a month, or even one shopping trip combined with all the other similar choices I make, and it's substantial. Being "green," which for me means buying local, organic food, is always fraught with indecision. The green choice is almost always expensive, too often prohibitively so, and to my way of thinking, that's just downright wrong.
Righteous anger. Sad disgust. Helpless indignation. These feelings are all old friends and frequent visitors. This time I decide to take the high road, and with smug satisfaction I place a carton of organic half-and-half in my bag (miracle of miracles, I remembered it) tucking it in next to the recycled toilet paper and on top of the fair-trade coffee. My, my, I'm feeling good about myself today. It doesn't hurt that this is the first week of the month. If it was the last it would be a different story.
What else? Eggs, another hard choice. This year I'm supplying a friend's coffee shop with brownies for the holiday season, so I need a lot of eggs and butter, too. The problem is that if I buy the free-range eggs, I'll have to charge twice as much for the brownies to cover my costs. And it's this that drives me crazy, because it should be an easy decision. I know what chickens endure in factories; I've heard and read the horror stories, and I know about the antibiotics and hormones that get fed to cows and end up in their milk. But once again it comes down to the bottom line. Sure, I value the homemade over the factory produced, the local over the imported. But I also value paying my mortgage and electricity bill. And why does it always come down to this? Doing what is ethically right and better in terms of health competes against doing what I can afford. It makes me want to scream.
But I don't, and as usual, I compromise. I buy one package of "good" eggs and another of "bad" eggs. The twisted rationale is that I'll eat the good ones and bake with the bad ones. That logic only gets me so far, but at least it gets me out the door and driving home, where I can forget about this painful process. I can also forget that I passed on the organic broccoli and the organic garlic, but picked up the local organic honey. I can forget that there's no rhyme to my purchases and that the reasons change from week to week. Does this make me a hypocrite, or am I just another person who talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk -- or walks it only when it's convenient -- and when I have the money?
What I do know is that try as I might, I can't afford to be the person I want to be.
Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Bend, Oregon.