In our July Food in the Public Square community conversation, one participant at my table discussion recounted her normal supermarket dilemma. She is standing before a set of products paralyzed by a conflicting set of concerns. Should she buy the organic grapes that are packed in polystyrene or the regular grapes sitting in a plastic bag?  The organic grapes are ecologically sound, but not the packing. Should she buy the local carrots that aren’t necessarily organic or the organic ones that have been trucked to Pennsylvania all the way from California? Should she leave the supermarket altogether and go to the natural foods store or wait for the weekly farmer’s market?  For this type of concerned consumer each and every purchase brings about a wrenching internal debate. Gee whiz, with all the moral wrestling, self-examination, and guilt, shopping (and eating) in the twenty-first century has really become a drag. How did this happen? Why are we putting so much energy and stock into the composition of our cupboards and grocery carts? And why do many of us see our shopping and eating as a declaration of political purpose?

Since the most contemporary phase of the natural foods movement germinated in the revolutionary idealism of the 1960s, it seems that the social movements and intellectual frameworks of period had to have played a part in our current understanding of shopping as politics. The New Left, although actually peopled by a minority of Americans, was a formative force in the reframing of left/ progressive politics from the 1960s forward. They considered themselves New because they rejected the liberal Democratic establishment (FDR’s New Deal liberal state) and they rejected the old left of the labor movement and unions. For the New Left both status quo liberals and the labor left had become too big, too bureaucratized, too institutionalized, undemocratic, and detached from citizen influence. New Lefters wanted to upend the political and cultural establishment. They wanted revolution not reform. They wanted a people’s politics, what they called participatory democracy.  The countercultural believed the same and decided to live a new world into being on communes, by going “back-to-the-land,” by making cooperative businesses and social service operations, and by breaking free of the constraints of their parent’s culture (see their long hair, rejection of monogamy & careerism, drug experimentation, rock n roll etc.).

Although Sixties/Seventies critics of the conventional food system had little faith in corporate capitalism, they saw creative potential in the marketplace and in the power of critical consumption. So they went about creating a new food world parallel to the supermarket/agribusiness system—farming organically, circumventing the supermarket by selling natural goods in hippie stores, buying outside of the system. This plan succeeded. Hippies made a robust alternative food network, initially just for other hippies (see John Mackey’s Whole Foods or Michael Potter’s Eden Foods; see food co-ops and organic farms) and later for a broader consumer base. With all their energy funneled into their corner of the food world, and having abandoned establishment politics, natural foods advocates left the conventional food system and food and farming legislators and regulators to march on largely unchallenged. Indeed, from the 1960s forward the conventional food and agricultural systems grew in size, scope, and depth.  The alternative food system grew too, but little in comparison. And many folks who might have previously used their energies in movements to reform agricultural policy, food policy, and social justice policy, had their hands full making and maintaining their alternative businesses and associations. Citizens who weren’t becoming organic/natural foods entrepreneurs put their political stock and economic power into buying and supporting the parallel food network. Undoubtedly there were still folks who devoting their lives  to non-profit public interest lobbying, as well as traditional politicking. But it is in the marketplace where the natural foods movement found its momentum and its voice, and it is through the marketplace that individual citizens have routinely exercised their political conscience. The question is how does this shopping cart activism affect the total food system?  What is the net effect of all these tormented trips to the supermarket or even to the natural foods store/CSA/farmer’s market on the conventional foods system? on UDSA farming policy? on corporate capitalism?

That is a tough question. Isn’t changing American eating and farming the final point of all this careful consumption? But if all this light and heat over eating right and shopping right is not shifting the larger food world—where most people eat, where and how most food is grown—than why keep investing so much stock in this strategy?   Why keep shopping for a better world?

Dr. Maria McGrath, Bucks County Community College