Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Kingdom For An Orange

I was visiting Shakesville when I came across a post entitled,  A Quick Question.  It was posted by Deeky on Saturday.  His question is as follows.

I was just at the grocery store, wandering through the produce aisle. I wanted to buy some fruit. I looked at the oranges and thought, hey aren't these supposed to be… umm… you know, orange?
They were a sickly pale yellow color.
I'd like some decent citrus, please.

The thread is filled with people waxing on about fresh fruit and vegetables, and what is available where.  As of this time, there are 53 response and outside of my commentary on the thread, there are no references to western privilege in this conversation. 

Yes I said privilege.  In the west we take it for granted that we can walk into ourimage  closest grocery store and purchase fruit, vegetables and top quality meats.  We may complain from time to time about the rising cost of food, but the fact remains, we are only limited by the size of our wallets, and even the poorest amongst us still has a staggering choice when it comes to food.

image The audacity of a western person having the nerve to complain about the colour of an orange when there are children that have never seen, never mind held an orange in their hands is something that needs to be acknowledged as privilege.

We have so much food that we regularly discard it as waste, or leave it to rot.  Some people have realized the wealth that we consider garbage and have begun dumpster diving.  By going through the garbage bins located outside of grocery stores they are able to feed themselves.   Western nations discard tons of food daily, while in other nations people die from starvation.  We should all pay attention, Deeky wants an orange that meets his specifications.

The African Horn is currently undergoing the largest humanitarian food crises since 1984. The Word Food Program (WFP) has requested 460 million USD to feed 9.6 million people who have been affected by the drought and high food prices in Ethiopia.  In Somalia half of the population (3.25 million people) are also facing starvation. 

Even before the recent hurricanes Haiti, there were many that were eating one meal a day or surviving on mud fried in butter.  Fish has rotted in local markets because the population simply did not have the funds to purchase it.  Now that the country has been devastated by two hurricanes those that were already living in margins are in a terrible state. At this time the WFP estimates that an excess of 5000 metric tonnes of food is needed monthly to sustain the population and evade the threat of civil unrest.

In May I wrote about Zimbabwe.  The situation is so dire there, that women are trading sex for food. According to the Globe and Mail, "the Zimbabwean economy has collapsed in the last decade, with inflation now running at 165 000% and the unemployment rate at 80%. The women who spoke to AFP said they were drawn by the possibility of earning money to send home, but most of them struggled to earn the equivalent of $20 (€13) a day. At times they get paid as little as 50 US cents for sex acts."

I could continue listing the hungry and the starving but I trust  that my point has been made.  When we engage in conversations we should always be aware of the privilege that we are expressing.  Complaining about the shape of a fruit or the colour is ridiculous when we examine the global disparity. 

We do not have a food crises, we have a distribution crises.  Is it really necessary to have super sized meals, or all you can eat restaurants?  Think about the concept of an all you can eat restaurant....eat and eat, not until you are full, but until you are so over stuffed that you can barely move.  These restaurants don't just appear from place to place, they exist in all large cities and in most small towns. Our portion sizes keep increasing, even though few westerners actually perform the work necessary to justify this kind of caloric intake.

We have come to view food as more than a necessity; it has become a sport for pleasure.  We want it cheap, fast, and abundant.  Very rarely is there a thought of the true cost of the meals that we consume.  We have become decadent and greedy and with a reflection that is truly as ugly as Dorian Grey; is it any wonder that we refuse to look at a mirror?  My right to sustenance does not supercede that same right to a person living in Haiti, or Ethiopia.  Good luck with your produce shopping Shakesville commentators, I truly hope that it meets your specifications.  Along the way should any of you stumble on this post, remember that the orange that you discard would be priceless to a hungry child.


19 comments:

AR said...

Although I disagree with PETA, I can see their reasoning. Dairy humans would still have far better working and living conditions than dairy cows, so there is still less suffering. The only way to think otherwise is to reject their implicit assumption that humans are not worth more moral consideration than all other animals.

And it's not as though animals aren't as capable of suffering as humans. The only distinguishing trait is our ability to express it to other humans, and the inborn empathy towards other humans that at least some people have. Certainly, there's no reason to think that our ability to wax philosophical about the nature of suffering makes our suffering any more unpleasant than that of any other creature.

Someone who takes that fact to heart would probably read numerous parts of your blog and think as you did in this post. Just replace decent citrus with sex egalitarianism and the starving poor with commercial animals and there you go. How dare you complain about the prospect of humans selling their milk when millions of cows are even now kept as milk-slaves!

Of course, that's a silly sentiment to have, and one of several reasons why I disagree with PETA, but it's basically the same as in some of your posts about privilege, namely, that the existence of greater problems precludes discussion or complaint about lesser ones, or, at the very least, requires that the person making the complaint preface it with a paragraph about all the other problems faced by people worse off than them for every paragraph of complaining they do.

Someone complaining about the quality of oranges is as good a place as any to start a discussion about global food disparity on your blog, but I don't think it's productive to make the complainer out to be a bad guy. I was recently tested for HIV, among other things, as part of the enlistment process. If it had been positive, and I had said, "Damn, I have HIV" within ear-shot of you, would you have pounced on me for having the unmitigated audacity and unacknowledged privilege to express discontent at having contracted HIV when most people with HIV don't have access to the Western medicine that makes it more of an expensive inconvenience than a fatal illness?*

Now there's nothing wrong with that position per se, though I obviously disagree with it. It holds people to an extremely high, I'd say unattainable, standard, but I wouldn't have mentioned it but not for your coincidentally adjacent PETA post, because just as the trials and tribulations of a Western fruit consumer are trivial compared to Zimbabweans, so to is the plight of poor Western women trivial compared to that of dairy cows, and I think it's hypocritical to accept the reasoning that greater problems preclude addressing lesser ones in one case but not another.

"I may believe in the value of an Ethiopia, but I have a far deeper commitment to Americans."

*Yes, I am comparing HIV to poor orange quality. In the West, I'd have a life expectancy of 32 years after contracting HIV. Hell, they could cure it by then, assuming I didn't die from something else in the meantime, which would be entirely plausible, and even if it was AIDS that ultimately got me, that's enough time to have a successful career and raise a family. If I contracted HIV right now, I wouldn't be particularly upset about it, as far as illnesses go.

zane said...

I dislike this idea of western privilege. You make it sound like we are some sort of medieval barons ridding into an African village and taking the last sac off food as tribute from a hungry mother and her tear eyed children. The truth is we are producing so much food that much of it is bought by the government and given as aid.

In Haiti much of their crisis is caused by the massive deforestation for charcoal that has caused massive soil degradation. As for Zimbabwe the crisis is entirely man made. Before Mugabe got into black power fever the "evil" white farmers produced enough food for major exports to take place. Now the new "empowered" black owners (read ZANU-PF thugs) are incapable of sustaining commercial level farming.

AR said...

I dislike this idea of western privilege.

The concept of privilege does not itself imply culpability or even causation, but refers merely to the fact that we have and they have not. Some people go further and say that, yes, in fact, this situation is our fault, but regardless of whether you buy into that, there's no way to reasonably dispute that Westerners are born far better off than non-Westerners, (although many non-Westerners are rapidly closing the gap) and that's all privilege at it's most basic level is really about. More of a fact than an idea, really.

As for Zimbabwe, there's also been a drought and HIV problems, so the crisis isn't completely man made, but yeah, racial land reform has obviously made the problem far, far worse than it needed to be.

jenjen1352 said...

When I was a small girl in the '60s, I once complained to my mum about the orange she gave me. She pointed out, rather forcefully, that when she was growing up in the North-East of England, they didn't see an orange from one end of WWII to the other, and that plenty of starving children in Africa would be glad of my unwanted food.

When we visited Boston in the '90s, we used to share meals between us, the portions were so huge.

I don't particularly mind being poor in England, because I know I'll always have enough for my needs. I consider myself very lucky.

Renee said...

@Zane you may dislike the idea of western privilege but it does indeed exist. As far as the western rape of the continent of Africa, it continues to be an ongoing project.

No much of the problem with Haiti is that is was the first slave state to revolt and achieve freedom for which western powers have never forgiven them. The IMF and WB to this day continually penalize Haitie with unfair trade and loan agreements. The US and Canada invaded and removed a democratically elected leader because he sought economic reform and social policies that would uplift the people, thus reducing the function of Haiti as a neo-colony

As for Zimbabwe are you forgetting about the IMF and the WB? The issue is not necessarily Mugabe and you may or not be aware but that is a black country and whites are the invaders. Much like the Native American, before the land redistribution policy, all land was occupied property.

Western privilege though don't mean to utilize it, means poverty for the global south. No matter what we purchase, because it is made through the cycle of exploitation we are indeed impoverishing others. We simply need to recognize this and do our best to mitigate as best as we can on an individual level.

nia said...

@ Zane,
Much of Haiti's problem began when they had the 'uppity gall' to want to be independent from white rule.
Yes, I'm sure white invaders were extremely happy pre-Mugabe and during Ian Smith.

Whatever starts wrong, can never end right.

The Link Back Project said...

I can't comment on "Western Privilege" until someone draws me a roadmap. Who is and isn't "Western"? I am quite curious to see the answer. For me, I don't see the USA as "Western" anymore. I think we have gone the other way, ya know... 6 miles south on Police State Ave., turn right at Corruption St., then another right at Imperialism Blvd. 3rd Prison on the right.

* Visiting Hours 9:00am - 5:00pm.
** Visitors subject to Privacy Invasion.
*** Please have ID ready when asked.

Ashley said...

I live in NYC, and there are people right here who don't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The segregation of our neighborhoods and the pricing of healthy food means that for some people, it's a lot easier to buy drugs than a fresh tomato.

And the only reason we have access to most of the produce we do is outright imperialism and insane environmental waste. What the hell makes us think we should have avocados in New England? In November?

You're right Renee--the way we relate to food says EVERYTHING about our culture.

Liz said...

I felt that sense of privilege when I first saw the comment on Shakes. I just kinda skipped over it because I figured it would be an echo chamber of petty complaint. Thank you for having the patience to respond to it. It seems like you were the only one on that thread. I agree with your points on how wasteful we in the west are. I think a lot of people learned to resent their parents mentioning starving children in China & Africa when they said they were "full" or "didn't like that" instead of actually absorbing some kind of message. With how much people waste, it's easy to see how a little restructuring in resource distribution is a good idea. Apparently capitalism doesn't always work, as it seems to be in the best interests of most major corporations to let people starve while others are free to complain about the color of oranges.

The Fabulous Kitty Glendower said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Fabulous Kitty Glendower said...

I have an old post in which I am dancing around the your same point here. A little long winded I'm afraid and not exactly in the style that the hipsters at Shakesville would like or care to understand.

http://egarooo.blogspot.com/2007/06/xxxxx.html

I've never seen as many fruit trees in my life as I see now, where I live. The fruit just drops to the ground. Yet the police will be called as soon as a person picks one lemon.

Angel H. said...

This reminds me of a story my dad told me:

My dad's been retired from the Air Force as a Flight Engineer for about 3 years. A couple of years before that, he and his crew delivered some supplies to a refugee camp. (Sorry, but I can't remember where it was.) They were taking a break and about to eat their box lunches, when some curious kids came up to the plane and began to play and nose around. My dad looked at his lunch sandwich, orange, juice, and small cake, then look at the rail-thin children. He and his crew member decided to share their lunches with the kids. Then some of the adults came over and took the food from the children. The adults began to fight over those little oranges until scraps of peel and pulp fell to the ground. The dirt-covered scraps were snatched up and eaten hungrily.

My dad said it was one of the most heartbreaking things he'd ever seen.

oliemoon said...

Thank you for writing this. When I first saw that post over at Shakesville the other day, I skimmed it and moved on, but didn't really think about the implications. Reading this post from you was a really good check on my privilege and I'll be thinking about this topic for a while to come.

FeministGal said...

Although some may not like the "idea of western privilege" you present, it's an important one to discuss. It may make some uncomfortable to admit their own privilege and esp to realize they've forgotten to include it in their conversation, but it needs to be pointed out. I wrote about this a bit here: http://feministgal.blogspot.com/2008/08/accessibility-of-sustainable-food.html but definitely should have considered privilege EVEN MORE than i did. (I don't mean to self-promote, i just thought it was relevant :) haha)

Renee said...

Feministgal you drop your link anytime, if people aren't reading your blog they should be
I am very committed to discussing privilege from as many angles as possible. Until we are aware of how the lives that we lead impact others there can be no real and lasting concrete change.

revjohnny said...

When I was on welfare I enrolled in the local community college. I received a Pell Grant for tuition, which went directly to the school. The balance of the money was sent to me so that I could pay for the books that I needed. All of the money that was sent to me went for books, but the government didn't care. They subtracted the money that I received, from my allowance for food. This was 1985. I had $15/week for food for two people.

Luckily there was a nearby discount fruit and vegetable store. Really. I think they took the cast-offs from the regular grocery stores and sold it. I could buy a green pepper for a nickel. And I did. And I was grateful. I was the healthiest I had ever been (and probably will ever be) eating cast off food for $7.50/wk and the free government rice, and in spite of the free government "cheese food."

There was a lot of good left in the veggies and fruit that I bought there. Sure I had to cut off some of the ick. Sometimes the ick wasn't icky enough to cut off. I was fortunate to have a working stove and a refrigerator. My shelter was functional most of the time. Everything I had was precious.

My living situation has changed now. I live in a big apartment and eat organic food that is mostly free of icky spots. I am steeped in wealth compared to that time. I have so many choices of what I can eat and when I can eat it. Too often I make poor choices, deciding against the fruits and veggies and going instead for the frozen pizza.

Thanks for this post. Thanks for reminding me of my own story. Thanks for remembering, and for helping us remember, people who cannot get out of their poverty.

It doesn't matter why a person is starving. What matters is that they are starving and should be given food.

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