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Can you afford to be a liberal?

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, March 4, 2005

Can you afford to be a liberal?

Recycled Toilet Paper, 12 rolls – $11.99; Cage-free eggs – $3.99; Organic, biodegradable shampoo – $6.99; Organic yogurt, 32 oz – $4.19.

Going shopping without a heavy conscience and a healthy body – priceless.

Last week I was driving home from campus (“Driving?” you scream – I should have biked or walked or taken TRANSPO to save precious fuels and cut down on pollutants). I had an extremely guilty craving. It was ten o’clock in the evening and I hadn’t yet eaten dinner. Driving downtown I only had a few options after 10 p.m. I could cook, but I had nothing in the house; there was Fiddler’s or the Oyster Bar, but nothing there I could afford. McDonalds, Burger King – but these were no good because it was a Friday in Lent. No meat. And their fish sandwich was just too greasy for me. Besides I only had about two bucks in my wallet. That wouldn’t even cover a trip to McDonalds. And oh yeah, there’s the Taco Bell. Taco Bell. The 7-layer burrito was calling my name: beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream – what more could a health-conscious vegetarian-for-a-day consumer of fast food ask for at this time of the night?

But no. I’d forgotten one crucial problem with Taco Bell. Tomatoes. Immigrant farmers. I didn’t care. I was pushed over the edge with hunger. One little seven-layer burrito wouldn’t hurt. I drove to the Taco Bell. I went through the drive-thru, looked at the menu and was saved. The voice came over the intercom and asked me, “What’s your order?” I felt like crying with the shame. I was stumbling over my words and said, “I’m sorry but I don’t think I want anything.” I drove away back home to make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Though a moral victory for me, it sent me to bed rather hungry and without a warm meal.

I don’t think I can afford to be a consistent liberal. I, and others who are also in a low income bracket with no assistance from their families or enough assistance from the government, am sometimes forced to participate in the vicious cycle of perpetuating unfair labor schemes and exploitation. An old song goes “I sold my soul to the company store.” Even I don’t cross the line into the Wal-Mart store … but it’s really hard, damn hard not to when so many other things that are consistent with my liberal values just aren’t affordable to me. I bet Wal-Mart employees can’t afford to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart.

I also hear many people complain about this nation’s problems with obesity, people’s lack of eating good vegetables and the success of fast food and other junk food. Health food is expensive. Being environmentally conscious is expensive. Obesity is definitely a class problem in this country. The poor don’t seem to go hungry any more, but they go malnourished. Where I shop for bread, frozen veggies and other basics sometimes, the Save-a-Lot on the corner of Western Ave and Chapin, I think of all of the affordable yet practically poisoned meats, milk and dairy products with hormones and other treatments. These types of foods have been known to cause early menses and sexual development of young girls, in some extremely negative circumstances, making them more vulnerable to sexual crimes or experiences at early ages. These foods, which are much cheaper, actually contribute and help perpetuate class divisions. They also are in some ways addictive and mass-marketed to children, coating things with extra sugar, salt and fat.

This gets me very depressed. On my $15,000 a year (most of which goes to rent, books and other research expenses) I can barely afford to feed myself much more than the addictive Kraft Mac & Cheese (even this gets me down because Kraft is owned by Phillip Morris), with an occasional trip to Harmony market to treat myself to eggs from organically-fed, cage-free chickens or organic hormone-free yogurt. Forget eating meat that is environmentally conscious or without hormones. How can a family possibly afford to feed itself healthy food on $20,200 (what two minimum-wage earners could bring home in a 52 weeks)?

The next time you bite into your organic vegetables, tofu, cage-free chicken or drink your hormone-free milk, don’t think about the hungry. Think about those who are hungry for the social justice of eating foods that don’t pollute bodies. Change your donating habits to food pantries. Donate frozen or fresh vegetables instead of canned. Some pantries even take frozen chickens and turkeys. Grow an organic garden for the homeless shelter this summer; they will take your vegetables. Food is also an instrument of class division; let’s take a bite out of it.

Sarah MacMillen

graduate student

department of sociology

March 3