I watched what felt like my 100th documentary about people living in poverty the other week. This time about garment workers in Bangladesh. I can’t get the young mother out of my head who, having no other choice, had to leave her young daughter in the country with family so she could work in the city factory. Although she knew she might only see her daughter once or twice a year; this was the only choice if she wanted her child (about the age of my own child) to attend school, grow up outside a factory, and have a chance at a better life. Her name is Shima Akhter.
I have learned about and wept for the soul destroying suffering of my fellow mothers around the world and each time I learn more I commit instantly to helping in some way. I always seem though to return, mostly, to life as normal within a heartbeat. Life gets busy, I get sick, my son gets sick, my job gets stressful, and I get consumed by my own micro sufferings. I forget about the women drowning in desperate circumstances while still being far more brave and resilient than I would ever be in those circumstances. Shima would then usually join the “forgotten” in my mind.
But this time it feels different. I can’t get that Shima out of my head. Or, the mother at the end of the same film whose baby lies coughing on the floor of the toxic factory while his mother works beside him. A switch has gone on and I can’t turn it off. I can’t seem to forget or deny that blindly and selfishly living my comfortable middle-class life while other mothers are separated from their children, forced to watch them die of hunger or wilt away due to toxic environments, and ferry them across unforgiving seas in the dead of the night to escape a wave of death, is an acceptable way to live for me.
You would think by now that I have learned enough through school, work, these brilliantly descriptive documentaries, and my own experience, and would have gotten on the compassion path long before now. But, like the imperfect human I am, I quickly forget the suffering of others after a short while and get pulled by comforts, habits, and unspoken or articulated social norms in my life (not to mention a lack of self discipline in thought and action). This is because the theory and intent of “being a better person” is easier than the daily practice.
This last month we have been saving and cutting costs so we can make some more dramatic changes to our lifestyle. I began to return to the food question. I always somehow do. Food and agriculture are my passions. It is the groove I feel most at home in. My husband has also long counted the dollars spent on the food that has just been thrown out and on the cupboards filled with luxury ingredients that sit unused until they expire. He’s long harassed me, sometimes fairly and sometimes not, about the complexity of the meals we were making, the hard to find ingredients, and my disinterest in eating leftovers.
So, in our overall effort to save money and practice a more frugal compassionate lifestyle, we spent the month trying to cut the food bill while still eating healthy and sustainable food. We started by trying to eat mostly from our fridge, cupboard and freezer and to shop only for what we deemed were the fresh essentials or filler items to complete recipes. It was effective: I calculated a savings of about $390 (CAN) for the month (not counting the savings from food not thrown out). The number would be a good $50 higher in savings if I hadn’t fallen back into the habit of buying expensive items to make a dinner for some friends coming over. All in all we halved our monthly food costs.
In the month of frugal food planning my eyes opened to the amount of waste we used to produce due to bad planning and busyness. It also reminded me of the difficulty of shopping on a strict budget. The challenge reminded me of the food poverty of my childhood where my mother, using every penny intentionally to feed four children, very carefully planned all our meals with most of them coming from the bulk food section. It made me think about whether it was possible to design a menu that fulfilled the criteria of my food values that would be accessible to everyone. Could I design a menu for a family of three living in one of the most expensive cities in North America that was low cost, healthy, sustainable, and produced zero waste? Could this be replicated by a single mother in a low income job?
Food for me is where two forces collide: The art and pleasure of slow food and the politics of hunger. I am a lover of food in a romantic, passionate, and joyful way. I have always been deeply interested and invested in the health qualities, taste, growing and politics of food. I am passionate about farmers markets, organic produce, fair trade products and low impact eating. I have experimented with many different diets to find the sweet spot of healthy and sustainable (sometimes successfully and sometimes not). However, for the most part these sustainable options seem accessible only to the middle and upper classes and overall to white folk. All you need to do is look at the alternative grocer Pomme in my city of Coquitlam and you don’t see a lot of single mothers with welfare food budgets shopping there. In fact when I asked a low income immigrant single mother of two where she preferred to shop she said Superstore, the bargain grocer which also happened to be closer to her and to transit.
As we have been cutting costs and being mindful of our food choices the worlds that the poor and the comparatively rich live in have become embarrassingly clear. In 2017, with all our knowledge and technology, healthy, culturally appropriate and sustainable food should be abundant and affordable. In the middle class, we pat ourselves on the back for knowing better and caring more as we buy our high-end produce and organic meats. I know I have. But this seems to have nurtured a two-tier system where we encourage vendors and drive policies that produce healthy sustainable food only at a high cost inaccessible to the marginally less rich than us. Like private school or private health care we can pay for our better product instead of doing the harder work of fighting for equality within the system at the political level so that everyone can access these necessities.
Here is where the rubber hits the road. I only complain about transit when I take it and realize that getting to work takes an hour with three transfers rather than 20 minutes in my car. I only want to improve and fight for a better public education system when my child is in a public school and this school is getting funding cuts. I only care about the quality of public health care when I cannot afford to pay for better care and there are long waits. Food is no different. Only when I realize that it is near impossible for me to feed my family a healthy and sustainable diet on a limited budget do I begin to see the system inequities that I was blind to only moments before. The truth is I am not a very good person by nature. I have to work pretty hard to get out of my head and sweep out the ingrained selfishness that pervades most of my everyday thoughts and actions.
This is where eating then becomes a way to practice compassion and mindfulness. I was recently reading a chapter of Pema Chodren’s book “When things fall apart: heart advice for difficult times” and she spoke to something so true for me. She told a story about how once on a bus in San Francisco she read an article about applying compassion to a suffering world and she was so overcome by emotion that she wept right there on the bus. At that moment she dedicated herself to wholehearted compassionate living and service to others only to arrive home to a phone call which tested her resolve immediately. A friend needed a favour and she was too tired. She turned them down. Her lesson here is how the daily practice of the Buddhist philosophy of compassion in the real life of schedules, busyness, and exhaustion was a real challenge.
For me this is the truth of food in my life. Nothing breaks my heart more violently than the hunger of children around the world. When I hear reports of children picking through garbage dumps for scraps of food or dying of starvation I cannot bare it. Even in my own country 60% of children in the North are food insecure and malnourished. But, when I am shopping for my own family I think nothing of spending $5 on a single loaf of bread or purchasing $10 organic yogurt. I feel pretty self righteous about how much better I am than the next regular yogurt purchaser when I do it too. I know that the single mother I talked to who lives in social housing with her two young kids cannot afford organic yogurt. There may be days when she cannot afford yogurt (or whatever she sees as essential) at all.
So, there is great value in practicing the art of walking in the shoes of those less fortunate for extended periods of time. It is too easy to forget other people’s suffering in daily life when this suffering is not our own. Practicing living closer to this suffering and intentionally choosing not to strive to increase our own comforts can then be a powerful practice of compassion and a more honest way of living in the world.
It might be that the only thing I can do to help that Shima in Bangladesh is to never buy into fast fashion again. It is a small but meaningful effort not to feed a global system that causes so much destruction. It’s perhaps an easy thing to do for someone like myself who is not really that interested in fashion (to the general horror of my more stylish friends). This might be a harder shift for someone who loves to shop and buy new clothes frequently or a low income family shopping for clothing for their kids. In other words it’s easy to do the easy things. For me buying my clothes at consignment stores is the easy thing.
But, right here in Canada, in my own quiet suburb, there are people suffering from very solvable problems that I ignore quite on the regular because they are not so easy for me. There is really no reason I can think of for anyone in my region to go hungry. Actually, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t be able to access delicious, culturally appropriate, sustainable, and healthy food that contributes to their’s and their children’s ability to not just survive but thrive. We have abundant agricultural land, a temperate climate, free irrigation in the form of endless rain, and access to a coastline. The only reason that this equality of food wealth does not exist is because those of us who already have these things have forgotten what it might be like to not have them (or have never experienced need). We forget the problem exists. I forget the problem exists.
In this case I need to regularly peer out of my “castle walls” like the prince Siddhartha Gautama (who later became better known as “Buddha”) so famously did and then be genuinely curious about the nature of suffering outside my personal boundaries of privilege and relative comfort. This for me is not the easy thing to do. I grew up not having enough money to buy the luxury foods I take for granted now and I like forgetting about that kind of life.
But this semi-conscious food poverty amnesia is souring the digestion of my organic yogurt at more regular frequency. With this recent food challenge I remembered what it was like to fret in an aisle over the cost of a food item. With this food challenge I aim to remember a bit more every day and with every meal. In the end I think it will do me as much good as I could for anyone else because the pure act of living my intentions to be the change will resolve the conflict between theory and action that invisibly eats away at me in every moment these are out of alignment.
So the challenge continues. The first phase was to eat out of the cupboards and not waste any food. My goal was to drop our monthly food budget from between $800-$900 to $400. We easily achieved this. This next phase though will up the ante and continue at the same budget without relying as much on withdrawals from our cupboard “savings.” The catch is that I still want to make sure we are eating healthy whole food that fulfills the nutritional, taste, and time needs of our family while eating food that is respectful of the farmers and land it is grown on. Otherwise, I will be more likely to “forget” again and slip into old habits.
While I want to make sure that Shima and the local mother I know are not forgotten, I also want my son to grow up learning to apply compassion as a daily practice of joy rather than seeing it as a sacrifice he can choose to make when he feels like it. If he also develops a healthy relationship with food would’t that be a gift? Wish us luck!