Feeding myself in Kansas

I went shopping for food at a store called Aidi. I have now shopped at enough stores in Kansas to reveal a pattern. The easiest way I can describe the pattern is by saying, “I have been totally spoiled by living in California.”

To me, many supermarkets in Kansas are have an atmosphere of resignation and sickness. Everything is jarred, canned, or wrapped in plastic, and most things are either frozen solid or have a suspiciously long shelf-life. There is absolutely no such thing as a fresh vegetable in these Kansas supermarkets. The closest I have found was vacuum-packed unwashed lettuce, and when I read the labeling I discovered that it had been trucked out from Salinas, CA. The only thing that stands a chance of being fresh is the beef, and that depends on where you shop. You will not find the word “organic” used on any label anywhere. I think it’s actually a curse-word in this part of the country, like “democrat” or “Colbert”.

Today I examined every shelf of the Aidi market twice, in search of something I could eat that wouldn’t just widen the nutritional crater that Kansas is digging inside my body. I found a bag of tiny “Ocean Spray” oranges that had been shipped from Chile, coated with wax and sprayed with thiabendazole, and the vacuum-packed lettuce from Salinas. I opened the lettuce in my motel room and carefully washed it in the sink, and that is how I am enjoying my first real salad in two weeks.

Actually, “supermarket” is the wrong word to use for these places. A more accurate description would be something like “junk-food warehouse and butcher’s shop”. More than half of Aidi’s floorspace is taken up with pancreas-destroying sugar snacks and bleached-flour milk-chocolate crap. You could eat a different “food” from this section for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for a hundred days… But by the end of the first month you’d probably be dead. Sure, there are stores like this in California. But in Kansas, in many small towns, this is all you get. When you are planning your meals for the week, for yourself and your kids, this is what you work with.

Walking around here, I tried to imagine what it would be like if I was a local, with limited travel range, trying to improve my eating habits. Would I have the knowledge to categorically dismiss so many of the things in this store as harmful? Would I have the guts to, since it runs counter to the eating habits of my friends and family? The only things we could all agree on would be meat and perhaps a few of the dairy products, and even then we’d have to argue about quantity. Assuming I made enough money to choose where to eat, how would I even be able to locate fresh vegetables? Decent oil? Eggs that didn’t come from some tortured wastrel of a factory chicken? These things are just … not here. At least, as far as I know. Perhaps it just takes some determined searching.

But compare this to where I come from. In Oakland, the supermarkets are loaded with produce. Then, for an appreciable number of residents, it’s not of sufficient quality, so they shop at Whole Foods (and moan about the price – I know I have). But that’s not enough either, because they also raise a stink about how far their food travels, and who owns and manages the outlet, so they have places like Berkeley Bowl and Rainbow Grocery. But that’s not as direct as it could be – so Oakland itself has at least FOUR Farmer’s Markets that assemble every week, rain or shine.

Back in Oakland, I live five blocks away from a store that ships gourmet chocolate from Europe and Africa, and I won’t buy most of it because I’m not impressed with the flavor. Here in Topeka, if I want dark chocolate, I choose between the large bar that tastes like wax, and the small bar with the oily texture.

Is it really just geography causing this? California gets the fancy weather, so it gets the fancy food? Is it the farm bill? Is it just what people are willing to put up with – a cultural thing?

Some optimistic part of me wasn’t expecting it to be true – but as I rove around these cities, I am lost in a sea of people “living and partly living”, as T.S. Eliot would put it. Planted behind desks, browsing Facebook. Arguing about high-school football over dinner. Sitting inert in bars. Kicking around in back lots, doing nothing. How much of this is boiling up from their physiology? How much of this is happening because they don’t feel right, in a way they can’t explain, for a reason that would never occur to them – to most people? Everyone is too busy trying to get any kind of food at all.

Perhaps I’m taking this all to seriously. However, an hour ago I finished all the lettuce in the box – enough for three salads – and my stomach and intestines are feeling better than they have in weeks. My head feels clearer too.

3 Responses to Feeding myself in Kansas

  1. Erika says:

    I don’t think you’re taking it too seriously. It is perhaps, as the hippies used to say, a “consciousness-raising” for you. I think the issue of food, food supply, food ingredients, what, when, and where we eat, and WHY we eat the way we eat cannot be taken too seriously. It is only by seeing how others live that we ask “why?”, and then subsequently ask the more important question, “why aren’t they asking why?”

    The really boggling thing to think about is that in most parts of the United States where people live in some number, you CAN actually grow vegetables. More than corn and soybeans will grow in Kansas’ fertile amber plains.

    You’re facing hard realities for what sounds like the first time. I’m glad you’re finding out what’s out there. As the saying goes, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. I think you’re paying attention now, to a lot of things.

    • TheCuriousCyclist says:

      Well, I’ve certainly thought about these things before … but a lot of it was localized, and some of it at least was conjecture. Now I’m riding through miles and miles of hard observational data, and some of those thoughts are solidifying into alarming shapes. “Perhaps I was onto something” is usually a gratifying thought, … but it can sometimes be a depressing one.

  2. Tobin says:

    ALDI is a discount grocery store that originates here in Germany!

    I haven’t been to one yet on this trip, but if I recall correctly, the emphasis is really on “discount”.

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