I stand in front of the produce cooler at Trader Joe’s, eyeing the pre-cut, pre-packaged broccoli and cauliflower florets. My four-year-old recently told me he likes raw broccoli and cauliflower with ranch dip, saying he used to eat it at his old school, so I’m looking for snack-sized versions (even though later, he’ll almost certainly tell me that in fact, he doesn’t like raw broccoli and cauliflower if I buy them, no, not even with ranch.)
Do I need organic or conventional? I pull out the little wallet card I made a while ago that lists the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. No broccoli to be seen, but cauliflower is on the Clean Fifteen, so conventional it is.
I spend an inordinate amount of time making these kinds of choices, weighing too many competing priorities every time I go grocery shopping. In no particular order, these are the things I’m always thinking about:
- Availability of quality organic produce and other items
- Availability of humanely-sourced milk and dairy products
- Whether the store prohibits guns inside
As you can imagine, it’s virtually impossible to prioritize all of these things equally. I began boycotting my long-time favorite large chain grocery store early this year because not only do they not prohibit guns, they also seem to be actively pro-gun and pro-NRA. The only other large-chain store in my area does prohibit guns and is much less expensive, but it has a dismal selection of organic produce and other goods. So I began shopping almost exclusively at Whole Foods until I quickly realized that we could not afford to shop there exclusively on one income (maybe I can be so generous as to call it a 1.1 income, to account for the measly income I’ve generated writing and practicing law this year). So then I began shopping at Trader Joe’s for the bulk of our food at a much lower cost, but I still buy all of my dairy and eggs at Whole Foods because Trader Joe’s doesn’t disclose any information about the farms where it sources its dairy products. And then I found out, much to my disbelief and dismay, that Trader Joe’s doesn’t prohibit guns in its stores either—it doesn’t welcome guns into its stores like my old store does, but it follows state law, so it allows open carry and concealed carry with permits.
At some point, I have to throw up my hands. I can’t possibly prioritize all of these things equally. We can’t get all the food we need at the one large gun-sense chain nearby, and we can’t possibly afford to buy all our food at Whole Foods. Which leaves me feeling guilty about continuing to shop at Trader Joe’s on a weekly basis, hoping that it’s at least the lesser of two evils, but also certain that I’m betraying my gun-sense ideals, which I’ve made a lot of hay about over the last year. I feel like a giant hypocrite.
And then there’s the organic food. On the one hand, I check my Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen list before I buy any produce. I check the cans of beans I buy to make sure that the lining is BPA-free. I buy the new Heinz Ketchup that doesn’t have high-fructose corn syrup in it. And on the other hand? I drink a bottle of Coke—full-octane, high-fructose-corn-syrup-laden, probably toxic, terrible-for-my-liver-and-pancreas Coke—every single day, sometimes two in a day. And I feel like a hypocrite about that, too.
And then there’s the vegetarianism. I became vegetarian solely for humane reasons. I’d been thinking about it for a long time, and then, in 2011, when we were on our way home from the beach, I saw an 18-wheeler hauling hundreds of pigs to slaughter—they were jam-packed in the trailer, their sweet little snouts sticking out the small holes in the side to breathe. I became a vegetarian the next day. And although I want so much to be ethically consistent, doing so would require me to go completely vegan, which seems almost impossible to me right now. So I make decisions every day, many of which seem totally conflicting. Last night at a Chinese restaurant, I avoided the shrimp fried rice that I used to love, but when the waiter told me the sauce for the sesame tofu I ordered was made with oyster sauce, I shrugged my shoulders. I try to buy vegetarian cheese when I can, but occasionally I cannot find vegetarian versions of the cheese I’m looking for, so I buy cheese made with animal rennet. I continue to eat eggs and dairy when I’m out at restaurants, even though what I’m eating in all likelihood came from the same factory farms I seek to avoid when I buy my own. And I feel like a hypocrite about that, too.
And on top of all of that, I feel like a complete idiot getting anxious over any of this—my god, what a privilege, what an absurd luxury it is that these are my most pressing problems when trying to figure out how to feed my family.
Today, as I was driving home from my weekly grocery shopping (which today required THREE stops, because Whole Foods was out of the eggs and milk I usually buy there, so I had to go to my local co-op to get those), I thought about these ridiculous standards I set for myself, these ridiculous standards I have always set for myself. It’s the relentless pursuit of perfection that also keeps me from writing more freely and submitting more frequently—nothing ever feels good enough. On the one hand, it’s great to have high standards and high expectations for myself and my work and the way I move about in the world, the way I treat others, the way I treat animals and the environment. But on the other hand, I am human, I am fallible, I am imperfect, and there really is only so much that I can do.
As I drove home, feeling guilty about Trader Joe’s and the Coke I drank this morning and the oyster sauce I ate last night and the homeless person on the corner who would give anything to be in my hypocritical shoes right now, I took a deep breath, exhaled, and thought to myself, “I am not perfect. I am trying hard. I am doing a lot. I am not doing everything I wish I were, but I am doing the best I can for now.”
And that just has to be enough.