My nose wrinkles as I examine the pre-packaged bag of hearts of Romaine lettuce at my local grocery store. This particular bag is edged with pink, and somewhere a voice inside my head tells me that that is wrong, so wrong. Then a blue-edged bag of the same brand slides into my view and I see the words that put my soul at ease: CERTIFIED ORGANIC.
Goodbye, non-organic lettuce. And you know what? Good riddance. I don’t need to support your mega-farming, non-eco-friendly, pesticide-happy corporation. I can eat healthy and be eco-friendly at the same time, just you watch. It’s better for me, and it’s better for the environment.
Satisfied, I use my sleeve-encased forearm to bring my shopping cart into the next aisle. I read a study recently that allegedly found the handles of shopping carts to be dirtier than the average public restroom. Gross.
I’m looking for peanut butter. Good old-fashioned, creamy peanut butter, the kind I shamelessly eat directly out of the jar while watching reality television. The thought of this comforts me momentarily until I round the corner and find that lettuce is not the only thing that has diversified its product line. I stare up at a dizzying wall of peanut butters, with at least a quarter of the aisle devoted entirely to them. I had humbly thought that there were two kinds of peanut butter: crunchy and smooth. Well, maybe three kinds, because some grocery stores have that weird hippie peanut butter that’s half oil, half peanut and you have to mix it up yourself.
Yet clearly I’ve been out of touch with the peanut butter market over the last few years because none of the jars look familiar. I also had neglected to realize just how bad peanut butter is for you. Each jar boasts something like low-sodium, low-cholesterol, low-fat, fat-free, trans-fat-free, low-sugar, sugar-free, and of course, low-carb, to the point where it probably isn’t really peanut butter anymore.
Was the iconic Jif label unhealthy, too? What is going on? I just want peanut butter. My head begins to ache as I search the black hole that is the peanut butter aisle. It seems that normal, bad-for-you peanut butter is nowhere to be found.
I realize then that if I ever do find the normal, bad-for-you peanut butter, that I should probably buy as many as I possibly can since California plans to ban trans-fats from all our foods. I’m not opposed to the idea because I’m all for public wellness as much as the next person. Yet, I’m sort of embarrassed: Are Californians so incapable of feeding themselves that we have to have certain foods outlawed? Will I now have to drive to Nevada for my sordid, trans-fat eating needs? Will I have to traffic my peanut butter through Mexico?
At last my eyes light up as I locate, tucked away on the bottom shelf, the bad-for-you peanut butter. Gripped by curiosity, I compare the nutrition facts of the bad-for-you peanut butter to the Simply Jif, and find that other than the low-sugar as promised, there exist the same villainous-sounding ingredients. From the nutrition facts: partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (soybean), fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (rapeseed and soybean), monoglycerides and diglycerides and salt.
Fair enough. I put my bad-for-you Jif in my dirty shopping cart and proceed to the checkout. The checker swipes my peanut butter, organic lettuce, free-range eggs, reduced-sodium soy sauce, organic raviolis and so on. I ask for paper bags as usual and a few minutes later, I’m walking to my car, which is actually blue instead of brown after having just received its bi-annual wash. I’m pleased with this, because according to a banner at the car wash I went to, a clean car is more aerodynamic and therefore gets better gas mileage and therefore cuts down on the need to buy gas and therefore saves the environment by not wasting earth’s precious non-renewable resources.
I’m balancing three paper bags on each arm when I am suddenly accosted by a wild-haired young man. His shirt says “Greenpeace” and he is shouting something and brandishing a clipboard at me. “Why me?” I think, noting all the fake-blonde Newport Beachmamas in proximity that he could have preyed on.
Struggling to manage my unruly grocery bags, I helplessly tell the man that I do not have time for whatever he wants me to do. No, I’m sorry, I don’t want to join your mailing list, or drop boulders into the sea or destroy nuclear power plant chimneys or whatever it is you do. And no, I’m a poor student and I can’t donate to your cause because I’m not sure how I feel about helping an organization whose methods allegedly border on eco-terrorism and who tried to ban chlorine in drinking water: chlorine, which has been described as one of the biggest advances in the history of public health.
The uppity Greenpeacer follows me to my car like a homeless person from San Francisco, all the while squawking and waving his clipboard. Again I tell him that I have no time, he tells me that the ocean has no time and our ozone has no time and that it’s better for me to participate in saving the earth. It’s better for me.
I climb into my car and shut him off mid-sentence as I slam the door shut. Groceries still in hand, I contemplate how this Greenpeacer has managed to make me feel like such a jerk.
I buy organic, I think. Except for the peanut butter. Whatever. I ask for paper instead of plastic. I even keep my car aerodynamic to save the environment (that one doesn’t really count).
Still, the Greenpeacer had spoken to me as though I had just dunked baby pelicans into a barrel of oil. On my way home, I couldn’t shake the words of the Greenpeacer. I kept thinking, “Aren’t there other things he could be doing with his time besides haranguing people at grocery stores?” But then another thought occurred to me: Not all Greenpeacers are self-righteous, envirophillic crazies facing a world of apathy. And Greenpeacers don’t just stand around for nothing, they get paid by the hour. This guy could very well have been working to put himself through school, pay rent, bills or make other ends meet. Like my peanut butter, there could be a lot more than what meets the eye. Would he show the same belated empathy for me? He was probably only trying to make things better for himself.
I realize now that what is right, good and “better,” just like human intentions, cannot be summed up by a single glance or encounter. Nobody walks around with an ingredients label. Knowing something requires not judgment but time, and for the sake of truly knowing what is better I think I can afford that.