Outside the System

One of my big interests, which will be part of my dissertation project, is how food is produced and makes its way to our plates.  The mainstream system, in which we all participate, includes big, industrial-scale farms, massive trucking and other shipping efforts, and big-box stores like Target and large supermarkets.

While this system has streamlined the process of getting food to us all, and given U.S. citizens the cheapest food our country has ever known*, there are downsides to it as well.  Most of our cheapest food isn’t the most nutrient-rich, but it’s highly subsidized by the U.S. government, encouraging us to eat unhealthily.  Foods that are sturdy and shelf-stable are prized, while tasty, fresher foods are given little respect by the shippers and the corporations that decide what will be on our grocery shelves.  And it can be difficult to find products from our own local farmers in “the system.”

In Greece, as in the U.S., these realities encourage people to buy what is cheaper and easier to find, rather than the amazing, unique items grown right here in their own country.  One of the things I’m doing here this summer is meeting with people who are working outside the system to make these things more available to everyday Greek people.

Does your local big-box store have one of these?  I don't think so.

Does your local big-box store have a window seat like this? I didn’t think so.

One place I visited is called Lacandona, a coffee shop / dry goods store / meeting place whose name references the Lacandon rain forest in Mexico and Central America.  Lacandona is run cooperatively, and patronizes other cooperative and collective groups both worldwide (coffee, sugar, vanilla) and throughout Greece (pasta, cereals, beer).  In fact, the Lacandon rain forest itself is best known as the adopted home of the Zapatistas, whose cause Lacandona supports as like-minded to their own.

Sorry so dark ... Lacadona is a cool sanctuary from the bright heat of Athens.

Lacadona is a cool sanctuary from the bright heat of Athens.

Lacandona does a good coffee trade, but doesn’t have as brisk a business selling food as they would like; the neighborhood people have visited the store, but then went back to the local supermarket because its prices were lower.  This problem is similar to that of local food vendors in the U.S.: efficiencies of scale work in favor of the big guys, and the little guys spend more on transport, packaging etc.

I also visited Bathoskipos, a mostly organic grocery store owned by two brothers.  Bathoskipos, which means “back garden” — referring to the little garden at the back of the store — works with Greek suppliers as much as possible, choosing organic vendors outside Greece when necessary.

A view toward the front door of Bathoskipos.  Check out those light fixtures!

A view toward the front door of Bathoskipos. Love the use of packing crates!

Lukas, one of the brothers, told me about how the small-scale Greek farmers he works with make the rounds, visiting Athens once in a while to bring their produce to several small shops around the city.  He agreed that it can be more work to use several small producers rather than one large distributor, but he knows that this way he is getting the best.

Looking toward the "back garden" -- or "deep garden," as Google Translate suggested.

Looking toward the “back garden” — or “deep garden,” as Google Translate suggested.

Bathoskipos is integrating into the neighborhood, as locals have found certain items they like to buy there, and keep coming back.  But most of them don’t do their big shopping trips there — a common issue in the U.S. local food system as well.

After my meeting at Lacandona, I was walking back toward the Metro station when I was suddenly confronted with this:

Seems a little weird to see this in Athens ...

Seems a little weird to see this in Athens …

Now, whether you like KFC or not, it seems like a fitting example of the differences between the corporate biggies, which have gone world-wide, and the little shops like Lacandona and Bathoskipos, whose goals may be smaller-scale, but are still important and relevant to our societies.

And then I had a lovely salad at a trendy sidewalk cafe.  Didn’t think I’d leave you hanging on the food pics, did you?

Greek greens and oranges, Italian walnuts and cheese ... not too bad.

Greek greens and oranges, Italian walnuts, balsamic vinegar and cheese … not too bad.

*As an academic, I can’t bear to say something like I did at the beginning of this post without a citation or two …

First, an exploration of my assertion that, in the U.S., we spend less now than ever before on our food.

In 1900, the average U.S. household brought in $750, and spent 43% of that on food.  By 2003, average household income had increased to $51,000 (unadjusted for inflation).  And we spent 13% of that income on food.  That means that many of us have a lot more money freed up to spend on things like rent, technology and yes, expensive health care.

Find out more at the Atlantic article linked below:


Another thing to think about: We in the U.S. spend a fair amount of our taxes on subsidies for farmers who grow corn and soybeans.  These subsidized crops can be fed to animals to make cheap meat products, and can be processed into cheap food where most of the retail cost comes from advertising, packaging and transport.  See this article from Scientific American for more: