Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Paradox of Plenty

I just returned from a fabulous solo weekend in Torino, Italy attending Mount Holyoke College's biannual European Alumnae Symposium.  I debated whether or not I should go but with Glenn's persistent encouragement I decided to just do it.  After all, a weekend spent discussing good food in Italy is my idea of a dream vacation.  I spent the weekend surrounded by smart women, participating in intellectually stimulating conversations, and consuming copious amounts of delicious food and wine.

I participated in a gorgeous walking tour of the central city, over indulged in a decadent chocolate tasting at Guido Gobino Chocolates, shopped at Eataly, and ate all of the delicacies the Piedmont region of Italy is known for.  (As a mother away from her young child, I also luxuriated in reading in bed in the morning, giving myself my first pedicure in months, and eating a meal without having to cut up someone else’s food).

Over the course of two and a half days, I was intellectually stimulated in a way that only happens when I am in the presence of other Mount Holyoke alumnae.  We listened to panel discussions and lectures given by esteemed alumnae, professors, and international experts in the field of sustainability, consumption, and the slow food movement on a global level.  Ever the diligent Mount Holyokers, we asked thought provoking questions and debated the issues amongst ourselves.   I returned home feeling both intellectually and gastronomically satisfied.

Throughout it all I kept coming back to the theme of the weekend:  The Paradox of Plenty:  Redefining La Dolce Vita.  We discussed global food distribution and consumption, the availability of energy and renewable resources and the freedom to make individual choices as to what we eat and where our food comes from.   How is it that there are just as many starving people as obese people in the world?  In the United States alone $147 billion a year is spent on obesity related health issues.  It saddens me to think that in many communities around the globe it is cheaper and easier to buy pre-packaged convenience foods with little nutritional value than it is to purchase nutritious food to make a home cooked meal.

We live in a society where seasons no longer determine which foods we can eat.  Fresh strawberries in New England for Christmas?  No problem.  Fresh seafood in a landlocked country?  Completely doable.  All of these food choices are options if we are willing to pay the price.  What we don't think about is the total cost of our decisions.  The cost is more than the money we hand over in the checkout line.  What are the costs to society when we ship food half way around the world? How do our decisions effect the larger world around us?

Of course, the very notion of making a decision to buy locally grown organic meats and produce instead of food grown or mass produced in some far away land or factory is dependent upon our ability to afford the monetary price being asked.

As I sat in Torino this past weekend I looked around a room filled with people like me.  While our ages spanned the decades our racial and socio-economic status was very similar.  We were all privileged to have attended an elite women's college where we received outstanding educations.  We all currently have the financial means to travel to a foreign country to debate the issues at hand.  Yes, we were a privileged group who can most likely afford to buy food locally or imported goods out of season.   We have been empowered, both educationally and financially to make these choices.

In true Mount Holyoke fashion we were reminded of this. We were reminded that while we are privileged to have these opportunities and to be able to make these decisions, many people are not afforded this luxury.  Millions of people are more focused on having food to feed their families than they are on the source of the food on their dinner table.  Yes, it is easy to discuss these issues on an intellectual level before retreating to fancy cocktail parties and multi-course dinners filled with enough food options to feed a family for a week.  It is harder to think about the fact that it is because of our privileged status that we have these choices available to us.

So where do I go from here?  For me, this past weekend raised more questions than it answered.  I am now thinking about the choices I have made and how those choices may change in the future.  I feel as though I have a responsibility to do something- whether it is here in Albania or back in the U.S.- but I'm not sure what that something should be.   I don't know where to go from here, but this weekend has provided me with a lot of food for thought.

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