I went to the market this morning: the Queen Vic on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD. It’s a Friday morning thing. My son and I load up our fold-away shopping cart in the back of the car and make the short journey to do our weekly shop for veggies, meat, seafood, dairy and coffee.
Most of our stall holders are still there, though others have called it quits. How long the stayers can hold on in this current climate, I don’t know. This creeping shutdown of our lives is hard for everyone. To see these small-time providores holding fort in the cold Autumn air makes that tangible. Still, we managed to get most of what we needed. The resilience of these good people remains, though it’s clear many are struggling.
I passed a young woman standing alone behind her meagre offering of root veggies: potatoes, onions, carrots, yams and cassava. She managed a smile, though she looked fragile and uncertain. I didn’t need her potatoes but found myself buying a bagful anyway.
It’s a complicated business, this shopping through a season of isolation. Competing interests, all of them valid, pull in different directions. Do I plan ahead, order my weekly supply online and wait for an anonymous delivery to my doorstep? I can, but the demand for such services is at peak and I can take the place of someone who needs it more than me. Do I head to the local Woolies and push my trolley down its crowded aisles? I can, but in doing so I am supporting one of a duopoly of supermarkets that accounts for 80% of the Australian grocery spend. I wonder whose pockets I’m lining and what others are increasingly empty. Do I head to the outdoor market and do my bit to support small businesses and local suppliers? I can, but perhaps the risks for ‘contamination’ are more obvious and less contained for all of us.
None of this is simple and I don’t mean to suggest that my early morning choice was virtuous. Right and wrong answers don’t exist. The truth is, the way we shop and eat is, at the best of times, full of ethical dilemmas. Now though, these questions seem more pressing.
It’s a good reminder to me that this current state of ‘social distancing’ makes more tangible our inter-dependence. The individual choices we have relate to what degree we are willing to make ourselves answerable to those connections. “How we eat,” the ethicist RJH King says, “and whether we hold ourselves accountable for how we eat, depends to some extent on what we see. Eating either obscures the world or helps to make it visible.”
Perhaps our current predicament will help to make some important truths easier to see.
R.J.H King, ‘Eating Well: Thinking Ethically About Food’ in Food and Philisophy: Eat, Drink and Be Merry. F. Allhoff and D. Monroe (eds). Oxford, Blackwell: 177-191, 2007.