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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Shopping for the human connection?

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In Guatemala I was addicted, truly addicted, to my morning regimen. No, it wasn't a catch up to the day's news on my iPad with a cup of coffee from Starbucks. Nor was it my favourite bowl of cereal or brand of orange juice. It wasn't even a luxurious shower or a sleep-in. It was something much more sacred: a daily experience that allowed me to indulge in what makes us human — connections with others.

You see, until recently, I lived in a small tourist town of Panajachel (Pana) on the ever-sunny, volcano-lined lake Atitlán in Guatemala's Western Highlands. There, despite residing close to a local supermarket, I chose a different kind of 20 minute shopping trip for my daily breakfast.

First stop was buying orange juice from Doña Anastasia. She lives in a cute, but tiny, brightly coloured wooden house with her grandmother, who speaks no Spanish but always graces you with a heartwarming toothless smile. Anastasia has a one-year-old whose serious features belie her girly pigtails. She watched me with a mix of curiosity and apathy that only a child can manage, while her mum squeezed fresh, succulent oranges from her cousin's trees and we chatted about life, work and the men in our lives.

Next was Maria in her newly opened fresh produce store stocked through her family's and other farmers' local land. Her eleven-year-old sister helped out while Maria's newborn was safely tucked away in a cloth papoose that keeps her close to her mother's heartbeat. I would buy a few deep red, odd shaped tomatoes, fresh white onions with the earth still speckled on, and half a dozen eggs for the frittata I planned to make. There was little talk as she does not speak much Spanish either (let alone English), but we pointed, gestured and giggled all the same.

Then I would move on to my favourite tienda — a general snack and household goods store — where, behind the scenes, the wife of Sergio makes the best traditional cooked beans in town. But you wouldn't know it without getting to know them.

Finally, I made a quick stop at a small window next to a church where all day long women and girls clad in traje — traditionally woven clothing — hand-make palm sized corn tortillas. My white face was always a source of amusement as they don't tend to see many gringas (foreigners) stopping by.

One day, as I was walking away from Maria's, I realised that she had undercharged me around 15 pence. Immediately going back to pay even this tiny amount was not a matter of obligation or guilt, but an issue of trust, respect, justice and responsibility that I felt towards her simply because we 'knew' each other.

So, why am I sharing this story with you? When I was sitting down to one of my very last frittata, beans, tortillas and freshly squeezed juice breakfasts, I felt grateful for the fact that I could see exactly where my produce came from, how fresh it was and who made or prepared it. Although I could not witness the process involved in growing the foods I bought, which undoubtedly entailed pesticide and fertiliser use, something else important was happening. On a short morning walk, I was indulging in the experience of what makes us human: contact and relationships with other human beings. This type of connected and direct exchange made for a consumption, like that associated with gift exchange at Christmas, which built relationships by bringing people together. (Not to mention that the established routine cut out the sometimes painful task of facing myriad of choices on supermarket shelves, a move that may well have played into a more content existence, as Ted Fischer writes in his PopAnth article, Can reducing our choices increase our happiness?)

It seems as though I am not the first or the last person to crave a more connected type of consumption. The local food, community supported agriculture (CSA) and farmer's markets movements in the U.S. and Europe, for example, are growing exponentially. Researchers see some of these as a way to re-establish trust and re-build eroded community and social capital by creating fully integrated food systems. CSA, for example, relies on customers to pledge financial support to local farms ahead of the growing and harvesting season. This way they share in the risks and rewards of food production, while getting fresh, ripe, in-season and usually organic produce delivered weekly to their doorsteps. Supporters are also free to volunteer and visit to get to know the farm and the farmers. Similarly, alternative movements such as the Slow Food Movement are trying to put the value back into artisan and local knowledge to re-embed food consumption with culture and nature.

These alternative networks draw in clientele who are yearning for the kind of personal, authentic connection to their food, and the people who produce and sell it, that my Guatemalan breakfast shop afforded. A survey conducted by Sabine O'Hara and Sigrid Stagl in upstate New York, for example, revealed that members got involved with CSA because of concerns about their own health and the desire to physically (re)connect to the place and people who produce their foods. "Knowing where food comes from," "supporting local farmers," and "getting fresh or organic vegetables" all scored as 'very important' reasons.

These alternatives are not without their problems. Food produced with social goals in mind often costs more than supermarket fodder, which begs the question of whether or not these efforts could be scaled beyond a middle class dream. In the survey mentioned earlier, for example, CSA participating households tended to be better educated than the average New York household with a median income of more than 30% higher than the state average. Meanwhile, Suzanne Belliveau poses that although alternative networks may be helping small-scale farmers carve out a living, they are doing little to change the dominance of mass-produced, mass-marketed goods in global food systems. And, anthropologists warn against oversimplifying and dismissing the supermarket as necessarily alienating. In his study of shoppers in North London, for example, Daniel Miller argues that supermarket and other kinds of shopping is not just disconnected individualism, but is more rooted in love and social relations than may appear on the surface.

Nevertheless, to see what all the fuss is about, next time you go shopping for your week's grocery supplies, visit a local farm or greengrocer's and experience for yourself what it feels like to see where your food comes from, learn how it is produced and shake the hand that feeds you.

Immediately going back to pay even this tiny amount was not a matter of obligation or guilt, but an issue of trust, respect, justice and responsibility that I felt towards her simply because we 'knew' each other.

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Fresh juice for sale in Guatemala. Photo by Ioulia Fenton.
Fresh juice for sale in Guatemala. Photo by Ioulia Fenton.