Jon’s warning before we left for Guam: “You’re going starve.”
A self-professed veggie lover, if it weren’t for my Dairy Queen affliction (so bad! I know! I know!) and the fact that my boyfriend (sidenote: can pop culture please come up with a less juvenile term for the dude whose head you sleep beside but are not married to?) is a cattle farmer, I’d give vegetarianism a shot. Have you seen Forks Over Knives? It makes a convincing argument for going full-blown vegan.
But, alas, the Dairy Queen chicken basket is just… so good. I love what it does to my thighs.
My meat-loving ways throw me into the majority camp, especially on Guam. One stroll through the general menus on island offer an eyebrow-worthy raising trend: meat, meat, starch, starch. No veggies. Well, maybe garlic. And canned bamboo shoots. And mung bean sprouts, which are wonderful.
Blame it on WWII, like everyone else on island does. Battles blew three layers of jungle canopy off the rock, presumably wiping out helpful pollinators and screwing with the soil. Add the intense humidity, rain, and equatorial heat, and everyone just shrugs their shoulders. Everything rots, locals say. Even my boyfriend.
Except… I don’t really get it. Like, at all.
I paid close attention to the regional weather reports for the Pacific and Asia. Thailand and Vietnam’s temps regularly soared into the 90s — far hotter than Guam — and those cuisines are absolutely stuffed with beautiful varieties of vegetables and fruit.
On my first trip to the grocery store, I braced myself, expecting the worst. Honestly, it wasn’t terrible. Lots of onions, garlic, bananas, rock-hard avocados and bananas, root vegetables (think less potato and more taro), and a decent range of lettuces and cabbages. In fact, I’d liken the produce supply to what you find in many small Midwestern towns. Furthermore, it was a lot better than the convenience stores of inner city neighborhoods in so-called “food deserts.”
But things still ain’t good. The way people I met talked about fruit and vegetable supply on Guam made it seem as though their plight was isolated exclusively to Guam. Tunnel vision at its best, I guess. Admittedly, it’s EXTREMELY weird to me that you can get terrific produce in Hawaii and the Vietnam and Thailand and basically every joint on the fringe of the Marianas Islands, but that same range is supply not available on Guam. For example, why in the hell are mangoes being imported from PERU? The Philippines, after all, is just a hop away.
The problem must be partially political, like so many of the problems in the global food system. If you know the answer to Guam’s mango mystery, please tell me.
Oddly, what I witnessed regarding Guam’s food supply problems reflects many of the same problems that I see in food culture back home in Missouri, too — perhaps, most obviously, that any “local” produce supply fails to fully meet local demands. I don’t exactly mean food shortage, but demand shortage. Why should suppliers, from farmers to markets, bother stocking shelves with cumbersome and perishable produce when the foods that people allegedly want paired with a barcode?
In Guam, I made a point to visit Chamorro Village, a colorful weekly outdoor market in Agana that pools dozens of local art and jewelry vendors, plus a zillion savory food stands. Meat on a stick has its appeal, but I was extremely disappointed by the shortage of vegetables and fruits. Even the smoothie stand sellers were selling drinks derived from powders rather than recognizable whole foods that grow on trees and bushes.
But can’t we apply that argument to just about anywhere? It’s naive to believe that the berry blast lemonade from your neighborhood fast-food joint is direct-sourced from open-faced farmers rather than chemical plants concocting vats of color and sugar.
My problem isn’t necessarily that people choose to eat what they choose… er, not exactly, but that too many sects of US populations, despite their level of purchasing power, often aren’t even given the choice to access greater food varieties. In short, it’s inconvenient, and invisible. And to bring it back to Chamorro Village, it’s a sad thing when you’re on a tropical island that’s infused with a huge variety of food cultures, and the eats at a local market fail to reflect that.
I get that a lot of people believe they simply can’t afford to fill their stomachs with fresh produce, especially if they live in remote areas with high prices, anyway. Granted, if you sacrifice the chips and bakery cookies and sodas and crackers and pre-fab peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the stuffs for a decent salad probably become much more affordable. But that’s another rant.
On Guam, produce is expensive. My friend Diane shelled out $19 for a package of 18 strawberries imported from Korea. That’s a lot of money no matter how you look at it, and it sucks. I noticed that a few of the markets carry lettuce bearing the label, “Grow Guam,” which means local vendors are taking a very cautious step forward, but consumers are going to have to step up and actually buy the stuff to ensure its longevity in stores. Consumer responsibility to resist cheap pricing is part of what will help boost farmer’s markets everywhere, even right here in Missouri. I regularly meet Missourians who complain about Walmart’s mealy, tasteless tomatoes, but refuse to shell out a few more bucks for the in-season supply by local farmers, or who aren’t even aware that farmer’s markets still exist, or think they’re too inconvenient, or refuse to shop there because they’ve been stigmatized as a place where only “liberals and hippies” shop.
On Guam, I found myself strapped for information about where to go to even find a farmer’s market. During recent trips to Maui and Kauai, honor stands were a common roadside attraction, but these were virtually non-existent on Guam, and those that did pop out of the background scenery were inconveniently or dangerously located and poorly signed.
I’m back in Missouri, now. Our nearby farmer’s market is open year-round, and I’ll get my eggs and vegetables and milk there, pass money directly from my hand into the hands that grew my food. It’s worth doing, and worth acknowledging, and worthy of gratitude.
Most of all, I’m more aware than ever of my good fortune. When Spring comes, I’ll have the opportunity to grow my own food again. Based on what I’ve witnessed in the recent months, I have a growing responsibility to share it and make it available to others, too.
It makes me want to buy some seeds.