Food and the World – Groceries, Grønland, and Great Responsibility in Norway – by Cassie Mahlberg. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[Grønland Frukt og Grønt]
When my group and I arrived to Oslo, we didn’t have any idea what we were really in for with the cost of living in one of the richest countries in the world. Our first evening we ended up eating at Domino’s Pizza together like dumbfounded newcomers because we were too exhausted from travel to cook or seek out something more adventurous, plus the price of pizza there wasn’t that far off from what we considered normal. It is interesting to think about the ways we cling to what we know when everything else around us is entirely different. After that night, we all did bits of grocery shopping from day to day as we awaited our food stipend cards (everything was paid out of pocket until we received them). The problem with this was that we were spending a ton of money on limited amounts of food because we didn’t know any better. After a couple days in our program, taking the T-bane (subway), bus, tram, and walking a lot, we got a bit better acquainted with the city of Oslo and with the grocery shopping strategy of people on a budget.
One of the first recommendations we received about shopping was to go to Grønland Frukt og Grønt to get our fresh fruits and vegetables. Oddly enough, I had already heard of this by the time our teacher’s assistant showed it to us. I had heard about it from one of my flatmates, but it also happened to be the Arabic market I had found via Google-search on my flight from Germany when I was feeling homesick from my Syrian friends. Having three sources tell me that this was a good place to go was enough for me to believe it and I was thrilled to check it out.
[$13 worth of groceries at Grønland]
Upon arriving in Grønland, as soon as you set foot outside the T-bane station, the neighborhood has a totally different look and feel than the mainstream and touristy areas of Oslo. To some it may appear a little less clean and less nature-focused than much of the city. Not only the scenery, but also the people are dissimilar from what is assumed when you talk about Norway. I had been uncomfortable with the lack of diversity since I’d arrived and was tucked away in a student village. Contrary to the stereotypical ethnic Norwegian (blonde-haired, blue-eyed), the people that occupy the space in Grønland are primarily people of color and immigrants. While I felt more comfortable to at least be around the diverse community, I could tell some people were a bit put off or nervous (coming from primarily white hometowns like Duluth makes this feeling somewhat common). Someone even suggested to me that I should not put my backpack down on a bench in order to dig inside and find my wallet, a warning that stuck with me even while I disobeyed it. I wasn’t hesitant to rifle through my belongings in public (while keeping them confined to my bag) because Oslo has a reputation as being a notably safe city for its size. However, hearing those words has made me think about how much we have internalized the idea of foreignness (and difference) as something to fear and the way that our subtle language and actions can maintain the oppression of others.
After overcoming the anxiety of a new place and new people, we headed to the fruit and vegetable market to see what it was really about. I spent the first few weeks working out the math on some of the products to determine how much money I was really saving by going 20 minutes out of my way on the T-bane to Grønland rather than buying produce from the conveniently placed grocery store only a two-minute walk from my apartment. The produce is half the price at this market than at standard grocery stores. For example, in Grønland, bananas cost about $1.20 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), but at the grocery chain Rema, they cost almost $2.50 per kilogram. At Rema, I paid $2 for four bananas, while I got twice as many in Grønland for only $1.30. That seems practical. The price you pay is based on the fruit itself and the transportation it took to get into the market (which is why you won’t find any ready-to-eat produce there).
[Almost 1kg of whole mushrooms vs 15g sliced]
At the market in Grønland, basic whole mushrooms cost about $3 per kilogram. Whole mushrooms are similarly priced ($4 per kg) in the chain stores, but I didn’t see the whole mushrooms my first time at Rema or Kiwi. At the grocery store Kiwi, a package of sliced mushrooms (.15 kg) costs about $1.90 which equals out to an outlandish $12 per kilogram. No one really needs a whole kilo of mushrooms in one trip, except to preserve them or cook for an army, but the point is that you really pay for convenience. It’s cheapest to cut and freeze your own produce rather than buying pre-cut or frozen fruits and vegetables, just as it is cheapest to cook at home rather than eating out (a burger and fries at the American restaurant Johnny Rockets costs $30 here!). Every trip I take to Grønland, I see people buying massive amounts of produce to take home, because it is actually cheaper to eat healthy than to eat junk food in Norway.
Despite my relief at finding a place where I can actually afford to eat fresh food, I also struggle with a moral dilemma. What makes the food so much cheaper in Grønland than anywhere else? Am I exploiting the Grønland neighborhood by stopping by once a week just to grab my produce and then run the other direction? Are there people in the production line between farm and table suffering for my benefit? In short, the answer is probably yes. Similar to the US and elsewhere in the world, there are fundamental inequalities drawn into the soil that modern Oslo is built upon. Segregation of people into specifically minority communities doesn’t just happen. But on the basis of food markets, prices are adjusted somewhat to fit the communities where they are placed. If I had my way, I could pay a fair price for every product I lay my hands on, but that just isn’t our reality within globalization. I can, however, support the people who live in Grønland by shopping in their markets and shops so that they have access to jobs. I can remember my privilege in that I get to choose to take a trip so far out of my way to get the foods I want, at a price I can afford to pay. Then when I get home to cook my food, I can dwell on thoughts of how my food got to my plate from some far off place.
[Bulk grocery buyers (like the people from children’s math story problems)]
The reality of our modernized, global world, is that we need to take responsibility for the choices we make and understand why we were able to make those choices in the first place. I may sound depressing or self-defeatist saying that I walk around constantly looking at the brokenness in my surroundings, but if I don’t, who’s going to? I can’t just ignore my privilege and the weight that my decisions have on others, because I am a member of globalized society. To remain naive about the nature of something as important as food would be harmful to my neighbors. From my current position, it seems impossible to bring about worldly change, but it’s certainly my responsibility to try.
Cassie serves as a special correspondent for NSR.
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