Kokua Market, a co-op grocery store near the University of Hawaiʻi, at Mānoa, sells “quality, minimally processed, natural foods with a strong emphasis on locally grown and organically grown foods.” I recently became an “owner” to support the co-op, joining its more than 3,500 other “owners” in the community.
I went to Kokua on Thursday to buy some groceries after being out of town for a few days. Upon entering the store, I saw a student from my introduction to creative writing class at the checkout line. Her and her husband are getting ready for a Spring Break road trip in the states. She says he will drive and she will read to him aloud.
In our class, we are reading Javier O. Huertaʻs 2012 collection of poetry, American Copia: An Immigrant Epic. This book begins by documenting Javierʻs life as an “undocumented” immigrant in the US. After living many years in Houston, Javier decides to apply for citizenship. He is a sentence to write for his INS interview: “Today, I am going to the grocery store.” From this sentence, the book carts the reader down the aisles of the page, exploring the “abundance” of memory, migration, borders, documents, food, loss, and groceries.
American Copia is necessary reading for anyone thinking about issues of food justice, food security, and food sovereignty. This book explores, in a very human way, the cultures, politics, economics, geographies, and poetics of grocery stores. Fiesta, Safeway, Albertsons, Whole Foods, Andronico, Super Wal-Mart, Longs, SuperTienda Ramos, Soriano, Trader Joe’s. Despite living in the “age of hyper-markets,” Throughout, Huerta shops for insight into the nature of hunger: hunger for food, hunger for family, hunger for love, hunger for belonging, hunger for sustenance.
Quote from American Copia: “I learned from early enough that there were two classes of people in Houston: those that shop at Randall’s and those that shop at Fiesta.”
My students have been enjoying this book thus far. For one of their assignments, they had to write an imitation poem, capturing their own experiences of grocery stores here in Hawai’i. By reading Javier’s book and my students’ poems, I became acutely aware of how grocery stores shape our lives and perceptions not only of food, but of ourselves, our families, our cultures.
Even though Huerta is writing along the US/Mexico border, there are many correspondences with the Pacific: “Days of 1984, my mother would buy frozen everything: fish, fries, chicken patties and pizzas. She bought these items because they were easy to make. At the time, she worked in the kitchen at Luby’s Cafeteria during the day and in the evening worked in housekeeping at the Westin Galleria. I made dinners for my brother and me. It was easy: place the fish sticks on a baking sheet and take them out when they were golden. My mother did not know that these items were high in trans fat and sodium. America, when will you learn that you will find no sweeter fat than sticks to your own bones?”
While at Kokua Market, I bought local tomatoes, bananas, kabocha, oranges, papaya, coconut, cabbage, tatsoi spinach, and two kinds of kale. I also bought apples and lemons from the USA. Lastly, I couldn’t leave the store without a bag of organic, non-gmo tortilla chips and a bar of fair trade chocolate.
As the cashier rings up my groceries, I am thinking of the tens of thousands of acres of GMO crop fields here in Hawai’i; I am thinking of all the houseless and homeless people in the park nearby; I am thinking of my students’ detrimental eating habits; I am thinking of the Guantanamo prisoners on hunger strike; I am thinking of this line from American Copia: “That the world begins and ends at the grocery store is an absurdity that we can no longer afford.”