After a few months of unemployment I was going stir-crazy so I got a job as a cashier at a local grocery store, one of many in the region. I learned several lessons of the grocery business: Remember the code for bananas (4011) even if you forget all others. Keep one hand scanning the soup can while you pick the second up from the cart so things go faster. Remember the Thursday 5% senior discount or there’s hell to pay. Multi-task or die—you must be socially engaging while keeping your hands moving as fast as physically possible. I was great at the social engagement but stumbled on codes and scanning. One day a customer gave me flowers because, he said, I clearly was having a bad day. I was trying so hard that I didn’t even know it.
In the midst of the steep learning curve, I came to discover larger spiritual lessons. The first was painfully easy to see. Egregious plastic consumption. I scanned plastic every minute of every day. Cases of diet coke and plastic water bottles. We live in a society where we have little choice when it comes to our plastic consumption. You can hardly find any soap or detergent product in cardboard boxes. Name one beauty product in your bathroom that is not made of plastics. Nonetheless, some products gave me a slow burn — single serve meals. I inwardly muttered “killing the ocean, filling the landfill” with each “Lunchable” that crossed my scanner. What took me over the edge was a single hard-boiled egg in a plastic airtight package.
Despite decades of the environmental movement, Americans still forget to bring their own bags. Worse, they want their meat or eggs bagged separately. Occasionally a customer remembered to bring their bags. I thanked them for being virtuous and saving the planet.
Churches spend time on connecting Genesis to care of the Creation. Some do energy audits and others celebrate Earth Sabbaths. What might we discover if we added our daily practice of grocery shopping into the mix? It is time to add grocery shopping to our prayer life. Once you begin to pay attention, spiritual and ethical issues become alarmingly real. I would like a church group to bring their grocery lists to their neighborhood store and walk the aisles to see just how prevalent the consumption of plastics is. I imagine them then singing a song of lament in the aisles.
Prayer and attention in the grocery store are important personal practices. But changes in packaging and food policy would do much more. According to the World Economic Forum there are about 150 million tons of plastic in the world’s seas. Our spiritual practice of grocery shopping needs to press American legislators for policy changes. European countries show the way. Many have banned plastic bags already for 15 years. And recently, the European Parliament approved a law banning a wide-range of single-use plastic items, such as straws, cotton buds and cutlery. They also agreed a target to collect and recycle 90% of beverage bottles by 2029. Yet, here in the USA, the burden to reduce plastics is an individual burden.
My next spiritual lesson had to do with consumption. When faced with shopping carts filled to the brim each day, my thoughts veered to cultures and countries whose staples were beans and rice. There’s an appalling amount of wealth in this country. I became adept at measuring it by the quantity of brie, shrimp and fancy ice creams. There are also many contradictions in the environmental ethics of our grocery shopping. The biggest example that passed by my register was the purchase of healthy and vegetarian products. Seaweed is expensive. So too is anything with pro-biotic on the label. Sweet potato vegetable crisps cost almost twice as much as Lay’s potato chips. Grocery choices face us with ethical contradictions. What is our budget? Might the right thing to do be to live on a budget that is “less green” and give generously to the Sierra Club? Whenever we go grocery shopping, we live on an ethical seesaw.
Pope Francis notes that, “it is not easy to be witnesses of Christian hope in the context of a consumerist culture, a culture of waste concerned only for the spread of a shallow and ephemeral wellbeing. What is needed, he says, is a “change of mentality… in order to rediscover what is essential and to give substance and verve to the preaching of the kingdom of God.”
My final and most poignant lesson had to do with economic justice. Like every grocery and retail worker in America, I earned near the minimum wage — $10 an hour. I have never worked so hard for so little money. Standing all day and twisting and bending left me hobbling and hurting when I arrived home. I wonder how women in their 70s, who I see at Target or Walmart, manage to stay standing for hours on end. There was a physical price to pay in this work. It was undoubtedly higher than the pay itself. I also wondered how people survived financially. There was Hope who had a severely disabled son. Maya had four children. My co-workers were college kids living with their parents, immigrants recently moved to the US, and middle to late-middle agers. How could they live on $10 an hour, or the full-time monthly salary of $1600? Oliver and I talked about this: he too had asked himself the same question. “Anita told me that she worked three jobs and only slept five hours a night.”
As Christians, there is no greater and persistent theme in our Scriptures than economic justice and the treatment of the poor. Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American work force — earn less than $12 an hour, and almost none of their employers offer health insurance. We are told that the American economy is strong. Unemployment is down, the Dow Jones industrial average is north of 25,000 and millions of jobs go unfilled. But for people like my Harris Teeter colleagues, the question is not, Can I land a job? Instead the question is, what kinds of jobs are available? The answer is: jobs that do not pay enough to live on. If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25.
When you go grocery shopping, the face of the poor is found in every cashier you meet. These same faces can be found in the bustling retail centers of Target and Walmart. The working poor are an intricate part of our lives as consumers. I came away from my cashier experience with equal parts prayer and rage. The injustice in this “land of plenty” is hard to bear. It is not enough for Christians to participate in food drives for area soup kitchens. Many people who need them are there because they receive insufficient wages for their work.
The notion of a living wage ($15) has taken hold in some American cities such as Seattle and Chicago. In 2004, Amy Glasmeier, now a professor of economic geography and regional planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed the Living Wage Calculator. This tool uses more specific data to gauge the basic needs of American families. It estimates the cost of food, child care, health care (both insurance premiums and typical health care costs), housing, transportation and other necessities. One exercise for churches would be to use this tool to better understand the decisions that the working poor make to survive. It can be a difficult dance because when a car breaks down, the next decision may be to decide how many meals can be eaten that week. Maybe our grocery shopping can remind us of those who experience financial fear and suffering daily. And, paying attention, we might spend as much time on efforts towards justice as on charity. I just paid $55 for bus fare to go to the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington D.C. My third and final lesson after being a grocery cashier is to learn how to put my anger into good use – and to find hope in the faith community. I can imagine no better witness than the description I saw for the Poor People’s Campaign:
On June 20, 2020 we will rise together as a powerful moral fusion movement to demand the implementation of our Moral Agenda! The fact that there are 140 million poor and low-wealth people in a country this rich is morally indefensible, constitutionally inconsistent and economically insane.”
I hope to see a lot of church folks there.
Rev. Rebecca Kuiken is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has pastored numerous churches around the country. She lives in Raleigh.