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The Price of an Italian Grilled Cheese


hannahGrowing up outside Washington, D.C., Hannah Bristol has long been fascinated by the power of people to promote political change. As a student of Environmental Policy at Middlebury College, she is working to educate and build momentum around climate justice issues with Sunday Night Group and other environmental organizations on campus. She has also organized with the Obama campaign as a Field Organizer and with SustainUS, a youth non-profit working to advance sustainable development. Her writing has been featured in the Falls Church News-Press, The Middlebury Campus, and

The following essay written by Hannah is a reaction to David Owen’s The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. She and her fellow students discussed the book in Professor Hector Vila's class and then did some free writing, but not directly assigned to the topic.

Tomatoes, pesto, mozzarella and artichoke hearts pressed between two buttered slices of fresh wheat bread with the Panini machine. The Italian Grilled Cheese. “This is my favorite sandwich,” I told my mom.

“Want to split it and each get a cup of soup as well?” She asked me.

I nodded and wandered over to the soup section of the Middlebury Co-op. I looked at the ingredients in the soups, dismayed that the only soup without beef or chicken stock was the carrot ginger soup. I ladled a bowl of the thick, orange broth into a container, disappointed that despite all the local, grass-fed, free range, cage-free, hormone-free biodegradable foods available, the only meatless option I could eat was the carrot ginger soup.

I grabbed a can of organic, fair trade, all natural Blueberry Pomegranate iced green tea, with added açai juice to up the antioxidant load and wandered over to the cash register to meet my mom.

The cashier rang up our purchase. One Italian grilled cheese: $7.50. Two cups of carrot ginger soup: $3 each. One can of iced tea: $3. One bottle of, organic cranberry juice with no added sugars: $2. The piece of fresh, locally made, all natural chocolate I impulsively grabbed right when she had almost scanned the last item: $1.

“That’ll be $19.50,” she told my mom.

Without hesitating, my mom pulled out her credit card, signed the receipt, and grabbed the food to sit down. $19.50 for lunch for two people. 2.7 hours working at federal minimum wage for lunch for two people. But we handed the cashier this money without thinking twice. $19.50 is the price you pay for sustainable-organic-local-natural-fresh-hormone-free-cage-free food. It’s the price we pay to live “gently” on the earth.

We walked towards the tables, grabbing biodegradable plastic spoons on the way and picking up a stack of napkins made from recycled paper. There was only one free table in the seating area with a ragged copy of The Economist and a dirty white cloth glove with holes in it. Assuming the last diner had just left these things behind, we sat down and began to eat our food.

I bit into the sandwich. Juice from the cheese and tomatoes dripped down my chin. I wiped it with the napkin that may once have been a child’s book report. My mom and I chatted as we ate about my new dorm room. The room for which we pay $56,000 a year, $4,000 more than the median average annual income for a family in Vermont. 2.5 times higher than the annual income of a family of four living at the poverty line.

We created a list of things I needed to fill my room. I needed a new lamp because the overhead lamp that the school installed was too harsh. $25. I needed a new rug because the one rug I already have didn’t fully cover the cold, linoleum floor. Another $20. I needed a mirror so I could see my outfits and choose which combination of the dozens of shirts, pants, skirts and dresses I own I wanted to wear for that day. $15. And we were sure there were other things that I needed to really make that room feel like home.


As we talked, an old woman came and sat down at the table with us. She was clutching a plate with a small plate of spanakopita in one hand and a dirty white cloth glove with holes in it in the other. We stopped talking and looked over at her. I smiled.

“What is that you’re eating?” She mumbled and asked me. “It looks good.”

“It’s called an Italian Grilled Cheese,” I said. “It has tomatoes, pesto, mozzarella and artichoke hearts. It’s my favorite sandwich.”

She nodded and started eating her spanakopita. “This is good too,” she said. “It’s baklava or something like that. Cheap too. This only cost me $2. Gets you a lot of food.”

“Looks good,” I said, not knowing what else to add to the conversation.

“It’s spinach and some sort of flour on top. I wonder how you make the crust. You maybe fold flour over spinach… it’s good,” she mumbled.

I assumed she was talking to me, but I couldn’t quite hear her. I wasn’t sure she was talking to everyone. I just nodded.

“You know what the cheapest thing here is? For a dollar, you can get two rolls, toasted and buttered at the sandwich counter. Or one roll for fifty cents. Sometimes, when I’m really broke, I ask them to do that for me.”
I stared down at my $7.50 sandwich. Part of my lunch that cost $19.50 for two people. You could buy 39 rolls with that money.

“Sometimes I tell them that they should install a balcony in here,” she told me. “They could fit more seating with a second floor and then could have a spiral staircase. But kids wouldn’t be allowed up there because they’d slide down the railing and hit their heads. And old women like me wouldn’t be able to walk up there because the stairs would be too dangerous.” She spoke on, mumbling so quietly I couldn’t hear her. She’d clearly thought about this extensively. Suddenly, she spoke up again. “How old do you think I am? Do you think I’m old? What do you consider old?”

“I don’t think you’re old,” I replied, trying to be polite.

“How old is your grandmother?”

“She’s eighty.”

“See, I’m old enough to be your grandmother.” She continued to inaudibly mumble.

My mom looked over at me, and we gathered our wrappings, grabbed our jackets, and stood up.

“It was nice to meet you,” I said. “I hope you have a wonderful day.”

The woman smiled at me and mumbled something again.

We threw away our garbage, the remnants of a $19.50 meal split between two people, the compostable box for our sandwiches, the recyclable can of my iced tea, the biodegradable cups from our soup.

As we walked out of the Co-op, my mom turned to me. “Why would you shop at the Co-op if you only had fifty cents to spend on a buttered roll?” She asked. “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just make that yourself?”

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