Sunday, September 4, 2011

Debunking "dirty" dumpster diving

I went dumpster diving for the first time with two friends in Norman, Oklahoma tonight. My skepticism was at an all time high about the hygiene factor and general lawfulness. However, I was totally shocked to find that not only was it bountiful, effective and promoting sustainability, but it is also not illegal (unless you're trespassing or breaking locks) as of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1988. My impression was that we were going to be crawling through green ooze that might turn us into mutant amphibian superheroes, but it was pretty darn clean, and I didn't mess up any of my clothes or carry out any lingering scents. I think that the "trash" gets put in regularly and hauled off quite often, so it's really just a big metal (albeit kinda rusty) storage container. There certainly were unusable food items, but we found totally decent avocados, tomatoes, eggs, yogurt, and many fully sealed, packed products just a few days past their expiration date. The haul was so big, my friends donated a substantial portion of it. My impression is this is a great way to reduce food waste - you just need to wash and/or cook what you get very thoroughly, and, boom, you're good to go. Go for stuff in packages or produce on top of the pile. Don't be stupid - not everything is usable - but otherwise shop as you normally would. I had a blast and felt good about the extra food and packaging that wouldn't have to be made on our account. Moral of the story: Don't fear the dumpster. Reduce food waste. Save lots of money. Reduce your carbon footprint. (And get some unconventional night exercise to boot!)

Monday, June 13, 2011

"Farm Rise Up"

A funny serious music video to summarize a few key points - original beats and lyrics!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hands in the dirt

"If you are on the fifth step of a ladder and think that you are very high, there is no hope for you to climb to the sixth." - Thich Nhat Hanh

For a long time, our culture has neglected the weeding. It is too mundane for us, and too dirty. We have mechanized farming as quickly as we can. Relied on added chemicals and genetic alterations to maximize production and minimize effort. Stripped the land for commodity crops which can be turned into easily packaged and shipped processed foods.

But as any recreational economist can tell you, every action has an opportunity cost. And as my mom has been known to say, "If it sounds like it's too good to be true, it probably is." No matter how we choose to operate as a species, that choice will cost us something. In the case of our food system, we have lost our connection to the basic elements of light, air, water and soil. I had a student once tell me that steak came from an animal called beef. He thought that a cow was something else we got milk from.

My arguments for eating locally and with less added chemicals or genetic modifications have primarily been related to health concerns and questions around sustainability. Can we keep eating this way and increasing our population without extinguishing our species on this planet? I don't know. I am concerned. But even if we can think our way out of this dilemma, continuing to get more yield from less land or mowing down our national parks for fields and pastures, do we want to live in that world?

Our lives become more sedentary with each generation. We see less green and more screen every year. We are hooking our minds and hearts up to an ever increasing quantity and diversity of technology. Just as important as our species' physical survival is the survival of our deep soul connection to the basic elements of life. More valuable than any TV, car, wristwatch, pair of shoes or designer clothing is the state of our very real, and very powerful, connection to all living and non-living things. The rocks, the dirt, the trees, the sky, the deer, the sunshine, the people we love. All depend on one another. We have the beautiful gift of being aware of this and feeling a sense of unity and wholeness every day if we so choose. But it is not on a TV show or in a cubicle. It is down on our knees with our hands in the mud. It is in the valleys, on the mountaintops and in the miraculous photosynthesis happening in the leaves.

For my part of this journey, I have noticed a growing desire to connect with these elemental miracles. I eat less processed food. Not organic stuff all the time. Not local all the time. But more than before. I never get the new paper or plastic bags offered at supermarkets. I always bring my own and use old bags for fruits and vegetables. I am thinking about what is going into my body and acknowledging that sometimes it might be a beer or chocolate. But it is becoming less about being a "better" person and more about being happier and discovering my deep roots in this land. It's not a task. It's an exploration. It's unwrapping a gift which has been right under my feet since birth.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tragedy of the Commons

"The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen."

Last weekend I volunteered with a local organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing local farmland (and opposed to paving it over, obviously). I support, with little reservation, the efforts of this organization. But it absolutely pained me to participate in the land clearing process required to create usable farmland on a former tree farm which was donated to the city. It is a complicated situation where my gut reaction was perhaps not the best indicator of what to do.

Bainbridge Island, like many places in the USA, does not have enough farmland to generate the bulk of its own food. Most food travels hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to reach our dinner tables. So it is a tricky question to ask: Is it worth it? Should we bother trying to make our own food? Does the reduction in pollution caused by growing, transporting and storing imported food make it worthwhile to clear a little tree-farm forest on the island? Among the hundreds of factors to consider are, how much can this land produce in any given season? Will the crop cover provide much air filtration? Soil stability? How will agriculture change the soil chemistry? What are the impacts on local wildlife?

Additionally, if this organization wasn't fighting to preserve farmland, some of the properties they maintain could very well have been developed, turned into residential lots, or otherwise paved over. Without public organizations and nonprofits fighting constantly to preserve open space on highly desired land, we will lose it to a developer waiting in the wings to pour some cement.

My recommendation is to volunteer locally (while you're trying to eat locally) and gain some awareness of what your community is doing to further the cause of sustainability. It's not a cut and dry issue, and the effort is worth a deeper base of knowledge. Learning about the sometimes paradoxical ways to promote sustainability definitely caused me to think twice about my own preconceptions. Intentionality is not simply "doing the right thing"; it's realizing that the "right thing" goes a little deeper than the first thing that feels good.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Happy chickens come from farms with nothing to hide

(Prologue: I tried to start this blog without prejudice, but, as must be totally obvious by now, am becoming very biased in favor of food I understand. The only thing holding me back from a complete local/organic menu is price...)

If the last post on industrial chicken ranching was a little depressing, my visit to Farmhouse Organics was just the opposite. Chickens were clucking and pecking in a most content fashion out in the open air, eating some feed mix and what assorted bugs and plants they could scavenge on the ground. The most noticeable difference was the amount of space they had compared to the warehouse chickens. Their coop and pasture area wasn't giving off a gag-inducing odor, and overall I simply felt less sorry for them. If I had a group of students or kids, this is the kind of farm I'd want them to visit.

Why? Because the systems of food production and life cycles are much more transparent and easy to connect. A farm which is more dependent on the light, air, water and soil in and around it is a place where the balance between human and environmental influences are more readily apparent. And I believe in transparent food systems and farms because I believe in honesty. Otherwise it's too easy to hide environmental externalities and practices which might harm people as well. Animals and the food that sustains them don't spontaneously occur in warehouses. They live outdoors. They find their own food, and sometimes they get picked off by a sneaky bald eagle. (Eagles are cowards by the way - I've seen tiny swallows chase them off their territory. Even the slightest modicum of bravery trumps the eagle's weak sauce paradigm.) Back to the main idea though.

As our own population expands and our demand for food becomes greater, it becomes increasingly relevant that we know where our food comes from. Whatever is good or bad about our food is going to impact more and more people as time goes on. What we put in our bodies should be out in the open and visible to the general public. I think the question is: How do we make quality food grown with a minimal amount of pesticides, genetic modification and animal cruelty available to more people? Comments welcome...

P.S. Special thanks to Farmhouse Organics for letting me visit - their mission says it all!

"Our mission is to provide our customers with fresh, organic, locally-grown produce. We want to help deepen the connections between our customers, the food they eat, and the ground in which it grows. We want people of all ages to learn - through a personal connection with the farm and farmer - how their food arrives at the table. We believe that seeing the ground where their produce comes from encourages people to be thoughtful stewards of the farm's ecosystem. We want people to see that when we nourish the soil, it nourishes us. By growing seasonal organic produce for a local market, we offer a sustainable alternative to conventional produce grown in far-off regions and shipped vast distances to market."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Why DID the chicken cross the road?!

Your chicken probably did not intend to find itself here, but it most likely lives in a warehouse like this. I'm not sure if these buildings even count as a coops. What I saw were big, enclosed, pre-fabricated longhouses which smelled like a thousand chickens all defecating in the same place. I don't know why the pesticides were being stored with the chickens, nor why pesticides are needed to raise chickens.
I assume that the super-condensed living conditions attract many pests, but no one was around to give us a tour. There was no real farm to speak of, just 3 huge, stinky shacks in a lot near a semi-rural suburban area. Should these eggs, then, be advertised as "farm fresh"?

I traced some of the eggs I bought back to this place about an hour and a half north of Seattle. The egg company advertises cage free eggs on some of its cartons, but not on others.

Conclusion: There may be a nicer chicken facility elsewhere which I didn't see, but this one stunk. Labels like "cage free" or "all vegetarian diet" doesn't mean the chickens aren't living in a poo-ridden shack eating genetically modified corn. (If you want to learn more about the yellow stuff, watch King Corn.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Farmer's Market vs. Wal-Mart

The results were predictable in some regards, surprising in others... By price, I ultimately got about twice the amount of food for my money at Wal-Mart. I didn't buy too much junk, but the temptations were many. There's just no way to beat a 73 cent can of "Great Value" Mini Beef Ravioli. The origins of products like this, though, are pretty much untraceable. The label only tells you that this item was distributed by Wal-Mart, Inc. located in Bentonville, Arkansas. I have NO idea where the tomatoes, wheat flour or beef came from, much less the salt, high fructose corn syrup, and carrots.

Wait, there were carrots in my Mini Beef Ravioli?! And while we're at it, what is textured soy protein concentrate, modified cornstarch, enzyme modified cheese, monosodium glutamate and all the random flavors and colorings? Here are my Wikipedia summaries:

Textured Soy Protein Concentrate: "Textured or texturized vegetable protein (TVP), also known as textured soy protein (TSP), soy meat, or soya meat is a meat analogue or nutritious meat extender made from defatted soy flour, a by-product of extracting soybean oil." Over 90% of soy beans in the US are genetically modified and controlled in part by Monsanto, who makes these "roundup ready"/"resistant-to-Monsanto's-pesticide ready" soy beans. Good market control, those Monsanto folks.

Modified Cornstarch: "Modified starch, starch derivatives, are prepared by physically, enzymatically, or chemically treating native starch, thereby changing the properties of the starch." It then goes on to list the million ways by which your starch may be altered. Apparently, starch can be given a positive or negative electric charge by two of those methods. Wow! Not sure I want to dig much deeper. I will need a chemistry degree to fully understand my mini ravioli.

Enzyme Modified Cheese: "A cheese curd which has been treated with enzymes to produce a concentrated cheese flavour ingredient... EMCs, which may have approximately 15-30 times the flavour intensity of natural cheese, are used to give a cheese flavour note to products..." ( , not wikipedia)

Monosodium glutamate: MSG. "A sodium salt of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring non-essential amino acid... Concerns have been raised on anecdotal grounds, and hypotheses have been put forward, that MSG may be associated with migraine headaches, food allergies in children, obesity, and hyperactivity in children."

Annatto: "A derivative of the achiote trees of tropical regions of the Americas, used to produce a yellow to orange food coloring and also as a flavoring... Also used for body painting, repelling insects and to ward off evil."

There are many many other strange things to research in processed food. I am skeptical as to the benefits of all these modifications. Some seem harmless, others maybe not. Still takes a lot of energy (and thereby pollution) to create all these mysterious chemicals and transport them to Mini Beef Ravioli and then my mouth. My Farmer's Market summary is way simpler. It's expensive, but I felt more energetic, slept better, and had no headaches during my "local and organic" week. The spinach was big and fabulous, the beef was grass-fed and tasty. Not much choice about what to eat from a Farmer's Market in WA at this point in the Spring, but healthy. Expensive and healthy. Try it for a week. Make your own decision.