Friday, October 8, 2010

Sustainable Food Weekly Updates - Justmeans

Sharing the Harvest Supports Sustainable Food - Ellen Sabina

In recent years efforts to share the harvest of fresh, sustainable foods with those who are otherwise unable to afford them have really taken off. All over the country, in cities and rural areas alike, communities are banding together to find ways to get fresh fruits and vegetables to neighbors in need. While such initiatives have been building for a while now, they are becoming increasingly organized, efficient, and effective.

Gleaning programs work under the idea that healthy, sustainable food shouldn't be limited to those who have enough money to pay for it, and that there really is enough out there to go around. Organized troupes of gleaners can make quick work of a field or orchard and deliver the results to local food banks, soup kitchens, schools, and nursing homes, something that a busy farmer just doesn't have time to do, but is often more than happy to contribute. Not all produce is worth selling.

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US Food Security - Through Cooking Classes for Kids? - Tricia Edgar

A cooking class and food security? Cooking classes might seem to be a frou-frou addition to an upscale household. But take a closer look, and you will realize that food preparation is an essential life skill, and definitely not a frill. Those who don't cook depend on the nutritional content of takeout, pre-made and restaurant food. It's a loss of food autonomy, which is a loss of food security. Something as basic as baking bread or cooking up a fall soup is a powerful contribution to a family's ability to sustain itself in a healthy manner.

North Americans are gradually losing our ability to cook. More specifically, we're losing our ability to preserve foods, because we haven't grown up watching our parents can, freeze, ferment, and dry the harvest for the winter season. We're also losing our interest in cooking.

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Environmental Sustainability, Gas & Food - Keri Marion

Environmental sustainability is a balancing act. It balances nature with nurture, time and space, nutrient to erosion.

Organic food and sustainable agriculture can go hand in hand. Using sustainable practices like mulching, crop rotation and animals instead of gas-powered trucks, a farmer could literally work on an almost net-zero carbon emission. And yes, it might cost us a little more for that ear of corn, but as I'll explain, it's totally worth it.

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Spreading the Organic Food Gospel: Generation Organic - Ellen Sabina

Organic Valley is the largest organic food cooperative in the U.S., encompassing dairy farmers in every region of the country and partnering with major organizations such as Heifer International, the Rodale Institute, and Farm Aid. While the cooperative has come under some scrutiny given its size, it has become one of the most successful and sustainable large scale models of its kind, and make a strong case for the cooperative versus corporation. Organic Valley is also working to ensure that organic food (particularly dairy) production continues to gain strength in the coming era. The most visible and just plain fun way they're raising awareness for the future of organic food is via their Generation Organic bus tour, which is set to get rolling in just a few days

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Friday, April 30, 2010

Spuds in Tubs: Simple and Sustainable Urban Agriculture for Schools

If you have a potato, some soil, and a big plastic tub, you too can be an urban farmer. So goes the thinking behind Spuds in Tubs, a program with a completely catchy title and a very simple mission: to get children thinking about how to grow food. In one of the classrooms where I volunteer, big blue bins line the windows, adorned with the names like “Potato Crusaders.”

Spuds in tubs is beautiful in its simplicity. It is a project of BC Agriculture in the Classroom, although I am sure that echoes of this sustainable urban gardening project can be found elsewhere around the world. Teachers receive portable tubs, compost, and Warba potatoes, an early variety of potato that is ready before the children are finished school. Teachers use the plants to teach about sustainable food, but they can also use the potato plants across the curriculum. Observations can become Language Arts studies. The growth and change of a plant can work into the science curriculum. Plant growth can become a math lesson, and potatoes are certainly a lesson in multiplication.

Why Spuds in Tubs? It’s a small and sustainable program that is easy for teachers to implement. Teachers apply over the winter, receive kits in February, and the class has new potatoes by the middle of June. The program is much different from creating a large school garden, an outcome that is delightful but can involve a heavy dose of school politics. Creating an outdoor community garden on school grounds can seem like a big project, especially for overworked teachers. There is also the question of summer maintenance. Unfortunately, vegetable gardens do not really follow the school season, and planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall still leaves a long, dry summer for teachers and parents to coordinate. Urban agriculture is a healthy and beautiful thing, but it does require coordination to be sustainable.

This year, over one hundred and fifty schools are participating in the Spuds in Tubs project. Each classroom will receive five tubs with soil and with potatoes to plant. That’s nearly four thousand seed potatoes going into the ground, with a result of thousands upon thousands of little new potatoes for the children to eat. The Spuds in Tubs program is an urban agriculture program that works: it’s small, it’s simple, and it’s sustainable.

Have you been involved in classroom urban gardening? What are your simple strategies for success?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Intensive Cultivation: Sustainable Farming on a Single Urban Lot

Hey, urbanites – do you grow your own food? As cities move into this century where the international basis of our food becomes less certain, people are working to relocalize our food sources. Peak oil? Reducing your carbon footprint? Sustainable food? With saving seeds and growing in urban and community gardens, no problem, right? Well, for many the reality is a lot more challenging. Yes, it is possible to grow food in a community garden, and it is possible to grow food on a deck. But the reality is that for most of the urban population, this is a small supplement to grocery store food. How can we shift from dabbling to urban and suburban food production that can make a significant contribution to our daily meals?

Like any up and coming urban activity, there are the early adopters, the superstars of urban farming. These superstars grow bushels of produce on a corner of an urban lot, or help feed the neighborhood with their abundant produce. While it takes over an acre of land to feed the average American, many people do well with much less, a fraction of an acre. These produce-growing stars include Jim Kovaleski in New Port Richey, who has covered his back and front yards (and sides too) with produce. He sells the greens he produces in his suburban yard. While the rest of us grow a few heads of drooping lettuce, how do these urban and suburban superstars do it?

You don’t need to tell an urbanite that space is at a premium in a small urban garden. This is where space-saving gardening comes in. The food forest idea comes from a permaculture background and focuses on developing a self-sustaining garden that integrates vertical layers, like fruit trees with greens growing underneath and kiwi fruit growing up the tree. Square foot gardening is an intensive rotation system that encourages people to grow just what they need, with the right quantity of plants in a single square. Trellising of larger plants like zucchini is also a feature of the square foot garden. When you’re gardening in an urban setting, viewing every space as a potential growing space is one of the keys to high yields and sustainable yields.

Intensive cultivation requires a strong garden ecology, especially if you want to sustain this cultivation for a long period of time. Encourage bees, butterflies, birds and all sorts of bugs to come and visit the garden. Beneficial, pollinating and predator insects are important to the health of a garden. So is the garden soil. Amending the soil with kelp, compost, and other natural products will help keep it growing. Soil is the basis of the food that sustains us, and without healthy soil our gardens do not thrive.

Experimentation is also key to a sustainable urban farm. When you plant, do it in the right places and experiment to find out where those places might be. If lettuce fails in one location, pull it and begin again in another location. Instead of forcing a plant to be happy with artificial fertilizers and pesticides, allow each plant to find its niche and thrive there. Gardening will be much, much easier.

Have you gotten high yields of produce from an urban or suburban farm? How have you done it?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Celebrate a Sustainable Earth with Sustainable Food!

It’s mid-April, which means spring is in full swing and Earth Day is upon us. Communities all over will be celebrating this Thursday, demonstrating their hope for and commitment to a more sustainable planet. There will be Earth Day parades and fairs and festivals, tree plantings and garden workshops. But there are many ways to acknowledge Earth Day, and I encourage you to do so regardless of whether or not you are able to participate in an organized community activity, and perhaps the best is with a celebration of sustainable, earth-friendly food.

Here are a few ideas:

In my observation, many Earth Day activities are geared towards children, with music and puppet shows and seedlings to help plant the seed of Earth consciousness in young minds. For a more sophisticated celebration, why not invite some friends over for a sustainable, seasonal dinner party? Choose local, sustainably grown and produced spring vegetables, meat, cheese, and wine or beer. This could be as casual as a potluck or finger food, but make sure your guests know why you’re sticking to strictly sustainable foods and spark some good conversation.

If you’re looking for something fun to do with the kids, arrange to take a family day trip to a local, organic farm. Pack a picnic and spend the day outside, enjoying the fresh air and the farm animals. Talk to the farmers about why they choose to farm sustainably and what being stewards of the planet means to them. You may even be able to help out on the farm and get your hands dirty!

Share Earth Day with a special someone and go on a date! Split a locally-raised, grass-fed steak and a bottle of local red wine. Tour your area vineyards or breweries, or try to catch a screening of Fresh for dinner and a movie. Turn off the electricity and serve dinner while sharing your inner thoughts on sustainable food by candlelight. Really, the options are endless.

Whatever you choose to do this Earth Day, the important thing is to focus on more Earth-conscious eating, not just that day, but every day. Make a small commitment to eat more locally, seasonally, or organically. Reconnect with the Earth through your food choices and embark on a mission to help save the planet, one bite at a time. It really does add up, and it’s pretty tasty.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Producing Sustainable Soil: Does Large-Scale Composting Work?

A friend was visiting from Toronto, a large urban center in Canada. She ate an apple, then looked curiously under my counter. “Where’s your green waste recycling bucket?” she asked. By that I assumed that she meant the compost bin. We’ve experimented with several kinds of composting in our home, from backyard bins to bokashi to worm bins. Our goal is to reduce the food waste that we produce, but our ulterior motive is to create sustainable soil for the garden. It can be hard to find good organic soil for a vegetable garden, and it seems sensible to make our own.

Green waste recycling was a new concept to me, however. What she was looking for was similar to a recycling bin, a recycling bin for compost. In her city, the city government sends trucks around to pick up the yard waste, fruit and vegetable peelings, and even the Halloween pumpkins. The compost is trucked to main composting facilities where it is turned into soil. The public then buys this soil for their gardens, should they so desire.

Does this composting concept really work? Yes, the city is producing sustainable soil, but the process seems a little ridiculous. Trucks burning fossil fuels move through neighborhoods, causing air pollution. Then trucks carrying people from the suburbs head over to the local composting center and pick up a load of soil. Municipal composting can also be a large expense for cities, adding to the tax burden on already-drained citizens.

Municipal composting is convenient, but is it logical? Yes and no. Municipal composting programs do create a huge opportunity for reducing green waste, and they create soil from materials that would otherwise produce methane in landfills for years. While it makes the most sense for individuals to produce their own soil at home, composting is an activity that has a lot of barriers. It might not seem difficult to collect fruit and vegetable peels and move them into a bin, but many perceive it to be too time-consuming. There’s also a cultural barrier connected with the formation of soil: some perceive it to be dirty and smelly. Oddly enough, many people also view composting as a socially-responsible effort rather than a common sense one, since they do not use the resulting soil in a garden.

As a municipal composting program begins to move into my city, I alternately rejoice and despair. I am pleased because there have been times when I have been unable to compost, and I want an opportunity to reduce my waste. I am sad because it will become easier to throw peels into the recycling than to use them in the garden, and many people will lose a valuable way to support locally-grown food.

What do you think? Is municipal composting a good idea?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Corntainers: Sustainable Food Packaging

We live for takeout. When I talk about we, I mean North American culture in particular, although many cultures around the world offer delicious takeout options. In North America, the grab and go meal is standard. Brown bag lunches? No way. For many, restaurant fair is an almost-daily occurrence. Americans eat out four to five times per week. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they have a sit-down meal. It may mean that they grab a sandwich or a salad from the nearest deli. All of this eating out has an ecological impact. The disposal of packaged takeout food is a very real environmental issue, and much of this packaging is not even recyclable.

In the eighties, the world was focused on Styrofoam. The substance was blamed for damaged to the ozone layer, the layer that protects people from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Today, there’s been a gradual phase-out of the CFCs in this packaging, but its production still uses precious petroleum resources and produces waste. Then there was plastic. Clear plastic takeout packaging is light and flexible, washable and recyclable. But plastic is a non-renewable resource, even if it is recycled. Finally, there is paper. Paper products seem to be a logical choice for takeout. This packaging is lightweight and recyclable. However, given that they are contaminated with our oily food waste, we haven’t quite mastered a way to recycle these paper products. They’re renewable, but they’re not ideal.

Into the muddy mix of takeout packaging comes the corntainer. No, that isn’t a typo. It’s a container made out of corn. Imagine waving fields of green corn. Imagine 54,000 bottles. The Corntainer Corporation can make that many bottles from a single acre of corn. Not bad, and definitely annually renewable. Corntainers are popular at our local Whole Foods, the site of many pilgrimages for those who wish to buy sustainable. They look like plastic, so you can see the food inside. However, they compost like corn, sort of.

The sort of is the catch. Corntainers do need to be returned to the store for processing in a commercial compost. While it makes sense to save your packaging until your next takeout purchase, this does make the corntainer less convenient than other recyclable packaging options. Grab and go meals, wash and drop recycling are easier than making a special trip to the store to compost your container. Corntainers strive to be ethical and sustainable. The company was designed to reduce the use of petroleum. Although corntainers are an odd variation on the cash crop, the company does donate to organic farming associations, supporting local agriculture.

What do you think? Are corntainers the next generation of sustainable packaging, or are they a passing trend?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sustainable Food Markets: Do Origin Labels Help People Purchase Local Organic Food?

It used to be that you could go to your local food market and stroll down the aisles, surrounded by an abundance of food that hailed from all corners of the globe. You could be oblivious to the actual origins of those products, purchasing goodies from all parts of the world with great abandon. Grapes from Chile, salad mix from China, who knew, really? As of March 2009, mandatory Country of Origin labels came into effect in the US, and this was supposed to give those purchasing this food a clue as to where it hailed from.

Yet many times companies seem to be skirting the labeling requirements. You often need to read the really, really small print to discover where your fruit and vegetables have been grown. And are the organic vegetables flown in from China really all that sustainable? Is it really good food labeling if these organic vegetables are labeled California Mix, even when they hail from places far from California?

Why should we care where our food comes from? Recent interest has moved from organic everything into local food. Sustainable food purchasing is not only about low levels of pesticides, it’s also about the carbon footprint of your food: how far has your food flown or been trucked? Food can easily have a carbon footprint that outweighs the food itself. Out-of-season strawberries are a good example. For the health-conscious, it’s important to know where your food comes from because that changes what is invisible but present on your food. If you’re not buying organic, this is especially important. Food grown in other places might contain pesticides that are not permitted in your country.

For example, in the US twenty-five percent of fresh and frozen produce is imported, and half of this comes from the US’s warm neighbor, Mexico. Want fresh fruit that is out of season? Those strawberries don’t come from Washington. But there’s a quirky and unhealthy circle going on in the realm of food purchasing. The US exports pesticides to other countries. These countries spray those pesticides on their food crops. Then companies turn around and import these pesticide-laden crops to sell to consumers at US-based markets. Pesticides that might be banned in one country are exported to another, sprayed on crops, imported by companies, and ingested by unwitting residents. This is yet another reason to support local food and to buy organic. Buying organic reduces your pesticide consumption, and buying local at least ensures that you are not purchasing foods with large quantities of banned pesticides.

There’s a market for sustainable local food. Is it being served by US-based food labeling laws? While these laws are a start, companies have a long way to go before they can truly say that fruits and vegetables for sale in stores are safe and sustainable.