Okay, Food Folks. We have a couple of serious problems. One is that our food supply system is flat-busted-broken. The other is that the spokespeople for change in this area tend to be… well, how to put it? Sanctimonious jerks, or dingbats who copped their look from Wavy Gravy and say GMOs are wrong but cannot articulate why. It’s… awkward.
The best reasons for changing your ways (gently, simply, gradually and non-radically) aren’t just “environmentalist.” They are pleasurable. And if you play your cards right, they save you money too.
Here are 12 things (that’s one a month, Resolutionists!) you can do without becoming that guy no one wants to go out to dinner with, or having to quit your job to join some weird back-to-the-land cult. Any of these will improve your life and the lives of the people who will be here when you are dust. And if we all did ALL of them – well, we’d be having a whole different conversation right now.
1. Spend More Money on Meat
photo by ornello_pic via Flickr
...And do it a lot less. You don’t have to be a vegetarian – but if you want to live to see your grandkids get married and you don’t want to have to wear SPF 45,000 sunscreen to their wedding, think about how much you want to contribute to an industry that is dirty, demonstrably accelerating climate change, contributing heavily to chronic illness, and exposing you to gross and sometimes lethal infections. Anyone who has ever driven through the charming town of Coalinga, CA knows what I’m talking about – if you live near a large-scale cattle, pig or poultry processing operation you probably do too. If you eat meat every day, consider just taking one or two days a week off from it. If you are buying it cheap, know you’re aiding and abetting the worst aspects of the industry – please consider investing in your health and the planet’s by buying organically raised, small-farm stuff, and if you can get it directly from the producer, so much the better. If you decide you’re better off without it altogether, you’re in good company and will not suffer in restaurants, I swear.
photo by Joi Ito via Flickr
There are people who do not have a realistic option for this, but really, not many. Many fortunate city-dwellers have composting available through their waste management service, so if you don’t have a backyard or a nearby community garden, you can probably just take the ten flipping seconds it takes to separate organic matter from beer bottles and stick them in the green can. If you do have a community garden, donate. They will want it, trust me. And if you have green space of your own, find a convenient corner to compost stuff by yourself – it is nearly zero effort and results in healthy soil. Anyone who thinks it is inconvenient has probably never tried it.
3. Sign Up for a CSA
photo by Charles Smith via Flickr
Community Supported Agriculture is exactly what it sounds like. For a monthly fee, an actual farm delivers actual food to your home or to a convenient pickup location. It is always fresh, always local, always seasonal and puts more of your grocery budget into the hands of the folks who grow your food. You can usually customize a CSA share to work for you – how often you receive deliveries and to some extent, what is and isn’t in them.
4. Plant a Fruit or Nut Tree
If you don’t have a large park-like backyard where you can do this personally, find a program that will do it on your behalf. In my hometown (San Francisco), contact Friends of the Urban Forest for help and suggestions; elsewhere, look to your county extension services Master Gardeners. If you do have a large parklike backyard, or even a modest one where there’s an empty space or an ugly shrub you’ve wanted to yoink out of there for ages – get thee to thy local plant-selling establishment and find out what grows best in your area. Cross reference that with what you actually find tasty, and get the shovel into the ground. Northern Californians can grow nearly anything – but sometimes places with harsher climates produce the most amazing things. If you’re in upstate New York you’re going to be able to grow way better apples than I can, and if you’re in humid Georgia, you already know your people rule the peach and the pecan. Los Angelenos don’t get the chill hours required for great cherries or nectarines, but that dry, mild weather is avocado heaven. Not to mention bananas. Upper Midwesterners? Cherries, baby. And hazelnuts.
5. Embrace Foraging
If you live in a highly polluted area (ironically, all too often that’s agricultural land) do a little homework to make sure this is safe (some edible forageables are more likely than others to deliver a mouthful of pesticides or car exhaust byproducts), but in a typical suburban neighborhood, for example, everything from “weeds” in vacant lots (some of which are wildly expensive “superfoods” like purslane) to that plum, walnut, apple or lemon tree branch dangling over the fence and onto the sidewalk are legally fair game and you can’t get fresher or more local. Anyone who has ever stumbled onto a giant blackberry bramble on a hiking trail knows there are few things in life more sensually satisfying than wild fruit. Caveat: Unless it’s a demonic invasive like knotweed or garlic mustard, be respectful and don’t get greedy. As the mindful forager’s creed goes, “Take one, leave three.” Also, please do a LOT of homework before hunting down any kind of mushroom. There are approximately two of those that are easily distinguished from lookalikes that can be icky, or put you on the liver transplant list.
6. Go Easy on the Fish
photo by Mr. TinDC via Flickr
Before you go shopping or order sushi, take a second to glance at the watchlist and think twice about how badly you want to contribute to the extinction of the Bluefin tuna. Check in with the Natural Resources Defense Council) for current lists of clean and non-threatened seafood.
7. Grow Your Own
Vegetables! What the hell did you think I meant? Anyone can do this at some level, and you’ll be making a difference in your quality of life and the planet’s. If what you can manage is a pot of sage on a windowsill or a back balcony strawberry container, even that is a contribution to a healthier world and a healthier psyche. I promise, the first time you snip a few of those sage leaves and fry them in brown butter and throw them onto your pasta, you’re going to experience a strange, primal self-sufficiency rush that you are going to like. If you have any available dirt, there is something edible you can put in it. Short growing season? Fine – plant something that grows fast. Novice? One word: radish.
8. Recruit Your Kids
If you are a parent, you are sitting on a gold mine of cheap labor. Pry the iPad from their chubby little fingers and get them outside. City-dwellers? Community garden plots abound. If there isn’t one in your area, why not take it to the next level and start one. If you have a yard of your own, get them out into it. Kids will quickly find weeding and deadheading are strangely addictive and rewarding. They tend to be blown away when a seed turns into a plant, and when a plant turns into something you can put on your dinner plate. Got a picky eater? This will very likely change when Pickypants actually picked those tomatoes and beans. We do not pay nearly enough attention to the impact of disconnection from what we eat. Kids are growing up under the impression that the native environment of the Armenian cucumber is a plastic clamshell box with a Trader Joe’s label on it. The ramifications of this are deeper, weirder, and more dire than you probably realize.
9. Consider Low-Impact Livestock
I admit this one’s a little more of a commitment, but possibly the single largest-impact change you can make to food sourcing is to have a couple of hens in your yard – or to participate, even if only financially, with someone who does. (Same goes for bees, who can be intimidating, but wow is it worth it to get over that.) Laying hens have possibly the cruelest, most miserable lives of any food animal on the planet; commercially raised eggs are very likely to carry pathogens like salmonella, which will make you unbelievably sick; plus, and hear me now – fresh, small scale home-raised eggs are so much better tasting and nutrient-rich that they are barely even the same thing. Eat one and you will never want to go to a supermarket for them again. As for bees, they take up almost no space, do not become stinky when it rains (chickens unfortunately cannot make this claim) – and they are dying out. You don’t want to know how many of the foods you take for granted will disappear from the face of the earth without bees.
10. Support the Little Guys
Indie markets are an endangered species without whom we will be poorer as a society. Small independent businesses can be a luxury – but trust me, health is even more of a luxury and I am talking about overall choices here. Spend your dollars at the farmers market (many of which also accept food stamps) and you won’t be spending as many at the doctor’s office having your heart or blood sugar condition managed with expensive drugs. I’m a writer. But I shop at my outrageously costly independent market for the stuff where it makes the most wellness difference – meat and produce. I don’t go there for toilet paper. Also, not all independent businesses are that much more expensive than the cheap-on-the-surface food sources whose hidden costs will show up on climate change reports and your medical insurance premiums. When and where you can… go for the CSA, the independent, the farmers’ market, the locally-owned restaurant, or your backyard. It matters.
11. Step Away From the Bottled Water
photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Flickr
Seriously, this one’s a no-brainer, but for some reason it eludes brains worldwide. REUSABLE BOTTLES. Please? It’s just not hard. If your water’s funky, invest in a filter and get on with it. Buy a couple of good-quality reusable water bottles per family member and re-use them. The plastic garbage created by the bottled water industry should embarrass you. The amount of money you are spending on water should really, really embarrass you. Just stop.
12. Network, Collaborate, Share
How we feed ourselves is one of the strongest defining elements of our culture. We’ve evolved into a culture that favors quantity over quality, convenience and independence over collaboration and effort. Where has this gotten us? Let’s see. To a culture in which millions of people are dying of obesity and millions more are chronically hungry. Where we eat cheap, nutrient-poor food alone, in our cars. Where mass-produced foods get recalled for hitting the market with pathogens in them that you don’t even want to think about. Where we feel strangely isolated and lonely and faintly hopeless – and medicate ourselves for it to the tune of a kabillion dollars a year. Humble suggestion? Remember that you are part of a community, and leverage it. Trade produce, share meals, go back to the hearth and the garden and the table. Turn off the TV and get a good pair of gloves. Bring your neighbor a basket of plums from that tree that’s breaking from its own weight, and walk home with some of the bread she just baked. Adopt the barn-raising spirit that was, only two or three generations ago, a matter of survival. The weirdest thing will happen. You’ll feel healthier, stronger, more self-sufficient and richer in both dollars and friends.
Here’s to being a healthier, more connected and conscious, more interesting person in 2015. No need to embrace an alienating fringe philosophy or change your political party affiliation or take a militant stand against ice cream or anything kooky. (I’d take a militant stand against anyone taking a militant stand against ice cream, frankly.) Just notice. Notice the resources around you, use them as best you can to feel good about what you are putting in your mouth, and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. It’s so worth it.
Amy Glynn is an award winning poet and longtime food and wine pornographer, and was first accused of being a “food snob” by her parents at age 8. Her book “A Modern Herbal” was released by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the SF Bay Area, Ground Zero of the “Delicious Revolution.” She thinks about apples a lot. Follow her on Twitter @AmyAlysaGlynn and on Facebook here.