Confessions of an EVERYDAY ECOTARIAN

creative, conscious and conserving ideas, thoughts and solutions

The Ecotarian Family: Easing the Constant Battleground Between Kids and Food July 23, 2009

I was recently contacted by a writer of a natural parenting section in a UK magazine called, “Junior”. She had questions that many of us who are parents often have about kids and food. How do we best feed our kids keeping in mind the environmental and social impact? How do we teach them to be mindful of this and will attempting to do these things only make the issue of food more of a battleground than it already is?

This summer's early lettuce crop

This summer's early lettuce crop

Anyone who has kids knows that feeding them can get exceedingly complicated and frustrating. One week they like something, the next they can’t stand it on their plate. What’s a parent to do? Is there anyway to get your kids on board with the big picture of ecotarianism without making things even more complicated? I think there is. In fact, I think there is an advantage in using ecotarian ideas to help kids become more adventurous eaters. So with that, her questions and my answers below, (or you can check out the article in the April 2009 article of Junior…it’s the world’s finest parenting magazine).

How do you get your kids involved in your ecotarianism? Is there stuff they can do with you to get them on board?


First of all, answer their questions. Kids have a natural, (if not somewhat obsessive) desire to ask “why”. Combine that desire with their innate desire, (seemingly equally obsessive) to pick apart and examine everything they eat and you have a natural lead-in to talking about where food comes from. Does your child ask, “What is this?” when you put dinner in front of them? First breathe and count to ten and then see it as a teachable moment and actually start answering that question. It’s not only a great way to get your kids on board with what’s for dinner but also on board with the understanding that food comes from somewhere and it’s important that we know how it got to our plates.

Use every shopping trip as a teachable moment.
Talk about where the food comes from, how it was grown and how it got to that market. If you don’t know, ask the farmer or the store clerk. Sometimes there will even be information printed at the stores. Get your kids thinking backwards -not just where will this food end up (at dinner) but how did it get here. Ask your kids to help you shop. As they get used to the dialog you have with them about their food ask them to start “helping” you to make choices about what you buy. Let them choose a fruit or vegetable they’ve never tried before. Show them a banana and a local strawberry and tell them you would like a fruit that didn’t have to travel very far and you need their help. Tell them how smart they are when they get the answer right!

Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries

Grow something! Grow anything! Find a container, a garden, a plant or a seed, some dirt, water and a sunny spot and grow something. Find someone who knows more than you to bounce questions off of. If you cannot find anyone, there is a wealth of information on the Internet on just about problem you may run into. Even if you can’t bring your tomato plant to fruiting maturity, your kid’s will at the very least, see how something grows and what that tomato looked liked when it was merely a sparkle of potential in a tomato seed. You can even harvest a seed from many store-purchased tomatoes! From my experience, even the pickiest eaters will walk into my garden at the end of the summer and eat a fresh and sun-warmed plum tomato off of the vine. If you are successful with your growing endeavor and do get some fruit for your labors make sure to get some generic matching produce from the store so you can do a one-on-one taste comparison. Then start asking a ton more questions about why your produce tastes different than what you purchased at the store. Some vegetables that are easy to grow in somewhat small areas are tomatoes, beans, peas, carrots, (a short variety) and leaf-lettuce. Leaf lettuce is especially easy to grow and harvest . ­Just pick and eat when the leaves are big enough. Strawberries also grow quite nicely in containers and small spaces of earth. One of my favorite places to get seeds is Seed Savers. They have hundreds of varieties of heirloom plants and seeds from around the world as well as a beautiful and garden-inspiring catalog.

Visit where the food begins. Many farmers are happy to help young children understand what they do. Let your child see you pay the farmer for their products or even better, let your child give the farmer the money. Use this to begin a conversation about paying people fairly for their work.

Make something from scratch.
We are often extremely disconnected from our food. Make bread, noodles, peanut butter, yogurt, cheese, (fresh ricotta is superbly simple ­besides, then you can sing “Little Ms. Muffet”) or a delicious desert from the very basics. Then when you have other foods start asking your children what ingredients they think are in them. Make it a guessing game. Ask, “Who knows which of the things we are eating has flour in it? Where does flour come from?” “What else do we use flour for?” or even “Who knows which of the things we are eating had to travel the furthest?” My kids have become pretty good at figuring this out and it makes for great dinner-time conversation!

I could go on and on with ideas but the biggest thing is questions, questions, and more questions. Kids are born wanting to ask them so use this opportunity to indulge that desire a little and get them really thinking. Help them develop the patterns that they need to continue asking important questions about more difficult issues later in life. To take on an ecotarian view of the world, you have to be comfortable wrestling with the often complex ideas of how, when, why and where when dealing with consumption.

Baby goat nursing, (we use the extra milk)

Baby goat nursing, (we use the extra milk)

What are your words of wisdom to other parents who would like to take the ecotarian plunge but may feel a little overwhelmed?

First and foremost, try not to view ecotarianism as a series of black and white issues. Sometimes the decisions may be easy and sometimes the decisions may be very gray. Our food system did not get to where it is in just a short while and it will take time, effort and a lot of small changes on the part of individuals and systems for it to change for the better. It may seem as though we have a lot of choices at the grocery but in reality, our food system is not set up in a way so that we can even know a lot about the origins of our food. We have a lot of information about our food ­but often not that kind of information. So, in reality, if you are trying to take on ecotarian principals, your choices are quite limited. These two things combined, our existing food system and lack of pertinent information at the store, can definitely leave you feeling overwhelmed. So take it slow and give yourself time. Find something you can start with. Local produce, honey and dairy are often the easiest to find, (and delicious as well). Also, we, as consumers, can begin asking for that kind of information and transparency with our food. With a little pressure, we’re sure to get it.

Don’t let this issue make you feel guilty, (as if we need any more guilt as parents). Guilt is a terrible motivator and it doesn’t often lead to real change. We also cannot afford to make this a platform on which we can place ourselves so that we can judge how others are doing. That is completely missing the point. It’s not about keeping up with the Jones’s, it’s about making informed food choices that in turn make this world a better place to live in and keeps our families healthy. We are all coming to this from different places in life with different sets of resources. That will change the way in which we can approach ecotarianism. Some may be able to throw out their entire pantry and start over. Others will have to take it a piece at a time. Some may be able to till up an acre of their land and plant a huge garden. Some may have the power to advocate for rooftop gardens on commercial buildings. Others may be able to grow a garden plant in a windowsill of an apartment while others try to make their produce purchases at a local farmers market. Starting anywhere is good. To change the system we have to change as individuals. We can’t afford to waste time and energy judging each other on our progress. We should spend that time and energy encouraging the changes, big or small, we see in each other!

And for parents where food is already a battleground with their children – is taking on the principles of ecotarianism going to make life even more complicated?

I find that taking on the principles of ecotarianism is actually much more simple. Simplicity can in some instances, be quite complicated. However, on the issue of “food as a battleground”, I think it makes matters much easier. I really believe, from my own experience with my children and others, that kids are willing to eat good food. A strawberry in the middle of the winter shipped from thousands of miles away doesn’t taste as good as a sun-ripened local summer strawberry. Any child will know that even if they can’t express it. You might find that a child who “doesn’t like” tomatoes really doesn’t like tomatoes that have been grown a distance away and were not allowed to ripen on the vine and develop the natural sugars and sweet taste. Good for that child! He has a great natural instinct for good nutrition! Will this child be hesitant to try any other tomatoes if his first tomato experience was tasteless and out of season? Of course. Initial food experiences make a big impression on kids. However, give them several chances to try that naturally grown produce and you may be pleasantly surprised when on one occasion, they finally eat it. With that, I think it is very important that our children’s initial food experiences be good. ­And that means as natural and as flavorful as nature, (not agribusiness) intended. There is no better way to do this than taking on ecotarian principals, (fresh, natural, local) while choosing food.

Wild Foraged Morel Mushrooms

Wild Foraged Morel Mushrooms

I really think what makes a toddler suddenly pick through something he’s been eating fine for months is a developing awareness of his food. He wants to know what he is consuming. Isn’t that what ecotarianism is all about? Use that, (sometimes irritating) trait for good. When kids know more about their food they are more likely to “trust” it again and often more willing to try new things. If we train our kids to love fresh, natural, local foods, if we also impress upon them that farmers are valuable and need to be compensated fairly they will be more likely to refuse the impostors in the food system as they mature. That, in turn, will lead to real change in how our societies eat.


Are You Rich Enough to Buy Cheap? : bucking the disposable society February 7, 2009

My new Chaco's Z/2 Sparrow

My new Chaco's Z/2 Sparrow

I bought a pair of Chaco’s today. Considering that I’ve been out of a job for over two years now that may seem somewhat irresponsible. To be honest, it was a bit out of character for me, (although I did get them 40% off with free shipping). I am, after all, the woman who’s worn a pair of cheap $5 flip-flops for the last three summers. However, that’s probably equally foolish considering I have arches that rival those of the ancient Romans. Maybe it was a moment of impulsiveness or reckless spending or maybe it was the beginning of a new way of thinking and acting for me. I recently read a piece where the author was wrestling with the idea of being “rich enough to be poor”. Apparently, it’s an old Russian saying implicating the idea that if you buy cheap things, it will cost you more in the end. So, in theory, you have to be wealthy to buy cheap. Makes sense, right? Well, I think it’s much more complicated in the practical world than it is in the theoretical world, (isn’t that always the case?). After all, if you are already strapped for cash, how do you buy more expensive, higher quality items?

Well first of all, no one is saying that we have to have the best of everything. That’s an entirely different, (and equally misleading) mentality. I’m not talking everything. I’m talking some things. If we take a hard look at what we throw away -and how that’s changed in the last 100 years or so, we see some alarming patterns that I think not only represent a facet of our family economic systems but that also of our larger consumer economic systems.

Data from New York City Waste Collections indicates that the amount of garbage created per person per year went from 92 to 1,242 pounds from 1905-2005. Granted, packaging and containers represent 32 percent of that number, (and that’s another topic to be discussed). However, non-durable goods (products used less than three years) represent 27 percent or roughly 335 pounds a person per year. That’s 335 pounds of junk we each purchased last year that wore out, broke or stopped working too soon, (my flip-flops probably should be in that number, but I’ve resurrected them a few times with super glue). That number alone is about 3.5 times more than the entire amount of garbage per person in New York 104 years ago. Granted, things have changed since then. At some point, however, we need to start asking if this pattern is played out over time, where will we be? Is it something we can afford to continue?

So back to the family budget. How does buying cheap affect us and why do we feel compelled to do it? Well, let’s first take into consideration our extremely human and early-showing tendency to want more.

One of the first two-word phrases my kids learned was “I want”. That phrase along with “Can I…” are enough to drive a parent mad in a consumer-driven, thing-overloaded world. It’s so normal an occurance in our family that we have a code word: Greedy Gimees, (credit to the Berenstein Bears for that). So, to start with, we are all born destined to fight the Greedy Gimmees and if that wasn’t bad enough others, (also endowed with the Greedy Gimmees) have decided to exploit that tendency in us. Not only are we bombarded at all ages with messages of Bigger, Better, More! There is also this interesting little marketing technique, (can I call it that?) called Planned Obsolescence. From Wikipedia:

Planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence[1] is the process of a product becoming obsolete and/or non-functional after a certain period or amount of use in a way that is planned or designed by the manufacturer.[1]

What? They want our hard drives to die and our break pads to wear out sooner? Feeling a little betrayed? A little more from Wikipedia:

The purpose of planned obsolescence is to hide the real cost per use from the consumer, and charge a higher price than they would otherwise be willing to pay (or would be unwilling to spend all at once).

That cheap computer that tanks on you in 18 months isn’t so cheap after all. Not when you have to keep replacing it, (even if it’s only one piece at at time). Which, apparently was the plan all along. A little bit maddening isn’t it? It costs us more money, it ends up as more waste all while we are encouraged to be in a perpetual state of the Greedy Gimmees. I can tell you from experience, the Greedy Gimmees push gratitude right out the back door. And life without gratitude is not very satisfying.

So what do we do about this? First of all I’d like to give kudos to the Brits for taking a stance on it. In the UK, it’s considered a breach of consumer rights to engineer obsolescence into products. They investigate claims of products that consistently fail just outside the warranty period, (just ask Apple).

As individuals, and families, I think we can make an impact by bucking the disposable society. Here are some ideas:

Do research to find quality items that last. Before you purchase something, do a little research about the product. Find companies that are interested in longevity and quality, (they are out there). Use the internet to look at the vast review sites for various products. If you see complaints that a product is failing just on the other side of the warranty date -avoid that product.

Don’t count out second hand stores! If the product made it to a second hand store it just might have a better chance of longevity. Sift through the thrift stores and see if you can find a useful treasure that will serve you for years. My favorite coffee mug is a unique hand-made stone wear thrift store find, (it warms up like the beach in the sun…). It cost me .99 and I use it every single day.

Don’t be an impulse buyer. Impulsive buyers are the manufacturers best friends. They are the ones that planned obsolescence is tailored to. Impulse buyers buy into the ideas of bigger, better, more. No matter what you hear, you probably don’t need it right now. There is very little, (outside of oxygen…and coffee?) that we need right now. In fact, it would probably be good practice to let those impulsive feelings pass. Once you’ve ridden that wave without buying you will realize it wasn’t so urgent after all. The next time those feelings arise, it will be easier to wait them out before you make a buying decision. The name of the game in bucking the disposable society is delayed gratification.

Stop. Think. Then buy.

Save your money and wait for the right buy. If there is something you think you need or want to replace, then save your money, push that sense of urgency to buy back and instead wait and keep your eyes open. My husband and I deal with this by having a mental “list” of things we need to replace. For example, a table saw has been on our list for a couple of years. My husband did a lot of research, looking at reviews and inspecting actual saws. He settled on the one he wanted and then he waited. He waited a year. Now, my husbands business involves weekly, sometimes daily use of a table saw and he was using one that was an 11-year-old Sears special that cost $150 new. However, that old saw kept a’ spinnin’ and he let those urges past until he found a great deal. Just yesterday, in fact, the new models came out and the one he’s had his eye on all year long went on clearance, costing him 40% less than it would have new saving us hundreds of dollars. And instead of the perpetual Greedy Gimmees, he’s filled with gratitude that he now has a really nice saw that he’ll have for many years. Which brings me to my last tip:

Plan on using the item for the long haul. Fight the urge to go with the “Bigger, Better, More!” mentality. If you buy a quality product, then tell yourself you are going to use it for X amount of time -and stick with it. You will learn several things. 1. That you can get by without something bigger and better and 2.That those, (seemingly dire) urges to buy more are just that , urges. If you happen to be walking by the next generation of whatever you have, put your blinders on, remind yourself you made a commitment to fight the disposable lifestyle and keep walking -just let that urge pass on by you.

Sometimes, when I realize how enslaved our entire economy is to the idea of a disposable society, (some have argued that it was planned obsolescence that brought us out of the Great Depression) I wonder if our economy can survive otherwise. However, I know that people are endowed with this desire to have meaning in their life -to have their work mean something to themselves and to others. I’m just not sure manufacturing a ton of cheap junk is all that meaningful to anyone. Maybe, we could trade our disposable society for one that encourages high quality, carefully made items that will be with people for years. Maybe then we could afford to buy more expensive items and we could afford to pay the people who make them a fair, livable wage. And instead of being in a state of the perpetual Greedy Gimmees we could instead be in a state of perpetual gratitude for the care that was put into the items that go with us and gather memories during our lives.

So the next time you are considering a purchase ask yourself, “Am I really rich enough to buy cheap?”


On Food: Heirloom Vegetables, Healthy Diversity January 29, 2009

Today, in the bleak mid-winter, I received something in the mail that always offers me a glimmer home_catalog091of hope that spring will someday arrive. Where we live, our winters are a good five and a half months long. This year I’m thinking it may be seven. It’s to be expected seeing I live halfway between the equator and the north pole. I don’t complain about the winters too much but by the time February roles around, my body is screaming for some sun-induced vitamin D and fresh local vegetables. Not to mention that we had so much early snow this year that we spent the day after Christmas on the roof, shoveling 3 feet of snow onto the ground, (had to take a ladder up and just stepped onto our pile of snow on the way down). And although I do like the snow, (most of the time) I relish the times when things are green and growing again.
So what is this beacon of hope? The Seed Savors Exchange catalog. Every year we do our best to pack every inch of our nearly 3000 square foot garden, (twice as big as the living space in our house) with a wonderful diversity of heirloom vegetables, fruits, herbs and greens. We rely heavily on Seed Savors for our plant selection. Seed Savers is a non-profit organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations. Located in Decorah, Iowa, where 23 acres of gardens are on public display. There you will find an awe-inspiring collection of genetic diversity. In merely 97 pages of their seed catalog is a seemingly infinite variety of vegetables,fruits, herbs, flowers and greens, (and as far as I understand it’s only a sampling of the varieties grown at the farm). The catalog is brimming with an array of full-color pictures of gorgeous and healthy vegetables. Granted, the seeds are a bit more pricey then “conventional” garden seeds but if an ecotarian garden is what you are after then conventional plants may not fit the bill.

Case in point: How many varieties of tomatoes can you find in your grocery store right now? Four? Five? Six? Even in our largest grocery stores we have about four basic types of tomatoes: Beefstake, Roma, Cherry and (if you are lucky) Plum. All of which are basically red and uniform from tomato to tomato.

As a contrast, just moments ago, I counted 72 varieties of tomatoes in the Seed Savers catalog, (and through SS you can actually have acess to 4,495 varieties of tomatoes). In it one will find tomatoes that are round, oblong, small, large, red, pink, green, yellow, purple and orange. -And oh, how wonderful those tomatoes taste. One browse through this catalog and you realize that what we see in the grocery store today is not reflective of the wonderful diversity present in our world. It’s reflective of “big business meets agriculture”. So instead of an unlimited variety of produce that represents our histories and our pasts, we are left with varieties that grow fast, ship well and store long. When big business pairs with agriculture what we are left with is a fraction of our beautiful diversity and a fraction of our history, (one really interesting and eye-opening book on this topic is Fatal Harvest, The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture).

Another fantastic resource for very ecotarian gardening is the WinterSown Educational Organization. This lovely little site gives tips on sowing seeds all winter long, (as the name implies). Here, they show you how to grow cold-hardy plants in recyclables like empty milk jugs, clear cake boxes and cottage cheese tubs. No heating devices, fancy seed-starting sets or energy-wasting, (and in turn money-wasting) lights needed. They also offer free seeds! In my envelope I received 8 different heirloom tomato varieties, rainbow chard and dill seeds. Visit the site and it may just have you digging in the recycle bins for suitable containers today!

So this year, whether you are planning a large garden or you are venturing to grow something in a container for the first time make an effort to plant at least some heirloom varieties. You will be rewarded with wonderful produce, seeds to store and grow for the next year and the knowledge that you are passing a piece of our history on to the next year.

To close, I’m going to list all 72 varieties of heirloom tomatoes listed in the 2009 Seed Savers Exchange catalog. Each variety has a paragraph stating where it came from and how it got to the Seed Savers Exchange. Head to SeedSavers.Org to have your very own beacon of winter hope shipped to your home!

So here I go, 72 varieties of tomatoes in this years SS catalog, (add that to the 17 varieties of garlic and you’ll have a nice start to a marinara sauce).

black sea man

The Black Sea Man

Amish Paste, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Austin’s Red Pear, Beam’s Yellow Pear, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Black Plum, Black Sea Man, (kids love this one), Blondkopfchen, (can you pronounce it?), Brandywine, Brown Berry, Chalk’s Early Jewel, Cherokee Purple, Chery Roma, Cream Sausage, (vegan!) Crnkovic Yugoslavian, Currant, Gold Rush, Currant, Sweat Pea, Czech’s Bush, (I thought he was Texan) Dr. Wyche’s Yellow, Earliana, Eva Purple Ball, Federle, German Pink, Giant Syrian, Gold Medal, Golden Sunray, Gourmet Yellow Stuffer, Green Grape, Green Sausage, Green Zebra, (another kid favorite) Hillbilly Potato Leaf, Hartman’s Yellow Gooseberry, Hungarian Heart, Italian Heirloom, Isis Candy, Japanese Trifele Black, Juane Flamme, John Baer, Kellogg’s

Green Zebra

Green Zebra

Breakfast, (no, not cornflakes) Large Red Cherry, Long Tom, Martino’s Roma, Mexico Midget, Moonglow, Nebraska Wedding, Nyagous, Plum Lemon, (looks just like a lemon!) Ponderosa Red, Powers Heirloom, Purple Russian, (catalog note: “Original stock came from Irma Henkel in the Ukraine”) Red Fig, Redfield Beauty, Red Zebra, (friend of the Green Zebra) Riesentraube, (German for “giant bunch of grapes” in case you ever need to know…) Roman Candle, Rose, Sheboygan, Siberian, Silvery Fir Tree, Soldacki, Speckled Roman, Striped Cavern, Stupice, Tasty Evergreen, (and you thought evergreen’s weren’t tasty!) Tommy Toe, Trophy, Trucker’s Favorite, Wapsipinicon Peach, (I read this one is actually fuzzy) and last, but not least, Wisconsin 55.


Organic: Can You Afford It? December 7, 2008

Rows of Beans

Rows of Beans

So you want to eat organic but you think you can’t afford it. Well, let me tell you, you can’t afford not to eat organic. -Ok, so I don’t really mean that. Honestly, I get exceedingly tired of reading that in all of the elitist “green” publications or hearing it on the yuppy radio shows where the fiscally comfortable can have conversations amongst themselves on the “can’t do without” benefits of all-organic living. You know what I think? (and this is my blog, so you’re about to find out) I think only the well-to-do can have the leisure to even think this thought. Let’s face it, oranic foods cost two, probably more like three times more than “conventional” food, (and the word “conventional” is up for debate). For a family of 5 that spends $500/mos on groceries, (our family of 5 spends $300-400/mos) that means upping it to $1000-$1500/mos. Maybe if you make six figures or more a year you won’t notice that difference. However, looking at statistics, most families of 5 do not make that much and upping a grocery bill three times just isn’t going to fly. So, whether or not organic food is better for the future of the earth and our health, (and I believe it is) it’s a near impossibility for the budgets of average families. So what they heck do we normal people do about this? We all want to do the right thing. We all want what’s best for our families, right? All I can do is tell you how we deal with this. I think we do ok. I’m not going to give you a list of 12 things you must buy organic. I’m not going to tell you to roto-till your front yard or spread dirt on your roof and turn it into a garden, (although I enjoy any opportunity to spread dirt anywhere). I’m going to list a few general guidelines we’ve used for “going organic”.

Buy the most nutrient dense organic foods that happen to be cheap. Bananas, dried beans, (not sure what to do with them, check out this post), brown rice, whole wheat flour, carrots and raisins to name a few. These foods are highly nutritious and inexpensive in both their organic and non-organic forms. For example, non-organic bananas are .49c/lb at our local store. Organic? .69c/lb. Sure, it’s 28% more but the difference in cost for 3lbs of bananas? 60 cents.

Find a local coop to join. There may be people all around you gathering together once a month to order cheap organic pantry staples and you didn’t even know it! A few companies that have buying clubs are Country Life Natural Foods, Frontier Natural Products and Untied Buying Clubs. Basically, it works like this: You get a few people together and order once a month. Together you meet the minimum order requirement and each of these companies delivers the food to a common location where you split it up and bring it home to make it into wonderful meals for your family. Check out these companies and see if they already have a buying group near you or get your friends together and make your own!

Buy in bulk and share with friends. Speaking of friends… Sometimes you may have to order items in bulk to get the best deal. This is especially true if you are ordering from one of the aforementioned coops. No problem. This is a great opportunity to get together with friends and split up your item. Only need 10lbs of flour but you need to order 50lbs to get the best price? Get together with four other people and split it up. If you have proper storage you can just stash shelf-stable items aside until you can use them up yourself. Grains, rice, beans, olive oil and dried fruit store very nicely for quite a while in a cool, dry place. These are also items that you can get significantly cheaper in bulk.

Don’t count-out local foods just because they aren’t “certified organic”. Yes I know, strawberries are on the “dirty dozen” list. But if they are local and in season yet not certified organic, give them a chance! They are very pest-resistant by nature not needing a lot of pesticides to grow and ripen. The problem comes in when these very perishable fruits are shipped from CA to NY in the middle of winter. To keep them from molding, heavy fungicides are used. If you buy them local and in season, there is no reason for the anti-fungal measures. -and they taste much better, of course. That’s just one example. But, as a whole, vegetables and fruits that are grown locally and are in season often have less need for heavy pesticide use. Also, the more the fruits are allowed to ripen where nature intended them to, the more nutritious they are. Did I mention tastier too?. Just ask any kid if they’d rather have a sun-ripened strawberry or a shipped-across-the-country, box-ripened, tasteless, half-green Franken-berry as big as the kids head. One other benefit to buying local when you can: talking to the grower. Want to know what was used to grow your veggies? Ask the farmer. He may not be able to give you an organic label on your carrots but his word may be just as good. Maybe even better.

Grow your own. I know, easier said than done for many. Even those in the city, however, can often grow a simple tomato plant in a container in the window. One thing I just love to see in cities is community gardens. What a great way to get together with others and just get your hands dirty! Buy a small plot this year and just jump in. Start small with just a couple of varieties of easy-to-grow plants, (tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, herbs…). I think you will find that others are more than willing to help you figure it all out.

Don’t think you have to go “all or nothing”. I know, I know, the guilt sets in. I’m poisoning my family with horrible pesticides! I’m contributing to the raping of the earth! What if one day we all get cancer and it’s because we bought those non-organic grapes in December of 08?! I’m sure there are many, many people who would disagree with me, (the “you can’t afford not to (elitist) club” -did I say elitist?). Honestly, though. The bottom line with everything is, something is better than nothing and you have to start somewhere. For some it may be the infamous, (although variant) “dirty dozen” list. For others it may be the cheapest things possible. Some may be able to clear out their pantry and start over in one shopping trip, (I’ll take what you throw out!). Others may just have to replace one thing at a time and make some really careful choices on just what they will and will not buy organic. It’s all good. We all have to be informed consumers and we are all dealing with different circumstances. So, do the best you can with what you have and start with that. -and be willing to re-evaluate often.

So although I would not say going totally organic is affordable for everyone and you’ll never catch me telling someone they can’t afford not to go organic I do believe it can be affordable in part. Do some research, make a plan and figure out how you can best feed your family within your grocery budget. Don’t let others with more padded budgets make you feel less for not buying all organic. Just walk into that health food store, grab your 50 pound bag of organic rolled oats, carry it to the counter with your head-held high, (not too high or you’ll fall over backwards) knowing you just paid as much per pound as you would have for non-organic oats. -And now you can go home and split those oats up with your friends. Oat-splitting with friends, what could be better than that?


Excess and Equality July 24, 2008

Filed under: Ramblings — adm @ 3:07 am
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Way up in the mountains of northern Colorado I had a lesson in excess I will not soon forget. Two friends of mine are ranch hands at what I will label as a “7,000 acre playground in the mountains for a very select ultra-rich”. The beauty was amazing. The landscape was incredible. The architecture of the homes was genius and something to be admired and appreciated for it’s beauty. However, for most of these families it wasn’t their primary home. These gigantic fully furnished lodges nestled in some of the most beautiful areas I’ve ever seen only get used a few times a year. For some of the families it is their 7th home -one their 13th. I can’t comprehend that kind of wealth. The yearly association fee alone is four times what our family exists on.

It really got me thinking. I try to live simply. I know I’m not living as simply as I could be but I try. You see, way up there in the mountains when the awe from the beauty passed I began to feel indignant. Who are these people who think they can have so much when there are people in the world who don’t even have their basic needs met?! How can somebody justify that kind of excess? Does it even cross their high-living minds what it might have been like for them had they been born in a third-world country to a mother who had HIV?

Not long after this internal rant the familiar pangs of conviction hit me. I have more than I need, too. So what is the difference between them and me? Well, besides millions, (maybe billions) of dollars. Stewardship is an old church word that comes to mind. What does it mean? In really simple terms I like to think it means doing the best you can with what you have. If I’m not doing the best I can with what I have where do I have room to judge them? These are questions we all need to ask ourselves. At what point does an inappropriate amount of excess creep into our lives? What amount of excess is inappropriate? When does it become a problem? When our neighbors are struggling to pay their basic bills? When someone in a third-world country can’t meet their basic food needs? It’s a really tough series of questions to begin asking and I’m not sure there is a corresponding series of simple answers. It’s uncomfortable to even think about. -But like all important questions -very necessary.

Maybe the best thing we can do is to constantly remain aware that we have more than we need and sometimes living on less means we can give more to help someone else. Feeling guilty over what we have isn’t helpful. Feeling resentful over what others have isn’t either. I’ve been guilty of both. Sometimes the only thing left to do is to live in the tensions of this world, remain aware of the paradoxes and incongruities while trying to do the best we can with what we have. -Giving what we can give and asking for help when we need help. Above all we need to always look for the holy in the everyday of our lives -those opportunities in which God is in the ordinary and he’s asking us to act. This reminds me of the chorus of a song I wrote a few months ago:

Sometimes we must quiet the world to hear the voice of God speak

Or we will pass by and miss, the burning bushes all around our feet

For we can listen to the world, to money and power and envy and greed

Or we can listen to God, who knows who we were created to be

Maybe the problem with excess isn’t the stuff itself. Maybe the biggest problem is that the stuff begins to run us. Maybe running after more and more demands so much energy, makes so much noise that we loose track of who we really are. -and then what good are we to the world anymore?

May you go through this week with the ability to live in the tensions of a world cluttered with stuff, full of inequalities and at the same time see the image of God in everyone.


On Food: Making Yogurt June 12, 2008

I’m on a food bent today.

Do you love really good, organic yogurt but feel like the budget is too tight to buy it? Perhaps you just feel wasteful buying disposable, (or recyclable) container(s) of yogurt every week.

You can make your own yogurt and it is EASY. Really. No laboratory needed, no big sterile environment is necessary. Just you, some milk, some culture and a warm place. Yogurt is one of those things that is as old as man and domesticated livestock. If they could do it, so can we. -and the best thing is you control what goes into it.

I use a 1-quart “Yogurt Maker” by Salton. I got it from Amazon for about $15. I now see that Amazon no longer carries it. However, they do have an individual cup yogurt maker for $29. I’ve often wished I had the options of individual cups so perhaps this is a better option anyway. You can make yogurt without a yogurt maker but I’ve found the incubator is inexpensive and makes the process much more predictable and the product more consistent.

Regardless, the process is the same. You buy milk -whatever milk you desire. I love using whole-milk for my yogurt. If you use homogenized milk your yogurt will be consistent throughout. If you use milk that has not been homogenized your yogurt will have a cream layer on top, (oh, how I love that cream layer!). You heat the milk to 200 degrees for 10 minutes. You let it cool until it is lukewarm. Some people add some dried milk powder at this point but I’ve found it isn’t necessary. Next, you take some live cultures and mix them into the milk. You can either use live culture that has been freeze-dried, (like Yogourmet) or just buy one cup of plain yogurt that has live and active cultures to mix into your milk. You then place the milk/culture mix in the incubator and let it rest for 4-10 hours -until it sets. If you like your yogurt more sour then let it go towards the 10 hour mark, mild let it go towards the 4 hour mark.

You will now have plain yogurt that you can add whatever you’d like into. Save about 4 ounces of this yogurt to start your next batch. You can re-culture your yogurt about 3-4 times with yogurt from the last batch. After this the cultures will be too weak and you will need a new set.

One more thing: The consistency of homemade yogurt is thinner than the kind you buy in stores.  You may find yourself asking, “How do I thicken my homemade yogurt?”  I have worked and worked to find a way to thicken it up, (my family prefers it thicker). After much trial and error I’ve stumbled upon a couple of solutions. The first is to add unflavored gelatin to it before you incubate it. I’m not sure I like its texture this way. It’s kind of like…well…Jello. The second -my preferred method- is to use a product called Instant Clear Jel. It is a pre-cooked corn starch. Therefore you can put it in something cold and it will thicken it almost instantly, (think instant pudding). I have found that you use about 2 TBS to 1 cup of yogurt. Sprinkle it over the top, whisk it in good and let it set in the fridge for a while. Then, go back to it and whisk it again until it’s creamy and thick. My family thinks it’s perfection!

Plain yogurt is also a great, healthy substitute for sour cream. You can also put the plain yogurt in a colander lined with cheesecloth and let the whey drain from it until you have yogurt cheese -which is a lot like cream cheese.

You can make a quart of yogurt for the cost of the milk plus your culture, (which can be simply one individual cup of plain yogurt). Healthy, delicious, nutritious and inexpensive!


On Food: Homemade Chocolate Syrup!

How do you make my 6-year-old climb walls like Spider Man? -Give him something with sodium benzoate. We found out this interesting yet annoying reaction when my oldest son had some “Sunny D” for the first time at an event. -He was about three years old. My husband and I were busy playing for the event while someone else watched our kids. When we finished playing I went to find my kids and I literally found my son hanging from the bleachers. I asked him to get down and he just stared at me with a wild and far-off look in his eye. I spent the rest of the time chasing him from one crazy dangerous act to the next all the while wondering, “Who are you and where have you put my son?!”. When I tracked down exactly what was different in his diet that day I found that it was the kid-appealing, drink-like liquid substance known as “Sunny D”. Never being one to jump to conclusions I tracked some down and gave him some a few days later. -Wild boy returned. That was enough of that. Seeing that it was my job to make sure he lived until adulthood I decided he must never ingest it again. Well, through other experiences and some experimenting I found that the specific chemical that seemed to affect him was sodium benzoate. Then I started reading labels and found it everywhere. Parenting just got more complicated…again.

All of this to lead into a great recipe I found. One thing my kids adore is chocolate milk, (especially chocolate goats milk). Unfortunately most chocolate syrups have sodium benzoate on their list of ingredients. -Amongst other things, (and often a lack of actual chocolate). You can find brands that have simpler ingredient list. AH!Laska Organic Chocolate syrup for example, (Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Water, Organic Cocoa (Non-Alkaline), Xanthan Gum (a Natural Fiber Thickener), Organic Vanilla, Citric Acid). -But even on Amazon it’s about $4 for a 22 ounce bottle. I can do better than that. Here is a recipe for great, easy, homemade chocolate syrup

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 cup tap water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

In a 2 quart sauce pan mix the cocoa and water with a wire whisk or fork. Heat the chocolate water over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar and continue to stir until the sugar dissolves. Bring the mixture to a full rolling boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and boil for a full 3 minutes. Remove the syrup from the heat.

Add the salt and vanilla, stirring to blend. Pour the syrup into a clean pint sized canning jar, or any container you would like to use. I use one I can “squirt” the syrup out of. Store it in the fridge.

You can use organic, fair-trade sugar, or substitute the sugar for honey. I would use about 3/4 cup honey for each cup of sugar and then reduce the water to 3/4 cups. Also, you can buy really good cocoa powder and have a really nice finished product. One that you just may eat by the spoonful right from the fridge…not that I recommend that, (well, every once in a while).

One other thing I do is substitute a vanilla bean for the the vanilla extract. I just take a bean, split it and scrape the seeds into the cocoa mix before I heat it. I throw the bean in there too. I leave it in as the mix heats and boils and then take it out before I put it in the fridge.

That’s all there is to it. You can have your very own wholesome chocolate syrup for a fraction of the cost.

I’m going to make some now!