Confessions of an EVERYDAY ECOTARIAN

creative, conscious and conserving ideas, thoughts and solutions

Pickled Pink! And Other Things of the Summer September 24, 2009

I should have posted something some time ago.  But, the summer has kept me very busy and sitting down to write just hasn’t happened.  So, instead, I’ll recap the summer in pictures.  Then, when the onslaught of veggies to put away for the winter ends I will write again.  I really will.  I promise.


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.


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?