Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day Post: Eating Locally

I'm getting in on the tail end of Blog Action Day, but that's all right. This is, after all, a gardening blog, and writing about environmental action is nothing new here! From turning a concrete pad into a garden (adding greenspace and forage for butterflies and bees) to reducing the feral cat population through TNR (trap-neuter-release) action and rescuing kittens, to gardening for birds and butterflies has turned up here.

Today, let's talk about food. Gardens are often about food, so it fits. I teach biology at the college level, and I've found over the years that very few of my students understand where their food comes from. They know better than to answer "The store." They have the vague idea that food comes from a farm somewhere. Somehow. And dirt is probably involved. Beyond that, not much of a clue. Hence I get some very interesting responses when I ask them about our place in the food chain, or what environmental effects there would be if more people became vegetarians (their visions of poor, overpopulated cattle starving because we're eating all the veggies just tug at the ol' heartstrings).

Amusing, yeah, but not so funny when we ourselves find out how little we know about our food, and with dire consequences. Who knew, for instance, that cat food contained wheat gluten, and that the wheat gluten came from China, and that some Chinese manufacturers were adulterating the wheat gluten to make it look like it had more protein? That took nearly everyone by surprise. But even innocent-looking whole fruit in the produce section can yield surprises. It came all the way from Chile? Really? Was it really cheaper to import a tomato from Chile? Do we know what pesticides are legal in Chile? And let's do the math: if it was cheap to get that tomato from Chile, what pittance what the poor Chilean farmer paid for it? Would he and his family be better off if they ate the tomato themselves?

But more than health consequences, there are environmental consequences. Shipping produce from third-world nations requires a whole lot of fossil fuel. Nature spent something like 300 million years sequestering carbon into the earth in the form of oil and coal. We humans have used up nearly half of that carbon in under 200 years. That's one huge POOF of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Every tomato that came from Chile instead of your own back yard has contributed to that POOF.

But okay, you say, growing my own would be great. I love fresh food, and the thought of what chemicals might be in or on imported food makes me shiver. But I don't live on a farm. All I've got is a little patch of suburbia -- or an apartment balcony.

I don't live on a farm, either. I've got an ordinary suburban lot, with some large trees shading more than half of it. It's enough for veggies -- and raspberries, strawberries, pie cherries, peaches, a few blueberries, currants... amazing what you can squeeze in. Still I don't yet have the space for all the blueberries I'd like to grow. So here's where I got my blueberries this year:

Just north of town there are several U-pick blueberry farms. In just a couple of mornings I picked and froze 60 pounds of blueberries. Yum! Now I've got locally-grown blueberries to go with my morning yogurt.

I was so busy this summer that I didn't get out and do a lot of fruit picking like I sometimes do. When I was a kid, we picked and canned cherries, peaches, and pears. We grew corn and froze it. We'd find abandoned apple orchards and make applesauce. We'd grow blackberries, boysenberries, and raspberries for the freezer. To this day I can't stand the taste and texture of store-bought canned peaches, which are usually canned while green so they have that stiff, plastic-like texture. Nothing like the ambrosia of home-canned peaches.

Nevertheless, I did get at least some of my produce locally:

And I wish I had a picture of the place where I get my eggs: a little house that I pass on a country road on the way to and from work, where hens run around freely and every few days there's a little cardboard sign out that says "Eggs."

Even if you can't garden, even if you don't have a balcony for container garden, you can usually find a source of local produce, be it a fruit stand, a farmer's market, or a locally-owned supermarket that buys from local farmers. Eating locally often means eating seasonally, unless you have the means for putting up produce and the space to store it. But if you can eat locally during your own growing season, give it a try. At the very least, you'll get the best in fresh, fresh produce, and if you've got kids, they'll know for sure where their food comes from.

Y'know, I wish I could require my students to grow a garden for a season before coming to my class. I'll bet they'd understand the ecological concepts a whole lot better.


Melanie Rimmer said...

Great Blog Action Day post. Last year my kids planted potatoes and carrots at school. Great! I thought. But they planted the spuds in a little little bucket, and they planted the carrots in little little pots. Now, I'm not surprised or alarmed that the teachers had never grown spouds or carrots before. I hadn't until just a few years ago. But they have at least seen a carrot haven't they? They know how long they are? Where did they think it was going to grow in that little pot?

kate said...

So true about local produce ... it is nearby and plentiful in season. Growing some of one's food is fun too. We seem to have lost that joy in our rush to keep busy and busier.

mss @ zanthan gardens said...

Eating locally was my topic, too; at least, the disappointment that I can grow so little of my own sustenance on the rather large urban plot I tend.