And here we are on Day 4 of No Impact Week: FOOD.
This post is going to be a bit long.
Today’s challenge has had me thinking all week about my recent relationship with food. One of my children has been on a gluten- and casein-free diet for about 3 years now, and it took me a while to find my whole-foods footing as I shifted our entire house to a gluten- and casein-free zone. I have an ever-changing hierarchy of desire when it comes to the food I prepare for my family, but my child’s needs come at the top of the list. Unfortunately, this means that a good bit of the food I need to buy for my child comes packaged in some form of plastic, from far away. This is one of those conundrums that I mull over and over, late at night. I get frustrated and discouraged because it seems there is no way around the fact that this specific diet is not particularly sustainable, and yet it is the only way I’ve found to nourish my child. In order to sustain an individual, I am stuck with some very unsustainable foods. This is my daily reminder that zealously applied dogma rarely mixes well with the complexities of real life.
My relationship with food over the past few years has involved quick mental math, re-calculated each time I shop, as I shuffle my priorities to make what seems like my best choice. These are the main things that matter to me, although the ranking changes for each item:
- Gluten- and casein-free
- No plastic or least amount possible or reusable or locally recyclable
- Local (in order of preference: island-county-state-region)
- Organic or on EWG’s list of least-contaminated produce
- Whole or minimally processed
- Wild when it comes to seafood
- Smallest possible amount of persistent environmental toxins
- Small farms instead of massive corporate farms
- My problem feeder will eat it
- No BPA, rBST, artificial colors/flavors, MSG, antibiotics, etc
For instance, I’ve been buying milk for my own tea from a relatively local dairy because it’s available in glass bottles with plastic lids, and because their cows are not treated with rBST. It’s not organic, and it does ride to my grocery store in a truck, but the relatively small amount of plastic, the lack of rBST, the way the cows are treated on this family farm, and the price put this particular brand of milk on the top of my list.
After 15+ years as a vegetarian (only a few months of those years as a vegan), I started eating meat again while I was pregnant with my first child, but never beef. Then a few years ago, I met a family that raises cattle in the southern part of my state and the northern part of our neighboring state. Their steers are completely grass-fed, foraging on native grasses that aren’t irrigated, until they are slaughtered by a mobile slaughterhouse service and cut-to-order by an independent butcher. The packaged beef is frozen, then trucked to my island once a year by the family that raised it, where it is delivered to a parking lot full of local families. In one fell swoop, driving my car less than 2 miles, I can fill the Freecycled chest freezer in my garage with 1/2 of a steer that meets my mental math for acceptable food. This does take a chunk of cash each year, but I save up all year to be able to do this, and get truly grass-fed beef for a fraction of the cost I would see if I could even find the equivalent in a local store.
We grow our own vegetables all year, although the recent deep freeze here just killed my winter greens…When the weather beats my efforts, we have to rely on what I can find at our local grocery store. Although my food budget is relatively small, I can afford to buy local and organic produce if I stick to in-season and small amounts. I am careful to buy only what we can eat before it goes bad, and I have learned just how much to prepare so that we don’t have much leftover. Right now, for instance, we’re eating a lot of cabbage, potatoes, and kale, since those are available for in-season prices here; we grew enough of each to get us through December, so I’ve only just started to buy these at our store. Along with the grass-fed steer, our chest freezer is filled right now with home-grown raspberries, green beans, zucchini, and tomatillos, local island-grown pumpkin, chanterelles, and blackberries, and Washington-grown blueberries from a u-pick we visited on vacation.
As part of a local buying club, I order produce and non-perishables once a month from a company that trucks groceries to my island from Oregon. We each place our own orders, then those are loaded up together in recycled cardboard boxes and delivered to a local driveway. In one car trip of less than 8 miles (round trip), I can pick up a month’s worth of groceries (sometimes up to a 6-month supply of certain things).
Because this company is frequently out of stock on things, and because there’s always something I run out of unexpectedly (what, no rice vinegar in the pantry? that was the last of the peanut butter?), I make about 1 trip each week to the local grocery stores, for another round trip of about 6 miles.*
Because we need to stay away from gluten, we eat a lot of quinoa, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, and rice. I bake with a gluten-free flour blend that I mix myself from rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, buckwheat flour, sorghum flour, and xanthan gum. With the exception of our pinto beans, which came from an organic family farm in Idaho, I don’t always know where, exactly, these whole grains, beans, and flours come from. I know which company I get them from, but I don’t get specific information about who grew them, or how far they traveled from farm to mill to wholesaler. At least by purchasing in 5- to 25-pound bags, I can get away from the plastic packaging that seems ubiquitous in gluten-free products.
One of the unexpected fringe benefits of my family’s intersection of budget and dietary restrictions is that processed GFCF items are not an option. I make almost all of our food from scratch, every day, for every meal and snack. We get to eat out a couple of times a year, but that’s sometimes more of a hassle than a pleasure. By default, this means a lot of our diet is made of whole foods, simply prepared – I don’t have a second parent around to take on the reading, snuggling, playing, homework wrangling, etc. Sometimes, being boxed in by restrictions of situation, income, and dietary restrictions can be liberating. I can’t spend my time making fancy dishes with lots of ingredients, I need dishes that I can prepare with one hand; fortunately, that’s how my kids like their food, and it leaves me with time for other things.
What are we eating today?
Breakfast was home-cooked GFCF pancakes (made with our hens’ eggs) with Vermont maple syrup from our local grocers’ bulk department, and organic pears from our state (brought home in a natural fiber basket). I cook up a big batch of pancakes on the weekend, then freeze them in waxed paper and a (gasp!) re-used plastic bag. It’s quick to take a few out and re-heat them for school morning breakfasts.
Lunch was leftover home-cooked vegetable soup for me, while the kids took dried local apples, carrots, sliced no-nitrate turkey breast, pecans, dry GF cereal, GF dal mix/masala peas/chana dal, and tap water to school (that’s 2 lunches for 2 kids with different tastes in 1 mixed-up list).
Dinner will be rice (from California, no plastic packaging) and pinto beans (from Idaho, no plastic packaging) cooked with homegrown garlic, organic onion powder from the bulk department, and a piece of kombu seaweed from the Atlantic (packaged in a reusable zippered plastic bag), and a side of cabbage slaw (local cabbage, local honey, rice vinegar of unknown origin, homegrown garlic), and salsa (local company, but individual ingredients of unknown origin, packaged in re-usable-for-non-food-items plastic tub).
Snacks will be organic apples from our state, purchased in a 20-pound cardboard box, and nuts, brought home from the bulk department in unbleached cotton bags and Mason jars.
But I’m not even going to get into the minute details of what our dogs are going to have (grain-free kibble from a nasty plastic bag), or the organic layer mash my hens get in their hopper to supplement their food scraps and back yard foraging (grains and veggies grown in Oregon, oyster shells from some unknown shore).
Really, there’s no end to the refinement I could make to our foods to lower our footprint. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by this, I try to remember to breathe and enjoy the taste of what I’m eating, to be grateful that I have healthy food, and to take the energy that not-completely-sustainable food gives me to work for some systemic changes. I’d like to see a world where we each can afford, in dollars and in health, to eat the food that we find locally while contributing to an in-balance earth without having to do a complex mental math and ethical compromising.
*Update, January 7th: I think I’m *way* off in my estimate of how many times per week I drive to the grocery store. I do make one “official” grocery store run each week, when I do the bulk of my shopping. But just today I made 2 trips to the store – We had to run into town twice for apptointments hours apart, and I figured I’d stop by the store to take advantage of some sale prices. If we hadn’t had appointments to keep, I wouldn’t have made the extra trip just for the store, but still, that was fuel spent at least partially on getting food. And now that I think about it, I must do this at least twice a week on top of my main shopping trip, zipping to the store when we’re in town for other reasons.