If only it were simple to eat well. Because I can’t afford to buy all the organic produce I want for my family, and because it’s usually all wrapped up in plastic, we forage and grow and barter to fill our bellies with seasonal vegetables and fruit. By eating seasonally, we keep the costs low – It’s always less expensive to eat what’s abundant, and it tastes much better. We have 6 hens in our back yard who supplement their layer mash with the insects and plants they scratch up and our non-spoiled leftovers (although they despise carrots and celery, they’ll eat almost everything else).
We get our meat from a family that runs cattle on native forage along the Columbia River; we buy 1/4 steer from them, and they deliver to the entire island in one frozen truck load the night before our local Harvest Fair each year. For about the same price as the beef at our local grocery store (true, our local supermarket is more expensive than those off-island), we get grass-fed beef cut-to-order from cattle that have never spent a minute in a finishing lot or slaughterhouse. I save up each year to make this lump sum purchase, and store our beef in a chest freezer I got via Freecycle. I’ve read conflicting reports on the relative carbon footprints of conventional and grass-fed beef; some say grass-fed is worse, some say it isn’t. Without a doubt, a completely local vegetarian diet has the smallest footprint of all, but we are omnivores, heavy on the veg with a bit of meat.
We share a community garden plot with Liesl and family, our Pioneering the Simple Life friends, so we can grow things that just don’t do well in our own home garden plots. Right now we have 3 kinds of beans, 2 kinds of summer squash, chysanthemum greens, walking onions, and rapini ready to harvest, and beets, carrots, and more rapini coming along for later this fall/winter. Sharing a garden plot is wonderful – We share the watering on hot days, cover for each other when someone is out of town, and it’s just more fun.
This spring, inspired by people like Ava Chin, the Urban Forager of the New York Times and Landgon Cook of Fat of the Land, we set out to see if we could go a month without buying produce or anything else from a grocery store. It worked! We were so busy foraging for greens in our local ditches, marshes and yards, we forgot to plant our early summer garden. We ate nettles, various cresses, and dandelions for months. My girls loved it, and ate more greens than ever before – It’s much more fun to run the edges of a wetland picking cress than it is to follow a shopping cart around, and when you’ve found it on your own, it’s a treasure you can’t wait to taste.
But then the flush of early greens was over, and our shared garden plot was empty except for a bumper crop of beautiful purple top turnips with amazing greens. Liesl and I cooked up an idea and our friend Scott James helped make it happen. We started a local barter group, with a selfish motive: We wanted early summer produce – kale, spinach, lettuce, peas, strawberries – and all we had were turnips and eggs from our back yard hens. Scott started a blog for us, we wrote up a short description of what we had in mind, we shared it on Facebook and the hyper-local blogs and online groups that make up our local grapevine and the Bainbridge Barter Garden Variety Potluck in the Park was born.
We meet every Saturday morning in a local park, telling anyone who’s interested to “bring a basketful and leave with a basketful”. It’s not really bartering, it’s a food gift economy. People bring whatever they have to give away, bounty from their gardens, fishing boats, and kitchens. We lay everything out on a public picnic table, take a few minutes to answer any questions about the offerings, then we announce the start of sharing and everyone digs in, filling their bags and baskets with whatever they’d like.
I’ve brought turnips, eggs, home-made kimchi, home-baked cookies, zero-waste toothpaste, rhubarb shrub, and borage. I’ve come home with kale, spinach, all sorts of other greens, potatoes, perennial herb starts for my garden, home-baked bread, cucumbers, summer squash, seeds for fall and spring vegetables, home-made yogurt, bouquets of flowers, and freshly caught crab. I missed the day when a famed local chef brought her home-made ravioli filled with goat cheese and beet greens, and there have been other amazing offerings.
Not only have the potlucks in the park fed my family this summer, participating has had a quietly profound impact on my brain’s default settings. I find myself looking for things to share, for ways to be generous. I’ve been able to break free from the scarcity model I’d been in when we were struggling a while back to pay for even basic food. We are hard-wired, I think, to share food with each other, and I feel truly blessed to have found a way to do that, to nourish and be nourished by friends and by people who were strangers until we met over a picnic table in the park.