Archive for ‘consumer culture’

December 6, 2013

Christmas in the Chicken Coop

Molting chicken

The Ashland Food Cooperative (or “the Coop”, either as two syllables or one) is just about the most wonderful place a person could spend their working day. My co-workers are intelligent, caring human beings who take pride in their work. Our customers are kind, gracious and possess some degree of knowledge about where their food really comes from. Sure, there’s the occasional roll-your-eyes moment – like the mom who video conferences with her toddler to ask him which brand of gummy fruits he prefers, or the bearded woman who talked to me for thirty minutes, first about ghee and finally about why sex should wait until marriage, gay or straight – but I really appreciate how most people take the time to think about their options when it comes to things like pizza sauce, coconut oil, or yogurt.
Or eggs. Anytime it’s my turn to stock the egg cooler, I prepare myself for a deluge of first-world problems. Do brown and white eggs taste different? Which is better, cage-free or humanely raised? If it says they’re soy-free, does that mean they’re non-GMO? Then there’s my favorite: Where are all the local eggs?
With my farming background, I thought I knew everything there was to know about chicken eggs, but I was wrong. Curious customers had me on Google every night with ovum-related quandaries. Turns out cage-free is not as idyllic as we would imagine, and organic is the only way to know with certainty that GMOs have not made their way inside those fragile shells.
But I did know this before I got the job: All eggs taste the same, no matter the color. Also, under natural circumstances, chickens take a few weeks off in the fall to molt, or grow in a new set of feathers. Like most living things – from apple trees to human beings – they don’t see it necessary to work 365 days out of the year. Responding to changes in daylight and temperature in the late fall to early winter, they take a break. Egg production drops or disappears for two to four months.
In the old days, when farmers kept chickens outdoors, people simply didn’t eat many eggs during molting season. They became a luxury item that only the rich could afford. Mixed with plenty of rum and milk, eggs became the ultimate special holiday beverage – eggnog. In spring, we ate lots of eggs to celebrate the fact that they were once again abundant.
Today, of course, we have technological “solutions” to the egg supply “problem”. Kept indoors in huge poultry barns, chickens’ natural clocks are confused by artificial lights. Farmers can force the molt to happen whenever it’s convenient for them, so they stagger molting to ensure that the entire flock doesn’t stop producing at the same time. They also keep the molting period short – a month or two at the max.
So that’s why “Where are the local eggs?” is my favorite question of the season. We do carry local eggs, from “Poe”tential Farms, located in the Poe Valley near Klamath Falls, Oregon. They keep their chickens outdoors on pasture, and they don’t force molts. Their eggs are fresh, organic and reasonably priced. They’re also a seasonal product – like pumpkins, watermelons, and eggnog-flavored ice cream. When the Christmas music starts playing softly over the Coop speakers, the local eggs take a hike.
Nobody wants to hear my long-winded explanation at the store, so I just say “Sorry, we’re out of stock right now.” Usually, that’s enough to satisfy a customer, but last week a woman huffed and asked, “What, are the chickens just not laying eggs?”
Um, yep. Your natural, happy-to-be-chickens are doing what natural, happy chickens do this time of year. Sorry, that means that you either have to buy the not-so-natural eggs we have available, or go without.

Chickens may be directly related to the dinosaur, but I’m starting to believe they’re more evolved than us. Sure, we have vacation days and sick leave, but taking a break isn’t actually built into our biological cycles. A chicken’s job is to lay an egg every day, sure. (Amazing fact: A hen is actually born with every egg she will ever lay already lined up inside her reproductive tract, ready to grow, calcify, and make its way toward an omelet or a meringue cookie.) But their bodies, somewhere along the evolutionary line, said – you know, I’m not going to commit to this incredibly physically demanding act every day out of the year. Human ladies, imagine if WE dropped an egg every twenty four hours. The world would be madness.
But at the Co-op, the evidence shows that most of the women – and men, but let’s face it, women do a lot more grocery shopping – are already teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. Maybe we should take a cue from chickens and spend a good quarter of the year changing our wardrobe and preparing for what’s ahead. Then when we encounter a situation where we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we could just scratch our nails in the dirt, shake our feathers, and strut away.

October 29, 2011

Rotting Piles of Garbage: How to compost the low-impact way

I’ll be the first to admit it: I love compost. I love not throwing things in the trash, I love bugs and things that eat rotting food, and I love being able to put that food back into my garden. I even love how it smells – after it’s fully composted, that is.

My thing for compost goes back to college, where I was introduced to the wonders of growing your own food through a course in urban farming. Since then, I’ve gone out of my way to keep my vegetable scraps out of the landfill.

Out of my way is putting it lightly, actually. My little fetish for decomposition has been a smelly problem, one that I never really found an easy solution to. In my apartment existence, I’ve been known to do a bit of “guerrilla composting” by tossing my food scraps into the neighbor’s bushes. Usually, I just stored them in stinky, leaky plastic bags until I remember to bring them to the farm. I’ve even started a couple mini worm farms under the kitchen sink, but never with much success.

If I happened to live in a bigger, more progressive city, my compost problems would be solved – actually, hauled away every week in a big truck. In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen, but in Portland, Seattle, Boulder, Austin, Minneapolis, and around 3,000 other US cities, you can place your compostable kitchen scraps in your yard waste bin. In San Francisco, composting is actually mandatory. The movement is part of a larger effort to reduce the waste stream – all the consumables we send to our landfills. Landfills are designed to do the opposite of a compost heap, preventing decomposition to avoid the release of climate-altering methane gas (composting, on the other hand, is an aerobic process, which produces small amounts of less potent carbon dioxide). They’re very effective at this – a newspaper placed in a landfill will still be readable 35 years later.

Most of us tend to worry about the land-based impacts of landfills, but a more pressing concern associated with piling all our waste in a central location is the energy used and carbon dioxide produced in the process of picking up and delivering it. In my town, there are at least three major sanitation companies offering weekly pickup for trash and every-other-week pickup for yard waste and recycling. In Portland, the recently introduced yard waste/compost pickup service is offered every week, and I can’t imagine this being less frequent due to the smell factor. That means at least two trucks a week stopping by every home, and three on recycling weeks. Four if a separate truck is required for glass recycling, as it is in my neighborhood. Guess what the fuel economy is for the average diesel-fueled garbage truck. Nope, lower. Lower. Lower. Three miles per gallon. Seriously. To make matters worse, nobody wants a smelly, ugly, potentially flammable municipal compost facility near their home or farm, so trucks must sometimes travel farther to get to those locations than they do to get to landfills.

So is separating food waste from other household trash and sending it off to be composted really an idea we should get behind? Maybe if we replaced the yard waste trucks with a fleet of bicycles. Or maybe there’s another solution, one that addresses the other side of the problem – not what we’re throwing out, but what we choose to save.

In the lifetime of, say, a carrot, the part where it gets thrown away (either as a whole or as peelings and greens) is a pretty small part. It grew in soil, absorbing minerals, converting sunlight into energy and soaking up water. In a way, that carrot was like a battery, storing energy for future use by whomever ate it. It also stored some vitamins and minerals, part of which are absorbed by the eater’s digestive system. (Our habit of depositing what we’ve digested into sewer systems that don’t recycle nutrients is unfortunate in this light, but that’s another discussion.) The part of the carrot that doesn’t get eaten can go down two paths. On the landfill route, its nutrients and potential energy are locked away virtually forever. If composted, the energy goes into millions of microscopic creatures, and the nutrients are reused if that compost gets put on a new vegetable garden.

Nutrients are valuable, and although veggies are a renewable resource, the minerals that make them desirable in the first place are not. Like gold and silver, there is a limited amount of phosphorus, calcium, iodine, etc., in the thin crust around the core of molten rock that together make a planet we call home. When crops are grown in fertile soil, which has been enriched over billions of years with minerals from volcanic ash and disintegrated rock, those plants absorb the minerals and pass them along to whomever eats them.

After 10,000 years of agriculture on this planet, the store of minerals in the soil has all but been depleted. Comparing soils today with those tested just 100 years ago, there’s been an 85% loss in mineral content, a loss that is reflected in the nutritional value of the crops we grow. According to the Nutrition Security Institute, “Our food system is rapidly losing its ability to produce food with nutrient levels sufficient to maintain health.” Thirty trace minerals are essential to life, and some scientists say we need every element on earth in minute amounts for optimum health. Minerals are essential to everything from bone growth (think calcium) to DNA coding, the firing of neurons, energy transfer and metabolism, cell structure, and much more.

So maybe I was on the right track with trying to keep my vegetable scraps in my neighborhood to be recycled. Curbside compost programs, which haul nutrients away never to be seen again, don’t seem to make much sense, but composting at home does. It’s a bit like opening a savings account. When you stash your cash at the bank (provided it doesn’t fail), it can be loaned out to someone else while you’re not using it. Under the mattress, it doesn’t do anyone much good. Throwing food scraps in the landfill is a bit like putting your money in your bed. In landfills, food scraps only break down very slowly because of the lack of oxygen, and when they do, they release methane gas, which contributes to global warming. Second, like saving money in an interest-earning account, you’re actually increasing the benefit to yourself. You can spread your compost on your garden beds to increase soil fertility and grow strong plants that are resistant to disease. Third, unlike saving money, it’s fun.

Well, I think it’s fun. This summer I moved into a house with a real yard, and the first thing I did was build a fascinating – yet admittedly messy-looking – compost pile under the tree in the back yard. In just a couple feet of food scraps, mixed in with a little newspaper, it’s incredible the varieties of life that can unfold. I turned the pile every few weeks and marveled at the centipedes, grubs, worms, potato bugs and fly larvae crawling just underneath the top layer of banana peels. But Hannah, my domestic co-habitator, called it “the rotting pile of garbage”, and although she is a seasoned farmer herself, she somehow didn’t want the final stage of life for untold numbers of vegetables to unfold just off the patio.

The fall season finally provided the two of us with enough overlapping time off to do something about my DIY landfill. Our goal: Create a complete and attractive home compost system with minimum financial input. She’s a barista and I work at a non-profit – neither of us are overpaid.

To start, Hannah and I took a trip to BRING Recycling to rummage up some materials to build a tidy backyard compost bin in which to corral the creepy-crawlies and their food. BRING accepts donations of used building materials and organizes them in a huge warehouse full of old doors, pipes, wood scraps, random tiles and bricks, metal filing cabinets and desks, light fixtures, and anything else that may have a second life as an art project or functional element in someone’s house. It’s like Home Depot meets Goodwill. In the wood section, we found a whole pile of cedar panels that were perfect for the sides of our bin. We also found an old window, the front of a wooden cabinet, even hinges and screws. Total cost: $40. Price of a plastic composter for home use: $150. We win.

Step two: Bribing the neighbor with coffee beans to borrow his power drill. Done.

We assemble our materials in the backyard. We’re not expert builders, but all we need is a box without a bottom, so we go for it. The cedar panels form the back and two sides of the box. The third side will be a door to release the finished compost, and for this we use the window. It doesn’t come quite to the top of the box, which is perfect to allow air to flow over the top. We put an extra 4×4 we had laying around on the back of the box before screwing on the lid, to give the top an angle that will help the rain flow off. Oh, the lid is actually that cabinet front we found.

Homemade compost bin.

Step four: The kitchen compost receptacle. We were using a plastic bucket to catch our coffee grounds and onion peels, but that soon began smelling like civet cat vomit. Metal is the ticket when storing compost temporarily, because it doesn’t absorb or hang on to odors. The only problem was, a nice steel bucket with a vented lid and carbon filter will set you back at least 30 bucks.
Strolling the isles at Jerry’s, our local home improvement mega-store, I spotted a metal canister that looked about perfect. Removable lid, handle, large enough to fit a couple days’ worth of coffee grounds and garlic peels, and only $4. An empty paint can. Beautiful. Dirty. Rich. A little acrylic paint to personalize, and we’re set. Best of all, we found a way to keep it off our valuable kitchen counter space.

The final step: The material in our lovely new bin outside is about ¾ of the way composted. At this stage, adding new vegetable scraps to the top doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In most composting systems, you end up with three bins: an “active” one to add to until its full, a “composting” bin that’s full and breaking down, and a “finished” bin that contains fully composted material, which you can take out and use as needed.
Although my partner in composting has proclaimed a willingness to build bins around the entire house to ensure my happiness, I’m not that into the idea. I’d rather use my tiny yard space for actually growing things. Besides, now that fall is here, I don’t anticipate having as much yard waste to deal with (fallen leaves make lovely mulch and don’t need to be composted first).

Enter the worm bin. I’m always telling people who live in apartments to build a worm bin to quickly and non-odiferously turn food scraps into compost. I haven’t actually done this myself, though. (Like I said, putting worms in a paper bag full of food scraps under the sink just doesn’t cut it.) A worm bin is basically split-level condo for worms, which can be created by stacking plastic storage bins and poking holes in the top one for air. Since all worms want to do is eat and poop, it’s perfect for them because the top floor holds food scraps and shredded newspaper, and the bottom floor holds their poop – your compost. I’m thinking this will be a good solution for my household compost. I’ll post the results as they come in, including any funny things Hannah has to say about it. In the meantime, directions are here.

Maybe composting isn’t for everyone. In this culture, there is a certain “ick” factor to overcome. For me, anything that involves recycling and improves our chances of not just surviving but thriving with 7 billion plus on one planet, is good. Now that we’re out of $100 bills to light on fire, it might be time to start cultivating a new kind of wealth. All I know is, when I die, you can just throw me on the compost pile.

March 12, 2011

Food (to the) Rescue

These days, everyone talks a lot about food production. Where was it grown? Is it free-range? Organic? Fair trade? How fresh is it? Who owns the genetic material? (Pause for satire.)

In the life span of food, like that of humans, everybody seems to coo and fret over the birthing process, but nobody pays much attention to what happens at the end. No, I’m not talking about poop, although poop is important. I’m talking about the food that doesn’t end up in someone’s stomach. According to the blog Wasted Food, 40% of food produced in America ends up in the landfill. Holy tamales. If you’ve ever visited your local dump, just seeing the endless piles of trash is enough to make you swear to never buy anything again. When you consider how much of that junk was once something edible, and how many people on earth are hungry and undernourished, (around 1 billion, according to the UN), it’s truly depressing.

Ahhh, gloom and doom. Got your attention now, don’t I? Actually, what I’m here to write about today wasn’t how sad it is that we throw so much out, but about the exciting phenomenon of food rescue. Recent experiences have shown me that there are superheroes living amongst us, posing as food bank operators, swooping in and snatching perfectly good food from the brink of the trash bin.

Food For Lane County, the major food bank for the Eugene area, is a hotspot of food rescue activity. Like most food banks, Food for Lane County collects provisions from a variety of sources – canned food drives, government commodities, and local growers, processors and retailers. It all comes first to its central warehouse in west Eugene, a place I’ve recently become very familiar with. Since enjoying a stretch of unemployment that allowed me to keep my need for food assistance below the radar via EBT, I found a job cooking for institutionalized teenagers. They eat a lot, and my employer is a non-profit, so I visit Food For Lane County on a weekly basis, collecting donated and rescued food on the behalf of my captive diners (and breakfast-ers, and lunch-ers, and snack-ers…). I say captive because they don’t have much of a choice but to eat whatever I cook for them, which makes it easy to incorporate the FFLC provisions into the menu.

Like thrift shopping or dumpster diving, “shopping” at the FFLC warehouse requires a finely tuned strategy. First, I arrive early, before they open the doors at 8:30. Trucks are coming in with deliveries all day, but the selection is best first thing in the morning. To picture the scene, imagine coupon day at your local grocery store, except that instead of housewives and pensioners, the people waiting in line to elbow their way to the bargains manage food banks all over the county, or run shelters and assistance centers for our many hungry residents. In other words, they’re on a mission. At precisely 8:30, we file in and scramble for the limited number of shopping carts. The best scores are on meat and produce, the most expensive items on my budget, so I start in the walk-in cooler, pulling my hat down around my ears. Three or four people are already in there, loading up their carts and occasionally notifying each other when they come across the good stuff. I join the friendly competition, starting with the dairy section. The first thing I find is a crate full of whipping cream from a local dairy that expires tomorrow. I throw a few into my cart. My mind wanders momentarily to fruit salad with whipped cream and delicious soup, but then I hear talk of deli meat on the other side of the cooler and scurry over. Packages of roasted turkey slices from Market of Choice, a gourmet grocery chain, join the whipping cream. Then I hit the stacks of organic yogurt, a common item here, and random packaged cheese. After taking everything I can use from the deli side of the cooler (and there’s still a lot left over), I move to the produce side. Here I find cabbage, carrots and root vegetables from the FFLC gardens. Assorted boxes from grocery stores carry grapes, avocados, mangos, lettuce and tomatoes. Because the cases of apples, oranges and bananas are stacked higher than me, I take as much as I think the kids will eat. Some of these specimens are too far gone to consume, but some are just perfectly ripe. I once scored a half-dozen containers of strawberries, each containing one moldy berry for ten good ones.

The incredible part of all of this is that, thanks to a new grant to Food For Lane County, it’s all free (it used to cost organizations like ours 14 cents a pound, which is still pretty amazing). The part that I like best, though, is that it’s also all part of that 40% of food that otherwise would be chucked in the trash heap.

Let’s look a little closer at that number. Unless you’ve ever worked in a restaurant or stocked the shelves at a grocery store, it might be a little hard to believe. If you have first-hand experience with the food industry, 40% might even seem low. Even when customers take home what they don’t finish, restaurant kitchens throw out a lot of what they cook, because they always have to make a little extra to avoid running out. Federal food-safety laws dictate how often food can be kept at certain temperatures, how many times it can be reheated, and how long prepared food can be stored before it has to be discarded (usually no longer than a week). When pre-packaged products hit their expiration dates in restaurants or in stores, they also get thrown out. Cafeterias and buffets are notorious for wasting more food than they serve. Kids are the worst food wasters (think about all those elementary school food fights), and they are the ones most often served in cafeterias. Excess food – and therefore wasted food – is also built right into our cultural sense of security. It’s not good enough, in this age of prosperity, to simply have enough. If we don’t have more than enough, we feel somehow cheated or even deprived. We all feel a right to not only eat good food, but to have as much of it as we can pay for.

But enough sociology. One of the coolest things about Food For Lane County is their Food Rescue Express program (sporting the best acronym in the food assistance world – FREX). FREX actually drives to various institutions – hospitals, the university, delis – in the city to pick up food that has been prepared but not served. It all makes its way to the warehouse, where I’ve found tubs of salad dressing, gallons of soup, baggies of peeled and halved bananas, even pre-assembled hot dogs fresh off the FREX trucks (see how they did that?). FREX is a unique model; the FFLC person I talked to said theirs is the only program like it she knows of. Since it’s excess food that they’re rescuing, it isn’t even close to being old or expired (it’s FREX! Ok, I’ll stop.)

FREX gleans a small part of the food that goes into FFLC’s warehouse. The rest comes from USDA commodities and donations from local growers and processors. Actually, three-quarters of he food donated to FFLC is locally grown or processed. That means the 63,000 county residents who received emergency food from FFLC last year ate more local food than the average American. And since this is Oregon, many of those local processors and growers are also organic. On my food budget, I can’t always afford to buy Nancy’s yogurt, Toby’s Tofu Pate, Fern Ridge Dairy goat cheese, and bread from Metropol Bakery, but the “underprivileged” kids I serve in my job eat this stuff on a regular basis. The donated products were either packaged wrong or just a little too close to the “sell-by” date (which seems more and more arbitrary to me all the time).

In a way, the work that FFLC does creates a silver lining to the modern world’s inequitable, appearance-obsessed, wasteful food system. If the average shopper wasn’t afraid of buying bruised apples or expired milk at the grocery store, there wouldn’t be much excess to flow over to food banks and those in need of food assistance. The annoying food-contaminant-paranoid FDA rules that make it difficult for small, local food processors to operate also forces a lot of food to be abandoned before it can even be served. The hungry aren’t so picky.

Rescued food not only keeps our landfills slightly more manageable, it also brings an element of variety and dignity to standard emergency food box or soup-kitchen fare. Most US food banks get by on government cheese, dented cans of peaches and stale bread. If you’re Lane County’s one in three who are eligible for food assistance, you may get to try an avocado for the first time, or even be faced with the enviable problem of using up a pound of locally made chevre.

Maybe “rescued” can be the new food label, like “local”, “natural”, and “organic” that everyone swoons for. After all, the food is here anyway, and if it’s going to the landfill, does it really matter if first came from Chile or New Zealand? Shouldn’t we try to eat that food first, before we worry about producing even more to feed our growing population? Better yet, maybe we can stop the problem at its source by avoiding places that tempt us to buy too much – like Costco and Trader Joe’s (I’m talking specifically about produce. Go ahead and buy container-loads of non-perishables if that’s what you like.) I’m as bad as the next person when it comes to facing the science projects in the back of the refrigerator, but ever since my roommates discovered a free leftover pickup service, our fridge has stayed nice and clean. It works like this: Pretend you’re getting rid of some old junk by placing it in a free box on the curb. Instead of ugly clothes or the Twilight series, just stick your (labeled and meat-free) leftovers out there. Because we live close to a park that homeless people frequent, the food is usually gone within hours. This isn’t a strategy that everyone will feel comfortable with, but all I’m saying is to be creative.

Organizations like Food For Lane County are putting a big dent in that 40% of wasted food, but they can’t rescue all the food. To be sure, some waste is inevitable, but hey – compost happens. The next time you’re out shopping, though, just try to think a little bit less about where your food came from, and pay attention to where it might be going, too. When the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is applied to the food system, we all eat a little bit better.