Recently the NY Times and the Guardian (UK) have published articles purporting that locally grown foods are often worse, or at the least no better, for the environment than ones flown in from places like Kenya. Frankly, I don’t really think their argument holds water other than pointing out that nothing in life is black and white. Nonetheless, these naysayers have given me pause, pause to think about why my family has chosen to live the way we do and what it has done for us. When it comes down to it, the changes that we’ve made (or are working on) have served to connect us to our community and build relationships (including our marital one). We’ve become more mindful of what we spend our money on, what we bring home and what we put in our mouths. Perhaps we have failed to reduce our carbon imprint as much as wed like, but we have lived a richer and fuller life.
There is no denying that our initial motivation was to save the planet. However, planet saving is a non-scientific, non-measurable goal without any prizes for the diligent. And so, there must be some other reward to keep us (and others like us) on track. In fact, these little changes have resulted in an ever growing pile of locally grown organic carrots, while the imported stick market has crashed. Our family doesnt just buy local and or organic food or locally made goods because we want to save the planet, but because when we buy local we feel connected to our community. We feel part of a larger plan and we like it that way.
Local food: This category has probably been the most rewarding. My husband and I first signed up for a CSA when we lived in a Condo in the middle of a smallish city that was big enough to make us feel cut off from our food. Our weekly ventures to the farmers market to pick up our box of produce made us feel like we belonged to a community. We chit-chatted with the farmers, shared their recipes, and generally ate healthier than we would have otherwise. We also expanded our horizons, learning how to cook fennel and fava beans. Unfortunately, despite force feeding myself kale numerous times, I still think the stuff is wretched (although not as bad as cilantro) how do I wish that kale was not a CSA staple. My husband continues to enjoy the home-cooked meals that I prepare (and he has even ventured to cook a few of his own) and an unintended bonus, is that eating all that fresh produce, he has lost weight gained during his Lean Cuisine bachelorhood.
Two years ago we moved to a town of about 80,000 with a lingering connection to its agricultural roots. Our home is less than a mile from the Boulder County Fair Grounds and the Longmont Farmers Market. In nice weather we ride our bikes or walk, returning home loaded with fresh food and good spirits. My favorite farmer to buy from is an elderly man who runs a very small scale operation. While some tables are covered by tents and sell rows of food, this man has an umbrella and bar table with a few baskets of strawberries, tomatoes, bundles of lettuce and so on. He reuses containers and charges very fair prices. His success reminds me of my own efforts as a pre-teen selling bags of lettuce to the neighbors for a $1.
If youve been reading Green Me for long you already know that I think goats are fantastic. Thankfully, we live just a few miles from the Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy. When I buy goat cheese, I buy Haystack, and I get a warm and fuzzy feeling because I can picture the baby goats romping. Plus, I know that this is a small local operation run by folks with big warm hearts. Ive also recently found a REALLY small scale goat dairy that sells milk which I will be buying for my son to drink as he nears the weaning age. He doesnt seem to have any problem with cow milk, but the two milks do have different nutritional profiles and since he wont be getting the benefit of his own mamas milk, I figure it is good to diversify. I might even try to make my own goat yogurt, sweetened with local honey. Yum!
One of the easiest foods to find locally is honey. Despite the national decline in the honey bee population our local bees and beekeepers appear to be prodigious. Weve got numerous apiaries in our neck of the woods, some of which border local organic farms and or open space land. Our favorite can only be found in the early fall and is made in south Longmont, not far from where we live. Ichiban honey is raw and so delightfully creamy that you might think there is butter mixed in, but it is simply pure honey. Nectar of the Gods may be a reference to mead, but I think that it should extend to honey. My husband would probably do anything for a slice of warm baked bread, slathered with butter and honey. Really, it is the simple pleasures in life that make it so sweet. And, for our family, those simple pleasures dont come in boxes imported from China or India or just about anywhere else. (Although after reading Three Cups of Tea, the next time I eat apricots, I will think fondly of the apricot farmers in the highlands of Pakistan.)
Artesian made goods: My husbands family lives in Michigan and we make an annual pilgrimage around the holidays to visit the Michigan folk. For the last few years weve been making and sending along Colorado gift baskets. This past Christmas we came across mini cheese trays. The trays were handmade locally from reclaimed hickory with beautiful variations in color and grain. So often in my life have I purchased presents, simply because I felt that it was the socially responsible thing to do, but the purchases never set right with my conscience. However, over the last few years I have found that buying local gives me the sense of supporting my neighbors. Sharing goods made in my hometown gives me the sense of sharing my life with friends and family. So, on our holiday trip to Michigan, we took along gifts of local goat cheese, handmade cheese trays and other locally made treats. I am not sure these gifts are better received than any other, but it certainly feels better to me to give items that I personally would use and cherish.
Normally, I wouldnt quantify myself as an artesian, but for our wedding in 2005, I made several hundred paper cranes to use as decorations and party favors. I wanted to do something beautiful and I wanted to create a keepsake, that wasnt sold for cheep and made in China. Ill admit to using real Japanese origami paper, but in such a situation, I believe that being authentic is just as important as being local. There are certain things in this world that are identified with particular cultures or regions of the world, and I think that the beauty of our modern world, is that we can all share in these experiences. I like to think of it as taking the local and sharing it on an international level. Origami paper falls into this category. Childrens books written in English, but printed in China do not. Back to the cranes, my original goal was to be genuine, cheap, and pretty, but in the end it turned into much more. Our upstairs neighbor had made Peace Cranes at the start of the Iraq war, and she gave us these to add to our mix. My hands started to give out and a dear friend came over and helped for a few hours even the cat got involved in the funbirds? Many of the cranes went home with guests, but we kept a collection that we now use as Christmas Tree ornaments. And, to this day I have fond memories of the experience.
Craigslist: Our household is addicted to Craigslist, so much so that our friends and relatives probably dread the stories. I think my favorite all-time Craigslist purchase is my food processor, which was 8 years old, but came packaged in a never opened box. More recently Ive been selling off baby items, such as a Svan Bouncer, that Id picked up used on eBay. Just yesterday I purchased two soccer balls for $5 (I joined a womens soccer league and severely need to practice). When I buy off of Craigslist, I get the same rush as I would bargaining in a foreign bazaar. Plus, I get to buy things from real people, some of whom seem a lot like me and others who are quite different. Either way, a Craigslist purchase is ultimately way more satisfying than a trip to a big box or the mall.
Natural Toys: When it comes to plastic, I was among the first in my social circles to push the panic button when it comes to toxins in kids toys. I am genuinely concerned about PVC leaching dioxins, BPA and phthalates, but I must also admit that I also fall into the snooty camp that thinks plastic toys are simply ugly junk. And, although I love my son, I also love to keep ugly junk out of my house (that exersaucer you see, is not really there). So far, my son seems to enjoy his hand made rattles from Vermont, his wooden blocks, and other not-plastic toys. On the other hand, yesterday we went on a play date to a friends house that has a 2 year old little girl. Their play area is filled with plastic toys that have flashing lights and make noise. And, although it was my sons grumpy time of day, he was in heaven. You dont believe me? When was the last time you saw a 9 month old with separation anxiety crawl around for over an hour with ZERO adult interaction exploring plastic toys, pushing buttons, chewing on plastic apples and banging plastic toys? Maybe it was because these were different toys than the ones he has at home, but maybe it is because they are made out of brightly colored plastic that DOES stuff. I mean if kids didnt like the stuff, people wouldnt buy it, would they?
So, although non-plastic toys make me FEEL good, I am not sure that they really make me a better parent or improve our quality of life, other than keeping our aesthetics in place. However, I will say that petroleum based goods, imported from overseas, should cost more. As the Story of Stuff relates, the actual cost to the planet and society, is not reflected in the price paid to bring these cheep and non-durable goods home.
Composting: Like you, I was raised to abhor waste. And so, I always feel guilty, when I waste produce. To make things worse, I am a bit of a health nut, so I am always trying new things or buying produce (like kale) for its nutritional virtues, even though I know its likely to never make it in my pot. In the past, Id let unwanted produce sit in the produce drawer until it was slimy and most definitely not edible. There is no way to rescue produce that has hit the slime stage, but yet I always felt guilty on the trip to the garbage pail. With a compost bin, I realized that I have the freedom to send unloved produce back to its maker, before it gets to the slimy stage and be guilt free. Sure Ive wasted another kind of green, but that grows on trees, ne? I may not live on a farm, but the compost bin (our house came with two) makes me feel like I am part of the system. Another bonus to composting? Supposedly a huge percentage of the landfill is filled with food scraps, but ours is not. At this point, we often dont fill a medium sized kitchen bag in a week, but every other day (or more often) I empty a full compost pail outside. Chock another one up for improved quality of life.
Walking to the store: Big deal you say? Well, clearly YOU do not live in a state that is about the size of Great Britain, in which sprawl is the answer to everything and cities actually have rules about how tall you can build. Where we live, the few people who walk or bike to the store only do so because their car has broken down or they are unfortunate enough to not to own a car. So, when we show up at our local Super Box (a mere 4 blocks from our home) and push our mega jog stroller through the aisles we get looks. In reality, it is smaller than those shopping carts with the plastic car on front for kids to drive. However, in our car dominated world, we feel twice as good when we walk to the store. We feel even better when we hit three stores (Big Box, Grocery, and the corner Liquor Store) and we load up with much more than the clerk thought we could fit inside. When we walk to the store, we also have time to talk, breathe some fresh air, and get a little exercise. All around, a better experience than driving, and a definite quality of life improvement. My only regret is that we dont live walking (or even biking) distance to my husbands office, my school or the library. Someday.
Reusable Bags: Ive used reusable bags on and off for years. As a college student and in my early twenties, I was a bike commuter, so I crammed what I could in a backpack or messenger bag. When I lived in Boston, I shopped at Trader Joes and used two of their canvass bags (that was all I could carry on the T). Somewhere along the line I also picked up a Whole Foods mega canvass bag an invincible bag that could hold at least 3 paper bags worth of groceries, and had an extra long reinforced strap. The negative aspect of this bag was its ability to be filled so full (and heavy) that it became a hazard to my health. I remember slinging it across my shoulders and trying to bike homethe thing nearly got me killed! Eventually, my canvass bag collection became smaller (read shrunk, because I washed them) and funky with strange colors and stains. Then came the Chico bag. At the time we were still shopping at the Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers in Boulder. They are staffed by a healthy percentage of earth lovers, so when I offered up my canvass bags for free, I was mobbed with takers. Free from the canvass, I was able to buy a few Chico bags guilt free, and I am never going back. They are actually fun to use (seriously!) and I can fit 3 or 4 in my little purse, in addition to my wallet, shades, and phone. And, that is exactly what I need to do our weekly food shop. Over time we have picked up a few more, so we can do multiple errands in a row and never need a plastic or paper bag. This year we gave them as Christmas gifts and we had a great response. For me using reusable bags starts out as a challenge, but eventually it has become an obsession. I might forget to wear mascara 3 days out of 5, but I dont forget my Chico bag. And, I am proud of it!
Ultimately, all the green things we do on a regular basis are easy to do, because they improve our quality of life. If you are like me, you are willing to pay a little more in some instances, because you’d rather have a quality experience than a cheap experience. And, other times you’d rather save a few pennies or maybe a wad of cash to buy something used, when you really don’t need it to be shiny and new. So, I ask you, would you rather shop at your local big box retailer or your local farmers market? Would you rather shop at the same big box or your local artsy thrift shop? Would you rather your trash can be half empty or overflowing? In life, it is the small things that count and the experiences that add up to a lifetime. We only live once, so make the best of your time here on Earth and leave it a better place than you found it.