We're an ordinary family, complete with picky eaters, budget concerns, and time management issues. But to prove that "eating local" works - even for busy families in cooler climates - we're trading Chick-Fil-A and goldfish crackers for grassfed meat and local produce. Join our adventure in learning to eat (sort of) sustainably for the summer!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The wonders of moderation

I've been reading Just Food by James E. McWilliams, and I'm going to have a lot to say about it when I'm through.  In the meantime, though, I'd like to talk about the concept of moderation.

People seem to view living sustainably as an all-or-nothing endeavor.  "I couldn't do that, I like my Twinkies/Doritos/McDonald's cheeseburgers too much," is a common refrain I hear when I talk to people about my project.  But no one ever said you have to give up Twinkies, or Doritos, or even McDonald's cheeseburgers, in order to eat more sustainably.

The key there is the word "more."  I'm talking about improvements, not complete overhauls.  Sure, the environment would be much better off if we all were exclusively vegan locavores who rode bikes to work at offices powered by solar energy and fairy farts, but realistically that's never going to happen.  But most of us can make changes - even small changes - in our diets and our lives to move us in the direction of sustainability.

I don't think anything I'm doing this year is out of reach for the average suburban middle-class family.  Sure, I'm lucky to live in an area with a vibrant food community - I can easily get everything from locally made cheese to local pasta to local hummus, right at the farmers' market - but Cleveland isn't the only place with farmers' markets and CSAs.  Despite what my parents keep saying, they DO have access to both in Delaware:
Getting to the farmers' market requires a little bit of planning - I'm getting good at remembering to bring the cooler and ice packs with me - but isn't any harder than going to a second grocery store to pick up something that was out of stock at your regular store.  My routine tends to be:
  • Tuesday - visit the local grocery store chain while my daughter is in an after-school program nearby
  • Thursday - pick up CSA basket (about 10 minutes away from our house)
  • Saturday - visit farmers' market and Trader Joe's, which is right next door
Occasionally I need to supplement this with a trip to the local grocery store (which is across the street from the library, which I visit at least once a week), and any trips to the farm stand can usually be combined with a trip to visit friends nearby, so neither one counts as a separate trip, just an extra stop on an existing errand run.

Recycling is easy for most of us, thanks to curbside pickup and the proliferation of paper pickup dumpsters at schools and businesses.  But recycling paper (dropoff at my daughter's school, which I have to visit every week anyway) and cardboard (curbside pickup) means that our family garbage output is now down to slightly more than one bag a week.

Composting works if you've got any sort of yard at all - or even a basement or cool closet, if you're willing to set up a worm composter.  Our compost setup is terribly complex - it's a pile in the backyard that I flip around once in a while with a pitchfork.  I decided not to harvest any of the finished compost this spring, keeping it instead to kickstart things for this summer's output.  But when I'm ready to use it, it will be taking the place of some of the mulch in our existing flower beds, as well as taking the place of some of the soil amendments I need to buy when I make a new bed.  Getting the kitchen scraps out to the compost pile is no work at all - I hand them to the kid and tell her she gets an extra 5 minutes of playing outside before bed if she takes the scraps out for me.  Win/win!

One of our main waste sources used to be cat litter.  But now that I'm using a flushable litter, that's dropped to zero, as has our need for plastic grocery bags to scoop stuff into.  Come on, most of us keep our cat boxes in a spare bathroom or utility room anyway - is it that hard to scoop it into a toilet instead of a bag?

Choosing sustainable products for housekeeping is getting easier and easier.  Even stores like Target and Wal-Mart carry brands that, while not perfect, are at least an improvement on conventional detergents and soaps.  And things like soaps, lotions, and other personal care items can even be bought online from small vendors (we like several sellers on www.etsy.com, as well as local folks who sell at the farmers' market and the gift shop at the botanical garden).

Growing your own food doesn't take 40 acres or a mule.  Don't tell me you don't have time, or space, or even a container.  It takes five minutes to grab an old plastic tote, drill some holes in it, and fill it with dirt.  Plant something in it.  Stick it on a patio, put it on your front porch, leave it sitting near whatever sun you can find in your apartment.  Even growing one tomato plant - or a small planter of herbs or salad greens - lets you control exactly what goes into your mouth in a way that trips to Safeway can't.

And one of the easiest ways to make a big impact on the environment doesn't involve farmers' markets or weird soap or finding a place to recycle #5 plastics, it just means making more informed choices when you plan your meals.  We've gotten so used to having every food available every day - thank you, Chile and New Zealand! - that the idea of waiting until something is actually in season near you before you eat it is completely foreign to most of us.  Asparagus with Christmas dinner?  Sure!  Strawberries in January?  No problem!

There's nothing wrong with enjoying an occasional out-of-season treat, but partaking in the bounty of the Southern Hemisphere all year when there are local alternatives that support neighbors' farms and don't damage the environment as much - well, that's just wasteful.  As I described it to the kids in my daughter's kindergarten class, when you go to the grocery store, you should think before you buy fruit - do you want a banana from South America, a kiwi fruit from California, or an apple that was grown in a suburb of Cleveland?  There's nothing wrong with eating bananas, or kiwi fruit - but we don't need them every day.  They taste that much better if they're a treat to be anticipated and savored, not a staple to be taken for granted.

Erg, this has gone on too long.  I'm not done - plenty of blog fodder in my brain, at least today! - but I'll put it on hold for now.

Now, got grab some asparagus before the season is over!

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