September is both Local Food and Hunger Action Month! Up until very recently I haven’t made eating locally or sustainably much of a focus other than gardening and buying organic for some items, but I felt moved to learn and write about this because it’s something I am getting into and wanted to encourage others to make some simple sustainable changes in honor of Local Food and Hunger Action Month. This month I have made it to some of our fantastic farmer’s markets and discovered some locally made favorites. I have been eating some produce from my garden and getting most of my bulk and other staples from Costco and Winco, but farmer’s markets are becoming a staple outing and food run and next season we’re signing up for a CSA! You can participate in Local Food Month by joining the Eat Local Challenge- sign up at the CoOp in Eureka or Arcata or at the Farmer’s Market in Arcata on Saturdays. It’s a free and fun pledge to encourage and challenge yourself to eat more locally- I know this month is almost over, but you can still take the challenge yourself to step out and start choosing more local and sustainable options.
Why Sustainable Over the Current Industrial Food System- How’s it Actually Better and Not Just a Silly Trend? A Little Background from Originally Organic to Infamous Industrial…
- Most of us give little thought to where our food comes from or how it’s grown, but before the convenient industrial processed global food system came to be, people used to grow and eat real food: whole fruits and vegetables, grains and beans, eating seasonally and preserving food, and eating from animals that lived like animals should naturally live. Over time food turned into food-like products that is so processed and far from the food it originally came from. This industrial food system has pushed out some smaller farms and resulted in a general lack of connection to the whole food system. There is a stark contrast in the fruit and vegetable varieties found in standard grocery stores compared to sustainable food outlets like CoOps or Farmer’s Markets. For many types of produce, you will find one or two kinds at the standard stores while you can find multiple varieties of each produce item at a sustainable stand. The farm-to-table and good food movements are gaining popularity, but it wasn’t too long ago it was just the way of life for most people. I’m thankful I live in Humboldt County where it has been a pioneer in the way it has progressively preserved it in some ways.
- Organic produce is grown and raised by farmers who use sustainable stewardship practices that support the environment. Organic farming uses little to no chemicals/toxins/harsh fertilizers/pesticides/antibiotics/hormones/additives, and animals are taken care of properly and allowed to naturally act like animals.
- Sustainability is better for your health: the connection between personal health and sustainable food is undeniable. There’s more nutrients and nutritional value in sustainable foods due to a combination of better soil, less transport time between harvest and stand, the varieties of produce grown (more diversity means more nutrients, which is reduced by industrial monocropping), and being allowed to ripen naturally on a plant means more nutrients than when picked early and allowed to ripen during transport.
- “Diet-related diseases have become the leading causes of death in the United States, disproportionately impacting low-income and minority communities. While we produce an abundance of food, a great deal of it is highly processed which is counter to dietary guidance from the Department of Agriculture and contributes to poor health outcomes. Rebuilding local and regional food systems can address these interrelated, complex issues by giving communities greater control over food production, providing jobs and opportunities, and increasing access to healthy, fresh foods” (Sustainabletable.org)
- “Some people think that a plant-based whole foods diet is extreme. Half a million people a year will have their chests opened up, and a vein taken from their leg and sewn into the coronary artery. Some people would call that extreme.” –Caldwell B. Esselstyn, MD
- Food safety is a concern because the industrial food system cuts corners where it can for their benefit. Sustainable food is grown without excessive and unnecessary added harmful substances like pesticides, GMO’s, antibiotics, hormones, additives and more.
- Sustainability is good for the environment- it preserves natural resources and means better practices with land and animals.
- Sustainability builds community and sharing food reinforces relationships.
- Sustainability helps save small family farms and supports rural communities. It also is a form of social justice because it protects and empowers sustainable farm and food production workers.
- Taste and see for yourself- homegrown food or locally/sustainably has so much more flavor than anything at the standard grocery store. Even a simple stir-fry with the same ingredients has so much more flavor. We’ve forgotten how delicious real food tastes because we have gotten so used to food polluted with preservatives.
- Sustainability supports the local economy- your money stays local and helps build the economy. Studies of retail show that shopping locally can generate as much as 4 times the economic benefit as shopping at a chain (Locally Delicious).
- Eating local supports and secures a sustainable food system.
- Local farmers give back to the community by donating food to the food bank and other organizations to feed the hungry.
- Sustainability means non-GMO. GMO’s are bred to withstand heavy pesticides that disrupt and reduce the much-needed bee population, GMO farming isn’t sustainable because it keeps requiring more pesticides and other expenses, and GMO crops are also bred to not go to seed/reproduce.
Food Security & Access
- Hunger is a daily experience and reality for many people both here in Humboldt County and elsewhere. 1 in 8 people struggle with hunger in the U.S. (feedingamerica.org). I am familiar with the reality of food insecurity, and it’s more common than we think. There are resources available if you are struggling with food security in your household.
- Our local food bank joins the Feeding America nationwide network of food banks to educate communities about helping hunger at the local level. The California Center for Rural Policy reports that more than 31% of Humboldt County adults experience food insecurity, and it rises to more than 37% in households with children” (foodforpeople.org).
- The USDA defines food insecurity as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” The USDA reports that 14.5% of American households were food insecure in 2010, and more than 20% in households with children (sustainabletable.org).
- Food insecurity causes physical, social, and psychological problems in both adults and children.
- “Food insecurity is present when people cannot obtain foods in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain health, well-being and culture, yet they have easier access to foods that promote obesity and related illnesses” (sustainabletable.org).
- “Accessing healthy, fresh food is a challenge for many Americans- especially those living in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and rural areas. Better access corresponds with healthier eating. Improving access is crucial for building a more sustainable food system” (thefoodtrust.org).
- Sustainable practices like increasing and developing fresh produce at grocery stores and supermarkets and other fresh food venues like farmer’s markets, farm stands, and Community Supported Agriculture programs will increase community access to fresh and healthy foods. Healthy food access improves individual, community, and economic health. Without access to healthy foods, a nutritious diet and good health are out of reach. Improving transportation to healthy fresh food venues is also crucial, and it’s important that they accept public benefits (thefoodtrust.org).
- Growing food at home is a huge sustainable saver. A $3 pack of seeds will produce way more food than $3 will get you at the store or stand. You can also grow a lot from seeds and scraps leftover from the food you eat.
- “While not the sole solution to the complexities of the obesity epidemic, access to nutritious and affordable food is an important factor enabling community residents to make easy, healthy choices about their diets” (http://www.policylink.org/resources-tools/access-to-healthy-food-and-why-it-matters).
- Community gardens and farms provide access to healthy food for communities. Some are open to the public and some are residential only. Do your research and contact your local gardens for more information.
- “With just 1 in 10 adults meeting the federal fruit or vegetable recommendations, better tasting fruits and vegetables can encourage increased consumption, thereby reducing the risk of many leading causes of illness and death, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and obesity” –U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p1116-fruit-vegetable-consumption.html).
Where to Find Local and Sustainable Food
- Homegrown from gardening- If you think you don’t have a green thumb, try again. My first time growing herbs on my windowsill resulted in nothing but good compost material, but I have been able to grow some food since then. Practice makes progress.
- Farm Stands and U-Pick Farms. These vary but keep an eye out for ‘em.
- Farmer’s Markets- These offer locally/regionally grown food and other items. They provide a direct link and is a partnership between the farmer and consumer. There are frequently events and live music too. If you use Market Match you can get up to $10 doubled in tokens, and save them to use another time. “Fall is here as we continue to enjoy all of our favorite farm fresh foods available at your neighborhood farmers’ market. This season the North Coast Growers’ Association is celebrating 40 years of operating farmers’ markets in Humboldt County…5 Weekday farmers’ markets in Fortuna, Eureka, and McKinleyville are currently open in addition to the year-round Arcata Plaza market for community members to shop for groceries direct from our local farms. Every market offers the freshest fruits and vegetables, humanely raised meats and eggs, honey, jams, flowers and plant starts. Depending on the time of year, local goat cheese and fresh caught fish can also be found at select markets” (northcoastgrowersassociation.org).
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farms- These also provide a direct link between the farmer and consumer and is a partnership. Members purchase a share of the farmer’s crop before each season and get fresh seasonal produce each week (usually June through October) but some have winter shares and meat/dairy/egg shares. Many also include fresh herbs and flowers. Most CSA members increase their produce consumption, improve their overall diet, try new foods, spend more time cooking/preparing foods, and develop a greater awareness of agricultural and environmental issues. Most are pick-up at the farm but some offer deliveries.
- Food CoOps- These are democratic member-owned organizations that support local farms and businesses. CoOps also usually offer convenient and fresh foods for eating healthy on-the-go options.
- Grocery Stores- It may take a little more work to find sustainable options but many grocery stores do carry a lot of them, whether it’s organic or locally produced items. Choose fresh produce over processed foods and read labels and ingredients with a critical eye.
- “Many of our restaurants source their ingredients locally and our local food bank, Food for People, makes a big effort to provide local food to their clients… in 2016, 36% of the food distributed by Food for People was fresh produce” – Patt Bitton (https://www.times-standard.com/2017/09/19/humboldt-can-its-local-food-month)
Eating Sustainably Simply
- Local food and healthy can be sustainable- you just need some strategic tools under your belt. All good habits start slow and build from there. We can change the norm from fast and fake food back to healthy, home-cooked sustainable food. It can be simple and slow little steps like starting with buying one local or sustainable food item, and you can build from there. Don’t get overwhelmed trying to go completely sustainable overnight. Swap an item you regularly use for a sustainable choice instead. Plan some meals with a local or sustainable item or recreate your favorite meals as sustainable. Changing the way we eat is a big deal and a process that takes time, but it’s so doable and important that we do. Look for simple adjustments you can make for more sustainable eating- every little choice makes a positive change. Improve the food system by the power of your sustainable choices. Choose local and organic wherever and whenever you can and do what’s best for you and your family, but don’t get overwhelmed or obsessive about it. I know what it’s like to eat a healthy plant-based diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables on limited resources and you learn to get creative with it- you can make it work in unique situations and tight budgets. Yes, you might have to make some lifestyle adjustments, but it’s worth carving out the time and effort. If you’re really struggling, send me an email and I’d love to help you come up with some ideas that will work for you.
- Incorporating sustainable food into your shopping, cooking, and eating routines and patterns will improve the health of you and your family. Switching to a sustainable whole foods plant-based diet has been one of the best changes I’ve made for myself. My body feels better, I have more energy, and managing my migraine and health has been so much better. You reap the benefits of what you sow. The benefits include help with achieving a healthy weight, minimize the risk of a lot of preventable physical problems, more energy, and have a better impact on the environment. It’s not a magic pill and it won’t fix our food system overnight, but it makes a huge difference.
- Eating sustainably can mean more cooking and cleaning up, but it’s so worth it.
- You don’t need anything special or fancy to eat sustainably. A couple pots and pans and some basic kitchen tools and you’re all set. Some tools also come in handy like a blender.
- Get a good understanding of the basics of nutrition. Some of the best advice I have heard comes from Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules- “eat real food, not too much, mostly plants” and “if it grows on a plant, eat it- if it was made in a plant, don’t”.
- Home cooking is economical and saves money, is safer and healthier because you have control over ingredients and there’s nothing questionable. There’s more nutrients from fresh food instead of lost in the processing.
- Choose sustainable animals products and use less. Buy dairy, meat, and animal products from your local farmers or look for other organic/sustainably-raised sources.
- Learn about your food and the process of it being grown or raised. Ask questions and talk to your farmer or others in your food production. Educate yourself about sustainability and vote with your dollars by buying from sustainable producers you support.
- Get the kids involved! Take them to the farmer’s market, visit a farm, teach them, and have them help you in the kitchen. Make it fun- getting them engaged and connected gets them excited.
- Buy local and direct from CSA’s, Farmer’s Markets, CoOps, and other fresh food stands.
- Grow your own- whether it’s a small herb garden, a couple containers of your favorites, or a whole backyard garden, just about anyone can start growing something.
- Eat seasonally- eat so much of what is abundant that you won’t miss it when it’s gone or more expensive. Line up your eating with the seasons and what’s available at good prices. Make a list of your favorite foods and when they are in season. Preserve abundant food for when it’s in short supply. Experiment with dishes where a seasonal item is the main ingredient, and look online for ideas and inspiration.
- Keep your reusable bags in the car so you actually use them. Look for other opportunities to make small sustainable changes.
- Save scraps in a bag in the freezer and use for soups and stews. Start composting.
- Start doing meatless Mondays and replace some meat with plant-based protein like beans/nuts/grains/tofu to reduce cost and increase health. Home cooking will make reducing your meat consumption easier- if everyone did a meatless Monday, it would reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and would reduce our carbon footprint and save valuable resources (sustainabletable.org).
- Ask farmers about discounts on produce like farm seconds or bulk prices.
- Cook and prep in bulk and freeze for another time.
- Get something unusual. More varieties and colors make food more appealing. My husband and I just recently tried rutabaga for the first time, and discovered that mustard greens are the key to getting him to eat more salads (I planted some in the garden soon after this)!
- Look at and consume your food wisely- read the labels on processed foods you buy and learn about the ingredients. We need adequate calories from good sources. Fresh, real food usually doesn’t have an ingredient label. Labels serve a purpose but we should be looking at the ingredients.
- Do easy make-your-own-nights: tacos, pizzas, salads, wraps, etc.
- Batch cook bulk staples like rice, quinoa, lentils and beans.
- In 30 minutes and just a few ingredients you can make simple stir-frys and soups as a base with endless variations and can get creative from there and experiment with other meals.
Shopping at the Farmer’s Market On a Budget (northcoastgrowersassociation.org/onabudget)
Let’s Start with Clearing up a Myth: “Farmers markets are more expensive than grocery stores” – Studies prove that produce at farmers’ markets is no more expensive than at chain supermarkets, especially in rural areas like Humboldt County. Big grocery stores need to charge extra for things like food transportation across the country or internationally, plus all those hidden costs that markup the price like electricity and rent. The farmer will simply charge what it costs for them to grow the product and bring it to market.
TIP #1: Eating Seasonally Saves Money – Prices will vary by time of year. While the demand for some very special and rare items may remain high, you will find that most prices will fluctuate and then drop as the item comes fully into season. These lower prices provide a great opportunity to can, dry or freeze. Ask your favorite farmers when they may have flats available of your favorite fruits. Flats are often cheaper than buying what’s on the table, and sometimes flats come at an extra special discount if the fruit is especially ripe. Budget ahead for these bulk buys that will save you money in the long run!
TIP #2: Make a Shopping List (and Stick to it) – Make your shopping list based on a menu you have planned for the week. Match your recipe plans with a local seasonal produce calendar. You may want to include ingredients for some favorite side dishes that can go with any meal like a cucumber salad or brussel sprouts. Don’t forget to include year-round staples like salad greens.
TIP #3: Set Your Day’s Budget – Arrive at market with a set maximum budget for your day. Most of us get thrown off our shopping list plans by the day’s unexpected “star of the show” item, and that’s ok! But be sure to keep enough cash in hand for all those staple items that you came for.
TIP #4: Choose Quality Over Beauty – Some farmers will have their food set at a lower price when they don’t look quite as glorious as the same item at their neighbor’s booth. These will most often be just as nutritious and delicious, while saving you a few bucks here and there. Examples: especially ripe fruit (perfect for baking) or small heads of broccoli or lettuce (just as tasty).
TIP #5: At Home, Don’t Let Your Farmers’ Market Scraps Go To Waste – Save your veggie scraps in a sealed bag or glass jar in your freezer. Once your bag or jar fills up you can use these scraps to make delicious broth! Or, feed your scraps to chickens or your compost bin, to give nutrients and energy to your food in the future.
TIP #6: Our Green Thumb is Your Green Garden – Fruit and veggie starts and plants found at the farmers’ market are selected because they are proven to do well in our unique climate, so you can rest assured that your plants are likely to grow strong and produce an abundance of homegrown fruits and veggies. Growing food in a small backyard garden can save you money on your grocery bills.
TIP #7: Ask Us About EBT and Market Match – The North Coast Growers Association operates various programs that address food insecurity in our community to help make fresh local food available to everyone. In partnership with many local and national organizations as well as local donors, our programs support low-income kids, adults, seniors and families with the EBT with Market Match, Rx for Farmers’ Market, and other programs. We can also assist you with your CalFresh application at market. Just ask!
Resources for More Information
Sustainabletable.org – Such a good resource to explore for all things related to sustainable eating and food production
Foodforpeople.org – Information for food assistance in Humboldt County
Caff.org/csamap – Find CSA’s and farm stands near you
Strongertogether.coop – Find a CoOp near you
Eatwellguide.org – Search various places with sustainably sourced food
Fmfinder.org – Search which farmer’s markets accept EBT, WIC, CalFresh, Market Match
Seasonalfoodguide.org – Search what’s in season any time in your area
Localharvest.org – Search and find information about local food, CSA’s, farmer’s markets near you
Northcoast.coop/recipes – Healthy recipes from our local CoOp and lots of plant-based goodness
Locally-delicious.org – They produced the Local Food Guide that I used images from. They are a small non-profit organization committed to creating a more sustainable local food system here in Humboldt County