Fight Climate Change With a Grocery Basket

I’ve mentioned on some recent posts that I’ve been hard at work on a project to help fight climate change. That project is out of the gate now, a new community-based nonprofit called Localsource, with a Web site to help people connect around getting food and other necessities locally, and a local chapter called Champlain Valley Localsource that will hold its first meeting in Burlington, Vermont on February 6th.

Localsource

People who join Localsource will have tools and information to get products they need in a way that is far safer for the climate and good for building community and the local economy.

Here’s our initial press release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

New Local Foods Group to Hold Inaugural Meeting at Burlington City Hall

Burlington, Vermont – Champlain Valley Localsource, a new community nonprofit that champions use of local foods and resources, will hold its inaugural meeting on Wednesday, February 6, from 6:00-8:00 PM at Burlington City Hall Contois Auditorium. The Champlain Valley group is the first local chapter of the group, which is online at www.localsource.me.

“When our family started changing over to local foods, I was amazed that Burlington, one of the most local foods-friendly places in the country, didn’t have a group where people could share ideas and information,” says organizer Luc Reid. “Localsource is meant to fill that gap for Burlington and the rest of the Champlain Valley.”

A former group called Burlington Area Localvores previously held localvore challenges and promoted local foods, but disbanded several years ago.

Vermont ranked first among the fifty states in the 2012 Locavore Index, a comparison of state population to number of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture organizations sponsored by The Strolling of the Heifers and based primarily on USDA and U.S. Census data.

In addition to food-coops, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture operations, farms, and food producers, the Champlain Valley is home to dozens of organizations that promote local foods, such as the Vermont Fresh Network, the Burlington Food Council, Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN) and groups at Champlain College and UVM. New organizations are springing up to serve immigrant populations in the Champlain Valley and all of Vermont, such as New Foods for New Americans, which helps transplanted African farmers grow food in Vermont, and the Goat Collaborative, which this year will begin raising local goats as a source of meat for area residents to replace the frozen goats from Australia that have supplied that need so far. Localsource is unique among these organizations in that its primary mission is bringing together individuals and families to help each other transition to more local sources of food and other necessities.

The February 6 Localsource meeting will begin with a social half-hour, for which musicians are invited to bring instruments, followed by presentations, problem-solving, and discussion. It is free and open to the public. More information is available at www.localsource.me or by e-mailing luc @ localsource . me.

How Not to Boil a Frog (btw, we’re the frog)

Al Gore’s documentary film An Inconvenient Truth is painful to watch, just like any accurate source of information about global climate change, but it’s loaded with useful information (even though it’s slightly dated now–which unfortunately makes it look more optimistic than anything else).

My favorite moment of that film is this one:

 

The thing I love is that it explains, in a nutshell, exactly what we have to do and exactly how to do it. The frog is our future self: the hand that reaches in for him is our present self, the rescuer. Rescuing the frog is a heroic task, inevitably difficult and painful (we aren’t going to be eager to stick our hand into that scalding water), but necessary, and also incredibly empowering.

Gore points to local, individual, and family action as essential to solving the climate change problem. I’m very much with him on that. If we aren’t willing to change ourselves, how do we expect to convince other people, businesses, and governments to change what they’re doing?

As for me, I’ve been working on a project to start making a noticeable difference in climate change locally; I’m hoping to be able to announce that with my next post.

A Follow-Up on Vermont Smoke & Cure

Vermont Smoke and Cure products

In a recent post about my novice’s experiences trying to shop local I mentioned Hinesburg company Vermont Smoke and Cure and our dismay at finding out that the meats that went into the products of theirs that we saw didn’t seem to be sourced in Vermont. I got in touch with the company for clarification, and it turns out, many of their meats are sourced in Vermont. CEO Chris Bailey was kind enough to respond to my inquiry with some information about their products lines:

  • Natural from DuBreton (Quebec), Coleman, Pineland Farms.
  • Conventional from Quebec and US. [This is the non-local kind we saw — Luc]
  • VT Grown from Greg Finch in Franklin is under the 5Knives label.

He also provided some more information on their operation as a whole:

We also provide processing services for 500+ VT farmers, both custom and commercial (USDA inspected).

Our branded product sales pay for the equipment and facility so that the highly seasonal and relatively thin services business can continue and grow.

So – please encourage everyone to vote with their dollars and buy our natural/uncured/humane or Vermont Grown / 5 Knives items – we would be happy to move entirely into selling only these items and are moving in that direction.

Apparently City Market does stock their Vermont-sourced products, so they must have been out the day we were there. (Like I say, I’m new to this, so that was the first time I ever spent a whole shopping trip focusing on where the food came from.)

What’s ironic about all this is that I haven’t eaten red meat since 1985 and have no special plans to start. However, Janine, my son, and Janine’s daughters all do eat red meat, so it’s important item for us to source locally.

Making Teenagers Eat Local Foods

Mutsu apples

My son and I were passing by City Market in Burlington last night and stopped in to get some apples, because Ethan snacks on them pretty regularly. Here’s what happened, more or less–but understand I’m reconstructing the dialog from imperfect memory, so if anything Ethan says sounds goofy, assume it’s my fault.

Our family is just starting to work hard at eating locally (see Is “Eating Local:Too Expensive for Regular Folks?“), so we went to the produce section and looked for local apples. This is something that City Market has really nailed: they had six or eight varieties of local apples–but the granny smiths, my son’s favorites, are from Washington.

“You can get any of the local kinds,” I said.

“What do these taste like?” he said unenthusiastically, pointing to some imperfect-looking, Vermont-grown green apples. They had a name I’d never heard before.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Should we get some and find out?”

“Can’t we just get these?” he said, meaning the Washington Granny Smiths.

“These were transported all of the way across the country, probably on a truck!” I said. I was aware I sounded a little fanatical, but I haven’t figured out yet how to temper that and still get my point across. “They used a huge amount of fuel to get these here.”

“Yeah, but they’re already here. What difference does it make?”

“If we don’t buy them, then it makes it less likely they’ll run out soon and reorder them. We want them to order more of the local apples, so we should buy some of those.”

“Well, I don’t think it makes very much difference if we’re the only ones doing it.”

“That’s true … but if we want other people to buy local foods, we have to be buying them ourselves first. We can’t expect people to do things we want them to when we’re not willing to do them ourselves. We can have an impact that’s a lot bigger than just our family.”

We ended up getting some crisp, local Empire apples, which will probably be fine, but aren’t Granny Smiths.

I realized as we were on our way home that I probably should have gotten a few of those Vermont green apples, and in fact should have gotten a variety of apples so that we could try them all and choose our local favorite. It turns out City Market has a whole Apple Variety Guide page, and looking there, I recognize the apples we saw. They were Mutsu apples, and the flavor is listed as “tart,” which sounds a little like a Granny Smith.

One of the real benefits of changing our diet to much more local foods is that we’ll encounter a lot of new options, some of which are sure to become favorites. Speaking in terms of our enthusiasm for a local diet, the sooner we find those wonderful new foods, the better.

Eating Local: Too Expensive for Regular Folks?

mostly-local groceries

$116.30 worth of mostly-local groceries

I guess this eating local thing isn’t for sissies! (No disrespect meant to sissies, by the way.)

If you happen to have read some of my recent posts, where I talk about the surprisingly huge negative impact of cheap meat on climate change and about the amount of oil that goes into growing and transporting typical grocery food, you won’t be surprised that I’m trying to change my food-getting to a hard-core localvore approach.

The conversation with my girlfriend, who’s a pretty remarkable person, went something like this:

ME: I’m terrified by how bad the climate change problem is. We have to go localvore right away. It will probably be expensive and a huge pain in the butt.
JANINE: I get where you’re coming from and understand all your concerns. I’m in.

OK, we didn’t literally talk like that, but Janine, who is emphatically and blessedly not the kind of person who does something just because someone else says to, already understood a lot about the problem and was willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary. May every one of you who reads this have a significant other as smart and supportive as Janine.

So this weekend we headed out to buy some local groceries. We already tended to buy sustainable and organic products and cage-free eggs, all with as minimal a level of packaging as we could get, but we haven’t in the past paid very much attention to how far away our food originated. Now, suddenly, that’s our primary concern. According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma,

… growing the food is the least of it: only a fifth of the total energy used to feed us is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around.  At least in terms of the fuel burned to get it from the farm to my table, there’s little reason to think my Cascadian Farm TV dinner or Earthbound Farm spring mix salad is any more sustainable than a conventional TV dinner or salad would have been.

So if it’s between organic food from across the country and conventional food from across the county, I now know which one must win if we’re going to fight off climate change. It has to be local.

Photo by Church Street Marketplace

City Market in Burlington – photo by Church Street Marketplace

You would think that in Burlington, Vermont, at the wonderful City Market/Onion River Coop, eating local would be easy. Vermont has a strong localvore movement, and Burlington, though small, is the biggest center of commerce and innovation in the state.

Was it easy? Hell no. Was it cheap? Hell no. Was it even possible to find all the foods we wanted to get, foods that are we already know somebody somewhere does produce in Vermont? No!

The process was more complicated than we expected. Fortunately, practically every kind of food we looked at had some kind of labeling that let us know whether it was from Vermont or not. (In a couple of cases, we also bought foods from nearby New York and New Hampshire. Parts of Quebec would also be fine.) However, the label often told us only where the food was packaged and (where applicable) processed. For instance, we were excited about being able to get some Vermont meat products from a company called Vermont Smoke & Cure, and we got practically all the way to the registers before we realized that the products we had from that company all had an announcement on the label stating that they were sourced in different locations in the United States and Canada, but smoked and packaged in Vermont. For all we knew, the livestock in question could have been raised in the Midwest. We put the products back and got others that said specifically on the label that the livestock were raised in Vermont.

Breakfast cereals (other than granola), mustard … a variety of prepared products couldn’t be found with Vermont sources at all. We completely failed on our breakfast cereal, buying products sold by Barbara’s Bakery, a California company. Going forward, I think we’ll need to find some locally-made products that aren’t available in most stores or else simply switch the kids to oatmeal and that kind of thing. Local oats, we can get–and that’s less processing, too. Maybe that’s the way to go.

We did find mustard from New York. It’s weird mustard (dark brown in color and kind of sticky), but it tastes good.

I wanted to buy some whole chickens, but the local ones (from Misty Knoll Farms, which has a great local reputation) cost $20-$25 each, and we just can’t afford that. We did buy some local ground turkey and such, but at prices that we may not be able to continue to pay on our middle class incomes. Obviously non-meat sources will be important, too; we’re working on that.

Dairy products were a bit easier than others, although still painfully expensive. One of the delights of the shopping trip was re-discovering Strafford Organic Creamery milk: it’s a local product produced by pastured cows (instead of cows fed subsidized agribusiness corn) and sold in returnable glass bottles; you pay a deposit on them. No plastic except for the cap! We also had some pretty good yogurt and cheese choices, as you can imagine. Local eggs from free-range, pastured chickens were available but expensive.

Produce was a disappointment, and it’s a reminder that we’re going to need a winter CSA share and/or some edible plants growing in our house and/or a little greenhouse. We found bags of romaine lettuce, three heads per bag, with such a small amount of lettuce in each head that the three of them together didn’t amount to as much lettuce as one normal head. This cost over four dollars. After some continued shopping, we discovered that the four dollars and fifty cents or so that they wanted for those three tiny heads was a discount because the lettuce was getting near its time; normally the heads are $1.89 each! We sucked it up and bought the shrinky-headed discount lettuce.

We talked a lot about other options. That greenhouse might be a good idea for winter produce, and despite the electricity expense, we think we can probably achieve a substantial net carbon savings by getting an efficient chest freezer for produce and pastured meat bought in bulk from local farmers. (Pastured, local meat doesn’t have anything like the terrible carbon impact that corn-fed meat from a distant source has.) We might even try keeping some chickens in the fortunately-large back yard we have at our disposal. This is made a little more plausible because we have children who can help us grow food and maybe look after small livestock.

So we still have a long way to go, and at some point we’ll have to make difficult choices about things like citrus and the delicious fake coffee we buy (Teeccino … not my favorite name for a product, but it sure is good). We have taken the first step, though, and as long as we keep pushing forward, I think we can make huge changes for our family … then maybe help other local people do the same.

Pop Quiz: 50% of Global Warming is Due to … What?

grass-fed cow

This particular, grass-fed animal is part of the solution, not the problem

When I started digging into the climate change problem in earnest to start learning what we need to do to make the greatest immediate impact possible, I was worried about what I’d have to give up. Did I need to stop driving, something that’s very problematic in an area like mine, where there’s no public transportation for miles and even bicycling isn’t safe for at least a third of the year? Did I need to give up buying most manufactured goods? Was technology and all of the energy going into it the biggest problem?

Put Down the Hamburger … and Back Away Slowly
I still don’t know how far I’ll need to go in those areas, but I have learned that the biggest problem isn’t with the electricity I’m using or even with the gas my car uses (even if I didn’t drive a Prius). The biggest problem is food–specifically, meat, dairy and eggs.

Get this: in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, McKibben says “By some estimates, as much as half of global warming gases can be tied to the livestock industry, with its huge demands on our grain crops.”

Certainly there are some qualifiers in there: “by some estimates,” “as much as,” “can be tied to” … but even if 50% isn’t our number, and livestock only account for, say, 30% of global warming gases, that’s still an enormous slice of the problem that we can really do something about–and pretty easily!

Not the Cow, but the Corn
I’ll clarify, as well as I can from my limited knowledge, why the deli turkey or eggs or hamburgers (especially the hamburgers) on our plates are such a huge part of the problem. Of course there’s the obvious impact of all the equipment and energy that go into raising, housing, and slaughtering livestock, and there’s all of the energy and materials that go into preparing, packaging, storing, refrigerating, shipping, and selling the result. What really tips the scales, though, is what we feed livestock in big, factory farms, where the cheap meat, eggs, and dairy products come from: that’s mainly corn.

The corn is subsidized by the U.S. government, so that farmers are pushed toward cultivating huge, corn-only farms, which deplete the soil and require huge amounts of petroleum-based fertilizers, not to mention being extremely susceptible pests so that they require huge amounts of petroleum-based pesticides. Of course there’s a lot of mechanization at these huge factory farms, too, so oil is substituted for people (and jobs) with small numbers of farm workers operating huge, expensive, and polluting machines to raise and harvest the crops.

Then all that corn needs to be processed, packed, and shipped to factory livestock farms where it’s fed along with antibiotics and additives to chicken and cattle–and cattle don’t naturally eat corn or even digest it well, so then there’s all the trouble and waste brought up by that.

I don’t know if this sounds like good news yet, but it is, because that means that if we manage how we eat differently, we can make an immediate and proportionately huge difference in our families’ carbon footprints. What it comes down to is this: we can stop eating so many processed foods and especially cheap meats.

But … Cheap Meat!
I know, cheap meat is tempting. It seems wasteful and stupid to spend, say, twice as much on organic, local meat and dairy products just because they’re somehow “better.” However, products like local, grass-fed beef don’t have the transportation, illness, or corn-growing impacts that cheap meat have. The grass that feeds those cattle doesn’t require huge amounts of oil to grow, and even if the quality of life of the animals, the more healthful product, and the flavor factor don’t sway us, the climate change impact makes the math stupid-simple.

If you’re like me, then your next reaction was “And where am I going to come up with the money to pay for this swanky sustainable meat?” OK, maybe you wouldn’t use the word “swanky,” but regardless, there are several good answers. Here they are:

How to save money while eating more sustainably

  1. Eat lower on the food chain: more vegetables and legumes and maybe fruits and grains, less meat and dairy.
  2. Eat fewer processed foods. They take more energy to make and deliver, and unprocessed foods are much cheaper.
  3. Connect with local food producers: join a CSA and/or go to farmers’ markets. Again according to McKibben, by some estimates 75% of the cost of food in a supermarket goes to middlemen. Buying directly from the farmer saves money.
  4. Grow a garden.

There’s some more information on the oil-food connection in my recent post We’re Eating Oil–Literally.

How Much Meat Do We Need?
We can get by with a lot less meat. Check out this eye-opening chart from the Earth Policy Institute:

meat consumption

First, notice that average meat consumption per person nearly doubled in a hundred years. Even more interestingly, look at the recent trend: we’re finally turning this around!

I was actually a vegetarian for 23 years, after which I started having some health concerns and added back in seafood and poultry (but not red meat). It’s not so hard to eat less (or no) meat: at first it’s a pain in the neck because you’re not used it, but once you’ve found some good alternatives that you like, it’s pretty easy to stay on track.

You may have noticed that these approaches may take more time from us than convenience foods (hence the term “convenience,” I guess). That’s just how it’s going to be. If we’re going to really roll up our sleeves and try to prevent this catastrophe, it’s not going to be free: it’s definitely going to cost us time, even if it doesn’t cost money (it actually is likely to save us money, and may even eventually save us time, but that’s a topic for another day).

One of the most amazing things about changing food buying habits is that we can start making a big impact on our personal carbon footprint this week. The next time I go shopping, I’m going to be buying different things. It’s going to be a pain in the neck, at least for a little while, but I’m not just going to be eating better: I’m going to be sleeping better, too.

Photo by go thunk yourself

The Secret to Climate Change Resolve

Facing climate change sucks. We’re just not built for it.

Human beings are built for problems with lots of feedback. If the climate reacted every year to how poorly we treated the environment in that year alone–or better yet, if that happened every month–then we’d be able to handle it all. We’d make bad choices and immediately be slapped down, then make better ones and feel relief.

But of course, the way it really works is that there’s a massive backlash that builds up over time and can’t be clearly traced from exact cause to exact consequence. We take an airplane flight to Honolulu, and it doesn’t seem to have any effect. We buy a hybrid car and it also seems to have no effect. A hurricane strikes the northeastern U.S. and we can’t say for sure to what extent climate change contributed. Mistakes seem infinitely forgiveable and smart choices seem to have no impact. The problem is huge, and it feels like we’re too small to make a difference.

That’s why we need Joseph Campbell.

Joseph Campbell

Who’s Joseph Campbell? He was the man who compared religions and mythologies from around the world and found that as human beings, there are certain stories and attitudes we share regardless of where or how we live. Perhaps the most powerful idea he unearthed was the story of the Hero’s Journey, which underlies everything from ancient myths to modern blockbuster movies. Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey talks about how writers can employ this structure to create a compelling story. Here’s a diagram Vogler offers to explain the Hero’s Journey:

The Hero's Journey

That all might seem kind of fanciful and irrelevant to climate change, but Vogler also provides the following version of that diagram, phrased not in terms of story or myth but in terms of emotion and change. For me, at least, the applicability of the Hero’s journey to the process of radically changing our lives jumps out in this next image.

herosjourney2

“1. Limited awareness of problem”? I certainly had that. Then Hurricane Sandy and the flooding of Venice drove me to look closer and voila, there I was at “2. Increased awareness of need for change.” My immediate reaction was described by “3. Fear; Resistance to Change.” I’m now at “4. Overcoming Fear” and “5. Committing to change.” This is exactly how it feels to be facing this problem.

What is it like for a dragon to menace your village, or for Mongol armies to invade? It feels like climate change: massive, disastrous, unstoppable, and far too big to do anything about individually.

The useful thing about this is that it provides a way to think about the problem that can empower us. We are each the hero in this story, because we are facing our fears and reluctantly going on a journey into an unknown landscape where we’re certain to be facing difficulty, trials, pain, and loss. Ultimately, though, if we don’t turn back, we come back home and find ourselves not only changed, but also in possession of a prize that’s desperately needed by our family, village, town, school, friends, country, or world … we will have successfully shown the way to transition to a lifestyle that will save us from the worst ravages of climate change.

Don’t be distracted by the word “hero”: it’s not likely that we’ll come home to a ticker tape parade (those always seemed horribly wasteful to me anyway). Many people may not even notice that we did anything.

But we’ll know–and what might be even better about all of this is that the fear, the feeling of helplessness we face at the beginning of the process, will be largely gone. The emotional difference between fearing what we do won’t be enough and actually doing everything we can is enormous. We don’t have to succeed. We don’t have ride triumphantly into town with the corpse of a slain hurricane dragging behind us. We just have to step out into the wilderness and be willing to face the trials that are coming. Courage–that is, acting despite being afraid–is its own reward.