Everyone can turn a deeper shade of green

This blog is dedicated to all those looking to deepen their green--whether you are making a commitment to a greener lifestyle and need help taking the first steps or whether you're already a practicing tree hugger who is looking for practical advice on what steps to take next. Over the years, I've heard all the good intentions and all the excuses. I've also seen my fellow environmentalists sabotage the good intentions of others. I am making a commitment to you, dear reader, wherever you fall on the spectrum, to help you take the next steps to fulfilling your commitment to the earth, to your health, and to your well-being. Stay tuned for articles and interviews.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Adapting my garden to my CSA

malabar spinach: a perennial vine
that I love to use as a substitute for
spinach. It does not get bitter like spinach
or lettuce do in the hot Carolina temps.
I was optimistic when I left my job that entailed gardening and farming 10 months out of the year, that I would have more time for my own garden and for writing this blog. Since my last post (nearly a year ago--yikes!) I've been working on the report for State of the Plate that I talked about in that post. You can find that report here. I've also been traveling (a LOT) and writing for one of my clients. And when I'm home, I'm cooking--playing with the fruits of the garden. I'm also in the yard almost daily, but I'm not vegetable gardening like I used to.

Mostly, I'm adding elements of permaculture (fruits and berries, native perennials, as well as medicinals) and trying to create more inviting outdoor spaces, so that one day, I might actually relax outdoors in August in the Carolinas....

At some point a number of years ago, I had an idea that I wanted to become more self-sufficient through expanding my garden, but one of the greatest joys of having my Satudays back has been Farmers Market. Even though I could grow everything myself, I take great pleasure in browsing the varieties of greens, tomatoes, squash and talking to farmers. I still eat stuff that I grow, but I'm much more excited about the community-supported side of things this summer.

elderberry bush (elder flowers and the
first, young berries): already playing with
infusions in honey and in vodka (will end up
like a homemade St.Germain, I hope). Will
make elderberry syrup for the winter.
Since convincing a friend to share a CSA (two households with different travel schedules makes it easier to make the ebbs and flows of your life fit the relative consistency of your CSA box), I've been picking up our share at the NoDa Farmers Market right after my morning yoga class. This past week, I actually sat down with the produce and wrote out menu plans for each night of the week and made a grocery list. Then I had the great fortune to go to the grand opening of the Rosa Parks Farmers Market on the west side of town mid-week to get all the other produce I needed for meals.

Ribbon cutting at Rosa Parks Farmers Market, Charlotte

Me with a couple other CMFPC board members and Rosa Parks' niece at the grand opening

Katie, our Food Corps service member, and Erin, director of  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council holding down the Friendship Gardens tent with produce from Garinger High School

Over the past few weeks, it's become quite a game for me to see how local I can make my meals. A few years ago, I participated in a local foods challenge where we tracked every ingredient in every dish and earned points for each farm, backyard, or artisan represented in our meals. I've made vegan borsch, quiche, and all kinds of salads with the bounty from my CSA, backyard, and other farmers.

Salad Nicoise with Dover Vinyard's Villard Blanc
When I got the first of the green beans in my CSA box, I knew what I wanted to make--salad Nicoise. With the trip to the second farmer's market this week, I was able to grab fingerling potatoes from the Urban Farm at Garinger High School. I prefer them roasted on the salad, instead of boiled, but in a recent article, our local food writer reminded us to used canned tuna in this classic recipe, so, other than the oil and mustard in the dressing, it's the only non-local ingredient. Lettuce & green beans from my CSA (Street Fare Farm), tomato from Allee Bubba Farm, eggs from Two Moons Family Farms, fingerling potatoes from Garinger Urban Farm, thyme (in the dressing) from my yard, and white wine from Dover Vinyards. That's 7 points!

To be honest, I don't really keep track, but there is a kind of adventure in sourcing as locally as possible and stepping out and meeting new farmers and trying new foods. And figuring out how to use the surprises that show up in my CSA has been really rewarding so far. I tell people this all the time, so it's been really refreshing to experience it again, for myself. It's what drew me to the gardening/urban farm job in the first place.

As I plan my fall garden, I'll be looking at more unusual heirloom varieties to supplement what I can find in local markets to keep fueling my culinary adventures. Wishing you bon appetit on your own adventures this summer.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Food Security...the freedom to eat well.

After my latest attempt to start posting regularly to this blog, I got side tracked....again. But I promise you, it's all been for a good cause!

Since March, I've been slowing ramping up on a project called State of the Plate. It's a comprehensive food assessment for Mecklenburg county, which is where I live in North Carolina. I'm on the board of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council and the State of the Plate is a core effort to bring the most up-to-date information on food access, food security, and, more generally, the public health and economic development aspects of the food system to the policy community. That community includes government officials, non-profits, food entrepreneurs, and citizens.

We are deep in the weeds of data collection right now and it's pretty fun stuff. I'm not quite ready to share what's coming out of the study. I'm still recruiting for focus groups (so if you live in Mecklenburg county--contact me!)

What I will share is that as an anthropologist, collecting the systematic data through focus groups and surveys has also "primed the pump" of my participant observation skills.

I've been paying my bills by working on some contract projects for a market research company and while the products I've been researching have been pretty disconnected from the State of the Plate, they have been about food. I've been in inner city and rural Family Dollar stores and in a super Walmart collecting survey data. 

Aside from the fact that people will truly wear ANYTHING when they go to the Walmart, I've noticed a few things about how people shop for groceries.

In a Family Dollar store, I observed an interaction that shifted my perspective on how people think about food. A mom with 3 kids in tow was coming down what I would have called the "junk food" aisle--candy on one side, chips and cookies on the other. As the kids began to gravitate towards the neon sour gummies, I
"junk food" or just "food"?
heard her say, "No, no. None of that candy. Pick out some chips." It was clear from the context that they were picking out something to go with an upcoming meal. The mother wouldn't even turn her head to glance at the candy, eyes fixed on the crackers and chips.

My first thought was, "Wow, is she putting chips in the 'food' category and candy in 'snacks'?" In my adult life, chips and candy have become interchangeable as junk food. Well, except tortilla chips with salsa or guacamole...because those are vegetables. Right?

After a few more hours I remembered that I used to eat chips as a vegetable on hamburger night as a kid.
Even my fancy tuna burger came with a "side" of chips!
Along with fresh tomatoes and pickles, potato chips were a quick and easy vegetable "side" dish at the end of a long summer day.

A few days later, I realized that chips are offered as a vegetable with a lot of meals. I just choose not to eat them most of the time (though I do eat the pickle every time!) and I still think about them as "junk food" when I do.  

Watching that one, simple interaction in the Family Dollar store helped to erase my own narrow set of categories in thinking about food. Everyday we make choices about what to eat. Some days these are more difficult choices than others. I suspect that some foods shift categories (like chips shifting from "junk food" to "vegetable") depending on what else is going on that day.

I'm looking forward to moving in to the next phase of our research with an even more open mind about how people make food choices. Taking something like food, that is so deeply engrained in our psyches, and trying to understand all that we take for granted is a great challenge. And I hope in becoming clearer about how we make these choices that we will get closer to offering up options that make healthy choices easier and more affordable.

Friday, March 13, 2015

In praise of farmers

Even as a teenager, I seemed to know that the day would come when we would need to sell the farm house I grew up in, but knowing that hasn’t made the experience any easier. The family homestead is already in the process of being transformed into another business property on a busy road. While my immediate family never farmed, I grew up between an aging orchard on one side and a corn field on the other. One of the old barns continued to provide shelter to dairy cows. Eventually, changes in zoning made it cost prohibitive to continue renting to other local farms and we were left with the farm house and a healthy-sized backyard.

I miss the farm house kitchen most of all.

The loss of agricultural land and the dearth of young farmers is something that hits, quite literally, close to home. About 6 months ago, we sold the final piece of the family homestead. While bittersweet, I was able to channel my feelings of loss into a project that supported opportunities for a few local farmers.

From November through February, I worked with a strong and talented group of women in Charlotte to put on a live, crowd-source funding event called Farm Hands Charlotte. We selected three farm families to deliver 5-minute pitches about their “big idea” and how it will impact their business model, making their farm more efficient and sustainable. 

William and Marie of Bluebird Farm used their winnings from Farm Hands Charlotte to buy a new transplanter.
The chain of events since last summer has got me thinking about why I feel so passionate about small, local farms. It’s more than a philosophy about food or an intellectual concern for sustainability. 

Farmers are my heroes.

We frequently forget that because, unlike firefighters or soldiers or superheroes in red capes, we need our farmers every single day. Farmers are my heroes because, quite frankly, I don’t want to work that hard. Don’t get me wrong—I am far from lazy, but occasionally sleeping in doesn’t affect my bottom line, neither does rain nor early or late frost. If it’s 75 and sunny in April, I can take a spontaneous trip to Asheville for the day. If I leave home for more than a week, I am confident that I can ask any of my acquaintances to feed my cat and be sure that she will be alive and well when I return home.

Farmers choose a life tied to the land and to the whims of Mother Nature. 

Small farmers in urban areas like Charlotte have to be flexible and strong in body and mind. They are ecologists, healers, business executives, accountants, and marketing specialists.

As I look out over my tiny garden plot, dreading the work that must be done now because I didn’t take care of it in November and because I want produce in June, I smile because I know that I can be a lazy gardener. I know my farmers will take care of me. They were out there in the cold, the rain, and the wind over the past few months and they’ll be out there under the blazing sun and 200% humidity in July.

Farm Hands Charlotte.
 Becoming a farmer in the 21st century is less about necessity or family tradition and increasingly about choice. And while I absolutely agree that eating local is about the health of our bodies and our planet, for me, it’s also about something far more immediate and significant. Buying food from local farms is rooted in community—the kind of community that shares knowledge and resources.  Just a few years ago, my mom found out that the original wood stove in the basement of our farm house was used by the whole town as a community bread oven.  I have the honor of knowing chefs who help farmers prep Thanksgiving turkeys and pass on wholesale prices on local produce to their neighbors in a “food desert.” What I saw at Farm Hands Charlotte wasn’t competition, it was community. The heroes that night were the farm families that shared their vision and their challenges with us and solutions and strategies with each other.  And for that one night, I hope they felt like heroes.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


It's been a while....I have a few unfinished posts I hope to share this month. Big things are happening and I'll be more or less offline for a few more day. Before I turn off the computer, though, I wanted to share a little about a new crowd-funding site, Barnraiser.

Barnraiser is a crowd-funding site dedicated to community food projects. I was recently thinking about how much CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) have changed in the last 15 years--no more volunteering on the farm and very little shared risk. These days, CSA members seem to expect that each week's box is bountiful with produce, equivalent to the monetary value they put up before the season started divided by the number of weeks. To me, that shifting of the risk entirely onto the farmer takes the community out of CSA.

Over the summer, a local farm incubator, Elma C. Lomax Farm, in neighboring Cabarrus County lost it's county funding. This was pretty emotional for me because I have a deep respect and strong connection to it's founder. But the community stepped up in a big way to support these farmers. Now operating as a non-profit project, its operating again, but on a very thin margin.

That's where Barnrasier came in. Here's the rest of the story about Lomax:

Barnraiser is using the model of crowd-funding sites like kickstarter to build community support around food-related projects. This kind of investment model goes back even further to organizations like Kiva, founded in 2005, which built on the microfinance models of programs like the Grameen Bank.

When we invest in our communities and share the risk with those who provide for our most basic needs, we build resilient communities. So, if you made it through Black Friday and Cyber Monday without figuring out what to get the wo/man who has everything, consider an investment that will serve the most basic needs of his/her community. #raisetheroof

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

8 ways to make the most of garden failure.

So your garden is a total failure. Maybe you pruned the fruit instead of the suckers off your tomato plants (oops!). Maybe you live in the South and can’t bear to keep those veggies watered or you took a vacation and forgot to ask the dog sitter to water. 

Fear not! Even the most disappointing garden can bring you positive returns, even if it’s not what you were planning. My first few years in gardening, my goal was to not lose money. My first couple years were container gardens on balconies and porches. Imagine the cost of soil, containers, and tomato plants for a balcony garden—5 pounds was about break even. Over the past two years I’ve been integrating more perennials and edible landscaping that I hope will yield tasty rewards, even in years when I can’t tend to a traditional garden because of work or travel. In the many years in between, I’ve swapped seeds, plants, and produce and I’ve eaten tiny potatoes, sautéed bitter lettuce hoping to sizzle the bitter out of it, shredded zucchini larger than my arm for epic batches of zucchini bread, and eaten flowers and leaves from all kinds of plants, sometimes just to get my money’s worth out of that years investment.

Here’s a few ideas. Most I’ve tried, some are on my list to try. If you have other ideas, share them below. 

  • ONE. None of those squash blossoms turning into squash? Add the flowers to a salad or stuff them and bake them. We don’t always plant our veggies at the right time to hit the harvest jackpot, but in many cases, you can eat parts of the plant that were not the part you planted it for. 

Think outside the salad...roasted radishes with sauteed radish greens
  • If you’re in the South and planted peas with your tomatoes, you can eat the leaves and tendrils (raw or cooked). If your kale plants bolted, you can toss those flowers in your salad. Tomatoes taking forever to ripen? Try some great green tomato recipes (green tomato cake and green tomato ketchup are two faves that I discovered a few years ago. Note--this is not the ketchup recipe I used--mine was no pickling spices, and sugar instead of honey with the addition of bell and/or hot peppers. I actually combined two recipes and *gasp* lost my notes).
  • Note: The leaves of plants in the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant) are considered toxic. Recently, I‘ve read that this is NOT as true as we thought. Here’s an article about it with some additional links. Read it and make an informed choice. If you want to find something else to do with those tomato leaves on those darn heirlooms that are taking months to ripen, keep reading
  • TWO. What if it’s just the opposite and squash is the only thing you can manage to grow? Whatever you have in abundance, you can bet that someone is missing in their own back yard. Reach out to friends, neighbors, and co-workers to swap produce. Or just give it away and see what comes back to you.
  • THREE. OR you can share with a local program that distributes produce to low income folks who need it. In Charlotte, you can donate through the Backyard Friendship Gardens program (disclaimer—that’s where I work!).
  • FOUR. Nothing is growing except your herbs? Dry some for later. You can even turn some into lovely gifts. Even if all you have is rosemary (which grows like a weed here in Charlotte), you can make a nice blend of rosemary, pepper, and lemon rind as a chicken seasoning (I’ve never actually used a recipe for this—blend the three ingredients to taste—my ratio is probably 1 : ¾ : 1).
  • FIVE. What if everything is looking all shriveled and past hope? Start a compost bin. Our community has lots of free workshops—check your solid waste management office, public library, master gardeners/master composters, local gardening clubs for free workshops in your area. Compost adds valuable nutrients and organic matter to your soil. It will save you money on fertilizer and soil amendments next year. And the best part is that even if you do it completely “wrong” you’ll still get compost…eventually. Everything rots!
Click on the photo from Hannah's blog to go to the recipe :)
  •  SEVEN. Okra.This southern staple is a category onto itself. Not everyone loves okra and some only hate it after trying to grow it.  It seemed like a good idea when you planted it, but who knew you’d never actually eat any of it because it grows freakishly fast. That cute little pod smaller than your thumb needed an extra day, but when you came back in the evening and it was the size of a baseball bat you started to wonder. If you know of a way to cook baseball bat sized okra so that it doesn’t have the texture of tree bark, please let me know. In the meantime, I teach at a lovely yoga studio named Okra, so I started getting crafty with okra a few years ago. A stem of dried okra pod in a wildflower arrangement is pretty awesome. A friend did pod people once, painting faces on okra pods with kids at a summer camp. Here are some other ideas from Okra:

sliced and dried, seed instead of sand in a candle holder, fresh or dried--just because.

  • EIGHT. Find out what else is edible in your yard—eat the weeds! Dandelions, violets, plantain, clover, lambsquarter, just to name a few. Google them. Sample them. Maybe you won’t even need to plant a garden next year.
Hopefully, you love the experience of gardening enough to keep at it and you will continue to find creative ways to make the most of the harvest! 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Love your weeds

I'm a weed-eater. Some of my friends think I'm a little crazy, but, thankfully, I've found a great community in this suit-and-tie banking town. Friends who love a good lambs quarter lasagna or nettle tea. Each year brings more nuggets of wisdom.

dried clover
After a workshop on pollinator gardens in March, I vowed to the bumble bees in my modest neighborhood that I'd wait until April to mow my lawn for the first time and I'd mow the front and backyard on different days. Ever since I found out that plain old, garden variety clover is medicinal, too, I've been harvesting and drying it for a subtle, sweet tea (sweeter than crimson clover, for sure).

fresh clover and plantain

Earlier this week, I woke up feeling kind of blue and decided to carve out time in the garden, which quickly turned into a backyard foraging session. The back yard desperately need to be mowed before the impending thunder storm, but I couldn't let such a rich harvest go to waste. Clover harvesting with bumble bees, followed by the revelation that the plantain leaves in my yard were enormous and screaming out to be put to good use.

I had heard over the years that plantain (not the green over-sized banana, the "weed") was good for skin conditions and digestion. this lovely, useful weed is also known as "white man's footprint" because it will grow anywhere Europeans settled, which was...well...everywhere.

I wasn't sure what the best way to preserve the plantain would be so I did some quick searches on the internet and one of my newer books.  I tend to look for sites that provide some scientific information (like this) and cross check it with other sites (like this) and maybe a book (see photo below) or a weedy friend. Plantain and dandelion are pretty standard, harmless "garden variety" edible weeds, but you need to always make sure that you are 1) using the right plant and 2) using the right part of the plant.

In the end, I decided to make an infused oil that I will later turn into a slave (with the addition of beeswax). Why a salve? I have had eczema since I was a kid and it usually turns up as a rash unrelated to anything in particular. I also seem to be sensitive to most of the commercial creams that are supposed to help with eczema, especially on my face.

plantain in oil...check out that gorgeous green!

I rinsed and dried the leaves, took a clean quart jar, filled it with the ripped up leaves, muddled them, then poured a light cold pressed virgin olive oil over the top. I labeled the jar (in two weeks I'll forget I did it and I'd hate to throw it out) and have it sitting out on a shelf. Stay tuned...I might be organized enough to document the salve-making process.

see book on left...stay tuned for dandelions

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The problem with causation…

This morning, a friend posted an article that was reporting on a scientific paper linking Roundup to the increase in celiac disease,gluten intolerance, and irritable bowel syndrome. Of course, I was curious. I am not a fan of pesticides, but I’m also a scientist (a social scientist, so I might not understand all the bio-chemistry, but I’m still a scientist who understands and respects the standards and rigor of the scientific method). So off I went to get the skinny on the next Monsanto scandal. 

The article was little more than a brief introduction, followed by the abstract to the scientific paper. I didn’t read very far before I went back to Facebook to see what popped up underneath the original post. As an aside, I’ll mention that when Facebook started recommending additional articles, I was kind of annoyed, but for moments like this, where the original post was kind of “thin” on information, I’ve grown to appreciate the hints to get me started on that deeper digging affectionately known as “procrastination.” I mean, it’s kind of related to work, right?

Sure enough, what seemed like it might be a scandal for Monsanto, may, in fact, be a scandal for science. One of the articles facebook recommended was “Bogus paper on Roundup saturates the Internet.” The author of this article focuses on the credentials of the scientists and the placement of the article, arguing, first of all, that the science can’t be valid because the scientists were engineers instead of biologists. “So was this bizarre article peer-reviewed by actual biologists? No matter, neither Samsel nor Seneff are biologists either.” I don’t necessarily agree with that point, since Samsel is a chemical engineer and much of the internal research done at Monsanto is probably done by people with similar credentials. Seriously, Roundup is chemically engineered—Mother Nature doesn’t make it on her own. 

On the other hand, James Cooper, the author of the article the “bogus paper” critique article, calls the scientists out for not conducting original research on the topic, but instead using (questionable) existing research to draw conclusions that don’t hold up. He even lists the “weasel words” that Samsel and Seneff use to make their claims. I will admit that I have not read the original article. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. At any rate, I can get behind this part of his critique.

It probably makes sense to mention that the article by Cooper and the Huffington Post article that also popped up on Facebook both came out in April 2013, while the article that my friend posted is from this month. Maybe this isn’t really that much of a scandal after all. Nevertheless, something about the conflict triggered me. 

Here’s my concern. When I used to teach the principles of the scientific method to undergraduates, there was a mantra that “correlation does not equal causation.” Just because we see a pattern does not mean that A causes B to happen. The majority of social anthropology (my sub-field) doesn’t really care too much about causation. And while correlation is interesting, it is not always meaningful. What IS meaningful is perception and attitudes.  

For me, a lot of it comes back to a quote from Seneff that appears in the HuffPost article: “We ‘have hit upon something very important that needs to be taken seriously and further investigated.’” Bad science? Probably. Why discredit yourself and/or publish an inconclusive article full of “maybes?” My guess is that the authors wrote the peer reviewed article specifically to create a media buzz. They wanted to say—“look at all these studies that are finding correlations between the increases in particular (types of) diseases and the use of pesticides. We need to be asking more questions and demanding answers.” It seems like an appeal to the precautionary principle, to me. Let the burden of proof rest with Monsanto that their product is safe. 

The environmentalist in me can get behind that sentiment (if indeed that was the authors’ intent—I’m taking a lot of liberties here). The anthropologist in me thinks that it’s still not the right question.  

Round-up is the little white pill. It’s the quick fix. It’s THE answer.  For some.

For others, Round-up is EVIL. It’s what’s wrong with industrial agriculture. It’s what’s wrong with global capitalism. 

In fact, Roundup is none of those things. These are attitudes and perceptions. Roundup is one of those things, it seems, is easy to have an opinion about. I want to see us asking more complex questions about how attitudes about this product link to broader social attitudes and perceptions. And here I'm going to jump over to Roundup ready crops to help make my point. I want to see us having the more fundamental discussion about what it means socially, economically, biologically, for a company like Monsanto to chemically alter the structure of seeds to make a kind of “one-size fits all” product that creates a market of dependencies and creates an adversarial relationship between farmers and an industry that is supposedly designing products “for” them.  Monsanto isn’t the only company in the business of GMOs, but for the purpose of today’s soapbox, it will stand in for all mega-agri-businesses that seek to patent food as technology. 

How have we let ourselves get to a place where a “Monsanto” can sue “Joe Farmer” for seeds that drift into Joe’s fields, but Joe can’t countersue Monsanto for contaminating his soil because Joe Farmer’s soil isn’t patented? 

Why would we, as a society, get behind any company that applies the marketing strategy of “planned obsolescence” to our food? 

Roundup has been heavily criticized for decades, yet its use continues to increase (at least according to the above articles). AND it's critical to the creation of new products (seeds) for farmers that are supposed to help society (abundant food = no hungry people, right?). On the other hand, consumption of organics is increasing. Are these two trends marching along in lock step? (Part of me wants to search the internet for this answer, but the other part of me that needs to pay for my organic greens needs to get back to paid work). I don't think it's that simple. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will confess that I garden without chemicals and buy organics about 65% of the time, but I also keep Roundup around for poison ivy and brushing on the occasional (uninvited) tree stump. I’m not a saint. 

Whether or not there are correlations between the use of Roundup and an increase in certain types of diseases may be interesting and is definitely worth further investigation. The impact of Roundup ready seeds on biodiversity and human health are also questions I'd like to see scientists tackle. At the same time, even if we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Roundup CAUSES something bad to happen, it doesn’t address other, more fundamental question about the philosophy behind the science. We seem to be trapped in a culture of finger pointing in search of the culprit that causes all sorts of bad things to happen. To me this obsession with causation is reflected in our cultural tendency towards quick fixes (fad diets, “wonder drugs,” “instant” everything). 

I’m not suggesting that I have the answers. I’m saying that we need to be asking different questions. I’m suggesting that the answers that will help us create meaningful changes are complex, multi-dimensional, and they may not give us a clear villain.

What questions do you want to see asked that defy a simple cause and effect answer?