Before we discuss how to make sustainable food affordable, it helps to have a different perspective on our diets and what a sustainable food system is. As I noted in the introduction to this series, much of eating (and living) sustainably is psychological, we must learn to look at our diet in a more holistic manner, but also as just another way we interact with nature on a daily basis. For a long time, we have viewed food (and many other things really) as a distinct set of parts (the ingredients) put together to create the “end product” (the meal), rather than food as a system and our preparation and consumption of it as just one part in the whole cycle. We rarely think of what happens before we obtain our food or when our food goes “away” in our garbage cans, to the landfills, out of us as our “solid waste” (we all know what I’m talking about here, but I’m a lady - hehe) and so on. We rarely stop to think about (or perhaps do not even know) how unheard of this is in the natural world. “Waste” is not an issue in the natural world. “Waste” is food, which is the focus of this post.
I would argue that the term “waste” simply describes improperly used food. Whereas in our societies waste = pollution, in nature waste = food (a concept coined by William McDonough, author of the really good book Cradle to Cradle), and this is one of the reasons that natural systems are able to sustain themselves and rarely experience issues of excess or “pollution” (concentrated, improperly used food). For example, when one plant dies, bacteria, bugs, and other organisms break the plant material down into food for other plants. Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, making it fertile and available for plants and other organisms. Earthworms break down dead material, while also aerating and fertilizing (with their castings) the soil.
The sustainable, waste = food system is a cycle by which nutrients and energy are continually being reshuffled and reconfigured for the best and most efficient use. The healthiest systems are the most diverse, where creatures on every level make remarkably efficient use of the available resources.
Waste and Organic Material
There are some very simple steps to take reduce waste in two fairly obvious areas. The first is to plan, and stick to the plan, as discussed in the previous post. The second is related but worth reasserting: try not to buy more food than you can reasonably eat, that is, unless you have plans for preserving it.
Be realistic about how much produce you can handle as well as how long it will last once you bring it home. When you buy local food, it often doesn’t stay “good” for as long since it wasn’t sprayed with a myriad of gases to extend shelf life and reduce spoilage. So, it works best to go the market or store multiple times a week, if this is an option. Perhaps, if your farmer’s market doesn’t set up shop more than once a week, there is a store in town where you can procure locally grown items. A few minutes spent with Google will generally help you determine the “health food” stores in your area. Call ‘em up and see what you can find. A few minutes talking with a purveyor at the farmer’s market could be even more helpful. Aside from knowing where to seek local goods, they might also have some advice on how to best store and prepare the goods they produce.
Despite our most valiant and creative efforts, there is still an unavoidable amount of organic waste: you can’t eat apple cores and seeds or spoiled veggies, and there is little reason why a meal that didn’t turn out should simply have to end up in the trash. Compost it!
(Now, as I'm sure you are all aware, I eat a mostly vegan diet; animal products are rarely consumed in our home (aside from the occasional egg, or some cheese for Brett), so I’m not sure as to the safety of composting animal ingredients So, I would recommend doing some research before throwing those tired looking steaks in the compost.)
The method of composting I recommend is vermicomposting, or composting with worms. This can be done in small spaces, indoors even, as it does not stink, and is an effective way of reducing your waste because you turn your food scraps into worm food, and the worms turn it into very high quality plant food.
Vermicomposting is a fairly simple method that doesn’t require a whole lot of tending. The “source” for vermicomposting still seems to be the book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof, since it is accessible and suitable for anyone above a 5th grade reading level, you might laugh at this, but complex scientific concepts that can be explained in terms younger people can understand works for me, I’ll take pictures too :-). You can make a composting box (sometimes called a "worm bin") out of a plastic or wood bin, or you can purchase special boxes from selected locations. I would highly recommend looking into this system, especially if you live in an apartment where most of your waste is comprised of food scraps, not yard waste.
Waste and Non-organic Matter
One cannot take a glass jar outside, put it on their garden, and hope to grow food. Some of the things humans create are inappropriate for use as food. So, a good starting point would be to look for goods with the least possible amount of packaging (a quick example would be to choose dried beans over canned). Whatever packaging is necessary works best if it is either reusable or recyclable. #7 plastic, for example, is neither reusable (due to safety concerns) nor recyclable in our area. So, we stay away from it. Strawberry containers are not recyclable here either, but we can take them to the farmers at the market who will reuse them. Be resourceful and creative, and remember reusing always beats recycling.
The list that follows contains some ideas for reusing and is by no means complete. If you have any additional ideas, please leave them in the comment section; we are all here to learn from each other.
- Twist ties from produce or bread bags can be used to tie herbs in a bunch to be dried.
- Use the back of receipts, junk mailers, flyers, and “mess up” paper from the printer (something didn’t print right, use the back) to make lists.
- Take your shopping bags, berry containers, and egg cartons to the farmer’s market. Oftentimes, farmers will happily take them for use for their product.
- Glass jars, such as spaghetti or applesauce jars, peanut butter jars, mayo jars, olive or nut jars can be rinsed in soapy water, their labels removed can be used for other things. Uses we’ve found for glass jars include: storing bulk nuts, seeds, flours, and odds and ends. We even use the appropriately sized ones as drinking glasses. And Heather (from the awesome blog Simple – Green – Frugal) had the excellent suggestion of using peanut butter or mayo sized glass jars to take soup as a lunch to work. They also double as something to safely heat the soup in, as well as a bowl.
- Containers that starter plants come in or things like cut to size milk cartons make excellent places to start next year’s garden seeds.
- Old, worn out pantyhose (sadly, I don’t have any), can be used to store onions, as Chile demonstrates here. Actually, just have a look around Chile’s blog, she has a wealth of advice, tips, and alternative uses for materials that would normally end up in the garbage.
Since we’ve been working to reduce our consumption – live more sustainable lives and all that – our trash output has been significantly reduced. Most of what ends up in our trash can these days is food scraps, which not only makes for a very heavy garbage bag, it is also a waste of valuable “plant food in the making”. Our apartment complex has recently come under new management (the old management said we could not vermicompost), so Brett and I are hoping to start making our own plant food soon.
Now that we’ve discussed looking at one’s diet as part of an energy cycle – the idea that all waste should either be food for something else or be put to another use – I will spend the next post discussing how to eat locally and affordably.
'Til next time.