Eat Mendocino

2 women, 365 days, 3,878 square miles


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The Solace of Food: 3 lessons from my year as a locavore

At the culmination of the year of eating local, I was invited to write a retrospective piece for a local magazine. Due to publishing delays, they invited me to share the article with you here. This article was written in January 2014.

If you had asked me a year ago what I expected things to be like at the end of this project, I probably would have been wrong. The unknown has characterized this project from Day One. If we had known what we would endure in the roughest times, we might not have signed up for this. Similarly unknown was the profound impact of this mammoth undertaking.

For exactly one year, my fierce farmer friend Gowan Batist and I embarked on a radical plan to eat locally for one year. In the past twelve months, our siblings both married, our friends raised children, and we wed local food.

The rules were inspired and unforgiving. The goal was to eat food produced within Mendocino County, exclusively. This meant all of the raw inputs, from the grain to the oil, salt, and spices we consumed. No chocolate, no Sri Racha sauce, no coconut water, no avocados – no exceptions whatsoever. After 365 days of this extreme locavorism, I am a changed woman.

Now that the project is officially over and I am stumbling around the grocery store aisles like Encino Man, I am struggling to assimilate back into society. Everyone is wondering what post-project freedom looks like. It’s been strange. The first time I went grocery shopping, I left the store without buying anything, overwhelmed at the entirety of the experience.

The second time I went, I bought a half-gallon of organic milk. It was the first time I’d bought milk in a carton in over a year; my milk has been coming in glass mason jars, straight from the cow. Coincidentally, the cow that has been providing for us dried up the week that the project ended, and there won’t be more fresh milk until spring – or I befriend a new cow. I stood in the aisle bewildered by the fluorescent lights and bright cartons, and was surprised that the cost of milk in the store was actually the same as what I’ve been paying for fresh local milk.

Standing there I realized that I really did not want to buy that carton of organic milk. And then I wondered if that may be the most pretentious thought I’ve ever had. The point wasn’t just that the milk didn’t have the same unadulterated richness and a thick layer of cream on the top. It felt uncomfortably foreign to just go to the store and take a generic carton off the shelf. I would never know where the milk actually came from, nor where the carton would end up. These seem like inconsequential details, but they staggeringly matter to me now. I have become so intimately involved with the lifecycle of every single item that came into my kitchen for a year that I now see this carton as part of a profoundly complex and fragmented food system where the cow is separated from the consumer and the cream is separated from the milk.

I waited until there were exactly four squares of toilet paper left in my house before I forced myself to go to the grocery store again. I pondered the week-old Christmas cookies (I’d been lusting after them during the holidays) but they just didn’t look that appetizing. Most things don’t even look like food to me anymore and the ingredients lists confirm that. I came home empty handed and made improvisational butternut squash ice cream and muffins, which were delicious. I have become so accustomed to the DIY lifestyle – and it being better than anything you can buy (and cheaper) – that I think I’ve passed a point of no return.

My Cupboards Contain Multitudes

The first few months of 2013 were stark and trying. Yet, by the end of last year I was well prepared for the winter. We have become food-sourcing samurais and my fridge, freezer and pantry are fully stocked with a collection of stories in the form of foodstuffs. My shelves hold an assortment of pickled veggies, tomato sauce, peaches, grape juice and applesauce canned by neighbors and friends. From the woods, dried hedgehog, bolete and candy cap mushrooms, and roasted bay laurel nuts. From the sea, I have a collection of dried kombu, wakame and sea palm seaweeds, and some canned tuna. The spice rack holds dried bay leaves, oregano, sage, dill, cayenne peppers, lots of garlic, alongside a wedge of fresh honeycomb and Lovers Lane Farm wildflower honey. The olive oil comes from Terra Savia, the apple cider vinegar from the Apple Farm, and I fermented the red wine vinegar using Frey biodynamic wine. The tea section is comprised of wildcrafted nettle leaves, peppermint, elderberries and chamomile.

In the grain department I have whole grain rye, purple pearl barley, oats, and wheatberries, cereal mix, and Red Fife wheat flour from the Mendocino Grain Project. We helped harvest the heirloom Green Dent Oaxacan corn from Mendocino Organics, and the quinoa was cultivated at the Ecology Action garden at the Stanford Inn. The bin of speckled bayo beans from McFadden Farms couldn’t fit in my miniscule kitchen, so I stowed it in the laundry room in my building. Thankfully my neighbors are really understanding of my food sprawl – and sometimes even bake me local pies.
It took an entire County and many hands, many seeds, and many bees to fill these jars. It took two women an entire year to track down all this food, process and store it, and learn what to do with it. These are some of the most important lessons I learned in doing so.

Lesson #1 Eat whole foods.

Many people ask how I feel on the local food diet. I tell them I feel like superwoman, and that cannot be attributed to my minimalist exercise regime. Yet, I have never been physically healthier. I know it, on a cellular level. I even defied certain self-imposed dietary restrictions and began eating wheat and more fruit and honey than I would normally allow myself. What I found is that my body told me what it wanted and needed, and I listened. The seasons provide perfect balance and have a natural way of moderating excess and abundance.

I believe that most modern “diets” miss the point entirely by creating an artificial food ritual that involves constantly counting, eliminating, worrying, and encourages eating highly processed fractured foods. I believe that we have lost our intuition when it comes to food due to a highly predatory food system. I think the single best way to rediscover an intuitive relationship with nutrition is to eat more whole foods, before you go for the supplements and miracle shakes. Many chronic health issues actually disappeared this year and I was able to reintroduce gluten in moderation, eating the local heirloom grain that is delivered whole or freshly milled. Much of the contamination and degradation of our food happens in the processing and the closer we eat to the source, the more nutritional return.

Lesson #2 You don’t need a recipe.

The constantly changing flow of seasonal ingredients required nothing less than fearless improvisation on a daily basis. In a reversal of our usual relationship with a meal, we started with the available ingredients and shaped the meal accordingly. I usually start with a general concept, consult my favorite cookbooks and the all-knowing Google. Recipes served as inspiration and guidance in terms of temperature, ratios and flavor combinations, but much of our cooking was intuitive and experimental, with ingredients limited by the seasons. When I post pictures of meals online and people ask for a recipe, I often feel bewildered. Each meal is an original creation, probably imperfect, and will never be recreated in quite the same way. To me, cooking is less about the recipe than it is about the process of learning how to be resourceful and creative. Which is why I’m terrible at baking. My takeaway here is that you don’t need to be a genius in the kitchen to prepare delicious food, especially when you’re working with real, fresh, tasty ingredients). You don’t need a dishwasher either, or even an adult-sized kitchen to cook regularly (though I dream of having both when I grow up). You do need courage, and a lot of mason jars.

Lesson #3 Friends are those who feed you.

We owe our survival to the farmers, ranchers, and foragers who provided our sustenance. We can name these people off one by one, and I have come to see every food transaction as a life-giving act. To be a farmer or rancher today is an act of righteous faith. Growing real food is an investment in our collective future, and the people who choose to do so are my heroes. I can name them by the first names, and many of them have invited us into their homes, shared of their pantries, or met me on the side of the highway to give me bacon. We supported many local growers and we also received many generous gifts, from strangers and neighbors alike, of everything from home canned goods to abalone and shiitake mushrooms. Our friends fed us, and those who fed us became friends.

It is a test of a friendship to have a devout locavore around. It is an extraordinary friend who will bake you a 100% local carrot cake for your birthday (sans baking powder) because it’s what you want the most. It is a patient friend who will teach you how to can even though you’re really afraid of it. It is a generous friend who lets you take over their kitchen with your huge cooler, mobile pantry, and lots of dirty dishes every time you come for a visit. It is a gracious relative who will halt holiday preparations to help you track down a local chicken on Christmas Eve. I am beyond lucky to have many such people who tolerated my lifestyle, fed me, and made this pioneering journey more delicious and less lonely.

The Solace of Food

In reflecting on this outrageous, profound experience only a week and a half since the finish date, many of my thoughts are still lost in translation. One thing I know, for sure: this project wasn’t really about food. It’s about what we found through food. Things that I don’t want to give up, even when the rules no longer apply. What I have found is more than just how to cook spare ribs, make meringue or, bake bread. It is Intimacy. Connection. Limits. Abundance.Standing now in the freedom of the future, I find myself wanting to be home in my kitchen, stirring the milk to make yogurt, existing in the solace of food. In learning how to feed myself, I feel I learned how to truly nourish myself – which may be the greatest lesson of all.

As the seasons go, winter leads to spring and our endeavor will not end with the calendar year, but transition into a new beginning. Living and eating with the seasons is a way of life, and it’s a really good life. In a world of seemingly endless choices, the best choice may actually be the simpler choice. We will continue to eat close to home, to be fed by our neighbors, and to believe in a different agricultural future, where all people can be healthy and nourished. We can take a step toward that every day, with every meal.

Much has been compromised for this food mission, and other pursuits will surely reshape my rhythm. But, I have channeled my inner pioneer woman, and she’s here to stay. She will continue to stock the fridge and pantry with local goods, pull over on the side of the road to pick berries or nuts, and she will keep cooking without recipes. The days ahead will also hold a little more spontaneity, a lot more tea parties with friends, some traveling, plus the addition of exotic spices and leavening agents.

Sarah Bodnar is a consultant and writer living in Mendocino, CA. When not cooking or foraging, she can be found on her yoga mat or throwing an axe. Follow her on Twitter @sarahebodnar.


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The third shift: What it really takes to eat local

You’ll have to forgive me for skipping last night’s daily report. I needed a break from the blogosphere after all the excitement, so I watched the Giants game and made dinner with a friend. Of course, we ended up talking about local food all night, while making a delicious dinner (food is pretty much life, so it’s hard to turn it off even for an evening).

After publishing the last post, “7 ways to access affordable, healthy food in Mendocino County (and why the SF Chronicle was dead wrong,” our blog traffic was astronomical (for us): 1,240 visitors and 1,737 views on Monday alone. That is equivalent to what we usually attract in a week!

It was an adrenaline rush to see such a huge response to the article, and to spark so much important discourse about accessing healthy food in Mendocino County. Thank you to everyone who engaged with the article through sharing it, commenting, and pondering it. It wasn’t possible for us to deal with the constant stream of feedback, as it was Monday and Gowan and I both had to work our day jobs, run errands like normal people, plus breed a goat that suddenly went into heat. The days are very, very full, and this project is like a third job for both of us. In spite of the fact that our article made some majorly positive waves, I have to admit that I felt a little bit defeated by some of the comments yesterday, which basically accused us of being bourgeoisie white girls who don’t know what it’s like to live dollar to dollar. Let me just say that we do, we really do.

For me, this last year has been extremely revealing, as I’ve struggled with the constant stresses of trying to find right livelihood in this county and embarked on the largest undertaking of my life – eating local for a year. Additionally, I nearly lost my life in a car accident which I was fortunately able to walk away from, but has left me carless. For almost four months, I have been recovering from a serious injury to my pelvis, running my own business, managing the Mendocino Farmers’ Market, plus cooking every single thing I eat from scratch and writing about it on our blog and Facebook page. (I will admit, my sink is often piled with dishes again – the zen kitchen routine I achieved in the first few months of this project has been disrupted. Oh well, life is messy.). And, all of this without a car in a rural area with severely limited transportation. It’s gotten real. Life has been stripped down to the bones, and what matters has never been more clear.

I don’t love writing about the vulnerable edges of this experience. I would prefer to talk about how to make kim chee, or show the stunning abundance we have invited into our lives through this journey to get closer to our food. Ok, on that note, I will share a picture of last night’s dessert because beauty is always nearby and it’s important to remember that.

Browned peaches and figs stuffed with goat cheese and honey

But, I understand that this angle of the story is also really important to tell. We are not two trend-seeking girls who decided to play Martha Stewart for a year and show everyone how cute it is to eat local. This project was borne out of our deep hunger to transform this community’s relationship with food. Our goal has always been to inspire through doing it, educating people by showing them how, and opening up new pathways for change by showing the gaps in the food system that need to be addressed. We want to be the faces of what’s possible, but we are staring the truth right in the face. We understand the poverty and severe food insecurity that exist in this community. Gowan grows food for the most vulnerable in the population: public school students who are on the free/reduced lunch program in Fort Bragg (which, to underscore, is a whopping 70% of the student population). I ride the bus with many people bound for Safeway or the Food Bank and listen to them talk about every single thing that the SF Chronicle article was trying to say – the main topics of conversation are the cost of everything, the lack of work, and a multitude of health problems. We really get it.

The reality is both bleak and promising and the juxtaposition is never lost on us. We have chosen to do this project because this is the best way we know how to start building a better, and more just food system right now, with our own hands. There are some really hard moments. Sometimes we are living jar to jar, and making pretty hard decisions about how we balance our time and resources to feed ourselves and also pay the rent and keep telling our story so that others can actually benefit from it. At times, this has been an inherently lonely undertaking, we are so far outside of the system that a lot of normal life routines have been completely overturned. This has also opened up doors to so many new people, relationships, opportunities and places that we have never, ever doubted that this was exactly what we are supposed to be doing right now, even when it’s almost midnight, and I still need to make yogurt and finish a project for a client. This is what I call the “Third Shift.” (This is also one of the reasons that it is hard to date a locavore.) In the last seven and a half months, whether I was laying in bed nursing my back, or spending four hours round-trip to take the bus to Fort Bragg to get some veggies from Gowan, I have never once thought, “Am I really going to eat local today?”

So thanks to each of you, for joining us on this journey and listening to what we have to say and believing that it is worth hearing. It means everything; you are why we’re doing it.

So much love,

Sarah


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7 ways to access affordable fresh food in Mendocino County (and why the SF Chronicle article is dead wrong)

It would be advisable that a reporter who is writing an article about Mendocino County actually set foot in Mendocino County before drawing sweeping conclusions about the economy, culture and landscape of this place.

The San Francisco Chronicle published an atrocious article titled “In Mendocino County Fresh Affordable Food is Hard to Find,” which I found so upsetting that I canceled a trip to lay in the sun on the banks of the Navarro River this afternoon in order to respond immediately. Instead, I am sitting here with the heater on, wearing a down vest, typing furiously. In the words of the ever discerning Gowan, this article is “classist, ignorant and offensive.” Here’s one excerpt:

“Their drives sound extreme, but Mendocino County, for all its natural beauty, is actually a difficult place to be healthy. To name a few examples, it has rugged, unwalkable terrain, more fast-food joints than grocery stores, and high rates of premorbidity, obesity and coronary heart disease.” – Stephanie Lee, SF Gate

First of all, if it takes someone 8 hours to do the 140 mile round trip drive from Gualala to Santa Rosa, they stopped at too many wineries along the way. I realize she’s probably accounting for shopping time, but this line alone would discourage anyone from ever wanting to visit our neck of the woods. If Stephanie M. Lee had been to Mendocino County, she would discover that we do in fact have paved streets, and side walks, extremely fresh air, and tons of active, fit and healthy residents. Where the pavement ends, there are numerous hiking and biking trails, rivers and lakes for kayaking, oceans for surfing and diving.

But, what gets me most is what she said about food. In most cities and towns in Mendocino County, you actually have a hard time finding a fast-food joint. What you would find instead is a community that has, by large, resisted chains of any kind and is fueled by many innovative small businesses including locally owned grocery-stores, co-ops and collectives and farm stands, with a dedication to a high quality of life and well-being.

Mendocino County Line

I love living in Mendocino County and I will be the first to admit that there are segments of this community that are seriously economically depressed.

I have struggled with this myself; the job market is very limited, and the cost of living is high. Poverty, hunger, malnutrition and obesity exist in Mendocino County, as well as depression, alcoholism, drug use and all the other problems that plague everywhere USA. And, yet, this is only one part of the picture. It is dangerous, and bad journalism, to speak to only one family in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s and make a few phone calls and surmise conclusions about the entirety of Mendocino County.

These obstacles are real, and yet, there are also many opportunities for people to access fresh, affordable and healthy food.

Gowan and I are living examples of this; we have eaten only the freshest local food, every single day for the last seven and a half months, on very limited budgets. We recognize that we have a lot of things working in our favor. We are two educated, middle class white girls, without any children or severe disabilities. Gowan has access to land where she can produce a lot of the food that we depend on. We know a lot of farmers and producers who are willing to barter, or give us food when they have abundance. Our project has become high profile, and strangers often appear with gifts of food or salt or just encouragement (which also really matters). We are very, very fortunate. And we are resourceful as hell and just as stubborn, too. So, we have been able to make this work on an extreme level.

All of this said, there are many ways that affordable, fresh food is accessible for everyone. Here are seven, to start:

1. Mendocino County is on the forefront of the Farm-to-School movement

Noyo Food Forest, located in Fort Bragg, CA, is a groundbreaking non-profit farm education program. They have built Fort Bragg’s community garden in Noyo Harbor, as well as ensured that there is a school garden at every school in Fort Bragg. At their two-acre flagship mini-farm, The Learning Garden, high school interns and community volunteers help grow food that goes directly into all four school cafeterias, feeding incredibly fresh, nutrient dense organic produce to a population where almost 70% of students are from a low income home. The farm also grows food for several of the best restaurants in town, several catering companies, and has a summer booth at Fort Bragg Farmer’s Market and a winter booth at the Caspar Community Center’s winter market. Their model of Farm-at-School is so innovative that Eco City Berkeley came and toured our gardens and interviewed the staff because they wanted to start a farm-to-school program in Oakland and NFF was the closest program they could find to what they wanted to create. Our school lunches are beautiful, vibrant, and fresh, as good as anything you’d find in a restaurant, and we are raising a community of children who are not only kale eaters, but garden lovers.

Gowan is the farm manager at the Noyo Food Forest and is pictured above teaching interns about worm composting.

2. Mendocino County Farmers Markets accept EBT/Food Stamps and WIC Coupons

Shopping at the Ukiah Farmers' Market

In order to make the farmers’ markets more accessible to all, EBT Cards (Food Stamps) are accepted at all of the Mendocino County Certified Farmers’ Markets, located in Fort Bragg, Mendocino, Boonville, Ukiah, Redwood Valley, Willits and Laytonville. At some of these markets, EBT cardholders can benefit from Food Stamp Matching program where their food stamps are matched with grant funds or community donations, so they can receive an additional dollar for every EBT dollar they spend.

3. Community Gardens feed many families in Mendocino County

State Street Community Garden in Ukiah

There is a vast network of community gardens throughout Mendocino County, coordinated by organizations such as the Gardens Project, the Noyo Food Forest, and many smaller neighborhood-based groups. These gardens provide affordable growing space to local gardeners and families, allowing them to grow their own food in a community setting with established infrastructure such as fencing, soil, seeds and irrigation. Community gardeners also have access to  training and knowledge-sharing and this is a fantastic way to learn about growing food if you are a beginner.

4. Food Banks distribute fresh local food

Fort Bragg Food Bank

The local food banks receive plentiful donations of fresh produce from many local farms and gardens and grocery stores, which are freely available to clients.

5. Farmer CSA accepts EBT/Food Stamps

Live Power Community Farm CSA

Live Power Community Farm is an awesome 40-acre, solar electric and horse-powered, certified Biodynamic farm located in Covelo. Their Community Sustained Agriculture (CSA) Program  allows consumers to invest in the farm by pledging financial support of the farm at the beginning of the growing season, and then they receive a box of farm-fresh goods every week throughout the season. They accept EBT cards (which are automatically billed monthly) to help make their fresh, high-quality produce accessible to all.

6. Nutrition education teaches students and parents about healthy eating

North Coast Opportunities and the Gardens Project, headquartered in Ukiah, run a variety of programs to support nutrition education and healthy eating. Visit the Gardens Project website for more information about these programs and others.

Fresh from the Start: Teens learn about nutrition and cooking

The Fresh from the Start Program is a nutrition and cooking class for the teen parents of Ukiah High School’s Young Parent Program.  Fresh from the Start aims to help teen parents make healthy choices for themselves and their families.  The program focuses on mother/adult nutrition, as well as infant and child nutrition, giving teen parents a well rounded understanding of their family’s health.

B.E.A.N.S (Better Eating, Activity and Nutrition for Students) is a program for high school students interested in cooking, healthy food, teaching and learning to become Teen Nutrition Advocates in Willits, Ukiah and Fort Bragg. This program trains teens as peer educators.  Teens learn cooking skills, nutrition basics and gardening, then teach weekly classes to elementary, middle and high school students.

7. Mendocino County is a wonderful place to forage from the land and the sea

Wild Mushrooms

Our “un-walkable” rugged landscape is full of bounty, which is in many cases free for the taking. We forage many pounds of wild mushrooms and seaweed, collect bushels full of berries and tree fruit, and for only the cost of the license you can fish or dive for abalone or catch crab. Living in this county means living much closer to the land and all of its abundance.

Healthy Food = Healthy People

The only thing I can get behind in this article is the recognition that improved access to healthy food is essential for addressing health problems.

In Mendocino County, officials are using the money from the five-year grant to start healthy living programs, encourage locals to stop drinking soda and to walk more, and ban smoking from apartment complexes.

In the full-length version of the SF Chronicle Article, she discusses some of the County-funded and community-based programs that focus on prevention through healthy eating and other lifestyle habits. After painting a pretty gnarly and inaccurate picture of the County, she discusses some of the active programs that are trying to reverse some of the food and health issues in our community. This article could have been framed much differently, even titled, “Programs address obstacles to healthy food in Mendocino County.” Yeah, that’s quite a different, and far more productive, story – especially if the goal is to help more people find access to healthy options.

SFgate_mendocino_073_JT

Food vs. “food”

It is also flawed to be drawing comparisons about processed food when making claims about healthy, fresh food. This Trader Joe’s shopping cart is filled with pre-made enchiladas and frozen waffles. This is not healthy, fresh food. And the produce buried underneath is arguably “fresh” – Trader Joe’s like most stores sources produce from all over the world, and by the time it gets to the shelf, it is far from fresh and wrapped in many layers of plastic, but that’s another story. While certain things are cheaper when purchased from chain stores (due to the simple economics of scale) often there is a perceived savings because certain items are cheaper, whereas others may be quite comparable to what is available locally. Most people don’t buy whole foods when they stock up at TJ’s or Costco – they tend to purchase cases of non-perishable processed foods. This more-for-less mentality has nothing to do with health and nutrition.

We cannot compare frozen waffles or cartons of chicken broth to a shopping list made up of whole foods. Yes, it takes more work and time, but it is often cheaper (and always healthier) when you buy whole ingredients and cook from scratch. This is one of the things that has made the biggest difference in our diets this year.  You can’t compare Top Ramen to the price of potatoes; one is food and one is empty calories. And, we understand that there are times when the only thing a person can afford is Top Ramen. But, fortunately there are other options, such as the Food Bank or the opportunity to volunteer in community gardens in exchange for fresh produce.

The cost of healthy eating

When people ask if our local food diet has been more expensive, they are often surprised when we say, “no.” Imagine never going out to eat, cutting out all processed and prepared foods, and eliminating your daily latte. We purchase only whole foods, often in bulk quantities, usually direct from the grower/producer. This cuts out an incredible amount of the cost. And if we want waffles, we use the freshest locally milled flour to make them. The price per gallon of milk or per pound of butter is significantly higher than what people would pay at Safeway or Costco, but the quality is unparalleled, and you make up for that cost by not purchasing a lot of incidental, non-essential food items. Our budgets have been trimmed by eliminating crap from our diets. We understand the austerity of making these changes might be a shock to many peoples’ lives, but you cannot argue with the fact that it is both economical AND healthier to shop and eat in this manner.

The real problems in our food system

I need to emphasize that this is about a lot more than personal responsibility. We need to address the broader injustice of the industrial food system, government subsidies for commodity crops, GMOs and the rising price of petroleum. ALL of these factors contribute to a more comprehensive picture of the real challenges to the food system and affect every single family in this country (rather than single out one County as a hotbed of problems). The statistics about health issues are not the problems themselves, but the symptoms of the deeper imbalances in the food system.

Furthermore, we cannot have a real conversation about the economics of Mendocino County without discussing marijuana, and the impact of the pot industry on real estate, housing and the cost of doing business.

There are many problems facing our community; some are unique, and others mirror the issues we see across America. The best way to deal with many of these challenges is to pursue viable local solutions, such as the seven listed above. I love this place, for all its beauty, and all its troubles. I am proud to live in Mendocino County and to work alongside so many people who are dedicated to building a vibrant and just food system. And, I would like this reality not to be our best kept secret.

Stephanie, if you want to see what’s really happening in the food system here, you’ll have to look deeper, and beyond federally-funded grant programs. I’m pretty sure it was Einstein who said problems are never solved by the same thinking that created them. Certainly, these programs are a critical link in identifying and addressing the problem, but they cannot be observed by looking at a map and a few statistics. Change is happening through a broad network of initiatives which include both the public and private sector in establishing a new food future in our community. Let us know if you want to tell the true story of Mendocino County, we’d be happy to give you a tour of some of the most exciting and transformational food system projects underway here. You’ll need to wear closed-toed shoes, you might get a little dirty.


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Eat Mendocino in the Real Estate Magazine

Dear readers,

I know, it’s been awhile. Last month I used up all of my words writing this article for the Real Estate Magazine, which defies its name to feature local human interest stories. I was excited to be invited to write the cover story for last month’s issue and it’s created a real buzz around town. I can’t go anywhere now without someone mentioning the article; even my physical therapist brought it up while doing an ultrasound on my right hip last week!

Publishing this article made me realize two things: 1) The interweb is miraculous, but it’s really nice to be able to put something in someone else’s hand. Print media is so not dead. 2) We need to write, write, write. I have mega guilt about not making enough time to tell you all about our project because we are too busy doing it. And that is totally counterproductive.

The whole point of this eat local experiment is to share the journey along the way. I was recently in a gamechanging car accident and it has made me realize one thing quite clearly: it’s time to slow down. No more living the “slow food” life in the fast lane. We need to make time to live and eat local, and also time to tell you all about it. So, that is my promise. More soon. For now, if you haven’t read the article, yet, you can download it in PDF form or read the text below.

Eat well and drive safe.

So much love,
Sarah

Real Estate Magazine Cover

Eat Mendocino: An adventure in eating local in Mendocino County

2 women, 365 days, 3,878 square miles

By Sarah Bodnar

A few weeks into this year, I found myself in the First Aid aisle at CVS, completely dumbfounded by the Band-Aid selection. A kitchen accident had resulted in a gnarly flesh wound to the thumb and I needed a protective layer between my hand and the world. I thought there were two kinds of Band-Aids: the soft fabric ones and the plastic ones. I like the soft ones. Simple, right? Not simple. Niche marketing has hit the Band-Aid shelf; the selection stunned me. They now come in every texture and shape, and in variety packs that make you question whether any one Band-Aid could possibly meet every human need. I spent over fifteen minutes studying the wide assortment of bandages that I might need for a host of unforeseeable injuries at some point in the unknowable future. Feeling defeated, I finally settled on a variety pack, sans pre-applied antibiotic cream.

This little errand exposed deep realizations about my changing relationship with “stuff.” It was less than a month into our food project, but radically modifying my decision-making process around food had recalibrated my entire life – and it couldn’t be more unlike the Band-Aid aisle.

A year of eating local

On January 1st, 2013 my friend Gowan and I embarked on a year of eating food that is grown, raised and foraged in Mendocino County. We made a choice to know where our food came from – all of it. We chose to commit to this place we live and love. We chose to feed directly from the land and sea and live by the seasons. Ultimately, we chose to make life more complicated for the sake of simplicity and signed up for a year of uncompromising limitations to open the door to abundance.

We chose to do all of these things out of graceful optimism and bull-headed stubbornness. Fundamentally, we knew we could do it. Gowan is a farmer and a maker of all sorts of things, from gorgeous compost to fine silver jewelry. I am a lover of food, professional dot-connector and a media machine. Together, we are some kind of home-grown DIY girl farmette with hundreds of online fans. Our goal is simple: to live off the land and the sea, and love it. It is also our goal to inspire a new agricultural future, celebrate abundance and build as much topsoil as possible.

Emptying the cupboards

In the weeks leading up to the New Year, I cleared out my pantry, fridge and freezer, purging anything and everything that wasn’t grown, raised, or foraged in Mendocino. This meant that there was almost nothing left. I had not been freezing, drying, canning or preserving anything in preparation for this mammoth undertaking. I only decided to join Gowan in this adventure a week before Christmas! I gave away five bags worth of groceries, all of my spices, and my entire beloved tea collection as Christmas gifts.

A few items made the cut in my pantry: seaweed and herbs I had harvested and dried last spring, locally harvested sea salt, apple cider vinegar, a bag of frozen huckleberries, dried fava beans and some local duck eggs. Otherwise, my shelves were filled with a lot of empty mason jars. Heading into the New Year, I knew we were a far cry from food security. It was the leanest time of year and my cupboards and fridge were largely barren. I’m not sure if this winter dearth was more or less terrifying for my sister-wife. On one hand, she had a few hoop houses that were still yielding tomatoes and hot peppers at the first of the year, plus lettuces and mustard greens and all the tree collards we could eat.  As a farmer, I imagine she was also acutely more aware of how much we had not planted and stored for the winter months, and how long it would be before the ground started to warm again. So, the first lesson was that you must clear out the old to make space for the new, and have faith that you will not starve in so doing. Our mantra instantly became, “Start where you are, do what you can, with what you have.”

The Rules

The first step was defining the boundaries of our project, and what “local” would mean to us. There are many different functional definitions of local food, usually based on the distance that the food has traveled. Our goal is to discover the food abundance within the borders of Mendocino County, so we are only eating food that is produced in Mendocino County. Thus, the project is aptly called, “Eat Mendocino.” This means we grow, raise, pick or catch it here, or get it from someone else who does. We don’t have any Barbara Kingsolver-variety exception foods or “get out of jail free” cards; we are 100%. We will survive without coffee, tea, chocolate, coconut water and avocados for 365 days (with smiles on our faces!). We wrote the following rules at a bar the week before the project began and they are posted on our website, so that the world may keep us accountable:

  • We eat locally produced food, not locally processed food. So, if the inputs aren’t local, we don’t eat it (coffee, tea, mustard, beer, jam, and… ice cream)
  • We are not making exceptions for staples such as grains or oils. Some of those things grow here, and those that don’t will not be staples for us.
  • We will not use spices, sauces or flavorings that made with ingredients produced outside of the County. This is where it gets real.
  • If we are traveling or happen to be outside of the county, we will be 100% committed to eating food that is locally produced in that place, as close to the farm or garden as possible.
  • Our first priority is to produce as much food for ourselves as we can and source the rest directly from the farmer, rancher, fisherman through barter and exchange. We will also support local grocers that sell locally produced food.

The hunt for local food

Food is our clock, time revolves around its procurement, processing and preparation. This involves frontier land resourcefulness and a lot of dishwashing. A couple weeks ago I saw a bumper sticker that said, “I don’t buy food from strangers.” That’s probably the simplest way to describe the parameters of our project. Our survival now depends on knowing our community more intimately than ever before. There is a simplicity to our meals because we start with what is available and work from there. Each plate is also a complex web of relationships between people and the land. We can trace these connections item by item, meal by meal. I realized one day in January that I knew every single thing that I was putting in my body. I knew we were going to get really cozy with our food, but this is an impressive reality to live. There are no hidden sources, no unknown preservatives, nor any un-pronounceable ingredients.  Nothing but real, whole foods with a story.

There are many people to thank for our survival. We would not be alive without the one hundred and fifty pounds of potatoes we got from John Richardson at Noyo Hill Farm. John and Charline Ford’s grass-fed beef has been keeping meat on our bones. Gowan’s Oak Tree farmstand in Philo is making life much sweeter, with their well-stored apples and dried pears, peaches and persimmons. We also love the local stores that make a point of stocking local products, which are surprisingly hard to come by. For this reason, Scott Cratty is our hero. He is the owner of Ukiah’s most revolutionary corner store. He has filled the shelves with 100% local produce, and introduced us to many local treasures such as Pennyroyal Farm cheese, McFadden Farms dried herbs/spices and pistachios from Calpella! In Scott’s words, “Mendocino County is the place where your next door neighbor is doing the coolest thing that you will never know about.” Word. Never has it been more important for us to know our neighbors.

Through the process of sourcing food, strangers have become friends, and we are awed and humbled by the kindness of our community. People have shared with us so many items out of their own freezers and pantries, including goat and pork meat, dried peppers, seaweed, salt, corn, flax seed, quinoa and wheat. It truly does take a village to feed a locavore; we are always accepting donations, so let us know if you would like to feed us or show us your favorite fishing spot!

To juxtapose this with the current food system is a stark, astonishing contrast. We live in a world where food is largely divorced from source. Even for people like me who generally eat healthy and shop at the Farmers’ Market, taking it to this level is completely gamechanging. Much of what we eat has changed hands many times, is highly processed and packaged, and the production and distribution of these green-er foods is fueled by petroleum. While it may come in a recycled paper box, printed in soy ink and bears an organic and Fair Trade label, much of your food probably comes from really far away. This is inherently unsustainable, and will only prove to be more so as the cost of oil increases. As we have un-globalized our own diets, it has been fascinating to strip away the many layers of the current industrial food system and start exploring what it would take to go back to the old ways, in a new way.

Filling up

Even in the darkest of the winter months, we have been well fed. We are fortunate to live in a temperate climate, where kale grows wild on the headlands, and mushrooms spring up from the forest floor. We began the year trusting that we would survive, but without knowing exactly how. There have been rough spots – especially in the beginning. I still remember the unparalleled joy of picking up our first load of milk and butter on Day #5. I learned quickly that the local diet is inherently low-carb, and had to start eating unladylike servings of potatoes to keep weight on. My body tells me what it needs. When I need fat, I unabashedly scoop the cream off the top of the milk jar. I drown everything in butter. I drink wine when I could use some extra fruit calories. Sometimes I eat honey right out of the jar with a spoon. We have to listen to our bodies, and constantly balance our physical needs with the seasons.

We have also gotten pretty good at asking for help, and been blessed with so many acts of kindness in the form of food and fishing poles. Over the last few months our diet has included a lot of kale, meat, milk, potatoes, apples, butter, eggs and bone broth soup. Sometimes we eat meals fit for queens, and sometimes, it is, well totally gross. But, usually it’s really, really good. Often when I feed my friends, they say it is the best milk, orange, beef, cheese, etcetera that they have ever eaten. The paradox of our lives is that opulence and indulgence springs forth from scarcity and compromise. After days of eggs, potatoes, cabbage and kale, suddenly we are eating lemon meringue pie or enjoying a full Thanksgiving style feast on a Tuesday night in February because a thirty-pound turkey unexpectedly thawed due to a power outage. Other times, we are trying to figure out what to do with twenty five pounds of ripe kiwis. And sometimes I am cracking walnuts open with a hammer and sipping champagne.

Jar by jar, the pantry has filled. And emptied. And filled again. Food flows in and out of our lives in a tidal wave of bright colors and textures. We cannot afford to stockpile, and there is a newfound comfort in this rhythm. In three months, we have seen that every empty jar is an opportunity and that using things up is the best way to invite abundance – simply because there is no other option.

The fruits of our labors

I have long believed that preparing food provides nourishment beyond taste and calories. Sometimes I will spend an hour cooking a meal and by the time it’s ready, I already feel satiated. This, I believe, can be explained by the Ayurvedic perspective that we must experience our food using all five senses. When we are intimately connected with the entire process of our food chain, the rewards are unsurpassed. Case in point: I would argue that nothing can make goat cheese taste better than snuggling just born baby goats.

There is another aspect of the locavore life that has nothing to do with the food itself; it’s about money. Every time we purchase food from local farms, ranches and dairies, we are investing directly in the local economy. We are keeping money circulating here at home, rather than subsidizing international companies to feed us. It’s an efficient closed-loop system: by eating locally we actually build local food security – and the ROI is delicious! It is one of our goals to highlight all of the inspired farmers, young and old throughout this county who are committed to feeding the people, supporting biodiversity and building topsoil. This was once a county that grew enough food to be food secure. It is now a county whose two main crops are not food. Supporting these farms is supporting a new agricultural future, so you can have your local bread and your wine, too.

I have never been so involved with my food, nor so governed by the natural cycles of the seasons. The most challenging part of the locavore lifestyle has been finding balance between feeding myself and doing everything else. There is no going “back to the land.” I am living with the land, and also running my own consulting business, organizing community events and trying to rekindle my relationship with my yoga mat. Life cannot stop and the dishes must be done.  The truth is that it is extremely challenging and also naturally easy all at once. We have had to invent new efficiencies, modify our schedules and lives and remove things that simply don’t fit. There is little margin for error, no out clause when you have a busy day or didn’t have the foresight to pack food, just don’t feel like cooking, or have been taking down by a ruthless flu. Days like these, it is really good to have a sister-wife. It gets easier with every month, and as the air gets sweeter with the scents of spring the ground warms and promises much goodness to come. My skin looks great, my body feels awesome and I now do dishes as a form of meditation. It’s hard to believe that we’re almost a quarter of a way into this year. I am humbled and moved by people who tell me that this quasi-insane undertaking has made them look at their own dinner plates and think about where their food comes from. We are encouraged by all of our blog readers and Facebook followers who are learning and laughing with us. In the next episode of “It might be totally gross,” I am going to attempt to learn how to bake (without using baking powder) with our monthly shares of freshly milled wheat & rye flour from the Mendocino Grain Project – after being gluten-free for over four years.

When there is flour, you learn to bake bread. This is how it works; food determines life now. Meals are created with what is available, in the time we have. Our plates reflect our landscape and every single thing we eat can be traced back to the hands that grew it, raised it or picked it. The feeling I had in the Band-Aid aisle really had less to do with all the options, but of the alienation that we experience as normal part of everyday life. Nearly unlimited options are presented to us in the Band-Aid or cereal aisles, making us feel like we are choosing. Yet, somehow we usually end up feeling somewhat defeated by trying to find what we really want in a box. Because maybe what we’re looking for isn’t merely, but connection. This year is fundamentally about reconnecting. As we connect the dots in the local food system, we are building profound new relationships with the place we live and love and the people who are stubborn enough to farm here. We have redefined choice; by embracing limits we have opened ourselves up to an existence that is more deeply satisfying and delicious than I could have imagined.


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Eat Mendocino on the radio!

Hey guys,

Did you catch our interview on Women’s Voices on KZYX? If you missed it, no worries, we have the link for you here:

Blake Moore was kind enough to talk to us about our locavore ways. We had a blast, her show is really fun and I hope everyone gives her a listen. We’ll be back on before this all is over for sure.

Rock. Star.

Rock. Star.

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I know we’ve been a bit lax blogging lately- Spring has started and my life has been consumed by the greenhouse and by babies! Promise we’ll be back on the horse in no time. For better or worse, our Facebook page is where the action is! Check it out for gratuitous baby goat pics, mussel harvests, aioli making, and my big mastiff Bucket snuggling baby chicks. http://www.facebook.com/eatmendocino

Loves,

Gowan