Eat Mendocino

2 women, 365 days, 3,878 square miles


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10 things I am grateful for after 7 months of eating local

Tonight culminates the end of the seventh month, and marks the end of my daily blog challenge. I wrote almost every day in July and as a result I haven’t been to bed before midnight all month. But, it has definitely been worth it, and the writing will not stop here. Hopefully Gowan will trade off so that I can get some more sleep, like taking turns to check on the baby at night.

During the past month, our project has transformed into something much bigger than I could have predicted thirty-one days ago. I am tired, but I am filled with gratitude and awe at how this eating local project has unfolded…

10 things I am really, really grateful for:

1. Farmers

Bottom line, you are keeping us alive. The farmers in Mendocino County also tend to be the most radical, stubborn, soulful and loving of their breed. Thank you for feeding us, hugging us, inspiring us, and making us laugh.

2. The Seasons

Living so much in the moment means being entirely present with the flavors, smells and textures of each season. The conventional diet literally prevents us from tasting time. Summer feels like a honeymoon and the first few months of this year now seem like a distant Soviet past. But, each season yields many lessons and many gifts.

Pink Pear Apples w/ Chevre

3. The SF Chronicle

The recent article in the SF Chronicle, flawed as it was, has stimulated a spirited and essential discussion about access to local food in our county. Unfortunately, it grossly misrepresented both the family it focused on and the entire county. Yet, it gave us the opportunity to contribute to a conversation that has reached people all over the country and beyond. Most importantly, it has hit home here in Mendocino. Today, the woman profiled in the article, Irma Barragan, invited us to interview her so that we can tell her real story. It is an honor to be a voice for this community, and the second largest newspaper in California helped broadcast our voice beyond our imaginings.

4. Living (and drinking) in a small town

This is what happens when a small-town locavore orders a drink…

Me: Can I get a glass of Mendocino red wine?
Bartender Alex: Yup, I’ve got Zinzilla.
Me: Are you sure that’s local?
Alex: Sarah, I know what you’re up to and I’m NOT going to F— it up for you

5. The Mendocino Farmers’ Market

Managing the Mendocino Farmers’ Market has been a lifechanging endeavor (which got much better once I hired someone to help with the signs). I am grateful to hang with the vendors (all of them are total characters) and community members each week. It’s an honor to be part of an essential link in the local food system, and to help it grow. Plus, grocery shopping at the Farmers’ Market is the best.

Summer produce from Inland Ranch Organics

6. The MTA bus drivers

As a bus-pass carrying rider, I am grateful for the bus drivers who act more like chauffeurs and know their riders by name. The bus schedule in a rural area is severely limited and inefficient, but I have to be grateful that it exists at all.

7. The freezer

Thank you to my freezer for saving me from the guilt of fruit gone bad. Part of seasonality is sudden bounty, which doesn’t coincide with one’s schedule. And, most likely I will forget about 1/2 of what I put in there, so I’ll be in for some sweet summer treats when I dig them out in the winter.

8. My sisterwife Gowan

Thank you for having this visionary idea and for entering into an extremely intense, intimate, and all-consuming endeavor with me. Thank you for your calculated pragmatism, Germanic efficiency, and fiercely beating heart. I love every meal we share together and every crazy idea we dream up.

Gowan's "girl farm" fists

9. Everyone who made it this far in the list

Seriously, thanks to all of you who actually want to read what we have to say. In other circumstances, it would be creepy how many people introduce themselves by saying, “I’m following you,” but it is a huge compliment that you share your time with us. Thanks for all the ‘likes,’ comments and support. We love you.

10. Bacon

Tonight we ate bacon for the first time in seven months thanks to Adam & Paula Gaska from Mendocino Organics. It was a very special occasion; I am pretty sure we both have bacon-sized holes in our mighty little hearts. Thank you to the land and pigs that make bacon – and happiness – possible.

Smoked bacon from Mendocino Organics


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How to treat poison oak naturally with manzanita

I am very lucky not to get poison oak, but many people suffer miserably at this time of year. So, this blog post is a Public Service Announcement: relief from poison oak is within reach, literally.

At the Not-So-Simple Living Fair this weekend, I took a mind-blowing workshop with a native Pomo woman named Corine Pearce, whose vast knowledge about local ecology is museum-worthy. She spoke about many different local plants and their native uses with great respect and admiration, but manzanita is her favorite. Every single part of the plant has use, from the berries and the bark. I will soon share recipes for manzanita cider, “Love Tea,” and other exciting concoctions.

She also revealed the many uses of the poison oak plant itself…

Here Corine shocks the audience by wielding a branch of poison oak and discussing it's many native uses and beneficial properties.

Here Corine shocks the audience by wielding a branch of poison oak and discussing it’s many native uses and beneficial properties.

But, that is another story, too. today, I will share the simple cure for poison oak.
Manzanita
How to Treat Poison Oak Naturally with Manzanita

1. Harvest a live branch from a manzanita tree. Harvest as-is, with leaves on.

2. Boil the entire branch with leaves on in a large pot until the water turns black.

3. Pour the water from the pot into a lukewarm bath. Soak affected areas for treatment of poison oak.

For those of you who get poison oak, I would love to hear if this works. Let me know if you try it.


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Not-So-Simple Living Fair in Pictures

We had to make all kinds of difficult decisions this weekend at the Not-So-Simple Living Fair at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds in Boonville. With an impressive schedule of practical and inspiring workshops we had to choose between acorn processing, goat nutrition, wild foods, sourdough baking, green building, cheesemaking, chicken processing and so, so, so much more. We chose the ‘divide and conquer’ approach and tried to glean as much knowledge as possible.

This gathering is not your typical festival. It’s an outdoor classroom and quite unique in that all the attendees are truly committed to learning and teaching (not just running around in feather earrings). It was awesome to be surrounded by so many friends, mentors and neighbors who are living closer to the land every day. I don’t think I’ll be wearing a dress made out of a tanned hide anytime soon, but I am completely rejuvenated by spending two days with people who don’t want to go “back to the land,” but are moving forward with the land, and understand the value of sharing knowledge, information and skills.

There is no way I can summarize all the specific learnings of this weekend, and I will have to share more in upcoming posts (like how to cure poison oak, and how to harvest and roast bay nuts.) For now, here’s a peek at a very full and incredible weekend. Click on the pics below to view them in a slideshow with captions.


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An 8th grade English teacher made my week with this letter

My inner cup is flooded with joy and gratitude. What a week it has been. Beginning with the big article on Sunday, the week only got more momentous as it went on, which is hard to believe. Today’s major news is that I have negotiated a deal to expand the footprint of the Mendocino Farmers’ Market into a grassy field adjacent to the market, which will allow many new vendors to join with varied local products and will provide an open lawn where people can park their bikes and children can play and eat fresh strawberries. While at the market today, I got to visit with some of my favorite ladyfriends and felt so lucky to be part of something that is one of the last remaining forms of “the commons.” The farmers’ market is a truly beautiful hub of friendship, commerce and togetherness in a world where much of life can feel separate and fragmented. Also, these women and their squirrely kin are now the official models of the market!

FMladyfriends

Amidst the bustle, over 30 customers and farmers signed our postcards to Harvest Market, and I can’t wait to send all that local food love their way! I talked to a lot of people about the SF Chronicle article and was really moved by so many saying how much they appreciated the article, and to hear that organizations across the country have been sharing it to shine the light on Mendocino County’s outstanding local food efforts. This totally made up for all the late nights and keyboard weary wrists.

The real topper of this week, though, came unexpectedly. We received this message today from an eight grade English teacher in Fort Bragg:

Hi Sarah and Gowan,

I’m an 8th grade English teacher at Fort Bragg Middle School looking for some help. At the beginning of the school year we spend about 7 weeks reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and talking about food in the US. Towards the end of the book, Pollan writes about local, sustainable and do-it-yourself food. I was hoping that one of you, or both, might be interested in coming and speaking to my students toward the end of September-beginning of October.

Also, I plan on having my students complete some sort of multi-media project about farmers in Mendo County, and was wondering if you knew anyone who might be interested in being interviewed, photographed, etc. I have scheduled a few Farmers’ Market field trips so students can get pictures there, but I know when it’s busy, the last thing a farmer wants is to talk to silly 8th graders.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this – I hope we can work something out!

P.S. The recent SF Chronicle article, and your response, have now found their way into my curriculum!

This gave me goosebumps. And then I roasted a chicken to celebrate.

Roasted Free-Range Chicken

We have received a lot of invitations to speak at events or meet with school/community groups, and Gowan works with high school students every day at the Learning Garden in Fort Bragg. We know that education is a profoundly important part of the local food system and the schools are a natural link. But, this letter really got to me. First of all, I wish I had this teacher as an 8th grader. Lucky students. And I know the farmers will be really touched to have the next generation of eaters taking an interest in the farming life. Upon reading this, I could see all these different dots connecting at once and it finally registered that this project has reached new heights in impact and relevance, on an extremely meaningful scale.

The number of blog hits is only so important as to how many people actually give a damn. And, there are so many of you who do. You follow us daily (which is enough to make both of us blush.) You care enough to think in terms of miles when you look at your dinner plate, to ask questions, to talk about where your food comes from with your family or neighbors, to shop at the farmers’ markets even when it’s windy and foggy, to cook from scratch and to grow your own food… And, then there are some that try to make local food relevant (and even cool) to 8th graders – a tough audience at best. It’s totally goosebump-inducing.

To know that we have been able to elevate the discussion around local food, and to motivate others to create new relationships with food isn’t unforeseen, yet it’s still enough to make me take pause. Honestly, I would love to gather around the stove with Michael Pollan and writer from the SF Chronicle and make dinner and talk all night. In a way, that is what we’re doing. With different ingredients in different ways we are all cooking up the future of food.  Our story is making local food real and tangible right now, every day for our neighbors and people all around the country, and world. It’s so fricken’ cool (I am learning the names of new countries through our blog stats). It’s been a good week, and it’s not even over, yet. Now I need to sleep to get ready for a very full day at the Not So Simple Living Fair in Boonville tomorrow.


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How to shop at the Farmers’ Market (and why Ukiah rocks)

Today was one of those days where my butt molds into the shape of the computer chair and I wouldn’t know the temperature outside if my dog didn’t need to relieve herself. The sun broke the misty grayness that has blanketed the coast lately, and it was delightful to feel its warmth for a brief moment while my dog sniffed about. Time at the computer was well-spent, and I launched the website for the Mendocino County Farmers’ Market Association. Just after launching the site, I was asked to post some exciting news:

Ukiah is currently #2 in the entire country in a national “I love my farmers market” campaign! So, if you love the Ukiah Farmers’ Market, please go to www.LoveMyFarmersMarket.org to make a pledge for the Ukiah market each week you will be shopping there through 9/9/13. By the way, if you haven’t visited the Ukiah market in a while, you’re missing out. They are hogging all the sunshine over there, and have an incredible array of produce, meats, fresh crepes, jams and preserves, baked goods, body products, live music and the Ukiah Bicycle Kitchen, an on-site bike repair unit. It is a vibrant and wonderful event, which reminds me a lot of my hometown Saturday market in Chico.

Ukiah Bicycle Kitchen

We enjoyed our own little slice of inland summer this afternoon on my deck, when Gowan sliced open a cantaloupe she picked up from Covelo Organics today at the Fort Bragg Farmers’ Market. The first melon of the season, and holy sweetness – it was everything a melon should be. The most incredible thing about this time of year is that the food comes to us every week from all over the County. It is a major contrast to the winter months where we had to travel inland often to get staple ingredients. Now, each week, the food express arrives and basically our groceries are delivered to us directly by the farmer. How amazing is that? You don’t really appreciate this fully until you become entirely depending on the local foodshed.

Cantaloupe from Covelo Organics

Shopping at the Farmers’ Market

As Market Manager, I have noticed that most people don’t come to the farmers market with the same mindset that they bring to the grocery store. Most people are drawn to the shiny, colorful sweet things like carrots, berries, tomatoes, eggplant and of course the baked goods. People often overlook staple ingredients like potatoes, onions, garlic and even the leafy greens. That’s kind of the difference between visiting the market for subsistence vs. seasonal flare. I love the shiny sweet things like this cantaloupe as much as anyone. But, here’s a suggestion on how to experience the market more fully: this week, when you come visit me at the Mendocino Farmers’ Market on Friday, purchase a couple things that are on your shopping list that you don’t usually look for at the market – whether it be mustard greens, olive oil, spuds, onions or rhubarb. And, if you see something you don’t recognize (or have never successfully cooked), like kohlrabi, I encourage you to ask the farmer what to do with it – they are the experts. That’s the real magic of the market; your farmer grows your food, delivers it, and offers free culinary advice!

Remember to bring your reusable bags, and visit the new Mendocino County Farmers’ Market website for lots of other tips, including advice on storing produce without plastic.


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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.