Growing Networks, Growing Food: Community Food Security

Food security: it sounds so formal, but the concept is actually very simple. If you can eat fresh and healthy food every day, you are food secure. If you struggle to buy or grow or glean enough food for yourself and your family, you are food insecure.

Increasingly, there is a focus on developing food secure communities. A community has food security when it builds networks to grow, harvest, and share healthy food with everyone. Concerns about peak oil and the growing need for relocalization have given life to the local food movement. Food security is part of the bigger picture of local self-reliance. By growing our own food in our own communities, we increase everyone’s ability to eat healthy local food, now and in the future.

How does food security happen? There are many ways.
•      Creating school and community gardens
•      Growing urban gardens on balconies and rooftops
•      Sharing yard space with your neighbour so that everyone can grow food
•      Growing garden plots in back and front yard gardens
•      Harvesting and gleaning unwanted food and sharing it with those in need
•      Visiting farmers’ markets and building new ones
•      Developing links between farmers and those who eat the food that they grow

You can find resources to strengthen the food security in your neighborhood. As you dig deep into community organizations, you will find that many of them have an interest in food. Seniors’ organizations talk about health and poverty. Organizations for children focus on hot lunch programs. Schools grow community gardens. Gardeners enjoy growing vegetables. All of these local organizations are part of the food security movement in your community, but they might not think of themselves as such. Bringing them together can yield exciting connections and a fusion of ideas that creates new programs and projects in your community.

There are national organizations that can help as well.

The Community Food Security Coalition has an email list that links people across and within communities.
Farm to family and Local Harvest are both databases of farmers and farmers’ markets so that you can discover the produce in your local area.

Why Hunger has a database of community food security projects across the United States.

Slow Food celebrates local food and good, conscious eating.

The American Community Garden Association can help you find a garden near you, where you can grow your own food.

The number of organizations focused on community food security is abundant and growing. If you are starting a community based food security initiative in your area, lean on those with experience and ask them for resources to help you get started. There is a lot of wisdom out there if you know where to look.

It is Getting Warm Yet? It’s Summer - Time for Winter Gardening

It’s summer. While the sun might be sporadic in many places, it’s time to plant your winter garden. Winter garden? Yes, that’s right. Planting a winter garden is a summer time activity, however hot it might be right now. Plants need time and heat to grow, and the heat of summer is the best time to plant a winter garden.

Why plant a winter garden? First of all, because you can. If you love food gardening and you don’t want to stop, you really don’t have to stop. In temperate climates, it’s possible to garden easily all year round by using cloches and cold frames. A cloche is a simple little tent for your vegetables. You can make one out of a glass bottle, an old milk jug, a plastic food container or any other sort of clear plastic or glass material that will be durable in the garden.

Winter gardening is possible even in challenging climates. Yes, there may be a lot of snow in the winter. Do not let this deter you, oh fearless gardener. If you have a deck or a somewhat enclosed area, these are perfect for warmer winter gardening and provide some cover for your plants. If you don’t have a deck, choose an accessible area close to the house and use devices to help your plants survive through the snowy season.

Cold frames are the next step up from cloches. These little shanties for your plants might consist of a window that is propped by a board. The window makes a little greenhouse for a few plants at a time, and the prop lets air and some water in to visit your plants. If you have the means, by all means construct a small greenhouse for your plants. One made out of reused plastic will do. The plants don’t care much about the decor, they just like the heat.

The plants in a winter garden are not going to be the squash and tomatoes of the summer. Plants that only thrive in the heat do not like the winter. However, there are a whole host of greens that just adore cooler weather, and with a little coddling they can be quite content through the cold season. The key is to get them up and growing in the summer and fall so that they are larger and tough when the winter comes. Great winter plants include kale, Swiss chard, Good King Henry, collard greens, beets, parsnips, leeks, and many hardy winter lettuce varieties. Winter gardening calls for some experimental cooking as well, since we’ve forgotten how to cook with many of these delicious winter vegetables.

You can also plant peas and spinach in the summer and aim for a fall crop, as long as you provide them with a bit of shade in the heat of the summer. Row covers can help extend the season of some fall crops because they raise the temperature in the garden bed. Reuse the fabric year after year if you can to conserve resources.

While winter gardening might seem like a practice that is only for hard core gardeners, it is growing in popularity. Try it this year as an experiment. Like any other garden, the winter garden takes a few years of experimentation before you find your groove as a winter gardener.

How Humans Have Impacted The Oceans

The devastating BP oil spill is still on everyone’s minds as its ecologically dire impacts on the ocean continue to take a toll. The scale of this particular problem is huge, but unfortunately, it’s just another way humans have wrecked havoc on the sea. The ocean is crucial to global ecology. It’s not separate from those of us living on the land. Fish and aquatic life may suffer first from the effects, but we too will suffer; we are all connected, after all.

The journal Science reports just how much of an impact we humans have had on the oceans. Here are some of the effects, quoted from

Warming: The oceans have absorbed between 25 to 30 percent of all human-generated CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution. But as seas warm, this rate of CO2 uptake slows down. This means more CO2 stays in the skies. In the future, global warming will happen faster and faster.

Acid: All that extra CO2 its turning the oceans more acidic, making it much harder for marine species to build carbonate shells. Today, ocean acidification is happening 30 to 100 times faster than ever in the recent geological past. Left unchecked, coral reefs and shelled animals, such as clams, will start literally dissolving by the end of the century. Some plankton—the base of the marine food chain—may also be wiped out.

Dead Zones: Fertilizer run-off and fossil fuel burning are creating dead zones in coastal seas. Humans are the source of about half of all nitrogen carried by rivers to the seas. Too many of these nutrients fuel oxygen-sucking algae and microbe blooms. Life up the food chain, from shrimp and oysters to fish and fisherman, suffer for it.

Toxic Blooms: This excess flood of nutrients also spur a toxic form of these algal blooms, which kill fish and make coastal residents really sick.

Suffocating Fish: There are increasingly more and much larger open ocean zones where fish struggle to catch their breath. That’s because the ocean is like a giant layer cake, where warm, fresh layers sit atop colder, saltier ones. But as surface waters warm, this stratification is becoming more pronounced, and less oxygen is moving from the rich deep waters to the oxygen-deprived ocean surface.

Seafood Threats: We are creating an acronym soup of pollutants in our oceans: POPs, DDT, and PCBs, not to mention methyl mercury. Human activities are moving unprecedented levels of these pollutants around the globe, and these accumulate in seafood we eat.

Lead: The one bright spot on this list. Since leaded gasoline was phased out in the 1970s, lead concentrations have decreased in the North Atlantic back down to early 20th century levels.

When will we begin to take better care of our planet? Will it be too late by the time we realize it?

Local Produce is Fun(gi)

Growing your own? It never looked so good. The grow it locally movement is growing in leaps and bounds, and with it come new trends in urban gardening and foraging. Stinging nettles and dandelions are on the list for foragers in urban areas. Bees in the city and chickens in yards are up next. What’s coming soon: cows in the alleyways? Possibly. However, the next big trend is urban mushrooms.

Fungi are the ultimate in local eating, especially for those of us in northern climes. After all, we’re a little stretched in the winter time, what with the lack of almost any fresh vegetables. Yes, there is the possibility of kale, chard, and collard greens, and there are root vegetables like celery root, turnips, and squash. There are even cold-storage apples and pears for the eating. All right, we’re rich in food, but it would be nice to have something fresh in the winter. This is where mushrooms come in.

Mushrooms are the next cool trend. A little bag of oyster or shitake mushrooms will set you back many dollars at the grocery store. But buy a mushroom log or better yet, some mushroom inoculant for your local garden logs and apartment compost heap and you’re all set to grow your own. Mushrooms can grow indoors or out, in very little space. Best of all for us north-facing gardeners, mushrooms don’t care at all about the light levels in your garden. The less light the better. They are the ideal winter food.

Mushrooms are also nutritious. High in fiber, low in carbohydrates, rich in potassium and selenium. The giant ones make a fabulous burger and the tiny ones make an excellent garnish for a winter kale salad.

How do you grow mushrooms, exactly? Well, there are log-growing mushrooms and there are compost mushrooms. I recommend the log version, since they last for a long time. Mushrooms use the nutrients in their substrate to grow, and logs decompose over years. Add the fungus to its base and keep in a moist environment, and you’re all set.

While mushrooms may not sustain whole cities, they are certainly one small piece of the greater puzzle of urban food security. Small, easy to grow, and simple to harvest, they are yet another step toward self-sufficiency, even if you live in a north-facing apartment and it’s January. And that’s saying something for the fungi.

Climate Change Might Result in Mass Extinction of Lizards

New research from a study in Science claims that nearly 40% of all lizard populations, and 20% of species could become extinct by 2080, due to the effects of continuing climate change. The study uses basic biological models and observed patterns of extinction to model potential future extinction risks for lizard populations.

Interestingly, it is higher springtime temperatures that are causing problems for lizard populations, which are actually not as susceptible to climate change as their amphibian cousins. Typically, lizards resist thermal stress fairly well, but when a lizard needs to cool, it finds protection in the shade and and has less time to forage for food. Less time spent foraging means that the lizards’ energy reserves are spent more quickly.

24 of 200 previously documented populations of Mexican Scleroporus lizards have gone extinct, and extinction probability was linked to these increased springtime temperatures. Energy needs are highest in springtime when reproduction occurs, and if a lizard is stuck in the shade trying to keep cool, its reserves are spent too quickly without being replenished and the lizard will not survive.

This study is yet another in a continuing line of observations that point to climate change spelling much trouble for all types of animals.

Where Does Your Milk Come From?

Ever wonder where that jug of milk came from that you just purchased at the supermarket? Just how far away were those cows raised? Well, thanks to this super nifty website, you can find out exactly where.

From the website “where did my milk come from?”:

You’d be surprised. Did you know different brands of milk often come from the same dairy – and the same cows? Often, the same dairy provides milk for store and brand names, only differentiating them by their label! Most dairy products, especially milk have a state and plant code. Go get the milk out of your fridge and, and find out which dairy it comes from.

Created by a student of Brigham Young University, the website has a database with information from the FDA’s interstate milk shippers list, which is public information not easily accessible for the average consumer. The website also accepts codes from dairy products other than milk.

For those interested in eating local foods, this website will allow you to make that more possible. Most dairy makes no mention of where it comes from, but now you can find out! Very cool.

Growing Soil

It’s spring. The birds are singing, the plants are growing, and at garden stores across the nations there is a run on potting soil and other soil amendments. Everyone is heading out to buy soil.

I confess to buying soil upon occasion, but I also consider soil to be the ultimate do it yourself project. Creating soil is one of the joys of being a gardener. Or rather, inviting the microorganisms, worms, and other soil critters to create your soil is one of the joys, as you’ll rarely see me out in the garden actually making the stuff.

Why create your own soil? Well, it’s a sight better than relying on artificial props to sustain your garden. The fertilizer industry is one that has a nasty energy footprint. In our current system of industrial agriculture, we use three calories of energy to create one calorie of food. How is that efficient? Granted, we can’t eat sunshine like the plants do, but there are efficiencies to be found and many of them lie in creating food using natural processes instead of industrial ones. Nearly half of the energy used to grow food is expended to create fertilizers and pesticides that we spray on our food crops. Energy-wise, this is equivalent to pouring just over five gallons of fuel on each acre of cropland.

Healthy soil can actually act as a carbon sink. Techniques like no-till farming, mulching, and cover crops. Soil is made up of gradually decomposing materials, so it would appear that it would emit more carbon than it contains. While some of the material in top soil decomposes quickly and releases carbon dioxide, much of it also turns into modified carbon that decomposes slowly over time. The key is to keep the carbon in the soil for as long as possible, and that’s what healthy amended soil does. This is the soil with decomposing plants in it, like mulches and all sorts of carbon-rich soil builders.

How do you create healthy soil that will invigorate your garden and sequester carbon too? Use soil amendments if you need to, but make these local and natural. Those who live near farms can use aged manure, while those who live near the ocean can use kelp. Our food scraps can and should turn back into valuable soil as well. Some people place these directly in the garden while others use a worm bin or a garden composter. Whatever the technique, compost adds an immense number of valuable micro-nutrients and microorganisms to the soil.

Regenerative agriculture treats farming and soil as the foundational and life-sustaining activities that they really are. Enough of treating our farmers like lower-class citizens who need to produce products that are cheap and just good enough. Honoring our soil honors the human, animal and plant life on our planet, and it’s good for the atmosphere as well.


Super Green Home: Turf Houses in Norse Era

Talk about a green home! This website documents some ancient turf home reconstructions that date from the Norse Era in Canada and Iceland. The photos are terribly cool and I cannot resist from sharing. But there is also a lesson to be learned here, beyond just how cool a house covered in grass looks.

These ancient houses feature walls built from turf cut straight from the ground. Literally, these homes are built from the ground up, from super local materials, and the structures are made by hand. Looking at traditional homes such as these turf longhouses will enlighten readers about what it is truly like to “build green”.

Before industrialization, it was out of necessity and practicality that houses were built from natural and local materials. Homes were built from what was available and could be worked by hand. There were no lumberyards with fleets of trucks shipping out materials across continents. There were no cranes to lift heavy objects or heavy machinery to dig giant holes. There was only human ingenuity and muscle.

You will note that the Norse used as little lumber as possible in their buildings. That’s because timber was a limited, and thus highly valuable resource, so it paid to be frugal with wood. What was available was turf, and that’s what became walls with some thoughtful consideration. Even the design and arrangement of these buildings suit the occupants’ daily lives.

What would homes in America look like if we did not have access to lumber cut halfway across the country? What if we didn’t have access to synthetic building materials and could only use what the land provided us? Our homes would, by default, be much “greener”, no doubt. It’s interesting to consider, as many builders now do. These “natural” and “green” builders are making such an attempt to build with more local and sustainable materials. And it’s likely many of these builders look to traditional homes for inspiration. For good reason!

BestBloc Organic Sunscreen

I went to a marketing convention a while back and met the owner of Best On Earth Products and he gave me a sample of BestBloc Organic sunscreen to test out. Quite frankly, when I first heard that it was organic I was a little dumbfounded, so I did a little research to learn about sunscreens and what exactly they are made of.

Come to find out there are quite a few “questionable” ingredients in typical sunscreen, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, “97% of Americans are contaminated with a widely-used sunscreen ingredient called oxybenzone that has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage”. Wost of all, we are not just talking about a few sunscreens, we are talking about nearly 600 different products sold in the U.S. all containing this oxybenzone. Other questionable chemicals in many sunscreens are Avobenzone, Benzophenone, Methoxycinnamate and PABA.

So, with all of this being said, I was happy to see that some people already knew about these chemicals and were creating products that are free of them.

Upon first inspection the bottle is made primarily of aluminum with a small plastic pump nozzle and cap, which of course is much better than the average bottle of sunblock which is made entirely of plastic. If you do not already know, we are not big fans of plastic here at Neutral Existence, simply because of the facts about plastic recycling.

The actual sunblock is an off white color with a rather pleasant smell and rubs in quite easily. After testing the product for a few days, I found that it worked just as good if not better than any other sunscreen that we have purchased in the past. Of course our tests were not scientifically sound, I did not put one product on one are and another product on my other arm and sit perfectly still in the sun to compare the results. I simply used the product and played in the sun all day and had good results.

Due to our product testing and investigating, the BestBloc Organic sunscreen from Best On Earth Products will receive our Neutral Existence Stamp Of Approval!

Discover Bicycling Trails and Directions on Google Maps

Google has recently updated Google Maps with an option to find bicycling directions, lanes, and routes. Although some major cities have physical maps with bicycling routes, it’s usually pretty tough for cyclists to find safe routes in unfamiliar territory or on long distance journeys, so this latest Google Maps update is a blessing.

The update includes a “Bicycling Layer,” which shows bike paths and bike-friendly streets with or without lanes:

  * Dark green indicates a dedicated bike-only trail
  * Light green indicates a dedicated bike lane along a road
  * Dashed green indicates roads that are designated as preferred for bicycling, but without dedicated lanes

Google encourages bikers to send feedback and route information for inclusion via the “Report a Problem” tool. Will this latest update make for more cyclists and less cars on the street? Well… probably not, but it’s a nice thought. Check out the official announcement for more information.