Thanksgiving – We are All Connected

On Thanksgiving step outside and share your gratitude.

This Thanksgiving I am mindful that people are part of nature not separate from it. Everything on Earth is worthy of our reverence and gratitude.

A few weeks ago, after an inspirational morning at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden in California, I knew that I wanted to write about the interconnectedness of nature (yes that includes people) for my Thanksgiving post this year.

It all began with a bowl of oatmeal.

But, before we get to the oatmeal, a bit of background may be useful.

My home is on the California Central Coast in the midst of one of the few remaining swaths of Monterey pine forest. Before we bought our home, the mostly wild yard had been untended for years so invasive plants had been encroaching unimpeded and some plants that had been purposefully planted had gotten out of control. Somehow, I got the possibly ridiculous and crazy idea in my head that we could restore our tiny piece of land and then it could encourage the neighboring land to go native.

With limited knowledge, a shovel and some clippers I set about removing the few invasive plants that I could identify. The flip side of invasive plants is native plants, which I am trying to learn about so we can encourage natives growing in our yard and plant others.

So, when I read about an upcoming event called the Chumash Kitchen at the botanical garden, I signed up my spouse and me. We were excited to have an opportunity to learn about native plants from two Chumash women (Jeanette and Violet) who are descendants of the people who have been living on the California Central Coast for thousands of years and we were looking forward to tasting some dishes made from locally foraged and harvested foods.

The Chumash Kitchen

The day was warm with just a slight chill and the skies were cloudy and gray.

We arrived just in time for breakfast. I was somewhat dismayed to find that breakfast was oatmeal (I think it had ground acorns, too) because I seriously dislike oatmeal and have since I was a little kid. Not to be deterred from fully participating, I ladled a small portion into my bowl and topped it with several heaping spoonfuls of cut up local apple pieces. I was thankful to see there was coffee and poured myself a mug.

Group Photo Beneath Ancient Oak Tree in El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo, CA
Group Photo Beneath an Ancient Oak Tree in El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

After breakfast, the group headed out for a hike up to a sacred Chumash site. Along the way, one of the young participants introduced us to an oak tree that she and others had gathered acorns under two days before. At a magnificent and ancient oak tree, we stopped to admire its beauty and sense of history and to pose for a group photo.

Sacred Grinding Stones

A short uphill hike brought us to a small open area with huge boulders embedded in the ground. Scattered across the boulders were round indentations that had been created by the Chumash people who had been grinding acorns here for thousands of years. This is a sacred site for the Chumash people who live here now and we were asked not to take photos of the stones.

By now, we were all warmed up and feeling fortunate that the cloudy sky was keeping the sun from beating down on our heads.

Jeanette began speaking of thankfulness and history and telling stories in a quiet and melodious voice. I remember her looking up at the cloudy sky, smiling, and saying, “The Mother is smiling on us this morning.” or something very close to that. What a delightful way of expressing gratitude for clouds.

View Looking Away from Sacred Chumash Grinding Stones near Eagle Rock Nature Trail in San Luis Obispo, CA
View Looking Away from the Sacred Chumash Grinding Stones near Eagle Rock Nature Trail in San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

While Jeanette was speaking, Violet circumnavigated the group carrying a smoldering bunch of white sage. She paused at each person and using her hand wafted the smoke over us. This simple act seemed to connect us all even though many of us did not know each other. I came away with the understanding that white sage is honored for its healing qualities and is used for blessing people.

Before making our way back down the hill, we were each given the opportunity to make an offering by placing a small pinch of tobacco leaves into one of the grinding holes and saying a prayer (out loud if we wanted to). My prayer (said silently) was that my children and everyone else’s children would have a habitable planet to live on in years to come.

Oak Trees and Acorns

Back at the garden event center, while Violet and a small contingent of volunteers were preparing lunch in the kitchen, we learned about the history of oak trees over thousands of years and Jeanette entertained us with stories.

Acorns were and still are an important food for Chumash people. We learned from Jeanette that some acorns are always left under the oak trees for those who do not speak. She referred to people, plants, trees, and animals as her kin. Hearing her speak with such respect and reverence for every living thing struck a chord in me. It feels right.

San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden Volunteers Preparing Acorns
Volunteers of All Ages Preparing Acorns for the Meals to be Served at the Chumash Kitchen Event – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
A Locally Foraged and Harvested Lunch

Before the lunch meal was served, Violet described the locally foraged and harvested ingredients and how they were prepared. I admit that once the mouth-watering plate of food was placed in front of me, I could not remember everything that had gone into making it.

I do remember a few things like the silky feel of the acorn gravy that had been ladled over a stuffed and roasted acorn squash. The Manzanita vinaigrette was tart and fragrant. Who knew you could make salad dressing from a Manzanita plant? The sautéed greens looking suspiciously like kale were tasty with a sort of acidic twang. I think ancient Chumash people probably did not have ice cream, but it was delicious melting on top of an apple crumble made with local apples and garnished with acorn dust.

The gathering ended with a traveling song. Feeling replete and uplifted we headed home.

Thanksgiving Gratitude

The reverence and gratitude that Violet and Jeanette had expressed for, well, everything stayed with me. So did the way they had spoken of the non-human members of nature as their kin and neighbors.

I frequently talk to trees, houseplants, and the variety of animals wandering and flying through our yard. However, I do not think I was conversing with them as peers, neighbors, or potential allies.

During the week following the event, I knew that something had shifted in my relationship with nature when I found myself apologizing to the ice plant that I was removing from my yard because it was choking out everything else. Another day, when a big buck deer wandered into the yard while I was working, I politely asked him if he would come back later. As he sauntered away, I could almost hear him thinking, “I was just passing through anyway.” When I noticed that somebody was living beneath and chewing on the roots of our lion’s tail plant, I suggested to the unseen neighbor that we try to work things out (the jury is still out on that one).

Although I do not fully understand how the diversity of life on Earth makes Earth, well, Earth, I do believe that everything connects somehow. People do not have dominion over nature we are part of it.

This year, I propose that we enlarge our gratitude circle beyond the family and friends gathered around our Thanksgiving tables to the whole of nature.

On Thanksgiving, take the opportunity to step outside for a few minutes or a long time and give thanks to a tree, a bird, a spider, a flower, a lake, a plant, or a mountain. How do you give thanks to a tree? It is up to you. Perhaps with a gentle hug, a prayer, a gift of water, listening, or just saying thank you. You get the idea.

“I see a world in the future in which we understand that all life is related to us and we treat that life with great humility and respect.” – David Suzuki

Happy Thanksgiving!

Featured Image at Top: Give Thanks in Block Letters with Fall Leaves, Acorns, and Pine Cones – Photo Credit iStock/jenifoto

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Can Eating Ugly Fruits and Vegetables End Hunger and Food Waste?

Beauty is only skin deep is true for food, too.

Stopping food waste at the farm is a positive step towards ending hunger in the United States. Eating ugly fruits and vegetables is one way you can help.

Thinking about issues as far-reaching and multifaceted as hunger and food waste can be overwhelming. You may feel like you cannot do much about them. The thing is that even if a problem is huge and complex you can learn about a small aspect of it and then take action.

For this post, I chose eating ugly fruits and vegetables because I believe that our perception of what constitutes edible food influences our decisions all along the food chain.

This post provides a 30,000-foot look at hunger, food waste, and the environment so you can get a grip on the big picture. It also includes a section on food aesthetics and ideas about how you can participate in the ugly food movement.

For readers wanting more information, you can find links to reports, articles, and videos at the end of the post.

A 30,000-Foot Look at Hunger, Food Waste, and the Environment

I have a love hate relationship with data and statistics. Information is necessary for identifying problems, figuring out what is causing them, and measuring solutions to find out whether they are working or not. What worries me is that the people counted in statistics can too easily become just numbers in a database instead of living breathing people with lives and loved ones. Please keep this in mind as you review the information below.

Hunger

Over 42 million people in the United States live in a food-insecure household, which is government-speak for these people do not have enough food to eat on a regular basis. It is hard to get your arms around 42 million people (13% of our population), but chances are you know one or more of these 42 million people, even though you might not know they go hungry sometimes (one of these people could even be you).1

There are many reasons that people go hungry in the United States mostly having to do with not having enough money to buy healthy food or not having access to it or both. One part of the problem is that affordable fresh fruits and vegetables are not available and affordable for everyone.

Food Waste

The United States spends over $218 billion (yes, billion) growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten.Reducing food waste even 15% would be enough food to feed 25 million Americans.4

Farmers do not even harvest over 10 million tons of food a year.2 These fruits, vegetables, and other crops are left to rot in fields and orchards, fed to livestock animals, or sent to landfills. One in five fruits and vegetables do not get eaten, at least not by a human.3

Environment

Putting food on American tables eats up 10% of our total energy budget, uses 50% of our land, and gulps 80% of our freshwater, yet 40% of the food in the United States goes uneaten.4

Farmers apply tons of synthetic chemicals and toxins to food crops during all stages of growth including fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and a host of other substances intended to either promote growth or kill something. Land, air, and water pollution cause life and death problems like cancer in people, ocean dead zones, and bee colony collapse. 5, 6, 7

As you can see, these are serious and huge issues.

Next, let’s bite off a manageable chunk (pun intended) of the food waste problem that we can do something about.

Food Aesthetics – Picky, Picky

Your food selection criteria are highly influenced by the federal government and food distributors and retailers.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture issues voluntary food grade standards and most food distributors and retailers adhere to these standards even though they are not required to (in most cases).

These standards cover a wide variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products, and grains, both fresh and processed. The standards determine what are acceptable sizes, shapes, colors, and other attributes depending on what kind of food it is. The general idea is that standardizing food quality and appearance makes it easier to market food and provide customers with what they want.

Standards probably do make buying and selling food easier for everyone in the food system, except perhaps for farmers. Unfortunately, it also creates picky food shoppers and leads to mountains of edible food decomposing in fields and landfills across the country.

In all likelihood, you grew up eating these calibrated fruits and vegetables. I did. Today as you and I push our shopping carts around the produce section in our local grocery stores our learned preferences and biases influence our selections.

Faced with a scarred nectarine or a three-legged carrot we may frown and not actually view it as an edible piece of food. It is not our fault; after all, we received training from a powerful industry with a massive advertising budget.

Beauty is Only Skin Deep is True for People and Food

It is not easy to overcome automatically avoiding foods that do not match your preconceived notion of acceptable food appearance. Like changing any habit, it requires making a different choice repeatedly until it becomes routine.

Take a potato for instance. Once you peel, cook, and mash a potato it looks like mashed potatoes regardless of what the whole potato looked like at the store. If you consistently buy potatoes with odd-looking bumps, at some point they may just register as potatoes in your mind instead of imperfect potatoes.

Below are photos of some ugly carrots I bought. I sliced two for a snack and cut up a few to use in a stir-fry vegetable dish. Can you tell which of the ugly carrots I used?

Wider acceptance of so-called ugly fruits and vegetables could lead to several positive outcomes.

  • Farmers – harvesting ugly crops and selling them at discounted prices increases revenue and reduces food waste in the field.
  • Cooks and Chefs – buying and incorporating ugly food into recipes and menus reduces costs, builds market demand, and helps spread the word.
  • Food Shoppers – requesting and buying ugly produce builds market demand at the retail level making fresh fruits and vegetables more widely available and affordable.
  • Food Retailers – expanding offerings to include ugly food brings in additional revenue, creates goodwill, and reduces food waste.
  • Food Non-Profits – keeping more food in the system at a lower cost enables organizations to provide healthy and nutritious food for a larger number of hungry people.

Okay, sounds good, now what?

What Can You Do?

You have an opportunity to join the fledging ugly food movement in the United States and take part in reducing food waste and building market demand for ugly and affordable fruits and vegetables. Here are a few ideas to help you get you started.

  • Buy ugly produce when you can find it at the store or farmers market. Do not worry if you cannot bring yourself to buy a really weird looking fruit or vegetable, start with something easy like a curvy cucumber.
  • Ask the produce manager or store manager at your local grocery market if they have imperfect looking produce for sale and if not ask them to try stocking it.
  • Sign up for an ugly food box service that delivers to your home or workplace or that you can swing by and pick up. Keep it local.
  • Make a tasty dish using ugly produce and share your recipe and before and after pictures with your friends and family and on social media.
  • Volunteer to pick ugly crops donated by a farmer, pack boxes with ugly fruits and vegetables at a food bank, or help make meals with ugly produce at a shelter.

Your willingness to buy and eat ugly fruits and vegetables may not end hunger and food waste in the United States, but you can be part of the ripple that can turn into a wave of change.

You never know, you might begin to look at a bruised apple or a container of leftovers in a whole new light.

Featured Image at Top: Pile of Raw Ugly Carrots – Photo Credit Shutterstock/farbled

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References

  1. Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2015, USDA Economic Research Service, 2016
  2. A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, ReFed, 2016
  3. How Californians Are Fighting Food Waste on the Farm, at the Store and at Home, by Danny Jensen, KCET, 04/05/17
  4. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, by Dana Gunders, NRDC, 08/2012
  5. As Trump’s EPA Takes Shape, Here’s Your Pesticide Cheat Sheet, by Elizabeth Grossman, Civil Eats, 02/02/17
  6. “Dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is biggest ever, by Ian Hendy, The Conversation, 08/11/17
  7. Is America’s most common pesticide responsible for killing our bees?, Alison Moodie, The Guardian, 02/05/17

Resources