It has been six months since I last wrote about this effort into better eating, and I’ll say that it’s going well but not as well as I’d hoped. While the ways to achieve this become clearer, the problems and obstacles remain the same, mainly a hurried lifestyle accompanied by the relative ease of processed foods. But, over the last half-a-year, during the fall and winter, I have found some more in-roads into changing our lives for the better.
The first of those in-roads came in the fall when I finally rented a raised bed at the Old Cloverdale Community Garden. For years, I’ve been helping out at the garden, which is two blocks from my house, by cutting grass and doing other maintenance tasks, but I hadn’t made the effort to have a raised bed. We can’t grow vegetables at our house; I’ve tried but there’s not enough sunlight after the old, established trees get their share. But this year, our 4′ x 8′ bed gave us a bumper crop of collards, which was the only thing that I’ve planted so far. Last fall, someone gave me the idea to give vegetables as a gift, and that’s what I did, because everybody likes fresh produce! I found out that my niece has liked eating the leaves raw and that my nephew’s pet lizard Spike has enjoyed them, too! Now, those collards have gone to seed, so I pulled them up to plant some warm-weather fruits and veggies.
The next in-road came in mid-November when I went to Camp McDowell’s Farm School for a two-day teacher workshop. I knew that my school garden was lacking in organization and structure, and I thought, who better to show me how to run my little teaching farm than people who run a big teaching farm? That weekend in Nauvoo was cold and blustery, but we toughed it out and learned some new methods, like in-ground composting and succession planting. One big problem I’ve had in the school garden are long fallow periods when there’s nothing for the students to do, and I learned that I’m causing that, in part, by planting everything at once then harvesting everything at once. With succession planting, however, I can have something to plant, something to grow, something to harvest, and some space left fallow by sectioning off the garden and staggering the planting dates. I teach my students in my writing classes that, when you’re stuck, the best thing to do is ask someone with more knowledge and experience, and that’s what I’m having to do with my garden.
Likewise, in early December, I went for the first time to the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network’s Food & Farm Forum at Camp Beckwith near Fairhope. After attending the sustainability program in Montana last summer, I’ve been making efforts to understand the larger paradigm of our food and its sources, as well as how production methods affect us all. ASAN has a year-round mission that revolves around those concerns, and each year, they gather members from around the state to share, consort, and otherwise commune around the way we grow, cook, and eat. We had nice weather for December, and it was good to see young families with children running wild around the place. At the conference, I attended sessions on subjects like fermenting foods, creating a food forest, and choosing fruit trees to plant. I met the regional rep for Johnny’s Seeds, talked with young organizers from Schoolyard Roots, and sat around a fire pit with the folks from EAT South. For a guy who does a lot of talking and sharing what I know, it felt good to listen and learn from people who know more about this than I do.
That’s the “going well” part . . . now for the “not as well as I’d hoped” part.
Bringing that knowledge back home has also felt good, and I’ve been ready to put it to use, but I’ve found that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Each time I’ve returned from one of those trips, I’ve realized that, though I’m ready to change, my community doesn’t seem to be. Suggesting to people around me that we try new ways, lay off of packaged foods, or organize a grassroots effort has met with resistance in mostly passive forms. I haven’t had a single person look right at me and say, I’m not doing that. I also haven’t had anyone declare that my ideas are bad ones. Yet, participation remains low, and actions tell me more than words.
Another difficulty has come not from people, but from nature. Last fall, we contended with severe heat, and this winter, it has been rain. Alabama usually gets about 4-1/2 to 5-1/2 inches of rain in February— this February, we got double or triple that. It’s hard to tend a community garden plot or to get teenagers outside to work in a school garden when it’s pouring down rain every day. I’ve recognized from this experience what farmers know well: erratic weather makes it hard to grow anything consistently and predictably.
The good news is that we had some success in the school garden during this relatively warm and very wet winter. We raised some pretty collards and broccoli, though our cabbages didn’t fare so well. It was so mild that our herbs – fennel, mint, rosemary, and catnip – not only survived but flourished. And now, both the blueberry bushes and muscadine vines are coming back!
However, another dilemma about my school garden has arisen. Our faculty recently got the news about plans to move our school to a permanent location. (Our current location is temporary after the August 2018 fire.) In general, that’s good news. However, I came home from ASAN’s Forum with big ideas to create a food forest, including fruit trees, around the old playground at our current location. This proposed move makes that plan moot, since we’d leave that food forest behind about the time it got established. Beyond that, I’ll need those resources to build a third incarnation of our garden, which I’ve aptly dubbed A Moveable Feast, on our new campus.
After spending the first part of this effort focusing on how my family eats at home, the last six months have been about looking at the broader situation, to see the circumstances of our food, too. Yet, in each case, I return to my original question from the first post in this series, in April a year ago: so how can an ordinary guy like me, who grew up not on a farm but in the suburbs, who works indoors at a desk, and who has always eaten some processed foods, reform my eating habits and improve my overall health? What I’ve found is: it will require time, effort, and attention to grow my own food where I can and to make good choices about the rest.
Overall, I’ve been thankful for the changes that have already come to my life. I’ve all but quit drinking sodas (except when I want some Sprite with my George Dickel). I don’t eat much white bread, I snack mostly on honey crisp apples, and I’ve cut back on fast food to the point that it doesn’t even taste good anymore. Of course, my kids are less dogmatic about it— they eat what we buy and cook, but they still love Chick-Fil-A and crave Dr. Pepper and are probably wondering when their dad will get off this health-food kick . . . What I’m trying to make clear to them, and to my students, is that I’m concerned for their generation and for the ones to come. No one should try to live on salty fried chicken and buttery white bread served in a foil pack. And ketchup isn’t a vegetable. Somebody has to teach kids that, like we were taught, and though it may not have much impact coming from a fat, white, middle-aged Gen-Xer from Alabama, I’m just trying to follow Ghandi’s often-shared but seldom-taken advice: be the change you wish to see in the world.