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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Embracing the Doom pt 3: Urban Adaptors and food

Spring has sprung
De grass is riz
I wonder where dem doomers is?

Spring or not, no grass will be rising in this part of Ontario for another week or more so this doomer is sitting in the basement sorting seeds, checking the calendar for planting dates and filling planting trays with starting mix in preparation for the season ahead. It’s now only 7 weeks until last frost which allowed me to plant the first of my tomatoes “Ardwyna Paste” under grow lights, joining the strawberries whose vague instructions of “plant in early spring” enticed me to start them right away. I have no doubt I planted them too early but I’m sure we can live with a few strawberry pots on the coffee table for a few weeks if needs be. My cabbage, onions and a couple of test Tomatillos are already sprouting and due to my usual planting exuberance I’ll probably have enough surplus plants to sell at this springs garage sale or give away to friends as an encouragement to start their own gardens.

As an urban adaptor with limited space it’s a daunting task trying to figure out how one will strive for any reasonable level of food security but there are options, some are quite reasonable, some require actual work and others many be a little to extreme for the more squeamish doomer (and no I’m not talking cannibalism …….. yet!)

Any discussion on food security should start the same way every energy security discussion should, simply cut back! Unless you are uncommonly active, thin and modest in your caloric intake most people could easily drop 100-400 calories or perhaps even more from their diet per day, freeing up supply for others and cutting the costs and work required to feed yourself. On average we eat too much; we eat out of boredom, for entertainment, and for simple gluttony so this is the most logical place to start the conversation.

Likewise we must take a serious look at what we eat and how we use it. The production of meat is up to 7 times less efficient than eating the grain yourself. Eating meat negatively impacts the number of people our agricultural system can support, our health, the availability and quality of our water resources and increases green house gases. In a time of hardship whole grain, bean, lentil, and tofu based meals can provide adequate protein, improve your health, save you money, all with the side benefit of treading lighter on the earth.

You should also remove the empty calories that add cost but no utility to your diet such as refined sugars, alcohol, etc and then calculate what you really need to survive. If you have the means to purchase or produce these things when times get tough great, but having a target of real needs instead of wants as a baseline is an important step in planning your food security. And before someone who knows me starts sniping and calling me a hypocrite, I admit to being an over exuberant consumer of meat and beer but I also know a time will probably come when I won’t be able to do so.

Finally we must look at our level of personal food waste and ways to reduce it, especially considering studies in the U.S place waste as high as 30%. That’s a lot of food grown, shipped, bought, and tossed out. It’s also a perfect example of low hanging fruit, an easy and free way reducing your total consumption.

Do you refuse to eat leftovers? Or maybe only use them once rather than until they run out?
Do you cut around a blemish on a fruit or veggie, or do you toss the whole thing?
Do you make stock from a turkey or chicken carcass?
When you eat out do you use the doggy bag?
Do you habitually buy lettuce every time you shop because you know you should eat more salad but end up tossing one out every weak because you could not be bothered making one?
Have you ever bought an entire container of something with an expiry date only to use a single dollop in one recipe knowing full well you have no use for the rest of the product.

We all do irrational wasteful things that endanger our food security and blow a shit load of money. I’m not saying you should not buy that container of sour cream but perhaps you should plan a menu allowing you to have leak and potato soup, perogies/tacos, baked potatoes or a homemade veggie dip all within a two weak period making use of the entire container. Don’t buy the damn lettuce unless you are committed to 2-3 salads in 4 days and eat those leftovers or convert them into new dishes like sheppard’s pie, soup, or bubble and squeak. Bake or make sauces with overripe fruit. Plan and shop to a menu and stick to it.

I’m convinced that if most people looked at the questions of how much do I need? What should I eat? And how can I fully utilize what I do have? They would only need 50-60% of their current food supply, How much effort put into gardening or stalking a deer could you save by cutting consumption by 40%? How much money would a 40% reduction save you?

Food strategies

Once you know how much food you really need you can then decide on the appropriate strategies to acquire it. All food strategies can be broken down into 3 categories, purchasing food, growing food or scrounging food.

With today’s access to a wide variety of cheap and easy foods from around the world few people even farmers make any attempt to be food independent. As adapters we will try to produce as much of our own food as possible but true independence is simply not possible. One person cannot expect to be a gardener, a herder, a butcher, a miller, an apiarist or a blessed cheese maker all in their backyard plot. Specialization and barter between many urban farmers can eliminate some of these deficiencies but there will always be some things that can’t be done on the small, local, and urban scale. This means we will always be dependent on vendors, be they grocery stores, co-ops or farmers markets to supply those things we cannot produce ourselves.

The secret is to optimize those purchases you are required make by shopping in bulk. Now it’s understandable that most people cannot afford to buy a skid of flour even if they did have somewhere to store it but there are other ways to buy large quantities. You might find that club stores work for you despite the problems of membership fees, rarely being walkable or not always having the best prices on some items. Other alternatives include bulk food stores or even better food cooperatives that have local ownership, help form community bonds and can have access to local producers who don’t want to deal with the hassle of individual sales. If you do garden or have a useful craft you might find your co-op an ideal place to sell or trade your surplus. I think co-ops are the way to go and I would encourage anyone to join one or investigate forming a group to create one. Sadly this is not a business model that has gained much ground in Canada.

Eventually things we’ve grown accustomed to like imported off season fruits and veg may no longer be available, we must again learn to eat seasonally and preserve our local bounty just like our grandparents did.

Gardening/urban agricultural

Provided you have access to land the best way to gain food security is to grow it yourself. You may not have a lot of space, you may not have good soil but short of having 100% shade nearly every property should be able to produce at least some food. Square food gardening shows you how to get a considerable amount of produce from a limited area and even if you don’t have great soil you can always build raised beds or use container gardening. Having no gardening skills is no excuse, the ability to grow food is a basic skill that let humans form communities and civilization as we know it (not necessarily a good thing). Surely such a basic skill mastered by Neolithic man is not beyond your skills, but start now it does take time.

Starting now also gives you time to improve the fertility of your soil by adding organic matter, improving the drainage, Ph and level of helpful micro organisms. All around us there are sources of organic matter that can improve your soil, do your own composting, collect sea weed by the sea, grass clippings from your neighbors who don’t spray, leaves from a park, or ask for the coffee grounds from your neighborhood coffee shop, it’s all good. Many municipalities even have events where you can get cheap or free rain barrels, composters or compost. Soil is only poor and unproductive because you let it stay that way.

If you really don’t have enough space to garden you should look into joining a community garden program. While some areas like mine are severely limited in space (70 plots for over 70,000 population), added demand and/or advocating to businesses, towns, utilities and school boards to provide land for more community gardens should eventually create more gardening spaces. Demand municipalities support community gardens. If you can find someone who is speculating on vacant land for the long term you might even negotiate cheap leases on properties large enough to support a profit generating market garden, creating food and employment.

In your daily lives look for opportunities, perhaps a local business could be convinced to give up its lawn so employees could garden at lunch and after work and you as adviser/manager would get a portion of the garden as your own. Sell it to them as a way to help their employees save money and become healthier, a way to show they are a good corporate citizens, and a way to save money on a lawn service. The same offer could be made to use a portion of a school yard supplying both you and the cafeteria with real food all while teaching students a real skill they can use.

A sick or elderly neighbor may let you garden their yard simply to get some free produce and a little company, before too long you’ll probably find them puttering along behind your doing something they did not think they were still able to do.

I just noticed a mistake above, even if you do have 100% shade in your yard you could bring in wood shavings, logs, straw or some other appropriate medium and plant mushrooms or morels. No yard need be barren of edible life.

Somewhere between gardening and purchasing is the CSA , Community Sustained Agriculture. In a CSA you buy a share of farm’s crop for the year and each week during the growing season you receive a basket of what ever is in season. Some CSA’s require their members do labour especially at planting and picking time, others like the one we belong to does not.

All CSAs are not equal however, some are organic some aren't, I said before some may ask for your labor, most won't. Unless you eat anything it may take you some time to find a CSA that grows a selection of vegetables that suites your tastes. Our current farm did not originally meet our needs and after a summer of drowning in honeydews but no beans to speak of we dropped out for a couple of years. With better planning, experience, and more understanding of what their customers wanted we have returned to the same CSA finding a much more balanced food basket.

Guerrilla gardening is also an option, simply pick plant types that require minimum care and plant them on vacant land and hydro corridors and see what happens. You might lose it all to animals, lack of care or vandals but you might also end up with a field of squash or patch of amaranth ready to harvest come fall. If you back onto a hydro cut simply put up temporary snow fence and extend your yard past your lot line. You might get told to remove it immediately or be left alone for years to garden on free land, either way begging forgiveness is easier than asking permission.

In the same vein as begging forgiveness rather than asking permission, most municipalities will ask you to comply with bylaws before they fine you or start legal proceedings, with this in mind don’t be scared to put a ½ dozen hens or a rabbit hutch in your back yard, hell if you have a good sized yard try some miniature goats. Be mindful to raise them in extra clean conditions so smell won't bother the neighbors and so no one gets the Humane Society involved. Some municipalities in the U.S. are rescinding old rules about small livestock so push the limits and get like minded people to lobby for such changes. In Canada you can join CLUCK, Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Club, a group that is involved in education and legal challenges to anti chicken laws.


There's lots of food around around if you just look for it, be it dandelions found on unsprayed vacant lots or fiddle heads and morels in the forest, you just have to put the effort in to find it. In the local green belt near my home I know I can find choke cherries for wine or jelly, crab apples for canning or jelly, sumac for fake lemonade, and morels and that’s without having any expert knowledge or having spend any amount of time actually looking. There is always something edible around if you look hard enough which brings us to the “I’m not that desperate yet” behavior of the Freegan.

The Freegan is someone who salvages edible food from the garbage. “Freegan” was originally used as a label for anti consumerism activists outraged at the 25-30% level of western food waste. These activists began to eat salvaged food from dumpsters to lower their ecological footprint and their participation in the normal consumer model. If you look around there are web sites, meet up groups and probably facebook pages dedicated to Freegan activates. While some people do this as political statement are also many people with more basic motivations like starvation who have been forced to eat this way, certainly a sad commentary on our society.

While I don’t suggest you go out and root in the garbage behind the Lowblaws or the Piggly Wiggly tonight (unless you are really desperate), there should be some procedure to intercept and utilize this food before it gets dumped like this. High quality produce or stuff set to expire the next day should be sent to shelters or food banks for immediate consumption, lower quality produce should be shipped to local farmers for animal feed and the real rotten stuff sent to composting facilities rather than the dump. Fear of litigation is scaring some retailers from donating food, even for livestock. You might however convince them its for your composter or worm farm.

We should all lobby companies to be compassionate rather than wasteful with damaged foods and we should lobby that governments alter any laws that make being responsible hard for companies.

The final scrounging pointer is to look for a gleening program. I was quite surprised to find that the York Region Food Network runs a gleening program where you can register and get notifications throughout the growing season as various participating farmers allow people to wander their fields and harvest produce that is either surplus, not of salable quality or simply was missed by mechanical harvesters. This program allows the salvage of tonnes of food for those willing to work and with no veggies left to rot in the field the quantity of harmful insects, fungus and disease in the soil for the next year’s crop is reduced. While you may end up with far too much of one item to use in a timely manner you gain the opportunity take up canning on the cheap, stock a root cellar or share with others.

Damn these posts are getting long

Associated posts

Embracing the Doom: What kind of doomer am I?

Embracing the doom pt 2: How doomy How soon?

Top doomer accessories

Renewal in Canning and Stealth Doomers

Being your own Seed Bank
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