Monday, 20 February 2012

The wider issues of food...

At the weekend I went to a meeting arranged by Bristol 2050, aimed at exploring who feeds Bristol and what the future potential is. It made me think a lot about what the bigger food issues (outside of myself and this project) are, and what the solutions might be.

A lot of interesting points came up. I started a discussion about feeding people in more deprived areas of the city, which is an issue I feel is often lost amongst discussions that often rotate around projects and people in more affluent areas. A lot of talk was around the need for education and engagement with people, as well as the challenge of providing low cost, high quality food. All good points, all hard things to do in action...

But the two things that I took out of the meeting were as follows:

We are very separated from our food and how it grows 

We live currently in a perpetual global summertime, able to buy whatever food we want, whenever we want. It comes shrink wrapped, with the mud scrubbed off and pre chopped/peeled for our convenience. Not only does this separate us from the source of our food and the process of its production, it also means that it often tastes pretty rubbish. I remember the first time I had carrots grown by my Mum, being surprised that carrots tasted like that. And the strawberries I picked in the Pick Your Own fields in summertime were something that the imported strawberries that you can source year round just pale in comparison to.

What's the solution to this? Eating seasonally, as I've mentioned, is not a walk in the park (and I'm not even eating 100% seasonally). A lot of vegetables that grow well in this country (such as beetroot) are not things that people cook with, or even know how to cook. And imported food is not all bad - it's a necessary export for a lot of countries. However, there has to be some kind of balance in this.

One point that stuck with me though is that we have lost our enjoyment in food. If you eat year round strawberries, you get used to the mediocre taste. But if you get to eat wonderful tasting strawberries for a few months a year, then they taste even better. Food that's ripe when picked, rather than been picked unripe and shipped across the world, simply tastes better. And that's something that we seem to have forgotten and lost along the road to convenience.

How do we do this without taking a step back?

A lot of people don't want to change. That's the reality. Even I am struggling with the limits of how far I'm willing to adapt my eating habits, and I'm pretty motivated by all of this. And this is a big issue - will be people be willing to change their on demand, season-less eating habits?

Someone made a valid point at the meeting, that people don't want to take a step back, and I think this is true - most people don't want to do something that feels like they're losing out on something, or giving things up. So maybe we need to focus on finding the positive message? Perhaps we need to help people to rediscover the joys of good, seasonal food, rather than trying to stop them eating the inferior imported options.

How we go about doing that is another question...

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The problem with cabbage... mostly that I have two of them in my fridge that need to be eaten. Last week I never quite managed to eat the cabbage that came in my veg box, and another one arrived this week.

Given that it's just me eating this food, that's a lot of cabbage.

For the last 3 weeks I have been full of enthusiasm and excitement for the veg box and eating seasonally. Lots of potatoes and carrots? No problem! How hard can eating seasonally be?

Well, now I have two large cabbages in my fridge, not to mention a load of potatoes in my cupboard.

Suddenly, seasonal eating seems a little less appealing. I mean, I like cabbage, but not enough to eat it every day.

So what are the options? Well, sharing a veg box with someone would help with this kind of problem. Half a cabbage a week is a lot more manageable than a whole one. I'm hoping that in my new house, one of my housemates might be up for doing this, but I'll have to wait and see. I could opt for a less seasonal veg box with some imported vegetables, but that kind of misses the point really.

Which leaves me with one other solution - find some more cabbage recipes - can anyone help?

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Letting go...

I love books. Really love them. So much so that I find it really hard to get rid of them. I buy most of my books second hand, and they just stack up and up on my bookshelf. To the point that I have a large five shelved bookshelf that is full. And then there are books stacked on top of the books. And then there are books stacked in front of the books. And then I bought another bookshelf.

I realised when writing an earlier post about libraries and second hand books that my motivation for buying second hand books was that I don't feel like we all need to own brand new copies of things, and so I like the idea of sharing books. However, by buying them second hand, and then hoarding them on my shelves, I'm not exactly facilitating this. My imminent house move prompted me to address this. The prospect of packing and moving all these books was a bit overwhelming, so I decided something had to be done.

Now, I realised that my motivation behind keeping a lot of these books was more because I wanted to lend them to friends, rather than because I thought I would re-read them myself. And so I figured what I'd do instead was just give them to my friends. And so I went through my bookshelf, pulling out all the books I could bear to part with. Then I went through again, being a bit tougher. And then once more, getting mean this time. I suddenly had 60 less books on my shelf. What's left is the books I haven't yet read (making them easier to find amongst the remaining books) and those that I love and will most likely re-read some day.

So then I wrote a list of all the books and posted it on facebook. A few hours later, half the books have been claimed, including a few people who didn't recognise any names on the list but asked me to pick a few out for them.

And so it now appears that my books will once again fit on a single bookshelf, I have two less boxes of things to move, and those books will get read by someone new, and maybe passed on again and again...

Saturday, 11 February 2012

My Neighbourhood Cupboard

I’ve been feeling over the last month that a lot of the decisions I’ve been making about food are less about deconsumerism, and more about general ethical living. However, I seem to have now switched away from food and more towards the general theme of stuff and our minor obsession with buying as much of it as possible.

I’m moving house in a few weeks, and I’ve begun to sort out the piles of stuff that inhabit my cupboards and shelves. I will be the first to admit that I have quite a lot of stuff. I have shelves bulging with board games, vintage cameras and books amongst other things. But I also found myself coming across useful things that I only use from time to time, but don’t want to get rid of because I know I’ll use them again.

And this got me thinking. What else have other people got lurking in their cupboards that I don’t know about? Whenever I need something, I tend to put a shout out on facebook or via text, and usually one of my friends is able to help me out. However, it would be much more simple if there was a centralised listing amongst my friends to avoid having to do this every time.

There’s a lot of things that I would like to be able to use, but don’t really want to have to buy as I know I won’t use them very often. A sewing machine for example. We all like to have all these items that we own, but actually, it’s not necessary for everyone to own their own battery charger or food processor – both of these are items that I use, but only very sporadically. It makes sense and is a much more responsible use of the planet’s resources to try and share items between multiple people.

And thus the idea of My Neighbourhood Cupboard was born. At the moment it’s still a fairly vague idea swimming around my head. Currently it exists in the form of a google document, able to be shared amongst my friends. There are several categories of items, and each item states the owner, whether it’s currently available to be borrowed, and any notes or conditions (for example, I have a printer that I’m happy for people to come and use at my house, but I don’t want people to take it away with them).

A friend pointed out that there’s a risk of an item getting broken or damaged, and this is a potential problem. Inspired by the website Ecomodo (which does something along these lines, but is more about “hiring” items than lending them without charge, I added in the possibility of people asking for a deposit for an item. For example, if I was lending out my apple press to someone I don’t really know, I might ask for a £20 deposit which they get back when they return the item in one piece.

I appreciate that there are some similar things up and running, such as Ecomodo, and the toolshare section of Freeconomy, but I think there’s definitely a place for this at the more local and neighbourhood level, bounded by the circle of trust that comes from knowing the people involved. So the idea is still at the early stages at the moment and I’m not really sure if it’ll work or take off at all, but I’m feeling really inspired to try and share my things and find a practical and efficient way of facilitating this.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The chicken saga...

Ok, so maybe saga is too strong a word, but it was a bit of a mission...

I was cooking a special meal for some friends last night and had planned a big Chinese feast. One of the central parts of this meal was planned to be sweet and sour chicken. Which using my incredible powers of deduction required me therefore buying some chicken.

So Saturday morning, I set off up Gloucester Road armed with my reusable shopping bags and a stupidly long shopping list, which featured some free range chicken breasts.

The first hurdle however was when I got to the local butchers, only to discover that their chicken wasn't free range. With supermarkets off the agenda, I was faced with walking 20 minutes up the road to the next butchers that I knew stocked free range chicken (all the time grumbling that I hadn't taken my bike).

The second hurdle was reached when I got to the butchers. Yes, they had free range chickens, but no chicken breasts, only whole chickens. Parting with the best part of a tenner (internally lamenting that I could have bought a free range chicken for half that from the supermarket, whilst constantly reminding myself that this isn't about the money), I bought a chicken and carried it all the way home.

But then the hurdles turned into positives. I jointed the chicken yesterday, ready to cook it for the sweet and sour, and using only the breasts and one of the thighs, I fed myself and three friends, and still had enough to supply my two housemates with leftovers.

And then I roasted the remaining chicken parts, stripped off the meat, and made stock with the carcass and the bits of leftover vegetables that I've been keeping all week (supplemented with a few bits from my veg box). The remaining chicken and the stock then went into making a (by my own admission, delicious) chicken noodle soup that will supply me with lunches for the rest of the week.

So, having to travel quite a long way to get the chicken was a bit of a pain, but now I know which butchers to go to, things will be easier in future. Also, I've discovered a great butcher that clearly labels the free range/organic status of its meat.

However, I think the fact that I had to buy a whole chicken was a real positive (and good lesson). I don't think it's right that we can just buy the best parts of the animal and ignore the rest of it. If you want the chicken breast, you should use the rest of the meat too, and waste as little of it as possible. And by doing that with the rest of the chicken, I made stock (also using up lots of ends of vegetables that would have been wasted), and ended up with a lovely soup that will feed me for several further days.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Just for the love of it?

I've known about the Freeconomy website for quite some time, as it started in Bristol. Added to that, the website that I help run has a remarkably similar name, and so I spend a lot of time explaining the difference to people.

However, it wasn't until I started this project that I actually signed up properly and started "using" it. I signed up to the emails (yes, there's a fair amount of them, but I find them pretty unobtrusive and you can easily delete them), and my inbox started filling with information about events, offers of lifts and requests for items.

Initially I was a bit shocked. People were requesting quite big things - people to lend them their car, pick items up from places, things that would be quite expensive new. My initial response was that people were trying to get something for free that they should actually be paying for. But I quickly realised that this was down to my preconceptions about the value of things and the role of money. In our society, pretty much nothing is free. Everything has a price, whether we see it or not (e.g. Sign up to our mailing list for a free sample of XYZ. Free maybe, but your details are sold on, or you're forever spammed by the organisation). And so the idea of getting something of value for free is a really alien concept.

Some people offer exchanges of skills (one of the concepts behind it is the idea of skill sharing), but a lot is done completely for free. And people do things/give things because they believe that in turn, at some point, that person will do likewise. And it probably won't be something for them, but it may be for someone else, who in turn does a good deed for someone else who.... I think you get the picture. It's an idea and concept that goes against what society dictates should be done, but does actually seem to work.

I touched on this concept when we did HobNob Day earlier this year, and handed out about a thousand homemade hobnobs to people on the street. A lot of people assumed it was a charity event, and seemed surprised that we weren't asking for donations. Now, I have nothing against charity events and they fill a very necessary need. However, I think that if you do something kind for someone that they cannot repay in any form, it plants some kind of seed. And this seed may not bloom for most people, but for other people, they'll spend time thinking about how someone gave them a biscuit for free, and maybe do something kind for someone else. Kind of like the "pay it forward" principle. Call me an idealist, but I like to think it works like that.

One of my favourite quotes I've found over the last couple of months is by Mark Boyle, the founder of  Freeconomy.

"If you spend your time putting more love into the world, then it is reasonable to believe you are going to benefit from a world with more love in it."

I've used the Freeconomy community twice in the last month. First was when my car looked like it was going to die - I put a message asking if anyone would be interested in car sharing. And I had about 8 responses, from people interested in exploring a car share, to people just offering opinions. The second time was this week. I've been suffering with a lot of pain in my arms due to computer use, and in the past I've found that an ergonomic keyboard really helps. A few months ago I would have just got onto Amazon and bought myself a new one. But I realised that people must have them lying around their house, because a fair number of people just don't get on with them. So I put up a message asking if anyone had one they no longer wanted, and offering some baking or photography in return. And I got a message back from a guy - he didn't want anything for it - just knowing it was going to a good home and would be used was enough. We both won - he de-cluttered and I avoided having to buy a new item.

And I should point out my motivation for seeking a second hand one wasn't about trying to save money - it's just the belief that the resources on this planet are limited, and we don't all need shiny new versions of things when we throw so many things out. So I guess the planet wins too...

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The honeymoon period is officially over...

The first month of this project was pretty easy. It was all exciting and new, and full of good ideas.

And now it's starting to sink in that things aren't going to be that easy.

Today I forgot to buy any milk, and my nearest cornershop doesn't stock organic milk. So it's either an early morning trip to the further away shop, or a different breakfast for me. Turns out my memory isn't quite up to the task yet.

Cooking is getting trickier - a lot of my go-to meals involve meat (which I'm trying to eat less of, and mostly used to come from supermarkets), so a lot more time is going into working out what I'm going to eat at the moment. I'm sure this'll get easier as I expand my vegetarian repertoire, but at the moment, it's seeming a little challenging. Fingers crossed this weekend's weekly shop will help.

I'm also feeling like I'm constantly lacking in knowledge about the right/wrong things. I have a huge stack of books to read that I need to get through before I can make some of the decisions I need to make, but I'm struggling to find the time to read them, make the changes and then write about them in a remotely up to date fashion. I've started several books, skimmed some parts of them and then had to move on because I need to get onto the next one, and the stack never seems to get any smaller...

But two good things have happened today.

1) My first veg box arrived. The reality of eating seasonally is apparent, with a good chunk of it being potatoes and carrots, but there's also beetroot, leeks, a squash and a cabbage to add a bit of variety.

2) I've been getting some RSI style twinges in my arms this week (no, that's not the good thing), and this is likely due to too much computer usage. Work are buying me an ergonomic keyboard as I found in the past that really helped, but obviously that doesn't help me outside work with all my writing, which is done on a laptop. So I put a quick message up on the freeconomy website asking if anyone has a spare one they're not using, and offering some skills/baked goods in exchange. And bingo, someone's offered me one. It feels good, because not long ago I would have just gone online and with a click of a few buttons, bought myself a new one. I've realised, in reality there must be a lot of people with that kind of thing sitting on a shelf gathering dust somewhere.