Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Swiss Chard and Skinny-Dipping

I need to stop thinking so much about food. I need to stop thinking so much, in general. I know this, but it helps to be reminded. And that’s exactly what my experience this past weekend did for me—taught me to once again quiet my mind, open my heart, and just be.
            From Friday, June 25th to Sunday, June 27th, the Rochester Folk Art Guild hosted a Craft Workshop Weekend, which mainly revolved around the arts (pottery, drawing, poetry, weaving, photography, music, and woodworking). But thanks to the East Hill Farm's steadily expanding array of crops—grown in part to support their fairly recent community supported agriculture (CSA) endeavor via the Good Food Collective—the Guild also offered a workshop in biodynamic agriculture. Of course, I had to be there. And because I opted to go as a work-study volunteer, it was an all-expenses-paid experience!
            Quick personal note: If I could’ve found a way to swing it, I would’ve spent the entire summer volunteering on small, sustainable farms via the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network; that was my original plan, anyway. But for various reasons, it didn’t work out. So instead, I chose to volunteer and get the farming experience when and where I could. (Hence the recent Farm Sanctuary Saturday! post.)
So, on Friday morning, with my tent and sleeping bag in hand, I drove to East Hill Farm in Middlesex, NY (just outside of Canandaigua) for my three-day, overnight farming workshop.
            First impression? Beautiful setting. The community is like something out of an antique painting—a village of custom-built houses and shops, where the community members live and work on their various crafts. And all of it nestled in the midst of rolling fields of vegetable gardens, fruit trees, grape vines, and wildflowers. Oh yeah, and a steam bath, built right next to a big swimming pond.
            After a quick work-study orientation, a hearty breakfast (complete with dairy-free yogurt, gluten-free granola, and freshly picked mulberry jam!), and a long day of agriculture classes, I set up my tent in the apple, cherry, and pear orchard. It’s been a while since I’ve gone camping, and this was my first time sleeping in a tent by myself, so I have to admit, I was pretty proud of myself!
            Aside from the pleasantly picturesque setting, the classes were incredible. Going into this workshop, I knew next to nothing about biodynamic farming; I just saw it as a sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative to industrial agriculture. But I was fortunate enough to have Nathaniel Thompson, who owns and operates Remembrance Farm—a biodynamic, organic vegetable farm in Trumansburg, NY—as my teacher, and now, I know quite a bit.
            I won’t go into full biodynamic detail here, but I will share one truly beautiful aspect of this agricultural method: its acknowledgement of the need to plant and harvest in harmony with the natural world—its rhythms, cycles, and energies—in order to truly nourish the body and spirit with the foods produced.
            Typically, when I think of organic produce, I focus on the chemical-free aspect of it. But with biodynamic farming, painstaking attention is paid to the health and vitality of the soil out of which the plants will grow. The basic idea is that the more energetic and nutrient-rich the soil, the more vibrant and nutritionally satisfying the produce. 
            In short, interesting stuff.          
And thanks to East Hill Farm, I came home with a bag full of freshly picked rainbow bright variety swiss chard, sugar snap peas, and beets. We’d been eating swiss chard all weekend, but still, I prepared it as part of a stir-fried vegetable medley for dinner last night. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that prior to this past weekend, I had never in my life seen nor tasted swiss chard, especially not these lovely specimens of pink, orange, yellow, and green goodness—one of the most beautiful vegetables I’ve ever seen. Yum!

Over the weekend, I had so many wonderful experiences—connecting with open-minded, warm-hearted individuals from all over; eating freshly prepared, home-cooked meals; singing underneath the stars by the campfire with some incredibly talented folk musicians; and sitting at the feet of a remarkably wise and insightful farmer/teacher.
But the thing I love most of all, once again, is that I was reminded of the importance of just being. Quiet the mind, open the heart, and just be.
Oh, and while I didn’t join in the skinny-dipping, I did go for a swim. Sigh. I already miss that place.

            And now, for your contemplative enjoyment… The following is a quote from Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian physicist in the early twentieth century whose essays and lectures set the foundation for modern-day biodynamic theory and practice (emphasis mine):
“Nutrition as it is today does not supply the strength necessary for manifesting the spirit in physical life. . . Food plants no longer contain the forces people need for this.” 
            What say you regarding the energetic quality of the foods produced today? Do you feel satisfied and revitalized after you eat, or just heavy and full? 
            And finally, what's your favorite smoothie recipe? I've been making one every morning for the past week or so, and I must say, I feel so energized after drinking it! My current fave is mango-banana-blueberry-flaxmeal... but I'm open to suggestions!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Farm Sanctuary Saturday!

          Today was a special day—one I've been looking forward to for a while now: Farm Sanctuary Saturday (or at least, that's what I'm calling it)! And I was so happy to have my dear friend, Rachel, join me for the adventure.
          If you're unfamiliar with Farm Sanctuary, here's a wee bit of background: Basically, it all began in 1986, when Hilda the sheep was pulled from the "dead pile" at a stockyard, rehabilitated, and then went on to spend 11 years living life to the full in the green pastures of central New York. 
          Hilda became an emblem of hope and inspiration for rescue workers, who turned her recovery into a lifelong mission to "end cruelty to farm animals and promote compassionate living through rescue, education, and advocacy." Today, Farm Sanctuary is the leading farm animal protection agency in the United States.
brown cow (not Hilda)

          So, why was I so psyched to be a part of this thing?
          My dietary changes may have initially been sparked by sheer physical pain and discomfort, but the more I've learned about foods and ingredients and the way they affect my body, the more my eyes have been opened to the horrific truths behind how certain foods are processed in this country—namely, meat and dairy products. 
dairy industry = mean to cows

          I don't want to go off on a factory farming rant in this small space, but let's just say that I sincerely believe in what the folks at Farm Sanctuary are doing, and I was delighted to be a part of it, if only for a day.... even if it meant shoveling a barn full of cow manure, which it did!
          But aside from the pitchfork poo scooping and shrub-pruning yard work, we had plenty of fun bonding with both workers and animals (and each other, of course!).
meet Snickers, the steer
Rachel and the goat, sharing an inside joke
a particularly goofy goat
turkey says, "wassup..."
bonding with Fiona, the pig
sleeping beauty
me having a moment with another pig...
and finally, meet Emily...
          So, all in all, my muscles are sore and the backs of my legs are sunburned, but I'd recommend a day at Farm Sanctuary in a heartbeat to anyone who wants to get an up close and personal look at what true compassion and kindness can do for a bunch of otherwise ill-fated farm animals.
          To learn more about Farm Sanctuary and their ongoing efforts to rescue, educate, and advocate, as well as how you can get involved, click here. And if you happen to live near one of the two sanctuaries, located just outside of Watkins Glen, NY, or  Orland, CA, sign yourself up for a farm tour or a volunteer work party (which is what we did today)!
          Oh, and here's their most recent blog post: Animal Photo of the Week: Lily

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Morality of Profit Essay Competition... I Need Your Help!

          Okay, so if you happened to read my last post, you may have noticed the brief mention of an essay competition that I entered a few months ago. The topic: The Morality of Profit.
          My essay submission, "The Simple Life," is a discussion of the morality of our current system of food processing in the United States, as well as an inside look at the lives of Peter and Susan Corning, a retired couple who decided to pour a significant portion of their life's earnings into restoring an old dairy farm into the fully functioning biointensive organic farm that it is today, Synergy Farm. Located in the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington, their small farm produces organic eggs, a variety of veggies, a handful of fruits (depending on the season), and in the summer, fresh roaster chickens. My former NYC roommate, Lucy, spent a year as a Synergy Farm intern. And when I was in Seattle back in January of this year, I had the pleasure of riding the ferry to Friday Harbor, WA, and getting an up-close and personal taste of the way they do things there.
          My favorite part? The chicken coop, as you'll surely see when you read my excerpt, posted on the Morality of Profit blog/website.
          In short, my farm-stay inspired a great deal of thought and reflection. And so, when I came across this particular essay competition run by the SEVEN Fund (in my never-ending search for scholarships and other means of funding my master's degree in nutrition), I jumped at the chance to share some of my more coherent food-industry-related ramblings with an audience who might actually care to listen! 
          On July 1st, they'll be announcing the three overall cash-prize winners, as well as the 15 additional essays to be published (by the SEVEN Fund) as part of a compilation of contributions from thought leaders around the world. To date, they've received more than 2,200 submissions from over 88 countries, so no matter what happens, I'm excited to be a part of it all!
          But here's where I need your help: They've invited those of us who submitted essays to post a 250-word excerpt on their website/blog. The goal is to get as much traffic as possible to the excerpt, in the hopes that not only will thoughts be provoked, but that the posts will be further shared via social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. The author of the excerpt that gets the most visitors will be given the chance to work with the SEVEN Fund editors to be included in the publication along with the winning essays! Being a writer at heart, and an avid food reform advocate, this would seriously be a dream come true for me. 
          So please, spare a moment to stop by my excerptleave a comment if you feel inclined to do so, and then share the link with your friends via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and/or word of mouth. Pretty, pretty please?      

          And on that note, I'll leave you with some pics of my super-short stay at Synergy Farm...
the egg-laying hens with their "modern-looking feed contraptions"

my friend and informal farm tour guide, Lucy

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Overfed and Undernourished... Grrr!

"A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished."
~Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

           We live in such a bizarre world. The dialogue surrounding my recent test result posts sparked quite a bit of reflection and contemplation on my part—beyond my ongoing personal health puzzle. 
I’ve been slowly digesting each morsel of feedback and response, as well as chewing a bit more carefully on my own written words. (I can't help it; overanalyzing is what I do best!) And this post is my attempt to share some of what’s been running through my mind.
            I find it so interestingly ironic that regarding my alleged metabolic issues, as Eimear of Vegan Dukka Girl pointed out in her comment on Part Two, I’d survive just fine in a time of famine—just like my ancient (and not so ancient) ancestors obviously did thanks to their fleshy fat stores. My closest European ties are Irish, Swiss, and Scottish, and you can bet some of my people were caught up in that blasted potato famine.
Yet, while my ancestors near starved to death for a lack of sustenance, here I am surrounded by food and able to eat so little of it without getting sick. Overfed and undernourished—the dietary dilemma of the Western World.
            It really is pure preposterousness that I can literally stuff my face 24 hours a day if I so choose in this country (very cheaply), and yet, the more I eat, the sicker I become. And again, it's not just me; the number of folks with food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances continues to grow at an alarming rate. The sad truth is that most people aren't even aware of how the foods they eat are affecting their overall health and well-being.  
            A few months ago, I submitted an essay to a contest revolving around “The Morality of Profit.” In fact, in a few weeks I’ll be posting an excerpt from it and asking you to go to their website and offer social media support for it (pretty please!). More on that later.
            In the essay, I wrote about the vast array of health and environmental problems associated with the industrialization of agriculture—from mass malnourishment to global warming to the greed and profiteering of the food industry fat cats. And I told the story of a couple who retired from their lucrative careers to restore and run a small biointensive organic farm in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle, Washington. I focused on the importance of people like them and the contributions they are making to the reformation of our current system of processing food in the United States of America.
Because truly, it is shameful.
            The further I’ve delved into my own dietary dilemmas, the more I believe that there is a direct link between industrial farming and corporate food processing and the ever-widening glut of people who are currently suffering from various digestive ailments and other chronic health problems. I’m not just talking about industry inventions like high fructose corn syrup  here (as I did in my earlier rants); I’m talking straight-up farming methods—as in, the way the food is produced, prior to any chemical creations and preservatives being processed into it.
Of course, it's not like I'm spouting anything new here. The irritable bowels, inflamed arteries, and insufficient metabolic activities of countless Americans can most certainly be attributed to poor diet; that's an undisputed fact in the research community at this point. And poor diet is undeniably linked (in part) to the stripping of our soil’s nutrients by the go-go-go, sell-sell-sell mentality of the U.S. agricultural industry. 
            Yes, the food is abundant. And yes, it is cheap. But when it comes to our daily bread, I think it's safe to say that cheaper is not necessarily better. The movements toward sustainable farming methods and organic, whole foods are seen by some as elitist and unrealistic, but the truth of the matter is that I and countless others have suffered immensely for placing our trust in the processed foods available today. 
            On that note, I must admit that in spite of the headaches, weight gain, muscle pain, fatigue, and digestive difficulties I've dealt with in recent years, I am immensely grateful that my body is smart enough to react to poor quality foods. My cells enacted an all-out revolt to the kinds of crap I was putting in my body—the symptoms of which didn’t really start surfacing until seven or so years ago.
            The changes I’ve made have changed my life for the better, but still, it’s rather silly, isn’t it? To have to think so much about food—and to have to be so obsessively selective. Hidden ingredients, false labeling, faulty processing—it’s like a battlefield out there!

            I thought maybe I'd pose a question to you all to end this rant on a postive note: How have your food sensitivities, allergies, and intolerances improved your life for the better?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Gluten-Free Tasting Event... Eh.

          Maybe I’m just in a mood, but I feel awful right now. I'm not entirely sure why, seeing as how I’d been looking forward to this evening for several weeks. Lori’s Natural Foods, a health food store in Rochester, NY, hosted a Gluten-Free tasting event from 6 to 8 pm, and I happily drove the 30 minutes to get there tonight. Free samples, gluten-free food tastings, brand reps, raffle prizes—the works. It seemed like a great opportunity to meet people and find new foods to enjoy. How could I not be excited?
          But I went to this thing today with such high hopes, and I somehow left feeling drained, disappointed, achy, and nauseous. 
          Was it the swarms of people crammed into such a small space, elbowing into each other in the tiny aisles? Was it the incredibly loud and overzealous raffle announcer screaming into the loudspeaker every 15 minutes with a winning ticket number that wasn’t mine? (Story of my life: I never win anything…) Was it the fact that over half of the products being featured were packaged, milk-containing cookies and other sweet treats? Or was it my mistake of eating all those tiny portions of everything from chocolate vanilla bean cupcakes to coconut milk cookie dough ice cream to macaroni salad and ginger snaps one after the other after the other, so that my belly (and my brain) grew dizzy from the spin of it all?
          Yes, there were baked goods. And yes, there were crackers and nut butters. There were juice companies and protein shakes. They even threw some supplements and digestive tablets into the mix. Yippee. Oh yeah, and I got a free chair massage. That was nice.
          But something was amiss. The open dialogue I was so hoping to have with the folks at the product stands, perhaps? Or more likely, the overall sense of health and well-being that I so eagerly anticipated encountering?
          Because instead of fresh, whole foods, most of what was on those tables was packaged, and ridiculously overpriced. Looking around, instead of feeling inspired and eager to try all these new foods around me, I felt overwhelmed, and disheartened at the realization of how unbelievably unrealistic the pre-made, pre-packaged gluten-free lifestyle truly is for the average American.
          Take me, for instance: I’m a single woman in my late twenties, working as a waitress and a freelance copyeditor while I go back to school to earn my master’s degree. I cringe every time I’m at the grocery store checkout when I see how much my small handful of purchases is going to cost me. And I often find myself wondering if the clerk thinks I’m crazy for spending such gross amounts of money on such a measly selection of goods.
          I can’t even imagine how one would shop for an entire family.
          All in all, I suppose it’s a semi-good thing that these products are so unaffordable. Because the more I study foods and learn about various ingredients and how they affect my body, the more inclined I am to cook my own meals at home and stay away from packaged products and pre-made meals. And whole foods are most certainly better for anyone's body than the stuff that comes in boxes.
          But I’m an American girl. And I've always liked that quick, convenient, easy access aspect of living in this country. I love prettily packaged, satisfyingly delicious grab-and-go products and the conscientious companies who make the food-allergy friendly ones. Hence the Pamela's cookies and the Whole Soy & Co yogurt and the Daiya cheese. They're simple, and they make me smile. And that is, after all, the American way: all the foods you could ever possibly want—right at your fingertips, all for a low price…
          Unless you need to eat gluten- (and dairy) free, in which case the price shoots through the roof.
          Sigh. In spite of my disillusionment, I did sample some truly tasty treats—most notably the Lori’s chocolate vanilla bean cupcakes, baked and sold right in the store, the freshly baked bite size pieces of Namaste spice cake, made straight from their baking mix, and some raw flaxseed crackers, of which I am totally forgetting the name.
          These three items were so flavorful and satisfying—they helped the whole thing seem worthwhile.
          Anyway, if I hadn’t gone, I would’ve wondered what I was missing. So I’m glad I was there. But why oh why can’t the food-sensitive world be more reasonably priced? I know agribusiness runs the show when it comes to cost, and so I understand that quality ingredients cost more. But isn’t there a way around it?
          Because even cooking at home gets expensive when you care about where the veggies come from.
          Sorry to be such a downer.
          On a sweeter (and entirely unrelated) note, my mom just got herself a new puppy yesterday! She's been wanting one for a while now, and when she randomly came across an ad in the newspaper for a cavalier king charles spaniel that a woman was practically giving away, she had to jump on it. If you know anything about the breed, this was an extremely rare find, so she drove an hour and a half and picked the little guy up. He’s adorable, and very snuggly. 
          I may just have to steal him.


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