Get leaner and greener with homegrown food

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

This year has been a time of financial re-assessment at our home, as it has been across America with so many people struggling with job losses, job insecurity and flat wages.

While incomes stagnate, the cost of everything from food to higher education rises. At our house we're tightening the budget to adjust for what will be eight years or more of supporting kids at college. With the recession creating an uncertain road ahead, and tuition costs continuing their staggering ascent, up 10-fold since we parents went to school, it’s a sobering time. And stories from the Occupy front remind us that our current practices, like saddling college kids with huge debt, are unfair and unworkable.  In this new reality, there are few easy solutions.

And with that prelude, I’d like to talk about food, because this is one area where we eke out some results, during a time when big answers seem elusive. By changing our relationship with food, we can save money, improve our health and push the populist cause.

Almost anyone can chip away at the household budget, first, by growing some of their own food, and secondly, by managing it better.


This past summer we interviewed John Dromgoole, an Austin organic gardening expert known as the Natural Gardener.  He's passionate about how you can put a plot of land to work, without chemicals, and urges everyone to supplement their food budget with homegrown goods.

Dromgoole gave us a lot of good ideas (see the video), and offered a sobering thought about food security. He foresees many people will be tending backyard gardens not as a hobby, but as a necessary hedge against food price spikes.

Keeping a stash of homegrown food, especially if you've grown enough to can or freeze can have a noticeable effect on your food bill.

As a bonus, you'll become a stakeholder in the Slow Food movement,  which wants to return food production and distribution to local markets, wrestling it away from the corporate interests that have ruined the soil with chemicals, abused livestock animals and created a horror show of low-nutrition packaged foods in the pursuit of profits. (And even with all that, some of this mass-produced is low margin as well as cheap, in a marketplace where the competition to keep prices down and dividends up is fierce.)

You can move toward Slow Food by buying from local farmers, also, and often these arrangements can deliver a bounty of goods for a reasonable price. CSAs, or Consumer Supported Agriculture, arrangements can provide sound benefits for both buyer and sells by cutting out the marketing, packaging, travel, storage and retail costs.

Another gardener who's inspired us recently is Felder Rushing.  A self-described Southern "dirt gardener" and former horticultural extension agent, Felder advocates that individuals take the reins of food production and then proceed to live a mellow, harmonious life within their personal garden haven. At his presentation, he urged the audience to move forward with their gardens, but not stress over them.

"I don't water. I don't spray. I don't prune. I don't do any of that stuff," he declared. "I basically wander around (the garden) with a coffee or a beer in my hand."

Pay attention to what grows natively or well in your region, and then just start planting, he said.

The author of Slow Gardening: A No Stress Philosophy for All Senses and All Seasons, and a frequent guest on radio and TV shows, Rushing is the perfect garden celebrity for today's kitchen garden movement, which encourages people to grow culinary herbs and veggies wherever and whenever they can. He's the reason I'll be planting potatoes in a bucket this fall. OK, that's small potatoes, but it's an example of what you stop being intimidated by the complicated gardening instructions and friends who remember your unpollinated tomato plants from last season. (The Kitchen Gardeners website, by the way, is an excellent source for practical gardening advice; of which you’ll need some, with your coffee or beer.)

Rushing, whose own yard in Mississippi is pageant of vegetables, succulents, herbs and yard art, urges novices and veteran gardeners alike to forgo conventional wisdom about where and how you should or shouldn’t grow food on any given piece of real estate. The neighbors, he says, will get over it. (And if they don't, give them vine-ripened tomatoes.)

Rushing's advice may need to be tempered a bit for the suburbs. This is after all a man who keeps a demonstration native plant garden in the bed of his 1980s pickup truck. But it would be hard not to agree that the tons of water sprayed onto classic lawns could be better used to grow brussel sprouts, or spinach, carrots, squash, onions, garlic or maybe thyme, sage, rosemary and basil. (And by the way – all those veggies I just named can be planted right now across about half of the United States because they’re cold hardy, and the herbs can be grown indoors until you put them outdoors.)


One effect of growing your own food is that it naturally broadens the vegetables at your disposal, a big plus for Americans who don't get nearly the amount nor the variety of vegetables they need for a healthy diet.

The latest  in a long line of evidence on that topic surfaced last week as a debate about white potatoes. A study by the Institute of Medicine shows that nearly one-third of the vegetables children consume are some form of white potatoes, often rendered as fatty French fries, and a contributor to diabetes.

"Children's intake of vegetables is low and the variety is very limited. About 29 percent of children's total vegetable intake comes from potatoes, with about 22 percent of the total in the form of fried potatoes or chips .  Fried potatoes are among the highest contributors of discretionary dietary fat among children. "

This would be one more thing we’d likely ignore, except it has resulted in proposed policy changes for school lunch guidelines, which suggest that cafeterias pull back on potatoes to make room for other veggies. (Read more about the debate over potatoes, and from the Charleston Daily Mail, some ideas for parents wanting to stanch the starch.)

For now, let's not get stuck in the mashed potatoes (some potatoes are fine, too many, eh), but focus on the weight of the evidence out there: Adding more varieties of fruits and vegetables and fruits to your plate will improve your nutrition and your health.


It's solid science, and has been said so many ways, in so many places. We don't need to sweat the details. We just need to try eggplant or spinach or mustard greens.

Even our federal government, which lord knows tends to run behind the pack, has drawn up that new food pyramid called My Plate for us that is 50-percent filled with veggies and grains. It notably de-emphasizes protein and acknowledges that protein doesn't have to be animal-based.

Increasing your veggie intake won't just make you feel better, you'll improve your odds of not getting cancer. Really.

Experts who've studied this from a cross-cultural perspective, like John Robbins, the author of Food Revolution, have been telling Americans for the last 25 years that our diet is not the healthy one out there. We Americans get the full monty of diseases — heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and neurological disorders like Alzheimers and Parkinson’s — at higher rates than many other cultures. Causality is complicated, but Robbins asks us to look at what separates Americans from those healthy cultures. The answer is right there on our plate. We eat more meat, more dairy products, more refined grains and fewer vegetables.

It's still hard to swallow for some people, but the dinner plate featuring a slab of meat with two accompanying dabs of vegetables isn’t improving our health, and may be worsening it. Sure, there are complexities. The meat portion of our diets has grown larger since the 1950s, in most cases, and it comes to us through an industrial food chain that has changed the nature of “meat”. (Want more starch? American beef is fattened quickly on corn, and deprived of the grass nature intended they eat.)

But even when you adjust for some of these factors, the evidence still points to vegetarian eating, or eating more vegetarian as a healthier plan. (Those of you who can't imagine a day without a meat meal, but would like to know more, should consult Meatless Mondays.)

Robbins, the onetime heir to the Baskin Robbins ice cream enterprise, speaks with the zeal of the converted. He strongly advocates for a vegetarian diet, but acknowledges that a diet that cuts back on meat and dairy consumption can be helpful.  His work, recently updated and republished in a 10-year anniversary edition, is a treatise you'll want to read if you're at all inclined to reduce your chances of the big American health-sapping diseases.  Or if you want to reduce your weight. Or if you would like to save money at the grocery.

Here's how it will help you save you money. Skip some of those $10-$20 a pound steaks and go ahead and buy those high-priced organic vegetables – because they're usually worth it, and it supports organic production. You'll see that the former offsets the latter, by a lot.

Buy seasonally, and you’ll get the best prices. Locally grown tomatoes can be cheap in the summer. Squash comes down in price in the fall. Watch for root vegetable deals in the winter. Find greens coming out of winter gardens in early spring. And so forth.

There's another budget-cutter hidden in this approach. It's the long-term savings you'll realize on healthcare and fad diets.


While switching to veggies is the main enchilada, wasting less is the topping. We need to waste less, so we can all have more.

This is so easy to say, and so hard to do. We have a tendency in America to over buy and toss it out later.

Growing some of your own food will help you learn to cherish food again. You’ll have a new appreciation for adding the odd leftover vegetable to the stir fry or flash freezing extras for later use.

Saving food can be a challenge for any family, those with younger kids whose palates are evolving and suddenly don't want what they adored last week; for families like ours with teenagers whose schedules change minute by minute; and for working people who may lack the time for home cooking.

About one-third of the edible food grown and prepared in American is discarded, according to studies. We should all try to do our part to solve this problem. A few restaurants have begun sending their extras to food banks. Churches glean the fields for produce that’s left behind. We need to support these programs and do our part at home.

Cooking from scratch can help reduce waste — though I’m personally quite familiar with the calamities that create waste. Generally, though, you can better control what you need. And if you love to cook, you'll probably love the leftovers too.

Buying in bulk can be another cost saver. You'll pay less, use less packaging and be able to calibrate your own portions. Store grains and cooking staples in tightly sealed glass jars in the pantry and you may find that the organization helps guide you to more efficient cooking and food storage. (Save for reuse the best glass jars from things you do buy prepared, like spaghetti sauces and jams.)

Eating more lightly, that is, more vegetarian and with food that was grown closer to home, and watching what we waste can reduce the stress on the planet, not to mention your heart.

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

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