Saturday, August 27, 2011

Food Insecurity? What food insecurity?

There seems to be a giant disconnect between some members of the public who argue that "if you want cheap eggs, why not just go to the store to get them?"; and those of us who maintain backyard chickens are a necessary and realistic tool in the arsenal against food insecurity.

If you asked the average Windsorite whether we have food insecurity in our region, you should most probably expect either a blank look or frank denial from most people.

Food security is not something that is generally talked about, and most people would point to our grocery stores' filled shelves as proof that we have plenty of food.  Windsor's above average obesity rates would also suggest that food is the one thing we don't have to worry about.

And yet our system is much more fragile than you might think:
  • Most of the food lining grocery store shelves in Windsor-Essex comes to the region from across the border in Detroit or along the 401 from north-east of here, typically the London-Toronto region.  If anything ever happened to our highway system or even if there was a disruption in the fuel supply, we would soon discover the stores had no more than about 3 days of supplies.  We have no local dairies and all our eggs come from grading stations outside the region.  Although we are a food-producing region, the distribution system is set up so that almost all our food comes to us via the highway.
  • Many low-income residents do not have much food stored on their kitchen shelves, and they do not always have easy access to grocery stores.  If you don't have a car, it can be quite difficult to get to a grocery store, and you might find yourself more dependent on a convenience store for your calorie needs.  Typically, convenience stores don't sell much produce, and most of their food is prepackaged, which plays a role in the generally greater obesity rates and poorer health of lower income people in our society.
  • Children, girls especially, used to learn to cook at home, and schools also played a role in teaching them culinary skills.  Boys tended to learn how to fish, hunt and trap.  Every garden used to have a vegetable patch.  Nowadays, far fewer of us know how to prepare food from scratch.  Do you know how to preserve tomatoes or skin a rabbit?  Do you have a garden that supplies you vegetables?  I'd be the last to advocate a return to the highly-gendered teaching methods from long ago, but I do think most of us have a lot to learn when it comes to self-sufficiency.  Sadly, far too many people are reliant on fast food outlets several times a week, and even more people cannot cook a meal without the assistance of packages and cans.
  • The list of food recall alerts is astonishing in the amount of food-borne illness that it warns against.  This week, for example, the FDA issued an alert regarding potential listeria in packaged salmon.  This was the third listeria alert in August, in addition to two for salmonella and another for E coli O157:H7.
It's not surprising that some of us are worried about food security.  One way is to ensure the authorities pay better attention to addressing the risks in the system, and the other strategy is to take matters into our own hands where we can.

As regards the authorities, it is important for municipalities to take stock of food security gaps in the region, and take steps to address them.  This is a serious matter and not one to trivialize.  I am afraid that some of Windsor's councillors do not have a sufficient grasp on how tenuous our food supply potentially is.  What about councillors in the towns surrounding Windsor?  Are they taking it seriously?

But it's not just about the authorities.  There are also steps we can take ourselves, such as planting a garden, establishing relationships with local farmers so we can ensure a steady supply of trustworthy food grown close to home,  buying from farmers' markets and fruit stands, teaching our children to enjoy simple, unprocessed food, and ensuring they know where it comes from - and that's not the grocery store.

Lastly, a backyard chicken coop is an excellent way of producing a reliable and high-quality protein source.  It's not going to address all the risks that we face, but it's one practical step that goes a long way.

It's also a very important symbolic step, because when bylaws allow them, it's a sign that the authorities recognize the importance of residents taking control over their own food security. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Chicken War Moves to Kingsville

The Windsor Star provocatively describes it as a chicken war.  The resident who is asking Kingsville's council to look at the town's obscurely written bylaw will be making a very reasonable request on Monday night.  He would prefer to avoid the intense media attention we saw in Windsor.  Let's see how this pans out.

Windsor's Ward 3's Councillor Fulvio Valentinis, after all, rejected our request earlier this year to look at the pros and cons of backyard hens on the basis that Windsor doesn't want to be a leader for the region in this matter.  Why, I have no idea.  I always thought the point of leadership was to be prepared to take steps in the right direction, even when nobody else had the wherewithal to do so.

If Kingsville's councillors agree to allow backyard hens, or even if they agree to be open to the idea, this might help our own Councillor Valentinis see that listening to residents' reasons for allowing urban chickens is a really good thing for democracy.  And he and the other councillors will learn that contrary to their expectations, the concerns and fears are mostly overblown myths.  Instead, urban hens are good for for food security, for environmental stewardship, for animal welfare, for our children, and a whole host of other well-founded reasons.

The municipalities that recognize this understand a thing or two about good leadership and the way democracy is supposed to work.  Let's hope Kingsville is one of them.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why do we want to eat eggs from the backyard?

For the same reasons that a freshly picked heirloom tomato from the garden tastes and looks superior to a uniform grocery store tomato, fresh eggs we have collected ourselves from hens that spend their days roaming about outdoors also give us significantly more gustatory pleasure.

It starts with the smooth texture of the shell, but the differences inside are quite clear as well.  Farm fresh eggs have a different colour and texture, and most people are adamant that they taste better too.  (To be quite honest, I can't be the judge of that, since I stopped eating grocery store eggs a long time ago).  My friend Stephanie, who was a pastry chef in her former professional life, is adamant that farm eggs hold up better when she bakes.

Quantifying eggs' nutritional benefits can be difficult (though it has been done), because they can vary from farm to farm depending on what and how much the hens eat, and how much time they spend outdoors.  We do know that every single commercially raised hen in Ontario spends every day of its shortened lifespan indoors.  She never gets to forage in the ground for the grubs, bugs and seeds that form her natural diet.  Producers can supplement commercial feed with individual nutrients, but we know enough about nutrition to know that there's a lot that nutritional scientists still need to learn.

To continue with the tomato analogy, it would be reasonable to expect different nutritional results for each heirloom tomato sample you might try.  In the same way, it would be very hard to design a nutritional analysis that statistically represents the majority of free range eggs.

In my opinion, people who obsess about the nutritional elements of individual food items totally miss the point of healthy eating.

By focusing on a whole diet that is mainly sourced from unprocessed foods grown close to home or purchased locally from farmers markets, rather than a collection of standardized products from grocery stores that are trucked in from many miles away, we are healthier overall.  I don't need to see studies to prove that, and nor should you.

For those of us who have children, it's really important to set them up for a lifetime of good eating habits.  We incorporate a variety of food in their diets in a way that allows them to experience the source of their foods in their every day activities.   When children pick their own raspberries, cherry tomatoes and peas in the garden, they are naturally much more in touch with healthy foods than kids who know where to find a nutraceutical-laden packaged bar in the grocery cupboard.

So too with eggs.  I have never come across a child that hasn't clamoured to be allowed to collect eggs from the coop, and that's the first step in getting them to enjoy one of Nature's most ubiquitous wonder foods.

News Alert! Arrest the Offenders! Fowl Invading Roseland! Scramble the Bylaw Officers!

Dear Mayor Edgar Francis & City Council:

Why is it you/the city is/are allowed to keep ducks at your City owned golf course but I am not allowed to have a couple hens on my property?

I witnessed your ducks wandering through the Roseland neighbourhood last night unattended, through neighbours' yards with their little ducklings trailing nervously behind.

They proceeded to hold up traffic (albeit for photographs by onlookers admiring them) recklessly entering the intersection without any regard of oncoming traffic.

Please draw your lines straight, Mayor Francis. Apprehend these offenders or change the Bylaw!

In defence of the mother duck and her ducklings, the ducks did not know they were illegal. They were just walking around the neighbourhood to forage some food and heading to their City of Windsor home.

If I kept a couple hens, my hens wouldn't know they are illegal either, as they forage for food in my backyard. But they would be well cared for and kept off the streets and neighbourhood yards.

By the way, if you can keep ducks, why can't I keep a couple hens? Seems silly, doesn't it.

Maybe its time to get with the times and realize that the bylaw is ridiculous. There's plenty of fowl fowling up this bylaw!

How about the 100's of Canadian geese that inhabit our City owned Water collection pond on Rockport in South Windsor, and the 1000's around Windsor?

Our park and water collection pond is afoul, constantly of goose poop everywhere. The city does nothing to clean up their mess or manage them.

The water is severely polluted and the city does nothing to clean it up. Every spring and summer the Geese have 12 more Geese!  We can hardly walk a path without 

tripping over the geese! The cars on Rockport regularly have to stop for 50 Geese and there adorable brood 

They obviously live there on city property FULL TIME.

Again, seems silly when you consider the mess they make and constant noise in the neighbourhood. Far more noise and poop than a couple hens would ever make.

I REALLY think you need to re-evaluate the city position. Speaking of poop, there's a lot of dog poop throughout the city too. Irresponsible dog owners.

And could you imagine the stink of 80 Pigeons on one residential lot, and the noise? 

But not one or two hens. Curious. Do my hens need to be wild? Do they need to live on City land? Can I keep a domesticated Goose? If I let my hen wander wild, is it legal?

I know you are the one that voted this down. But you also have the power to allow the recommendations your staff made to allow for a Pilot project to occur.

Windsor-Essex CLUCK group, a large support network for Urban Hens, would be glad to see that you get all the praise and glory for being progressive enough to 
find a solution that works for the City.


steve green
Windsor Ontario Canada
Windsor Essex CLUCK

p.s. I have included a picture of the duck and duckling infraction if you want to forward it to the Bylaw Officers or Windsor Police Services

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Food & Elections Webinar Coming Up!

Food & Elections Webinar Trainings
As part of our Vote ON Food and Farming campaign, Sustain Ontario is hosting a series of 4 webinars focused on the Provincial Elections. 

Food in the Ontario Government
August 30th, 7pm-8:30pm
Join Sustain Ontario’s Director, Ravenna Nuaimy-Barker, Lauren Baker, Coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council Rod MacRae from York University, Jamie Reaume from the Holland Marsh Growers’ Association, Christie Young from Farmstart and policy advisor David Harvey for a panel discussion on Food and Farming in the Ontario Context.  Learn more about how the different levels of government interact and why the Ontario government plays a key role in food systems change. 
Register online here by August 25th.

Vote ON Food and Farming
September 1st, 7-8pm
This is a chance to learn about the Vote ON Food and Farming Campaign, Sustain Ontario election tools and campaign ideas from across the province.  It is a chance to ask questions and share your experience with others. Hosted by Sustain Ontario's program coordinator, Carolyn Young, and the Elections Working Group. Please send any pressing questions in advance to
Register online here by August 26th.

Playing Politics: A Pre-Election Primer
Sept 6th, 7:00-8:00pm
Playing Politics is an hour-long webinar, designed to assist food champions in preparing for the 2011 Ontario Election. 
Presented by Advocacy School Principal Sean Moore, a public policy advocate with over 30 years of experience in Canada and the US, the webinar will provide a rich combination of operating principles, examples, mini-case studies and practical tools to guide and support your advocacy efforts before, during and after the October 6th general election.
Register online here by September 1st.

Speaking to the Media
September 7, 7pm-9pm
This presentation and workshop by Dave Meslin takes a fresh look at media training, exploring the interpersonal relationship between the interviewer and the subject. We’ll explore the art of connecting with journalists, getting your message into the story, protecting yourself, and building long-term rela- tionships with those who can reach millions of readers, listeners or viewers.
Dave Meslin founded the Toronto Public Space Committee. Despite having no funding or staff, the TPSC quickly grew to become one of the most quoted non-profit organisations in Toronto. It was chosen in 2005 as the “Best Activist Group” by both Eye Weekly and NOW magazine and secured feature stories and even a major cover story.
Register online here by September 2nd.

How to Host an Eat-In
September 13, 3:30-4:15
Brooke Ziebell and Meredith Hayes from Foodshare's Field to Table Schools will get you excited about local food with engaging hints, tips and activities for educators, parents, students, school community members and anyone interested in celebrating Ontario produce. 
Foodshare invites you to join them for their Eat-In Ontariofall harvest celebration happening on Friday, September 30th as part of their Recipe for Change initiative - getting food education back into the Ontario curriculum. Brooke and Meredith will show you how you can participate in this fun event with not only your school, but with your colleagues, friends and family too! So join FoodShare to learn, share and celebrate Ontario produce and food education!
Register online here by September 9th. Moving Planet September 24, 2011

September 24th, 2011
Windsor Riverfront Sculture Park!
Details to follow!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Some demographic considerations

Our egg collective does not have a large membership, and so it's statistically not necessarily representative of the broader community.  However, we have the same number of members as Windsor's City Council, and this brings up a couple of interesting things to think about.

First of all, let's look at how many of our member families have children in elementary school:  there are 8 of us who fall in this category.  The remaining two families both have grandchildren.

Contrast that to our City Council, where the numbers are completely reversed.  I don't know the ages of the children of Councillors Dilkens and Marra, but since they are both in the same age range as most of our members, I will assume their children are of a similar age too:


Another interesting demographic factor is the gender split.  While all the collective's members are families (i.e. there are no single people, though that's not by design), it's fair to say that there is only one family in the group where both spouses play an equal role.  In all the other families, one spouse tends to make more visits to the coop than the other, and also contributes more to the decision making and record keeping.  This is not a problem or a criticism at all;  it's just the way it works.  What is interesting is that in the vast majority of cases, it's the females who play this dominant role:


On Windsor's City Council this relationship, again, is completely reversed.  We have one female councillor and nine males.  Again, this isn't necessarily a criticism, but it is worth noting that this gender difference may be causing a bit of a disconnect between the issues that are more important to some of their constituents and what the councillors may believe is important to us:

What does this mean?  In most families, it's women who play a larger role in the family's food choices.  Without getting into a discussion about why this is so, or whether it is good or bad, I do believe this is why we have more dominant female members than male members.  Mothers also tend to be more concerned with the minutiae of their childrens' daily activities, and I think it's fair to say that in most cases, it was the mothers who were the driving force behind the decision to join the collective so their children could learn more about where their food comes from.

Of course, when we keep ourselves busy with childrearing, there is less time for other activities, and it's probably not unreasonable to deduce that this is one of the major reasons why so few females are involved in muncipal politics.  It may also be the primary reason why there isn't a single female with young children currently on our city council.

To me, this helps to explain our council's reluctance to take backyard chickens very seriously.  It doesn't make it right, however.  Since approximately half of their constituents are female, our elected representatives need to ensure they listen to everybody.  At election time, when candidates develop their platforms, it's a good idea to consider a broad array of important issues.  While the big-ticket matters of job creation and infrastructure will always be important, there are other issues that don't always carry as many visible dollar signs, but are still important to our quality of life.  And those are often the issues that matter more to female constituents, particularly those with younger children.

How many bylaws have you ever broken?

Thinking about what I wrote yesterday, I was wondering if people might misunderstand the way I feel about bylaw enforcement.

I see comments in the press from time to time from people who are angry about chicken owners flouting local bylaws.

To give the severity of their intentional transgression some context, I have copied out (and somewhat paraphrased) a couple of totally unrelated bylaws from the City's website.

Many, if not all, of these are broken on a regular basis, quite often without any consequences from the enforcement department:
  • You may not keep a ferret or exotic animal for a pet
  • You may not own more than 2 dogs (know anybody “pretending” to keep one for someone from out of town?)
  • Ice and snow must be removed from the sidewalks of your house within 12 hours
  • Snow may not be dumped into the road or an alleyway
  • You may not idle your vehicles longer than 5 minutes
  •  You may not spit on the sidewalk of any street
  •  You may not drive a car so the tires squeal
  •  You may not drive a car with an improperly functioning muffler
  •  Garbage may not be put out on the street before 7pm on the day prior to collection
  • Dog poop may not go into the garbage
  • Birds and waterfowl may not be fed in parks
  • Backyard composters may not be used for disposal of fat, bones or dairy products
  • You must ensure weeds in your yard are removed or destroyed
  •  All depressions in your yard must be kept free of standing water

Friday, August 12, 2011

Administrative Chicken Zealots

Canada long ago established that it was a good idea to stay out of the nation's bedrooms, and since Prime Minister Trudeau uttered his now-famous quote, there are few people left who still hanker for a country that prosecutes abortion and gay marriage.

On the other hand, when it comes to municipal politics, officials can be rather overzealous in applying the letter of the law.  Especially when it comes to chickens, for some reason that is beyond me.

This is what Amherstburg's Lock family discovered this week, when they were told to remove their pet chickens from their property after an anonymous neighbour lodged a complaint to the authorities.  The story is a little more complex than normal, because they had enquired at city hall as to the legality of owning their pets before acquiring their coop, but had not been able to get a clear answer.

We all know that bylaw enforcement departments generally have their hands full dealing with complaints about poorly maintained properties and badly treated dogs and cats.  So it is somewhat eyebrow-raising to see that Amherstburg's officials have the resources to pursue a complaint like this so efficiently.  It mirrors a similar incident in Windsor last year, when it took just 48 hours for officials to pay a visit to a local chicken owner, ironically in the very same week that the department reported to City Council that they were so understaffed that it took more than 2 weeks to deal with each complaint that was lodged.

In Windsor, our councillors already established their unwillingness earlier this year to allocate already scarce financial resources to studying the pros and cons of backyard hens, in spite of a recommendation put forward by the administration.

In an era of austerity and stretched municipal purses, doesn't it make more sense to apply Trudeau's principle to neighbours snitching about illicit backyard coops?

By all means send an officer over if inconsiderate residents acquire noisy roosters, or plonk an unsightly coop on or near the lot line.  But if someone has a largish yard and doesn't cause any discernible hindrance to their neighbours, does it really matter that much if they own a hen or two to produce their own free range eggs?

If a city is unwilling to commit any resources to conducting an objective public discussion, it is far more pragmatic to investigate only genuine complaints that are nuisance-driven.

Just as good parenting requires some discretion and judgement when it comes to dealing with tattle-tales, I wish the authorities of Essex County would think twice before laying down the letter of the law when there are many more serious issues to worry about.

Coop in the media spotlight

Yesterday an urban newcomer paid a visit to our decidedly un-urban chicken coop.  Nathan from the CBC spent some time on a wonderful afternoon looking at our pilot project and egg collective.

A much abbreviated snippet aired on the CBC news last night.

You can watch the archived clip here - just scroll over to the 12.4 minute mark to hone right in on the piece.

If you're wondering why we're focusing so much on chickens in the county, it's not just because our project won a "Pat on the Back" award earlier this week.  If you were wondering where it is, it's now nailed to the inside of our coop where every member of the project and our productive poultry producers can see it whenever they wish to:

And it's not that we have given up on bringing hens home to roost in our backyards.

We would much rather be doing this closer to home, if the bylaws allowed it.  We would much rather not have to drive beyond the city limits, and walk or ride our bicycles there instead.  However, while we continue to draw attention to the benefits of free range eggs, our children are rapidly growing up (not to mention that we aren't growing any younger ourselves), and the 10 member families of our collective don't have the time to wait for the rest of Windsor to see the light.

For some people a small coop in their backyard would be ideal.  Others would undoubtedly benefit more from a communal one in their neighbourhood.  Urban hens would most likely not be housed in retrofitted trailers like ours are.  There are many different and creative ways to put them together and there is no reason for them to be unattractive in this city that already has challenges controlling blight.

As several journalists have asked me this week, I have little doubt that the issue will come before City Council's consideration again.  It might not be this year, but the concerns surrounding the industrialized food system are not insignificant, and far too many people are in poor health as a result.

As the food recalls continue to pile up, more and more people are taking a greater interest in knowing where their food comes from.  This is just one of many good reasons why a project as simple as keeping a handful of backyard hens is so smart for urban families.

This is why this movement is continuing to gain support from residents all over Essex County, and just because it's no longer on councillors' immediate radar screens, doesn't mean it isn't coming back.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A pat on the back for local free range eggs

The local chicken movement received a very welcome "pat on the back" last night, in the form of a $500 award for its commitment to sustainability in Windsor and Essex County.

The City's Windsor-Essex County Environment Committee, or WECEC, awarded grants to four organizations that they felt best deserved this recognition for their efforts in promoting the environment and the local community.  There were 27 applications in total, and the competition was tough!

Our presentation focused on the Windsor Coop Co-op's egg collective.  If you've been following this blog, you'll know that we never stopped working towards our goal of overturning Windsor's bylaw that allows residents to own 2 dogs, 4 cats, 80 pigeons, but no chickens.

Rather than turning to covert backyard poultry raising, we started a collective outside the city limits, where we could share both the risks and rewards with other like-minded families, learning as we go, and documenting and measuring our progress along the way.

You might be wondering what we're planning to do with the money we won last night.  Well, we'd like to expand our co-op and if you've ever purchased fencing, you'll know it's very expensive.  We estimate that we'll need to spend over $1,000 on quality perimeter fencing and netting to keep our birds safe from predators.  With that in place, we'll be in a position to increase the size of our flock.  The hens, together with their feeding equipment and other paraphernalia, will set us back another $500 or so.

Once we have done this, we will be in a position to open up our membership to additional families who are interested in learning about owning and taking care of chickens.  And the financial boost from our award will allow us to keep the cost down, which will help ensure families of all income levels are able to participate.

A flock of birds (we have 24 at the moment) is of course a lot bigger than the one or two hens that the average backyard chicken owner is likely to want to own.  But that's the way a collective works:  with 10 member families, our 24 hens provide us with an average of 15 eggs a week per family, and that's about the right number.

At the end of the day though, every project was a winner for our local environment and for sustainability.  Being one of the award winners feels wonderful, and of course we're basking in the glow of all the media attention today, but what's much more important is the flow of ideas in the community.

And tomorrow, when the spotlight has moved to a new piece of action, we'll be heading out to the coop to clean out the poop and to collect our free range eggs.

Whole Paycheck and Organic Food Deserts: The Challenge | Common Dreams

Hill Street Farm CSA Week 11 Share

Whole Paycheck and Organic Food Deserts: The Challenge | Common Dreams

Whole Paycheck and Organic Food Deserts: The Challenge

After decades of grassroots public education, battles to safeguard standards, and hard work, organic food and farming has become the fastest growing sector of U.S. agriculture. Organics have surged in popularity to become a $30 billion dollar industry in the United States, representing approximately four percent of total grocery store sales and 12% of fresh fruit and vegetable sales, growing at the rate of 10-20% a year, in comparison to a growth rate of 2-3% a year for so-called “conventional” (i.e. chemical and genetically engineered) food. According to a recent poll by National Public Radio the majority (58%) of Americans now prefer organic food.
Millions of health-minded consumers, especially parents of young children, understand that cheap, non-organic, industrial food is hazardous. Not only does chemical and energy-intensive factory farming destroy the environment, destabilize the climate, impoverish rural communities, exploit farm workers, inflict unnecessary cruelty on farm animals, and contaminate the water supply; but the end product itself is inevitably contaminated. Routinely contained in nearly every bite or swallow of non-organic industrial food are pesticides, antibiotics and other animal drug residues, pathogens, hormone disrupting chemicals, toxic sludge, slaughterhouse waste, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), chemical additives and preservatives, and a host of other hazardous allergens and toxins.
Organics or Fast Food/Monsanto Nation?
Before we pat ourselves on the back for reaching a point where $30 billion of the U.S.’s $750 billion in yearly grocery store sales are certified organic (consumers are also buying another $51 billion worth of so-called “natural” foods and products); before we congratulate ourselves on the fact that there are thousands of well-stocked health food stores and co-ops across the country, as well as 6,132 farmers markets (up 350% since 1994), and 13,000 local CSA (community supported agriculture) buying clubs with a total of 400,000 members, let’s put our organic movement's accomplishments in perspective. The overwhelming majority of Americans are still eating non-organic, pesticide-laden, genetically engineered, overly processed, junk foods on a regular basis, spending half of their food dollars on super-sized industrial chow in restaurants, cafeterias, and fast-food outlets. Skyrocketing rates of obesity, cancer, heart disease, and other diet-related diseases, and a devastated rural landscape of factory farms, monoculture crops, lifeless soil, polluted waterways, and depleted aquifers are a testimony to the monumental challenge that still lies ahead.
Your Whole Paycheck for Organic Foods?
Even if the majority of Americans have now reached the point where they say they’d prefer to buy organic foods, the majority of their purchases obviously aren’t organic. Otherwise the organic market share this year would be $400 billion, not just $30 billion. Why aren't more people buying more organic food, if they believe it's better for their health, as well as the health of the environment? In the NPR poll cited above, 54% of Americans said they weren’t buying organic food, or else they weren’t buying much of it, because it is too expensive.
Expanding the organic revolution will require that the organic movement offer practical solutions to the “Whole Paycheck” dilemna, so that ordinary people start to feel that the “organic premium” is a worthwhile investment in terms of health and sustainability. And for the poor, we’re simply going to have to find ways to subsidize their organic food consumption by incorporating, for example, organic food into food stamp and nutrition programs, as well as school cafeterias.
Of course if you add up the enormous hidden costs of non-organic foods and cheap junk fare--damage to public health, environmental destruction, greenhouse gas pollution, contaminated water, dead zones in the oceans, billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to chemical and GMO agribusiness--organic food is actually much cheaper. The problem however is that the average shopper doesn't really understand this. Standing in the supermarket aisles or at the checkout counter, economically-stressed out Americans have only a limited amount of money to spend. What can they do?
On the website of the Organic Consumers Association, there are a number of articles on how to buy organic foods on a limited budget.
But offering advice for budget organic shopping is not enough. The organic movement needs to step up its public education and advocacy work. Most importantly we need to lead by example and show our families, friends, co-workers and neighbors what the Organic Alternative really means. To influence others and train a new generation of organic advocates we must walk our talk:
(1) Stay informed and motivated. Reading through the thousands of articles archived on the Organic Consumers Association website and other websites is a good way to inspire ourselves, to give us food for thought and communication. You can use the internal search engine on the OCA website to find the specific articles that fire you up, and then spread the word.
(2) Prioritize your time and money. Turn off the TV or computer, turn on the tunes, and head for the kitchen or the backyard garden. We need to show people how it’s possible and enjoyable to rearrange our daily routines to make healthy food and gardening a priority. We need to break free from consumer compulsions and cut back unnecessary expenditures in order to be able to afford more organic foods and ingredients.
(3) Do it ourselves or do it with friends and family. We can all learn or re-learn the joys of cooking at home and the joys and satisfaction of sharing communal meals, potlucks, and picnics with our organic-minded friends. Americans spend half their food dollars eating out, which is often expensive and usually unhealthy. By eating out less often we can afford to buy more organic foods to prepare at home and invite friends over for dinner. We can also set a good example by preparing healthy organic lunches for ourselves at work and for our children at school.
(3) Filter our water, grow veggies, and bake our own bread. By buying a home water filter (which will remove fluoride, chlorine and other toxins) and carrying a stainless steel canteen, we can show people that you don’t have to buy expensive drinking water in BPA-leaching plastic bottles. We can also show people, by example, that you can grow your own organic herbs, spices, and veggies, even if you just start with potted plants on your windowsills, rooftops, porches, or patios. Buying extra organic fruits and vegetables in season and learning the traditional arts of canning or preserving are a major step forward. With a bread-making machine or some lessons in kneading our own, all of us can enjoy organic bread and pastries every day for a fraction of the cost of chemical and GMO-tainted baked goods.
(4) Simplify your diet, eliminate waste, and reduce your intake of processed foods and animal products. We can all buy organic whole grains, beans, spices, herbal teas, and cereals in bulk and cook from scratch. Learning how to use a pressure cooker will save time, money, and energy, as will careful meal planning and creative use of leftovers. Americans typically throw out and waste one-third of their food. Get in the habit of looking for recipes on the Internet, or using cookbooks.
(5) Shop at farmer's markets, consumer coops, or join a Community Supported Agriculture project in your area. This way you can get your organic fruits and vegetables at the most affordable prices. Also look for fruits and vegetables and other foods that are in "Transition" to organic. Start a home garden or join a community gardening project. Eat as many salads and raw foods as possible.
(6) Join or organize an organic and non-GMO wholesale discount food-buying club. This buying club might include just your household or combine the buying power of several households. OCA will be announcing a new national distribution system for organic discount food buying clubs next week. This buying club network will address the Whole Paycheck and Organic Desert problems by offering non-perishable organic and non-GMO foods at an average 30-40% discount off retail prices, delivered directly to your door.
Organic Food Deserts, Highways, and Byways
Most American restaurants--where people spend half of their food dollars--are, in effect, organic food deserts, offering little or no organic fare. The same goes for school and workplace cafeterias, hospitals, universities, hotels, motels, and convenience stores. The United States interstate highway system can only be described as one enormous organic food desert, where low-grade restaurant chains, big box stores, and fast food outlets dominate the landscape.
In the NPR poll cited above, a significant proportion (21%) of Americans say that organic foods are not readily available or accessible in their towns or neighborhoods. In effect large areas of the U.S., including rural communities, small towns, and low-income urban communities are “organic food deserts” with little or no access to natural food stores or farmers markets. If we want to move organic food and farming from being a 4% niche to the norm, we're going to have to "green" these deserts, but not the way Michele Obama has suggested, by bringing Wal-Mart stores into every urban community. Instead to green America’s food deserts we need to “get political” and change publicfood policies. In the meantime, food buying clubs, CSAs, and co-ops can lay down the foundation for organic retail storefronts.
Who Will Grow the Organic Food of the Future?
We’ve got 25,000 organic farmers and ranchers working hard and in many cases starting to make a decent living across North America, but we need a million organic producers if we are to make organic foods readily accessible and more affordable for the majority of consumers. We’ve got eight million acres of U.S. cropland and pastureland under organic management—producing nutrient-dense, healthy food, enriching the soil, preventing erosion, and restoring the soil’s capacity to sequester billions of pounds of climate destabilizing, but this amounts to only 1% of agricultural acreage. We've got thousands of young farm apprentices working on organic farms and CSAs, but we need hundreds of thousands. We've got scores of organic farm schools, but we need thousands, one or more at least in each of the 3200 counties in the U.S. We've got a handful of universities and high schools teaching students about organic farming and animal husbandry, but we need every school and college to offer these programs, starting with elementary school.
We've got a half a million budding backyard organic gardeners, but we need millions, and we need more and more backyard farmerss to expand into market gardening or mini-farms. At the end of the Second World War, half of America's fruits and vegetables (and 30% in the UK) were coming from backyard, school, and community gardens, tended by millions of women, seniors, and youth, called Liberty Gardens. In this era of climate change, Peak Oil, and food insecurity we're going to need to scale up our "grow your own" efforts exponentially, and turn 60 million acres of chemical-intensive, non-edible lawns into organic gardens, mini-farms, and orchards. We're also going to have to build a Main Street to Manhattan grassroots infrastructure of greenhouses and hoop houses, root cellars, food buying clubs, and neighborhood canning facilities.
The Myth of So-Called “Natural” Foods and Products

One of the major reasons why organic food sales and the acreage of organic farmland are still relatively small is the fact that millions of consumers have been hoodwinked into believing that so-called “natural” foods are “almost organic.” Of course the advantage in the marketplace of these so-called “natural foods” is that they are considerably cheaper than organic foods. This is the main reason why Americans buy $50 billion worth of foods and grocery items every year that are marketed as “natural,” while only buying $30 billion worth of organic products. Several recent polls indicate that the majority of health and green-minded consumers don’t know the difference between “natural” or “all natural” and organic foods. If they did know the difference, we’d likely be looking at $80 billion worth of organic foods and products sold every year, not just $30 billion.
Walk down the aisles of any Whole Foods Market (WFM) or Trader Joe’s and look closely. What do you see? Row after row of attractively displayed, but mostly non-organic "natural" (i.e. conventional) foods and products. By marketing sleight of hand, these conventional foods, vitamins, private label items, and personal care products become "natural" or "almost organic" (and overpriced) in the natural food store setting. The overwhelming majority of WFM products, even their best-selling private label, "365" house brand, are not organic, but rather the products of chemical-intensive and energy-intensive farm and food production factories. Test these so-called natural products in a lab and what will you find: pesticide residues, Genetically Modified Organisms, and a long list of problematic chemicals. Trace these products back to the farm or factory and what will you find: climate destabilizing chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, not to mention exploited farm workers and workers in the food processing industry. Of course there are many products in WFM and Trader Joe’s that bear the label "USDA Organic." But the overwhelming majority of their products, even their best selling private labels, are not.

What does certified organic or "USDA Organic" mean? This means these products are certified 95-100% organic. Certified organic means the farmer or producer has undergone a regular inspection of its farm, facilities, ingredients, and practices by an independent Third Party certifier, accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). The producer has followed strict NOP regulations and maintained detailed records. Synthetic pesticides, animal drugs, sewage sludge, GMOs, irradiation, and chemical fertilizers are prohibited. Farm animals, soil, and crops have been managed organically; food can only be processed with certain methods; only allowed ingredients can be used.

On the other hand, what does "natural" really mean, in terms of farming practices, ingredients, and its impact on the environment and climate?

To put it bluntly, "natural," in the overwhelming majority of cases is meaningless, even though most consumers do not fully understand this. Natural, in other words, means conventional, with a green veneer. Natural products are routinely produced using pesticides, chemical fertilizers, hormones, genetic engineering, and sewage sludge. Natural or conventional products-whether produce, dairy, or canned or frozen goods are typically produced on large industrial farms or in processing plants that are highly polluting, chemical-intensive and energy-intensive. "Natural," "all-natural," and "sustainable," products in most cases are neither backed up by rules and regulations, nor a Third Party certifier. Natural and sustainable are typically label claims that are neither policed nor monitored. (For an evaluation of eco-labels see the Consumers Union website The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service provides loose, non-enforced guidelines for the use of the term "natural" on meat--basically the products cannot contain artificial flavors, coloring, or preservatives and cannot be more than minimally processed. On non-meat products, the term “natural” is typically pure propaganda.

The bottom line is that we must put our money and our principles where our values lie. Buy Certified Organic, not so-called natural products, today and every day. And tell your retail grocer or co-op how you feel.