Farmers Markets: Fresh Food Movement Reaches Beyond the Eco-Scene

“Don’t tell me y’all grew these,” the woman said, examining a basket of plump tomatoes, as bright and smooth as any from a supermarket shelf.

Across the table, the woman tending the booth chuckled. “If we had’na grown ’em, they’d throw us outta here.” Even a small-town farmers’ market has rules. One of them is that you can only sell produce you’ve grown yourself.

The chuckling woman goes on to explain how she manages to grow perfect tomatoes, even this late in the season. She and her husband, a slim farmer with a scraggly gray beard, are fond of handing out advice to their customers, right along with the rattlesnake beans and eggplants. In fact, they seem to enjoy talking about vegetables as much as selling them.

Last week, the bearded farmer warned me with particular zeal against weeding watermelons, something he says should never be done. Never. 

He seemed to know his melons, so I bought one from him, along with some eggplants. The eggplants were especially good, some of the best I’ve had. Today, I tell him as much.

“How’d you cook ’em?” he demands. He and his wife listen with genuine interest before sharing their own recipe.

Farther down the line of tables, another farmer is selling jars of bay leaves from his twenty-five-year-old tree. Every year for more than two decades, he tells me, he has carefully pruned his bay tree and collected and dried the leaves. The trees grow real slow, so there’s a bit of history in those jars.

Conversations like these are what you come to expect from a local farmers’ market, but they’re simply impossible in the supermarket system. In the Wal-Mart age, we’ve almost done away with face-to-face, farm-to-table food shopping. While we’ve gained convenience, we’ve lost personality, and I don’t think it’s a fair trade.

I’m not the only one. Nationwide, there are enough local foodies to support over 7,000 farmers’ markets; the number has increased 150 percent since 2000. And they’re not just popular in green strongholds. Even in Alabama, where the recycling rate is appallingly low, farmers’ markets are everywhere. Buying fresh and local is something we all can get behind.

To many greens, local food and sustainability go hand-in-hand. But unlike many aspects of sustainable living, farmers’ markets have not been colonized by politics. People don’t go to make a political statement; they go because they want to buy fresh food from real people they can get to know. That’s part of what makes farmers’ markets successful throughout the country.

The social aspect of farmers’ markets runs deep. Your food dollars stay in the community and help independent growers stay independent. The money goes to the growers themselves, not to faceless corporations. And until you’ve experienced it, you don’t realize the value of actually knowing your farmer.

Some folks who have been around a bit longer than I might be amused that the idea of buying food from an individual is suddenly new and progressive. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that people visited the barber, the dentist, the grocer… Then came fast-food culture–an example of progress taking a wrong turn.

In recent years, the trend has been toward convenience, at the cost of quality and personality. But if we want to build sustainable communities–not just companies with social responsibility statements–we need to shake the drive-through mentality. We need to take a good, long look at our food priorities.

Why choose food out of so many pressing issues? Food has one thing that solar panels and Priuses do not: a universal connection. In other words, everybody has to eat, and most of us would rather eat something good. As a result, many people with no interest in being green are turning back to real, fresh food. It’s this group, as much as the granola types, that has made farmers’ markets popular.

In short, food brings families and communities together. Because of that, it is powerful.

Image credit: Natalie Maynor

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Green Indie Products of the Month: The New Life of Fire Hoses, Birch Stumps, and Delhi Trash

This is part of a series of monthly posts featuring sustainable and independent brands from around the web. If you want to see your favorite indie seller on the Green Lens, get in touch via the contact page or @thegreenlens.

Firehose Belt x Feuerwear

The green manufacturing scene is hardly short of innovative textiles, but the belts and bags from Feuerwear use a truly original material: retired firefighting hoses. (The German word feuer translates to “fire.”) The fashionably worn look of Feuerwear’s belts is not the result of an artificial “distressing” process but of a hardworking previous life. How else would you be able to tell your friends that your belt helped save lives?

+ Feuerwear

Upcycled Wallet x Holstee

Soon after quitting their day jobs, the founders of Holstee gained Internet fame with their much-reblogged Manifesto Poster. Another signature product, the upcycled wallet, is an accessory with a story.

Working with a family-run non-profit based in India that works to collect, sort and clean what was once litter from the streets of Delhi we were able to create our dream wallet. This vegan wallet is made primarily of plastic bags and newspapers. Production of the wallet helps reduce waste in Delhi, provides fair wage employment and subsidizes healthcare and education for each employee’s family.

If you have a functioning wallet, it’s really greener just to keep using it, but if you’re shopping for a new cash-carrier anyway, these are a hip and sustainable choice.

Holstee

 

White Birch Forest Lights and Clock x Urban+Forest

 

 

 

 

 

 

The work of this Rockland, Maine-based studio has a rustic, and sometimes surreal, aesthetic. Urban+Forest’s lamps, coasters, clocks, and wall art are handmade from reclaimed birch. They promise to bring the outdoors into your contemporary space at a surprisingly affordable price. I might have to subtract some green points for the incandescent bulbs, but that design choice is easy to overlook in such beautiful pieces.

+ Urban+Forest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Girl Scout Cookies and Rainforest Destruction: Teens Working to Break the Connection

Why two Girl Scouts are campaigning against Girl Scout Cookies — and how their efforts have taken America by storm.

Four years ago, Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen were doing research for their bronze award project. Their subject of choice was the endangered orangutan and the threats it faces from deforestation. They discovered a little-publicized fact about Indonesian rainforest destruction: Acres upon acres of orangutan habitat are being cleared for plantations to produce palm oil, an ingredient in about 10 percent of consumer products. Madison and Rhianon decided that their goal would be to raise awareness about palm oil and its impact on endangered species.

Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen

If that had been the end of it, the project would have been commendable. But the girls’ focus shifted when they found that the Girl Scout Cookies they sold every year contained palm oil. Suddenly, they weren’t just working toward a badge; they were campaigning to change one of the country’s most well-known nonprofits.

Now fifteen and sixteen, Madison and Rhiannon have partnered with Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to bring their message to a wider audience. Their PR efforts paid off in May with a front-page Wall Street Journal story, followed by a flurry of TV interviews on ABC, CBS, and Fox News (yes, even Fox).

The responses from Girl Scouts USA have been more defensive than sympathetic. In early May, for instance, RAN and Change.org helped Madison and Rhiannon launch a social media campaign to put pressure on the Girl Scouts administration. After about fifty messages had been posted on the Girl Scouts Facebook page, GSUSA deleted the comments and added a statement assuring viewers that “our bakers source palm oil exclusively from members of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil.”

The claim is true but misleading. RAN calls the RSPO “more of a pay-to-play organization than a serious watchdog group:”

There is a very important distinction between RSPO membership and RSPO certification. RSPO certification is a seal of approval that is given to palm oil grown on a plantation that has been certified through a verification of the production process by accredited certifying agencies. In theory, the “certified sustainable” palm oil (RSPO oil) is traceable through the supply chain by certification of each facility along the supply chain that processes or uses the certified oil.

RSPO membership, however, does not require companies to follow sustainability guidelines. In a letter to GSUSA CEO Kathy Cloninger, RAN explained,

[RSPO} member companies have been documented clearing forest, peatland and critical wildlife habitat while ignoring human rights — all of which are prohibited in the RSPO principles and criteria. In essence RSPO membership does not ensure that deforestation, orangutan extinction, and climate change are not found in Girl Scout cookies.

For instance, one RSPO member, IOI Group, is illegally operating a palm plantation on the ancestral land of the Long Teran Kenan people, in Malaysian Borneo. A court ruled that the plots in question were, indeed, on indigenous land, but the conflict has not yet been resolved, and the RSPO has failed to take decisive action against IOI.

Returning to the Girl Scouts, the organization’s executives did finally meet with Madison and Rhiannon while the girls were in New York for their media interviews. The meeting was a step forward, with GSUSA leaders verbally agreeing to address concerns about deforestation and human rights abuses.

The bakers of Girl Scout Cookies began using palm oil in 2006, in an effort to rid the cookies of trans fats. (Palm oil is the cheapest “healthy” oil.) A spokesperson for the Girl Scouts has insisted that the group has little or no say in the cookies’ ingredients — it’s up to bakers. But if GSUSA demanded a recipe change, the bakers would have to comply, or else lose the Girl Scouts business. With 200 million boxes of cookies selling per year, the idea that GSUSA has no influence is a bit hard to believe.

Part of the mission of the Girl Scouts is to empower girls to “make the world a better place,” and the idea seems to be working. Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen are making a difference; they’ve already brought as much attention to the palm oil-deforestation issue as any environmental group has so far. Their biggest challenge, ironically, is getting the Girl Scouts leadership to follow its own credo.

This story should serve as inspiration for any young person who hopes to spark positive change. If and when Girl Scouts USA does make its cookies rainforest-friendly, the impact will be huge. And two teenaged girls will be responsible.

How to get involved: Sign up for RAN’s Girl Scouts e-mail list here. Learn how you can take action online and offline.  

Green Indie Products of the Month: Recycled Art, Hand-carved Furniture, and Wool Hats with a Mission

This is part of a series of monthly posts featuring sustainable and independent brands from around the web. If you want to see your favorite indie seller on the Green Lens, get in touch via the contact page or @thegreenlens.

Recycled Mixed Media Art by Dolan Geiman

Chicago artist Dolan Geiman uses salvaged wood and found objects to create pieces that are at once rustic and cutting-edge. His “contemporary art with a Southern accent” has earned him national recognition and high-profile clients, such as Fossil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geiman’s “greenness” is rooted in an authentic DIY ethic:

Incorporating eco-friendly practices into our business has been a natural process since its inception. For Dolan, the idea of taking things and repurposing them was an ideological current passed down from generation to generation for a family living in a rural community. Years later, having moved to Chicago with a few bucks and a car-load of artwork and supplies, the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra was a similar economic reality for an emerging artist and burgeoning arts company.

Interpretive Furniture by Gray Works Design

Andrew Gray and Elizabeth Bryant run a woodworking shop in the Catskill Mountain town of Bearsville. Like Dolan Geiman’s constructions, Andrew Gray’s hand-carved  bowls, tables, and plates have a sense with timeless craftsmanship. The handmade style doesn’t come cheap, but each piece is a unique work of art.

In an article on the Etsy blog, Andrew and Elizabeth said their sustainable values are inspired the setting in which they work:

Our love of place informs the objects we create, as well as our strong sense of responsibility to cultivate an environmentally sustainable company. We owe everything to the wilderness where we live and work, so protecting and supporting it is our highest priority.

 

Reclaimed Wool Hats by Bricologable

 

 

Bricologable is the project of a San Francisco crafter “with an underutilized degree in history and an oddly applied degree in fashion design.” The limited edition hats featured in the online shop are made from reclaimed wool, and, better still, 10 percent of the profits go to Muttville, a charity that rescues and advocates for senior dogs.

Green Entrepreneur Ted Nordquist Brings a Sustainable Philosophy to the Business World (Part 2)

This is the second part of my interview with WholeSoy founder Ted A. Nordquist. (You can read Part 1 here.) In addition to running his soy yogurt company, Mr. Nordquist serves on the technical advisory board for the Non-GMO Project. So it’s not surprising that a large part of the discussion focused on the risks and ethics of genetically engineered foods.

GMO stands for genetically modified organism, a life form created by combining genes that would not come together in nature.

“The best example is a tomato that is resistant to frost,” Nordquist says. To create this plant, “[biotech researchers] take a gene from the DNA of an arctic fish that is cold-resistant and inject it into the DNA of a tomato plant. But the tomato plant DNA won’t accept the gene, so they take a virus called a marker gene,  attach it to the fish gene, and shoot it into the DNA of the tomato plant.”

While people have been hybridizing plants for centuries, genetic engineering is different. Using traditional breeding methods, you could combine separate tomato plants to produce a desired characteristic, such as larger fruit. But you couldn’t combine a fish with a tomato.

Genetic engineering is a way of breaking the rules, or “reprogramming the operating system of nature,” as Nordquist puts it. Because this form of genetics is relatively new, its consequences are largely unknown.

The problem, Nordquist says, is that DNA is extremely complex (one strand has enough information to fill the Library of Congress), and researchers don’t completely understand its workings. Many people, including Nordquist, believe there is not enough evidence to declare genetically engineered food safe. “It’s a huge human experiment.”

Due to the uncertainty surrounding GMOs, several countries have banned or restricted them, and the European Union requires GMO foods to be labeled. But no such measures have been passed in the United States, thanks to lobbying by the biotech industry.

What advantages do GMO plants offer? In many cases, they can increase productivity. For instance, a farmer who plants herbicide-resistant corn can spray Roundup on his fields without killing the crop. GM has also been used to make vegetables more nutritious and to give them a longer shelf life.

Even for farmers, GMOs have their downsides. When using conventional plants, a farmer can collect the seeds and replant them year after year. However, Nordquist explains that this is not possible with GMO plants, because the engineered organisms are considered the property of the company that invented them. No one else has the right to reproduce the “name-brand” plant varieties.

“What [biotech companies] are after,” Nordquist warns, “is control of the food chain.” If the industry keeps progressing the way it is, “someday in the future, some guys in black suits will show up at a small Asian farm and tell the farmer that he has to pay them a dollar an acre, or they will sue him” because he is planting a seed they created.

The power to change the GMO situation lies in the hands of consumers. That is why groups like the Non-GMO Project are working to educate shoppers. The Non-GMO project is also pioneering a labeling system for certified GMO-free foods.

Third-party certification is an important tool for buyers that want to support Non-GMO foods. Many people do not realize that up to 90 percent of corn and 92 percent of soybean acreage in the U.S. is genetically modified. And the “USDA organic” sticker does not necessarily indicate a GMO-free product.

After discussing the concrete issues of green business and genetic engineering, Nordquist returns to philosophy—a subject with which he seems fittingly comfortable.

“The only way people will be able to survive on the planet,” he says, “is if they can come in contact with their fundamental natural essence, a sense of comfort, being at peace with themselves.”

It is this deeper sense of nature than makes Nordquist stand out among other green business leaders. For him, social responsibility isn’t just a buzzword. He is committed to sustainability because he believes it’s the right thing to do—and he isn’t afraid to say so.

Nordquist closes with a hopeful message for the future: “Everyone has inside them the essential program that runs the universe. If people become one with that innate essence, that essence of love and joy… everything will be all right.”