More garden, less plastic
I took last Monday off to visit my dad, a couple of hours south of me. The sister who lives closest to him was visiting relatives in Kentucky, which made it a good time for me to check in on him.
We sat in his apartment for a while, talking and listing things that needed doing: grocery shopping, a haircut, a stop at the pharmacy, bank and library. We planned to meet another of my many sisters for lunch, and then start on errands.
My dad grabbed a bunch of reusable shopping bags from his pantry, and we navigated the paths between snowbanks around his apartment and parking lot.
Our list probably was too long to begin with, and we started knocking things off during lunch. The banks were closed because of the holiday, and my dad figured he could go to the library later in the week. So after the pharmacy and the haircut, and a quick stop at the wine store, we headed out to the supermarket.
Everyone has their own way of shopping, and mine involves getting in and out of any store as fast as possible.
My dad is different. He’s 89 and in no rush. With a nice stable cart to lean on, a long, slow walk — even in a grocery store — is kind of pleasant. And with a daughter and a car trunk, he could stock up.
I lost him in the produce section early on, when I took off to hunt for dish soap, and I didn’t find him again for an hour.
By then I had checked out and was waiting on a bench, periodically standing up and scanning the checkout lines for a short old man in a white cap, because I was pretty sure he was going to forget to pick up the cough medicine the pharmacy had been out of.
I had plenty of time to observe the native shoppers in their natural habitat. Shopping in general kind of freaks me out, and watching checkout at a busy supermarket for 40 minutes or so didn’t help.
First thing I noticed was just how much stuff everyone was buying. Every cart seemed loaded to the top, and most people were spending close to $200.
The other thing was the sheer number of plastic bags that ended up in every single cart. The bags are thin and rip easily, and baggers don’t want to make anything too heavy. With full carts, people were walking out of the store with 35 or more bags apiece, easily. I counted over 50 in one cart.
My dad had brought maybe five midsized cloth bags, and any one of those could hold what baggers were putting into five plastic bags.
Soon I was staring at what was being put into the plastic bags — more plastic, mostly. Plastic bottles, plastic tubs, plastic bags, plastic clamshell boxes. Food wrapped in plastic, stuck into more plastic.
My own family uses more of a gardening and making food from scratch model, so our shopping tends to be for bulk items and source materials — flour, cheese, rice, coffee, dish soap, carrots. My dad lives alone, so it made sense that he was picking up cans of soup and frozen pot pies, each in its own box.
But it doesn’t matter how you shop — bulk or prepackaged — you can’t go to a store without coming home with an alarming amount of plastic.
If I pick up a 5-pound bag of carrots, it’s in a plastic bag. My dad’s blueberries were enclosed in plastic as was his loaf of bread and his deli meats. Multiply that by all the people in all those checkout lines, putting all that plastic-wrapped stuff into more plastic bags . . . well, it made me long for garden season when the food will come directly from the soil to the table, with no packaging but a carrying basket.
I’ve been reading Kristin Kimball’s book, “The Dirty Life,” a memoir about starting Essex Farm, which has been running a whole-diet model CSA since 2003.
It’s an unusual model. In most community supported agriculture models, members buy a “share,” which supplies a weekly load of vegetables to supplement the food budget.
At Essex, Kristin and Mark Kimball wanted to supply all the food a family might need to live — to supplant the need for the supermarket.
The book covers the first year, when they were figuring out how to put their dream into action, and the down-and-dirty details of learning to plow with horses, milk cows by hand, plant fields of vegetables and convince people to buy into the whole idea.
Now they are producing 50 kinds of vegetables, beans, herbs and fruit, plus eggs, beef, pork, chicken, honey, milk, soap and grains, and they have more than 200 members.
It’s not cheap. A share costs $3,700 for the first member of the family, with a discount for the next adult member and an even further discounted rate for children, based on age.
For my husband, me and our 13-year-old son, it would cost $8,560 a year. If my daughter were still home it would cost $11,460.
For us, it wouldn’t make sense, since my husband eats no meat and I eat very little. But looking at all those people with shopping carts loaded with meat and dairy and vegetables and who knows what else, suddenly Essex Farm didn’t seem that expensive.
And what the farm provides is far superior to what was in all those carts — fresh organic produce, animals raised for meat on pasture and organic feed, grown on that farm along Lake Champlain. Kristin talks in the book about how store-bought milk tastes like the carton it comes in, rather than the full rich milk a Jersey cow produces.
Essex members come to the farm once a week and take all they want. Sometimes an item will be restricted — the first ripe tomatoes of the season, for instance — but in most cases there is enough abundance that members are encouraged to take extra for canning and freezing for winter.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was “Farming for Self-Sufficiency: Independence on a 5-Acre Farm” by an English farmer named John Seymour. So I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of being able to produce everything you need on your own.
Our gardens don’t do it, but we try to get a little closer every year. We grow for ourselves and for one neighbor. We have fresh produce in the summer and early fall, and freezer and canned food for the winter. We don’t do meat but we do have eggs, and my husband wants a milk cow. Maybe this year we’ll add more grains to the mix — oats and buckwheat, which we have grown in varying amounts over the past few years.
We don’t come close to a whole-diet model. But maybe we could get a little closer this year.
Anything to keep me out of the supermarket, counting carts and plastic bags.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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