Friday, March 18, 2011

Part I: Be the Change - Garden Bloggers' Sustainable Living Project

This post is inspired by Jan, who is hosting the second annual Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living Project in honor of Earth Day on April 22nd. To participate and/or to see more garden bloggers' posts on sustainable living, please visit her where she blogs at Thanks for Today.

Growing up in a family of farmers and organic gardeners, and being a life-long organic vegetable gardener myself, I've always been passionate for sustainable, healthy living. My parents, four siblings and I spent our early years living in a 2-flat on Chicago's north side, and moved to our little house with the big yard in the spring when I was ten years old. Our first big family projects in our new home were building a very large compost bin and a huge vegetable garden. We grew up on organic vegetables, and local, free-range chicken and eggs Mom bartered for in exchange for her excellent sewing skills.

Mom and her Garden Buddy still grow a large vegetable garden. Most of the rest of their food comes from local organic farmers.

For some of our other groceries, Mom shopped at the local health food store, and a local farm stand, long before the days of the prolific farmers markets that continue to pop up all around the Chicago area and around the country. Almost everything we ate was fresh, whole, slow food. Even though we lived in an inner-ring suburb with little nearby farm land, we were locavores as much as possible in those days, long before those terms were coined and those concepts were trendy.

As young children, we came home from school every day for a freshly-prepared, wholesome lunch. Our cream-top milk from a local dairy was delivered in glass returnable bottles along with eggs, butter, and other delicious, farm fresh food. After we moved to the suburbs and carried our (re-usable) lunchboxes to school, our lunches were made from whole foods and fresh fruits and veggies. Snacks besides vegetables, nuts, fresh and dried fruit were almost always homemade. (I still have fond memories of Mom's healthy and delicious oatmeal-raisin cookies, homemade bread, and whole-grain pizzas!) Our sandwiches were made from wholesome ingredients on brown breads while our friends were eating processed cold cuts, Wonder Bread and Twinkies.

My own three girls were raised on the same kinds of fresh, whole, wholesome foods, and got to grow up experiencing the pleasure of fresh garden vegetables, often eaten still warm from the sun. There was little room for boxed, canned, and other processed foods in our house, and there were times the girls, like their mom, aunt, and uncles before them were envious of friends who were growing up on the prolifically advertised and touted-as-modern-and-convenient heavily-processed boxed, frozen, and canned foods, and sugary sodas. Ding Dongs and orange cheese doodles were a lot more popular at school than fresh fruits and vegetables and real-food homemade snacks. We were the kids no one wanted to swap lunches with.

Just as I had, my daughters grew up on fresh, mostly homemade and home-grown slow food. Even then, organic was our first choice for everything that didn't come from our garden. As adults they have adopted these same kinds of choices in how they feed themselves and their own young families. They're grateful for having been raised as 'conscious eaters.' They understand the importance of, and know how to provide themselves and their families with whole, health-sustaining, as unadulterated-as-possible, nourishing foods.
My youngest in her grandma's garden

Over the years, the SAD (Standard American Diet) has become even more nutritionally-deficient, artificial, chemical-laden, inferior, and filled with cheap, health-robbing, government-subsidized commodity ingredients. Processed, convenience, and fast foods are produced by the enormous, highly-profitable US industrial food system and are pesticide-laced, artificially-colored and flavored, high in sugar, preservatives, hydrogenated and trans fats, genetically-modified, stripped of nutrients, and then, incredibly, fortified with cheap synthentic, poorly-assimilated isolated vitamins and minerals that cannot possibly take the place of whole, natural, fresh food.

Farm animals in this country are mostly raised in industrially-run CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations,) where they are fed horribly unnatural, genetically-modified diets supplemented with unspeakable garbage, treated with antibiotics, artificial and genetically-modified hormones, and housed in unnatural, often filthy environments, crowded and barely able to move, and often standing, sitting, and lying in their own waste. It's no wonder food-borne illness has become such a huge issue in our country. Food-borne illness takes a huge toll when it strikes families and individuals. It kills. When it doesn't kill, it can leave it's victims with chronic, incurable diseases. I am one of the unlucky individuals who learned this first-hand.

The waste from CAFO-raised animals is a huge problem which pollutes our water, air, and soil, and damages the quality of life in surrounding communities where the toxins and stench they unleash into the the environment lead to health problems for surrounding residents, especially the most vulnerable: the children. Antibiotics fed to livestock raised in these unnatural conditions are contributing to the dangerous rise in antibiotic-resistant superbugs like MRSA and certain strains of e-coli.

It's little wonder the United States now ranks 49th in the world for life expectancy, down from 24th in 1999, and 11th in 1986. Two years ago the US ranked 28th in the world in infant mortality, down from 12th in 1960. For the first time in US history, today's young children can expect shorter lifespans than their parents, and are suffering from a host of health conditions virtually unknown in previous generations. Diet-related obesity and diabetes are afflicting our children at rates never seen before. And while the population of the US and the world is growing unsustainably, the alarmingly increasing rates of infertility and miscarriage are probably not the most desirable means of population control.

The US industrial food system is producing disease and our health care system is broken. Our air, water, and food are filled with dangerous toxins, and factory farming and industrial food are major contributors to these problems.

Here in the United States, the unholy alliance between our government and industrial polluters, Big Ag, and Big Pharma has led to a seriously broken system that is taking a huge toll on human, animal, and environmental health. Genetically-modified foods are being unleashed into our environment and into our food without proper, ethical scientific evidence of their safety. The news is not good.

As gardeners we may be in more direct contact with the natural world than the average person. We know the importance of organic and sustainable gardening - for the sake of our soil, our pollinators, and the other wildlife that visit our gardens, and for the health our of pets, our families, and our own health. Most of us know that pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are not healthy for the natural world, of which we are inextricably a part. More and more of us are using organic, sustainable gardening methods.

More and more of us are learning of the importance of native plants for the health of our soil and our beleaguered pollinators. More and more of us are planting open-pollinated heirlooms in our vegetable gardens, saving and swapping seeds, and going organic from seed to table. And more and more of us are becoming activists and advocates for local, organic, and sustainably-produced food. Home vegetable gardening is growing in popularity, and encouragingly, more and more young people are becoming sustainable, organic food gardeners and farmers.

In Part II, I'll talk about how I've opted out of the unsustainable industrial food system as completely as possible.


  1. I, too, was one of the kids that no one wanted to swap lunches with. Sodas and fast food were not staples in my house growing up. And I had friends who would drink a Coke for breakfast! I am inspired by your story, that one day when I have children, I can share with them the bounty from my vegetable garden.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. I grew up in much the same way. Dad had a huge garden and I used to pull my wagon to the local store to sell or trade with the owner. They loved to see me coming with my beautiful tomatoes. We fed the whole neighborhood from his garden. Balisha

  3. I always get pressure from my kids to pack junk in their lunches - and sugar drinks in plastic packaging. They make it sound like I'm the ONLY mom who refuses to buy this stuff - I know that can't be true. I hope that eventually what they now see as restrictions will result in healthy eating habits. Keep on living the good life, Garden Girl.

  4. Hello, Garden Girl,
    As I am getting up to speed on how to write an effective blog, I am researching blogs like yours for ways to do it well...Well, yours is a well-written, informative, and well-researched commentary. I am encouraged that there are others who have found out the same things about sustainability :)
    I had wanted to load all of my Weston A. Price articles (with my photos to support them), but find they have to be posted one by one to appear. So through the next few months, I will get them in...all to prove a point - the research is there.
    Thanks for the encouragement. If you have any advice or know of any forums to participate in where I can get some exposure, It would be so helpful.

  5. Hi garden girl
    You're so right! I grow some vegetables on my balcony and it works :o). The food industry isn't interested in our health but only in their profit. It's great how you've raised your kids.
    Kind regards

  6. An excellent essay on such an important topic, Linda. I grew up much the same way as you, Linda, although we lived on a farm, so we also had chickens and fresh eggs and lots of fresh, creamy milk. My mom even churned butter when Dad still raised a few dairy cows. But as I got older and busier and busier, I found myself resorting to convenience foods in order to get a meal on the table quickly for my family of six. Although I made sure my children ate lots of vegetables, I don't think I set the best example for eating healthy. I regret that, and now I've found myself cooking more like my mother and thinking how I can make something from scratch rather than from a box full of preservatives.

  7. Hi Lisa, one day your future children will thank you! I'm very grateful to my mom for raising us on real food. (Although I wasn't always at the time - I really did want some junk food in my lunch!) My girls are grateful too, and the two who now have their own children are raising them the same way. The two with SO's have been good influences on their men too!
    I'm so glad we never got in the habit of drinking soda!

    So glad you enjoyed it Balisha! How fortunate we are having grown up on fresh vegetables from our family gardens! It's wonderful seeing home vegetable gardens making a comeback.

    It would be wonderful, JGH, if one day kids who are carrying healthy lunches to school were the norm instead of the exception. I remember pressuring my mom, and my girls often wished for junkier lunches too. Stick to your guns - one day your kids will thank you, and the healthy habits formed as children will hopefully go with them through their lives.

    Hello Jacque! Thank you - glad you enjoyed it.

    Twitter and Facebook are places where your blog can get some exposure. Visiting and commenting on other blogs is another way. Since your blog seems to be religious in nature, I'd suggest forums that are similarly-themed.

    Thank you Alex. I completely agree with you about the food industry. Glad you have some space to grow some of your own vegetables!

    Thank you Rose. How lucky you were growing up on a farm and being raised on such wonderful food!

    It can definitely be challenging for working families to find time for cooking and fresh, whole foods. I don't think I could have done it without involving my girls and their dad in meal preparation, cleanup, and other household chores. They would have gladly let me (try to!) manage it all myself, and there were times it seemed like the path of least resistance!

    I'm so grateful my parents got all of us kids involved in household responsibilities including cooking and cleanup. It gave me a good model to follow with my own household. Even my dad cooked (he didn't do much cleaning though!) Just like me when i was a kid, my girls and their dad didn't always like having those responsibilities, but it was good for them, it was fair, and I felt less overwhelmed with everyone pitching in to help.

    Kudos to you for getting back to those cooking-from-scratch roots! It's not only more healthful, it tastes SO much better too!

  8. A wonderful post, Linda! Although my mom had a vegetable garden when we were young, healthy food was not a consistent part of our diet. I look back in amazement at how much junk I ate at such a young age. Growing organically and maintaining healthier eating habits has been an important part of getting older and starting my own family.

  9. That SAD diet sounds depressingly sad! Grow our own is still the yawning gap in my green living. But way back, it was my mother who taught me to avoid battery eggs. In the days when we were lucky to get a tiny delivery at the health food shop. Now the supermarkets stock free range eggs. Sometimes even organic eggs.

  10. thanks for visiting my blog which led me back here.... As more and more people become aware I am convinced that the SAD will become a thing of the past and we will return to growing our own yet again.

  11. It's so cool how you were raised on real food and with your mom really into gardening. I ate an odd combination of really healthy stuff and the SAD. One main thing I've done in the last year is buy local, non-rBST milk. I grow more veggies each year and try to buy local when I can. :)

  12. It is EE. It's gotten worse over the years, and it shows in the statistics, SADly. It is encouraging though, that local and organic food, and home food gardening is on the rise.

    My pleasure AA. I found your blog through Jan's project post. :) I hope so. It seems so important for our own health, our children's and grandchildren's, and the planet's health.

    I didn't always think it was so cool as a kid Monica! I wanted someone to want my lunch, and I sure wanted theirs sometimes! (Sorry Mom!) But as an adult I'm so grateful. And my kids got the same kind of lunches. We did get junk food treats now and then, but they definitely weren't every-day fare.

    I'm very impressed with your veggie gardening, and it's great you're able to get some good local food!

  13. I admire your dedication. Living and believing in slow food and sustainable methods is not for the lazy or weak! As a city girl, I have a lot to learn...!

  14. I'm grateful to my parents for raising us this way Sissy, and for Mom and her Garden Buddy's continuing inspiration. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if not for their example.

    We don't have access to as many local resources as they do, but it's because of them I've been inspired to find the most sustainable and local sources for food as I can.

    It definitely takes effort, but the rewards are more than worth it. It's getting so much easier as local resources are becoming more accessible.

    Every little bit helps, and makes a difference for our own health and for our environment.

  15. Linda, the information you share is both inspiring and depressing;-) But I'll focus on the inspiring aspect of it all and HOPE our country will advance rather than continue to regress--didn't realize our life-expectancy was beginning to fall! Our 'quick fix' lifestyle often seems so good for short-term convenience but reading your post tells the real story. Thank you for sharing with me all of those tips for chemical free creams, shampoos & personal care products, as well. You are a wealth of info, girl! I remember eating a combination of healthy & unhealthy as a kid. We had our milk delivered from the dairy farm and my dad had a small garden, and he raised chickens. But we also ate a lot of fattening desserts and drank a lot of soda! Anyway, thanks for helping us all 'think' a bit. I look forward to part 2;-)

  16. I know how you feel Jan - there is much we could be discouraged about with regard to the state of food production and health statistics here in the US. The good thing is there is a lot that informed consumers can do to protect the health of our families. As more and more of us take advantage of the increasing resources for environmentally-sound, sustainably-produced food (and other things like chemical-free personal-care products,) we CAN make a stand for protecting the environment, improving our health, supporting local, sustainable agriculture, and hopefully, ultimately contributing to changes in food production and health policies.

    When consumers demand change, take personal responsibility for what we put in and on our bodies, and refuse to support the business as usual, the market responds. We're seeing change in the increasing availability of organics, local food, sustainable practices, and consumer consciousness. Overall it's still 'business as usual,' but for those of us demanding change, more and more resources, including the information we need to become more informed consumers are becoming available. It's up to us what we do about it.

  17. Hi,

    I wanted to email you in regards in any possible advertising opportunities you may have with your website...I would be very interested in working something out with you if you have anything at the moment. I'm looking to earn support for a national cause and get visibility for the "plant 1 billion trees" project which Andrew Liveris and the Nature Conservancy have partnered up on for people to donate $1 to. Let me know if you would be interested at all in supporting this cause. I look forward to talking to you soon!

  18. Hi Garden Girl, I love the SAD acronym. So true.

    I always used to tell my children we didn't have enough money to waste it on junk food with no nutritional value.

    We grow some vegetables, but really love our CSA grower, so I hope you'll talk about that component of dropping out of the industrial food system.

  19. Hi Nerissa, my email is

    Hi Adrian, Yep, the typical US diet is very SAD.

    Good for you not being pressured to waste good money on bad food! It's not always easy saying no to those sweet, pleading little faces!

    I love our CSA farmer too, and am so grateful for what he and his family are doing to provide us with such good food. I could do a whole post only on CSAs. Our CSA is definitely an important component in my dropping out of the industrial food system.

  20. Fantastic post, Linda. Lots of, um, er, food for thought. I wonder how much different the prices were for local, fresh food before it became so trendy. If the government had subsidized this instead of all the other stuff in agriculture I wonder how much different life would be for many who live in what is commonly called food deserts.

  21. A good reminder to all to eat well. It is a lesson I should learn because even with fresh vegetables here I do not eat as healthy as I should. It's nice to hear about your background and growing up in an organic family is extra special.

  22. Thank you MBT! As far as I can recall, when I was a kid, and as my kids were growing up, local food was very reasonably-priced. Since it's seasonal and only plentiful in season, learning home preservation methods is key to its affordability, and to its availability off-season.

    CSAs are a really good way to go for affordable local food. Our local, pasture-raised meats are a good example. If I bought it by the pound it would cost more. With the CSA, although we don't pick what we receive, and have to get creative with what we get, it's a more affordable way to get it. For me the extra cost can be compensated for in other ways, and I've gotten really good at not wasting anything. We used to throw away a lot of food - not anymore. I even use the bones to make homemade stock. Watching my mom doing it for years, I think it's probably easier for me to do it affordably than it would be if I was trying to figure it out on my own.

    I am convinced government subsidies of commodity crops have contributed a lot to the problem of food deserts and way too much (relatively) cheap, processed food.

    Tina, it's a lesson I've re-learned. I'd strayed a bit in recent years from my mom's good example. Working a stressful, (more than) full-time job made convenience foods pretty appealing sometimes. I'm grateful I have more time now to devote to sourcing and preparing healthier fare, especially since health and environmental concerns have brought me (running!) back. And, it's getting easier now, as healthier options are becoming more readily available where we live. I'm really grateful for what I learned from my mom about healthy eating - it's made it easier to figure out than it might have otherwise been.

  23. p.s another way I've made more room in the budget is growing some of our own veggies. Starting everything from seeds helps. Overwintering tender plants helps too. Also, I'm not buying plants for the ornamental beds anymore. Going native helps there - I even start those plants from seeds now. It mean deferring gratification, since they take awhile to get established. Seed-swapping and passalong plants have also helped. Doing all these things has not only drastically slashed my gardening expenses, it's more environmentally-friendly too.

    And MBT, you've given me some really good budget-and-environmentally-friendly gardening tips!

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