Sunday, February 27, 2011

Salad bar beef, pigaerator pork, and faith-based farming (Part Two)

Project: Peace works to connect church members with social organizations that promote just and sustainable societies. The organization is a non-profit run on the principles of Christianity; they state their core values as mercy, justice, and peace. Their event, “An evening with Joel Salatin”, involved two separate talks. The first was specific to the biodynamic practices Joel employs on Polyface Farms, which I described a few weeks ago. In the second talk, he discussed the way his religious beliefs have governed his farming philosophy.

Joel began the talk with a controversial subject: abortion. He pointed out the inconsistency he sees between peoples’ beliefs about human life versus animal life. Being very concerned with animal welfare while also being pro-choice, to him, seems no less contradictory than “hitting the drive-thru on the way to the pro-life rally”. How can we respect and honor people, he asked, if we can’t even do it for animals?

As Joel sees it, all life is sacred, and that means there is a moral dimension to food. If Christianity guides your moral compass, you ought to consider the manner in which your food is grown or raised. He strongly disagrees with the idea that what is spiritual is good and what is physical is bad. Prayer alone cannot make up for immoral actions; you are responsible for what you do. Supporting the industrial food system is an immoral act.

Joel’s faith-based approach to food and farming relies on several core ideas:
  • Transparency over secrecy
  • Decomposition over sterility
  • Humility over hubris
  • Nurturing over manipulation
  • Freedom over tyranny

There are several themes reflected in these principles. First, we are not controllers of nature but an integral part. Our actions affect the natural world, which in turn, affects our well-being. Second, nature is very effective at growing food; nurturing natural processes has fewer ethical grey areas than systems developed to manipulate nature. Lastly, people should have access to the farms where their food is grown and raised. That’s why Polyface Farms has an open door policy unlike, say, a Tyson chicken farm.

Joel explained that a farm with biblical values should be one that fosters resilience and regeneration, leaving room for redemption and rebirth. It is a place that should be aesthetically pleasing, a place of beauty that celebrates the world that has been given to us. Water pollution, contamination, and the stench of industrial farms are simply unacceptable.

Joel concluded with a rather poetic reminder that the food that sustains us depends on a complex system of microscopic organisms living within the soil, an intricate process of life and death, of growth and decomposition. Also alluding to the spiritual world, Joel finished by saying, “you and I depend on a world we don’t even see.”

I found Joe’s talk unexpectedly moving. When it comes to religious beliefs and faith-based political opinions, Joel and I couldn’t be much farther apart. I was raised Jewish, my life philosophy can be best described as humanist*, and I’m a liberal. And yet, Joel and I share the same views on extending morality to food systems and respecting life even when we will choose to end it. We both believe that the beauty of our environment has inherent value and is worthy of protection. And we both believe that we need to approach our interactions with nature from a place of humility knowing that we understand only a small fraction of the processes that make human life possible on the planet Earth.

It is a fascinating and powerful thing that people from such disparate backgrounds and beliefs can come to the same conclusions about the morality and sustainability of food systems. If we could get all of these people to take active roles in fighting for change, we just might have a chance.

Over the past fifty years, our democracy has become much more receptive to the voices and needs of corporations who have the money and the motivation to fight for their own interests. In fact, one of Joel’s farming books is called “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal”, in which he describes how hard it is to run a business that doesn’t fall in line with the industrial status quo.

In contrast to the corporate lobbying structure, there are very few groups advocating for the needs and interests of citizens that have enough power to enact policies and truly affect change. But we citizens have something that the corporations do not have. We have votes. A large group of citizens acting together is more powerful than a wealthy corporation can ever be. All we really need is unity and fortitude.

*For those of you unfamiliar with humanism, it is the idea we need to infuse our lives with morality and purpose whether or not we will be judged for our actions after death. Human society may never come to a consensus as to which religion and its corresponding precepts represents truth, so we need to work together to devise a common morality. In the words of Bill and Ted, we should “be excellent to each other”.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Very veggie cassoulet.

Servings: About six bowlfulls.
Scraps for worms: About 4 cups.
Prep time: 25 min.
Cook time: 35 min.

This dish is easy to make and chock full of vitamins and minerals. There are a lot of veggies to chop, which can take a while especially if you are also cleaning them as you go. Hence, I would recommend this recipe for a weekend night. Alternatively, you could chop the veggies in advance (perhaps the night before), and then it would be easy to make the following night. This recipe is vegan and gluten free.

2 Tbsp olive oil
10 cups coarsely chopped vegetables
8 oz sliced mushrooms or 2 portabella mushroom caps
3-4 cloves of minced garlic
8 cups of coarsely chopped greens
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme
4 cups (3-4 cans) white beans
4 cups diced (3-4 cans) or chopped (fresh) tomatoes with liquid
2 cups broth
Pepper, salt, and cayenne pepper, to taste

- For our 10 cups of veggies, we used: 1 leek, 1 yellow onion, 3 small red potatoes, 3 small carrots, and 4 medium zucchini.
- Our greens were a combination of collard greens, chard, and kale.
- We usually use veggie broth, but we had some leftover beef broth in the freezer that we made from special Marin Sun Farms beef bones for Thanksgiving. Another alternative to broth would be to add an extra can of tomatoes or just add water.
- We used pinto beans; I don’t know if they are technically white beans - the traditional sort for a cassoulet.
- We have a really big skillet with high sides. If you don’t have a huge pan, you should probably halve the recipe or at least leave out the mushrooms.

1. Chop everything! Keep the vegetables, mushrooms, and garlic separate from the greens and the herbs. Drain and rinse the beans.
2. Warm olive oil over medium heat. Add the greens. Saute until greens wilt, about 5 minutes.
3. Add vegetables and garlic. Saute until veggies begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Stir often to cook evenly. Add pepper, salt, and cayenne pepper to taste.
4. Add tomatoes, herbs, and about half a cup of the broth. Stir well. Bring to a boil.
5. Add beans and the rest of the broth. Stir well. Bring to a boil; then, reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A wiggly way to wipe out waste.

I had always assumed that food scraps were the best kind of trash because food is biodegradable. I figured my old banana peels would decompose in the landfill a heck of a lot faster than the wrapper on my granola bar. Perhaps. But here is something I didn’t take into account. For food scraps to decompose in the normal way, they need oxygen. And one thing you do not get in a landfill is a steady flow of oxygen. Instead, food scraps simply get buried under more and more stuff causing them to petrify. Apparently, all the food scraps I have tossed out are fossilized in my regional landfill. Dang.

One alternative to petrified food scraps is a food scrap recycling program. Many communities now offer this service in which they pick up the food scraps you collect in a little pail and deliver them to a compost center instead of a landfill. Composted food decomposes and leaves behind a potent fertilizer that is either sold or given away to members of the community. If you are lucky enough to live in a community that offers food scrap recycling, I highly encourage you to participate.

According to, food scraps make up 35% of the waste sent to landfills from my county of Alameda. We have a food scrap recycling program that aims to reduce this food waste. Unfortunately, my housing community is not currently participating in the program so I have to find another way to deal with my food scraps.

One option, of course, it to build myself a compost pile. But frankly, composting sounds hard. I don’t have a lot of time to devote to this project, and compost bins seem to need a lot of attention. They have to be mixed and tended to properly or they smell bad. I know composting is an unqualified good thing for the environment, but I’m just not ready to be a composter.

While searching for a better food scrap solution, a good friend of mine invited my husband and I to attend a workshop on worm composting. We were not particularly enthusiastic about spending a Saturday afternoon learning about worms and dirt and rotting food, but somehow she convinced us to attend. The worm composting workshop, put on by as part of their Bay-friendly program, opened my eyes to a different kind of composting.

Here’s how it works: Red worms that live in a box eat all of your food scraps. By wriggling through the box and munching on the rotting food, they take care of all the chores you would need to do to maintain a regular compost pile. At the workshop, we learned how to make a worm bin and what kinds of foods you can compost with worms. The instructor also pointed out that, while food scrap recycling is clearly better than throwing food scraps in the trash, it does require transportation, fuel, and other costs that would be avoided if people simply composted their own food scraps.

Since adopting an ethical diet of mainly whole foods and lots of vegetables, my household now creates a LOT of food scraps that these worms would love to eat! And they eat coffee grinds. My husband and I are daily coffee brewers, and we both perked up (no pun intended) at the thought of converting our coffee waste into a gardening resource. You see, in addition to eating up all the food scraps, the worms produce fertilizer that can be used in the garden. It sounds like such a nice, waste-free, closed-loop system!

Despite the great workshop, and my nagging guilt over petrified food, we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to start a worm bin. However, the friends who invited us decided to take on the challenge. We visited their worm bin shortly after, and it was pretty amazing. When they opened it up, you could see the worms wriggling around, and a lot of partially eaten old food. And yet, there was no smell! None! I have been bugging them about the bin ever since – asking them how much time it takes and how much the worms eat and if they’ve had any problems. All of my inquiries are met with the same basic response: raising worms is easy.

My friends started with a small bin but have since moved to a larger system (that's it on the right) because they produce so much food for the worms. That means they have a spare. So today, we picked up our new worm bin complete with some worms from our friends’ active bin. To construct the bin, our friends bought a standard plastic tub and drilled tiny holes around the side of the tub and on the lid. Then we added coconut husk, which we bought at a home and garden store, to the bottom of the bin and enough water to wet down the coconut (a few cups). We dropped in two handfuls of worms and dirt from our friends’ current bin, and topped them with some shredded newspaper. Finally, we added a large piece of damp cardboard on top, closed the lid, and off we went!

Our friends recommended feeding the worms about one cup of food scraps per week based on the size of the bin. They also suggested we leave the food out for a couple of days to make it easier for our worms to eat. Uncooked scraps of vegetables and non-citrus fruits are best for the worms. Meat and animal fats are not good for them and tend to rot in a particularly smelly way. I think we will easily hit our one cup per week limit using just the scraps from our dinner preparation - or maybe just our coffee grinds!

As far as caring for the worms, we need to make sure the bin doesn’t get too much light and isn’t exposed to extreme heat or cold. We decided to keep our worm bin in the garage on a high shelf to keep it away from sunlight and bugs. We also have to make sure our bin retains some moisture. If too much liquid accrues at the bottom of the bin, we will need to drain it; otherwise the worms can drown! Luckily, the liquid is great fertilizer. Worm tea, as it’s called, is five parts water to one part worm bin juice.

I’m still nervous, but my husband seems really excited. Tonight we are making a vegetable stew, so we will have lots of scraps to start the worms off with. Hopefully, we will be successful worm parents, help fight waste, and generate awesome fertilizer!

For more information on how you can start a worm bin, check out these directions from This fun and funky video from Freshtopia also goes over the basics of worm composting: