Think globally, cook locally
In midwinter, much of the nation’s heartland remains in severe drought, with thousands of acres of farmland in “exceptional” drought — the most severe category. As of mid-January, more than half the continental United States has been in at least moderate drought since June. Winter wheat crops are withering in the fields.
A new federal drought outlook, issued in late January, predicts that for many areas, the drought is likely to persist at least through April, and may worsen in some areas.
The harsh weather conditions, in the U.S. and other major grain-exporting countries, have driven down world grain stocks to their lowest level since the mid-1970s. In October, the U.N. warned that if severe weather continues this year, major worldwide food shortages could result.
The crisis seems far away. Oregon fields are not withering; we didn’t suffer through record-setting heat waves that did as much damage as the terrible lack of water. But the bread and corn-rich processed foods on our grocery store shelves, by and large, are not from Oregon fields, but from those parched acres of the Great Plains.
Unlike residents in many developing countries, U.S. residents don’t spend the majority of their incomes on food; dire warnings of food riots, like those that collapsed the government of Haiti in 2008 and sparked the Arab Spring, are not referring to suburban America. Yet.
But the crisis is real and demands our attention, not just from common decency but from self-interest. We, too, are at risk. And we, too, have seen food prices rise and keep rising, making life ever harder, especially for a nation that has seen jobs decline steeply.
Statewide, 57 percent of elementary school children now qualify for free or reduced-price lunches; for all grade levels, it’s 53 percent (older children are less likely to apply). In the McMinnville School District, it’s 58 percent. In other words, more than half our children are close enough to the poverty line to need subsidized food from the federal government.
The question for many of us will be how to respond to this complex set of issues in our own kitchens, and the answer will, of course, be highly variable. But here are some suggestions:
* Grow a garden if at all possible, even if you plant it in five-gallon buckets on an apartment balcony. A remarkable amount of food can be grown this way, and every pound will be that much less you have to rely on the grocery store to provide. With plenty of vegetables on hand, you can use your few and hard-earned dollars for cooking staples, and wind up with a remarkably abundant diet.
You might not be able to grow substantial amounts of grain, true. You might have to learn some new cooking techniques. You might have to learn, and teach your family, to enjoy something other than cold cereal and toast for breakfast.
But if the choice is between no breakfast at all, or crisp, hot zucchini fritters from your makeshift garden, flexibility can suddenly seem a lot more appealing.
Buckets are often available free or for a nominal charge from restaurants — you want only ones that were intended to contain food. You can buy compost and soil fairly inexpensively from Western Oregon Waste. Share seed packets with friends, if possible, to help cut costs there.
References include a wealth of online sites and books, including “The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible: How to Grow a Bounty of Food in Pots, Tubs, and Other Containers,” by Edward Smith, available at the Newberg Public Library (which you can request through the McMinnville Public Library).
A website that offers a thorough grounding is http://www.globalbuckets.org; including instructions on how to make self-watering containers so your vegetables can get through the summer heat without constant tending by you.
Not a spare inch of sunny space anywhere that can accommodate so much as a single bucket? Look for other options — a friend or neighbor willing to let you borrow a corner of the yard in exchange for some of the produce, a plot in a community garden, etc.
* Learn to preserve, so you can put up a supply of food when it is in season, to rely on in the off-season, and in the face of higher prices. A glut of summer zucchini and tomatoes can be dried for winter soups, for example. One long day, perhaps with a friend or group of friends, spent processing a few hundred pounds of tomatoes into sauce will leave you thoroughly tired, but you’ll be thankful later, both for the high quality of your homemade food, and for the savings, when you don’t have to buy sauce.
* Seek out locally grown food — not just because it tends to be more nutritious and flavorful, but because supporting local farmers is crucial when the world’s food supply is on shaky ground.
* Learn to make more items yourself, from scratch. Yeah, I don’t have huge amounts of unclaimed time lying around, either, and I’m often frustrated by the many demands on my time. But the price of food will continue to increase. The more you can make yourself, the less you will have to spend, and many items are remarkably simple, considering what you pay for them. Soup, for example. Why pay a ridiculously high price for soup, when you can make much better soup at home, much less expensively?
* Learn, too, to use food efficiently. If you eat meat, boil the bones for stock and use that as your soup base; skim and save the fat for cooking in place of butter or oil.
We often discard or ignore perfectly edible vegetables and components.
Chard stems: Good in casseroles, or added to chard leaves and mushrooms, over pasta.
Zucchini blossoms: My grandmother used to mix them into scrambled eggs with a dash of parmesan.
Green tomatoes: They make fine sauces, salsas and fermented pickles.
Watermelon rind: Traditionally turned into sweet pickles by thrifty housewives.
Sweet potato leaves: Apparently quite commonly eaten in Africa.
Pumpkin and squash seeds: Toss with oil and salt and roast for a crunchy, nutritious snack.
There are, of course, also some things you absolutely should not eat under any circumstances, like rhubarb leaves. Do check if you’re not sure.
Reducing reliance on the grocery store while supporting local agriculture can help to make both your own household and your community more stable, and less vulnerable to the vagaries of a changing world.
Contact Nicole Montesano at firstname.lastname@example.org.