Thursday, May 20, 2010

What Could You Make?

I just finished reading Paul Roberts's excellent examination and indictment of the industrialized food economy, The End of Food.  In it, he suggests that as a way of measuring one's own ability to lead a sustainable life, one should occasionally look at what comes home from the grocery, then think about how/whether one could secure the same item from one's own back yard or the local foodshed. 

I think this is a great idea, and I decided to work through the exercise with this week's groceries.  This is a fairly normal haul for DH and I, perhaps on the small side, but representative of the things we typically buy.

We grow our own veggies and herbs for the most part, and we can, freeze, and dry them so they are available all year.  Typically, what is used up is not replaced from the grocery; we substitute others until the season comes again.  For example, I haven't had sun dried tomatoes since last December, because that is when the supply ran out.  But I still have canned tomatoes and chili sauce as tomato products.

We get our eggs from a local farm through a colleague of mine, so I'm set there.  We also stock the freezer with hormone- and antibiotic-free meat from a local farm, so that reduces the amount of meat I buy.  That leaves:

  • Milk:  I buy hormone-free milk at the grocery.  Presumably, I could find a local farm that sells milk if the industrial food system falls apart, but I worry about supply.
  • Limeade:  Luxury item.  I do have a dwarf lime tree that is budding this year, so I might occasionally have limes to make it myself one day.
  • Club soda:  I hate to think that my mojito supply might be compromised by a lack of club soda, but I hear you can make them with plain water in a pinch.
  • Cookies/Snack Cakes/Brownie Mix:  [Cringe]  You caught me.  These are luxury items, because we have a sweet tooth.  I have been baking a batch of cookie each week since the first of the year, and my goal this summer is to do all of our dessert and bread baking.  But right now, the desire for sugar frequently outweighs the desire to be sustainable. 
  • Pizza crust mix:  Sort of a luxury.  I can certainly make my own, but I do like the flavor of the Jiffy mix once you add a little flax meal to it, so I buy it when it is on sale.  Giving it up wouldn't be a hardship, but when it is 50 cents a box, it wouldn't be that much of a savings either.
  • Sliced provolone:  I can make my own cheese; I have the citric acid and the rennet in the fridge right now, waiting for me to make a batch of mozzarella.  However, if the End comes, hard cheeses like provolone might take a back seat until I improve my technique.
  • Maple syrup:  Easy.  I know of a local farm that bottles maple syrup; if it comes to it, I'm not above tapping a tree and boiling sap.  In fact, that may be the only reliable source of sugar I have in a true crisis.
  • Avocados:  My new veggies luxury.  You don't grow avocados anywhere near Ohio, so there goes my new-found guacamole habit.
  • Yarn, ear plugs, deodorant, hair spray:  Not sure whether to include these as "groceries," but they are regular purchases from the super store.  Suffice to say, I imagine getting cotton yarn might be a problem in a true crisis.  I will probably be growing my hair for a pony tail if the End comes, so that takes care of the hair spray.  The deodorant is a concern (yes, tea tree oil, but where do you get that locally?), and the ear plugs might have to be replaced with some make-do so I can get some sleep.
Ultimately, I'm not in too bad a shape.  My main concern, should I have to make things long-term, is securing sugar and milled flour.  A truly long-term crisis would lead to more locally-available wheat (and other products), but right now, I don't grow wheat or any grain I can mill.  In a pinch, I guess I start keeping bees and use their honey as sugar, along with maple syrup.

So, yes, this is a crazy little thought exercise.  When I do it, I imagine a breakdown on December 21, 2012.  But you really don't have to be thinking about some cosmic End to be concerned; as Roberts argues, we are really just one crop failure, oil price spike, or disease outbreak away from a problem, especially since we source so much of our food from concentrated areas.  So, it is not hard to imagine (if you watch the news at all), an E. Coli outbreak disrupting the supply of produce from California, an oil drilling platform disaster driving gas prices to extremes along with food prices that carry their own transportation costs in their price, or a new piece of research determining that the way we farm our meat is killing us. 

So, take a look at your groceries this week.  What did you buy that you could make if you had to?
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  1. Wow! You are to be complimented on being so self sufficient. I really think we all need to try everything to get there. Very good article!