Localizing Food Tour

eat more kale

A few weeks ago, I attended a presentation by The Localizing Food Tour, a group that puts on presentations and hands on workshops for communities to help them create a sustainable, local food supply. It was a super charged, energetic talk on  food politics and issues like the upcoming food bill that is to be passed here in NZ, the possibility of a new trade agreement with the States and China, genetically engineered crops, and how these things affect us common folk. Their mission seems to be two fold: to educate people about food politics and to facilitate action in the community.

One would hope that the discussion around food would be about feeding and nurturing people, just as one would assume that decisions about education would be focused on educating students. Ultimately, food politics, like education politics, isn’t about how to support and strengthen people. It is about control and money. Shocker.

Jon Foote, the presenter, spoke about genetical engineered foods and how people’s eating habits have changed from whole, real foods, to packaged, processed foods and the corresponding rise in diseases and learning disabilities. I learned about irradiated fruits and vegetables, a process that  keeps perishable foods from rotting and bruising, but kills the nutrients and puts radiation in your food. Irradiated foods do not have to be labeled.

Doesn’t that piss you off? That you make a point of eating healthy food, but you aren’t getting what you pay for? That you are trying to put something good in your body, but really you are consuming radiation, which we all know, treats cancer by killing cells. Killing nutrients. This is a legal practice. Why is this legal? Certainly not  to provide healthy food to citizens, but simply to make money.

The solution is to learn about what you are eating, about what is in season and what grows well in your region. Support the community and good, honest people who specialize in growing good food. The presentation ended on a high note, imploring people to think about how you spend your dollar and what you do with your time.  They also stressed that communities are stronger than individuals, so  support one another and help your neighbors. I like that.

The Localizing Food Tour led a two day workshop developing an action plan to provide a sustainable, healthy food source for the people of Wanaka, just as they had done in Southland, Dunedin, Oamaru, and will do in almost every town in New Zealand over the next year. They emphasized community gardens, edible plants in public spaces, land sharing between farmers who may not use all of their land and those who want to grow food, but have no land. They brought attention to what Wanaka is already doing, to people who are saving seeds that grow well in this region, to the group who is developing a food forest outside of town, and to various community events.

Throughout the presentation, people referred to “what’s happening in America.” They talked about how large corporations, like Monsanto and the corn industry, influence government decisions regarding food and the health of the nation. They spoke about us like a bunch of uneducated fat kids, following a manipulative government that picks on all of the little guys. And for the most part, they were right, but it was uncomfortable to hear people who I respect talking about my country with so little respect.

Zach and I want to change that. We want to be a part of a community like Wanaka, but need to be that positive force in an American community. We’re not done traveling. We may never be done traveling, but that is what we plan to do when we get back.


Why Farming?

This is the second in a series of posts on politics and food. Please forgive us if it gets a little heavy in here for the next few weeks. Your regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly.

Beliefs are based on many different factors. Some we inherit from our parents, some from our teachers and peers, and others from media. But the most lasting and powerful beliefs come from personal experiences. Sometimes the circumstances are right and these things align to make us passionate about something. This is how I became interested in food and farming. I hope that the story of my influences will help you consider why you believe the things that you believe.

It began, as many great things seem to, on the couch. Several years ago I was looking for a way to kill a few hours in front of the television, and popped in a DVD that had been collecting dust for several weeks on my bookshelf. It was a Netflix mail order disc that I’d received by accident and felt compelled to watch before sending it back for something more action-packed. It was a little documentary called Food, Inc., and it made an impression on me.

Still, I didn’t act immediately. Sure, I started “voting with my wallet” and buying more local and organic products. But I didn’t drop everything and become an activist waiving signs and stomping around Washington. My life continued pretty much as it had for the last five years.

A few months later I picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillemma. At this point I was a vessel primed for Pollan’s preaching, so he converted me to the ways of the green revolution fully. This was no longer just something I thought about; it was part of who I was.

My diet in college consisted of prepackaged foods filled with preservatives and chemicals. Now I was eating better and my body was thanking me for it. I felt better waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. Maybe cutting out drinking thirty beers every other night helped too, but we’ll never know. Anyway, I felt like a million bucks and that was good enough for me. If other people were still eating fast food and guzzling soda that was their problem.

And then Christina came home one day from work (she was teaching fourth grade in the South Bronx) and told me about the breakfast program at her school. The previous year, the school began supplying students with a small breakfast: cereal, milk, sometimes fresh fruit and yogurts. Some of the kids went from eating nothing at all before school, or worse, guzzling an energy drink loaded with caffeine and sugar, to being provided a real, reasonable meal. According to her, productivity skyrocketed. The morning became their most useful time. Behavioral issues disappeared. Students were more focused and had fewer “stomach aches” that were really just hunger pangs. A simple breakfast transformed her classroom and thus the lives and futures of the students in it. Oh, and her principal was considering cutting the breakfast program because it was too expensive.

This sent me into a blind rage. “How could anyone be so short-sighted? What is your principal thinking?! Find the money!” I know the realities of budget management require tough decisions, but Christina’s descriptions of the students before and after the breakfast program were undeniable. Kids need food to learn. Have you ever tried to dig a hole without a shovel? Having the right tools are essential parts of a job, and food is the most basic of our tools.

Now I was ready to act. I couldn’t do much to save the program at her school (which actually received an eleventh-hour stay of execution), but I could take some action in my own eventual backyard. So I’m in New Zealand, learning a trade and traveling the world, with my loyalties to home stronger than ever. I’ll return to the US armed with the skills and knowledge to bring more good food to markets where it’s needed most. Stay tuned for more about that last point, serving the underserved, next time.


People vs. Issues


Bumps in the Road

Photo by Mark Fischer: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fischerfotos/

Travel presents a lot of chances to go off the rails of a plan, but sometimes what seems like a challenge is really an opportunity. Over the last few weeks we’ve encountered a string of problems that have left us angry, frustrated, and even physically ill, but we’ve solved pretty much all of them and now we’re way better off than we began. Sometimes it’s hard to see an opportunity lurking, but it’s always worth it to look.

After our nightmare WWOOFing job, we came to Wanaka on a whim and I promptly got sick. This wasn’t just a little cough and cold. I had a fever, chills and hot flashes, and had to run to the bathroom every hour, doubled over from stomach pain. I don’t get sick often, but when I do I get really, really sick. This was no exception. Whatever devil-spawn disease I had, it was miserable. And if being sick weren’t bad enough, being sick while living out of the back of a van made it doubly awesome. Just when I was ready to throw in the towel and go to a doctor, I was miraculously better! In your face, mystery disease.

While I was cursing every bite of food I shoved down my throat, we fell in love with this little town. It’s a little sister to Queenstown, which is an hour to the south and known around the world as an adventure sports haven. A lot of that rubs off on Wanaka, and it boasts similarly spectacular views of snow-capped peaks over a massive lake. It reminds me of a lot of Lake Tahoe, California, without the proximity to grimy Nevada. Oh, and it’s got great rock climbing, mountain biking, and hiking, and we’ve made an incredible group of friends here in just two short weeks (most of which I’ve spent on the toilet, unfortunately). What else could we want? So we’ve decided to stay here for the summer and take a break from WWOOFing for a bit. We’ll be back, but we really enjoy making our own schedule and operating independently, two things that don’t exactly jive with WWOOFing. So, the reckoning is upon us: we’ve got to get real J-O-Bs. Shudder.

Christina jumped right on the opportunity (while graciously nursing me to health) to pursue her next career: working in a restaurant kitchen. It’s spring here, so local restaurants are heating up for the coming tourist season and a lot of them are hiring. She hit the pavement, dropping resumes off around town and talking to people. She had her eye on one job in particular, at a new Italian restaurant that’s opening soon and is headed by a well-known chef: James Stapley of Whare Kea Lodge.

After more than a week of silence, she was disappointed. She assumed that she’d been passed over, not only for her gig of choice, but for all the fall-back options she’d applied for as well. She was on the verge of giving up this first attempt at pursuing her dream; she had an email drafted, indicating her willingness to accept a front-of-house job for which she was more qualified and was in heavy demand. I even had a different version of this post written, whining about how sometimes things don’t work out and sometimes you need to accept your second (or third) choice.

And then, the phone rang. It was James Stapely. He wasn’t calling to set up an interview or ask her for more information. He was calling to flat-out offer her a job. He’d liked the passion she displayed enough to overlook the massive gaps in her experience. She’ll get an opportunity to learn on the job and grow in her role, as well as see a new restaurant getting off the ground. Next time, she won’t need to worry about gaps in her experience.

That leaves me. I’ve done the restaurant thing, and it’s not my bag. I want to be outside. There aren’t many paying farm jobs to be had, and other kinds of labor are less appealing to me. One can’t help but question your self-worth if you see few opportunities that you’re qualified for in a town where everyone seems to be hiring. It doesn’t help if you’re shivering and sweating and can’t stop pooping at the time. But I do have a small freelance project that I’m working on and lots of writing and photography to pursue, so I’m seizing this opportunity (while keeping my eyes and ears open) to focus more intently on developing my skills and selling my work. But hey, if you know anyone that needs some help with social media or email marketing, send em my way. I’m officially accepting new clients.

We’ve gone from a miserable situation to something that’s virtually ideal. We’re both developing important skills for our future and having a damn good time doing it. And it wasn’t hard. In Christina’s case, it took putting herself out there and taking a chance at failure. For me, its was as simple as recognizing that this was a shot to do something I’d always wanted to do: focus on writing for a chunk of time. Maybe I’ll call my first book “Sieze the Day.”  Surely no one has thought of that.


The Dark Side of WWOOFing


It’s not all tomatoes and bacon, people. We’ve been in New Zealand since August, and every one of our WWOOFing experiences has been awesomely positive. Until now.

It began fine. The first few days of any relationship, let alone one that insists on working and eating three meals together, can be rough. We’re accustomed to a short “breaking in period” where conversations are a little awkward and we’re walking on eggshells. This time there were a few condescending comments sprinkled in here and there from the male head of the household, who shall remain nameless. We shrugged it off. We thought we were being overly sensitive.

But our host had continued difficulty controlling his frustration, and that manifested itself as anger towards us and his family. We talked with him about changing his tone around us and he was receptive, for a short time. We gave it another week, but little changed.

Yesterday was the last straw. He and I were moving cows to get ready for slaughter and he berated me for not moving quick enough to block the path of an angry heifer that didn’t want any part of this activity. Oh, and it was 6:30 in the morning. I’m a pretty agile guy any time of day, but diving in front of a hostile 800-pound animal is something I’m instinctually wired to avoid. No, thank you very much. He flew off the handle.

I told him that there is a nice way to give instructions, and a not-so-nice way, and I preferred that he used the former. He became more disgruntled, words were exchanged on both sides, and he stormed off, leaving me alone to move the agitated cow into the adjacent pen, where she most definitely didn’t want to go. I tried in vain to get the cow to cooperate, nearly getting stampeded multiple times, before he returned and told me to stop because he didn’t want the beast’s adrenaline to effect the quality of the meat.

This interaction proved that this situation was not tenable. First, this was the latest in a string of moments in which we were treated with disdain and condescension; not the pastoral ideal of a working environment. But most importantly, leaving a greenhorn such as myself alone with a massive, angry animal is grossly irresponsible. I could have been seriously injured, had I not been quick enough to dive from the path of the cow. So rather than endure a moment more we decided to it was time to pack up and leave before breakfast.

Now we’re sitting on a riverbank, surrounded by wildflowers, listening to the gurgling water and wind rustling the trees, about
to eat a fine feast of beans and veggies. A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Why didn’t we do this a week ago?

If it were another situation, I might have stuck it out. Sometimes one needs to grin and bear it for professional reasons. But this was no paying gig. It was a short-term work-trade arrangement on a farm. I felt no loyalty here, no reason to fulfill my intention of staying the full three weeks. We have the means to move on, so we rid ourselves of this source of stress. Suddenly, I feel powerful again.

I’m not free of regret, though. In the heat of the moment, I was so blinded by emotion that I couldn’t properly articulate the damage he’s doing to those around him. I felt as if my blood might actually boil. And I had grown fond of his wife and child. They were pillars of kindness and compassionate throughout this ordeal, and remained graceful and sympathetic when we told them that we were moving on. I hope they understand that it’s not them we were fleeing, but their arrogant, delusional husband and father. We’ve learned a lot from this experience, but my suspicion is that he, unfortunately, hasn’t. Good riddance.


Communication is Sexy

“Something isn’t working,” I said to Zach, while staring at the road ahead of us.

“I know. What is it?” he replied, as we continued driving through the fields of sheep, toward the Castle Hill climbing area.

I sat there and thought. I could feel the lump in my throat. I hate these conversations. Zach and I usually have them about once a year, but since we have been on the road, we have had to talk about what’s working and what’s not working more often.

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling stupid for not having the answer. At home, if I were in a funk, I’d go to the gym or grab a drink with a gal pal and after a day or two, things would be back to normal. But in the van, if one of us is in a funk, the other has to endure it as well.

“It doesn’t feel like we are on the same team.” It sounded totally pathetic to say it out loud.

“It’s just business, we are dealing with a lot of stuff and making a lot of decisions.”

“Maybe…. but that doesn’t work for me. I’m still your girlfriend.”

“Okay, yeah. I know that. I’m sorry. I’ll work on that. I love you.” He took his eyes off the road to glance over at me, smile and squeezed my hand.

I sat there still feeling incomplete, knowing that it takes two to tango. “So what is it that I’m doing or not doing that is making you frustrated?”

“We just have a lot of decisions to make. I need you to be clear about what you want and how you’re feeling. And to be decisive.”

“I can do that.” And like that, our team of two was back on track. There wasn’t much conversation for the rest of our drive, but we both smiled and breathed easy as we wound past lakes and through mountains back to our campsite.

Here we are, pushing thirty and we are still working on being nice, sharing, and talking about our feelings.

Before we left for our trip, I was a little nervous about spending all day, every day together. Quite simply, I was worried that I would annoy him and he might annoy me. We work great as a couple; we bring different perspectives and strengths to the table. Zach is careful, systematic, analytical. I am impulsive, creative, and light hearted. But we have never spent this much time with one another. When living in the city and working separate jobs, being greeted at the end of the day with this other personality was a great reprieve from one’s self.

Living in a van and spending most of every day together is totally different. As expected, it’s been a challenge. We work together, eat together, climb and play together. We’re constantly planning, budgeting, reworking our travels and looking at one another’s writing. It’s a lot and it is usually pretty easy. But that kind of sharing, critiquing and communicating requires an open and comfortable space so that amidst the working relationship, we can still have a romantic relationship.

When a problem does arise, there’s no avoiding it.  It sits in the center seat of the van and makes it feel crowded. We have to address it. Things like being nice to one another when frustrated, creating alone time, being organized, and communicating clearly have come up as issues that wouldn’t otherwise come up if we weren’t living in a small space and spending all of our time with each other. I can’t make a pile of my stuff in the corner because the corner is the whole room.

We’ve been together for a long time and had been comfortable in a routine, but this trip is making us face new challenges. Though it isn’t always comfortable, we share an understanding that change is a good thing and there isn’t anything we can’t do. And for that, I am grateful.


Picking the Right Time to Travel

Before packing our bags three months ago, Christina and I talked a lot about whether or not this was the right time for us to travel. We came to the conclusion that it was, without a doubt. Assuming you’ve been persuaded by the tales of our travels, I hope this post helps you choose the perfect time to hit the road for some long-term world travel.

Our situation was clear: we had jobs that we were ready to leave, we had some (but not a ton of) savings to make things easier, and we had a little bit of perspective on the world and ourselves. We’d both done smaller-scale trips before and spent more than five years in the workforce. I firmly believe that this last point: maturity or some sense of “knowing what you don’t know” is vital.

Here are the general options, and some pros and cons for each.

After College/Pre-career

Pros: most disposable time, most time afterwards to benefit, least risk of lost income
Cons: least maturity, least money

This is a popular option, both in the US and abroad. We meet a lot of travelers taking some time between college and a career to “find themselves” or stretch their legs as adults. I think this is a great thing for young people to do, but it’s not for everyone.

I’m certain that the experience gained by living in a new culture and meeting different types of people is excellent training for all types of life. Potential employers will look favorably on the skills gained: organization, negotiation, problem solving, and critical thinking are just a few of the valuable traits that some time on the road can provide. However, not all of us are automatically able to learn these things. Some need a bit of priming in a career to have the perspective necessary to make the most of their time traveling (or time-traveling if you’re Marty McFly). I know I wasn’t ready to take such a leap at 18 or 20.

There’s also the wee problem of money at this stage. While recent graduates are rich in time, they’re usually broke in the traditional sense. This is hard to solve outright, but can be helped by traveling cheaply and utilizing work trade programs like WWOOF and Help Exchange. And honestly, it isn’t as expensive as you might think.

Early Career

Pros: Some time, Some perspective, some disposable income
Cons: Potential career interruption

This is the option that we chose, so obviously I’m a proponent. I think it’s the perfect balance: you’re likely to have some money, you’ve primed for positive changes, and you aren’t taking a massive risk dipping out of the workforce at this stage.


Pros: Disposable income, lots of experience and maturity
Cons: Greatest cost of time, potential family obligations

If you’ve got a young family, this would be incredibly difficult. We do, however, hear of parents packing up their kids and hitting the road for a while. I can see such an experience reaping huge rewards for the kids involved, but it takes very unique people and circumstances to make it viable.

If you don’t have kids I can see this being successful, but not without some significant costs. Prime earning years are lost and the future benefit is diminished. These factors may not matter if you’ve got plenty of disposable income, but you could say that for all of these categories.


Pros: Plenty of free time, lots of experience and maturity, some disposable income
Cons: Physical things may be impossible

This is another popular option. Retirees that are suddenly blessed with time and eager to use every bit that they’ve got left routinely pack into motorhomes and putter around the countryside. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not one to wait for. It’s likely that age will prevent you from doing some of the adventurous things you might have done in your youth.

It’s also risky to bide your time for too long. Every day you wait gives other things a chance to get in the way and derail your plans. So pack a bag, bring a snack, and come out and join us, whenever works best for you.


Time Travelin’

Since I left the United States three months ago I’ve grown further and further from the realm of time. I haven’t worn a watch since high school, but I’ve had a cell phone and its clock strapped my hip – wait, I’m not quite that nerdy – in my pocket ever since. Now that I don’t have a “real” job, or any commitments that require time-specificity, I’ve abandoned the clock entirely. Take that, progress.

I still have a rough idea of the time: I know when breakfast, second breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea time, and dinner are. Hey, the blog is called “Bring a Snack.” What did you expect? Everything else just slots in somewhere between. Sometimes I have to be places, but my appointments are measured not in quarter-hour increments, but in approximate days. Jobs start “around the 15th” or “at the end of the month.” So I get up when the sun does, work until I’m hungry, and go to sleep when it gets cold and dark.

Slavery to the clock has been the latest pillar to fall. I used to perform the “phone/wallet/keys?” Ritual of the American Male every time I walked out the door. Now I only check for my wallet and knife. I suppose that in itself is indicative of how my life has changed. I wonder what’s next?


One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Sunrise at Aisling Quoy

Saying things out loud makes them seems more real. And what could be louder than broadcasting something to the world via the internet? It’s probably obvious to those of you that have been paying attention, but for the slackers (and myself) I need to declare my latest and greatest revelation: I want to be a farmer.

No, not the conventional “rows of corn as far as the eye can see” farmer of yesterday, but the “self-sufficient 10 acre plot with a diversity of animals and plants” farmer of tomorrow. Or the day before yesterday, depending on your point-of-view.

When we left New York I was leaning in this direction, but I hadn’t admitted it to myself yet. So we didn’t plan to travel with any kind of specific purpose. We knew we wanted to try farm life through WWOOFing, but we weren’t sure that it would work, so we built in some flexibility to do other things – things like lay on the beach in Thailand for a month, sipping local hooch and sweating it out immediately.

But we were right, we want to be farmers. And now I don’t want to do other things. I want to do things that continue my education and development as a farmer. So maybe we’ll still go to the beach in Thailand, but we’ll keep it to a week then hop on a bus to a peanut farm.

In some ways, the best plan was not planning at all. This allowed us the space to explore and get more focused as we went. It can be difficult to set out into the unknown, but if we’d followed a prescribed pathway we never would have found the right direction for us.

Travel with purpose, but don’t let it determine everything. Maybe you want to learn to cook in Europe or build houses in Mumbai. Or you might just want to test drive life outside of your comfort zone. Vague purposes are the best of all, by nature they allow the kind of flexibility necessary to focus on something clearer later on. Take a step back, and then two steps forward.


Filleting Blame


Over the last few days, we’ve participated in the slaughter and butchering of two full-grown saddleback pigs, Bubble and Squeak. These pigs lived a good life. They had plenty of room to run, root, and wallow in the mud. They had shelter from the rain and shade from the sun. They ate vegetables multiple times every day. They lived and died so that we could slaughter them humanely and eat their meat.

This is a stark contrast to the life of an animal raised in a factory farm. They spend every minute of their life confined in a box so small that they can’t turn around, sleeping in their own shit and piss, and being force-fed a cocktail of chemicals designed to get them to optimal size as quickly as possible. You may think that the villains here are the owners and operators of factory farms, but they’re simply providing us with a product that we’ve asked for: cheap meat.

The real criminals are the consumers, loading their grocery carts with beef and ham that’s easy on the wallet at the cost of cruelty. Is your conscience really only worth the few extra dollars that it costs to buy from your local independent farmer? Does convenience trump morality? I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been guilty of these crimes every week of my life, until now.

I’m happy to pledge that, beginning today, I won’t buy or eat meat of questionable provenance ever again. It’s a difficult step to take, but it’s the right one. It means that, when ordering at a restaurant or dining at a friend’s home, I’ll have to awkwardly ask if the meat they’re serving is humanely raised. If enough people ask, restaurants will be forced to buy better meat. Perhaps in the meantime I’ll be eating a lot of salad, but that’s not a terrible option. The alternative is far more disgusting.

Will you join me?

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