Is it sad to admit that one of the highlights of my trip to California last week was the apricot tree in my friend's front yard? Thousands of fruits, all on one medium-sized tree. Apricot juice running down our chins, apricot-heavy fruit salad, apricots at every meal ... but apricots are only ripe for a few weeks and then they're gone until next summer, and so many people end up just letting them fall to the ground and rot. The library near Cheryl's house has a dozen trees in front, and the ground's orange from all the fallen fruit; I kept expecting to see people there picking the trees bare but never did. How sad!
I can't bear to see the fruit go to waste, though, and wasn't there long enough to dry any (had I been in New Mexico it would have dried very quickly, but it takes longer in CA), so I canned it instead ...
I didn't can all the fruit, but quite a lot. I made apricot jam with and without pectin, vanilla apricot jam, apricot raspberry jam, apricot strawberry jam, apricot pineapple jam, and caramelized versions of several of the above. All organic, of course, and for the cost of some jars, sugar, and pectin. (I was lucky that my friend had some jars already so I only had to buy about half as many as I used – if I'd been at home, though, I wouldn't have had to buy any as I've been saving them for years!) I'd never canned with pectin before, but I was in a hurry because I wasn't going to be there all that long. If I lived there, I'd have branched out more – apricot butter (which takes longer, needing to cook down), salsa or chutney, low or no sugar jams, plain puree, nectar for wintertime drinks, etc. And of course freezing apricot in puree, in halves, etc, for smoothies, pies, crisps, and other goodies later on. And drying them by the hundreds – at Las Golondrinas I saw screens of drying fruit laying out, and my stepmother and grandmothers have stories of summers throughout their childhoods spent preparing food for winter. Somehow, though, we've gotten so used to going to the grocery store that we've forgotten how to take and keep responsibility for our food supply.
I've been thinking a lot about food security lately. It's always been an issue, of course – perhaps inevitable when coming from grow-your-own, hippie parents, and then moving to California where you're encouraged to have an Earthquake Emergency Kit (though of course an emergency kit is a good idea anywhere – here in the Desert Southwest it's more a Grab-and-Go emergency kit in case of wildfires that we need, instead of an earthquake kit). Many years ago I read Into the Forest, which solidified my belief that hybrid seeds are evil (and don't get me started on genetically modified seeds, please), since you can't save seeds and regrow the same plants the next year. That makes farmers and gardeners reliant on seed companies for their livelihoods instead of being able to maintain the continuum of seeds and plants that their families and communities have grown for generations. (Am I the only person who so loves reading the seed catalogs, finding out that the Broad Ripple Yellow Currant Tomato was “found growing in a street crack at 56th and College in Indianapolis, Indiana”, that Asparagus Beans, which I'd never heard of, have been around since before 1860 and are so large that 10-12 beans can make a dish for four people (and can be braided or twined before cooking), and that you can grow White Sonoran wheat that's been in the Americas since the 1770s??? Do other people almost tear up when reading about the Seeds Trust people’s journey to Siberia in search of traditional tomatoes? It's the continuation of tradition, food, gardening, families, and food security, all wrapped up in one little seed.)
But the news over the past several months has discussed a whole different level of food security. When Haitians are eating biscuits made of mud mixed with vegetable oil just to have something in their stomachs (and as a mother the thought of having to feed that to my hungry children is almost painful), when people in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and other countries are joining en mass to protest the rising costs of food that makes it so difficult to feed their families (unlike in Haiti, there IS food available – they just can't afford to buy it!), when even in the United States we're seeing dramatically rising prices on everything from pet food to people food, there's clearly something wrong. This is more than simply the already dreadful hunger that's always been present in some small percent of the world’s population; this has people in line at the library talking about how they want to stock up like the Latter-Day Saints in case there's suddenly no more food on the supermarket shelves. And these aren’t survivalist wackos, either (nothing against survivalist wackos, mind you – I live off-the-grid with decent food stores myself, though in my case it has more to do with the fact that the road was impassible for nearly a month last winter and I have to be prepared for any eventualities!), theyre perfectly normal suburban families. Whatever "normal" means anymore, or ever did.
And it goes deeper, of course, than the mainstream media is protraying the problem. We can't blame it all on biofuels, tempting though that may be (because then we'd have a great excuse to run out and use extra oil if biofuels are worthless, right?), even though clearly using foodstocks for biofuels – and shipping them halfway around the world – is counterproductive. We can't blame it on the developing world not adopting the glories of genetic modification and the green revolution (oh, PLEASE don't get me started on that). Agriculture subsidies, the results of free trade and its ramifications, and other issues are rarely even mentioned, much less discussed in the depth that they truly deserve.
My money this month is going to Food First, the Institute for Food and Development Policy. Put simply, they say their mission is to "to eliminate the injustices that cause hunger;" they're working on food policy, trying to find solutions to the problems that have led to and are compounding the current crisis. They're not buying into easy answers, like a new "Green Revolution" in Africa fueled by genetically modified seeds and chemical fertilizer, but instead are: "analyzing the root causes of global hunger, poverty, and ecological degradation and developing solutions in partnership with movements working for social change." Their blog is fascinating reading – sometimes depressing, sometimes inspiring, and always thought-provoking. (Mostly unrelated to everything here, but their DVD The Greening of Cuba is absolutely fascinating. It looks like you can get a "free" copy with a $100 donation, should you feel inspired to contribute to their work.) We've been long-time supporters, also, of Ecology Action, particularly their international programs.
I can't sit here watching my children happily eating sufficient quantities of safe, local food without thinking of other children who don't have enough to eat, or who don't have anything at all. So Food First, and for a more local angle we'll continue working with The Food Depot, who do amazing things on what'ss essentially a shoestring budget working to end food insecurity in New Mexico. Their Food 4 Kids program, in which they make it possible for schools to send backpacks full of child-friendly food home with kids so they can actually eat dinner and breakfast instead of only having one meal per day (their free school lunch) is absolutely incredible. It operates in 11 schools in Santa Fe, serving over 1100 kids who would otherwise be hungry at least part of the time. (Summers are dreadful times for so many kids, who don't get their free meals -- I remember looking forward to summer, not dreading it because I'd be going hungry!)
I find it fascinating that the food riots and the issue of food security in general was pretty much a flash in the pan for the mainstream media – it was discussed for a little while, and then the story stopped being covered. You know, though, that the problem hasn't gone away. It's just stopped being something we're "supposed" to be interested in. But I can't stop thinking about it, and doing what I can in as many ways as possible to make a difference.
In California, where my friend has her glorious tree and a spectacular garden, it's relatively easy to grow food. At the Cupertino Square Farmer's Market, the tables overflowed with bountiful flats of strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, eight varieties of peaches, multiple kinds of cherries, nectarines, pluots, plums, apriums, tangerines, oranges, grapefruits, two kinds of lemons,... And the vegetables, oh the vegetables. Living in New Mexico, though, we're much closer to the edge food-growing-wise – it takes much more work in our incredibly hot, arid environment to sustainably garden, and we can't grow the variety of crops that you find elsewhere. Atop the mesa where we live, our neighbors share seeds from various plants that have proven themselves particularly well adapted to the area, and we share crops as well. Pretty much no matter where you live, though, you can grow something ... and anything you grow is adding to your personal food security and reducing the amount of money you spend on food, the amount of carbon that goes into your food production, and your reliance on The System (tm? :) for your food. The Green Roof Growers are working to show "landless city residents" how they can grow their own food on apartment building rooftops (and they have some amazing photos on flickr – definitely check them out. People with windowsills only (no outside space at all) can grow herbs and perhaps a potted tomato or salad bowl, and if you have at least a bit of outdoors go for some variety of a victory garden. What can be better than declaring victory over the big box stores and food transportation systems (and ridiculously rising costs) that seem to be taking over the world?