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September 09, 2011

5 Simple Ways to Save the World

by Barbara O'Neal 

On Sunday evening, I had friends over for a summer supper.   We sat on the back patio and ate corn on the cob and potato salad and lightly fried squash and tiny sweet tomatoes.  The ears of corn were not all exactly 10 inches long and evenly covered with kernels from end to end in straight 6032456619_8eb5d0bda9_m rows.  They were 3 inches long, some of them, and plump to bursting.  One had zigzagging rows that were nonetheless juicy and delicious. Two ears were long and elegant, the race-horses of corn, which I gave to our guests.  I picked them from my garden an hour before the guests arrived, along with the tomatoes—I had hoped some of the little yellow pears would be ready, or at least one or two big romas, but only the Sweet 100s were ripe.  (In a week, I’ll be drowning in tomatoes, of course, but I will sun-dry them).  The potatoes were a particular thrill—I grew three bags of them for the early crop, leaving these for last. They were white potatoes, some two full pounds each, their skins as thin as the membrane over an egg white.

As we feasted, I thought back over how much time and energy it took to grow this much food, enough for a single meal for four people.  I started in March, with seeds under grow lights, and planted in May, and all these months since, the sun and the rain and the winds have come, day after day. I pulled weeds and fretted over onion grubs.  

It’s humbling, and illuminating. 

We all know the food delivery system is broken, a side effect of industrialization and subsidization.  It seemed like such a great idea—feed everybody cheaply and easily!—but in theory, it isn’t working out.  We all hear the stats—children are fatter, we are fatter, we are less healthy, and meanwhile, Somalia starves.  This year, there have been three massive recalls of meat—36 million pounds of turkey, for example, which is a catastrophic waste of life. 

We all want, most sincerely, to find answers, but when you’re dealing with such an enormous problem, it’s hard to know how to take a single step.  

As a food writer, I have learned much more than I ever wanted to know about the food industry, and it has been enough to dramatically change the way I eat.  I’m not going to bore you with all that, but know that I am a passionate eater, and love food, and the way it comes to us, feeds us, nourishes us both heart and soul, is very important to me.  

One thing that’s clear about society is that it’s impossible to change big things all at once, overnight.  But it’s surprising what little things can do.  Little baby steps are good.

1950s PHILIP MORRIS Lucille Ball vintage cigarettes advertisement hollywood smoking Think about cigarettes.  Remember when everybody smoked everywhere?  In grocery stores, in hospital rooms, in restaurants and malls and EVERYWHERE?  It didn’t suddenly change overnight.   It was one little thing at a time.  No smoking in stores—that’s kinda disgusting.  Smoking sections in restaurants.  Take that cigarette outside, would you?

And now, we’d no more tolerate smoking in a grocery store than we would allow someone to poop in the aisles. 

This spring, finally overwhelmed with all the information I had gathered in studying the food industry, I started looking for easy ways to start changing things in my own world.  Here are 5 easy ways to change the world from where you are.


Not everybody has the time, inclination, or space for a big garden, but almost everyone has a little spot for a planter of tomatoes, a bag of potatoes, or a bag of lettuce, or some peas growing up a IMG_1896 trellis on the balcony.   It’s good on so many levels that nearly every food-industry challenge starts with this single idea.  It saves money and transportation costs, it’s more nutritious, it connects us to the cycle of food and eating, and gives a clear idea of how much energy it takes to produce it.  

Besides, all that, the food you grow yourself tastes about 900% better than what you get at the grocery store. 

(And that photo is one of potatoes I grew in bags in my backyard.)


This is fresh, fresh food. It supports the local economy.  It reduces transportation costs.  And again, it tastes really, really good, and you don’t have to do the work yourself.   For a list of Farmers Markets, plug in your zip code here and find one near your home.


Please.  This is one of the areas I have trouble not banging the drum so hard I drive people away, so let me say it very simply.  Last year’s recall of a half-billion eggs brought some attention to the subject of battery cages, but there is more to do. 

This single act will make a massive change in the world.  I know they are more expensive.  They also taste 100 times better, and it is simple common humanity to ask that a chicken who gives her life to producing eggs for us should have a clean space, fresh air, and some room to move around.  Simple. 

That’s totally worth $2 a carton.



Driving a car is understood to be bad for the greenhouse effect.  Cow farts are pretty bad, too, and to my absolute astonishment, I discovered that rotting food in landfills accounts for something like 34% of the methane gas in the air!  That’s a dangerous greenhouse gas, and pretty staggering sums.

However, this is not as easy to carryout as the others, especially if you live in an apartment.   But if you do have a little bit of backyard, you can have a compost heap, and it’s easy.  There are all kinds of tools and buckets and styles to choose from these days.  We have a barrel turner, and a stationary one with worms (remember I have a big garden and really lousy soil, so this was a good investment for me).   The compost coming out of them is very rich stuff.  Which will make for a better garden next year, and so on and so on and so on.  

MEATLESS MONDAYS (or Friday or Wednesday)
Human beings are omnivores, and therefore, most of us like meat.  In industrialized nations, however, we are consuming way, way more than we really need, and that demand puts a crippling pressure on the environment.  Reduce your intake by going meatless one day a week and help save (and feed) the world. 

What are some of your ideas for saving the world in teeny, tiny bites?  Do you have a garden or a pot of tomatoes on the balcony?  Or a Farmers Market in your neighborhood that you adore? 



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Wonderful, Barbara! We have an orange tree. And we have several meatless days per week.

We've cut our gardening back to 3 raised beds (each about the size of a youth bed), but that's enough for tomatoes and zucchini all summer and wonderful salad greens all winter. Every single kitchen scrap goes into a compost pile, which is nothing more than a hole in the ground with fresh dirt layered over the latest offering. Composting isn't rocket science. Worms and wet equal warmth, which breaks everything down. We also have blueberries, figs and pears. Reine, I'll trade you pears for oranges!

My father started gardening in 1960, the summer after they purchased their home. He began to garden as a way to save money on food and to feed his growing family. At first he only grew vegetables that could be canned or root vegetables which could be stored (potatoes), but a freezer was purchased in the mid sixties and vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower which could be blanched and frozen for use in the winter were added. He always grew corn for table use in the summer, but now he increased the amount planted so it could be frozen also. By the time I was in high school he had added a grape arbor, asparagus and red raspberries. We also grew strawberries.

In the early 80's when my husband and I moved next door I began to help him in the garden. At one point we had two vegetable gardens. The one in his yard is around 40 feet wide and 90 feet long. The garden in my yard started out at 30 feet by 120 feet, but now is down to 30 by 40 feet.

Grown then canned, frozen, or will be stored this year: grapes, blueberries, strawberries, garlic, 3 varieties of bulb onions, sugar pod peas, 2 types of cukes, 3 varieties of corn, 3 varieties of green beans, lima beans, 2 varieties of beets, 11 varieties of tomatoes including 8 heirloom varieties, 3 varieties of potatoes, carrots, 3 varieties of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, 6 varieties of peppers, pears, butternut squash.

Grown just to eat during the growing season because we like them: asparagus, rhubarb, 5 varieties of head lettuce, green onions 3 varieties of radish, basil, parsley, oregano, chives, eggplant, 2 varieties summer squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, spinach.

This year we haven't had much of a raspberry crop. We suspect the over population of yellow jackets is attacking and eating most of the crop. Normally we'd be picking six cups a day, but we can only get enough for table use. It's really been a bad year for the garden for us with the cold wet spring, then a prolonged dry spell with high heat during mid summer. Many crops didn't do as well as usual. There's always next year.

You let me pat myself on the back (not easy!). Since I've been writing about a small farmer for a few years now, I have (a) set up a compost heap, (b) created a raised bed for vegetables, (c) planted an orchard (of six trees--it's all I have room for), and (d) started making weekly pilgrimages to the Plymouth (MA) farmers' market, which overlooks the harbor there. The garden was neglected this year because I broke an ankle at a critical time, but I'll have lots of healthy compost for it next year. I do have a thriving horseradish plant. Last year I even took a state-offered course on creating a small farm, which made me believe it was possible--if only I had any land. My quarter-acre isn't going to do it.

I am just oozing with jealousy over your garden. I planted a huge one this Spring: herbs, tomatoes, squash, onions, peppers, and corn all lovingly grown from seeds.

I ended up with one dish of tomatoes and the entire plot was dead by June. Heartbreak. It just got too darn hot down here far too fast.

I would love to grow all my own veggies--at least while they are in season--but it is easier said than done.

Instead I'll just dream of your vine-fresh veggies. Great tips though. We can make a difference.


This is such a timely post for me. I was off to the grocery store today, but will wait and go to the Farmer's Market tomorrow instead. Thanks!

I love this subject! My husband and I have had a garden for years. The usual, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers etc. This year as one more way to get healthy, we added a bunch more. NOTHING taste better than a veggie you've grown and picked yourself.

We also have a list on the fridge of all the local farmers markets and have visited quite a few. Of course the best (for us) is Detroit's Eastern Market (which they say is the oldest in the country). It's huge, amazing and fun.

When I was growning up, my Mom always had a huge garden and we had meatless dinners and I loved it. My husband says he can't go without meat. I don't know how he knows that since he's never tried. UGH!

Is the picture of the chickens yours too? Its very cool.

In southwest Ohio, we are fortunate to have an abundance of farmers' markets - twice weekly in our small town, even. We've only been in our home a year, but the garden is taking shape. Hubby just built a 10' diameter geodesic dome greenhouse for early starts and a few winter plants (plus his bonsai hobby), the compost pile is underway, and I'm learning to freeze produce.

I just finished reading a great little book called The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year that shows it CAN be done!

And it's so worth it -

Tina, I'm not to the point of chickens yet, though I would love to do it. Just don't know how to work out logistics of dogs, cats, chicks. It would be heaven to have those fresh eggs.

Kerry Ann, that's heartbreaking. Even that is valuable as a way to connect to the earth and cycles. We are very luckynto live now, instead of a time when we'd have to eat from that plot that didn't survive. I have been thinking a lot this summer about the Irish potato famine. Devastation.

Free-range eggs? I had no idea. Will do. And now you have changed ME. xoox

Peach! That's amazing. And I love that your handle is Peach, too.

Cyndi, that's exactly the model I'm working with. Sonsatisfying. Also, I'll admit, quite a bit of work. I love it, but many do not. I am very jealous of your greenhouse!

Stuck, yay!

Okay, does anyone know hownto get rid of onion grubs? I've tried nematodes. Very persistent critters.

Sheila, your 1/4-acre is plenty big. We have a 140-acre farm, but my raised bed gardens--which is the only thing I have planted--are a mere 200 square feet. Two of them, 5' X 20' each, have produced the following this year:

30 pounds butternut squash (ONE plant), 60-70 pounds tomatoes (and more coming), 40 pounds of three kinds of onions, about 30 gallons of green beans, three gallons garden peas, tons of lettuce/spinach/chard, basil, dill, 10 pounds of beets, 6 pounds of carrots, nine pounds of potatoes (three tiny plants--I was astonished!). And enough basil that I have picked it out seven times, frozen six gallons, made three batches of pesto, dried three big bags (and gave some to Nancy Martin), shared with every single person I know, and still have enough I could sit out on the street and sell it in bunches.

Next year, instead of devoting one end of the garden to flowers (which did nothing), I'm putting in more potatoes. They are wonderful.

The raised beds, by the way, made a big difference this year. We had such a wet spring, with fully 100% of our annual rainfall by June 30th, and then a pretty dry July and August. Raised beds drain well, and they hold moisture, especially if they have a lot of good soil. When we built ours, I did the lasagna method of building the soil: Layers of rotted horse and pigeon manure (free from our farm and from neighbors with pigeons), wood ash from the fireplace, shredded tax returns, newspaper (just the black and white parts), and many five-gallon cans of coffee grounds from our local Caribou Coffee. The coffee grounds went on top and formed a great seal to the soil. Water could permeate down, but it didn't evaporate up.

When we moved to this house, 26 years ago, we started a compost heap at the end of the driveway. It's still there, and after nearly daily additions of kitchen veggie scraps, leaves, garden weedings, and charcoal ash, it's still the same size as it was. At one point I figured we had kept around two tons of food waste out of the landfill in our single family, and you cannot tell we've put anywhere near that much in it. I don't even really use it, to tell the truth; it just vanishes once all the water has gone.

My daughter lives in an apartment in Boulder, and they actually have curb pickup for compost, with cute little undercounter cans for it. Gardeners can get the compost from the city, too.

Forgot the parsley and cilantro; the parsley may overwinter, and the cilantro's second crop is coming up now, and it may also overwinter. Cilantro's seeds are coriander. If anyone would like some coriander or dill seeds for a crop next year (or cooking, since both of them are great for cooking with), let me know. I owe some backbloggers dill seeds, but with all that's been going on lately I have not had time to deal with it until now. kmaslowski at fuse dot net

Such an important topic! Cyndi, many years ago, before anyone was really talking about this stuff, my (much older) significant other planned the landscaping of his small tract home backyard around fruit trees and vegetables. Tiny patio, everything else dedicated to food.

I've never lived in a home that permitted a big garden, but I always plant herbs and a few tomatoes in the little bit of dirt I do have. I really want to try the potatoes and lettuces next season. Here's something else to consider - even if you only have a little room, plant something nice for the bees. The more little patches of bee-friendly habitat available in a neighborhood, the more bees and other pollinators will thrive.

Another thing to do is to eat as seasonally as possible. Even if you're not buying from the farmer's market, sticking with seasonal produce is a way to eat more locally and to develop mindfulness about the connection between Mother Nature and the food on our plates.

Thanks, Barbara!!

We have had a small garden here in the mountains of Colorado and a compost heap for a decade, at least. I love that our food scraps stay out of the waste stream. I grow beans and peas, my favorites, and herbs and something special each year. One year, my basil was so huge I dug it up in the fall, potted it, and brought it indoors. It kept our basil needs supplied until Thanksgiving. However, this year's garden only produced a few peas and no beans at all. A dud. That's never happened before, and was very disappointing. The weather was a bit flukey. There is nothing like homegrown! When we were kids, my folks always had huge gardens and canned and froze things.

I bought a CSA share this year, after hearing good things from many people, as much for my own personal health as for the planet's. Despite a lack of rain for the last month, they have managed to provide more than sufficient veggies, grown chemical-free. http://www.localharvest.org/terripin-farms-csa-M32881
My tiny yard is mowed as part of our homeowners association arrangement, and my allergies don't allow much outdoor time, but I do have a couple of "pet plants" including a gourd plant from one I threw outside last winter. The squirrels finally got it open . . . No compost pile, but I do throw some veggie scraps out, to be nibbled by squirrels and bunnies, or mowed into bits if they don't eat them.
Met a little girl at CSA pickup yesterday, named Michaela, who thinks kale chips are named for her -- for me, from now on, they will be.

I used to put browned hambuger in my spagetti sauce, but Dear Hubby told me he liked it better without. Now this is a man who likes his steak only cooked until it stops mooing. So it can be done, lol.

Oh, thank you, Barbara.

I already compost, but I haven't used the soil yet. Frankly, I'm scared of it. I've just been adding stuff to the compost bin for about 18 months now. I think I have to have a friend come over and babysit me when I start pitchforking it around or whatever it is I do with it.

And I'm a vegetarian but my kids aren't, so I'm going to start a Meatless Monday at our house.

And I'm buying only free-range eggs from this day forward.

Thanks for making it so easy. Sometimes that's all I need, someone saying, "here, do this."

18 months ago, when I weighed about 80 pounds more than I do now, I started eating less. Smaller portions, more vegetables, less meat. Being an apartment dweller, I can't grow much, but the basil, mint and jalapenos are doing nicely. One bonus, Princess One has combined our FoodTV obsession, her better eating life style and our garden into this: http://www.tvscratchgames.com/MyTopPlate/MyPlate.cfm

Oh, I do enjoy a single barrel bourbon, mint julep every now and then. I use a touch of Missouri grown honey. The longest drive any ingredient makes is Frankfort, Kentucky to St. Louis, 325 miles. I guess I could use Budweiser and bike to the brewery, but I've tried biking with a beer and it doesn't work so well.

Once again..."Plant a radish"!
And I do love vegetables. One little problem and it's not just squirrels and bunnies. We're talking critters.
So a garden is more of a battle in my yard. If the possums don't eat it the raccoons will.
All my scraps I feed to the iguanas to keep them out.
In the circle of life it is nice to share.
In Miami right now everyone is walking around with an avocado to give away. And they freeze for great guac in January!

I have an orange tree that only produces sour oranges so I'm going to replace that. I have a partial solar power system on my house. No room to out in a big garden but I could do a big container and grow something!

In one of the buildings at work we have a high-end composting toilet. We can't use the compost but we save thousands and thousands of gallons of water each year. We also have a rainwater reclamation and filtering system for irrigation

Xena, wish we could grow avocadoes here. Love them.

And you reminded me of another early veggie I grew this year: French breakfast radishes. So, so good, including cooked.

I try to save the world one tomato at a time. We eat tomatoes from our local farmer's market or locally-grown greenhouse tomatoes in winter. Supermarket tomatoes are one of the last remaining bastions of slave labor in the US...plus, they taste bad.

For anyone who doesn't understand what "slave tomatoes" are, I refer you to this article-- http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2009/03/politics-of-the-plate-the-price-of-tomatoes

Like local tomatoes, free range eggs aren't just better for the world, they *taste* better.

We have two pear trees and two apple trees, though one of the apple trees had blight and no longer produces.

I love this! Buying locally (both food and anything else) has become such a passion of mine. I believe it is a way I can absolutely make a difference in the world. I do make a few exceptions (wine and olive oil come to mind). I love your concept of "saving the world". I truly believe that one person can make a difference...

Harley, I'm laughing, because I'm a little afraid of my compost, too! A couple of days ago, I made myself take a big spadeful out and toss it into the daylilies. It is VERY dark and rich--it must be heaven for all those little plants. But still...kinda icky.

Kerry, the potatoes in bags are a blast. Honestly, I've had more fun with that single thing than I can tell you. Maybe it's my Irish roots (snort), or maybe they are just a very satisfying crop. Easy and fun.

I wish somebody was giving avocados away in my neighborhood! That and citrus trees are my most gigantic envies!

Thanks for the link, Laura. I haven't read that.

RMW--obviously it's tough in the current world (partly because we--that is to say I--am spoiled for choice) to get everything local. Some trade economy has always been a part of the human landscape, so I'm not a purist. A sense of mindfulness is a good thing.

Oh, French breakfast radishes! My second crop is going now. I'm also pleased with the daikon radishes, which the grubs have no taste for.

Fort Lauderdale now has a number of urban farmers. One farm is in disused land in an iffy neighborhood,and employs local people -- a double beneft. Don who hates vegetables, loves locally grown collard greens sauteed in olive and garlic.

I have 2 markets in my city neighbourhood, one at the community centre on Sundays and a 'pocket' market 2 blocks from me on Thursdays. I have been eating free-range eggs for years, only here they are more than $4 a dozen but so worth it for the taste.

I also eat locally made ice-cream - does that count!

This summer the BC grown strawberries were crappy because of the cool summer but the cherries were amazing.

I don't have a garden box on my balcony but will consider it if someone else would carry the supplies up 2 flights of stairs for me . . .

Margaret, you're on with the pear-orange swap. Just the oranges won't be ready until December, probably Christmastime?

Something I forgot to mention earlier - last year, my karate teacher/boss decided to start making use of leftover bits of land. He owns the large warehouse that houses our dojo, as well as some of the surrounding homes. He created raised beds against the side of the building facing the small parking lot and in the space between one of the houses and its garden shed. Because the building is so long, he manages to grow about a zillion tomatoes, as well as several varieties of squash, okra, peppers, and a few herbs. He's trying out broccoli this year. What he doesn't eat, he shares with his tenants (mostly foreign graduate students) and dojo folk. How cool is that?

I've planted various size gardens every year since spring of 2000. This fall...in about a month...I'll be starting the oft delayed Great Landscape Renovation, which will pretty much replace all of our plants (except fot a few patches that attract pollinators) with edible species. We can do this with about 80% of our front yard and maybe half of the back yard. We reckon this will easily take care of the veggie needs of two humans and two dogs for a year. It should also take pretty good care of our fruit needs, too.

Once the landscape is done, we plan on getting a few chickens and maybe 3-4 ducks (duck eggs rule, folks!). My wife is still on the fence about a couple of Nigerrian Dwarf Goats, but I'm wearing her down.

For anybody who thinks that: A) They have no room for a garden or B) they have no time for a garden, I heartily suggest they read "Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholemew. You can do a heck of a garden in a 4'X 4' space.

I thought Vancouver was spectacular for fresh food. It's dazzling!

I'd go for goats in a hot minute, Doc, but not sure about ducks. I second the recommendation for Square Foot Gardening.

Love it, Kerry.

Dont' forget community gardens! Some cities offer free plots in a communal space for growing vegis and flowers.

My front yard is host to a large garden that I share with my mother, my sister and my niece, so it's a family gathering place as well as where we grow our food. I buy my beef from a local farmer and my chicken from the farmer's market. Fish from my other sister in Alaska where they catch it wild, cans it on site and hand delivers when she visits each November.

And Yes, Rockymountainwoman, buying food and anything else locally will make a difference in the world. Hand crafted goods are expensive, so the other question is how much STUFF do we need? Place setting for eight from China, or place setting for four from the local potter? Closets full of cheap clothes from Ross, or a few well chosen pieces from the local thrift shop, made by you, or traded from a friend? The choices are ours to make. Also if you choose olive oil and wine from California, it's still closer than Spain. I believe every little thing counts, adds up, and eventually makes a difference.

Evalyn, you are right on about California wine & olive oil, especially because organized crime in Italy (and other parts of Europe) control the Olive oil export biz and they mix the olive oil with other oils so as to make more $$$. It is VERY hard to detect this and the USA has surprisingly lax rules regarding imported olive oil. Better to buy from California and know what you are getting while supporting our farmers.

Jeez, am I on a (organic) roll today or what?

Elaine, when I rode the train from Miami to Lauderdale I saw several community garden plots along the tracks. Love to see urban gardens like those.

My friend Pat, who never did more than grow a few geraniums and petunias until four years ago, has the most amazing garden. She harvested nearly 400 pounds of potatoes this year! And her gardens are all so pretty, really camera-ready, with flower borders, and sweet raised beds for strawberries and herbs. The garden shed alone would make a perfect little adult dollhouse. The best part? She shares!

Karen, I have a "compost pile" in Florida just like yours. Tucked behind the barn and out of sight. Never used in the garden, but it must be rich. Last summer I had rag weed 11 feet tall growing there.
My backyard in Michigan is too shady for vegetables and I love the trees too much to remove them. I've been using compost, along with dirt and disintegrated bark mulch this summer to fill in a low spot in the front and now I have a bonus vine with about a dozen mini pumpkins and another with a couple mystery melons growing. Makes me feel guilty reading about all of Kerry Ann's hard work destroyed by the heat. Maybe you should stick to winter gardening, Kerry Ann.

Mulching helps to keep the soil cool, too.

Potatoes grow IN the bags?? (not that I'll be doing that, since I can't have potatoes, but what a concept!)
Jessisca is planning to get chickens, in "tractor cages" that can move around to give them fresh grass and bugs every day. This summer she has twice gotten eggs from an Amish farmer to bring to us -- would have been more often, but they had a critter problem . . .

Love all the ideas I'm picking up.

Potatoes grown in a bag are amazing, Mary. It's easy and saves all the digging.

Compost piles can be MUCH easier than the ones I have as many have pointed out. I was just worried about dog digging, and squirrels. If it's all contained, then I don't have to worry about it.

Barbara, I was able to dig up my potatoes with my two hands. Like I said, potatoes! In my garden! So, so cool.

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