If it's a root vegetable or in the allium family, you can do something with it, though it might not be what you expected. Here's the lowdown on a few things you're likely to have in your crisper drawer.
Carrots: Carrots that have started to grow roots and sprout greens can be planted for more greens (the carrot is actually a taproot so once it's pulled, it can't regenerate more carrots). Greens work well for juicing or in vegetable stock, and since carrots are biennial plants, you can let it go to seed and try your hand at seed saving.
Garlic: If a head of garlic has started to sprout, you can separate the cloves and plant in the ground.
Ginger: While it's not likely that ginger root from the store will sprout without help, it can grow plants up to three feet tall.
Turnips: Like carrots, turnips won't produce more turnips, but you can get turnip greens for salads out of the deal.
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Question: How do I find out if lead is a concern in my garden, and what do I do about it?
Answer: Get your soil tested, amend it, plant fruiting plants, and optimize your nutritional status.
It’s about the time of year to get started on my garden. I don’t have a nice, big, sunny yard, so I put my name on the waiting list for my city’s community garden. Unfortunately, the one closest to my house is right on a highway, and I was unsure about what that might mean, both for my gardening experience, and for the quality of the soil. With urban gardening becoming more and more common, lead from this kind of pollution can be an issue - the primary mechanisms for lead pollution being old paint and car exhaust, and lead in soil in urban areas is common.
According to the EPA there is no safe level of lead consumption. However, lead does not easily absorb into plants, so if your tested levels of lead are categorized as safe, there’s not too much concern, unless you have small children - then the level considered safe is lower than for an adult.. If you’re worried anyway, vegetables that grow underground (carrots, radishes, potatoes) and leafy greens accumulate more lead than fruit bearing plants. So plant beans, cucumbers, and eggplant, rather than kale or chard. You can also get yourself tested, before your garden as a baseline, and periodically to make sure you’re not taking on any toxic burden.
There are also things you can do to your soil to mitigate absorption. Raising the pH of any acidic soil will help, as lead is more easily absorbed by plants in acidic soil. Adding phosphorous helps, as it binds with the lead so it’s not available for the plant. Amending your soil with compost helps too: the broken down plant matter in compost is high in humic acid, a chelator, which buffers soil pH, helps to make important nutrients more available for plants, while binding with lead to keep it from being absorbed. Your extension department (or whoever does your soil testing) can help you figure out what to do.
If you get your soil tests and the levels are not safe, remove and replace your topsoil (to minimize physical contact) and plant flowers. Sunflowers and mustard greens have both been found to actually remove lead and other heavy metals from soil (called phytomitigation or phytoextraction), so plant a few crops of those, and retest.
With any lead levels in your soil at all, it’s important to clean vegetables thoroughly of dirt before eating. And, eating those vegetables will help protect your body, if you do end up exposed. Nutrient deficiencies allow for increased lead absorption into your body, while a fed, nourished person will be more resilient.
I ended up deciding that any lead was too much lead for me, and I didn’t want to sit by a highway in the sun anyway. So I found another garden that is a little more remote. I can’t walk to it, but I think I’ll enjoy weeding more, and I can focus on the challenge of getting things to grow well (I do not have a green thumb) instead of how to avoid heavy metals.
This week, we review the reviews, as it were, and try to come to a final answer to our question: where should we go to buy our produce?
The answer, not surprisingly, is that there is no one be-all, end-all answer. The right choice for you depends on what you value most.
If price is your primary concern: go to the supermarket. I wouldn’t have assumed at the outset of this investigation that I’d be saying this, but it really is true: conventional supermarkets buy in bulk and can thus pass the savings along to you. Nowhere can you as a consumer get better bargains and control spending as well as you can as at your local grocery store. Trader Joe’s will suffice in a pinch, as they are quite good at controlling costs, but both the selection and freshness of TJ’s produce are of concern to me, so I wouldn’t recommend making a habit of choosing that store for my fruits and veggies. This goes double – triple? – for buying produce off the back of a truck. But then, you probably knew that.
If you care most about selection: the farmer’s market is for you. As Adam Smith first noted, in a well-functioning free market, firms will compete for the business of the buyer, and no market is freer than a farmer’s market. Given the fact that most small farms focus on small, specific varieties of produce, even a smaller farmer’s market will likely offer you greater choice than even the biggest brick-and-mortar stores.
If time is tight in your busy schedule: the CSA is your best bet. You waste no time selecting or standing in line; you place your order, then swing by and pick it up at a scheduled time that’s convenient for you. You’re sacrificing autonomy, but in return you’re saving that precious resource of clock ticks, and you might just get exposed to some new favorite fruits and vegetables, too.
If you have plenty of time, or plenty of money: go to Whole Foods. Another answer I never thought I’d give when I started out, Whole Foods really is the gold standard for produce – still. If you’ve got time on your hands to bargain-shop, or if you just don’t worry much over the price of your groceries at all, Whole Foods really is the best place to go to get fruits and vegetables. One reader – who identified herself as “an old-time hippie who used to work at New York City’s first vegetarian restaurant way back when” – had this to say: “The produce section at Whole Foods is beautiful. It’s filled with good aromas. It puts people in a good mood – myself included! Sometimes I go there just to browse.”
This, too, surprised me – the amount of reader response this little inquiry generated. A reader in Colorado responded to my original Trader Joe’s post, noting that she used to work at the chain and found my reporting on their produce problems spot-on. Multiple readers wrote in to suggest that I visit an ethnic grocery store (Middle Eastern, Asian, or Latino) to find new options and great deals, and while I eventually decided to exclude such a visit because of the wide heterogeneity of such stores across the country – what value is my report if it doesn’t hold water in my readers’ necks of the woods? – I still think the idea is a good one, and I recommend that you fellow fresh fruit and veg sleuths out there take it to heart.
Myth busted? Problem solved? Perhaps not. But at least you health-hungry single shoppers and head-scratching new dads and moms can now be aided by this guidepost along the path – or, rather, the produce aisle.
Question: Why is it so hard to get local dairy products other than cheese?
Answer: I have absolutely no idea.
A friend recently lamented the lack of good local crème fraîche in his area – and he brought up a point I never considered. Local artisanal cheese is all the rage these days, and most places seem to have the standard neighborhood dairies for public school lunch milk, but what about other dairy? Why is it so hard to find certain local dairy products? If you’re interested in reducing your food miles, but want some really good cottage cheese, what should you do?
I’m still digging into the why behind this dearth of dairy diversity (I suspect it has something to do with the value added to the end product) but wanted to test my friend’s hypothesis. Since I’m in Pennsylvania and he’s in Florida, I figured I might have better luck finding local dairy products in this part of the country.
So off I went (my husband gamely in tow) to our local Whole Foods after date night. Yes, I know, we’re sad, sad people. Anyway. Aside from being the closest place open after 9 pm, Whole Foods really tries hard to cater to the foodie crowd. When the guy stocking yogurt asks you if you try to eat local as much as possible, you know it’s pretty ingrained in their corporate culture.
For this exercise, I’m defining local two ways: the more generous definition is anything I could find from Pennsylvania or neighboring states. The more strict local definition is anything within approximately 100 miles.
Here’s what I found:
- three cheese producers, two within 100 miles. Given the sheer size of the Whole Foods cheese selection, I thought this was a pretty pathetic showing.
- two sour cream, one within 100 miles. The local sour cream had a retro chic label that the hipsters love – you know, the one that hasn’t changed since the place opened in 1930.
- one ricotta (overlap with the non-retro sour cream place)
- three yogurts, none within 100 miles. Two are in the Philadelphia Metro area, and the other (Fage, the big Greek yogurt company) is outside of Schenectady, NY.
- three milk, two within 100 miles.
- one butter (overlap with one of the milk producers)
- one heavy cream, just barely within 100 miles as the crow flies in southern Ohio.
That’s twelve local dairy products from twelve producers, six of whom are within 100 miles of Pittsburgh. Only two of these, both milk producers (one of whom also makes butter), are certified organic. Given that the entire back wall of the store, and a good section of a side wall, is covered in dairy products, only twelve local (or local-ish) products to be found was unexpected and more than a little sad.
I’ll keep this experiment going, looking for more local dairy (and eating some good cheese along the way). In the meantime, keep in mind that it’s easy to see where your dairy started – almost all of the products I looked at tonight had their full address easily legible on their packaging.
Question: Which type of coffee should we be drinking, and why?
Answer: There are many options, some better than others.
I’m a woman who loves her java, and I mostly stick to one local source that buys green coffee beans at a fair price from growers located all over the world, and then roasts and processes the beans close to home.
When curious about other sources, the options are vast. Many types of ethical coffees are on the market. Coffee may be organic, shade grown or fair trade, and sometimes, all three. Which is the right bean to buy? And by right, I mean right by the environment and the economy - from when the plant is tended and harvested to when the steaming beverage is placed in your hands.
Let’s start with the environment. Organic coffee is grown without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or insecticides. Coffee is grown in tropical areas, and use of chemical products harms the soil in which the plant is grown over time, depending on quantity and timing of it use.
To me, the land is important, but the people come first. Having worked on an organic coffee and macadamia nut farm in southern Mexico, I observed firsthand the labor of the men, women and children who arrived at dawn to pick dark red coffee beans. They worked till late afternoon filling large baskets, and rarely took a break. I picked beans briefly myself, once, and it’s not easy work. Workers on coffee farms are paid extremely low wages, and especially so when one considers the value of the end result. The cost of a single cup of coffee, depending on size and specialty, costs between $2 and $5 at Starbucks, and the American coffee drinker consumes over three cups per day!
The term “Fair Trade” means that the companies growing the coffee are paying their workers a fair wage and often support healthier living standards for their employees and their families.
Shade grown coffee is simply coffee grown in a more natural setting, surrounded by other plants and trees. Because it produces less coffee than plants grown in direct sun, many companies choose to clear away the other plants to increase production. The consequences of this decision are unclear, but may include having to use additional pesticides and fertilizers.
Since most coffee isn’t grown in the United States (Hawaii is the only state where coffee is grown, and some parts of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico), it’s impossible to buy local. If you buy coffee at a supermarket or convenience store, find out if the company practices fair trade and/or if it’s organic. When you buy from a company with a mission grounded in ethics and equity, you will support social and environmental practices through procuring Fair Trade, organic, shade grown coffee.
Buying Fair Trade coffee can be more expensive than conventional coffee. But if you bypass the shop and brew your own coffee at home, you will pay just a little bit more and greatly benefit those with much less.
Question: Can you get your neighborhood grocery store to carry more organic products?
Answer: It’s worth a try
Since I moved to my current location in exurban Pennsylvania, I’ve been annoyed at the fact that neitherof the grocery stores in my town carry organic butter. They both do a decent job at stocking other organic dairy products, considering their small size, but for some reason, the butter component is nowhere to be found.
For a whole year now, I’ve been grumbling about this deplorable situation and griping about how non-progressive the food culture is here. That is, until this week. On Sunday, I stopped complaining and decided I’d do something about it (or at least give it a good try). Organic butter or bust!
As it turns out, it wasn’t that hard. There are two supermarkets in my township. One, Landis, is a local operation with only four stores in the surrounding area. The other is a Giant, part of large chain of supermarkets that span seven states. I easily found the phone number for the local branch of both stores on their websites and placed calls to their customer service desks.
The dairy manager at Landis was great. For one, he was available after regular workday hours, which made my consumer activism project a little easier to accomplish on a busy schedule. Though he was obviously not a connoisseur of organics (he had to ask me which brands* to look for), he was more than happy to acquiesce my request. He assured me that if he could get it, he would order it right away.
When I checked back in four days later, he had indeed ordered a case of organic butter (both salted and unsalted, since he wasn’t sure what my preference was) and it had already arrived at the store. It should be priced and shelved by Friday.
My experience with Giant was a bit more corporate. My phone call was answered by an automated message and it took me a couple of tries to get a hold of the dairy manager. Once I did, though, he was also happy to put in a special request for me. It sounded as though he had to check with the higher-ups to make sure about the order, though. I still have to check back to see if my efforts have come to anything.
Bottom line is this: If you aren’t happy about the products available to you in the store, it’s not that hard to change the situation. All it may take is a call from one concerned customer to get the ball rolling. There were no special forms, no petitions to get signed, no lengthy waits at the customer service counter.
Here’s the catch: Customers have to keep buying it if I want the stores to keep stocking my special request. If it doesn’t sell, then I can say goodbye to my butter (I’ve thought about artificially distorting the first order by personally buying 15 pounds of organic butter in one week, but I’m not sure my waistline or fridge could handle it.). I’ve got my fingers crossed that other consumers will be as thrilled as I am to see organic butter on the shelves.
*Cornucopia’s Organic Dairy Ratings Scorecard – when requesting organic butter, ask for top-rated dairy brands
Photo Source: Pink Poppy Photography
Question: Is the farmer’s market the best place to get produce?
Answer: It’s pretty damn close.
If you’re the kind of person who follows the vegetable debates – such as they are, ahem – you’re probably well versed with both the pros and cons of farmer’s markets.
Pro: they bring fresh produce directly into urban areas, including underserved ones. Con: their food is often quite expensive, priced out of the range of those who most need access to fresh fruit and veg. Not to mention, few accept WIC, shutting out those who really, really need help.
Pro: they support farmers directly, cutting out the middleman (i.e., big grocery chains).
Con: the organizers still take their cut, charging vendors to set up booths, and often, the sellers themselves are just hired agents of the farmers, not the farmers themselves.
Pro: they bring local, fresh vegetables right to you! How much greener can you get?
Con: well, it uses a lot of gas to drive all the way from the farm to a city street – multiple growers delivering produce to one aggregator is actually greener, from an emissions standpoint. Plus, some vendors are selling repurchased bulk goods, and not homegrown produce – and there’s no way to know who’s who!
All this said, I have to admit that I was quite looking forward to visiting a farmer’s market as part of my great grocery hunt. While we naturally ought to address the truth that every farmer’s market is, and will always be, unique, for the purposes of our investigation, let’s all accept the conceit that most are, at the very least, similar.
Cool? Cool. Now let’s get into the food.
Variety: If you’ve been reading this series, you can go ahead and be impressed with the truly broad variety of items I took home. Multiple types of fungi; multiple types of root vegetables; green, leafy veggies; legumes; fruits – I wouldn’t believe I’d bought all this if I hadn’t been there myself. Even the lack of traditional fruits can be explained: an acquaintance brought over oranges from his tree, so I wasn’t much in the market for additional sweet stuff. But that’s not to say they wasn’t there: oranges, pomelos, tangelos, blood oranges – there was a cornucopia of fresh, local fruits at the market. Strawberries, too, were plentiful, but I still had some left over from earlier. One point is deducted only because nobody could tell me how to cook the ridiculous daikon I ended up with, but still. 9/10
Selection: You can’t get any better. Or at least, I couldn’t. With 20-some stands to choose from, even though a number of vendors offered some overlap (who knew orange season is still going strong in Southern California in late March?), it is unquestionable that my local farmer’s market offered me far better selection than any other source I tested, including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and traditional grocery stores. Heck, I had over a dozen types of wild mushrooms alone to choose between! That’s choice. 10/10
Healthfulness: As I’ve mentioned a number of times, getting a true test (think gas spectrometers) of this sort of thing is beyond my scope. We’re going on organics, local food, freshness, and that nebulous, uncertain metric known as feel.
All that said, there was no plastic to be found, and everything was laid before me. Everything smelled, felt, and tasted fresh. It’s notable that certain items that are staples of the grocery aisle (bananas, grapefruits, and the like) were very much absent from the farmer’s market. And, frankly, though I like those fruits, that makes me feel good. Is anyone flying up their homegrown bananas from Honduras to hit up my local market? No, of course not. And no one’s trying to pawn off boxed crap as their own produce – at least not obviously – either. I couldn’t find any imported or out of season goods here, and nobody seemed to be hiding any unscrupulous pesticide usage. Two thumbs up. 10/10
Tastiness: Great across the board. Even my oddly shaped kiwis rocked. 9/10
Value for the Money: Largely good. Some things were priced out of whack – a $3 portobello? $2 for a tiny bag of frisee? – but others were great. It was a buck fifty for all those sugar peas, $1 for the radishes, 75 cents for the daikon… you’ve got to love that. So while it wasn’t a clean sweep here, the value was largely there – again, like at Whole Foods, if you’re willing to do the looking and put in the time, you can make your money last. 8/10
Final score: 9/10. Way to go, farmer’s market. Though I could do without the $5 loaves of “artisanal” bread you all seem to offer, I was largely impressed. All that’s left is to do next week’s wrap-up and crown a winner.
Question: Did you ever think your dog would sabotage your seedlings?
Answer: Nope – me neither.
A few weeks ago I started seedlings on my dining room table, under the best window in my house for catching the sunlight and letting the little lovelies grow. Little did I know someone else in my house had their eye on them, with a nefarious plot in mind.
My dog is a 70 pound boxer who is a bit of a diva – and she somehow got it into her head that the dining room table, covered with dirt (and seeds), was a good place to lie down when we weren’t home. Needless to say, the seedlings did not appreciate it. While the cilantro seedlings in the newspaper pots I had made bounced back after being squished and re-fluffed, the compostable egg cartons that held my kale and romaine seedlings were squashed flat like bugs. Thankfully, there were only two rows of casualties, but I had to find a new home for the seedlings – and fast.
While we own our own home (and have more space than your average apartment dweller), we also have two small kids and all their attendant stuff, which takes up more space than I would like. I also don’t have an abundance of extra, unused horizontal surfaces floating around here. So we scratched our heads, and improvised.
Out came the tv trays (that are rarely used). The living room couch was pushed away from the wall, and the trays lined up in front of the French doors to our balcony, which actually gets some nice eastern light. That worked for a little while, until we realized I needed to get cracking on seeding my tender annuals – you know, those 11 varieties of tomatoes I’m up to now – and we didn’t have enough space for those. My husband is building a cold frame, but it wasn’t ready for the seedlings we already started. Well, crap.
Thankfully, we remembered an aluminum folding picnic table that we’d stashed in the garage after my parents died several years ago. The darn thing is six feet long when it’s unfolded, which is great for our burgeoning seedling stash. Not so great for walking around our living room, but sometimes you have to suffer for your garden.
The recent Summer-in-March heat wave we experienced helped motivate me to start direct seeding my greens outside. But we’ll be dancing around the table for at least another month, and redoubling our efforts to keep the dog out of the living room in the meantime. Wish me luck!
Question: Does it make sense for an apartment-dweller to grow her own food at a community garden, or just buy produce from the experts at farmers markets?
My Mom always told me, “You can’t escape gardening; it’s in your blood.” As a kid, I absolutely hated everything about it and swore I’d never want a garden of my own, but she was obviously right. Since then, I’ve worked on three organic farms and even nursed basil plants in pots through dark Midwest winters. Besides the clay pots that inhabit my windowsills, though, I’ve never had a patch of soil to call my own. Until now.
Last week, I just found out I got a spot in a local community garden which offers renters a 4 by 8 foot raised bed for only $25. I did a little happy dance, got pumped about everything I’m going to harvest, and then panicked. Aside from some little kale seedlings craning their necks out the top of a recycled yogurt container, I haven’t started any vegetables yet. I’m already behind the 8-ball when it comes to starting warmth-loving crops like peppers and tomatoes. My windowsills are already pretty full with pots of herbs and flowers, and living in a small apartment (with two destructive kittens) doesn’t afford a whole lot of space for trays of tender little seedlings, so that leaves me with the option of hunting down organic starts from local nurseries. As someone who has worked at a nursery, I am fully aware of how quickly an armload of promising seedlings can turn into a major investment.
So you can see, fair readers, why I’m starting to panic before I’ve even had a chance to see my little corner of the community garden. There are other obstacles to success, too. I don’t own any gardening tools. The garden is about 2 miles from my house—close by, but not exactly a location I’ll be passing by every day. This means I’m going to have to be quite disciplined about visiting my garden every day or so, especially during the peak of the season when watering, weeding, and harvesting really can’t wait. Lots of folks have enough trouble keeping up with a garden in their backyard—do I really have the time (read: motivation) to keep up with this? And what if all my hard work is wiped out by marauding raccoons—or worse—teenagers?
Despite these worries, I’m still hopeful. While I won’t be able to grow everything I need in my 32 square feet of soil, I couldn’t be more thrilled with the chance to design my own garden and grow only what I want to eat. Forget Swiss Chard, melons, and all the other annoying things I’ve helped grow on farms here and there. I’ll grow some of the pricier items I love like tomatoes, arugula, and Brussels sprouts, but skip cheap or bothersome crops like potatoes and garlic. Then there are the intangible benefits of growing my own food. For starters, it gives me a reason to be outside digging in the dirt for several hours a week. This might not be your idea of fun, but for me it’s one of the most therapeutic activities I can think of. (Yes Mom, this is where you can say “I told you so.”) Not only that, but it can be great exercise, and thehealth benefits of eating produce as quickly as possible after harvest have been proven time and again.
For now, I’m not totally sure if community gardening will be worth the time and money. Still, as the time for planting approaches, I can feel myself anticipating dirty fingernails, a sore back, and the satisfaction of bringing home the best veggies—those money can’t buy; the ones you grow yourself.
American Horticultural Therapy Association: http://www.ahta.org/content.
A good summary of current scientific thought on gardening as therapy: http://www.npr.org/blogs/
Gardening and exercise: http://www.cleanairgardening.
Super fun garden planning tool: http://www.motherearthnews.
Sources for this blog post:
Nutrients in produce: http://www.healthy-food-site.
Question: How can I eliminate the last bit of garbage left in my trash barrel after I reduce, reuse and recycle?
Answer: With a few phone calls, minimal effort, and a fair amount of surprise.
It seems the more I reduce my ‘garbage’ output, the more frustrated I become with what’s left in the bin. For the most part, I use cloth bags at stores. I buy in bulk and fill my own reusable container. I eschew the produce bag, knowing I’m going to wash my lettuce again before I eat it.
And then I reuse what I can. For food, this means cooking scraps go into a bag in my freezer to make cooking stock. What’s left goes into a compost bin in my dining room that can handle almost anything, because it ferments the waste (and it doesn’t smell until you open the bucket). We have comingled curbside recycling for free from the city I live in.
And what’s left? A small bag of garbage that can’t be composted, won’t get picked up, and is mostly comprised of things like that plastic that comes wrapped around a big pack of toilet paper, the cling wrap from my XXX sharp cheddar, or that little seal under the cap on top of a bottle of olive oil.
As you can imagine, we spend very little on trash pickup and put out our can pretty infrequently. When we have to, I’m always irritated. I thought about figuring out how to make clothing from weaving these pieces together, but the seal thingy isn’t very functional, and I already have a load of projects partway in-process. Adding more to that list doesn’t seem really practical. So I thought I’d look into just why I can’t recycle these things - the cling wrap, the seal thingy, and the errant plastic bag that works its way into rotation.
As it turns out, it didn’t take me long to discover that many stores (drug store and grocery chains) will take back their own bags, including things like bread bags and produce bags. A quick call to Consumer Affairs of my local chain (the one I don’t like to go into because they blow hot, food-scented air on your head when you go in the door) confirmed this. But what to do with my toilet paper wrap and the little plastic seal? I looked some more. According to the Plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, many of these things can’t be processed same as the rest of the curbside recycling because they won’t stay in the trucks, and they jam the machines. So I called my recycling center to see if they had any ideas. Low and behold, they have not only ideas, but actually a bin that I can go by and drop off my cling wrap, olive oil bottle seal, and other plastics of this nature. I’m a little embarrassed, actually, not to have realized this sooner.
The hold out? Styrofoam. Not much to do there that I could find in my area (supposedly some places will recycle it, but not here). You can’t break it down and recreate in the same way. More and more retailers seem to be using peanuts made of corn starch, but the rest is trash. The solution to this has the emphasis on reduce and reuse. Your local craft store might be interested in the block pieces - mine wasn’t, but check it out.
Everything you wanted to know about plastic: The American Chemistry Council
Your local recycling center. Mine had this lovely chart available.
- Sprouting Up In a Kitchen Near You
- THE GREAT GROCERY HUNT PT. 6: Trader Joe’s
- Road Eats: Farm to Table Across America’s Heartland
- THE GREAT GROCERY HUNT PT. 5: WHOLE FOODS
- You’ve been slimed
- The Soda Tax, Part 2
- Pleased to Eat You, Mr. Chicken.
- This Little Piggy Went to Market, Part 3
- Guest Expert: Matt Young, Santa Fe Youth Food Cadre
- Something Fishy With The Seafood