Happy Thankgiving

I told a friend recently that I identify as a “foodie.” She laughed and pointed out that I’m vegan and gluten-free. When my friends tease me about being vegan and gluten-free, I often tell them that I’m proud to be on a low-carbon diet. I feel good about my choice not to eat animal products and I try whenever possible to eat locally. I continue to identify as a “foodie” and often have friends ask me to make them dinner. I’m bringing vegan pumpkin-cheese cake to Thanksgiving this year.

Being a Californian, I am blessed to have witnessed the cultivation of a wide-variety of crops and have seen a number of different native and wild plants that grow in the moderate and friendly California climate. I grew up near the San Joaquin valley and have seen fields of corn, tomatoes, basil, asparagus, artichokes and more. Still, I will occasionally find myself thinking, “I really have no idea what I’m eating.” As we encroach upon our nation’s eating holiday, Thanksgiving, a holiday that, on its surface, celebrates the breaking of bread between communities, but underneath tends to lean towards being a terrible salute to industrialized agriculture, I want to take this space to highlight food that we commonly encounter but are often ignorant of its origins: sesame, cinnamon, and cashews.

Sesame, found in abundance in Asian cuisine and on bagels, is mostly an Asian import, native to Africa and Asia. Its seeds are edible and pressed for oil. The plant resembles a less-leafy, slightly darker sage and grows to 3 feet in height, brandishing little white flowers. The term “open sesame” was made famous by “Arabian Nights” as it referenced the sesame pod, which bursts open with seeds at maturity. 96% of the world’s sesame crop is grown in Asia or Africa. A very small percentage is grown “locally,” and by locally, I mean Texas and Mexico. According to the “Food, Industrial, Nutraceutical, and Pharmaceutical Uses of Sesame Genetic Resources,” a full third of Mexico’s sesame crop is bought and used by the McDonald’s corporation for its sesame seen buns.

Cinnamon is a spice that comes from the inner bark of trees from the genus known as cinnamomum. The trees are native to South East Asia. The trees are grown for two years before harvested using the woodland management technique known as coppicing, which takes advantage of a tree that will grow shoots from a stump if cut down. According to the International Herald Tribune, in 2006, Sri Lanka produced 90% of the world’s cinnamon, followed by China, India, and Vietnam. Cinnamon is used as a spice, especially in preparation of desserts and chocolate. Its essential oils are used to help aid digestion and is often taken a preventative for the common cold. According to a 2003 article on trade and sustainable forest management, Mexico is cinnamon’s number one importer.

The cashew nut is from a tree native to Brazil. The tree was exported to India in the early 1500’s which is where it is primarily cultivated today. The nut is actually a seed from the cashew apple which is an edible fruit but highly perishable so not exported. The fruit is about the size of an apple and resembles an upside-down orange bell pepper. Obtaining the seed from the cashew apple is a complicated process as the nut is incased in a shell which contains toxic oils. Where is it grown locally in India and Brazil, the fruit is used to make wine and liqueur. The first country to import the cashew was the United States in 1905.

I highlighted sesame, cinnamon and cashews in this piece because they are three of my favorites. Sadly, I know that the kind of fossil fuel it takes for me to enjoy these flavors is taxing to the earth and its inhabitants. There have been several attempts at a food revolution through education. I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma or the documentary film, “Food, Inc.” We cannot continue to eat the way we have been eating in the United States of America. Not just because the fast-food diet and frankenfood warehouses (known as supermarkets) are utterly disgusting, but because our relationship with food is completely unsustainable.

When we sit down to a meal with our friends, families or by ourselves this Thanksgiving, I implore each of us to think about the food in front of us, where it came from, how it’s grown and who is affected by its import and export. Happy Thanksgiving.

Downsizing the Future

While the idea of “future” is very much different today than it was when we were Disney-watching little kids, for those of us who are still fairly young, giving up on the possibility of the future is not an option. I can’t say that I’ve been exempt from American consumerism. I was, at one point, an American teenage girl and I still own far too many purses. But I know that the future will hold no need for throw pillows, high heels, Taylor Swift’s new fragrance, Hallmark collectables or Fisher Price’s Imaginex Big Foot. I will be purchasing none of those this holiday season. In fact, I’m on a quest to clean out my storage unit before December. There are folks who are still in disbelief and, for me, the holidays amplify much of the American mythology of consumerism. Still, many young people, on some level, understand that the current model we are living in now is unsustainable and, even if it is not recognized as the collapse of industrial society, it is clear that the future is going to be very different than the present. Many young people and lots of forward-thinking, more-seasoned progressives are now looking into ways that will make the transition into the new paradigm less painful. Both the permaculture and transition town movements serve this purpose and there are many individuals who are creating new standards of living which circumvent the current norms.

In downtown Santa Rosa on November 6th and 7th, Jay Shafer, founder of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, (www. tumbleweedhouses.com), kicked off the tour of his workshop series on building tiny houses. His lifestyle and design principals lend to the essential contraction and retrenchment of sustainable living. Shafer maintains that, “Sustainability is a subtractive process, not an additive process.” In his book on building tiny houses, “The Small House Book,” he muses, “Over consumption is reflected not only in the scale of our houses, but in the sizes of our yards and streets as well. Oversized lots on vast roads, miles from any worthwhile destination, have made the American suburb as inhospitable as it is vapid.” (pg 46) His building philosophy argues that designing small and using a sustainable model is the answer to the problem of the excess and discomfort of modern living.

When Shafer designs small, he designs small. He has plans for living in a fraction of the space that many of us grew up in. It’s like IKEA on crack except that instead of displaying small living with particle board labeled in Swedish profanity and put together with an allen wrench, his houses all look like quaint, miniature versions of the cutest houses in America. If you want something spacious, Shafer offers plans in the 400-600 square footage range but some of his most clever designs go even smaller. Shafer’s “Lusby” is a 117-square-foot house that fits nicely on a utility trailer and includes a living area, a kitchen, a full bathroom, a bed and two lofts. His “Weebee”, which includes a little porch and lots of windows, is only 102 square feet. And if that seems too extravagant still, the “XS-House” whittles life down to just 65 square feet but still has all the utilities one would expect a house to have. If you have a collection of commemorative plates or beanie babies, however, you may want to order a second house.

In discussing design, Shafer points out that, “Innovation is very lionized in our culture.” He goes on to qualify the downfall of over-celebration of innovation by saying, “The problem is that when you have a lot of fanciness for fancy’s sake, often function is sacrificed.” Several of Frank Lloyd Wright’s structures are examples of fancy for fancy’s sake. Though his style was ground-breaking, many of his buildings are known to leak and are disintegrating. Another example of form over function is the Geisel (Dr. Seuss) Library on the US San Diego campus designed in the late 1960’s by William Pereira. The building, which looks like a geometric mushroom or digital spaceship, has an almost completely empty third floor which has lent the building to urban legends suggesting that the weight of the books, books that would eventually fill the building, were not taken into account in its design. Fact or fiction, the building contains a lot of unused space and the innovation that went into the building has not served the purpose of the structure or those that use it.

Ironically, in spite of his valid criticism of glorified innovation, Shafer’s tiny house model is, in and of itself, an innovative design for modern American architecture. He takes the American architectural battle cry of “bigger is better” and produces his own subversive modernization using subtractive design. Safer explains, “Subtractive design is pairing down a function until it exists in its simplest form.” In his book, he quotes Antoine de Saint Exupery: “You know you have perfection of design not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” His tiny houses stand as temples to that philosophy.

So why aren’t there subdivisions across America filled with progressive-thinkers and tiny houses? Because bigger is a mandate when it comes to building codes. For the most part, the tiny house design does not meet the current codes and and/or zoning laws in place for American living. At the dawning of urban planning, when zoning laws were protecting houses from factory coal dust, zoning laws served a valid purpose. But today, zoning laws essentially mandate the need to drive from one end of town to the other and relegate disagreeable structures, such as trailers, to less-conspicuous (aka less-desirable) parts of town. Of course, there ways around the current laws in place such as cottage housing ordinances or exceptions such as “Class K” in Mendocino County, California, which specifies that you can build a house any way you want as long as you’re building it for yourself. Shafer’s suggested way around these unfortunate laws is to build the structure on wheels, designating it a trailer and therefore not subject to the same inglorious inspections, though doing so brings up another set of road blocks. It would require a great shift in urban planning and a change in housing laws to allow for the reality of tiny house communities. This doesn’t mean that tiny houses are an unviable option. It just means that there is more work to be done.

The dilemma of the tiny houses speaks to a larger problem, however. Our current laws in place do not lend to any smooth transition as the current paradigm shifts. As this process carries on and the economy continues its downward spiral, we will hit many road blocks. While real-life inevitably travels faster than civic life, each of us will be better off through this transition if we can pinpoint some current civic policies that make a smooth transition impossible and get them stripped from the books. The future is dependent on how we set the foundation in the present. In the meantime, I’m selling my purses on Craig’s list and using the proceeds to buy the plans for my tiny house.

Sacramento Area Mall Catches Fire, Consumers are Aghast

The big news in the Sacramento area last week was that the beloved Roseville Galleria caught fire and much of this giant shopping mall burnt down. We lost a large number of retailers including Nordstrom, Burberry, Abercrombie, scores of boutique stores and, perhaps the most tragic, the As Seen on TV store. Those of us that live in the area know that Roseville is a typical American suburb, a tribute to white-flight and mass consumption and the mall was pretty much the city’s most significant place of worship. While the city offers an old town square, full of small merchants and empty store fronts, the well-to-dos that live in Roseville don’t frequent mom and pop shops. And the not-so-well-to-dos shop at the Wal-Mart.

The fire was started by a young man who barricaded himself in a Game Stop and set fire to a nearby establishment while claiming he had a bomb. The fire spread quickly while law enforcement tried to negotiate with him and, by the time he surrendered, the fire marshal declared the building unsafe for firefighters to enter and much of the mall burnt down. It is unclear what this young man’s motivations were for such a dramatic presentation but rumors tribute his erratic behavior to a missing paycheck and an unpleasant parting with one of the Galleria retailers.

This story could have had so many angles in the coverage by the local and national corporate media. (Yes, the gravity of this terrible situation was so gripping that the story hit national news.) The media could have talked about the current pulse of the American working man and the terror that people feel from this economy crashing. The media could have talked about the desperate measures that this young man took and how young people are feeling hopeless about the future. The media could have talked about the calamity of job loss at a mall and how it would disproportionately affect women and people of color because those are the people who work at the mall. No. Instead the media predominantly focused on the terrible timing of the “tragedy” and how it would affect holiday shopping.
The real tragedy is that the night before the mall burnt down, the River City Food Bank burnt down. The central hub of Sacramento’s food distribution for the needy was lost in the same way the mall was but hardly a drop of ink was spilled on that story compared to the massive news coverage that the mall received.

The River City Food Bank in Sacramento was created in 1968 by the community for the community with the simple philosophy that no one should be hungry. According to their website, www.rivercityfoodbank.org, “The River City Food Bank is the only Sacramento Area Food Bank open every week day to anyone experiencing hunger from anywhere in Sacramento County.” In addition to maintaining a food closet, the establishment offers referral services, nutritional classes and counseling services at no cost to the recipient. The Bank provides services for a spectrum of people including those that are chronically needy as well as one-time clients who come in after facing a set-back such as an unexpected car repair or medical expense. The Bank has a small number of staff but is primarily powered by volunteers. After their facility burnt down and the food bank lost everything, Sutter Hospital offered River City Food Bank an empty office space to continue services and Goodwill lent a truck in which to store donations in the interim while they prepare the new space for clients.

Like many cities across this nation, Sacramento has seen its hungry, needy and homeless population increase exponentially in recent years. The tent cities erected on the banks of the American and Sacramento Rivers were so compelling that it brought Oprah out to the area to capture the human desolation on camera. Since Oprah’s visit, the tent cities have been disbanded (by force, per city non-camping laws), but folks are worse-off and poverty has spread. Unfortunately, while the population of those in need grows, the attitudes towards those in need haven’t evolved much. Law enforcement in the Sacramento area is known to harass and arrest the homeless people simply for sleeping and, aside from the usual holiday giving, the food closets barely stay afloat from local donations. There are few organizations and individuals who can be counted on to answer the call when a need arises in the community.

The few organizations and individuals who can be counted on, however, can be counted on absolutely. With a little help from social media, the community response to the terrible loss of the River City Food bank was swift and concise. Local activists assembled a team of volunteers and organized a food drive outside of the locally-owned Sacramento Natural Foods co-op. After only 8-hours of volunteering on the last weekend of the month, volunteers were able to drop off over 1,000 pounds of food and $500.

With the holidays quickly approaching, the unemployment levels stagnant and the very real threat of massive inflation and sky-rocketing food prices, the need for healthy community food banks is evident. It is vital to contribute to the life support systems in place and to continue to build the health and connections in local communities. As for the people in Roseville, they are working around the clock to try and have the mall reopened by Black Friday.