Sunday, September 28, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 21

My new cellar shelving and bins.

This was a big stock-up week for us. Last weekend, we went to Washington DC for a family party. The party itself was very lovely and delicious, but the most significant thing for me was that DH's family patriarch started a discussion about keeping chickens in his urban Philly backyard. Apparently he has also been stocking up. That got me massive street cred with DH - if his godfather is doing it, I no longer look like a survivalist whacko. :-)

So, DH agreed that we should spend some of our savings on 3 months of stored food. Instead of buying bits and pieces from our regular food budget, I now have a stock-up budget, and funding to purchase a freezer. I feel so much better - like when you are in labor and they finally say you can start pushing; the hard work is not over, but you are finally doing something besides moaning and complaining.

Planted: Brought some herbs indoors to start getting used to being indoors: fine-leaf basil, rosemary, two kinds of sage, garlic chives. I put a plastic tray on top of a filing cabinet in one of our only two south-facing windows. Took some coleus cuttings to root over the winter. Working up another order of seeds for spring.

Harvested: Cherry tomatoes, mint. Cut some grass to dry for mulching, but got rained out of the rest of my grass harvesting plan.

Preserved: Roasted tomatoes, peppers, basil, and onions as a sauce base for freezing. Dried yet more mint.

This loaf from the old machine was like a brick doorstop. The baking bucket didn't stay locked in.

Cooked: The newer bread machine produced a nice loaf, so I think we are finding our groove with that. I'm having trouble keeping up with yogurt-making. Every time I think of making it, the milk is almost out. Too much going on lately. Made a new cauliflower soup, and found I had everything I needed on hand.

Stored: I focused on dry goods this week, filling out the supplies I already had. Next week, expect to see veggies for cellaring, and after the freezer arrives there will be meat, lard, butter, and whole wheat flour.

A lot of people order bulk food online, but I've heard a lot of stories about slow delivery, so I decided to shop locally for now. I want to establish local sources for our food. I went to a warehouse grocery, a wholesale club, and an independent grocer with a can sale, so far. I still have to visit a Mennonite bulk store, the grocery liquidator, and a flour mill (pastry flour). I do plan to order powdered eggs and high-quality dry milk online. Bought this week:
Cases: evaporated milk, corn, refried beans, canola oil, crushed tomatoes, whole grain pasta, macaroni, Spaghetti-O's (DD11's request), paper towels (DH's request)

Bulk: 20# bread flour, 15# rolled oats, 10# red lentils, 5# cornmeal, 10# split peas, 30# basmati rice, 25# sugar, 4# brown sugar, 6# honey, olive oil, 16# of cat food

Essentials: a brick of yeast, cider vinegar, some spices, hot chocolate mix, bouillon cubes, dried apricots, sunflower seeds, walnuts, pistachios
Prepared: Ordered a 7.2 cubic foot freezer from Sears, on sale for $195. I did extensive checking, and they had best price per cubic foot. But they were sold out at that store, and there were none in the regional distribution center, either, so it is being shipped from another region for Oct 7 delivery. That seems ominous, Sears selling out of freezers in the Northeast.

We got the equipment for making hard cider. Did some research on an email list, and found a home-brew shop in our area: Universal Carbonics, at 614 Gregg Ave (turn back Noble St from Lancaster Ave), where the Reading Draft Birch Beer factory is located. Martin Radovanyi is the proprietor and is very knowledgeable. He helped me pick out a 6 Gal fermenting bucket, airlock, siphon, tubing, and yeast - came to less than $30 and all is reusable. We still need a large glass carboy to rack the cider ($20-40), some bottles (recycled), and a capper ($13). Hard cider is not exactly an essential, but it will be fun, and tasting will be a good excuse to have a party.

Jar, coffee press, and mill from church sale.

Bought a better bread machine at Goodwill for $5, along with some winter fiction. Got another 27 canning jars via Craigslist, mostly quarts. Went to a good church sale and found books, games, a big glass jar, some greeting cards, 18 canning jars, and a shelving unit. DD15 bought a French coffee press, a small electric coffee mill (for spice grinding), and a sewing machine for $10. I am researching the Singer model # to find the right bobbins.

Managed: Cleaned and reorganized the cellar. The kids were an enormous help with unloading the car, hauling stuff to the basement, helping to assemble the shelves, and making labels for the bins.

Couldn't find the shop-vac hose, so I had to buy a new one ($18). Found a spot where there was likely a freezer belonging to the previous tenant. There is a raised concrete slab of the right size, and a heavy-duty electrical outlet. We think the new freezer will just fit down the cellar stairs.

The niche behind the shelves will be for appliance boxes we are saving for moving.

Found a large set of wood utility shelves at that church rummage for $20, and they just fit in our low headroom cellar, in front of the furnace we no longer use. Just what I needed! And Boscov's had a sale on 20-gal lidded storage totes for $3.97. I got 8, and may go back for more. I don't think you can have too many bins. I sorted our food reserves: cans and jars on the shelves, boxes and bags into the bins. Put a temporary shelf on top of the furnace intake, since we are not using it. I have four old milk crates that hold 6 gallons each, so they will store 24 gallons of water in gallon jugs. People say the jugs may leak over time, but the cellar has a sump pump, and we will try to get in the habit of rotating them. I'll look for other water storage containers.

Sorted my dry beans to figure out what else to buy. I have enough split peas, lentils, rice, and pintos. Probably need another 20 pounds of other types, like garbanzos, cannellini, black beans, and soup bean mix.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: Gave away all our old Christmas lights via Freecycle. We will get a few strings of LED lights. Researched ways to reuse more of our empty food containers.

Doesn't this deli container already look like a seed-starter?

Local/Family: The Neighbor Club is hard to get going. People have different schedules, and are not used to asking each other for help. We also never all have money at the same time, to buy things together. One neighbor was carless and walked to a store a few miles away with a limping push cart. I scolded her for not telling me she needed a ride. I am going to have to figure out how to check in more routinely, to watch for opportunities to collaborate.

I did give a pan of warm apple bread pudding to the pregnant neighbor before we went to DC. I had baked it for breakfast and we didn't have time to eat it. I plan to bake on Monday. Our surly male neighbor just had hip replacement, and I will see if some banana bread will sweeten his disposition. Newsflash: Pregnant Neighbor had her baby Saturday night, a healthy 8.5 pound boy. Better bake some cookies for her other three kids.

Learning: I am signing up for gardening classes given by the Berks Master Gardeners at the GoggleWorks art center. I am not a beginner, but 9 hours with the attention of a Master Gardener is not a bad deal for $25. The three Tuesday night sessions that don't conflict with soccer practice. These classes are poorly advertised. If I hadn't caught the newspaper article in my feedreader, I would not have known. And I am looking for these things. It wasn't included in the regular Cooperative Extension packet, or in the GoggleWorks mailings. I am going to mention that to the people that teach the classes, and make some suggestions

Library: I ordered 4 new books: Coleman's Four Season Harvest, Ashworth's Seed to Seed, Bubel's Root Cellaring, and Katz' Wild Fermentation. I've wanted these, and the used price is almost the same as new - I saved money buy ordering new at a discount and getting free shipping from Amazon.

At the Goodwill, I found a cute little 1955 cookbook, Potluck Cookery, that has a lot of recipes for leftovers. The church sale had some interesting titles: The Cake Mix Doctor, American Wholefoods Cuisine (1983), and Cooking from the Cupboard. Gotta love a 25-cent book.

To my digital library, I added Pat Meadows' beginning vegetable garden plan. She developed it for her daughter (who happens to live in my 6B frost zone), but it has good advice for any new gardener. Pat's site has lots of other good info, and she runs a number of email lists for no-nonsense gardening and cooking.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Holiday Prep: Paper Tree

DD11 has a birthday in a few days, and will become DD12. She has been mentioning this with increasing frequency, as if we would forget.

But the scary thing is that her birthday means we are less than 3 months from Christmas! I pretty much refuse to start preparing until December. I like Thanksgiving, and I like to devote some attention to that, without feeling like it is just the big meal before Black Friday.

A post on an email list suggested an ornament exchange, and that led me to think about our family holiday tradition, the paper tree.

When my girls were very young (maybe 3 and 6), we had a holiday with no money. I was on a church list, but by Christmas Eve, it was clear that a tree was not going to arrive, and I didn't have $60 to buy one. I had some gifts ready, but OMG, no way was I going to face Christmas morning explaining why there was no tree.

So I invented a new tradition. I had a roll of wide green floral ribbon scrounged from somewhere, and I cut sort diagonal lengths from it. I taped them to a wall in a tree shape, and cut a trunk shape out of a paper grocery bag. Then we spent the rest of the night making paper decorations. Little paper chains, all sorts of cut out paper ornaments, shiny bits of wrapping paper. We flipped a coin to see who would draw the star for the top. They were so proud of their work, and couldn't wait for Santa to see it.

Now the girls are 11 and 15, and we celebrate a variety of holidays - Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Chinese New Year - but we still do a paper tree. We make new ornaments every year. The girls have taken over making the tree base now, and then spend December making ornaments. I won't let them start until December 1st.

Sometimes they use floral ribbon, sometimes they draw it, or make 3D paper branches. All paper ornaments. And it all gets recycled or composted in January. No storage, no buying decorations - we do collect used wrapping paper, Christmas cards, shiny bits, stickers, etc. and use assorted art supplies. But we would do that anyway. :-)

Sometimes I do miss the tree-hunting tradition of my childhood - but then I just look at the price of a tree, and I feel A-OK!

If the mention of Christmas in September has you freaked out, too, just join me in refusing to talk about it until December.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Winter is Coming

Early snow last winter, on the mountain above our house.

This summer we started reading an epic fantasy series, Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, starting with A Game of Thrones. It features a land where seasons lasted years, not months. Years of summer, followed by years of winter. One of the protagonists has a family motto, "Winter is Coming." It reminds people that summer is lovely, but must be used to prepare for hard times, not to fool around wasting time and money on political intrigue.

I have my own task list to get ready for winter:

Major Project #1: Unload several rooms of my mother's house into a storage unit, so we can get major plumbing repairs done over the winter. We won't heat her house most of the winter. I hate to spend money renting storage, but there is no place else to go with it, and Mom could not handle the emotional strain of large-scale disposal.

Major Project #2: Our landlord won't insulate our attic, so we will. We need the space (otherwise finished) as a bedroom, to make room for my mother to stay with us this winter. That will mean shifting the girls to share the attic BR, put my mom in the warm BR next to the bathroom, and move all of our desks and bookcases to the second BR to make better living space downstairs. Yes, we are moving nearly everything we own from one room to another! :-)

Smaller Projects:
  • Order bubble wrap for the windows, and working on arranging the heavy window drapes.
  • Get garlic planted.
  • Buy a chest freezer so we can take advantage of friends' hunting prowess. We passed up a deer last year, that we could have had for the cost of butchering. (Done 9/26)
  • Finish fitting out the basement storage area. Make bulk food purchases of dry and canned goods, vegetables for cellaring, bulk meat for the freezer, and basic toiletries.
  • Get straw bales for mulching, and to make a cold frame. Bag leaves for mulch.
  • Buy another oil-filled electric radiator, our transitional heat source.
  • Sort through clothing barrels to see who needs more heavy winter clothing. Continue shopping at rummage sales - church bazaar season is starting.
  • Buy fermenting buckets to make hard cider. (Done 9/26)
  • Get the rest of the books in Martin's series, for winter reading.
  • Update our tetanus shots.
  • Hang rods for indoor clothes drying. (Done 9/30)
  • Late addition: Set up the worm composting bins.
What's on your list?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 20

I like a beneficial bug as much as the next gardener, but not ON me. This Wheelbug was crawling on my back at soccer practice Monday night - flicked off by another parent (thanks, Earl!). It bites - a long-lasting, painful bite that is reportedly worse than a bee sting. It was huge. Ugh!

This will be a short update this week, because we spent a lot of time preparing for a trip to Washington DC for a family birthday party. I spent a shocking amount of money ($102) on an appointment for hair cut and color. I like the result, but I just can't stand spending money on that, even if I only go a few times a year. I can get a similar cut at lots of less expensive places, and I will ask a friend with a cosmetology license to help me buy and apply my own professional color.

Planted: Nothing new. Still clearing the remains of summer.

Harvested: Last of the basil, mint, and parsley. Cherry tomatoes.

A neighbor gave us some pluots. They are a cross of about 70% plum and 30% apricot, like large plums, but sweeter, right down to the pit. They are not brand-new, but our family just discovered them this year. I brought some home from a market to try, and DD15 bought some in Baltimore and introduced them to some of her friends. A neighbor also gave us some of a branded variety called "Dinosaur Eggs." I just love pluots - too bad they are only available from July to September, and apparently only grown in California so far. Maybe I better find place to plant my own tree.

Preserved: Dried mint and chopped parsley. Froze one-cup bags of sliced peaches. Froze blanched cauliflower in soup-recipe-sized bags. The freezer is officially crammed, and we need to get moving on buying a chest freezer.

Cooked: Roasted tomatoes with onion, garlic, and basil. It was very thick and I put it in a container in the fridge to decide how to use it - but DD15 discovered it and has been using it like a condiment on sandwiches and pasta. I am out of tomatoes, but I think I better find more and roast them up.

Our bread machine bread started coming out funny, and I wasn't sure why. Then I figured out that not everyone was firmly seating the baking bucket in the machine - the base has to lock into the socket, or the ingredients don't mix thoroughly. Now we are back on track with baking, and ready to experiment with new recipes.

Stored: Pasta, popcorn. Another dozen half-pints, a dozen pints, more plastic lids, new lids and rings for jars I got from Freecycle. Hair conditioner.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: DH goes through about 3 leather belts a year. He has one everyday belt at at time, and replaces it when the holes rip through. I had a "D'oh!" moment when I realized we were throwing them away. I took the most recent one out of the trash and we cut it down and burned new holes in it for DD15. They both like simple leather straps with silvery buckles. I'm sure there are a lot of other things to do with a leather strap, so I'll be keeping them from now on.

Local/Family: Had dinner (Vietnamese Pho soup) with a friend that works for Penn State's Cooperative Extension. I am not sure of her exact job title, but she works with farmers who grow fruit and veggies. She frequently gets quoted as a source in the local paper. We had a long chat concerning my ideas about living in a city that often feels like a food desert, surrounded by the huge food-producing rural county. One fascinating thing she told me: small groups of people go to the large produce auctions and watch for the best stuff to be offered. Then they find the former who grew it and make their own deal to pick produce, presumably feeding large families or reselling to city shops. A problem across many types of farm-related business, she noted, was that people with farming ideas are often not equipped with practical business management experience. She will try to let me know if she hears of events or news that match my interest in exploring ways to connect city consumers with the food producers that surround them. She also recommended that I look into joining the Pennsylvania Assoc for Sustainable Agriculture as a consumer member.

More next week - we are planning some big food and equipment purchases.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Weekend with SuperMom

I was SuperMom this past weekend. I think I have gotten too old and fat for my Spandex supersuit.

Friday, I took DD15 to cash her paycheck and buy dye to make the ends of her hair bright pink. Then we grocery shopped at Aldi, the grocery liquidator, and the farmer's market. Put away a lot of groceries. Made sure laundry and dishes were caught up. Made curried ham and lentil soup. Baked a loaf of bread that didn't turn out right, for unknown reasons. Cleaned the kitchen.

All because we were leaving DH and DD11 for an overnight trip to Baltimore. DD15 is an elected social-action chair of a 65-church regional youth steering committee - they plan four weekend youth conferences each year, with themes ranging from social justice, to leadership, to worship. The group has monthly meetings all over the mid-Atlantic, so we drive somewhere once a month. I can't stop being conscious of the price of gas, but DD15 pays for it. The deal we made is that I would do the driving and help with chaperoning, if she pays for gas and food out of her barista income. My criminal background check just came through, so now I will be an overnight chaperon. It really is a great leadership development opportunity for her, and we are getting tour a lot of beautiful old (and new) churches, where a group of 18 teens and 5 or 6 adults sleep on the sofas and floors. I also try to explore markets, food co-ops, and ethnic food stores when we travel.

Saturday, I drove her and another youth group member to Baltimore, about 2 hours away. We left early, so we could see something of the city. We parked on a little residential street near Inner Harbor. We could see dragon boat races in the harbor. The kids dragged me up all the steps at Federal Hill Park and down the steep grass on the other side. As I was trudging up the million steps, a woman going down whispered, "One step at a time, hon." That gives me a clue to how bad I must have looked, huffing, red-faced, with my knee audibly popping. I made the kids stop halfway down the other side to identify plantain, dandelion, and purslane - and tell the kids they could be eaten- bahahaha!

But it brought us to the American Visionary Art Museum. Visionary art is produced by people who have no art education - we call it "Outsider Art" at our community art center. The admission was discounted ($5) because they were between main exhibits, but the remaining galleries are very interesting.

There is a scale model of an ocean liner, made of toothpicks. My favorite was a huge multi-panel painting made up of zillions of detailed tiny people: "On an outer wall is a seven-panel trompe l'oeil mural by James Franklin Snodgrass imagining the population of the world materializing into a subtle image of a fertile reclining mother figure--an altogether different, more organic vision of Babel." Snodgrass was a 50's TV game show fraud whistleblower featured in the film Quiz Show. Many of the biographies of these artists talk about mental illness and reclusive behavior, and on the third floor is a whole exhibit devoted to OCD: Obsessive-Compulsive Delight. A gift shop on the first floor is stuffed with weird little objects, ephemera, books and cards. Everything from art books to vintage needle holders to tiny plastic dogs.

The outside of the building is as interesting as the inside. I love mosaic work, and the building is literally covered with it. There is garden full of native plants behind one of the buildings. The entrance fountain has water shooting out of faces carved in native rock.

The garden is a lush, wild mass of native plants and grasses. Wonderful to find tucked into a sheltered city nook. Like suddenly stepping into different world.

There is this fabulous structure in the middle of it all:

Across from it is a covered arcade lined with more mosaic panels.

We started to get hungry, and I wanted to find the Lexington Market, which is advertised at having been in operation since 1782. We didn't have good directions, but we managed to find it after a few loops.

I was disappointed. The market does have a lot of seafood and meat vendors, but few real produce vendors. Prices seem high; a smoked ham shank that costs $1.99/lb in my home market was $2.99 in Baltimore. Most of the produce is non-local fruit, cut-up and sold ready-to-eat. Most of the stands sell sandwiches, assorted ethnic food, and bottled beverages. It's more of a giant urban food court of prepared food. Not much of an emphasis on local food, at least not visible to me. Perhaps locals know what food is really local. I had some "Texas BBQ" that was really just sliced beef in a too-sweet gravy, with soggy macaroni in cheese sauce. The kids had sushi. We bought some fruit and baked goods to take to the meeting for later snacking. It just seems wrong, for the region to be at the height of the harvest season, with no sign of it in the city market - no corn, no tomatoes, no peaches, no green beans.

We found the church, which is a wonderful historic building, celebrating 200 years since the birth of Enoch Pratt, who built the church social hall out of bricks recycled from houses torn down to build the Pratt Free Library. I loved the architecture in Baltimore. I should have taken more photos. Every block has some ridiculously wonderful church or monument or a row of little old houses. Lots of little urban garden patches.

The youth meeting went from 6pm to about 11:30pm, followed by some youth social time. I read the last few chapters of my book club book, and went to sleep about 1am on a sofa. I set my cell phone to wake me at 6am. I wandered through the still-dark church, checking sleeping bodies until I found my daughter. She found the boy that was driving back with us. We gathered our stuff and were on the road by 6:30. The drive up Route I-83 was smooth and pretty. As the sun came up, there was light fog rising from the trees along the highway. We were all still quite groggy and silent - a relief after a day of constant teen chatter.

My goal on Sunday was to get to my own church by 8:45am to attend a book discussion group, and I made it. We were talking about Riding the Bus with My Sister (2002), a true story about a woman who explores her relationship with her mentally handicapped sister. I was particularly interested because the sisters are my age, and scenes from their lives echoes the clothing and popular culture of my life, set in my city. The author lightly disguises the locations and identities, but we recognized the descriptions. The handicapped sister still lives here and still rides the buses.

But the book club was just the start of my day! The club broke up it time for us to go to the annual RE breakfast, where you sign your kids up for the year. (RE stands for Religious Education, what we call Sunday School.) DD15 helped set up the breakfast, and I was starving. They had an assortment of bagels and spreads, several kinds of yogurt, and lots of fruit, nuts, and granola to make yogurt parfaits. I love that kind of breakfast.

One of the nice things about living in the city, is that we are only a few minutes from most of the stuff we do. So, I raced off to swing past our house and pick up DD11, so she could go to RE. We have a new DRE (Director of Religious Education), and had hoped to meet her, but she is still finishing up at her last job.

I tried to stay awake during the sermon, I really did. Not too successful, on only 5 hours of sleep, but I don't think I actually snored. When the service was over, we left to make a mad dash through the Sunday grower's market. I got 2 pecks of #2 peaches, a peck of #2 tomatoes, a large head of cauliflower, some sage, and a quart of plums.

Then we jumped back into the car to pick up DH and go to DD11's first soccer game of the season. She had gone to church in her uniform, and we got to the field by 12:30 for the 1pm game. It had gotten hot. I found out later it hit 90, and the heat index was 105. We made sure the players got hydrated. Most of us start our kids hydrating in advance the night before a game.

DD11's team tied 2-2, a good first game for us. They lost a lot last year. Our urban recreation league usually plays suburban teams with better equipment, soccer camps, and teams that also play together in school leagues. Our city teams tend to have lots of new first-time players every year, so we build a new team every season. We make sure all the girls play, and everyone plays hard. We all felt good about the game - players, parents, coaches. One first-year Soccer Mom was a blast to watch, as she leapt in and out of her chair whenever the ball got near her daughter, a first-time goalie.

We left the game and took DD15 to work - she had to work from 3 to 8. I think she had only an hour of sleep Saturday night. Oh, to be young again. I napped while she was gone, and woke up to realize I had a bad suburn. During the game, I just wasn't thinking about the blasting sun and not having sunscreen on my face and neck. I burned my collarbones in a boat-neck t-shirt. I slept with a damp cloth cooling my chest Sunday night.

I don't know - maybe other families are that active every weekend. But I felt like I did a week's worth of activities in 2 days. DD15 said she was proud of me for "not freaking out." I was tired, but didn't lose my temper, even when a 16-year-old boy was back-seat-driving at me. And I did everything I set out to do, in my madly over-scheduled weekend.

Now I have all week to recover in the kitchen and the garden. Because next weekend, DH and I drive to Washington DC to attend his aunt's 50th birthday party. We get to stay in a hotel, just us grown-ups! Whoo-hoo!

Independence Challenge - Week 19

An awful lot of gourds from one volunteer vine.

Went to Baltimore this past weekend, to one of my daughter's regional youth meetings the weekend of the 13th-14th, so my Independence post timing will be wacky. This Week 19 post is for last week.

Nothing. Too busy with other stuff, and too confused about when first frost will happen. It was down in the 40's at night last week, and this weekend it hit 90.

Missing pumpkin on August 19th, not yet orange.

Harvested: Peppers, tomatoes, gourds. Someone stole my bigpumpkin at the back fence. It was just barely all-the-way orange. Next time, I'm carving a symbol on the bottom of the baby pumpkin, so it grows in with scar tissue, and I can identify a stolen pumpkin I find on someone else's porch.

Preserved: Attempted to dehydrate banana chips, which went oh-so-badly. Saved seeds from Brandywine tomatoes, black-eyed peas, Siberian Iris, bearded iris, false indigo, and an Asian tiger melon from the market.

Cooked: I borrowed an idle bread machine from Neighbor M - the "rent" will be paid in cinnamon-raisin bread. Turns out I have a manual for it, from a similar Welbilt machine I used to have. DD11 and I immediately made a loaf of white bread to get started. DH sounded interested in trying it out. Worked great, and she popped in a second loaf to give Neighbor M the next day. It really was fast to throw the stuff in the machine. There should be no reason we can't bake every day.

Found a great resource: The King Arthur flour website has a chart that lists the weight of common baking ingredients, so you can measure accurately.

We are making an effort to cook more collaboratively. DH made an herb-crusted pork roast, DD15 made cheesy-pesto penne, and DD11 made bread in the bread machine. I made a spiced peach sauce/butter that was good on the bread. Nothing was really new, but the meal came together easily, even in our teeny kitchen. It helped that bread gets started 3 hours in advance.

Stored: 5 lb cornmeal mix, 10 lb White Lily pastry flour (for biscuits), 5 lbs of whole grain pasta, 24 rolls toilet paper, Grey Poupon mustard, Miracle Whip (don't judge me!), fennel seeds (to make sausage), and marshmellows. All this stuff came from the BRL grocery liquidator in Blandon, and cost less than $20.

We joined the local BJ's Wholesale Club ($45/yr) and I wrote down a lot of prices to compare to other sources of shipped and local bulk goods. The selection is limited, and not everything is cheaper than a good grocery store sale, once you figure out the comparison between the huge wholesale size and regular store quantities. If you buy name brands, this is great deal. But we buy a lot of generics, so I will have to watch closely. I do like their chewy store-baked bagels, 9 large for $3.49 - I will get bunch when we have a freezer. They also have good prices on car batteries and tires.

Prepped/Managed: Following up on my September grain storage goal, I posted a lot of questions to my food storage lists, asking what proportions of grains to store, how to manage buckets, and what kind of equipment I might want to acquire.

I decided to continue using the big Rubbermaid lidded bins under my tables for short-term storage - a pantry. I will store bulk grain, beans, legumes, sugar, and salt in 5-gallon buckets with oxygen absorbers in the basement, on pallets. Here is the projected storage list for 3 months:
50 pounds of soft wheat berries (local)
50 pounds of bread flour
30 pounds of pastry flour (local)
20 pounds of spelt flour (local)
50 pounds of rolled oats (maybe local)
50 pounds of rice
20 pounds of whole spelt (local)
30 pounds of cornmeal (local)
50 pounds of dent corn (local)
20 pounds of cane sugar
We won't know for 3 months if that is a good guess for our needs - we just started baking bread. But, if I use 2 cups of flour per day, and there are about 4 cups in a pound of flour, we will go through about 45 pounds in 90 days by baking a daily loaf.

Local/Family: Woo-hoo! I found something that DH wants to do: make hard cider. We hardly ever drink, but when we do go out we tend to order Woodchuck hard cider. The equipment and supplies are cheap, and we can have a tasting party when it's ready. Found a long fascinating article about the history of hard cider in America, and a scanned copy of a 1871 Harper's article about Johnny Appleseed. I've also seen mention of a pear cider called "perry," which sounds delicious.

Had a porch meeting with the Neighbor Club. I made a list of info for us to work on exchanging - cell phones, emergency contact info, things we could use help finding or doing. Neighbor M remarked that her relatives could help find stolen car parts, and one has a port-a-potty biz in New Jersey, if we need any poop. We made a couple of loose plans. Neighbor M and I will try to drive up to a u-pick farm near Fleetwood, and stop at BRL, the grocery liquidator in Blandon. She lent me the bread machine.

Neighbor M wants to make granola. and so do I. Must research recipes and look for deals on bulk ingredients. DD11 wants yogurt and chewy granola bars for breakfast. I bought 3 kinds at the store to compare. I like Trail Mix types, like Nature Valley or Kashi. DD likes Fibre One Oats & Peanut Butter, which lists chicory root extract as its first ingredient. What the heck is that? A fiber additive that is supposed to be full of the soluable fiber inulin. Huh. I woulda thought granola had enough fiber on its own.

Neighbor V is hugely pregnant - 3 weeks to the delivery of her fourth child, and my kids will help entertain hers so she can get some naps. Her husband works at a Pepperidge Farm bakery, and can get bread and other products at cost. We seldom use packaged stuff - croutons, crackers, goldfish crackers, cookies - and we just started baking bread. I think I will get some bread when we have a freezer, as back-up. Cartons of goldfish crackers would be good to give to the church preschool for Sunday snacks. Who can pass on Mint Milano cookies? I'll hide some away for a day when everyone is tired of eating healthy.

Learned: How to get rid of suburban groundhogs. Mom has a den under the decorative boulder in her front yard. They ate all the sweet potatoes - they must go. I learned I can bait a trap with apples, and if I take them more than mile away, they will not find their way back. I don't want to use poison in our yard. I could shoot them - but that's not allowed in the suburbs. (Come on - they ate the sweet potatoes.) I am going to wait for Mom to come home from California. I want someone to keep an eye on the trap once it is set up.

Posted about my banana chip woes on a food preserving list, and got some good advice. I will get back on that horse next week. Did a lot of price-checking on new chest freezers. I was surprised to find that Sears genreally has the best prices, among the big box stores and chains. I will watch some local appliance dealers for sales, to see if anyone beats Sears.

Library: Nothing new, but did some big bookcase reorganization. I have more reference books to shelve. We sorted the homeschooling books into those we will keep for permanent reference, and those that can be donated. I made a pile of some to sell online, but most don't bring enough to make them worth shipping. I will give some to a 2nd grade teacher I know, and see if DD11's 6th grade teacher can use some of the rest, since there is a wide range of reading level in her classroom. We boxed up a lot of fiction that we'd already read, to get back out one day in a bigger house.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Skill building vs. store building

I want to share something from a food storage list that I read, with the permission of the writer. I thought it was very valuable advice.

On the list, I posted about the frustration of trying to build up our food reserves as we simultaneous eat everything I store. I said, "It's awkward and lumpy to change your whole food life," and others chimed in with feelings of burnout. Oregon's Chris Musser responded with this wisdom:
This has been an interesting thread, in part because I've been there/am there and in part because I'm considering launching a small cooking school at home, to help people learn to cook from scratch, bake bread, make ferments, preserve food, etc., and I'm curious to know what challenges people have as they strive to change their way of buying, storing, and preparing food.

While I'm still not satisfied with our food storage situation, I am fairly pleased with where we're at in terms of what we're eating day-to-day. It's taken about three years to get to this point, though, and I know if I'd tried to make all the changes we've made in six months, I'd have driven myself crazy. My advice: slow down and take baby steps. Instead of storing lots of food you aren't prepared to use wheat when you don't bake bread or own a grain mill...start off by building a skill: add bread baking to your weekly cooking repertoire.

For me, baking bread was the first big step away from the grocery store. Once I had that down, I only need to shop weekly for dairy products. Now I get raw milk through buying club and make our cream cheeses, yogurt, buttermilk, etc., from that...another new skill set I developed. Meat is all in the freezer, bought farm-direct. Eggs I currently get from a friend with backyard chickens, but we just got three pullets a couple weeks ago and should have our own eggs by early next year. I order the rest of our groceries through Azure Standard once a month and am building our food storage that way. Fresh produce is the only thing I buy weekly, and that's at a farmers market or farm stand. Except for picking up cream and a couple hard-to-find items at the co-op twice a month, I haven't stepped into a grocery store in months. Now that I've come to appreciate how nice it is not to grocery shop, cooking from my pantry is more of a reward than a "should." I spend more time in the kitchen, but because I'm often learning something new, practicing a recently acquired technique or refining an old one, I find my kitchen time quite interesting. Going to my pantry is like visiting my own personal grocery store, except it only has food my family likes and no check-out lines, wonky carts, or mad dashes in the rain through crowded parking lots. Glory!

Different methods are going to work at different times of life, too. When I was pregnant with my second, I learned a lot about cooking for the freezer. By the time my son arrived, we had three months' worth of food that could just be popped in the oven or reheated on the stove stored away in our deep freeze. Now, my kids are old enough to give me time to experiment with low-energy food preservation and play around with making fun stuff like ginger beer and kombucha.

Things are not perfect--I have health issues that really wear me down and so there are days when I send my husband out for burritos or pizza, even though we have a house full of food. My point is that learning the skills and developing a kitchen rhythm that works for you and your family most of the time is more important than filling your pantry. In an emergency, you will need those skills as much as you need the food.

Is your kitchen keeping up with you?

Mine isn't! I have a small kitchen designed for people that buy a week or two of prepared food. There are not enough cabinets for storing dishes, cookware, equipment, spices and condiments - let alone food. And once you start preserving and storing - oh my!

A lack of organization seriously influences how overwhelmed I feel. Plans and lists make me feel more prepared, even if I don't have an iota more food than before I had the lists.

I recently realized that part of my "confused" feeling was the cognitive dissonance of changing our food habits, while still cooking in a kitchen arranged for grocery-store dependence. The stuff in the kitchen is for short-term use, but it requires much more organizational thought as the long-term buckets in the basement.

I am very much enjoying cooking from my increasing pantry. Even a PB&J is now MY peach jam on DD11's bread with peanut butter from a supply that looks very large. That feels satisfying.

But I was still digging around in bins, crates, and an exploding spice cabinet to make any meal. Moving things from place to place to make room to do anything. Stepping over boxes of jars.

The large cabinet I found recently made a huge difference by making a place for for our spices, baking ingredients, and jarred good for immediate use. It made me realize that reorganizing the kitchen goes hand-in-hand with changing our shopping and eating patterns. We always made more scratch food than most people, but still, our cabinets held a relatively small supply of ingredients, emptied and refilled every two weeks or so. I bought one bag of flour at at time, and only one kind.

Now, I have four kinds of flour - unbleached all-pupose, bread, spelt, and whole wheat. Plus yeast, oat bran, flax meal, toasted wheat germ, groats, rolled oats, cornmeal, grits, and toasted cornmeal. Three kinds of salt - iodized, kosher, and pickling. Sugar: white, powdered, brown, dark brown, molasses, honey, agave nectar, maple syrup. Oil: canola, peanut, olive, sesame, yarrow. Vinegar: distilled white, apple cider, rice wine, white wine, red wine, balsamic.

I have more processes, and more equipment to perform those processes. Pickling supplies, canning supplies, bread making suppplies. The insulated bag and containers I need to make yogurt need a permanent home. Cast iron is heavier that other cookware and doesn't hang on little hooks safely. The bread machine, crockpot, canners, and dehydrator all need space. More trays and baking pans have appeared, along with more storage containers, plastic and glass. And if we make hard cider, that will take a fermenting bucket and bottles. Bins for two kinds of onions, garlic, ginger root, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.

So, building new skills requires not only new routines, but physical re-organizing, even before you start storing food for longer periods of time. I've barely begun to store real bulk supplies in the basement, and that can happen without affecting the ktichen at all. But the state of the kitchen is what makes me feel crazy or sane.

I think I could fit a small corner cupboard right next to the door, or a tall utility cabinet or shelf unit. I'd love to mount a pot rack, but I don't want to leave it behind for the landlord, or have to pay for fixing the holes it would make.

I like this DIY bike-wheel pot rack, and it would only make one hole in the ceiling, as long as I find a joist to solidly screw it into. But I don't think it would take the weight of cast iron.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Green Tomato Chutney

To make myself feel better about yesterday's EPIC FAIL, I am posting a canning success.

I never made chutney before - I seldom even eat it. But I got the canning bug, and found this recipe around the time that a neighbor thinned a lot of green tomatoes from her plants in July. Smelled great cooking, and we recently tried it. Wow! I love it. I put a little on bits of warmed leftover pork roast. It was zesty and fabulous. I am hoping it will be good on a party buffet with a cheese board or over molded cream cheese with crackers. Of course, chutney also goes with curries.

I used the neighbor's green tomatoes, and #2 apples with hail damage that were cheap at the market. Does use a lot of spices and raisins, so it isn't really cheap. Might be a good holiday gift for food-venturous friends. Great way top us up green tomatoes that are left at the frost.

Green Tomato Chutney
Makes about 5 pints
3 pounds completely green tomatoes
2 pounds firm, tart apples
2 cups raisin, either dark or golden
1 1/2 cups diced onions
2 teaspoons finely minced garlic
2 cups (packed) light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pickling or other fine non-iodized salt
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar, plus a little more if needed
3 to 4 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger, to taste
1 1/2 tablespoons mustard seed
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh hot red pepper, OR 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, OR 1/4 teaspoon ground hot red Cayenne pepper
1. Rinse and drain the tomatoes. Cut out the stem scars and any blemishes and cut the tomatoes into 1/2-inch chunks. You should have about 8 cups. Place the tomatoes in a preserving pan or heavy pot.

2. Peel, core and cut the apples into 1/2-inch chunks; add them to the tomatoes. Add the raisins, onion, garlic, brown and granulated sugar, salt and vinegar. Mix the ingredients well and bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and boil the mixture slowly, uncovered, stirring it often, for 30 minutes.

3. Add the ginger, mustard seed, coriander, cinnamon and hot pepper. Return to a boil, adjust the heat and continue to cook the chutney uncovered at a slow boil, stirring it often, until it holds a mounded shape when lifted in a spoon. Taste it carefully, remembering that the balance of flavors will improve as the chutney mellows in the jar; add, if needed, more vinegar, sugar, and/or salt.

4. Ladle the boiling-hot chutney into hot, clean pint or half-pint canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Seal the jars with new two-piece canning lids according to manufacturer's directions and process for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bat. Cool, label and store the jars. Let the chutney mellow for a few weeks before serving.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Great Banana Chip Disaster of 2008

This was the goal: organic banana chips, but homemade.

DD11 asked, "What's that thing and why don't you ever use it?" She was referring to the dehydrator I got for $3 at a yard sale. You know, the round plastic kind that everyone got for Christmas from a husband that hoped for beef jerky.

It moved around the back porch and the kitchen for two months, seeking a spot where the cord reaches an outlet. Finally, after the new cabinet let me clear the table better, I had room. DD11 wanted banana chips, and I had Suzy Homemaker visions of organic lunchbox snacks from home.

I was encouraged by a post on my food preservation list: a woman had just won a blue ribbon at her county fair for her banana chips. All she does is slice them and put them in the dehydrator. Sounded like just the thing for my dehydrating debut.

I bought a bunch of just-ripe bananas, a little green, no black spots. DD15 and I loaded the trays late Monday morning. First, we tried a small vintage slicer, probably a potato chip cutter. It made very thin slices that were hard to pick up and put on trays. We did one tray of those.

Then we tried hand slicing, but DD15 tended to make them thicker as she went along. I sliced some of hers in half. We started using one slice as a guide for the next. We loaded two trays with slices of about 1/4 to 3/8 inches thick.

I stacked them up, plugged it in, and pushed the button. This is a cheap Welbilt dehydrator, so there are no temperature settings, just On/Off. I didn't know if the top vent should be open or closed, so I turned it to half-open. I put the thin slices at the bottom, since the instructions said to rotate trays so that the closest-to-done was at the bottom.

The house smelled like bananas all day. The instructions said it would take about two days, so I didn't much mess with the trays until Tuesday at noon.

Uh oh. I now understand why trays need to be turned. There are obvious hot spots. But how do trays get turned at night?

The bottom tray of thin slices is certainly done. And stuck to the tray like cement. They tend to snap in half when you take them off. The lighter-colored ones are sort of OK. They are crisp and look almost normal on the side that was down. But they taste over-ripe.

I thought the darker ones might taste "roasted" or "caramelized." Ha! Burnt banana tastes horrible! Can't get the taste out of my mouth.

The other two trays are just weird. The slices look like craters, some very dark inside. The thicker the original slice, the deeper the crater. Still pliable. The top side looks dried-up and greyish, like I just left a banana slice lying around. The bottom side looks better. They also taste over-ripe. Are they even done drying?

Hint: Don't try to dry the ends of bananas. They end up looking like mummified nipples.

Of all of them, the top-most tray, with the most uniform slices, did the best. Ever-so-slightly pliable. They don't look like at all like the organic banana chips from the fruit-and-nut stand at the market. I doubt DD11 is going to put any of them in her mouth.

Crap. Who messes up dried banana slices? At least bananas are pretty cheap.


Edit: I had to soak the tray of thin ones for two hours to scrape them off the tray. The other trays had banana rings where I peeled them off. More soaking. Ugh.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Independence Challenge - Week 18

Reading's Labor Day Parade - Sept 1, 2008

Summer is, well, over. Fall always feels like the time to start new projects. I made an important realization, this week. A blog post at Women Not Dabbling in Normal crystallized it for me. Asked what the important skills for homesteaders are, Gina said,
"Figure out how to single-task.... It is very helpful to be able to draw your focus to one project... and complete it/organize it. Multiple projects left in various stages can snowball out of control very quickly..." (Read the whole post here.)
I am not a homesteader, but I am re-arranging our lives around new ways to get, store, cook, and eat food. Homesteading in my own kitchen. There are so many things on my to-do list, and I have been chipping away. I feel busy and productive, but only small tasks seem to get done, no big picture things. Big tasks are made up of small ones, but I am seldom getting the gratification of checking off a big task. I am going to try to address that by choosing an over-all goal for each month.

I am using more of some things than I ever did before, since I have started canned and pickling. I am using up my stored supply of sugar, flour, and vinegar. And I am baking more. I need to find some local sources of bulk staples - 50 pounds of sugar and buckets to store it, 50 pounds of flour, etc. We may have to tap our limited savings to do that, but it will pay off in the bulk savings, as we rotate through the stored supplies.

So the goal for September: focus on storing 3 months of grain, beans, and sugar. That means 400 lbs of grain, 100 lbs of beans and legumes, 20 lbs of sweetener - properly packed and labeled in 5-gallon buckets, on pallets in the basement. I'll report progress on that goal as the month progresses.

Planted: Nothing this week. Did some early fall clean-up. Can't decide where to plant garlic. If I plant it here, we could move before next summer's harvest. If I plant it at mom's, that crazy groundhog will eat it. Hm, might be a groundhog hunt in the next post.

Harvested: Mint, basil, thyme, parsley, sage, peppers, carrots, black-eyed peas, celery, broccoli.

Preserved: Froze carrots and celery in stock-making portions. Froze green beans for DD15. None of the rest of us really like green beans. Froze organic chicken backs for future stock.

Canned 2 pints Peach Jam that turned out much better than my hyper-sugary first effort with the Blue Book recipe. I barely let it cook before I was smearing it on thick slabs of whole wheat toast. I'm definitely making more before peach season ends. If I find more cukes, I better also make more bread-n-butter pickles; it seems everyone like them.

Also canned 5 pints of Green Tomato Chutney, the first chutney I ever made. DD15 wouldn't even taste it, which surprised me - she tastes everything. But then again, she doesn't like curries with apples and raisins in them, as this chutney does. I tasted and think I will like it a lot when it mellows. I've been to parties where someone set out red pepper jelly poured over cream cheese with crackers, and it was very good. I think this chutney could be used similarly, or with other cheeses. It was the first recipe for green tomatoes that appealed to me enough to try it. Smelled great cooking.

Cooked: No new experiments. It was humid this week, wet air pushed up the Eastern seaboard by various tropical storms. Makes me less likely to cook new stuff.

Stored: Bought a one-pound block of beeswax ($4) at market, from the boys at Two Gander Farm. That should be more than enough for my little bit of salve-making. It keeps for a long time. The beekeeper said it might get a white bloom on it after a while, from a kind of oxidation, but it will melt back in when heated.

Managed/Prepped: Did more jarring up of bagged herbs and beans, and lots of labeling. I used slips of paper covered with clear packing tape, since I hate scraping old labels from jars. I got a dozen quart canning jars via Freecycle, and bought a dozen new ones, and more plastic lids. The Wal-mart closest to me is out of pints and all metal lids. I need to find other places that might still have them.

Reduced, Reused, Recycled: Got a queen-sized bedframe via Freecycle. We have a queen sized bed with enormous cannonballs on the head and footboards. It overwhelms our small bedroom. If we switch to a simple frame, we have more options for positioning the bed. I'll send the big bed to Freecycle. Had to spend some gas to pick up the frame in Morgantown, but we found peaches and watermelon on the way back, off Route 10 on Freemansville Road.

Trash-picked another bunch of candles. I have been collecting old candles for a winter round of making votives and firestarters. I was planning to put dryer lint in cardboard egg cartons and pour hot wax in the cups - but I just realized we stopped using the dryer! Better ask a neighbor to save dryer lint for me.

Local/Family: Big week in this category. I gathered three other women on my block and we agreed to form a mutual support club to carpool, compare prices and buy food, help each other get what we need, and swap babysitting and other favors. We are also trading skills - one knows how to make biscuits, another has a pressure canner, and a third makes her own noodles. I am good at finding things for free. We also agreed that we need to keep an eye on our elderly neighbors this winter, some of whom have bed-ridden spouses and fixed incomes. If it goes well, we may invite other neighbors, but we are starting small.

The discussion shows promise already. One neighbor has a bread machine she doesn't use, another has a husband that works for a bakery and gets deeply-discounted bread, and a third is showing me to a Mennonite pick-your-own veggie farm. None of them are aware of the long-term economic changes I think are coming, but I don't have to talk about that to get them interested in simply saving money together. I find it hard to be silent about weird food choices, but learning to keep my mouth shut is a good neighborly practice.

Researched local CSAs for next year, and wrote an article about my frustrations with CSAs for urban dwellers. City dwellers may get a lot more out of informal small-group-buying and combining backyards for communal gardening or a small-scale neighborhood CSA.

Learned: Sharon Astyk's online class "Adapting in Place" wrapped up this week, and I had a nice half-hour phone chat with Sharon. I got a lot of mental work done in this class. I still need to work on the details of our written plan. I am going to write a separate post about the class in the next week or so.

I saw a cast iron potbelly stove for sale on Craigslist, so I started doing stove research. Stoves seem to have good resale value, so if I see a good deal, I should probably buy it, even if we are not sure exactly where it will go. I need to start looking for someone local that installs stoves and makes stove pipes. A few useful links:
Good Times Stove - photos of stove types
EPA: Cleaner Burning Wood Stoves and Fireplaces - sustainable wood use
Mother Earth News: Wood Stove Buyer's Guide
Library: No new books this week, but I did work on a different library: a gallon ziplock that contains all of the loose recipes I have collected over my lifetime. It was a trip down memory lane. I was reminded of old friends, places I worked - even an ancient clipping from 5th grade, when a favorite teacher won a gas range in a recipe contest. Found a handwritten copy of Julia Child's "Chicken Melon," that goes with a photo of me proudly holding the dish as a teenaged cook. I didn't find the Peach Kuchen recipe I was looking for, but I did a first pass sorting of my cooking life. I have over 500 recipes collected digitally at, but I haven't even touched the loose ones in the baggie, yet.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

CSAs in the City: Community Support Needed

Full weekly share from Seasons' Harvest Farm

Those of us that read food, garden, or homestead blogs are familiar with the acronym "CSA" for Community Supported Agriculture. But the general public, not so much. I find it encouraging that our local paper is covering changes in the food economy, with articles like this one, about a small Kutztown CSA that lets one family afford to garden for 14 other families.

A lot of local produce goes directly to the Philadelphia market. There are other CSAs used by Berks Countians, but I am specifically looking at CSAs that are easily accessible to residents of Reading, where the 85,000 people live.

City-Accessible CSAs in Berks. The only CSA plans I can find in Berks, with pick-up within 10 miles of the city of Reading, are these:
Seasons' Harvest Farm - $575 Large and $415 Medium shares for 24 weeks in 2008. The farm is in Lenhartsville, far northern Berks, but one of their CSA drop-offs is at the GoggleWorks art center, making them the only CSA with a Reading city location. I know people that are happy with this CSA.

B&H Produce - $320 for 16 weeks in 2008, pick-up at the farm in Morgantown, or in Wyomissing and Shillington. I know this owner, and you can also sample her produce at the West Reading Farmer's Market on Sundays. I know people that are happy with this CSA.

Farm To City - $550 Full Share, $400 Partial Share for 23 weeks in 2008. The Red Earth Farm is in Schuylkill County near Pottsville, but the CSA mostly delivers in Philadelphia, with stops in Kutztown and Oley. I don't know anyone using this CSA this year.

Two Gander Farm in Oley is offering their first CSA, a winter plan (the only winter CSA) with greens, honey, and cellared vegetables. $475 for 20 bi-monthly boxes of winter roots and greens, including a 14 oz jar of honey, works out to $23.75/week. They plan to offer a spring and summer CSA next year. You can find them at the West Reading Market on Sundays.

Quiet Creek Farm is worth mentioning, although pick up is in Kutztown. It is part of the famous Rodale Institute Farm, which pioneered organic farming. A full share is $650, a half-share is $465, June through November.

There were 2 other CSAs in Oley. Covered Bridge Produce failed in 2006. Old Earth Farm announced that their 2008 season cancelled, and I don't know what is happening there. These failures worry me, because they make buying into a CSA look unacceptably risky.

There may be other CSAs, but they are invisible to me. One shortcoming of CSA farmers is a failure to take advantage of the internet. Every farm needs a website with current info on it. Barter with a hungry web designer! B&H does a very good job with this - website, and a blog with each week's share described, and they are listed at Please be findable, if you want community support.
Obstacles to CSA Use for City Dwellers. the average city dweller has zero knowledge about the benefits of buying locally, eating seasonally, avoiding farm chemicals, or the value of investing themselves in the support of a small family farm effort through a CSA. I know my city neighbors don't understand. Most of them work hard just to get the most food for the least money. Carrots seem like carrots, whether they are industrial, organic, homegrown, canned, or frozen. They don't go to the local grower market in West Reading because it is perceived as producing "food for rich suburban people who can afford to be picky."

It's harder to get low-to-moderate-income folks on the organic/local bandwagon that we need them to be on. We need them if we want to see wider-spread changes in how food is produced, delivered, and consumed. It will not work if we only include the elite bunch that can go to a foodie fest in San Francisco. CSAs, for example, which seem like a good idea for anyone, still come with obstacles for the urban dweller of modest means. There maybe solutions, but the community structure to support them is not there yet.

Even if we agree that the 35% of Reading households living below the poverty line simply cannot afford a CSA share, we are still left with the 65% that might afford it.

There are obstacles that will require community responses. It not fair to expect the farmers to solve it all - their profit margin it too narrow. And the lower-income households would typically have trouble organizing community structures beyond the neighborhood level. So, support needs to come from middle-to-upper income organizers. I don't think we should wait for government to provide the solutions we need.

1. People with fixed or limited incomes can't assemble the large payment. Most CSAs require about $500 in advance, long before the season starts. It's a good deal in the long run - an average of less than $25/week for a lot of produce. But $500 is a whole month's food budget, and there are no extra big lumps of cash lying around.
Possible Solution: A nonprofit could engage itself in buying CSA shares that families can purchase on a weekly basis. It would be more effective if families could use food stamps. An individual CSA can also commit to providing a certain number of reduced-price shares, or accept the risk of allowing a few members to pay weekly.
2. There are almost no delivery spots in the city. That effectively excludes city families that need to shop close to home because they have no cars, or very limited gas money.
Possible Solution: An urban church or social justice group could offer their facility for weekly CSA delivery, helping the CSA farmer with distribution tasks.
3. The CSA box includes unfamiliar food. Chard, turnips, garlic scapes, etc. These are gourmet treats for people used to cooking with them, but just so much rotting trash to those that don't know what to do with the stuff. That can make the CSA look like less of a good idea.
Possible Solution: The Penn State Cooperative Extension has two staffers that work on nutrition for low-income folks, including one that is bilingual and works mostly in Reading. That program could use more funding. Someone needs to identify and teach willing city people to cook (or support community cooks that can teach). Most people don't know how plan for and use seasonal food and simple staples, to replace processed food with homemade. It would also be nice to share cooking traditions between ethnic cultures, which would teach us to use unfamiliar produce. Language bridges are needed. Another option is for CSAs to be flexible with box contents, allowing people to substitute for things they won't use.
4. It is hard to take risks with our food budgets. Buying into a CSA is a gamble. What if it failed one year? There are no refunds; you share the risk of the farmer. You would have to come up with more money to replace the CSA produce you expected.
Possible Solution: One could hedge the bet by buying into a CSA and also planting some tomatoes and peppers at home. Or splitting a CSA share with someone else, so neither family is completely depending on the CSA. Or splitting two shares at two different CSA farms.
5. CSAs aren't a good match for small households. The city is full of singles, elderly and not. Single-parent households are the norm. Eating a giant box of leafy greens might be what we wish for a mother with young children, but we can't expect to start there. We have high-rise apartment buildings full of elderly residents, and no remaining farmer's market in the city.
Possible Solution: An organization that matches up 2-3 families to split CSA shares. Perhaps the same one that helps finance shares over time. It would need to come with recipes and help figuring out how to use that produce to cook for one, or for picky children. Or maybe we need to match seniors who could contribute to a share, with families that could cook for them. This kind of matching could also happen at the neighborhood level, if someone simply steps up to organize CSA shares for their block.
6. CSAs don't take food stamps. Some market vendors take WIC and senior citizen produce vouchers, but they have to be registered with the state for that. Some vendors in the suburban farmer's markets take food stamps. But no CSA that I know of can process food stamps, and that kind of paperwork may be beyond them.
Possible Solution: A CSA could partner with another vendor that is able to process food stamp purchases. Or, we are back to that matching/financing organization for city residents. It is possible to address this at the neighborhood level, if someone uses their food stamps to buy a bulk staple like flour, and then trades it for part of a CSA share - but that is a complex transaction.
7. CSAs are invisible. One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of visible information for city residents. I had to work hard and know the key Google search words to find what I did.
Possible Solutions: Part of this is CSAs needing to figure how to be more visible. But part is a larger media and community need to look more carefully at the real food shopping choices available to city dwellers.
Most working families do not have the time or money to spend on broad comparision shopping - they go to the place they can get the majority of their needs met. The Super Wal-Mart is a frequent choice.

Corner stores, ethnic food stores, and small independent city groceries are visible within more limited neighborhoods, and may carry home-grown or local produce. I know that some stores go to the Kutztown Produce Auction to buy bulk, or make deals with individual farmers. They are not good at advertising their local produce. Overall, the lack of selection and high prices make corner stores a poor choice for a family that can go anywhere else.

Supermarkets like Giant and Weis are visible, and put flyers in the weekly papers. The Super Wal-Mart is very visible in the urban food scene. The two large suburban farmer's markets are fairly visible, but shoppers will drive right past them on the way to the Super Wal-Mart. Personally, I try to avod Wal-mart, although their organic offerings are expanding and that is generally a worthwhile trend, introducing organic options to low-budget shoppers.

Discount grocery chains like Aldi and Price-Rite make themselves very accessible to people with small budgets and limited transportation. They offer house-brand canned and frozen food, basic produce and meat, discounted brand-name snacks. Almost none of it is locally produced, but you can half your grocery bill by doing most of your shopping at a discount grocer.

I get a good portion of my staples from discount grocers, and I am a better-educated food shopper than most. Price-Rite has the lowest-priced honey in the county, and good prices on canned and dried beans, sacks of rice, tortillas, large canisters of herbs and spices. Aldi has the best prices on staples like saltines, canola oil, sugar, baking supplies, dairy products, frozen ground turkey, canned vegetables, and 100% beef burgers, inexpensive cuts of pork. I can get real cheese in blocks as low as $2.50/lb at times; markets and grocery chains never go that low.

I am a low-to-moderate income food shopper, and I can't afford the food buying choices I would like to make, even though I know what they are. I can go to discounters, liquidators, ethnic stores, U-pick orchards, and spend $20-30/week at a local produce market. I can manage some small bulk purchases to save money. But no CSA, and I can't afford to avoid cheap imported food in favor of a more local diet. When gas and food prices rise again, the options I can afford will be curtailed. That isn't just a family problem, it's a community problem, and a societal one.