Feed on

I am participating in the 2010 Blogathon, Portland-area blogger & entrepreneurial writer Michelle Rafter’s challenge to bloggers who want to get serious. Our task: blog every day between May 1 and May 31. As part of the challenge we were invited to do a “swap” with another like-minded blogger. I was lucky enough that T.A. Barnhart — also known as Left Coast Foodie — reached out to me. And so here is his beautiful post about trying to raise his own children, who are now grown, as naturally as possible. Thanks, T.A., for reaching out. And to my readers: Enjoy! (And visit his site to read my missive about my mother and how I grew up with home-cooked food every day despite the fact that she worked two jobs and was exhausted, I’m sure, raising three kids on her own.)

I lived in Bath, England, just over thirty years ago, from June 1979 to the following summer. I had arrived in England in 1976 as a member of the U.S. Air Force and then stayed on after my time was up. I was attending college in Bath, hoping to get accepted to an English university. Money was tight, and I didn’t eat very well, not to mention suffering a variety of the angsty stresses idealistic young men are wont to suffer. As a result, I lost twenty pounds that winter. And at that time, unlike now, I did not have a spare twenty pounds to lose.

After leaving Bath in the summer of 1980, I lived with friends in Falmouth, Cornwall, for a few months, and that is when I discovered whole, natural foods. I learned that for the kind of money I had spent to eat badly the previous winter, I could eat well and healthily — I could eat nutritious, affordable food that tasted good. It took me a while to get the hang of cooking whole foods from scratch, but when I realized that good, filling food was available to me even if a good wage wasn’t, my life was changed forever.

It was later that I learned about organics and gained a larger perspective of what “natural” meant, both personally and politically. At first, I was excited to learn about cooking in this way; I didn’t care about the meta of it all. My first natural foods store, the one in Falmouth, was a typical hole-in-the-wall place like those familiar to many who tried shopping and eating that way all the way through the 80s. The produce selection was limited, pricey and frequently not of the best quality. There were few producers making the kinds of products we now take for granted at our local whole/natural food stores and mainstream supermarkets. To get your entire diet from such stores back then meant a hard-core commitment, not to your diet but to The Cause: organics, fighting the system, personal lifestyle-based advocacy for change. Not many people opted for that level of commitment, and I was not one of them.

I was, however, committed to moving my life in that direction. Soon after I moved to Portland in June 1982 (I had been accepted to university in England but could not afford the outrageous tuition the Thatcher government instituted to drive away non-wealthy non-white oversea students: $5,000 a year tuition — in 1982), I joined Food Front in NW Portland. I took advantage of the opportunity to be a working member and lucked out: I was assigned to do orientation. I only had to work once every few weeks, and I learned the history of the co-op movement. The gig only lasted a few weeks before work and a new living situation made it problematic (i.e., I was 25 and had better things to do with the evening).

I continued to learn about natural and organic foods — I am a knowledge pig — and I tried making that a part of my life, but it wasn’t until my first son was born that my reasons for doing so became more important than just my own health. Becoming a father turned my tepid commitment into a desire to do the best I could for my child. This is a human norm, I believe: life taking on greater meaning upon becoming a parent. With Alex’s birth, things that I was committed to in a superficial way took on new meaning. That included my commitment to eating healthy and to being a consumer who actively supported sustainable market practices.

That was over half-a-lifetime ago. My two sons are now in their twenties, I’m a grandfather, and while my commitment has grown stronger, my ability to live out that commitment has been made easier because millions of other Americans have joined me, in varying degrees, in seeking a healthier, more natural diet. We are now a large enough market that products and manufacturers are now commonplace. Organic is defined by the government (whether or not they have done that correctly is still being debated) and mainstream grocery stores, from Safeway to Kroger’s, feature organic products as prominently as the stuff made from chemistry kits.

Thirty years ago, I was an oddity, a freak. Today I’m a target demographic.

I don’t buy 100% organic, natural or whole foods; I never have. A lot of the foods I eat a lot are OG: flour, beans, rice, raisins, most fruits and veg, coffee and tea, oils, and the few canned items I buy: tomatoes, refried beans, and such (I buy these OG about half the time, depending on prices and my checking account). Dairy is almost all non-OG, and that’s both a matter of cost — OG dairy is very expensive — and the fact that fairly clean (non-bht) milk, half-and-half, and cheeses are readily available in Oregon. I am guilty of buying standard meats, and again, that’s a matter of cost. If my income allowed, I would buy naturally raised pork, beef and chicken more, but it’s a level of commitment I have yet to make.

For now, I’m cool with that. I am in the middle of making a batch of sweet rolls, and most of the ingredients are organic, including the sugars. To me, the essence of eating “natural” is to live the whole life. I bicycle everywhere; I make almost all my meals from scratch; I purchase natural and organic foods from my local co-op and local semi-supermarket. I am moderately frugal, trying to reduce my impact on the planet without living a hermit’s life. What has enable me to maintain and grow my commitment to this kind of life is not the bare idea that “this is better.” Humans cannot function on the rational level alone. I can maintain this commitment because I have learned how to make the foods I like. My black bean chili may be 80% organic, but it’s also damn good chili.

I’ll never go through a period like I did 30 years ago in Bath because of all I have learned. Not only will I keep myself healthy and well-fed, I’ll do so with foods I enjoy. That’s the big secret: make the ideal a pleasure to fulfill. Thankfully these days the variety and cost of the products necessary to do that are so much greater than when my kids were little. I wish I had had this plenitude when my boys were little. I did my best, but the opportunity to raise healthy kids in this century is wonderful. My new job will be to keep an eye on my granddaughter and make sure her folks are getting that right.

Thanks again, T.A. Beautiful story!

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