Thursday, September 17, 2009

An urban community garden in Fort Myers

When Green Coaches was created, a few months ago, one of the decisions we made was to not advertise in the traditional sense - for one thing, our budget was (and is) too small, but there's other reasons as well. We are drowning, choking, in advertising. Sometimes it seems that we are approaching a sensory overload, where every single second of our lives and every available square inch is taken with a commercial message. The folks at Adbusters have been exploring this subject for a while.
So it was decided to do things differently, away from marketing & advertising: instead of claiming to be good at something, we just try to be good at something and hope that word spreads around. Doing a good job is the best advertising. Also, being reliable and honest, not using pressure tactics to force a sale, that kind of thing. Totally old-fashioned, I know. Besides, not a lot of landscaping companies do edible and organic projects, although I'm sure that's about to change, fast.
But the best thing we are doing so far is getting involved in neighborhoods and communities, volunteering to help with starting community gardens everywhere they'll let us. Community centers, private homes, churches. If they want a garden, we'll help.
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to spend the morning helping set up a large community garden on Cuba St, just off of Martin Luther King, Jr, Blvd, sponsored by a great community organization, Quality Life Center. Many volunteers showed up, both from the neighborhood and from groups like SW FL Coalition For Change, to work under the direction of QLC memebers Ms Vonda Curry and Mr James Matthews, as well as local environmentalist and community organizer Kim Trebatoski. 13 raised beds were created, and planted with tomatos, beans, greens, okra, lettuce and carrots. Home Depot donated most of the tools, including two wheelbarrows.
This was so much fun, my mood improved even more in the following days (I say "even more" because I've been pretty happy since I don't work in an office doing graphic design -advertising- all day long anymore, and since I quit smoking several months ago). Someone needs to work on a theory of how doing stuff that you really enjoy can have enormous health and mood benefits; or perhaps it's been done already and I don't know about it.
In any case, there was so much crammed together in one morning that is positive and enjoyable, that I can't think of a better way to spend my time: not just the satisfaction of seeing the garden take shape, but also teaching a bunch of kids how to plant stuff, and learning from neighborhood old-timers that showed up, as well as exercising, cracking jokes with everyone and promoting my business in a sustainable way.
I can't post photo albums here, but if you'd like to see some more pictures from that day, they are here. And don't forget to contact Green Coaches if you have a garden project yourself!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Whole Foods fiasco

The other day, I had the opportunity to visit the famous Whole Foods store, the one located in Naples, for the first time. My impressions on it are mixed, but they tend towards the negative.
While having access to products that are produced in a sustainable way is, I reckon, generally a good thing, the way everything is now branded as "green" would be funny if it wasn't so depressing.
I mean, the first thing you see when you walk into this Wal-Mart sized monster of a store is crates upon crates of bottled water. Drinking water in plastic bottles, which has to be one of the most outrageously unsustainable consumer products available. Oh, but this bottled water is "green", see. I can't figure out how or why, as it uses a plastic bottle, just like the other brands at the other stores.
The BS and the hype were everywhere you looked. I had to laugh at the produce section. How is flying "organic" berries and apples from California and Chile "sustainable"? This "organic" label, by the way... it's gotten out of control. I was talking to local farmer Ken Ryan this morning, and he was telling me how it's all a racket, where you have to kick back a percentage of your profit to the certification agency that gives you the "organic" label, where you can actually use some chemicals as long as you purchase them from their vendors list, and similar stories that show you how shady the whole deal has become, a game with words and perceptions, just like the carbon offsets fiasco, and so many other miracles of branding and marketing, where you are allowed to carry on with the old ways as long as you are fluent in newspeak and can convince the public that "my water in a plastic bottle is better than other waters in plastic bottles because there's an 'authority' somewhere that says so".
Take the development at Babcock Ranch, where they are once again razing some of the few remaining untouched natural habitats in the area to the ground, to make way for sprawl and shopping, and calling it a "green community" because they will be throwing in some solar panels and stuff. Another bulldozed forest, and extra pressure on the water resources, plus adding lanes to a bunch of roads, and the whole litany of what's needed for "growth", to build another cluster of McMansions, with their schools and churches and fast-food joints (and Whole Foods stores, no doubt) in the middle of nowhere, and branding the whole project "green"... give me a break... and still people buy it? If this isn't a lesson learnt from Wall Street's creative accounting, bundling, marketing and advertising, I don't know what is...
And the public is only too eager to go along with it. To pay the premium for the label and the peace of mind. It's easier to pay a little more (or quite a lot more, in fact), especially if you live in Naples, Fl, than to ask some hard questions. Like, "why are all the lights on, even next to the windows, in the middle of the day, in this supposedly 'green' store?". Or, "can I live with the fact that some kinds of produce and fruits cannot be available year-round unless you fly them in from thousands of miles away?". Or, "does my produce really need all this plastic packaging?".
Don't take me wrong here. Like I said before, there's some stuff there that is great. For instance, I was able to find some yerba mate, the South American tea, that I had given up trying to find at local stores. The organic and fair trade kind. Great. Not that it tastes any different from the stuff I grew up drinking, although it sure costs more. But after a long time, I'm drinking mate again, and I'm grateful for that.
There were also some crappy products on sale. My wife insisted on buying some organic brown rice that we discovered was completely infested with weevils when we got home, and had to be discarded right away. With the avocado season in full swing here in Florida, their avocados had to be brought in from somewhere far. And they didn't look good either. Ours are not "organic" enough, I guess.
The bottom line is, in my opinion, "local" beats "organic" any day. Consuming locally grown food does more for sustainability than looking for the USDA organic label. Basically, your diet is based on staples (rice, dry beans, pasta), most of them not local but cheap and sustainable to transport and store because of their long shelf life, complemented with whatever's available seasonally. Historically, populations depended on this kind of diet.
Staple foods can be transported in bulk with very little cost to the environment - think sailboats and trains. You throw in a little meat now and then, and local produce. That's sustainable.
It's only recently that we have grown accustomed to having organic cherry tomatos and bananas available 365 days of the year. It cannot last. We need to go back to a reliable way to distribute staple foods using very little fossil fuels input, and growing the rest ourselves, within a few miles of our towns.
We don't need a fancy, air-conditioned store like Whole Foods to buy a few pounds of rice, some produce from local farmers, and a couple of fish - a warehouse next to the railroad tracks or the port is enough, or better yet, an open air market, like they have in the 3rd world.
I miss open air markets. You walk around, see what's available, ask questions, meet people, stop for a taco al pastor or a falafel or a mote con huesillo from the guy with the cart, walk some more. There's the smell of spices, there's people selling live birds, there's radios blasting rancheras or whatever, there's old comadres that not only sell you the nopalitos or aguacates but also explain to you how to prepare them. A lot of what you see is local and environmentally friendly, and it doesn't even promote itself as such! Zero hype... that's my favorite part.
WF, on the other hand, is all hype. That, I guess, is my problem with it...