no groceries challenge revisited (2.0)

In May and June, I imposed a “no groceries” rule on myself. I was very low on cash. I wanted to find new ways to save money. I know loads about preparing, cooking, and storing good, healthy food. I also knew I wasn’t using the food I already had in an efficient way.

I wrote about it some, in these posts. On Monday, I’m going to start my personal challenge again. This time I’m in less desperate straits, but what I learned a couple months ago stuck with me. I know I’ve strayed off the path of financially healthy decisions.

There are a few significant lessons I learned from my month of not going to the grocery store—with a couple exceptions—that I didn’t share here. My first “real” trip to the supermarket after my challenge was to Whole Foods. As I learned in this personal challenge, leaning on the grocery store for prepared foods like snacks for lunches, treats, and fresh fruits is the most helpful use of my food dollars (the cases of water are not mine):IMG_3792Or, rather, when I buy whole foods and make almost everything at home, there are only some items I need to purchase pre-made.

Other lessons I learned:

  • the decrease in trash and recycling was startling. There was almost nothing in our recycling (no packaging) and the trash bags were much lighter (less discarded leftovers);
  • the impulse to buy more because “I’m about to run out” costs money and wastes food;
  • engaging my children in the mindful consumption adventure makes our return to whole foods a family value that we all enjoy;
  • keeping the refrigerator organized made using leftovers much easier and more palatable;
  • it was my cooking skills that made this challenge especially fun, rather than frightening. I am lucky I know what I’m doing in the kitchen. If I didn’t know how to cook, especially how to be creative with basic and/or surprise ingredients, this would have been a lot more difficult;
  • after the challenge “ended,” I maintained a “no groceries” perspective on our consumption. I flinch a bit when I think, “I’ll grab xyz at the market” because I know I’ll need to be careful I don’t purchase more than I need;
  • what I need is so much less than what I want.

The no-groceries challenge helped me quite a bit. It took a feeling of deprivation and made me feel stronger. I found a new source of healthy pride and energy. As I said, after the challenge “ended” I still rarely went to the grocery store. In the last month, however, I’ve slid back into finding a trip to the grocery store “for some fruit” ends with four full bags of groceries that we mostly don’t actually need, and will likely not use with efficiency.

This new no-groceries challenge reminds me a bit of people who do “cleanses” with fruit juice or whatever else people do. A re-start into the world of food consumption that aligns with our values. I’ll take the weekend to assess what we have on hand, I’ll do a run to the market for items that will make the no-groceries challenge last longer than it might otherwise (a big container of rolled oats, for example). Then, I’ll stop going to the grocery store. When I start going again, I suspect the the lessons I learned will stick with me for a longer stretch of time. In any case, I’m sure that these personal challenges, borne of real financial need, are benefitting our family in important ways that go beyond money. Yum.

making cherry trees

When I complained about recycling, it wasn’t that I think the environment isn’t in crisis. I know it is. I complained because I believe there is an opiate-like effect for people who want to feel not-powerless, so they believe “reduce, reuse, recycle” is close to enough. They are doing their part. As a friend said in the comments, “But if you buy a Prius you can pretty much do what you want because you’ve already done enough.” It’s that kind of thinking (that is almost not an exaggeration) that I find troubling.

In “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” the authors paint a beautiful and hopeful picture of what our future could be. Why not change everything about how things are made? They suggest we move from being “less bad” (reduce, reuse, recycle) to being “always good.”

Using a cherry tree as one of the metaphors for evolutionary design, they note that the “efficiency” of a cherry tree doesn’t involve having the fewest blooms possible producing the ideal single fruit with the one seed that will grow into a new tree. The tree is an integral part of the greater system. It is entirely interdependent on and with the life around it. The blossoms fall off and feed the soil, the fruit and seeds feed insects and birds and mammals, the wood and branches provide homes for critters, etc… The authors do a beautiful job of articulating how the design of the tree isn’t so much efficient as it is sustainable, effective, beautiful, and, of course, entirely biodegradable.

the cherry tree in the backyard of my parents’ summer place, taken on Mother’s Day 2012

A friend shared this link to an article about a fungi that eats plastic. That’s potentially fantastic. However, it strikes me without changing our whole point of view that having one more way to sort of clean up after ourselves won’t solve much. “Why try to optimize the wrong systems?” is the question the Cradle to Cradle authors ask. In the context of that question, this fungi could be a part of a grand change in the design and production of materials using the cherry tree model (entirely interdependent, 100% biodegradable, energy producing not just consuming, life-giving). Or, it could be something that’s used to kind of, sort of, take care of some of the problem while we all continue feeling a little guilty about the materials we’re using.

I’m new to all of these questions and issues. But, my gut says that household recycling and returning your wine bottle corks to Whole Foods isn’t going to make much of a difference in the environmental crisis (reminder, I’m not suggesting you don’t recycle just that you don’t think that’s “the answer”). Supporting the legislation and industries that will turn Industrialization on its head seems a good use of our time. We should stop trying to find new ways to deal with the problems of our current systems. Instead we should create new products, processes, materials, and systems that—instead of doing less harm—actually make the world healthier and stronger because we are using them.