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Road Reflections

At the end of June, I posted on the need for cottage industry laws to allow people to supplement their income with the sale of homemade, properly labeled food products. Well, according to River Country Journal, state Rep. John Proos has introduced legislation "to allow vendors at roadside stands and farmer's markets to produce goods in their own homes." Part of his reasoning relates to the job crisis in Michigan. A cottage industry law would allow people to supplement their income (or lack of) by getting creative in their own kitchens--I love it!

This great news comes to me as I enjoy excellent coffee in Fenelon Falls, Ontario, at Sweet Bottoms. We made our way to Russet House Farm in nearby Cameron yesterday after doing a food and storytelling workshop at First Christian Reformed Church in Barrie on Tuesday evening. The turnout in Barrie was wonderful, with about thirty people and amazing desserts provided by the congregation, thanks to Angela Reitsma Bick's organizing work. Thanks, Angela, to you and your family for your hospitality! We look forward to doing another workshop at Russet House Farm on Saturday night, in addition to several days of camping, stargazing, making music, sharing food, swimming... Come on over if you can, for the day or overnight!

For several years now, Rob and I have been involved with the Three Rivers Sustainable Food Group (or just the Food Group for short). Our friend Karla started the project as part of her doctoral work in spirituality and sustainability and it's continued as a point of connection for sharing meals, local food resources and advocacy concerns.

One of the group's advocacy projects over the past couple of years has been encouraging legislation for a cottage industry law in Michigan. Cottage industry laws, like those already in place in Ohio and other states, allow people to prepare foods in their home kitchens for sale up to a certain amount of income every year.

While we were in Shickley, Nebraska last week, we got to see a cottage industry law at work, as our friends Elizabeth and Kate prepared homemade breads, muffins, pies and granola bars to sell at the farmer's market in York. They baked, printed labels, created attractive displays and prepared some of the produce from their large backyard garden for sale. As a cottage industry, they're required to display a sign that specifies that their baked goods were not made in a licensed kitchen, but that didn't seem to stop the person who wanted six of each kind of granola bar.

I'm a big fan of cottage industry laws. As Kate and Elizabeth attempted to work out post-college summer income in a small town with cleaning, mowing and grocery store jobs, being able to bake good food to sell at the farmer's market seemed to give them a different kind of delight and sense of creativity and agency. For such micro-enterprise entrepreneurs, cottage industry laws mean that if they can find a market for quality, home-baked goods, there's an instant source of income.

And for eaters, in an age when "food security" is driving food sources toward bigger, slicker, more processed, less humanized operations, being able to buy something at the farmer's market that was made from whole ingredients in someone's kitchen is a refreshing alternative. All around, cottage industry laws seem to create space for good relationships, good work and good food.

Kate & Elizabeth's Chewy Granola Bars

Adapted from Mennonite Country-Style Recipes & Kitchen Secrets by Esther H. Shank

1/2 c. brown sugar
2/3 c. peanut butter
1/2 c. light corn syrup or honey
1/2 c. butter, melted
2 tsp. vanilla

Mix together until well blended. Stir in:

3 c. quick oatmeal.
1/2 c. coconut
1/2 c. sunflower nuts
1/2 c. raisins or dried cranberries
1/3 c. wheat germ
2 Tbsp. flax seeds
1 c. chocolate or butterscotch chips

Press mixture into a greased 9 x 13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool completely. Cut into 24 bars.

One of the things that's accompanied us these 1,300 miles so far is a crate of food-related resources, including two cookbooks created by the Mennonite Central Committee. One is Extending the Table, featuring recipes from around the world and stories to connect cooks to other cultures in meaningful ways. Another that we have with us is Simply in Season, which organizes recipes according to vegetables that are in season simultaneously. Simply in Season has been getting rave reviews by everyone we know who owns it.

The inaugural collection in the MCC series was More With Less, which we don't have in our crate because we don't own it, though we really should. Released in 1976, More With Less has been hugely influential for people of faith who seek to cook simple, healthy dishes not just for health reasons, but for reasons of Christian stewardship. We've heard from many folks who refer to their tattered 30-year-old copy or have bought a second copy because the original was falling apart from so much use. It's amazing how the creation of these three cookbooks, beginning with More With Less, has proven such a subtle, powerful act of culture making. Blessings, stories and tips help contextualize a way of cooking that values a fully formed sense of justice, offering both an outlet for and a means of shaping good cooking. I think it would be great to see more cookbooks from churches, Christian schools and other faith-based groups reflecting the holistic Christian consciousness of the MCC cookbooks, as opposed to just random collections of easy, overly processed foods.

If you don't have these cookbooks yet, I'd highly recommend them. They make wonderful wedding, graduation and housewarming gifts as well. You can purchase them online or at your favorite local fair trade or independent bookstore. By way of whetting your appetite, here's one of my new favorites from Simply in Season that I made this afternoon for our dinner tonight. Admittedly, it's slightly out of season, as this one is from the winter section, but in Grand Rapids, we can still buy Michigan apples from last fall at our local grocery store.

Apple Lentil Salad

  • 1 c. lentils
Soak 15 minutes in hot water.


  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. curry powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
In large sauce pan, heat olive oil. Add salt and curry powder and heat until bubbly. Drain lentils, add to saucepan, and fry briefly.


  • 2 c. water
Add and cook until absorbed (adding more water if needed to cook lentils until tender), about 20 minutes. Drain any excess water. Cool.


  • 2 tart apples (cored and diced)
  • 1/4 c. lemon juice or cider vinegar
Combine to prevent browning. Mix with cooled lentils.


  • 2 potatoes (cooked, cooled, peeled and chopped)
  • 1/2 - 1 small onion (thinly sliced)
  • handful of fresh or frozen parsley (chopped)
Mix in with salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.


My notes:
  • Leave the extra liquid in the lentils when done cooking, which makes the salad a little more saucy and eliminates the need for extra salt at the end.
  • Definitely go with the cider vinegar.
  • Forego the potatoes to save a little time. Replace their bulk with things like fresh, chopped asparagus, zucchini or summer squash depending on the time of year.
  • Instead of or in addition to the parsley, use a handful of fresh cilantro.
  • Can substitute green onions for white or yellow.

mug.jpgI spent more hours than I should have looking for a new travel coffee mug when the one I'd had for years finally succumbed. I had a lot of criteria: a mug that would seal well enough not to leak in my bag and wasn't made of plastic, a mug that was fairly traded or made in the U.S. and at a price that wouldn't break the bank. Ha. I never did find the perfect option in all of my searching, so one day, as I got ready for work, I took an old hole-y sock, cut off the top and put it on a plain old canning jar--voila! A travel mug that's wonderfully reusable and replaceable. Another benefit of this mug is that it's easy to send one filled with hot coffee or tea or any other beverage along with our overnight guests when they have to leave first thing in the morning.

At a service station in Wisconsin today, I was intrigued by a logo and slogan proclaiming, "SQUAWKERS(R): WHERE THE CHICKEN ALWAYS COMES FIRST.(R)"

"Could it really be?" I thought. "A brand that's trying to bring ethically raised meat into the mainstream?" Not so much, at least from what I can discern over at the Squawkers (R) web site. Turns out what's meant by "chicken" is not the animal, nor even the meat, but it must be new corporate slang for: MONEY! Apparently, the brand simply serves as a way to move more prepared foods out the door. "Why branding?" you ask. Well...

Holly Bechiri has a great post over at CRC Justice Seekers called "Foraging in the middle of miniscrapers" in which she reflects about a recent berry-picking excursion in the middle of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It's been interesting along our tour to talk to people about all of the space in the middle of urban and suburban areas that goes uncultivated (or, in Holly's story, "wild" food that goes unnoticed). Tuttle Farm is a great example of the possibilities for growing food on an average suburban lot. And two of the churches we've visited have discussed what it might look like to use some of the land around their buildings for community gardens.

What might it look like if we all attempted to grow a bit of the food we eat on land we steward?

One of the most common objections we hear when we start talking about making healthy, organic, locally grown and fair trade food choices is that it costs more money. Well, yes, it can. Sometimes, the family budget is stretched so thin that this is a legitimate reason to rely on the cheapest food available. Many times, however, our unwillingness to spend more money on better food is simply a reflection of our spending priorities--cable TV over fair trade coffee, for example. We all have to make these kinds of choices, many of them difficult with lots of angles.

I would encourage people making such choices to remember the idea that where our treasure is reflects where our hearts are. We also need to be aware of "externalized costs"--that is, sometimes the price we pay for an item doesn't reflect its true cost. In the case of coffee, when we pay less on our end, it usually means the person who harvested the coffee also got paid less than a living wage, in essence paying for our cheap coffee. In the case of cheap, processed foods, we may pay less out of pocket at the register, but more in the long run from the physical effects of ingesting more chemicals, fat, sugar and salt than we should.

Eating well on a budget doesn't just have to mean eating rice and beans for every meal (although rice and beans can be prepared in some incredibly delicious ways), but it does mean being more creative with our food preparation and finances. Here are some practical suggestions for eating good food without breaking the bank...

  • Learn how to cook. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to be skilled in the art of cooking. You don't have to be a gourmet chef, but you should be able to make creative, delicious meals from a variety of whole, inexpensive, staple ingredients, including using up all of your specialty ingredients like organic vegetables and meats.

  • Shop local farmer's markets and local grocery store sales. Contrary to prevalent opinion, farmer's markets are not more expensive and often are cheaper because of the direct market (meaning wholesalers and grocery stores don't have to get a cut). Supporting a locally-owned grocery store, especially in your neighborhood, means more of your limited dollars stick around to contribute to your local economy instead of lining corporate pocket who-knows-where.

  • Plan ahead and eat at home. You can save money on your grocery bills and make efficient use of what you have in the house if you know what you're going to make ahead of time, instead of running to the store or market multiple times or settling for more expensive prepared foods because you're pressed for time.

  • Get a farmer's permission to glean in local fields. Most rural areas have networks of people who are tapped into what grows in which fields and when. Spending some time to get educated about local agriculture and building relationships with farmers can really pay off in terms of lots of free food that you can eat, preserve, store or give away to people in need.

  • Grow some of your own food. This is a good supplementary option for people who have more time than money, as well as those who crave a couple of special luxury items that can be grown in the back yard for much cheaper. If you don't have room at your home or you've never gardened before, consider joining a community garden where you can enjoy company and free advice.

  • Eat less (and better) meat and dairy. Animal products should be chosen with special care, since they depend on the lives of creatures who depend on us. Rather than buying the cheapest eggs, milk, cheese, meat and other animal products, eat less of these items and find local sources you can trust. You'll be able to invest a little more in quality and save money overall to invest in other items like local organic produce.

  • Share meals. As the number of people around the table increases, the cost per person goes down. Math isn't my strong suit, so don't ask me how it works, but it does. The best setting for sharing meals regularly is a shared household, but you might also consider holding a weekly potluck with a couple of neighbors.

  • Barter with local farmers. Some Community Supported Agriculture farms already have a system for work shares, where you serve for a certain number of hours in exchange for all or part of your produce share. Other farmers might be open to the idea if you just ask.

  • Eat wild foods. Most of us have had the experience of stumbling on wild blackberries, but did you know you can eat most parts of a cattail? Or that garlic mustard is an invasive species that adds a great flavor to soups and salads? The more you know about wild foods, the more you can find free food growing almost anywhere you go.

  • Dive in dumpsters! Yep, you read that right and here's a great article about why a Christian might be into such an activity.

Obviously, not all of these options will appeal to all people. My point is that with some creativity, there are so many possibilities for eating well even if you don't have a lot of money to spare. Believe me: I speak from experience.

That said, even those of us with moderate income should never let our relative privilege blind us to reforming our food systems so that they benefit all people, not just the wealthy. What if kids from low-income, inner-city families learned how to grow and maintain urban gardens as a means of accessing fresh, free produce? What if you and a few neighbors organized canning festivals to preserve locally-grown tomatoes for the neighborhood food pantry? What if your church started a garden and sponsored a penny farmer's market once a week during the growing season for those who can't afford fresh foods? We shouldn't let any obstacle be an excuse to shut off our imaginations to the infinite possibilities for making good food accessible to all people.

We have more photos of our adventures posted on our Flickr site. See the farms we've been touring and the growers we've been meeting!

On our way from Michigan to Indiana on the first day of the tour, Rob and I read through a couple of articles and several letters that appeared last year in The Banner, the magazine of the Christian Reformed Church. Rev. Leonard Vander Zee's "...Also Many Animals" explored Christian responsibility related to animals who are raised for dairy, egg and meat, sparking a slew of response letters, as well as an article by farmer Malcom DeKryger ("A Farmer's Perspective").

It seemed to us that what both of the article writers wanted, as well as many of the people who wrote in, was a closer, better relationship between eaters and the sources of their food. The detrimental effects of poor factory farming practices on animals and humans and land should certainly be concerning to all Christians. However, many farmers felt misrepresented by Rev. Vander Zee's article and continue to feel unfairly pigeonholed by the agendas of various conscious eating movements.

Our suspicion is that even if Rev. Vander Zee and Malcolm DeKryger sat down to talk about these issues over coffee, they'd still arrive at different conclusions. The defenses of factory farming in the Banner letters, while genuinely concerned with the welfare of the animals, seem to be representing a highly scientific approach to the lives of animals. I couldn't help but think of the world in Lois Lowry's The Giver as a human parallel to sanitized, climate-controlled hog confinements--it's a world that's safe, clean, orderly and predictable, and yet doesn't fully honor the created nature of the beings contained in it. So while there may be concern for the welfare of the animals all around, there may be differences of opinion on the best way to work out that concern. And yet, I think it's still worth face-to-face conversations, farm visits and other points of connection that help us see each other as thoughtful, caring people, rather than potential converts in the path of an agenda.

The Church seems uniquely positioned to help make these life-giving connections, most powerfully symbolized in communion as we share the same loaf and the same cup in remembrance of the most central story of our faith. My best hope is that such connections might lead to fruitful dialogue and creative, faithful collaboration on solutions that are life-giving for farmers, animals and eaters at all stages of production and consumption.