Main Street Homesteader: A holiday meal on every table

Posted: Sunday, November 28, 2010

I've read in several places that enough food is produced on Earth to feed all its people. Yet as I write this, and as you read it, people are starving on our planet. The problem is one of distribution, it seems. Economic, political and geographic barriers keep food from getting to places on this globe where people have none, or keep people from getting to the food. While in other places, our own city among them, people have access to more food than they need.

But, even in Juneau there are people who don't know where everyday meals will come from, much less holiday dinners. The distribution barriers in our community are typically economic (though politics and geography do play a role, of course ... an article for another day) because Juneau is an expensive place to live and eat.

There are several organizations addressing this distribution problem in Juneau, though, and admirably. There are also many concerned and kind citizens who make it a holiday goal to distribute their plenty to those who have little. My family is among those lucky enough to have more than we need. So for us it's a Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition to donate holiday dinners for delivery to other families who are not as lucky.

But I'm conflicted about what I put in those boxes. Over the past few years I've become more conscious of what I purchase, eat and serve to my family. I now want to know how far my food traveled, how the animals were raised and fed, how the plants were grown, how the land was treated, even how well the workers were treated. In our global food distribution system, this is not easy, and I'm regularly weak (I love green bean casserole, and don't tell me it can be made with fresh beans ... pah!) but I've gotten better at supporting systems that have fewer or no negative impacts on the earth and its people. I pay more for this effort, but buy only what we need and no more, so our food bill has not risen significantly, while our enjoyment certainly has.

So last week, for Thanksgiving, what did I put in the food boxes I donated? Food that I no longer purchase for my own family. I know that many others did this, too, and I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with this at all. The boxes I packed were filled with nutrients, variety and tradition. But they were also filled with unnecessary preservatives, sugars and fats, and supported sections of the food industry that prioritize profits over human and global health. Why is my standard for giving to others different than that for my own family? I've decided that for Christmas this year, I'm going to do better.

So I contacted Slow Food Southeast Alaska (contact them at or through Facebook), chaired by Elizabeth Dubovsky, to find out what they recommend I put in my December holiday boxes. International Slow Food (as opposed to "fast food," in case that wasn't obvious) promotes the concept that all food should be "good, clean and fair." Good food, by Slow Food standards, is delicious and created with care from healthy plants and animals. Clean food is nutritious and good for our bodies, as well as good for the environment. Fair food is accessible to all and produced by people who are treated with dignity and justly compensated for their labor.

Here are 10 ways Slow Foods Southeast Alaska recommends we can make our donated food boxes "slower":

• Substitute "organic" whenever possible; it's healthier for humans (producer and consumer alike) and the environment.

• Add fresh foods like potatoes, yams, winter squash, carrots and apples. Fresh foods provide more flavorful nutrients than processed, prepackaged foods.

• Include foods that are "whole" and not processed - whole grain rice rather than processed rice and fresh potatoes rather than instant mashed potatoes. The least processed products contain the most nutrition and fiber.

• Donate affordable foods that are nutrient-rich - dried beans or lentils, for example, with directions on how to prepare simple, tasty dishes with them.

• Choose foods that come in minimal packaging. This is less wasteful and you'll often pay less for larger amounts than for individually wrapped servings.

• Buy foods that are from the Pacific Northwest - or better yet, from Alaska. Keeping our dollars in our local/regional food economy is an important way of ensuring a sustainable future for our communities. Potatoes and carrots, salmon and reindeer and berry products are all grown, harvested and processed in Alaska. Ask your grocery store to tell you where to find them (or ask the store to carry them).

• Include a homemade pie or other baked goods that don't require refrigeration. Check if the receiving organization can accept them (the Food Bank can't, but the Glory Hole can and needs 200 pies by Dec. 20).

• Include healthy snacks and finger foods like nuts, raisins and other dried fruits.

• If you know the box will be used quickly, you can include perishable items like butter, milk, cheese and meat. Choose organic, free-range and/or local whenever possible.

• Instead of a box, donate both the ingredients and your time to cook a meal for one of the local organizations that feeds people directly, like the Glory Hole or your church.

Finally, it's important to remember to keep it simple - the people receiving these boxes may be living in less-than-optimal situations and are probably under stress. They need easy, tasty, comfort foods with which to celebrate the season. So after I've filled a box, and if I know it will all go to one recipient (many boxes will be unpacked and distributed to different families, as needed), Slow Food recommends that I include some good recipes.

I have a Thanksgiving ritual of looking through a book in my library called "Hungry Planet: What the World Eats" by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio. Comparing my family's weekly food supply with that of families in, say, Chad, I'm truly thankful to live in a country where there are minimal barriers to feeding my family healthy meals on a daily basis. But when comparing my weekly family food budget to that of a family in Turkey, where they spend only 1 percent on prepared foods, and their table groans with fresh fruit, vegetables and bread, I know that American over-abundance is not always the way to good eating. Let's even out the distribution, wherever and whenever we can.

• Sarah Lewis is a local architect and freelance writer. She recently pickled several quarts of Alaska-grown carrots and wishes the Food Bank could accept some because her family thinks pickles are the way to world peace.

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