Thursday, 16 February 2012

freedom ahead

Six weeks in, and my Year of Buying Nothing New is going pretty well. Some things, like white paper, have been hard to source. Freegle this week yielded two bird feeders, and chicken wire for the allotment. I’ve been borrowing and lending a lot more things like books, and giving away quite a lot of stuff including my own produce and preserves. I’m buying the seeds we need this year, though – aiming to save a lot more next year. My Saturday Guardian has mainly been sourced from the Ellie where I have started to lurk, beer in hand, towards closing time.  Generally, though, I lack for very little.

Being in my early 50s, I find that I already have enough ‘stuff’ and clothes, probably, for a lifetime if carefully looked after and mended. But age isn’t the only factor: buying second-hand and making do with less seems to come naturally my 22-year old daughter and many of the younger people in our 36-strong Facebook group. Perhaps it’s because they have less money and are also more canny and more aware of the problems of the throw away culture.

I can sense that some of my contemporaries are uncomfortable with this little experiment and project on to me that it’s an exercise in righteous self-denial and even self-punishment. Far from it. As anyone who has experienced fasting or conscious simplicity knows, there can be an increase in connection, joy and freedom.

Freedom Ahead is the title of a lovely new film being shown by Transition Town Lewes this Friday; see here for the trailer. It documents the lives of a growing number of people across the world who are turning to the land and a simpler life, with fewer overheads, less stress and more community and more security. As an eloquent young Indonesian says in the film, ‘Security is in seeds, not money’.

Friday, 20 January 2012

checking out from the checkout

Today I’m celebrating liberation from supermarkets. I last stepped into one of these cathedrals of consumerism three months ago, before the Lewes Octoberfeast. Far from being difficult, it’s been a great relief  - as though I’ve finally come off a toxic addiction.

Looking at a recent questionnaire about food shopping by Transition Town Lewes, it appears that I’m joining a growing band of people seeking supermarket freedom: there are at least 32 people in Lewes who buy almost all their food from our two markets and local shops. The others stated that the main barriers to supermarket freedom are convenience and price. I’m going to argue that this doesn’t have to be so.

In the spirit of enquiry, I’ve kept a note this last week of all my food spending in my little diary. The backbone of our household’s food spend is a quarterly delivery from Infinity Foods of grocery items, including pulses, grains, tins, sauces, chocolate, teas, toilet paper and cleaning products. Everything that’s not fresh gets delivered to our door, for free; being wholesale it turns out incredible cheap, apportioned weekly here:
£25 Infinity Foods chickpeas, lentils, oats, rice, pasta, noodles, sauces, oils, spices
£50 weekly food market (£6 bread, £8 apples and eggs, £13 meat, £8 veg, £15 cheese)
£26 Pleasant food stores (oranges, lemons, milk, butter, biscuits)
£11 Lansdown (veg sausages, yoghurt and tofu)
£4 potatoes from sack from Ashurst Organics

Backed up with plentiful greens and some frozen fruit from the allotment, this weeks’ total  food supply, for a family of four adults came to just under £120 or about £30 a week per person for a diet that’s entirely organic or biodynamic and where all the fresh stuff is local. 

I think it's so cheap compared to supermarkets because little of this food is processed or part of the industrial food chain and because I'm not temped to just buy a few extra treats.
It's also convenient: I shop at to the market every Friday and bike down to Lansdown every Saturday. For dairy and some treats, one of us drops in at our lovely new Pleasant Stores.
It’s bliss not to have to deal with supermarkets, which are designed to dupe us into spending more on things we think we need and bombard us with choice. I hate all the packaging waste and the lifestyle messaging that we are fed in a zombie-like accepting way - including the idea that Waitrose is really much better than the other supermarkets. I’m also delighted to withdrawing my support of the industrial food system with all its own fat cats and hidden costs to the earth and people.

Most importantly, people I know who are shopping this way say they like putting their positive energy and money into systems worth supporting: local farmers and shopkeepers, wholefood coops with strong ethics and a resilient food system that is fit for purpose.

Photo by Emily Faulder

Thursday, 5 January 2012

bye buy

A few years ago a group of friends in San Francisco formed The Compact. Their quest was to buy nothing new for a year. Inspired by them, some of us here are inviting others to join us in A Year of Buying Nothing New. Our plan is to limit our shopping during 2012 to essential consumable items such as food, drink, vital health items and certain necessary things we can’t fix, get second hand or do without.

So yesterday I bought some stamps at the post office but  packed my parcels in old cardboard as I’ll not be buying brown paper this year for packaging. Nor will I buy a food dryer I’ve been coveting or a new pair of sandals this summer; the old ones will do. Perhaps for me the challenge will be not to buy newspapers or new books. But maybe not: there is so much you can get for free.

Call me a domestic extremist, but this kind of exploration excites me. It feels good, and like an appropriate response to our broken civilization. We all now know that our level of consumption is fast eating up our non-renewable resources, including minerals, topsoil and water. Making new things uses fossil fuels that have become so scarce that we’re turning to even dirtier means such as tar sands and fracking. And the waste creates toxic landscapes and, worst of all, CO2 which threatens runaway climate change in our time.

The Story of Stuff is a lovely little film that explains all this quite simply and why buying less – much less – is necessary. It’s pretty obvious now that our leaders, our corporations and our media are not going to encourage this behaviour – it’s almost unpatriotic to not help our economy grow. But in this time where we’re having to choose between economic growth and life on earth, I know where I’ll be placing my vote.

Perhaps the most persuasive reason to live with less stuff is that we’re heading in that direction anyway. It may be better to ride the crest of a wave of change than be sucked under it.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

this land is your land

I heard on the grapevine that the North Street area of Lewes has been sold to a foreign buyer (subject to contract). Its previous owner, Anglo-Irish Bank, who had loaned a ridiculous sum to Charles Style of Angel Properties to develop it, had repossessed it when Angel Properties went into admin. The Anglo-Irish Bank, which was heavily over-extended, in turn, went bust and was nationalised a couple of years ago so the land was until recently being held by the Irish government.

News of its new ownership must come as a blow to the Lewes Community Land Trust, which had created a consortium of social developers including Guinness Trust, to bid for the land. Their bid, however, was conditional and was probably underbid by an unconditional offer, which the Irish Government had been requiring.

What upsets me is that someone can simply buy a piece of land that’s essential to a town’s infrastructure, and then attempt to make money out of it, with little reference to the people who live and work there, this history, the culture, such as we saw with Charles Style’s bizarre Phoenix Quarter – brilliantly subdued by Lewes Matters five years ago.

At the moment, North Street is experiencing a small renaissance, with individuals and small groups of people renting the warehouses to make goods and run services. It’s probably quite a significant source of self-employment and employment in the town, precisely because there are no corporate logos to be seen, but under-valued as a result. The myth still prevails in town planning that large employers are the biggest source of revenue for a town, when the opposite is often true.  

Is the 22-acre land being landbanked as part of a wealthy foreigner’s property portfolio with the tenants in long-term uncertainty and unable to invest in infrastructure? Or will Lewes residents once again be faced with staving off someone else’s self-wealth-creating ‘vision for North St’? We shall see. I look forward to a future where once again Lewes is run by and for local people, looking after each other in the complex web of interconnectedness that creates real abundance and resilience. 

Thursday, 1 December 2011

well-fed neigbours

I don’t want to scare you but I think it’s time we started to store food. It looks as though we could be in for quite big changes in the coming decade. We might be looking at the Long Emergency and we might be facing some sudden changes. These could come from one or several areas: economic, energy and climate. Most pressing is the recent news that British government is planning for the possibility of economic collapse following the now-almost-inevitable collapse of the Euro.

When change happens, we’re all better off if we see it coming. There’s nothing more conducive to panic and bad behaviour than being badly prepared. You only need to visualise the Christmas rush at Tesco or the empty shelves in the fuel strikes in 2000 to get my drift. Or, as the article above describes, banks being unable to give out money and destroying companies dependent on bank credit.

But you don’t need a national crisis to justify storing food. Friends of mine who are going through financial troubles say that they feel so much better knowing they have a few sacks of rice and pulses in their store cupboard. And such things were totally normally in our grandparents’ day before the just-in-time brittle corporate food chains were established.

As I see it, there are three main ways to build food resilience. The easiest is to simply build up your own stores. Aim for a couple of months’ of your usual staples at any one time, then just get used to rotating the food as you eat it.
For a decade now we’ve been ordering our bulk food from Infinity Foods, a co-op that’s cheaper and more convenient than supermarkets. They deliver free to Lewes on a Tuesday if you buy over £250-worth. We order every four months, storing the 5kg bags of rice, oatmeal and pulses, tins, oils and jars on top of our cupboards and in our basement. There’s always a bit of space somewhere to store food. I know people who group together to share orders and others who buy Infinity food from Just Trade, a brilliant Lewes-based non-profit co-op that runs a drop-off  at Lewes New School (next delivery 9 December).

Some people feel afraid at the mention of food storage, projecting out that it’s about being selfish or fear-mongering. And though it’s true that denial is a first cousin of fear, it’s best to get over that fear and be practical. The more of us who are storing food, the better. As they say, our best defence is a well-fed neighbour.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

hook, line and sinker

I know I’m going to dream about fish tonight, after a day of mackerel fishing on the sea.  It feels as though my kitchen is rolling on the swell and the Easterlies that rocked our boat, the Ocean Warrior 3 all day.

We set off from Newhaven harbour at eight in the morning on what is, despite its name, a small chartered fishing boat. The skipper, Dave, took us straight out to some wrecks where he located fish on the screen in his cabin. Once anchored over a shoal, the mate, Steve, put on the tackle and bait on to our rods and off we went.

I’ve never caught a fish before but I had asked for a rod for my birthday two years ago as I wanted to develop what is a crucial skill for feeding ourselves. I’d been occasionally fishing off Seaford Head since then. Even though I’d accepted that I might not catch a fish today I was really excited when the first took my bait - a mackerel whose doleful eyes stared at me as I pulled the hook out of its mouth and threw it in the box to suffocate. Then another, and another. One of the men on board, Ron, lent me his mackerel tackle, which consists of six feathers and hooks that the mackerel seemed to love, because I immediately caught six on one line, almost as soon as I threw the line in the water.

When I caught two dabs on one hook, Steve told me I was a ‘dab hand’ at this. I was happy at that and also happy to move and roll with the boat. We all caught many fish between us. After a while, though, I stopped, though, as I felt that would easily do for my dinner, my friends and my freezer. It almost seemed unfair to the fish for the fishing, and their death, to be so easy. I felt grateful that these gorgeous grey-green dappled mackerels and the white, soft bellied whiting were giving their life for me. I said a little prayer as I put each one away and thanked them as I was gutting them back at home.

I now understand the lure of the sea, the magic of that suspended time with the wind, the waves and the fish. I hope that dreamy state will stay with me for some days yet.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

blessed are the bread makers

There’s a big discussion going on in our house and it’s all about bread. It started during my week of being a locavore, eating within Sussex, when I discovered that the artisan bread sold in Lewes is made from flour from the other side of England (plus at £3-ish a loaf, it’s expensive). During that week I started making sourdough bread from locally grown and milled flour. An authentic Lewes loaf.

But my children don’t like the sourdough. The crust is too hard and they don’t like the slightly sour taste. So I got a toaster from Freecycle, hoping that would entice them. But they’re still complaining and are now asking for lunch money on a daily basis, not feeling like eating the bread on offer. Despite being hardy in terms of my own food choices, I do sympathise. So we’ll probably continue with both artisan and sourdough, at least until I manage to make an acceptable loaf.

There are now four households cooking sourdough on a regular basis in my area of Lewes. We’ve started to wonder whether we should investigate building a community oven, much like the new one at Wowo campsite, which can hold 40 loaves at a time, maybe at Lewes New School? My friend Grace and I went to the brilliant Baking Communities event at the Town Hall last night. While munching on goodies spread on bread from our four artisan bakers – Flint Own, Lighthouse, The Real Patisserie and Infinity Bakers – we started to mull it over with a baker – Michael - who also builds bread ovens and helps groups of people learn about baking. I can’t wait to get started!
Later in the evening Andrew Whitley, author of the bread bible, Bread Matters, and Real Bread Campaign co-founder, described his vision of 25,000 bakeries (we currently have 3,000), supplying bread through all sorts of supply chains across the country. Real bread is a far cry from the industrially grown, Chorleywood process-enhanced bread that makes up most of our loaves in the UK. And it’s hard to see how a real bread culture can take off when so many people are still so wedded (or should I say addicted) to supermarkets.
But as Rob Hopkins says in this fascinating article about the connections between Transition and the Occupy movement, transition is about occupying our own lives, our own communities. Reclaiming abundance, skills and relationships back from the corporate sphere is something that we can each do in tiny steps. And bread is a good place to start.