Sunday, March 23, 2014

Demonstrating a Culture of Awareness with the Meal Plan

Intro - A Culture of Awareness
People at Earthaven talk about living an ‘aware’ life - living in awareness of the impact we have on the world and true challenges we face in living happy, healthy lives. We respond to this awareness by ensuring our impact on the world is positive (‘living a regenerative life, not just sustainable’) and making sure that malicious institutions do not do us harm.

This culture is awesome because it encourages me to be the kind of person I want to be and to make the decisions I want to make. In this post, I’ll use the meal plan at Medicine Wheel neighborhood to show how this works in practice.

Basics of the Medicine Wheel Meal Plan
Note: for the rest of this post, everything is specific to the neighborhood I’m staying in, Medicine Wheel (MW).

At MW, non-permanent members owe $200/month to be on the meal plan full time. In exchange, MW provides a full home-cooked meal every evening and a wide range of food for people to make their own breakfasts, lunches, and snacks whenever they want.

The MW-cooked and -bought food is ovo-vegetarian except that they use butter. “Ovo-“ means they use eggs. MW gets its food from the garden and from a wide range of sellers I’ll describe in a bit. 

Every Monday, all the residents split up the co-housing tasks for the week: each day there’s a head-chef and a sous-chef for dinner, among other tasks. That means each night a different pair is making dinner, which has lead to some good variety so far.

Basics of Rules for Buying MW Food
On one of the cupboards is a printout with the rules for buying MW food. Here is the transcription:

Medicine Wheel Food Standards
1. To be as local as possible
  • shopping preferences, in descending order: Earthaven Valley, then Black Mountain [the nearest town], then Asheville, then bulk order
  • at least from within the continental US, and preferably from the Southeast
  • non-bioregional food can be brought with someone who is making the trip
  • avoid greens from California due to toxicity (even organic) (NO CALI - circled)

2. To be as organic as possible
  • avoid NOG [non-organic] foods known to be heavily sprayed: apples, celery, grapes, peaches, pears, berries, greens, bell peppers, green beans, rice, oats, and all root crops
  • local NOG produce which has a thick skin (watermelon, etc) is acceptable
  • NOG special occasion foods, for one meal, are acceptable

3. To be as non-processed as possible
4. To use minimum packaging
  • avoid aseptic containers (Rice milk, etc)
  • avoid nonrecyclable plastics, use #1 and #1 only
  • buy bulk

Before explaining the ideas behind these rules, I’ll note that individuals can buy and cook whatever foods they want, including milk, cheese, and meat. However, those personal foods don’t end up in the group meals.

Awareness concepts
I asked about the ideas behind the rules. Here are a few points:

I asked especially about California, and learned that they take the radiation from Fukushima very seriously. MW consulted with local climatologists and learned that a significant amount of radiation falls on Californian farm land as rain in addition to what gets washed up on shore. The radiation in the rain is mostly gone east of the Rockies, so MW may buy food from central-US (though prefers not to).

Some residents here have learned a lot about the impacts of the radiation and various attempts by the federal government and nuclear industry to downplay the risks even while privately being extremely concerned as revealed by whistleblowers, FOIA requests, and other sources. It was cool to find a community that responded to these real issues by confronting them rather than ignoring them!

Separately, they’re aware of the terrible impact many industrial-agriculture pesticides have, not just on farm animals and humans, but on soils and ecosystems near where they’re applied. Besides the non-corrupt research showing the health issues around non-organic or GMO food, they’re also aware of the corruption caused by the revolving door in the FDA and USDA and various private companies like Monsanto. This awareness of problems and lack of trust translates into concrete action to ensure they only eat healthy foods. 

How far away is the food grown and shipped? MW is trying to be as local as possible, hence forbidding bananas, mangoes, and other foods that can’t be grown nearby. This rule, as with many here, isn’t hard-and-fast though. I asked Patricia one morning about her coffee from afar, and she said, “Honey, it comes from a long way, but there are some things I’m not ready to give up yet! Someday.”

People here talk about ‘embodied energy’ - an apple from a tree in the yard has far less embodied energy than one grown in California with tractors and pesticides, and which then had to be shipped to various storage facilities until they could be bought and transported home. The embodied energy is all the energy required to make that apple and get it home. We’re always trying to minimize embodied energy in what we buy.

Eating Seasonally
Though not explicit in the rules, MW tries to eat what’s in season. This also allows them to eat local and not depend on long-distance purchases.

Exceptions and Personal Preferences
MW does buy some food from afar, including olive oil and canned tomatoes. I haven’t asked anyone if they’re careful to avoid food fraud with olive oil, as it’s one of the most commonly fraudulent foods on the shelf.

I don’t know of any concrete plan for MW to move to 100% local foods, though that’s something I’d like to explore for myself some day.

Individuals are a different story entirely. Each makes their own decisions, deciding what to care about and why in choosing the food to eat. We have full vegans and some people who, like me, admit to craving a pepperoni pizza occasionally, whether it’s organic or not. The culture of MW recognizes that making food decisions and changes can be really hard, and we’re supportive of people experimenting and trying to understand the truth about various food issues despite all the propaganda and corrupted (i.e. industry-funded) science and other barriers. I’ll write more about these issues another time. 

Conversations About Food
A decent amount of our light conversation is actually about the food we eat, how it makes us feel, diet ideas people are considering, and discussion of problems associated with ‘normal’ food - GMO, non-organic, factory-farmed animals, etc.

Note that I ask lots of questions about food, so conversations may not be about food as much when I’m not around ;) I’m careful to research any outlandish claims before believing them, but so far I’ve not heard any claims about food that I couldn’t verify. 

Two new residents recently independently expressed surprise that MW buys sugar cane, and both were surprised for the same reason. As one said, when I asked why he was surprised: “It’s… made by the Devil.” That is, it’s created with slave labor oversees. This is a great example of how people here are able to feel solidarity with total strangers a world away, but do more than just feel bad until their attention moves on - these individuals have changed their buying decisions. And they’re eating and feeling better as a result!

Sample Meals
I’ve been really surprised at how much energy I have despite going 100% ovo-vegetarian (+ butter for cooking), especially after I’ve known many ex-vegetarians who felt their energy sap after just a few days or weeks without meat. Apparently there are 8 proteins humans need, and omnivores can get all 8 from meat. Vegetarians must be aware of which plants have which types of protein to ensure we get appropriate amounts of each kind. In practice, my impression is that some cooks know those details, and others just have enough experience cooking that they have intuition for what makes a ‘full’ vegetarian meal.

Here’s a list of the dinners’ ingredients I had for most of the first week:
organic kale
brown rice w/tumeric
red potatoes, 2 varieties of sweet potato (purple and yellow, apparently not common in stores), onion, garlic, curry powder (tumeric, coriander, cumin), garlic powder

cooked brown rice
cooked collard greens
salad: raw lettuce, onions, pumpkin & sunflower seeds toasted in tamare, balsamic dressing
cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onions, spinach, curry powder, garlic, lots of seasoning

We had leftovers or cooked for ourself since many people were out of town.
Brown rice, collard greens, lentils, seasoning, apple

brown rice
salad: baby kale, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, cabbage, clove garlic, powdered ginger, raisins, apples

pinto beans
“Kich-erole” (Kiche-casserole experiment): eggs, potatoes, sauted onions, bok choi
salad: kale, apple, cabbage, apple cidar vinegar, olive oil, balsamic vinegar

Tonight was the weekly community potluck. Each neighborhood brought a dish, so it was a big feast. 

Squash soup: squash, sauted onion, apple, cabbage, other things I didn’t get down.
cooked greens: day lily, mazuna, garden cress
cornbread: made with a special mix to replace milk, including tahini, sorghum, salt, and water. It was tasty, looked like cornbread, and tasted… sorta like cornbread ;)

MW buys larges boxes of local apples periodically, so I’m always grabbing 1-2 as I leave the house. There’s also a good supply of real, actual honey. This honey is so good… eating it’s practically a spiritual experience in itself. 


Living an aware life has a lot of meaning for me. I like how MW implements it: MW only buys the foods that we should all be eating anyway, and cooks prepare it so we enjoy eating them. This makes it easy to behave well - happy, healthy, and comfortable with my impact on the world. Still, the culture is supportive of everyone making their own decisions and growing at their own rate. This combination - of encouraging people to care about what they eat, but giving people room to make their own decisions - makes for a very enriching experience, both nutritionally and intellectually.