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Growing with the Plants

By Maya Epelbaum, Phase I Fellow

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

-Aldo Leopold, father of environmental ethics, and author of A Sand County Almanac

When I was little, I dreamed of being a cashier at a grocery store, because, like so many others, I fell trap to the danger of believing food lives in the well-lit aisles of a store. I wanted to do something important. What could be more important than working at the grocery store where the food lives?

The well-lit aisles of food from the ground

Though I hail from the "Garden State" of New Jersey, the only farm I had ever known was the historical Foster Fields farm I saw on a field trip once. Though I ate many fresh fruits and vegetables and my parents were very health conscious, I never knew I could connect my love of food with nature.

Fast forward a few years and I am in college, at a school rated #1 for people who love the outdoors. So, naturally, I fell in love with my environment. I felt such an appreciation for the land around me that I decided to dedicate my psychology research to the health benefits of nature. Still, I consumed the same types of food and never thought of connecting my love of nature with food.

The view from my favorite hiking spot in college

Now, my childhood desire to do something important with food has meshed with my newfound love of nature as I am working to connect people to nature. At Allegheny Mountain Institute, we are first educated about our food choices and the resulting environmental impacts, and then afterwards we go out and educate others. Right now, in our learning phase, I am still new and soaking it in, like a transplant that has been nurtured well but missing some key nutrients. Now, my roots have experienced the soil, I see the sun all day, and I am learning to adapt to my new environment so I can help provide for others in my future.

For the first time, I am learning what it means to be a person in the most basic sense. I am learning what it means to eat. What it means to live on land. And what it means to produce waste and consume energy. Often, I can’t believe that I am just now learning what I didn't already know.

Here are some examples:

I have eaten granola or oatmeal with skim milk almost every morning (and some evenings) almost every day for my entire life. I thought this was a healthy wholesome breakfast.

Little did I know: I was missing key, healthy fats from happy cows by drinking processed homogenized, pasteurized skim milk. I could have also avoided some of my digestion problems by soaking or sprouting my oats ahead of time. Lastly, granola can be made easily and cheaply with just oats, honey, milk, and seasonings!

I have watched my parents agonize over years to try and grow a nice grassy lawn.

Little did I know: We could have spent that same time, aggravation, and money on edible landscaping and not only have had a beautiful front yard, but also a source of food. After spending months battling quack grass that is trying to take over our garden, I cannot understand how we could decide to pull out our lovely clover and dandelions in place of boring green grass. I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting a beautiful, uniform front yard, but if you are seeding grass 10 years straight, maybe your land is telling you something.

I usually took normal household throwaways at face value.

Little did I know: It is possible to think about all of my intakes and evaluate whether each item can be used in a more sustainable way. From making our own plastic wrap to composting our poop, I am realizing there are more ways to close the loop than I ever knew. And I know there is still so much more to discover.

Our Humanure compost system, where waste turns to riches

So, from thinking my food comes from the grocery store to actually slaughtering and processing a chicken, I think I have made a lot of progress in understanding what it means to be a person. And I know I still have so much more to learn in the next few months before I impart this knowledge to others. So at the start of my journey, I am very excited about what I know, what I know I don't know, and where to go from here.

Feel free to read more on my journey and the amazing things I have learned here at Allegheny Mountain Institute on my personal blog:

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