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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bread of Heaven

What do you think of when you envision a monastery?
A stone building?
Beautiful gardens?

A large, ornate church?
Monks wearing robes and sandals?

That's what I pictured too- and most of it is accurate but there is much more to a monastery than silence and hooded monks.

When people found out I was going to a monastery for a Lenten retreat, most made some joke about the difficulties of being silent while drinking beer. Again, accurate but not the point. The point was that I was going to a place of devout religious life where men made life long pledges to follow Christ. A place that would teach me a lot about this title I'm trying to live out- Christian.

The monks of St. Joseph's Abbey are monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, known as Trappists. The Trappists are a Roman Catholic order of monks and nuns that can trace their history as far back as 1098. The order seeks to live in unity with God through Jesus Christ by practicing a life of prayer, worship, and hospitality. The daily of a monk is both regulated and free. Its an interesting paradox, which we got a small taste of during our short time there.

Monks rise at 3am and retire at 8pm. They attend services for the Liturgy of the Hours; one service once every couple of hours. The first service is vigils at 3:30am and the last one is compline at 7:40pm. And yes, I did attend the 3:30am service, once. Between services the monks work on grounds, have time for prayer, and have time to read and study. The Liturgy of the Hours services and work take up a majority of the monk's daily routine but he does have some free time to pursue his faith. Many take time to walk the grounds, read one of the books in the enormous library, spend time in prayer, or talk with their Brothers.

We attended most of the services, none of them were mandatory, and spent our mornings in conference with a monk named Father Peter. He entered the life in a monastery in his native Germany where he spent 25 years there before moving to the abbey in Spencer, MA. He's been there for 18 years. His dedication was inspiring. He entered the Trappist lifestyle as a young adult and has stayed with it even though a monk is not married to monastic life until he takes final vows.

One of the main things that hit me time and again during the week was the intention and dedication of these men to a life centered on their faith. They rise at 3am to worship their Christ. They attend multiple services a day and live a life of contemplative prayer. I took a few walks during my time at St. Joseph's and most of the time I ended up in the visitor's chapel. Every time I was in the visitor's chapel, at least one monk praying in the lowly lit, silent abbey church. Their dedication to a life of constant worship and prayer is fascinating and awe inspiring. I don't think I've had that amount of dedication for a single hobby, never mind a way of life.
Their way of life is their daily bread. They live on the the love of the Spirit and keep Christ as their focus. When they take the Eucharist they take part in a breaking of bread that is over 2000 years old. The Love is their sustenance.

They are nourished by the Spirit, the bread of heaven. I am hungry.

(Photo from:

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Farmed and Dangerous

When I got home from work the other day one of my roommates greeted me with a big smile and a very enthusiastic "You have to watch this!" I obliged and was not prepared for what I was about to see, in a good way. Chipotle has created a video series called "Farmed and Dangerous" which is a tongue in check revision of any action movie with an evil villain, explosions, and a hero willing to risk life and limb for a noble cause concerning us all.
Yes, a burrito chain has sponsored an episodic series about the dangers of questionable ingredients. This is the world we live in now- for better, for worse.

While all in good humor, this marketing campaign does have a good message. I'd even venture to say its one of the defining messages of the food justice movement- how our food is produced matters. It matters big time.

Despite the mixed reviews on the series and whether it really address issues (or whether it addresses the right issues) I think Chipotle played their hand very wisely. If for a moment we forget that this gives them even more brand recognition and is good for their bottom line, the issues discussed during the, frankly, strange videos are indeed worth while. Quality, responsibly grown meat and produce is key to the burrito joints success but shouldn't that be the case for all of our restaurants and meals? Shouldn't all restaurants be concerned about the quality of the ingredients they put on our plate? "You are what you eat" is a phrase everyone has heard at some point in their life. If most of were what we ate we'd likely be ashamed. Who wants to be a burger or a two-liter? I find it interesting that a country with a saying like "You are what you eat" continues to allow factory farmed meat and fertilizer laced produce into our bodies without much foresight into how these things are leading to disease of both man and planet. I say "without much foresight" because there are people who discuss produce integrity, if you will, and who fight the good fight but as a whole our nation has let agribusiness run the show. Its similar to letting the fox gaurd the hen house.

Our farming culture allows the majority of produce to be grown with pesticides and fertilizers that are made of unpronounceable compounds. Chickens and animals raised for meat are kept indoors all day with no access to grass or sunshine. The term "farmed and dangerous" is not far off. Its a cute play on words that carries a lot of meaning.  The pesticides that are sprayed on acreage all across the country are harmful to those who spray them, the consumers who eat that produce, and the plants themselves.

I no longer want to put up with "farmed and dangerous" produce and protein. Its not a status-quo I am willing to literally swallow. How do we fight for "farmed and wholesome?"

"Farmed and Dangerous" can be found here.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Junkfood Awareness Day

"What are we going to do with all the watermelons?"
"If we get another bunch of kale..."
"I think... I just... I... I'm tired of squash. There I said it."

Those now famous one liners will be less familiar at our house. Now we'll be asking what kind of crackers we want and who drank all the orange juice.

Our local eating challenge has come to a close. Whew! That was a whirlwind. We spent the past 5 months delving head first into a life constrained by where our food was sourced.
We asked people weird questions about their farming practices, we spent what seems like years discussing routine grocery store purchases, and we read every label trying to find the coveted organic and fair trade logos. Yes. We were those people. (I apologize to those who had to witness it. ;-) )

We trudged through all the weirdness and came out much more educated about food and its sourcing. Its amazing how previous grocery store enthusiast like myself (I mean come on, its a haven of all things delicious) can now be so uncomfortable in the weirdly lit, confusingly laid out zoo that is a grocery store. I had to pick up some produce from a local store for work this week and it was rather disorienting- wonderfully timed as well.

Now that I know about and have tasted seriously fresh produce, I don't know how to feel about red peppers from Chile in the middle of winter. How? How does that work? I have found myself making comment to my roommates like "What kind of greenhouse wizardry do they use to grow 'local' peppers in Massachusetts in January?" I said that. To other people. Luckily they understand what I meant and had the same suspicion but most shoppers don't. And that's disheartening.

I want people to question why stores carry things like red peppers in January when peppers peak in summer. Peppers plants want nothing more that to spend all day in the hot, humid sun. So why are we using resources, time, and money to grow heat loving plants in a season of freezing temps and snow? Not only are we raising the plants in a fabricated climate but agribusiness is willing to heat greenhouses via fossil fuels to do so. I know farmers in Virginia who stop growing peppers in September due to the falling temps and declining productivity of the plants.
We are using Earth's finite resources to grow food, that has a natural season, in an unnatural season. That doesn't sound crazy to anyone else?

Local eating is hard. It involves a lot of research and a lot of tough decision making. You miss food that isn't in season and get tired of food that is but isn't that how its supposed to be? "You can't appreciate the mountain tops without the valleys" becomes "You can't appreciate the sweetness of a watermelon in the summer without unending kale in the fall." Foods in season taste so much better because they thrive in the appropriate climate. Eating in season makes food taste so much better because you get to taste that food in all its deliciousness while experiencing it for the first time in months. You savor it.

This new way of eating is something I will certainly take with me for the rest of my life and I'm going to eat in season as much as possible, but this girl needs some citrus in her life.

My roommates and I are taking ourselves out to dinner tonight in celebration. We'll leave the confusion of the grocery store and daunting task of picking one kind of cracker from the 40 on the shelf for another day. Baby steps folks, baby steps.

(Please mark your calenders- February 1st: "Junkfood Awareness Day" and feel free to celebrate with us in spirit by indulging in your own favorite snack)

Friday, January 17, 2014


Have you noticed an increase in obesity in our nation? What about a decrease in physical activity?

The makers of HBO's "Weight of the Nation" sure have and did something about it.
The 4 part documentary is a commentary on our nation's health crisis: obesity. At times is tough to watch and other times its more upbeat with ideas to help change your lifestyle or fight for those who have no voice. Whether you find it alarming or inspiring- or both- there are ways to improve your health and the nation's health.

These are the 7 essentials to a healthy heart and cardiovascular system. Statistics show that only
1% of the entire U.S. population qualify for all 7 of these health indicators. 1%. That's it.

Did you know that soda companies make a 90% profit on sodas and other sugary drinks that provide you with 0% of your daily nutritional intake? They are guaranteed to make money while you are guaranteed to gain weight and increase your risk for chronic health issues. I don't know about you but I don't like those odds. 

Most of us are unaware of how much exercise it actually takes to burn off the calories of our daily food choices.
Popular all American food like burgers and cookies are everywhere in our society but the knowledge of what that food does to your body, and how to mitigate the effects, is lacking.
The truth is that fatty and/or sugary foods take more physical exercise to burn off than most people assume. 

Dismal statistics like the ones above pepper this movie making it really hard to watch without feeling inspired and fired up to change the system. Let that fire burn! Get mad! Take that anger for injustice and turn it into positive change.

Our current food system values profit more than health. The companies that produce foods high in fat and sugar while low in actual nutrient content have decided that lining their pockets is more important than the health of our nation's youth. Kids today may be the first generation to have a shorter life span than their parents, making them the first generation to die younger... from (here's the kicker)... preventable causes! All of the chronic illness and health issues young people are facing in today's America can be contributed in large to the huge increase of unhealthy food and poverty.
Significant proportions of overweight kids also live near or under the poverty line making the burden twice as heavy. Not only do they have to battle temptation on every block, their family can't afford to buy fruits and veggies. Parts of the documentary were focused on lower income neighborhoods where there are corner stores on just about every block but no parks and public greens spaces. Snack cakes wrapped in plastic and chips are 25 cents each while bananas and apples are over $1. The calorie count and price make the choice easy when you have 75 cents in your pocket. 75 cents goes a lot further and provides more calories in chips and cakes than an apple. Produce isn't affordable and it doesn't provide as many calories to satisfy an empty belly.
The odds are stacked against these kids and families from the very beginning.

Big problem right? Right. But there are ways you, yes you, can help. PARTICIPATE!
Participate in your own health, the health of your family, the health of your community, and the health of the nation at large. Start from the bottom, the most direct source of change, and come up with some personal goals. Cut back on your soda intake, eat a serving of veggies with every meal for a week, or gossip with a friend while out for a walk in the neighborhood. 
Buy your produce from a local farmer. 
Walk in one of the many fundraiser walks for a cause you support. 
Run your first 5k.
Turn a vacant lot into a park for neighborhood kids to play kickball and just be kids.
Once you see how these small changes in your life effect your well-being, bigger changes and broader influence are sure to follow. Change things up, ask your friends to join you, and move this country towards a healthier future!
To watch "Weight of the Nation" (for free) and find out how you can help, please visit the "Weight of the Nation" website.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Flour Stains

Life is a little messy.
So is baking bread.

Last weekend one of my roommates and I attended a bread baking workshop at The Food Project near Dudley Square in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. The Roxbury, and Dudley Square especially, area of Boston is a rougher part of town. Houses are older, some falling apart, and trash is thrown on the sidewalk and in vacant lots. Amongst the aging houses and storefronts, there's a colorful building on the corner of Dudley St. and W. Cottage St.

The Food Project is a wonderful place where community members and folks from all over Boston can learn about farming (and even get their hands dirty!), take free cooking classes, and participate in educating youth on healthy eating! Its really a great place. The Food Project has a total of 43 acres in the Boston metro area dedicated to chemical pesticide free farming for education and CSAs. And who works the land? Staff, volunteers, and 140 teens who are part of a tight knit work crew.

Back to the bread!

We weren't sure what to expect and went in with few reservations. We arrived a bit early, talked with one of the interns, and met our fellow bread bakers as they trickled in. Everyone was very nice and we were in good company- many were there for the first time. In a complete surprise, Libby and I were some of the most experienced bread bakers in the group! We've only made bread maybe 10 a handful of times and it went... decently?

The lot of us crammed into the small commercial kitchen in the back and got to work. The staff had already picked out a few recipes: egg bread, French bread, and basic white bread.

As a community we made loaves of egg bread and French bread, and some other off the cuff recipes. Lots of laughs, lots of people doing something they've never done before- and being empowered!
It was wonderful to see. We were all strangers just 2 hours before and we were suddenly joking with each other and breaking bread together.

Curry bread! Our fearless leader made this dough before we got there and encouraged us to be creative!
I've found that cooking is a great way to interact with your neighbors, met new people, and learn or hone skills. I respect The Food Project's presence there on Dudley St. and in Boston at large. Its a wonderful resource. The staff and volunteers are doing their best to fight hunger and reach youth who might otherwise be spending their time doing less constructive things.

Find a similar organization in your city... and if there isn't one? Maybe you're just the person to start one.

We went home with bread, flour all over our shirts, and a sense of community
That's a lot to be thankful for.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Keep 'Em Buzzing

Most people jump when they hearing the buzzing of bees. What they unfortunately don't know is that bees are crucial to pollination and therefore food production. They are 1 of 2 ways plants pollinate. These little insects are actually quite docile and are just trying to find some pollen to bring back to the hive.

A new phenomenon has been making it harder for bees to collect pollen and bring it back to their hive. Its a random absence of bees and any sign that they were even around, except for the empty boxes that were once a hive. The shell of a hive is of particular concern as they aren't covered in dead bees or have any noticeable damage. The bees just left. No explanation, no trace.

While the whole picture is still fuzzy there is some research that suggests steps are being taken to fix the problem and try to revive lost colonies. Colony Collapse Disorder could stem from many different causes but some have been shown to have direct effects on the bees. GMOs and systemic pesticides are the leading causes of CCD currently (article from the Boston Globe). These conventional farming practices seem to trigger a response in the nervous system of the bees causing the bees to lose their ability to gather pollen and return home. Each bee has a built in GPS but chemicals from farm practices confuse the GPS function of her brain, sending her flying off into the ether. If enough bees have this problem the whole colony will vacate- sometimes leaving the queen to attempt at repopulating the hive with the young that are left behind. However without her worker bees the queen and young won't have pollen for food and honey production. I think you can guess the end of this story.

Luckily some farmers and beekeepers have decided that CCD is costing agriculture and the planet too much. A group of farmers nation wide have taken a cue from France, a leader in CCD research and solutions, by starting organic and holistic beekeeping. Organic beekeeping sounds a bit lofty and like something you'd find in old Switzerland but its everywhere! There are organic beekeepers in rural Virginia, Florida, and many European beekeepers have been organic for years. I had the pleasure of working for farmers who loved bees and their incredible gift of pollination, so they decided to start a hive just a few yards from the farm.

(Pictures from Broadfork Farm blog)
These ladies will happily feast on some pollen produced from organic plants grown without GMO seeds or harmful farming practices. Hopefully happy, healthy bees at one farm can encourage others to do the same. Bees are relatively easy to take care of and provide us with so much- the food we eat.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Simple Life

My roommates and I have spent the past 4 months reading, researching, and discussing an idea- living simply. For us this means having an apartment full of donated furniture, kitchen wares, and linens. We also make very intentional decisions about where we buy our food and which companies/farms/businesses we want to support through our spending.

Our most recent reading, Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster, introduces the idea of simplicity through the lens of faith. From a faith perspective, simplicity is appealing and satisfying. God becomes the center and the self (for the sake of self) fades.

Now these sorts of self-help or lifestyle changes can be difficult. People have strengths and weakness, likes and dislikes. We have the self we present to the world in a business setting which is different than the self we present to our best friend, and those other selves can sometimes be different than our selves we discover in time spent alone. Foster discusses the goal of bringing these parts into one being-- that is focused on God. That's the kicker. A whole person; focused on God, not on "me." That's hard, really hard.

The way I've been approaching becoming a whole self while being focused on God is by simple living choices. Like I mentioned, our house has decided that a life of intention is how we want to pursue focusing on God. Our choices about what eggs to buy and whether to go with organic or fair trade sugar, if we can't find a organic and fair trade source, may seem trivial but there are a lot of threads to a simple choice in sugar. When you become aware of how workers are treated, how sustainable the farming practices are, who receives the profit and so forth, the threads start to unravel. The decision suddenly becomes much larger and starts to feel overwhelming.

To remain focused in a problem much larger than myself I think of how my spending contributes to the world and specifically God's kingdom. Does my money go to overhead costs or does the money keep workers employed in fair wages jobs? Are the farms taking care of Creation or exploiting it?
We keep our decisions intentionally focused on God and his kingdom, therefore making the choices easy. When God is the focus, the self or selves lessen, and a whole person follows.