Friday, November 27, 2009

Make it the easier way

I love Portland. I'd heard quite a bit about the green city's devotion to all things sustainable before my arrival, and the rumors were confirmed during the 3 1/2 days I spent there. It was by far the most bikeable city I've encountered so far. It turns out, with the on-road bike routes and bike paths -- even designated lanes across most of the city's bridges! -- and racks scattered throughout all quadrants of the city, it is often faster and easier to cycle somewhere than to drive. Though currently only 1% of the city's transportation budget is devoted to cycling, it is a percentage the mayor's office is looking to boost in coming years, I learned from Amy, the advisor to the mayor on sustainability policy. During a chat and tour of the City Hall vegetable garden this past Wednesday, Amy told me about the city's green roofing requirements for newly constructed buildings and green roof retrofitting for many existing structures. I learned, too, of city government's investigation into the purchase of facilities to handle city-wide curbside compost pick-up. I didn't get the sense that there was much by way of residential recycling programs, which seems strange for so green a city in so many other ways. (Portland could take a few notes from Seattle and Olympia on that note; Seattle and Olympia could in turn take notes on the nicer weather here in Oregon.)

People seem to want to do the right thing here, but the trick is to make the "right" way the easier way. I have to admit that when I moved to Brooklyn a few years back, I was as much excited by the comprehensive city recycling program as I was about becoming a public school teacher, but the criteria for recycling was quite complicated. There were elaborate charts and color-coded bags. My landlord once chided me for not using the prescripted twine to tie my neatly stacked piles of old NY Times. We could have been fined. (This was mere months before the city suspended its recycling program for the meticulously rinsed and sorted plastics and glassware. I almost cried. Fortunately for New Yorkers, who generate a heck of a lot of trash, the program was restarted within a year.) Anyway, I get Amy's point and I agree with her: policies and processes need to be in place to make it easier for people to do things more sustainably. If it's too much extra work, most people, including the parents of certain food-minded cycling bloggers, won't do it.

The same goes for buying food: it needs to be relatively easy to support local, sustainable producers. While in town, I also had the pleasure of speaking with a few folks working at New Seasons, a local chain of grocery stores in Portland with a focus on local and organic products. It was something between a co-op and a Whole Foods, both in terms of products and pricing. I spoke first with Joey in the produce dept who told me of the cooperative nature between the 8-store-strong grocer and local farms. It's a delicate balance, I learned, to maintain a base of organic produce that is local and of a great enough variety to retain a steady customer base. I found myself seeking out primarily local produce, but the fresh ginger from Peru and the coriander from California also made it into my shopping cart. "People want to buy locally and seasonally these days," the produce manager pointed out, "But they also want things that don't grow in the region. We are still committed to local and organic as much as possible and we have strong ties to local farms." It's a challenge to maintain the quality and local connections at this scale, but New Seasons seems to be doing a pretty good job. I skipped the dairy section -- I didn't trust that I would be able to resist spending a pile of money on raw sheep's milk cheeses -- and next wandered over to the meat section, where I learned from Charlie that most of New Seasons' connections to local meat, poultry, and seafood farms are extensions from when the chain was a co-op, and all of the items they carry come from Oregon, Washington, and northern California. This is not somewhere I would have trouble shopping, though I'd have to live in Portland to do so -- the chain is determined not to expand to other parts of the country, though they do offer consultations on their business model to interested folks.

I spent my final afternoon and evening in Portland chatting and working alongside Abby of the awesome Abby's Table. The former personal chef had gone to a prestigious culinary school in New York and had worked for years concocting tasty, healthy meals for wealthy folks coping with serious medical conditions. Hence she does a lot of gluten- and dairy-free cooking as well as work with macrobiotics and raw food. (The raw crackers we nibbled on as we cooked and sipped kambucha were just scrumptious.) She'd moved to Portland fairly recently and had been on the lookout for an industrial kitchen out of which she could cater, host weekly communal dinners, and teach. "I realized that what I really wanted to do was empower people to find and prepare healthy food for themselves," Abby confided as we chopped leeks and pureed raw chocolate pudding. "It is possible to find fresh, healthy stuff to eat all year, but a lot of people don't know where to start. That's part of why I offer classes, to help show people the joy of cooking and eating. Sometimes they'll discover a new food at the market or they'll buy one of my sauces and get really excited to try a new recipe. They become more connected to their food."

Once they understand how easy it is to make delicious food, it opens up a whole new world. Abby belongs to a group of food specialists who teach courses for the Urban Growth Bounty series, an Oregon-based initiative that offers classes on everything from raising chickens and bees in your back yard to urban farming to cheesemaking and preserving tomatoes. The classes themselves range from about $15-40 -- a pretty accessible price -- though the series had ended for the year by the time Ollie and I rolled into town so I didn't have a chance to attend one. Now, if that isn't an example of the local policies making it easy to be active participants in sustainable city living, I don't know what is.

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