My head is still swimming from the amazing weekend on Jekyll Island at the 2014 Georgia Organics Conference!
If you’re a regular reader here, you saw my many posts about getting ready for the conference and my DIY demonstration. They asked me to share and demonstrate a few recipes for cleaning yourself and your home without toxic chemicals, and of course I jumped at the chance!
The conference was held on Jekyll Island, a nature preserve in southeast Georgia. We were right on the beach, so I could soak up some sun and sand in between sessions.
Dave and I got in late on Friday, but I was able to make it to the venue in time for the reception, which was super fun! There was free beer from Three Taverns Brewery and a yummy buffet with plenty of vegan options. I was pleasantly surprised at how much vegan food they offered at every meal! I’m always prepared to go hungry in group food situations like this, but I ate like a king all weekend long.
After the reception, I headed back to our hotel and collapsed, because I knew Saturday’s goodness started bright and early! Breakfast started at 7, and I wanted to get there as close to 7 as possible so that I could scope out the scene a little more, including creepily sneaking into the room where I’d be holding my session:
On top of all the talks and educational sessions, there was an expo where folks from all across the organic landscape could share their insights. There was just so much! Instead of getting into details about everyone that I met and talked to, here is a list, and I encourage you to check out their websites:
- Cafe Campesino – They provided free coffee all weekend, and I loved talking to Bill Harris at their table.
- Koinonia Farms – The story of this intentional community in Americus, GA will blow your mind. Also, their dark chocolate is vegan, and I want to eat it all day every day for the rest of my life.
- Xerces Society – If you care about saving bees, these are your people. What I loved about them is that they don’t necessarily advocate raising bees for honey. They want folks to create bee habitats, because bees need habitats. Period.
Welcome Address from Executive Director Alice Rolls
The welcome address was incredibly moving. In fact, afterwards I furiously revised the intro to my own talk to incorporate some of the ideas that Alice talked about. The big thing that stuck with me from her talk was that the food movement as a whole has begun to shy away from talking about environmental issues, because they’re not sexy. She said we need to get back to our roots and think about “what’s downstream.” Something about that was so powerful to me. What’s downstream applies to so many things:
- what we eat
- how we grow it
- products that we buy or make
Our whole lives, really.
The other concept she talked about a lot was “infiltration.” Georgia Organics has worked hard to have a presence at big ag shows where organic is normally not represented. This kind of work gives a face to the organic movement and helps nudge it ever further into the mainstream.
I maybe got a little bit choked up during her talk, especially when she talked about the Farm to Preschool Summit. Here’s a video about that initiative that I found on their website:
The last thing Alice talked about that really stuck with me was “creating a soft place for people to land.” I think that the vegan movement can learn a lot from Georgia Organics, especially in this area. People are curious about veganism just like they are about organic food, and I think we as a community can do so much to make that accessible for folks, even if they just want to dip a toe in right now.
My session wasn’t until after lunch, so I got to go to a couple of morning talks.
Farm to School Case Study: Habersham County
The first one I attended was a case study of a farm to school program in Habersham County, GA. Talk about inspiring! Habersham is sort of a pilot test for full-fledged farm to school programs that Georgia Organics hopes to launch all over the state, and what they’re doing there is amazing. They work with farmers, community leaders, school administration, and with the kids to get fresh, local veggies into the school lunch program.
My favorite part of this session was learning about how they worked with the kids to get them to eat all of that produce. They said a couple of things were very effective:
- Taste tests. Farmers come into the schools once a month and prepare fresh veggies from the farm for kids to try. You can imagine my joy when I learned that green smoothies were a fave! Kids tasted and voted on what dishes they’d eat again. It empowered them, so they felt ownership of the food and were more likely to dish it up when it appeared in the lunch line.
- School Gardens. Just like with taste tests, kids were more likely to eat food that they grew themselves.
At the end, farmer Ronnie Mathis from Mountain Earth Farms made a few batches of green smoothies, and we got to try them and vote, just like the kids do. They were delicious, of course!
Turning Green into Green
This was a fascinating – and surprisingly funny – talk by Rob Del Bueno and Peter Marte.
Rob started a company that collects and refines waste cooking oil for biofuel. He shared the journey that he’s taken just to stay afloat. What began as a simple endeavour morphed and grew, and now he’s dealing with many of the stinkier aspects of restaurant waste. These changes weren’t a choice for him. Because of market pressures and competition, this is what he had to do to stay viable in the biofuel industry.
Peter is the CEO of Hannah Solar, and he had a similar story to tell. They do so much more than solar, that now the company is called Hannah Energy. They branched out into electric cars and doing projects for the Department of Defense.
The take-away from both of these stories was this: no one cares that you’re a green business. To succeed, you have to be competitive when it comes to price and the services that you offer. Period. It was a little bit of a downer but also inspiring to hear from folks who have thriving green businesses that are competitive and are making a big difference for people and for the planet.
My Session: A Healthy Home Made Easy (and made by you!)
When I was setting up, someone mentioned that every talk in this room had been standing room only all morning. So, you know, no pressure. I was thrilled and relieved when my talk filled up in the same way!!
You can get a feel for what I talked about in my session over at this post, but like I mentioned, I did some last-minute revising. Basically, instead of talking about saving money in my intro, I focused more on what’s wrong with conventional cleaning and personal care products. Products with toxic chemicals are bad for our health, and when we rinse them down the drain, they pollute waterways and harm wildlife. Down the drain is the first step towards heading downstream.
The problem with conventional products is that you can’t always find out what’s in them, thanks to the awesome labeling laws here in the U.S. Companies can claim that parts of their recipes are “proprietary,” and just…not put things on the labels.
“Fragrance” is a great example of what’s wrong with this country’s labeling laws. Companies were afraid that other companies would steal their recipes for making a zingy lemon or pine fresh scent, so they convinced the FDA to let them just bundle all of their scent ingredients under the name “fragrance.”
When you see fragrance on a label, it can refer to somewhere around 500 chemicals. Some of these are carcinogens. Some are endocrine disruptors. Some are totally safe. The thing is that we have no way of knowing, because the label just says “fragrance.”
Right. So I got the bad news out of the way at the start. The good news is that you have tools at your disposal to avoid these toxic chemicals. You can make your own beauty products (see the link at the top of this section). But the take-away from my talk was this:
Make what you can, and when you can’t make, research.
For research, I pointed folks to the EWG’s Skin Deep Database. I use this tool for research all the time. You can look up specific chemicals or specific products. The EWG rates everything with a traffic light system, so you can tell at a glance if things are safe (green), so-so (yellow), or very toxic (red).
Y’all, I was completely floored by this experience. The talk went super smoothly, but what really impressed me was the audience. We had so many great questions and suggestions! And for the rest of the weekend, folks stopped me in the hall to talk about essential oils, green cleaning, and crafting. I am so full of gratitude for the opportunity to connect with all of those amazing people.
Keynote Address from Ken Cook
That evening, Ken Cook from the Environmental Working Group delivered the keynote speech. Ken is one of my heroes for the work he’s doing making food and chemicals safer. He and the entire EWG go up against big businesses with big money and clout on a daily basis to advocate for us as consumers.
His talk was funny, it was inspiring, and it was moving. I filmed the whole 30 minute talk, but I doubt y’all want to sit through it here. He talked about how big biotech and big ag are flailing as consumers learn more about what they do and how they do it. He talked about the rise of organic and the powerful role that Georgia Organics in particular has played.
He talked about how grateful he was to be on Jekyll with all of us and that he and Michael Pollan have even talked about the great work that Georgia Organics in particular has been doing. I have to admit, y’all: I am super proud to be a Georgian right now. The number of organic farms and farmers markets in Atlanta and across the state is growing much faster than the nationwide average. Georgia may have its problems, but when it comes to food, we are making leaps and bounds. So watch out, Monsanto. We are on to you, and we are strong.
2014 Georgia Organics Conference Farmers Feast
They closed out the Georgia Organics Conference with the Farmers Feast, and you guys, I was floored once again. Every place setting had a beautiful kale salad when we sat down, and everyone got a veggie plate as the second course. They brought the meat out family-style, so it was very easy to avoid. We just moved the tray over to the side of our table with the omnivores. Instead of talking about this, I’m going to share a collage of the images I snapped. Let me preface by saying: I had had some wine at this point. No regrets!
I want to extend a huge thank you to Georgia Organics for putting together this year’s conference and to the speakers, educators, and attendees. I went home on Sunday full of good food and gratitude.