Saturday, September 8, 2012

Conway EcoFest 2012

I spent a very pleasant morning exploring all the different methods that organizations in Conway utilize to be more ecologically friendly. Though this event wasn't focused specifically on food, there was an agriculture section and even an Ecofest Market, which included several food-related products. It was in this market that I learned about solar ovens.

To order, contact Denise Marion at

So, what I learned was that these solar ovens were started by a company who sent the raw materials to places where people were having to cut down their forests for fuel. These original materials were something like cardboard and aluminum foil, which still may not have been commodities in the area. However, these crude versions of solar ovens allowed the communities to cook their food and keep their forests. Definitely eco-friendly. And a fascinating way to cook.

Apparently the same company eventually developed this version of the oven which is made of more durable materials. Denise, who was there to demonstrate the product, said that she bought hers in 1998 and has been cooking with is ever since. I would be curious to find out if the foods cooked in one of these taste the same as those cooked in a conventional oven. Unfortunately, these ovens cost $259 (including tax, shipping, thermometer, instructional DVD, and the oven), so I am not likely to discover this anytime soon. I can hope that some day I will, since I am sure it saves a large sum of money from the electric bill.

Later on, I came across an interesting display by UCA (the University of Central Arkansas), which you can see below. I was curious to hear how they would explain the cost of healthy food versus unhealthy food and was not too disappointed. One of the lovely ladies put it very succinctly, "With unhealthy food, you are paying for calories, whereas with healthy food you are paying for nutrients." We chatted for a bit and I think maybe they were taken aback by the answers Richard and I gave about our eating habits. They wanted to encourage us to eat more vegetables and less processed foods, but we already do. They also mentioned the local food market, Conway Locally Grown, which we have bought produce from for the past year. Then we came to sweets and they asked whether we ate ice cream. At the mention of ice cream, Richard was proud to tell them that there is a brand of ice cream which you can buy at Kroger and it contains only the following ingredients: Cream, Nonfat Milk, Sugar, Vanilla, Vanilla Bean. The brand is Turkey Hill and I highly recommend their Vanilla Ice Cream. Of course the girls decided that since we eat healthy most of the time, a little snack of decent ice cream wasn't such a bad thing, an opinion which Mark Bittman shares. I've been actually reading the Food Matters Cookbook. One of the first points that Bittman makes is that you don't have to be religious about your eating habits. As long as you take a first step in the right direction, by adding more vegetables and reducing the amount of meat in your diet, then you are helping the environment and your body. But, more on this topic later.

The one thing that threw me off about the UCA display was that they only talk about the literal cost of food. There was no mention of the ecological cost of processed foods. I suppose it's easier to grab people's attention if you don't go into too many topics at once though. All in all, I enjoyed the display and the enthusiasm the girls had in trying to tell us better ways to eat.

Further on in the agriculture section of EcoFest, I found a cooking demonstration by Chef Robert Hall, who works for the Rockefeller Foundation. When Richard and I walked up he was sautéing bacon and talking about pork consumption in the U.S., "The way they are raised today, it is pretty safe to eat pork medium or rare. This wasn't true twenty years ago." I was curious to know whether this was because of the mass amount of antibiotics pumped into the pigs systems, but I held my tongue on that. The demonstration was of how to cook braised brussels sprouts. Personally, I have only eaten brussels sprouts once in my life. This was from a can when I was much younger and I despised them. However, I have developed a much larger taste pallet in the last few years and it now encompasses many things I did not enjoy as a child, including: all manner of squash, cabbage, salmon, tilapia, mango, and probably many others. So, I decided to give the brussels sprouts a try. Besides, Chef Robert was discussing how most people only have tried mushy ones that had been frozen or canned. Apparently he advocates only using fresh vegetables if one can help it. I have to say, I think I will add brussels sprouts to my list of acquired tastes because they were quite delicious. 

While we were waiting on the brussels sprouts to absorb the Chardonnay and chicken broth, I asked him a question about taste, "Do you, as a chef, find that there is a difference in taste as far as organic versus non-organic?" His answer was fairly surprising considering all I have read on this topic. "A chicken is a chicken is a chicken. A tomato is a tomato is a tomato. In a blind taste test, I do not think that anyone could tell you a difference between a meal made from organic food versus non-organic." At first, I wanted to criticize his opinion on the matter. However, upon reviewing my knowledge of food and cooking, I have to admit I believe he is right. As he said, "you cannot taste the fertilizers and pesticides." The difference in taste does not come from how the food was grown as much as from when it was harvested versus when it reached the table. A tomato that was grown and picked locally, at a time when it was ripe, will be much more flavorful than a tomato that was shipped 1500 miles and therefore picked before it was ripe. Another point that Bittman points out in his book is that buying local foods is better for the environment. He states that buying local does not mean you have to buy organic, the saved shipping/fuel cost will be better for the environment. I would like to add that it is also better for the taste.

Chef Robert went on to say that he was neutral in the discussion of whether to use organic or non-organic products. However, if you are considering the debate, there are many other things that one must take into account. "It comes down to what do you want to put into your body." Which is the plain truth.  If you buy non-organic produce then you are putting food into your body that is covered in chemicals and washed with chemicals and grown using soil that is fertilized with chemicals. (A note here: By non-organic produce, I don't necessarily mean produce that is not USDA certified organic because I know how difficult it is for some farms to get this label.) When it comes to animal products, it is a choice of whether you want to eat an animal who was pumped full of antibiotics and was fattened for slaughter on a diet that they should not be fed. However, this is a discussion better saved for another post.

Chef Robert stated, "When it comes to price, say an organic product is $400/lb [I'm sure he meant $4] and non-organic is $2.50/lb, if the choice is about taste there is no discernible difference between the two." This was the answer I was curious to know and I was glad that he gave it openly.

Locations of the farms of CLG.
I only briefly stopped by the Conway Locally Grown table because as I mentioned earlier I have been involved with the organization for over a year. However, for those of you who don't know about it, here are some details. Conway Locally Grown (CLG) is an online farmer's market for the Conway area. The picture above depicts the location of the farms that sell their products through CLG. A good number of the farms raise their products organically (and free-range for animals). Each farm gives a description of their products so you can decide who to order from. The website for CLG is There is a $25 yearly membership fee which is added to your third order if you have not used them before, and your first order every year after the first. You get products that are local, in season and always delicious. They have meat, eggs, cheese, fruit, vegetables, coffee, and even some prepared foods such as breads, trail mix, salsa, jams, etc. They even have other products like soaps, lotions, bouquets, and trinkets. You place your order online between Sunday evening and Tuesday evening, then you pick up the order and pay for it the following Friday between 4p.m. and 6p.m. at St. Peter's Episcopal Church. I highly recommend using CLG for your weekly produce needs for many reasons, including that you get to know your farmers, many of whom are volunteers every friday. 

Also at this tent today was the members from La Lucha Space. I even met the manager of the Urban Farm Project, whose name I cannot remember to save my life...Apparently she doesn't think that their operation is considered legitimate enough to merit mentioning in newspapers or magazines yet. I was very glad to tell her that 501 Life will be featuring information about the Urban Farm Festival occurring next Saturday behind the Faulkner County Library (from 5:30p.m. - 8p.m.) on their website and in their newsletter. I hope to be more active with the La Lucha Space activities this year. You can find out more information about them at 

Some non-food related organizations that caught my eye are displayed below. I enjoyed meeting the alpacas whose fur made the softest stuffed bear I have ever felt. This table was also selling spun alpaca wool and products made from said wool. I learned that you only shear an alpaca once a year and that their first coat is always the best.

I also enjoyed the bug lady, Nancy, who is a nurse and creates these nifty crafts in her free time. Apparently this hobby started because she wanted to find a use for the hemostats that nurses throw away. The main bodies are all made form recycled materials of a wide variety; the wings and antenna are made of copper. 

Below the pictures I have listed the contact information for both if you would like to purchase products from them.
Deborah Shannon- Sweet Clover Alpaca

Nancy's Bugs

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