They might not know it, but people who get busy canning peaches, pears, tomatoes and a whole range of other foods during this time of year are actually being good environmental citizens. Canning reduces the use of fossil fuels and food transport costs.
Before the first refrigerator was sold 96 years ago, canning was a vital part of a family's survival and ensured a steady supply of fruits, vegetables, jams, relishes, even meat, through the winter, says Jeanne Evers of Medford, president of the Family Food Education Volunteers of OSU Extension Service.
"I grow all my own things. The fresher the product and the nearer it is to you, the less it has to travel and the better it is for the environment," says Evers. "It's wonderful to be involved in all the steps. We're not outsourcing any of the work, except we do have to buy jars and lids."
Master canner Kathleen Crawford of Jacksonville observes that canning is a "green" activity because "when a person picks peaches at the peak of ripeness, instead of going to the store and buying something flown in from South America or put in a tin can and processed and handled by trucks to the grocery store and then driven to your house, then that person is considerably shortening the food chain."
Crawford adds, "I think of it as doing something positive for me, but I'm sure it's not hurting the planet either. In addition to the health effects, I know what's in the jar. Reading ingredients I can't pronounce always makes me nervous."
Canning is a fairly complex process, something most people avoid today, but once you get the hang of it, it can be a joyful, productive ritual that pulls in the whole family, notes Evers.
If you want, you can readily find canning jars and supplies at yard sales, because so many people can't find time, nor do they want to devote the labor, says Evers. You keep your jars and screw-on cap rings for use year after year, so there's no use of energy or resources at all there. You do have to buy new sealer caps each year. And you need a big water bath canner.
When you're canning food, you have to above all realize you're taking on the role of the health inspector, too. All jars and tools must be sterilized and, after being cut, peeled and put in jars, all food must be subjected to a sterilizing water bath, which also provides the airtight seal, keeping out germs until you open it.
It's actually not that hard once you learn it — and classes are regularly taught at the OSU Extension auditorium at 569 Hanley Road in Medford. The next one is at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 28. It will be on dehydrating your food.
Dehydration is done in a screened-in box with a fan. The screening keeps out bugs and their germs. Drying food takes the water out, making it smaller, so it requires much less storage space, says Evers.
For those not interested in the learning curve of canning, there's always freezing. You just peel and chop the food, sometimes add anti-browning ingredients and put it in a freezer-grade bag.
Canning, freezing or drying food is always better for the planet, but if you are preserving food bought from markets or growers, rather than growing it yourself, the cost to you will be roughly the same as buying retail, says Evers.
But the bottom line is that "setting by" food is good for Mother Earth and for other family members, especially children, who gain a lifelong appreciation of their connection with the food chain — and the alternatives to an off-the-shelf lifestyle.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.