Strangers in a strange land

Friday, October 3, 2008 | 3:00 p.m. CDT
Jennifer Enders and Brett Wilbanks pick a bowl of Vidalia onions at the Farmers Market in Columbia. The couple does not own a car and eat locally grown foods almost exclusively.

COLUMBIA — Café Berlin is quiet when Jennifer Enders and Brett Wilbanks walk in. To make it to a 2:15 interview, Enders, an institutional research analyst at MU, and her partner, Wilbanks, who is finishing up his undergraduate studies at Columbia College, have to catch a city bus at 1:45.

They arrive a few minutes early, pausing in the doorway, tentative as they decide whether to order or to introduce themselves first. Enders orders one of Café Berlin's fresh-squeezed juices, and Wilbanks picks up an Izze grapefruit sparkling juice. The drinks are some of the few items the couple still buys from a store.

The café at Providence Road and Walnut Street sells fair trade coffee and tea as well as organic foods. Café Berlin is also one of the restaurants in Columbia that uses locally grown produce, which is why Enders selected it. Other local restaurants included in the effort are Main Squeeze, Sycamore and Uprise Bakery.

In the second of what would become many e-mail exchanges, Enders had warned, "We are both really shy." But as soon as the conversation turned to sustainable living, the two talked almost uninterrupted for an hour about their move toward an energy-efficient lifestyle.

Ideally, sustainable living means using only what is necessary to live. But as an increasing number of people practice it, it means a focus on energy conservation, producing minimal waste and a heightened sense of environmental consciousness. The shorthand term is "going green."

For example, they eat almost exclusively locally grown fruits and vegetables — although they do not, as some of a similar mindset do, call themselves "localvores." They decided  a few years ago to limit buying imported foods after watching documentaries such as Deborah Koon Garcia's "The Future of Food" and Gregory Greene's "The End of Suburbia." Greene's and Garcia's films show the high gas mileage involved in transporting produce to grocery stores, meaning that rising oil costs  increase the price of the food. Enders and Wilbanks believe that part of sustainable living means cutting back on oil reliance, so they decided to join the local-eating movement.

The films also explored  the treatment of animals raised for consumption. The scale of modern breeding coupled with the large, crowded barns was enough for Wilbanks and Enders to become vegetarians. They also said the transportation costs involved with feeding livestock and selling the product did not fit into their sustainable way of thinking.

"Your diet's one of the biggest things you can do," Enders said.

Enders said eating locally is time-consuming because you're primarily buying directly from growers or growing the food yourself, but it has unexpected benefits. "We've been happy and healthier," she said. "We feel a higher degree of freedom over ourselves and over our lives."

Wilbanks said he enjoys the self-determination aspect of their local vegetarian diet; they pick what they want to grow and what they want to purchase.

Columbia offers several resources for those who want to buy locally. Each September, Columbia College hosts a sustainable living fair to help educate the community about how to become more energy efficient.  The Community Gardening Coalition offers patches of land for those lacking the resources to grow their own gardens. At the Columbia Farmers' Market, residents can purchase food directly from farmers. They can also set up a program to buy regularly from the farmers, called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.

The term is used to describe the share-holding process, said Dan Nelson, who operates Danjo, a CSA farm in Moberly. A CSA share is the equivalent of a bushel. The customer can purchase a quarter, half or full bushel of the desired produce. For 24 weeks, Nelson's customers pick up their portion of vegetables at the Columbia Farmers' Market. Nelson said the CSA shares establish a direct relationship between consumers and their food; 43 families support Danjo farm and, if they choose, they can visit the farm to see their share before it is harvested.

Wilbanks and Enders have a quarter CSA share with Nelson, and they frequent the market to pick up their produce and shop for other items.

Enders said Nelson gives them advice about their own garden on Broadway, which they have through the Community Gardening Coalition and where they grow things such as butternut squash.

"We're lucky in this community," Wilbanks said.

Hanging up the keys

The key to becoming more sustainable, Wilbanks said, is to start where you are.

He said that he and Enders have to work within the limits of the system. Someday, for instance, they would like to live in a building powered by solar panels. They would also like to have their own greenhouse so they can grow more of their own food. But in the meantime, they experiment with small microclimates, or self-contained environments that are different from the larger, outside environment. For example, the couple positions containers to make them hotter and more humid than Missouri's temperatures to grow peppers and basil. Currently, they have a dwarf avocado tree growing in a microclimate in their computer room.

A few years ago, Enders and Wilbanks looked at the Columbia mass transit system and decided they could do without their automobile. So they sold it. But without a car, they had to make immediate changes to their schedules. Errands became less impulsive. Grocery store trips required planning because when you rely on the bus system, it is not as easy to go back for something you forgot.

To embrace public transportation, Wilbanks said, you have to get used to the idea that everything takes longer. As a result, he and Enders found they went to the mall and to the movies less often. They also started walking wherever they could.

Without a car, Enders said the pace of life is different. Part of it is by choice; they prefer to stay at home and read instead of going out to a movie. When they do go out, they have to follow the restrictions of a bus schedule and route. The limitations on mobility means you do less, Enders said.

To take the next step, Wilbanks and Enders went to Mid-Missouri Peaceworks for further assistance on how to better conserve energy. Based out of The Peace Nook on Broadway, the nonprofit is dedicated to promoting sustainable living.

"Currently we run our economy on unsustainable energy sources that are finite," director Mark Haim said. Every aspect of how people live needs to be reconsidered through the lens of conservation, he said.

At home, Enders and Wilbanks have stopped watching television almost entirely. Wilbanks said "the idiot box" takes away from conversation, and they found they often talked over it anyway. "If you don't have the television on you have to talk to each other," Wilbanks said.

To unwind, they read or listen to music. Enders gardens. Wilbanks plays video games, an exception to their no-TV lifestyle. Well, that and football.

They said they have realized that the things they spent time on before were not worth their time. "When you simplify life," Wilbanks said, "there's a lot less to get upset over."

But there are some things they just can't do without, and there are limits to buying only within one region. Rice and garbanzo beans do not grow in Missouri. Neither do coffee or tea, which is why Enders and Wilbanks occasionally buy out at Café Berlin.

They compromise by limiting their intake of outside-of-Missouri products. "Some things you have to cut back, because you can't cut," Wilbanks said.

Although the couple tries to minimize buying citrus fruit, they cannot eliminate them entirely from their diet. Enders said, "What's the point in guacamole without lime juice?"

But, they will not buy food that does not grow in the continental United States.

A life apart

For the last six years, Enders and Wilbanks have lived together, making sustainable energy changes, and for the last six years their families have had to make adjustments as well.

"They're generally supportive but they don't quite get it," Wilbanks said. "We're a novelty to them."

"Dad thought it was a phase," Enders said.

Her family is from St. Louis and the Lake of the Ozarks, and his is from Illinois. A couple times of year, the couple rents a car to visit them.

"I drive," Wilbanks dead-panned, looking at Enders, who acknowledged she has let her license expire.

At work, she said, it is sometimes difficult to share stories with her colleagues about her weekend  because her co-workers' pace of life is so different.

"That's the hardest part of living sustainably — how other people react to you," she said.

Wilbanks also sees the separation that limiting restaurant trips and errands around town causes.

"It's like being a stranger in a strange land," he said.

However, Enders said they are not completely isolated from the mainstream. Both she and Wilbanks use the computer. Enders keeps a blog called "Veg*n Cooking and other Random Musings" to list new vegetarian recipes and talk about sustainable living. She also uses it to communicate with other bloggers who have similar lifestyles.

Neither Enders nor Wilbanks claims to be an activist. Instead, Enders said, they promote by example. Recently, they have noticed a change in their families' lifestyles; Enders, for example, said her grandmother now feeds her grandfather organic vegetables.

Like Haim at Mid-Missouri Peaceworks, Enders and Wilbanks believe everybody can make meaningful changes. But to make them, the couple said, you have to have your own reasons for doing it. Whether it's for energy or for the environment or for animal activism reasons, the ultimate decision to change is personal.

"It has to be yours," Enders said.

The couple's changes took years, and Wilbanks said they are just getting started. "It's a common mistake to try to change all at once," he said.

The key to becoming more sustainable, he said, is to focus on a single change or make small adjustments to your current lifestyle. "Do a little bit at a time," he said. "Change should be comfortable."



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