Leader for Nature: Amanda Vink—A Gardening Guru
When she was 16 years old, Amanda Vink started a job that sparked not only a lasting pastime, but also a new viewpoint on the world's food systems.
The job was working for a local family-owned garden and produce center every day from late spring through late autumn where she learned the remarkable joy of gardening and cooking with fresh-picked produce.
A Sicilian woman who ran the store had a small kitchen in the back, Vink recalls. If this woman spotted a tomato or any other locally-grown fruit or vegetable that nobody seemed to want due to a small imperfection, she'd use it for her own delicious cooking.
This first position helped Amanda learn the importance of knowing and valuing where your food comes from, she said. And she shared this lesson in a book she recently wrote titled, Feeding a Changing Planet. This book tackles an increasingly pressing problem: how to deal with climate change's impact on food supplies around the world. It aims to encourage young readers to take action in making these systems more sustainable through their everyday decisions.
Vink continues to be passionate about inspiring people of all ages to consider their own health and the planet's when figuring out what foods to eat.
"I stress how important it is to know where your food comes from," Vink says. "For the average person, changing your diet is the best way to lower your carbon imprint. I’m not telling anyone what to do. This isn’t about shaming. This is about taking responsibility for yourself and your actions."
Vink says that eating less meat can be a great way to cut down on the emissions from agriculture since a lot of energy is used to grow the food that is fed to livestock, and industries involving livestock often use a lot of water.
A Nobel Prize-winning physicist and former energy secretary Steven Chu also stressed the significance of livestock greenhouse gas emissions in a 2019 Forbes article. Chu told Forbes that the U.S. cattle and dairy industry alone, if considered a country, would have higher greenhouse gas emissions than the entire European Union (when it included the United Kingdom).
Vink also says, however, that one doesn't have to go entirely vegan or to vegetarian to make a difference with their diets.
One of the most important decisions one can make is buying more local produce, or better yet growing it in one's backyard, to cut down on the emissions from transporting food around the world.
Data from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) backs this up. In 2018, transportation was the sector of the U.S. economy that produced the most significant greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.
Twenty-eight percent of the 6,677 Million Metric Tons of CO2 equivalent emissions the U.S. produced in 2018 came from the transportation sector, which ranked just above the electricity sector which accounted for 27 percent of those emissions (EPA).
Around 8 percent of the average American's CO2 emissions come from food--Nearly 30 percent of those emissions involve how far the food traveled from its origin to American plates, according to the Climate Action Business Association. The CABA also reports that gardeners who can replace 20 percent of their store-bought foods with produce fresh-picked from their gardens can save about 68 pounds of CO2 emissions per year!
So how can one achieve such a lofty goal? Luckily, Vink was willing to share the secrets behind her productive garden that has allowed her to grow everything from oregano (which she warns has a mind of its own) to okra! (And the lovely
NFN: What advice might you have for others who are interested in getting into gardening?
AV: It’s not as hard as it seems, and you can always learn as you go. I’m still learning! Just last year, I learned the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes—namely, the growth habits of the plants. Determinate tomatoes grow to a size and then produce all their fruit at once. Indeterminate tomatoes continue to produce throughout the season. The type of tomato dictates how you prune them. If you’re buying a plant, it usually says which type it is on the label.
NFN: What would you say are some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of gardening?
AV: Gardening is a lot easier than people think it is, and there’s not a better feeling when you can pick something that you grew! However, there is always some sort of challenge. Either the weather is strange, or there’s an insect population that’s eating your plants, or—like last year—there was a bad blight (in fact, it was the same strand that caused the potato blight in Ireland!)
That being said, there’s a lot of room for problem-solving. That might mean going out and babying your plants. That might mean moving them to a different location the next year. Sometimes that means giving up on a certain variety. But we adapt.
NFN: What are some of your favorite things to make from your garden?
AV: Pesto—so simple, so divine. But what’s fun is that you can make pesto in many different ways. In the fall, I like to use carrot greens and almonds. This year I used the garlic scapes that came in on our crop. If you can get your hands on a bunch of garlic scapes, one word—pesto.
NFN: Could you maybe share one of your favorite recipes of something you make that includes ingredients from your garden?
AV: This is a recipe from my grandmother for Bread and Butter Pickles:
Grandma Rita’s Bread and Butter Pickles
Yield: 6 (32 oz.) jars.
20 medium-sized large pickling cucumbers
1/2 cup salt
Ice (a small bag if buying)
4-1/2 cups vinegar
6 large white onions
1 Tablespoon mustard seed
2 teaspoons turmeric
1/2 teaspoon clove
1 teaspoon celery seed
4-1/2 cups sugar
Slice onions and cucumbers very thin. Put them into a good-sized kettle. Sprinkle with salt and pack generous with ice. Let stand for 2 or 3 hours. Drain well.
Combine vinegar, sugar, and spices in a kettle and bring to a boil. Add strained cucumbers and onions. Heat slowly until slices begin to glisten—about 3 minutes. Do not boil.
Pack while hot into sterilized jars and seal. Boil 5-10 minutes.
NFN: What would you say is one of the most interesting plants you've ever tried to grow?
AV: One year I grew okra. It turned out well… but okra is a very specific vegetable, and I find I only like it in certain dishes (like gumbo!). I haven’t planted it since.
NFN: What are some other ways you try to live a sustainable life that you might encourage others to try?
AV: I love going to the farmer’s market—it’s a Saturday morning ritual. It’s also amazing to become part of that community.
You get to know people, and you learn so much that way. I can’t recommend it enough. That being said, I know it’s a privilege that I have that I am able to incorporate this routine into my life. Not everyone has access to a farmer’s market or fresh food, and I know a lot of people are just trying to get by.
Still, there are small steps one can take. For example, in the past I worked for a food pantry. Here I learned how to stretch a dollar— I learned that it was way more economical and tasty to used dried beans rather than canned.
Now, I boil a large amount of beans on the stove and keep some frozen on hand in mason jars (the best kitchen tool, ever). It’s as easy as storing a can of beans—but much cheaper.
I very rarely buy new clothes, but when I do I usually go to a thrift store. People who are anxious about thrifting—please check to see if there are any high-end shops in your area. Seriously, Second Chic (a series of stores in the Greater Buffalo Area) is one of the classiest shops I can think of.
[Other] easy sustainable actions you can take:
1. Carry a coffee mug with you or ask for a ceramic mug when lingering at a coffee shop.
2. Carry a Tupperware container when you eat out—it makes for an easy lunch the next day, too!
3. Reuse kitchen scraps—I keep mine in a bag in the freezer, and when that bag is full I make vegetable soup broth.
4. Learn how to compost.
5. Air-dry laundry if you have space.
6. Stop using plastic bottled water if you live in an area with clean tap water. Tap water has stricter regulations, so it’s likely better for you.
It’s good to remember that any step you can make is a good step. You don’t have to reinvent your life in one day or week. Learn to do one thing at a time and be patient with yourself.