How to Ask the Right Questions at a Farmers Market

Buying fresh, organic and locally grown is more popular than ever before, and that means farmers’ markets are more in demand and they’re big money makers too. That’s a good thing! Local farmers have an easy way to sell their fresh produce and connect directly with the community and local folks can access locally grown freshly harvested food.

But, is it all that it seems?  How do you know what you are getting is really a “clean food”? Is it really fresh, local, organic, and/or grown without chemicals? Unfortunately, “greenwashing” is more common than you may think, with sellers buying industrial produce at wholesale prices and passing off as homegrown. The other major problem that I find at the local markets is that there is a huge disparity in how each farmer decides to grow their food. Some use no chemicals, some use several chemicals and some use certain soil amendments which can make an otherwise locally grown food more likely to contain heavy metals or toxins. I’ve seen it all far too often, and I now understand that you have to ask the right questions in order to know what you’re really getting.

All information in this article is for educational purposes only. 
It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any disease or health condition. 

Is it organic, locally grown, non-GMO…or other?

By knowing what to ask, you can quickly decipher what’s worth buying and when to simply keep walking. You absolutely cannot trust the look of a stall filled with baskets of produce or the “Support Local” t-shirts worn by staff. They are often banking on your perception of what appears freshly harvested and organic. That said, there are often several vendors doing things right from start to finish and those are the ones you want!

To make things easy for you, I’ve created a list of key questions to ask vendors about their farming philosophies and daily practices. The questions fall into three main categories: Where the food came from, how it was grown, and how it was raised. I’ve divided the subject areas into produce, eggs and cheese since those are the main things people tend to buy at markets. But you can also apply these principals to fresh baked goods, meat and fresh fish too.

Farmer’s Market Guide: How to Approach Vendors

Checking for fraudulent produce at the farmers market is important, but needs to de done correctly for good results.

How can you be sure what you are getting is locally grown? ASK!

How to approach vendors and what to look for:

  1.  Approach the vendor in between customers, and preferably when the stall is empty. Do not barge into a booth with a long line of customers and start rolling off questions. You don’t want to cause panic or ruin someone’s business.
  2. Be polite. Your goal is to get information, not to prove someone wrong. Do not assume the worst and don’t approach a vendor with a negative or accusatory tone. If you are gentle, polite, quietly inquisitive and smile, you’re much more likely to get the answers you need.
  3. Get to the point and ask your questions quickly. Vendors are busy and they’re working! They don’t have time for an hour-long discourse on the subject of organic and sustainable food practices. Just from a few questions, you will know whether you should buy there or not.
  4. Have a quick peek behind the booth and under the tables. If you see new supermarket boxes of produce, you should be suspicious. I’ve seen this at farmer’s markets in Australia where the vendors for sure were selling greenwashed produce (and customers were buying!). I’ve also seen it here in North Carolina.
  5. Know your local seasons for produce. It’s your job to get informed if you want to know your food. Alarm bells should already be ringing if you see strawberries sold in late spring or cucumbers sold in winter, for example.

Fruit & Veggies at Markets: What to Ask

Not all vendors at farmer’s markets are selling certified organic goods, and that’s actually ok (or at least not always a bad thing). Many small farms simply cannot afford to go through the lengthy and expensive process of getting an organic certification. Selling non-certified produce means that you are not allowed to market your goods as “certified organic,” but you are permitted to use terms like “grown without pesticides” or “grown using sustainable permaculture practices.” Don’t be scared of those phrases. Whether it’s certified organic or not, you still need to do more detective work.

It’s all a good practice to ask these questions before signing up for any local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) delivery service.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, just remember to be polite and respectful

Questions for Produce Vendors

  1. Where was this grown?
    Hopefully the answer is: at our XYZ farm just down the road. Obviously if the answer is “Mexico” or elsewhere, you’re ready to go to the next stall (unless you’re actually in Mexico, of course!).
  2. Do you use anything for pests or disease?
    A good answer to this is: We let nature run its course and occasionally hand-pick pests like squash vine borers or cabbage worms. Another ok answer is: We use vinegar, water and baking soda to minimize blight. Or: We use traditional companion planting techniques. What you don’t want to hear is a bunch of chemical names that you never heard of. Even certified organic farming allows the use of certain pesticides, however many of those are widely known to destroy local honey bee populations. Not everything organic is better, as you can see.
  3. What type of fertilizer do you use?
    You want to hear something like: We use compost from rabbits fed certified organic feed OR we make our own compost on-site using organic veggie scraps and un-sprayed leaves OR we add XYZ brand of certified organic compost OR we plant cover crops in the fall and practice plant rotation. What you don’t want to hear is: I collect garbage bags of leaves from all over town when it’s time for leaf pick up and I use those. You can imagine that many of those leaves would come from lawns heavily sprayed with chemicals (and yes, I had someone give me that exact answer before!).
  4. Do you add Diatomaceous earth (DE) to the soil?
    To this, you want to hear a clear and definite NO. If the answer is yes, or even yes we add it to the chicken coop and spread chicken manure on the soil, then politely walk away! This stuff is an absolute disaster of a product, sold as a miracle cure to amend soil with nutrients and ward off disease. It’s touted on every online farming forum there is (most likely advocated by industry trolls). While DE may be naturally occurring and is permitted for use in certified organic farming, it is also high in arsenic. Arsenic is a heavy metal; it’s deadly and causes cancer. Plants pull arsenic from the soil through their roots and into the roots, leaves, stem and fruit. This is just one of many reasons why even organic fruits and vegetables are becoming more contaminated with heavy metals than ever before. I’ve personally seen several clients get very sick from taking DE capsules as a “so-called” detox supplement, and they were absolutely not having a detox reaction; rather a toxicity reaction.

A sense of reluctance or hesitation in providing you an answer to any of the above questions should be yet another warning that you may have tapped into something that the vendor does not want to disclose (or doesn’t know, which is also not a good sign).

By asking these questions, I’ve been able to find clean and reliable organic produce vendors, but on average it’s about 2 in 10 that are ok in my book.

Local Eggs at Markets: What to Ask

Questions for Local Egg Vendors

  1. Are these from your chickens, and where is your farm?
    I would hate to think that someone would buy supermarket eggs and try to flog them at a farmer’s market! I’ve never seen this happen myself, however I’m sure there’s always a first. Still, it’s definitely worth it to ask and can be a gentle way to open the conversation.
  2. What kind of feed do you use?
    A good answer to this is: We use only non-GMO organic feed and supplement it with our own organic veggie scraps. If their answer is more vague, such as: We feed them alfalfa, barley, corn and other whole grains, then you must ask: Are they all non-GMO? If the answer is no, then definitely walk away! Genetically Modified (GMO) grains can be high in pesticides such as glyphosate and they can also be high in certain heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead and cadmium. The feed doesn’t necessarily have to be certified organic, but at a minimum it should be non-GMO.
  3. Do you add Diatomaceous earth (DE) to the chicken coop or to the feed?
    Again, you most definitely want the answer to this to be: NO! Many uninformed farmers are adding DE to their coop as a so-called “natural” pest control to kill mites and fleas. However, DE is a known carcinogen when inhaled. Yes, it’s true. Why anyone would ever want to add this junk to anything knowing that is beyond me. However, they are “told” that it’s ok and to just wear a mask when you are applying it. (But don’t worry about eating eggs from chicken with cancer? Ummm….really?) DE is also often added to the feed and it’s totally legal to do this with 100% certified organic eggs. The problem in both cases is that the chickens will ingest the DE. While proponents of DE claim that the arsenic is in its “organic” and therefore not harmful to humans, the reality is that chickens are able to convert organic arsenic into the more dangerous non-organic form of arsenic in their digestive track. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want any concentrated forms of arsenic in any of my food!

Often times, you’ll be surprised to find that the non-organic local egg producer is actually selling better quality eggs with less contaminants than the certified organic egg farmer. This is why it’s so important to ask the right questions!

Local Cheese at Markets: What to Ask

Questions for Local or Artisanal Cheese Vendors

  1. Are these from your cows, goats or sheep, and where is your farm?
    Hopefully you’re starting to get the gist of this by now! Some FYI though: it is not uncommon for local cheese producers to buy their milk from a separate dairy farm. Especially if the cheese artisan is making small batches of cheese. So, don’t freak out if you are told – no, we buy the milk from XYZ farm down the road and we make the cheese on-site at our production facility. If you hear that, then go to #2 and continue with your next question. What you definitely do not want to hear is: We buy pasteurized non-organic milk from the supermarket or we buy this cheese in bulk from Costco (as an example) and just package it down for sale.
  2. What kind of feed do you use?
    A good answer to this is: We use only non-GMO certified organic feed OR we use only non-GMO feed. If their answer is more vague, such as: We feed them alfalfa, barley, corn and other whole grains, then you must ask: Are they all non-GMO? If the answer is no, then definitely walk away! GMO grains can be high in pesticides such as glyphosate and they can also be high in certain heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead and cadmium. The feed doesn’t necessarily have to be certified organic, but at a minimum it should be non-GMO. Pretty much same as eggs.
  3. What are the ingredients? (Also, if yellow or orange cheese: How did you get this color?)
    I was absolutely shocked to find SULFITES as an added ingredient in some cheeses in Holland. Especially since The Netherlands is supposed to have the “best” cheese in the world! Sulfites are a chemical preservative that can cause headaches, wheezing, coughing or asthma in people who are sensitive. For the color of the cheese, if it’s yellow or orange in color – you should ask: How did you make the color? I’ve had people tell me that the “natural color” is made from carrots, only to look on the label and see ANNATTO added for coloring. People who are sensitive to Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) or glutamates can also get an inflammatory reaction from Annatto. You also want to make sure there is NO garlic salt, garlic powder or onion powder added to any cheese as these ingredients can contain hidden MSG. Basically, the answer you want to hear is some version of: Rennet, milk, salt, fresh organic herbs such as dill or parsley and NO added coloring.

Using the questions above, I’ve identified two very popular local artisanal cheese outlets/vendors in the Asheville NC area selling seasonal cheese made from milk whose cows or goats are fed 100% genetically modified (GMO) feed.

Now, I’m not here to name and shame and I’m definitely not here to put the small local farmer out of business. But, does it bother me that they are selling a small piece of GMO cheese for $14.99 or more? Heck, yeah! Crowds of customers are wooing over their products, and no one has a clue that the stuff is neither organic nor GMO-free. Not to mention that they are supporting GMO dairy farming, which is a total disaster for the local honey bee population and also contaminates local groundwater. Since most people where I live rely on untreated well water for drinking and on honey bees for pollination of their crops, these things become very important very quickly.

Shop Smart and You’ll be Fine!

Hopefully you now feel more secure in knowing the right questions to ask at your local fruit & veggie market. It’s definitely worth your time and effort to ask – after all, you pay good money for farmer’s market items. As long as you have a bit of  a “Buyer Beware” mindset, you can still find good fresh locally grown food that’s healthy and enjoyable for you and your family.

You CAN find GREAT healthy local food at your local markets!

At our local markets here in Western North Carolina, I’m known as the “you asked me that last week” shopper. Oops, sorry! After several passes through my regular markets and asking everyone questions, I now know who I can trust. Over time, it becomes easier because you can go straight to the stalls you know are ok.

Once you get home, you may be wondering: What’s the best way clean my fresh veggies? Not to worry, I’ve got it covered here: How to Clean Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.

Do you have any questions that you like to ask at your local farmer’s market? If so, please share in the comments below. Good luck and happy shopping!


How to Book Your Health & Nutritional Coaching Session:

1. Take photos of your eyes with a digital camera.
2. Email the photos to me for approval.
3. We schedule a time to meet via phone or Skype!


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Protein Powders containing Mercury, Lead, Arsenic and Cadmium: WARNING!

A new study has revealed that even ORGANIC protein powders can contain high amounts of dangerous heavy metals. The Clean Label Project recently tested 134 of America’s best selling animal-derived and plant-based protein powders for heavy metals, pesticides, BPA/BPS, residual solvents, mycotoxins, melamine and antibiotics residues.

Check below for the WHOLE FOODS I recommend to eat for protein.

All information in this article is for educational purposes only.
It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any disease or health condition.

 

Source: Clean Label Project 2018

 

In the study, many popular and 100% certified organic protein powders showed concerning levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead, and toxins like bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in some plastic containers and food can liners and a known endocrine disruptor.

These contaminants have been linked to cancer, brain damage, and reproductive issues.

The 2018 study by the Denver-based Clean Label Project, a nonprofit organization, found that virtually ALL of the 134 products tested contained detectable levels of at least one heavy metal and 55% tested positive for BPA.

MORE heavy metals in Organic Protein Powders vs. Non-Organic

Buying a product with an “organic” label did NOT reduce the chances of getting a contaminated product. In fact, organic protein supplements had higher levels of heavy metals, on average, than nonorganic. How can it be?

 

Source: Clean Label Project 2018

 

“That probably has more to do with these products being plant-based than being organic,” says Sean Callan, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and director of operations at the lab that tested the protein products.

Callan further states, “Plant-based proteins may have higher contamination levels because the plants are especially prone to absorbing heavy metals from soil.”

That last sentence may be a shocker, but I believe this is just the beginning of much more to come. I’ve been seeing it more and more and more in recent years. The process of getting certified organic does NOT include testing of the soil for heavy metals. People are switching to plant-based diets and getting sicker than they ever were before, with new ailments ranging from chronic fatigue to knee/joint/back/neck pain to kidney problems to general malaise to peripheral neuropathy and even symptoms of auto-immune disease. Many people blame themselves and their former SAD diet, thinking that they must be having some kind of detox reaction or Herxheimer reaction to eating such a clean diet. However, the new plant-based organic diet may not be as clean as you think. I recently wrote an article called What are the Symptoms of Heavy Metal Toxicity to try to explain this exact problem.

Plant-based Protein Powders HIGHER in heavy metals

Products made from plant-based sources of protein such as soy or hemp fared worse than those made from whey (milk) or egg, containing on average twice as much lead and measurably higher amounts of other contaminants.

 

Source: Clean Label Project 2018

 

Knowing that SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT of plant-based protein powders tested came up positive for lead should be VERY alarming. In addition to lead, several plant powders contained mercury, cadmium and arsenic above health-based guidelines.

The 5 products that received the poorest overall scores in this study were:

  • Garden of Life Organic Shake & Meal Replacement Chocolate Cacao Raw Organic Meal
  • Nature’s Best Isopure Creamy Vanilla Zero Carb
  • Quest Chocolate Milkshake Protein Powder
  • 360Cut Performance Supplements 360PRO Whey Chocolate Silk Premium Whey Protein
  • Vega Sport Plant-Based Vanilla Performance Protein

Symptoms of Heavy Metal Toxicity

To better understand what common symptoms of heavy metals toxicity correspond to each toxic heavy metal, I did some research from the Agency for Toxic Substances & Diseases Registry and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Check out the list below showing each health symptom. Can you see how the results from this study on protein powders could be just the tip of the iceberg?

Symptoms of Heavy Metal Toxicity

  • Foggy Brain – arsenic, lead
  • Fatigue (extreme and/or chronic) – arsenic, lead
  • Hair loss – thallium
  • Memory loss – lead, aluminum
  • Chronically bloodshot eyes – arsenic
  • Mee’s lines (deep ridges on fingernails and/or toenails) – arsenic
  • Impaired concentration – thallium, lead, aluminum
  • Impaired motor function, sensory function, and cognitive function – aluminum
  • Increased nervousness – thallium, lead
  • Irritability – thallium, lead
  • Dizziness – lead
  • Depression/mood changes, headache – lead
  • Skin discoloration – darkening (hyper pigmentation) – arsenic
  • Hyperkeratosis (most frequently on the palms and soles) – arsenic
  • Throat irritation / difficultly swallowing / chronic sore throat – arsenic
  • Impaired immune system – lead, arsenic
  • Generalized muscle aches, weakness and body pains – lead
  • Muscle cramps or muscle tenderness – arsenic
  • Numbness, tingling and pain (sensory) – arsenic
  • Spontaneous pain – arsenic
  • Localized edema – arsenic
  • Inflammation or pain in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract – thallium, arsenic
  • Decreased libido – lead, arsenic
  • Decreased sperm count – lead, arsenic
  • Infertility – lead, arsenic
  • Peripheral neuropathy (hot or burning feeling in hands and feet) – arsenic
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – lead
  • Enlarged liver (hepatomegaly) – arsenic
  • Hemolytic anemia – lead
  • Nausea or diarrhea – arsenic
  • Low Vitamin D levels (inability to convert Vitamin D) – lead
  • Severe osteoporosis and osteomalacia – cadmium
  • Proteinuria (too much protein in the urine) – arsenic
  • Cardiac Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) – arsenic
  • Skin cancer – arsenic
  • Impaired lung function / fibrosis – aluminum
  • Lung cancer – cadmium, arsenic
  • Kidney (renal) failure – arsenic, cadmium, lead
  • Gout – lead
  • Kidney cancer – arsenic
  • Bladder cancer – arsenic
  • Liver cancer – arsenic
  • Prostate cancer – arsenic

-from the Agency for Toxic Substances & Diseases Registry & the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

 

There is often a combination of deficiency, toxicity and damaged gut microbiome – all of which creates the “perfect storm” of ill health. Read more about this in my article Symptoms of Heavy Metal Toxicity.

What Protein Powders should you use?

Sorry to say, but my answer is: NONE. While this study shows that there are LESS contaminants in whey and egg-based protein powders (due to perhaps the animal being able to absorb or diffuse some of the toxins into their bone, hence why I think bone broth is another disaster), they are NOT coming up clean either. Further, any non-organic animal-based protein powder will have animals that are fed genetically modified feed, thus creating another problem which is pesticide toxicity.

If all of this is not a sign to STOP using protein powders, then I don’t know what is. For years, I’ve repeatedly been recommending to not use protein powders. Extracting protein from whole food, stripping the fiber and creating volatile and unpredictable powders that do not exist in nature is NOT natural or organic. You cannot create protein powders in your home. It needs to be done in a laboratory using extracting chemical solvents – such as hexane – and industrial laboratory equipment. Often times, residual solvents remain in the food product.  And if that wasn’t enough, concentrated and extracted or hydrolyzed proteins are often high in glutamates and can cause reactions in people who are glutamate sensitive.

Animals in nature do not use protein powders and they are not lacking in muscle mass.

If you’re new to all of this information, then you’re head might be spinning and you may think I’m just some kind-of conspiracy theorist. It’s ok to think that! But, I’m not; I’m just a realist. This is the new reality we are facing today. We’ve over-populated the planet with people, trash, chemicals and toxins…and it’s now coming back through the soil, air and water. It’s a closed system and has reached its limits. We’ve over-filled every landfill, contaminated the oceans and damaged too much of the earth. Perhaps it’s karma coming to get us…I don’t know…but I do know this: NOW is the time to grow your own organic food. Getting back to permaculture & organic farming where crops are rotated, soil is replenished and water is clean…while these may seem like ways of the past, they’re the only real solution to a healthy future. Outside of that, I would definitely recommend a regular yearly detox protocol involving liver, kidneys, colon and heavy metal cleansing – at the very least.

What CAN you eat for protein?

Keep in mind that you may not actually need as much protein as you think. The US market for sports nutrition, energy/nutrition bars and sports drinks is set to exceed $20 BILLION by 2020, according to Euromonitor International.

Huge amounts of money are at stake.

There are diets created and promoted by the very industries (think Paleo, Dukan or Keto diet) that would like nothing more than for you to think that the only way to lose weight or increase muscle is to have generous amounts of their protein powder every day. This protein powder study is scaring the bejesus out of the big players in that honey pot. I’m already seeing major damage control happening – denial and downplaying the severity of these findings –  in the comments in forums and on social media (and probably here too).

Back to what you CAN eat…

Good whole food plant sources of protein include chickpeas, black beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, and dark leafy green vegetables.

Examples of plants and their protein:

  • 164g chickpeas = 14.53g protein
  • 118g pumpkin seeds = 35.21g protein
  • 143g almonds = 30.34g protein
  • 140g sunflower seeds = 29.09g protein

How to eat whole food plant proteins?

  • Enjoy delicious homemade seed crackers (and you don’t even need a dehydrator).
  • Make your own hummus and eat a whole bowl of it, especially if you are looking for high protein in one meal.
  • Add homemade tahini dressing to a generous serving of fresh veggie and cooked quinoa (quinoa is a complete protein).
  • Include pumpkin seed cheese into your daily menu as a snack with freshly chopped apples or veggies.
  • Blend a yummy Green Smoothie with added ingredients such as spirulina, sesame seed, tahini, almonds or pumpkin seeds.

Can you imagine a wild pony sitting on a mountaintop saying to a wild horse, “Where do you get your protein? I was feeling a bit tired going up that hill today, and your muscles look way bigger than mine. Whatever powder you are taking, I want it too!”

Of course that sounds ridiculous, because it is. Wild animals don’t need extra protein, but they also don’t ingest refined sugar, bread, fried foods, processed foods, coffee or alcohol either. And if they do, like a domesticated dog for example,  they start to get the same metabolic diseases than humans suffer from.

Our human-created diet has created human diseases.

How much protein more or less is not the answer or the secret key to health. Getting more natural, whole and pure with your food will bring your body health, balance, energy and vitality…and it all comes from natural food.

More information about the Clean Label Project study can be found on their website.

Read more on Why I don’t use protein powders…and why you shouldn’t either!


For more on how to achieve your health goals and actually start feeling great, book a private health consult with me via Skype.

How to Book Your Health & Nutritional Coaching Session:

1. Take photos of your eyes with a smart phone or digital camera.
2. Email the photos to me for approval for Iridology Analysis.
3. We schedule a time to meet via phone or Skype!


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DIY Indoor Grow Light Stands for under $100

Early spring is the time of year to start working on your summer organic veggie garden. In most climates, the actual growing season isn’t as long as you may like due to late frost in the spring and cool weather in the fall. So, how do you maximize your season to get more veggies growing outside once the warm weather finally hits? The secret to to start your seedling indoors, about 6-8 weeks before you transplant them in the ground.

Grow organic food affordably and easily at home

Starting seedlings indoors is relatively easy once you have a shelf, trays and a grow light. However, you would be amazed how much these systems cost. One 3-tier LED grow light stand will set you back a whopping $699 USD! And that doesn’t include any seeds, drip trays, planting trays or a timer!! A one shelf base unit for a standard stack-n-grow system is $199 USD. It’s insane money if you ask me. I knew I could do it myself way cheaper. And I did! For under $100 USD, I have almost the same setup that would cost you $400 retail. Keep reading, I’m going to show you how you can do it too.

All information in this article is for educational purposes only. 
It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any disease or health condition. 
There are affiliate links in this post. 

It’s easy to start growing indoors, and you can do it on a budget too

Background: Our Organic Veggie Garden

I should explain that my husband and I are complete amateurs in organic gardening. Between us, we have less than zero gardening experience. But, we are both committed to a healthy lifestyle. Our goal in moving to western North Carolina was to grow our own organic food. We’ve been at it for just 2 years now, and this is the first year that we are actually starting seedlings indoors. Why did it take 2 years? Between work, renovating our house, and working on the land, we’ve just been really busy and are still getting our bearings with living in a totally new place to boot.

The first year, my husband built 8 raised beds. Last year, he built another 7 for a total of 15 raised beds for veggies. We also planted fruit trees, raspberries, blueberries, goji berries, grapes, many herbs and lots of pollinating plants for our future bees. Believe me, that was more than enough to keep us busy from morning ’til night. We barely had time to start seedlings outside! That first year, we had beginner’s luck. The spring was mild, so the outdoor seedlings survived.

Last year, however, was a different situation and a few late frosts killed most of our outdoor seedlings. Then, we had to start all over which wasted valuable time. I had to buy a lot of veggie starts to just get things growing, and that was definitely more expensive. I knew that I had to start collecting parts and equipment to make our indoor seedling grow system so that this year, we could finally start our seeds indoors. Hopefully you will learn from a few of our mistakes there and just start your spring seedlings inside!

Get Started: DIY Indoor Grow Light Stands Materials

You’ve got 2 options in sourcing your materials for making your own indoor seedling station:

  1. Buy everything new and assemble yourself, or
  2. Look for sales, bargains and thrift store/yard sale finds to create a budget masterpiece.

If you know me, then you already know what I did. Yep, confessions of a thrift store shopper..But, I managed to find everything I needed, and it wasn’t that hard! I’ll give you both the yard sale list and buy new list so you can combine from both to make what suits you.  Since the end of last summer, I’ve been keeping my eyes out for anything that might be useful and putting it aside. In total, it took me about 6 months to put together my super bargain setup.

Shelves for your indoor seedlings

How many shelves do you need? You can buy the 3-shelf systems with lights already set up. I’ve also seen homemade versions with 3 shelves which seem to work fine. But, if you have any curious cats in your house (like we do), then I would not recommend a 3-tier or even a 2-tier system. Can you hear the whole unit crashing? I can! With one particularly curious rescue cat, aka Captain Sneakypuss, we knew that we needed to have one-shelf units to prevent feline adventure accidents.

The first thing I found at a local thrift store was three separate one-shelf units with wheels, each for only $5. I really wanted shelves with wheels in case I had to move them, so I was beyond excited to find such a good deal! Each shelf measures 24″ long x 20″ high x 15″ wide. At the time, I didn’t even know that these shelves are for hanging file folders. I just thought, wow…I can hang a grow light on the top frame of this and put a seedling tray on the shelf – perfect! These 3 shelves went straight to the attic where they sat all winter. But they planted the seed (pun intended) for my vision of our indoor grow station. It doesn’t really matter what type of shelf you use, but a 24″ long shelf is pretty ideal for hanging a grow light in terms of the light being able to cover the planting area.

You can find a similar shelf to what I bought with the same dimensions for $39.99 on amazon here.

If you’re patient, you can score a good deal. I found 3 of these shelves for $5 each!

Heating Pad for warming seed trays

Certain seeds, like tomato and eggplant, require extra warmth to get started. Most people recommend a grow light AND a heating pad for these. You can buy a fancy seedling heating mat for $40 – $90 USD, depending on the size. Or you can just buy a standard heating pad from CVS. Better yet, check your thrift stores and yard sales. Just make sure that the heating pad has an option for continuous heat, that is, it doesn’t force a automatic shut-off after 1 or 2 hours.

Not all seedlings need heating pads. If you only have 2 shelf units, you probably only need 1 heating pad.

I found a like-new CVS heating pad at Goodwill for $3. Woot woot!

You can find something similar on amazon for under $20 here.

You’ll need a warming or heating pad for tomato and eggplant seedlings

Dual-Outlet Timer

Your heating pad will need to be connected to a timer so you can control the amount of hours of heat applied. You’ll also need a timer for your grow lights (see more on the grow lights below).

I bought a new timer because I wanted a digital one with 2 outlets, and this is not something easy to find used. You’re going to need one outlet for the heating pad and one for the grow light. The beauty of a dual-outlet timer is that you can connect both to one timer with the same on/off program. The model I bought is called the Century 7 Day Heavy Duty Digital Programmable Timer – Dual Outlet (Single Control), available on amazon for $12.99.

There’s an outlet on each side of the timer so you can program 2 things at the same time, like a light and a warming pad

Boot Trays make the perfect drip trays

Even with a brand new 3-tier seedling setup, you won’t get any drip trays. It won’t take long to realize that you need something to catch any water that leaks through your seedling trays. With hardwood floors, I definitely did not want water dripping! Measure the size of your shelves, that way you’ll know if boot trays will work. In my case, they fit perfectly under each shelf and turned out to be the perfect drip trays. I found 2 brand-new boot trays at Goodwill for $2 each, for a total of $4. I had another one at home that I bought at IKEA (and was actually using it as a boot tray). I added the IKEA tray to my setup and had everything I needed to secure any water from my seedling trays.

You can get 2 boot trays for $22 online here. That’s not a bad deal at all! Remember to check the measurements of your shelf to make sure they will fit.

I found these boot trays at Goodwill for 2 bucks each!

LED Grow Light

A grow light is probably the most important part of your indoor setup, because without it, your seedlings are not likely to survive. A window is just not enough light in early spring for seeds to get growing.  They need at least 12 hours per day under grow lights to create the right conditions for sprouting. (And the soil needs to be moist, so don’t forget to check the seedlings twice a day and water accordingly.)

I found an affordable grow light on amazon, and so far it’s working great. I decided to buy one at first and try it, before buying another one for my other shelf. Once I started to see little sprouts pushing out of the soil (yay!), I knew the light was ok so I bought another one. This was the most expensive part of my system, but also the most essential and still very affordable. The one I bought was the Newforshop 30W LED Grow Light for $29.99.

The LED grow light looks like a 70’s dance floor, but it works great and uses less energy

Chains, S Hooks, Zip Ties to attach your light

You’ll also need a few items to help hang your grow light on the shelf. One thing that makes the expensive systems more costly is that they have pully systems to easily move the light up and down as your seedlings grow. But, you can easily move your light up and down manually too. Especially if you want to save a couple hundred bucks. Simple materials like zip ties, S hooks and metal chains are all super useful to hang your grow light at the height you want. Check your grow light for its manufacturer recommendations, but as a general rule, you want to start with your grow light about 6 inches higher than the soil. Having chains makes it easy to adjust the height of your light once your seedlings start to grow.

Last summer, I found a big bag of various chains for $1 at a yard sale, and happily added it to my seedling station materials box. At another yard sale, I bought a jar full of screw and other bits for $1; inside of that were a few metal S hooks. I usually buy my zip ties at the Dollar Store but you can sometimes find those at yard sales too.

You can also buy short pieces of hanging chain with S hooks online here for $5.50.

Honey I bought a bag of chains! Huh? It’s for our seedlings! OH!

Chains and Zip ties or S hooks make it super easy to adjust the height of your light

Shopping List: DIY indoor seedling Grow Light Stand

It’s easy to start growing indoors, and you can do it on a budget too

Organic good grown at home is the ultimate in health

Cost – Buying New vs. Used

Buying all new materials, you can create ONE grow light shelf unit for $129.01 or TWO shelf units for $198.99.

Even if you buy everything NEW, you can get TWO grow light shelf units for the price of one ($199) at a comparable online garden supply store. That’s 50% less!!

Buying some used materials (like I did), you can create ONE shelf unit for $54.98 or TWO shelf units for $91.97.

Either way, you save money! Simply by starting your own plants from seed, you can save hundreds of dollars EVERY YEAR from not having to buy starter plants. (1 organic start plant costs $4-6, whereas 1 packet of 100 organic seeds costs $3 or $0.03 per plant.) Your investment in starting from seed will quickly pay off after only one season!

Additional Stuff you’ll need

Once you get your grow light shelves set up, you’ll need a few more things to actually start your seedlings:

  • Starter soil (I recommend 3 parts Peat Moss to 1/2 part Perlite 10 1/2 part Vermiculite)
  • Planting trays (I got mine for free on Craigslist; also check gardening stores at the end of the season for freebies)
  • Spray bottle for watering
  • Popsicle sticks for labeling your trays (I scored a huge bag at a yard sale for 50c)
  • And of course….some quality non-GMO organic seeds (I recommend Sow True Seed brand)
  • Fertilizer (use this once the seedlings are growing so they don’t stall in growth)

Have any personal tips on starting seeds indoors to share? Please leave a comment below!

Organic gardening for health, joy and happiness

For more on how to achieve your health goals and actually start feeling great, book a private health consult with me via Skype.

How to Book Your Health & Nutritional Coaching Session:

1. Take photos of your eyes with a digital camera.
2. Email the photos to me for approval.
3. We schedule a time to meet via phone or Skype!

More on Organic Farming:

More on Immune System:

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Why I worked on an organic cattle farm

Yes, it’s true! I worked on an organic cattle farm for 6 weeks while living in Australia several years ago. You may think, “Traitor!”…but of course, no peace-loving health enthusiast would ever think that!  Why did I do it? I’d never worked on a cattle farm before and was open to see what it’s all about. The family who hired me had actually never met a vegetarian in their entire lives. What a union! I went into the experience with an open mind, and an open heart.

A vegetarian meets a cattle ranch family…will it work?

I took the job at the cattle station not long after working and living on Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef for a year and a half. I was coming out of the isolation of island living and driving around oz, happily visiting friends along the way. One of my friends was working in Alice Springs at the time, so I drove to see her. During my visit, she said, “Jennifer, why don’t you stay awhile and look for work? There’s plenty of work ’round here. Plus, when are you ever going to be back?” (Never, I thought!) But, it seemed like a good idea to stay and get to know more of what the strange, desolate, dry, red landscape had to offer. The next day, I checked the local job board and there was a sign for domestic help on an organic cattle farm. Well, I liked the word “organic” anyway! Why not call them and give it a try? I had nothing to lose.

Outback scenery…the road to Alice Springs

Living in the real outback of Australia is not easy. The husband of the family drove 4 hours one-way to come and pick me up in Alice Springs. We drove back to the farm together, getting to know each other along the way. The pickup truck had a big spider crack in the windshield and I remember spending a lot of time wondering how he could even see the road. Never mind that the car was covered in so many layers of dust that you could no longer see the color of the car! On the dashboard were several shotgun shells. They rolled back and forth with every turn that the car took. Admittedly, I wondered what I was getting into. The husband seemed tough, with thick skin tanned from the desert sun and just as many layers of dirt on him as the car. Yet, he seemed genuine and funny too. Not long after the initial small talk, we started talking about nutrition and health. He proudly told me, “I reckon I get the 4 food groups every morning: coffee, milk, sugar and water.” Ok!

The road to their farm was straight and long. Like hundreds of kilometers long. And nothing but desert for as far as you can see. Finally, we got to a dirt road that was another 200km until we got to their driveway. Then, the driveway was 35km long! And not an easy drive because you had to stop every so often at a cattle gate and get out to open the gate. Mind you, I had just come from living on a tropical island on the Great Barrier Reef, and I thought that was remote. This was beyond anything I had ever seen!!

The family that I worked for had 2 children: one was still at home and learning online via School of the Air, a fascinating program that’s been in place way before the internet (and originally by radio) for outback families. Their other child was already in boarding school back in Alice Springs. The farm was originally owned by the husband’s family. He inherited it after his father passed away. His wife ran the house and prepared meals for everyone, including the family, me and the other cattle hands. Every night, we all ate together at one big table, unless the guys were out somewhere on the farm mustering cattle.

Fair dinkum outback cowboys

The staff (3 of us) stayed in an old house on the property. It was run down, full of dust and smelled bad. Nothing to write home about. The best aspect of the job is that food and accommodation were included, so you could bank all of your money while you were there and come out with some nice savings. After all, what could you possibly spend your money on out there?! Literally nothing. The other 2 guys were nice guys. One was an experienced mustering pilot who worked side by side with the father each day. The other guy was an Irish backpacker who was a butcher back home in Ireland. They hired him to work with the mustering and also to cut up a cow for their freezer (more on that later). They never seemed to remember his name and just called him “Backpacker” all the time. My job was to spring clean the main house, section by section, room by room, from top to bottom.

In the evenings I would walk on the property…but you don’t want to get any closer than this. The cattle can turn and charge at any moment

I left the farm only once during my stay. The wife needed to stock up on some food essentials, so we went to the “local” store instead of driving all the way into Alice Springs. The local store was still a one hour drive away! It was in an Aboriginal village and catered mostly to them. You could immediately understand why obesity and diabetes have become such big problems in the Aboriginal communities. The store was full of candies, sweets and sugary sodas with just a few old wilted vegetables on a back shelf.

One thing I didn’t mention yet is what we ate. Thankfully, there were plenty of veggies for me to eat as well as bread and pasta (This was before I switched my own diet to a healthier version, but I was still a vegetarian). There was no snack food at all and I didn’t bring any snacks. It was a prison diet, in a sense. You just got your plate of food 3x a day and that was it. For the rest of the crew, they had tons of meat, at every meal. I’d never seen people eat red meat with breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. They had one entire freezer full of meat. In fact, while I was there, they started running low so they had Backpacker chop up a “kill.” It took him 2 days and seemed like a LOT of work. I also didn’t mention the flies. You can’t be in the outback without flies. Especially during those 2 days, there were tons of flies.

One thing that happened without fail at every meal – I was always asked if I had enough to eat. You see, this family had never eaten with a vegetarian before, so it was hard for them to believe that I could feel satisfied without meat. I found it pretty funny. If I was tired on any day, they would always say, “Do you want some meat?” Of course, the answer was always, “No thank you”!

The highlight of my experience was getting to spend a night in the outback with the boys while they were out mustering. I drove with them during the day in their “Mad Max” style jeeps on the ground, while the father and pilot flew from above in gyrocopters. We made a campfire at night, put the billy on the fire and slept on cots out in the open air, straight from an outback movie scene.

Mustering cattle is a lot harder than it looks!

In the end, was it a great experience and a good cultural exchange. Why not let a cattle ranch family live with a vegetarian and vice versa? How will we ever understand each other if we don’t foster positive friendships? I respect the family for their hard work, dedication to the land and desire to raise cattle who eat real grass and are not confined to a mega factory farm. I now have much more of a real understanding of what happens in an organic cattle farm than I ever did before. If people do eat meat, it should be organic meat…and ideally, that would be the only option. Our land can sustain it (although dairy farming is another issue), and there is no overuse of antibiotics, GMO feed or growth hormones as a result.

Aussie outback: where the earth and sky meet

Some may think that I should have boycotted such a place and never accepted the job. I myself ate meat, including pork, chicken and beef, as a child. Should I be burned at the stake because I ate meat until the age of 21 years old? What makes me better or worse than someone who eats meat now? I originally become a vegetarian for environmental reasons. After 15 years or so, my focus shifted more on health reasons. This year will be my 26th year of having not eaten meat.

An interesting note to all of this is that the husband’s father passed away from colon cancer, in his 50’s. It’s a very sad ending for someone who loved the land so much. And does make one wonder – did eating so much meat, even organic meat, contribute to his ill health?

The one thing I do know is this: acceptance, forgiveness and love are the keys to bridging the gaps that divide us. Whether vegan, vegetarian, breatharian or other…we are all human.

More Travel Tales:

Are farmers getting CANCER from pesticides sold at Home Depot?

Friends, your health matters, at least to me!  This is something you need to know. Poisons are being marketed and sold to us to use freely on our gardens, fruit, vegetables, flowers, lawns and precious earth. This one particular pesticide is used everywhere, from huge agricultural farms to your neighbor next door, who can easily buy it at Lowes and Home Depot just down the road from you. In July 2017, the State of California added this pesticide under Proposition 65 as “known to the state to cause cancer.” In the EU, it’s currently under discussion for vote on a ban of the chemical by 2020.

All information in this article is for educational purposes only. 
It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any disease or health condition. 

If someone offered you a salad dressing that was known to cause cancer, would you add it to your plate? Of course not! Well, unfortunately…this pesticide is already in the salad! Even in some “organic” foods too!! (You can understand why we moved to the mountains to start growing our own food. Scroll down below to find out what you can do NOW to improve your food at home.)

The world today is currently undergoing a slow and painful death and there is no smoking gun since this pesticide has very sneakily been added to our food supply for the last 4 decades and wrongly labeled as “safe” for the sake of profit. It’s in everything from corn, barley, sugar beets, oats, potatoes, sunflower, soy and canola oil, and the list goes on and on. Of course it’s in the feed given to cows and chickens, so that means it’s even more concentrated in meat, eggs and dairy. Recently, this pesticide was even detected in (non-GMO) Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. In fact, it’s so heavily used that it’s been detected in the water and air. (Do you think the average organic farm is really free from this stuff, and especially considering that most “organic” produce sold in the USA comes from Mexico?) While this pesticide is most commonly used on Genetically Modified (GMO) crops, it can also be used and found in conventional crops as well.

It’s not only in the United States

In Europe, where it’s widely thought to be “better than the United States” for all things related to what’s allowed in foods, you will find this pesticide all over the place. In fact, it’s so pervasive that its residues were recently found in 45% of Europe’s topsoil – and in the urine of three quarters of Germans tested, at five times the legal limit for drinking water. Its residues have been found in biscuits, crackers, crisps, breakfast cereals and in 60% of breads sold in the UK. (Can you imagine how much worse it must be in the US then?!)

I see normal everyday people buying this pesticide at Lowes and Home Depot, actually bragging about how great it works to kill things like poison oak, invasive multi flora rose, or bamboo (without realizing that it’s killing them too!).

Could the dramatic decline in honey bee populations all over the world in recent years be linked to this pesticide as well?

Link to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

This particular pesticide has been heavily linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL). With NHL, the cancer starts in the white blood cells of the lymphatic system, all of which are part of the body’s immune system. In non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, tumors develop from lymphocytes – a type of white blood cell.

Symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma include:

  • Painless, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin.
  • Abdominal pain or swelling.
  • Chest pain, coughing or trouble breathing.
  • Persistent fatigue, lethargy, feeling of tiredness.
  • Fever.
  • Night sweats.
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, weight loss.
  • Skin rash or itchy skin (pruritus).
  • Difficulty moving parts of the body.
  • Pain in the chest, abdomen or bones for no known reason.

Are you ready to know the name of this pesticide?  Since I don’t want to get trolled or harassed by the company who manufactures this chemical, I’ll write it in this way:

R..O..U..N..D..U..P  also known as  G..l..y..p..h..o..s..a..t..e  made by  M..o..n..s..a..n..t..o

Farmers using this pesticide who got NHL cancer

March 2016 – The family of Cambria, California farmer Jack McCall, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against M.o.n.s.a.n.t.o, claiming that McCall’s cancer was caused by R.o.u.n.d.u.p exposure. McCall was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using R.o.u.n.d.u.p for nearly 30 years on his 20-acre fruit and vegetable farm. He died in December of 2015 after suffering a massive stroke due to complications from cancer.

February 2016 – California couple James and Brenda Huerta filed a R.o.u.n.d.u.p cancer lawsuit against M.o.n.s.a.n.t.o claiming exposure to g.l.y.p.h.o.s.a.t.e caused Brenda to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The R.o.u.n.d.u.p cancer lawsuit claims that both were exposed to the herbicide while living on a sod farm where g.l.y.p.h.o.s.a.t.e was sprayed between 2004 and 2008.

November 2015 – Christine Sheppard owned and worked on a coffee farm in Hawaii between 1995 and 2004. For around eight years, she relied on M.o.n.s.a.n.t.o R.o.u.n.d.u.p [g.l.y.p.h.o.s.a.t.e] to kill weeds on her farm. Sheppard alleges her exposure to R.o.u.n.d.u.p is the cause of her non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In her R.o.u.n.d.u.p cancer lawsuit, she claims that M.o.n.s.a.n.t.o failed to warn the public about the dangers of g.l.y.p.h.o.s.a.t.e.

(The above info resource link here.) 

The list goes on and on. In 2015, 200 people filed a class action lawsuit in California against the maker of this pesticide.

People just don’t know and that’s the problem

Here’s a big part of the problem: the public perception of risk is low. Would you really think your Kona coffee grown on the hills of the Big Island of Hawaii could be loaded with a cancer-causing pesticide? Or you hippie-loving Ben and Jerry’s ice cream? It’s really hard to convince people that these seemingly healthy products could be contaminated.

Last year I was at a weekend farmer’s market her in Western North Carolina. There was a nice man selling “farm fresh artisanal” goat cheese. We got to talking, and I casually asked him about what he feeds the goats. He explained to me that he doesn’t have his own goats. Instead, he buys the milk from 2 different local goat farmers. I asked if the farmers used non-GMO feed. He exclaimed, “No way! They can’t afford that, and I couldn’t afford to buy their milk if they did!.” I was in shock. I think it took half a minute for me to say something! What’s even more shocking is that his cheese sells for $12-15 per piece! And for that, you’re getting a GMO product (along with the cancer-causing pesticides)!! Every time I’ve been to that market since, his booth is packed with customers. Sadly, I’m sure they have no idea what they are really getting. (In his defense, I can only say that perhaps he, like many others, just doesn’t know or understand the problem.)

The numbers say it all

Look at the charts below to get a better understanding of what we are really dealing with. To understand the severity of these findings, remember, research shows that probable harm to human health begins at really low levels of exposure – only 0.1 ppb. And yes, the manufacturer of that chemical is trying desperately hide that number for the general public! Below, you can see for yourself that many foods were found to have over 1,000 times this amount!  Also note that you see organic foods on the list too. This should be on the front page of every newspaper!!

What You can do: 5 Easy Steps

Hopefully by now, you are wondering, what can I do to improve my health and stay away from this chemical?! This is something that I will go into more and more in future posts, to help you navigate through this maze and find better ways to detoxify your body so you don’t have too much accumulation of any chemical or heavy metal. In the meantime, some things you can do now:

  1. Avoid buying organic produce from Mexico. Since we have no idea what’s it the soil, water or otherwise…it’s just a risk not worth taking. Organic produce from USA may not be much better, but at least there is a chance! (And when you see the difference in price between organic from Mexico vs. organic from California, doesn’t it make you wonder??)
  2. Avoid bottled water, unless it’s distilled water. Don’t waste your money on anything other than distilled water…and at least the distilled water can help bind and transport heavy metals out of the body. We drink freshly collected mountain spring water and distilled water in our home.
  3. DON’T BUY or USE R.O.U.N.D.U.P !!! Not for any reason! I cannot emphasize this enough. If people stop buying this crap, the company will suffer. Let your lawn and flowers and bamboo do want they want…which is grow! If you don’t like a particular weed, pull it out of the ground. Would you rather have no weeds and cancer, or no cancer and weeds? It’s a no brainer!
  4. Avoid foods from China. This is easier said than done and takes a bit of learning to figure out what common foods are imported from China. Garlic is a good example. Nearly all conventional fresh garlic sold in supermarkets today comes from China.  An easy upgrade for you and your family is to buy locally grown certified organic garlic (or grow your own, like we do!).
  5. Avoid packaged snack foods. Use only certified organic spices. Use whole organic ingredients (preferably locally grown) and make meals from from scratch whenever possible.

Ready to do even more? Start planting more pollinating flowers outside your home or apartment. And don’t use any chemicals on them! Give the honey bees a chance to survive with some decent clean food. I’ve found that the bees in our area really love organic catnip, lavender, sage and delphinium – all of which are pretty easy to grow.

How to Eat Clean: Start with Green Smoothies!

Green Smoothie for DummiesCheck out my book Green Smoothies for Dummies – I’ve got loads of recipes using dark leafy greens and many delicious combos without any chemical additives, flavorings or refined sugar. It’s so easy!

Clean your body from the inside out and watch your skin improve, your hair and nails get stronger, your eyes look brighter and your waistline slim down….all naturally and effortlessly! It’s simply amazing and your only regret will be that you didn’t start drinking green smoothies sooner.

When you take care of your whole body, you get whole body health.

When you let your food be your medicine, you are always moving towards better health.

Find the book Green Smoothies for Dummies on iTunes or amazon.com!


For more on how to achieve your health goals and actually start feeling great, book a private health consult with me via Skype.

How to Book Your Health & Nutritional Coaching Session:

1. Take photos of your eyes with a smart phone or digital camera.
2. Email the photos to me for approval for Iridology Analysis.
3. We schedule a time to meet via phone or Skype!


More on Food Labels:

More on Food Additives and Food Allergies:

More on Genetically Engineering Foods:

Our Farmhouse Kitchen for under $3K!! Before and After DIY Makeover

If you’re like me, then you spend a lot of time in your kitchen. Chopping, grating, slicing, juicing, fermenting, harvesting, cleaning….the list goes on and on! The kitchen should be a room you love, otherwise you won’t want to spend any time there at all. If you can’t find the knife or cutting board you need, it becomes a hassle. Organized cupboards, dried foods and easy access to appliances make a whole world of difference. A nice vibe and a personal touch in the decor always give a good positive energy flow to the space. Changes to your diet and lifestyle have to start in the kitchen!

We recently did a DIY kitchen makeover, from a bad 80’s sitcom feel to a cool and funky farmhouse kitchen…and now our kitchen is a space I love! It’s a fun and organic feel. And for those of you on a budget, you’ll be excited to know that we did everything for under $3000! Now that IS amazing. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to put a new spin and fresh look on your old dark and dated kitchen. Trust me! Here I’m going to share the results!

Farm Kitchen DIY – Before and After pics

The 80’s Kitchen Before

We definitely did not choose our house for the kitchen, to say the least. It’s small and a bit strange in its layout, with the sink by itself against a wall and not under the windows facing outside. The dark oak cabinets were screaming 1981 and my dreams of having a fresh clean modern kitchen were not reflecting reality at all. But, we fell in love with the land (for starting an organic farm) and the area (an all farming area in the mountains of North Carolina) and the rest of the house was nice too so it’s all good.

Farmhouse Kitchen Makeover BEFORE

The Farmhouse Kitchen After

Since we may rehab the entire kitchen in a few years, we didn’t want to waste money on new cabinets or counter-tops or even a new layout yet. Our goal was to give the kitchen we have a decent enough facelift to actually enjoy the space and start having fun preparing lots of healthy food, straight from our veggie garden. Because I was working with existing cabinets and counter-tops, I decided to go for a farmhouse look because a modern design wasn’t possible with what we had. Initially I figured the rehab would take 2 months. In the end, it took 6 months to complete. Well, everyone says these DIY’s take longer than you expect (without a full crew working on it like in those 30-minute HGTV shows that make everything look far, far too easy!).

Farmhouse Kitchen Makeover AFTER

Farmhouse DIY Makeover List of What we Did

1. Popcorn ceiling removal – we did this ourselves and it all crumbled off with wet rags, no scraping or spraying at all. Took 2 days in total to complete. (Then we went to Vegas for the weekend, true!)

2. Painted old light fixtures. No idea why but the previous owners had painted the discs red/orange so I painted them white. 1 day.

3. Walls and trim sanded, primed and painted. The old kitchen had a strange greenish paint that had a slight texture which has to be sanded and the trim was a bright orange/red. Yes, time to GO! This was a BIG job. We moved everything to one side and painted 1/2 the kitchen then moved everything to the other side and painted the other half. The paint we used for the walls is Pratt & Lambert “Winchester” in semi-gloss and for the trim, a semi-gloss white.  I also added beadboard wallpaper to the kitchen peninsula and painted it too. Beadboard wallpaper is amazing! 1 week.

Bye bye green walls! What a difference a coat of paint makes.

4. Cabinets primed and painted white, with beadboard wallpaper added and painted, then installed oil rubbed bronze hardware. I got the cabinet pulls/knobs and cabinet handles from amazon and drilled all the holes myself. Definitely buy the cabinet hardware drilling template if you are going to do this step yourself. This was a huge job that I hope to never have to do again! 1 week.

Kitchen Oak Cabinets BEFORE painting – Kitchen Makeover

 

Painted Kitchen Cabinets – AFTER with new hardware – Kitchen Makeover

5. Also painted a pull out cart next to the stove which was originally purple (yes purple). I painted it gray to match the counter tops. Later we realized that the shelf on this cart was too high for the magnetic knife strips on the wall, so my husband cut off one shelf. I then put wood filler in the gaps, then sand prime and paint again. 2 days.

Note the purple pull out cart next to the oven (it holds baking trays and drying racks inside)

 

The pull out cart next to the oven now painted in grey (and notice the new barn house style pocket door)

6. Finally we were ready to put up the farmhouse shelves! I forgot to mention that my husband pulled down the wall cabinets before we painted the walls. It was a bit of a spontaneous decision. We were both working in the kitchen preparing the walls one day and all of a sudden he said, “I’m taking these down!” And that was that. We had looked at photos or farmhouse wood shelves before that but hadn’t decided to do it or not. Well, in that moment we pretty much decided to go for it! After painting the walls, we measured the space and went to Lowes to buy wood. I had done A LOT of research checking blogs for farm style kitchen shelves, and wasn’t able to find exactly what I wanted which was a thick wood floating shelf without having to make a hollow wood shelf and without spending a lot of money on expensive wood. In the end, we bought simple pine 2 -inch thick shelves (that’s 2x12x12) and here’s a tip: Lowes will even cut the wood for you, just bring the measurements!

7. Farmhouse shelves phase 1: Sanding and staining. We decided on 3 shelves on one wall and 2 on the wall with the stove. Also we took out the old cabinet above the fridge and measure out space for shelves there too. I sanded and stained everything myself (phew!). The stain we used was Minwax Early American, left on the wood for 10 minutes. But, I used a pre-stain wood conditioner first which I think is an important step! Then I left to dry overnight and applied butcher block oil. I didn’t want to use any varnish because of the nasty chemical smells. This took 3 long days.

Sanding and staining the farm house style shelves

8. Farmhouse shelves Phase 2: Hanging the shelves. Prepare yourself for lots of measuring, and checking the level many times. We marked all the studs before painting because I knew with shelves like this, we had to hang them in the studs. Almost all the brackets got in studs with the exception of one, so I’d say we did ok! For the brackets, I found nice 8″L x 6″ H hand-made steel metal brackets on amazon. It comes in different sizes for different widths of shelves. We chose wood for a 12-inch width shelf after I measured our dinner plates and largest bowls. 2 days.

Measuring and installing the brackets for farmhouse kitchen shelves

The wood farm style shelves are up – yay!!

9. Hanging new lights – We installed a new ceiling light above the kitchen table and also put up a few battery-operated under the cabinet lights which went under the bottom kitchen shelf. We have very dated and 80’s style track lighting as well, but we weren’t up to the task of changing that just yet, so instead just installed Edison style LED light bulbs. 1 day.

10. Farmhouse doors – how could I forget my favorite part of the kitchen – our farmhouse style doors! We installed one to the pantry (where previously there was a bright red/orange door). Then we installed a new pocket door from the kitchen to the wood stove room, so we could close the kitchen if need be (if a guest is sleeping in the other room for example). The doors were a special order from Home Depot, then were stained in the same way as the shelves. I love these doors! 1 week (it took time for our carpenter to make the pocket door frame and we had to drywall, prime paint, etc after).

DIY Kitchen Makeover BEFORE – the old red/orange pantry door

DIY Kitchen Makeover AFTER – the new barn style pantry door LOVE!

11. New oven – By this point of the makeover it was the end of December (we had started in September), and I said to my husband, “Would it be great if we could get a new oven..like a Viking industrial oven?”  We started reading reviews and were going “wow” then looking at the price and saying “hmmm..” Literally a few days later we went to Habitat for Humanity and found a Dacor brand convection bake oven, already set for propane gas, for $500. It was unreal. And it fit into the space like a glove. Totally manifested it! This oven new sells for over $5K!! We were over the moon. 1 day.

12. Oven installation – had to get an electrician to install the 240V line for the oven, cost about $200. As you can see all of this was almost 1/3 of the $3000 we spent…and in that budget we still landed a $5K oven! This was over xmas/new year and it took some time to book the electrician.  2 weeks.

Oven envy! LOVE our Dacor convection oven, bought used

13. New farmhouse wood kitchen table from IKEA – and yes this is a big deal because it’s a 2-hour drive to IKEA where we live and I had been looking at this table for months. Then when we were ready to go to IKEA, the table was suddenly on sale for $80 less. Total score!! I wanted this particular table with the drop leaf on either side because our kitchen is so small, however we could have guests with this if need be and also, it’s not easy to find a thick farm style kitchen table with a drop leaf on either side. 1 day.

14. Chalkboard wall painted – Up until now, I thought we were going to have a small section of the wall painted in black chalkboard paint, mostly for my husband because it was his request. (He’s a graphic designer and wanted some room to draw.) Actually he wanted an entire wall for a chalkboard, and I kept saying, “No way. You can have this small space here!” I thought the black color would make the room look too small. Fast forward a few months into the project and all of a sudden I said, “Ok let’s do the whole wall.” He was like, “Really?!” I have no idea what happened, but now that the wall is done, I love it. It actually adds depth to the room and it’s so much fun to have guests over and let them draw whatever they want on the walls. Yes, a lot of our guests will ask if they can draw something! It’s really a lot of fun. I love having a real, genuine feel to the kitchen and the ever-changing chalkboard wall adds that for sure. 2 days.

The chalkboard wall and the farmhouse kitchen drop leaf table

15. Kitchen sink backsplash using grey wood-like floor tiles. Yes, we used floor tiles for our backsplash around the sink! I wanted something to go with the grey formica counter tops and not too much white because the cabinets above and below were now white. The grey colored wood tile was a perfect match to go with the counters and add something nice on all that white. We bought the tiles at Lowes and my husband did the tiles himself, first time ever doing tiling and what a great job! 3 days.

Kitchen sink backsplash with grey wood tile

16. Stove and farmhouse shelf backsplash – for this wall, we chose a large subway tile, much larger than normal because 1) it was less work to use bigger tiles 2) the price was actually better than buying small subway tiles and 3) the classic subway look is getting a bit old and we wanted to put a bit of a spin on it. We chose the 16″ x 4″ white tiles from Lowes. 3 days.

Large white subway tile backsplash – DIY kitchen makeover

17. Cutting board wall – this is one of my favorite changes to the kitchen! I bought a few hanging racks and S hooks and hung them on the wall to make the perfect cutting board station. I have to say that this cutting board rack is the most convenient things ever especially for someone who is often chopping up fruits and veggies several times a day!

Cutting boards hanging on S hooks – LOVE this!

18. Finally, the last touches! I added hooks for towels on either side of the sink, hung pictures on the walls, another 2 shelves on the chalkboard wall, two walnut wood magnetic knife holders that look amazing (one knife strip is never enough if you do a lot of food prep like me!), also shelves for spices and supplements which I installed over the tile after staining the shelves to match everything else, and a few bars and hooks from IKEA for a bit of organizing towels and hanging stuff. 2 weeks.

Magnetic knife holders wood farmhouse style kitchen

I hope you like the end result as much as we do, and if not…well maybe you got a few good ideas for your own DIY kitchen makeover. Looking back at all the steps, I have no idea how we did all of that! Now the fun part…is using the new kitchen!

Farm Kitchen DIY – Before and After pics

 

Get Affordable Organic Food with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Vegetable Home Delivery

Want to save time and money and get more affordable organic fruits and vegetables? Then check into finding a local CSA for organic home delivery in your area. Community Supported Agriculture or CSA is a way to connect consumers directly to organic farmers. With no store or “middle man” in between, you get more affordable produce that’s fresh and in season.

Get local organic produce delivered to your door & save money too!

How does a CSA work?

Basically, you invest in a “share” of the harvest, meaning you pay in advance for regular deliveries of organic, fresh, seasonal produce from local farmers. Every program varies in what it offers, when and where it is delivered and how much a share costs. Typically, you choose between a “small box” or a “large box” which is delivered weekly on a certain day (say every Tuesday or Thursday). The contents of the box will vary depending on what’s being harvested that week. For example, this week (in summer) in Israel I received: organic tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, dill, parsley, beets, green chives, mint, pumpkin, spinach, Swiss chard, daikon, zucchini and watermelon. Other times I will get garlic, onion, lemons, papaya, apples, melon or kohlrabi with a mix of fresh greens that also vary depending on the time of year. On average, 1 large box will last me about 4-5 days. I usually need to supplement with my own store-bought organic fresh fruit because admittedly, you usually get more veggies than fruit in a CSA box. With the CSA that I belong to, there is also the option to order additional items, including local organic eggs, tahini, honey and olive oil (I don’t order any additional items but I know a lot of people who do). The box is delivered directly from the farm to your door.

The benefits of eating organic food

Organic food is higher in minerals because the soil in which its grown is a much better quality than the over-farmed, depleted and toxic soil you find in industrial farming. Without any hazardous pesticides either, organic food can decrease your risk of allergies, rashes, inflammation and asthma and keep your immune system strong. This is especially important for growing children. Organic food is also not irradiated or genetically modified (GMO), two more processes and man-handling added to the food supply today which can be harmful to your health.

And, my favorite thing about organic food? It tastes way better!!! My fresh organic produce is never bitter or bland. And a better natural taste has to be better for you. Once you try it, you will see for yourself!

The saddest thing I find about organic food is people seem to only invest their money in it at certain times in their life: mainly, when they’re pregnant, sick or have cancer. Outside of that, it can be really hard to convince anyone to spend money on organic veggies, fruit, nuts, seeds and/or grains. Even vegan, raw food, vegetarian and gluten-free folks will often turn their head at the added cost of organic. But why wait until you are sick or pregnant to start eating the best food for your body? If you eat organic food for years before your pregnancy, don’t you think you will be higher in minerals, less toxic and therefore increase your chances of a healthy pregnancy and baby? And perhaps if you invest in some high quality food now, you won’t ever get sick and if you do, you will recover much more quickly. If you put better fuel in your car, it will run better and last longer. Well, let’s add some extra miles to your life and keep your internal engine working great with high-quality organic food! You deserve the very best.

The benefits of using CSA delivery

1. You increase the amount of organic food in your diet.
2. It’s more affordable and fresher than buying organic produce in stores.
3. The fruit and vegetables are locally grown and in season.
4. You’re supporting small local businesses and farmers in your area.
5. You save time and hassle by enjoying home delivery.
6. You naturally get more variety in your diet.
7. You can experiment and try new veggies that you might not otherwise buy (like daikon or kohlrabi).

In fact, I can’t think of any reason not to join a local CSA! To get started, research your local community by googling “CSA organic delivery + your county, city or state” and see what you find. You can also inquire at your local health food store or Wholefoods market.

A good list of Organic Home Delivery farms in USA: Organic Consumers Directory List for USA

In Israel, there are 2 popular CSA services for Tel Aviv: Chubeza and Maggie’s Garden (I personally have tried both and now am happy with Chubeza). Find a complete list of Organic Home Delivery farms in Israel, including Jerusalem, the north to Herzilya and south to Ashkelon here: Times of Israel article on Eating Organic in Israel using local CSA

If you’re using a local CSA in your community, please list the link in the comments below with your city, state and country below and let’s share the good times of eating more natural, whole and pure food! I’m thoroughly enjoying a healthy week with yummy green smoothies, juices, raw food salads and desserts all with beautiful vibrant organic food!

For more on how to start a raw food diet, how to do a detox at home or what minerals you may specifically be deficient in, book a private health consult with me via Skype.

How to Book Your Health & Nutritional Coaching Session:

1. Take photos of your eyes with a digital camera.
2. Email the photos to me for approval.
3. We schedule a time to meet via phone or Skype!

More on Organic Food:

Vilcabamba, Ecuador: The Raw Food Valley of Longevity… or Just Hype?

Ecuador is known as a top retirement destination for Americans due to the low cost of living and ease of getting residency, but did you know that it’s also a place for raw foodists and young international families interested in a more simple, natural way of living? Some raw food friends of mine recently moved to Vilcabamba, known to many as the “Valley of Longevity,” and after years of hearing about the place (especially after Mike Adams, Matt Monarch and Angela Stokes moved there), I decided to finally go for a visit and check it out for myself.

The main road entering Vilcabamba, Ecuador aka The Valley of Longevity

My boyfriend and I spent 2.5 months in Vilcabamba. We stayed at the Meditation Center in town for the first 2 weeks until we found a furnished house available for short-term rent. We found a place with gorgeous mountain views and a lot of space (2 bedrooms, an office loft, 2 full bathrooms, a large living area and kitchen) for $900 USD per month. It was less than a 10-minute walk from the center of town. This was perfect for us because we didn’t want a car and we could easily walk to town and buy whatever we needed.

Our home for 2 months…a gorgeous mountain retreat!

Shared pool for the small gated community…it was right next to our house

Open doors in the morning for an absolutely fantastic view of the mountains…close doors 4pm to minimize mosquitos!

Most of our time in Vilcabamba was spent preparing and focusing on the 21-day water fast that we did while there. This was our main goal in renting a house for 2 months – to take a break from all the traveling we’d done through Costa Rica, Guatemala and South America, and to have some quiet time surrounded by nature to fast and rest. What better place to do a detox than in the Valley of Longevity itself?

My first meal (pureed cucumber) after water fasting for 21 days…and NO worms! 🙂

Not to start things on the wrong side, but it has to be said: there are a lot of strange expats in Vilcabamba. You will definitely notice a weird vibe when you arrive to town. It’s a small place, everyone knows each other, and clearly you are the newcomer when you get there. We experienced a lot of long uncomfortable stares from the local “gringos”, to the point where we even googled something like “why is everyone so weird in Vilcabamba” and we actually had a good laugh when we read several travel blogs that reported having the same experience as us. There is definitely a lot of conspiracy theory talk going around about…well, just about everything. It’s almost impossible not to overhear at least one major conspiracy theory conversation per day, especially if you go the the Juice Factory, the main hang-out in the town square where all the gringos converge for a juice, smoothie, salad or the ongoing end-of-the-word discussion. I even heard a story about how the Jesus on the cross was fake, and that the real Jesus was hiding under a pyramid in Egypt… Well, who knows? It could be true!

Odd conversations aside, the Juice Factory has an awesome juice, wheatgrass and smoothie menu!

Admittedly we were a bit disappointed over the lack of normalcy in the people we met. It didn’t take us long to start keeping to ourselves, putting our energy into our preparations for fasting and trying to be friendly as much as we could. Over the course of 2.5 months, we slowly started to meet more gringos who lived further outside of town or who simply kept more to themselves as well, and by the time we were ready to leave, we did actually make some really nice and interesting friends. My best advice in experiencing Vilca is to have an open mind and be patient. There are some really cool people living there; it just might take a bit of time to find them.

People aside, there are a few key practical things that bring expats to Vilcabamba to live. One is the cheap cost of living. Most people are renting houses for about $300 per month. Our house was considered to be very expensive, but we wanted to be in a gated community for safety and security. The other main attraction is the ability to grow your own organic food because there is plenty of land and plenty of water. There are also some people looking to live in a healthy and natural healing environment with a strong sense of community, and although it’s not fully there yet, this movement in Vilcabamba is definitely growing. And many people just want to be “away from it all,” living as far away as possible from the television, media, and “Big Brother” feeling in the Western world.

A 5-star view from our veranda, in Vilcabamba Ecuador

That’s the short of it. Here’s my full list of the Pros and Cons of Vilcabamba:

Vilcabamba, Ecuador: Pros

1. Affordable Organic Food. This was a main attraction for me. Every Saturday there is a great organic market run by Kitzia Kokopelmana where you can find all kinds of fruits, veggies and greens at fantastic prices. Of course, if you stay longer, you would have the option to grow your own. There are many expats selling non-GMO seeds and swapping crops with each other.

Organic produce from Kitzia’s weekly market in Vilcabamba, Ecuador

2. Affordable Housing. There are many options available. Check the notice board at the Juice Factory for postings. We also really enjoyed staying at the Meditation Center in town; it has a great outdoor kitchen and very clean rooms. Bernie, the owner, is a really nice guy and he also happens to be a real estate agent in case you are looking for a home to buy!

3. Nice locals. The Ecuadorian people are very sweet and we really enjoyed speaking our broken Spanish when we could.

4. International delivery is ok. I met some people who ordered supplements from Vitacost and everything seemed to arrive ok. I had a few packages sent from USA that arrived safely (it does take longer than other places, up to 3 weeks for airmail). This becomes very important when you actually decide to live in a place.

5. Relatively Safe. More on this below, but for the most part when comparing to Central America or Colombia, I would consider Ecuador to be much more politically stable and crime-wise a safer choice.

6. Mountain views, rainbows, peaceful feeling. Aren’t we all hoping for more of that in life?

Nice rainbow view from our house in Vilcabamba Ecuador

7. Good climate. It’s not too hot or too cold year-round. You don’t need air-conditioning or heat and that means more fresh mountain air and negative ions for your health!

8. Easy to Get Residency. If you have $25,000 USD in an Ecuadorian bank or the equivalent value in property in Ecuador, you can apply for a resident visa and stay permanently. There seems to be a lots of hoops and paperwork to make this happen, but many people succeed and it’s certainly a reason why a lot of expats move to Ecuador.

9. Many Interesting Activities. Check the notice boards and ask around; you’ll quickly see that there are a lot of good workshops and activities being offered on everything from energy healing to women’s circles to essential oil lessons and much more.

Vilcabamba, Ecuador: Cons

1. Slow internet. This is true for all of Vilcabamba and can really be a problem if you work online (like me!).

2. Expensive Internet. We were shocked how much we paid for a few mice to spin us a connection….it was $84 USD per month!

3. Household items are Very Expensive. Things like pillows, sheets, kitchenware, plastic bins, shower curtains, etc. are extremely expensive in Ecuador. We were really shocked to see this because everyone told us how cheap it was! A plastic bucket could easily cost $5 or $6. That really adds up when you are buying for an entire home!

4. Superfoods and Supplements are Extremely Expensive. So much for the cheap cost of living! Once you get outside of the inexpensive rent, things can start to become expensive in Ecuador. While some superfoods and herbal supplements are available at the Juice Factory, they are really expensive, up to 3x the normal price. Your best bargain at the Juice Factory is the green juice shot made from wheatgrass, kale, parsley, fennel, celery and whatever other local organic greens are in season. Dennis, the owner of the Juice Factory, is a super-nice guy and very helpful by the way. It’s simply difficult to find a good source of organic raw nuts, seeds and dried basic raw food essentials.

5. Difficult to Find Work/Make Money. This is really a problem for a lot of gringos that don’t have an outside source of income. We saw many people trying to sell homemade raw food cookies, cakes and chocolates and hippie jewelry as a way to make money. The high cost of raw food ingredients makes the profit margin for food very low. Your best bet is to arrive with money or have a way to make money outside of Ecuador.

The town’s main square in Vilcabamba, Ecuador

6. Isolated. That can be a pro or a con depending on the individual! It’s a 1-hour drive to the nearest town, Loja, where you can find a large supermarket and the bigger shops. In Vilcabamba itself, there is really nothing but a few cafes and small shops selling essential items.

Not much to do in downtown Vilcabamba…it can be good but definitely isolating

7. Weird-vibes from certain Expat Locals can bring you down. As with any small town, there is a lot of gossip, rumors and even jealousy between gringos. This has a lot to do with #6 (isolated). If you’re prepared for this, you will be fine!

8. Increase in local crime, break-ins and robberies. This goes slightly against #5 of the Pros, but there I compare Ecuador to other countries in Central and South America. You are not likely to get robbed at gunpoint in Vilcabamba, and that is re-assuring. But, burglaries are on the rise. We heard of many break-ins while we were there; most occured while the residents were out to dinner and usually laptops, electronics and cash were stolen. Just before we arrived, there were at least 2 Western women who had been raped (in different incidents). It’s important to be careful. This is one of the main reasons why we chose to pay more money to live in a gated community. Definitely look at the security of your house before you decide to rent.

Vilcabamba can still be a great place to live and a positive experience as long as you stay street-smart and take advantage of all the good things it has to offer.

A lot of people ask me what I thought about Vilcabamba. Many young raw food, vegan and vegetarian couples and families consider moving there because of the ability to live relatively cheaply and still have access to organic food (most of the health-oriented people in Vilcabamba grow their own vegetables, fruits and greens). It’s not easy to describe my experience to others because everyone has different expectations when they travel to a new country to start a new life.

The house had a main living area, 2 separate bedrooms and an upstairs office/loft

Quiet bedroom and lots of nature, ideal for a long water fast…this place was really a perfect detox retreat!

This was the upstairs loft which I used as an office. Great place for meditation or yoga as well!

I really liked Vilcabamba for the few months that I was there, but long-term, I don’t think it’s the place for me, at least not at this stage in my life. I feel a very strong need and pull to be in the mainstream still, to help people understand how to read food labels and look for hidden additives in food, to teach more about raw food and detox, and to show that you don’t need to live in the faraway mountains in order to be healthy. Maybe in a few more years this will change, maybe not. Stayed tuned for more updates, because you will know when I know!

One thing I would definitely recommend is to visit a place first and try to live there for at least 6 months before you seriously considering moving there permanently. Not everyone is able to handle the “mañana” approach in Ecuador (also known as the “mai pen rai” style in Thailand). When we take our Western mind with us, even when we want to “get away,” we may still expect the post office to deliver on time or for the store to open when it says it should or for the correct item to be ordered and delivered. Well, things just don’t happen like that in more relaxed places in the world.

If you decide to go, join the Vilcabamba Facebook page to search for houses to rent and ask any questions to the local expat community.

Top Pick for Vilcabamba

Be sure to check out Elena’s Raw Food Lunch in her private home, a monthly event offered directly from Elena and her husband Vladamir, 2 of the nicest people you will meet in all of Ecuador, and even in the world! Elena has a passion for raw food recipes like no other and every month she offers a new and unique raw food menu for lunch. It’s well worth it to enjoy her creations, and a great way to meet other local raw food people too.

Elena’s Raw Food Lunch is amazing!! Here is her raw pizza with cashew “cheese”

Elena’s raw cacao and coconut cake…this cake alone is a reason to visit Vilca!!

So is Vilcabamba a real Valley of Longevity? Well, maybe yes and maybe no. According to the book The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer by Dan Buettner, Vilcabamba did not make the cut for having a high number of centenarians (people who live over 100) because they don’t have the proper documentation to verify birth records for age verification. Personally, I didn’t see that many healthy old Ecuadorians. Sadly, many of the locals appeared to be overweight and more on the unhealthy side of life.

Beautiful mountains and vistas in Vilcabamba, Ecuador

A word of warning about the salt in Vilcabamba and all of Ecuador/South America for that matter: There is a non-caking agent in the salt called Yellow Prussiate of Soda (YPS) or E535 or 535. This chemical additive can cause an allergic reaction in people resulting in an extremely itchy rash, restless sleep, hot flashes and irritability. I saw many expats in Vilcabamba suffering, especially with rashes. Salt is used in all restaurants (including “healthy” restaurants) contains this additive. I found people very unaware and even ran into problems with one local expat who was selling his own “higher quality” salt that caused a terrible reaction for me; still he swore it was clean. Upon further questioning, he revealed that his product has never actually been tested. In short, do not trust homemade expat labels and check the ingredient list on all other salt. Fluoride is also added to salt in South America so most people do try to avoid buying it, but I did not meet one person who knew the dangers associated with YPS, in my opinion, the much more dangerous ingredient. Stick with Himalayan salt or buy the equivalent large pink salt from Bolivia which can be found in supermarkets in La Paz for $2 per kilo.

We have nice memories of Vilcabamba….thank you!!

Vilcabamba is definitely not for everyone, but it’s still be a good place for a raw food community, and I hope to see it thrive!

More on Traveling Raw:

How to Clean Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

There are 2 issues to consider when cleaning produce: first, removing pesticides from store-bought non-organic fruits & vegetables and second, cleaning bacteria, worms and pests from organic produce. Both require separate instructions for how to best clean. This is really important for someone eating a high raw food diet because most of your food will be in the raw, uncooked natural state!

All information in this article is for educational purposes only.
It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any disease or health condition.

Washing produce is especially important for people eating a high raw food diet.

Always use a dedicated bucket used only for cleaning your fruits and veggies. That means, do NOT use the same bucket to wash laundry or anything else. You do not want to re-contaminate your food with more chemicals! If you use chemicals to wash your sink then do NOT clean your produce in the sink. Use a clean bucket instead. I have a small bucket and a large bucket so if I buy a small amount of produce, I can always use the smaller bucket. On big shopping days, I use the large one.

How to Wash Organic Fruits & Veggies

The biggest issue with organic produce is unwanted pests like worms and parasites, and even worse, their microscopic eggs. Several times I’ve cut open a head of raw organic cabbage and found live worms inside. This is the reality of eating organic! What can I say, the bugs have good taste in food! This is how nature intended it. Interestingly enough, when I soak my produce as explained below, I will sometimes see worms or slugs float to the surface of the water and then it’s easy to scoop them out.

For organic produce, fill your bucket with water, fill it with fruits and veggies and add 20-30 drops of Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) to the water for a large-size bucket. In a small bucket, you can add 12-15 drops. Let it sit for 10 minutes and rinse. GSE is fantastic for killing fungus and bacteria and is not in any way harmful to you. In fact, it’s very good for you!

GSE is available at any local health food store or can be purchased easily online.

Once you get into the habit of doing this, it becomes an easy part of your routine. I like to wash everything as soon as I get home before I put it in the fridge so I don’t get lazy and forget to do it later. Especially for raw foodists, it is essential to wash your produce correctly. I learned the hard way and wound up with 21 feet of intestinal roundworms, which in part was from 3 years on a raw food diet without cleaning my produce properly. To simply rinse with water is not enough – this will not kill the unwanted microbes.

How to Clean Non-Organic Fruits & Veggies

I highly recommend Activated Charcoal Powder to pull the chemical pesticides out of your non-organic produce. This is how it’s done: Fill your bucket with water and add 2 tsp. of loose “activated charcoal powder” (in Thailand this is sold in health food stores specially as a vegetable cleaner).

In the USA, I was able to find medicinal-grade loose Activate Charcoal Powder online. The other option is to use 3-4 capsules of Activate Charcoal Powder into your water. The capsules can be found at any local health food store on online at vitacost.com. You do NOT want to use charcoal brickets or burnt toast – this is not activated charcoal and will not work (I actually had a client whose naturopath told her to do that, unreal!).

Soak all fruits and veggies for 10 minutes in the charcoal/water mixture, then rinse. When I’ve done this in Thailand, I was amazed to see all of my produce come back to life – everything looked fresher and the veggies seemed to stay fresher, longer in the refrigerator.

Internet Urban Legend is Incorrect

Please note: I have seen some websites that wrongfully promote Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) as a way to pull pesticides from produce. While GSE is great for killing bugs and harmful bacteria, it does NOT remove pesticides out of fruit and vegetables.

Activated Charcoal is an absorbing agent, like a sponge; while GSE is a cleaner of bacteria.

Ideally, if you have the time and patience, you should first soak your non-organic produce in a Charcoal/Water mixture for 10 minutes, rinse, and then soak in 12-15 drops of GSE/water mixture for 10 minutes to clean any bacteria and parasite eggs.

Organic Food is the best food ever, and even better when it’s cleaned well!

Other Ways to Clean Organic Produce

Some additional methods for cleaning produce are described in the book Juice Fasting and Detoxification by Steve Meyerowitz:

Washing Pests out of Produce:

Lemon Bath– Fill Sink (or bucket) with cold water, add 4 tbsp. salt and the juice of one lemon. Soak for 10 minutes then rinse under cold water. (Can also substitute lemon with ¼ cup of raw apple cider vinegar).

Clorox Bath– Use 1 teaspoon Clorox bleach per gallon of water. Let produce sit in bath for 5-10 minutes. Drain; soak again in fresh water for 5 minutes. (Remember, there is chlorine in your drinking water. This is how many undeveloped nations wash their produce).

HCL Bath– Pour one ounce hydrochloric acid into 3 quarts water. This is equivalent to 1% solution. Soak for 5-10 minutes and rinse. (Use only food-grade quality HCL).

My Favorite Method

From all of these options, I use the Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) to wash my produce. If the produce is not organic, I normally still just use the GSE. In rare cases when I know the food is over-sprayed with chemicals like in Panama, I will use the Activated Charcoal Powder.

When traveling, I carry a small bowl, colander and a bottle of GSE so I still can wash my produce on the road.

For more on how to start a raw food diet, how to do a detox at home or what minerals you may specifically be deficient in, book a private health consult with me via Skype.

How to Book Your Health & Nutritional Coaching Session:

1. Take photos of your eyes with a digital camera.
2. Email the photos to me for approval.
3. We schedule a time to meet via phone or Skype!

More on Healthy Living:

Top 10 Secrets for Good Health and Longevity: How to Create Your Personal ‘Blue Zone’

If you want to know the best way to do something, you find a successful person and ask them how they did it, right?

That’s exactly what researchers have done in search of the healthiest places in the world to live, also known as ‘Blue Zones,’ a term coined by demographers who started mapping out areas of the world where people live measurably longer lives. Two noteworthy books of interest have been written on the subject: The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer by Dan Buettner and Healthy at 100 by John Robbins. I’ve recently found myself drawn more and more to explore what secrets our elders hold in finding the real truth to an anti-aging diet, or a longevity diet or a ‘youthgevity’ diet…probably terms that our elders at 90 years of age and older have never even heard of!

All information in this article is for educational purposes only.
It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any disease or health condition.

Healthy at 100 by John Robbins

The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer

Especially in answering countless questions from workshops and talks around the world, a large portion which involve questions such as ‘what’s the BEST food for (insert dis-ease name here)’ or ‘what’s the BEST supplement I need to take’ or ‘what food will help me (insert goal here: lose weight, be happy, feel great, clear skin, gain energy, cure constipation, improve eyesight, increase fertility, reduce anxiety, etc. etc. etc.),’ I can see from a wider perspective that, well, basically, people are just not getting it! No one food creates disease and no one food cures it either! We have to start looking at the diet and lifestyle as a whole to start getting the results we want.

We all know that no one can eat a handful of watercress and become instantly cured!

I hope you can agree with me there. People don’t want to hear that they may have to make long-term changes to their diet and lifestyle in order to get long-term results, especially in this fast-fix world that’s programmed to appease all instant gratification requests. And, if you try the ‘magic pill method’ by taking every new Dr. Oz must-have supplement, after one year of watching Dr. Oz every day you will need to take 365 supplements per day in order to keep up! Clearly, that doesn’t seem like the best approach to real health!

So, what is it? How do we find the key to Longevity and Happiness?

Healthy at 100 by John Robbins

Healthy at 100 discusses several of the more known but perhaps under-documented world Blue Zones such as the Hunza Valley in Pakistan and Vilcabamba, Ecuador (where I am currently staying for 2 months by the way!) and also discusses more well-documented Blue Zones such as Okinawa, Japan. When I say ‘documented,’ that means being able to prove the person’s identity and being able to verify their date of birth with local birth records, so we can say with absolutely certainty that the centenarian (a person who lives over 100) who lives there is really a centenarian.

Blue Zone vs. SAD Diet

The main difference between a Blue Zone diet and a Standard American Diet (SAD) is that the Blue Zone cultures eat no refined sugar and no refined carbohydrates; and instead eat plenty of whole grains and many vegetables grown locally and in season, and they incorporate healing foods and superfoods into their diet naturally. According to John Robbins, the author of Heathy at 100, “Vegetables play a prominent role in the Hunzan diet, particularly greens, including mustard greens, spinach and lettuce, root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, potatoes, and radishes, an assortment of beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils, and other sprouted legumes. They cultivate many kinds of herbs for both culinary and medicinal purposes, including mint and thyme. They grow flaxseeds, and rare is the meal that does not contain freshly ground flaxmeal in one form or another. In Hunza, a large part of the diet is eaten uncooked.”

He goes on to explain, “In the summer, as much as 80% of the food is eaten in its natural state. Vegetables in season are picked just prior to consumption and almost always eaten raw. Fresh corn on the bob, for example, is never cooked. In the winter, Hunzans soak lentils, beans and peas in water for several days, then lay them out on wet cloths in the sun. They are eaten raw when they begin to sprout.”

The view from my house in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, an ‘unofficial’ Blue Zone

Exercise also plays a huge role in the anti-aging process. Every area that was researched highlighted daily exercise as an integral part of life, and the people know that this is one of their secrets to vibrant health. “So great is the recognition of the healing power of walking to visit a friend that there is a saying in Vilcabamba that each of us has two ‘doctors’ – the left leg and the right leg,” writes John Robbins.

What’s happening in the good ‘ol USA

  • How many of us numb ourselves with cigarettes, tranquilizers, drugs, alcohol, or unhealthful diets in an effort to escape how isolated we feel?
  • How many of us become chronic workaholics or become preoccupied by other unhealthy obsessions in an attempt to avoid the inner barrenness caused by the breakdown of relationships, family and community?

He adds, “Many of the traditional Okinawan proverbs about eating sound like phrases you might find on the wall of a health food stores in the West. One such proverb translates as “Food should nourish life – this is the best medicine.” And another: “One who eats whole food will be strong and healthy.” If North Americans lived more like the elder Okinawans, we would have to close 80% of the coronary care units and 1/3 of the cancer wards in the United States, and a lot of nursing homes would also be out of business.”

Hmmm, that sounds pretty good to me!

Top 5 Secrets for Longevity and Anti-Aging from Healthy at 100

    1. Eat many colors. Foods’ natural colors are not just treats for the eye but also signs of important nutrients such as antioxidants.

    2. When you crave something crunchy, try raw vegetables or nuts instead of salty chips.

    3. Avoid heating oils to the smoking point. For the fat in your diet, eat walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, avocados and other nuts and seeds.

    4. Shun trans-fatty acids. Stay away from margarine, vegetable shortening, commercial pastries, deep-fried food, and most prepared snacks and convenience foods.

    5. Don’t pollute your body. Don’t eat junk food. Go to your kitchen cupboard and get rid of any food products that no longer serve your potential to be radiantly fit and healthy.

The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer

Now, let’s look at the Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer, and see what Dan Buettner, the author, discovered after traveling to 5 current and documented world Blue Zones: Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, the Seventh-Day Adventists community in Southern California USA, and Ikaria in Greece.

“Good Years” is a Very Important Concept

In the book, Robert Kane point out that, “there are two issues here. How long can I live? The other is: How well can I live? And those are different questions. Living an extra two years on life support may not necessarily be your goal. Yes, “Good Years” is a very important concept.”

“You’ve got a bunch of people who are professing to be physicians or scientists, who are saying that they can stop or reverse the aging process. I will tell you that real scientists cannot do such a thing, so what makes the public think that these people can?” asks Tom Perls.

Things that Successful Centenarians Don’t Do

They don’t get plastic surgery or botox i.e. get unnecessary surgeries which can weaken their immune system; They don’t watch excessive amounts of television; They don’t complain, gossip or criticize others; They don’t worry or stress about the small things; They don’t overeat. In Japan, they say “Hara hachi bu” before each meal. This is a Confucian-inspired saying that means “Eat until your are 80 percent full.”

Things that Successful Centenarians Do

They eat natural, whole and pure foods high in flavonoids and natural anti-oxidants; They eat simple, non-processed local foods; They exercise as part of their daily routine, usually walking long distances (more than 2 miles and up to 6 miles) every day; They incorporate healing foods like turmeric, ginger and mugwort into their daily diet; They maintain a sense of purpose, keep a sense of humor and they have a positive outlook on life; They keep the family unit together, taking care of elders within the family even at the later stages in life (that’s the power of love!).

Top 5 Secrets for Longevity and Anti-Aging from The Blue Zones Book

    1. Eat more plants (i.e. leafy greens)! While not all centenarians are vegetarians, they all eat a very high vegetable and fruit-based diet with variety in whole nuts, seeds and grains. If they eat meat or fish, it’s only on occasion and not in the daily diet. They also eat simple meals with only whole, natural ingredients.

    2. Stay active. Get outside and walk every day. Work on a small outdoor garden. Getting regular, low-intensity exercise like daily walks appears to help reduce your chances of having heart disease and certain cancers.

    3. Have a sense of purpose and keep hard at work. Successful centenarians feel needed and want to contribute to a greater good. They enjoy physical work all of their lives (i.e. no couch potatoes!!).

    4. Drink fresh herbal teas made from peppermint, oregano, rosemary, chamomile or sage on a daily basis. Add healing foods like fresh turmeric and ginger to your diet. This helps your body detoxify on a regular basis, naturally!

    5. Take time to rest and fast occasionally. The Seventh-Day Adventists practice a weekly Sabbath or day of rest to spend time with the family and re-connect with nature. In Greece, The Ikarians traditionally follow the Greek Orthodox Christian calendar which calls for periodic fasting throughout the year.

Caloric restriction -a type of fasting that cuts about 30 percent of calories out of the normal diet -is the only proven way to slow the aging process in mammals.

How to Create your ‘Personal Blue Zone’

    1. Eat a high-raw food organic and nutrient-dense diet.
    2. Minimize stress. Laugh More. Enjoy each day!
    3. Exercise daily – get out and move.
    4. Form friendships and meaningful relationships.
    5. Have a sense of purpose with your life.

Or, as Michael Pollan said, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Your Happiness and Longevity Matters!

So there you have it! Everything this website and my life’s work is all about will help you to lead a healthy happy, long enjoyable disease-free life! Let’s keep supporting each other on our journeys enjoying good health and a happy life!

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Reconnect with Nature in Guatemala with Fresh Juice, Raw Food, Mayan Ruins & Volcanoes

Guatemala is a country full of culture, colorful handicrafts, Mayan ruins and lots of nature and it’s a great place to visit for a health holiday! I recently spend 1 month in Guatemala and I’m going to share my top-picks, favorite restaurants and must-see things to do.

Central Courtyard in Antigua, Guatemala

Most people fly into Guatemala City when they arrive to Guatemala. Since the quaint, picturesque town of Antigua is only 45 minutes from Guatemala City, it’s a good idea to take a taxi or arrange hotel pickup directly from the airport to Antigua and start your adventures there (it’s about $30 for a private taxi). Antigua is the former capital of Guatemala and is full of Spanish architecture, cobblestone streets and many courtyard gardens behind the ancient walled streets. This is a good place to spend 4-5 days so you have time to take a tour, explore the local market, visit a nearby volcano or Mayan village, soak in natural hot springs, enjoy some of the restaurants and maybe even schedule a massage. Now that sounds like a holiday!

Old and beautiful downtown Antigua

Guatemalan decoration, handicraft, style, love!

Inside Pitaya Juice Bar in Antigua

My favorite morning stop in Antigua was at Pitaya Juice Bar, across from the Antigua Gym. It’s a small but very cute place and they serve fresh juice or superfood smoothies with moringa, ginseng, flax or wheatgrass, for a healthy start to the day (Pitaya Juice Bar: 6ta Calle Poniente, #26). For lunch, I frequented Sabo Rico, an outdoor garden restaurant serving salads, juices and smoothies in a gorgeously romantic courtyard (Sabo Rico: 6a avenida sur #7).

Dinners were typically made at the hostel using fresh raw foods bought at the local market and raw apple cider vinegar or coconut oil from the main health food store in town, Organica (5 calle poniente No. 6, just 1 block from the main square). Organica also has a small range of gluten-free foods for sale. Everything in Antigua is walkable which makes it very nice as a tourist.

My top picks for things to do in Antigua

Walking Tour with Elizabeth Bell

Definitely take Elizabeth Bell’s walking tour which runs every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 9:30am to 12:30pm and meets at the central fountain in the main square. Elizabeth’s knowledge and enthusiasm over all things Antigua and Guatemala is absolutely amazing, impressive and inspiring. This was absolutely a highlight of Antigua form me; the $20 was well spent for the tour.

Santo Domingo Hotel’s restaurant on the hill: Santo Domingo del Cerro

If you plan your day correctly, you can continue on your own at the end of Elizabeth’s tour at the Santo Domingo Hotel in downtown Antigua and from there, take the hotel’s free shuttle up the hill to their restaurant, the Santo Domingo del Cerro. Most likely you’ll be hungry after the tour and in daylight hours, you can enjoy all their unusual outdoor art sculptures and take in the views of surrounding volcanoes while enjoying a nice healthy salad. I had a delicious apple and watercress salad and was very happy to see that on the menu as a reasonable raw food choice. For anyone looking for a nice place to do work online (to write blog posts or update twitter feeds a-hem), the Santo Domingo del Cerro has a very nice terrace with free wifi, so you can spend the rest of your afternoon there and catch up on some work!

Wednesday at the Kawilal Hot Springs

Every Wednesday, the Kawilal Hot Springs and Spa offers a free shuttle that leaves at 9am from the Cathedral (it returns back to Antigua at 3pm). It’s a 1-hour ride to the hot springs so the free Wednesday shuttle is really the best option for tourists. The spa offers different packages with or without massage and it’s a bit expensive ($85 for hot springs and massage) for what it is and for Central American prices. For that reason, I would recommend a cheaper package using only the hot springs. The pools are still great and I fully believe in the healing powers of natural hot springs, so I personally seek them out wherever I go! This is a nice break from Antigua and a good option for a quiet afternoon soaking in the natural healing energy of thermal waters.

Outside Antigua: Tikal, Semuc Champey & Lake Atitlan

Tikal National Park

If you have the time, take an overnight bus to the northern part of Guatemala where you will find the ancient Mayan city and UNESCO World Heritage Site at Tikal National Park. We managed to find an honest tour company to book our bus tickets directly across from Pitaya Juice Bar. I don’t remember the name, but the staff wore Lonely Plant t-shirts and we received the correct price for the bus (not always an easy thing to achieve in Guatemala!). Speaking of which, be sure to book your accommodation before arriving to Flores; otherwise you will be absolutely mobbed by booking agents trying to lure you into other hotels and various park tours. We booked online in advance directly with Los Amigos Hostel, and we arranged our Tikal sunrise tour and onward bus tickets inside the hostel, at the very back, during office hours only. Flores is known for thieves operating as tour guides preying on the weary traveler arriving at 5am; we heard more than a few stories of this during our brief 2 days there. So be careful!

A great option for your first day in Flores is to rent kayaks at the hostel and paddle around the lake. It’s a wonderful feeling to get out on the water and to just glide with every stroke closer to the other side, then power-paddle back. Get to sleep well and truly early, because the the sunrise tours leaves at 4am! The tour takes you into the park to sit atop one of the Mayan temples and experience ‘the jungle waking up’ with sounds of howler monkeys, toucans and other birds. It’s great! A few more hours to explore the park gets you back to the hostel in early afternoon.

Ancient Mayan Civilization at Tikal National Park

Tikal National Park, in the jungles of northern Guatemala

Imagine the sounds of tropical birds and howler monkeys all around you…amazing!

Semuc Champey

The next day, you can head to Semuc Champey, about 6-8 hours by minibus from Flores. It’s not as comfortable to travel by minibus but there is no big bus that goes to Semuc Champey. Once you get there, you will see that it is well worth the effort! Semuc Champey is a gorgeous set of natural limestone bridges that’s located deep in a mountain gorge and covered with crystal blue-green water. You have to see it to really appreciate how magnificent Mother Nature can be. You only need one day to see the park, but many people stay at either one of the hostels for a few days just to relax and well, mainly to party. The backpacker party thing wasn’t my scene so I only stayed 2 days to see the park and do the cave tour, and I continued on my way to Lake Atilan.

Semuc Champey…simply amazing natural wonder!

Reconnecting with nature…is healthy bliss! At Semuc Champey

In awe of Mother Nature’s beauty at Semuc Champey

Save the Best for Last: Lake Atitlan

My best advice is exactly that: Save Lake Atitlan for the end of your Guatemala travels and take some time to rest, relax eat good food, or even rent a house along the lake and plan to do your own juice or water fast while there. Lake Atitlan is a popular destination for yoga, healing, raw food, meditation and spiritual retreats due to its magical energy field. It’s claimed to be one of the worlds’ energy vortexes, alongside the great pyramids and Macchu Picchu. The lake itself is surrounded by volcanoes, and when we were there, San Pedro volcano was visibly active, which was just amazing to see!

Beauty and nature at Lake Atitlan

Local fruit and vegetable market

Many of the health-enthusiast tourists stay in the village of San Marcos on the lake. In my opinion, it was a bit too hippie and we searched for something a bit more scenic and peaceful, with good views of the lake, good internet and decent sense of security. We found exactly that at Sakcari Hotel in San Pedro. While not cheap by Guatemala standards at $40 per night, Sakcari was everything we were looking for – it was quiet and on the lake with incredible views from the room and a real feeling of nature. Nearby in the village, we could get fresh fruit, fresh juice and smoothies every day. There is also a great health food store in San Pedro; it’s small but well-stocked with herbs, supplements, natural body products and some dried organic nuts and seeds. What more in life does one need?

A nice place to contemplate life, on the shores of Lake Atitlan

Fresh air, views of nature…this in and of itself is a cleanse!

Isla Verde Eco-Resort with its famed ‘slow-cooking’

We checked out some other spots and also looked at a few houses and apartments to rent on Lake Atitlan because we considered staying longer, up to 1-2 months. After a good amount of searching, there is only one place I would recommend and that’s the PasaCap property, owned by Pierre, a Frenchman living on the lake for more than 15 years. Pasacap has very modern and clean furnished apartments with perfect lake views on a secure property with a private dock to access the lake. We seriously considered renting an apartment here for 1-2 months so I could do a long water fast, but unfortunately the units were fully booked at the time and I didn’t want to wait a month for availability. I would definitely consider returning at a future date, and securing the booking in advance online. To have the chance to do a water fast on a major world energy vortex….well that’s just ‘Wow!’

There were a few other highlights on the lake for healthy eating and raw food, both in the village of Santa Cruz. The first, Isla Verde Resort, is a beautiful place with a gorgeous restaurant overlooking the lake. They are known for their ‘slow cooking,’ but we found that they may have taken this term a bit too far…by adding ‘slow ordering,’ ‘slow service,’ ‘slow preparation,’ and ‘slow to settle your bill.’ In short, the entire experience was SLOW. But, they did have some nice juices, salads and a great homemade kombucha drink that is worth waiting to order, receive and pay for!

View of Lake Atitlan from Isla Verde Resort

Mayan Cacao Energy Balls at Villa Sumaya

The other place is also in Santa Cruz, but in the opposite direction from the dock. When you exit the boat taxi, walk to the right and follow the maze of planks and boardwalks (which is really fun by the way!); after about 30 minutes you will arrive to Villa Sumaya.

Villa Sumaya is a yoga and meditation retreat center and it’s a great place to consider staying for a few nights if your budget allows. Otherwise, do what we did and visit during the day, enjoy a delicious fruit smoothie, sample their raw cacao superfood snacks and take a few raw energy balls home to nibble on later.

Whatever extra time you have in Guatemala, definitely spend it at Lake Atitlan. The views of the lake and surrounding volcanoes change with each day’s cloud formations and sun, a real-life painting waiting for you to slow down and simply enjoy its natural canvas. It’s a place that really grows on you after awhile.

Quiet time in nature is good for the soul

Safety in Guatemala

This is something worthy of noting and needs to be addressed for your personal travel safety. While absolutely nothing happened to use during our 4 weeks in Guatemala, we did meet a few tourists who had been robbed, mugged or ripped off. Some important things to remember: Do not show your iPhone or smartphone in public areas; Do not wear expensive jewelry; Carry a purse that hangs across the body from shoulder-to-hip and not on one shoulder only; Do not carry valuables at night; Do not carry a lot of cash at any time; Ask around at several travel agents to compare prices before booking anything. Again, we had nothing happen to us, but we heard quite a few stories. Personally, I always lock all valuables in my suitcase in the hotel room at all times. The temptation for a cleaning lady or other hotel staff to look around is just too great, so why take the risk? Once you get into the habit of doing that, it becomes very easy and it’s much ‘safer’ than a front desk safe where other staff may also have a key. You can definitely enjoy Guatemala without any problems if you follow these simple safety tips. With so much to see and enjoy; it’s a country worthy of a visit!

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Panama as a health destination? Warning about pesticides in fruits and vegetables

After 2 amazing weeks in Costa Rica, we decided to head south to Panama to see what it had to offer. With the same Caribbean beaches, mountains and tropical landscape, I expected a cheaper and less touristy version of Costa Rica. I wanted to explore what raw food and/or detox options were available and thought I would get some nice time in nature and sun to boot. It seemed like a good idea…or so I thought.

All information in this article is for educational purposes only.
It is not for the diagnosis, treatment, prescription or cure of any disease or health condition.

Ajonjoli, Raw Food in Panama City

Everything started out great when we arrived to Panama City and stayed in an awesome funky little hotel, the Lemon Inn, run by 2 young Panamanian brothers. What a treat to get a modern clean hotel room after paying so much for accommodation in Costa Rica. Thanks to one of my twitter followers, I managed to find Ajonjoli on my first day in the city – a health food store and raw food meal service offering home delivery with a different daily raw food meal. I was very impressed to see such a service in Panama, and the food was great!

More time in the city allowed us to explore the old part of the city, Casco Viejo, which I loved…and as we walked through the streets I could almost feel I was in Paris or Belgium. Well, except for the armed policemen on every corner. At least you feel much safer in Panama than in other Central American countries. In the afternoon, we took a taxi out to see the Panama Canal and were lucky to arrive just as one of the container ships was moving through the docks. It’s definitely an example of some fine engineering.

Organic Raw Food Lunch from Ajonjoli in Panama City, a safe and yummy choice!

Casco Viejo in Panama City

Panama City at night, view from Casco Viejo

Panama Canal, Panama City

After 2 days in the city, we headed out to the mountain town Boquete, famed as one of the top retirement destinations for Americans. We thought it would be an organized town with some nice restaurants and cafes, but were surprised to find what looked like an abandoned town from the Wild West with local Panamanian women in traditional dress and lots of SUVs with grey-haired gringo elders. Lots of SUVs. There seemed to be no interaction between the expat retiree gringo and the locals; in fact we met many Americans who lived there for 5 years or more and spoke no Spanish. We found that to be very strange and I realized that this was not a cohesive community. But our worst discovery by far was in the fruit and vegetables.

Fruit and veggie market in Boquete, Panama

I don’t think I want to know what’s in this truck!

Reaction to Pesticides in Fruit and Vegetables

After buying fresh cabbage, cucumbers, tomato, onion, papaya and banana at the local market we were excited to go back to the hostel to make some yummy raw food creations. That night, I developed a horrible headache (something I never get)…and for days I had headaches, felt tired and even had a burning sensation in my throat, like a chemical burn. It finally occurred to me that it might be a pesticide reaction from the food. It didn’t take me long to make some Google discoveries about pesticide use in Panama and how the local farmers are using carbofuran, a very strong pesticide which is currently banned in Canada and the EU (in addition to many other banned pesticides as well). This was my first ever reaction to a pesticide as such, but it really scared me, especially the burning in my throat. We did not use any olive oil, salt or spice of any kind and still, I had horrible headaches daily. This discovery wound up crossing off Panama from my list of tourist destinations, well at least for anyone who is health-oriented or chemically sensitive. We did our best to make the most of the time we had, but our overall morale and feeling about Panama remained low for the remainder of our stay.

How to clean pesticides out of fruits and vegetables

For anyone who is traveling to Panama, I highly recommend bring Activated Charcoal Powder to pull the chemical pesticides out of your produce. This is how it’s done: Fill a bucket with water and add 2 tsp. of loose “activated charcoal powder” (in Thailand this is sold in health food stores specially as a vegetable cleaner). Soak all fruits and veggies for 10 minutes in the charcoal/water mixture, then rinse. Be sure to peel all vegetables before eating, even tomatoes. This will significantly reduce your exposure to these harmful pesticides and should minimize any reaction.

Please note: I have seen some websites that wrongfully promote Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) as a way to pull pesticides from produce. While GSE is great for killing bugs and harmful bacteria, it does NOT pull pesticides out of fruit and vegetables. Charcoal is an absorbing agent, like a sponge; while GSE is a cleaner of bacteria. Ideally, if you have the time and patience, you should first soak your produce in a Charcoal/Water mixture for 10 minutes, rinse, and then soak in 12-15 drops of GSE/water mixture for 10 minutes to clean any bacteria and eggs.

Boquete and Bocas del Toro

We decided to stay a few days in Boquete and take advantage of the one good thing we found: a 1-week membership to The Haven Spa; for $50 USD per person we had access to the gym, swimming pool and far infrared sauna for the week…so our daily ritual was to leave the backpacker hostel at about 11am each day and spend the whole afternoon relaxing in the quiet nature of the Spa. It was a bit strange that all the other members seemed to be 60 years old or greater and on most days I felt like we were in a re-make of the Ron Howard movie ‘Cocoon,’ but as tired weary travelers, we were most grateful for the tranquility of the place and I really enjoyed my daily far-infrared treatment, know to be a great detoxifier of heavy metals and chemicals (needed even moreso due to the circumstances!).

The Haven Spa, Boquete Panama

Exercise pool at The Haven Spa, Boquete Panama

From Boquete, we ventured north to the Caribbean islands at Bocas del Toro, a famous destination in Panama for beach, sun and nature. A highlight for me was searching for red frogs on the island of Bastimentos and finding them ourselves, without a guide, and in nature…it was a small discovery but it felt so cool to find such a beautiful creature! Overall. I found the availability of raw food to be very bad on the islands. The grocery stores are owned by a Chinese mafia and the vegetables are black with mold and the lettuce and cabbage are wilted (and with heavy pesticides to boot). We initially thought to spend a few weeks in the islands but after a few days, we felt starved for real food and fresh produce so we headed back to Panama City and flew north to Guatemala.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Taking the boat from Bocas to Bastimentos Island

Finding the elusive red frogs on the island of Bastimentos

Bastimentos Island…beautiful, but no decent raw food!

Poor vegetable choice in Bocas del Toro

My suggestion for Panama is this:

Definitely check out Panama City as it is an interesting place and there is plenty of fruit and vegetables in the supermarket. From what I read, the villages are using more potent mixtures of pesticides, and most likely, no one is regulating how much or what mixtures should be used. More mass-produced supplies in Panama City should be better (and I did NOT react to any produce in Panama City; only in Boquete and Bocas). That said, I did find a local expat, Kirk Floeck, owner of Organic Harvest, who is currently working on an at-home delivery service of organic fruit and vegetables for Panama City, so if you do live there, contact him for details: kfloeck [at] hotmail [dot] com. Also, sign up for the at-home delivery of vegan, raw food, gluten-free meals with Ajonjoli, another great healthy option for people in Panama City:

Ajonjoli
FB page: http://www.facebook.com/ajonjolinatural
Calle 65, San Francisco, Panama City, Panama.
telephone +507 394-8024

There are better choices for organic raw food, vegan and gluten-free health holidays in Central America in Costa Rica or even Guatemala.

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