How several Chattanoogans are trying to live with nature and the great outdoors in an eco-friendly, responsible fashion
Granola...we’ve all heard of the crunchy stuff we put on our yogurt, but the term has taken on a new meaning in recent years, at least here in Chattanooga and other outdoor-driven towns. Living here, it’s likely you’re familiar with this new definition of granola—used to describe a person—and perhaps you know someone who is “granola”.
While there is yet to be a textbook definition, making it hard to pinpoint what, exactly, makes someone granola, these lifestyle choices are gaining popularity at least among the health-conscious and outdoor enthusiast crowd. Does being a granola mean wearing Chacos, driving a Subaru and shopping at Whole Foods? Maybe. But really that’s only scraping the surface of what it means to be granola.
If I could take a stab at defining it, I would say it is being environmentally and socially aware to such a degree that you feel ethically, perhaps even morally, compelled to live a simple and sustainable lifestyle. Such individuals do so by focusing on things like eating organic and local foods, shopping at local small businesses, finding alternate means of transportation, reusing and recycling everything from food scraps to clothes and loving the outdoors.
But while I may be able to define it, I admit I am no hardcore granola myself, so I spent some time with local granolas instead to find out the essence of what it means.
Although their friends might call them granola, many of the locals I spoke with weren’t as quick to give themselves the title. Brooke Hadden, 25, who said she’d heard the term thrown around a lot in recent years, told me before she heard the term ‘granola’, her parents were calling her “an urban hippy,” but to Hadden, the focus of a granola lifestyle is to “live simply and eat healthy” rather than being defined by things like not shaving or being a hippy.
“It’s a conservation based lifestyle,” she said, making it an appealing option for her as she so highly values sustainability and conserving resources. Hadden, who works as a Crop Production Manager said, “I try to eat an organic, plant-based diet, sourcing food from local farmers which in turn is a lot more effective environmentally.”
In addition to added chemicals in processed food, the shipping and transportation process alone produces chemicals and waste that could be avoided. She avoids processed foods, preferring to cook most of her own meals and develop her own recipes using the crops available locally.
Conservation through things like recycling and composting is also a part of the granola lifestyle for Hadden, and she even went so far as to say that it’s a deal breaker for her in a relationship if someone doesn’t recycle. “It seems like such a simple thing to do to help the environment,” she said, adding that choosing not to recycle shows an “utter disregard for nature”.
Reusing and recycling doesn’t only mean filling blue bins with paper or plastic, but also taking part in shopping at second-hand stores like Four Bridges, where Hadden frequently shops. Or she ‘recycles’ by participating in clothes swaps with friends rather than shopping for new clothes at the mall. “Part of my personal value is reuse,” she said, noting that she’d rather “have a few staple items that are well-made and last a long time than a closet full of stuff that has a season.”
Supporting local people and being socially aware also seemed to be a core value of granola folks, as shown by shopping at second-hand stores and buying locally grown whole foods. This humanitarian focus was obvious when I spoke with local granola couple Benny Chavarria II, 37, and Meghan O’Dea, 29.
O’Dea said she sees the granola lifestyle as people trying to make the best choices for themselves and their families. “There’s an emphasis on health, environmental thinking, not so much political, but ethical thinking of the world around you. I think we live the way we live because we care about humanity at large.” She explained, “My parents raised me with a sense of responsibility...to take care of each other.” A simple idea, and something more people should feel responsible for. If we won’t take care of each other, we should feel a responsibility to take care of our caregiver , Earth, which cannot care for itself.
Embracing nature and enjoying the outdoors is a major part of the granola lifestyle, something Chavarria and O’Dea, and Hadden, practice wholeheartedly. The couple travels frequently and Chavarria explained that a lot of their travel revolves around local things and off-the-grid places. “We stay at AirBnBs,” says O’Dea, explaining that it puts them in the middle of where the locals are and allows them to support people who are making use of the resources they have rather than supporting corporations whose values don’t line up with their own. The couple prefers the simple comforts of AirBnB while Hadden claims that even on vacation, “I rarely am in a hotel. I’m usually out camping. I’d just rather be in the woods.”
Like Hadden, who spends 90 percent of her typical day outside, Chavarria and O’Dea also enjoy spending as much time outside as possible whether it be hiking and backpacking or sitting around their fire pit at home. Chavarria also spends much of his time renovating their 100-year-old home in Highland Park, and making furniture from logs he has collected over the years. His philosophy is to “use your resources to make things instead of hitting up Ikea,” adding that “everything we try and do is pretty sustainable”. They are a one-car household and often walk or use public transportation.
When it comes to eating healthy Chavarria explained, “We are extremely mindful about where our food comes from, what we eat.” He works several days per week on a farm they have a CSA (community-supported agriculture) share with, and they also grow some of their own vegetables.
“We don’t really eat meat, usually just chicken and fish” O’Dea notes, “and we always make sure it’s wild caught.” They strive to buy only food that is responsibly sourced. “I want to vote with my dollar...you have to be careful about what you put into your body,” says O’Dea.
Although her mother was involved in environmental activism, O’Dea admits she didn’t grow up eating organic or healthy foods. Information about the perceived dangers of things like GMOs and high-fructose corn syrup wasn’t as readily available until the advent of the internet which she says is when things changed for her family, and her parents grew more granola.
I caught up with her mother, Alice, who admitted that she cooked out of boxes for a long time, but has since made a complete change. “I learned a lot about real food and we cut out all the processed stuff,” she explains. She became so passionate about it that she now writes a food column focusing on getting people out of the drive-thru and into the kitchen. “I want people to feel better than they do,” says Alice, and that starts with clean-eating and healthier lifestyles over convenience, another thing we could all surely be better about.
She took a course on sustainable agriculture several years ago and has had a CSA share ever since. For Alice, the granola lifestyle also means making her own shampoo and avoiding make-up because of the difficulty of finding cosmetics without toxic ingredients. Like Meghan and Benny, she and her husband share a car, and bike or ride the bus when possible. “I use the car maybe two or three times a week,” she says, preferring to ride her bike or walk. “When I’m in a car I’m not interacting with the world around me. When I’m walking or on my bike I’m out in the world and it just feels so much better.”
While some people have turned to this granola lifestyle over time, others have identified with it from the beginning, and Emily Marr Davis, 34, is one such granola. Her daily choices might seem extreme to some but she says it’s always been a part of who she is. When I asked her if she’d been called a granola before her immediate response was, “Oh yeah!”, adding that she’d been called everything from crunchy to earth-muffin.
While in the past she has participated in peaceful protests and environmental activism, now, married and raising a nearly three-year-old son, her focus has shifted more to personal lifestyle choices. “We grow our food or buy local, we eat a largely whole foods diet, we buy organic—cleaning products, clothes—so that we’re not participating, or participating as minimally as we can, to consumer society. We try to consider the environment and other people.”
She identifies, like the other granolas I spoke with, to conservation and humanitarian values and not merely an organic and healthy diet. Her kitchen is filled with jars of things she has canned from her garden, a clothesline hangs across the room, rain barrels sit outside their home to use to water the garden, plastic bottles are nowhere in sight, and even the clothes she has on are made of natural fibers.
“I buy [clothes] largely from outdoor companies,” she said, “because that’s where you find durable things that are made with natural fibers.” Even health concerns are handled as naturally as possible. “We try to make our own medicine,” explaining how they use herbs and things from their garden, and they don’t go to the doctor unless there is something Emily can’t heal.
Like the other granolas I spoke with, the Davis family can be found outside hiking, paddling, canoeing or biking in their leisure time. “If you really like being outside, I think that translates to wanting to protect that place,” she said.
The granola lifestyle seems to be a growing trend in Chattanooga as people become more aware not only of what they eat, but also human impact on the environment. Across the board the granola folks I spoke with expressed how happy they were living simply and feeling connected to the earth and nature.
Emily expressed it well saying that the granola lifestyle has allowed her to focus on “enjoying the people I love, making things, being self-sufficient.”
“We’ve been simplifying and it’s been good ever since,” said Benny.
“Nature therapy,” Brooke called it.
Maybe it’s time we all tried a crunch of the new “granola”.