Sustainable food and living tips from expert chef Jo Barrett

  • Cook
  • December 2, 2021

Photograph by Josh Robenstone

Chef Jo Barrett is a maverick in the sustainability space. A humble, Melbourne-born creative who is living and breathing sustainable life and never preaching it. That’s why we love her. Most recently, Barrett has successfully demonstrated how we can live a zero-waste life via the incredible project, Future Food System. A self-sustaining, productive house smack-bang in the middle of Melbourne’s Federation Square.

As someone who has struggled for many years with chronic period pain – and even, struggling with discussing periods in general – in this candid conversation, Barrett chats about how she’s now in tune with her body and leans into the different stages of her cycle. She also shares her little tricks and tips around nutrition, how she decodes her cravings and uses food to make her feel her absolute best. And of course, we couldn’t help but ask her to share some easy and convenient sustainable switches to make at home.

ON PERIODS AND HER KNOWLEDGE OF HER BODY GROWING UP

“I’m annoyed – I feel stupid saying this but — I could have saved myself a lot of shame. I do take the responsibility for that because I didn’t want to talk about my period when I was a teenager. Even if my mum wanted to. I couldn’t even say the word tampon until I was about twenty!

I have brothers and I was really sporty growing up and I always knew that I wanted to be a chef and maybe that had something to do with it. My dad has always said to me; “you can do what the boys can do if not better.” I have an incredibly supportive family and it was just me. I was embarrassed.

Now that I’ve done a bit of reading, I know exactly what it is. Women cycle and nature cycles and the world cycles. That’s how we should be. I’m not blaming men at all, but it’s a very linear society we live in, and women have tried to fit in with that but we’re 50% of the population and for us that doesn’t work. Trying to keep up when you’re in a kitchen and you feel terrible is hard.

I think that’s what has changed for me now. I embrace the phase of creativity, or the time for self-care and retreating a little bit or using my power when I come out of a cycle to my advantage. Seeing that it is a really effective way to get things done and to live.

I’ve had situations in kitchens where I’ve been really unwell with period pain and pushed through. Particularly, when I was younger and in my early twenties. And I was scared about it happening every month. Why would I not express that I’m not feeling well? Some people can’t relate to that and I just can’t believe I didn’t stand up for myself or embrace what I was going through. I put that pressure on myself. I feel so annoyed and I wish that I was at the mental stage that I’m at now a lot earlier.”

ON HER PERIOD AND PAIN MANAGEMENT

“It didn’t start out really painful. I would often get cramps and the usual things. But as I got older, I noticed the change in hormones or maybe I’m just more aware of my body. But I can tell the phases of my cycle and the changes happening now.

I get really bad pain, and I need to get on top of pain management at the start of my period. For the first two days it feels quite literally like the shedding and the pain can be so bad that I get sick or I get dizzy. It’s very intense pain.

I use a TENS machine called Ovira which my partner Matt found for me. For Matt to buy something for me, for my period management, is amazing. I think it’s a sign that the world is changing.

I read the book Period Queen by Lucy Peach. There’s a part of that book where she says: “I don’t know why we’re ashamed. It’s a life-giving thing that we do.” Ever since then, it’s changed my mentality around it. I realised how much we are a part of nature.

I also get a bit of bloating during the ovulation phase. It’s my body telling me something. I’m definitely more aware of that happening now and wasn’t as a younger girl. It makes sense though, right? I’ve lived in my body for a long time now. As a teenager, as a young girl, I hadn’t lived it in for very long at all. It was all new.

Another thing, right before I’m about to bleed I get so thirsty. I cannot consume enough water! Maybe that has something to do with my blood needing to be thinner? And I hold the water, I don’t pee it out. And then towards the end of bleeding – and this is totally oversharing – I pee so much! So now, as part of that water intake I make herbal tea to try and get more nutrients into my body.

It’s amazing what nutrients are in some herbs. At the moment, because I have the vegetable garden here at Future Food, there is so much blossoming and I love Orange Blossoms, Lemon Balm, Lemon Thyme and Lemon Verbena. It’s very citrus-y and energising and packed with Vitamin C which is probably why I’m craving that! It’s delicious. I love it because I feel as though I’m doing really great things for my body.

When you crave things then it’s your body telling you that you need something. If it is chocolate or pasta that you’re craving then you probably need to give in to feeling comfortable. Or wanting loads of vegetables when you come out of bleeding because you want to feel energised and really great.

I know it’s a cliché but you are what you eat. And if you’re eating really natural food that’s not genetically modified or sprayed with chemicals then it does have a big impact on your hormones.”

ON THE PERIOD PRODUCTS SHE INCORPORATES INTO HER ROUTINE

“I’ve experimented with everything. Because I do experience quite a bit of pain and I am torn with sustainability and not wanting to contribute to waste but also, I need to choose what is right for my body.

A lot of TOM Organic products – such as the brief and cup – weren’t available growing up but I think it’s incredible that these reusable and sustainable options are here now. I’m into period underwear now (I like the mid rise brief) and reusable pads. I would love to use a cup, but because I have so much pain, I’m not sure how that would go for me. Deep down maybe I’m a prude still. All my friends use the cup so I think it’s awesome.

When I was younger I couldn’t use a tampon! I hate the idea of missing out on things that we want to do such as sport, or any type of lifestyle. That’s a big part of the project with Future Food System: when it comes to sustainability it needs to be achievable and convenient which is what TOM Organic does so well.

Everyone knows the problem with the climate and waste and It’s about being solution driven. Even if someone isn’t comfortable using reusable period products, the fact that TOM Organic is organic and uses organic cotton is important.

Another part of Future Food System is of course, the impact on agriculture and I know cotton has a big impact on the planet. The whole idea of spraying chemicals and then inserting a product such as a tampon, into your body, is no different to food. You need to be aware about what you’re putting in your body particularly as women with hormones because it’s so important to how we operate. Once you start looking at it – you see that it impacts every part of our lives.”

ON THE SUCCESS OF FUTURE FOOD SYSTEM

“The response has been overwhelming. I think that’s because people want to make a change in their life that’s positive. So, I think it’s a demand for knowledge around what’s in the food system and how people can make changes. Just like TOM Organic, it’s a solution-driven project. We’re not about making people feel guilty or shame around how they live. Instead, we’re talking about being in this together, and showing some of the things you can change in your day-to-day life that are easy and convenient and then you can make an impact.

Everyone has a journey to go and you can’t push things on people. For example, me learning about my period cycle. I could have been a teenager when I learnt more about my body and mum being there for me, but I wasn’t ready.

That’s the aim of the project – we all eat and live off what’s grown at the house. We’re showing that you can produce delicious food if you grow your own food and it’s so easy. If we can do it here at Melbourne CBD, imagine what you can do in your own space? And we try and have something for every living condition (flat, house, etc), and we’re showing that there’s no excuses you can do it no matter what. Then, people go ‘wow I can do this too’.

Photograph by Josh Robenstone

ON SOME SIMPLE SUSTAINABLE SWITCHES TO MAKE AT HOME

“Sometimes chefs say ‘eat seasonally’, and then people don’t know what’s in season. But the easiest way to find that out, is to go to your local farmer’s market to see what’s around and speak to the growers. Once you’re there you can ask growers about the produce, how to prepare it and so forth and then being at a farmer’s market means that you’re not using any plastics.

Learning some cooking skills is a big one because then you might have half a carrot and half an onion in the bottom of your fridge- things that you might throw away because you don’t know how to use them. Increasing your knowledge around food preparation gives you a bit more freedom with what you prepare and making things delicious. Because it needs to taste good. That’s the biggest thing.

Growing food is so satisfying with kids as well. A big thing is if you grew some of your own herbs, then you’re not buying them from the supermarket in those plastic wraps. And you’re also using them at different stages; you might get them at a shoot, or when they’re a leaf or a flower and seed. So, you’re getting more use out of growing just one thing.”

Photograph by Josh Robenstone

ON SOME OTHER SUSTAINABLE PERSONAL CARE ITEMS SHE LOVES

“Six or seven years ago I started using Sante by Enjo reusable microfiber face wipes. All you need to do is add water then wash your face. It took about a week and a half to get used to using just water instead of cleanser and toner. And since then, I haven’t bought any face wash or body wash. I can’t imagine how many bottles I’ve saved and I love it. Now I can’t use a chemical on my face.”