Party for the Planet – A host’s perspective

We hosted our first ever party on Saturday night and with 29 people from age 7 months to 70, I’d say it was a great success.

If you’re not familiar with, I highly recommend checking out their web site. They’re all about getting people involved in the political process and working together at a grass-roots level for progressive change.

Party for the Planet was a series of house parties that coincided with Live Earth. I’m going to cheat and send you to my pal Amy’s succinct description of the event on CrunchyDomesticGoddess because I’m pressed for time and already running late on getting this post out 😉 Suffice it to say, the point of the party was to get to know other progressives in the area, but also to hear the environmental platforms from the 8 declared Democrat presidential candidates.

I will definitely host more MoveOn events in the future–the atmosphere was hopeful and positive, although I think we all agreed that we were about done with the current administration and a political climate of division, fear, and anger.  But I do have a few suggestions for MoveOn, or some things that I wish would have been done differently by us or by MoveOn:

  1. I’m so embarrassed to admit that, for a party based on saving the environment, we generated quite a bit of garbage. I don’t have dishes, cutlery & cups for 29 people, so we had to use paper/plastic. I don’t have a solution to this right off the top of my head, but wanted to fess up here.
  2.  Many hosts did not receive their DVDs on time for the event and ended up downloading the “Virtual Town Hall” with the candidates online. I wish they would have just given us the option of downloading in the first place, and I would have avoided both the environmental and material costs of getting a DVD because we are plenty geeky enough to rig out computer to our TV to play the message. Heck, with my new Mac Book, I could have streamed it instead of downloading it 😉
  3. We combined parties with another neighbor who didn’t have A/C since it’s been so hot. That was great because it brought our numbers up, but I didn’t get to communicate with everyone about food and we ended up with WAY too much food. Most of it got eaten or sent home with party-goers, but some of it did go to waste. That’s always a problem with pot lucks and I’m as guilty as the next guy of bringing a dish for 25 instead of 8…

Even with these few small things, I thought the party was a great success and a lot of people exchanged names/numbers/emails at the end of the party. I am looking forward to feeling out the activist community when we get up to Lyons and have high hopes that it will be even more active than here in Lafayette!

The dangers of High-Fructose Corn Syrup

I’ve blogged about the damage caused by US food subsidies before, and have also mentioned my dislike of the prvelance of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Here is the best summary I’ve seen to date on the topic and why HFCS is likely to cause our children’s generation to have a SHORTER life expectancy than ours (when ours is already lower than that of other developed nations!).

In summary, HFCS is twice as sweet as table sugar, encourages your liver to release fat into the bloodstream, and tricks you into feeling more hungry than you actually are. Sounds like a recipe for obesity, doesn’t it? Avoiding it is harder than you think–most processed food has it because, hey, it’s cheaper than imported beet or cane sugar. Even non-dessert items like bread, cereal, yogurt, and kethcup have it and one cola has more than your entire day’s allowance of sugar.

Until America’s Neanderthal food regulations catch up with what modern science/medicine and ban or at least regulate the inclusion of HFCS into foodstuffs (especially those marketed to children, hint, hint!), you might do well to read the label and avoid HFCS.

My hero!

Barbara Kingsolver has a new book out and I’m on pins and needles until I can get my hands on it. A quote from her recent interview with Salon illustrates why:

“Food is the one consumer choice we have to make every day. We can use that buying power in a transaction that burns excessive fossil fuels, erodes topsoil, supports multinationals that pay their workers just a few bucks a day — or the same money could strengthen neighborhood food economies, keep green spaces alive around our towns, and compensate farmers for applying humane values. Every purchase weighs in on one side or the other. It just isn’t possible to opt out. Otherwise, if you’re going to eat food, you belong to some kind of food chain. The goal of this book is to reveal that truth.”

Every time I read one of her books, I am struck by how she can so eloquently express my world view and then I feel like I was born 15 years too late–that I should be her. Her fiction entertains, but her non-fiction enlightens. If you haven’t read her books, and are at least remotely interested by the ideas of community, farming, family relations, and sustainable living, proceed directly to the nearest indie bookshop and check her out!

Doing more than recycling

I remember a time (about ten years ago for us), when simply participating in curb-side recycling meant you were an Environmentalist. I felt a certain amount of pride at my accomplishment of going green and felt that recycling, in combination with our vegetarian eating habits and green voting practices, put us on the cutting edge of mainstream environmentalism (i.e. we weren’t living off the grid, but we were doing our part for a better Earth).

If only it were that easy. As TreeHugger points out, the original “R” initiative was Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, with the implicit assumption that people were in fact going to try to reduce their consumption of disposables, packaging, etc., reuse what they couldn’t avoid buying, and recycle the tiny bit that was left. We’re all guilty of this: buy as much plastic packaging as you like, it is, after all, recyclable.

Unfortunately, The Non-Toxic Times points out this month that precious little of that trash is getting recycled. Even after years and years of advocacy and educational programs, we’re still only recycling a tiny fraction of our waste, as follows:

  • Paper (34.2%)
  • Yard Trimmings (13.1%)
  • Food Scraps (11.9%)
  • Plastics (11.8%)
  • Metals (7.6%)
  • Rubber, Leather, and Textiles (7.3%)
  • Glass (5.2%)
  • Wood (5.7%)
  • Other (3.4%)

(For more statistics and information on the short-falls of recycling, see the full article.) That means that out of the 4.5 pounds of waste an average American produces PER DAY, 3 pounds ends up in the landfill. What to do, what to do???? First, let me clarify that I’m not advocating giving up recycling, just suggesting that something additional is in order. The folks at Seventh Generation are advocating for zero waste, which is interesting considering the amount of packaging I have to throw away when I buy their products (less than traditional products, but still plastic wrap that is non-recyclable!).

I’m here to suggest something easy, inexpensive, fun (especially if you like natural science experiments), and very environmentally friendly: composting. Take a second look at the list above; only slightly more than 10% of food scraps and yard waste are being recycled–the rest go in the landfill. You could put 100% of your scraps (if you’re vegetarian, that is) in the compost pile. You could also throw in your dryer lint and non-contaminated paper products (i.e. shredded office paper & paper towels & tissues, but not diapers or toilet paper). Ashes from the fireplace, sawdust from home-improvement projects, and any packaging made from corn or other biodegradable products (think corn starch packing peanuts, if you’re not already taking those to your local shipping store for reuse), can also be added.

While providing step by step instructions for composting is beyond the scope of this post, a quick Google search yielded plenty of how-tos online:

That last link goes into worm composting too, something I’ve never tried but that my father-in-law has done with some success. Although you can have a zero-cost compost pile just by digging a shallow pit somewhere in your yard and piling things on, I have to admit that my favorite low-mess bin that has the added bonus of deterring squirrels, cats, & raccoons, is an enclosed tumbler like this one. I realize this one is spendy, and also that an average gardening family of four would likely need more than one, but it sure is easy and even collects the liquid run-off for compost tea, the best darned plant food on the planet.

Composting, like heirloom tomatoes, cloth diapers, and canning, is an environmentally-sound obsession in this household. Consider trying this easy way to do more than just putting that recycle bin out at the curb once a week…

You are what you eat!

To continue my unannounced Earth Day series of interesting articles & causes, I’d like to point to one of my new favorite writers, Michael Pollan, and his latest NY Times article on the cost of foods in America. To summarize, it posits that poor people are suffering from obesity in greater proportions than the general population not because they are making bad food choices, but because our beloved farm subsidy program actually makes it cheaper to eat junk food than it does to eat fruits & vegetables.

I’d love to see someone do the math on what the obesity epidemic costs the American taxpayer; paying Medicare/Medicaid for all these people who are bound for long-term health problems can’t be cheap. When you add the $25B a year we’re spending on farm subsidies, logic might dictate that a change is in order.

A shout out to Doug for sending me a link that eventually led to this article!!

The 100-Mile Challenge

I received an e-zine article the other day that got me started thinking. The article was from Seventh Generation’s Non Toxic Times and it was about the 100-Mile Challenge. The idea is that you try to buy food that is produced within a 100 mile radius of your house for a month and is meant to encourage people to shop locally for their food. The article summarized the benefits of eating locally-grown and produced food as follows:

  • It protects the environment. Food that travels is food that uses fossil fuels, which contribute to pollution, climate change, and other woes. Locally-produced food doesn’t have to travel much so it’s a lot cleaner. And local food is more likely to come from smaller family farms that generally use more sustainable practices than factory farms.
  • It protects our health. Locally-produced food is a lot fresher so it contains more nutrients. It also tastes better because local farmers are growing their crops and raising their livestock for flavor, not easy processing and shipping. Instead of tomatoes bred to survive a month in a shipping container, for example, we’re likely to get an heirloom variety bursting with juice and taste.
  • It protects and strengthens our local economies. When we buy locally-produced foods, we support local businesses and nearby farms, and keep our dollars circulating in the local community. We also make those communities stronger. In Vermont, for example, if we could replace just 10% of the foods we eat with local products, we’d create over 3,600 jobs, and add $376 million to the local economy.

We made the switch to primarily organic foods when we lived in England because, frankly, they weren’t that much more expensive than conventionally-grown foods and we had the extra cash-flow to experiment. Now, five years later, shopping organic is ingrained in our way of life and, with the opening of a Vitamin Cottage natural food store less than a mile from our house, it’s even more convenient to do so. The next step, in my opinion, is to use my family’s consumer dollars not only to support organics, but to support local businesses. That’s why last summer we signed up for a Community-Sponsored Agriculture program with Monroe Organic Farm. The Monroes have farmed this same plot of land up near Greeley, Colorado, for generations, and they grow muskmelons that surpass even the Indiana melons I grew up on in both flavor and quantity. And don’t get me started about how good their eggs are–there’s a reason that Gabriel frequently demands scrambled eggs for dinner! Anyhow, a CSA program is one in which families like ours pay upfront for a share of the produce grown on the farm in a given season. This provides the farmers with the cash-flow they so badly need during planting season while at the same time guaranteeing that we’ll get a large onion-bag of freshly picked produce every week during the season. This is definitely a learning process–we got so much produce last summer that some was given away and even *gasp* composted. This summer, I have managed to can, freeze, or cook just about every last bit of food we received (OK, I gave away some of those fantastic melons because three per week was more than Gabriel and I–the melon hounds in this family–could tackle!) and have decided to sign us up for a half winter share. The winter share includes anything that they picked and stored in a root cellar up at the farm and should include everything from popcorn (hence our newly-established Sunday night ritual of popcorn for dinner & a movie) to winter squash to potatoes. It should be an adventure, so watch this space to see if we’re sick of root veggies by February. I love the idea that we’re supporting the local economy and family farms. You don’t have to go too far back in either of our families to find farmers (in fact, I have a couple of dairy-farming cousins and Matt’s Mom’s family still has a farm in Sweden), but it seems like the average American these days is so far removed from the farms and ranches that produce the food they eat. I mean, your Big Mac is so farm removed from the original source of the beef, grain, and vegetables that went into it that it’s easy to see how we’ve gotten where we are. Where are we? You might ask…Well, a full third of this country is obese. We’re making bad foreign policy decisions because of our reliance on the fossil fuels used to power our obsession with transporting food, goods, and people thousands of miles. Most children today have no idea what goes into growing the grain that makes up their sandwich and think that Wonderbread is real bread. Not where I want this country to be and not where I want the country to be when my children are adults. So what to do. Buy local. Support local farmers and local businesses. Read about how to make better food choices at the supermarket, or better yet, shop at the Farmer’s Market! Savor your food instead of wolfing it down in front of the television and actually think about what you’re feeding your family. It will make a difference. I promise.

Why I love canning…

It’s August, a time of year when I become absolutely obsessed with canning, freezing, and dehydrating. That’s right, canning is not just for your Great Aunt Mabel, hip (or not) young (or not) people do it too! When we bought our house in 1999, we inherited a home-canner’s paradise in the way of fruit trees, vines, & shrubs. We had two blue concord grapes, a red concord grape, a white Niagara grape, rhubarb, raspberries, an apple tree and two cherry trees. My husband grew up on home-canned grape juice, so I decided to give it a try. Our first batch was canned in the dishwasher (don’t try this at home kids!) and was delicious! I have now graduated to a simple canning bath and for about $100 of equipment, jars, bands & lids, I can now put by enough jam and canned fruit that we don’t have to buy any all winter long! In recent years, I have taken out all but one of the original grapes, cut down a diseased cherry tree, added a sweet Muscat grape (not producing enough for wine, but makes an excellent white grape juice), and added a strawberry patch to the garden. I have also signed up for Monroe Organic Farm‘s CSA & fruit share, which means I’ve added peaches, plums, pears, and apricots to my canning repetoire. This year, I tried a new recipe for plums from that is so good I might have to buy another box of plums to make more. So, top 7 reasons I love canning:

  1. It’s one of the few things that ties me to my extended family’s traditions (my Aunt Amy makes the best pickles you’ve ever tasted and now I make them too!).
  2. It’s good for the environment because I don’t buy frozen or canned fruit that was trucked in using lots of fossil fuels.
  3. I have complete control of the ingredients from choosing individual fruits at peak ripeness to controlling the amount of sugar and salt.
  4. The stuff I can tastes so much better than store-bought and is fresher too.
  5. It’s organic without the sticker shock because organic produce is cheaper when it’s purchased in season.
  6. The look on Gabriel’s face when I feed him canned Colorado-grown peaches in mid-winter is worth the effort!
  7. And hey, I’m a foodie, so I’m always looking for unusual food-related hobbies to pick up!

If you’re interested in learning more about canning, this site will get you started. Jars and other supplies are frequently available (at least here in Boulder County) at your local thrift store! Happy Canning!