Wednesday, October 30, 2013

eating clean on a budget: aldi

My second stop on the discount grocery store tour was Aldi. Owned by a German family company, Albrecht Discounts, Aldi is one of the no-frills discount grocers who eschews fancy displays and wide product selection for low prices. Perhaps most interestingly, Aldi is owned by the same company as Trader Joe's, its higher-end counterpart. While Trader Joe's carries more organic selections and higher quality meats, when it comes down to the come down, they have similar products on the shelf. It's heavy on the private label items, which means that the organic honey at Aldi might be the exact same thing as the organic honey at Trader Joes, only with less markup (because the cashiers at Aldi don't ring bells or wear Hawaiian shirts?). I have issues with Trader Joes for other reasons, but if you're going to buy private label stuff there, you're going to pay extra for the fun stores and fancy graphic design.

But on to the bargains. I was really happy to see that Aldi had a significantly higher percentage of organic products than Bottom Dollar (more than milk!). The first one I happened across was honey, at $3.19. It was also sourced from U.S. producers, which is good. Definitely cheaper than I've seen it elsewhere. 

I also saw a few items like organic salad dressings, but they are still processed foods and wouldn't be the greatest choice. Stick to salad dressings that have to be refrigerated, since they are usually made with real ingredients, or go with lemon juice or olive oil/vinegar. Remember that just because something says organic doesn't mean it's a whole food or healthy.

Just inside the door were bags of nuts at really reasonable prices. While they were all conventionally produced, nuts are among the products that are more protected from pesticides because of their shells. Organic nuts are another hard to find product, so these are a great alternative. And if you can bother to chop your own walnuts, you can really save on the price per pound by getting the bigger bag. 

Many stores carry generic K-cup single serve coffee pods now. While I think it's better from a waste perspective (and a quality coffee perspective) to use a refillable cup, these K-cups were relatively cheap, but still fair trade. Wouldn't be a bad thing to have on hand for guests, etc.

The produce section left a lot to be desired, since most of it was thrown all over the place. That could have been a product of the fact that we were there toward the end of a major shopping day and it might have been picked over by ravenous shoppers. It was mostly conventional, but the prices weren't nearly as good as Bottom Dollar for the same items. 

I did find organic salad greens in the refrigerator case, but they were small containers and for $2.49, not any better than the prices at Whole Foods!

There were two decent options for milk, including Organic Valley 2%, which is a great buy at $3.48 for a half gallon. Organic Valley sources all of its milk from family farmers, and at Aldi it was a great choice. If that's still too expensive, they also had an off-brand gallon of milk for $3.77 that at least was from cows that were not given rBGH, even if their diet wasn't organic.

Aldi had good prices on staples, just like Bottom Dollar. Rice and oats were the primary ones I found, but Aldi has a more limited selection than Bottom Dollar in general.

The non-milk dairy and meat were not any different from Bottom Dollar and there wasn't anything to recommend there. But Aldi had two options for sandwich bread - both 12 grain and whole wheat - that didn't have high fructose corn syrup and were minimally processed.

Probably the best buy I found at Aldi was the organic canned tomatoes. A 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes was only $1.49, which is a terrific price. They also had organic marinara sauce for $1.99. I like to make my own sauces from regular tomatoes, but in a pinch, this would be a good, affordable choice.

It's also important to choose organic tomatoes, not just because of the lack of pesticides, but because most organic tomatoes are grown in California, which is better than Florida, where the humid climate and poor, sandy soil make for poor growing conditions, which lead to the use of more chemicals. (If you want to know more about this, Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland is a great read.)

At the end of the store, Aldi also had a good selection of frozen fruit and vegetables at decent prices. It would be worth doing a real cost comparison on the frozen fruits and veggies at different stores to see where the best deals are, since they are essentially the same thing.

It's also worth noting that Aldi starts their workers at well above minimum wage. We saw a sign for $11.75/hour starting out. I like to support stores that don't hoard profits while condemning their workers to never make ends meet.

I'll definitely be checking out Aldi for particular items on my grocery list. Plus, the more shoppers purchase their organic products, the more likely they are to start to carry more and expand their selection. It's worth a trip!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

eating clean on a budget: bottom dollar

While I truly believe you can shop at health food stores on a restricted budget (and that "Whole Foods, Whole Paycheck" is not really grounded in fact), it's true that discount grocery stores offer some major bargains. So what if you're trying to eat clean, but you want to reduce your grocery bills? I've been checking out some local stores to see what they offer, and this weekend I went to Bottom Dollar. These stores are popping up all over the Pittsburgh area and boast that they offer the lowest prices around. But what about quality?

My first surprise was the large selection of produce. While they didn't carry any organic produce, they had a wide selection of fruits and vegetables. Even Whole Foods doesn't carry organic produce for every item all of the time, so if you're going to go conventional, it's definitely worth going to a discount store. While I advocate for organic produce, some items are less likely to carry pesticide residue. For example, these onions were only $1.98 for three pounds, and you're going to peel the skins off anyway before you use them. They also carried larger bulk bags of onions and some other items like potatoes, which lowers the price per pound.

After the produce was the meat and seafood area. I didn't find anything in the meat section I'd recommend, since it was all completely conventionally raised. But I was surprised to find frozen fish filets and seafood with a sustainability label. Some of it was sold at a very affordable price per pound - even under $2. While sustainable labels are tricky when it comes to fish, as I learned in this book, this is a good step in the right direction and for a really good price. 

In the dairy section, they offered organic milk, which is a good step forward since organic milk cannot come from cows given rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone). (They were stocking it at the time so I couldn't snap a pic.) I also found unsweetened iced tea in the same refrigerated section. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find pre-made unsweetened tea in stores, since most options are full sugar or "diet" with nasty artificial sweeteners. For only $1.98 this Gold Peak tea was a bargain.

The majority of the products in this store were conventional and hyper-processed. The entire section of inner aisles had row after row of chips, cookies, pop, and junk masquerading as good food - canned soups with insane amounts of sodium, breakfast cereals jacked up on sugar. 

But I did find a few snack items that would qualify as 'clean' under my definition. They carried several options for unsweetened/no sugar or sweetener added applesauce - even one for kids on the go. 

One of the best finds was the low price of staple pantry ingredients. It's not always easy to find organic oats, lentils and rice, even at health food stores. Bottom Dollar had brown rice with no additives for 78 cents/pound and you could also get lentils for less than $1/pound. Oats are typically not GMOs, so that's another one that is passable not organic, especially for these prices when you're trying to stretch a budget.

Spices were also relatively affordable there. I prefer to buy spices in bulk so I can buy small amounts at a time and not have them go stale, but their prices were great on small containers here. 

One more positive was the variety of fruits and vegetables available frozen. I prefer frozen vegetables to canned if the cans aren't BPA free (BPA is an endocrine disruptor). While all conventional, the vegetables were incredibly affordable (less than $1 a bag for many types) and the fruits were as well. Frozen fruits like berries can be very expensive, if they are even available at all. 

In addition to the food, I also happened across an isle with a small seasonal section with grilling items and you'll never believe it - canning jars. The display had a note saying it was set to go away this week, but I liked to see the store even carrying the products. Who knows if it would put the thought in someone's head to take up canning!

I found Bottom Dollar to have some good choices for basic pantry staples. If you avoid the processed food in the main aisles and stick to produce, seafood and dry, whole foods, you can get some good, clean products for cheap. Enough that it's definitely worth dividing your grocery list for different stores, even though it might mean more work.

I also checked out Aldi this weekend, and will be trying Save-a-lot and Good Cents over the next few weeks. Look for posts on those coming up!

We also decided to switch our warehouse membership to Costco from Sam's Club. Costco carries a lot of organic staples, like extra virgin olive oil and tomato paste, at bulk/warehouse prices. We'll save money getting some organic staples there. Plus, they carry the natural shampoo/body wash I use now. Win win!

October simplified update: Finished the dining room organization this weekend and now have only two remaining rooms and the dreaded basement. Trying not to let my momentum fade because I'd love this house to be cleaned out by the holidays. Listed my first pair of running shoes on eBay (they were the wrong shoe for my foot) and have continued to sell more books on Amazon.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Real Life CSA: week 21, produce

Mostly favorites and something brand new this week!

New this week is a giant bunch of turnip greens. The email from the farm says you can cook them like spinach, so they might end up sauteed with some chard.

We eat salad all the time in our house and never get tired of it. Why? Because the ingredients are just so delicious. No waxy peppers or red tinted wilty lettuce. They are always colorful and vibrant and they taste like something. 

Pea shoots are one of the varieties in the mixed greens bag this week. More tendrils!

The giant pile of peppers will probably be cut into strips and frozen for future fajitas.

Don't forget that comments are open on the FSMA rules until November 15. There's still time to add your voice. For help on how to do that (and to see the comment I submitted), click here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

movie review: DIVE!

DIVE! actually came out in 2010, but as part of my quest to watch as many food and environment documentaries as I can, I added it to my queue. The film focuses on waste - in particular what America throws out. The dive to which the title refers? Straight into a dumpster.

In just the first few seconds of the film, we're reminded that America wastes 3,000 pounds of food per second. So in the time it has taken you to read this far, we've wasted several thousand pounds of food. 

It's true that 40% of the food that's wasted is thrown out in our households. But what about the other 60%? The film follows people who actually dumpster dive for discarded food from grocery stores. 

I was shocked to see how much food they would find on a nightly basis that was perfectly edible. Entire bags of avocados or packages of tomatoes, where one had gone soft or moldy, but the rest were fine. Slightly wrinkled blueberries or bags of salad greens that were one day away from "expiring." Even more shocking was the amount of meat wasted. In the span of seven evenings, the people in the film found enough meat to feed a family for a year. Being outside in the cold night? It stayed refrigerated and sealed. And in the garbage.

The people who do this see it as civil disobedience - actively opposing the immorality of perfectly good food thrown out by corporations when millions of Americans go to bed hungry each night. I see it that way too. Because of the Good Samaritan Act passed during Clinton's presidency, companies are protected from liability for food donations. But many still throw out food in advance of expiration dates. And refuse to donate it, even when asked.

Regardless of the morality factor, it's not even good business practice. We waste 50% of the food produced in this country, to the detriment of our environment, economy and our societal well being. One person in the film is quoted as saying "when you waste food, you waste life." Every time you throw food out, you're not just wasting that food, but all of the resources that went into producing it - water, time, labor, etc. 

This film reminds us that we've forgotten that food is precious. It's a valuable gift. We take it for granted and consume it divorced from its true cost. Say you throw out leftovers. What if you also dumped 1,000 gallons of water down the drain at the same time, and then put $5 on your kitchen counter and set it on fire? Would you be more likely to eat, share or preserve that food if you were aware of what you were truly wasting?

While this film felt like a "first documentary" from the filmmaker, with a lot of footage that seemed like it was recorded on someone's iPhone and a lot of "I tried to get someone from X store to speak with me and they refused," it still kept my attention. It also made me interested in reclamation programs that work with companies to salvage discarded food before it's lost to rot or spoilage and help get it where it needs to go to feed people. Even though I probably won't be dumpster diving anytime soon, I will probably ask my grocery store what they do with the food they throw out when I visit this week.

Monday, October 21, 2013

want to eat clean? 4 tips to get started

People often tell me that they are interested in eating clean for lots of reasons, but that they are having trouble actually starting or taking the first step. Sometimes they don’t even know what that first step is. To think about making a complete 180 degree change in the way you eat is overwhelming and the process can be intimidating, especially when you feel like you have a lifetime of “bad” habits to overcome and a demanding schedule. Also, there are many definitions floating out there about what constitutes “clean eating.” In my own lifestyle, I define clean eating as choosing minimally processed, whole foods (heavy on the plants), organic when possible, and staying away from heavily processed restaurant food.

Here are some simple tips if you’re interested in transitioning to clean eating, but have found yourself blocked by the idea of getting started.

1. Start small.  
While it might feel cliché to say that the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, it’s 100% truth. Look at what you are eating now. Do you have a soda addiction? Are you constantly going through the drive-thru for dinner? Do you rely on microwaveable, TV-dinner type meals? Choose just one of those areas to focus on. Reducing your consumption even by a small amount is a great first step to eliminating it all together. For most people, going cold turkey is unrealistic for long-term success. In the case of being hooked on soda, try reducing your consumption during the first week by 20%. Or stop ordering soda when you’re at a restaurant and choose water or plain tea instead. When you are comfortable at that level, keep going.

2. Have an arsenal of recipes.
You won’t be able to sustain any kind of lifestyle change if you aren’t eating things you like. Think about the foods you really enjoy and look for recipes that fit in that category. Find some go-to websites or cookbooks where you can easily locate a recipe, especially when a craving strikes. When I have a craving for Chinese takeout, I know where to look for a homemade knock-off recipe that satisfies the craving without all of the extra chemicals and added salt, sugar and fat. I print out recipes that interest me and put them in a three-ring binder that serves as my own homemade cookbook – that way I don’t have to dig around online when I really need something. We’ve also invested in some physical cookbooks that I consider our workhorses. For some clean eating resources, check out this post.

3. Stock your pantry, including your freezer.
We’ve all had nights where your best laid plans for dinner fall through. Maybe you get home from work late or you sat in traffic for an hour and can’t deal with the idea of cooking. If you keep your pantry stocked with basic items, you can throw together an incredibly quick meal. When you make a great chili or soup in the crock pot, freeze half of it for those nights when your plans just don’t work out. It will take you less time to reheat frozen chili than it will to swing through a drive-thru or call for takeout. (Your stomach AND wallet will thank you.)

4. Don’t beat yourself up. 

You can’t go from a diet heavy in processed foods and junk to a clean, wholesome diet overnight. Your body almost has to detox from the things it comes to rely on and that it craves. Even when you’re committed, you’re going to have areas that aren’t perfect or that are harder to give up than you thought. Just accept that there will be bumps in the road from the get-go and let them just be bumps – not off-ramps.

If you’re eating clean, what got you motivated to start? How have you kept with it?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Real Life CSA: week 20, produce

This week's share was the first in months to not include tomatoes, which definitely means we're in to fall now. We got a great assortment this week, though. 

But before I share what we received this week, I have to take time to mention that the bounty that we get each year from our CSA is truly threatened by new rules that the FDA is trying to establish due to the Food Safety Modernization Act. These rules jeopardize small farms and by extension, our economy, environment and health. You can read directly from our produce CSA why this is such an issue for them here.

Often we think that one voice doesn't matter when it comes to our government and that we're too busy to take the time to speak up when it matters. If you've ever enjoyed produce from your CSA or your local farmers markets, this affects you. Take 10 minutes out of your schedule today to read about these rules and how they will directly affect your community. I linked to resources and ways to comment in this post, last week. It's worth it, if for no other reason than to stand up next to farmers and show your support as a consumer. They shouldn't have to fight this battle alone.

With that said, check out what we received this week.

Depending on what we cook this week, I might slice and freeze peppers, since we have an abundance of them right now. Broccoli will make a great side. (We never get tired of broccoli as a side. Just plain steamed in all its own glory. Yes, I just used the word glory in a sentence about broccoli.)

These greens are great and so flavorful. I love the pieces that have tendrils.

These tiny eggplants might find their way into a slow cooker recipe this week. We've been trying to take advantage of the slow cooker more lately, to take some of the time burden off of cooking at home. In fact, a lentil stew with tomatoes is in the crock pot right now!

The apples this year have been amazing. They are crisp and so flavorful, it makes you never want to touch a waxy apple again. If you've ever wondered why these apples have gray spots, it's from the natural clay treatments they get to ward off disease and pests. It's perfectly fine to eat and you don't even taste it. I think it gives them character.

But taking the prize this week for most beautiful produce is definitely the chard. We like to eat this sauteed with garlic, and even after cooking, the colors are so vibrant.

What did you get in your CSA share this week?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

movie review: Food Matters

As a geek that loves documentaries, I recently added a bunch of food/environment/science related films to my Netflix/Amazon Prime queues (one of my favorite benefits of streaming vs. cable!). After reading a lot about it on Twitter, I started with Food Matters.

This film focuses around the basic idea that you are what you eat. Garbage in, garbage out – that kind of thing. From the outset, I felt like the filmography was relatively rough – almost manic, with distracting backgrounds and too many vintage clips of instructional films from the 1950s and 1960s.

However, I agreed wholeheartedly with the premise – that this country suffers from an epidemic of chronic malnutrition (as opposed to acute malnutrition or starvation). Far too often in my own experience, I’ve gone to the doctor with an issue and was just given pills and pushed out the door. When I had constant headaches in grad school, the first doctor I saw just wanted to give me pills, even when he knew I was crazy-addicted to caffeine.

The film makes the claim that modern medicine too often treats symptoms and not the underlying disease or condition. Much of what currently ails us as a population can be attributed to our lifestyle – poor diet, lack of exercise and stress. Makes sense. It’s made sense in my own life. I agree with the film’s assertion that the human body has an astonishing capacity to heal itself from many ailments, if given the chance.

Food Matters does a good job of reminding consumers that just like Big Agriculture, Big Pharmaceutical is a half a trillion dollar industry. There is a lot of money involved in treating illness with medicine in this country. Every time you take a blood pressure pill or a blood sugar pill, you are putting money in the hands of drug companies that have a vested interest in you never actually getting off their medication. They make no money from wellness. For the vast majority of the population, it’s affordable and safe to change your diet and start exercising. So why would you want to just stay on the pills when they won’t prolong your life or more importantly, improve your quality of life?

As is the case in Big Agriculture, supporting research for drugs is often sponsored and paid for by the drug companies themselves. Drug companies don’t want to pay for research that suggests that a plant-based diet and an abundance of vitamins and minerals can lead to health. The film also talked about high dosage vitamin therapies that have been studied for years as treatment for various chronic illnesses, including serious illnesses like cancer.

While much of what the film discusses makes perfect sense – that nutrition should be our primary prevention strategy against disease, etc. - it also veers off into more alternative therapies that left me interested, but highly skeptical. For instance, there’s a lot of information on colonic therapies that “cleanse” the body of toxins. As I explained in my post about why I don’t do juice cleanses or lemon juice/maple syrup/vinegar cleanses, a healthy colon doesn’t need help cleansing your body. Don’t put toxins in your body and you won’t have to force them out uncomfortably by drinking 2 liters of water after you get out of bed and having nothing but high fiber juice for days.

The film highlights the Gerson Institute, which champions a holistic therapy for cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases. The therapy, according to their website, includes activating “the body’s extraordinary ability to heal itself through an organic, vegetarian diet, raw juices, coffee enemas and natural supplements.” They claim a great success rate and honestly, I’m not doubting them. Anyone who has ever seen someone suffer from cancer knows that chemotherapy is awful in every possible sense. And anyone who wants to treat their cancer with vitamins and enemas should absolutely have the right to do so. (It’s ridiculous that all of the Gerson clinics have to be out of the country even though they are staffed by MDs that go to the same med schools that other doctors in the U.S. attend.)

But I’m still skeptical that raw juices and enemas are cure-alls. Sometimes disease happens, regardless of the health of your lifestyle. For instance, eating raw foods isn’t going to make my lungs stop being asthmatic. I have a decrease in asthma symptoms because of my increased lung health due to cardiovascular exercise, but I don’t stop having the disease. I also don’t want to go back to my life before being on thyroid replacement hormone – even though my lifestyle has also contributed to a reduction in symptoms.

Overall the film had interesting food for thought, if you’ll pardon the pun. And it serves as a great reminder that the diseases plaguing the west – particularly heart disease and diabetes – can be not only prevented but REVERSED by true lifestyle modifications. I would not put it in the same class of documentaries as Food, Inc. or A Place at the Table, but it wasn’t a waste of an hour.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Real Life CSA: meat, month 5

I can't believe we've been getting these meat shares for 5 months now. Our freezer can believe it - we're growing a stockpile to get us through the winter. If Mark gets a deer, we're going to have to have a winter cookout!

Very happy for a big beef roast this time around. I love how a house smells after a roast with veggies has slow cooked all day. Also just in time for colder weather, beef bones for soup!

Three roasting chickens this share. One of them was fresh, but we needed to freeze it because of our meal schedule. From this point forward we'll probably be roasting a chicken a week! If you've got good ideas for spice rubs, leave them in the comments. I get bored if it's the same thing every week.

Lots of sausage this week - breakfast sausage for Mark, plus both sweet and hot Italian sausage. I didn't really grow up liking spicy foods, but now? The hotter the better!

Also got a big pork roast, which I'm dreaming of making with apples or squash or some delectable combination of autumn produce. 

October Simplified update: Sold six books already; organized my way through the guest bedroom, bathroom, master bedroom and vestibule. The house gets significantly more cluttered the closer I get to the basement. It's like making your way through a level of Super Mario Brothers and the basement is the big King Koopa at the end... 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Real Life CSA: week 19, produce

A little late today. The photo is off-center not because I was trying to be artsy, but because I think I was a little tired after my self defense class. Week 19 features the last of the tomatoes for the year. Going to cherish these!

We're building up a surplus of red peppers, so I might find a good dish to feature those this week. Broccoli and green beans will make great sides, as will the potatoes if we don't just store them for awhile. 

I love carnival squash - I wish we had even more of these! They look decorative, but they are so delicious they don't deserve to sit on a table somewhere.

Really loving their apples this season. I also love that one of the apples still had a leaf attached. When was the last time you saw that in a store?

This cauliflower was a good size, but it's the greens that are enormous. That thing easily took up half of a crisper drawer in the fridge! Perhaps combined with last week's, pureed cauliflower is in order! (Tastes like mashed potatoes but is lower calorie and slightly sweet.)

Have you made any good dishes lately with produce from your CSA?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Proposed FDA rules - speak up to support local farms!

In support of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA is creating new rules which threaten small farms, sustainable and organic agriculture and farm conservation efforts and the environment. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the new rules as currently written will “put many farms out of business, reduce the supply of fresh, local produce in schools and hospitals, push farmers to tear out wildlife habitat, and increase the use of chemicals rather than natural fertilizers.”

A comment period is open until November 15, and it’s important that we speak out to support the farms that supply the food we enjoy so much and that make this area of the country so agriculturally vibrant. (Despite the government shutdown, comments are still accepted on the FDA website.)
Using a template provided by the NSAC, I wrote my own customized comment to submit. You can find more information on the proposed rules, as well as instructions for how to submit your comment on this special website

Feel free to copy my comment that appears below or write your own – but either way, speak up. Every voice matters – and if you’ve enjoyed a CSA this season, part of that “community support” is to stand beside farmers and to do what’s right for them and our community and environment.

Follow NSAC on Twitter at @sustainableag for the latest updates – spread the word! 

Re: Preventive Controls Rule: FDA-2011-N-0920, Produce Standards Rule: FDA-2011-N-0921

I am a concerned consumer, parent, entrepreneur, etc. writing because I am concerned about the impact that FDA’s proposed FSMA rules will have on the farms where I source my food, as well as the environment and my local economy. I ask you to ensure that new regulations do not put family farms out of business, harm farmers’ soil, water, and wildlife conservation efforts, or shut down the growth of local and regional healthy food systems!

My family subscribes to community supported agriculture programs from local farms, which enables us to have access to the freshest, healthiest produce, grown without practices that harm farm workers or the environment. These small businesses are not just an asset to our local economy, but an asset to the health and well being of our community members. Many local farms donate produce to needy families or offer reduced price shares and give back to the community that supports them in many ways. They also allow us to purchase healthy food without the extra markup from conventional stores, adding an economic benefit – the money stays entirely in our community instead of benefiting out of state or out of country corporations. These farms are in indispensable part of our region and my own life. 

I urge you to modify the rules so that they:
•    Allow farmers to use sustainable farming practices, including those already allowed and encouraged by existing federal organic standards and conservation programs. Specifically, FDA must not exceed the strict standards for the use of manure and compost used in certified organic production and regulated by the National Organic Program.

•    Ensure that diversified and innovative farms, particularly those pioneering models for increased access to healthy, local foods, continue to grow and thrive without being stifled. Specifically, FDA needs to clarify two key definitions: first, as Congress required, FDA must affirm that farmers markets, CSAs, roadside stands, and other direct-to-consumer vendors fall under the definition of a “retail food establishment” and are therefore not facilities subject to additional regulation. Second, FDA should adopt at least the $1,000,000 threshold for a very small business and base it on the value of ‘regulated product,’ not ‘all food,’ to ensure smaller farms and businesses (like food hubs) fall under the scale-appropriate requirements and aren’t subject to high cost, industrial-scale regulation.

•    Provide options that treat family farms fairly, with due process and without excessive costs. Specifically, FDA must clearly define the “material conditions” that lead to a withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status in scientifically measurable terms. FDA must also outline a clear, fair, process for justifying the withdrawal of a farmer’s protected status and for how a farmer can regain that status.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

waste not, want not - 5 tips to reduce waste

After thoroughly purging and organizing the belongings in just one room of our house this weekend, I got to thinking about waste – specifically how much space has been wasted in our house and also what opportunities are wasted when we store belongings away that could be useful for someone else, if not for us.

Recently, my coworker told me about hearing a news report about the amount of food that is wasted because of expiration dates and labels. Her church organizes a food pantry and is not able to serve or give away food that is “past dated” – even if it’s perfectly safe, edible and even delicious. On one hand, I understand why this guidance is in place for groups that are serving large amounts of people – you don’t want to gamble with people’s safety when you are responsible for others, particularly vulnerable populations. But unfortunately, the dates and labels themselves are misleading.

According to the study that has been reported recently, 90% of Americans say they have prematurely thrown out food because they misinterpreted the labels and dates on the package. These labels are generally suggestions from the manufacturers about peak freshness, not suitability for consumption. According to the same article, “in 2012, an NRDC study found as much as 40 percent of the country’s food supply goes uneaten. The cost of that wasted food? Roughly $165 billion, including $900 million in "expired" food. A family of four, the study found, spends an average of $455 a year on food it doesn't eat.” (emphasis mine) We should look at those numbers and find them unpalatable (no pun intended).

That’s a staggering amount of food waste, especially when industrial agriculture is trying to tell us that they need to produce more to feed the world. We already produce more food than this country needs (not to mention that this country eats more calories a day than it needs to). The reason we have hunger issues in this country is not production – it’s distribution and access.

So what can you do? Here are five strategies we use in our house.

1. Plan your meals.
Each week, we plan out what we’re going to make for dinner and estimate the leftovers to determine lunches. This allows us to have a very good idea of what we can eat in a week’s time and to know exactly what we will need on a given day. We check what we have in our pantry and refrigerator when we are choosing meals – and even have our freezer contents in a shared spreadsheet so we can keep track of what’s hiding at the bottom!

2. Make a shopping list and stick to it.
Use your meal plan to determine what you need for the week and make a list. When you go to the store, don’t veer from the list. We make exceptions when pantry staples are on sale and we can stock up at a savings, but we only buy things we know we will use. If you go to the store without a plan, you’ll buy things that you feel like eating when you’re there, but you might not want to eat later on. You also run the risk of not buying the right quantities. 

3. Buy from the bulk section when you can – and buy only what you need.
We buy spices from the bulk section, as well as grains like oats and rice and dried fruits and nuts for granola. Usually the prices are lower in general than buying the items in a commercially packaged container, but it also helps you only buy what you can use at its peak of freshness. Spices lose their potency over time, so it’s better to buy 4 tablespoons of ginger at a time for a small container at home than enough ginger for a bakery from a warehouse store.

4. Smell and look at your food.
Your milk says “best by 10-8.” It’s past October 8, so instead of getting rid of it immediately, open the container and smell it. You will know when milk has “gone off” or spoiled. We’ve had containers of sour cream we’ve used a month after the “best by” date – no mold, spoilage or nasty smells indicates that it’s safe to eat. The benefit of eating a diet of whole foods is that you’re eating things that are designed to go bad. (We’ve all seen the photos of fast food cheeseburgers that have been petrified for 30 years but somehow never spoiled.) Fruit and vegetables? They rot. Bread molds and so does cheese. Meat rots - in a terribly smelly way. Your food will “let you know” when it’s not safe to eat anymore. (Remember that this is the way that people determined whether or not their food was safe before the advent of the government labels.)

5. Consider labels to be guidelines and not rules.
Go ahead and use the dates as a guideline – but they aren’t rules. You can just as easily get a container of yogurt from the store, open it before the “sell by” date and find mold as you can if the date has passed. Don’t throw away perfectly good food because someone 8 weeks ago estimated that it might not be quite so fresh after a certain point. You will see a difference in your budget when you do!

October Simplified update: Listed about 50 books for sale that had the potential to help me recoup some cost and packed up the rest to donate and repurposed mismatched sheets as drop cloths for Mark’s wood working space. Up next, the guest bedroom!

Monday, October 7, 2013

October simplified

Our culture is obsessed with finding ways to “simplify” our lives. Every time a new gadget comes out, it promises to simplify our lives. (I actually think my smart phone complicates my life more than it simplifies it.) Each new processed food product promises to simplify a meal to accommodate busy lifestyles with phrases like ‘all-in-one’ and ‘great on-the-go.’ 

In our house, I feel like when it comes to diet, we do make simple choices, even if the dishes we make are sometimes complex and the many places we source foods can make shopping complicated. We use whole, clean foods and try to keep the chain from the farm to our table as short as possible. We celebrate the simple pleasure of a ripe tomato in August or perfect strawberries in June.

But what about the rest of our lives? I got to thinking about this question a lot during the Mother Earth News Fair. Mark and I are blessed to live in a house that is more than adequate in size for our needs. But how did we move from a two-bedroom tiny apartment to a three-bedroom house and somehow within two years fill it up with stuff? We often talk about a dream of living in a small cabin on lots of land – but we can’t do that with an entire house full of stuff. We live a sustainable lifestyle when it comes to what we eat. But how can we carry that lifestyle into other areas of our life?

Having a burst of energy this weekend, I spent most of Saturday organizing one of our bedrooms – the area that functions like an office/library. It has two closets, both of which were bursting – and I’m ashamed to admit the doors hadn’t been shut for probably a year. The entire room was lined with bookcases packed full of hundreds of books, knick knacks and dust. After about 10 hours, I had about 12 boxes of items to sell or donate and had reduced my books by about 50%, a huge feat for me, having a master’s degree in literature and reading being one of the great loves of my life.

This was just one room, but the sense of success, and honestly, peace, I had from completing that task was amazing. I can walk in that room now and not feel that the walls are closing in on me – and I can shut those closet doors. It suddenly felt so much closer to “simple.”

So I’m devoting time in October to simplifying our home. Making space for the things that contribute to the joy we create in the home, and getting rid of things that don’t. I will probably feature some of the simplified spaces on Instagram (@nextgenhouse).

Let’s talk simplifying. What things do you do in your house to keep things simple? Do you have any great strategies to address the challenge of organizing or downsizing?

Friday, October 4, 2013

Real Life CSA: week 18, produce

18 weeks already! I feel like we started this summer's share just a few weeks ago, not a few months! Plenty of staples this week, which is always nice. 

Mixed greens and lettuce will be salad staples, as well as the cherry tomatoes and peppers. Might make a bit of fresh salsa with the tomatoes and hot peppers or we could make lubieh with the green beans and tomatoes. So many options!

This Thai basil smells amazing. The farm email sent some recipes along with it, so maybe we should try one of those this week.

I'm also really happy for more apples. These have been delicious this year - nothing like the giant waxy ones you get in the grocery store. Plus, we have a peeler now, which makes baking with these a cinch. We actually got a big bag of apples from my parents, who picked them from my grandparents' tree, and we peeled and froze them to make into applesauce later or to bake with.

The cauliflower is a cool variety that looks bright, mustard yellow. Small heads, but flavorful! 

I've rediscovered radishes this year - we have been eating them on salad and they add a nice crunch and a little extra bite. (Plus great colors.)

Hoping for more squash next week, as well as more greens and apples!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Mother Earth News Fair recap

For the third year in a row, we headed to Seven Springs for the Mother Earth News Fair (MENF). The best way I can describe it is a giant convention and vendor fair for sustainable living. Vendors showcase everything from farming equipment to handmade soaps and workshops are offered for just about all things under the sun - from classes about livestock to home fermentation.

We have found something new to learn and discover each year, and the fair gets bigger and bigger. This year, I went to workshops on chickens in gardens (and how they can peacefully co-exist), home fermentation, building a real foods pantry and foraging for wild foods. A wicked storm moved in on Saturday and when we were soaked and freezing, we skipped an afternoon of workshops to get dry and warm. But otherwise? Awesome.

In particular, the class on lactofermentation inspired me to finally get off my duff and get my kombucha (fermented tea) going at home. Mark had given me all the tools to get started for a gift one year - including a SCOBY - so I don't know what's been holding me back from starting. Someone at one of the workshops mentioned that you can't be afraid to be a beginner. I think it's given me enough push to get started!

Mark and I laugh that we both leave the MENF each year and want to quit our jobs and move off grid into a cabin in the woods and raise some goats. While that's not in our immediate future, it's nice to come away refreshed and with new ideas on how to live more sustainably.

One of my favorite parts of the fair is the presence of all manner of animals. If you follow me on Instagram (@nextgenhouse), you might have seen these guys.

Seven Springs doesn't offer much in the way of good food options for this fair, which is the only down-side. Particularly at a conference about sustainability, I don't want to eat commercially raised meat or rock-hard, out of season vegetables. Thankfully there were a few vendors that had some good snack options - and one local food truck in particular that had good meal options - Randita's Grill.

It's no secret that we aren't vegans by any stretch of the imagination, so I was a bit hesitant to try out a vegan food truck. I guess in my head I was expecting creepy textured vegetable protein, but I ended up having a great chili and a fantastic salad that was fresh and delicious (with figs! so yum!), a sharp contrast to the processed commercial offerings at the main food area. (The main food area had a mashed potato martini bar. I mean, seriously. Ew.) I was impressed by the food from Randita's - and also how the people in the truck kept their cool despite a ridiculously long line and pouring rain. I'm adding their restaurant in Saxonburg to my list of places to try!

Really, we actually end up learning a lot from the vendors we meet. Here are some of my favorites:

Snack Taxi - I bought two reusable snack bags for my lunch and thus far they've been working out fantastically. I am working on reducing consumption of plastic bags, so my two Snack Taxi bags have already saved me almost 20 bags! Plus it looks cute too.

St. Lynn's Press - Pittsburgh publisher of some great gardening books, including some by local authors. We picked up Good Bug, Bad Bug to help us with pest ID. They'll be publishing The Steel City Garden: creating a one-of-a-kind garden in black and gold by Doug Oster in the fall, which looks to be awesomely Burghy! Might be an idea for our front yard flower area. 

Gourmet Grassfed - I had my first ever beef jerky from Gourmet Grassfed and holy cow (no pun intended), was I surprised at how delicious it was. We bought some jerky and beef sticks - they'll be perfect for Mark to take out in the woods when he's hunting all day.

Farm Fromage - Fantastic raw milk cheese from PA farms. I had a mushroom and leek jack cheese which was amazingly bizarre but delicious.

CeCe Caldwell's Paints - non-toxic, eco-friendly paints, including one called Pittsburgh Gray, which is highly appropriate

Singer Farm Naturals - producer of some delicious cherry juice concentrate. We picked some up to mix with soda water as a yummy drink, but I'm also interested in its use as a recovery drink for running after seeing a blurb about it in an issue of Runners World.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

reading this week

I'm still processing all that I learned and saw at the Mother Earth News Fair, but look for recaps on that soon. In the meantime, here's what I've been reading this week.

USDA guts national organic law (Consumers Union)
The USDA recently changed the process of exempting prohibited substances in foods labeled as organic, without having any public comment period. Previously, prohibited substances were given five year periods in which they could be exempted, while alternatives could be found. After that period, they'd expire unless a two-thirds majority of the National Organic Standards Board allowed it, AFTER a public comment period. 

Now, all of that has been erased and these substances can be allowed indefinitely, and with no public comment period, outside of the public view. Not only does it weaken the already relatively weak organic standards, but it pulls more of our food processes behind closed door and decreases transparency.  

CDC's thoroughly convincing report on the threat of antibiotic resistance (Food Politics)
A great infographic on how antibiotic resistance is created, plus links to other stories explaining the issue.

A Washington state farmer's alfalfa crop has been found to contain a GMO trait, which has stopped him from being able to export it (as European nations have much more strict laws regulating GMOs than the U.S.). How this plays out will be interesting, though I'd venture to guess the government will not go out of its way to protect the farmer.

Factory Food From Above: Satellite Images of Industrial Farms (Wired)
Enhanced images from satellites of the feedlots that house industrial meat production

Food banks are a 'slow death of the soul' (The Guardian)
A really interesting take on food pantries from someone who runs one. What he does? It's my dream job. I was asked once in a job interview what my dream would be, and I said if I had capital, I'd open a food pantry that was a community garden and had cooking and gardening classes. To help people get on their feet and empower them to make good choices.

10 Reasons for Gardeners to Love Chickens (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Self-explanatory. :)