Wednesday, January 29, 2014

reading this week

While I'm finishing up my latest book for review and staying warm through Polar Vortex Round 2, here are some other good reads from around the web.

Our Toxicity Experiment in West Virginia (Wired)
Fascinating look at the chemical spill that recently contaminated the water supply of more than 300,000 people by a very engaging science writer, Deborah Blum. Drives home the idea that our system of "use it until it hurts someone" is a dangerous gamble. 

Ex-Trader Joes President to Sell Food Past its Sell-by Date (Consumerist)
Doug Rauch, a former Trader Joes president, is opening a store called the Daily Table, where food past its sell-by date and produce seconds (bruised or blemished fruit and vegetables rejected by regular stores) at a major discount. I think this idea rocks - since we know that sell-by dates have nothing at all to do with whether or not a food is safe to eat.

Social Media as a Megaphone to Pressure the Food Industry (New York Times)
Increasingly, the FDA and USDA don't respond to the public's concerns over health and safety in the food supply, so many have turned to social media and the phenomenon of petitions to have their voices heard. And some companies are listening. (Though the phenomenon of petitions probably begs its own blog post.)

Should Farmers Give John Deere and Monsanto their Data? (NPR)
John Deere and Monsanto are (separately) offering programs to farmers where they can submit their data on their farms through the use of GPS-type devices - what they plant, what they are doing, how much is harvested of what crop in what location, etc. In return, the companies would promise to give them feedback about efficiency and the best uses of seed and soil. But at what cost to their privacy?

Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @nextgenhouse for links to other interesting articles as I find them. (Also, it helps me validate the fact that I'm a news junkie to the core.)

Monday, January 27, 2014

movie review: Blackfish

Every so often, a documentary gains some traction in the mainstream media and catches the public's attention. Blackfish is the most recent film to do that, backed by CNN and released to a wider audience. The story of Tilikum, a male orca whale which has been in captivity since 1983 and has been responsible for the death of several trainers, the documentary questions the ramifications of keeping orcas in captivity, and particularly using them for shows at amusement parks such as Sea World.

I didn't expect the film to really be one I would review for this site, but I wanted to watch it to see what all the hype was about. It was definitely worth my time, and for reasons beyond just the specific plight of the orcas.

Blackfish begins by explaining the circumstances that led to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suing Sea World, claiming that training orca/killer whales in such close proximity is inherently dangerous. The suit was brought after the violent death of a trainer at Sea World Orlando, after Tilikum attacked her. It then goes on to explain the history of this particular whale, from it being taken as a baby away from its pod in the wild to its current place at Sea World.

His history is a sad one, full of seclusion and isolation. Orcas being highly social creatures, to be ripped away from his mother as a young calf and put with other whales not part of his pod, is difficult enough. Add on top of that years of being penned in small concrete tanks when you are used to swimming freely in the ocean, punished by having your food withheld when you didn't cooperate and do behaviors on cue. 

Many critics of this film have talked about how zoos and wildlife in captivity are exploiting animals for profit. That's an entirely different argument and probably one worth thinking about. (Though this film does make clear a distinction between amusement parks and zoos, from the quality of their care to their purpose for existence.)

But more than anything, this film made me think about how we look at animals and their treatment in general. Much has been made of artists canceling performances at Sea World parks and people boycotting the parks in general, in protest of the way orcas are treated. But no matter how many videos are shown of the horrific treatment of animals in factory farms, people continue to purchase and consume animals who lived miserable lives full of suffering, in the farthest thing from their natural existence possible.

One particularly moving portion of the documentary details the first baby orca born in captivity at Sea World, and how she was removed from her mother to another park. When she was removed, the mother orca stayed in the spot where she was taken and shook, making agonizing vocalizations that experts say were meant to be long-range. She was calling out for her lost calf, which she would never see again. It seems awful, and it is. But this happens every time a calf is taken from its mother cow on factory farms, whether used for veal or sold off to another feedlot. There are documented cases of mother cows bellowing for their lost calves, standing in the spot they were last together, emotionally distraught. But we find this okay.

Perhaps it's because orca whales are honestly beautiful creatures, majestic in size and beyond graceful as they glide through the water. We also give them names and think of them with personalities. I recall my sister and I riding on a rubber, blown-up Shamu whale in our tiny kiddy pool growing up. We certainly don't glorify farm animals in such a way. Most people don't look at a cow in pasture as beautiful, let alone seeing that same animal standing knee deep in waste on an industrial feedlot.

Perhaps it's because it's much easier to simply boycott Sea World than it is to stop eating factory farmed meat. After all, there are many great places in this country to amuse ourselves or to learn about wildlife in general. And it's easier to bring out someone's inner activist when the price isn't very high and it doesn't require us to leave our comfort zones.

If you have the opportunity, watch Blackfish. It will make you think critically, which is the hallmark of a good documentary. And the actual cinematography is beautiful. But when you watch it, consider if the orcas are so much different at the end of the day than cows, chickens and pigs and whether or not they deserve the same kind of consideration and respect as Shamu. 


Friday, January 24, 2014

Real Life CSA: winter share 4

More variety in our fourth share this week, as well as some regular favorites.

Lettuce and microgreens will supplement our salads this week, like usual. I know I'm a vegetable geek, but lettuce looks so cool in its spiral.

This Ivory lace cheese from Hidden Hills Dairy is supposed to be a havarti-style cheese good for sandwiches. We'll never say no to cheese.

The banana fingerling potatoes are adorably petite and will make a great side of some sort. 

I will likely do some baking this weekend with the fuji apples, since we still have some braeburn apples from the last share for snacking. I've been enjoying making muffins or scones from the King Arthur Whole Grains baking book, so I will probably dig up a recipe there.

Each year we can tomatoes, and we use them sparingly since they are the equivalent of gold when it comes to pantry items. So getting an extra jar of home canned tomatoes is pretty awesome.

Also exciting is tomatillo salsa - we ate it on tacos last night and it was delicious. We both love tomatillos but rarely buy them because they are expensive in the grocery store and hard to find at a lot of the farmers markets we go to. So this is a treat!

Getting canned goods like these makes me even more anxious for garden season to come around. This winter weather doesn't help, either!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Food Bank team fun run

Monday morning I set out for the Waterfront to meet up with some runners who are participating in the Pittsburgh Marathon events Run for a Reason, raising money for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Even though I love to run races, it's actually pretty far out of my comfort zone to run with strangers, particularly on a trail I've never run before (Steel Valley). Oh yeah, and in the snow.

We set off from the trail head at the historic Homestead Pump House and ran just over 4 miles down the trail to the Food Bank's building in Duquesne. (Though I ended up running 5, since I didn't heed anyone's directions and in the zone, just kept going down the trail for another half mile until I realized I wasn't in Kansas anymore and had to turn back. Well done, Joanna.)

After the run, we had some refuel snacks and warmed up before we toured the facility and learned all about the organization we're running for. (And we also met former Steeler Andy Russell, who is a huge supporter of the GPCFB's efforts. He signed the mug pictured above!)

I thought I knew the general extent of the services the food bank provides, but until I walked around the warehouse and saw everything up close, I had no real idea of how vast an operation it actually is. The amount of assistance they provide is just amazing - 27 million pounds of food each year, to people in 11 counties through their 400+ member agencies. 

As if that isn't impressive enough, the food bank has a focus on providing healthy food. I think people assume that food banks just focus on getting people food in general and don't worry about the nutritional value. But the food bank has many programs that address nutrition as well - and many initiatives behind the scenes as well. For instance, their Produce to People program distributes fresh food in 15 different locations. It makes me really happy to know that - because everyone deserves healthy food.

They are still looking for more runners to Run for a Reason. If you're running one of the Pittsburgh events this year, join the Food Bank team! They will be having more group fun runs throughout the training season (and hopefully beyond!) and it's a great way to combine fitness with a good cause. 

You can donate to my fund here and even join the team from that site. After the event, I'll randomly select one donor and he or she will receive the mug pictured above, signed by Steel Curtain Steeler Andy Russell

Monday, January 20, 2014

GMO culture war - is there a middle ground?

Recently, a reporter from Grist, one of the country's premiere environmental magazines, finished a sixth month series on GMOs. He used the series to investigate the truth about GMOs outside of the two opposing narratives that are usually circulated. On one hand you have the pro-GMO people, who see GMOs are a feat of human ingenuity and technology/science that will save agriculture as we know it and go a long way to address starvation and hunger across the globe. On the other hand, the anti-GMO people, who see GMOs as a symptom of corporate control of our food system and the unsustainability of modern agriculture, not to mention a health risk.

His wrap-up piece, "What I learned from six months of GMO research: none of it matters" caused a huge stir, from both sides of the debate. He concluded that the cultural debate actually misses the mark. Since it talks about GMOs in a broad sense, it doesn't allow for discussion of individual GMO plants or organisms. He argues there's a difference between engineering rice to feed starving people and engineering corn to feed pigs in a nation that already eats too much meat. (I need to read the series to see how he feels about genetically engineered animals, like salmon.)

I haven't read all of the pieces in the series (though I probably will start to go through them). And Civil Eats also addressed his piece on their site, with a compelling rebuttal. In particular, that essay addresses what agricultural priorities should be if we are trying to envision a sustainable future. And points out rightfully that the companies involved in GMO technology are also the ones that poisoned us with Agent Orange, etc. The writer acknowledges that the debate does obscure the technological innovations that do need to occur in order to move toward sustainability. 

For me, the GMO issue primarily comes down to the issue of transparency. If I believed that as a nation we could keep corporations accountable to make decisions in the public interest, it would be one thing. But we can't, and we know that much of the scientific research being done about GMOs (all types) is controlled by parties with a financial interest. We need third party research that's independent. That encourages human innovation and scientific development, but with an eye toward sustainability. That researches the health and environmental effects of these plants. And we need a system that errs on the side of caution, not risk, when it comes to public health. 

While I don't agree with him entirely - I think we need to avoid adopting a flippant attitude about GMOs - Nathanael Johnson's Grist piece is food for thought and encourages us to dig through the hype for what's actually true when we talk about GMOs.

Friday, January 17, 2014

picking your ethical battles as a consumer

In our global economy, where much of what we consume from foods to retail goods is produced overseas, it's hard to know not only what you are getting, but who made it and where. "Ethically sourced" and "conflict free" are some of the buzz words surrounding this issue. They come up in the media when a large-scale tragedy occurs (such as the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 workers) or a lawsuit is filed (such as the one filed against Apple for child labor in its Chinese factories).

We're outraged when we hear about these incidents, and rightfully so. And they go on and on. Diamonds that are called "conflict" or "blood" diamonds (because they are illegally mined and sold to fund wars in war zones. Chocolate harvested by children who are also enslaved. Smart phones with parts made in Asian factories with bad conditions and gold mined with child labor in Africa. Coffee and other crops harvested with little to no profit to the grower. Beloved cookies made with palm oil, which destroys habitat for animals and precious rainforest. You could write for days on each of these issues and the conflicts they create.

Many of these lines are murky. For instance, it is almost entirely impossible to source a conflict-free diamond unless it's made in a laboratory. Once diamonds are brought in for trade, they are legitimized and their "dirty histories" wiped away. (See this enlightening article for details on why this is the case.) And while most people are interested in the use of diamond profit to fund wars, there's also the issue of who mines those stones in the first place - children. 

The same goes for smart phones. An ever-expanding electronic industry has made the demand for gold and the other minerals (copper, cobalt, tin, etc.) used in production increase, and Human Rights Watch has questioned the use of child labor in very dangerous mining jobs. Like diamonds, it's nearly impossible to buy an ethically "clean" smart phone. The supply chains for the hundreds of materials used to create a phone are complex, diverse and sometimes untraceable.   

I only very rarely eat chocolate that is not fair trade or organic. (See this post - did a slave harvest the cocoa in your candy bar? for details.) I don't eat at fast food restaurants for a variety of ethical reasons that go beyond health. 

I also wear an engagement ring with a diamond in it. I use a smart phone and a Chromebook.

I buy as much produce and meat from local farms as possible, and buy other handmade, local products when I can. 

I wear clothes that I purchase at retail stores that don't say "Made in the USA" on the tags. Or that the cloth it was made from is produced there either.

So what do you do? What do you do if you want to be an ethical consumer in a world where those lines are sometimes virtually impossible to understand?

My philosophy is this. I heard during a lecture once (or read in a book maybe?) that you can judge a person by the integrity of their compromises. For myself, I try to pick battles that meet two criteria: (1) it's within my control and (2) has a reasonable alternative which can satisfy my ethical conundrum. 

I can choose to not purchase produce and other food products (meat, dairy, etc.) which are not produced and farmed in a manner I approve of, and a reasonable alternative is to buy them locally and be a member of a CSA. I don't eat at fast food restaurants because I can reasonably choose local restaurants where many of my ethical issues with fast food are not present. Or I can just not eat out at all. (Novel idea!) Chocolate isn't even a necessary food in the first place, but if I want chocolate, I can buy fair trade or organic chocolate, which satisfies my issue with child labor and slavery practices.

But I am going to choose to use a cell phone and to keep wearing my engagement ring. Because I can't buy a locally made cell phone as an alternative, there's no one who benefits from me not purchasing that one phone. I would be better off supporting organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which use their lobbying power to help change legislation to protect labor forces and get corporations (such as Apple and other electronics manufacturers) to own up to their supply chains and face monetary penalties for not doing so. 

That being said, I don't need to go overboard on my consumption of retail goods in the first place. I realize that there are many other ways in which I could live my life "more ethically" and I try to think through purchases and understand what role I play in the world by being a consumer. I also do my best to research and understand what's at stake with a particular issue, so that I'm not just hopping on a trendy, petition-signing bandwagon.

At the end of the day, I hope my compromises can be judged to be made with integrity, in the absence of perfection.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

corporate involvement with kids: how much is too much?

Two recent news stories have highlighted the issue of corporate involvement with children on environmental and nutritional subjects. These incidents included advertising as well as education, and I think they illustrate clearly the importance of corporate responsibility – something we clearly lack.

In Ohio, the oil and gas industry under the auspices of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program created a program sponsored by Radio Disney called “Rocking in Ohio” to teach kids ostensibly about the importance of oil and gas. (I say ‘auspices’ because that group is funded by only oil and gas industry companies.) The group’s spokesperson was quoted as saying that “our country can’t survive without oil and gas” and that “kids are the best way to spread the message.”

I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s not important to teach science to kids – for them to understand what oil and gas are, how they are extracted, and what impacts they have on the economy and environment – both positive and negative. Science is awesome. And to be fair, the program did not educate children specifically about fracking, which is the most controversial issue in the oil and gas industry today (particularly in Ohio, where this program was based.) But is the best way to teach them to give an industry front group center stage and allow that presentation to be sponsored by Radio Disney? Why do children’s educational programs need to be “sponsored” at all? It’s a serious crisis if this nation needs to rely on corporate OR activist interests to educate its children. We need to give them facts and allow them to use their developing reasoning and analytical skills to draw conclusions. You know, like a scientist would.

Even more disturbing is the second of the two recent stories – Gatorade’s award-winning video game promotion in which water is made out to make your athletic performance suffer. Just the idea is even absurd – because anyone who has done anything remotely athletic in his/her life knows that water is essential to athletic performance. But Gatorade (owned by Pepsi Co.) specifically requested that ad agency OMD create a game for them to reinforce the message that Gatorade is superior to water. OMD specifically said that the goal was to convince kids that “water is the enemy of performance.”

In the game, Usain Bolt (the Olympic champion sprinter) runs through a course where kids try to collect Gatorade, which makes him run faster, and avoid water, which slows him down. Ok, really?

Even as a runner, I am not a fan of Gatorade for a multitude of reasons (read my post on it here). But the biggest issue is that there are few kids who are active enough that they even need to fuel with Gatorade or electrolyte replacements instead of water. Only kids who are heavily involved in sports and vigorous athletic activity even need to consider electrolyte replacement. For kids who just go to gym class? Water is fine. They don’t need the added sugar, and it’s flat out LYING to tell them that Gatorade improves athletic performance. What they should be doing is encouraging kids to get active.

Advertising to kids is a slippery slope, since their reasoning skills are still developing and their ability to discern between reality and advertisements is spotty, at best. (I’ve talked about this before too.) Putting a famous athlete on a Gatorade ad makes kids think they should drink it too – but the likelihood of a kid working out like a pro athlete? Slim to none. Even though Pepsi Co. owns its own bottled water brand – Aquafina – they push Gatorade for athletic performance. Aquafina is supposedly even a partner with the First Lady’s Drink Up campaign, to try to get kids to drink more water. It’s ludicrous to even try to claim corporate responsibility for children’s health and then turn around and tell them water is the enemy of athletic performance.

These two examples show how even programs with seemingly good intentions or benefits can have profit-driven corporate interests behind them. It’s important to understand where the messaging you are hearing is coming from and to discern facts from advertisements.

Monday, January 13, 2014

2 years fast food free

There was a time in my life where the song "McDonald's Girl" could have been written about me. I worked there in high school and college, for a combined total of about 5 years, both as a regular crew member and a swing manager. I could write for days about my experiences there. It's where I started drinking Diet Coke and eating cheese and bread. (Yeah, it's honestly true. No wonder I was the size of a peanut in high school.) French fries were my absolute favorite food and McDonald's had the best ones.  

That's why it's kind of bizarre that as of the end of January, I've been fast food free for 2 years and 4 months. I had my last fast food French fry when we visited Chicago for our first Star Trek convention in September 2011. I'm defining fast food as any of the following, and restaurants like them: McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Long Johns, Subway and Arby's. You get the drift. (I am going to use McDonald's as my example in this post, since I have a great deal of knowledge about it, having worked there.)

A lot of people understand that in giving up junk food, you'd cut down on the amount of times you hit the drive thru. So that's not surprising. But people are often surprised to know that I won't eat fast food at all - salads and fruit, and even bottled water included. 

I'm not going to lie. I still smell McDonald's when I go to a turnpike rest stop or some other food court and I am tempted to lean my head back and dump a large fry down my throat. The smell of the restaurant brings back a lot of memories for me. But I am able to resist the temptation because my reasons for NOT eating fast food are varied and truly important to me.

1. Health
It's no secret that the majority of the food served at McDonald's isn't good for you. And while it's possible to lose weight or not gain weight while eating a lot of McDonald's (I ate A LOT of McDonald's when I worked there.), weight isn't the only indicator of health. Nutritionally, fast food has a lot of empty calories, and its menus contain huge amounts of additives and chemicals. It's ironic that I started to like cheese and bread while working there, since the cheese is barely cheese and the bread is barely bread. Practically everything is processed in one way or another and it's about the farthest away from "clean food" that you can get.

2. Sourcing of food
It's not just what's in fast food that I have an issue with. It's where it comes from. The meats are all sourced from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), as well as the eggs. Dairy is likely from cows that have been given rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) and antibiotics are probably everywhere. I don't eat meat in general that has been raised like that, and I don't want the dairy or the eggs either.

It's worth noting that just recently McDonald's announced that it would "commit to sourcing sustainable beef" in 2016. But considering its track record and the fact that no real definition exists of "sustainable beef," it feels like more of a marketing/PR stunt than anything.

3. Environment
McDonald's generates a lot of waste. It also contributes to monocultures that harm farmland because it insists on vegetables that will taste exactly the same across its global empire. (The russett burbank potato for its fries is a big issue.) Their produce is not farmed sustainably or organically, and so you've got the issue of pesticides as well. Mass meat production is not good for the environment either - CAFOs and meat processing plants are huge polluters.

4. Workers
There have been a lot of protests across the country about raising the wage of fast food workers and lobbying for better employee benefits and treatment. I was drastically underpaid for the work I was responsible for when I worked at McDonald's and I often worked in very unsafe conditions. No one at our store, even the store manager, was eligible for benefits of any kind, not even paid vacation. I was given two dirty shirts and a name tag when I started, and we didn't get even one free meal during our shifts, just a small discount. (We were a franchise, so the owner wasn't required to provide any of that for us, like they might to a degree at a corporate store.) Without wading into the debate about what actually constitutes a living wage, fast food workers deserve more than they get, especially when the C-suite leaders at the top are swimming on gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, on the backs of the people making minimum wage.

It's also worth noting that industrial farmworkers are also abused and suffer from pesticide exposure and wage fraud on a huge scale - and these are the companies where fast food companies source their food.     

5. Advertising to kids
It's true that most 6 year olds don't get to McDonald's on their own. They are presumably taken by adults, who are the ones making the choices about what their kids eat. But the insidious marketing by McDonald's to very young children - ones unable to discern what advertising actually is - is unacceptable. I personally would see the same kids every single day for multiple meals at McDonald's, with parents who didn't just use it as an occasional treat, but as routine meals for their kids. The kids were hyped up on it and wanted the toys that came with their meals. And it made me sad that these kids were being set up to crave this food, even though anyone knows that double cheeseburgers aren't the greatest nourishment for growing bodies. And chicken nuggets that are barely chicken aren't either.

6. Shady charity activities
McDonald's is known for its signature charity, the Ronald McDonald House. Which, let's state for the record, is an awesome charity, providing housing and support for families with sick children across the country. There's no denying that. But there is a lot of evidence that McDonald's uses the Ronald McDonald House as a marketing/PR tool, without giving a lot of financial support (sometimes only about 10% of a local chapter's necessary support). For more about this, read Michele Simon's report here, on Eat Drink Politics

Some of these issues are specific to McDonald's, but most of them apply to all fast food. And that's why I turned my back on fast food more than two years ago. Even though it's cheap and convenient, I choose to go without. 


Friday, January 10, 2014

why Superior Motors is so important - and not just for Pittsburgh

This past week a Kickstarter campaign started by a local chef, Kevin Sousa, was not only fully funded, but became the most successful Kickstarter campaign for a restaurant in that site's history. The campaign was for a community restaurant concept called Superior Motors, named as such after the Chevy dealership formerly located in that space. Also notable about the space? It's located in Braddock, a Pittsburgh neighborhood devastated by the loss of the steel industry, with a 90% population loss. It doesn't even have a McDonald's, let alone a restaurant with dinner service. (View the videos describing the project here.)

Mark generously contributed to the campaign as a birthday gift to me. For awhile it looked like they weren't going to meet their goal. Which would have meant the end for the concept, since though Mr. Sousa is a James Beard semi-finalist chef with a loyal following, banks are not interested in investments in such an economically distressed area.

But in the eleventh hour, a dramatic surge of support pushed the campaign way over the top and it was fully funded. 124% funded, to be exact. 

From Kickstarter campaign website

Superior Motors will be an accessible restaurant for Braddock's residents, and will help to educate Braddock youth with free professional culinary instruction. A greenhouse on the roof, with room for raised beds, a hostel next door with free housing for workers, a nearby apiary and flock of hens, plus the Grow Pittsburgh Braddock farms nearby, providing the majority of the produce for the restaurant are just some of the layers to this ambitious concept. The Kickstarter information indicates that a core principle will be that no Braddock resident will be excluded from partaking based upon household income. (Visit the page and read more about the details of this project. It's fascinating.)

And that right there is what makes this concept revolutionary. Yes, the success of the campaign should be looked at as an example of what can happen when Pittsburgh comes together. It truly is an amazing place to live and even when I'm shaking my fist in my car at the traffic approaching the Fort Pitt Tunnel, I am blessed to live and work here. But this goes beyond Pittsburgh.

Fine dining is virtually inaccessible to anyone below a certain economic threshold. And because of that, it's often thought of as elitist. The same holds true for many issues around health and food. People validly argue that only focusing on issues like organic agriculture and GMO labeling obscures the fact that thousands of Americans don't have enough FOOD, let alone healthy food.

I am so moved by this concept because it holds at its core the value that good, fresh, quality food belongs to everyone - even communities that have been largely abandoned by society. The idea of Superior Motors embodies the word 'community' by feeding, nourishing and sustaining not just the people, but the land and the place and history. It places value there and encourages others to follow. Other communities across the country will look to this project as well, and hopefully attempt to rally around similar investments in their own areas.  

I am so excited to see Superior Motors develop and can't wait to go eat there someday. It's going to be worth braving the tunnel traffic, that's for sure.    

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Real Life CSA: winter share 3

After a brief holiday break, we got our third winter share. I might have actually squeed out loud a bit when I got the email saying what we were getting this week. Cheese, pasta and honey puffed corn in the same week? Heaven!

Here's what we got!

The eggs (Heritage Farm) are a great supplement for us, since our chickens aren't producing at the rates they do in the seasons with lots of daylight.

Garlic (Blue Goose Farm, certified naturally grown) and squash (Kistaco Farm) will go down in the basement to stay cold for awhile. I'm thinking of making some muffins with the apples (Dawson's Orchards).

This cheese (Riverview Dairy) will be great to try. It looks similar to a hard cheese like parmesan, but who knows if that's how it will taste.

I never liked real maple syrup as a child, even though my dad kept telling me how good it was. Now I wouldn't touch Aunt Jemima with a 10 foot pole. Give me the real stuff! (This syrup is from Weeping Willow Farm.)

In addition to the cheese, I'm most excited about the honey puffed corn (Clarion River Organics, organic) and pasta (Fontana Pasta). The pasta is fresh, so I froze it right away since we already have our meals planned out for the week. You can boil pasta straight from frozen.

The honey puffed corn is just like corn pops, but without all the crap and chemicals. I could eat this stuff like candy.

The lettuce is hydroponic (Harmony Grove) and has been great in the other shares. The other green wasn't specifically identified, but I think they look just like baby bok choy, so that's what I'm going with (Goose Creek Farms, certified naturally grown). I have a great recipe for sauteed bok choy with great Asian flavors, so this might end up in a side.

My favorite part about this share with Penn's Corner so far is the great variety. It's so much more than just root vegetables and squash - the things you can easily store over winter. For a season that is usually pretty dreary in the fresh food department, this share has been wonderful. Can't wait til share #4!

Side note: For more info about certified naturally grown and what that means, check out this post.

Monday, January 6, 2014

setting priorities for healthy living

The food world was buzzing last week with the announcement from General Mills that Original Cheerios are going GMO free. This is the only variety going GMO free, since original Cheerios are primarily made of oats, which are not genetically modified. The sugar and corn starches will be going GMO free.

The way that the media exploded with the announcement shows me that people are starting to demand GMO free foods, or at the very least, more transparency about what's IN their foods. This is positive progress.

But I can't help but feel that the hype can also distract from the most important parts of a healthy lifestyle. GMOs in food or parabens and other chemicals in soaps or household cleaners are important to understand and good to avoid when possible. But limiting your exposure to these is a secondary priority. It doesn't matter if you eat GMOs in your breakfast cereal, if you're also addicted to soda and fast food and processed junk. 

Sometimes it can be easy to grab on to the media's soundbites and think that those are the most important indicators of health, since it's what people are talking about. But the most important information is the most boring - that a healthy diet of clean foods, stress management and an active lifestyle are the largest contributing factors to your overall health and wellness. It's a lot easier to just start buying hand soap without parabens than it is to give up soda. (I know. I've been there.)

As you're thinking about setting priorities for your new year, focus on specific tasks that can help you hit those main priorities. Maybe it's avoiding fast food, cooking more often at home, drinking more water, or getting exercise 2 or 3 days a week. Choose small things to tackle, so they aren't so overwhelming. Take one step toward one goal, not 12 steps toward 10 goals. For example, if you want to cook at home more often, check out this post on where I get a lot of my clean recipes

Friday, January 3, 2014

book review: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I have read most of Michael Pollan's works, including all of his books pertaining to food. I've reviewed Cooked on this blog, as well as Second Nature.I find his writing really engaging, so I stick with his books not just because he's considered one of the top food studies experts in the country. 

I had seen the documentary based on The Botany of Desire around the same time as I first watched Food, Inc. years ago. (You can actually watch the documentary on PBS's website here.) I realized more recently I had never actually read the book. The subtitle, A Plant's-eye View of the World, is fitting, and probably what makes this book about plants stand out from any others I've read.

Pollan acknowledges that for centuries, we've believed that we as humans control plants. But for this book, he turns that around and asks if it's possible that plants are shaping us as well. He centers the book around four basic plants and how they evolved over time to satisfy something humans want. Domesticated plants have a reciprocal relationship with us - it's a two-way street.

The plants he covers are apples (sweetness), tulips (beauty), cannabis (intoxication) and potatoes (control). In the section on apples, he discusses the legend of Johnny Appleseed - how much was true, how apples evolved in America, and how they've been used over centuries to satisfy our cravings for sweet. Most apples from seed are bitter and their fruits were used to make hard cider. It's only through grafting over many years that we were able to cultivate sweet fruit, partly owing to a backlash against alcohol. My favorite part of this section was learning about how apples protect their genetic diversity - they are very different from many other plants. Human behavior threatens them by reducing that diversity in the quest for the same, consistent and sweet fruit.

The tulip section tries to answer the question of why we spend billions of dollars cultivating flowers that we can't eat (besides their use to bees) - the desire for beauty. The info on floral reproduction was a little bit dry, though useful. However, the discussion of the tulipmania that swept Amsterdam in the 17th century, where a single bulb cost a fortune, captured my interest.

Probably my favorite section of this book, ironically, was the section on cannabis. It starts by talking about how plants protect themselves from predators by poisoning or sickening them, yet also draw other animals to them for their own purposes (reproduction). Culturally, it's almost universal that groups of people are drawn to plants and substances that alter consciousness - and marijuana has provided that for centuries - in use since recorded history began, at the very least. When the U.S. war on drugs threatened its existence, it evolved to be grown indoors (and out of the reach of government efforts to curb its growth). Because it has to be grown so carefully, cross-bred for the best traits, etc. marijuana has reached new heights of growth and potency - the opposite of what the war on drugs wanted to achieve.

Scientists study the effects of intoxicant plants on humans, finding the tetrohydracannibinol (THC) that marijuana produces binds to receptors in our brains that affect memory and consciousness. But we also produce THC-like chemicals naturally, that do the same thing. It's like we're hardwired to respond. 

The potatoes section talks about the history of potatoes being a sustaining crop for many cultures, and also the problems that came with that dependency - the Irish potato famine in the 19th century. Within weeks, a fungus destroyed all potato crops - the result of a monoculture grown where no plant could offer up any resistance and the fungus could spread like wildfire. While the resulting starvation of a huge population of people was also due to factors beyond the destroyed, it served as a lesson to growers that monocultures are a great risk. However, we're still growing monocultures of potatoes today - in particular, the Russet Burbank (the fry of choice for McDonald's). This portion of the book talks about the effect on farmers and land, trying to grow potatoes in monoculture and make them disease and pest resistant (this is where lots of chemicals and genetic modification come in). 

It's not often that we look at agriculture from the perspective that Pollan does in this book. I've never thought of plants having priorities - but it makes a lot of sense, and goes hand in hand with research that's being done on plant intelligence. It certainly makes me look at my own garden differently - and will probably shape what will be planted in the coming year. Will I go for the maximum return for me, in what I desire? Or the maximum return for the plant, at the expense of beauty or taste? Hopefully the answer lies somewhere in the middle. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

on resolutions

Happy New Year!

There's something about January that brings a sense of new beginnings. Maybe it's the breath of fresh air after the hubbub of the holidays, or the fact that we flip a new year on the calendar that makes us feel like we can press the reset button and start anew. In 2013, I set some goals for myself - concrete things like "run a half marathon" and not just "run more." I met most of those goals, and exceeded some of them. It gave me a sense of satisfaction to open my goals document every so often and check to see that I've made progress. 

So I'm setting my resolutions for 2014 and will keep myself accountable for progress on them during the year. They're all reachable, but will be a challenge in one way or another. I don't like to go overboard, since I know that my work and my commute take up a huge portion of my week and my attention during my waking hours. Plus, I don't like setting myself up for failure. I'd rather succeed at a few small things and be content with that.

With that, here are my goals for 2014 in three categories: mind, body and home.

Read 75 books.
I read 70 books in 2013, and I'm going to up the ante by just a bit in 2014. Within those 75 books, I have a goal of reading one of what I call the Russian doorstop novels that I haven't read before, as well as finishing up the rest of Margaret Atwood's canon. I use Good Reads to help me keep track of what I'm reading when.

Write letters on three issues to my elected representatives.
I have no shortage of things that outrage me, and I know that battles about GMO labeling, Ag-Gag laws and farm bills will keep me occupied with this one.

Run a marathon.
Yes, I'm putting it out there. I'm not going to beat myself up if I work on the training and my body doesn't cooperate (I'm looking at you, knees!), but I'm going to try. I know in my heart I will always regret it if I don't try, and that's reason enough for me to start. I will begin training in February, with the goal of working up to a marathon by the fall. I'd also like to do several halfs this year, and to travel to at least one race outside of my area. The goal for the full marathon is just to finish, and my goal for a half marathon in 2014 is to get a PR, which I think is doable. 

Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
Rather than set a goal for weight loss, I'm focusing on health and fitness this year. Water is a big one for me - I feel so much better and have so much more energy when I'm properly hydrated. It also helps me with my running to be hydrated at all times, so I'm going to dedicate myself to hydration.

Start my home brew kombucha.
Mark gave me the tools to make kombucha for my birthday last year and I have yet to start, out of fear that I'll mess it up. I did stop buying kombucha in the store, like I promised myself, but I haven't taken the leap. 2014 is the time.

Sew a t-shirt quilt.
I have my grandma's sewing machine, and I'm going to put it to good use this year. I'm not particularly gifted in this area, so I'm starting easy and hoping to make Mark a quilt from a pile of old, beloved t-shirts.

Can one new thing.
I want to branch out this year and can something we've never canned before. Doesn't have to be elaborate, but I'd like to try something new and different.

Plant a bee-friendly flower garden.
I want to do some research on bee-friendly plants and make the flower beds along our garage an all you can drink nectar buffet for bees. (Can you tell that Vanishing of the Bees inspired me?)

Make the chickens some treats.
I want to be more actively involved in the chickens' care and I really want to make them some treats to give them a diversion.

Organize the basement.
I did a great job of simplifying and downsizing our house this past fall, but the largest work to be done is our basement, which is a mess of boxes and disorganization and junk that is just begging to be a functional space. If the only house related thing we get done at all this year is to organize the basement, I would count it a success.

I'm going to check in monthly here to keep myself accountable to these goals, and hopefully share some how-tos when I have some success! 

What are your goals for 2014? Share them in the comments - I'd love to know what you're doing to make 2014 the best year it can be!