Monday, March 31, 2014

movie review: tapped

It's really easy in the world of sustainable agriculture and food advocacy to forget about water. Water is an even more basic human need than food - we can go longer without food than water. Only 1% of the earth's water is drinkable, and there are increasing concerns about access to clean water worldwide. (See last week's post about the UNICEF Tap Project.) 

Tapped is a documentary that looks at how the bottled water industry affects our water supply and what we as consumers can do differently to help to preserve the integrity of our water supply. The film was made in 2007, so I'd venture to guess that some of the statistics have changed over the last 7 years, but much of what they discuss seems to still be true today.

While lakes and rivers are part of the public trust, groundwater often falls under state laws that grant "absolute domain" - which allows anyone with a permit to take and use the groundwater as they see fit. This has led in many states to the bottled water industry coming in, filing for a permit, and then pumping millions of gallons of water out of rural areas and into plastic bottles for resale. In effect, taking the resources of a community and then selling them for their own profit with no benefits back to the community whatsoever. The examples shown in the documentary were from Maine and Poland Springs, a subsidiary of Nestle, which is the largest bottled water company in the world. (Coke and Pepsi being next in line.) 

These communities often have companies pumping groundwater out of their land in the midst of horrible droughts, where their own sources dry up and people are placed on water restrictions. Efforts to fight companies doing that have been fruitless. There are no laws restricting what these companies can do to water supplies - they just show up and take it. Governments don't want to fight these companies because they employee many people throughout the country, in not just the extraction process but the bottling process, etc. So they choose to avoid job consequences over environmental consequences and leave the community and the pubic hanging.

This film does a good job of not just blaming the companies, but blaming us as consumers for buying into the ridiculous marketing hype surrounding bottled water. So many ads claim that their water is pure or comes from mountain springs (ever notice how many mountain graphics or the name 'springs' are on bottled water labels?). None of the water comes from mountain springs and some companies have been forced to put words like 'public water source' on their bottles. 

Because what you're getting in that bottle? It's tap water. Tap water that's basically less regulated and less tested for quality than what comes out of your home's tap through your municipality (if you don't have your own well). While municipalities have to test their water multiple times daily, bottled water companies do their own tests at will, and aren't required to do any of them. So when you see a label on a bottle of water that says "pure" - it's no more pure than tap water and not filtered.

Once it's packaged and sold back to consumers, bottled water is 1900 times more expensive than the same amount of tap water. And it creates an inordinate amount of waste, since we as a nation are not good recyclers. (At least in 2007 we weren't!) We think of plastic bottles as disposable - that's what makes them so convenient. But they end up in the ocean gyres of garbage or in landfills, leeching plastic chemicals. The film goes into details about the pollution issues of plastic bottles and how they threaten marine life and ecosystems, as well as how the manufacture of the plastic bottles in the first place affects the people who live near the refineries, with many medical issues. (The film also was created before the public decided it didn't want BPA in its plastic anymore, hence the plethora of BPA-free plastic products out there now.)

The film makes a pretty compelling argument for why if you're environmentally conscious at all, you should be drinking tap water out of reusable bottles. (They encourage buying a water filter system of some kind - whether it's on the tap or a pitcher, etc.) It also is beneficial for its explanation of what kind of water is actually in these bottles and how it's no different than tap - I'm not a fan of hype and health washing in marketing, so it's nice to have confirmed that the water coming out of my water filter at home is probably more pure than anything I could buy in a plastic bottle. 

I realized while watching the film that I already made this switch awhile ago. I use a Camelbak bottle that I love at work and at home - and I take it with me on the go to people's houses and on vacations, etc. I have found many places that have water bottle fill stations that don't cost anything. So while I do buy bottled water from time to time, it's not nearly as frequent. I have no idea when the last time was that I bought a case of bottles. I'd like to keep it that way.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ag-gag update: constitutional challenge

It's been awhile since I wrote about Ag-gag laws and their impact. (If you aren't familiar with what they are, start here.) They're back in the news again, after Idaho recently passed Senate Bill 1337, which makes it a crime punishable by imprisonment to photograph or videotape abusive, unsanitary or unethical activity on a farm. It was signed into law by Idaho's governor on February 28, and Idaho is now the seventh state to have an active Ag-gag law.

Thankfully, a coalition of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Center for Food Safety, filed a federal lawsuit in mid-March challenging the bill's constitutionality. In the coalition's rationale for the lawsuit, they question journalists' free speech and freedom of the press rights. They also highlight the fact that now, Idaho more severely punishes the person who exposes animal cruelty than the person who commits it.

These laws don't protect animals or even human beings and public health. They protect industry. Which we obviously value in this country, the way we protect large corporations in every way imaginable. 

It's also important to point out that no one is asking these companies to allow someone to set up cameras 24/7 to document what happens in a slaughterhouse. We know what happens in a slaughterhouse. Slaughter. And the adage is probably true on some level that if we watched what happens in a slaughterhouse every day, we might all be vegetarians. Transparency in food doesn't mean we need to see every single second of an industry's work - that's just absurd. 

The big issue here is that whistleblower protection is necessary. The photos and videos that these laws try to exclude are ones that show the company overstepping its legal bounds, not to mention ethical ones. A worker should feel safe in coming forward with legal or ethical concerns and allowing a journalist to do his/her work in documenting such items. These bills make it difficult to even get the evidence to law enforcement to spark an investigation before the person would be arrested under the Ag-gag law. 

Other industries can learn to get along with whistleblower protections. Industries that take money from the government, such as healthcare facilities, all must value whistleblower protections. You can't be retaliated against in any way for exposing fraud or ethical/legal concerns and you are protected by the full extent of the law. This exists to make sure government dollars, and by extension, tax payer dollars, are spent wisely. So why not industrial agriculture? With the amount of subsidies and tax benefits these corporations receive, their workers should receive the same whistleblower protections.

We should not have laws in this country that forbid our citizens from exposing corruption, fraud, cruelty and abuse. We can't claim to be the greatest, most free society on earth if we don't.      


Thursday, March 27, 2014

2014 CSA and farm stand options

This is the time of year where farms are gearing up for their CSAs, gathering subscriptions so they can plan for shares. I've been doing a Real Life CSA series since I started this blog, documenting each week what we get in our shares, since I still think there is a misconception that all you get in a CSA is kale. You can find those posts via the keyword CSA in the blog sidebar. So far it has covered one year of a full share from Kretschmann Family Organic Farm and a winter share from Penns Corner Farm Alliance, as well as a meat CSA from Clarion River Organics

I'm a big supporter of CSAs and think there is usually an option for all family sizes or price ranges. Some CSAs like Kretschmanns, for example, also have programs for low-income families. I wrote about the benefits of a CSA and why we are yearly subscribers here - it's worth a read if you're on the fence as to whether or not to try one. 

For this year's full share, we're going with Penns Corner Farm Alliance. We've been happy with the winter share and want to take on the challenge of a new CSA with different products. 

Each year, Edible Allegheny magazine puts out a CSA guide, sponsored by PASA - the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. This is really helpful if you are lost about what's available in your area. I also think it's helpful for areas where the farms might not have as much of an online presence. Check it out here - it covers a ton of counties of western Pennsylvania, all the way up to Erie.

Also another cool way to get farm produce and other products without having to subscribe for a share is a farm stand or purchasing program. We participate in two, through Penns Corner Farm Stand and Green Circle Delivers, a buying club.

We actually just did our first order from Penns Corner Farm Stand this past week and took home some favorites plus one new item. Honey puffed corn from Clarion River is one of my favorite snacks. I honestly can hoover a bag in about 5 minutes. (So we bought three.) We also like to keep fresh pasta in our freezer for a quick dinner when plans go awry, so we picked up some ravioli from Fontana. The spelt maple crunch from Stutzman Farm sucked me when the description said it makes a good yogurt or ice cream topping. It's kind of like a sweeter grape nuts cereal. I will probably experiment with some in my next batch of granola.

Check out the farm stand or buying club options if you want the option to purchase specific things from these groups without buying a CSA share, or ideally, in ADDITION to your share! It's also a good way to buy eggs, honey or other products that might not be in your weekly CSA share. 

Are you signed up for a CSA this year? What are you most looking forward to?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

putting down the smart phone with the UNICEF tap project

I think most people who are smart phone users could argue that they have made our lives easier in many ways. I love having a grocery list that can sync up with my husband so we always know what we need at any given time. Same goes for a synced calendar. I like having a camera on the fly and having the ability to communicate with people in many different methods. GPS comes in handy constantly.

But there are things I do on my phone that are meaningless, and sometimes I find myself doing them like a robot in a trance. I'm looking at you, mah jong games. I will sometimes even split my focus, playing a game or reading an article while also watching TV. Or worst of all, talking to someone in person while checking Instagram.

So when I came across this program from UNICEF called the Tap Project which donates clean drinking water to children in exchange for 10 minutes without touching your phone, I was intrigued. Check out this quick video below.

UNICEF is the United Nations Children's Fund, and they work in many nations to provide access to clean drinking water and sanitation. We take for granted in this country that we have clean water - the most basic need that we have. I fill my water bottle at work and home countless times every day - it's the primary beverage I drink. I take a shower with clean water every morning and wash dishes and clothes with clean water without thinking about it. 

In the last 24 years, UNICEF and its partners have helped 2 billion people get access to clean water. And their work continues.

Visit on your smart phone, put your phone down somewhere steady, and press the button to begin. (You can't do this if you keep your phone in your pocket or purse. Wait until you have a place to set it down.)

After 10 minutes, you've given a child a day's worth of clean drinking water. While I did mine, a few facts popped up on the screen before it went dark and one of those were that 4 people were going without their phones at the same time in Pennsylvania. 4 people? That's pathetic. We can do better than that.

The next time you pick up your phone, think about how blessed you are to even have a phone to use. Think about how there are millions of people in the world today who don't even know what a smart phone is because they are too busy trying to get clean water to drink. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

reading this week

Camera is still out of commission at the moment, but once it's back, there will be a seed starting update, because it is ON in those trays. Our grow light set up seems to be paying off.

Seed Starting 101 free e-book (Chiot's Run)
This is the primary seed guide we've been using this year and so far, so good! (Also a really good blog to follow if you are in to gardening.)

In the meantime, here's what I'm reading this week.

9 Facts About Factory Farming That Will Break Your Heart (Huffington Post)
This article contains the graphic photos and facts that most people ignore when they purchase and/or consume animal products from factory farms, and in that regard it's worth a look. But it's also part of a series of articles sponsored by Chipotle. And even though Chipotle has made strides in its treatment of animals that it uses for its restaurant and the removal of unnecessary antibiotics, their meat still primarily comes from factory farms. So this one is complicated.

Who Protects the People Who Live Near Industrial Meat Operations? (CLF blog)
Would you like to walk out your front door to find a layer of manure on your car? Yeah, me either.

Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Meant to Kill It  (Wired Science)
It's amazing to me how biotech companies are so scientifically advanced yet forget that nature evolves. Three quarters of our corn crops are genetically modified to be resistant to rootworm damage. Now the rootworm eats the corn for dinner.

8 Steps to Sustainable Meat and Milk (Popular Science)
Some interesting ideas on how we can make sustainability work on a large scale. Did you know 95% of milk in the EU is from grass-fed cows?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Real Life CSA: winter share 8

This is our next to the last share for the winter. Which is only awesome in that it means spring is coming. Spring!

I am camera-less at the moment, waiting for my new body to arrive. (Nice part of having a DSLR is that you can replace just the body when it dies instead of the lenses too. Bad part? $$$ Allow me to complain for a bit that things don't last as long as they did "back in the day." You'd think a $500 camera would last for more than 2 years.) So that's why there's a phone photo of the stash this week that is less than stellar. Onward!

This share illustrates nicely one of the cool parts about a CSA. In the dead of winter, there's often a lack of fresh produce beyond what can be stored long-term, like the apples, carrots and garlic you see above. (The lettuce is grown hydroponically, so is fresh but not a traditional outdoor crop.) So it's nice that the CSA plans for that by diversifying what you receive when fresh vegetables and fruits are not bountiful - cheese, eggs, pasta and canned or dry goods are awesome additions.

We've liked all of the Penns Corner canned goods we've had so far. That tomatillo salsa is particularly flavorful, and it's nice because I rarely get my hands on enough tomatillos to make my own salsa from them. The fresh pastas are great - we throw them in the freezer when we receive the bag and they still taste fresh when we cook them.

I have never even heard of Bauernhof cheese, so I'm sure that will be an interesting adventure. Which illustrates yet another benefit of CSAs - that you try things you would never pick up in the store, not knowing what they are. I can also take honey off my shopping list for the week, now that I have some to use in my homemade granola.

Can't wait to see what's in the final share!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

fat freak out: why fat isn't always bad and fat free usually is

One of the interesting parts of the rationale for the proposed nutrition labels is that "calories from fat" will be eliminated as a category, since the type of fat is more important than the amount. This is actually a huge departure from the mentality that our country has had for years - that fat is bad. We've been fat-phobic for generations, with a myriad of "fat free" and "low-fat" labels slapped on every food product for miles.

So why have we not been any healthier as a population as a result? That's obviously a larger question than I can answer here, but there are several reasons why "fat free" and "low-fat" options are not always the way to go.

First, taste. I mean, have you ever tried to eat fat free "cheese"? I can't even write cheese without the quotes there because it's obviously some laboratory science experiment when cheese doesn't melt and tastes like silly putty. Blech.

More important, though, is nutrition and health. When items need a label to tell you their healthy qualities, they usually aren't that healthy. This is why they don't put a "fat free" label on apples. You typically see the label on dairy products and packaged foods of one kind or another. Products that need to be "health washed," like fat free cookies or chips are ones you should stay away from in general, so there's no point in eating the fat free variety. A fat free Cheez-It is still a Cheez-It. There is also research that shows that a hormone produced by fat cells can help send satiety signals to your brain. So when you binge on a whole bag of fat free cookies and justify it by saying "they were fat free!" that could be part of the problem.

Your body needs fat to function. It helps to absorb vitamins - fat soluble A,D,E and K, specifically. It contains things like omega-3s and omega-6s, essential fatty acids that help with brain function and mood (and which you can only get from food). Low-fat or fat free diets also lower your HDL (referred to as "good cholesterol"), which your body needs to be high to help fight heart disease. 

There's a gentle balance to a healthy diet between carbs, fat and protein. Usually if you drastically reduce one, you jack up another. (Hence the crazy popular diets like Atkins or South Beach.) Most fat-free snacks are insanely high in carbs, which have their share of issues as well. Sometimes when you cut out fat in dairy and meat, you are also reducing your protein, especially if you don't make up for it in other sources.

As a side note, I find it interesting that people freak out when I say I drink whole milk. But that's so fattening!, they say. They then go on to tell me they drink 2% milk. Well, whole milk is 3% fat. Not 100% fat. And more studies are showing a correlation between whole dairy products and reduction of body fat. Not that you should go nuts with the whole fat dairy. Or some red meats, which can be high in saturated fat.

Choosing good fats, like poly and mono unsaturated fats and limiting saturated fats (and not eating any trans fats, which you usually find in processed foods) is the key. I use real butter, not margarine. (Really the only thing margarine is good for is a lubricant to help you remove a tight ring from your finger or grease up the bottom of a sled.) I just don't use it all the time. You don't get high cholesterol by eating a tablespoon of butter or having a serving of whole milk or three ounces of steak. The key, like many things in life, is balance and moderation.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Grocery Cart Compare: Whole Foods v. Giant Eagle, week 4

This was the fourth and final week of comparing my Whole Foods grocery cart to Giant Eagle. I wasn't able to get to the store to compare, so I used the special online service that Giant Eagle has called Curbside Express. You make a shopping list online, selecting specific items, and then you can pull up to the curb and pick up your groceries, all packed and ready to go, for a small fee. I checked, and the prices online are the same as in the store, including sales. (They make money off of Curbside Express by the fee for the service, not the prices of the items.) 

This is a great way to check prices on groceries without having to leave your house. (This only works for the Market District stores that offer this service, and their selection of items is much larger than a regular store.) I left off the items that I've price checked previously, so the list was rather small this week. 

ItemWhole FoodsGiant Eagle
Organic Valley Neufchatel2.693.39
Frozen Sea Bass/Barramundi (12 oz)11.99*25.99/lb*fresh only, Chilean
Grow Pittsburgh Coffee13.99*10.99*organic, non fair trade
Organic russet potatoes (5 lb)4.29*3.99*3 lb
Organic savoy cabbage1.69/lb*1.49/lb*conventional only
Organic green cabbage.99/lb.66/lb
Organic red onion1.99/lb1.79/lb
Organic mango2.50*1.50*conventional only
Kettle brand baked chips3.493.59

I was really surprised to find a couple produce items that were cheaper at Giant Eagle. Cabbage was on sale at both locations though, because of St. Patrick's Day. 

For the sea bass, I called it a draw, since fresh fish is almost always more expensive than frozen, and that's what Giant Eagle offered. Plus, I was unable to determine exactly where and how the fish was sourced to see if it was Seafood Watch approved.

The coffee that we drink is whole bean and is roasted by a local espresso place called La Prima. It's fair trade and organic, and $1 from each bag goes to Grow Pittsburgh, an urban agriculture non-profit in our area that we support. The coffee is amazing and we have a hard time straying from that particular roast, though a bag does last us for quite a long time. Having a Keurig and filling our own pods with grounds really saves a ton of money, because we don't make a giant pot of coffee that might end up being poured down the drain. Also, I've had people make comments to me in the past about how it's ridiculous to pay $14 for a pound of coffee, but when you buy Keurig pods, you are paying about $50/lb for lower quality coffee. If you are buying Keurig Folgers pods, you're paying 3 times what I pay for premium coffee.   

Price checking has been an interesting experiment. Doing it over a period of 4 weeks covers most of the things we buy at a store during a given month, though these lists would be very different in the spring/summer/fall when we source most of our produce from our CSA and from our local farmers markets (when it doesn't come from our own backyard). It's confirmed for me that for the size of our family and what we eat, Whole Foods is the right place to shop. 

We are, however, starting to buy a few more grocery items at Costco than we were previously, so I will price compare there at some point as well.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

nutrition labels get a makeover

Recently, the FDA announced proposed changes to the nutrition labels that appear on food packaging. It was announced as part of the Let's Move campaign and billed as a public health initiative. These changes are the first since the labels were introduced in the 1990s.

I've always thought the most ineffective/deceptive part of the nutrition facts label was the number of servings, and by the same token, the calorie count. Did you know in a pint of Ben & Jerry's there are 4 servings? I mean, who measures out a half cup of ice cream? Not many people. And in a 20-ounce bottle of soda, 2 servings? Often the bags of chips you get at sandwich shops to accompany your meals are two servings. 

So the new labels aim to address this issue, among others - the primary goal being to allow consumers to more quickly choose what's healthy. (Ironically, the nutrition facts label is a separate thing from ingredient lists, which the FDA also regulates. For someone to truly quickly choose what's healthy, they need to know a little something about the ingredients too, but that's a separate issue.)

The proposed new labels will do a few things, but the first big change is the layout. Calories are much more prominent, as are the servings per container. Companies will be required to make serving sizes more realistic instead of artificially making them smaller so that calories per serving appear smaller. Ice cream servings will be one cup, and 20-ounce sodas will be one serving. If a package is truly two servings but is assumed that it could be eaten in one serving (possibly like snack bags), it will require a dual label. Basically the labels will reflect what someone does eat instead of what he/she should eat.

The proposed labels will also require a new line under the carb category that says "Added Sugars." This is really important, since we know for sure that Americans, and children in particular, consume way too much added sugar. (Watch Jamie Oliver's TEDTalk where he shows you with an actual mound of sugar what kids consume in a year. Crazy.)

Potassium and Vitamin D will also be added, as public health officials find both to be deficient in the typical American diet. Potassium contributes to lowered blood pressure and Vitamin D contributes to bone health. Vitamins A and C will be voluntary listings.

Calories from fat will be removed, since science has shown that the type of fat is more important than the amount

A 90-day comment period will be held, and if no changes are made, it will take a few years to implement the changes. Industry will push back and want to make revisions - that's almost inevitable.

But regardless of what happens, the general consumer needs to be more educated about what these items even mean, and how to combine that knowledge with facts about the ingredient list to determine what is a "healthy" product. Honestly, the more you have to do math and detective work to figure out if something is healthy, the less likely that it is. The proposed new label will not fix all of America's dietary problems, but it's a great start!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

ladies and gentlemen, we have germination

Had to document that brussels sprouts and thyme are the winners for first germination this year! It's pretty amazing all of the life contained in those tiny seeds!

How are your seeds doing? What was your first plant to germinate?

meet our newest feline family member: Winter

This week, Winter came to our house. (Yes, there's a bad pun there, since the snow and frigid temperatures returned too.) Winter's our new cat, who is Stormy's pal, having been orphaned together. We adopted Stormy last month, and Winter got to come home to stay with us this week. 

Winter is entirely white, and odd-eyed (one green and one blue). White cats often have a genetic abnormality that causes deafness, which Winter does have. It's amazing to watch how he compensates for that, primarily with a strong sniffer. He is easily startled if you show up out of nowhere in his line of site, but he can feel vibrations in the floor and knows a bit of kitty sign-language. (!)

The first evening he hung out in the Fortress of Solitude (behind the Christmas boxes in the basement) and on top of the cabinet where we keep the cat food. But by the next morning, he was out and about and this morning, his second day, he's curled up at my feet as I write this. I think he's acclimating pretty well, though, as evidenced by his crawling slowly on top of Stormy last night when he was curled up on the couch. 

Stormy was a pretty good sport about it and only hissed at him once. They seem to be getting along, which is nice. Since they already "knew" each other, they took a few sniffs when they were reunited and pretty much walked away unphased. 

So now we have two feline friends. I can't wait to see how they interact with each other (and us) over time. So far, they are attention hogs and we are more than willing to dish it out.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Grocery Cart Compare: Whole Foods v. Giant Eagle, week 3

This is my third week of price matching. In the interest of space and time, I've eliminated from the list items that have appeared before, which we typically buy every week, as long as the prices at both stores were the same as previously reported. So this week is shorter.

I also noted where items were on sale. Whole Foods does not have a loyalty card like Giant Eagle for sale access, which is a benefit if you are skeptical about giving companies information for their marketing purposes. When I mark prices for Giant Eagle, I take the Advantage card price if something is on sale and mark it. It seems their organic items don't go on sale very often.

ItemWhole FoodsGiant Eagle
Organic homestyle waffles1.993.79
Conventional frozen blueberries2.993.99
Organic Valley Sour Cream3.193.69
Organic unsalted butter4.794.99
Cindy's Kitchen fresh ranch5.99N/A
Organic green pepper2.99/lbN/A**Conventional, 2.99/lb
Organic saute greens medley6.99*3.99***12 ounces, **5 ounces
Organic avocados (4)4.995.99
Near East rice pilaf1.67*2.59*on sale
Frontera taco sauce2.00*2.99*on sale
Organic tomato paste0.891.09

Whole Foods has the edge on this week's groceries too. I'm going to do this for one more week with Giant Eagle. I'm curious this spring to compare prices for produce with local farm markets.

I also thought it would be interesting to "price check" the items we get in our CSA against the average cost per share for the summer. This wouldn't be an exact comparison, since there are many benefits besides cost to using a CSA, but it is often praised as a way to save money on produce, and it would be interesting to see if that's strictly true.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

movie review: TED Talks: Chew on This

TED Talks: Chew on This is pretty much what the title indicates - a compilation of TED Talks about food. Never heard of TED or seen a TED Talk? According to their website:
TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.
I have seen TED Talks of different topics randomly online, about body image or technology or something like that. But I didn't realize that Netflix offers groups of TED Talks on different topics, and food is one of them. So I made my way through Chew on This. (If you don't have Netflix, you can watch all of these talks on You Tube or TED's website.)

I really enjoyed the format of these speeches. They were quick enough that you didn't feel like you were attending a long lecture, and the presenters were generally engaging in their delivery.

Jamie Oliver kicks it off with a mini lecture about school food. He even brings a wheelbarrow full of sugar out on to the stage to make a point about how much sugar kids consume. Other speakers touch on food in schools too, including Ann Cooper, a California lunch lady on a crusade. Mark Bittman of New York Times fame also has a lecture, on what's wrong with the way we eat, which you could expect.

Several lecturers talked on worldwide hunger and famine, including Josette Sheeran, who at the time, worked at the UN's World Food Programme. A few addressed the issue of feeding an ever-growing world population - and the viewpoints were diverse and not all anti-industrial agriculture. 

Some were chefs, talking about specific issues like waste or finding ethical seafood options or even *gasp* ethical foie gras. A few speakers covered specific foods, like bread and the many transformations it undergoes from wheat to finished product.

But perhaps most surprising were the talks about food that didn't have to do with any other category, but were just plain interesting. Nathan Myhrvold, who worked on the tome Modernist Cuisine talked about the amazing photography and graphics used in that work, and he was so excited about the thing it was hard to not get sucked in. My favorite was actually Jennifer Lee's talk on the history of "Chinese" food in America, and how most of what we call Chinese food actually isn't. It also made me want takeout.

Being only 15 minutes in length, they don't take up much time. Even if you aren't interested in all of the topics, they are definitely worth checking out. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

starting seeds indoors

This will be our fourth spring and summer at Next Gen House, and the third year that we've been able to start seeds. (The first year we moved in with enough time to build a small raised bed and get some seedlings from a home improvement store. We've come pretty far.) After reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, we discovered Seed Savers Exchange, a group that has been saving heirloom seeds for more than 35 years. We started ordering from them in 2012, and they are where we begin our garden story each year.

First we start with a plan. We talked about what our goals were this year, the primary one being to plant less "types" of produce and focus on what we really consume the most of or would like to can, since we rely on our CSA for variety. This year, that focus is herbs, peppers and tomatoes. We're definitely growing some other items too, but most of the others are direct-seed, meaning the seeds are sown directly in the ground after the risk of the final frost has passed. 

This weekend we started a tray of herbs, one of peppers and one of tomatoes (with a few brussels sprouts thrown in for good measure). Here is what we're growing:

  • Brussels sprouts
  • Tomatoes
    • Amish Paste (good for canning, less water content)
    • Plum Lemon (a complimentary packet from SSE that we're giving a whirl)
    • Black from Tula
    • Earliana
    • Beam's Yellow Pear (these went gangbusters last year)
    • Dr. Wychee's Yellow
  • Peppers
    • Candlelight 
    • Cyklon
    • Garden Sunshine
    • Jalapeno Travelers
    • Santa Fe Grande
    • Chocolate Beauty
  • Herbs
    • Thyme
    • Mint
    • Rosemary
    • Sage
    • Chives
    • Oregano
The herbs will be in containers on our deck eventually, and the tomatoes and peppers will get new, larger beds. We rotate the different beds each year to cut down on disease risk and recurrent pests. We know from last year's experience that we didn't give the tomatoes enough room, so we had one massive tangle of plants and didn't give each one the opportunity to flourish.

We bought simple trays from Walmart, and filled them in with moistened organic seed starting mix. Probably next year or the following year, we'll make our own seed starting mix, but we have leftover bags from a previous purchase that we don't want to go to waste. 

These trays also have a bottom water tray, so we can water from the bottom, which is something we haven't tried before. After filling the slots, we consulted the seed packets to determine the depth at which to plant each type. Mark used a wooden skewer with hashmarks on each 1/4".

I love the SSE seed packets - they have really easy to read information, with the most important stuff at the top - like when to start indoors, how long it takes to germinate, and where to place them outside.

Some of the seeds are so tiny that they come in a small envelope within the packet. What a miracle, that such a robust plant, and by extension so much food, can come from such a tiny seed. I always talk about being connected to where your food comes from. When you hold seeds, you're looking at the origins of plant life. Pretty awesome. 

We mark our seed rows with popsicle sticks from the craft store.

This year's trays also have a cover, which helps trap heat during the "wait to germinate". This is another new thing for us this year.

After we finished all three trays, they got transported to what I'm going to call the "grow room" (spare bedroom) and placed on the shelves of the seed starting station that Mark built for us this weekend.

Mark built this contraption that will also double as a greenhouse when it's done holding seeds and fluorescent lights. We have only ever used windowsills to start seeds, which has never worked out for us particularly well, since the seedlings get really leggy reaching for the sun. We don't get enough sun in this part of the country to rely on a windowsill for light. Even though nature has usually come through with some veggies by the end of summer, the plants weren't as robust as they could be, and we think it was primarily because of insufficient light at the beginning. Enter Mark's project.

We will also harden the seedlings this year by exposing them to the outdoors a little bit at a time, so they are "hardened" before they go in the ground.

This is all assuming that the seeds germinate and grow, so it's always a game of chance. I look forward to watching these seeds grow - and seeing if this year's modifications pay off! 

Friday, March 7, 2014

losing our first chicken

I came home from work and a five mile run last night to find Mark in the backyard still in his work clothes, having just got home after a hellish commute of his own. His first words to me were "a hawk killed one of the chickens."

I hauled my bags in the house and came back out to find Ensign Rickey, one of our Black Australorps, dropped in one of our raised beds, her neck broken and feathers everywhere. (Ensign Rickey's name is a Star Trek reference - our affectionate name for a generic redshirt.) Ensign Rickey was our best layer - a champion, even through this brutal winter. We even joked that we should let her retire in style since she was so dependable and was largely responsible for us even having any eggnog at Christmas at all. She was always the first to pump her legs across our yard when we'd walk onto the porch and yell TREAT!

Even though we don't really look at the chickens as pets like we do our cats who live with us inside, the chickens are part of our family and we protect their lives and care for them like we do our pets. They are valuable to us and we make their lives as carefree and chicken-y as possible.

But the side effect of a free life outside of a cage is that sometimes predators show up. We'd actually never seen a hawk in Carnegie before, until Mark opened the back gate to find one sitting on the chicken coop, with Ensign Rickey on the ground and the others terrified and squacking behind our compost piles. If we lived in the country and could really have the chickens free range outside of a fenced in yard, we'd lose some to other ground predators. I know this. Animals die just like humans do, and thankfully we don't think Ensign Rickey suffered too much. Mark walked into the yard and startled the hawk before it could go after one of the other hens.

It was dusk by the time I got home in the first place, so we got out the boots and shovels and dug into the frozen ground as it was getting dark, to make a place for her. We even said the gralloch prayer over the spot, a prayer of thanks for life that gives sustenance to others, as Ensign Rickey gave us eggs faithfully for the almost 3 years that we had her.

It was a sad evening. When I first laid eyes on her body, I cried. My first thought was that I hope she didn't suffer. But it made me think that even if she did, the rest of her life was carefree and full of delicious scratch treats, digging for bugs in soft earth, chattering with her flock and pooping wherever she darn well pleased, with a warm and comfortable roost for cold evenings. 

Allow me to step on a soapbox here. What about all the other chickens that we use for eggs in this country, housed in horrid conditions, smashed into cages with broken legs and clipped beaks, unable to move, wallowing in their own waste, sick and dying? Just so we can have cheap eggs? No one cries for those birds when they die, and most people prefer it that way - because to turn your face away from the suffering of those animals allows you to buy eggs for $1/dozen and not worry about it. And that's what it is - suffering. If you don't believe me, watch this.

Consider finding a farmer near you that sells eggs - many farm stands and farmers markets sell them. Or consider your own backyard chickens. But think the next time you buy eggs about what we as a society are giving those birds for the gift of their eggs, a staple of many diets. Torturing another species in order to take something from them, giving nothing in return - not even compassion - isn't right. Think about where you are sourcing your animal products. Not all eggs are the same. Ensign Rickey's sure weren't. 

Real Life CSA: winter share 7

We're on share 7 of 9 for the winter CSA, and there's still something new to get excited about each week. This week? Fermented cabbage!

I am loving the canned goods/pantry in this CSA. It takes the "use it up!" urgency out of all of the items. Plus, these are things we'd eat anyway. The honey puffed spelt is like a snack, it's so delicious. 

Watermelon radishes are ones I haven't really found great uses for, but this week's CSA blog had a recipe for watermelon radish chips. And anything that sounds like a snack I can salt sounds good to me. Might give those a whirl. 

Onions are one of those pantry staples that no one lists in their favorite items of produce, but they are the backbone of tons of recipes, and we use a LOT of them at Next Gen House. Always happy to get a few solid onions in the share.

Lettuce will spruce up this week's salads, and potatoes will likely be a side dish. I'm thinking balsamic roasted. We will also need to check out this cheese and see what it's best suited for.

We also got a free issue of Edible Allegheny magazine in this share. I am a subscriber, so I will pass this copy on to someone else, but it's a great magazine if you're interested in local food. (I was even featured in it, way back when!)  

Two more winter shares left. That means spring is on the way, right? Right?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

yoga mat sandwiches: real threat or hype?

You might have heard the phrase "yoga mat sandwich" tossed around lately. After a prominent food blogger/activist started a petition to get Subway to remove a chemical called azodicarbonamide from its breads, the issue went viral.

Azodicarbonamide is a chemical foaming agent, used in yoga mats and other plastic items to make the item spongy, light and strong. And apparently, bread at Subway. It supposedly "makes bread rise higher, stay soft and form an attractive crust."

But it's not just Subway making "yoga mat sandwiches" - according to a follow up study by the Environmental Working Group, azodicarbonamide actually appears in at least 500 processed food products made by a large number of companies. The World Health Organization has found that there are health risks to workers who are exposed to azodicarbonamide, but no one has done studies on its health effects in humans who ingest it.

So here's the problem. It's fine for these bloggers and activists to try to get the word out about what's in our food. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and to some degree, talk about that in this space. But ok, Subway is now removing that chemical from its bread. But what will they put in its place? Bread that's just made up of flour, yeast, salt and water? Doubtful. 

It's not an effective overall strategy to get one company at a time to remove one ingredient at a time from one product at a time. What we need are comprehensive regulations and overhauls of the food industry in general, so that the FDA does not approve additives for food use in the first place with no scientific evidence as to whether or not they can threaten human health. We need a policy that considers chemicals to be dangerous for food until proven safe, with effective, third-party science.

So go ahead and stay away from processed foods with "yoga mats" in them - but don't believe that the removal of that one chemical from a food makes it healthy and/or clean. Processed foods are processed foods. Don't buy into the hype that industrial food companies are prioritizing public health by removing singular additives - even in the face of increased public awareness, they are still prioritizing profit.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

root cellar progress

I've spent a lot of time in the last two weeks in the basement, working on cleaning out the space to be used more efficiently. The primary goal is to create a space for a root cellar. (See creating a root cellar in a city basement for more details on the "roots" of this project.)

Mark ordered me a hygrometer, which reads temperature and humidity, so when it arrived I knew I needed to get moving on the basement project so I could put it to use.

Here's an idea of what the basement looked like before. (Yikes.)

See how far back that goes? This area has the previous owner's cabinets (filled with leftover paint and tiles) plus all the garbage you see on the floor, tubs of canning jars, Christmas decorations, a canning cabinet, shelf for alcohol, and piles of pet and garden stuff. And the top of those cabinets? That's been my "root cellar." Yeah.

Laundry side. Not as bad, but with a giant pile of cleaning stuff on the floor that hasn't moved in about a year.

This is the other side, from the far wall. On the left we have more patio cushions, and piles of junk lined up on the entire wall. The other side is Mark's "workshop." Which let's be honest, wasn't anything like a workshop. To my right in this photo is our chest freezer. To the left is this - the other work surfaces Mark has.

The treasure chest does not contain treasure. 

And last but not least, the shower space.

Two Saturdays, 8 lawn and leaf bags of garbage, 4 boxes of flattened cardboard, and a giant yard sale pile later, we have this. I'm calling it Stage 2.

(Sadly this second round of photos was taken with my phone with low light at 5 a.m., because my Canon seems to have bit the dust. While I try to bring it back to life, my phone must suffice.)

The speck on the floor is one of Stormy's toys. You can see things are stacked, there's no garbage on the floor, and the cabinets are gone.

More cat toys. And a laundry organizer, so that towels and yard clothes don't have to go in piles on the floor.

Probably the biggest change is on "Mark's side" in his work area. We repurposed the cabinets and moved them over to his side so he has another work surface, and got some utility shelving to house a lot of his tools and pieces that previously lived on the floor. (And I sorted through all the mounds of this and that which had accumulated for years.)

He's still working on the other side, but you can see that it's definitely a huge step up from before. (Can you find Stormy? He was my sidekick.)

Last but not least, the hygrometer is set up, and some styrofoam coolers are waiting in the shower. (Probably one of the most bizarre phrases I have ever typed.)

So cold, and so enlightening. The humidity is way too low for most vegetables to keep well. You'd think that wouldn't be true, but in the absence of mold, veggies at 26% humidity would shrivel up. 

I've got more work to do on the root cellar part, and a few other general basement things, like a kitchen reorganization, but this is huge progress. Makes me feel like I'll be ready for my makeshift root cellar this year after all!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Grocery Cart Compare: Whole Foods v. Giant Eagle, week 2

Week 2 of my data gathering experiment was similar to last week, again with a few pleasant surprises. (For some background on this project, check out week 1 here.)

This week was also a bit odd for us with the contents, since we were having people over Saturday night and thus bought some extra things that we wouldn't usually have around the house. 

ItemWhole FoodsGiant Eagle
Manchester Farms whole milk3.994.70
Fresh onion dip2.99*1.50*Made fresh in-house/no preservatives
Organic Beef Broth3.692.99
Jambon (deli)11.99/lb*11.99/lb*No hormones or antibiotics
Roasted turkey breast (deli)12.99/lb*10.49/lb*No hormones or antibiotics
Catfish filets7.99/lbN/A
Nature's Rancher bacon5.994.99
Organic carrots (2 lb bag)1.792.58
Organic green leaf lettuce2.693.49
Organic romaine lettuce2.693.49
Conventional cucumber0.891.49
Organic diced tomatoes1.491.69
Organic tomato sauce (8 oz jar)0.992/3.00**Muir Glen on sale, 15 oz jar
Organic tartar sauce2.99N/A**Conventional only, 2.19
Conventional butternut squash1.29/lb1.79/lb
Organic fresh sage (1/4 oz)1.292.99**2/3 oz, price per oz cheaper
Organic baby spinach1.99N/A**Conventional only, 2/$6
Yogurt pretzels (bulk)5.99/lb6.99/lb
Organic paprika (bulk)12.99/lbN/A**Conventional only, bulk 15.96/lb
Organic barley (bulk)1.49/lb1.79/lb
Trail mix (bulk)5.99/lb5.99/lb
Organic garlic5.99/lb9.96/lb
Organic yellow onions1.19/lb3.99**3 lb bag
Conventional lemons0.790.79
Conventional blood oranges5/$45/$4
Organic tortilla chips (12 oz bag)3.992.99**8 oz bag
Cape Cod kettle chips3.193.79
Bakery sourdough4.494.99**small loaves 3.99, large loaf 5.99 - avg
Conventional cherry tomatoes (US greenhouse)4.493.99**Mexican, artificially ripened

I was happily surprised to see Giant Eagle beat Whole Foods when it came to bacon and that Giant Eagle carries a brand that is hormone and antibiotic free. Also Giant Eagle was having a good sale on Muir Glen organic tomatoes, which beat out Whole Foods' generic ones. The fresh herbs were also cheaper at Giant Eagle, which was strange since the produce is generally entirely cheaper at Whole Foods (which the produce person at Giant Eagle told me flat out). 

The milk is from a local farm that supplies stores regionally, and I was surprised to see such a price difference - likely because of volume. 

Probably the biggest impact this comparison had this week is to remind me that we have a pork belly to cure to make our own bacon, and we have soup bones in the freezer from which to make beef broth. I need to plan better to be able to make some of these things at home, which makes them even more affordable than either store can carry them. At least we'll be making a stewing chicken this week, and can make stock from the bones. (Look for a how-to post about making your own chicken stock using the crock pot, coming up soon!)


Congrats to Donna C, who wins the copy of Omnivore's Dilemma and Food, Inc. from the Next Gen House anniversary giveaway. Thanks to the few and the proud who entered!