Everything But the Kitchen Sink: 5 Simple Steps to Greener Food Storage and Prep

IMG_0365I’ll concede off the top that it takes a, well, special level of pickiness to go through your own kitchen cupboards with a gimlet eye, wondering which of the assorted containers, cookery, food processors, and other paraphernalia might be slowly poisoning you, a little bit at a time.

And it can be an expensive proposition to make over your kitchen to be less toxic, so unless you happen to be pregnant or chemically sensitive, its likely best tackled piecemeal or as you have the mental and physical energy to consider the changes and concomitant expense.

The two biggest offenders are plastic containers and nonstick-coated anything. The easiest, most general guideline I can offer is to ditch both of these.

Unfortunately, this isn’t easy. Plastic appears in places you might not expect it, like coffee-makers and food processor bowls. Some dishwasher racks are even made of PVC! And non-stick surfaces now cling persistently to bakeware and rice cookers, as well as specialty appliances like sandwich presses and waffle makers.

So I’ve pulled together the following list of common offenders and some safer alternatives. There’s a lot that can be said on each of these topics, so please consider this a cheat-sheet, for use when you’re rooting through your cabinets, muttering to yourself that it just shouldn’t be this hard….

IMG_6184Offender #1) Plastic food containers.

No plastic has definitively been found to be safe, and some have been shown to contain dangerous chemicals that are absorbed by food. The worst are those marked with a “3,” “6,” or “7.” The safer plastics are “1,” “2,” “4” and “5.” In fact, some now think that the BPA-free substitutes may be just as bad, or even worse, than BPA.

You may look around your fridge at the ubiquitous plastic containers from the grocery store, and doubt the purpose of this exercise. And you would have a point.

So here’s my best explanation for why you should bother: the single-use plastics in the fridge are not washed, heated, or run through the dishwasher, generally speaking. Plastic is inert when cold, but breaks down when subjected to heat and sunlight.

For this reason, you should never microwave in plastic, you should hand-wash any plastic lids or other items you do keep around, and you should not re-use plastic water bottles or other flimsy plastic items intended for single use. More to the point, you should think about replacing repeat-use plastic items or plastic food storage containers with more durable materials like glass or stainless steel.

If you can afford it, you may even want to replace your plastic-lidded glass containers with options that have no plastic at all. Why bother? Well, I wrote persnickety letters a while back to both Pyrex and Anchor Hocking about the contents of their plastic lids. Their answers were less than reassuring. Although I had only asked for the type of plastic, and not the “full ingredients,” the response from Pyrex was remarkably obscure, and left open the possibility that they use BPA substitutes (like BPS) that are equally harmful:

Thank you for contacting World Kitchen, LLC
We appreciate your concern regarding our products.  Our Pyrex brand lids are a composite of ingredients that, in the amounts included in the lids, meet all FDA requirements for food contact materials. We are sorry that we cannot provide you the exact ingredients in our lids. The actual list of those ingredients is proprietary to World Kitchen and its supplier. However, our supplier has confirmed that these covers do not contain any of the following ingredients. We hope this is helpful.
Polystyrene
Phthalate
BVP
PVC
Polychlorinated Vinyl
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Polycarbonate
For further assistance, please contact our Consumer Care Center. Sincerely,
World Kitchen Consumer Care Center

By comparison, Anchor Hocking was more transparent and informative, at least identifying the types of plastics used, which mostly appear to be the “safer” kinds:

Thank you for taking the time to contact the Anchor Hocking Company. Anchor Hocking strives to maintain high quality standards to provide the finest glassware and accessories available.  We are proud of our products and responsiveness to our consumer questions. The plastic covers for our ovenware and Kitchen Storageware products are made from a combination of LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) and a material called POE (Poly Olefin Ester).  The plastic center for our “TrueSeal” and “TrueFit” product is polyethylene with the perimeter of the cover made from thermoplastic elastomer (TPE).  The custard cup covers are made out of Linnear Low Density Poly Ethylene (LLDPE). Our Bake N Store gasket fitment is silicone.  All materials used in our covers and fitments are Federal Drug Administration (FDA) acceptable.  Additionally all old plastic covers and fitments do not contain bisphenol (BPA). Plastic fitment to our storageware offerings is a poly and ethylene material composition (PE).

IMG_4760Greener alternative #1: Glass and metal containers.

The upshot for us is that we are gradually trading out our plastic lidded containers for either tiffins, these awesome plastic-free food storage wraps (about which there is more below), and rubber gasket stainless steel containers, all of which work well. The geniuses at Life Without Plastic have a number of options in this regard (like these), which we are slowly subbing in for our bevy of plastic-lidded glass containers.

Canning jars are another option, but many of them have BPA under the lids. Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely.

Sadly, most food processors are also plastic, and most older ones have BPA in the food area (and adverts for newer ones do not say the substitutes for BPA being use, which could be as bad or worse). I use my glass blender whenever I can by adding more liquid, or wield a stick blender in a stainless pot. I also use a high-velocity stainless steel mixer from India which will pulverize anything. And when I invested recently in a real juicer (bought used off Craigslist!), I chose a high-end Breveille, with a stainless steel body and parts except for the compost bin that collects vegetables and fruits after use.

If you can’t get rid of all your plastic containers, remember to handwash them, as the chemicals can leach out due to the heat of the dishwasher.

IMG_1728Offender #2) Non-stick cookware.

As much as it makes me cringe to remember, at one point I loved my Teflon pans. They were a breeze to clean and like many people, I thought I was safe if I avoided scratches and dings that caused the surface to flake into food. But one of the primary chemicals used in non-stick surfaces is a nasty carcinogen called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and even a pristine pan undergoes a dangerous material breakdown when raised to temperatures frequently reached in cooking.

Greener alternative #2: Enameled or plain cast-iron and stainless steel pans.

Enameled cast-iron is easy to clean and doesn’t need to be seasoned. We’re also happy with stainless steel and occasionally use well-oiled cast iron. Pans from Le Creuset or one of their many competitors are expensive but last forever and come in shapes and sizes that are a breeze to use for many types of dishes. They are our go-to for pans and large casserole pots. We also have this great little two-part pot and pan set sold only by Sur La Table, which includes the smallest enamel pan I’ve found and is amazing for eggs.

Le Creuset also makes a wonderful reversible enameled griddle for gas-top stoves, which seasons just like cast iron and looks dark like cast iron, but is in fact enamel-finished. (I questioned store reps at the Bethesda location on this point last spring.) I also love the Dutch ovens they sell, with one adjustment: I replaced the knob with a stainless steel one (annoying that it’s sold separately) because I didn’t want a plastic knob going in the oven, even at temperatures that the company said were acceptable.

You can also find them sometimes at yard sales, on Craigslist, at outlet malls and discount stores or on sale after the holidays for considerably less. When using stainless steel or regular cast iron pans, we’re not afraid of having to scrub it on occasion. As readers know, I’m also simply mad about my crockery tagine.

For other pots, 18/10 stainless steel in basic shapes like this Dutch Oven works well. For cookie sheets and pie pans without teflon, look to professional bakeware marketed for chefs, most of whom would never dream of using non-stick. Here’s a link to the reasonably priced the cookie sheet I recently scored, and a pie pan made of high-quality stainless steel, both by Norpro.

Because no one’s really clear what’s in it, I part ways with many greener folks by remaining skeptical about silicone bakeware and spatulas or other kitchen items as well (though anti-plastic crusader Beth Terry agrees with me on this in her terrific book).

IMG_0369Offender #3) Drip coffee makers.

Most of the coffee makers I see sitting on kitchen counters are composed almost entirely of plastic. This is a terrible choice of construction material. Hot plastic releases toxic chemicals and coffee, which is naturally acidic, only makes the chance that chemicals will leach all the more likely. In the comically titled Slow Death by Rubber Duck, the authors intentionally raise or lower their blood levels of BPA by drinking out of a plastic drip coffeemaker.

Greener alternative #3: Chemex.

In the past we’ve used a stainless steel electric kettle and a tempered glass french press. It was a head-and-shoulders improvement over our old coffeemaker, but we have a new favorite: a Chemex. It contains no plastic. Clean up is easy-peasy. The coffee tastes great and can be refrigerated and stored for iced coffee.

If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop and opted for a “pour over,” this is what the barista probably used to make your premium cup of joe. Other plastic-free options are stainless percolators like this one. And there are porcelain one-cup cones like this one that go on top of a coffee cup. There are several kinds and sizes, so you may want to compare reviews. When buying paper filters, remember to get the unbleached variety.

IMG_0387

Offender #4) Some ceramic crock pots and ceramic dishes.

While I love slow cookers, some of them can leach lead due to the glaze used for their ceramic bowls. There hasn’t been a conclusive survey of which brands do and do not contain lead glazes, and the only information available is anecdotal. The best way to determine if your slow cooker is lead free is to buy a testing kit and give it a swab. Our Rival crockpot came up negative for lead, so I hope the test was right!

For a long time, lead was a common ingredient in glazes used for ceramic kitchenware. Most manufactures phased it out when it was shown to leach into food, but it still turns up with shocking frequency, especially in imported products. So swab your dishes down as well, and look for assurances that what you buy is specifically labeled lead-free. Be aware that cookware and dishes handed down from relatives should be swabbed before being used!

IMG_0378Greener alternative #4: Stainless steel pressure and rice cookers, and glass and stainless dishware.

Pressure cookers are wonderful, but most of them on the market are actually made of aluminum, as was the one we used for years before figuring this out. Aluminum has been found to leach out of cooking vessels, and while the link to Alzheimer’s is disputed, is known to be neurologically toxic at higher levels and among workers (PDF).

Thankfully, there are a few models on the market made of stainless steel, like this one we now own. Pressure cookers cut cooking times to a fraction of what they would be on the stove. Dried beans are a breeze to cook, which means you can stop buying prepared beans in BPA-lined cans. If you cook rice as frequently as we do, you can also now easily find affordable stainless steel rice cookers, like this one.

As for dishes, lead exposure is especially dangerous for young children, who have developing nervous systems and are more to susceptible to effects like learning disabilities and brain damage. Both out of this concern and to avoid plastic, as I discuss below, we found a stainless steel dish set from Lunch Bots that we like. It’s dishwasher and oven safe, lead and BPA free. Maya also enjoys her bus plate from Innobaby, of stainless steel. More recently, we’ve used Duralex dishes made from tempered glass, as pictured above (best prices I’ve found are here).

IMG_4040Offender #5) Plastic tableware and to-go-ware for kids.

Speaking of un-fantastic plastic, sippy cups, even, the ones made from “better” plastic, should be no exception, especially if you’re in the habit, like basically all parents, of putting them in the dishwasher. And those cute decorated white plastic, or melamine, dishes for kids are also dubious. In a recent study:

researchers from Taiwan found melamine in the urine of study participants who ate soup out of melamine bowls (melamine is a shatterproof plastic commonly used in tableware marketed toward children). While the amount was small — up to 8 parts per billion — melamine is a known carcinogen.

While it’s true that the FDA, in all its wisdom, says blood levels of melamine would have to be much, much higher to definitely cause cancer, why add to a toddler’s blood levels of a known carcinogen?

Plastic to-go items, like character lunch boxes and thermoses for kids, are also depressingly laden with harmful chemicals. Many of the plastic lunch boxes are actually made of PVC, a poison plastic! Soda cans are lined in BPA, milk and juice boxes all have a thin lining of polyethylene inside, and plastic sandwich baggies are often also made of PVC.

Greener alternative #5: Stainless steel bottles, and glass and stainless dishware and to-go ware.

As I’ve written before, my favorite cups are the Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles. They come with a silicone nipple and tests show no leaching of metals. There are also more grown-up versions available of both these and glass bottles; those made of a stronger glass like borosilicate are best. Lifefactory bottles, which are both kid and adult-friendly, come with a protective sleeve made of silicone that doesn’t contact the liquid inside.

I’ve added suggestions and links on dishes to Section #4, just above. To the extent we buy plastic wrap or bags, we look for ones labeled “PVC-free.” Other better options for to-go food that we find work include:

  1. Wax paper bags for dry items like these;
  2. Organic sack lunch bags like this cute dinosaur bag or this friendly one;
  3. Almost entirely stainless steel insulated containers from Klean Kanteen;
  4. Stainless snack containers from To-Go Ware or Kids Konserve;
  5. Stackable lunch tiffin from To-Go Ware and a sandwich-sized box from New Wave;
  6. The coolest lunch box ever from Planetbox (though I wish they were organic fabric!).

We’ve also ogled the organic sandwich bags at Mighty Nest from EcoDitty, the adorable organic lunch sacks from Hero Bags, a U.S. based fair trade company, and the kits and stand-alone stainless steel containers from Ecolunchboxes, but have not yet tried them. Life Without Plastic also has a large number of options for kids’ tableware.

IMG_0360Other good stuff I’ve found…

Once you’ve tackled the big stuff, you can look around your kitchen and starting nit-picking the little stuff and tossing the odd old plastic spatula. If you have stuff you’ve found, please share! Things I’ve picked up as needed or as they wore out include:

  1. A stainless steel baster;
  2. A stainless steel ice cube tray (which was great for freezing portions of baby food);
  3. Stainless steel popsicle molds;
  4. A no-plastic wrap that is amazing for cheese and sandwich storage and also deforms easily over the top of any pot or bowl;
  5. A reusable bamboo utensil set;
  6. Awesome, versatile stainless steel cooling cubes for drinks, coolers and endless other uses;
  7. Canvas (rather than “vinyl,” which is PVC) bags for cake decorating;
  8. …. and so on…

IMG_0370Note: None of the links in this post are commissioned. Happy cooking!

Hot Reads: CA Takes Back Its Dumb Rule, Chemical Reform Under Contemplation, and More

Wicker Picnic Basket Grass 6-1-09 1

(Photo credit: stevendepolo)

Kick up your feet: this couch won’t bite!

Fantastic news from California! It looks like beginning this winter, furniture makers will be able to jettison toxic flame retardants from their products. Currently, manufacturers use these chemicals to comply with a stupid CA state law, even though the flame retardants are linked to learning deficits, cancer, lowered IQ and other issues and do little to protect against fires.

A proposed rule allows manufacturers to discontinue the use of flame retardant chemicals in January 2014, with all manufacturers required to achieve full compliance by January 2015. This is an issue that has been driving me crazy for some time, and I’ve written about it obsessively a lot. I’m looking forward to the day when we can all breathe a sigh of relief, lie down on our couches, and take a long, peaceful nap.

Be aware that whatever the final implementation date, manufacturers will still need to change their supply chains, which may take a while. In the meantime, here’s my FAQ on flame retardants, here’s some options I found, and here’ s a handy-dandy cheat sheet of purchase options from the folks at Green Science Policy Institute, which also has their own FAQ.

It’s about time: A Quick Take on Last Week’s Chemical Reform hearing

In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). It was a joke almost from the get-go: while it purported to assure the safety of thousands of chemicals in common household products, in reality the chemical industry got the government to give tens of thousands of them a free pass. Since then, the number of chemicals in our live has gotten larger but government regulation covers only a fraction of a percent of them. A key example: asbestos, which we know causes mesothelioma and a host of other health problems, cannot be banned under the law!

Finally, after 37 years, Congress is considering updating chemical safeguards, thanks in part to the incredible leadership of the late Senator from New Jersey, the Honorable Frank Lautenberg. This should have been done a long time ago, but the gathering momentum and discussion of a proposed new bill, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), offers some (limited) hope, following a marathon Senate Environment and Public Works hearing last week.

Sadly, as the testimony from panel after panel made clear, the new proposal is not as strong as it should be. Given the persistent gridlock in Congress, I was cheered to hear Senators from both sides of the aisle agreeing on something essential: that there is a pressing need to reform the chemical oversight law. Some lawmakers floated the notion that they are willing to work together, which is a refreshing change, and gives me hope that the bill can actually be fixed.

More cynically, I see it as a clear signal that the chemical industry is ready to deal, and that they have finally decided that some rules to reassure the public of the safety of their products may be better than the Wild West. In the current environment, companies are never sure about whether a product is going to land them in some scary headlines and tick off moms like me. In addition, most multinationals are already complying with stricter laws in Europe, so perhaps uniformity has advantages in terms of costs for them. Ominously, there was a not-so-subtle suggestion from a few GOP lawmakers that the current proposal is the best that will be offered, which would be a crying shame, given that none of the many environmental and public health organizations on the panel supports the current version.

What are the flaws and omissions in the proposal? Sadly, there is still lots of work to be done. Many witnesses raised the important issue of the need to provide protections for state laws that are already on the books and to ensure that whatever federal standards are developed do not over-ride the state provisions. This issue — called preemption by lawyers — is needed because the states have stepped into the breach during the long winter of federal inaction on chemicals and many have their own rules that should remain in force.

In addition, nothing in the proposed law provides specific protections for vulnerable people, such as children, or pregnant and nursing moms. But we know that exposure to chemicals cannot be judged on an average basis, because there are simply windows of time in our lives when exposure to even a relatively small amount of chemicals may have devastating health effects. That’s why advocates have been so concerned about findings of chemicals in umbilical cords and cord-blood of brand-new babies: this is such an intense period of cellular development that the impact of chemicals can be far greater than it would be for an adult. In addition, environmental justice concerns about how chemical facilities and releases are concentrated in low-income areas means this kind of assessment must be done for basic fairness.

Third, because the name of the game in DC these days is paralysis by analysis, I was excited and cheered to see so many folks raise the need for hard deadlines in the law. There is clearly no stomach for another 37 years of delay. Witnesses also spoke to the importance of developing a clear and simple process for any new rule, and some even called for an assessment by the current regulators of how long, exactly, it would take under the law before the first new standard could get out the door.

The bottom line is that the bill has to be improved before it moves forward. Senator Boxer (D.-CA), the chair of the committee, provided wonderful clarity on this point and definitely seems like she on the case. But she needs our support, so here’s how to help:

Let’s be clear: this is more energy towards real chemical reform than we have seen in years, and a moment that is not be wasted. So let’s all do what we can to keep raising the costs of failure and inaction on this critical public health issue, for your kids and mine.

Water, Water Everywhere

Is your water safe to drink? Maybe, but maybe not. If it passes through PVC pipes it might contain vinyl chloride. And lead is unfortunately still a concern. Check out these tips from Healthy Child Healthy World. They list dangers to watch for and measures you can take to ensure that you and your family are staying hydrated and toxin-free.

Hot Fun in the City? Not so much.

Sunscreen, plastic pitchers of lemonade, insect repellant and a red-and-white-checkered vinyl tablecloth. Sounds like a great picnic, right? Sadly, no. All of these products contain dangerous toxins, so before you fire up the grill for a couple end-of-summer barbecues, do a little research to make sure you aren’t unwittingly exposing yourself to harmful chemicals. To help you avoid toxin-tainted products as the summer wraps up, the folks at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families have put together an informative graphic and released startling new test results on a bevy of summertime fun products.

There are more offenders than you might think, in places you might not suspect. Check it out and chuck the plastic and folding chairs, so that you are chilling in the dwindling days of summer in a toxin-free environment. And while you’re picnicking, please contemplate the nuttiness of a world in which the red-checked tablecloth is poison, and the blue-checked one is fine. Another reason we need that federal reform law!

Don’t Spank Your Toddler. Full stop.

Given my recent post on respectful communication with a child and developing resilience through trust, I was shocked to learn this week that 94 percent of toddlers are spanked and fifty percent are spanked three or more times a week. Really, what lesson does spanking teach? What does it demonstrate to children except that physical violence is appropriate behavior? And what effects does it have on the relationship between a parent and a child?

StopSpanking.org put together this incredible video about their efforts to ban spanking. The video is proposal for a full-length documentary, and funds are being solicited to produce it. Watch the video. It’s eye-opening.

Childhood obesity: down?

Good news for once: recent studies actually show a drop in childhood obesity. Hello! Let’s figure out why please, and do more of that.

The tragic costs of regulatory resistance

I wrote last week about the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a train carrying crude oil exploded and killed 47 people. Now the victims’ families will suffer more. When the costs associated with the crash were estimated at $200 million this week, the company responsible for the disaster—Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway—filed for bankruptcy because it was carrying only $25 million in insurance coverage. Appalling.

Extra! Extra!

The week began with a bombshell: Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, made arrangements to purchase The Washington Post. At first glance, the story had all the trappings of a modern-day tragedy. A man who made his fortune on the internet was buying a newspaper that owed its demise to that very same cornerstone of the digital age.

But the more I read about Bezos, the more I wondered about his motives and what they might suggest for the future of the paper. The Post, like much of print journalism, has seen better days. Its revenue has fallen 44 percent over the past six years and in 2012 its operating loss topped $50 million.

So why did Bezos, a calculating businessman, fork over a quarter of a billion dollars for it? Was it a vanity purchase to raise his intellectual cachet? Was it a hobby buy to feed a love of letters? An act of philanthropy? An ego move to show he could succeed where others failed? Or an attempt to purchase a mouthpiece on federal policy and influence federal lawmakers in support of his left-libertarian views? Only time will tell.

And that’s a wrap for this week. Hope you are having a lovely August!

Is Gardening Actually Green? Some Considerations for the Aspiring Gardener

IMG_0396Far too late this spring for efficient planning, I got bitten by a gardening bug. You know the kind: a large beetle-like apparition that sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear about hydrangeas until you find yourself wandering, dazed, through what seems like acres of plant nurseries, credit card in hand.

Or perhaps that sort of thing just happens to me. At any rate, given my lack of actual information about growing things, after spending a penny or two on some fancy and not-so-fancy plants, I panicked and decided I’d better bone up on how not to kill them right away.

I’ll be first to admit I’m an inconsistent, mostly aspirational, green-to-black thumber. Indeed, it should be stipulated that I spent much of my wayward adolescence brattily refusing to assist my parents as they toiled about our yard. I was too busy watching reruns of Three’s Company reading War and Peace. So I’ll forgive their incredulity now as I plumb the soil, or gad about with my trowel like a dowsing rod that could point the way to my misspent youth.

As a semi-grown-up, I first got interested in gardening during the all-too-brief period in which I lived — believe it — in Manhattan. We paid literally one million dollars per month for 600 square feet on the Upper West Side, at garden level, and had our own tiny patch of ground. It was such a luxury to have a patio “area” that I wanted to try at least to make it nicer than the patch of scrubby dirt that greeted us with appropriate NYC diffidence.

But I knew nothing, and knew I knew nothing. My folks — ever willing to assist in my flights of fancy on the cheap, bless’em — actually drove up from Virginia with patches of sod and spare hostas and other plants liberated from their own yard. And friends came by to help us dig and install (thanks, Steve!). A few days of work, and this:

Eventually became this:

IMG_0516
IMG_0533IMG_0517It was bliss. And then, sadly, we moved. And then, happily, had a baby. Two years after being installed in a house with a postage stamp yard in Takoma Park, I had barely lifted a three-pronged diggy thing. Sometime this past April, I looked around in despair and decided change had to come, and that change was me.

But since my last short-lived pass at gardening, I had a green awakening and started this blog. So I resolved to look into what I was doing to the yard and why, rather than just purchasing some pretty flowers and plopping them in as before.

Here’s the upshot (get ready to be shocked, I tell you, shocked…): while it’s possible to do gardening with environmental concerns in mind, it’s not always as easy as it should be.

There’s actually a ton of greenwashing in gardening. As I discovered, the garden sections of stores are filled with poorly labeled plants  — most do not say whether they are native or not (hint: most are not) — while the shelves are filled with (Monsanto‘s) chemical solutions to common gardening problems, lead- and PVC-laden garden hoses, “organic” potting soil that uses both chicken parts from who-knows-where and peat moss from our rapidly depleting carbon-sink bogs, and plastic, lots of plastic.

Although I’m a newbie gardener, below I offer some resources as I’ve discovered them to date. I also hope for your assistance as people who actually Know Things About Plants in sharpening the list and offering more tips.

IMG_0400Un-Greenwash Your Gardening: A Few Basics

Don’t Get Soiled

Soil is home for your plants. Just like your home, you’ll want it to be free of nasty chemicals. Most gardening store have an array of options, many of them proclaiming themselves to be organic in large fonts and bright colors.

It’d be nice if we could believe these eye-catching appeals to eco-sensitivity, but it’s just not that easy. There are actually no labeling rules that define “organic” with regard to soil, so that “organic” in this context can just mean, well, organic matter. Duh.

The upshot is that it takes some work to figure out what you’re feeding your plants. Be sure to eyeball the list of ingredients on the back of the bag. Of concern are the fertilizers, in particular something called “poultry litter.” The name is vague, but poultry litter, to put it simply, is everything that can be shoveled from the floor of a poultry farm, including excrement, bedding, feathers and feed.

Some manufactures purchase their litter from big factory farms like Perdue, and while the soil may be advertised as organic, Perdue doesn’t observe organic practices. It stands to reason that if the source of the litter isn’t organic, the litter isn’t organic either. The easiest way to know if your “organic” soil is actually organic is to look for a label from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

My personal faves are Organic Mechanic (which is a company with major ambitions to do this right) and Black Gold. There’s also the option of making your own soil at home, which requires a robust compost and likely some experimentation to get it right. We’ve just started composting at home, using lawn clippings and kitchen scraps, and I can’t wait to work it into the heavy clay soil around the house next spring.
IMG_3894Harry Potting (Mix)

Potting mix is the way to go if using containers for your plants inside or out or need to root seeds. But watch for vermiculite, a mineral that comes with a sordid past.

For decades, the primary source of vermiculite sold in the United States was a mine in Libby, Montana. The mine had a natural deposit of asbestos, and much of the vermiculite extracted from the mine was badly contaminated. Asbestos-tainted vermiculite is less of a concern now, because the mine closed in 1990, but vermiculite is still not risk-free, and even a tiny amount of asbestos can be harmful if it gets into your lungs. According to a piece on Eartheasy:

Today, most vermiculite is safe. However, that is not to say it cannot contain asbestos. Vermiculite which is accompanied by a great deal of dust likely has residual asbestos in its contents and should be used with caution. Current EPA regulations ban products which contain 1% or more asbestos. Unfortunately even products containing less that 1% asbestos are still extremely hazardous, particularly when in loose dust form as vermiculite often is manufactured.

IMG_0391Mulch, Smulch

Mulch is great for your garden. It helps soil retain water, suppresses weeds and prevents compaction. There are a variety of kinds available, each offering its own unique benefits.  As you decide which one best suits the needs of your garden, keep a few things in mind.

Peat Moss

Peat moss, which is made up of partially decomposed plants, has a great earthy aroma and supplies nutrients to plants as they need them. However, it accumulates in peat bogs, and to remove the peat, the bogs must be drained, contributing to wetland degradation. Additionally, peat bogs are one of Mother Nature’s most effective tools to combat climate change. The peat acts like a sponge, absorbing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When peat moss is removed, not only is a natural carbon sponge lost, but the harvested peat actually releases carbon dioxide back into the environment.

Cypress

Cypress mulch is another popular mulch that comes at a high cost to the environment. To produce the mulch, manufacturers have destroyed vast swaths of cypress forests in Florida and Louisiana. The forests are home to all sorts of creatures but also act as natural buffers against storms and hurricanes.  Once destroyed, the majority of them won’t grow back.

Wood mulches

Be careful when buying wood mulches. It’s possible, though not likely today, that the wood was treated with Chromated Copper Arsenate and can leach arsenic. To make sure the mulch you’re buying is safe, look for a label indicating that it’s been certified by the Mulch and Soil Council, which tests products for the presence of treated wood.

Plastic mulch

Plastic mulch is made from polyethylene, which is considered one of the safer types of plastic out there, but why use it, given the many alternatives? Plastic mulch isn’t biodegradable and will eventually end up in a landfill or the ocean, where it harms sea life. It also blocks water from penetrating the soil and can cause runoff.

Cocoa hulls

Cocoa hulls add nutrients to your soil and will make your garden smell like chocolate, but choose another mulch if you have a dog. Chocolate is toxic to dogs, and cocoa hulls can make your pooch very sick if ingested.

Leaf Mulch

Many municipalities and counties now collect leaves and other garden waste for mulching, which can be less expensive than other mulches. Leaf mulch is excellent for soil development, but not as good at suppressing weeds as wood or other types of mulch. The drawback is that yard waste can contain pesticides and other chemicals used on lawns. As it’s impossible to tell what’s in it, locally-made mulch is not the best choice for organic food gardens, but it may be perfect for flower beds.

IMG_1627A Highly Liquid Proposition: Your H2O

Keeping a garden watered over the hot summer months can be a demanding proposition, so there are a couple ways to reduce the impact your garden has on the water supply. To conserve, water at night and early in the morning, when the temperatures are cooler and the water is less likely to evaporate right away. Just be sure to keep an eye out for rot and fungus, and switch to early mornings if the water is sitting overnight.

You can also set up a rain barrel to collect water that runs off your roof. After the initial investment in the barrel, the water comes at no cost. Montgomery County, near where I live, has a substantial tax credit for “rainscaping,” including rain barrels, porous paving and rain gardens (the program unfortunately excludes Takoma Park. Grr…).

Rain barrels are easily found at most gardening stores, but you can also build them yourself. Be aware that unless you rig up a pump, the water will best be used in irrigation-style drip hoses dug into the ground.

Unfortunately, the common garden hose also has a problem, besides the ubiquitous kinks. Many are made of PVC, include harmful pthalates, and have lead in the fittings and other parts, as an environmental investigation by Healthy Stuff found. As I use ours to water our ostensibly organic garden and to fill various water play stations for Maya, as well as with the sprinkler she plays in, I searched high and low for a better option. I found this rubber hose, which does appear to be lead free. Once you learn to lay it out flat, it works just fine, and no lead or other issues of concern!

IMG_0408Pollinator defense: Invasives, native plants and crowd-sourcing your clippings

Non-native species are sold at many gardening stores, and the more aggressive among them out-compete their native counterparts and spread, so checking on pedigree a bit before you plant is a good idea for both planning your yard and the planet. Some plants, like the butterfly bush running wild in my yard in the picture above, have both more and less invasive versions, or are considered invasive in certain zones of the country, so be sure you know what you’re getting into.

I’ve found gardening stores to be, well, less than forthcoming on these grounds, and even the better ones tend to hide their less showy native plants in a back corner somewhere. But perseverance and research pay off, especially if you invest in perennials that return each year. Be sure to “amend” your soil generously if needed to assist a new planting, and to monitor how plants are doing to be sure that they are happy in their new homes.

To learn if you are unwittingly introducing a hostile species into your ecosystem, do a little research before buying. Here’s a list of problem plants and native alternatives in the Mid-Atlantic region and here’s another helpful source for native plants and garden design (pdf), as well as a list of resources from Montgomery County’s Rainscapes program. You can also find a list of solutions specific to your state here and a list of attractive native substitutes here (pdf). Native species are wonderful to mix in with other plants, as I have, or to plant exclusively as purists do, because they help to sustain the local ecosystem and nurture bumblebees, which are fighting a terrible battle with colony collapse, as well as butterflies and other species.

If you feel overwhelmed, you can always call in a professional, but be sure that they are on the same wavelength. Where I live has a small but very nice community of folks who are more eco-minded, including a specialist in local wild edibles and a local expert in creating kitchen gardens and children’s natural discovery areas. Another easy way to avoid invasive plants and learn about native options is to participate in a plant swap and solicit the advice of knowledgeable gardeners in your area. There are a ton of online exchange communities and list servs in which real gardeners swap plants and trade knowledge, all for free or for a low cost to join.

Plant swaps are another great way to expand your garden, pick up tips and connect with your community. The native plant swap school fundraiser I attended last spring was the beginning of my gardening obsession and a great way to give back to the community. Plants like bee balm, native ferns, and wildflowers (some of which are edible) are wonderful additions to gardens. If you discover that your area doesn’t have a swap, here’s how to organize one yourself….

You can also offer unwanted plants from your yard (and sometimes even get others to dig them up for you!), or ask for cuttings on neighborhood list servs, which is how I got several new hydrangeas and rose plants this year. Friendly folks actually allowed me to prowl their yard at will, and about a third of the plants actually survived my clumsy attempts to root them.

To deal with cuttings properly, just strip the bottom leaf nodes and plant. Be sure to grow more delicate plants like hydrangeas under old, large glass jars to protect them as they learn to root. A rooting mix works nicely for these, and you can even use disposable cups you have hanging around, as I did. You can also plant seeds and scraps from your kitchen, like avocado pits (but don’t expect fruit for years, if ever!) and even pineapple tops.

IMG_6545The same process worked with this rosemary from a friend’s large and healthy plant. I rooted it in water for three weeks or so, without any cover, and when it sprouted, I planted it. More rosemary for the garden!

Your Lawn, by Monsanto

Here’s the bottom line on pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Don’t use them. They contain neurotoxins, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. They kill insects and animals besides those you’re targeting, including honeybees, according to the current research and the European Union’s ban on a certain classes of pesticides. They also contaminate the watershed when they’re swept away in runoff. And children are exposed whenever they play outside.

Here’s just one write-up of a single product, in a Forbes article on “green-ish” efforts by the folks who brought us Miracle-Gro:

The active ingredient in Scotts Turf Builder with Plus 2 Weed Control is 2,4-d, which is made from dichlorophenol and acetic acid. It can kill dandelions, but it’s nasty stuff, capable of causing nervous system, kidney and liver damage in humans.

Need more evidence? Here’s the excellent Beyond Pesticides site:

Of the 30 most commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are possible and/or known carcinogens,  18 have the potential to disrupt the endocrine (hormonal) system, 19 are linked to reproductive effects and sexual dysfunction, 11 have been linked to birth defects, 14 are neurotoxic, 24 can cause kidney or liver damage, and 25 are sensitizers and/or irritants. Children are especially sensitive to pesticide exposure as they take in more pesticides relative to their body weight than adults and have developing organ systems that are more vulnerable and less able to detoxify toxic chemicals.

My own fair city of Takoma Park is one of the first larger local jurisdictions in the U.S. to ban lawn pesticides earlier this month, a fact about which I am unduly proud despite the fact that I was not at all involved. Yay us.

By taking steps to promote a healthy garden, you can minimize problems with pests and weeds. You can use mulch, edge your garden beds well, and use ground covers and competing plants to suppress weeds, and when buying plants, choose ones that are pest-resistant. There are also natural weed-killers you can mix up from dish-soap, vinegar, salt and related ordinary ingredients.

Of course, the most direct way is to get on your knees and pull them out. While you are cursing them, you can reflect on the fact that gardening — and actual contact with soil — is an effective way to replenish your microbial health. And if you feel like giving up or giving in, you could always eat your dandelions. Jo Robinson’s new book, Eat Wild, is my vacation reading for next week. I’m so excited to start nibbling what I find on the lawn!

IMG_0393Raising the stakes on garden beds

Raised garden beds are one of the most common sources of toxins in a garden. The wood that’s used to retain the soil is sometimes treated with chromated copper arsenate, which prevents rot but also leaches arsenic, or copper azole, which includes a potent fungicide. If you’ve inherited one of these beds, remove the wood and transfer the soil to somewhere children and pets won’t contact it.

When building a new bed or replacing one, choose types of wood that are naturally rot-resistant like juniper or cedar. Some companies offer pre-made beds as well, though I don’t think the information on the sealant this company uses is very clear. For greater rot resistance, you can use milk paint, which is naturally non-toxic. Milk paint is available in stores but it requires only a few ingredients, and if you’re feeling particularly crafty, you can make it at home.

Last, as summer turns to fall, don’t forget the many indoor gardening options. If you’re feeling hip, you could always order up one of these new super cool miniature fish-tank-herb-gardens from Back to the Roots, which are a closed-loop waste cycle as well as a meditative design element for your living room.

If you have other tips, please let me know! And feel free to check out my Pinterest page on gardening, which has many, many more design ideas. Happy growing!

Why “Let Them Eat Crap” Is Not the Answer to the Obesity Crisis

PolyfaceLast winter, I was invited to attend a nutrition class for low-income and disabled folks held by a local food bank, and I have not been able to write about it since.

But things have suddenly cleared up for me, and I know what I would like to say. I was jolted out of my confusion by a clumsy attempt in the Atlantic Monthly to blame Michael Pollan and his followers (e.g., people like me) for somehow retarding the junk food industry’s progress in creating better living through chemistry. You’ll see the connection in a moment, I promise.

First, the class. Although I went there intending to write an appreciative first-hand account of the food bank’s good work in the community, as I was watching the class, I grew increasingly (but quietly) disturbed. The lessons — and “lessons” they were — provided a short and painful tour through the arid world of what Michael Pollan has rightly criticized as “nutritionism” — dated concepts, an experience of food divorced from its cultural context, and not-so-subtle messages that the obese have only themselves and their poor choices to blame.

For someone like me who believes that environmental exposures like BPA can plausibly be linked to the dramatic rise in obesity, it was uncomfortable, and made only more so by my fast-developing allergy to all forms of fat shaming (which, as it turns out, is not such a great motivational tool after all. Shocker.).

The jury is really still out on the causes for the “obesity epidemic,” as a new brilliant article by David Berreby makes clear. When the public health folks finally lift nutrition sciences out of its squalling infancy, I doubt there will be enough accounting of the psychological harm done to millions of people — especially women — who have learned from the inescapable and constant nutrtition-y messages on “how to eat” and “what we should look like” to experience their own day-to-day through a lens of intermittent self-loathing and personal failure.

But back to the class: although the instructors were clearly well intentioned, well, we know where those lead. While I only got a snapshot of the overall curriculum from a single two-hour class, that session seemed obsessed with reducing fat, in a way that really has not been up-to-date, nutritionally, since at least the mid-90s. The lessons included a tediously detailed explanation of all the types of fats as well as, for one example, comparisons of the amount of dietary fats in low-fat versus regular dressings, exemplified by globby substances trapped in two test tubes that were dutifully passed around.

I was quietly horrified to contemplate how this lesson, should it be taken to heart, would drive class members to buy nasty-tasting, highly engineered, low-fat versions of dressings for their salads. Even the best bottled dressings, of course, are an oil and vinegar balance that requires chemical emulsifiers galore to keep the ingredients in suspension. Should one in fact choose to eat a healthy green salad, as the class was being cajoled to do, topping it with such gloppy coagulation would be enough to cure them of the impulse for quite some time. Not to mention that low-fat often means high-sugar, and almost certainly involves more laboratory than food.

The mostly minority, entirely low income, elderly and disabled class members handled it all with aplomb and grace, joking their way through an exercise in making unnecessarily sweet and complicated yogurt parfaits with layers of granola, yogurt and fruit preserves and gamely grinding up home-made hummus with tahini and canned chickpeas. (I, on the other hand, was childishly restless, wondering per the hummus: 1) um, how is this a “low-fat” food again? 2) why anyone bothering to go to the extraordinary trouble of making a readily available snack-dip wouldn’t use freshly cooked beans, so that they could taste the extra effort?)

In a side conversation while the “cooking” was going on, I learned that the elderly woman next to me, a grandmother of seven, was actually an accomplished and renowned cook among the group. She was on her way home after class to make an enormous batch of authentic Jamaican jerk chicken for the community’s party the following day, using her long-loved and reportedly delicious recipe, which I did manage to sweet-talk her into sharing with me. She should have taught the class, I muttered, sadly, to myself.

Why? Food as culture and as celebration. As the flavors of a people’s past, their ingenuity and history, their resources and adaptation. As a life-force and a gift.

Nutritionism does for the act of eating what Jazzercise did for dance: it sucks out the joy and narrative meaning and turns it into an exercise in forced jumping jacks rife with added potential for humiliation (remember the leotards we all wore?). In the same way, David Freedman’s antiseptic, condescending piece in the Atlantic Monthly is so caught up in his contempt for the arugula-eating food elitists allegedly swarming behind Michael Pollan, and so bought into an utterly simplistic and dated fat-avoidance strategy on obesity, that he misses the subject of food entirely.

His argument marshals so many straw men it’s like watching a parade of scarecrows traipsing through an Agribusiness cornfield: Whole Foods sells some junk food! Certain juice bar smoothies have a lot of calories! Pollan-ites have actually claimed that overpriced organic farmer’s market produce could feed the poor! His citations are almost entirely his own adventures in alternating healthier eateries with trips to MickeyDs. (He also repeatedly misuses “obesogenic,” a term with a rather specific definition, when what he really means is “fattening.”)

What he does get right is self-evident: of course it would be better if fast food purveyors started acting more responsibly and stopped marketing soda with sugar levels attuned to keep the most highly addicted users coming back for more. Of course it would be great if some portion of the marketing budgets of fast food companies went towards promoting healthier fare — though one has to question this given how Freedman rather mindlessly repeats standard industry lore concerning the flopped McLean.

Indeed, the pathetic stories about sneaking the fast food companies’ few health improvements into a small number of products make it seem uncannily like those moms who are so desperate for vegetables in their kids’ diets that they hide ground spinach in pancakes. But those moms, at least, are in the deception game on a temporary basis, until their child’s finickiness resolves or the kid goes off to college, whichever comes first.

On the other hand, if the fast food industry really can’t market healthier choices without turning off their customers, well, that’s a lot of sneakiness for marketing to conceal. A less enthusiastic cheerleader for industry than Freedman is might even see it as an upper bound — and not a high one — on the change that could come from that sector, especially given its historically keen interest in humdrum factors like profitability.

In the end, he makes the very mistake he accuses the Pollan-ites of making: he decides he knows what’s best for all of us, particularly the unwashed masses. “Let them eat crap,” Freedman says, while arrogantly, even angrily, prescribing what will work to change the eating habits of millions, because he knows what their problem is (too many fats and “bad” carbs) and he knows what they will eat (fast food). Problem solved.

Unfortunately for him, and despite publishing a book called “Food Rules,” Pollan is far more exploratory about which foods are best for us (though he does ask folks to, well, eat actual food). As I am an unrepentant devotee of Pollan’s, it just so happens that I recently finished his new book, Cooked, and it’s a far better read than Freedman’s screed.

Pollan’s latest tome is a love letter to the act of cooking, and to the historical, gustatory and communal aspects of food. The best passages in the book are the vivid descriptions of his adventures by the open-pit barbecue, his apprenticeship with a mistress of the braise, and his conversations with a spunky nun who dedicates herself to the art of traditional cheesemaking. There are a few recipes, and inspiring passages meant to open up the possibilities for your own kitchen, true, but nowhere does he suggest that we all need to turn our basements into cheese cellars, or that the ideas in the book are a policy solution to address, say, the crisis of poor nutrition afflicting children raised on fast food.

Instead, he proposes that cooking, and understanding the process and patience required to prepare foods, is a fundamental part of nourishing human connection in a family, or in a tribe, perhaps going back to the pre-historic period given the need to cook — and share — meat around a fire. Moreover, the very process of cooking or fermenting foods creates new substances in them, including flavanoids in aromatics like garlic and onions that ward off disease, or the biota that spring into existence in live yogurt and help to protect our gut.

More traditional modes of food preparation, as it turns out, may have benefits for health that we are only beginning to understand. It follows, sadly, that processed food is both microbially dead and likely incomplete: we can’t engineer nutritional components to add back into foods when we don’t even understand them, and much of how food operates for health is a mystery still grounded in a (beautiful) enigma.

Whatever is making us so sick since just the 1980s must be relatively new in our relationship with food. Yet I would wager we have yakked more about our health, as a species, over that same time period than for all of human history before: we have publishing empires dedicated to the latest news and trends on health and nutrition, and no shortage of advice on eating, health and (lord knows) body image. Despite all this, we are facing serious public health crises, many of which can be linked to food.

Perhaps we should spend less time and energy on prescribing how people should eat and spend more time making good food. We’ll likely figure out one day that the causes of our health challenges are both more surprising and more complex than we ever knew, and that the solutions were right in front of our mouth. In the no-duh category: yes, we should all, including me, exercise more regularly. And, sure, the big food companies have an important role to play, if they will do so.

But I can’t help feeling that Pollan is onto something compelling to both my stomach and soul, a practice essential for the act of being human and living more responsibility on this bountiful planet. Making time to make a decent braise — brown the meat, dice vegetables, brown them in the pan, add back the meat, the wine, the stock and herbs, and simmer for hours, while the house fills up with heavenly aroma — is a meditation on transformation just as Pollan promises. Food this slow becomes, in the cooking, an act of both respect and community.

And let’s give more credit where credit is due. Low-income people may be cash-strapped, but they also know good food. Listening more deeply to people who do this kind of cooking for their own communities — really getting the details down for how they make their particular heirloom recipe for delicious jerk chicken — well, it seems to me that beats either fast food or a nutrition class, every time.

Dinner.

Dinner.

###

I’m indebted to Tom Philpott of Mother Jones for his thoughtful replies to Freedman, including a half-hour radio debate, and for pointing me to the wonderful Berreby piece.

For the short ribs, I used this basic recipe, plus Pollan’s sound advice from the book. I poured in BioNaturae organic canned plum tomatoes from a BPA-free can, and short-cutted the laborious chopping process by leaving things chunky. I also added less salt and more stock than called for. Served over fried polenta.

Post-script:

A further note is required to reply to the unsubtle charges of elitism in Freedman’s article.

My personal perspective on food does play right into the hands of someone like Freedman, as my family prefers organic and beyond-organic foods, like the Polyface Farms beef in the photo. These foods are costly, there’s no two ways about it. And it’s more work, albeit pleasant work, to go to farmer’s markets, arrange for CSA deliveries or pick-ups, and to track down really fresh ingredients.

As I see it, we have the money to spend on these things, and we hope that our investment pays off, in part, by helping in a small way to generate more consumer demand at this end of the marketplace. Buying grass-fed beef is a luxury, certainly, but as far as luxury goods go, it feels more moral than most. We also buy less meat because of its higher price, and make it stretch further over a week.

It’s also the case that government subsidies for all the wrong kinds of commodities and farming practices keep some prices artificially low while smaller, multi-product farms suffer. So our purchase power is swimming upstream against some pretty powerful counter-pressures, making it all the more important to support the practices we prefer.

More importantly, the point about cooking — or even about anything you do for yourself — is that it builds an enduring skill, while making the best use of more wholesome ingredients. A bag of potatoes is still a far better use of a dollar than a bag of potato chips or a container of fast food fries. The costs are scalable to budget, and if more money comes along, you can always upgrade to, say, organic potatoes. Or try to grow your own in trash can (or better yet, wooden barrel), as I just saw on Pinterest.

After all, a drive in window asks nothing of us, while cooking is a valuable habit that must be acquired to make use of the world as it is. Freedman’s suggestion that our health problems can be solved if someone else will just fix (marginally) better food for us misses the point.

There’s a reason that the food industry has spent the last 20 years in the lab, manufacturing flavors, gums and additives and other substitutes to save itself the costs of actually feeding us. Taking back the power to feed ourselves real food affordably will require a considerable shift in government rules, consumer buying habits, and in our ability to take the time to cook and spend time with family. It will likely also require a raise in the minimum wage, better supports overall for families, and economic incentives for farmers to improve, rather than destroy, their local environment.

These changes may be hard to attain or even unattainable given the relentless economic pressures faced by so many families. But that’s a problem with the structure of our lives, and not just our food supply. It also, as it so happens, is the same problem the fast food companies have been profiting from for the past 30 years. The solution is unlikely to lie with them.

Hot Reads: Gagged Children, Huma-liation, Safer School Supplies, and More

colored-pencils-1342888218RrfAs promised, here’s the weekly linky with all the news you have really, really needed this week and missed, as well as some you likely didn’t miss but wish you had.

I think I should get a prize for keeping to a calendar, two whole weeks in a row.

  • This will make you gag: ClimateProgress has a shocking write-up of a recent settlement in a PA fracking case in which drilling company Range Resources reportedly insisted on a clause in the settlement agreement with a family that includes a lifetime ban on any mention of fracking for the family’s children, including a 7- and 10-year-old. Those poor kids! With only $750,000 in damages, there won’t be enough money to pay for the therapy they will need! Bribing and extorting families injured by fracking into total silence is a key part of the industry’s strategy to publicly claim that there is no evidence of harm. Before the gag order, the family

complained that drilling caused “burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and earaches, and contaminated their water supply.” But after the family was gagged, gas exploration company Range Resources’ spokesman Matt Pitzarella insisted “they never produced evidence of any health impacts,” and that the family wanted to move because “they had an unusual amount of activity around them.” Public records will show, once again, that fracking did not cause health problems.

  • Are we done with the “Good Wife” yet? Both feminist (Ruth Marcus) and not-as-feministy (Sally Quinn) commentators have evidently had it with the appalling spectacle of loyalty-uber-alles from Huma Abedin, whose cringe-inflicting performance at Tuesday’s press conference really did reflect a new low for the scandal wife. And Michael Tomasky’s op-ed mercilessly clarifies the spurious Huma-Hilary comparison. Now I love a political meltdown as much as anyone, and certainly am sympathetic to Huma’s argument that infidelity is a problem for their marriage to resolve, but I’m also just really sick of having to think about Anthony Weiner‘s, er, body parts. I’m flabbergasted by the idea that Abedin knew about all this and decided to put it on public trial by helping her husband run for office. I tend to agree with Marcus that it’s a sext too far to then claim wife-privilege absolves him from the ick-factor. And then there’s their child to consider. Yet some found the perspective of Sally Quinn (aka, the human pearl earring) “a setback for women everywhere.”  What do you think?
  • Safer, greener school supplies: The school year is, eerily, just around the bend and many parents will be assembling shopping lists of necessary (pencils) and not-as-necessary (gold-plated sneakers) items. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice published a helpful guide. As they make clear, some routine items contain nasty chemicals like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is linked to an array of health problems. Beware the character-themed lunch boxes containing elevated levels of this plastic! Right on time, the folks at Healthy Child Healthy World also issued a call for purchasing tips. What are your favorite healthy supplies? Submit your tips to ana@healthychild.org by August 9 and you’ll be entered to win a free book.
  • What to do on the bad days: Parenting can be less fun than you expected. Sometimes, it’s no fun at all. There are moments when your toddler’s tantrums make your head ring, when a surly child brings a wave of heat to your cheeks. Here’s a parent and psychologists’ eloquent and honest reflection prompted by a recent tragedy in Canada, where the two young children of a 32-year-old mother suffering from postpartum depression were found drowned. Her body was recovered several days later near a bridge. The story is heart wrenching, and an extreme example of what can happen when a parent becomes hopelessly overwhelmed. The trials of parenthood are an unavoidable part of the job and all parents take the good with the bad. On days when being a parent isn’t as bliss-filled as we hoped, we need to be honest with ourselves and seek support. I’ll be posting more soon with some resources that help to simplify parenting.
  • Poultry pushiness: In a bow to Big Chicken, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a rule to increase line speeds in poultry processing plants from 140 to 175 birds a minute. Poultry workers already suffer from astronomical rates of carpal tunnel syndrome: forcing employees to work at elevated speeds would only make matters worse. The rule would allow companies to ramp up production, but you have to wonder, will the employees be compensated for all the extra work they’ll be doing? A 25-percent increase in production should equal a 25-percent increase in pay, right? Riiiight. A coalition of advocacy groups is demanding that USDA start over on the rule.
  • Chemical Plant, 2.0: I was pleased to hear that President Obama ordered federal agencies to revamp regulations governing chemical plants. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been nothing if not sluggish in promulgating important rules to protect the safety of plant workers and surrounding communities. Just a couple weeks ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board threatened to publicly rebuke the agency for its failure to act. Among other things, the new order calls upon the Environmental Protection Agency to use its authority under the Clean Air Act to require plants to switch to safer chemicals. This is encouraging. Let’s hope it signals a new-found willingness to stand up for health and safety.
  • A Tale of Two Hearings: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held an epic, five-hour hearing with three full panels of witnesses. I’m still plowing through the written testimony, and am actually so excited to spend my Friday geekily watching the video archive. Some of my personal heroes testified, including Tom McGarity, of UT Austin Law School, and Ken Cook, of the Environmental Working Group. The take-away: there seems to be real energy for chemical reform, which would be wonderful — you can see the twitter action here and here. More heroines appeared later in the week in a long-awaited and much-welcomed hearing in Senate Judiciary on the deadly paralysis by analysis that grips so many of our federal agencies. Peg Seminario and Rena Steinzor, both eloquent advocates for public health, and Janette Fennell, a major force working to improve vehicle safety involving children, all talked about the successes of rules that work, and the high costs of government failure to act.

And so, the good and bad in our dysfunctional democracy, all mixed in… stay tuned for more informative infographics on parenting coming soon!

Hot Reads: Toxics, Parenting and Other Interesting Stuff

Colorado Meadows

Colorado Meadows (Photo credit: QualityFrog)

It’s a two for one! After some radio silence, I’m kicking off a new regular feature with a bonus double-feature. Lucky you. Every Friday or Saturday going forward, I’ll post links from the week before that grabbed my attention from the week.

To make up for my lost time up in the lovely mountains of Colorado last weekend, this week I’m posting two weeks of news you can use.

From last week:

  • Derailed: I’m sure you were as horrified as I was about the deadly train crash in Lac-Megantic involving 46,000 barrels of oil and 47 deaths. I was saddened by the crash, and then angry when I read an op-ed by a former Lac-Megantic locomotive engineer detailing the decay of government regulations and industry practices he witnessed on the job. Could such an awful thing happen here? Sadly, yes. As I learned when I worked at Public Citizen years back, trains carrying hazardous materials pass near city centers every day. Just two months ago, a train operated by the railway-giant CSX exploded in a Baltimore suburb. From my past work, I know that CSX routinely fights common-sense measures to reroute hazardous materials around densely populated areas. Years ago, when we worked with the D.C. city council to ban hazardous materials from tracks passing within four blocks of the Capitol building, CSX sued, successfully, to overturn the measure. The ban would have required CSX to reroute fewer than five percent of its trains in order to safeguard the safety of DC. Let’s just hope that federal regulators are on the case.
  • Explosions in the sky: The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is positioning itself to call out the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) foot-dragging on a number of recommendations concerning chemical plants and refineries. The safety board, an independent federal agency, has issued numerous recommendations disregarded by OSHA (the regulator) for years now. After the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas this past April that killed 14 people, there should be a renewed urgency to act.
  • European make-over: A 2009 European Union rule requiring considerably more transparent labels for personal care products and cosmetics just fully entered into force on July 11th. The rule includes specific restrictions of nano-materials used in products like sunscreens, as coloring agents, or other uses, and requires that where they are used, they must be identified on the label. Given the active scientific debate and level of uncertainty over the safety of nano-particles in products, transparency is really the least that consumers should have. While certain “greener” items here in the U.S. do specify when they do not contain nano-technology, for the most part consumers are in the dark about their use in a wide range of common products. As usual, Europe’s in the lead on an important chemical safety issue: so, er, pass the freedom lotion? Or something…
  • Parents, please follow the directions: While it’s sadly self-evident that kids don’t come with an instruction manual, Resources for Infant Educarers just published a truly wonderful list of tips to help new parents. They suggest common-sense, helpful concepts to guide your approach, including nurturing a child’s innate curiosity, creating a safe play place and connecting with your child through caregiving tasks.
  • Trayvon could have been my child: I was moved to tears by this local mom blogger’s passionate and eloquent response to the verdict in the Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. She writes: “Like with much of parenting, I suppose I will stumble my way through this with as much love and good intention as I can manage. With Trayvon’s mother in my heart, I can promise that I will do what I can to teach my son and my daughter to not fear different faces. Not to be afraid of someone else’s child. So that child may live with a little less fear that my child might do him harm.”

This past week:

  • The royal treatment? There were lots of babies born, but only one had the whole world squealing. The frenzied, round-the-clock coverage of the royal birth was nothing if not obsessive. Me being me, I began pondering the odd status of women as combination sex symbols and baby-delivery devices, and wondered aloud via Twitter just how long it would be until we would start hearing about Kate’s plans to lose pregnancy weight. The pathetic answer? Not even a day. Within 24 hours of the birth, a British tabloid ran a story detailing the royal regimen to shed pregnancy pounds. At least I wasn’t the only one who found it offensive. And the issues it stirs up run deep: here’s a thoughtful piece on pregnancy, body image and the media obsession with obtaining a “post-baby bod[y],” which, IMHO, is about erasing the procreative possibilities of women’s bodies so as to unburden the male gaze. This attempt to erase the physicality of pregnancy comes at an incredible cost to women in manufactured self-loathing, and forms a bad model for our children, as this daughter writes in yet another tear-jerker of a post, entitled, simply enough, “When Your Mother Says She’s Fat.” For all these reasons, I adored this gorgeous photo-essay of real moms in all their glory, many with their partners and kids. I’d love to see more of that kind of art, please, and less of the mawkish hyper-monitoring of the mom-bod.
  • And nailed down: Having forgone my beloved mani-pedis for several years now due to the serious concerns they trigger about salon workers’ health, I was delighted to hear about a new program in Santa Monica, California, that could produce healthier conditions in nail salons. Many salon products contain dangerous toxins: oluene, dibutyl phthalate, and formaldehyde are the nastiest. Salon workers face long hours of exposure, and even OSHA admits many of them can cause long-term health impacts. The Santa Monica program rewards salons that choose safer alternatives. Let’s hope it signals the beginning of a national trend. (While I’ve found that most so-called “green” nail salons are anything but, there are some exceptions. If you’re ever in downtown Philly, there is a truly organic nail salon there: Mi Cumbia in Rittenhouse Square. Mi Cumbia is a wonderfully relaxing place owned by a pioneering couple in green nail salons. If you know of others like this in your city, please do tell in the comments, as I would love to know when I travel where I might get a truly better pedicure!)
  • Targeting toxins at Target: Basically everyone, including me, occasionally shops at Target. So please consider signing onto this important petition to call on Target to remove toxin-laden products from their shelves. It’s organized by one of my fave coalitions, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, which tirelessly advocates for toxics reform and also manages to publish a great blog.

Hope this was useful! Feel free to suggest what I’ve missed in the comments…

For Shame: A Farm Bill that Would Leave Millions of Children Hungry

English: Snap Hill above South Heighton Black ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given what we’ve learned over the past few weeks about government snooping and the quiet, untimely demise of our tattered right to privacy, it cheered me today to see the Obama White House announce it was actually drawing a line in defense of hungry children, by threatening a veto of the bloated (and much bloviated-over) Farm Bill to be voted on this week in the House of Representatives.

The Farm Bill is always a subsidy-laden Christmas tree for agribusiness, bedecked with the promise of government largesse for commodity crops like the cheap corn that fuels high-fructose corn syrup, thus ensuring that gallon jugs of soda are cheaper than milk. It rolls through DC every five years or so like an obese Mafia don, demanding ever more “respect” with each persistent shake-down. Much of the money in the bill, for example in the form of crop insurance, goes straight into the pockets of big agribusiness, and smaller farms barely see a penny.

This year, however, the slash-and-burn tactics of the Republican leadership have ensured that the bill is even more shameful than usual, because while it leaves in place, and even increases in some places, payments to agri-business, it also cruelly decimates the food stamp program that today provides a skeletal safety net to the poorest people in America. Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, children with almost nothing but the hunger in their bellies. The pittance permitted by the food stamps program, with its meager allowance of $132 per month, gives them only slightly more than nothing.

But even that bare-bones allotment to stave off starvation is evidently too much for this Congress, which would literally take the food out of children’s mouths. I’ve been gratified, in this era of the post-sequester, to see people from Paul Krugman to Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand (D-NY) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) raising the alarm on this and drawing a line in the sand. Thirty Democratic Members of Congress, some of whom were recipients of “public assistance” when they needed it, took a pledge to spend the same as food stamp recipients for a week. It appears that Republicans need reminding that there is a social contract, and that robbing the poorest American children to keep giving money to Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto ain’t it.

Here’s a few more facts about the food stamp program (called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) from our friends at Mom’s Rising:

As Krugman explains in his column where he gets justifiably teed off about this sorry state of affairs, we should care about food stamps from both an economic and a parenting-slash-human perspective:

Estimates from the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics suggest that each dollar spent on food stamps in a depressed economy raises G.D.P. by about $1.70 — which means, by the way, that much of the money laid out to help families in need actually comes right back to the government in the form of higher revenue.

Wait, we’re not done yet. Food stamps greatly reduce food insecurity among low-income children, which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults. So food stamps are in a very real sense an investment in the nation’s future — an investment that in the long run almost surely reduces the budget deficit, because tomorrow’s adults will also be tomorrow’s taxpayers.

The upshot? While some of us, and by that I mean me, are futzing about the glass-bottle organic milk our children drink, in many households here in the rich old US of A, children are not getting enough food of any kind. And Congress is about to make this sad situation much, much worse. In a bill about the food system that shovels billions of taxpayer dollars in the direction of some of the biggest, most appalling companies perched atop our industrial food system.

And the Republican leaders who brought us this revealing debate? Well, as it turns out (with a bow towards the intrepid Environmental Working Group’s research), two of the GOP’s Agriculture Committee members have been, well, shall we call them, “takers”?

Reps. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) and Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) both cited the Bible last week to argue that while individual Christians have a responsibility to feed the poor, the federal government does not. “We’re all here on this committee making decisions about other people’s money,” Fincher said. LaMalfa said that while it’s nice for politicians to boast about how they’ve helped their constituents, “That’s all someone else’s money.”

Yet both men’s farms have received millions in federal assistance, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that advocates for more conservation and fewer subsidies. LaMalfa’s family rice farm has received more than $5 million in commodity subsidies since 1995, according to the group’s analysis of data from the U.S. Agriculture Department. Fincher’s farm has received more than $3 million in that time. Last year alone, Fincher’s farm received $70,574 and LaMalfa’s got $188,570.

I’ll have a sprinkling of sanctimony with that hypocrisy, thanks very much. And pass the plate of malarkey.

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Teed off like Krugman? Here’s how to complain to Congress, courtesy of Mom’s Rising.

Related articles:

Update:

Of course, as you’ve likely heard by now, the forces of righteousness won this round. The farm bill failed in the House, shocking the hardened political elite who had assumed that hurting poor people utterly lacks political consequences. The measure’s fate is now up in the air, but watch for the return of cuts to SNAP:

Its failure came as a surprise last month, when most Democrats and conservative Republican members voted against the bill; Democrats thought the food stamp assistance in the bill was being cut too much, and the right wing thought these cuts weren’t big enough. Now, it’s unclear whether leadership will try to split off the food and nutrition portion — most of it is funding for food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP — from the rest of the bill or try to pass it again intact.

Update #2: An Appalling Disregard

So the House did pass a bill. But unlike in years past, they stripped it of funding for the food stamp program (called “SNAP”). This was a break from tradition, to say the least. Since 1973, the Farm Bill has combined funding for food stamps with those for agricultural subsidies. But not this time: instead, the House-passed version of the bill jeopardizes the food security of 47 million low-income Americans while handing out $196 billion in subsidies to behemoth agribusiness firms.

In response to this appalling state of affairs, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) called out 14 Republicans who voted for the SNAP-stripped bill. Collectively, the 14 members of Congress have a net worth of $124.5 million and since 1995 received $7.2 million in agricultural subsidies. To be sure, $7.2 is only a low-end estimate of the largesse they’ve received, as a reporting loophole for crop insurance support makes it impossible to know exactly how much has been doled out. Nonetheless, each has received at least $515,279 on average. One of them, Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), has received nearly $3.5 million in subsidies. This kind of naked self-dealing is brazen even for this particular crop of Congress critters, and deserves the condemnation it has gotten. The ultimate fate of the measure remains unknown.

ISO: A Truly Healthy Toddler Snack

Goldfish crackers

Goldfish crackers (Photo credit: Lynn Kelley Author)

I am not going to mince words on this one. American toddlers are drowning in cheesy fish crackers and sugary purees of jammin’ fruits, and it’s about time someone said so.

Both work-at-home moms and working moms rely, heavily, on snacks. We are always going somewhere, and need portable food items. But we should ask what, exactly, our choices of food for children are doing to their developing preferences, brains and life-long habits. Just take a minute to read this brilliant, stomach-churning article about the way the industrial food complex has chemically mapped our taste buds to maximize junk food addiction. I noticed two things amidst my general nausea:

  1. The plastic-packaged, fat, salt and sugar bombs that are Lunchables are now a billion dollar business (!), built almost entirely on the need for parents to have convenience foods for kids.
  2. It only takes a few days — three or so — of “normal” eating to break a salt addiction.

When infants move from dense purees of real food (whether in a BPA-lidded infant food jar or not) to a toddler’s diet, they are supposed to begin to eat what the family is eating, according to our pediatricians. But here’s the catch — most of us (including my family, before we gave it a rethink) don’t eat that well.

Before Maya, we ate a lot of processed stuff out of the freezer, and we ate out a lot. We also barely cooked, though we probably cooked at home more than most folks, both because we like to cook and out of general cheapness.

After people have kids, as should be obvious, they have even less free time than before. With so many families with two working parents, who is supposed to get the cooking done? At our house, most days, we manage something. But it does feel thrown together.

Stop Chef

This lack of time for preparing a family meal has proven to be a serious problem for the quality of our lives and health. In fact, people now spend more time watching cooking shows than cooking. Here’s the ever-insightful Michael Pollan in a column 2009 (making a point he also drives home in his new book, Cooked):

Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that’s less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia [Child] arrived on our television screens. It’s also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of “Top Chef” or “Chopped” or “The Next Food Network Star.” What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves…

Could it be that toddlers spend more time in their play kitchens than we do at the real stove?

Pollan also looks at the subject of working moms and the lost time to cook (and explains how women had to be un-guilted out of their cooking obligations by the clever food companies):

It’s generally assumed that the entrance of women into the work force is responsible for the collapse of home cooking, but that turns out to be only part of the story. Yes, women with jobs outside the home spend less time cooking — but so do women without jobs. The amount of time spent on food preparation in America has fallen at the same precipitous rate among women who don’t work outside the home as it has among women who do: in both cases, a decline of about 40 percent since 1965. (Though for married women who don’t have jobs, the amount of time spent cooking remains greater: 58 minutes a day, as compared with 36 for married women who do have jobs.)
…. After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.” The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.

Yuck. I hadn’t made a connection between nerve gas and the industrial food system until just this second. As he goes on to relate, while women did have to be convinced to hang up the apron, the food industry was up to the task:

Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon. In fact, for many years American women, whether they worked or not, resisted processed foods, regarding them as a dereliction of their “moral obligation to cook,” something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care. It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to break down this resistance and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking. Honest. In the 1950s, just-add-water cake mixes languished in the supermarket until the marketers figured out that if you left at least something for the “baker” to do — specifically, crack open an egg — she could take ownership of the cake.

And Pollan helpfully explains what this has to do with health:

A 2003 study by a group of Harvard economists led by David Cutler found that the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America. Mass production has driven down the cost of many foods, not only in terms of price but also in the amount of time required to obtain them. The French fry did not become the most popular “vegetable” in America until industry relieved us of the considerable effort needed to prepare French fries ourselves. … When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food.

Pollan’s writing about the general subject of the lack of home-cooked fare, and not considering, in particular, the (absent) culinary lives of children. But his point is even more poignant when we consider that children (for the most part!) eat what we give them, and will certainly not complain when a food item has been exquisitely engineered to send their brain chemistry into the stratosphere.

Moreover, since working moms have to pack snacks and lunches, and stay-at-home moms like to leave the house to go to the library or museums, what a toddler eats must be easy, ready-to-go, spoil-proof and unlikely to be rejected. The food industry is all over this assignment — giving us the “children’s aisle” full of yo-go-gurts and organic fruit purees that remove all the healthy fiber and leave behind the sugars.

Most Unsweet

A typical snack given to an 18-month-old is a fruit puree with, say, 15 grams of sugar and a paltry 1 gram of fiber, like this one. (Don’t be fooled by the “Sugars” line, which says only 11 grams; as Marion Nestle explains in What to Eat, hidden sugars — that is, those that the government allows companies to exclude from the label —  can be roughly figured out by looking at the “Total Carbohydrates” line and asking what’s missing.) As a side-note, Plum Organics new “squeezable oatmeal” provides a whopping 18 grams of sugars.

A toddler I knew who always seemed to be jumping off the walls had, the one time I observed it, a snack of a fruit puree paired with a banana — one of the highest glycemic index foods around (contributing another 15.6 grams of convertible sugars) — and pretzels, which lack nutritional value, are high in sodium, and made of white flour the body converts into — you guessed it — sugar.

To put this in context, consider that a teaspoon of sugar is 4.2 grams. So the 30 grams of various sugars from the banana and puree alone is comparable to nearly 8 teaspoons of sugar.

We would never put 8 teaspoons of white sugar in a cup and hand a kid a spoon. Yet that is exactly what we are doing with the “jammin'” fruit smoothies and gummy jelly “fruit” snacks and all the other junk in the kiddo section of the grocery store. Even the healthier-looking options like organic yogurts are full of sugars. And here’s a shocker — a small serving size of Motts apple sauce contains a stunning 22 grams of sugar, which converts to 5.5 teaspoons of sugars.

Here’s the (IMHO far too high) recommendations on sugar consumption from the American Heart Association in 2009:

Preschoolers with a daily caloric intake of 1,200 to 1,400 calories shouldn’t consume any more than 170 calories, or about 4 teaspoons, of added sugar a day. Children ages 4-8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories should consume no more than 130 calories, or about 3 teaspoons a day. (In order to accommodate all the nutritional requirements for this age group, there are fewer calories available for discretionary allowances like sugar.)

In other words, according to the AHA, that one fruit puree should be it, sugar-wise, for the day (though is an 18-month-old really a “preschooler”? And really, 4 teaspoons?! Even picturing feeding a toddler that much sugar makes we want to hork.).

Not that the guideline is very clear. You may have noted the weasel word “added,” which shows that the AHA’s a bit too in thrall to the titans of sweet stuff. Like Marion Nestle likely would, I would suggest a “food product” like the puree is so devoid of fiber that, in itself, the sugars qualify as “added” sugar, and, more to the point, that the AHA’s use of the word “added” has been rendered functionally meaningless by all the many ways that sugar is concealed these days as “fruit” or fruit-y sounding names.

And that was before scientists — and 60 Minutes — started asking whether sugar is actually toxic. Here’s a recent write-up by Marc Bittman about a new study on that question:

A study published in the Feb. 27 issue of the journal PLoS One links increased consumption of sugar with increased rates of diabetes by examining the data on sugar availability and the rate of diabetes in 175 countries over the past decade. And after accounting for many other factors, the researchers found that increased sugar in a population’s food supply was linked to higher diabetes rates independent of rates of obesity.

In other words, according to this study, it’s not just obesity that can cause diabetes: sugar can cause it, too, irrespective of obesity. And obesity does not always lead to diabetes.

The study demonstrates this with the same level of confidence that linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s.

As Rob Lustig, one of the study’s authors and a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said to me, “You could not enact a real-world study that would be more conclusive than this one.”

Swimming Upstream

And when toddlers aren’t swimming in sugar, they are often surrounding by salty savories like pretzles or the durn fishies. For a decent break-down of the issues on goldfish crackers specifically — including problematic food dyes, high salt, low fiber and other quibbles (to which I would add the use of non-organic and genetically modified ingredients) see this article.

Unfortunately, the piece rather glosses over the sodium issue. Keep in mind that the FDA “Daily Values” are always for an adult, even if the food is being marketed to and for kids. In fact, the recommended levels for toddlers on sodium are not to exceed 1 gram daily, which makes a (small) serving of crackers that clocks in at 230-250 mgs a full quarter of a toddler’s daily salt intake.

Normal foods have sodium as well, of course, meaning the child could rather easily exceed the daily limit. But the real issue is whether parents are taking the food industry’s cue to develop obedient tastebuds-in-training and whether the crackers, with their fiber-less cutesyness, accomplish anything that toddlers actually nutritionally need for health. As the AHA basically says, empty calories in a child’s diet too often takes the place of where real food needs to be.

The Times piece on addictive foods makes clear that there are certain food combinations rigged to create an addictive quality — including foods that are salty, crunchy and melt away in the mouth. The “melt-away” effect tricks the brain into thinking that the items has no calories. And the marketing triumph here is complete — would parents feed these foods to their young children if they weren’t shaped like fish?

Let’s Do the Time Warp, Again…..

It also often seems like snack recommendations for kids — like these from Parents’ magazine (which were the top post when I googled “healthy toddler snacks”) — are so paralyzed with fear about the obesity crisis that they are utterly stuck in the early 90’s when it comes to nutritional advice. Their list includes processed ham slices and “low-fat cream cheese” as ingredients for healthier fare.

But we know now that processed food is the enemy — not fats per se, and that kids actually need healthy fats (read: unsaturated and some saturated fats like those in milk and coconut) for healthy brain and body development. Among other reasons, healthy fats help build myelin, the basis for neural connections in the brain, and also help satisfy food cravings and reach a feeling of fullness. Certain fats are critical for healthy growth, and children actually use these fats more efficiently than adults do. This is why we still give Maya whole milk, and supplement with high quality fish oil (cleaned of PCBs and other contaminants).

Avoiding fats may actually trigger a larger problem, because the second you look towards “low-fat” foods, you are in the land of chemicals and industrially engineered foods. Fillers, sugar, salt and gums generally take the place of where food should be. We have little idea how many of these additives and substitutes impact human health. And some of the evidence we do have is not reassuring, as the author of Pandora’s Lunchbox, another fright-fest on food, tells us in her well-written but troubling tome.

The other problem with processed foods like crackers or Lunchables is that it is, bacterially speaking, dead. Meaning: cleansed of microbial activity. Michael Pollan’s latest blockbuster article on our “microbiome” of organisms living in our guts has been an eye-opener for me and many others, and makes our lack of cooking and over-consumption of processed foods problematic from a whole new (teeny tiny) point of view. Our children, like us, should be eating real food and playing in the dirt, particularly as the article observes that the basic formations of micro-organisms we carry around in our digestive tract are mainly determined by the ripe old age of three.

Snack-well-er

Unfortunately for me, Maya has figured out that about everyone else in the world has snacks that taste more addictive than hers do, and has developed a preternatural gift for weaseling her way in and mooching off whomever is around. This puts me in the untenable position of having to tell her to put down snacks that some generous person has allowed her to have with a mumbled excuse like, “I’m trying to teach her not to be such a mooch. Ahem.” It’s uncomfortable, to say the least.

So I’m certainly not promising that you’ll be able to fix the situation entirely by dreaming up better snacks for your child. But, FWIW, below are some ideas we’ve used successfully for snacking.

Here’s what I like to see in a snack: 1) Dietary fiber and nutrient density (whole fruits and veggies, grains, nuts and seeds); 2) No sugar or only natural sugars from dried fruits, dates or the like; 3) Low or no sodium; 4) Grains other than wheat, or the use of seeds like flax, chia, wheatberries, etc.; 5) Only a few ingredients and only real foods with no additive, preservatives or other chemicals; 6) Organic if at all possible. Drinks are milk or water, generally speaking, with very little juice.

Specific foods we like as snacks on-the-go:

(just to be clear, none of these are commissioned links)

  • Fruits and veggies (organic berries, apples, grapes and such, cucumbers, carrots, avocado, raw zucchini, lightly cooked broccoli); frozen fruits (or even corn and peas) go right into a container when we leave and are thawed but still cold when ready to be eaten, which Maya loves.
  • With a little prep (really, it’s easy), pickled vegetables are also an option. Here’s my basic recipe, and some fancier ones from the Times.
  • Nuts and seeds — I mix up (organic, unsulphured) sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, raisins, dried cranberries, and shredded coconut. This can be modified, obviously, with any combo you like and is a great and filling snack. Cashews are also great, as they are soft and easy for toddlers to chew.  (Be aware that some brands of almonds are sprayed with a fungicide, and that peanuts can have high levels of pesticides, so organic is best.)
  • Hard-boiled eggs (Look for “grassfed” or “pasture-raised” organic eggs, which have more vitamins and minerals — available at Whole Foods, through CSAs or farmer’s markets; sadly, the label “free-range” means little).
  • Cooked (organic) sweet potatoes, left in the skin to be scooped out with a spoon.
  • Annie Chun’s salty tasting seaweed snack, which Maya loves, has 140 mgs of sodium per box, while the Trader Joe’s brand has 100 mgs. I consider this on the high side, so it’s far from a daily thing. At least seaweed has a good bit of Vitamin A, as well as trace minerals.
  • Organic brown rice cakes with nut butters (cashew, almond, peanut) — changing the nut butter alters the vitamins and other benefits. We like the Artisana brand, which does not have anything added and appears not to have either vinyl or BPA-plastics under the lid, although it is pricey.
  • Date cookies, like the raw, organic ones from Go Raw, which come in a wonderful variety of flavors like carrot, chai, lemon and even chocolate. You can also evidently make your own, which I haven’t yet tried. They are a bit sweet, but so dense that you don’t really eat very many at a sitting.
  • In moderation, dried, organic, unsulphured fruits, including apricots, raisins, dates, papaya wedges. Be aware that dried fruits also contain a lot of sugar, and eat in moderation.
  • Blue corn chips, like the organic ones from Garden of Eatin’ (60 mgs sodium per 11 chips).
  • Seed-based crackers, like Foods Alive Organic Flax Crackers (we like the maple/cinnamon flavor).
  • Good, ol’ fashioned “ants on a log” — the classic celery and nut butter with raisins, which can be assembled at the park from its ingredients.
  • Homemade, organic low-sugar oatmeal cookies or pumpkin muffins with whole wheat flour substituted in; or zucchini or carrot bread with same.
  • Hummus, bien sur — though I can’t find an organic one at the local store, which grrs me. I sometimes make my own from Eden brand (due to their BPA-free cans) chickpeas or dried beans.
  • With refrigeration, wild-caught canned salmon and albacore tuna salads — with real mayonnaise, sliced almonds and celery, even apple in the tuna. These brands are allegedly BPA-free.
  • Plain (organic, grassfed) yogurt with a little fruit jam mixed in. Again, you can freeze this in a (stainless steel) ice-cube tray and let it thaw out over the course of the day.
  • Organic versions of freeze dried fruits, like Nature’s All Foods organic strawberries (available at Whole Foods). These are desserts though, as they utterly lack fiber and are basically distilled down to the fruit sugars.
  • You could try something fancy and European, like this scrumptious pan bagnat, which may work better with a slightly older child. Maya turned her nose up at it, despite enjoying the permission to sit on her sandwich. I intend to try again sometime to get her to eat it sans anchovies, and I enjoyed it very much.
  • Kind bars (though they are not organic, and some of the chocolate-y ones are more like candy). Trader Joe’s also has a few fudgy organic bars that work as a special treat.

What are your ideas for healthier snacks for your child? I can’t wait to add to our list of possibilities!

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Some related posts:

The Hollowing, and an Information Democracy

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…”
— The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot

“A world of made is not a world of born…”
pity this busy monster, manunkind, e.e. cummings

“All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”
— A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

Sometimes trivial events are telling. I went looking for Lincoln Logs for Maya a little while ago, only to find that they are now not logs at all, but instead sad, cardboard-and-plastic affairs, with only the flimsiest relationship to the simple wooden toys of my childhood.

But the truth of what’s happened to the building blocks of our lives is far sadder than that. We make our consumption choices inside the bubble of a globalized, mass culture, on a steroid dose of marketing, with much of the information about how things are made and what they really cost us surgically removed. We can watch a video about “gangnam style” from the other side of the planet, and be exhilarated by vast quantities of information on the Interwebs and our fast life on an information highway, yet, curiously, we have no idea where most of the stuff around us comes from.

In fact, we have been carefully taught to screen out the material of our immediate world, to focus on whatever problem is assigned to us and nothing else. When we go to work, do we ask why the coffee is not organic or fair trade, or where the desks and carpets and chairs came from and what’s in them? Of course we don’t. If we go to some affair by a well-meaning charity, and the hors d’oeuvres are being passed, do we stop someone to inquire where the salmon is from, or whether the waitstaff is unionized? No, of course not. We look past the moment and write a check for social change.

This is no accident, of course. We are afraid of bringing on a confrontation, of making a fuss or asking too much. And the very purpose of the system is to keep us distracted and in the dark. Of course, there are notable and note-worthy exceptions. Students who noticed that they no longer wanted sweatshops making their university garb organized and made real progress in building a fair trade alternative. Organic foods were scarce only a decade ago and now can be found in nearly any real store. There are burgeoning movements about a new ruralism and biodynamic farming, about minimalism in consumption, and a new attention to DIY and upcycling, to slowness and conscientious choice.

These healthier signs notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia about a more authentic past to suggest that we are living, today, inside an ersatz construction. Inside this simulacrum, we eat food, only to find out that it is mostly from a laboratory, rife with chemicals, gums and cheap substitutions, or from an industrial farm, and loaded with antibiotics, growth hormones, and cruelty to both farmworkers and animals. Even healthy food can now evidently be defined, as in a hotly contested government report, as containing only 50 percent of something recognizable as food (the agribusiness complex argued 50 percent was too high! In food for children!).

We buy furniture made mostly of pressboard and glue from someplace like Office Depot or Ikea, built for obsolescence and destined for a landfill rather than re-use. In fact, as you may have noticed, should some part arrive damaged, the company will ship you a whole new version of the item and won’t even bother to pick the faulty piece up — because while these items are costly, they are without any real value.

Our ‘tweens make “haul” videos of their most newly acquired pile of “fast fashion” clothes, constructed to last one season, and made somewhere else by people working (and sometimes dying) in deplorable, dangerous conditions, by suppliers that pollute the local waterways with toxic dyes and other chemicals. All of our plastics, as well as many of the chemicals and even some food additives, are actually byproducts of the petrochemical industry, thus making us pay them for the privilege of treating our bodies (and oceans) like oil company disposal facilities.

In sum, there has been an unmistakeable and steady hollowing of our lives. While the things around us look, more or less, the same as they did for our parents, with updated styling, there is far less to them in many ways — less wood, less actual food, less intention and care — and far more miles and sleight-of-hand.

The new equation combines the sped-up pace of global capital and the push to find a penny — or a fraction of a penny — from some new process, waste material or lab invention with ready markets ripe for exploitation in parts of the world that lack environmental and labor standards. We are then offered its glittering products, free of worldly taint or complex information. This is what the market wants, we are told. It’s convenient, modern, helpful — even necessary.

But is it really what we want? To be rather numb to the world immediately around us? To have the suffering of strangers quietly but insistently on the edge of our consciousness? To live inside the choices corporations have already made for us without questioning what other world there could have been?

There is, in fact, an alternative, and we already have many of the tools to make it so. We should imagine — and work to bring about — a future of radically unfettered information, and of a particular kind of augmented reality. Think a UPC code on every product, scannable with a smart phone, that brings up the full contents of what a purchase actually means for you and in the world: all of the components, environmental impacts, human health and safety issues, worker safety, life-cycle cradle-to-grave impacts, corporate policies, and even video images of the factory in which something is made, as well as maps of where it came from and how it traveled through space and time to the shelf. Nutritional or other helpful information in context with comparable items (hello, Fooducate), and even the full scoop on what the packaging is made of and its life-cycle.

This would help to foster responsibility all the way down the supply chain, and change the fundamentals of our economy to be both healthier and more sustainable. While many consumers may not care about such details, of course, enough would be impacted by the information to make better choices, and perhaps even to agitate for more accountable corporate and government policies. The agribusiness industry has fought labeling for genetically modified foods and country-of-origin labels tooth and nail for years out of just such a fear: the fear that consumers will care.

And corporations would have to compete in a world of information equality. With supply chains exposed, the quality of their goods and the ways in which they were made would be the distinguishing factors. Governments, which seem so sadly behind the pace of change and the risks, and too often end up being the keepers of corporations’ secrets thanks to outmoded policies on confidential information, could enforce existing rules far easier and dream of responding to new threats in real time.

Despite the fact that we humans have made many of the things now in our lives — we built the buildings, made the appliances, constructed the electronic gizmos and gadgetry — we have no record of what’s in our world. Instead, epidemiologists and allergists and others who study disease go on measuring things like our body burden for toxic chemicals, or the quality and contents of our water or air, and oncologists and other medical specialists go on treating the cancers we get from who-knows-what. To make connections will require rapid advances in both how the body works and what is impacting our health. This is not a medical problem or an environmental problem — it is an information problem.

Neither the government’s systems of protections nor the marketplace can function well when the signals about the differences in choices or products are so muddled. Consumers today — even ones trying to do the right thing — have to effectively get a PhD in multiple sciences, read past labels, ignore misleading greenwashing, and keep up with the latest findings from watchdog groups just to figure out which household cleaner won’t hurt their child. Better companies suffer in this environment, as their sacrifices are lost in the noise, and the engine of consumer choice cannot be harnessed as it could be to drive meaningful change.

In short, the information revolution must make transparent our lives and choices. People working on access to information and the quality of public information should be working together strategically to dismantle the barriers — including current rules about intellectual property and confidential business information, gag orders and secret settlements in court, and labeling omissions that shield hidden or vague ingredients in products and product packaging.

There is a massive agenda here for change, of course. But people working on these issues should knit them powerfully together, in the way that advocates addressing the climate crisis know that they are working on the same issue whether they are combating drilling in the Arctic or local zoning laws.

The changes wrought by open information in the political economy — both within companies and in Washington — could be profound. I humbly submit, as one who’s labored in those trenches, that these types of solutions may prove more potent than some classic “good government” proposals. Publishing more details of the appalling record on corporate lobbying, powerful as it is, often triggers cynicism and resignation among voters. It highlights a government that is remote, making decisions on high and impacted by power in ways that ordinary people cannot compete with. And the best campaign finance reforms have, sadly, been taken off-line by recent Supreme Court decisions that crippled critical aspects of their design.

If corporations are people for political purposes, as the high Court, in its limited wisdom, has prescribed, well, it seems to me a pity that they now know so much about us while we really know so little of them. Equipping consumers with actionable information on corporate accountability speaks to the choices they make every day. If accompanied by thorough reporting to government bodies, enabling them to form a more complete picture, the impact could be substantial, perhaps even transformative.

In the end, what else do we have except for what we do in the world? Making it mean something to us, all the way down, and seeing what it does mean, is a task most worthy of us, our markets, and our public institutions.

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I’ll be writing more on this subject in the coming months. Please send your ideas for posts on corporate secrecy and public access to information and the nexus to public and environmental health.

Some related posts:

A Conversation that Could Change the World

Some Things Never Change

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we buy stuff for our homes — like food or personal care products — many of us, including my own family, try to do the best we can for the planet and our own health. Conscientious consumption, or a genuine attempt at it given the limits of our budget and information, is a glossy new trend, as we can see from shopping sites like “Ethical Ocean” that have recently sprung up and claim to tailor offerings to your values. (On my recent visit, not all of the things for sale at EO were as good on public health grounds as I would like, but most were more thoughtful than average.)

Yet outside the home, we all find ourselves in situations with far less control, even around food. We end up in hotels, airports, restaurants — spaces, which appear cold, impersonal and impervious to our desires for a better way of being in the world. I’ll often take a minute at the start of a conversation with a waiter to send them back to the kitchen with a pointed question — one that risks comparisons from colleagues to that truly hilarious Portlandia episode in which they track down the provenance of a chicken, including his name (Frank).

Still, I’m undeterred by the joke, and try not to be cowed by the need to seem cool. It’s not about hipsterism, really to ask basics like: “Is the salmon farmed?” “Is the coffee fair trade?” “Are these eggs from free range chickens?” Even when the answers come back as unpleasant ones, as they normally do, the kitchen has been put on notice.

Michael Pollan put it this way last night at his eloquent book talk here in DC, “Food is about our relationships with people, animals, the environment.” You have a relationship, for the moment you are ordering in a restaurant, with the choices they are making for you, with the waiter and the people behind them. Why not use it, just a little, and trade on it, in order to make a statement for good?

Of course, many stores are no better. I can still vividly recall one day, not long after Maya was born, when I walked into a local CVS convenience store and realized with a sudden shock that there was almost nothing in the store I would consider buying. I wandered the aisles piled high with plastic and chemically-laden baby products in a stupor, coming to the slow, somewhat painful conclusion that the state of my own information had far outstripped where the marketplace was. I felt discouraged at the amount of work ahead of me, the decisions that would have to be made about what options were, truly, better ones. And yet I was also determined, even proud, that I was taking a stand, that I knew better than to buy the stuff on offer and slather it all over my newborn.

Being me, I also had to suppress an urge to stand in the aisle and preach to other shopping moms, about whom I felt a little sad. While other parents are wonderfully potent allies in this fight, as I’ve found on this blog, any attempt to convert unsuspecting shoppers with our missionary zeal is more like to alienate than educate. In many ways, our fellow customers are the wrong target, anyway, stuck as we all are with the choices in many stores and with the markup for better things that would decimate too many family budgets.

The real target for our attention and action should of course be the corporations. And it could be so simple! I was moved and inspired by my recent action to tell Safeway to “Mind the Store” by asking them to work through their supply chain to rid themselves of toxic chemicals. All Molly Rauch of Moms Clean Air Force and I did was to look over some items in the store and present a letter to the store manager during our brief and friendly conversation. We were nervous, because any kind of confrontation inherently makes humans nervous, but really, it was all good.

Since that day, I’ve been mulling over how to do more of this addictively easy, heady but minimalist activism. It took 3 minutes! And it made me feel great. You should do it too, IMHO.

As I”m sure you’ve noticed, we live in a world in which 300 people just died in a building collapse in Bangladesh, after major international brands like Walmart, The Gap and H&M refused to agree to a union proposal that would improve the safety of factories. (Most piercing detail: two women in the factory were evidently so pregnant that they gave birth while trapped inside the rubble.) This refusal continued even after last year’s devastating fire, in which more than 100 workers were killed after being locked into a building by managers.

So I’m sure your inner skeptic is whispering in your ear, as mine does, asking, why bother? Just how powerful is it to do this kind of thing, in terms of actually getting changes? That’s a fascinating question.

Most of us are passive about the things that make us unhappy. We listen to the skeptic before we even know what we’ve listened to. Paradoxically, though, this means that those who do speak up are understood as voicing the views of potentially hundreds of other people who didn’t bother to raise the point. Because companies hear from so few customers, you have more power than you may know.

One classic study on how businesses should respond to consumer complaints urges companies to see them as “gifts” that provide a company with the chance to improve and continue the dialogue with consumers. Even companies that lack responsiveness to individual complaints will see a pile of them as a possible new trend that threatens their business model, and will, if they are any good, eventually pay some attention.

Because I tend to go to places with the possibility of healthier food or better products, there’s even more interest there in real dialogue. I’ve given lists of better children’s products to my local co-op, requested product additions from Whole Foods, bothered the management at Trader Joe’s repeatedly with complaints about the BPA lining in their canned goods, and complained at local eateries about styrofoam to-go packaging. Just this morning, I asked the manager at Panera about their eggs, which disappointingly show no sign of being organic or even “free range.”

While it does require a little nerve, and a few minutes of your time, if we all did it instead of assuming that our conversations will be met with indifference, I think we would amaze ourselves at the pace of changes in some (better) companies.

You could also print and hand them a little, friendly card making your point. Or make your own on the spot with a napkin or scrap of paper. It could say: “Hi there, I would be a more loyal customer if you would do X.” Making a record of the interaction makes more of an impression, and links you to others who may be doing the same. And of course, there’s always social media — a FB post or tweet takes seconds, and a video or photo of the action can speak volumes, influencing everyone else in your networks to do the same.

For certain companies, their leadership regarding the environmental practices is on the line. And they’re not always doing all they can. Flor carpeting, for just one example, has excellent sustainability practices in general but lines the bottom of its products with PVC, a so-called “poison plastic.”

For these kinds of companies, as well as all the others who are not even trying, we should hold their feet to the fire and push them to pioneer truly better products and packaging.

First, we have to get over our skepticism, our natural feelings of embarrassment, and our shame in all of the choices we’ve already made. We have contact with literally hundreds of companies every time we shop or eat out, and those relationships are within our power to change, if we only we were to take that power seriously. Its our assumption that how we feel doesn’t matter — and that we have to live, silently, with our complicity in these systems we know enough to despise — that will kill our spirit, in the end.

If not now, when?

If not us, who?

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Tell the Manager: Your Company Can Do Better

Three simple thoughts on the nuts and bolts of shop-tivism:

1) Break the stereotype: be nice. Most of the time, the person you are speaking with has little power to impact the situation. Be clear and be heard, and ask them to act as they can, but a little smile and eye contact can make it more likely they will.

2) Make a record. If you have a minute, write down your issue with specifics so someone can pass it along. It makes much more of an impression, and helps to ensure that someone up the food chain hears from you. Below are some examples:

3) Follow up as you have time. Told to contact corporate HQ? Do it if you can, when you can. Emails, tweets, Facebook are also all great.

If you are voting with your feet — you can let stores and restaurants know that as well: for example, a note to the manager saying this kind of thing can be powerful: “I’m not a customer of yours — Wal-mart, H&M, Gap — because I don’t shop at businesses that won’t ensure the basic safety of workers in their factories around the world. I’m appalled at your anti-union activities and the working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and enough is enough.”

Last, please share your stories: let me know if you’re as inspired as I am to get out there and get heard!

(A special shout-out to my new friends in Reno — Lindsay told me you are out there, which was so lovely… so stop lurking and say hi!)

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