Ten Easy Tips for Hosting a Greener, Healthier Kid’s Birthday Party

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I like parties. I always invite most everyone I know, and find it a wonderous thing to get invited to them as well (hint, hint).

Nonetheless, for the first two years of Maya’s existence, I thought a birthday party was unnecessary, given that she wouldn’t really notice one way or the other. But by the ripe old age of three, well, she’d already attended a bunch, and she was quite specific about her desires for a cake in the shape of a bunny. (As luck would have it, my always-helpful Mom happened to have just such a cake mold on hand, left over from some ’70s baking adventures. It’s aluminum, but I let it go, just this once…I did use raspberries to color some of the frosting, which ended up a light pink.)

IMG_1580So this year, a party it was. And for the first time I had to tackle the problem of hosting a gathering that met my newly adopted standards for organic most-everything. In the end, we definitely blew our budget, but it was delightful. I really enjoyed the from-scratch but low-key nature of the gathering. Most importantly, Maya had a wonderful time, and so did the people who delighted us by coming to celebrate.

IMG_2064So here’s a summary of lessons learned, tips and links for hosting your own greener gathering!

Top Ten Tips for Hosting a Greener Kid’s Birthday Party

Given the higher cost of hosting with organic and nicer foods, I’ll start with a few ways to keep the budget lower on other items:

1) Pick an affordable spot to have it, which may require some searching. We would have hosted it at home, but felt compelled to invite too many people for our wee abode. So we comparison priced local spots at parks. While County parks where we live wanted $100 for a picnic area, the National Rock Creek Park was $8 for a grove. Hosting it in a spot where we didn’t pay per-child also was a relief when extra kids wanted to come, and we could accommodate anyone we needed to.

2) Use seasonal decorations that you can eat or enjoy later. We ditched the plastic decor and kid themes and put squashes, pumpkins, and pomegranates on the table instead, along with a fall-colored orchid. We stuck dried colorful leaves and acorns in a pumpkin vase, and brought out serving plates we use for the holidays, which fit the autumnal theme perfectly. We’ll carve the pumpkins, cook the squash into soup, and enjoy the plants over the next weeks and months.

3) Find some of what you need for entertaining at the thrift store. I hit a local thrift store’s Labor Day sale and found great items for cheaper than you would pay for disposable tableware, including a punch bowl with 14 cups for $5 and a large serving platter for $7. For a tea party theme, mismatched plates from delicate sets work great, and if you pick up these kinds of things, they can be used year after year, or even for playtime with little concern given their affordability.

4) Keep the menu simple, and make it from scratch. For an early afternoon event, I made only four things: mostly-organic hummus, some homemade pickles, guacamole, lemonade and cake. For the rest, I put out fresh fruits and vegetables, sliced or chopped as needed, a few chips and nuts, crackers, olives and cheese. It was plenty! Simple menus allow you to shop for nicer ingredients, and to put care into what you prepare. The biggest hits were the lemonade mixed on-site from organic sugar, water and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. In keeping with the DIY theme, for future parties, I would consider letting the kids decorate their own cupcakes with icing tips on (PVC-free) plastic baggies of frosting, or having guests mash up their own guacamole from a table with all the prepped ingredients and a molcajete.

IMG_20685) Use toys you already own for amusements. Last year, I scored a bunch of costumes and dress-ups at a yard sale for a only a few bucks, and they made the perfect side activity in a corner of the grove. The kids enjoyed messing around with those and a box of puppets I’ve collected from thrift stores and yard sales.

6) Make the crafts part of the favors, and let the kids decorate the favor bags. We used simple brown lunch bags for decorating at the craft table, along with wooden eggs and doo-dads I ordered directly from a great low-cost supplier in the woods of Maine. The kids had a ball painting the eggs, gluing feathers to them, and building items out of the wood. Their creativity was amazing!

7) Pick simple games from your own childhood. There are a ton of simple games, depending on the ages involved — like boiled or raw eggs on a spoon races, gunnysack races, three-legged races, musical stepping stones, water balloon toss or horseshoes and bean bag toss. You can use craft store felt squares to mark out spaces on the grass if needed, and then keep them for felt crafts like these. Some games, like Mother May I, Red Light, Green Light, Duck, Duck Goose and Simon Says require no props at all. If you want to take it up a notch, Green Planet Parties has a number of lovely game options and birthday favors that can work well, especially for smaller parties. (Just allow plenty of time for it clear customs if in the U.S., as the mostly handmade goodies ship from Canada.)

8) Having a “no gifts” rule is a nice touch, if your kid can cope. It’s kinder to other parents and also ensures you won’t be dealing with unwanted items that aren’t as green as the things you prefer for your home.

9) Keep it on the small side — or at least, don’t sweat the small stuff. File this one under “do as I say” but of course the recommended size for children’s parties is modest, and many folks follow a rule to invite the number of children that corresponds to the age of the child. This reduces costs, as well as the number of pricey biodegradable or green tableware items you might have to buy.

We’ll aim for this in future years, as this year’s was a bit ridonculous (though great fun). I did manage to shrug it off when the much-coveted bunny cake actually was dropped into the dirt and obliterated en route to the picnic table. This helped Maya move on as well. It appeared to make some sense to her when I said the bunny had returned to the woods from which it came. It’s always nice when a child’s capacity for magical thinking can help save the day…

10) Pick up the right stuff for entertaining that you can use again and again. In keeping with the greener kitchen list I posted earlier, here are some (un-commissioned) links to greener items for entertaining I found:

IMG_2066On the cake, which is always the most fun thing to think about, if you are as timid a baker as I am, you can’t go wrong with any of the dozens of wonderful cake recipes from Smitten Kitchen. That is, you can’t unless you ignore Deb’s careful and detailed instructions as I once did to my profound sorrow. I’ve made her scrumptious apple cake before, and for the birthday I loved the vanilla-buttermilk cake from her new cookbook.

Ms. Smitten is far more meticulous about stacking layers and the like (mine happened to both be lop-sided in ways that perfectly mirrored each other, so it turned out alright), but she does have sound advice on this score if you need it. If you run out of time to decorate more inventively, as I did, I also recommend having some nice-ish fresh fruit on hand, as a few thinly sliced kiwis and some berries are a great cheat and dress up a cake with little fuss.

For gluten-free cake, I did use a mix, and found that Pamela’s Chocolate Cake Mix (which I found at Whole Foods) worked well when I substituted coconut oil (using a little less than called for) for vegetable oil. The cake was very moist and slightly coconut-y, which was appealing with the chocolate.

A few notes on things you may want to avoid:

1) Most bouncy huts and the like are made of PVC, a poison plastic, and some are even likely contaminated with lead. There’s no need to put kids inside these for any real length of time, particularly indoors. Balloons are also PVC, as are many “party store” decorations like banners, etc., so keeping these outdoors is a good idea to the extent you may want to use them. The mani-pedi party one 5-year-old girl I know got invited to is also just a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons.

2) In a 2009 study, 100 percent of the face paints tested came up positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin that is now thought to be harmful in much smaller amounts. We use Giotto Face Pencils, which the company claims are lead-free, but they are no longer available from any vendor I’ve found in the U.S. (you can get it shipped through ebay from Europe). MightyNest also sells Glob, another lead-free brand, but it contains phenoxyethanol, which gets a 4 on Skin Deep, as a preservative.

Most of all, do try to enjoy it as much as you possibly can! This time is so fleeting, really, and nothing marks time for all of us like a birthday!

If you have tips from your party hosting (or party-going) experiences, please share!

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Making a Spartan Dessert Sing: Chocolate Squares with Lemon Curd

Lately, I’ve noticed that anyone who seeks to join an Upright Citizens Brigade of self-satisfied health types is told they should happily be willing to make do with a “dessert” of monastic simplicity: a naked square (or two, for shame!) of ultra-dark 78% cocoa chocolate, unadorned and unimproved. They reason, sensibly, that this treat is healthy-ish, as it contains all the helpful flavonoids in cocoa, and only a little of the bad stuff.

I have tried to like this. I truly have. But there’s really no way of getting around the fact that I find it only a tad less depressing than having no dessert at all. It reeks to me of silly, self-imposed deprivation, of nutritionism, and, even, of injustice, because the very notion of dessert has been unfairly stripped of toothsomeness.

However, when out of desperation last week I paired the aforementioned lowly chocolate square with some lovely fresh-made lemon curd from local food-shop extraordinaire, Seasonal Pantry, the chocolate and the lemon both sang. Unadorned no longer, its monkishness replaced with kick and verve for the sweet vagaries of living, the chocolate square was, at least for me, saved.

Now I can have my square, and eat it, too, at least for as long as the lemon curd lasts.

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Hot Reads: The Fracking Fight Blows Up, and the Most Compelling Video Clip in Years

ImagePhoto by John Kovacich

The pressure mounts on fracking

In the past few years, the use of fracking has surged across the country, but with it has come real opposition, and a growing sense of the costs. Last week, environmental groups delivered 650,000 requests to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to demand a ban on fracking on public lands. The BLM is currently considering a new set of fracking rules, and public outcry has been so great that an unprecedented one million comments were submitted urging that the bureau take a new direction.

Fracking and its hazards has received quite a bit of attention lately, even from this humble Hot Reads, whether for draining water supplies in small towns in Texas, or because the fracking industry evidently deems it appropriate to put a gag order on children who suffered from its ill effects.

If you are still not convinced of how risky the procedure is, check out this infographic from Physicians for Social Responsibility, which details the dangers posed by the chemicals used in fracking. Recent data also suggest that fracking is contributing to the increased fatalities among oil and gas workers. They hit a record high in 2012, and the procedure is suspected of leading the increase because it requires more workers for transportation and contributes to motor vehicle crashes. Deadly for workers, deadly for the environment, and harmful to residents, families and the First Amendment: fracking is not our friend, my friends.

“I will die from exposure to silica in my workplace…”

Silica has long been recognized as a health hazard, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has kept rules on the book that have left workers exposed to its dangers for years.

Last week, just in time for Labor Day, OSHA finally, after an over-long delay proposed a new rule that could save 700 lives annually. The rule was delayed for 15 years, most recently going into political deep-freeze during a needless two-and-a-half-year stint at the Office of Management and Budget in the White House, ground zero for paralysis by analysis. But in the time that the government dragged its feet, workers faced silica exposure, and as a result, some will suffer and die from silicosis, an incurable and potentially fatal disease.

To put a face on the statistics, here’s a candid, straightforward statement from Alan White, a foundry worker who contracted terminal silicosis after years of exposure on the job. It’s a heart-breaking testimonial that I couldn’t stop crying while reading. The lesson? There’s a person behind every number, and regulatory delay can devastate lives.

Leibovich gives Washington a well-deserved lashing

Mark Leibovich has made a name for himself in Washington. He’s the national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and earlier this summer published “This Town,” which chronicles the unseemly inner workings of the nation’s capital. In this lengthy but juicy interview with Bill Moyers, he discusses Washington and its changing political culture in frank, unflinching terms. A long read, but worth it. Especially if you need water-cooler fodder to lament just how far DC has gone off the rails.

Children must be protected in any chemical reform bill

Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of toxic exposure. For some simple ways: they breathe more quickly, have higher heart rates, and weigh a lot less than adults, all of which make them more at risk for harm from contaminants.

In sum, kids are physiologically different than adults, but the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which sets the rules for chemical exposure and has been a thorn in all of our sides for quite some time, fails to make this distinction. Congress is now considering the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA), which would update TSCA and offers an opportunity to correct its failings, but the bill doesn’t go far enough.

CSIA, like its predecessor, doesn’t set standards strict enough to protect children, and tellingly, the American Academy of Pediatrics has refused to endorse it. To see more about how the CSIA fails to protect children, check out this piece from the always-great Pump Handle blog.

New, incredible food industry images

If you’re as long in the tooth as I am, you may remember the unpronounceable but gorgeous Koyaanisqatsi film, a movie without words but filled with compelling images that told the story of civilization.

Along comes Samsara, a film whose clip took my breath away, about the mechanization of slaughter and the heartbreaking dance of workers in our food system. The 6-minute trailer has been making the rounds on the Web (thanks, Rena!), and was so stunning it actually left me speechless. I’m looking forward to watching the whole thing after the video release next January.

And there you have it.  Enjoy your Labor Day holiday!

Big Mama Pig: Oinking Back at Ag Gag Rules

Free the pigsThis enormous sow just had 17 piglets. We met her on a visit to a real farm, where animals like pigs breathe outdoor air.

But I really think the picture says it all. She was quite the pig.

Across the U.S. the past legislative session, states debated whether to pass “ag gag” laws that make it a crime to take a picture or video of a farming operation or slaughterhouse. Thankfully, all 11 of the proposed bills failed — some, like in California, after a major public fight. The purpose of these laws is to shield industrial agriculture from public scrutiny and to keep industry whistle-blowers from documenting how poorly animals are treated. I can’t think of anything less democratic, transparent, or cruel when it comes to our food supply. What we need is more sunlight on farms, not less.

Here’s a description of the laws from Food Safety News:

  • In North Dakota, it is a class B misdemeanor to enter an animal facility and use or attempt to use a camera, video recorder, or any other video or audio recording device. It is defined as “unlawful interference with animal facilities” and as “prohibited activity.”  Violators face jail terms of 30 days.

  • Kansas’s law makes it a class A, nonperson misdemeanor to enter an animal facility that is not open to the public and take pictures or video. The law is part of the state’s “Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act.”

  • Montana’s measure makes it unlawful to enter an animal facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with intent to commit criminal defamation, and to enter an animal facility if the person knows entry is forbidden.

All three of these laws were passed in 1990 and 1991. Now, after a 20-year lull,  there’s been a surge in the introduction of ag-gag bills and Iowa and Utah enacted new laws, meaning five states have imposed these restrictions.

What are they trying to hide? Well, in the past few years alone, whistle-blowers have been essential in uncovering abuses. Here’s one story from an undercover reporter:

Millions of haggard, featherless hens languished in crowded, microwave-sized wire cages. Unable to even spread their wings, many were forced to pile atop their dead and rotting cage mates as they laid their eggs.

And another, related to a videotape made in 2007, drawing an upsetting connection to the poor monitoring of beef given to kids in school:

The answer begins at the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in Chino, California. In 2007, a Humane Society investigator went undercover there and filmed “downers,” cows too sick or injured to walk, dragged by chains and pushed by forklifts to the kill floor. (The Obama administration has since banned the slaughter of downer cows, which pose a higher risk of having mad cow disease.)

The footage aired on network news and spurred the U.S. Department of Agriculture to announce what was at the time the largest meat recall in U.S. history. But by then it was too late – most of the meat had already been consumed, much of it through the National School Lunch Program.

This has to do, obviously, with the safety of our food supply. But understanding more fully what goes on at industrial farms would also lead to far greater public demand for a return to a more sustainable and humane form of agriculture, which is just what the industrial food giants fear most. As Marc Bittman put it:

The biggest problem of all is that we’ve created a system in which standard factory-farming practices are inhumane, and the kinds of abuses documented [by whistleblowers] are really just reminders of that.

Until this situation changes, we will continue at my house to source our meats from animal-friendly, sustainable local and organic farms, farms where, as Michael Pollan recently said on his book tour, the animals had “one bad day.”

We’re fortunate where we live to have these sources. We get our pork from Babes in the Woods, a family farm where the rare Tamworth pigs forage outdoors for acorns all year round, or Polyface Farms, the gold standard in sustainable, bio-dynamic farming. To check if farmers like these are in your area, you can always look on EatWild, a terrific resource.

More reading:

pigletsOink, oink.

Dragonbreath Pickles: Homemade Spicy Cucumber Quick-Pickled Goodness

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Here be dragons, as the old maps used to say. You have been warned: these pickles do not mess around. They are perfect for situations such as the long, intimate family gathering I just attended, particularly if others do not care for them, as they are a natural distancing mechanism.

Pickling is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Pickled foods are essential parts of most traditional food cultures, and help repopulate the microcosms of bacteria in the intestines, which it now seems is important for health. Check out Michael Pollan’s piece in the Times recently (which is essentially the last chapter of Cooked, his latest tome), and then take a gander at The American Gut Project, which will analyze your own intestinal output for a small fee and benchmark it against the general population’s microbiome.

More appetizingly, pickling is easy and fun. The below pickled cucumbers produce satisfying amounts of mouth excitement, and the jars belch clouds of sulfurous gas when opened. What could be better?

IMG_1199Like traditional kosher dills, these use salt brine rather than vinegar, and then rely on the natural bacterial process to kick off the ferment. The advantage of salt brined, or “lacto-fermented” pickles, as they are sometimes called, are far higher levels of beneficial microbes. These pickles can be made with many kinds of vegetables, including cucumbers, squash, garlic, carrots, green tomatoes, radishes, asparagus, and just about any other vegetable you can name. Should you be more naturally sociable than me, which is a low bar indeed, and thereby want them less dragon-y, just adjust spices to taste.

IMG_0853Be sure to keep the level of the pickles below the surface of the brine by leaving sufficient headspace and then topping it off with more brine. You can also use this handy tool I recently found for sealing, the Pickle-Pro Vegetable Fermenting Lid, for one jar at a time. When they are cloudish and bubbly, you can halt the fermentation activity by popping them into the fridge. They end up sour, fizzy, tangy, and hot. Delicious, basically.

IMG_0854On jars, be aware that most lids have BPA in them, which is another recent to leave headspace. As I wrote in my recent post on greening your kitchen, Weck, Bormiolli and Le Parfait sell glass-lidded jars with rubber gaskets and metal clips, and the shapes are lovely. (I did these on vacation, so please excuse the hodge-podge of BPA-laden lids!)

The below directions are adapted with gratitude from this Cultures for Health Lacto-fermented Kosher dill recipe, but mine were sliced pickles, and I used many, many more spices per pickle.

IMG_0852What you’ll need:

  • 2.5 tablespoons Celtic sea salt or Kosher salt per quart of water to be used.
  • Chlorine-free water to fill your jars.
  • 4 to 6 grape, oak, mesquite or horseradish leaves (I used 2 oak leaves per small jar; one for the side and another below the lid).
  • 5 to 6 cloves of peeled garlic per small jar.
  • Several pieces of fresh dill per jar (with berries after bolting, if you have them, which is perfect for right now).
  • Ample spices for each jar of (use organic spices if you have them, of course): black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, herbes de provence, dried dill, and cumin seeds (or dried cumin in a pinch).
  • Enough pickling cucumbers to fill each jar, freshly picked (best within 24 hours) and sliced.

pickle prepMaking the pickles:

  1. Measure the amount of water you will need by filling your jars and make a brine with 2.5 Tbls of Celtic sea salt per quart of chlorine-free water. If it is over 85 degrees in your kitchen, use one extra tablespoon of salt. Mix well, cover, and allow to cool to room temperature. This brine can be kept for days before using.
  2. In each of the small jars you are using, add one of the tannin-containing leaves, 3 or so cloves of garlic, the cuttings of dill, and generous helpings of each of the spices you plan to use.
  3. Pack half of your sliced cucumbers tightly on top of these spices. Repeat another layer of garlic, and spices. Add another tightly packed layer of cucumbers.
  4. Pour the brine over the pickles, leaving 1 to 2 inches of headspace. Place another tannin-containing leaf on top of the pickles as a cover between the pickles and the surface of the brine and push the whole thing into the jar with your fingers. Be sure the leaf and pickles are below the surface of the brine. You can also weight them with the lid I mentioned above, or with a clean, small stone or plate, as it will fit.
  5. Tightly cap the jar and place in a safe place at room temperature for 3 to 5 days. Alternatively, place in a root cellar or cool basement for up to two weeks. The warmer the fermenting temperature, the shorter the fermentation time, though a cooler fermentation temperature is desirable to keep the pickles crispy (less than 80°F). Put something under them to catch any bubbling brew, and burp them by lifting the lid and letting gas escape as needed. Be sure to let your toddler (or anyone young at heart) smell the burp.

You will know your pickles have fermented when the brine is cloudy and bubbling, the pickles have a fizzy sourness, and you can breathe fire after eating a few.

Eat immediately, or store in a refrigerator or basement and enjoy them for months, if you can stop yourself from eating them all right away.

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Other links you may like:

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!

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.

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.

###

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: