Sowing the Seeds of Change in Chicago: The New “Gardeneers”

kids as seeds

Happily cross-posted from the Food Day blog.

About forty children were crouched into small balls on the ground in front of vegetable planters. “Let’s pretend we’re seeds,” Adam Zmick, a former Teach-for-America instructor, told them. “What do seeds need to grow?” Hands shot up eagerly from down near ground level.

On a sunny Tuesday earlier this week, at Rowe Elementary School in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago, I visited a worksite of the new Gardeneers, a small organization started last fall that is bringing gardening services and education to public schools in the Chicago area. The group was founded by Adam and May Tsupros, and has already enrolled five schools. Four of their five locations have 90 percent or higher levels of subsidized lunches.

The conversation that day between the Gardeneers and the students included how to plant seeds and water them, the parts of plants and their functions, and the balance of nitrogen with other nutrients in the soil. Pickling came up, logically connected to the talk of cucumbers, and the kids rated the vegetables that they liked (and didn’t like) to eat.

Gardeneers’ new programs provide consistent support and curriculum on nutrition, biology and health to accompany the planting, nurturing and watering of seedlings by the students, some early in the spring on classroom windowsills. May explained, “About half of the schools that start gardens cannot maintain them through the school year. So we started a program to ensure that unused space is well maintained, all throughout the year.”

The Gardeneers are ambitious, aiming to grow the program to include 25 schools as early as next spring. They also hope, wherever possible, that the garden’s harvests will be used in the schools as supplements to snacks or meals. Because they are certified in Illinois’ Garden to Cafeteria program, they are well able to take the steps to manage food safely and to track their results.

As research shows, they are finding that the programs fill a need. “Many preschoolers don’t know what a root is, and they think that food only comes from a store,” said Adam. “The kids get excited when the radishes appear, and one girl told me that this was the first time she had ever tried lettuce.”

The curriculum is flexible and evolving – the lessons can involve biology, math, art, nutrition or practical skills like cooking. And the close observation and patience that students develop are good practice for scientific endeavors of all kinds. The Gardeneers also send students home with seeds and plants to care for, which invests children in the ups and downs of living organisms.

Their work is supported by foundation grants and funding for wellness programs at several of the schools. They form the latest addition to an active network of organizations in Chicago working to transform the urban landscape. With WBEZ Chicago and other partners, the group is currently planning an upcoming Day of Action in which the students will take their extra plants to houses in the neighborhood, and help residents to install their own small gardens.

One plant at a time and one student at a time, the Gardeneers are increasing awareness of healthier foods and showcasing the simple but practical steps needed to sustain them in the city.

You can read more about their efforts on Food Tank, and support their work here.

GardeneersThe Gardeneers –Margo Mejia, Randy Jamrok. May Tsupros, Amanda Fieldman and Adam Zmick.

FieldmanFieldman working with students at Rowe Elementary.

MejioMejia and students — the vegetable boxes (these were donated by partner Kitchen Community) hold heirloom and organic varieties courtesy of Seed Savers Exhange, including broccoli, lettuce, peas, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, spinach, eggplants, carrots, and herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, sage and lavender.

JamrokJamrok and students discover grown radishes. There was much excitement.

CompostLeftovers from a meal with the kids provides a lesson in worm composting.

Coming soon: an update on our own gardening adventures at home!

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Foxy: An Easy Tutorial for a Needle Felted Fox

IMG_2577In legends and myths from cultures around the world, the trickster is always the most interesting character. And they are often a fox, as in the book, The Tale of Tricky Fox, which features an addictive little sing-song and dance by the fellow.

So having a fox around to make trouble is useful. For one, if someone happens to do something naughty, both parent and child can blame it on that wily vulpine visitor.

Making a fox toy for your child is a fun little project as well. Below are simple instructions for needle felting your own personal trickster. I would estimate the project takes about ten hours or so, so it’s best tackled in front of some TV series you’ve been waiting to dive into. (I suggest Downton Abbey, so you can poke yourself with the needle every time Matthew is on-screen, to get used to the pain. Or you could just watch the Bill-and-Ted dance Foxy Lady on an endless loop. Totally up to you.)

As I’ve mentioned, I find needle felting a rewarding craft in which it’s shockingly easy to make something adorable, like this sheep or other animals. Once you’ve tackled the fundamentals a few times, you can make almost anything. It’s also very forgiving: you can easily change your mind about an addition or reshape the object as you go. The popularity of the sheep tutorial is what inspired me to offer up another one for this fox, but the principles are similar for both furry creatures.

Children — those over around 5 or 6 years old, depending on their level of patience and coordination — would also be able to make something this way, though you should probably start them on small cookie cutters and flat shapes first. Wet felting — like these Easter eggs — is great for that age and for younger crafters.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A block of some material that can be poked (since I bought this poly foam, which is really the only un-green thing about the craft, I found a shop selling foam rubber, which I have not used but would be greener);
  • A few felting needles (they break easily, so you’ll want a few to start, from Amazon or far better priced in bulk from wool shops like one, which usefully color coats their needle sets, or this shop on Etsy). Definitely pick up some larger needles, like a 38 gauge, as well as finer ones for finishing. As a favorite supplier explains:

    The needles are available in several sizes or “gauges.”  Most dry felting work, done with medium grade wool, uses 36 or 38 gauge.  For finer surface work, or finer fibers, move up to 38 star or 40 gauge.  For coarser fibers, move down to 32 gauge.

  • A wooden handle for the needle if you like;
  • Some sharp scissors or wire cutters;
  • Some roving in colors suited for your project (on Amazon here, or from a much better and cheaper selection on Etsy, e.g., here or here; you can also find even more eco-friendly plant dyed selections). Avoid superwash roving, which is used in spinning but which is not good for needle felting. To make the fox, you’ll need a fair amount of rusty red and off-white and a little black; and
  •  Two pipecleaners. Any color will work for this project.

The concept is straightforward: the needles are barbed, and each poke knits the roving together, eventually becoming more solid. The only rule is to keep the needle moving straight up and down, as the tip breaks easily.

The other precaution is to try to keep from poking your fingers, as the needles are super-sharp. This does not keep me from doing it in front of the television, though, so some injury is likely inevitable. Tant pis.

How to make the fox:

IMG_2519Start by forming an oblong ball in off-white roving and using the larger gauge needle to poke it into shape for the body. Continue turning the oblong over as you felt the roving, keeping the level of felting roughly uniform on all sides and front and back ends. Our fox was about four inches long and two inches high on the sides of the body. As it shrinks from being poked, lay more flat strands of felt around it to maintain the same approximate size. Leave the neck area a little less worked than the other portions of the body.

IMG_2520When you have a shape with the basic dimensions you’d like, but before it gets too tight and packed in, thread two pipecleaners through the approximate front and hind quarters of the fox-to-be, cut them at the appropriate leg length plus a smidge to allow for bending the tips in, and fold the wire tips over to make feet. Stand it up a few times to make sure you’ve gotten the lengths right, and adjust as needed.

IMG_2522Then make the head by forming and poking a ball separate from the body. Start with a oval, and as you work with it and it starts to respond better to the needle, angle the front and sides to create an elongated triangle. Foxes are all angles and snout in the front. Keeping a ridge where the eyes and ears will go is important as well, as above. Again, leave the neck less worked so as to allow for it to be easily attached to the body.

IMG_2523Add the formed head to the body, layering strips of additional wool around the ridge on the top of the head and the neck as needed.

IMG_2524Layer on the red by pulling to extract flattened pieces of roving, laying them onto the body and poking into place where you want it. Where you put your needle is where the wool will go. Look at images of foxes on-line as you may need: foxes have white underbellies, and red coats on top, with red markings on the top of their heads and white jaws below their noses.

IMG_2527IMG_2528 After you get the wool tacked onto the body as you need, add a layer of red wool to the legs as well, taking care not to break your needle on the wire inside the pipecleaner. Poke to the side of the wire, and around.

IMG_2531 IMG_2530Next make the ears by poking a small amount of red roving into a pointy triangle and leaving the bottom less worked. Attach to each side of the head at an angle. Finish all four legs and both ears.
IMG_2535IMG_2529IMG_2536Next, add a less-worked long clump of roving for the basic part of the tail. Work the attached part well into the body.

IMG_2539 IMG_2563Add a layer of black roving to the feet, with less density as it goes up the leg. In the uppermost picture, the left leg shows the worked roving and the right leg shows the work-in-progress.

IMG_2567Add black to the tail, and then a white tip.

IMG_2564 IMG_2565Needle features from very small amounts of roving into the face, including black and white touches in the ears and above the eyes. Add a little more red to the back of the ears if necessary to keep the black from showing through. Add white to fill out the belly and create a nice line.

Adjust the head shape as you like, checking it against pictures. Pay close attention to felting the details — there is a moment when the felt starts to respond to each poke, allowing you to shape your creature’s character and look. Don’t fret if things are perfectly symmetrical, as some differences add to the life-like imperfections.

You can always attempt a more artistic version than I did — many of the most life-like needle-felted foxes on-line have more loose roving to mimic fur on top. Since I intended it to take some damage as a toy, I made it more felted than this gorgeous artisan furball of a fox, for example. You can also get more fancy with adding small glass eyes from craft stores or on-line sources, as you wish.

IMG_2569Ready for mischief!

(As usual, none of the above links are commissioned.)

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What I Told EPA About the Climate Crisis and Parenting

IMG_0753We ask our kids to be responsible. Brave, even. To venture out into the world with a sense that it is theirs — to explore, to learn about, and also to care for.

So today I asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do the same when it comes to developing new standards for carbon emissions for power plants. Working with the incredible Molly Rauch from Moms Clean Air Force, I testified at a public listening session downtown.

Here is what I said:

Good morning. My name is Laura MacCleery and I’m a public interest lawyer and blogger. But I’m here today as the mom of a wonderful three-year-old girl to tell you why the EPA should act for her and the other children here and around the world to quickly issue strong rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants.

Forty percent of U.S. emissions – 2.3 billion tons – come from power plants. This rule has tremendous power to address one of the major sources of climate disruption. It is an opportunity not to be wasted. Real leadership from EPA would allow the U.S. to act responsibly to address our role in causing a rapid, incipient change in global temperatures.

We don’t have much time. A study in the journal Nature last month found that by the year 2047 – when my daughter Maya is only 37 years old – Washington, D.C., will have a radically altered climate, in which even the coldest monthly dips will be warmer than over the past 150 years. Oxford researchers recently found the ocean’s rate of acidification is the fastest in 300 million years. An Australian researcher showed that by the time my daughter is middle-aged, large parts of the oceans will have slimy cynobacteria – basically black goop – where coral reefs should be. This is not the world I would like to pass on to my daughter.

I try to be a conscientious parent raising a responsible child. One who picks up after herself, and shares her toys without too many complaints. But I wonder, how will she look at me – how will our children think about any of us – if we don’t do what we can to stop climate change, right now? What will it mean to be human on this altered planet? And how will our children see themselves if we don’t act today: if we don’t do the most we can, using what we know, to curb climate change and to reduce the threat it poses to the systems that sustain our lives?

I’ll be 76 years old in 2047 – assuming I’m still around. Should I just tell Maya, then: sorry, we didn’t think it was worthwhile to even try to save your pleasant weather, or prevent asthma, or help prevent catastrophe to our agriculture, our wildlife and to the millions of people living in the tropics displaced by rising tides and violent weather?

I won’t be able to say we didn’t see it coming. The policy case, the scientific case, even the economic case have all been amply made. So I’m asking the EPA, on behalf of the many parents who couldn’t be here today, to act with real political gumption. To look past industry’s predictable objections and the facile compromises that could weaken a standard.

To make this moment – this rule – transformative, much like the fuel economy standards set in the 1970s that were aggressively front-loaded and ended up weaning the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil for several decades. There is no progress without some disruption, but we are choosing between reform today and catastrophe tomorrow.

Decisive government action in this area would be smart and responsible, but it would also be – and I’ll just say it out loud – an act of love. Your job on this one is clear, and has high stakes. We always tell toddlers to use their words. So here are mine for you: Be bold. Brave. Creative. Visionary. Carpe Diem. Change our lives, and those of our children. Use your words for good.

Basically, I’m saying, make us proud, EPA. Make me proud. Don’t muddle along. Don’t accept half-measures that cut our future short.

Instead, be a super-hero. Get right to work to save this world for my child, and for all the other children who are looking up to us to do the right thing.

Laura at EPA###

My panel partner was terrific — he actually sang his comments in a moving, minor-key ballad on climate disruption. It rocked.

You can weigh in too. There are still sessions this week on November 8th in Chicago and Philadelphia. Here’s how to sign up. There are also instructions at that link about how to submit online written comments if you can’t appear in person.

Please, join me in telling the EPA that it must seize this moment to act to reduce carbon emissions, for our children and our planet. Let them know you’re watching, and you care about this enormous opportunity to do something substantial to help prevent a climate crisis.

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One-Day Drab-to-Fab Bathroom Makeover with Chalk Paint

IMG_2305Our basement bathroom was until recently a rather drab affair.

Since it’s not an area we often use, though, I really didn’t want to spend any significant amount of money to make it more cheerful. Instead, I was on the hunt for more modest upgrades: When a friend, awhile back, was looking to sell a sleek new sink fixture set she chose not to use in her own renovation, I replaced the rusty drain plug and awful plastic knobs.

But I was stymied for a long time by the cheap finish on the fake-oak vanity and built-in medicine cabinet, which was not even a wood-like veneer but was, on the sides anyway, a wood-image sticker. The deadly dull, cheap light fixture also did nothing to improve the room.

IMG_1644IMG_1643(Sorry for the cloudy pictures. It’s not an attempt to make it look worse, I swear! My camera got jammed and needed repairs, so these were done with my phone. Anyway, you get the gist: fugly and totally uninteresting.)

Then I discovered chalk paint. Because it sticks to most surfaces, is low-emissions and relatively green, and can be sealed for repeated use with wax, it can be used to create a fresh look for little cost.

And obviously, this is far less hassle, dust and expense than replacing the vanity, cabinet and light. Most vanities and cabinets are press-board and composite woods anyway, which off-gas glues and just generally annoy me. And repainting saves our current stuff from becoming trash.

I chose a green-blue tone for the vanity and light, Florence, from Annie Sloan because its intensity was a nice pairing with the navy tiles in the standing shower, but was still bright enough to create interest and pop. For the medicine cabinet, I used a bright white, called Pure. Because the fixtures couldn’t be easily fixed if I made a mistake, I also enlisted some help from a friend, also named Laura, who knows what she is doing and has done a ton of work refinishing pieces with chalk paint.

In terms of equipment, I used:

We started by washing all the dust off the vanity, light and cabinet. After that dried, we removed the handles from the door and other fixtures and began painting.

Laura showed me how to thin the paint with water by dipping it in a cup of a water prior to dipping it in the paint. A small amount goes a long way.

IMG_1647We did three coats on both the vanity and cabinet. When it was dry (which took only 20 minutes or so), we used a fine-grade sandpaper block in between coats to smooth the paint out further.

Multiple coats make a real difference, and, as Laura told me, thin layers sit better than laying it on thick. Laura had a much more meticulous eye than I do for uneven areas that required more sanding as well as spots missing paint.

IMG_1652 IMG_1656IMG_1658The light fixture was tricky, because the paint didn’t go on in layers easily. The chrome kept popping through, and all of the corners and edges required a careful touch-up.

But after a few layers dried, and with lots of angling of the brush, the paint eventually held on. I originally had in mind to distress it a bit to see the silver. We tried that, then decided it looked better with the color uniform.

IMG_1659IMG_1663 IMG_1660After we were happy with the colors and when the paint had dried, we moved to the wax stage. Using a dry round brush designed for wax application, we added a fairly thin coat of clear wax to the entire surface of the vanity, cabinet and light. We let it sit for just a few minutes, and then buffed it using a large round brush as a drill attachment. (For the sides that were closest to the wall and unreachable with the drill, we didn’t bother buffing the wax.)

IMG_1662 Last, we cured the wax for a few days by cutting several large garbage bags along the seam and taping them along the edges of the sink to protect it from water.

I was very pleased about the result. And with the cost. Because I had help from Laura, who brought along her drill brush attachment, the cost for the new-but-used sink fixtures, paint, some tape and my brushes kept the whole project under $100. Which helped to pay for the new camera!

IMG_2301IMG_2306

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DIY Furniture Re-Do: Breathing New Life into Furniture with Chalk Paint

IMG_2294One of my beefs with cheaper types of new furniture is that it’s more or less designed to end up pretty quickly in a landfill. Some of the press-board stuff that you have to assemble can’t even be moved once!

Other pieces, even from higher-end stores, have press-board backs as well as drawer bottoms and sides. Under current law, sadly, companies can call things “solid wood” even when they are made of medium density fibreboard (MDF), particle board or other types of composite materials, yet this stuff is basically chemicals and pressed sawdust, and off-gasses formaldehyde, glues and other nastiness.

Enter chalk paint. With a can of this low-VOC paint and a little wax, even the most dinged-up old wooden pieces can get a new lease on life. The paint is self-priming, so there’s no need to strip the finish from furniture beforehand. It could also be used to seal exposed parts of pieces that have dubious materials inside, to prevent more off-gassing.

Needless to say, this is a huge problem solver for me. Although I have a soft spot for some mid-century design, pieces that are in great condition are expensive. Furniture strippers and refinishing materials are aromatic solvents and are generally toxic, so I don’t really want to mess with them. And nothing’s more green, potentially funkier, or easier on the wallet than upcycling lovely old real wood furniture.

There are a couple of high-end brands of chalk paint, like Annie Sloan and CeCe Caldwell, and there are also recipes online to make your own with a variety of additions to any paint. If you decide to make your own and use the Plaster of Paris method, be sure to follow all safety precautions and do not inhale it. Also, it may help to ensure the base paint is a truly zero-VOC paint like Mythic. One furniture redo diva I spoke with uses baking soda in regular paint as in this how-to, and claims it works like a charm, though others think it’s best for distressed finishes.

I originally played around with some Annie Sloan paint and wax, because I found a local “stockist” for it. It isn’t cheap, though, and the colors are limited (though gorgeous). In addition, the wax comes with a troubling warning under Prop 65, California’s labeling law for hazardous substances, and has a bit of an odor at first. I turned on a fan, opened the window, and wouldn’t let the two-year-old near the final project until the wax was cured.

Since my experiments below, I’ve found a company selling their own DIY chalk paint powder that claims to have a greener wax, Fiddes & Sons. I’m not thrilled with their vagueness about their ingredients, but I’m inclined to give it a go. They also have some helpful supplies, like a wax brush attachment to use on a drill that finishes larger projects in no time. I haven’t yet tried their stuff, so I’ll keep you posted.

Since I discovered the magically transformative properties of chalk paint, I’ve purchased two painted pieces made by local furniture folks (one found on my favorite new mid-century furniture site, Krrrb, and another from Craigslist). The pictures are here to give you an idea of the “looks” that are possible with painted pieces.

Here’s a romantically shabby chic drop-leaf desk that fit perfectly in a small corner of the bedroom:

IMG_2296And a groovy re-do of a mid-century dresser in which the new white paint covers over numerous scratches flawlessly and makes the piece pop, from Salvage Modern, a mom-owned local business whose owners are just lovely:

IMG_2287 IMG_2289I also used chalk paint to add a more fun and decorative element to the elephant insets on my nightstand (matching it to the drop desk). The insets were dull, and no one could see the elephants on the piece as they were too dark. I decided it would be funky to add a bit of relaxed color. The new friend who sold me the desk was kind enough to donate a small amount of the chalk paint she used, and some wax, for the project.

First, I taped up the back area. Then I added two coats of paint and a very light coat of wax, just using a paper towel. Next, I buffed the wax for a good little while with an old cloth diaper, and last, I distressed it lightly with fine sandpaper.

Another easy project was to use chalk paint to jazz up a small, cheap thrift store purchase of a bookshelf for the playroom. For this, I involved my trusty assistant, and we yukked it up while making potato stamps in a star and heart shape, and dipping them into contrasting white paint after painting a few base coats in Annie Sloan‘s Florence paint.

The end result was cute and gives me a little storage for art supplies.

The upshot? Chalk paint provides a fun and easy way to upgrade your existing or used furniture, saving it from an untimely trip to the landfill and making it your own.

As I’ll explain in my next post, I also recently used chalk paint to add a pop of color to a basement bathroom by refinishing and updating a hideous faux-wood bathroom vanity and light fixtures, saving tons of money and giving the whole room a much fresher look. I can’t wait to show this to you, as I’m so happy with the “renovation.” More coming soon!

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

IMG_1460

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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Easy DIY Toy: How to Turn an Old Sweater into a Cuddly Snake

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I love hand-made toys, and this one, an adorable and not-at-all menacing crafted sleeve snake we dubbed Sammy, takes only an hour or so. Ergo, it’s yet another low-risk high-reward DIY adventure. And it’s a form of recycling to boot!

The basic idea is to felt a sweater in the clothes machine and cut off a sleeve, which minimizes (much to my relief) the sewing involved. A needle felted set of eyes, pointy tongue and optional rattler tail completes the project.

Even if you’re not super-crafty, this project is totally possible. So let me bend your ear a sec about why you should bother throwing together some hand-made toys for your home.

Our kids have been born into a world in which most things come from a store. Virtually everything has been designed for them and assembled by machines. The stuff of their lives is mass-produced, mass-marketed, often plastic, and sometimes (like most dolls) made of toxic materials like PVC. It beeps or has buttons that allow only certain interactions. It needs batteries and can break.

But the nicer toys that don’t fit this mold (literally) can be pricey. So we use “un-toys” from the thrift store, upcycle what we find (like these classic blocks or this dollhouse), hunt through yard sales for good finds (like this awesome handmade truck), or try to make our own (like these discovery jars, needle felted animals (including a sheep!) and felt boards).

This is both a practical choice and an aesthetic one focused on simpler, more natural, open-ended materials. The things that kids are surrounded by do inform the way they operate in and learn from the world – after all, that’s what toys are for. Objects that are more like things that we find in the natural world make space for them to notice and appreciate things that aren’t all hot pink and beepy.

Another benefit is that our kids see the care we put into these kinds of toys (choosing or improving them) and the process and patience it takes to make something. Imperfections and flub-ups become opportunities to learn, and signs of something produced by humans. Choices – of color, material, shape – arise, and children can be consulted as participants and co-creators. Most importantly, kids notice when things are handmade, and know that is a form of love.

And sometimes they can even help! Here’s my daughter running her hands through the buckwheat stuffing for the snake.

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So make something, or find something and do it up, or even just paint a picture or make playdough together, as your time allows. It’s all about sharing the act of creating with your child, and having a little something to show for it afterwards.

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What you’ll need to make the cuddly sleeve snake:

  • An old sweater (if not from your own closets, check thrift stores or even ask the neighborhood list serv, where I got some generous and free donations)
  • Some wool roving in contrasting colors to the sweater, including a little white, black and red
  • A needle and some thread
  • Stuffing for the snake and a funnel to fill it (I used leftover buckwheat hulls from another project, rice or dried beans or lentils would also work well)
  • Felting needle and felting block

First, shrink the sweater in the washing machine. You can find a few more details on how to do that here, but the basic concept is to wash a mostly natural materials sweater (more than 75 percent wool or the like) with hot water, a little soap and, optionally, a few tennis balls until it has shrunk considerably and you are happy with the result. You may have to keep an eye on the washer and check on the shrinking progress, repeating the cycle a few times before letting it go to rinse. Pop it in the dryer when done.

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Next, pull your materials together and cut the sleeve off at the shoulder. At the wider end (mine happened to be the end of the sleeve, due to the design of the sweater, but yours is more likely to be the shoulder), bend and tuck the ends into the inside of the tube formed by the sleeve, and experiment with the form until you have a diamond-shaped head with two slanted sides.

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When you’re happy with the shape, sew up the mouth by starting at one corner and doing a simple stitch through the turned-in parts. It’ll look a bit messy until the shape returns, but just keep adjusting until you get it back into the diamond.

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Once it’s well closed up, use the funnel to fill it with your stuffing material. This can be done with a helper to keep filling the funnel. Do leave a little play so that it’s floppy and cuddly when done.

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Next, close up the tail by starting an inch or so inside the tail end and anchoring the thread inside. Stitch around in a circle, cinching it tight as you complete each circle around the tube, and stitch it all the way down to the end.

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Then needle felt in some eyes, using a small amount of the contrasting roving directly on the snake, and then the white and black. It helps to make balls of roving before felting to get the basic shape, and then use your needle to create a circle by poking repeatedly within the shape.

Keep the needle straight up and down, and poke it in the spot you’d like the material to go, picking up stray threads as you work. More detailed instructions on needle felting are here and here, but it’s really very easy and intuitive.

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Buttons would also work for the eyes, of course, if the child recipient is old enough not to worry about choking.

Last, use a little red roving to roll in a line and form a forked tongue, and either needle felt or sew the tongue onto the “mouth” of the snake where you closed. If you like, you can add a black “rattle” wrapped over the tail by needle felting a little roving around it.

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And there you have it: your own Sammy, a ssssimple ssssssssleeve ssssssnake.

You may also like the following crafting and up-cycling ideas for greener, more sustainable living:

Safer Cosmetics and Personal Care Products: Avoiding the Dreaded “Icky 11”

IMG_1559If you’re on a search and destroy mission for toxins in your home (and you are — right, friend?), a pretty good place to start is the bathroom.

Personal care products are rife with nasty and suspect stuff. If you still harbor any doubt we’re all citizens of a Chemical Age, just try reading aloud the ingredients of a typical bottle of shampoo. Then, when you’ve finally untwisted your tongue, you may want to reconsider your beauty routine.

Not So Pretty in Pink

In 2007, Stacy Malkin sounded the alarm with her landmark book about the “ugly side” of the beauty industry, linking common products to cancer and a host of other serious health problems. Since then, the cosmetics industry has been on notice that consumers want better, safer products in cleaner, greener packaging. The good news is that even in comparison to a few short years ago, many better options now exist, some of which are listed below.

Still, many products are still loaded with suspect chemicals. An environmental health group just last week sued several retailers for allegedly failing to label shampoos and otherproducts that containing a known carcinogen, cocamide diethanolamine (cocamide DEA). The Center for Environmental Health said it has a list of 100 offenders which allegedly run afoul of the excellent right-to-know label laws under Prop 65 in California.

For another example, here’s the list from a “natural” oatmeal lotion marketed for use on babies that contains at least 4 chemicals of concern (the “ick” you’ll soon learn how to spot yourself!):

IMG_1618 Under the government’s watch, tens of thousands of chemicals have made their way to store shelves. While many of them remain untested, some of them have known links to cancer and reproductive health impacts. Shockingly, the FDA can’t require companies to test for safety.

Some unlucky folks also have far greater exposure to harmful beauty products on the job. Salon workers, for instance, face many of the nastiest chemicals—formaldehyde, pthalates and others—hour after hour, day after day. Grassroots groups have started pushing for safer working conditions in salons, and wonderful, active coalitions like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are doing great work to make products safer for consumers. Congress is taking note, though the bill currently being proposed to fix the problem still needs some work.

IMG_1573Revenge of the Nerds: Becoming a Label Scanner

In the meantime, you should know what’s safe and what’s, well, not so much. So I’ve compiled my own list of the worst offenders, as a rough guide. I also recommend checking on stuff in the incredible database on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep website. It allows you to search for products, providing a detailed analysis of ingredients and any chemicals of concern. You can also search by ingredient if a product’s not listed.

Because it’s hard to shop for better products when you have a toddler nagging at you, I’ve found that committing a few key abbreviations for certain chemicals to memory and learning how to do a quick label scan is an invaluable asset. Although its not an exhaustive list, the below is a half-decent crib sheet for when you’re standing in the makeup aisle cursing under your breath. (That’s probably me next to you, squinting at the teensy print and cursing audibly.)

Like with food, better products these days often have fewer ingredients, and organic ingredients, labeled as such. Their labels tend to include parentheticals with real words in them like (coconut) or (flax oil). On the other hand, if you see a long list of chemicals (especially those with numbers or a string of capital letters), that tends to be a good product to avoid. I read up from the bottom of the list, because that’s where the worst offenders often hide out.

IMG_1575 Key Chemicals to Avoid: The “Icky 11”

1) Phthalates

Phthalates are widely used in perfume, nail polish, soap, shampoo, moisturizers, soap and hair spray. They’ve been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and can cause reproductive and developmental disorders. They are listed under a variety of names, and two of them—dibutyl phthalate and diethylhexyl phthalate—are banned from cosmetic products in the European Union but are still used in products in the U.S.

Pthalates are also used to make plastics more pliable, including in polyvinyl choloride (PVC), as in this staggering list from the National Library of Medicine:

flexible plastic and vinyl toys, shower curtains, wallpaper, vinyl miniblinds, food packaging, and plastic wrap. Phthalates are also used in wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, insecticides, medical devices, building materials, and vinyl flooring.

So they’re everywhere, and worth avoiding when you can. As to cosmetics, here’s what’s tricky: sometimes they’re added to products under the generic term “fragrance,” so in addition to avoiding any ingredients with “phthalate” in the name, you should also steer clear of products containing “fragrance.” This is especially true for pregnant women, pre-teens and young adults, and babies, who are more vulnerable to their health hazards. Pick “no-scent” or “no fragrance” as your go-to whenever possible, and stay out of the department store perfume aisle! 

2) Parabens

Like phthalates, parabens come under a variety of names. The four that most commonly appear in cosmetic and bath products are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben. They’re added to shampoos, conditioners, body washes and lotions to kill microbes.

Parabens are found in adundance on store shelves and have been linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation. They’re absorbed through the skin: U.K. researchers found detectable levels of six different parabens in twenty human breast tumors in a 2004 study.

3) Lead or Lead acetate

Lead acetate is a toxin that affects reproduction and development. It’s not as common as parabens or phthalates, but it’s a doozy. It scores a terrible “10” in the Skin Deep Database, and has been linked to cancer and is banned from cosmetics in Canada. Currently the FDA allows it in the U.S. except in products applied around the eyes. Do not buy any products containing this chemical and toss any you might own.

In addition, a recent study found shockingly high levels of lead in lipstick (especially the dark reds and browns I wore all though the late 1980s and early ’90s, trying in vain to steal Molly Ringwald’s look from “the Breakfast Club”). I will just note that this puts a potent neurotoxin on your lips, kinda’ close to your brain.

Kids shouldn’t play with your lipstick, either. And while we’re on the subject of lead, I have more bad news. Face-painting make-up used for kids has been found to have dangerous lead levels and should be avoided: a 2009 study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found lead in 10 out of 10 face paints tested. This is a hard one, as it’s on offer at every durn festival we go to and is popular at Halloween. If you want to pack your own safer stuff or have it on hand for dress-ups at homes, you can make your own or buy this product, which looks to be the safest I’ve found.

4) Formaldehyde and toluene

Formaldehyde and toluene are found in nail products like polish, treatments and strengtheners. They’re also found in hair dyes and the now-notorious hair-straightening products called “Brazilian Blowouts.”

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen as well as a skin and respiratory toxin. Toluene is a neurotoxin that can impair breathing and irritate the skin. They’re both terrible for you, and pregnant women should be especially careful about exposure because of the threats they pose to developing fetuses. Staying out of salons while pregnant is a great idea for a number of reasons.

5) Coal tar

Coal tar is found in a number of dandruff shampoos, hair dyes and skin lotions. It’s a black, viscous liquid that’s produced during the distillation of coal. It’s a known carcinogen and bioaccumulating respiratory toxin, but despite these health concerns, it was deemed safe for consumers at typical levels of use. Because it poses such grave consequences for health, I would highly recommend avoiding it.

IMG_15706) Aluminum chlorohydrate

Aluminum chlorohydrate is used in anti-antiperspirants. It’s suspected of causing breast cancer, and subject to restrictions in Canada. While EWG only gives it a 3, a raft of finding linking effects on breast cancer tumors to aluminum are worrisome enough to include it as a precaution.

7) Triclosan

Triclosan is an anti-bacterial agent found in many deodorants and soaps. It’s been linked to endocrine disruption, organ toxicity and skin irritation. It also can encourage development of drug-resistant bacteria. Definitely to be avoided.

8) Diethanolamine (DEA), Monoethanolamine (MEA), Triethanolamine (TEA)

These chemicals are used to adjust the pH in products like shampoos and hair dyes. Each carries a number of concerns, but DEA (including cocomide DEA mentioned above), is a likely carcinogen as well as skin and respiratory toxin, and is the most dangerous of the three.

9) Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA)

EDTA is found in shampoos, conditioners, hair dyes, soap, body wash and moisturizers, to prevent spoilage and as a way of keeping clear liquids from getting cloudy. It makes chemicals more absorbable through the skin, which is a reason to avoid it as well. It has a low hazard rating from EWG but has been classified as expected “to be toxic or harmful” by Environment Canada. It is known to cause liver damage and skin irritation. It has killed patients in large doses using it for chelation in alternative medicine and appears to increase lead absorption in patients.

10) Sodium lauryl or laureth sulfate (SLS)

Along with other sulfates with very similar names–sodium lauryl sulfate, for instance—SLS is used in soaps, shampoos and toothpastes to cause the product to foam and remove debris. SLS has a bad reputation but EWG gives it a relatively low hazard ranking. Though it can cause skin irritation, the primary concern is that SLS can be contaminated with two really nasty chemicals—ehtylene oxide, which is a known carcinogen, and 1,4-dioxane, which has been linked to cancer and is banned in Canada.

11) Polyethylene glycol (PEG)

Polyethylene glycol can be found in makeup, sun screens and body washes. While it gets a relatively low hazard score from EWG, like SLS, there’s a chance of contamination with ehtylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which pose grave health concerns. It’s often followed by a number.

IMG_1561Weird Science: The Label Lies

So there are a lot of nasty chemicals out there. And the “good guys” are hard to find. Due to lax marketing laws, many items labeled as organic actually contain few organic ingredients. Even worse, some more natural products, like those deodorant stones, are not as green as they seem.

Second, there is massive greenwashing in this area: terms like “all natural,” or “green” or “nutrient rich” are not defined in law, and therefore should not be taken seriously by you at all. (Just do as I do and pronounce aloud “wah wah wah wah” like the teacher in Charlie Brown’s class while standing in the aisle. Stores love that.)

Third, some prominent “natural” brands have actually been acquired by much larger companies, including Burt’s Bees and Tom’s of Maine, and some of the products have been reformulated to be less of a sure thing (though both companies remain far better than the average).

Sadly, the medical establishment is of little use here. When I took Maya to a skin doctor recently, I was shocked to see that the lotions with medication in them the doctor was handing out samples of all contained some of the worst offenders on the Ick List. Then I went home and read the bottles of our other children’s products, like the liquid suspensions of ibuprofen. All of them had suspect dyes and parabens. Nothing like dosing children with a sip of potentially hazardous yuck to fix a minor health problem!

toxic-docBecause of all this, the best approach is to simplify your routine. Just decide what products you really need on a daily basis and for the occasional special event, and toss the rest. I use much less stuff than I used to, and really, truly don’t miss it.

Then you’ll also have more time to look up the facts on what you do need: just check in the EWG database. They have great lists by product category starting with 0, or no known risk from chemicals. I aim personally for nothing higher than 2, and mostly 0s and 1s. I’m even stricter with kids’ stuff, and prefer 0s or 1s for that. I also check the individual listings for each product so that I know all of the ingredients are a-OK.

Of course, you can always make stuff yourself. There are a ton of great recipes on the interwebs for everything from toner to lotion, bath salts to body scrubs. There are also suggestions about cleaning your skin with honey, which was lovely when I tried it, or with food-grade oils, which I also found to be easy and effective when I gave it a go. And it works for babies too!

Olive and coconut oil make great hair conditioners (and detanglers for kids’ hair), and organic shea butter has been a life-saver for us for treating Maya’s mild eczema. Farmer’s markets are another good source for simply made products and home remedies.

IMG_1568Some Kind of Wonderful: Products We Actually Like

Below are a few of my favorite companies. These are items we’ve actually used and liked. In addition, I’ve indicated some more widely available and affordable substitutes from major retailers as stuff I’ve used in a pinch or when I wasn’t feeling spendy.

The blog for one of my favorite companies, Bubble & Bee, is amazing and very much worth checking out for its wealth of interesting information from Stephanie, the company’s thoughtful founder.

Baby and kid products:

Adult Personal Care and Cosmetics:

Companies that I have not yet tried, but hear good things about:

A few better brands from big retail stores (but check by product!):

Note: None of these links are commissioned, though Sappho Cosmetics was kind enough to send me free samples of their make-up when I returned to work. While much appreciated generally, this did not influence my evaluation of their products.

Additionally, for reasons that elude me, the headings all ended up referring to ’80s movies. If you have more to suggest on that score, or products you personally use and like — no commercial posters allowed — then please weigh in! If there are other chemicals you avoid, I’d love to know that too.

IMG_1569Other posts you may like:

 

Easy End-of-Summer Hostess Gift: An Herbal Bouquet

Going to a Labor Day barbecue? This is the perfect idea for a simple and lovely gift for the hosts. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…

Herbal BouquetOther posts you may like:

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!