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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A Facebook for Federal Bureaucrats, or What Real Government Transparency Might Look Like

LikeWatching Aneesh Chopra rather lamely defend the Obama Administration’s record on its use of information technology on The Daily Show this week, I was struck by the same problem that Stewart was struggling with — the very slow pace of change, and the unmistakeable disappointment that has set in concerning the early promises that were made by the incoming Obama folks way back when about sunshine in government.

More recently, the debacle of the Obamacare rollout became Exhibit A of government’s incompetence at a time when faith in government to take action about Things That Matter was the issue being debated. Of course, those serious hiccups have now been more or less resolved, and millions have used the Web and other means to enroll in the much-demonized health care coverage.

Although not without its flaws, this is a major advance, both for the country and for covered families and individuals. Perhaps one day soon (though presumably not before we all re-live it via the next election cycle), these significant positives will block out our collective trauma over that massive technical fail.

Yet the overall picture — including Stewart’s example of rampant mismanagement of the databases on veterans at the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs — is dismal. While some groups at the state and federal level like the Sunlight Foundation continue to make progress on interactive tools for impacting proposed legislation in Congress or a statehouse, the federal agencies today remain largely impenetrable fortresses, accessible to lobbyists and others who know the ropes, but inexplicably mysterious for most Americans.

The federal departments, commissions and agencies preside over the details of all the rules that most affect the lives of millions of Americans, deciding everything from auto and consumer safety standards to environmental and business rules. While they do have to conduct a public process (called notice-and-comment rulemaking) on the most significant decisions, much of their internal workings remain shielded from any real public disclosure. Only the true Washington cognoscenti — and the allies they inform — are aware of the timing of rules and the process for commenting.

The text of these proposed rules, and I’ve suffered through more than 70 of them over the years, are written in dense bureacrat-ese, typically with lamentable passive voice and ample application of jargon. Although they all live on-line at regulations.gov, understanding the issues and what’s at stake in particular decisions is a form of inside baseball that is so complex that it almost always gives organized corporate stakeholders an outsized role in decisions.

Even if the public at large would benefit from a decision, they are simply unlikely to know about or be able to join the debate in a manner that evens the playing field. Underpowered non-profits like the ones I’ve worked for struggle along, staging battles on principle and always aware of their limited resources and the political realities.

Of course, the public’s larger interest could be represented by the Congress, which doles out assignments to the agencies. And sometimes a very strongly written law does result in a rule that is not too watered down by the inevitable industry response. But many of the best laws were enacted by a prior version of Congress, often several decades ago or longer, and some are showing their age.

Yet advocates are, for the most part, too frightened by the politics and dysfunction of the current Congress to suggest that they be re-written. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s war on campaign finance limitations, the money of corporate donors speaks even more loudly on the Hill today than it does within the agencies.

Of course, for better or worse, the agencies also answer to an elected official — the President. They could be much more vigorous defenders of the public interest if allowed to be. Although they must heed the language handed to them by Congress, within those terms, they have tremendous power and discretion over their enforcement activities and priorities. But whenever they do wield power in ways that business interests find unreasonable (often with rules that merely require business to internalize the costs of their actions), the conventional script allows them to be accused of unaccountability, facelessness and all the rest.

It occurs to me, then, that the real goal of government’s use of information technology should be to give the government a face. Or Facebook. Or Facebook-like tool, without ads or annoying apps.

The real information gap in Washington is not about databases that should be shared by federal agencies, though that should certainly be addressed forthwith. The problem is that the map of influence and power — identifying the decision makers, their powers, and the ways to engage them — is utterly obscure except to an elite few.

Today, agencies often hide their internal processes behind an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act that covers agency “deliberation.” This is a legal privilege that can be — though need not be — invoked if a federal agency wants the freedom to think about an issue inside the government before coming to a decision. The notion has some merit, as we do want agencies to think.

But it would be no impediment to require the federal agencies that conduct public business to publish information on a Web site about which employees within an agency are tasked with which decisions, and to put all of their meetings and meeting notes with outside parties also on-line as a routine matter. The expertise of government employees, their backgrounds and work history could be included in this “map” of who is thinking about what. Not everyone would need to be listed, of course, just those with decision-making power. And perhaps there’s other information that would belong on these pages as well.

Simply put, it should be far simpler for ordinary citizens to understand the arcane workings of an agency on an issue of concern to them, and to contact the right official if they have relevant information. When I worked on automotive safety, one of the best sources of information were retired engineers, a few of whom had worked for automakers and knew how their decisions happened. They sometimes had extraordinary amounts of information about industry’s bad habits, but no one to tell. A truly transparent government structure might similarly elicit troves of surprising and useful information from sources that remain unidentified today.

Unlike combining millions of government records, this system could be built fresh across the agencies as new hires are made. I’m a staunch believer in the idea that most of our government’s civil servants are nobly trying to do the right thing. It would be of great assistance to our tired political debate about the “role of government” if the agencies looked less like blobs and more like real people doing their jobs — you know, the ones that Congress (and therefore, we the people) gave them.

With the unleashing of the money rules for elected officials thanks to SCOTUS, it’s also our next best line of defense. But the agencies today are under siege, and have been for decades. Figuring out how to engage the public far more directly in their important decisions would better equip them to stand up for their legal principles, and defend the actual public interests at stake. Who knows? It might even lead to some stronger health, safety and environmental rules, thereby showing government at its best.

The agencies have breathed life into accomplishments ranging from the Clean Water Act to the rules that took lead out of gasoline. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes (see No Child Left Behind), but we should be able to talk to them when they are screwing it up more directly. We need them to succeed and be understood, and not to be so easily demonized. As long direct conversations with agency officials are generally reserved for issue experts and corporate lobbyists, the democracy part of our project remains an up-hill fight both inside and outside their walls.

So innovate on that, please. Information transparency is nice — all well and good. Figuring out a workable, clear system to create influence transparency, however — now that’s a ticket for institutional transformation.

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Parenting Through the Fog: 8 of My Personal “Truths”

IMG_0505 No one can tell you what kind of parent to be. Instead, it’s a long performance, consisting of attempts, failures, mistakes, experiments, accidents, snips, scrapes and sniffles and — when you’re lucky — unexpected harmony and delirious puffs of joy.

So it’s with that humility in mind that I offer up some insights from the scads of parenting books I’ve perused over the past few years. Through the mist of what made sense to me (an arbitrary lens if ever there was one), I have managed to discern what I could now call a sketchy and ever-subject-to-revision Parenting Approach. Taking all this uncertainty into account, below are a few guideposts from the research I’ve managed to get under my belt that I use currently to light my way.

Some of them may surprise any loyal reader who knows I’m a sucker for fuzzy crafts, because they are not very fuzzy-wuzzy. I’m a strict-ish parent, actually, on matter of behavior. And I’ll be the first to admit that any or all of the below may not work for your family. Every child and parent is different. If one lesson is clear, it’s that paying close attention to our particular child trumps a set of written instructions, any day.

IMG_0503Nonetheless, and for whatever they may be worth to you, I find the following insights both helpful and difficult, often at the same time:

1) Permissive parenting is actually harmful. Several major studies are really almost unanimous on this point: Authoritarian parenting — or overly strict parenting — is actually less damaging than parenting that is overly permissive. Authoritarian (though not abusive) parents generally communicate a lesson to kids that they are cared for and safe, while permissive parents, despite perhaps their best intentions, can leave kids wondering if they are the ones in charge and why. But of course authoritarian parenting also does damage: it undermines self-esteem, and can create life-long scars. The goal is a middle ground: authoritative parenting, which communicates love while holding its ground and conveying firm and consistent expectations for behavior.

2) Emotional intelligence — including hard-to-define and achieve qualities like character, grit, and capacity for failure — will be more important to your child’s success than IQ. Put down the flashcards! What will more likely matter to your child is whether they have the social skills to succeed and the inner resources to keep trying. And parents of young children should not wait for a child to mature to work on these essential skills, because the neural networks in the brain that form the infrastructure for emotional reasoning basically take shape by six years old. Even if you’ve missed this window, though, programs providing coaching to troubled adolescents show that new habits like resilience and resourcefulness can be taught, albeit with a lot of work to catch up to their peers.

3) Attachment is only half the job. It is indisputably critical that parents create an emotional bond with their child, called attachment. This is formed by early and attentive responsiveness to the needs of a new infant. This foundation of trust and mutual love, however, is insufficient by itself as a child grows. The purpose of attachment — to make children feel sufficiently safe in the world — can be undermined if parents do not also encourage and foster responsibility, independence and sound judgment. Being endlessly attentive and nurturing to a needy three-year-old is a recipe for both exhausted parents and bratty kids.

Balancing attachment by making space to say a respectful version of “no” to children is critical. Indeed, helping them create a robust capacity for emotional self-regulation is essential. Emotional regulation is also important to cognitive development, because the more time that kids spend in an agitated state, the less time they have for calm receptivity to input from the world.

4) Too much praise can send the wrong signal and cut off the conversation. This is a hard one, given our need to recognize our child’s achievements as part of our own: empty words like “good job” come out of my mouth far more often than I would like. Substituting acknowledgment for appraisal is a subtle but important shift that can mostly fill in when kids ask us. For example, by saying, “I see you.” instead of “good work.” Or even just engaging in a real conversation by observing the facts: “You’ve used a lot of yellow here.” Praise is a conversation-stopper, after all, leaving nothing more to say, while facts leave room for more facts, and for the child to play observer as well. If you must praise, complimenting effort rather than result is a better thing to say: “You are working so hard on that!”

You can also subtly ask your child to internalize their own framework for self-appraisal by focusing on the child’s feelings rather than the parents: “Did that make you feel proud?” Asking questions and making comparisons to their own past can be another way to engage: “Was that scary?” “Did you climb that part faster than you did yesterday?”

IMG_05075) Our own emotional responses — even negative ones — can be put to use. We  generally do not do kids a favor when we overlook confrontational or obnoxious behavior and ask ourselves, as parents, to exhibit super-human restraint. Irritating behavior can sometimes be a good way to understand when a child needs more limits. So long as we are not clinically depressed, super-tired, sick, or otherwise overly prone to irritability, our own response to our child’s behavior can be a sound guide for imposing a set of (age-appropriate and individualized) expectations for that child.

I also believe this to be the case: As parents, we will spend a significant part of our lives in conversation with our child, and it helps with the sometimes-oppressive tedium of parenting if we enjoy more of this time, rather than less.

While we don’t need to lash out, certainly, and a calm response is preferable to an angry one, noticing our child’s behavior is a clue that something needs to change. A child who is constantly stirring the pot, behaving selfishly or taunting, who often lacks emotional and bodily self-control and can never take no for an answer, is a child who will have difficulty forming friendships, and who may repeatedly “check out” of opportunities for calm attention and learning. These emotionally sensitive and volatile children may need more sensible and consistent boundaries than other kids in order to thrive. At the same time, that child may need more connection with the parent in order to tolerate the new boundaries, so both limits and time together will be critical.

Of course, a rapid uptick in outbursts in an otherwise calm child may also provide a valuable clue that something is wrong, and require investigation. One of my favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting, calls on parents to look for signs of soul-sickness and approach these with the gentle healing we might a cold. Again, this kind of judgment call has to come from knowing our kid and what’s normal and needed for them.

IMG_05026) Our specific language and choices as parents matter a ton to the development of our child. The brain is surprisingly elastic and supple, and is so deeply responsive to parenting cues that the brains of children actually resembles those of their parents in scans. So what kinds of intentional communication with them should we have?

Words that seem oddly “corporate” have sometimes been helpful to me, because they do the work of making a difference of opinion seem less personal: “My agenda here is to get you to put on your clothes, while your agenda is to play. What can we do?” or “I’m trying to understand your goals here.” They can also be useful for asking for more resilience and generating options: “That seemed like a good strategy. What would be another one?” “What’s your plan to fix this problem?” “I would like you to make a different choice.”

Picture-language that paints a clear image of concrete aspirations for behavior also works well for me: “I would like you to have a big, open, generous heart with your friends.”Or, after a fall: “I hope you have a scrambly time at the playground, and climb all over the jungle gym like a brave spider.” And specifically encouraging them to overcome frustration, even through time-worn clichés like, “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” can be helpful to establish a “mental voice” for old-fashioned stick-to-itive-ness.

Rather than barking orders, owning our own perspective is more respectful of a child’s still-developing sense of agency. While it can feel a bit bulky, saying: “I am asking you to do put that down” in lieu of “put that down!” is what I aim for. Similarly, saying “I don’t like it when you stand on your chair because I’m concerned you might fall and hurt yourself, and it’s my job to keep you safe.” clues kids on your motives and role. Even owning our more unpleasant emotions can be helpful: “I’m irritated that you are doing that right now, as I have asked you two times to make a different choice.” (Just don’t be surprised when your child also is able to identify that she is “irritated” by something you do!)

Using please and thank you when making a request is also important in my view, though some books advise against it. As I want my child to use good manners, I personally feel it’s only fair to use them myself when addressing her.

IMG_05067) Getting out of a child’s way is sometimes the best thing we can do. All of us have experienced a state that scientists now call “flow:” a state of productive engagement in which we feel relaxed and time seems to disappear. Creating an environment in the home which allows children to play in a way that facilitates this kind of moment — and being sure not to interrupt them when it is happening as cooperative or solo play — is essential to putting them in touch with their deepest capacities for self-engagement.

This is the main reason why we limit screens in our house. Although we make some exceptions for special circumstances (getting her to sit still for nail-cutting, for example, or for travel on a plane), in general there are no videos or TV at home. This has been helpful with our busy days, as it forces all of us to relax, to have play time or reading or craft time instead.

Some of the job is just creating open space for children to self-direct their activities. Being sure to leave kids alone when they are “in flow” is important. It’s also important, to belabor this point from above a bit, that when they (inevitably) ask for us to look over what they’ve created, we respond with something deeper than a slap-dash pat on the head. The conversation should lead naturally to what could be a follow-on project, and thereby provide them with the next compelling invitation to enter this particular window onto human happiness.

8) Bargaining is bad — except when it isn’t. Capitulation during a meltdown or due to the fear of a meltdown is not a good idea, as it provides the wrong incentives for emotional outbursts. In our house, we think that never bending due to the intensity of an emotional response is sound policy. And reasoning with a child in the midst of a meltdown or temper tantrum, when their responses are coming from their lizard brain, is asking the impossible, because their executive functioning has literally been cut off by the emotional surge to those flight-or-fights parts of their primitive brain.

On the other hand, allowing problem solving that engages the executive functioning of the brain — called the cerebral cortex — is good. So when a child is calmly suggesting alternatives that also meet the objectives of the parent (“Can I take two bites of carrot instead of broccoli?”), that is to be encouraged. This kind of logical negotiation is a basic skill, and may provide a way out before a melt-down gets triggered, even though at times it may drive me a bit batty.

Toxic Hot Seat on HBO tonight!

Red sofa

Red sofa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hallelujah! A new film about the struggle to understand and address the hidden poisons in our sofas — Toxic Hot Seat — airs for the first time tonight on HBO. Slate has a preview with a couple tantalizing clips. You can also see it on HBO-Go, the on-demand service.

This is exciting, as it appears it will tell the story the Chicago Tribune first unearthed over a year ago in its epic Playing with Fire series.  In sum, flacks from the chemical industry lied to California lawmakers about the reasons babies were killed in household fires in order to guilt them into maintaining a requirement for toxic flame retardants in furniture. The Trib also unearthed seedy connections to Big Tobacco and ripped the mask off a “fire-safety” front group that had been backed by the chemical manufacturers.

As we now know, we’ve now poisoned a generation or two with these chemicals. One study showed 97 percent of Americans have flame retardant chemicals in their bloodstreams, which are linked to health risks including cancer, infertility, obesity, neurodevelopmental delays and even behavior issues and lowered IQ levels. In a tragically ironic twist, the brave men and women who protect us in fires have been hit particularly hard, and now can face dire health consequences from the exposures to toxic smoke.

The film comes on the heels of an excellent but frightening study published last week by the Center for Environmental Health, Playing on Poisons, that showed that 90 percent of children’s furniture is laced with flame retardant chemicals. Because they crawl around on dusty floors and put things in their mouths, studies show kids have higher levels in their bodies of these chemicals than adults do. Thankfully, even recent action in California to ban one class of flame retardants chemicals produced a precipitous drop in the chemical in pregnant women, as measured in September of this year.

I’m glad the word is getting out. I imagine we’ll see a lot more couches on curbs in the coming days. Parents should also toss those adorable fuzzy pjs (which are often sprayed with the chemicals), and replace them with old cotton clothes or tight-fitting cotton jammies. A full post on that is coming soon. And here’s more information — including tips to avoid flame retardants — from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

While it’s true that the California requirement is no longer on the books, many manufacturers will be slow to change their products, and there are state laws in many places requiring any public accommodations to purchase furniture containing flame retardant chemicals, as well as standards that require them in heavy doses in airplanes and children’s car seats. What we really need is chemical reform at the federal level to ensure that chemicals are tested thoroughly before we are all made into the guinea pigs of the chemical industry.

In the meantime, here’s my posts on this for folks new to the issue or blog:

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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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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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.

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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!

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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Sheepish: An Easy Needle Felting Tutorial for a Handmade Toy

IMG_6580 Needle felting is an inherently satisfying little craft, as I’ve mentioned once before. The materials are simple, the design principles easy to learn, and the results are wonderfully cute.

Of course, having handmade toys in the mix also makes your home feel more cozy. As a bonus, kids notice when you’ve put the effort in to make at least a few of the objects in their lives. It gives them a sense that things in their lives can be an act of creation, not just purchases from a store. And it may even inspire them, someday down the road, to make their own toys, which could never be a bad thing.

Below is a step-by-step guide to needle felting a sheep. But the principles could be applied to make virtually any animal at all (like these in my prior post), which is another aspect of this craft’s creativity. If you need more inspiration, there are wonderful felted animals and characters by crafters on Etsy (like here or here), or you could always check out a local wool and sheep festival. Our Maryland event last spring had a ton of vendors with lovely little creatures for sale.

IMG_6525Here’s what you 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;
  • Perhaps, if you like, a multi-need tool for the early stages (though this works better for flat projects, as I find multi-needle tools have a flattening effect);
  • 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 sheep, you’ll need a little black for the eyes, some gray and a chunk of off-white; and
  •  Two pipecleaners. White works well 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. But the sheep is worth it. Kind of.

To make the sheep:

Decide the dimensions. This sheep began with a ball of wool about 4 inches long and two inches across, and I wanted an animal about those proportions in the end, so as it became more compacted, I kept adding wool around it.

To save roving, you could also use wool batting in a ball on the inside, or even old balls of yarn, tightly wrapped, and wrap the cream colored roving around it by laying it out flat first and folding it around the ball, as I do with the Easter eggs here.

Poke the ball of wool with a needle (larger number needles or a multi-needle tool works well for this early stage). Turn the wool over and over to maintain the shape evenly and keep it oblong. Push on it with your finger to determine how felted it is becoming and measure the springiness, to keep it roughly even.

IMG_6526Once you have a nice shape formed, but before it becomes too tightly felted to create too much resistance, poke two pipecleaners through it at the front and rear ends of the sheep, which will form the basis for legs that allow it to stand up.

IMG_6527IMG_6530Trim the legs with sharp scissors or wire cutters so that they are even and fold over the sharp ends slightly to form the beginnings of feet. Stand it up to see whether it works, and adjust as necessary. The pipecleaners may not be of exactly identical length, because where they go through the shape may require more or less of the pipecleaner to be inside the body of the sheep.

IMG_6529Wrap additional roving around the sheep to add bulk and secure the legs inside the body. Poke and shape with your needle until the new wool is integrated, but leave what will become the neck area less worked than the body as a whole.

IMG_6531Rolling a small ball the right proportion for the head, add it to the body where a neck should be and secure it by poking the edges together with a needle.

IMG_6533 Form the head, which on sheep is a bit oblong, and further shape the body. I find it helps to refer to pictures of the animal on line for details like head shape, which are critical to recognizing the animal.

IMG_6535 Once the basic form has been created, shape the head into a triangle to form the nose and angle the shape towards a blunted point, adding more roving as you need and poking aggressively to flatten the sides.

IMG_6538Finish forming the head and neck, which on sheep I found requires a ring of additional roving around the back of the head and through the neck, which is thick but distinct.

IMG_6539  Add gray to the front of the head.

IMG_6541Separately felt small circles the size for ears in grey wool, leaving one edge unfelted. Attach to the end to head at the two top corners and secure by poking with the needle.

Then flatten a handful of roving, aligning the fibers, and wrap the legs, poking through and around the pipe cleaner and trying to avoid the wire. Add grey to the end when you are satisfied that the leg is thick enough. Repeat for each leg.

IMG_6546 IMG_6548Needle in two small balls of black roving for eyes, poking with the needle in the same spot over and over to keep them medium-sized. You may also want to add, as I did, some additional small amount of gray felt to make a ridge above the eyes to make them appear deeper-set.

Then add small tufts of white to the inside of the ears if you like, putting the sheep on its side and the ear against the block. You may need to add a small amount of gray to the back to thicken the ears if the white shows through.

Then, add a tail. Sheep actually have a natural tail that is long with a stringy end like a horse, but these are often docked on farms so a triangle is also fine.

Last, evaluate and wrap and fill in extra roving to really fill out the body and create more bulk. For the top coat of wool, leave some parts less felted in order to create a fluffy look.

IMG_6581Baa. Baa. Voila!

Other Crafting and Upcycling Ideas for Greener, More Sustainable Living: