Tuesday, November 15, 2011
As part of this process, I purged my closet of things that are either grossly out of style or simply too banged-up, ripped-up, stained or pilled to be worn in public. Unlike years past when I might have just thrown things away, I'm trying to be more thoughtful. Ripped cottons were turned into rags. Beat up shoes were sent to Africa, and I'm passing out bags of clothes and gear to friends, acquaintances, and charities who can better distribute them.
But what does one buy when one wants to be conscientious? Simply the acquisition of something new means that at some point, it will need to be disposed.
Have you noticed how poorly made clothes are today? I bought three pairs of jeans on sale at Banana Republic about two years ago, and they all ripped through the knees within a year. Remember when a pair of Levis lasted a lifetime? Those days are long gone. Name brands feel like nothing more than letters printed on labels.
Even brands claiming to be eco friendly are sometimes poorly made, with fabrics that rip and snag easily or are so thin they are practically see through. What's more, many of them have been imported from abroad making me wonder if the fuel used to fly the product here cancels out the bamboo or organic cotton.
I don't mean to pan all brands. I've had great luck with Green Apple Active (often found at TJ Maxx) and my girls are wearing hand-me-down Hannah Andersson pajamas that are at least five years old and still look like new. But even these higher quality and often more expensive brands will need to go somewhere once we're done with the clothing.
Recently, I've embraced the idea of second-hard. Consignment shops are everywhere, and you can buy quality clothing and home goods. Second-hand furniture (if old enough) is far better made than the disposable, low-quality items produced today.
I'm also rethinking the idea of a 'deal' or a 'steal.' A few years ago I invested in a pricey pair of jeans. At the time, I chastised myself for spending so much. Now, years later, these jeans still fit perfectly and they don't have one hole. In the end, they were a great investment. Moving forward, I'm more likely to spend a little more if I know products are high quality and long-lasting.
Eco-friendly shopping isn't what it seems. Yes, we should embrace and support brands trying to do things differently, but at the same time, we need to remember that being eco-friendly is also about reducing consumption and reusing existing, perfectly-good products.
Friday, October 21, 2011
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
We've visited farms with train rides, hay rides, corn mazes, gourmet donuts and ice cream, petting zoos, pony rides, barbeques and playgrounds. These theme-park orchards provided great entertainment, but they could never provide us with one thing: organic apples.
They say that it is impossible to grow organic apples, pears and stone fruit on the east coast. They say these crops will quickly be devoured by molds, fungi and pests. I've spoken to many vendors at my local farmer's market, and they all sing the same refrain: we do our best, we use as little spray as possible, if we didn't spray you couldn't eat these.... But that's not entirely true.
For the past two years my family has visited Old Frog Pond Farm, a 25-acre pick-your-own orchard owned by a local artist. Our first year there, it was sleepy and quiet. The trees were short and looked sparse. The apples were tiny, lopsided, disfigured and covered with black and brown splotches.
"Are these safe to eat?" I asked the young man who worked there. He smiled and informed me that these blemishes were a natural part of the apple, perfectly safe for human consumption. "Organic," he said, "is not perfect."
Still, we were a bit fearful, so we took them home and baked pies and cooked applesauce instead of eating them raw.
Over the course of the year, his words remained with me: "Organic is not perfect." It got me thinking about my perceptions of the world and myself. When I shop I seek out perfect products. I exercise in hopes of a more perfect body. I write aspiring to the perfect manuscript. I child rear with earnest desire to be the perfect mother ... wife ... citizen. I keep searching for the aha! moment when I realize that it has all come together perfectly.
In a world of shiny, glossy, beautiful people, products and produce, it's hard to accept anything less.
This year, we decided to go back to Old Frog Pond Farm. My kids discovered hidden sculptures, designed by the owner, nestled between the trees and along the edges of the field. The orchard seemed busier, the trees seemed fuller, the choices seemed greater, and the apples seemed less blemished. When my kids asked for samples, I didn't bat an eyelash at the black mottled skins.
The apples were not beautiful by traditional standards. Not even close! But they were grown without toxic chemicals and they were delicious.
I've finally begun to understand that imperfection really is natural, organic and healthy. It's the mottled moments that make us human and the lopsided apples that give us something to write about.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Vaccine Study is a Sign of a Growing Trend
A study published in the November issue of Pediatrics states that 1 in 10 parents are not following the recommended vaccine schedule for their children. Of this subgroup, 30% claimed they began following the recommended guidelines, but subsequently deviated. I am like that 30%.
Vaccines save lives and as a new mother I was content playing my part in public health protection. But my older daughter began suffering from food intolerances and allergies and my younger daughter was plagued with ear infections. The idea of injecting foreign viruses into children struggling with health issues didn't sit well with me.
I did some vaccine research, but there seemed to be only two polarized messages: Vaccine experts adamantly defending the safety of their products, and extreme radical groups calling for an end to all vaccines.
In 2007, Dr. Robert W. Sears published The Vaccine Book, a mainstream source offering information about individual shots and their risks. Essentially pro-vaccine, he offered an alternative schedule for concerned parents.
I decided to slow down our process, giving one shot at a time, when my kids were healthy.
One vaccine I could not rationalize was chicken pox. I don’t understand why we vaccinate young children for a disease that is mostly benign in childhood and risk immunity waning during adulthood when the disease is more dangerous.
Studies also show there is a correlation between the chicken pox vaccine and an increase in adult shingles, suggesting that lifelong exposure to the virus keeps shingles at bay.
I decided not to vaccinate my younger daughter for chicken pox and to postpone the booster for my older one. I would vaccinate when they were teenagers if they hadn’t acquired immunity.
But matters came to a head last week when there was a case of chicken pox in my daughter's kindergarten class.
The school nurse called, panicked, on Friday morning while we were celebrating the Jewish New Year. The unwell child was diagnosed on Wednesday, and I had 72 hours from exposure to either vaccinate my daughter or keep her home for two weeks. Because it was Friday, I had just one afternoon to figure it all out.
I asked questions like: What if the child was contagious on Monday or Tuesday? What’s the point of the vaccine then? Was it one of her friends? Was she actually exposed? The nurse wouldn’t tell me anything.
Chicken pox is inconvenient, but it is not a public health threat. It’s not even that easy to catch. A sick child must actually cough or sneeze on another to spread bodily fluids.
After talking to our daughter’s teacher, we ascertained she’d had no contact with the sick child. Our daughter was not a public health risk. There was little chance of her getting sick or of exposing others in a town that boasts 98% vaccination rates.
Still, I felt I had no choice but to vaccinate. As a kindergartner just beginning to adjust to her new school, I was reluctant to pull her out for two weeks.
After we vaccinated, I learned that the only child in the grade at risk from this potential ‘outbreak’ had been our daughter. I feel duped.
If Monday’s study is any indication of things to come, there will be more and more parents like me. Well-intentioned, thoughtful parents who aren’t extremists, but who want to take control of their children’s well-being in a system that is neither answering questions or concerns adequately nor addressing individual’s preferences with logic and reason.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Once the farmer's markets end, I'm in trouble. Grocery store organic peppers are expensive, and they are imported from all over the world raising energy consumption and purity issues (depending on the country of origin). A small organic pepper from Holland may cost $6.00 and is a painful purchase.
Last year I decided to see if I could stretch my farmer's market purchases. I bought all my favorite vegetables in bulk: Green beans, broccoli, spinach, peppers, zucchini and even pumpkin. I knew that I wasn't interested in the canning process, which felt both cumbersome and labor intensive. Instead I experimented with blanching and freezing. I had mixed results.
Broccoli: My frozen broccoli was disgusting. I didn't blanch it first, so I just chopped and froze it. After a month, the broccoli smelled and tasted horrible in addition to being smooshy.
Green Beans: I blanched and froze green and yellow beans. These tasted fine, but the consistency was too soft for us. Ultimately I chopped the frozen beans and added them to other foods. It wasn't really worth the effort, though.
Spinach: Spinach is a little labor intensive because you need to thoroughly wash off all the sand before you do anything. Also, a lot goes a little way. Still, this was one of my more successful attempts. After blanching the leaves, I scooped them onto a cookie sheet using a measuring cup and froze the mounds. The spinach tasted great and was easy to prepare.
Zucchini: We love zucchini bread in our home! Are you surprised? I try to bake a batch every other week so the girls can take it to school for snack. It's hard to track down organic zucchini in the winter, but naturally grown zucchini is now in abundance at the farmer's market. I buy about ten and shred them all in the food processor. I scoop the shreds into measuring cups and freeze these mounds on a cookie sheets. Then I store the mounds, and they are premeasured for baking.
Pumpkin: Pumpkin is probably the most labor intensive of all, but we love baked pumpkin products, and it's almost impossible to find bpa-free cans. I bought sugar pumpkins, which are used for baking, but I needed my husband's help to cut them in half. I scooped out the seeds, roasted the halves, scraped out the edible center, pureed the flesh with a little water, and froze it in measured cups. My favorite farmer has assured me that I can replace pumpkin with certain winter squashes for baking. I may give it a shot because much labor yielded small results.
Peppers: Of all the vegetables, these are hands down the easiest to preserve. Just rinse, slice, freeze on cookie sheets and then move to freezer bags. Frozen peppers don't quite crisp up in a stir-fry or saute, but we used them in all sorts of foods and we thoroughly enjoyed them.
Buying in bulk at the farmer's market in season turned out to be a great way to save money on organic grocery produce. I don't love using all those freezer bags, but they are the most space efficient, and I wash and reuse them until they crack. I've also found myself freezing fresh domestic organic strawberries and peaches, both of which are on the dirty dozen and become virtually impossible to find come November.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
Happy shopping, chopping, and freezing!
Friday, August 19, 2011
But alas, I cannot shop like that.
Backpacks, you see, are often made with lead, pthalates and PVCs - all of which are toxic to our bodies, but especially to little bodies. It's hard to find one that is free of all three components.
Safe Mama has a thorough list of companies who manufacture 'safe' backpacks. She has done a great deal of research, literally calling companies one at a time.
But as you'll see from Safe Mama's list some companies just don't seem sure about their own stuff. When I called one company on the list, the man I spoke to raved about his lead safety, but he could not confirm his products were PVC-free. When Safe Mama called, she was assured the bags were indeed free of all three elements.
Another issue I've found is that many of the 'healthier' backpacks are highly expensive, stylized and skew young in design. Beatrix NYC has a line of big kid backpacks decorated with large, cartoonish animals. They are hip and cute, but at $52.00 a bag, the last thing you want to hear in a year is, "It's too babyish" or "I don't like owls anymore."
The good news is that more and more companies are producing healthier products, and there are good options out there if you're willing to poke around a bit. Jansport and High Sierra, for example, make healthy packs that should also be durable. Personally, a first filter is what the bag is made from. Polyester and nylon are less concerning to me than vinyl.
Of course if you have a picky little peanut like me, who has pretty much said "No" to every backpack I've shown her, you'll have other health issues to deal with ... like your mental health. But that's an entirely different problem. Sigh.
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
First, a look at our new purchases. Eco Logical has become hands down our family's favorite beach sunscreen. We love the ease of application, the lack of white residue and the nice texture. We still wish more came in the tube, and we're already on our second container. It definitely goes fast. As the summer progressed, we became less enamored with Goddess Garden. It separated, making it almost impossible to rub in. Everyone had streaky white lines down their body, and we wondered if it was actually still offering universal protection.
Last Year's Leftover Sunscreens:
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
The K Street Diet is bad for Americans: A new bill ensures kids are fed lots and lots of french fries at school. Because they are potatoes, they will count as vegetables.
Friday, June 24, 2011
As I mentioned earlier, I look for sunscreens that are all natural, are rated "1" by Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Safety Database (10 being the worst), and don't contain nano particles.
The online store, BodySense.com has a fabulous sunscreen chart that is customizable to your preferences, and I used it to make this year's selections. Bodysense carries a wide range of suncare products, their customer service is wonderful, but there are no deals to be had. A few products were available at Amazon and Vitacost for less, and I saved between $2.00 to $10.00 per product.
Here's what we've tested so far:
Devita Solar Body Block ($27.95): Devita is my all time favorite sunscreen brand for grown-ups. I discovered the facial moisturizer (below) three years ago and have used it religiously since. The products look and feel more like cosmetics brands than sun products, and they are not waterproof. While the price is steep, this product goes on perfectly: greaseless, clear and light. You can find the Body Block online for almost $10 less at Vitacost and Amazon.
Devita Protective Moisturizer SPF 30 ($25.95): If you're going to make one splurge this summer, make it this. As I mentioned, Devita makes my all-time favorite facial moisturizer, and it is perfect for year-round use. The lotion goes on lightweight, clear, and doesn't aggravate my acne-prone skin. In fact, once applied, you'd never even know you're wearing sunscreen. Vitacost and Amazon sell it for almost $10.00 less than retail, and a little goes a long way.
ECO Logical Skin Care: ECO Body All Natural Sunscreen SPF 30+ ($16.99): While it initially goes on thick and requires a little arm muscle to rub in, this waterproof, virtually scentless sunscreen leaves only the slightest hint of white. Once applied, your skin feels smooth with little to no greasy residue. Because the product is thick and creamy, it feels substantial, too. The tube size, however, is a bit deceiving. There's far less product than it appears. Overall, if you don't mind a little extra rubbing, this is a great sunscreen for the pool and the beach.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
She told me she that with all the information about the bad chemicals in sunscreens, some other parents mentioned they were not going to use it at all.
"What about the natural kind?" I asked. "With Zinc..."
She told me she heard those were bad, too. She was genuinely perplexed.
I shuddered for a moment imagining all these little kids with bright red skin. It could be a scene out of an old Chevy Chase movie except getting burnt like that just isn't funny anymore.
Sunscreen and sun safety has become so confusing. The Environmental Working Group has published a collection of disconcerting articles about the FDA's failure to regulate effective and safe sunscreens. Skin cancers continue to rise despite Americans using more and more sunscreen. Natural sunscreens often contain nanoparticles (teeny, tiny, pulverized bits of titanium and zinc) which are so small that some fear they can actually be absorbed into our cells and damage our DNA. Some alternative medicine folks are proposing we ditch sunscreens because surely our lack of vitamin D is also contributing to the rise in cancers.
UGH! I have a headache just trying to process it all!
Here's what I think (and I'm not a doctor, so this is in no way professional or medical advice): If you and your kids are going to be in the sun for long periods of time this summer, you should be wearing sunscreen or UV protective clothing.
Personally, I only buy natural sunscreens. I won't even let my kids use the chemical kind once in a while with friends - especially not sprays. (I know, I know, they're easy, but then your kids aren't just getting the chemicals on their skin, they are inhaling them, too.) I also do my best to avoid those that contain nanoparticles. There is a lot of research out there that states nanoparticles are totally safe in sunscreen. For me, though, the technology breaks the simplicity rule.
I've been trying various natural sunscreens now for almost four years. I've found one or two I adore, one or two I tolerate, and ones that made me feel like a greased watermelon. Stay tuned because next time I'll tell you about some of my favorites!
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Emily Skin Soother: Unscented ($13.99 for 1.8 oz): Developed by a New England acupuncturist and herbalist, this soothing cream is not certified organic, but only contains five ingredients. The soother goes on extremely easily making it perfect for very chapped and rough patches - especially on kids. The texture is a little slimy until it absorbs. I've used this on a baby's bottom and on problem eczema patches with great luck. A tub lasts a long time, and a little goes a long way. It's not my favorite for whole hands because it does take a little while to seep in, but it is great for dry patches and dry winter feet.
Terressentials Fragrance Free Moisture Cream ($16.99 for 4 oz): This 100% certified organic cream has only one ingredient: shea butter. I've slathered this stuff on my feet, my hands, and even my neck, and I've used in on my kids' bodies, too. It's a little thick for covering large body parts, like a stomach, but works very well for small areas. A little goes a long way and doesn't leave a slimy residue. This is one of my favorite hand creams. Pure butters (shea or cocoa, for example) can be altered by temperature changes during manufacturing, travel and storage, so don't be surprised if your container has a gritty consistency. Warm it between your hands, and it will soften right up.
Everyday Shea Baby Lotion ($9.99 for 6 oz): I'm a big fan of the Allafia company whose products are all shea based and are certified fair for life and fair trade. There are more ingredients in this product than in the others, but none of them phase me. I buy the unscented version, and find the consistency perfect for post bath or shower slathering. The cream goes on really nicely, and leaves very little sliminess or residue making it a great option for your hands, too. The price is quite reasonable for a large container (Whole Foods sells it for $7.99), but it goes quickly.
Monday, May 16, 2011
But as the months passed, and my bordering on OCD research habits sucked up more and more of my time, I began to realize that there were a few basic rules I could follow to give myself peace of mind without teetering over the edge of insanity. (Please remember these are MY rules, not some official guidelines.)
1) Just because it is sold at a health food store, like Whole Foods, doesn't mean a product is safe, natural, or organic.
2) Accepting rule #1, the odds are, the product is still going to be safer than one you'd buy at a conventional grocery store or pharmacy.
3) A product is only really, truly organic, if it is certified. Some certifications include: QAI, Orgeon Tilth, CCOF, G.O.C.A, and USDA Organic. Anyone can slap the words organic and/or natural on a product, but it means diddly squat. Many products that claim to be organic without the certification are full of chemicals. But if you're short on time, an organic certification is a pretty good bet safety-wise.
4) Given rule #3, however, all products don't have to be certified organic to be fairly safe. Sometimes products with certifications are more expensive, and there's an equally safe option for few dollars less. (See rule #5)
5) If you know what all the ingredients are on a label and the list is under ten items long, it's probably a safe bet. If it's under five items long, and you know what all the items are, you're golden.
One obsession down, 67 more to go....
Monday, April 18, 2011
I recently picked up a new container of dish washing soap at Whole Foods. It was on sale, so I figured I'd give it a try. (Sales are a pretty large determinant of what I buy.) When I opened the soap I noticed this note on the label, "This product is 1,4-Dioxane free." This made me very happy.
1,4-Dioxane is a scary bugger of a chemical, and it is found predominantly in products that create suds, like shampoos, soaps, bubble baths, laundry detergent, and dish soaps. It's a probable human carcinogen, but because it is most often a contaminant and not an ingredient, it's not listed in products' ingredients. As consumers we have no idea whether the products we're buying contain this chemical or not. What's more, many products claiming to be natural, contain it, too. Buying a products at health food stores does not ensure your product is 1,4-Dioxane free.
Watchdog groups like the Organic Consumers Association are on the case, and each year they test products and publish their findings. The good news is that these tests have motivated green companies to purify their products and rid them of this contaminant.
I wish I could give you a master list here of products that do and do not contain 1,4-Dioxane, but I can't right now. I do promise to list products as I find them though. One great laundry alternative is to use Soap Nuts, which contain saponin, a natural cleaner, and are made from the dried fruit of the Chinese Soapberry tree. I've used Maggie's Soap Nuts with great results, and I plan to buy a bag as soon as I finish my container of Ecos.
For now, I can offer you these two resources:
The 2010 list of tested laundry detergents This list compares conventional and green brands for their 1,4-Dioxane levels. (You'll be frightened by how much of this stuff is in some conventional brands.)
Earth Friendly Products This brand has worked hard to remove all traces of 1,4-Dioxane from their products, including Ecos laundry detergent and Earth Friendly dish mate.
For more information on 1,4-Dioxane, check out the Environmental Working Group.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
1)Saying Goodbye to our Microwave:
About four years ago my husband and I stumbled upon an article listing the top 50 things you could do to make your home healthier. The piece suggested standing six feet away from a microwave while it is cooking and not to look directly into the oven while it is cooking either. We did not have six feet of clearance anywhere. Our kitchen is too small, and we have young children. Our microwave was broken and needed to be replaced, so we decided to see if we could live without it. We could. We don't miss it... except for that odd time that we need to heat something up really fast, or we forgot to defrost meat for dinner. I'll admit, too, that it's hard to find concrete evidence against microwaves especially in mainstream media. Still, anything you need to stand six feet away from can't be that safe. For now, I'm content not to have one.
For those of you who want to learn a bit more, here are two pieces from green news sources:
11 Surprising Facts and Myths About Microwave Ovens
2) We have no Wifi
Two years ago I began reading about the effects electromagnetic fields (EMFs) have on humans, and I grew concerned about my children who played in front of our wireless router. I talked to my very smart friend, H, a former health editor at a prominent magazine. She had gotten rid of her family's wireless router due to similar concerns. Generally my husband rolls his eyes at my neurosis, but about three weeks after broaching the topic, a large box arrived on our stoop. A week later, he had dismantled the wireless router and set up a LAN line throughout our home. The process was surprisingly affordable and easy. It's not perfect -- we need to reset our router about once every other day, but that's just a question of turning the power off and on. When I asked my husband why he took me seriously this time, his answer was simple. Our kids were, he said, literally in front of our router. The information on safety is not consistent, and he didn't want to risk it ... Of course, three weeks after we dismantled our system, our town placed a wireless router on the light post right outside our home. (Now sticking my fingers in my ears and singing la, la, la...)
If this topic interests you, you can read a bit more about it here:
Press Release on WiFi courtesy of Oppenheim Toy Awards
Ontario town tries to stop Wifi
Can Wifi Cause Birth defects?
3) I hate cell phones:
So this one should come as no surprise given what you've just read above. I'm not even going to list articles here. The safety of cell phones has been in question for years, and enough research proves that cell phone activity does SOMETHING to your brain. To be candid, I feel anxious every time I put my phone to my ear, and I never let me children play with or talk on my phone. (My husband on the other hand...) What's more, there's nothing worse than a bad connection.
I'm not suggesting everyone should chuck their phones. I have one in my purse all the time for emergencies. But many of us survived childhoods with no cell phones just fine. And honestly, if I'm not home, I don't want to talk on the phone. I'm probably out busy doing something. Don't even get me started on why you shouldn't use your cell phone in a moving car - speaker or not.
I use a land line whenever I can, and if I do use my cell phone, I text, I keep the call super short, try to use my speaker or the bluetooth in my car, and I just bought headsets for my husband and I that are supposed to cut down on dangerous rays. Whether or not they work, I can't tell you.
But I'll take this one step further, I won't buy a smart phone, a droid, an iphone, a blackberry or anything that accesses the internet. These phones are constantly searching for signals. I don't want to spend that much time connected to a device emitting so many EMFs. And frankly, I don't want to spend that much time distracted....
4) Getting Rid of My Portable Phones
Remember my super smart editor friend, H? She has an EMF monitor, and I decided to borrow it to find out where the most EMFs came from in our home. I was shocked to discover that the portable phones had higher EMF ratings than our television and computer. This suggests to me that holding a portable phone to my ear is no safer than using a cell phone. If you poke around online, you'll find a slew of alternative website that claim portable phones can actually affect your heart rhythm. What's more, my crappy portable phones break frequently and don't work in a power failure. My $9.99 wall phone is a four-year-old work horse that has never broken.
The next highest EMF ratings came from our dimmer light switch, but I'm not ready to tackle that just yet.
So, I warned you that this was a post from the edge. Most of what I'm suggesting is NOT mainstream, and I get that. My friends roll their eyes because they all think I'm a kook when it comes to these concerns. But nothing in life is free, and maybe there is a price tag for all our conveniences. Just food for thought...
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
When I was in elementary school, I sneaked out of bed to watch the made for TV movie "The Day After" with my babysitter. My mother had warned me not to watch it, saying the story was going to upset and scare me. This, of course, just made me want to watch it more. I've never regretted not following my mother's advice as much as I did that night. The images of a post-apocalyptic, post-nuclear war America were horrifying.
I've never really understood why countries remain focused on nuclear power. To me it's like saying: We're going to take the sun (which is way more powerful than any human being), and we're going to store it in a building and try to control its power by keeping the room cold. Of course, being human, we're prone to mistakes. But they'll only happen from time to time, right? And if we do make a mistake, just a few hundred thousand people will get fried. But hey, we've got the power of the sun.
It's just like our species to have that much hubris ...
Unfortunately, nuclear power plants are completely out of my control. When we left New York City I refused to even consider living in certain suburban towns because of their proximity to Indian Point. So now I live somewhere else ... just as close to a nuclear plant. I tell myself New England power plants are less interesting to terrorists. And for the most part, nowadays, when I think about all these dangers...I just close my eyes and stick my fingers in my ears. La la la la.
So since I can't control what goes on outside my home, I have done everything in my power to control what goes on inside.
Here are my wave-free living confessions:
1) I have no microwave
2) I have no Wifi
3) I rarely use my cell phone
4) I am in the process of getting rid of all my portable phones.
In my next blog entry, I'll get into all the reasons why I've made these choices. But for now, what you need to know is that we get along just fine without 'em. And I need to sing la la las a whole lot less.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
It's hard to believe, but while snow still lies on the ground of our Northern East Coast towns, nearby farmers have already begun planting their seeds for this year's crops. As part of this planting process, many of these farmers are now taking deposits for this summer's CSAs, or crop share associations.
When a friend first suggested I try a CSA I cringed at the thought. I mean who wants a huge box full of cabbage ... or worse, Kale, each week? That's how I thought it worked. When cabbage is in season, you get a box of cabbage. And you need to drive maybe thirty minutes to pick up a box full of produce that you don't even want to eat! Right?
Crop share boxes provide a wide range of fruits and vegetables that are in season. So while you may get Kale for three weeks in a row, you might also get fresh melon, strawberries and blueberries. I was wrong about the size, too. You don't have to buy a HUGE box, you can buy a half share, which offers plenty of vegetables for two adults and two kids. Many farms offer convenient urban pick-up locations once a week, and some are even beginning to deliver.
The idea behind a CSA is simple. You give the farm cash - in advance - for crops and this money supplements the farmer between planting and harvest. In exchange, you receive a share of the bounty.
I've never crunched the numbers on cost efficiency, but if you eat all the produce, it's probably pretty comparable. I believe that a CSA membership is about more than the bottom line, though. My family is getting to know our local farmers. We talk about our role in the farm's success and in the benefits of eating fresh. We find ourselves trying new foods and recipes. We never knew, for example, that radishes are fabulous roasted or that you can make tasty chips out of Kale.
Joining a crop share is about more than just fresh produce. It's about teaching your kids reverence for the earth and an understanding that we are all connected to this planet. If we treat our soil well, it will repay us with goods. It's also about the community you forge with your local farmers. Our first year the rain was so bad that entire tomato crops were demolished around the state. Our CSA members rallied around our farmer. In the past, I might have griped about the steep price of tomatoes at the grocery store, but now I was concerned about my farmer friends.
There are many different kinds of CSAs, too: organic, conscientious and conventional, and all will have varying prices. In our city you can join CSAs that provide eggs, meat, fish, flowers and produce. Some offer mixtures of all of the above.
So consider poking around the web to see if you can find more information about your local crop share options. It isn't always perfect, but that's the reality of farming. And when I have a week where the thought of one more bag of greens turns my stomach, I chop and freeze 'em for a lasagna or soup later on and remind myself that next week's box brings with it the promise of new eating adventures.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
I know what you're thinking, "What kind of a wasteful person buys three cantaloupes in a row when it is completely clear that she was unable to cut and serve the first... and the second?" The kind of person who does such a thing is the same person who bought two cantaloupes on sale for the price of one earlier this week. (For the record, I cut up and served both of those immediately.)
It's not that I wanted to be wasteful, it's that those three weeks were incredibly busy with a deadline looming for a first pass at my novel revisions. There was no time to cook, never mind do laundry or clean. So we had scrambled eggs and mac n' cheese for dinner, and we pretty much ran out of underwear and socks.
I wanted to shake things up. Add some variety to our diet, but I just couldn't find time to cut the melons.
My kids are tired of the now soft apples I've been buying at the grocery store every week since our farmer's market ended. Apple slices come home from school every day — barely eaten, and yes, get tossed into the compost. I can't say I blame the kids because there's nothing worse than a mealy apple — even if it is organic and US-grown. As it turns out, my girls don't care much for oranges, tangerines or clementines either. (Citrus is the only other US-grown fruit we can find in the winter.) I threw half a dozen of those in our compost and gave the rest away to our piano teacher. (He also received a full head of greens, three green peppers, and a handful of onions.)
Mid-way through this crazy period, I relented and purchased pre-cut melon and pineapple hoping I could make sure I wasn't totally neglecting nutrition.
When I went to the basement to dump those plastic containers into our recycling bin, I was wracked with guilt. My husband had forgotten to take the recycling out the week earlier and there was a small mountain in my basement. I was horrified at how much stuff we had accumulated in just two busy weeks — cereal boxes, jars from tomato sauce, macaroni and cheese boxes, milk cartons, old art projects, and homework we did not need. We'd been so busy that we'd regressed to our old wasteful ways: tossing, tossing and tossing away. Instead of cooking bulk dried beans, I bought cans (BPA-free, of course). I bought packaged chicken nuggets, waffles, and popsicles perhaps in an effort to somehow make up for feeling neglectful during such a busy time. It was easy to slip backwards.
Being good to the planet is so more than just recycling. Imagine how much energy it's going to take to repurpose all that stuff. It doesn't matter that soda bottles turn into carpets and milk jugs into cutting board. Just because it doesn't end up in land fill, doesn't mean there won't be an eco-cost.
The biggest challenge I need to work on is reducing my waste altogether — and that's hard when I'm burning the candle at both ends. That's hard for any fast-paced family. The bad news is, there are more busy times ahead, and reducing requires a great deal of planning, careful shopping and cooking. Until my novel is sold, I'm daunted by that prospect.
So I'll just appease my guilt with the knowledge that tossing a cantaloupe ... or three ... into the compost, along with some rotten root vegetables and uneaten lettuce, will not be my worst offense this winter. At least I will have rich soil, and if we're really lucky (like, magically lucky), that soil could be home to some melon plants.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
1) Say gooodbye to bags and hello to reusable lunch bags: Lunch boxes and bags are available virtually everywhere, and there are many different sizes and designs. If you choose an insulated bag, make sure it is lead-free. Many insulated bags can only be wiped down making them difficult to clean if nasty smells or stains appear. This year I ditched insulated bags for machine washable ones, like Mimi the Sardine. These provide greater longevity, but require ice packs to keep foods cool. For older kids, consider brands like Fluff or Rebel Green, which make fashion statements in addition to being eco-friendly. Personally, I steer clear of neoprene products because neoprene is made from a slew of chemicals, but Greensmart makes a large neogreene lunchbag that is healthier and machine washable.
2) Consider Cloth: What's old is new again. Search through your home looking for old cloth napkins or invest in affordable new ones. This is a great way to cut down on wasting paper, and napkins can be washed and used over and over again. You may love your napkins so much, you'll start using them at the dinner table.
3) Bring your own silverware: You can pick up reusable silverware at just about any big box store, like Target or Walmart. Generally speaking, you'll find stainless, plastic and bamboo options. Stainless is best if you just want to toss them into your dishwasher. Plastic and bamboo are lighter, but won't fare as well in a dishwasher. You don't need to spend a lot of money on silverware, and you might even have some left over from when your kids were smaller.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Tip #2: Reusable Containers
For wet snacks: consider small stainless steel or plastic storage containers. Again, if you're going with plastic, make sure your products are BPA-free and have the numbers 2, 4 or 5 on the bottom. My two favorite brands are Sistema and Decor which are available at The Container Store. They seem to be easy enough for my kids to open and close on their own. Some other brands to consider: Tupperware, Rubbermaid, Fit and Fresh, Inate, and Kid Konserve. Fit and Fresh is especially nice because some of their containers come with thin, ice packs that snap right into the lids and are not bulky. Kid Konserve costs more and is heavier, but being stainless steel, alleviates leaching plastic concerns.
For hot lunches, nothing beats an old-fashioned Thermos. The Funtainer line comes in various patterns and designs.
For dry snacks and sandwiches: consider snack bags and snack wraps, which can easily replace plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and Ziplocs.
Available in various sizes, designs and fabrics, they are often lined with a more hearty fabric, like nylon, to keep food from leaking and staining.
I particularly like Moja Creations at Etsy.com because of their wide range of sizes and fabric designs. Etsy has many other snack bag designers, but we've had mixed luck with durability. I like throwing these in the laundry, and if they can't hold up to washing and drying, they aren't a good investment.
We also like Snack Taxis and Reusies available at Reusit.com. Both of these have held up well to washing and wear.
Candidly speaking, I'm not quite as sold on lunch wraps. While I love that they provide a clean place mat for your child to eat on, the sandwiches don't stay quite as fresh as they do in plastic wrap or foil. (I am cringing even as I admit this.) For a while, I switched back to aluminum foil, but now I'm putting sandwiches in storage containers with covers, and that seems to do the trick!
Thursday, January 27, 2011
The best way to lessen our trash is to create less. You can do this by swapping out disposable lunch elements and replacing them with reusables.
TIP #1: Trade bottled water and juice boxes for reusable bottles.
Plastic bottles tend be lighter, but seem to break down faster, and some experts worry about the chemical ingredients in plastic itself. Your safest bet is to look for BPA-free products as well as plastics with the numbers 2, 4 and 5 on the bottom. These numbers don't leach.
My favorite plastic bottles are the Literless Juiceboxes and the Sip Bottles by Rubbermaid. These #5 bottles are safe on the top rack of your dishwasher, are fairly inexpensive, and if sealed properly do not leak. My biggest issue with them is that I don't know what the interior straws are made from. They seem like generic restaurant straws cut in half, and as my first batch broke down, I was sure my kids were eating straw parts. I've since wised up, and I discovered that you can replace your straws through Rubbermaid.
Metal cups last longer, but tend to be heavier. We have experimented with different kinds and found that many leak if they get knocked over (ruining entire lunches and soaking handbags), and the fancy color designs tend to eventually scratch off.
I have three favorite brands:
- Kleen Kanteen: These meet my simplicity rule. The bottles are made from stainless steel with safe plastic tops. If you buy the same mouth size, all the tops are interchangeable, and while you're not supposed to put them in the dishwasher, I do, and have never had a problem. These bottles, however, have been known to leak. The sports caps are a little tricky for little hands to push all the way down, and my second grader sometimes has trouble unscrewing the 'closed' top. The colored-styles will scratch showing their wear much faster than the plain ones. Still, this is my cup of choice when I'm out and about.
- Camelbak Stainless Steel: These cute stainless steel straw cups are great for road trips. They don't weigh too much, and the pop-straw tops are very easy to open and close. They do leak a bit, however, if they aren't sealed perfectly, and if the straws aren't perfectly pushed together. We've had some lunch damage with these. That said, in the car, on the go, they are perfect for little hands. As with the Rubbermaids, I worry a bit about the materials for the plastic straws, but straws are a concession I've had to make.
- Thermos Funtainer: Funtainers are my favorite for school lunches. There is a pop-straw top and a cover, making these virtually leak-proof. (So long as you close them.) Available in a wide-range of kid-friendly and adult-friendly designs and sizes, they are insulated keeping drinks cold. We have found that ice cubes in a Funtainer can replace an ice pack. This is probably a good thing because Funtainers are the heaviest of the three options! I have the same straw concerns as with the Camelbak and Rubbermaid, but what can you do? This is the ONLY bottle that has not ever made a leaky mess.
A lot of people ask about the lighterweight aluminum bottles. Personally, I'm not a fan because they break my simplicity rule. Most are lined with some protective coating to keep the aluminum from leaching. A few years ago SIGG was slammed for using BPA in their inner lining and not disclosing it to the public. Folks were shocked - but not me. The more complicated a product, the more likely it is to be less healthy.
Stay tuned for Tip #2: Reusable Snack Containers
Sunday, January 16, 2011
The kitchen is probably the most challenging, but also the most important room to tackle. So much of our daily existence revolves around food prep, eating and then cleaning up so we can start all over again just a little while later. (Oh joy!)
When you have little mouths to feed (generally mouths that have become irritable and crabby right around 4:00 P.M.), it is so tempting to find all the ways to cut corners: disposable foil pans, frozen prepared foods, foil lined sheets - I've done them all.
Every year I try to figure out more efficient and less flustered ways to cope. The kitchen alone could make for ten blog posts, but I'll start with some food prep tips.
1) Plan your meals for the week on the weekend and make one shopping trip. This cuts down grocery store trips (saving gas and time), and you'll buy what you actually need and not extras (cutting down on wasted food - especially produce).
2) Don't be afraid to use the entire fruit or vegetable. I'm not suggesting that you serve your kids melon skin or orange peel, but in our attempt to cut down on waste, we discovered that our kids preferred broccoli stems to broccoli heads. You can peel off the outer layer of the stem and slice the stalks into sticks.
3) Keep a compost bin in your kitchen. I will post about composting in more detail at a later time, but composting food scraps enabled us to cut down to just one trash bag for an entire week.
4) Freeze, cook or compost produce that's going bad. I'll admit, I don't LOVE the taste of frozen vegetables - they definitely lose their crispness - but you don't have to eat them straight. Add frozen vegetables to all sorts of fresh dishes, like soups, lasagnas, spaghetti sauce and more. Frozen fruit is perfect for smoothies.
5) Find recipes that use as few pans as possible, cutting down on washing time (a win-win for you).
6) Consider double batch cooking. This definitely feels like more work up front, but can be a life-saver at the end of a hard day. Soups, stews, sauces, quiches, beans, and casseroles are all foods that taste just as good second time 'round. And, you will barely need to wash cooking gear afterwards.
7) Instead of using disposable pans, consider biodegradable parchment paper for baking. I hate scrubbing pans more than anything, so I recently began experimenting with natural parchment paper in baking. The paper goes right into my compost where it breaks down naturally, and the pans require almost no washing.
8) If you soak vegetables (like greens) in water, use that water for your plants rather than spilling it out. One mom I know keeps a pitcher by her sink for any left over drinking water and uses that for her plants.
9) Consider cloth napkins for school lunches and at home. We're using 30-year-old hand me down napkins that were my husband's grandmother's. My kids love the vintage prints and actually enjoy setting a "pretty" table!
10) Soak and then wash. Soaked dishes, pots and pans clean much faster and require less elbow grease. I'm still a little squeamish and insist on rinsing the grimy sink water off my pots and pans, but not everyone is. A sink full of water is far less wasteful than a running tap.
Have more ideas? Let me know!
Thursday, January 6, 2011
I found myself thinking about the times I used to refuse my grandmother's famous chopped liver. To me it resembled brown muck, but to others it was pure delicacy. She would slather it all over a Tam Tam cracker and wave it in front of me. I would make a nasty face and shake my head, no.
"There are children starving in Africa," she'd remind me. And I'd feel guilt at not wanting to eat her food ... but not enough guilt to actually eat it.
I always hear her over the holidays and at birthdays, too. Literally, I look at my kids with their new toys, and think, "There are children starving in Africa, and India, and America. There are garbage dumps overflowing with plastic toys that will sit there, not degrading for all eternity." I feel guilty, but not guilty enough to change our experience.
Between my old work as a toy-tester and generous relatives, we have a ton of kids' stuff crammed into not a lot of space. Ironically, for the most part, my kids play their same favorite games over and over again, leaving 3/4 of their collection untouched. This past year, I tried to donate a slew of gently used toys to charity, but no one wanted them! They all claimed the toys had to be new and unopened, which I sort of understood from a health perspective, I guess, but isn't that what Lysol is for?
Then there is the gift wrapping. My kids think I am the worst gift-giving mother because I cringe at the thought of wasting all that paper. I contemplated buying reusable gift bags this year, but I couldn't figure out the logic. Do you give it and take it back? Or do you spend an extra ten dollars on a present and consider it a contribution to future gift receivers? And what's the guarantee that gift bag even makes it out to the next person and doesn't just end up in the trash anyhow?
We haven't even talked about holiday prep! My husband was working 70-hour weeks, and I barely had time to breath between my mommy duties, my writing duties, my class-parent duties, my cooking for my in-laws duties, and the therapy I needed to get through all the ways I'd over-extended myself. (Just kidding ... sort of).
I drove around for hours back and forth across the city looking for the perfect gift.
I ordered take-out three times in two weeks, and brought home dinner from Whole Foods twice. More than once, I threw away a mound of styrofoam containers. More than once I winced at my wastefulness and my inability to figure out a better way to deal with take-out.
"If I were truly green," I told myself, "I'd have supplied my own take-out containers .... Of course, If I'd had time to bring my containers to the restaurant, I wouldn't have needed take-out in the first place!"
Angst, angst, angst.
Guilt, guilt, guilt.
And in the middle of my fifth wave of neurosis, stressing about why my parents wouldn't go out of their way to get organic produce and insisted on serving conventional beef, I received an email from an old friend of mine who had recently checked out my blog.
"We have to go easy on ourselves sometimes and give in to the not-so-green life in order to survive, but how to fairly balance is a struggle of morals and reason!"
Beautifully put. (Thanks T!)
Balance. Morals. Reason. Sanity.
So, we ate a dinner of conventional meatballs, with a side of local potatoes and greens I'd brought from home. Gluten-free homemade brownies with Guatemalan melon on the side for desert. And we bought a goat and honeybees through Heifer, and hopefully did a little good for some struggling families elsewhere in the world.
Now, if I could only keep my balance taking all these gift boxes to the recycling bin tomorrow.