Category Archives: Sustainability

Celebrating Earth Day where I want to be

plants and planters by a rainy window

With my office smelling like wet soil and a motley crew of plants and planters straggling across my desk, I’m in a good place to celebrate Earth Day.  It doesn’t hurt that the plants came from a campus clean-up project that one of my classes planned last week, and the egg carton planters came into being thanks to another class activity yesterday. I’ll spend another few minutes with these signs of spring, then head to a board meeting for the Crossroads Community Food Network. We’ll be talking about that organization’s fragrant, colorful farmers market, which opens in just six weeks.

I hope you’re celebrating where you want to be this Earth Day, or that you’re on the way.

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Alternatives to Black Friday

A crowd shuffles into Target at the DCUSA mall in Columbia Heights. Photo by Gridprop on Wikimedia.

A crowd shuffles into Target at the DCUSA mall in Columbia Heights. Photo by Gridprop on Wikimedia.

Last week, an international student in my class declared that Thanksgiving is a terrible holiday — a time when people are killed.  “What do you mean?” I asked, madly searching for some explanation. I recalled that suicide rates spike during the winter holidays, but I didn’t think that was it.

The student then explained that she’d learned about the origins of Thanksgiving and how it arrived amidst a virtual genocide of indigenous Americans. The other students and I had to admit that was true. This mortality-Thanksgiving connection is, indeed, part of U.S. history. Then, as the discussion continued, another student helpfully pointed out that it wasn’t just a dark spot in our past.  In very recent memory, post-turkey shopping turned deadly.  It happened again last year. The international student wasn’t at all surprised.

“Will you have a chance to experience a Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S.?” we asked the foreigner. Perhaps. She’d been invited to one, but said she feared to venture out of her dorm room that day. The international student was only half kidding. Continue reading

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How do you choose what to eat?

imageWhether it’s a kid opting for the plain pasta with butter or a foodie reaching for a paint-peeling blue cheese, people’s food choices often come with a story. I recently explored this idea in Sustainability of Food Systems, the massive open online course (MOOC) I’m taking offered by the University of Minnesota.

For the unit on food choices, we first read about how Afghan families changed their purchasing habits when wheat prices went up.* The researchers found that wheat is a paradoxical Giffen good, meaning that when the cost to purchase the product goes up, demand for the product also goes up. In this case, it seems Afghans reduced the more varied, expensive foods in their diets and opted for more bread.

Next, we read a shocking piece on greenwashing,** the term for misleading sustainability claims. According to one study, 98 percent of products making such claims were guilty of greenwashing. Many people choose foods based on price and flavor, or cultural, environmental or health considerations. Buying by geographical factors (including buying loosely-defined local foods)  is another consideration — though for many it’s included in environmental concerns.

One homework assignment was to investigate labels on products myself. Here is what I posted on the course forum. Read on below, while I embark on my next project of interviewing people I know about how they decide what to put on the table.

Non-GMO and “no sulfites detected”

For this activity, I chose a non-GMO label on a package of sugar and a claim of “no sulfites detected” on a bottle of wine. Both claims seem to have merit, though I was suspicious of the former at first.

The non-GMO label  on my Wholesome Sweeteners organic sugar reads:

NONGMO Project
VERIFIED
nongmoproject.org

This appears right below a “USDA ORGANIC” label. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards require that certified foods be GMO-free, I at first thought that this label committed the sin of irrelevance. Yet when I read the FAQs on nongmoproject.org, the additional certification made more sense. In particular:

“Why should I enroll if my products are already USDA certified   organic?

“While the National Organic Program (NOP) identifies genetic  modification as an excluded method, GMOs are not a prohibited substance. This means that although GMO seeds are not supposed to be planted, and GMO ingredients are not supposed to be used, no testing is required. These rules were established at a time when GMOs were in limited production, and accidental contamination was not a significant risk. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. With the majority of key crops like soy and corn being planted with GM varieties in North America, contamination of seeds, ingredients, and products is a real risk, even for certified organic products.”

As for the label on my Well Read wine, I figured the lack of sulfites was a valid and provable claim. A friend of mine is sensitive to sulfites (a “sulfur-based compound“(WebMD) added to inhibit mildew growth in vineyards and to preserve wine) and says that with the Well Read product, he avoided the adverse affects associated with sulfite sensitivity (headache, etc.)

image

I learned that this claim, too, has a solid factual basis. The makers of the wine, Orleans Hill, says that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms requires an analysis from a “certified laboratory.” Check out their FAQs.

The very first one:

“What does ‘Sulfite Free’ mean?

“To put this on a wine label the BATF must approve the art and wording and requires a copy of an analysis from a certified laboratory showing ‘none detectable’ at the parts per million level”

Also, it looks like the ATF cracks down on those who don’t label wine that contains sulfites.

So, amazingly, these two products seem to fall among the few that make valid sustainability claims.

*D’Souza, A. (2011) Rising food prices and declining food security: Evidence from Afghanistan. Amber Waves 9: 26–33

**Dahl, R. (2010) Greenwashing: Do you know what you’re buying? Environmental Health Perspectives 6: A247–A252

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Gaining Ground covers new territory

Gaining Ground book cover

I recently had a new literary experience. Usually, both fiction and nonfiction touch on familiar emotions and universal struggles—even if the actual milieu is alien to me. Take, for example, Elissa Altman’s Poor Man’s Feast (Chronicle Books, 2013), which I just started reading and already know will make me nearly miss many a metro stop. In this story, I grasp and learn from this editor-turned-memoirist’s search for love and satisfaction in life. The environment of the Altman family’s Thanskgiving/Chanukah feast accessoried with candied-violet-topped pumpkin flan and $100 scotch, on the other hand, isn’t exactly my grandfather’s green beans with slivered almonds. Continue reading

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Publication: Do Good Summit surfing into town

The socially conscious pet food I buy at The Big Bad Woof in Takoma, D.C. is just the tip of an iceberg, and the organization Think Local First is plunging in to reveal more of a growing trend.  A Woof franchise was the first certified Benefit Corporation (AKA B Corp) in the country and both locations are part of a growing number of do-good businesses in the Washington area.

Looking into such businesses and an upcoming event organized by TLF (while I simultaneously mixed water metaphors), I recently wrote an article for Elevation DC called “Do Good Summit rides wave of triple bottom line business.”

Check it out: Do Good Summit rides wave of triple bottom line business

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Five tips for launching an urban garden

garden on 10-28-12

My community garden plot in D.C. does its thing last October. Photo by Rhea.

Lately, it seems everyone is trying to start an urban community garden. It also seems I have a knack for stumbling upon successful ones. So I connected the two and pitched it to Civil Eats. The editor miraculously accepted it, and I’m thrilled to share the result, “Five tips for launching an urban garden.”

 

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Sprout your own karpas

The Jewish sustainability organization Hazon put out a great post earlier this month. It’s called 10 Ways to Make Your Passover More Sustainable. I think my favorite is the idea of sprouting your own karpas, the leafy greens that hold a symbolic place at the seder table (#7). Using a “pascal yam” in place of a shank bone (#9) is a close second. Even though Passover is just about upon us (eliminating the option of #2: “Plan ahead,” by the time you read this), I couldn’t resist posting about it.

Check out the list, and feel free to leave a comment about making your Passover seder — or any dinner party — more positive for the environment, people, and the economy.

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