Tag Archives: education

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

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.)


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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Common Core and the 70 percent

Yesterday, news of the Common Core State Standards exploded. A front page feature in The Washington Post brought them to my attention, and I guess a few others’, too. By 9:30 a.m., more than 300 comments trailed the piece.  The standards in question were adopted by states as early as 2010, sprawl across a 66-page document (PDF), and raise some questions about genres and communication.

This effort toward K-12 education reform is a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

What was the deal with these standards, and why would I—a college instructor and non-parent—really care? Well, the goal, according to the document, is “to help ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy no later than the end of high school.” So yeah, I do care about students’ readiness to tackle my course material and do well in their professions. But I also have to make a confession: I learned from a crazy, mixed up set of genres and I liked it.

My confession

I was the kid who read Flatland: A romance of many dimensions for extra credit in ninth grade math class. My Civil War bookshelf comprised the fiction of Toni Morrison and Margaret Mitchell alongside the documentation of Howard Zinn, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs. I saw some high school classmates grok their longing through Whitman, while others soaked up our health class textbook with fascination. Later, I would understand nonfiction by John Hersey and Maxine Hong Kingston as deeply literary work. So when I saw something about required amounts of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry on reading lists, I perked up. Continue reading

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Full plates and holiday helpings

People in the Gallaudet Marketplace

Food Day activities overlap with lunchtime at the Marketplace cafeteria at Gallaudet. Photo by Rhea.

The nine students in my class “D.C. Farmers Markets: Apples and Access” took part in a packed Food Day celebration on the Gallaudet University campus in late October. I neglected to post about Food Day, unfortunately, thanks to the election hullabaloo. Quick recap: Barack Obama won with a final count of 332 electoral votes. (Mitt Romney won, too). The House and Senate retained their majorities.

Though I am not sure of the number of Hope Springs Farm cheese cubes or tiny cups of Kauffman’s cider we distributed on October 24, I do know that the fundraiser we launched that day will bring in $674 through online giving, checks, and a doubling pledge by Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz. The funds will support the Holiday Helpings program at Bread for the City, a service center serving D.C. residents. It is an organization that I might have a tiny professional crush on. Continue reading

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