Tag Archives: sustainability

Publication: Family Farm Camp in the Jewish Daily Forward


In a new article for the Jewish Daily Forward, I visit a family camp at the Pearlstone Center. Check it out:

Pearlstone Does Farm-to-Table Family Style


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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

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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Pollan’s epiphany, community, and seedling swaps

Last month, Michael Pollan released his seventh food book, Cooked, and I wrote about it for The Jewish Daily Forward. The book is based on the epiphany that many of his tortured foodie questions had the same answer: Cook. This simple, inherantly communal idea embodies a theme that has been in my life a lot lately.

Pollan’s book is an homage and philosophical journey to home cooking. Much of Pollan’s research, however, did not take place in his house in the Bay Area. Instead, he entered the far-flung realms of barbecue pit men, artisanal  bakers, and fermentos  — communities that run thick with tradition and passion.

That theme of deep community continued as I attended the Do Good Summit on May 3 to see the likes of Our Black Year author Maggie Anderson, local B Corp founder Raj Aggarwal, and DC Brau‘s Jeff Hancock. As I wandered the brand new, sunny corridors of the Anacostia Arts Center, I received a tweet:

Screen shot 2013-05-13 at 7.57.55 AM

Of course. Soupergirl, one of my favorite local businesses, had saved a loaf of challah and was going to make sure I got it. I’d come in a couple of days before to request it, without even giving my name. That request went onto a sticky note, which turned into a Twitter ping, which found me as I went about my day.  I’d like to see Safeway do that!

At that time, I was gearing up for the DC State Fair Seedling Swap. It took place two days later. While the Do Good Summit was the inaugural conference of the new art gallery and community space,  the crowd at the swap packed northeast DC’s Center for Green Urbanism for its last event before it moved out. The rush of community concern over the closing touched my heart just as much as the love of green things percolating through the rooms. The Center is currently searching for a new home.

Right now, those tomato and marigold and peanut seedlings are growing on front stoops and window sills and raised beds around the District. But the frost is coming tonight. I hope we can keep this all going.

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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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Beach reading for the sustainable food set

My latest piece on Grist.org went up today! For this one, I collaborated with Grist food editor Twilight Greenaway. I’m a big fan of her reporting work and editing style, so this was a great honor. Check out “Can’t-miss summer reading for sustainable food fans.”

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Grist publishes best food books of 2010

To usher in 2010, Grist has published a look at the best food books of this closing year. Or at least what people were reading this year. This list brings together my two great loves: literature and food.

The recommendations come from the greatest sustainable food minds of our time–including my pal and one-time article source Daniel Bowman Simon (of The People’s Garden in NYC).

What are you reading about food?

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