Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Knew I Was Saving Those Bricks For Something...

I knew I was saving those bricks for something. Seven years ago, when we tore out an old brick patio, I painstakingly hauled each brick up the hill to the barn and stacked them carefully and artfully behind the barn. My husband shook his head. His plan had been to toss them in the back of the truck, haul them to the woods, and dump them there where they could rot for all eternity, if bricks rot. But I insisted they were useful and that maybe I would use them someday to lay a brick aisle way in the barn. He humored me but didn’t help haul the bricks to the barn. I did that myself, using a wheelbarrow.

Since then the bricks have found a few uses. They’ve held down plastic tarps covering machinery or hay. They’ve been experimented upon by two small boys wondering just how hard you have to throw the bricks at the barn wall to actually break one. And the chickens have made good use of them as a place to roost in the sun or get out of the wet or snow covered grass. I mostly forgot about them along with my fantasy of laying a brick aisle way in my constantly flooding barn.

But this weekend I found a purpose for them. I’m always on the lookout for new places to tuck in another garden. Last spring my daughter planted Jolly Jester marigolds all around one sunny corner of the barn. Those marigolds thrived. So much so that they spread themselves a good six feet out away from the barn in a perfect semi-circle. Last weekend when I finally cut down their dying stalks, the ground that was uncovered was barren – no grass left. What else can you do with such ground but plant a new garden?? No, I’m not a fan of grass seed.

The only complication was that the nice neat semi-circle is on a hill, like pretty much every piece of ground on our property. When I informed my husband of my plan he told me I’d need a wall to contain the garden or it would just wash away down the hill. I didn’t point out to him that the marigolds never washed away. In fact, they were pretty difficult to remove from their spot.

Saturday morning, I lugged several bags of newspapers up to the barn to lay the basis of my new garden. My plan was to lasagna garden the whole spot so that the soil would be rich and ready for my new salsa garden come spring time. I had visions of tomatillos, cilantro, and a gazillion new types peppers. But as I stared at the space, I had to concede that my husband might be right (don’t tell!). It is a pretty hilly spot. So I fed the horses and pondered what to do. I still didn’t know what to do, so I began the nasty chore of cleaning out the chicken pen. It’s really the only downside of chickens. Of course the manure collected from this nasty chore makes wonderful fertilizer. As I laid my broom against the huge stack of bricks next to the chicken coop, I had my eureka moment! The bricks! They’ve needed a purpose beyond stoking my guilt and supporting soggy chickens for 7 years! So I began hauling them once again.

I laid out a beautifully shaped garden using the bricks. I was not deterred by the absence of mortar or a mason. I once dry-stacked a beautiful stone wall that still contains our strawberries, lilacs, and mint, so I’m pretty confident in my ability to build a sturdy wall in to the hillside. My neighbor’s 150 year old farm house is built completely on a dry stack stone foundation.

For now my husband is going along with this, but he’s not yet convinced of my plan. For sure one of us will be thinking “I told you so,” by spring. My new brick wall is only two layers high so far, but as I fill in with dirt, manure, wood ash, leaves and whatever else I can find, I’ll build the wall up with more bricks.

There’s nothing wrong with holding on to useful things. Some people call it hoarding, but those people are simply not very creative. Sure, it’s a pain to store all this useful stuff, but in the end it’s worth the pain. And it saves you money. And it doesn’t load up the landfill. And it saves you time because you don’t have to go to the store. And it makes your neighbors and friends wonder if you’re nuts, which makes them keep their distance (and think of you when their daughter’s brownie troop needs 15 cream cheese containers!).

This past Sunday the pastor at our church was pondering Thanksgiving and he made note of the size of that day’s newspaper laden with store circulars. He pointed out that during this time of year we are naturally inclined to hunt and gather and fill our storehouses. It’s a natural instinct and a good marketing department preys on this fact. Instead of gathering lots more stuff, the pastor encouraged us to look around us at that moment and gather memories – a beautiful sunset, the sound of a baby, the smile of a loved one. Good thought, but most of us still want to shop right about now.

Shopping is a guilty pleasure. No, we don’t necessarily need what we are buying, but it feels good to have that power, to rub shoulders with all the other people picking out new stuff. Carrying our bags of stuff in to our houses and cutting off the tags feels very satisfying. I’ve been trying to let go of those feelings. Now, when the urge to shop hits me, I head to the Goodwill where my weakness won’t deplete my wallet.

When the urge to store all my nuts for winter hits, sometimes I spend time sorting out, rearranging, and repurposing – handling all my stuff. I have to say that repurposing is incredibly satisfying, much more so than buying which always leaves me feeling kind of sleazy. This weekend, I wasn’t the only one getting in on the repurposing. My whole family found something to repurpose. My husband repurposed the gravel left from where our old deck once stood. He removed that gravel to use under and around the flagstones at the base of the steps to our new deck (flagstones held on to after the same construction project that yielded the bricks!). It looks great, cost us nothing, and the spot the gravel used to occupy is perfect for –you guessed it – another garden!

My older son spied the shoe sorter my daughter was removing from her closet (the shoes were never actually sorted, most days they were piled on top of the little shelf with all the neat shoe cubbies). He laid claim to it. He’s repurposed it as a cabinet to hold all his game pieces for the complicated games he and his best friend invent.

My youngest son cleaned out his room and re-discovered his marshmallow shooter which isn’t really repurposing, unless you consider that its old purpose was to lie under his bed and collect dust.

My daughter, lacking a decent jewelry box (cheap parents!) decided to turn her lamp shade in to a jewelry box. She poked holes through the shade to hang earrings and secured a thumbtack (with an eraser on the other side) to hang her necklaces. Makes the lampshade very useful and actually, better looking.

None of these actions were necessarily intentional. They arose because of a need and our new found ability to look around us rather than run to the store. We ran to the store for plenty of years and now we are drowning in the stuff we’ve acquired. Before you go running off to the store for your solution – look around you. What have you got that would do the job?

Saving stuff is akin to a holy act in my book. You should always hesitate before you throw things out – are you absolutely certain there is no use left for this object? I used to play a little head game with myself as I walked toward the trash can. I would imagine I was a homeless person or a member of a tribe on a remote island – is there something I could do with this object? Crazy, maybe, but our society throws things out too easily. We do this because we don’t have to deal with our own trash. We pay our trash bill each month and the friendly guys in the bright yellow vests cart it away. But it goes somewhere, because just like the information on your computer – nothing disappears. Repurposing, re-using, and saving useful things are not only money-saving acts, but an exercise in creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness – great traits for any of us. And perhaps one key to preserving our planet for those who come after us.

So before you head to the store, or the trashcan, take a moment to consider your options. You have more than you realize.

Look how we repurposed this weekend!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Soapbox Sermon on Plastic Water Bottles

I promised my soapbox sermon on bottled water, so here goes. Bottled water is a ridiculous waste of money. Water is free. Can you imagine if someone told you back when you were a kid that some day people would pay $1.50 for a small plastic bottle of water? It would be like saying you have to pay to breathe the air. You’d think they were nuts, yet we spend over 100 billion dollars a year on bottled water. 100 billion. How much could be done with that money? The Water Project estimates that the cost of just one case of bottled water could supply a person in Kenya with clean, safe drinking water for the next five years!

Nevermind the cost – how about the benefit? There are no regulations specifying that bottled water has to be anything beyond decent tap water. I’ve heard all about the special springs where this water and that water come from, but I’m certain that for many of these companies, that special spring is a hose in the factory where the water is bottled. Someone’s making lots of money because we’ve never learned the lesson of the Emporer’s new clothes.

This is an easy one, folks. Instead of spending your money on bottled water, buy some really nice stainless steel or plastic water bottles and refill them. You’ll be helping the environment and your pocketbook. This is a no brainer. Stop buying water! If you’re concerned about taste, spend $30 bucks and get a water filter pitcher or attachment for your sink. I had a Britta Water Pitcher when I lived in an apartment and that water tasted great.

Back when I bought in to the whole bottled water deal, I justified it by re-using those bottles. Now, come to find out this isn’t safe! Even worse are the hard plastic bottles we used for formula – and heated in the microwave! Two of my children were breast fed, but the third had a milk-protein allergy and had to be fed soy formula. There’s no way to undo the damage that was done. If only we’d known then what we know now. And now we know that many plastics aren’t safe – heed this knowledge!

So much information has been thrown at us about what is safe and what isn’t when it comes to plastic. And some of us aren’t taking it seriously enough (ahem, I’m directing this comment at a certain someone who almost microwaved a disposable plastic sandwich container just the other night. Thank God he was saved by his hysterical, over-reacting wife!). So here’s the basics on each of the plastics by number (the number is found on the bottom of nearly all plastic products these days, normally inside a triangular recycling symbol).

1 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) Used to make soft drink, water, sports drink, ketchup, and salad dressing bottles, and peanut butter, pickle, jelly and jam jars.GOOD: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones.

2 High density polyethylene (HDPE)Milk, water, and juice bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, cereal box liners, and grocery, trash, and retail bags.GOOD: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones.

3 Polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC) Most cling-wrapped meats, cheeses, and other foods sold in delicatessens and groceries are wrapped in PVC.BAD: To soften into its flexible form, manufacturers add “plasticizers” during production. Traces of these chemicals can leach out of PVC when in contact with foods. According to the National Institutes of Health, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), commonly found in PVC, is a suspected human carcinogen.

4 Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)Some bread and frozen food bags and squeezable bottles.OK: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones, but not as widely recycled as #1 or #2.

5 Polypropylene (PP)Some ketchup bottles and yogurt and margarine tubs.OK: Hazardous during production, but not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones. Not as widely recycled as #1 and #2.

6 Polystyrene (PS)Foam insulation and also for hard applications (e.g. cups, some toys)BAD: Benzene (material used in production) is a known human carcinogen. Butadiene and styrene (the basic building block of the plastic) are suspected carcinogens. Energy intensive and poor recycling.

7 Other (usually polycarbonate)Baby bottles, microwave ovenware, eating utensils, plastic coating for metal cansBAD: Made with biphenyl-A, a chemical invented in the 1930s in search for synthetic estrogens. A hormone disruptor. Simulates the action of estrogen when tested in human breast cancer studies. Can leach into food as product ages.

Adapted from Green Remodeling, by David Johnston and Kim Master (New Society Publishers, 2004).

While the number 1 (PET) bottles may be safe, they are not intended for re-use. Disregarding the temperature change dangers, the structure of the water bottle makes it nearly impossible to thoroughly clean and poses a risk for bacteria.

The hard plastic bottles favored by so many outdoor enthusiasts and baby bottle manufacturers for their durability have also been deemed dangerous, particularly when exposed to boiling water. When heated or exposed to hot water, the polycarbonates that contain bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic hormone that mimics estrogen, can leach traces of BPA in to the liquid they contain.

If you go by the numbers, avoid 3, 6, & 7. These types are not safe for storing food and beverages. 1, 2, 4 & 5 appear to be relatively safe at this time, but that is completely relative – remember those baby bottles we used that were deemed “safe” at the time. Me, I just avoid plastic whenever possible. We don’t eat off of plastic plates or use plastic cups or dishes of any kind. I have a strange dish-fetish that has always believed food and drinks served in plastic don’t taste as good. It just doesn’t seem worth the risk. Plastics can get scratched and cracked and harbor all kinds of germs. And heating plastic to the temperatures necessary to kill those germs breaks down the plastic. Next thing you know you’re ingesting plastic. Even if it’s the ‘safe’ plastic, that can’t be good.

My rule of thumb is only put room temperature things in plastic containers and don’t ever heat in those containers. There are plenty of glass containers that are inexpensive, dish-washer safe and will last years longer than any plastic, no matter what the number. Any plastic lids or containers are always washed by hand and never put in the dishwasher where the heat can not only morph them in to new funky shapes, but can break them down and expose harmful chemicals to the foods they touch.

I’m slowly trying to convert our family to stainless steel water bottles. It’s a process because these beauties are pricey and ugly. I have to weigh the “drink more water” belief with the “heaven forbid it’s in plastic” hang-up. We’ll get there. Probably about the time scientists decide there’s some danger lurking in stainless steel water bottles. Maya Angelou once said, “You do the best you can with what you know at the time.” That’s all I can do. That’s all any of us can do.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

School Lunches and Saving the Planet

One of the selections on last week’s school lunch menu was: Macaroni & Cheese and tater tots. I suppose the side dish of canned peaches swimming in heavy syrup qualified as the fruit/veggie. Two of my children petition regularly to buy these lunches. Their favorite lunch is French toast sticks with hash browns. We have worked out a fragile peace plan allowing them to buy their lunch at least once a week, twice when their argument is compelling or I’m feeling particularly wimpy. So I am overjoyed to hear that Congress is getting ready to upgrade school-wide nutrition standards this year. The first time in 15 years!

President Obama has set aside an extra $1 billion for child-nutrition programs and has challenged the decision makers to get more fresh fruits and vegetables in to the mix - “We’ve got to change how we think about getting local farmers connected to school districts.” Amen is all I have to say to that. Now would be a good time to call your congressman/woman and share your thoughts on the importance of healthy and local food. There is a national farm-to-school program in place that 9000 schools have joined. Pick up the phone and find out if your school is on board.

My daughter, my most challenging child to feed, brought home a paper the other day that had 5 tips for eating smarter. She was very proud to tell me she already knew them all. These tips were taken from a kid’s version of the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I’ll share them with you here.

1) Try not to eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

Love this one. I’m fairly certain my great-grandmother would not recognize a dinosaur shaped chicken nugget or Dipin’Dots ice cream. We had fun thinking of food that didn’t look like food.

2) Avoid eating packaged foods with more than five ingredients, or with ingredients you don’t recognize.

This one prompted one of my children to pick up the box of Cheezits, hoping to prove to me they were “healthy”. The list was nearly as long as the box itself. No dice.

3) Limit food and drinks that contain a sweetener called high fructose corn syrup. It has been linked to obesity.

Duh, mom. We know this one. I guess I’m a little over the top in my vigilance against the high fructose corn syrup. We all should be – they are dirty words.

4) Try to avoid food that doesn’t eventually rot. A food made to last forever is usually full of chemicals. Food should be alive and that means it should eventually die.

My daughter phrased it more simply, “Don’t eat foods that don’t have an expiration date.”

5) Be your own food detective. Read labels. Pay attention to where your food comes from and how it was grown.

And this really is the key. Give your kids some power over what they eat. Make them responsible for the choices they make. Talk to them about the impact of buying local versus buying global. Grow some foods together. Notice what’s growing in the fields near you and stop at the roadside stands and meet the farmers. Talk about why one food is good for you and another is not – and tell them why it is not.

One of my constant refrains is “Your body wasn’t designed to eat that food, so if you do, it’s very hard for your body to process it and that’s why it makes you feel sick.” I’ve explained to my children that one of the reasons people get sickness and disease is because they are putting things in to their body that there body was not designed to eat. It’s hard on a body to process this kind of food, making it weaker and more susceptible to illness. Just like putting the wrong kind of gas in your car – it may run, but it won’t run well and it certainly won’t run for as long as it was designed to run. Help your children make the connection between what they eat and how they feel.

We all need to talk to our kids about what and why they eat. If we teach this generation to make better choices – for their bodies, their neighbors, and their planets – things could change. In fact, I believe that’s the only way they will change. I grew up on programs like “green circle” and desegregation. My generation is measurably less racist than the previous generation. Granted there is still progress to be made, we wouldn’t be where we are if adults hadn’t started teaching kids about racial equality a generation ago.

The only way to bring about real, lasting change is to teach the children differently. We make decisions not only about what we eat, but how we live, based on the way we were raised. That stuff is hard-wired in there. That’s why it’s so much harder to break the TV, fast food, instant-gratification habits that most of us struggle with – it goes against how we were raised.

You have a chance to change all that. Your children could live differently. They could turn the tide on so many issues. They could literally save the planet. Don’t miss your chance to empower them. It starts at your table.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Grocery Store Horror Stories and Demanding Environmental Responsibility

Last Friday night I made a mad dash to the grocery store because I had a disaster on my hands. For the first time (EVER!!) my pizza dough flopped. I had everything else ready to go – oven warm, sauce made, cheese grated, onions caramelized, and hungry kids distracted – and then I opened the bread maker and found a lumpy glump of pasty flour that didn’t look at all like the soft, kneadable dough I’d expected to find. Dinner was already late, so I flew to the local grocery to buy pizza dough. The only dough they had was in a tube (what?) and full of all kinds of things I can’t mention on this blog. But I figured it was one night, right? And besides, Halloween was coming the next day when our entire systems would be flooded with artificial everything.

I make it sound like it was just that simple – go to the store, find the dough, buy the dough. Not so fast. This was the night before Halloween and since I don’t frequent this particular grocery store I was not aware of the significance of the night before Halloween. The entire store was clogged with children and employees (not always so easy to tell apart) in Halloween costumes. Intermittently throughout the store, employees were positioned with buckets of candy to dole out to already sugar-hyped kids. I suppose this was a nice community service and oh, by the way, since you’re here why don’t you buy something? At any rate, it made my task of locating pizza dough in unfamiliar territory even more challenging. I retreated to the place I am most comfortable – the organic aisle. It is almost always less crowded than the others. But even the organic aisle was in on the Trick or Treating, so I wormed my way in and picked up some organic treats for my kids (yes, I’m wearing a costume – I’m dressed as a frantic, pizza-dough-less mother in a loopy grocery store). The “treats” were three packs of different organic vitamins and a juice box/bag from a new organic company.

Once safely home, my kids were delighted to munch on chewy vitamins and syrupy juice while I tried to figure out how to work the dough in a can. (Not good, by the way, nearly impossible to roll out and laden with sugar and preservatives) When dinner was finally eaten, I collected the empty juice bags. As I tossed them in the garbage it occurred to me that there was something terribly wrong with the amount of trash three small servings of organic juice had just created. It seems counterproductive to sell organic juice in un-recyclable containers.

Shopping today at my health food grocery store, I was keenly aware of the multitude of organic products that are overpackaged. If organics are about healthy and sustainable living, then these companies have a responsibility to produce environmentally friendly packaging. I believe this, so I wrote a letter to the juice bag company. I’ve yet to hear anything, but I’ll let you know if I do. I’ve shared this rambling story with you to encourage you to also insist on environmentally responsible packaging. Nothing changes unless consumers demand it. Even Wal-mart is making a tiny attempt to reduce packaging, so how is it that a company proclaiming to be “organic” doesn’t lead the way? I don’t know. That’s why I wrote my letter.

It’s time to speak up. It’s time to stop making excuses for the waste and the laziness. I have complete faith that there are creative solutions out there. Just today I purchased reusable “produce bags” to put my loose fruits and veggies in. They are simply cotton mesh bags that weigh nearly nothing. I can’t wait to pull them out at the Giant grocery store and freak out the cashier. But they’ll get there. Just like the reusable grocery bags – eventually, they’ll get it. Reusable produce bags are good for the environment, work just fine, and, bottom line – they will save the store money. And isn’t it always that bottom line that motivates?

You have rights as a consumer, so exercise them. Don’t support companies that overpackage their products and let them know why you won’t support them. If more people did this – change would come much more quickly. If it’s just one nut-job lady at the Giant check-out it may take awhile.

Just in case you don’t know that homemade dough is MUCH better than dough in a can, here’s my recipe. I use a breadmaker and just dump in the ingredients in the order listed. I’ve also written out directions for anyone not blessed with a good breadmaker.

Pizza Dough

1 ½ cups water
2 teaspoons olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon succanot (or organic cane sugar)
¼ cup flax seed meal
2 ½ cups whole wheat flour
1 ½ cups organic white flour
2 teaspoons yeast (or one packet)

Directions for handmade dough:

Use warm water (hot enough to wash dishes, but not boiling) and dissolve yeast.
Add sugar and salt; stir to dissolve.
Add oil, flax seed meal and 1 cup of whole wheat flour. Mix thoroughly.
Add the rest of the flour. Work in to a good size lump of dough.
Place in a greased bowl and let rise in a warm spot for 1 ½ hours.
Punch down the dough and let rest 5 minutes.
Roll out dough to make pizza crust.
Sprinkle corn meal on pizza pan before placing crust on it.
Top with whatever you like.
Bake at 400 for 12 minutesish.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Who are YOU Voting For??

I’m posting a day early to remind you to vote. I know it’s not an exciting year to be voting. You might not even know that Tuesday November 3, 2009 is Election Day. Many of us don’t worry about local elections. I used to feel that way. I only voted if there was a President at stake or some big referendum that was splashed across the front page, otherwise I let the people who obviously knew much more than me figure out the local politics. Here’s why that’s pretty stupid. It took me over 30 years to figure it out, so I apologize to all my neighbors and former-neighbors for my ignorance.

Local elections affect you MUCH MORE than national ones do. Sure, the presidential election is pretty exciting and we like to get fired up about it, but as much as I adore our current president, I am aware that the president doesn’t truly affect my daily life that much. What does affect my life is the decisions made by the local politicians – the township supervisors, my state representatives and senator, the county judges, the sheriffs, and the school board. These people have the power to ruin my real estate value and my children’s education. They can increase my taxes, force me to jump through legal hoops, and decide how late my children can stay out and whether they will ever be old enough to drive a car. In short, the decisions they make have a huge impact on my quality of life.

It’s easy to complain when new laws or new stores or new developments or new taxes are forced upon us, but unless we vote in the local elections (and do more than just pull the party lever), we have no one to blame but ourselves. I realize I may be too late to inspire many of your to find your polling place on Tuesday, but I hope this causes you to think for a moment about your own local elections. My old excuse was that there were too many names and I didn’t know any of them. Because I didn’t. But now I do. I’ve attended opportunities to hear from the candidates and read their literature. I’ve read the endorsements of our paper (for what it’s worth) and the letters to the editors. I’ve listened to anyone brave enough to hike up our driveway or call me on the phone. In some cases I’ve been able to speak to the candidates themselves. One thing I’ve learned is that any local candidate that is flowing with cash, most likely has someone with ulterior motives providing that flow. Many local positions are virtually voluntary with minimal reimbursement for expenses. The people who run for these offices do it because they are citizens who care. Sadly, just like Washington, local politics can be rife with “lobbyists” and “outside interests”, but you’d never know it unless you get involved. Don’t vote for someone just because they have lots of fancy signs. If you don’t know who you’re voting for and why, it would be better for all of us (including you!) if you stayed home.

I’m certain that I’ve offended plenty of people who believe that politics is something we shouldn’t talk about. (I offend the people who don’t want to talk about religion too.) But it seems crazy to me that something as important as our government is taboo in our daily conversations. We need to talk about this stuff - especially at the local level. As I said before, local politicians are not typically flush with cash, so it’s not easy to get their message out. It shouldn’t be completely their responsibility either. We need to step up and get involved. We need to find out who’s running and what the heck a “township supervisor” or “orphans court judge” does. Otherwise we are simply part of the problem.

Which brings me to how this is connected to Kid-friendly Organic Life. We need to vote for politicians who will move the wheels of government towards a more kid-friendly organic life. Voting is our most powerful tool, particularly when it comes to local decision makers. Recent local elections in my neck of the woods have been decided by one vote. One vote! If I want to improve the quality of my children’s education, one thing I can do (besides make sure my kids do their homework and respect their teachers) is know who I’m voting for when it comes to local elections. If I want laws that protect my children and this planet, they won’t happen unless the elected officials are people who are also interested in protecting my kids and this planet. If I would like to see more organic farming, I need to support the local officials who protect our farmland and believe organic farming is a more sustainable way of life. I’ll never know how any local politician feels about any of these things unless I make an effort to find out.

We know every crummy detail of our president’s and our governors’ and too many of our senators’ lives, but we don’t seem to know squat about the people who run our local government. I think that’s backwards. I hope that, if not this year, then next year, you will get out and make an informed vote in your local elections.