29 August 2008

On a lighter note...

1001 Ways to Use Vinegar!

From vinegartips.com

Some favorites:
Clean counter tops and make them smell sweet again with a cloth soaked in undiluted white distilled vinegar.

Clean the microwave by mixing 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar and 1/2 cup water in a microwave-safe bowl. Bring it to a rolling boil inside the microwave. Baked-on food will be loosened, and odors will disappear. Wipe clean.

Remove stains from coffee and teacups by scrubbing them gently with equal parts of salt (or baking soda) and white distilled vinegar. Rinse clean.

Remove dark stains on an aluminum pot by boiling a mixture of 1 cup white distilled vinegar and 1 cup hot water.

Discourage ants by spraying undiluted white distilled vinegar outside doorways and windowsills, around appliances and wherever you find the pests coming in.

To remove a label, decal, or price tag, cover with a cloth soaked in white distilled vinegar. Leave the cloth on overnight and the label should slide off.

To kill germs, spray full-strength white distilled vinegar on doorknobs and then wipe them dry.


Another Argument for Local Foods

"Eating locally not necessarily better"

Another article that fills me with raging annoyance at the complete lack of insight of most paid journalists. Way to miss the point, Mr. Commentator.

First, there seems to be a mistaken belief that buying local foods doesn’t actually help the local economy. I’m puzzled about this one. If I buy a tomato in Fountain Park for $1, then the farmer I just bought it from gets $1. If I buy a tomato at Superfresh for $1 (or less), then Superfresh gets about 10 cents, the oil used to transport the tomato (by truck and by ship) sucks up another 40 or so, marketing gets a good 10, another 35 or so goes to line the pockets of the big international company that’s shipping the tomatoes into the states in the first place, and finally about a nickel ends up with the farmer. That’s a rough estimate, mind.

Allow me to point out that none of that helps the local economy. Except maybe the 10 cents that went to Superfresh. Here’s an article that explains it well.

AS for the carbon footprint of locally grown food- well, here’s another place where this man is vastly mistaken. I don’t care HOW efficient cargo container ships are, they are still cargo container ships. They burn a hell of a lot more fuel than my neighbor’s pickup. He has a point about how food is produced- you are going to lower your carbon footprint a lot more by eating veggies than eating beef, no matter where the veggies are produced- but he misses the profound point that in common sense terms, shipping tomatoes across the ocean when you can grow them perfectly well in your own region is entirely pointless. There are some arguments to be made about suitability of soil types, but he fails to address this, so I’m not going to get into it. This commentator also fails to realize that by dint of the fact that they are growing locally, most local farmers grow more sustainably BECAUSE they aren’t mass producing and shipping their produce all over creation. They are smaller scale, use more labor and fewer pesticides, and are typically more considerate of their location- because their consumers are their neighbors, after all, and they will complain.

This, I think, is the biggest benefit of buying locally. It also ties in to the last point in this article. When I buy a tomato locally, I usually know the person I’m buying it from. If I really wanted, I could ask them politely if I could see their farm, and they’d probably say yes. At the very least they’d bring me some pictures and happily describe their operation. When I buy a tomato at Superfresh, I have no idea where it came from. None. California? Mexico? Hell if I know. I also have no idea how it was grown, who grew it, if they were paid properly, if they are going to die an early death thanks to pesticide exposure, if their land was mercilessly ripped away from them by an international food distributor- oh, wait, I forgot, we aren’t supposed to talk about the new colonialism. Underpaid workers in Mexico and South America grow our food, we celebrate the efficiency of container ships, and enjoy our tasteless tomatoes on our tasteless “beef” patties. Don’t for a minute imagine that the people growing your food would be better off growing their own food, for their own consumption. No, keep patting yourself on the back for supporting poverty stricken countries with a few pennies from your imperial dollar. Mr. Commentator: there’s a big difference between having no money and being self-sufficient, and being in poverty because you don’t see any of the profit of your labor.

The man got one thing right. It is important to pay more attention to how your food is produced. And the only way to do that is to buy from a farm where you KNOW how the food is produced. And that would be local.


25 August 2008

Welcome back!

Welcome back, students!

You’ll notice some changes (for the better) this year as you adjust (or readjust) to campus life. First, and probably most noticeable, will be the new dorms. They are big, brick, and not quite finished (paper on the windows, anyone?). Apparently there are also some issues with the temperature control systems, but presumably this will be repaired in the near future. If you live in one of these dorms and have details, please comment and let me know.

When finished these dorms will have a number of green features, the most prominent being the geothermal wells that were dug in the baseball field last year. These magically create energy by sending fluid through a series of pipes buried in the ground, where it is heated by the more constant temperatures farther down, then brought back up to heat and cool the building. Voila! If you want a more scientific explanation, check out wikipedia.

The second big change occurred in the dining hall. Aside from the fact that it moved and the floor now bounces, within the next few weeks you will also see that the trays are slowly disappearing. As are the take out containers. From now on, if you want to take food from the dining hall, you will need to put down a $5 deposit for a reusable container, which will be yours for the remainder of the year. Well, sort of. Don’t go writing your name on it yet, because when you come back to the dining hall you’ll drop it off and take a new, clean one, and leave yours to be washed. And you can keep doing this all year, as long as you always bring one back with you. Otherwise, you’ll have to put down another deposit. You’ll receive all this back at the end of the year, so no worries! You won’t actually be out the money.

So what’s the deal with hiding the trays and containers? Well, dining halls that remove their trays have found that not only do they save money in washing the darn things, but that students tend to only take as much food as they can actually eat, instead of piling up four plates and then throwing half of it away. So it saves food, as well- and has the additional benefit of cutting calories for students who may be worried about the freshmen 15 (plus you burn more calories walking back and forth to the food).

As for the takeout containers, the answer should be simple. We’re creating less waste by not throwing them out! Even the biodegradable containers we’re using right now use a lot of energy just in the process of being created, whereas with reusables you only need to make one container, one time- as opposed to several hundred over the course of the year. This is an enormous leap forward for our campus- and for the environment!

Keep checking back for more details on how the system works…


11 August 2008

Take on "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

I just finished Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," one of the heftiest books I've decided to tackle all summer when I realized the college library actually had it. After being unable to put it down for a week, I now have time to do other things, such as uncontrollably telling my boyfriend fun facts about corn and whatever else I can loosely link to any subject we start talking about. The fact is, there are so many facts jammed into this book I can't even begin to cover them all. I highly recommend everyone at least read the first section of the book because it's extremely applicable to all of us: we all eat food, and many of us are omnivores.

Pollan organizes the book into three sections: corn (industrial), grass (pastoral), and the forest (personal). Corn focuses on how our modern society treats food; Pollan calls it our "national eating disorder". America in particular has always had a hard time finding a national identity in food - because of this, we easily fall prey to any diet fad that comes our way. Remember when carbs were bad? Are they still bad? The only bad thing I see about bread is the fact that most of it, even kinds labeled as "whole wheat" or "7 grain" contain high fructose corn syrup. I only found two brands of bread at Superfresh that didn't contain high fructose syrup. And corn is what this section is about: the history of corn, what is made out of corn, and why corn is so prevalent in everything we eat today. In summary, because of government subsidies and the transformation of war chemical facilities into fertilizer facilities (outcomes of WWII and beyond), our country's farmers are now dependent on growing excessive amounts of corn to make any amount of profit. And this excess of corn has led to the question of how to get rid of it. The government does this by forcing cows (which can only naturally digest grasses) to eat corn (along with antibiotics and a slew of other nasty stuff), and then setting the beef standard so that it favors corn-fed beef instead of grass-fed. Corn then also gets used as a substitute for whole ingredients such as sugar (substitute: high fructose corn syrup) and a bunch of other compounds that make up much of our processed food today.

Game #1: Go through all of the food in your kitchen. Put it into two categories: corn products and non-corn products. See how much of everything you eat contains corn (it's scary). Even though I eat a lot of whole foods, there were still a ton of products on the counter that were in the "corn" pile. This week at the grocery store I compulsively read the label of everything I put into the grocery cart. Just now I compulsively read the label of my Clif Bar and celebrated quietly to myself that it didn't contain corn.

Part 2, grass, follows two types of farming: industrial organic and grass-fed beef. Organic industrial is what much of our organic produce is in the grocery store: industrial practices changed slightly to meet government "organic" standards (which, it turns out, isn't very much). Pollan then travels to Polyface Farm in Virgina, where grass pastures form an ecology focused around cattle, chickens, pigs, and rabbits which ensure sustainable practices. Here the focus is on whether or not what we think of today as organic is really sustainable, or if it is an ideal that has been lost in the industrial machine.

Game #2: Go to your grocery store or local whole foods/organic store and look around. How organic is that microwaveable dinner? Where did that lettuce come from? Then, travel to your local farmer's market or nearby farm stand and look around. There is a world of difference. Look into local CSA programs and cattle/chicken farms, and, if it's legal, local dairies (or if you're lucky enough to have small farmers for friends). Eatwild.com is an excellent source for finding local meat.

Part 3, forest, is Pollan's personal reflections on his journey to create a meal that he himself hunted and harvested, including a wild boar, mushrooms, fruits, and vegetables. It turns back to the hunter-gatherer ideal, that although is rewarding, is not possible anymore in society in large scale.

Game #3: Get a book on local wild plants and see if you can find anything that is edible around your house. Chances are, many things are. Dandelions anyone?

There are so many more parts I could cover, but I hope I provided enough to provoke some interest. It really opened my eyes to how I should look at the food ecosystem, from the industrial to the local, and what the real ramifications are for a 99 cent double cheeseburger from McDonald's. Just remember: nothing is cheap.


04 August 2008

Green Guilt

A lot of mainstream journalists seem to enjoy lamenting how painfully difficult it is to go green, and try to tell activists to stop nagging if they want to get their point across. A recent Baltimore Sun article, in fact, made a great point about how the writer’s grandmother was effortlessly environmentally friendly, by virtue of being a low income immigrant in the early half of the century, but then failed to realize the implications of this and chose instead to spend her article whining about how annoying it is when you take a Starbucks cup home to recycle and it spills in your car.

Well boohoo.

My grandmother always reused foil and paper napkins and compulsively hoarded spare buttons and brushes and bits of things until the family began to wonder if there wasn’t something a bit wrong with her head. I, on the other hand, eventually came to the realization that this was the natural product of being the child of Polish immigrants raised during the Depression and World War II- of course you wouldn’t throw away a napkin, when you might be able to use it again.

The authors of these articles are right in pointing out that going green on an individual level shouldn’t be about the numeric value of your carbon footprint. You won’t get anywhere if you’re beating yourself up over every last lumen of light. It’s more about an attitude. If you’ve adjusted your thought to believe that it simply doesn’t make sense to throw things away (particularly if you are a penny pinching pack rat like me), suddenly it doesn’t seem like a big effort to use cloth napkins. Saves me trips to the grocery store, for one. And a more appropriate response to the annoyance of spilling leftover coffee in an effort to recycle would be, rather than whining about the mess, to ask why she was going to Starbucks and getting a plastic cup in the first place.

This may sound strange and masochistic to many people. Imagine! The pain and suffering that may be caused by not going to Starbucks. Or, imagine instead, the ease of taking your own mug (which is much more sturdy anyway). Or instead of taking your coffee with you, spending a half hour in the coffee shop drinking your coffee out of a mug and reading a good book. Heaven forbid!

I have no patience for people who tell me it’s so hard to be green. If you think about it, it’s much harder NOT to be green. It’s expensive. The food isn’t very good. You have to go to the store all the time. You have lots of trash to deal with (I take out the trash once every two weeks, and it’s a tiny bag). There’s a lot of driving involved… I could go on. Or, you could live in a way that makes sense. I make my own yogurt because I don’t like additives and single use, individual serving containers, and it’s easy (took me ten minutes this morning) and delicious. And cheap. I make my own pasta sauce, which is slightly more labor intensive, but the joy I get out of the happy, sated smiles on my friends’ faces when I bring them jars of sauce is more than worth the effort. Plus, I freeze it and eat it all winter, so I don’t have to cook for months at a time. I also only use handkerchiefs. My great grandmother made them and I still have them, and not only are they softer on my nose, but I don’t buy tissues, I don’t have enormous amounts of trash, and every time I use them I think of her.

And when I think of her, and my grandmother, I think, how would they have done this? And rather than whining in a major newspaper about how reduce-reuse-recycle was so much easier for them because they lived through the Depression (still working out the logic on that one), I just do it. And I have to admit, it’s pretty easy.