Archive for March 2010

Why Do I Buy Organic?   Leave a comment

A few months ago a study came out saying that organic food was not more nutritious than conventionally raised food. The tenor of the news blurbs and discussions that I saw was along the lines of “there is no benefit to eating organic” and even going so far as to suggest that this one study was going to collapse the organic market. My husband and I had similar reactions when we first heard about the ruckus: “there are other benefits to organic, you know”. Actually, my first reaction was an utter lack of reaction because over the years there have been many studies done on the subject with varying results, so whoop-de-do here’s another study in the same inconclusive line. What irritated me was how it seemed that this complex decision was being boiled down to one facet and then blown way out of proportion.

Why does anyone buy organic? It varies, of course, by the person. For me, first and foremost it is an environmental decision. Every item I purchase that was raised organically instead of conventionally eliminates that amount of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers released into the environment. In fact, my biggest commitment to buying organic is not actually food, but cotton. I’ve seen statistics indicating that cotton is the single crop with the highest pesticide usage in the world. So every item in my closet fits into one of three categories: new organic fabric (with minimal processing and eco-dyes since I don’t want toxic dyes, formaldehyde, or fire retardants on my clothing either), second-hand conventional fabric, or grandfathered items (I am my father’s daughter, I admit to having clothing dating back to high school and college before I went organic). I simply will not purchase something made from conventionally raised cotton for my house, including towels, sheets, etc. I have also reached the point where it is absolutely painful to purchase something as a gift for someone else that is not organic cotton.

My second reason for buying organic is personal exposure. I purchase organic food to minimize the potential for exposure to pesticide residue in my food. Even if the amount of pesticide residue on a single item is negligible, I believe in the Precautionary Principle, and I am concerned about the cumulative effects of consuming a negligible amount of pesticide on every item in my diet. I don’t have the Environmental Working Group’s “clean” and “dirty” lists memorized any more, and I think that the list is different than when I last looked at it several years ago anyway. I only buy waxed cucumbers, berries and stone fruits, and “rough textured” foods organic if I can find them. Since we do all of our produce shopping at the farmer’s market, I don’t have many certified organic options. There are a handful of farmers that are certified organic at my farmer’s market, but there are many more that simply put “no pesticides” on the pricing signs. I’m fine with that. Some of the farmers use integrated pest management, which I consider to be perfectly acceptable. In general, at the farmer’s market if two vendors have the same item but one says “no pesticides” then that is the one I will buy. I don’t worry too much about it since I figure even if the farmers are using pesticides, small farms probably use a lot less pesticides than industrial farms.

For me the nutrition aspect is sort of a distant third. I say sort of because in my mind, higher nutrient content is associated with small local farms, not specifically organic farms. I’m sure that industrial organic fields produce food that is statistically nutritionally identical to food produced in conventional industrial fields. But when you can harvest something at the peak of freshness from your backyard, or pick it up at a farmer’s market, I would think you are getting a more nutritious item than if you bought it at a grocery store where it was harvested before fully ripening. It also makes sense to me that using more natural methods of restoring nutrients to the soil, rather than just applying synthetic fertilizers and mining the soil, results in better quality produce.

Conscious Kitchen Challenge, Self Exam   8 comments

One of the blogs that I read regularly, Ask An Organic Mom, is doing a conscious kitchen challenge to promote her knew book. I figure I’ll take the challenge and post my results here. To start, the first week is a self exam.

  1. How many meals do we make at home per week? It looks like this is a fixing food at home vs. takeout question. I’m not really sure where frozen lunches or breakfasts like cereal or toast fall because I don’t make my own but on the other hand I’m not stopping at a restaurant. I’ll use the loose definition of grocery vs. restaurant/prepackaged meal (no assembly except heating), which gives us a typical score of +15 (+25, -10).
  2. Look at the ingredient lists on foods in the cabinet. How long are they? Can you pronounce and visualize all of them? The instructions for this questions say to use one item, but I can get very different scores for a range of stuff in our cabinet. There’s the bag of local sun-dried tomatoes that scores +6 points, the can of black beans that scores +8, or the can of soup that scores +11, and then there’s the box of animal crackers that scores -3. Most of the items in our cabinet got a positive score, and I couldn’t find anything that I couldn’t pronounce (but then again, I am a science person).
  3. What’s in your fridge? What is the ratio of fruits/vegetables to packaged foods? We’re helped out by the fact that we only buy produce from the local farmer’s market, and only buy organic milk and butter (although some of the cheese may not be organic). The only packaged multi-ingredient items are juice, beer, and components like roasted red peppers, mustard, hoisin sauce, and mayonnaise. We get a total score of +34.
  4. What’s in your freezer? We’ve reduced our use of frozen lunches, but there’s a certain amount of bias in that I am doing this exercise before the weekly grocery shopping has been done. I calculate our total score to be 0. One package of conventional sausages canceled out one package of organic/humanely raised sausages; two frozen lunches canceled out the homemade frozen pesto and organic ice creams. But the scoring didn’t include the single-item packages like frozen berries, frozen edamame, flax seeds, or walnuts. If I include those at 1 point per bag we get a total score of +12. (Although since three of those are half empty bags of edamame, maybe I need to clean out the freezer.)
  5. How much trash do you create? Do you recycle or compost? We get a whopping +2 score. We recycle, but we don’t compost, and we fill up a garbage bag on average every two weeks. It’s pretty pathetic. I look forward to owning a home and garden so that I can start composting (although it’s a sad excuse since I could compost and container garden in our rental), and I think we generate WAAAAY too much trash.

So on the whole, we get a positive score. We are already working on increasing the amount of leftovers we make for lunches, and decreasing our use of pre-packaged frozen lunches. And I need to stop getting my Sunday morning muffin. I’m pretty happy with our cabinet and our fridge, but apparently our freezer needs some work. Really just some cleaning up work, though, if we can reduce our frozen lunches. the meat in the freezer is usually just a package or two of sausages, and most of the time they are organic and/or local and/or “humanely-raised” (although there’s no certification for that so – grain of salt). I don’t see us developing many relationships with a local farmer for our meat in the next few weeks. And then of course, there’s the composting.

Posted March 27, 2010 by mayakey in food, home

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The Peace of Reconciliation   Leave a comment

This week, in anticipation of Holy Week, we had our penance service at my church. Maybe I’m weird, but I actually look forward to this every year. I think I grew up as a typical American late-20th-century Catholic, which means that I grew up with a distinct dislike of the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession. I remember dreading whenever I had to go. I remember feeling like it was a worthless exercise because I never really got anything out of it. I remember seeing the old ladies who would take FOREVER (at least in a child’s sense of time) in the confessional, and wondering how they did so many bad things. I remember that confession was something I NEVER did voluntarily, and I thought anyone who did was crazy. All in all, it was a fairly negative exercise, focused on sin and punishment.

Fast forward to college. The Newman Center in Ann Arbor had a Lenten penance service and I don’t remember what inspired me to go. I suppose I was inspired by the fact that in college I learned just how sad my catechism classes had been as I relearned almost every facet of Catholicism and found out how much stuff I had never been taught. (I’m not sure what the purpose of catechism class is if they aren’t going to actually teach you anything real.) I think the idea of going to confession with a strange priest was also appealing, since I was always nervous about confessing to a priest that knows my name. Lo and behold, I walked out of the church that evening with a new spring in my step. I had never before understood the expression “a weight off my shoulders” but that night I experienced it. Every year it is a different experience, and every year I get just what I need. Sometimes it is the internal sensation of love and forgiveness, sometimes there’s something particular that has been nagging at me, sometimes it is a just a good place for me to honestly and clearly evaluate myself, and sometimes the atmosphere is perfect to focus my meditation. For me it’s no longer “confession” where I come up with my list of rote “sins”, but rather “reconciliation” where I acknowledge my imperfections, offer up my failings, and am set free. It is now a very positive and refreshing experience, leaving me feeling stronger and more at peace.

And as for experiencing real envy and jealousy for the first time in my life (at least that I can recall), it’s in the past.

Posted March 26, 2010 by mayakey in spiritual practices

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Winter Heating Review   3 comments

Spring is here in Sacramento, and now I can look back at the winter season and how we did on gas usage this winter. Compared to last year, we used a lot more gas in December and January, less gas in February, and a little more in March. Honestly, I’m surprised our gas usage wasn’t even higher. We knew we would use significantly more gas in December than last year because this year my mother came here for Christmas, whereas last year we left town for a week and turned the heater off. Compared to two years ago, when Christmas was also in Sacramento, our gas usage was on slightly higher this year. I think that the main reason for the higher gas usage was the fact that in previous years the interior wall separating the two halves of the duplex was heated on the other side, whereas this year the other side was vacant and unheated. Also, we want to move out so badly that we didn’t have the heart to update our weatherization.

Instead of updating the weatherization, we dropped the thermostat again. Previously, when I lived alone, I could not set the thermostat below 65 degrees F, or I was too cold to function. After my husband moved in, we found that we could easily drop the thermostat to 62 degrees F before I was non-functional. So this year I challenged myself and we set the thermostat to 60 degrees F. (We have an agreement that I control the temperature in the winter since I get cold easily, and my husband controls the temperature in the summer since he doesn’t handle hot weather well.) Amazingly enough, I did fine! We added a blanket to my side of the bed, for a total of four blankets, and that kept me warm at night. And I had my sweaters, blankets, and wool mules to keep me warm-ish during the day. It helped that my husband does the dishes usually now, so I am no longer immersing cold hands in colder water every evening. I cannot really explain how I seemed to do better this year with the thermostat at 60 degrees compared to last year with the thermostat at 62 degrees, though.

Another interesting side effect of dropping the thermostat to 60 degrees was actually decreasing hot water usage. Usually in the winter I am so cold that when I shower I use 100% hot water. I know it is not good for my skin, and numerous times I have tried to make myself use less hot water with no success. This year, though, I had to turn on the cold water during my showers. I guess that I acclimated so well to the decreased air temperature, that I just couldn’t take the pure hot water showers any more. Mind you, I still took really hot showers, they just weren’t as hot as in years past.

What will we plan on doing next year? Well hopefully next year we will be in a house that does not have single-pane aluminum-frame windows and sliding glass door, and that maybe has some insulation. We anticipate using SIGNIFICANTLY less gas in the new house because it can’t possibly be worse to heat than the dump where we live now. But what temperature will we set the thermostat to? Maybe 60 degrees again, because while it was tough at times, I did okay. If the new house does have better windows and insulation then it won’t feel as drafty, too.

Posted March 22, 2010 by mayakey in home, resource use

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Good Eats in Montana!   2 comments

I’m currently wrapping up a couple days of field work in Livingston, Montana. Usually field work involves either not eating, or eating pretty unhealthy and/or unremarkable food. But actually on this trip I have enjoyed some great meals. I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised since Montana is, in my mind at least, the heart of buffalo ranching country, and I love buffalo meat. In general I hear/see a lot about various ranches in this state and the sustainable ranching methods that they practice; and it seems like much of the time that I see grass fed beef for sale, it is shipped from Montana. For quite some time now, in my mind Montana has been linked to environmental stewardship and conservation.

But back to the food! I arrived in Livingston on St. Patrick’s Day, so of course we went out to an … Italian restaurant, and a very nice one at that. I assumed that I couldn’t have the lamb (I suppose I should have asked, maybe it was hormone free lamb), so I enjoyed a tender pork tenderloin instead. I don’t think I’ve ever started any field work off with a fancy plate of food before. Lunch on Thursday was at Montana’s Rib and Chop House, which I remembered fondly from my last stint of field work in Livingston a few years ago. I was quite happy to bite into a juicy, and big, buffalo burger. (I have massive burger cravings now that I can’t go out for burgers anymore, so we went to Fuddruckers a couple of weeks ago, but their buffalo patty was really bad and I needed to wipe it out of my mind with the real thing!) At the end of the day, we settled on the Second Street Bistro for dinner and I was in heaven. All local meat including grass fed beef and lamb! Hurray! Quick, can I have Moroccan Lamb Pillows and Beef Stroganoff? Mmmmmmm. (Actually, it was really hard to pick an item from the menu.) I felt kind of silly ordering beef stroganoff at a fancy restaurant, but I had to celebrate ordering beef from a menu, and what better way than to order a childhood favorite? Besides, it turned out to be fancy beef stroganoff. Lunch on Friday was a quick sandwich and salad from Mustang Catering, another gourmet meal. I don’t ordinarily like mayo on my BLTs, but I certainly enjoyed a dried tomato aioli on this one. I topped off the trip with a microbrew at Neptune’s Brewery, the first place I have ever seen to make their potato chips out of purple potatoes.

Posted March 19, 2010 by mayakey in food

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Welcome to Hayfever Season!   1 comment

It’s approaching that time of year when green leaves are budding, plants are growing like crazy, beautiful flowering displays are everywhere … and I have to use my wiper blades every morning and afternoon to clean off the layer of pollen on my windshield. I could smell hints of flower perfume along my last run, so when I got home I immediately went into hayfever-prevention mode. I do not generally have hayfever. My first two years of high school are actually the only years of my life whenI have had bad hayfever, and I figured out long ago that it was a psychosomatic issue. For years I would have an occasional, or semi-regular, sneezing itchy-eye day, but I never really paid attention. Last year I finally started paying attention to my symptom patterns. I realized that whether I was at work or at home I would have no allergy symptoms all day long, I would go for a walk or a run and I would feel fine, but then while stretching afterwards I would all of a sudden develop a runny nose, sneeze, and red, itchy eyes. Repeat the next day.

I developed a hayfever-prevention strategy for myself when I realized that my hayfever was only flaring up after exercising outdoors (which I am absolutely not going to give up just because of red eyes and sniffles). During the pollen season, IMMEDIATELY after my run I take off my shirt, wash my face with cold water, and neti pot my sinuses. Later, I give my hair a thorough brush with my boar bristle hairbrush and/or I rinse my hair.

  • Removing my shirt prevents continued exposure to any pollen that could have gotten trapped in the fibers of the shirt while outdoors.
  • Rinsing my face, and sometimes even the exposed arms, is a crucial part of my strategy. Without this step my eyes are almost guaranteed to get itchy and inflamed. Also, if I rinse using warm water it has to be followed by a cool water rinse because the warm water alone will exacerbate the inflammation in my eyes.
  • Irrigating my sinuses is, as I have found, the most reliable way to stop hayfever in its tracks. I know that a lot of people think that neti pots are gross, or sound uncomfortable to use, but they really aren’t. It is a small pot in which you put a particular amount of salt and warm water to match the salinity and temperature of the sinuses. Then you put the spout of the pot in one nostril, lean over a sink, and let water from the neti pot run in one nostril and out the other. When I’m done – no sneezing! All (or most) of the little pollens that would have created an allergic reaction in my sinuses have been rinsed out, leaving me clean breathing.
  • Hair brushing or rinsing is for me kind of an extra step since I run with my hair in a ponytail. I figure that my hair isn’t really entrapping a lot of pollen, and I don’t usually notice problems if I don’t deliberately try to remove any pollen present. But since this step is one sited commonly in allergy prevention articles, I usually do it for good measure.

Posted March 17, 2010 by mayakey in health

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The Precautionary Principle   Leave a comment

The Precautionary Principle (PP) has been around for a long time, but many people have never heard of it or don’t really know what it means. I believe very strongly in the PP, so I’m going to take a stab at presenting it. The plain English translation for the PP would be “better safe than sorry”. The PP means that if there is a possibility of causing harm, and/or scientific uncertainty, than the burden of proof lies on those who create the activity/material that may cause harm rather than those who would potentially be harmed. Think of the PP as an offshoot of the moral law “Do No Harm”. Currently, the burden of proof is almost always on the victims.

It is appropriate in our English legal system for the burden of proof to be on the prosecution (the representative of the victims) and not the defendant (who allegedly caused harm). This protects people from false accusations. Also, there is no way to run tests or models and predict with any degree of accuracy whether or not someone may do something illegal in the future. How could you prove that someone is a murderer if there is no murder? But note that our legal system does employs the PP when it comes to sentencing: a guilty verdict indicates that the person does present a danger to society and as a result the person is placed in prison to protect the general public from future harm.

It is not appropriate in the case of new developments for the burden of proof to always be on the victims. It is significantly easier and cheaper to run models to determine the floodplain of a 100-year storm (a storm of such severity that it would not be expected to occur more than once every hundred years) and limit building within that floodplain, then to clean up the mess when the 100-year storm hits and destroys homes. It is significantly easier to run lab tests to determine the fate of a new chemical in the environment (eg. will it end up in air, water, or oil? will it accumulate in plant and animal tissue?) and to determine potential health effects of exposure, then to figure out the health effects in the general population where there are millions of other variables that complicate the analysis.

The development of chemicals is where I see the PP pushed the most by advocates. The basic idea would be that chemical companies must conduct testing BEFORE a new chemical is put into general use, rather than AFTER it is linked to problems in the general population. The chemical industry fights back by saying that this would stifle innovation. I don’t see how that would be. It doesn’t put a stop to new developments, it just slows down the pace of the application of those new developments. Pharmaceutical companies have to do studies before a new medicine is approved and that doesn’t seem to have stifled innovation in the industry. Not that I am advocating using the same system that we use for new drugs; there are way too many flaws in that system! The PP involves looking at more than one facet of a new development before putting it into use. After all, new developments aren’t made in vacuums, and the “side effects” are usually the problem.

The way I see it the PP would make it SIGNIFICANTLY easier to make educated, informed decisions. The amount of effort that I have to put forward currently to living a life free from known or suspected toxins/mutagens/irritants/etc is frustrating because I have to make decisions based on sketchy, incomplete data. When there is a suspicion I try to follow the PP and remove the offender from my life until I know that it is safe, but that means doing a lot of label reading, internet searching, and plumbing the shallow depths of my scientific knowledge. And there are numerous situations where I find that I cannot avoid something questionable because it is ubiquitous. I absolutely understand why most people aren’t willing to put forth this much effort, but I believe that everyone has a right to live an uncontaminated life anyway.

Posted March 14, 2010 by mayakey in environment, health

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