Archives for August 2009

Bring Your Own Waste-Free Lunch

I’ve found myself in the middle of a fairly large project, so for the next few days I’ll be running some posts that appeared in the early days of this blog — I think only about 5 of you were reading back then. 🙂

This post first appeared here on February 2, 2009.

Schools around the nation are implementing Waste-Free Lunch days. The idea is for parents to pack a lunch for their kids that is 100% waste-free. Whether or not you have kids, you can save some serious cash by bringing your own lunch to work everyday and you can make it healthier for you and healthier for the planet by packing waste-free. What goes into a waste-free lunch?

  • Reusable lunch bag. Make sure it’s not made of PVC. More on why PVC is bad in another post.
  • Reusable water bottle. These can be found in many places, but watch out for BPA. You’ll want to get a bottle that is either made of stainless steel or one that is clearly marked “BPA free.”
  • Sturdy containers to hold sandwiches and snacks.
  • Cloth napkin.
  • Reusable silverware.

Once you get in the habit of packing your own stuff, it’s really no more trouble than packing disposables. You’ll also save money in the long run by cutting back on the amount of disposables you’re using (and buying). There are lots of places to buy these items for both you and your kids. A few places to start looking are The Soft Landing, Nubius Organics, I’m Organic and BuyGreen.com.

Now that you’ve got the goods, what goes in a healthy lunch? The easiest and most cost effective option is leftovers. The next best bet is fruit (no packaging), a whole grain (either bread or crackers), protein (beans, turkey, lean beef or chicken). There are plenty of sources for healthy lunch combinations. Those listed below are just a start.

Good luck with your Waste-Free Lunch!

80,000 Chemicals in Everyday Products, But Who’s Counting (No One)

Kid-safeChemicalsAct
Janelle Sorensen was kind enough to give me permission to reprint this article she wrote for Healthy Child, Healthy World. I found the contents of this post too important to simply summarize.

I’ve read over and over about the 80,000 chemicals in everyday products (most of which have only been in use since World War II). It’s a stunning figure used as an attention getter when people discuss health issues linked to certain toxic chemicals. Some sources put it higher and some put it lower. Some say they’re all in use and some say they’re just “registered.” I did some research and what I found is that no one really knows.

It turns out that more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals are indeed simply registered for use today with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). How many of these are actively used is hotly debated. In fact, the EPA cannot even nail it down—they estimate anywhere from 9,000-15,000. And, roughly 3,000 qualify as “high production volume” (HPV) – meaning more than a million pounds of each one are produced in or imported into the United States every year.

Given that we don’t even know how many of the 80,000 chemicals registered for use are actually being used, it should come as no surprise that no one knows the amount of total chemical production in the U.S. The only guess we have is an estimate based on the roughly 3,000 HPV chemicals – 4.4 to 7.1 trillion pounds of these chemicals are produced/imported annually.

Did that confuse you? It’s because we don’t keep track of all chemicals, only those that are produced or imported at more than a million pounds per year (anything less than a million pounds is apparently insignificant – I guess it just became too much trouble to keep track of everything). And given the almost 3 trillion pound spread between the HPV chemical estimates, we don’t even really keep track of those.

Try to visualize this massive quantity of chemicals. For illustrative purposes, let’s go with the average of the two aforementioned numbers, 5.75 trillion or, 5,750,000,000,000 pounds. These days we throw around numbers like million and billion and trillion without a second thought. But, consider the staggering size of this number. If you had your own little chemical lab and you created one pound of chemicals every second, it would take you over 180,000 years to get to 5.75 trillion. The US produces and imports this much every year (and that number continues to grow).

Now, allow me to shed some light on the true spectacle of ignorance.

No basic toxicity information is publicly available for 43 percent of the HPV chemicals and full information on toxicity is publicly available for only 7 percent.

Allow me to reiterate because it’s so mind boggling: Almost half of the chemicals that we are using in difficult to imagine amounts, almost half, have NO testing data at all on basic toxicity???? And, only SEVEN PERCENT have a full set of BASIC test data???

In addition, the toxicity information we have is a chemical-by-chemical assessment. Well enough on paper, but we are not exposed to chemicals one-by-one. We are exposed to chemicals in a soup-like fashion and every one of us has our own individual recipe. Given the enormous mixtures we are exposed to daily, there is no credible, scientific way to test for health impacts and we keep adding more ingredients (2,000-3,000 a year to be kind of exact).

International authorities agree that six basic tests are necessary for a minimum understanding of a chemical’s toxicity. For each chemical, the basic set of tests costs about $205,000. It would cost the chemical industry less than $427 million to fill all of the basic screening set data gaps for the high production volume chemicals. $427 million sounds like a lot of money to you and I, and the chemical industry says it’s completely unfeasible to consider doing all of these tests; it costs too much; it would paralyze them and stunt progress. But, consider this – $427 million only represents 0.2% of the total annual sales of the top 100 U.S. chemical companies. It is a drop in the bucket to them and; thus, utterly outrageous that the tests have not been performed.

So there you have it. Our modern society relies on thousands of chemicals, but we don’t know how many, or how much, or how they interact with each other or how they impact ecosystems or human health and development. It is an unbelievable, unrestrained, global experiment. It’s so huge it’s hard to wrap your head around it. So, maybe don’t try. What you should try to do is reduce your exposure by buying less stuff and looking for more natural choices (like using baking soda and vinegar to clean). You can also help strengthen the regulatory system that’s allowed this experiment to continue virtually unfettered for so many years by supporting the Kid Safe Chemicals Act.

[Beth’s note: The above article was reprinted with permission. To see the original post, please visit Healthy Child, Healthy World.]

Eating Better: Milk and Eggs

milk

This post is the third in a series about our attempts to eat better.

Milk

There are a lot of reasons why we’ve chosen to drink organic milk. Since our girls were born, we’ve had only hormone and antibiotic-free milk in our house. I’ve changed brands over the years, depending on where I could get the best price. Recently, I’ve found milk from a farm within 2 hours of my house. It comes in glass bottles that I return to the store when empty. For me, this is the best option because not only are we getting relatively local organic milk, but we’re avoiding all the waste that goes along with plastic milk jugs or paper cartons. I also feel better about consuming products stored in glass rather than plastic — primarily because of concerns about BPA and other chemicals. If you’re interested, you can read more about glass vs. plastic in this post by Copywriter’s Kitchen:  6 Reasons Why Glass Food Containers Are Better Than Plastic.

Eggs

In the early days of this site, I wrote a post about eggs. I’m still committed to truly free-range eggs from local farms. I think they really do taste better, and there’s more and more evidence that the eggs are better for us. I also like the fact that the chickens themselves live much more humane and decent lives.

I’m fortunate that Polyface Farm (of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and Food, Inc. fame) is about 2 hours away from where I live (I seem to be 2 hours from everything :)). They bring their fresh eggs to a farmer’s market in my area every Saturday, so lately, I’ve been buying from them. The eggs are great and fresh. In fact, the eggs I bought this past Saturday had just been collected 2 days before. I’d encourage you to try farm-fresh eggs if you can find them in your area. Check out your local farmer’s markets or visit the Local Harvest and Eat Wild sites for more options.

Ultimately, eating better is all about deciding what’s important for you and your family and seeking out the resources to locate food you feel good about. With a bit of research, it really is possible to eat well without a great deal of expense. How is your family eating better?

Photo Credit: reb

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Eating Better: Organics

organic produce garden

This post is the second in a series about our attempts to eat better.

Organics are everywhere now it seems. If you’re unsure what to eat, but have heard that organic products are pesticide-free, it can be tempting to throw anything into your shopping cart with the word “organic” on it. That is, until you see the price. Organic products often come at a price premium. If you don’t have an unlimited budget, what should you do?

The key is to be selective in which organic products you buy. If you’re trying to eat better, as we are, it’s best to avoid as many processed foods as possible. Just because a pre-packaged processed food says “organic” on the box, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you. I love Michael Pollan’s line, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan says “real food” is food your grandmother would recognize as food; he argues that if she wouldn’t recognize it, you shouldn’t eat it (think blue Gogurt, for example).

dirty dozen

Which brings us to whole foods, and that includes produce. I buy organic produce whenever possible, and if I can get it locally, even better. However, when it becomes cost prohibitive, I rely on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides. There’s a handy printout at their website that lists “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Clean 15.” It tells us which types of produce are most heavily sprayed with pesticides and which are not.

One of the best ways to save money on organic produce is to grow your own. We started a square foot garden this year and it’s been a lot of fun — not to mention an inexpensive source of lots of fresh, organic vegetables that really don’t have very far to travel from plant to table.

So what have we been eating lately?

◊ More fresh fruits and vegetables. Many from the farmer’s market and from our garden, some from the grocery store. Some of it organic (see above). I’m trying to cut back on canned food, and sticking with fresh or frozen.

◊ Fewer processed and packaged foods. If you’re looking to find the money to pay for organic produce, start here. It’s amazing how much smaller my grocery bill is when I don’t buy all that stuff.

As I mentioned in the introductory post to this series, we aren’t “there” yet with eating as well as we possibly can, but we’re taking steps, a few at a time, and getting there. So far, it’s been fun, and worth it.

Eating Better: Grass-Fed Beef

This post is the first in a series about our attempts to eat better.

I first learned about grass-fed beef when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Prior to reading that book, I was ignorant about the way beef (and poultry and pork) production works in this country. I’d like to say the enlightening was a delightful experience, but it wasn’t. I was disgusted and depressed about what I learned. One of the most important themes of Kingsolver’s book, though, is to learn what you need to know and then do what you can with that knowledge.

Why grass-fed beef? There are lots of reasons that are really beyond the scope of this post. The most important ones for my family are these:

Grass-fed beef is healthier. Cows were meant to eat grass, not grain. Therefore, the cows are healthier (and have no need for antibiotics and growth hormones) and their beef is better for you.

Grass-fed beef is more humane. These cows are allowed to roam in the pasture and are not squished into feed lots left to spend their lives standing in the their own feces, consumed by disease.

Grass-fed beef is better for the environment.

The Search. I’ve been on a search for grass-fed beef for my family. [Note: We are not vegetarians. While I applaud those who are and have respect for their convictions, at this time, that choice is not one we are making.] In addition to seeking out grass-fed beef, I wanted to find it as close to where I live as possible. As I started doing some research, beginning with the Local Harvest site, I found there are a number of farms within my state — some only a 30 minute drive from my house. However, some of the farms use a method called grain-finishing. They feed the cows a diet of grass until the last 6 months or so, and then load them up on grain to fatten them up faster for harvesting. This is not the approach I’m after. With a little more research, I found 3 farms within 2 hours of where I live who all raise their animals in pasture, and feed their cows only grass, all the way to the end. This process is called “grass-finishing.” Once I found the farms, we were able to sample the beef by ordering just a few cuts from each farm. All were delicious. Then, as always, it came down to price.

Cost. Grass-fed beef costs more than grain-fed, factory farmed beef. Grass-fed cows take longer to fatten up so quick and massive growth and harvesting is not possible as it is at feed-lots. Also, allowing the animals to be raised in pasture, requires, well, a lot of pasture for them to roam. Also, these farms are generally on a much smaller scale than the “Big-Ag” farms and therefore do not deal in the volume that can often create lower prices. After everthing I learned, though, the choice was easy. I’m willing to pay a bit more for grass-fed beef, but I still want the best price on it I can find.

Buying In Bulk. This turned out to be the best option for us. There are several ways to buy beef in bulk, depending on the cuts you want. Many farms allow you to purchase a 1/4, 1/2, or whole cow and charge a flat rate per pound. The benefit is that while you will get some beef that would normally cost a bit less than the flat rate per pound, you’ll get far more cuts that would cost considerably more. The farm we ended up choosing allows you to purchase bulk “packages” of beef. Each package has a different price per pound and contains different types of cuts. The package we chose includes ground beef, roasts and steaks and all of the meat in this package is boneless. For us, the best part about ordering this way (as opposed to buying a quarter cow) is that we don’t end up with a lot of cuts we don’t want (like organ meats). Our order hasn’t arrived yet, but when it does, it will contain approximately 60-80 lbs. of beef which should last us a good, long time.

Freezer Space. Obviously, buying beef in bulk requires a good bit of freezer space. We have a large freezer in addition to our regular refrigerator and freezer, so this shouldn’t be a problem. If you don’t have the extra space, you might consider splitting a bulk order with some friends.

Where to find grass-fed beef. As I mentioned, a good place to start is Local Harvest. You can search for farms in your area and see what they produce. Another excellent source, specifically for grass-fed beef, is Eat Wild. Again, you can search by your location and find farms that only raise beef this way. You can also find links to sources for pastured pork and free-roaming poultry. If you are unable to find a local farm source for your beef, you can easily order online from US Wellness Meats. I trust them as a source for quality.

I recommend that you read more about grass-fed beef, so you can make an informed decision on your own. Below are some resources:

Why Grass Fed Beef is Better For Your Health @ Natural Bias

Eat Wild is an excellent resource for learning more about grass-fed meats and for finding local farms that raise it.

Why Grass-Fed Beef is Better for the Environment @ Best Life magazine

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Food, Inc. the film