Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Eco-Baby Birthday: Edible Flowers

Here's a birthday cake fit for our five year old Girliest of Girls: purple frosting with pink dragee lettering and edible flowers! I broke my April Buy Nothing Challenge when I got some viola seedlings at the farmer's market. But the results were spectacular, our plants are blooming again so I can make more...and I'll teach you how to make candied flowers, too, as penance.

EGirl wanted a chocolate cake with purple frosting. This was easily accomplished with items we had in the house. And by that I mean I scavenged around for what we had, trying not to buy anything, aside from indulging my flower obsession. (I decided that using up what we had trumped fair-trade chocolate issues or the strange verbiage on the India Tree sprinkles website indicating that they were for decoration only despite being glittery and made of 90% sugar, and that the colors I have in my possession are not available for purchase in the health-conscious state of California - WTF?!). We had both cocoa powder and purple frosting tint, the faaancy kind with the most artificial of dyes, in the house from failed prior frosting rose creation efforts. La-la-la-la...that is me blocking out all but making my kid a birthday cake and trying not to waste too many resources.

The coolest part was, of course, the edible flowers! They were super easy. (And no, I don't recommend dropping $40 for 25 flowers.) First, choose a flower to grow (or buy some seedlings like me, just make doubly sure they are organic). Then, whip up some meringue powder (again, you can find this at a highbrow baking store) unless you have your own chickens and have no fear of salmonella. If you are trying to steer clear of raw egg whites then meringue powder or milk are the way to go. Follow the meringue instruction and use it or some milk to moisten your flower. Dip the flower in some superfine sugar. If you are lazy frugal like me, you can just send your sugar through the food processor for a bit. I might recommend using parchment paper instead of foil; ours stuck to the foil which made for difficult flower removal. Anyhoo, put your oven on the lowest heat you can and let the flowers dry for about 20 minutes. They should keep for a bit (tightly covered during this, ant invasion season) in a cool, dark place. Some recipes say they'll keep for up to a year! We candied mostly violas, and a couple chive flowers that had just come out in our window herb boxes (onion cake, anyone?).

Here's a couple recipes for candied flowers and lists of edible flowers for your reference. Maybe for Mother's Day?!

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Eco-Friendly Auction Items

My kid's elementary school had an auction tonight and we were determined to both support our local public school and honor the spirit of April's Buy-Nothing Challenge.

In terms of what to give, we decided to go with eco/crunchy items that busy friends and neighbors might already covet but hadn't yet tracked down. Time is what we all really lack, right? Here are three ideas (phew, they all sold! and two people actually got into a bidding war for the cleaning basket so I'm making another!) in case you're trying to come up with something eco-friendly to give to an auction.

BYOBag Medley
2 reusable shopping bags (Get Hip Get Green and Make Love Not Carbon); 5 cloth produce/bulk/grain bags; 3 mesh produce bags; 1 string bag plus red string to tie around your finger to help you to remember to bring them to the store! (I got the bags at ReusableBags and ecobags)

Crunchy Lunch Bunch Basket
2 Kleen Kanteen stainless steel water bottles with sport tops; stainless steel containers (2 small, 2 large); 2 red check Wrap-N-Mat reusable sandwich holders; 1 box Cut-Rite waxed paper bags; 2 organic cotton lunch sacks with fabric markers (perfect art project!)

Mean Green Cleaning Machine Basket
3 spray bottles containing nontoxic, environmentally friendly cleaning concoctions (All-Purpose Cleaner, Window Wash, and Produce Wash) - plus recipes for these. Dozen assorted cloth rags, 2 natural cellulose sponges, Better Basics for the Home by Annie Berthold-Bond. I am a huge dork so I not only upcycled old baby towels for the rags (local towels! already passed down from another family to us! used by 4 kids!) but then geekily sewed heart shaped scraps on them with my freecycled sewing machine so the winners could feel all mellow and happy while they got their clean on. Also?! I found in *my* rag bag a Santa Cruz Earth Day t-shirt from '91 that had a big earth on it. It went front and center on one of the sewn cleaning-rag sandwiches. (Note: the All-Purpose Cleaner and Window Wash recipes are from Better Basics -- I used rosemary essential oil which is a natural antifungal and antibacterial agent; I steer clear of the popularly used tea tree and lavender oils as I have heard they may be linked to endocrine disruption aka man-boobs. Also? I skip fresh lemon juice although it's a great natural antiseptic since it has to be refrigerated. But good to keep in mind if you need to say, disinfect a cutting board on the spot.)

So that covered our contributions (hope the specifics are helpful for folks at the auction who asked me where to get particular items). But what to buy to support the school without acquiring stuff?

Luckily, in the thick of the auction organization team were both a former EWG staffer and an eco-minded neighbor (who jogged by me today with a bunch of newspaper bags for the dog park, talk about reuse and public awareness) who know their audience. I got this email titled Give Green at the School Auction just yesterday:

Hi MamaBird,

I know that April is your "don't buy a thing" month, which has got me thinking about some of my own impulse buys (stop me before I spend $5 on 73 perfect blueberries). So I wanted to let you know that I created two items at the school auction with people like you & me in mind: the Teacher Wish List and School Library Fund. We don't (just) want more stuff, we want to contribute to the school.

We asked the teachers and staff to give us their "wish lists." We think you'll agree that this is what the auction is all about -- providing the resources that our teachers need.

Teacher's Wish List: On every teacher and staff member's list (it would be wonderful to fulfill this dream!) - A working copy machine and a supply of paper.
Um, be still my beating heart. When I taught I used to spend half my life (and disposable income) at Kinko's and the other half breathing purple ditto paper fumes. I cannot believe that I didn't know my kid's teachers don't have enough paper or a functioning copy machine. We totally leapt at that one. And we won a bowling party for my daughter with her teacher (yeah!) and a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Zoo for her and some friends.

Rockin' night and relieved to report, a pretty non-consumptive night after all, despite money changing hands for good reason.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mrs. G, She Completes Me

Awww, I love me some Derfwad Manor. Check out today's Slow Cook Thursday to read a MamaBird guest post with a sweet potato recipe and a puppy poem. Also? If you've never read it, you've got to check out her Women's Colony post. Or really, anything that Mrs. Gggggggggg ever writes.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Happy Earth Day! Number Crunching Edition

Creative take on consumption and environmentalism? You have got to check out Running the Numbers by Chris Jordan. His huge photographs depict topics like plastic cups (the closeup at left is a tiny piece of a montage he did of 1 million of them - the amount used up on airlines every six hours). I can't remember where I found this, but it's probably from BB-blog, my source for all things visually interesting.

I figure it's a fine time to do a little assembling of resources for number crunching (ie analyzing my personal consumption and resource use). So much of what's interesting to me right now is just about raising my own awareness level, and learning to make my lifestyle and economic choices more carefully.

On the home front, I've been wondering just how to calculate our basic carbon footprint. There are basic web tools out there for figuring out your water, electricity, and carbon usage.

But my favorite calculator is over at Riot For Austerity. You may have to join the group to see their files, but I've been hearing about the group for awhile from lunatics luminaries like Burbanmom and I think it sounds like a great place to listen and learn. Basically, the group members are going to try to reduce their impact to spur government action and for the larger sense of living simply so that others may simply live. To join the group go to the 90% Reduction Yahoogroup. Here's part of their welcome message:
"Welcome to the Riot for Austerity 90% Emissions Reduction Project. The goal that participants have set for themselves is to cut their emissions by 90% of what the average person in the US consumes - the approximate amount people in the rich world need to reduce by in order to avoid the worst effects of global warming.... We’re doing this for several reasons. First, because it is necessary - if we want to bestow a decent world on our children, we have to cut our emissions, and much harder and faster than any government has proposed. The reason governments do not propose it is because they believe it is politically infeasible. So we want to present our leaders with as many people as possible who will stand up and say “I did it. Our nation can too.”

I don't know about you, but my personal goal? Just to live more simply. I am hoping to use the tools above to help myself learn about my consumption patterns and to make conscious choices about what I'd like to do rather then living blindly and greedily off of resources I don't really even need or notice. I figure any improvement is better than nothing, huh? Slow, steady, continual improvement.
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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eco Friendly Shoes Shopping

Dear MamaBird,

You always give your devoted readers hearty (and healthy) food for thought. Yesterday, J and I spent half an hour ruminating on this post. My private agony at the moment, however, is about a virtually incurable addiction to TJMaxx and Marshalls shoes, the one accessory I depend on to add a touch of pizzazz to my limited black-on-black or tan-on-tan wardrobe. Feel free to weigh in on the topic of environmentally responsible footwear for an aging resident of variable New England climes, but my guess is that you'd probably come up with significantly fewer than 50+ (gulp, that's pairs, not individual shoes).

Love, N (P.S. Is it sandals weather yet in DC?)

Oh, Dearest N (cough...Imelda),

Not only has 5 year old EGirl broken out her sandals here in DC, it is time for the sparkly sleeveless leotard! But I digress. I love your question and dug around a bit online to scope out eco-friendly footwear options for you and all of our green fashionista friends. Even though I should be fleeter of foot by virtue of my calendar age, I personally have custom orthotics for my (cough again! bunions) so I have completely given up on shoes as a positive accessory in my life (so jealous of your effortless chromatic wardrobe!). Honestly, I think that the most enviro option is probably to a)buy fewer shoes (sorry!!) or b)go to the secondhand store (possibly an icky idea where shoes are concerned). My daughter will one day join you, though, perhaps literally, on a shoe shopping trip, and I'd bet that we're all going to get at least one or two pairs of kicks in the near future so here are a few ideas:

Natalie Portman came out with a very spendy vegan shoe line recently that's fun eye candy but won't hit your "I can't pay a lot for that muffler" buttons.

MooShoes is a cruelty-free NYC boutique (love these basic boots!).

These vegan wedge sandals are awfully cute (not like I can ever wear heels again, sob)!

Mink's black sparkly spike heels would make you a stylin' dancing fool at the annual Old Neighborhood New Year's bash.

Could these red Ultragirl glittery flats be more adorable? Holy Dorothy shoes, Batgirl.

Vegan and sweatshop-free Chuck-T knockoffs...

For your own perusal, I got many of the above tips (if not the exact shoes, lists of eco and vegan-friendly sites) from The Daily Green, MSNBC, and the Vegan Girl Next Door (best title! You Don't Have to Wear Ugly Shoes). As with any other purchase, you have to decide what's important to you (recycled materials, sourcing, manufacturing byproducts, not to mention comfort, style and price, not all of which are self-evident in promo materials). One of the vegan sites recommended Payless. If you care about fair trade issues, sadly, I am guessing that the buy one get one 1/2 off shoes are not for you. And to get a bargain-basement deal, I fear, you'd need to get awfully lucky at the sales rack.

All that said, I also consulted with our family shoe expert, someone who's worked in outdoor and retail product development (including shoe sourcing and design) for decades... I'll call him PDawg. Anyways, PDawg said, practically speaking, that you should check into Teva (hey! whimsical side-button flats!), Patagonia, (huh, more whimsical casual flats), Simple (hmm...stylish espadrilley kicks), Nau (no shoes yet), and possibly Timberland (hey! cute sandals), but had a fine caveat. Even if you get a 100% recycled shoe, he noted, the upcycling process itself will have undesirable manufacturing byproducts. There's no shoes currently made that then get recycled back into other shoes (a closed loop, so to speak). And even if there were, the recycling process itself isn't usually perfect. In his experience, even though a material like polyester is highly recyclable, the moment it's got nylon thread in it, or a screen printed logo, it ends up with inconsistencies in the finished product. The melting process itself may degrade the polyester or at the very least change it so that it can't be used for precisely the same purpose again. As he said, "It's hard to make something perfectly recyclable." He suggested that we all read Cradle to Cradle.

A big thanks to PDawg for taking time away from his adoring family to answer my 17,000 questions. Anyone else have any green, fair trade shopping tips for fashion-and-bargain-loving N?

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

DC Recycling Redux

So, SuperDork MamaBird here. I just got home from the Chevy Chase Citizens Association's Green Meeting, where I heard a riveting talk on recycling given by DC's Director of the Dept.of Public Works (and I am so serious about that, this guy was smart and real). This, my friends, is what I spent my child-free capital on for the week. My, "Honey, can you put the kids to bed?" card? Now gone. And, baby, it was totally worth it! Thanks, William Howland, you totally had me on the edge of my seat.

Tidbits about DC's recycling program you might not have known but would totally have given up your night with your honey for:

  • Totally fascinating financial lowdown: just 2 1/2 years ago, it cost more to recycle a ton of waste ($45) than it did to landfill a ton of waste ($40). Now? It costs more to landfill a ton of waste ($65) than it does to recycle it ($18!). Apparently, the recycling market has changed largely due to the cost of aluminum (note that this is the second-most-popular recyclable item found in DC waste headed for the landfill).
  • Where the heck does DC recycling go? Loyal reader SF, I did not forget about you and your wonderings. To a transfer station and then a recycling center outside of Columbia, MD. There, to separate out our commingled recycling (aka glass shards in amongst your coconut milk cans), they use people fans, and magnets to sort it out. 95% is good to recycle. 5% gets kicked out as trash (back to the landfill). MamaBird asked what we can do to make sure we don't contaminate trash. Howland and his coworkers said the top contaminants were: plastic newspaper/grocery bags (you can't stick these in your blue recycling container -- you need to take them to the grocery store to be recycled there); pizza boxes and soiled food; and non-glass containers (ie ceramic).
  • In October-November of last year, DPW did a waste sort and went through 91 trash and recycling trucks. They methodically sorted, ward by ward, to determine what people were not recycling. The #1 missed opportunity? Paperboard: toilet paper tubes and cereal boxes. The #2 missed opportunity was aluminum cans (Yikes! this is what makes our recycling cost-effective). The most interesting finding for DPW was the sheer quantity of tossed clothing.
  • DPW collects waste from about 110,000 households. This limits the city's ability to expand its recycling program. "We don't produce enough recyclable material." Basically, in order to "do more," we'd have to team up with other jurisdictions (MD or VA).
  • Only 17-18% of the waste stream in DC (by weight) is recycled! Gulp. The other 82-3% goes to the landfill. The City Council set a bar of 45% to be recycled in the early 90s.
Admit it, you want more recycling tidbits....
  • If you want free compost for your community garden or local site, call (202) 727-1000 and ask about the Helping Hands program; DPW will deliver compost for centralized pickup.
  • The leaves we put curbside? The ones getting sucked up by the huge vacuum hoses CBoy adores so? Are not currently being composted by the city; they go to Pogo Organics (so our tax dollars and careful stewardship of our leaves end up in the benefiting a private, albeit green company).
  • Two years ago, the city did a pilot program with the EPA composting leaves at Oak Hill -- that compost is what the city has available for distribution -- this pilot program was successful and, according to Howland, "Now we know we can do it (compost successfully)."
  • In the future, DPW plans to: make finished compost available at transfer stations; have shredders at transfer stations to encourage folks to recycle sensitive papers; have weekly hazardous materials pickups (yeah!) at transfer stations so you don't have to hit the twice-yearly Hazardous Waste pickups we have now (coming up! April 26th!).
  • Commercial waste (which includes anyplace with more than four units!) is not handled by the District DPW. The haulers of this material can take it wherever (DC, MD, VA) it's most convenient.
  • Another audience member asked how much organic waste was collected of the total: 8,000 tons/year out of about 225,000 tons/year total. Lots of room to compost.
  • Didja know that the bulk trash items (like sofas) are recycled (well, the metal in them)?
  • Howland said that they just hired their first webmaster and are trying to "spice up" their recycling site, so keep checking back.
  • DC's going to start using recycled soy oil for its fleet of DPW vehicles.
More lowdown on the Green Meeting in the days to come... xoxo

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Take Back The Filter: Clorox Should Recycle Britas in the US, Too!

This is a pretty simple action (thanks Fake Plastic Fish!) that will help close the loop on Brita filters' production cycle. European consumers can recycle their Brita filters but here in North America, we can't.

Beth Terry and some of her compadres have set up a website to guide you through the action cycle but basically, if you're annoyed Brita filter users who don't have a super skinny drill bit handy to refill your own filter with activated charcoal (seriously!) you'll want to:

Go sign the petition to Clorox. Then, if you're feeling extra motivated, you'll want to send Clorox a letter, and finally, you should save your old filters and mail them in 'cause Beth's going to give them back to Clorox at their HQ in Oakland.
Here's the text I slapped into the comment box when I signed the petition, if you want to just echo MamaBird:
"Please let US consumers recycle their filters like European consumers already can. What a waste! Plastic in the landfills will *never go away*! Take responsibility for closing your manufacturing loop, Clorox. --A Brita pitcher user satisfied with the product but outraged at the abdication of disposal responsibility by Clorox."

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Free Mom/Baby Organic Yogurt!

So, I usually ignore the emails for strange shwag and product reviews that have been coming into my MamaBird inbox. But I love Stonyfield Farm, I think they have a conscience, and they want to give you free yogurt in exchange for your firstborn's palate getting you to taste their new plain yogurt/fish oil/probiotics blends. Mmmm! Fish and fermentation!

As I told their PR person, "a)I don't do many product reviews, b)my kids and I are beyond your target market (no more kids for me, no more baby food for them!), and c)I am sort of heading down the make-my-own-yogurt, minimize-packaging road. That said, I will happily give the coupons away, and I think the fact that Stonyfield is making a plain YoBaby is a genius move. My daughter sucked down the peach YoBaby drinks like they were going out of style but I always wished (and many on parenting boards I frequent echoed this thought) that they had less sugar. For awhile I actually cut them with kefir...." And, because I really can never leave well enough alone, I asked: "Is the "maternity" yogurt different in some way from other Stonyfield products? I'm curious - are the probiotics/folic acid, DHA et al added in just to the YoMommy or to all Stonyfield Farms yogurts?"

Their (very nice) PR flack's response: "Glad to hear you enjoy Stonyfield and it is very cool to hear the steps that you are taking to minimize the family's package consumption. In answer to your question about the Yo Mommy yogurt, the folic acid has been added and is not in other Stonyfield yogurts and so has the DHA. The DHA is from anchovy and sardine fish oils - sounds very yucky but you can't taste it :) The probiotics, however, are in all Stonyfield yogurt products.

Here's the information about the probiotics in our yogurt:

By definition, yogurt must include the starter cultures Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Other major-brand yogurts include one or two additional cultures. But we add four more probiotic cultures to all our yogurts: L. acidophilus, Bifidus, L. casei, and L. rhamnosus. Our yogurt provides a probiotic powerhouse in every serving."

I'm all for probiotics (hotlink to Surely You Nest post on that topic). For the record, I think they need to do more research and the jury's still out on which strains work best with which tummies (they now think probiotics may vary in efficacy depending on the person's gut. Would make sense). But! These free yogurts are perfectly packaged to send to daycare, take outside for a picnic, or take to work in your lunch. Unless you are making your own and storing it in plastic jars in which case by all means take a pass. And by the way? Sardines and anchovies? Not at *all* yucky. (Sorry, *katydidnot*...dim sum heretic....)

Leave a comment if you want a coupon for a free 6-pack of YoMommy organic yogurt or YoBaby yogurt (which now comes in plain!). If there are lots of comments, I will use a random number generator named EGirl to figure out winners. Submit your comment by COB EST on Friday, April 18th and I'll announce the winners Monday (I got 5 of each so there will be 10 winners. And no, I did not receive a dime for this shameless promotion of eco-shwag for my devoted readers).

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Buy Nothing Challenge: Sunday Confessions (Part 2)

As Crunchy would say, "Forgive me, people, for I have spent." It has been 13 days since I signed on for the Buy Nothing Challenge and I continue to struggle not to consume.

First, a plea: my kid's birthday is coming up, so if you have eco-friendly ideas for party favors that I can make with the supplies in my house (think a closet-full of random art supplies and scavenged materials befitting a former teacher) I am all ears. I signed up for this challenge with the full awareness that I would be trying to throw a five year-old birthday party without any consumption and I am still game to try.

This week's recap:

Stuff I wanted to buy and didn't:

  • I really wanted to go to the beauty salon for any number of reasons. No big loss. I am a ponytail type anyhow.

  • I also (corollary thought) wanted to buy a pair of hair scissors to cut my daughter's bangs for her (and stop us from going to the hair salon for her which she'd like to do weekly, if given the option). A good friend offered to lend me some already, so it's a convenience thing. How lazy am I that I don't want to borrow them once a month? Need to do it and stop whining.

  • I wanted to buy a birthday present for my daughter's little friend who's celebrating today. When I already had a great gift in the house. Doh! Glad the challenge stopped me from spending and consuming needlessly.

  • I'm hankering to buy some compost and organic soil amendments (not to mention delectable little seedlings) for our community garden plot. There is an informal plant swap coming up, though! I am awash in aloe plants so let's hope my wampum will go forth and return me some tomato plants.

  • A digital camera. I've been eyeing SLR digital cameras for over a year now. Anyone love theirs (for May purchase, of course)?

Mea Culpa:
  • My husband and I went out to a really delightful dinner complete with two frosty cocktails -- and I certainly in no way regretted my Saigon Cinnamon Sugar Dusted Donuts. But I'm sad about my delightful pineapple halibut. Some halibut is sustainably fished and some is not (thanks to my favorite fish guide, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program, which cross-references food safety concerns like mercury contamination with sustainability issues). I dunno which the restaurant had 'cause I didn't have the info for FishPhone at my fingertips while I ordered. Should have texted for the info! Because Atlantic halibut's overfished and Pacific halibut gets a green light. Which means that either way I made a bad choice. Overfished if local and if sustainable? Shipped across the country. Sigh.

  • Then the chocolate dessert: definitely not labeled as fair trade chocolate, although I rationalized by guessing that a shmancy place would use highbrow chocolate, which is sourced from individual farmers and therefore not awash in indentured child labor. Either way, I should have asked about both the fish and chocolate, if just to raise the issues with the chef. Enviro redemption? My plate was scraped so clean there was no dilemma about packaging waste for the nonexistent leftovers.

  • Two pictures of CBoy for his passport (no, we are not going anywhere, I just want to get one in case someday we win the lottery and take a carbon-neutral vacation to Costa Rica).

  • The sheer mention of the book Calder's Circus in last Sunday's confession sparked not one but two purchases of said used book. One, by a concerned grandmother for her 16 month old grandson, cause he might want to see it any day now and have a sudden rush of reading comprehension. (It came! Thanks, Mom!) ...the other, a purchase by a loyal reader immediately after reading my description of said book. Sigh. At least they were both used copies....

  • A tank of gas. Ergghhhh. For all the reasons you'd have.


Planning and time are essential. If I'm going to consume (be it restaurant food or material goods) I need to choose carefully and weigh off relevant manufacturing and sourcing issues. I need to do my homework ahead of time and have resources with me when I'm out and about. I think I need to program FishPhone into my cellphone, and I need to state my concerns while I am purchasing goods and services (or choosing not to) so my wallet speaks. I'm going to go email the restaurant now. And all of my bibliophile friends? We need to start hitting up local used booksales and online bookswapping services. And each other. The book buying desire runs deep.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Safe(r) Springtime Grilling

Sunny and warm up and down the East Coast this week; birds are chirping and the 'dogs are smoking. Are you on my neighbors' wavelength? Have you gotten your grills out en masse?

I love our grill - it's quick cooking with easy cleanup. But grilling food at high temperatures creates nasty cancer-causing chemicals. Acrylamide (created when amino acids and sugars are subjected to heat above 248*F) may cause endometrial and ovarian cancer. (Great summary of the acrylamide issue here). Heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCA and HAA) may cause breast and colon cancer. (Great summary of the HCA/HAA issue here). Then there's polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), formed from burning fat and smoke. Possibly leading to stomach cancer.

What can we do besides following a raw diet (acrylamides are in just about every high-temperature and processed food, including whole wheat bread and cereal)?

Keep the chemicals at bay by watching how you cook.

Safer grilling boils down to one herb (rosemary) and one technique (marinating).

Other common-sense techniques from
  1. Don't eat the blackened or charred parts of the meat. (MamaBird adds: our British relatives are nodding emphatically at the idea of avoiding "burned food" -- they don't bbq at all across the pond!).
  2. Use a drip pan or foil to prevent juices that cause smoke.
  3. Cook meat slowly over low heat.
  4. Don't let the flames touch the meat.
  5. Turn the meat with tongs instead of a fork to prevent the release of smoke causing juices.
  6. Use low-fat cuts of meat.
  7. Consider grilling skewered vegetables and fruits instead of meat. They do not produce carcinogens even when charred.
If all else fails, you can simply rely on this list of the eight worst foods in America (one of which is my standby airport snack - can you guess which one?) and at least steer clear of them after tucking into your ribs....

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Trader Joe's Sad Shrink-Wrapped Produce

Get out your gardening gear and ready yourself for -- wait for it -- opening your shrink-wrapped produce. It's almost as hard as getting into a brand-new cd, if you've hit up your neighborhood grocery store.

In all fairness, I need to give it up for Trader Joe's before I go on a rant. I heart their apricots (Blenheim slab chewy moist goodness), their provision of economical organic dairy and meat options, and their sunflower seed butter (delightful if anyone's trying to avoid peanuts and/or treenuts due to allergies or a nut-free school lunch policy). They delight my rapscallions with biodegradable balloons. But seriously, what is up with the plastic straight-jacketing of their produce?

Cucumbers, zucchini, and broccoli all cry to be free! Have you seen the abuse? Layer upon layer of cling wrap of questionable plastics and clamshells underneath! Let our vegetables breathe free!

I wrote TJ's customer service a note on their website (go 'head, you can do it, too!):

Comments: I love Trader Joe's -- especially your selection of organic
foods and your low, low prices! But it KILLS me that you wrap your
produce in plastic and have those little foam trays under something as
innocuous as a CUCUMBER. What gives? I would have thought TJ's would be
a little more eco-friendly. Thanks for thinking about this!

Their Response: Hello MamaBird,

We hear your concerns and take them seriously. We are currently
evaluating the information that is available concerning recyclable

We evaluate every product for packaging requirements and choose the one
we feel is the best currently available to us to deliver freshness,
shelf life and food safety. We continue to explore economical Earth
friendly alternatives that can deliver freshness and shelf life without
preservatives. We also seek out recycled paper packaging where possible
and some of our packaging for produce is made of corn oil, so it is compostable.

We are always working to balance our desire to use as little packaging
as possible with our efforts to keep our products safe, fresh and cost
effective. We will forward your comments and concerns to our Buying
Department for review.

Thank you for your understanding and patience regarding this matter.

Trader Joe's
Customer Relations

Good for TJ's for sourcing recylable packaging, but as the ol' song goes, reduce comes first. Maybe if the produce wasn't traveling very far it wouldn't need to be imprisoned so....

I think in addition to carrying my own bags during this lovely spring weather, I might as well head on over to our farmer's market so I'll be sure my greens are local and unencumbered.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Why So Much Testing and So Little Love of Learning?

All of my friends want to know if the DC Public Schools are right for their kids. I used to be a DCPS teacher, and they know I have seen the belly of the beast.

I live in the city myself, and I’m looking around with my eyes wide open, wondering if the urban public schools my child adores today will meet her needs tomorrow. Increasingly, the question for me (a die-hard public school supporter, Berkeley Masters Degree of Education in hand) is not whether suburban schools can do it better than urban schools, but whether or not any public schools at all can match up to the academic freedom I see flying around the (mostly-test-free) halls of the area’s elite private institutions.

It’s like an educational parallel to the Whole Foods paradox. Peasants in the bad old days used to eat brown bread and vegetables and at the very least (despite nasty, brutish and short lives) were the healthiest eaters in the land. Now people with lower incomes are stuck eating fast food crap. Well, people with little money used to be able to turn to the public school system to find the freedom to learn. Now, the privilege of having unfettered access to the healthiest of educations –an innate love of learning, fostered by creative approaches to curriculum—seems like it may be reserved for the elites who can pay the price for test-free schools. As a teacher from Oakland High put it, incessant testing in public schools is “like weighing a calf twice a day, but never feeding it."

I can tell you from first-hand experience that the kind of test prep that happens in schools in the months leading up to test days is exactly the kind of thing that used to make my skull split right down the middle in elementary school my very ownself. The teacher, droning on in a patient voice, leading children through instructions they can very well read to themselves. Pattering on about how to pencil correctly in those tiny ovals. And all of this information actually necessary, because schools’ budgets and very leadership depends on this make-or-break test. Oh, the agony.

Back when I was teaching in DCPS, the test did not even align with the curriculum. They’ve (theoretically) solved that basic, horrifying paradigm of apples and oranges equaling a fascinating, high-stakes game of gotcha. But I wonder still if we cannot, as a society, ever trust that teachers are attempting to teach kids the best they can with impossibly limited resources. Sure, there were some dud teachers where I taught. Very few, though, and my excellent principal was more than up to the task of sidelining entire departments for a year or two in order to render a retirement package more alluring. A goodly number of the teachers I worked with were top-notch, dedicated, highly experienced, and downright fantastic at their jobs.

I’m speaking as a parent looking for what’s right for my kids. I’m speaking as a former public school teacher. I am all for ensuring high standards in teaching, in fact, I would love for there to be individualized education for every student in every class. But I do not think that the current (over)emphasis on standardized testing warrants the bloody beating of the dead horse of teacher and student motivation that exists in public schools today. IMHO, it’s a Republican plot to drive the public schools out of existence. It’s finger-pointing rather than problem-solving.

What can we do to help excellent teachers and the kids they continue to reach? Make ongoing teacher training helpful and interesting, instead of making the aptly-titled “seat hours” merely a shuffling of bodies. Reward teachers for completing their National Board Certification (which has teachers compile portfolios instead of just tracking their test scores;). Track grades, heck, even compile meaningful results. Ask teachers to do something like give a sample lesson in their interviews instead of just looking at their paper test scores. Give teachers meaningful standards to inform their teaching, and access to successful lesson plans (and don’t require mindless repetition of vague educational principles from either teachers or students). Devise citywide curriculum and spiral concepts through the grades so kids can build on concepts from year to year. And remember that there is a bigger picture to flesh out when judging schools than the numbers.

How healthy is the parent community? How involved are teachers in the extracurriculars and life of the school? What obstacles are the students and school community struggling to surmount even before butting heads with the three Rs? How, as a city, can we ensure the health of the whole child attending each school? Do our smallest citizens love to go to school and engage in meaningful dialogue with each other as they grapple with important ideas and constructs? Is every kid growing up with an open mind and heart?

This isn’t what I see fostered in public schools today. So, what do I tell my friends? Same thing I tell myself. Every child is different. You have to see what works for your child, one teacher and one grade at a time. Look at your kid’s report card, yes, but make your decisions based on the overall picture you see at a school. Public or private. The numbers only tell a fraction of the story. Open minds and hearts? Or rote bubbling of ovals? Hopefully, it won't come down to that divide.

Original DC Metro Moms post for Wednesday's Education Topic Day....

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

On Parenting Column

My writing is featured in the Washington Post On Parenting blog today! Go check it out (and notice that you, too, could be their next guest blogger). I wrote about how parenting changes your world view and disposing of old prescription drugs safely. You can see from the link that my title was Pharma Chameleon (smile) but it was edited to read The Ways Children Change You. Happy Tuesday!

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Get Those Yellow Flags Off The Lawn!

Ah, spring. The hydrangeas are budding back to life, the groundcover in our stretch of Rock Creek Park behind the dog park is afire with Spring Beauty and Lesser Celandine. Our community garden has a burgeoning crop of arugula and tender lettuce shoots setting forth. Our cherry tree is about to bloom! The kids are crawling all over the playground and picking everything in sight on our walk home from school. Skipping, picking 'onions' and teeny-tiny little white and purple flowers from the middle of a sea of...yellow pesticide application flags. Cr*p.

Honey? You have to get off that grass right now! There are chemicals all over it. Put the tiny flowers down now, ok, honey? We have to go wash your hands. Sigh. I know my kid shouldn't be walking on the front lawn of our neighbors' apartment buildings, much less harvesting weeds from their green space. But I do wish that more landlords and homeowners would follow in the footsteps of the National Mall and head down the organic lawn path.

A friend of mine recently asked about resources for greening her lawn, both literally and ecologically. While our home has a cherry tree and a bricked-in patio, not a vast green lawn, a thread on DC Urban Gardeners recently suggested the following resources: and Pogo Organics. You can also read about efforts to stop pesticide use more broadly at Beyond Pesticides.

See you down at the Mall to tiptoe through the (chemical-free) tulips! (Don't worry, we only pick weeds....)

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Buy Nothing Challenge - Sunday Confessions

As Crunchy would say, "Forgive me, people, for I have spent." It has been 6 days since I signed on for the Buy Nothing Challenge and it's been interesting so far to track what's been most difficult. For about six months, I have been trying to curb our expenditures for a host of reasons so I thought this exercise wouldn't be very different. But it is! It's curious how you can delude yourself. I mean, I thought I was being pretty restrained. But faced with an absolute (Buy Nothing!), I'm getting to see the pattern of my consumption.

I kept track of both things I wanted to buy and didn't and things I went ahead and bought. Some stuff I bought because I decided it was worthy and some stuff I was just careless or weak.

Stuff I wanted to buy and didn't (thanks, Crunchy)!

  • A new pair of earbuds for my Shuffle because I really, really love to listen to music while I exercise -- I feel like I get a double endorphin whammy. This one was silly because I knew I had the missing pieces at home (think small child stuffing chewy portion of earbud into his mouth and shrieking in outrage when said item was removed from his mouth - I hid the chokable object a little too well and couldn't find it in the 15-second scramble to get my gym stuff together). Anyways, a mere 6 days ago I would have walked right into the hardware store that's next to the gym and tried to snag another pair. I forced my sulking self not to and you know what? Not only did the earbuds stay in place (for the most part) just through the sheer force of earwax, but 3 days later, I found the missing piece! And, as a friend pointed out, you know we probably have at least one extra pair stashed in our house somewhere. Maybe the non-consumption will also spur organization.
  • More sunflower seeds because I gave a bunch away to little friends of ours. Ditto for peat pots to start the sunflowers in. No worries; we have more seeds left than I thought, and we can make newspaper pots to start our seeds.
  • Another copy of the (used) book Calder's Circus by Maira Kalman (recommended by Lori from Camp Creek -- thanks so much for the rec!). I gave away ours (before even letting my husband see it! I think he'll last the month, though). You have to check it out, I love the great photos of Calder himself and his curious wire creations and the text itself is pretty magical, worthy even of Susan' Preston's wit). But this can totally wait and is so optional. Except of course my mother is already tracking one down for me which smacks of cheating! Really, I told her I could wait!
Mea Culpa:
  • Believe it or not, my sins have predominantly and oddly revolved around coffee. Yet I am a sporadic decaf drinker! Kind of a surprise weakness this past week. I hate the effect caffeine has on me but in my defense I was sleep deprives and had endured, in the past two weeks: 3 trips to the DMV, 2 hour-plus chats with Verizon customer service, 4 trips to the pediatrician and 1 to the Social Security Administration (at which I was given an assigned number, a two hour wait, and a quizzical "I don't think you can get that done here" even though I'd spent many an hour on the phone discussing my desires...) Sent me scurrying around the corner to an Illy coffeeshop. Sigh. As I took the first (admittedly delicious) sip I remembered! Aaaigh! And that was on Day ONE. A mere ten minutes after I'd been daydreaming about how on earth I'm going to pull off my soon-to-be five year old's birthday with no expenditures.
  • 2nd coffee expenditure: just this morning, I bought another coffee (long night last night) and a travel thermos/tumbler. I didn't want to use a disposable cup and we don't have a travel mug that's not made of suspect plastic. This one was really cool, made of metal (plastic top, but not inside the stainless steel like lots I've seen. And it has a cool drinkable cap. Still, it was a $20 acquisition. And could I really just skip the caffeine already since I don't like how it affects me?
  • I bought eight nuts and bolts from the hardware store to assemble my composter. I'm not too worried about that one. ;)
  • I had to pay the plumber to fix a pipe that inexplicably developed a pea-sized hole under the kid's sink. Obvious need.
  • The other sins are of the eating-out variety. A friend came in town from Vermont and we went out to a fancy dinner with him (not sorry!) and we went out for bagel sandwiches this morning. Also, I got a pre-made quiche one night for dinner at Whole Foods that was not only egregiously expensive but also egregiously plastic-encased. Almost a clamshell dinner.

Victory of the Week? Getting hand-me-down shin guards for the five year old's first soccer game. I totally didn't think I would pull this off since I didn't realize until the day before that I needed them. But my neighbors rock! A friend with whom I trade kidstuff even scolded me for looking around on the local listserv without checking in with her first!

So, all in all, good lessons:
  • I clearly spend more than I admit to myself on a routine basis.
  • My first impulse is to buy something (ie earbuds) even if I know I have that thing already if my convenience is affected. Time to develop patience and forbearance.
  • Food, drink, and gifting are areas I can examine to see if I can accomplish what I want (nourishing, healthy food; tiny caffeine boosts; and communicating love to friends and family) with less consumption/waste.

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Friday, April 4, 2008

Elusive Exercise...

Are you a NEAT banana or a Buddha-bellied pear? It doesn't matter, as it turns out. We all need to get to the gym...or just get outside and play.

One of my as-yet-unfulfilled New Year's resolutions was to exercise more. I am having difficulty finding the time (or just making myself?) get to the gym and/or complete the at-home workout I've put together more than once or twice a week. While I do have challenges (in the form of small persons who tether me to our house and generally attach themselves to me during their waking hours) I'm hoping that musing about the following random fitness tidbits might provide the catalyst I need to get up to 4-6 days/week (this is both self-flagellation and cogitation, folks).

But first, for those of you who know me IRL, some reassurance about why I want to exercise (it's not because I ever again want to hit the beach in a bikini, although I admit that I covet Linda Hamilton's Terminator 2 arms). According to a Mayo Clinic study, some unnamed people can, in fact, eat whatever they want without gaining an ounce. They automatically burn hundreds of extra calories after they overeat by stretching, changing posture, and rapidly tapping their feet on the floor. The researchers called this factor NEAT (for non-exercise activity thermogenesis). Wikipedia refers to the ever-scrawny slender body type of ectomorphs as bananas.

I belong to a small subsection of the ectomorph populace that my older brother likes to call skinny fat.
I'm definitely getting older, and I can feel my metabolism slowing. It seems like I am overdue for a reality check. My taunting older bro was onto something. Is the combo of eating poorly and not working out just as deadlyas those death sticks? Actually, a lack of exercise is worse than smoking. A sedentary lifestyle will accelerate your aging process. And apparently, even if you're not overweight, you may still be fat inside in terms of chronic inflammation that's associated with health problems like heart disease and arthritis. Exercise appears to be a critical factor in making sure that thin people are healthy.

Seems like no one's off the hook. Skinny, fat, skinny fat? We all have to shake our moneymakers to stay healthy. So tell me, how do you fit in your exercise? Please say it's not all about waking up at 5....

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Sacrifice Play

When my fifteen month old child picks up a purple marker with a gleam in his eye and begins playing a manic game of cap-on, cap-off? And I let him do it, knowing that the pen’s going to end up in his mouth? The very same mouth I went to great lengths to feed pureed-spinach-tinted frosting a few weeks ago rather than allow him to nibble synthetic green (food-safe) coloring? That mouth? Yes, that is a classic example of one of my parenting Sacrifice Plays. I know that I am conceding a small defeat (in this case, Crayola marker ingestion) for a larger goal (toddler empowerment, tantrum avoidance). So it makes me a hypocrite? Small price to pay.

We all play the parenting hands we’ve got. We maximize our kids’ well-being while sacrificing what we have to in order to meet life’s challenges. In our house, we like to say that everyone’s got to take one for the team. Our dog has been getting an extra breakfast or two lately, since the aforementioned toddler is fairly focused on plinking kibble into his bowl and it keeps him entertained while mom gets to, I don't know, blog (wink). The dog’s girth may suffer. But we all have to pull our weight in the family, as it were, to ensure that the whole is healthy.

I thought about weight recently in the grocery store. I’m one of those annoying virtuous people who usually shops at health food stores, co-ops, Whole Paycheck, Trader Joe’s, farmer’s markets, places I know won’t sneak cr*p worse than a "Conforms to ASTM D-4236" marker into my kid’s food. I make a lot of my own food (pancake mix, for starters, although I have to get the sugar out of that recipe). But sometimes, it is convenient (and cheaper?!) to go to a regular grocery store. What snuck into my cart the other day just made me groan.

Let me just say up front that (hypocrisy alert again) our house sees its fair share of candy. It’s not like processed sugar products don’t make their way into our lives. It’s just that when I am trying to grab whole wheat mini bagels for my teething toddler, it irks me that there would be high fructose corn syrup in the top five ingredients. Thank you very little, Thomas' Company. "The perfect wholesome snack for kids and people on the go"? Mmmm, that HFCS wholesome goodness.

When I am going for a whole wheat product, I really don’t expect to be making a Sacrifice Play. If I’m giving my kid a Ring Pop? I probably expect to have some artificial color tradeoffs. Giving my kid a (perfectly frozen) Ding Dong? I think I can sense there might be some troubling preservatives there. But whole wheat bagels? Come on, folks, that’s no place to sneak in a Sacrifice Play.

What are the Sacrifice Plays you face as a parent? Do any of the choices you’re forced to make seem unfair?

*Original DC Metro Moms post. Photo courtesy of SXC. Read more!