WordPress: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

For quite some time, I have been telling myself that I need to get out there and do volunteering in the (minimal) free time that I have. And this past Friday I found a way to do that in such a way that it coincided with my workday and allowed me to not only use my techinical skills to help those in need to…help others in need–but also it served as a professional development tool for myself. I’ve posted on my company’s Full Spectrum Blog but wanted to cross-post here as well:

If you know a thing or two about the Internet, chances are you’ve heard of WordPress. As of August 2011, it was estimated that 22 percent of all new websites in the world were powered by WordPress. It continues to win awards for being the best open source CMS (content management system) out there. I’m blogging on a WordPress-powered blog right now, hosted on a WordPress site. You could even call us WordPress super fans here at Spectrum. Put simply, I often feel that within this scary tangled web we weave, there is true solace to be found in WordPress…

Anyhow–last Friday I had the pleasure of working alongside Anthony Braddy to lead a group of small nonprofits through some of the in’s and out’s of building a WordPress website. The workshop was just one session within a larger Pro Bono Consulting Lounge held at Artisphere, hosted and made possible by DC Week.

In my opinion, this event is a highlight of DC Week, because it allows local organizations to get their hands dirty learning these practical skills, and provides them with free consulting, which they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. Sitting through a panel or a keynote speech can be inspirational, but it can also be overwhelming and may not get into the step-by-step people need to make things happen. When building a website, the problem isn’t just that a professional site can cost anywhere from $500 to $10,ooo to build out–it’s that once it is built, it’s left in the hands of an organization that may not know how to update it. This consulting lounge was built to empower these groups on a personal level.

I was able to work one-on-one with the D.C. Jobs Council to begin transitioning them to a WordPress-based site within the next few months. They’re starting from square one, so we spent a good deal of time talking about what the purpose(s) of the site would be and what the priorities were in terms of content on the site, and then explored theme options that would best work within this and began working through how to customize them.

One of the best parts about teaching others about the kind of thing you work with on a daily basis is that you begin to learn exactly what you don’t know yourself. I’m admittedly not a web developer in the vaguest sense of the word. But given the task of thinking like one, I made connections about how things work that I hadn’t made before; reverse-engineering your thinking really helps you become a better teacher. I also realized I might need to pick up this bad boy, the WordPress Bible (I suggest this as a great resource for anyone interested, beginner or otherwise) for more complicated projects.

While it’s arguably the simplest CMS out there to work with, you can never really stop learning new ways to use WordPress. Which is good, because then you can always pay it forward to the next guy who needs help.

I’ll check back in soon with my version of a “handy guide” you might find helpful for getting on your feet with WordPress.

Social Learning Summit 2011: Going Green on the Social Web

This past weekend, The Social Media Club of American University hosted a profoundly educational event on my (alma mater, American University’s) campus, the Social Learning Summit. It was the first of its kind to take place at a university and ended up being hugely successful, in my opinion.

When Alex Priest reached out a few months back to see if I would be interested in speaking, I was honored. I joined a panel focused essentially on the question, “How can social media be used to communicate science with the public?” or…simply put,  “How can social media make science cool?”

Fellow panelists and I (@ProfRubega, @GreenAU, @starfocus, @JLVernonPHD) ended up touching on some fantastic points, from the non-profit perspective, to the professor’s perspective to the agency perspective.

While jotting down some notes during the panel, I found the following to be the most interesting which stood out to me as the ways different groups/organizations/individuals best utilize social media in their communications around science :

  • The viral nature of the Internet: Good vs. evil – The ability for things to go “viral” on the web is exactly what some companies are looking for, particularly nonprofits that don’t often have the means for the paid media to get messages out there. But for some, particularly pharmaceutical companies, this can have a negative edge in that in can keep companies from engaging with certain groups, e.g, if a biopharma company doesn’t want to put out a message that could be misconstrued by investors, so they end up avoiding all outreach with advocacy groups in general, for fear that one message might spread very quickly, to the wrong audiences.
  • Just try it and see if it works vs. baby-step approach – It should be obvious where pharmaceutical communicators fall more often than not: definitely in the baby-step approach category. But for (some) nonprofits and most educators, the idea of diving right in and trying a novel way of using social media to get students engaged (Professor Rubega actually assigned her students to “tweet about the birds around them” and ended up encouraging them to connect dots and explore their environment in ways she had never seen before), is actually the best way to get over the hurdle of fear and see faster results. Sometimes success can come in a sprint, and sometimes in a marathon.
There are definitely some ways that nonprofits, agencies and educators alike can all learn from one another. For example, all science-based organizations, from biotechs to nonprofits advocacy groups to universities, need to use approaches that make the science more personal and relatable. They also should remember that at the end of the day, the earned media that can often result from social media outreach is outstanding from an economic standpoint. However I thought the points above were important reminders that the reality is, the blanket approach cannot and will probably never work if you really want to accomplish your intended educational or communications-related goals.
In the meantime though, it’s inspirational to learn from each other, because perhaps it’s just the kind of insight we need to overcome our own stumbling blocks in the future.

*tap tap* Is this thing on?

This blog was created during my senior year of college at American University, as part of an independent study on sustainable food production. I intended for it to be a place I would discuss insight and developments with regard to agribusiness, aquaculture, water, small and big organic and nutrition as it relates to “real” food. Ultimately, it transformed into an extended ‘thesis’ of sorts on sustainable food production, for a study I undertook with the guidance of my professor, Terry Sankar.

After graduating, life gets even busier. I found myself working full-time for a local tech start-up company (Hy.ly) while also job hunting. Local Foodie Fight took a back burner–and then faded away. To be honest, I didn’t want to blog much while applying to jobs, out of fear I might say the wrong thing–might I insult a client of an agency I was applying at? Might I come across as ‘too much of a hippie’? (I know, that sounds silly, but it crossed my mind.)

In September 2010, I started working as a digital associate at Spectrum Science Communications, a PR agency in Washington, D.C. I guess there’s something about starting a new job that compels you to thrust yourself into it and avoid all possible distractions or time-sucks. And that’s where my head has been for the past six months–trying to avoid the time-suck. But I think I’ve passed that fearful stage.

I had been noodling over starting to foodie-blog again, on the heels of my new Arganica membership and the prospect of our backyard garden blooming. But, I’m not going to lie—the final push to get me back on here, typing away at 5am on a Tuesday when I have an 8+ hour workday starting in 3 hours: I’ve humbly and excitedly accepted the chance to speak on a panel at the upcoming Social Learning Summit at American University, called “Going Green on the Social Web.” I am pretty jazzed about this opportunity, mostly because I’ve never spoken on a panel before, and it’s a personal goal of mine not to sound like a bumbling idiot at some point in my life while I am doing so.

Hopefully, now, blogging will feel less like a burden and more like a source of happiness that challenges me and hopefully offers value to others. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve also discovered because of the ‘traction’ this here blog got “in its hey-day,” I still get about 50 hits/day from search and blog rolls alone, even though before now, I hadn’t updated in over six months. And that isn’t bad in my book.

I hate to write one of those “Oh hey I took a hiatus and here I am promising that won’t ever happen again—back and better than ever!!!1” posts…but…well, there, I just did.

Vegan, soy-free rhubarb crisp

I’ve made this rhubarb crisp a few times and am always surprised how delicious it is. I have heard rhubarb can be a tad bitter but this recipe makes it shine. You could also trying adding strawberries or blueberries if you like but the flavor here is abundant as is.

Note: double this recipe if you want two crisps. Also, this is soy-free and vegan. You would never be able to tell.

Crust/topping:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup oats (quick-cook or old-fashioned is fine)
  • 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1/3 c. canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Filling:

  • 4 cups diced rhubarb (about 4 rhubarb stalks)
  • 1 cup sugar (beet sugar)
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix together the crust/topping ingredients. Then divide and press half of the crumbly mixture into a greased 9-inch square baking pan. Cover with diced rhubarb. In a small saucepan combine sugar, cornstarch, water, and vanilla. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened. It takes about 10 minutes, but goes from thin to thick right near the end. Pour over the rhubarb evenly and then top with remaining crumb topping. Bake at 350° for about 45 minutes. Cut in squares and serve warm either plain or with ice cream (try Turtle Mountain Coconut milk ice cream to keep it vegan).

Feeds about eight hungry people.

Quinoa-Stuffed Summer Squash

Remember that time I made a blog about food and sustainability and then left it high and dry? Sorry about that. I am working on finding my blog-groove and since this site surprisingly is still getting hits (thank you, restaurant reviews) and I don’t intend to stop photographing food and cooking with local ingredients any time soon, I think it makes sense to keep it going. Further, I’ll be posting a brief synopsis of the meal + the ingredients and what I paid for them over at my other blog Talking on Common Ground. Because I like to show evidence of how cooking locally and eating sustainably is practical. Other stipulations: I have the attention span of a 5-year-old and the free-time of…well…a 22-year-old, so I’ll never post a recipe that takes longer than an hour to make (minus slow cooker deals) or has more than 10 ingredients. So that’s the story.

First up, a recipe I made with my roommate Hilary a few weeks back that I never got around to posting. It was adapted from the cookbook Vegan with a Vengeance, which was a stuffed pepper recipe, but since that day I had gone to the farmers market and come home with about 10 squashes (that the farmer had just given me for free!) Hil and I decided to make stuffed summer squash.

Quinoa-Stuffed Summer Squash

1. Saute 3 diced medium onions and 3 cloves of garlic, minced in 2 T. olive oil. Feel free to throw in mushroom or diced bell pepper if that suits your fancy. Saute for 5 minutes. Then add 1 T. chile powder and salt to taste (1 tsp.)

2. Then, add 1/2 c. quinoa, 1 c. tomato sauce, /4 c. water. Turn the heat down slightly and let it all simmer covered for 20-30 minutes.

3. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Cut the squash in half, then do a criss-cross pattern over the seeds part and take all that out and set aside.

4. Parboil the squash for about 5 minutes so they cook a bit and retain their color/nutrients.

5. When the onion-quinoa mixture is done and the squashes are parboiled, add the squash “meat” to the quinoa and carefully without burning yourself, stuff them with the quinoa. Place them on a baking sheet and bake for 20-25 minutes!

Vegan! Soy-free! Local! Full of nutrition, tasty and filling!

U.S. Food System: a recap post of almost everything I learned this year & announcement of new blog

This is the last installment of The Local Foodie Fight blog as we’ve known it. (Hah.) Sorry I up-n-disappeared for a while. It’s been harder than I thought post-grad and interning 40 hours a week and I had meant to post a “recap/this is what I learned/final summation” from this past semester but it took a while and so here it finally is. Nothing too revelatory or groundbreaking. If you have followed the blog at all over the past 4 months, nothing here should be new but I think it’s a helpful post to kind of tie everything together–well as much as that can possibly be done. After this post, this blog will become strictly a place for recipes and restaurant reviews.

Problems

The majority of the food production problems the United States and most of the world is experiencing with regard to sustainability is the result of the Green Revolution, which happened from around 1943 to 1970. This “Green Revolution” isn’t what you would initially think. It actually refers to a series of research, development, and technological initiatives that increased industrial agriculture in volume, largely replacing many small family-owned operations. The initiatives were essentially intended to do one thing: increase the amount of food calories that were produced in order to feed an increasingly larger population.

The initiatives that were pursued during this government-motivated movement involved the development of high-yielding grains and commodity foodstuffs (like heavily subsidized corn and soy), expansion of irrigation infrastructure (which led to issues of soil nutrient depletion, groundwater depletion and erosion), and use of genetically modified seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides (which would later prove detrimental to human health and specific ecosystems). Furthermore, this reliance on corn and soy translated into a dependence on more heavily processed food that utilizes ingredients like soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup. I highly encourage you to conduct an experiment over the next day: look at the ingredient label of everything you eat. Unless you are allergic to soy (my roommate is, it’s a tough lifestyle), or you follow a macrobiotic or raw diet, I would bet at least 25-50% of the food you eat has at least one of these ingredients.

This cheap, fast, processed food has gone on to contribute to obesity, heart disease, cholesterol problems, and other health problems and also poses increased risks related to food borne-illness due to the high quantity of food being turned out and the cross-contamination that results, coupled with insufficient federal standards. This has also resulted in an agricultural economy that has power concentrated in just a few hands and pockets, namely giant corporations like Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield and Monsanto, which weakens local economies and cultures across the globe and contributes to global warming through the carbon output of the transportation used to move this food such far distances. Furthermore, this has led to a growth in organic labeling but also has contributed to misleading marketing that has further confused consumers and created a divide between people and wholesome, nutritious food. This divide is a cultural side effect of our current food system that will take much work to fill.

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Additional challenges

There are several challenges this movement is currently facing.

It can’t be just ‘trickle down’ or ‘bottom-up.’ Too many authors and scientists are preaching about green development while sipping from McDonald’s cups and Dasani bottles. And too many urban gardeners don’t understand how government involvement affects what people are able to do in their personal lives and how to make behaviors more practical for people on tight budgets. Leaders of the movement need to be more united, informed, and responsible for their personal actions and the message those actions send to the public. Throughout my research and while speaking to experts, there has seemingly emerged two somewhat distinct “camps” of thinkers in the field of sustainable food system development: people who believe progress will come from the “top” (government regulations, subsidy revisions, legislation, corporate restructuring, breaking up monopolies, changing company practices) and those who believe progress is going to be motivated from the “bottom” (individuals, families and communities making changes in their personal lives). It is with optimism that I believe both sets of changes are happening and both will continue to happen until both collective needs and personal needs are met in a way that is equitable, as well as ecologically and economically beneficial. Not only will the possibilities made through political action trickle down to consumers, but consumer action and demand will rise up to influence those who possesses the political power and what decisions they are driven to make.

The Farm Bill requires intense overhauling. This is an issue many organizations are lobbying hard to change. The USDA needs to begin incentivizing biodiversity instead of monoculture commodity crops, to encourage farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables, and help end our obsession with high-fructose corn syrup and processed foods created using corn and soy surpluses. We should also move away from free trade agricultural policies, which encourage agribusinesses to buy crops from countries with poor environmental standards and labor conditions, and move more toward food sovereignty and local, domestic farmer support. These sorts of efforts would also pave the way for cafeterias at schools and other institutions to fund and provide infrastructure that would allow them to purchase food from regional food producers more often. Improving the food of young eaters would start a generation on the proper track toward health and wellness, instead of death and obesity as they currently are. Lobbying on Farm Bill work will largely fall on organizations, but those organizations need support from investors and foundations and feedback from individuals in order to their job, so ultimately we all have a role to play.

Environmentalists aren’t on the same page with each other, let alone with economists and financial experts. In just a few short months of following the different approaches to food production, I’ve heard too many varying opinions and stances on how to deal with our food system woes. For example, William McDonough asserts that our food security issues need not be battled with population control; Lester Brown sees population stabilization as the most important factor in regaining stability of our food system. Food sustainability advocates need to be on the same page in order to maintain credibility and convince skeptics. They also need to think like economists just as often as they think about making progress toward a greener world. My former professor, Terry Sankar, has invented a vertical wind axis turbine which is currently priced at about $30,000/each. His goal is to get that number down to about $10,000, because if you can make turbines cheaper, you get more people buying, you get more people on board with clean energy. You have to use economics in a way that benefits all involved, instead of in a way that produces one-sided profits. This is how we need to think. Create, invest and innovate in order to increase the feasibility of products, services, and projects that are better for the planet and humanity.

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Seeds of change and planting more

Throughout the past decade, a movement has started to slowly take shape. For example, while food industry monopolies have taken hold, in some areas, small farmers like Michael Heller, owner of Clagett Farm in Virginia, have worked toward converting previous corn fields into fruit, vegetable and livestock farms. Organizers have begun to educate community members on methods of urban agriculture, and we have a lot of development in this area. Innovations include: green rooftop farms, neighborhood gardens, hydroponic window farms for tiny apartments and compost bins within homes to produce richer, more nutritious soil while cutting down on the trash sent to landfills. These are small movements in the grand scheme of things, but they are seeds of change.

However, these efforts, while important, are isolated. They need to be more sophisticated and organized in order to draw these initiatives together and be impact. Some tactics I propose include:

  • Better education and more recruiting for students to agricultural, urban agriculture, and sustainable farming educations, as well as training on how to manage these businesses effectively. (More universities are beginning to offer urban sustainability and food science degrees, and I see this trend picking up more in the future.)
  • Increased education within elementary and middle school about nutrition and our food system (The Farm to School program being a great example of how to connect children with producing food while also teaching about nutrition.)
  • Better public relations and strategic communications campaigns that convey the benefits (health, social, longer term economic gains) of organic food, urban agriculture, and supporting local farmers–incentives drive change

There is not any one solution or method that will bring us to a sustainable system of producing our food. After all, sustainable food production is not a goal, just as sustainability is not a goal–it’s a process, which fortunately is gaining acceptance. Improving our food system is no longer an option or a would-be-nice.

We often lose sight of our common interests as humans. There are countless special interest groups, government agencies, struggling families, corporations–the list goes on–and so many conflicting opinions and politics. Most of the time I feel like I’m on the “environmentalist side”, but as the last few months have passed, I’ve come to see it shouldn’t be about sides and winning arguments, it should be about finding our similarities. Or our…

Common ground.

This is going to wrap up my study, but I will be taking my intellectual thoughts, etc over to a new home. I hope you keep checking back here for the occasional (weekly, I think) local recipe/restaurant review and I also hope you consider expanding your green horizons through my new blog over at Talking on Common Ground.

I’d also like to just say thanks to everyone, especially all the food/fitness bloggers, who have followed me and become my Twitter friends and left comments and feedback and told me they enjoy this blog because in all seriousness I never thought anyone would read it.

OK, now hop on over to the new site and I’ll catch you on the flip side.

Health 2.0 DC/VA/MD Meet-Up & on being a responsible health blogger

Last night I attended the Health 2.0 DC/VA/MD Meet-Up over in Bethesda (at The Barking Dog), which ended up being a really interesting event. I’m basically brand new to the whole adult world of networking events that fall outside of American University, which is now technically my “alma mater,” and I found it to be not at all intimidating and overall very informative. The event was hosted by Aquilent. They picked a pretty perfect venue for an meet-up with six rapid-fire 5-minute presentations from innovators and leaders in the area of health solutions that use Web 2.0 technology. The moderator had a whistle but I think he laid off it when one of the speakers announced he had “mean soccer coach days” issues.

One of my favorite speakers was Nancy Shute, contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report and writer of the OnParenting blog, which for some reason I sometimes read even though I’m not a parent. She talked about the struggles that journalism has faced with regard to a lack of fact-checking and how, when it comes to issues of health and medical care, those sorts of mistakes can be, well, deadly. One thing she pointed out that I found interesting is that for a while it was clear that people wanted to hear from others like themselves when it came to making decisions about their health care, but now the balance between trusting people like you and trusting medical doctors is beginning to level out.

What this presentation really said to me, especially as someone who blogs and potentially puts myself in a place where my advice about health and eating and wellness can be taken seriously, is that, like a journalist, I need to fact-check my sources and trust only reliable sites. I have struggled with this in the past in my personal life when I have turned into what you might call a “cyberchondriac.” (CDC? An acceptable place to find health information; random message boards? Not so much.) While the Web 2.0 age has afforded us the ability to share information and get help quickly and be in touch with sources online that are legitimate, it has also given a voice to a bunch of people that don’t know what the heck they are talking about. And our job, as the writers and re-purposers of that information, is to do so with utmost scrutiny and with an unbiased voice which isn’t swayed by sponsors or advertisers or celebrities (see Jennifer McCarthy and the autism/vaccine connection debate). We, as “citizen journalists” have to be able to discern when information isn’t accurate or useful so that we know not to trust it for ourselves and not to share it with our readers.

Update: See below for the slideshow from Nancy’s presentation. It’s definitely worth a look through.

Anthony LaFauce at Spectrum Science (who took some video at the event and has it posted on his Qik page) posted a great recap of one of the speakers from Infield. They provided interesting information about recent innovations that have allowed doctors to diagnose patients from afar, just based on pictures they take and send with their cell phones in developing nations where doctors are scarce. They’ve also developed ways of reuniting loved ones who are separated during natural disasters. They talked about how the person locator system was set up following the earthquake in Haiti, but that it took three weeks for this first program to start running, and then when the Chile earthquake happened, they were able to get everything set up in just 4 days. So from trial one to trial two, they cut the time it took to get the system up and running by 80 percent. Just think what that could mean for the unfortunate but inevitable next natural disaster.

This segues well into what I really am looking forward to doing with this blog down the line. As you can tell by my last couple posts, I am already moving away from the strictly food topics. But I will wait to get into that in a future post.

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