Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

Sweet and soy grilled salmon & flowers to make my apartment a home

Well, now I have tons of stuff to blab about. I am debating if I should break all of this up into separate posts? Yes, yes I should.

OK. Now. I do want to talk a bit about what’s the deal with how I changed my blog theme (and ask for your opinion, although it’s not done yet so I guess that doesn’t matter…) and announce that I did indeed graduate last weekend and I managed not to trip across the stage or forget to bring my name card or some other Kelly-like embarrassing thing, in addition to lots of other mushy crap about how much I love everyone who’s been reading my silly blog over the past semester and told me how much they enjoy it. I also want to talk about where this blog is going now that my independent study is over (I got an A, in case you were wondering, and even though it’s “over” I am thinking I may following in Jacquie’s footsteps and try to print up my most relevant posts up and bind them together. I might be good to show future potential employers, no? I can’t quit you, blog!)

Anyhow, all of that can wait because I made this delicious salmon dinner for a friend and I Thursday and holy crap. Ah-mazing.

Let’s discuss.

I decided I wanted to go all out and get that most sustainable salmon available at Whole Foods (Wild King Alaskan, $24/lb.), which in my humble opinion, tastes the absolute best. I ended up buying two 1-inch (at the thickest) fillets for $17.

Here’s what I did.

Sweet & Soy Grilled Salmon with Avocado, Capers, and Red Onion

Combine in a bowl the following:

  • 1/4 c. olive oil (exact amounts don’t really mater, you might need more if you are marinating larger fillets)
  • a few T. of soy sauce (I don’t know how much, I just poured the rest of the bottle in)
  • 1/4 c. brown sugar
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • a dash or seven of garlic powder, depending on how much you love garlic

Yeah so swirl all that stuff around and plop your salmon fillets in and if you are super fancy and have a brush, coat them with the marinade. Then cover the bowl and pop in the refrigerator. Mine marinated for about 7 hours, but I am sure you could do for much less time, probably even 3-4 hours would suffice.

Then, slice up some avocado and some red onion and tomatoes (if you want) and drain some capers. Whatever you love on salad. You could also do a couple hard-boiled eggs using Jaden’s method (from the Steamy Kitchen) that makes the egg somewhere in between soft-and hard-boiled. I opted to leave the egg out. I initially was going to use Jaden’s recipe for a grilled salmon sandwich but then decided to use a marinade for the salmon…and then never actually made the dressing and I also made a salad instead of a sandwich…so really my dinner ended up totally different and I’m not sure why I am even referencing that recipe aside from the fact that it made me think to use capers, which I never have cooked with before.

By the way, I should also mention that my parents got me three new K. Sabatier knives as a graduation present, and they are fantastic. I have never had nice knives and it feels so nice to be able to actually slice through food without applying pressure. Fabulous. (When you begin asking for things like food processors and knives for presents, does that make you officially old? Yikes.)

I also bought myself a new eco-friendly skilet at Target the other day, which made me laugh because I never would have thought that a skillet could be not eco-friendly but hey, I guess that’s just the direction we are heading and I dig this pan a lot. I made eggs the next morning without a speck of cooking spray and it just slid around the pan like in an infomerical, it was hilarious.

Back to the salmon. You then heat up a skillet to medium-high and set your fillets on it. I ended up grilling the salmon for about 3 minutes each side, but it obviously will depend on how thick your fillet is.

Yes, mom, that’s a band-aid on my thumb. Yes, it’s from the knife. Yes, I will be more careful next time. Yes, I know those knives “could CUT OFF my finger.”

Definitely don’t overcook the fillet. If you have any feeling it might be done, take it off and take a good look at the center–with salmon you don’t really want the rare-ness you might go for with a tuna steak, but it should still be rather pink. Also, about halfway through cooking, throw your onion slices and capers in with the skillet (I much prefer grilled onion over raw.)

Once everything is ready, you plate it all up and voila! We found the salad didn’t really need “dressing” especially if you let the salmon marinate for as long as I did, because it was sooooo juicy and the onions had collected that marinade as well. But do what you like. I suppose you could do a drizzle of honey-dijon or some such over the lettuce if you prefer.

By the way, we drank a Pinot Noir with dinner which was a great pair. Pinot Noir’s are a bit more smooth and sweet, which went well with the hints of brown sugar sweetness in the salmon. (This is me trying to sounds like a foodie. Or a wino that doesn’t know wine, either/or.)

That meal tasted like you would pay at least $25 for it in a restaurant (maybe even more because of the fact that it was Alaskan King salmon, which is the priciest.) But when it came down to it, not including the wine, it  cost about half that to buy all the ingredients. And it was so so worth it. It just melted in your mouth. The best part, for me, is you could almost feel good about eating it knowing that it didn’t have the added dyes and hadn’t been raised in a confined space being fed tons of antibiotics, etc. I’ll spare the nasty details for here.

OK. So not to be all jumbly, but I do want to give you a glimpse into last weekend, in a post later on today or tomorrow in case anyone cares (I’m mainly thinking of relatives…)

…and next up, what I am looking forward to doing today (and hopefully for the rest of my life!)…Yoga! =)

It feels good to be back.

What many environmentalists haven’t learned: economics says personal action drives change

Lester Brown, if you ever read this, it is not meant to be a personal attack. I find you to be an exceptionally influential person in the field I care so deeply about. However, I felt compelled to use what I noticed about your visit to AU to talk about an issue that I have wanted to express for a while, and that is the importance of personal responsibility and individual action and how those coincide with one’s future aspirations.

I wrote this blog entry a couple weeks ago

…but never posted it because I wanted to cool down and look back on what I wrote a little later to see if I was just fired up or if I was maybe on to something.

And I think I was on to something.

The purpose of the following entry is not to bash the Baby Boomer generation, although it does hint at that in places. It is not to say, “Hey! You got us into this mess! You help us figure it out!” Far from this, it is meant to serve as a way to empower members of my generation, it is meant to help us understand that we each, in our own lives, hold more power than any corporation and any politician does. We have a wallet, we have knowledge, we have the freedom to use both as we wish. But most important of all, and forgive me for sounding trite, but we have each other.

As Barbara Kingsolver said in her commencement address to Duke in 2008, during what I consider the greatest piece of advice that someone could give our generation:

“You can be as earnest and ridiculous as you need to be, if you don’t attempt it in isolation. The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups. And they are known to change the world.”

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And so this a variation of what I had written that night, when I came home downtrodden and–I’ll admit, almost near tears (OK, maybe I was just having a rough week…):

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Lester Brown and the Dasani bottle and why I got so mad

Last night, I heard Lester Brown speak on campus. For those of you who don’t know who he is (I didn’t until the event) he’s the author of over 50 books on global environmental issues, he’s the founder of the Worldwatch Institute, the Earth Policy Institute, and basically the inventor of the term “sustainable development,” (evidently, a legacy he wishes to renounce, saying that we have a “language problem” in this movement and instead should use the phrase, “saving civilization.”)

And guess what? He’s 86 years old, which is pretty impressive.

But here’s a couple other things about his talk:

  1. He drank from a McDonald’s cup during the first half of the presentation.
  2. He drank from a Dasani bottle the second half.
  3. He quietly slipped away to take a cab home (he lives in D.C.) after answering three questions out of swarms of students who were dying just to shake his hand.
  4. He appeared to have done so partly because his books, which were meant to be at the reception after for people to buy, never arrived. (Which appeared to have been some sort of dealbreaker?)

(First, let me just say he isn’t the first environmental activist who I have seen speak who does all of these things, so I’m not singling him out. I am merely using him to make a point. And yes, I am sure he was just given the Dasani by someone at KPU or whoever. But if you were speaking on such a topic, wouldn’t you have said, “Sorry, I have my own bottle–mind refilling it at that water fountain?”)

These four seemingly innocuous actions stood out to me more than anything he said throughout the hour he spoke.

We, (and by we I mean the younger generations, say, everyone under forty or so)—we, the ones born into the “Age of Irony,” are the ones that quite literally must change things. We must pick up the pieces of the broken systems our grandparents left us with. Our lives, and most certainly our children’s lives, depend on it, according to statistics. A couple such statistics:

“By 2025, there will be no glaciers left in Glacier National Park.”

“Our population may only stabilize before 10 billion people because at that point the mortality rate will begin rising steadily due rising levels of hunger.”

I could rattle off others, but you’ve heard them all before.

Brown raised a point in his talk about how economists need to learn ecology. He said, “The World Bank uses all kinds of economic models to predict and explain trends. Why haven’t they looked at our growing population and asked, ‘How will we feed these people?'”

I don’t disagree, but there are also way too many ecologists out there who don’t understand basic economics. And I mean, basic. They might understand advanced economic theories. But they don’t seem to understand the concept that communities bound by solid belief systems, even just one, can change things. Living by a principle, when that principle is shared by a group, can change things. We’re currently seeing an example of this in one New Jersey community who is setting a precedent with a group of businesses who are pledging to stop selling and using products that have the endocrine-disrupting chemical triclosan in them (OK, maybe I used this for-instance because I wrote the press release and pitched the press conference that announced this to the media…) But, this is just one for-instance. There are countless others.

We can use a basic law of economics to create social change and influence more environmentally beneficial behaviors. It’s quite simple:

  1. people refuse to buy products that harm the environment
  2. they tell their friends
  3. issue campaigns promote education even further
  4. companies must create products that don’t harm the environment
  5. those that fail to evolve based on consumer demand can’t keep up in the marketplace.

The environmentally-conscious companies thrive, the environment thrives, humans thrive. It’s basic economics and it’s basic environmental morality.

If you participate in the easily avoidable actions that are driving our problems (ahem, drinking bottled water), you are subscribing to the idea that your actions don’t mean as much as some other person’s. In reality, it is the sum of our individual actions that drive change.

It’s easy for people like Lester Brown to stand before an audience of twenty-somethings and say to them, “Look at these problems which were set on course over a hundred years ago! They must be fixed! Here is this puzzle, please solve it and while you do, I am going to tell you about all the statistics of this dire situation.”

And yet, with a Coca-Cola bottle in hand. Talk about taking Ghandi’s everlasting, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and just tossing it right in the garbage.

How can the leaders of this movement expect to inspire us to change if they are still doing the same old messy things? And perhaps more importantly, how can we expect the people who scream, “You’re a crazy fascist for threatening to take away my bottled water” to take this movement seriously when its leaders are drinking bottled water as they speak before us, preaching principles of conservation?

Final point: This wasn’t all just about a Dasani bottle. If you thought that it was, I apologize for not having been able to make my point clearer through this extended metaphor of sorts.

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My take-away message

I submitted a speech to AU’s School of Communication for our commencement ceremony a couple months back. I wasn’t chosen but they seemed to like mine and a couple others enough to have our messages up as runners-up (take a look if you love that mushy stuff…self-promo #2…reaching my limit, aren’t I?).

But, here is what my advice would’ve been more like if my speech didn’t need to be SOC-oriented:

“Don’t think about thirty years from now in terms of where you will be career-wise. Don’t think about which organization you will be working at, trying to fix our broken world. Instead, think of the organizations that will have wrapped up their work because there is no longer a need for them. Dream up a world where there is no Worldwatch Institute, because our commonly held beliefs finally came to unite us, so we were compelled to take up different efforts on our own, to watch out for the world and each other in our own lives, no longer requiring an institute to facilitate. Imagine a world where we don’t need organizations to rattle off statistics. Imagine there were no statistics to report.

Even better, imagine living out these statistics…

  • living modestly, in a neighborhood where you grow most of your food within a few miles
  • being part of a community that is self-sustaining because that is what makes people happiest and because that is what makes the most sense
  • having a child who learns about what your generation endured and how it was able to turn things around
  • writing a book, and then having it available online (or whatever the current technology called for! On the current “iPads”?)
  • being part of a generation, a community, that was constantly learning to evolve.

And imagine how much better life would be.”

I know we’re not there yet, remotely, but these “far-fetched” dreams are important. They keep us positive and positivity restores our faith that what we do, here and now, actually matters. It all matters.

How positively overwhelming that is. How positively empowering, too, right?

Communicating the benefits of urban agriculture while innovation grows

The area of urban agriculture has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few years. I think the more people start to realize the feasibility, and soon necessity, of producing their own food, the more it will develop and become even more feasible, affordable, and mainstream. So what are some of the innovations we have seen?

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Innovations in urban agriculture

  • Hydroponics is a method of growing fruits and vegetables in water, which conserves the use of vast areas of farmland and allows crops to be grown in desert areas where they otherwise would not be able to. Further, it is able to also conserve and re-use water that is lost during evaporation or field run-off in traditional soil farming. Also, there is no risk for parasites or weeds to infest the controlled systems in which hydroponic plants are grown, therefore making them largely non-GMO and free of pesticides and chemicals. Bonus: you can grow hydroponically basically anywhere–in an apartment or a house. Eve Bratman has a hydroponic garden on her houseboat that she made entirely on her own from used water bottles and empty jugs.
  • Permaculture is still a bit of a flimsy term, in my opinion, only because it can mean so many different things, and isn’t widely known about. But it basically indicates an “ecologically designed system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor.” Permaculture is currently being used in different ways in different places and in all of those places, there is not a unified “permaculture” there are just isolated tactics that build on the idea of a permaculture. For example, think of worm composting, or vermiculture, which is one such tactic which is being carried out in various cities in the country, some even offering workshops and providing free worms and materials to those interested. This provides a sort of mutual symbiosis between two living things–the worms benefits by being fed, humans benefit by receiving rich soil and not filling landfills with compostable garbage. Perhaps a ” perfect permaculture” is the pie-in-the-sky goal we set to achieve, but it is through these mutually symbiotic relationships that we are able to do get closer to that.

    Photo credit: cafedirect

  • Rooftop farming, which can often be combined with hydroponic growing, is typcially used in areas of urban sprawl where soil/ground space is limited, to utilize unused rooftop spaces where sunlight is ample. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn is one case study that has really taken this concept to a whole new level. They also offer various workshops on cooking, gardening and how the farm works. Their farm grows primarily vegetables, and is open from June through November.
  • Sack gardening is a way for people to grow vegetables in small sack containers, usually when the contamination of the soil around them is too high. It is typically done on a smaller, individual scale, in places where food scarcity is a problem, and in both urban and rural locations.
  • Window farming is another way of using hydroponics, but in a specialized manner and primarily in urban settings. It is a way of using water bottles, water, hydroponic seeds (usually herbs and lettuce and greens like that), along with an low energy-intensive air pump which circulates the water, to grow plants in your window. This type of method is barely “farming,” however, if people were properly instructed on how to best go about making their own, it could be worth looking into. Also, if you live in a city and the view of your outdoors is the brick wall of the building next to yours, this could actually prove to be an improvement to your home, from an aesthetic viewpoint. (Not to mention that having plants in your home has been known to have all sorts of health benefits.)
  • Seasonal cooking would basically just mean knowing what is in season and planning your meals around those items. The fortunate reality is that a lot of us have access to local, fresh fruits and vegetables. However, many people don’t know what to do with a lot of those fruits and vegetables. It would be great to see more community and cooking classes, mobilizing people to learn how to cook just to start, but also to learn how to use local ingredients. Because if the option is there, there’s no reason not to choose local over imported. Epicurious offers an example of a map that can help to inform people about about what to expect is in peak season from their CSA or farmer’s market and how to therefore meal plan to accommodate those ingredients.

So what’s stopping us?

Locations. Some work better in some communities versus others.

Seasons. Not all of these methods can provide food at all times of the year everywhere, (except for the hydroponic ones.)

Culture/Value systems. People are going to have to shift how they think about and value their food, each other, and future generations. These types of methods require more time, patience, research, and money than traditional ways of getting food–going to a restaurant or the grocery store. Which means people are going to have to change the way they think about food. People might have to forfeit some of the time they spend watching television in the evenings in order to tend to their gardens or make time to cook meals from scratch in their homes. They are going to have to learn to appreciate eating with the seasons, and in fact, eating generally less, in quantity.

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Communicating benefits to consumers

While all of these methods of urban gardening and having a local, low carbon-footprint certainly interest some of us, and they are something we would be willing to use, they aren’t all 100 percent practical. Would these methods be used in conjunction with traditional food shopping? Would they slowly replace traditional methods? Or would they just be something some people adopted while others did not?

It’s hard to really know the answer. What I foresee is something quite similar to how companies like, say, Apple, market their products to consumers: first, the innovators get on board. Eve Bratman, my professor with the compost bin and on-the-boat garden, is one such innovator in the field of urban agriculture. Next, there are the early adopters, then the early majority (also called the “pragmatists”),  then the late majority (“the conservatives”), and lastly the laggards. How you move along more quickly is by conveying the importance–the “gotta-have-it” factor–of the technologies.

This reality and challenge is something that excites me, as a student and soon-to-be graduate in the field of communications. I feel like a lot of what is missing in the environmental movement is strategic communication about how and why people should change their behaviors. I think there is a place for communicators to get that message out to the public and I see that as being a huge catalyst for change in the future of the “sustainable movement”.

The way I imagine these sorts of methods becoming more widely accepted is through slow implementation motivated by strategic communication, just like all new technology works. Pilot programs embraced and tested out by the innovators and early adopters will not only provide evidence for the feasibility of certain tactics, but will allow for what doesn’t work to shine through and motivate alterations that can be modeled after later on. This will also allow programs to evolve at a pace that doesn’t freak out the “treehugger-phobics” as I like to call them (the kind of people who, when you “threaten to take away their right to buy bottled water” get all bent out of shape and start spouting off allegations of “fascism”)!

It’s important to communicate knowing that there are going to be those opposing voices when it comes to getting people to change their lifestyles. Which is why I feel when it comes to revolutionizing our food system, especially with tactics that require people to change on a personal level, you have to prove to consumers the benefits, and that change doesn’t have to be just easy, it’s rewarding.

Bill McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” redesigns how we think about sustainability

Rewriting our design assignment

“And to use something as elegant as a tree?
Imagine this design assignment:
Design something that
makes oxygen,
sequesters carbon,
fixes nitrogen,
distills water,
makes complex sugars and foods,
changes colors with the seasons,
and self-replicates.
…and then why don’t we knock that down
and write on it?”
~ William McDonough

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Here is what Bill McDonough proposes is our ultimate design assignment.

Circles & triangles

Last night was a bit of a “full circle moment” for me, not only as a student learning about environmental issues and sustainability, but as a citizen of the world. I got to meet a hugely influential person in my life, Bill McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle (co-authored by Michael Braungart). I first read this book when I was 19 years old and staying on Nantucket with a family I nannied for. I went in a bookstore in town with the kids and they were giving away copies of it for free.

Hm. I thought. Well, that’s interesting. And I’m not one to turn down anything that is free. This book was also so smooth, pretty, different from other books (it’s made of polypropylene paper, is 100% recyclable, is more durable, has pages that don’t wrinkle/tear, and iswater-proof). I read it in three trips to the beach and ever since then, I’ve been interested in sustainability. I had never read anything like it before. It taught me the backstory of why we are where we are today (a rudimentary concept—the industrial revolution brought us here—but at the time, I knew next to nothing about this.) But it also made me think. It made me look around and see the way we do things and ask myself, “But wait, why don’t we do it this way, and then we don’t have to this problem or that problem AND we get this benefit and that benefit.”

Basic case in point: You can carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because they reduce unnecessary waste and buildup of plastic in our landfills and ecosystems. But you can also carry your groceries home in reusable bags, because carrying heavy objects over your shoulders makes your life easier and prevents loaded plastic bags from cutting off the circulation in your fingers as you carry them.

Just that story of how I came upon this book sort of mirrors exactly what Bill is all about: for me, a free book changed my life. Cradle-to-cradle design isn’t about making things more expensive or more difficult or less fun or less aesthetically pleasing or less loving. It’s not even about creating equitable and ecologically friendly ways of doing things in ways that fail to promote economic growth. He believes in the importance and power of the economy, equity, ecology as they can co-exist and work together. This is a relatively well-known concept in the field of development and the first thing we talked about in my Environment & Development class this year, but it’s not a balance often achieved in design.

Benefits of a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems

ECONOMY

  • More local agricultural jobs, less power concentration in hands of CEO’s/more in hands of people => more jobs, more money in the hands of people
  • More vibrant local economies => less hunger, less sickness, less violence
  • More vibrant local economies => more vibrant cultural activity => thriving people

ECOLOGY

  • Less soil nutrient depletion and erosion
  • More places for species to live and thrive, instead of less
  • Less waste, less use of packaging, less transportation/fuel needed, less carbon dioxide emitted => more up-cycling => best use of natural resources => healtheir ecosystems => survival of all species

EQUITY

  • Better food security and food access due to independence from industrial food systems elsewhere & less disparity between the have’s of fresh, local food and the have-not’s with processed, unhealthy foods
  • Better tasting, healthier, less processed, more nutrient rich, less pesticide/harsh chemical-laden food
  • Healthier people => happier people


Drawbacks to a cradle-to-cradle approach within food systems

Yeah. Cost-benefit analyze that one. Which is sort of the whole idea. If there is a drawback, it’s not really cradle-to-cradle design.

“The God is in the details”

The really fabulous thing for me and other American University students, is that Bill is the architect that designed our new School of International Service building. And he did so in a way that combined these three benefits, saying that, “the God is in the details.” Meaning that all of the parts that make up the whole of this transparent, innovative, progressive building, “where people can dream,” are working together in their own way, in a good way, to make things “more good,” instead of “less bad”. From the 100% recyclable carpeting and other building materials to the waste management system, from the rain collectors and solar panels on the roof to the underground parking garage that gives priority parking first to cyclists (and has shower rooms available for them), then motorcyclists, then hybrid vehicles, and last, other vehicles.

I had a few questions I would have loved to ask Bill, but I chose something specific, “Are there any plans in place to evolve other buildings on campus?” The short answer from the dean was basically, “There sure will be. We need funding first.” Which gets back to that triangle corner of economy. If it’s not economically viable, it doesn’t fit the cradle-to-cradle design question:

But the economic viability aspect is also a huge asset to cradle-t0-cradle design, and to agribusiness in general, simply because this is what businesses and corporations are solely interested in. So in order to convince them, all the “cradle-to-cradle minded” designer needs to do is convince them that they will save money, or that they will be able to make more money, and then they are basically obligated to embrace it. It would go against the basic law of capitalism not to.

Cradle-to-cradle is the sort of design model that we need to use for our food production AND our food waste upcycling in our cities, because one cannot exist in a well-designed system without the other. Local food production via green roofs, composting in homes and buildings, using that compost on the green roofs of the homes and buildings–this isn’t rocket science, it’s just, as Bill would say, interesting.

In one of my next entries I will go over some of these “details” in more detail, and talk about how they can work together to encompass sustainably designed and developed food systems within cities and habitats for humans and all other life.

Evolving design

The most important thing to remember is that that doesn’t mean cradle-to-cradle design is ever perfect. In fact, McDonough recognizes it is not ever perfect. Really, design must be constantly evolving as different methods and technologies become more economically viable and approaches are made more equitable while still remaining ecologically beneficial. What works now will have to work better in the future.

Just like all organisms must evolve to survive, so must humans, and so must the systems that we create and rely on.

After all…

“Sustainability takes forever. And that’s the point.” – William McDonough

Review: Blue Duck Tavern

I have had the most amazing weekend, it came at just the right time.

Because lately I have felt like I don’t trust any decision I make. I hate second-guessing myself. I have also been super paranoid about mundane things. (Double-checking that I lock doors after already walking away, thinking I left the stove on when I didn’t, worrying I lost my keys/wallet/ipod/phone when really they are just tucked somewhere in my bag.) Consequently, I have been doing really ditsy things. The other day, I sent an email in which I typed my home address incorrectly, like not just a typo, but wrong. What in the heck?

This weekend was just what I needed and I owe it all to some great people, delicious food, and oh-so-what-I-needed yoga. (I don’t know WHY I ever stop going to yoga…it is one of the only things that really keeps me in line.) I already talked all about my experience at the food sustainability panel Friday. And I will fill you in on my new yogi experiences on Thursday–I am doing a sampling of a few new studios in the area and plan to write my last health column on it. That’s…such a sad thought. My last column? Forever?)

Blue Duck Tavern

So Friday night, Joe and I tried Blue Duck Tavern (“it’s quacktastic!”), a country-chic style sustainably-sourced restaurant in the West End that is well known for its local, fresh fare (not everything on the menu is local, but it does tell you exactly which farm everything came from, which is much more than most can say.) Their restaurant is pretty upscale, but their menu is set up “family style” so you choose your meats, veggies, grains, and then the expectation is that you share dishes, some of which are designed for 2-3 people.

So for an appetizer, he ordered “oven roasted bone marrow with a sea urchin crust and country bread.” I have never seen something so strange in my entire life. Apparently, it’s a delicacy. You spread the bone marrow on the bread and that is how you eat it. The one saving grace that prevents me from being grossed out by this is that it’s from a small farm in Pennsylvania, so you know the cow lived a happy, normal life and was slaughtered in as humane a way as possible, hopefully. At this point in dinner, I brought up how I had recently started reading, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Joe’s response was, “I love animals so much, I just want to eat them.” Sigh.

OK. Now, complaint number one of few at Blue Duck is that their menu uses a lot of meat. A meat-eater would never notice this or point it out, but it’s really true. All the salads listed and many of the vegetable dishes, had meat in them, and at a fancy place like this (while they did later accommodate my request to not have bacon in the dandelion dish) I just didn’t even want to request changes to, because then you are messing with the dish, which has been specifically designed to have certain flavors that rely on the meat. So the waiter suggested the butterhead lettuce with yoghurt dressing, and I love butterhead lettuce so I went with that. Now, I will just say that I had one delicious bite of the dish that proved it really did taste great, however, see how they present the lettuce in the little heads like that? Complaint number 2 – I think either someone screwed up and didn’t rinse the leaves, or they can’t really get into the lettuce head to wash the dirt/grit off. Because all I could think about was the grittiness it left on my teeth. Not a good way to start off a meal. I told the waiter (very tactfully, might I add), turned down his offer for something different, and he reported back the chef’s apologies and offer for free dessert. They were nice enough, but that was definitely a damper on my appetite.

However, they did an excellent job making up for it later.

Next, he got the the braised beef rib with homemade steak sauce and loved it.

I debated on what to order, and then got the swordfish. It tasted great, mind you…but why am I so awful at ordering the right seafood? OK, in my defense, I had picked out what I wanted online, according to sustainability and health guidelines, but since the menu was different once we got there, I had to think on my feet. I was under the impression swordfish but one of the better types of fish to order but…complaint #3, apparently it’s full of mercury, and imported (well, I knew it was imported because it said Hawaii on the menu–although that’s not exactly “imported”, since it’s still in the country…hmm…off on a technicality?). Anyhow, it isn’t listed on FWW’s magnet guide at all, so I thought I was safe for a second, and according to EDF’s seafood selector, “Although the U.S. has imposed strict regulations in the Pacific to reduce bycatch of endangered sea turtles, foreign fleets are not subject to these restrictions, and there is no international management for swordfish in the Pacific.” So, my swordfish, being U.S.-caught, was likely ‘humanely’ caught, but now I can’t have children. I guess I just always feel like places like this are going to offer only the seafood that is BEST, but I suppose they value taste above all. I am actually thinking of going back to being a vegetarian, for reasons such as, the only time I ever eat seafood is when I’m in a nice restaurant, and if even nice restaurants have not-so-nice seafood, maybe I shouldn’t bother?

Anyhow, the dandelion greens were great, and the mushroom polenta was AH-mazing. Mouthwatering good.

Then we ordered the apple pie. I had heard their apple pie was fantastic and it really was. It was also huge and between the two of us we didn’t even finish half.

Wrap-up review

  • B for taste. It’s unfortunate, because I really thought everything else was impeccable but I have to dock them points for the gritty salad. It wasn’t even a taste issue really, just poor food handling, which in my opinion is less excusable than simply me not liking a particular flavor I had never tried or whatever.
  • New category—Selection/variety/veg-friendliness: B-. I think this is an important factor I didn’t consider before. Restaurants nowadays need to offer more vegetarian selections. Even though I am personally not following a vegetarian diet right now, I have been in those shoes, and it’s really sort of embarrassing to have to make special requests.
  • A+ for atmosphere. The restaurant itself was perfectly lit, had a nice chatter but not too loud, was very chic and modern. The waiter was friendly and accommodating, and gave great wine advice.
  • It’s hard to judge value here. The place is pricey, but you’re also paying for the ambience, the freshest ingredients, the chef, the innovative menu, and other things–so really it depends on what you’re after, and if you value great tasting meat, this may be for you. What I will say is that vegetarians may not love it. And you might want to ask how large certain dishes are before you order or how many people they will feed, because I found that to be sort of erratic and it’s just hard to know when it’s “family-style” dining. Case in point, the apple pie could easily be split among 4 people who just want, say, 4-5 bites of apple pie.
  • B- for their sustainability/eco-friendliness because of the swordfish thing and the fact that only about half of farms listed were remotely nearby. They list all the farms that source their foods, whether or not they are local, which is nice to know and shows they care and are being transparent.

How do you handle sending dishes back at restaurants? Do you speak up or keep quiet when something is off?

Food Access Solutions: Urban Ag, Local Food, Community Development

Sometimes it’s hard to know if you are seeing something that is actually happening. Sometimes it’s hard to know if our own interests, backgrounds, experiences and lessons are shaping what is going on around us to the point where we are, in a sense, creating our own reality—or if our reality is largely the same as what is actually taking place—that is, if our reality is the same as other people’s realities.

I will eventually make more clear what I mean by this. I hope.

Panel Event: Food Access Solutions

On Friday, I spent a good part of my day at a panel-focused event titled, “Food Access Solutions: Urban Agriculture, Local Food & Community Development.” It was held in a large auditorium in a great new building in Southeast D.C., and there were about fifty of us there to see and hear experts in the field shed some light on the issue of healthy food access and sustainable community development.

Throughout the past eight months or so, I have been surrounded by this food debate. Meanwhile, the food debate has been raging, unbeknownst to me, for decades. Though I feel like this year it has hit critical mass. Meanwhile, it has taken me all this time to put the pieces together and realize that everything that’s going on isn’t really about food. The food issue is merely a symptom of a wider issue of a shift in our cultural values. Namely, that people are craving human connection, are dying for a sense of community, whether or not they realize it. Not to be dramatic, but regardless of where we live or what social class we belong to, we have become slaves (the concept of “food freedom” was discussed at length) to a commercialized, industrialized, profit-driven society that doesn’t cultivate mutual respect or promote equity, and ultimately devalues the natural resources we depend on. Consumerism has replaced consumer-power, as Robert Egger said during the panel. This causes us to devalue our neighbors, friends and family, who depend on those resources along with us. And what the current food revolution is about is fixing this broken value system, through tactics that help to chip away at the symptoms of it, with the hope that eventually the problem itself will begin to reverse.

FYI, here is who was there:

There is a lot worth mentioning and talking about from the panel, but in the interest of keeping this somewhat brief, here are just a few questions that I think elicited the most interesting responses, along with my commentary.

Who do you think is missing from this conversation and this panel today?

Ahh. I appreciated this opening question. Some answers included: city planners, very young people (kindergartners, elementary and middle school students), grocery stores/retailers. I also think that we need government officials (from FDA, USDA) included in the debate, as well as politicians, as these are the people that are helping to shape the policy which determines how our food system functions.

What are some possible solutions?

I was really surprised to find that the majority of the discussion focused on local community efforts that can be made, rather than wide-scale policy changing. I think the general feeling was that a bottom-up approach, rather than a trickle-down approach, may be what we need to rely on, at least to start, in order to motivate changes. In a way, this makes some sense, because if you can mobilize people in pockets all around the country, or world, you can really have an impact–but if you spend your money and efforts targeting a government who ultimately is only serving its financial interests and the interests of the people, nothing can change. You have to change the interests of the people first, and then, if there is a legitimate government, it should follow suit and work to align with those interests. Some ideas that the panelists included:

  • Using music, games, activities at farmers markets to draw more people to them, as well as offering the markets more often and at different times.
  • Urban agriculture methods. So think city/community gardens. AU has one, window farming, roof farming, hydroponics, etc. (I have a o going up soon about these methods in more details, so stay tuned.)
  • Food producers need to reach out more to the existing small corner markets and stores and get their fresh produce there.
  • Making more farmers markets available to under-served communities.
  • Programs like Farm to School, which involve more people, young people especially, in the act of growing their own food from an early age, so they appreciate it more.
  • Making food a more inherent part of our culture, something that we pride ourself on, enjoy the taste of, and would rather spend time with than other consumer endeavors.
  • Shifting the power from large corporations back into the communities, because if you bring a local food economy somewhere, you will build up their economy in general, produce more jobs, and make the community better able to weather the storm when crises occur.

Open Q&A

During the question and answer session, many stood to offer their accolades to the speakers. One young woman, around my age, who works at the Earth Day Network, stood to ask how she, as a middle-class white girl with a passion for the causes of community development and fighting hunger and providing healthy food to those in need—can do without just playing that role of the rich, white girl swooping in to “save” the struggling black community. Malik talked about how we need to stop looking at the issue as one where we are “saving” people, but instead, empowering them. He also said that there are countless nonprofit organizations that start up and go into these communities to help them, but instead of then employing the actual citizens of these communities, the organization leaders hire their other white friends. If we expect to empower people, we must include them in the processes that seek to empower, instead of keeping them on the outside, working minimum wage jobs. But he also mentioned that members of the black community have to “step up,” as he put it, and become active in that sort of work in order to allow themselves to be empowered.

I asked a pretty specific question. I wanted to hear more about how to incorporate the large family farm operations in this discussion, and what role those large commodity crop growers could play toward making healthier food more accessible while reducing the impact that their food has on the world from a greenhouse gas perspective (industrial livestock raising, nutrient soil depletion from not rotating crops, the fuel used to create fertilizers, the fuel used to transport food). I hate to say I didn’t really get an answer to that question–so then I asked how Michael, the farmer on the panel, managed to transform the corn/tobacco operation that once existed into his livestock/vegetable farm which exists today. His answer was, “very slowly.” He also said he relied on a lot of community support for it to happen. I’m not sure if that meant financial support or just support of them buying his food. It wasn’t really enough of an answer for me. So we chatted for a bit after and I got his contact information.

After, I was talking with a girl there who had interned at National Family Farm Coalition. I told her how I was interested in learning more about how to find that balance between being able to grow more fruits and vegetables in places where nature allows them to grow, without pitting large farmers against small farmers. In a sense, how to take away the whole “if you can afford small farm food, that’s great–but if you can’t, there’s factory farming which can provide you cheaper, less nutritious food.” I wanted to know what he had done, in order to use his as a case study for other projects. But his situation was not entirely the same as many large-scale farms across the country. Anyhow, the girl, who was about my age, said something worth noting, which amounted to basically, “If everyone always waited around for someone else to provide a model for how to do something, nothing would ever get done.”

Our Collective Reality

Here is where I am coming from in this discussion. I am a privileged, white girl from a middle-class family who has received an amazing education from a private institution; who has never been forced to miss a meal in her life; who never had to stow away food handed out in elementary or middle school during state-wide exam days or after school activities so I could bring it home to feed my family for dinner; who knows what self-induced starvation feels like, but has never once opened the refrigerator or the pantry only to find that there is not one thing to eat; who knows what healthy food is and what it isn’t and never once has had a problem getting somewhere that offers that food and being able to afford it.

I walked away from this panel finally feeling justified in my thinking of this whole movement as a big deal. It’s not a trend; it will go down in history books. We have to all do what we can to make sure that this is a turning point for the better instead of the worse.

I also walked away from this panel and counted the number of people who would be considered obese as I walked toward the metro station. I sat down on a seat on the train facing one such person, a young black mother and her, I assume, toddler son. He was adorable in his vintage-looking Mickey Mouse t-shirt and Nike sneakers. She was feeding him snacks from a couple plastic baggies, one of which appeared to be filled with sugar cookies and the other with Fruit Loops cereal. And after watching them for a few minutes, watching him eating and giggling and playing, completely ordinary interactions—I felt completely overwhelmed with the strangest combination of despair and hope.

I live a completely different life than the people who are being affected most negatively by our food system. I’m sure I live a completely different life than the mother and her son on the metro, and though our immediate, personal realities are quite different, when it comes down to it, we face the same threats, and our collective reality, as humans, remains the same. This should be what unites us in the struggle.

Tambra Stevenson, a panelist from the DC Food Justice Coalition, reminded us of Harriet Tubman’s famous quote, which I feels ties this entry up nicely: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”


What’s the whole story behind Whole Foods?

Ahh…the Whole Foods saga rages on.

I’ll take a moment to recap a few things that have happened other the past year with Whole Foods and their CEO, John Mackey. Mackey wrote in this op-ed to the Wall Street Journal, basically arguing against universal health care and offering his solutions for reforming health care in the United States. There was a huge uproar against this, of course, because of the “progressive, left-leaning crowd” that frequents Whole Foods. An Anti-Whole Foods Facebook group was created, called ” Whole Foods is Anti-Health care Insurance Reform – Lets Make Them Pay!” (I would like to point out that this group is misinformed–Mackey is not anti-health care reform, he just has completely different ideas about what health care reform should entail.) There were also groups created and blog entries posted all over that supported his stance.

[My general feeling about health care reform is that there is no all-or-nothing that is going to solve our health care woes. But I haven’t done the type of research to really feel comfortable posting my political views on this topic; I haven’t really formulated my opinion yet.]

Then, most recently, there is this whole new controversy over Mackey’s institution of a new voluntary policy where Whole Foods employees are able to enroll in a program where they have a health assessment and then are graded, which will determine what kind of employee food discount they can get (between 20-30% discount). Read more about it here. Basically, it rates employees based on their BMI (height and weight worked out to a number with a calculation), their blood pressure, and their cholesterol. The idea is that this program incentivizes getting healthier by offering employees a better discount if they get healthier. One of the problems I see is that the factors it takes into account are not really the best, the be-all-end-all of health. For example, I have high cholesterol that runs in my family. I take some vitamins to control it and I don’t eat meat or very much dairy and I eat loads of oatmeal, but I’m probably never going to have perfect cholesterol because of my genes. So, if I were a Whole Foods employee, would I feel discriminated against because of this program? Perhaps. Also, shouldn’t the more unhealthy employees be offered ways to get healthy, instead of just not getting “healthy Whole Foods” for cheaper? Maybe Whole Foods could partner with local gyms to get discounts for their employees…things like that.

I think the even more important story behind Whole Foods is the fact that their practices aren’t as good for the environment as they claim to be. This article does a really excellent job of looking at both the positives and the negatives of Whole Foods. They point out, just like in Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, that big organic is NOT always local. In fact, most often, it is not. And big organic is kept in business by Whole Foods. This article from The Chicago Tribune underlines the problem with big organic companies, like Earthbound Farms and Cascadian Farms, and how they are more likely to sacrifice quality in order to turn out more food and more of a profit.

Now, my take is this: I shop at Whole Foods, but with the knowledge that they are a corporation, they are a greedy, capitalist corporation just like the Giant. It’s not like I feel self-righteous for shopping at Whole Foods. I prefer to shop at farmers markets over any grocery story, the taste and experience is simply better. When I shop there, I try to grab all the items marked “local,” because to me, that is my way of “voting” for the local farms (For example, the hummus I buy there is made in Virginia.) Other grocery stores don’t have these local options. And I like having the organic option,  because generally speaking, it is the healthier option and is also cheaper there than at Giant or Safeway. But Whole Foods isn’t perfect. It is a fabrication of the farmers market experience. It is deceiving. But like everything else, I try to learn as much as I can so I can walk in knowing exactly what it is I am paying for, and what I am getting for it.

So, what do you think about all this? Do you shop at Whole Foods? If you don’t, why not? Do you think their employee practices are fair, and should that affect whether or not we choose to shop there?