Archive for Friends

The Story of Bottled Water

Oh so rarely do I post twice a week. That’s how you know this is special. I just watched “The Story of Bottled Water,” which is by the same woman who made “The Story of Stuff.” It’s 8 minutes long, but chocked full of info-goodness. There’s no point in my trying to reduce her argument/statements to a couple of sentences, as there is almost nothing I can do to make this post more interesting than her video. Ergo…

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GoodGuide

GoodGuide LogoSo, this will be very quick, but I guess that makes you more likely to read it. Anyway, I just thought I’d point everyone to goodguide.com. GoodGuide was started by Dara O’Rourke, a professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkley.Although not exclusively food related, there are many listings for food. The purpose of the guide is to inform consumers about some of the lesser discussed details of everyday products. Each item is given an overall rating (to the nearest tenth) and three sub-ratings for Health, Environment, and Society. Each of those is in turn broken down and explanations are given. The only drawback of this detailed approach is that (with their limited resources), not every product is listed. Though perhaps more than one would immediately expect.

Apetit: bon.

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Fancy Feast

fancyHi folks. I’m not going to write about sustainability today, per se. Instead, I want to defend Dining Services a bit. If there is any sustainability tie in, it’s that Dining uses some high quality ingredients. Keep that in mind while you’re reading.

Dining takes a lot of flak. Part of that is invariably because it’s the only food service gang in town, and freshmen like to bond over their hatred for something. But how deserved is that hatred? At least part of it is unfair. Dining Services (serving 3 meals a day to about 4,000 undergrads everyday) is not always able to present food the way a restaurant presents it. You don’t get a porcelain plate, you don’t get a cloth napkin, and you don’t get mints on your check. That makes it easy to criticize the food (even if the ingredients are of a high quality).

But what if we reversed the situation? What if the food itself was terrible, but it looked good? That’s the concept behind Fancy Fast Food. The writer of the site goes to fast food restaurants and buys a meal or some kind of meal combo. McDonalds, Taco Bell, whatever. This is food that is almost universally recognized as the bottom of the barrel. It’s unhealthy. It’s made with low grade foods. It’s not even really food. He then takes the food home, and using only what was in the meal (ketchup packets, burgers, fries, etc.) cooks, blends, and garnishes till he’s blue in the face. The website is basically a before and after of the food. It is an immensely entertaining read.

Reading the site, one cannot help but ask, “what is important to us about our food?” I do think preparation counts (note, Fancy Fast Food is a self described “humor blog”), but not at the expense of quality. To cut to the chase, I’d rather eat in Danforth than off the Fancy Fast Food menu. Just consider that the next time you’re griping about the food.

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Mixed Bag

mix This week’s post has no real theme. I was looking around for something big to write about, and all I found were these factoids. Well, they’re a little most substantial than factoids, but not much. So without further ado, I present: the mixed bag.

First I want to provide a little update to last week’s post on Walmart. I received no negative comments, but what’s more apropos, I got no comments of any nature. This makes it difficult to calculate percentages (division by zero is frowned upon by my fellow Pythagoreans). Grist has an interesting article on the recent supportive press Walmart has gotten. The author wants us to remember that Walmart as an organization has created much of the ruin they are now getting laurels for trying to fix. While it is probably difficult to trace the numbers back to their source, the article points out that the rise of Walmart has been paralleled by the dramatic increase in miles driven by the average American. Perhaps one of the most interesting points in the article was about the effect Walmart has had on the life expectancy of our household products. Walmart is an aggressive business partner. That’s why everything they sell is so cheap. The power Walmart has at the bargaining table is unrivaled. To submit the lowest bid or to meet Walmart’s price demands, suppliers change their processes and materials. These changes are not benign. While your toaster is now only ten bucks, it only lasts six months. Your jeans are 15 dollars, but they won’t live to see the next year. Iron desk fans from the 40’s are still spinning. The clip-on polystyrene fan from Walmart will keep you cool this summer. Only this summer. Alright, enough examples. There’s more in the article, check it out if you’re interested.

Now for a bit of popular history. Meryl Streep has apparently been a major advocate for sustainable foods. She was a champion of local and organic foods before those categories even had proper names. I did not see Ms. Streep’s latest film, but it is not her latest engagement with the Julia Child character. Streep reached out to Child to help her fight the industrial agriculture lobby. To Meryl’s surprise, Julia was not interested in helping, and became incensed. In any event, this isn’t a juicy Hollywood gossip column. I just thought is was funny. Check out the details of Meryl Streep’s work here. It’s pretty interesting. Of course, the fact that a three-time academy award winner has the leisure time and money to think about and pay for good food may not say terrible much about average Jane. That’s another conversation.

Shifting gears again, what do you think is a more effective way to get people to buy healthy foods, a subsidy or a tax on junk food? According to a new study out of The University of Buffalo, taxing is the way to go. Check out the link for some details on the study. My first thought is, what are the social justice implications? Junk food is cheap, and taxing it certainly disincentives it, but what of the population that buys junk food because that is the only category of food that they can afford? American’s spend a fraction of what European’s spend on food, but that’s small consolation to someone working paycheck to paycheck for food and rent. Disregarding economic efficiency, it is a social imperative to offer affordable food. If we choose to tax junk food, we need to offer an affordable healthy alternative. Two last remarks: 1) I don’t think anything I’ve said is startling. 2) Junk food is a poorly defined category; I use the term for lack of a more precise term.

Topic the next: Starbucks Fair Trade. I’ve written a little about Starbucks before, but it was a while ago, so I feel justified in writing on this topic again. Last time I wrote, Starbucks was the world’s largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee. Not surprisingly, that is still the case. Treehugger has an little article about their relationships with Fair Trade suppliers. There’s nothing that really knocks my socks off in this article, but it seems in line with my post last week. In the 50’s it was the communists (reds). In the 80’s it was IBM (blues). In a galaxy far far away it was the dark side. These days it’s fear itself. There is always a menace, some other we need to fight against and fear. Even the people who resist the popular other have their dark specters. Perhaps the danger is exaggerated sometimes. Walmart and Starbucks may have a bright side. Seeing shades of gray is an energy-intensive activity.

Okay, enough philosophy. I’ll end on a lighter note. Check out this egg cracker. What do you think? Need one? I love how these product commercials always make the most mundane tasks seem intractably difficult. Cracking eggs is more difficult than watching TV (the gold standard), but it’s really not something that requires that much effort. More than that, though, cracking eggs is kind of fun. Every try two at once? That’s a party. A part of me wants to try the EZCracker. It’s the same part of me that wanted to press all the buttons on the remote when I was a toddler. The same part that wanted to touch the walls of my Aunt’s house when I walked down the hall (a sin punishable by death). These products prey on that primal interest in gadgets, that tactile glee we all enjoy. They don’t solve problems (at least not serious ones). It’s just more junk.

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Chthonic Phthalates

PhthalatesIf you attended the Women in Sustainability lecture this week, read no further. You are now well versed in the world of phthalates (I won’t attempt a pronunciation guide). The good news: you are an expert chemist and will not have a hard time finding a job. The bad news: you are probably terrified of everyday objects. Shower curtains. Hair spray. And most ominously (not to mention relevantly), food.

Phthalates are endemic in our environments. They are part and parcel with the plastic addiction from which we all suffer. Bad plastic, bad. To make matters worse, petroleum is the major source of fertilizers (roughly speaking). Since most food in a supermarket has been blanketed with fertilizers, most food in the supermarket carries phthalates. Other than the terrifying phoneme fusion, what’s to worry about? Phthalates mimic estrogen in the body. To make that statement a little more precise, some phthaltes are able to bond to estrogen receptors in the body. The effects of this are only beginning to be studied carefully, but early results coupled with some simple thought experiments (what would a world with diminished sexual dimorphism in humans (and other animals) look like?) lead to portentous conclusions.

To cut off what could be many pages of rambling, phthalates seem pretty scary (I apologize for the scare tactics, it’s not usually my style), and if you are interested in avoiding them (I would consider this seriously if you are pregnant), try to avoid foods treated with pesticides, and heating food in plastic containers. There are more drastic steps one can take, but I defer to the rest of the internet (and beyond!) for that information. Good night, and good luck.

Check out this paper for more info.

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Sharing the Harvest

Sharing the Harvest:
A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture

Sharing the Harvest Elizabeth Henderson began farming at the age of 36. She is responsible for establishing Peacework Organic Farm and the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) associated with it. She is actively involved with the North Organic Farming Association, as well as what seems like a dozen other farming organizations. So how do these credentials translate? They make Ms. Henderson an enormous repository of information about farming and CSAs (which are a community approach to food with a focus on involvement and shared responsibility). Sharing the Harvest, which was written by Elizabeth Henderson and Robyn Van En, seems to have all of that information. Admittedly, this is hyperbole, but for a book that labels itself a citizen’s guide, it certainly has all the information one could hope to find on community supported agriculture.
If my definition of a CSA wasn’t good enough (and believe me it wasn’t), Ms. Henderson includes a chapter defining CSAs and a full section on the different types of CSAs. Sharing the Harvest includes comprehensive information on why one would want to join a CSA, the different types of CSAs, and picking the right CSA. More than that, it offers the consumer some insight into the issues faced by farmers and CSAs. From legal matters to Organic certification, Sharing the Harvest sheds light on complicating factors in the world of food.
Sharing the Harvest is a perfect desk reference for anyone interested in getting involved in a CSA, or even in setting one up. While Sharing the Harvest is certainly not a prerequisite for buying a share in a CSA, it is an illuminating companion to membership. And although Sharing the Harvest is predominantly about CSAs, there is also plenty of invaluable information about food systems and farmers in general. The shelf life of Sharing the Harvest is unusually long. That is to say that the issues discussed are unlikely to be obsolete in the near future. This book can be pulled from the shelf at any time and still act as an accurate reference for matters CSA.

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Lessmeatarianism

BittmanThis was too good not to pass along. Beyond writing about sustainable dining, I am also a self-declared foodie (what that basically means is that I am obnoxious about my food and, moreover, the food other people eat). As part of the foodie’s credo, I am a sworn Mark Bittman follower. He’s got it all right. He cooks great food. He’s hilarious. He’s not trained as a chef. He also dabbles in world matters. Realizing the impact meat consumption has on our planet (you may recognize this theme from a couple of my previous posts) Mark has come up with a word. No! It’s more than that. Mark has come up with a concept. Still not right. A lifestyle? I guess the label isn’t important. The thing is lessmeatarian. I love it. It captures the essence of over-consumption, and the spirit of moderation. If you haven’t gathered the meaning yet, it’s a half-step to the right of vegetarian and a half-step to the left of… everyone else. Don’t be pedantic, you get it. Anyway, he has some sort of a pledge you can sign. I’m not sure the psychology behind this type of thing, but it might help. Here’s the site.

Aside: I’d recommend checking out Bittman for food info outside of the sphere of sustainability (yes, there is an outside).

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Make The Pledge

pledge So it’s not technically green food, but I figure you might still be interested in it. Facilities has put together a sustainability pledge, find it here. There have already been 194 student pledges. The pledge is open to students, faculty, administrators, community members, and healthcare workers (I figure that refers to doctors, nurses, etc.). The pledge is modeled off of similar pledges at other institutions. There is nothing in it that makes it specific to Rochester, which is by no means an indictment. These are actions that can be translated to any part of your life.

In any event, check out the page, sign the pledge, and browse around the rest of the sustainability page. Have fun, readers.

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New Dining Sustainability Site

Go GreenDining Services has a new site on rochester.edu/sustainability devoted wholly and entirely to sustainability! Much of the credit must go to Maria Strangas for pulling it together, but more than that for being an advocate. The website is a compilation of Dining’s sustainability initiatives broken down by area of focus. So you can look up what Dining is doing with local foods, or composting. If you don’t see something you were looking for, feel free to post something here. Or you can always fill out one of the online comment cards, which go directly to Dining Services. You can always find this new site on the sidebar of my blog. It’s called “Sustainability in Dining.”

So bookmark http://www.rochester.edu/sustainability/dining.html now, and always have it as a reference. The idea is that this site will be as up-to-date as anyone’s knowledge of the program. Bon Appétit.

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Starbucks Coffee

StarbucksI concede that I cannot cover Starbucks in a single post. There are so many things to talk about. We could talk about the Starbucks brand, Starbucks’ place on this campus, Starbucks’ buying policies, etc.

Today, I will focus on their buying policies.

First, an brief history of coffee: Coffee production is a narrative of oppression and abuse. Groups of people have long been exploited to grow coffee. Recently, this exploitation has been transnational. South American coffee growers in particular have been jerked around by boom and bust growing seasons and markets. Operating on already thin margins, they have at times been forced to sell coffee at a loss. This can be devastating to a small farmer. Additionally, the incentive has long been to clear cut swaths of rainforest for coffee production. Transfair has worked to counter some of the problems involved in coffee production, introducing Fair Trade certification.

TransfairAlthough Fair Trade isn’t the only game in town, it’s a popular one. Products with the label at left are checked for fair pay and fair worker conditions. There is obviously more to it than that, and I recommend reading this site if you are interested in more details, but that should give you an idea of what Fair Trade is.

Fair Trade also has an interesting history at our University. A few short years ago, in 2005, we had no Fair Trade whatsoever on this campus. The work of a few enterprising young students (notably Dan Mueller and Abby Conrad) made Fair Trade prominent on this campus.

And then Starbucks.

Although Starbucks has long been a major buyer of Fair Trade coffee by volume, most of the coffee bought in Starbucks is not Fair Trade. The Starbucks in Wilson Commons sells only one Fair Trade blend, Estima (though other locations have other blends). However, in late October of 2008, Starbucks announced their intention to tip the scales a bit. They will double their Fair Trade purchasing in 2009, bringing the total volume to 40,000,000 pounds of Fair Trade coffee! In addition, they are strengthening their internal standards on non-Fair Trade coffee.

More on Starbucks later. Much more.

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