Thursday, December 27, 2012

Taking stock: What to do with a whole chicken.

We’ve really enjoyed being a part of the meat CSA program at North Mountain Pastures over the past year. We receive one box each month, with a variety of beef, pork, and chicken. We’ve had the chance to try several kinds of steaks, roasts, and ribs that we’d never had before. We also had a traditional Oktoberfest sausage that was especially delicious with their homemade kimchi. Although the selection is mostly a surprise, one thing we always get is a whole chicken. At first, we were really intimidated. But, over time, we have learned just how easy it can be to cook a whole chicken, and how much food we can get from this one bird. For about $30, we can make dinner for two people for three nights and almost 2 quarts of chicken stock to freeze for later. Here’s how we do it.

Slow-cooker chicken.

Our first task is to cook the whole chicken. We use a slow-cooker, one of the world's greatest inventions for busy people who still want to eat well. We typically eat the legs and thighs one night and the breasts the other night, along with a couple of vegetable side dishes. There is usually enough meat left over to incorporate into a third meal as well. A little leftover chicken makes a great addition to a veggie-laden salad or even a stir-fry.

  • A whole chicken (4-5 pounds)
  • Approx. 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • To taste – pepper, salt, rosemary, sage, and thyme

1. Place chicken in slow cooker.
2. Add left-over chicken stock or vegetable stock, enough to cover about ½ the bird (at least enough to enter the cavity of the bird).
3. Salt and pepper the outside of the chicken. You can also add about a teaspoon each of rosemary, sage, and/or thyme.
4. Cook for 4 hours on high or 6-7 hours on low.
5. Remove chicken from slow cooker, and cut off the meat to use for dinner. Place the carcass in a large sealable bag or container, and store it in the refrigerator for a few days or freeze it until you are ready to make the stock.

Vaguely Mediterranean chicken. 

Last time we made a whole chicken, I raided the pantry and fridge to make up this easy third dinner. This recipe can be easily modified to include any other veggies you may have lying around.

  • Olive oil, if needed
  • Leftover chicken
  • 1 can of diced tomatoes or 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 bunch lacinato kale
  • 1/2 tsp each, Italian seasoning and garlic powder
  • Rice

1. Rinse and coarsely chop kale. Cut chicken into bite-size pieces and dice tomatoes, if necessary. If you are making rice on the stovetop, start it now.
2. Add oil to the pan, and warm over medium-high heat. The amount of oil will depend on the kind of pan you have; you shouldn’t need more than a tablespoon.
3. Give the oil a minute or so to heat up, and then add the kale. Saute the kale for several minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Add the tomatoes, chicken, and spices. Reduce the heat to low and heat through. If you are making instant/frozen rice, start it now.
5. Once the chicken is nice and warm (about 10-15 min.), serve over rice.
Stocking up.

We mostly follow the chicken stock recipe in Deborah Krasner’s book, Good Meat, which is a wonderful resource for the ethical meat eater. We store our stock in the freezer in food-grade mason jars (like these) that we purchased at a local hardware store. When we're ready to use the stock, we place a jar in a bowl of water in the fridge overnight. Also, we add salt only when cooking with the stock, not in its preparation.

  • A whole chicken carcass
  • 1 carrot, cut into chunks
  • 1 stalk of celery, cut in half
  • 1 onion
  • 1 whole clove or 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 5 whole peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf

1. Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Add enough water to cover the ingredients (Krasner suggests at least 5 inches over the top).
2. Heat on medium-high heat, uncovered, until the stock begins to boil.
3. Reduce heat to the lowest setting at which you can maintain a simmer.
4. Let the stock simmer for 3-4 hours, until it is golden and fragrant. As it cooks, skim any foam the forms on the surface.
5. Use a strainer or large slotted spoon to collect all the solids; smoosh any veggies to get a bit more flavor and then discard.
6. Place the pot in the sink, surrounded by ice, for about half an hour (or just put in the fridge).
7. When cool, pour the stock into jars or other freezer-safe containers. Chill the stock in the fridge overnight. Then, if you plan to store it for more than a few days, move it to the freezer.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Will vote for food.

With election day almost upon us, we have heard the candidates express their views on the economy, abortion, and foreign policy. They have described how skyrocketing health care costs, and our future health care needs, will impact our society and the national debt. And yet, at no point has either candidate discussed the cost of subsidizing grain production or the impact of cheap processed food on our worsening health. Clearly, these important food issues are still not part of the national political conversation. Although the food movement has made great strides in expanding access to sustainable, nutritious, ethical food, it is equally important to have a political voice.

According to Ballotpedia, there is only one food-related ballot measure being considered in this election: California’s Prop 37, which requires that foods containing genetically-modified ingredients be labeled as such. The biotech companies have poured millions of dollars into defeating this important piece of legislation. They have filled the airwaves of California with negative and misleading ads that paint label advocates as ignorant fear-mongers. A label, they say, will give the impression that there is something to fear about GMOs and may turn away consumers.

In my opinion, there is reason for concern when it comes to GMOs. They are somehow considered different enough from their unmodified counterparts to warrant patents, yet similar enough to not require any additional testing or regulation. GMOs are banned in over 60 countries throughout the world, and even some countries accepting US food aid have declined our donations when the food is genetically-modified.

It is often argued that genetically modifying foods like corn and soybeans is no different from selective breeding of animals to promote certain traits. But GMOs are fundamentally different from anything we have created in the past. They incorporate genetic material from completely different species and deliver this material by encasing it in the cells of viruses (because viruses are so good at bypassing the natural defenses of the original genetic material). Furthermore, GM seeds are not developed in order to create food with more desirable traits. Rather, it enables companies to patent seeds, requiring farmers to buy new seed each season, and to create a better market for their chemicals. For example, the most prolific GMOs are designed to survive application of Round-Up, which is conveniently sold by the same company that owns the rights to the GM seed: Monsanto.

Genetically modified foods are different, both in form and function, but are they dangerous? Frankly, we don’t know because testing is not required by the FDA and the fact that the seeds are patented raises legal issues when it comes to studying them. Adding more regulation or oversight has also proved challenging because the GM seed companies (like Monsanto) are able to exert so much power over the regulatory process. The Citizens United decision, which protects the rights of corporations to make campaign contributions, has only exacerbated the problem.

Another (and perhaps better) way to force biotech companies to prove the safety of their product, both for consumers and the environment, is for consumers to demand it by choosing not to buy GMOs without further study. And really, isn’t that how the free market system is supposed to work? If consumers are afraid of GMOs, it should be the responsibility of the company selling them to prove that GMOs are safe, effective, and better than the competition.

Consumers cannot exert market pressure if they have no way to assess the differences between products. Give people information about what is in their food, and let them decide whether or not to buy it. Empowering consumers in this way allows us more freedom of choice, requires fewer regulations, and gives us the ability to control our food future.

I hope that, come Tuesday, Californian’s will vote yes on Prop 37 and that this fight will inspire similar legislation in other states. Moreover, I hope it will spur those of us in the food movement to take more political action. We need to call our senators and representatives to show our support for food-related legislation. We need to vote in the primaries for our elected officials so we can get more candidates with an interest in food issues onto the ballot. We must take every opportunity to ask candidates and elected officials about their views on farming, nutrition, and the environment so they know they have both the obligation and the support to fight for a better food future. We have to speak up and speak out, and eventually, we will win.

Want more information? Check out these organizations and articles:

Right to Know
Just Label It

Michael Pollan in The New York Times
Frances Moore-Lappe in the Huffington Post
Farmers for truth in labeling
Civil Eats post on the fight for Prop 37

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Paleo for the planet.

Back in August, I had the opportunity to attend the Ancestral Health Symposium 2012. Last year, I attended the inaugural event as part of the interview team, and it was a fantastic experience (read my recap). This year, I worked with my good friend and collaborator, Tess McEnulty, to submit an abstract to speak at the symposium. We were honored when the AHS organizers selected our abstract! All of the presentations at AHS12 were recorded, but they won’t be online for a while, so I thought I would give you all a preview of our presentation: Sustainability and world hunger from a Paleo perspective.

In the year 2000, we devoted an area larger than the state of California to the growing of industrial corn, wheat, and soy. I say “industrial” because these are crops that have been developed for yield and are not directly edible by human beings. Instead, they have to be processed. In fact, 70% of the wheat and 12% of the corn we grow goes into processed food products like cereal, pasta, soda, and candy; 80% of the corn and 22% of the wheat is fed to animals.

This system of food production requires a lot of inputs in order to function. According to the USGS, conventional agriculture uses 128 billion gallons of water each day for crop irrigation, whereas domestic usage (i.e. water for showering and washing dishes) totals 2 billion gallons per day. Heavy machinery and chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers rely on fossil fuels and other natural resources that cannot be replenished nearly as quickly as they are being depleted. The beef industry, which relies on corn and wheat for cheap animal feed, also relies on large quantities of antibiotics to keep the cows from dying from acidosis (caused by eating grain rather than grass) and hormones to increase weight given the shortened life span of grain-fed feedlot cows. And this entire system is kept solvent by federal subsidies, which make corn and wheat incredibly cheap.

For all of these inputs, what do we get in return? Feedlots produce lagoons of chemical-laden animal waste that pollute the air and nearby water resources. They are also major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Growing the grains that feedlots depend on has led to increased environmental degradation – loss of species diversity, soil erosion, and depletion of soil nutrients. The processed food we produce in this system makes us sick. The process by which we raise animals makes them sick, and agricultural antibiotic usage has led to drug-resistant strains of disease to which we are susceptible. In the bigger picture, our food supply is quite vulnerable because it is so reliant upon very few crops. Drought, disease, or pests that affect any of these few species could have disastrous consequences for our nation’s food supply. And sadly, we as consumers have very little control over our food. Despite all of these negative outputs, the conventional food system does provide a surplus of (apparently) cheap calories on grocery store shelves. This outcome is often suggested as an end that justifies the means in the face of an expanding population that too often goes hungry.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there were 850 million starving people in the world in 2008. However, global food production provides over 2700 calories per person per day (estimate from 2002, with similar rates of malnourishment to 2008). Of course, neither the calories nor the malnourishment are distributed evenly throughout the world. The above table, using data from FAOSTAT, shows statistics for the ten countries with the highest percentage of undernourished people (38% to 65% of the total population of each country). It also shows the number of calories in the country each day and the estimated average caloric need per person per day, which is based on the age and sex break-down within the country. Of these ten countries, only two actually have fewer calories than the population should require, and even in those cases, the deficit is less than 100 calories per person per day. These numbers tell us that global hunger is not solely a matter of producing too few calories.

In the developing world, hunger is caused mainly by inequality and poverty; people are simply too poor to buy food. Political instability and lack of infrastructure also impair people’s ability to access food. In addition to the hunger problem, 2 billion people do not get enough iron or iodine, and more than 200 million children are deficient in protein and vitamin A to the point that they are developmentally impaired. The situation seems grim given that the world population is expected to rise and global climate change may make resources even more scarce.

In the United States, there are over 3700 calories available per person per day. About 5% of the population reports having to reduce their food intake for financial reasons, although this reduction doesn’t necessarily mean they are getting too few calories. Unlike the developing world, in which starvation is a major problem, Americans have skyrocketing rates of obesity and diet-related diseases. Even the country’s homeless have similar rates of obesity and Type-2 diabetes as the rest of the population.

Americans, on average, consume 70% of their calories in the form of refined grains, vegetable oils, and added sugars – calories created from the three crops we devote so many resources to growing. Calories are not a problem in the US, but it seems like the type of calories we consume are making us very sick.

Worldwide, people are not getting enough nutritious food. In the developing world, distribution limits access to sufficient calories. In the US, nutritionally-poor foods and hidden calories have led to a population that is overfed but nutrient-deficient. At the same time, conventional agriculture is too resource-dependent to be sustainable, is ruining our environment, and provides nutritionally-poor calories.

Big Agriculture has offered their solution to feeding the world sustainably. We should continue to purchase their technology and chemicals in order to increase grain production and, subsequently, add more calories to the world’s supply. This is not actually a solution. We don’t need more calories to feed the world, and this approach will neither produce more healthy food nor improve food access to the world’s poor. And while biotech companies have long promised that genetically-modified seeds will offer enhanced food production in the face of climate change, they have yet to deliver on such promises. Also, poor farmers who adopt these growing practices will not be producing food they can eat, and the additional costs of proprietary seeds and chemicals make it harder to turn a profit and thus afford to buy food.

What if we tried to improve conventional agriculture by increasing efficiency? In a research paper by a group from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota (Foley et al., 2011), smarter use of irrigation and fertilizer could reduce resource usage without reducing food production. However, the crops that would thrive under this more-efficient system include several types of grains, sugarbeets and sugarcane, oil crops, and two kinds of starchy root vegetables. In other words, the same nutritionally-poor foods we currently produce. Improving efficiency may provide us with the same calories for fewer resources, but it will do nothing to improve access to food - so it won’t alleviate hunger - or to improve the healthfulness of the food that is available.

Another solution the group proposed was to consume calories more efficiently. They point out that the number of calories produced feeding grain to cows is far less than the number available from the grain itself. For the same resources, we could eat more calories in the form of processed grains, refined vegetable oils, and added sugars than we can get from eating grain-fed cows. A true statement, but would we be any better off adding these calories to our diets?

Which brings us to the question of diet...

Perhaps we could increase the sustainability of food production by eating the least resource-intensive foods. A study by Eshel et al. (2010) compared the land use and reactive nitrogen (i.e. chemical fertilizer) requirements of different foods. They found that plant foods demand far fewer of these resources than conventionally-grown animal foods, which is unsurprising given that we currently grow plants to feed to animals. More interesting, though, is the list of the ten least resource-intensive foods, which again consists of several types of grains and oils, grapes, and sweet potatoes. Based on these metrics, the best diet would consist of 55% of calories in the form of grains and more than 30% in the form of peanut, corn, and soybean oils. That means consuming even more grains and oils, as a fraction of total calories, than Americans currently eat.

It turns out that vegetables are actually quite resource intensive compared to grains, at least the way they are conventionally grown. In fact, vegetables can require as many resources as animal products. However, these are the most nutritious foods we can eat. This illustrates the importance of considering nutrition along with sustainability. Everything we do has an impact. Every choice we make requires resources. Shouldn’t we strive to make the best use of those resources rather than solely trying to limit our consumption?

Truly sustainable agriculture provides the healthiest food with the least environmental impact. On the other hand, grain agriculture wastes scarce resources because it does a poor job of producing calories that keep us healthy. If we want to feed the world sustainably, we need to (1) empower the poor to alleviate hunger, (2) defend healthy foods even if they come at a higher environmental cost, and (3) support sustainable agriculture to minimize the impact of healthy food production.

Human beings had millions of years to adapt to a diet that included meat, fish, and plants. Research within the ancestral health community has shown that our bodies function optimally when we eat the foods that have been a part of our diet for millennia. However, the exact proportions of meat, fish, and plants that we require to be healthy is not known and may even vary amongst the human population. The ancestral health community can provide an important voice in the sustainability conversation by addressing these issues in order to determine the best suite of diets for both health and environment.

The amount and variety of meat we need to eat to be healthy is still heavily debated. It is certainly possible that even the best polyculture farming systems would require a lot more resources to create meat than plant-based foods, which would make it harder to defend unchecked meat-eating. However, it is important that we focus this discussion on a real choice between healthy options - such as farming systems that incorporate only chickens when growing produce versus ones that focus on grass and cows. Arguing about how grains should be eaten, as junk food or as CAFO beef, will not lead us to an ethical and sustainable food system.

As the last few slides show, there are many ways to get involved - as a consumer, a citizen, and a member of the world community.

Educating yourself is the first step to action. Here is a list of resources.

Acknowledgements: I first want to thank my collaborator, Tess McEnulty, for encouraging me to submit this abstract, helping me seek out all of the data and sources for the material we presented, and being patient when I had to run off to take care of the baby in the middle of our work sessions! I also want to thank Gidon Eshel for useful discussions about the sustainability of different diets. And, of course, I want to thank the Ancestral Health Society and the AHS2012 organizers for giving us the opportunity to present this material and for putting together another stellar symposium!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mid-atlantic munching.

Six months after our move to Maryland, and 11 weeks after the birth of our baby, we are finally getting settled in to our new home! Coming from Berkeley, we were concerned about the sustainable food options that would be available to us on the East Coast. We were pleasantly surprised to find a multitude of options that have fit into our less-flexible lifestyle.

The meat of the matter.

There are two farmers markets near our home – one on Saturday and another on Sunday. Both offer meat and eggs from ethical farms. After a few visits and a little background research, we decided to join the CSA at North Mountain Pastures. We get a selection of meats that is conveniently delivered to the farmers market once a month. Participation in a CSA typically requires an up-front investment, but we figured out that we are spending about $8 per pound of meat. And wow – is it tasty!

Veggie tales.

We were a bit overwhelmed with our newborn around the time that produce CSAs were getting started, so we didn’t end up joining one. Instead, we’ve been buying some produce at the farmers market and a lot from Whole Foods. There is a large selection of organic produce at WF, but not much of it is local, even during the summer growing season. In fact, I have seen a lot of produce from the same organic farms I used to buy from in California! The main source of local (or at least East Coast) produce is from Lady Moon Farms. I started buying their produce without knowing much about the farm – other than that it is organic. According to their website, Lady Moon was the first farm to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and commit to humane conditions for their farm workers. This is an effort that is dear to my heart (read my post on the topic here), and I am thrilled to be supporting it with my food dollars!

Summer sausage skillet.

This past week, I decided to highlight some of the awesome food from Lady Moon Farms and North Mountain Pastures. However, my husband has been out of town, so it also needed to be something easy!

  • 1 lb sausage
  • 2 medium zucchini
  • 2 medium summer (yellow) squash
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 1 bunch green onions
  • 3 cloves garlic (or garlic powder, to taste)
  • 4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Olive oil, as needed

1. Chop the sausage, zucchini, squash, and tomatoes into bite-sized pieces. Slice the green onions. Mince the garlic. I like to put the zucchini, squash, onions, and garlic into one bowl and the tomatoes in a second bowl. Then I cut up the sausage so I can keep the raw meat away from everything else.

2. In a skillet, cook the sausage over medium heat. If you are using cooked sausage or very lean sausage (like chicken or turkey), you’ll want to add some olive oil to the pat and let it warm up before adding the meat. I use spicy pork sausage and a Teflon pan, so I don’t use any extra oil.

3. Once the sausage is no longer pink (if it started raw) or after a few minutes (if it was cooked), add the zucchini, squash, onions, and garlic. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. Stir in the tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, and cayenne pepper. Heat through.

5. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Your top 20, America!

In honor of surpassing 100 likes on this blog’s Facebook page, I decided to make a list of 100 things we could each do to become more ethical eaters or support a more sustainable food system. Then, my son was born. And so, I present you with this list of 20!

As always, I’d be happy to hear your ideas. Perhaps we can get to 100 after all!

1. Change where you shop.

Buying direct from a farm through a consumer-supported agriculture program enables you to support the practices that matter most to you. It also gives you access to local, seasonal, whole foods. Both produce and meat CSAs are available in many areas; use Local Harvest for ones near you. The variety of produce and cuts of meat that make their way to your doorstep through a CSA can be both challenging and thrilling. And the best part, the prices are often cheaper than at the grocery store!

Not ready to commit to a CSA or investing in part of a whole animal? Farmers markets and food co-ops might be a better choice for you. Similar to a CSA, farmers markets typically offer lower prices on seasonal produce and ethical animal products as well as access to vendors with a variety of farming practices. There is no commitment to purchase, and you have more control over what products you end up with. However, deducing on the fly which vendors meet your standards can be challenging. Food co-ops often focus on offering sustainable and/or healthier options, and a little research can help you identify a co-op that fits your priorities. Members typically get a discount, and some offer an even deeper discount if you volunteer.

2. Opt for organic, especially when buying the Dirty Dozen.

Conventional, resource-intensive, chemical-laden agriculture is unsustainable. Not only does it reduce the growing power of the land, it also pollutes water resources that people rely on. Plus, the pesticides used in conventional agriculture have been shown to make it all the way to your plate. The Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen are the foods that carry the most amount of pesticide. Buying all organic produce is a great choice for the environment and your personal health, but you should really buy these 12 from organic growers or opt for produce on the Clean 15 list.

3. Don’t eat meat you didn’t source yourself.

Factory meat is gross. The animals are treated terribly, and their waste is a major pollutant. Animal feed is produced through wasteful conventional agriculture, and all of the antibiotics used to keep the animals from dying under such dire conditions are making them less useful to us. Polyculture and pasture-based farming systems, on the other hand, can produce meat in a way that actually enriches the land. Allowing the animals to wander freely, expressing their natural behaviors, is not just a kindness; the animals are actually part of the mechanics of the farm. Sourcing your own meat allows you to steer clear of antibiotics and hormones and to support farms that use ethical practices. You can still enjoy a nice pork chop and a glass of wine by purchasing meat from a farm you trust, or by seeking out a restaurant that coordinates with ethical farms.

4. Stop drinking soda.

I’ve discussed this at length in posts on sugar, soda, and my Food Day challenge. The average American consumes an unhealthy amount of sugars, and soda is a key contributor. Even diet soda is correlated with health problems, although the exact pathways are still uncertain. Soda doesn’t provide your body with anything it needs, is likely harmful in many ways, and uses a LOT of resources – the water used to make the soda, the resources that go into growing corn for soda’s corn-based sweeteners and additives, the fuel used to transport it all over the world, and the resources that go into making and disposing of bottles and cans. Sustainability is a trade-off. Everything we do has an impact; everything requires resources. Couldn’t our resources go to something better than soda?

5. Eat at a farm-to-table restaurant.

Restaurants that use local ingredients and work with local, small-scale farms are becoming more prevalent these days. Not everything you find in a farm-to-table restaurant will be ethical; even small farms can use some sub-optimal practices. However, the ingredients are almost certainly better than at restaurants that don’t make any effort. Plus, frequenting these restaurants is a way of exerting market pressure. If more people demand better quality, and are willing to pay a little extra for it, ingredient sourcing at restaurants is likely to improve. Find your new favorite restaurant at Local Harvest or Animal Welfare Approved.

6. Don’t trash your food scraps.

In a landfill, even things that we would consider biodegradable have trouble breaking down due to a lack of airflow and other necessities. Food scraps, for example, petrify in landfills. Luckily, there are many other options for disposing of food scraps. Many areas now offer food scrap recycling programs. Worm compositing is a great way to turn your trash into nutrient-dense fertilizer, and it lacks a lot of the attention that a regular compost pile requires (read about my experience here). Raising backyard chickens not only gives you a way of disposing of food scraps, it also provides you with a hyper-local source of ethical eggs. Polyculture farmer, Joel Salatin, has stated that we would not have a commercial egg industry in this country if everyone raised just enough backyard chickens to eat their food scraps. Chickens are a major commitment, though. You will need to make arrangements for them when you travel and keep them safe from predators. Also, many areas have laws that restrict the kinds of animals that can be kept on a residential property. So be sure to check the rules in your area before getting started.

7. Spread the word.

Most people know very little about where their food comes from. As you learn more about the ethical dilemmas associated with the modern food industry, share what you’ve learned with others. Get involved in the food conversation by commenting on blogs and news articles. And be sure to share what you learn elsewhere with readers here! You can post links to interesting articles on this blog’s Facebook page or leave comments with links on related posts.

8. Do-it-yourself.

Urban homesteading is the practice of self-sufficient living. Homesteading can extend beyond producing your own food to include things like greywater capture, using solar energy, and restoring or repurposing old items. The bottom line is to take control of your own needs and to do so in a sustainable way. Plant a garden. Cook your own meals. Save the bones from your ethical chicken or beef to create a homemade stock. Save your bacon grease. Jar produce for use during the off-season. All of these practices can reduce waste, enable you to eat well with less environmental impact, and put you in more control of your food. You can learn more about urban homesteading on websites like and Make Magazine’s projects site.

9. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

I’ve been hearing this waste management mantra since I was a kid, and it still makes a lot of sense. Simple things like bringing a reusable water bottle with you when you leave the house or holding onto grocery bags to use on your next shopping trip reduce the number of new products we need to manufacture. Before you toss something into the trash, see if you can think of a creative alternative use, such as using empty coffee cans to protect fledgling plants in your garden. Most neighborhoods offer recycling bins that get emptied along with regular trash pick-up.

10. Participate in politics, especially the 2012 Farm Bill.

Our food system is governed by laws that we can help shape. Voting every four years is important, but being active citizens in the interim can have a much greater impact. Keep up with food-related legislation such as the 2012 Farm Bill, and contact your congressmen to make sure your voice is heard (read about my experience here). And don’t forget about local politics. Zoning restrictions and other city council policies can restrict the establishment of community gardens, the sharing or sale of produce grown on residential property, and more. It’s up to you to advocate for more food-friendly policies. Many communities are establishing food policy councils for just this purpose. Get involved with one in your area or consider creating one.

11. Adopt a nutrient-rich whole foods diet.

Refined grains, vegetable oils, and added sugars make up more than half the calories in the average American’s diet. And yet, these foods have almost no nutritional value. Eating a diet rich in fresh produce, clean meat and seafood, and other minimally-processed foods is far better for your health. Growing foods that keep us vibrant and healthy is a much better use of our limited natural resources!

12. Eat less beef.

Compared to other animal products, raising beef cattle requires much more land and contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions. Producing beef using the feedlot system has many additional downsides, but even in the most sustainable systems, beef comes at a higher cost in terms of resources than eggs, chicken, or pork. So, rather than relying on beef, try substituting some other animal products or opt for a vegetarian meal. Beef can still be a part of an environmentally-conscious diet, but perhaps not a major part. Trying different cuts of beef or purchasing a share of a whole cow will help utilize more of the animal, which means fewer cows are needed overall.

13. Buy ethical eggs.

In a previous post, I went into detail about the convention egg industry, and why I work so hard to avoid consuming conventional eggs. Cage free, free range, and organic labels don’t mean much when it comes to the living conditions of the chickens. It’s pretty much impossible to buy truly ethical eggs from a regular grocery store, but natural groceries, food co-ops, and farmers markets often have a selection of eggs from fully pasture-raised chickens. Some CSAs also offer eggs. However you can find them, ethical eggs are worth the search and the heftier price tag. Ethical eggs are nutritious, delicious, and require far fewer resources than other animal products.

14. Be skeptical of health claims.

Health claims are a big trend amongst food advertisers, but truly healthy foods – like broccoli or cashews – rarely have flashy packaging and health claims. So how do you know what is truly healthy? The best approach is to use plain old common sense. Chocolate-flavored cereal that claims to be healthy because it has whole grains is probably not something you should eat. Gummy candies with a huge “Fat Free” label aren’t healthy either. Still unsure? Opt for foods with the smallest number of steps between the farm and you. Also, consider what the food is offering your body. Sweetened beverages, artificially flavored and colored snack chips, candy, and heavily processed packaged meals are all unlikely to offer much nutrition and, therefore, cannot be truly healthy.

15. Don’t stop at the headlines.

Similar to health claims, results of food and nutrition studies can be difficult to interpret. It seems like every day there is a news report claiming that a certain food is correlated with health problems or that a tasty treat is actually beneficial. In reality, the results are rarely as straightforward as the news media would make them seem. All of these studies require some critical thinking to understand, and none of them should be considered a license to over-consume (or completely give up) a particular food. To learn how to better interpret health claims and the results of food studies, check out this humorous and informative video, by the creator of the documentary Fat Head.

16. Buy from retailers that have signed the Fair Food Agreement.

Would you pay a penny more for a pound of tomatoes if it meant that the farm workers who picked those tomatoes were not beaten, locked in crates, or made to work an entire day without breaks or shade? The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is negotiating with food retailers, like grocery stores and fast food restaurants, to improve the conditions for farm workers. Retailers who commit to the Fair Food Agreement source ingredients from farms that follow a basic list of standards for their workers. You can support this important effort by shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Find a complete list of retailers who have signed the agreement of the CIW website.

17. Get informed; stay informed.

The documentaries King Corn, Food Inc., and Fresh provide excellent background on the food system. For someone really new to the corn-to-beef monoculture system and its history, I’d recommend King Corn, whereas Fresh and Food, Inc. both cover a wider breath of food system issues. There are also several great blogs that report on current happenings related to food and environmental sustainability, such as Grist, Civil Eats, and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

18. Invest in a sustainable food future.

From CSA participation and farmers markets to farm loan programs and eco-conscious retirement accounts, there are many ways to put your dollars to work! I recently went into detail on the options for investing in sustainable farms directly and on the options for green retirement accounts.

19. Fight for better food at work or at school.

Although the experts may disagree on what constitutes an optimally healthy diet, pretty much everyone recognizes the importance of eating more vegetables, especially leafy greens. Unfortunately, the food offerings in many workplace cafeterias and public schools are sorely lacking in fresh vegetables. You can help by advocating for better options. Healthier foods can help reduce healthcare costs, which may get your employer’s attention. As for school lunches, farm-to-school programs and school gardens have shown that kids who are involved in growing and preparing vegetables are much more willing to eat them. Perhaps you could even volunteer to start a campus garden that would supply fresh produce.

20. Eat sustainable seafood.

Seafood is very healthy, providing lots of omega-3 and other brain-building fats. However, overfishing is harming our oceans, and many fish farms are not ecologically sound (although the number of sustainable farms are increasing). Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch offers guides and information as to the most sustainable seafood choices. They even have downloadable pocket guides and an app for both iPhone and Android. Also, check out their Super Green list to find seafood options that contains few contaminants (like Mercury) and have a low environmental footprint.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Dude, TMI. (Part Two)

After years of worsening GI problems (described in gory detail in Part One), I finally got back to normal by eliminating all forms of dairy and heavily restricting my intake of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Alleviating my symptoms required me to go outside of conventional medicine, leaving their diagnosis of IBS behind. Actually fixing the problem and healing my body took an even larger leap out of the box and introduced me to the amazing field of naturopathic medicine.

From TMI to TIM.

I attended the Ancestral Health Symposium 2011 as a volunteer interviewer. I was assigned several speakers to work with, which meant that I sat in on talks I might not have otherwise. One such talk was entitled, “The Rainforest in Your Gut” by Tim Gerstmar, naturopathic doctor, and “Dr. BG”, pharmacist, blogger, and author. I honestly had no idea what this talk would be about. I certainly never thought it could change my life!

The rainforest in your gut.

It turns out that we have a whole biome of critters living in our digestive systems. In fact, there are more bacteria in your gut than there are cells in your body! And that’s a good thing because these bacteria keep your gut in good working order. Poor diet, especially one rich in foods that irritate the gut, can disrupt the gut biome leading to all kinds of GI symptoms, nutrient malabsorption, food intolerance, and even a condition called leaky gut. That’s when the lining of your gut is perforated, allowing toxins to enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc throughout your body.

In the first half of the talk, Dr. BG described in detail the inner workings of the gut and the different pathways by which an unhealthy gut can cause a whole host of problems. Some specific health problems she mentioned, that aren’t necessarily ones you would associate with diet, included fibromyalgia, rosacea, congestive heart failure, hypothyroidism, asthma, infant colic, and autism. These conditions are very highly correlated with intestinal permeability (leaky gut). In addition, IBS, obesity, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and fatty liver disease can be caused by diet and treated through diet and gut rehab.

Dr. BG also described her own experiences with both her daughter and her niece. Her daughter had chronic constipation since birth and constantly complained of stomach pain. Her niece, Jillian, was born with mild autism. Both kids saw tremendous improvement by switching to a less-irritating Paleo diet (Dr. BG and her sister are writing a book on their experience with Jillian's autism and diet, but as of this writing, it has not been released.). However, as Dr. BG explained, not everyone can be cured by simply adopting a more ancestral diet. Some people require more aggressive treatment, which can include an even stricter diet, adding fermented foods, or taking probiotic supplements to help restore the gut. As she said, to rehab the gut, we need to “seal it, heal it, and deal with the consequences”.

After Dr. BG's part of the presentation, Tim Gerstmar took over (~29 minutes into the video; slide 21). Tim is a naturopathic doctor at Aspire Natural Health in Washington State. His specialty is GI health, and he blew my mind with his description of basically all of my symptoms and all the tests and treatments he routinely performs, which I’d never heard of before.

Gut dysbiosis, as Tim explained, is caused by either pathogens or imbalance in the gut and is connected to food intolerance, malabsorption, inflammation, and gut permeability. He listed 5 symptoms that suggest a person might have gut dysbiosis: significant health problems that may or may not be obviously related to diet, chronic gas or bloating, chronic heartburn, chronic constipation or diarrhea, and poo that contains blood, mucus, or undigested food. This list definitely got my attention as it contains pretty much every symptom I had been suffering from! Even the undigested food that hadn’t set off any red flags with my regular doctor. Sadly, as Tim said, many of these ailments are common, but common is not the same as normal.

Tim described the types of tests he runs and how they can both diagnose the specific problems in someone’s gut and also show how well the person would respond to certain treatments. There are five treatment categories, which are often used together depending on how sick a person is and in what ways: diet, herbal medications, prescription medications, gut healing formulas, probiotics, and “brain support”.

When it comes to diet, the recommendations are stricter depending on how much healing your gut needs. Bacteria and pathogens that cause gut dysbiosis feed on carbs, so sugars, grains, and most fruit are the first things to go. Then, because the gut is already messed up, other irritants should also be avoided, including dairy, soy, alcohol, and even legumes and nightshades (like tomatoes). In time, as the gut becomes better able to process these foods, they may be worked back into the diet.

Now, this may sound like a lot of restrictions, but there is still a whole world of food out there that you can eat on a gut-healing diet. Vegetables (other than nightshades), meat, fish, nuts, coconut, perhaps some fruit, and fermented foods are all great. The diet recommendations for gut-healing are very similar to those of the Paleo, Primal, and other ancestral diets, although you may need to be more restrictive. There are many resources available online if you want to test out a gut-healing diet on your own (like here and here). The length of the diet (weeks to months) and how restrictive you would need to be would depend on the level of gut dysbiosis and permeability that you have.

Herbal or prescription medications and gut-healing formulas can really help bring the gut back into working order, but for these, you should be working with a doctor. For example, Tim uses cultures (i.e. poo) to identify the ways in which a person’s gut is malfunctioning, and that helps him decide which types of medications to use.

The long and winding road… to recovery.

For me, cutting out dairy improved my daily GI health the most. Cutting out gluten also helped. At that point, I found that I didn’t have problems with nightshades or fruit. However, foods with anti-nutrients akin to gluten did give me problems. Some legumes, like kidney beans, split peas, and certain kinds of lentils cause me a good deal of irritation, and the supposed super-food quinoa is virtually indigestible! 

Tim also helped me start on a daily regiment of probiotics. I took a ¼ teaspoon of Ther-biotic Complete powder each day, mixed in with my morning nut butter. Because I saw such a vast improvement from changing my diet, and because I got pregnant shortly after the symposium, I decided not to pursue further treatment aside from the probiotics. Even though I am feeling so much better, I still plan to continue taking probiotics in addition to my reformed diet. Our bodies used to get these important bacteria from traditionally-prepared fermented foods and even from dirt! However, our modern sterilization and pasteurization techniques (which are definitely good for keeping us safe from some life-threatening pathogens) kill off a lot of the beneficial bacteria that our bodies need. That makes it much harder in a modern diet to keep up a healthy gut biome. Incorporating traditionally-prepared fermented foods like kim chee, sauerkraut, and (unpasteurized) yogurt into your daily menu is a great way to keep yourself healthy. For me, though, the probiotics offer a more practical solution.

Over the past nine months, I have had a remarkable recovery. I now know the real meaning of “regular”. And, I can even eat dairy again! I keep my intake low – some organic pastured butter on our homemade popcorn or some yogurt with nuts and berries – but I don’t have to panic if I find a little cheese on my salad or if there is butter baked into a treat. I don’t know what would happen if I ate a slice of pizza or a plate of lasagna. I’m guessing I would feel pretty crappy, but I doubt I would have the painful cramps, bleeding, or week-long diarrhea that had become commonplace in my life. The interesting thing is, I don’t really miss those foods. I didn’t change my diet solely to rehabilitate my gut. I also did it because I realized how little actual nutrition was getting on my plate and in my body. Focusing on vegetables and other nutrient-dense foods has helped me gain energy, feel happier, lose weight, and cure my gut dysbiosis. There is simply nothing a slice of pizza, a giant soda, or a bowl of cereal can offer me that can compete with that!

Unfortunately, our industrial food system and the vast marketing machine that goes along with it makes it seem like cheaper and faster is the way to go when it comes to food. They highlight the use of whole grains or antioxidants as though they can magically transform any food into something healthy. But true health comes from fresh produce, clean eggs, meat, and fish, nuts, coconut, traditionally-prepared legumes, and fermented foods. These foods are more expensive and harder to market, but they are the nutritional winners and the best foods for us humans to eat. A truly ethical food system would provide more of these foods and less of the processed foods that our bodies are simply not able to handle. You, the consumer, can help by demanding the types of foods that keep us healthy and rejecting nutritionally-poor, potentially irritating foods. If we want to be healthy, we have to fight for it.

A full belly; a happy body.

When I was told I had IBS, it was like being told I was a flawed human being. My digestive system simply didn’t work properly, and it never would. When I removed dairy and gluten, I improved my health and my life, but I still thought of my body as broken. I could reduce my symptoms with certain behaviors, but I would never be cured. Now, I know otherwise. I do have to make smart choices – focusing on healthy foods rather than irritating ones – but I can feel good every day and still indulge in a treat now and then. And most of the foods I restrict really don’t have much to offer me anyway.

If you are struggling with GI symptoms, autoimmune problems, metabolic disorder, or depression, please consider changing your diet and seeking out a gut-specialist. Most importantly, do not give up! Do not go on suffering in silence because you are embarrassed or because a doctor has told you nothing can be done. Even if you do have a condition that can’t be “fixed”, such as Celiac disease, you can feel better. You deserve to be healthy.

 A few more notes:

- Think you might have gut dysbiosis? Tim explains an easy, do-it-yourself test on slide 33: take ¼ to 1 teaspoon of inulin, a natural soluble fiber found in chicory root and other foods. If it gives you a lot of gas and bloating, you have tested positive.

- Probiotics are especially important when taking antibiotics, another useful tool of modern medicine that can unfortunately cause gut dysbiosis. Birth control pills and a daily aspirin regiment can also mess with the bacteria in your gut, so both speakers highly recommended taking probiotics if you are also taking either of these medications.

- If you are in the hunt for a gut-specialist, Tim Gerstmar at Aspire Natural Health may be just the person you are looking for!

- Pregnant or trying to conceive? Gut dysbiosis in mom can lead to greater sensitivity and even autoimmune problems in baby. If you have GI problems before/during pregnancy, seriously consider a change of diet and incorporating fermented foods or probiotics. If you already have kids, and they are experiencing GI issues or suffering from autism or other developmental problems, they may need a diet change. This isn’t intended to place blame or make anyone feel guilty; there isn’t a lot of focus in prenatal care on these issues. We all know to take folic acid to prevent spinal problems, but no one mentions the dangers of gut irritants. So don’t waste time feeling bad, just get the help you and your baby need!

- I had the opportunity to interview Tim and Dr. BG at the symposium, but the video of the interview has still yet to become available. Should it surface, I'll be sure to add a link!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dude, TMI. (Part One)

I don’t like talking about poop. In fact, there was a whole decade of my life during which I staunchly insisted that I do not poop. Because it’s gross. And smelly. And, really, no one needs to know what I do in my bathroom. Unfortunately, my desire to avoid the poopy talk had a severe unintended consequence. Over the course of about five years, I became so sick that I didn’t want to leave the house. And almost no one knew.

Now, before I get started, I will warn you that I am holding nothing back. Should you continue reading, you are going to learn a LOT about me and poop and other gross things. Trust me when I say that I am a whole lot more embarrassed to write this than you will be to read it. Also, you should read it, because finally opening up about my problems is what gave me the courage and fortitude to fix them, and it just might help you too. Okay, warning issued. Here we go.

Too Much Information.

It started back in 2004. I had been out of college for a little over a year. In that time, I had traveled to Europe, got a great job, and was finally enjoying life after a very difficult time dealing with the loss of my mother and trying to get through school with a ton of very adult problems on my rather petite shoulders. I was putting my life together, and it felt really good. Until that night…

I woke up in a panic with just about the worst pain in my abdomen that I had ever felt. Just for reference, I had migraines throughout my life, and I’d been hospitalized and prescribed codeine for my insanely terrible menstrual cramps, so I know a thing or two about pain. But this…

It was so bad that I couldn’t help but cry. I crawled to the bathroom because it hurt so much that I really thought I was going to throw up. I laid on the cold floor, shaking and crying, trying to figure out how I could wake my roommate down the hall so I could go to the hospital. After what felt like hours, but was probably only 10 minutes or so, I suddenly knew that I wasn’t going to throw up. Rather, I had better get my tush onto that toilet or things were about to get very messy. I won’t go into detail here (did I mention I don’t like to talk about poop), but believe me, some very nasty stuff came out of me. Afterward, the pain began to subside, and eventually, I was even able to crawl back into bed and get some much-needed rest.

What the heck happened to me? Food poisoning was my best guess. An isolated incident that need not ever repeat itself. I mentioned my cramps to my roommate, but that was where things ended. Or, at least, I hoped that’s where they would end.

Later that year, my new boyfriend (now husband) brought me home for the holidays to meet his family. His dad and step-mom lived in a quaint little house that had only one bathroom, which was attached to their bedroom. The first night we stayed there, the Pain struck again. I was afraid to go into the bathroom because I didn’t want to wake my boyfriend’s parents with my whimpering, or worse, the mortifying sounds of my impeding gnarly bowel movement. So instead, I laid on the floor in the living room, shaking and crying, sweating and shivering. It took longer to pass this time, maybe because of the lack of bathroom, but it did eventually go away. Once again, I went back to bed with no one the wiser.

Although I didn’t have another bout of cramps for a long time after that, I noticed, through the ensuing years of graduate school, that I was having more and more GI problems. The changes were slow, though, so it was easy to discount them or ascribe them to some minor issue. Looking back now, it’s amazing to me how many warning signs and symptoms I was able to rationalize away.

For years, going all the way back to my college days, I had heart burn every morning. I thought it was just hunger. I also started having more and more gas. It seemed like I was bloated all the time. I told myself that I probably just had acid reflux disease and perhaps some of my troubles with dairy as an infant were returning. And, as migraines and lightheadedness became more frequent, I tried to drink more water and lighten my backpack. My husband began complaining that I had bad breath. I was mortified and would cry any time he mentioned it. I tried brushing my teeth more often, using more mouthwash, chewing gum incessantly, and even taking breath pills. Unfortunately, nothing worked because, as my husband told me, it wasn’t coming from my mouth but from somewhere inside of me. I felt ugly and repulsive and totally helpless.

By the time I was half way through grad school, I would go for about three days without a bowel movement, feeling cramped and bloated and sluggish. I would go sit on the toilet and literally pray for something to come out and give me some relief. On day four or so, all of a sudden, everything that had been building up inside of me would come out, all at once, in the most noisy and embarrassing way possible. I hated those days. I worked over an hour away from home, so all of this was happening at work, in the same bathroom used by my professors, colleagues, and even students. When these urges started, I was often in class or otherwise unable to run to the bathroom. Waiting induced the baby version of the cramps I had felt on the cold bathroom floor all those years before. Despite this obvious indication that something was very wrong with me, I actually tried to convince myself that this was normal. Don’t people always say you ought to be “regular”? Well, my three days off, one day on, BM schedule was pretty regular!

Eventually, I decided to ask my doctor about my digestive issues. It did not go well. I was so embarrassed by the things I was going to have to talk about, and overwhelmed by the anxiety my illness was causing me, that I was in tears before she even walked into the room. I tried to explain my “cycle” and the weird things that were coming out of me. You see, most people would describe their poo as a log or snake or tube, but mine (when I had any at all) looked like a pile of deer droppings. And, it was orange. The doctor took one look at me, emotionally distraught and freaking out, and gave me a referral to speak with a counselor. In her eyes, my distress over talking about poop was more concerning than my actual poopy problems. Eventually, she also offered to run some tests on a “sample” to make sure I didn’t have a parasite or infection.

I went home and, after several days of trying, was finally able to collect my sample. I remember being totally embarrassed about it because you could actually see the bits of tomato and little avocado strings from the guacamole I had eaten a couple of days beforehand. It turns out that I didn’t have a parasite or an infection. My test results came out totally normal. Forgetting, of course, the fact that you could SEE my FOOD in my poo! You know, the stuff your body is supposed to DIGEST. But since they didn’t comment on it, I again assumed that this was okay. Perhaps I was just blowing things out of proportion.

It was at about this time that a good friend of mine began having worsening symptoms from some mysterious illness that had plagued her for years. She started opening up to me about some of her more embarrassing symptoms, and that’s when things finally started to change. We compared notes and shared what information we’d been able to find online. Hearing her describe her GI problems, I realized just how crazy and wrong all of it sounded. I started to believe that I was also sick and deserved to get better.

Luckily for my friend, she was able to figure out that she has Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes your body to attack a protein called gluten that is found in wheat, barley, and rye. Unfortunately, the body attacks itself along with the gluten. This can lead to a myriad of problems, GI and otherwise. When my friend cut out gluten, she had an almost miraculous recovery. It took all of four days, and her life was totally changed. Decades of symptoms disappeared, and she was like a new person – vibrant, healthy, and happy. Watching her journey made me eager to find my cure as well.

I went to a second doctor, this time with more confidence. I described all my symptoms and even suggested taking a Celiac test. The doctor responded with the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. He told me I had a condition called IBS – Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He said I should try eating more fiber but not to expect things to change. This was just a condition I had to learn to live with.

My friend had also been diagnosed with IBS before finding out she had Celiac, so I didn’t put much stock in that as a “diagnosis”. I went home, feeling alone and unsure how to proceed. But my body was quick to remind me that this was NOT all in my head. I went to the bathroom one day, and after doing my business, I looked down into a bowl full of blood. That was the last straw.

It's not IBS.

I decided it was time to leave the medical establishment behind and find my own path back to health. I started on a strict elimination diet. First, I tried getting rid of gluten. I quickly felt better, but I still had GI problems now and then. In fact, while attending a conference, I had a week-long bout of diarrhea, with painful cramps, and a whole lot of embarrassment. But clearing my body of gluten made it easier to pinpoint the other foods that were giving me problems. I quickly identified dairy as the main culprit. Once I eliminated any and all dairy, all my symptoms went away. All the GI distress, bad breath, cramps, bloating, gas, irregularity, and even that damn heartburn! When I found out there were dairy derivatives in my allergy medicine, I switched to a different brand, and my dizzy spells disappeared too. I found I could even tolerate some gluten in my diet as long as there was no dairy.

Eliminating dairy and most gluten meant changing my whole approach to food. I could no longer eat at restaurants with ease or buy processed packaged foods. In a way, though, this was a blessing in disguise. Changing my diet to include more fresh produce, whole unprocessed foods, and almost exclusively meals I cooked myself, flooded my body with the nutrient-dense foods we all need to be truly healthy. The migraines I’d suffered through since elementary school went away, probably because my new diet helped me get more vitamin D. Over the ensuing months and years, my condition continued to improve. And, as my body returned to normal, I finally remembered what normal actually felt like.

It saddens me to think about how long I suffered in silence. It frustrates me that, when I finally did speak up, I was told to seek counseling and that my body was simply defective – nothing could be done. That wasn’t true. There was something I could do, and it gave me my life back. The one thing I was not able to understand was how I ended up so sensitive to dairy. I had trouble with milk as a baby, but that seemed to pass with time. All the way through high school and college, I had enjoyed pizza and cheese and all other manner of dairy. What changed? And could it ever change back?

These were the questions taking up space in the back of my mind when I attended the Ancestral Health Symposium last August. There, I met so many people with similar stories – long illnesses caused by food intolerance, usually misdiagnosed by doctors. That is also where I met Tim, who finally had some answers for me about why I got sick, and what I could do to not only manage my symptoms by avoiding certain foods, but to actual heal my body.

(The rest of the story will appear in Part Two.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Investing in our food future (Part Two)

The Slow Money Alliance is an organization that promotes investment in local economies and a longer-term outlook on investment and growth. Investment should not only generate financial profit for the individual but societal profit as well. The overarching principles of Slow Money are as follows.

In order to enhance food security, food safety and food access; improve nutrition and health; promote cultural, ecological and economic diversity; and accelerate the transition from an economy based on extraction and consumption to an economy based on preservation and restoration, we do hereby affirm the following Slow Money Principles:

I. We must bring money back down to earth.

II. There is such a thing as money that is too fast, companies that are too big, finance that is too complex. Therefore, we must slow our money down -- not all of it, of course, but enough to matter. 

III. The 20th Century was the era of Buy Low/Sell High and Wealth Now/Philanthropy Later—what one venture capitalist called “the largest legal accumulation of wealth in history.” The 21st Century will be the era of nurture capital, built around principles of carrying capacity, care of the commons, sense of place and non-violence. 

IV. We must learn to invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered. We must connect investors to the places where they live, creating vital relationships and new sources of capital for small food enterprises.

V. Let us celebrate the new generation of entrepreneurs, consumers and investors who are showing the way from Making A Killing to Making a Living.

VI. Paul Newman said, "I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer who puts back into the soil what he takes out." Recognizing the wisdom of these words, let us begin rebuilding our economy from the ground up, asking: 

* What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?

* What if there were a new generation of companies that gave away 50% of their profits? 

* What if there were 50% more organic matter in our soil 50 years from now?

In furtherance of their cause, the Slow Money Alliance has compiled a list of funds and organizations that it supports due to their impact and approach. There are a dozen such listings on their Invest page, which are available to individual (non-accredited) investors.

These investments are quite different from the ones I described in my last post in that they are not really appropriate for retirement savings and other savings plans with tax benefits. Some of the funds can be used in a self-directed IRA, which is a type of retirement account with tax benefits. In this type of IRA, there is a middle-man who runs your investment account and, generally, charges a fee. If you already have a self-directed IRA, then adding one of these funds might work for you.

My initial research suggests that, based on my level of investment and expected return, the fees for a self-directed IRA are likely to exceed my profits from investing. For me, then, the investments I’ll describe throughout the rest of this post are more like savings accounts or CDs, with the important distinction that they do carry risk of loss. The upside, of course, is that my money is empowering small farmers, supporting sustainable agriculture, and helping to develop and strengthen communities rather than contributing to the bank’s bottom line.

Show me the money.

I read through the websites of all of the funds and organizations on the Slow Money Alliance’s list of “Funds for everyone”. Most of these investments work the same way. An investor essentially loans money to the fund for an agreed upon period of time. The fund then uses the money, along with other means of funding such as grants and donations, to loan money to people or companies that align with the fund’s principles. These loans are made at a higher rate than the investor receives, but a lower rate (or with more favorable terms) than borrowers are able to receive through banks or other conventional means. The interest paid by borrowers supplies investors with interest and helps run the fund.

This is basically the same strategy employed by banks. However, banks are federally insured. If too many borrowers default on their loans, and the bank can no longer repay investors (i.e. people with bank accounts), the government supplies the money. That makes a bank account, CD, or any other FDIC-insured holding, essentially zero risk. The following funds are not insured and do carry risk of loss.

RSF Social Finance supports people and companies that align with their principles in the areas of food and agriculture, ecologic stewardship, and education and the arts. Their Social Investment fund requires a minimum investment of $1,000 and has an investment term of 90 days, the lowest of any of the funds I read about. The interest rate changes quarterly; the rate averaged 1% in 2010 but 2.45% over the past 5 years. Investments in RSF Social Financial can be used as part of a self-directed IRA.

The Reinvestment Fund (TRF) supports community-development loans, food access, and sustainable energy through their loan program. TRF requires a commitment of 3 years to 30 years but offers a high rate of return. Currently, the annual interest rate on the minimum investment of $1,000 for 3 years is 2.25%. The highest rate, for investments greater than $15,000 for at least 15 years, is 4.5%. From what I have found, these rates greatly exceed those offered by banks, even internet banks, for the same time and capital terms.

Equity Trust, Inc. makes loans to CSA and co-op farms, land trusts, and non-profit organizations that protect land access for communities and/or promote affordable housing. Equity Trust has a $1,000/1-year minimum. Investors specify the interest rate they would like to receive up to the maximum rate set by the fund. I couldn’t find the actual value, but they say the rate is similar to a money market account. One unique option with Equity Trust is that you can make requests as to the type of borrowers you would like your money to fund.

The Equal Exchange CD offers a 0.40% APY for a minimum 1-year investment of at least $500. The Equal Exchange program promotes fair global trade for products such as coffee and chocolate.

The Carrot Project and the New Spirit Farmland Partnership focus on food, but I wasn’t able to get detailed information on investment terms through their websites. If you are seriously considering investing in our food future, you may want to contact these organizations for more information. I emailed the folks at The Carrot Project and will update this post if/when I hear back. The New Spirit Farmland Partnership posts information about specific people and projects in need of support rather than a general loan fund, so again, you have to contact them to get involved.

The Cooperative Fund of New England and the Montana CDC offer community development loans for specific regions, without a particular emphasis on food or environmental sustainability. However, if you live in one of these regions, you may want to check them out. The other investments listed on the Slow Money site either did not contain any information on investing (only donating), do not allow individual investors, or did not offer a return on the investment. If you are interested in making a donation, definitely check out these well-deserving groups!

Risky business.

As I’ve mentioned already, there is risk involved with all of these investments. RSF Social Financial reported its loan loss rate as 1.4% over the past 27 years. I’m not an expert in these things, but I think that means 1.4% of the money the fund loans out never gets repaid. Because the fund amortizes loss over all investors and maintains a buffer of money from donations and other sources, this loss isn’t necessarily passed on to investors. I couldn’t find the loan loss rate for The Reinvestment Fund, but their prospectus states that they could cover losses up to 6.5%. Because TRF invests in a lot of real estate as part of its community development interests, they report that the fund has seen an increase in defaults and late payments through the economic downturn. It’s hard to say if this investment is higher risk than any of the others, but it’s definitely something to consider carefully before investing.

Will work for food.

Based on everything I read, I am really excited to invest in some of these groups. Although there is risk, I think it is easily balanced by diversification. I can keep some money in the bank, earning low interest with no risk, and some money in these investments, which earn as much or more in interest, carry some risk, and help develop the food future I would like to see.

Edit: The folks at The Carrot Project got back to me today. They have a minimum investment of $25,000 for a 5 year term, and they offer interest rates of up to 2%. However, The Carrot Project is not currently seeking investors. That's fine for me because this is definitely out of my range.

Disclaimer: These are my opinions based on my own research. I am not a trained financial planner; I cannot tell you what you should do with your money. I do hope you will find this information valuable, but you should carefully consider your own situation before deciding to invest.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Investing in our food future (Part One)

Now that I finally have a “real job”, and my husband and I are expecting our first child, I have begun to think more about long-term investing and retirement income. Money is a tricky thing though. I know I will need to grow my savings now if I ever want to retire or have a safety net for later in life. But how can I grow my savings in a way that aligns with my morals?

Retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401Ks, allow you to invest money for the long-term with certain tax benefits. Contributions to these accounts can even been matched by your employer. As the owner of a retirement account, you can choose from a number of investment vehicles like stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. For those of us with limited time to research companies and track the stock market, mutual funds seem like an easy choice. An investment firm tracks, buys, and sells interests in many different companies while you simply invest in the single mutual fund. The downside of a mutual fund, from my perspective, is that it’s less transparent than purchasing individual stocks.

As a graduate student, the university opened a retirement account for me and invested my money in a mutual fund. I have no idea what companies that fund includes. I’m sure I could do some research and find out, but that somewhat diminishes the convenience of having a mutual fund to begin with. And what if there is one company, out of all of the companies they have invested in, that I would not want to support? Do I go through the holdings of every mutual fund available to find one without any offending holdings? What if the holdings change with time?

What I really want is a mutual fund that I know reflects my values so I don’t have to spend a lot of extra time checking up on the fund. Apparently, there are a lot of people seeking the same thing because socially responsible investments (SRI) are becoming more prevalent these days. These are funds that make investment choices based on a set of principles adopted by the fund. Some funds focus on fair business practices. Others will simply reject sectors they consider bad for society such as alcohol, tobacco, and gambling.

Unfortunately, I have yet to find a food sustainability mutual fund, which would exclude companies that genetically modify foods, develop chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or manufacture sugary drinks and snacks. However, there are some SRIs that come close and many more that consider other factors such as worker compensation and environmental sustainability. So there may be a convenient mutual fund that at least gets me closer to a clear conscience. There are also ways of investing in sustainable food systems directly (more on this in Part Two), but there are additional constraints on using these investment vehicles for retirement savings.

Mutually beneficial funds.

The website, Social Funds, maintains a database of socially responsible mutual funds, which you can search based on different social issues (go to the Mutual Funds tab, select Mutual Fund Center from the drop-down menu; then select Social Issues from the SRI Fund Charts drop-down menu). There isn’t an option for sustainable agriculture, but there are options for environment, animal rights, community investment, and human rights. There’s no way I could do an in-depth analysis of every fund on this list, so I picked out a handful to see what’s available.

I found Parnassus Funds, Portfolio 21, and Calvert a bit too vague about their qualifications for investment, but they do consider more than just financial gains. Sentinel Investments and Domini Social Investments did provide detailed information on how they assess companies, but neither made specific statements about agriculture. Looking through their holdings, I didn’t find any GM seed companies or pesticide manufacturers. However, the funds do invest in companies that produce unhealthy foods and beverages like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Kraft Foods. Coca-Cola, in particular, has also come under fire for their water usage practices.

Green Century Funds were the only ones I found that made specific statements about the food and farming sectors. According to their website, the fund looks for companies involved in organic and natural foods, water solutions, alternative energy, sustainable development, and the like. They avoid companies involved in factory farming, genetically-modified organisms, and agricultural pesticides. However, McDonald’s and PepsiCo are both in the top 10 holdings of Green Century’s Equity Fund. Technically, these companies do not engage in bad agricultural practices, but they do benefit from the low cost of factory-farmed beef and chicken, corn-based sweeteners, and other products of industrial agriculture. The Green Century Balanced Fund, on the other hand, does not have any food or beverage companies in its top 10.

Based solely on my concerns about ethical food, I would probably opt for a Green Century Fund because they make the most specific statements about food and farming. However, none of the funds I looked into were without faults. And none of them made me feel like my money would be building a more sustainable food future.

The plethora of socially-responsible mutual funds makes me hopeful that I will be able to invest with my morals in mind. It may take some more investigation to find exactly what I want, or I may simply have to become a vocal investor. Depending on your priorities, you may be able to find a fund that allows you to invest in the future you envision. And it just might help you make some money too.

In Part Two, I will discuss additional investment options in the sustainable farming sector that may not be right for retirement savings.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Food fixer-uppers.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve packed up my family and moved 2600 miles to Maryland. Although things have gone fairly smoothly, eating well is always an issue when I’m on the go. Between packing, moving, and unpacking, I’ve had to get creative in order to put together nutritious and at least marginally ethical meals. I hope these food fixes will come in handy anytime you lack access to a complete kitchen!

My first fixer-upper was canned soup I found at Trader Joe’s. To give it a nutritional boost, I added chopped kale and sardines. Sardines are very mild; we hardly noticed they were there! Sardines are a great source of protein and omega-3 fats and are not a mercury concern for pregnant ladies like me. The kale was conventionally grown, but that’s the only kind TJs carries. The soup took less than 10 minutes to cook and made a hearty lunch for two people.

Black bean soup with a boost

Cooking implements required:
- Can opener
- Medium pot, preferably non-stick
- Spoon

- 2 cans of Trader Joe’s organic black bean soup (vegan)
- 1 can of Trader Joe’s skinless and boneless sardines in olive oil
- ½ bag of Trader Joe’s chopped kale

1. Drip oil from the sardines into the pot and warm over medium-high heat.
2. Add the kale and saute for several minutes.
2. Add black bean soup and mix well.
3. Break up the sardines with a fork and stir into the soup.
4. Heat through and enjoy!

Frozen, fixed-up

When we actually got to Maryland, eating got even harder because all our stuff was with the movers! Our first night, it was off to Safeway to see what we could find. Lucky for us, a microwave was all we needed to have a fairly healthy dinner. We each picked out an Amy’s Organic frozen entrée, which come in many meat, dairy, and gluten free varieties. We also picked up a frozen steamer bag of (conventional) Brussels spouts. We didn’t even have to cut the bag; it cooked up perfectly in the microwave. Fresh, homemade food is better than processed frozen dinners, but this meal was a much better choice for us than picking up a pizza or other fast food.

Nuked nutrients

Later, we found a Whole Foods only a short drive from our new place. I’d never shopped at Whole Foods before although I’d heard many good things. In fact, Whole Foods is the only grocery store that has committed to working with the Campaign for Fair Food that I discussed in my post on farm worker treatment. As an ethical eater, I was most impressed by the amount of information that Whole Foods provides. In the produce section, each product is marked with its state of origin (or country if it’s imported) and whether it was grown organically or conventionally. Local produce even has the name of the farm and the miles the food traveled. Local and organic produce was scarce, which may simply be due to the cold temperatures. I would always prefer to purchase seasonal, organic produce from a local farm via a farmers market or CSA, but it’s nice to have a good back-up, available 7 days a week! The more I learn about nutrition, the more clear it becomes that eating lots vegetables is the key to good health. Sustainability is important, but I wouldn’t sacrifice the nutrition I get from veggies if seasonal, organic produce is unavailable.

We were able to get a good variety of organic fresh produce at Whole Foods. But again, with few cooking implements available to us, we had to get creative. Luckily, many fresh veggies can be steamed or baked in the microwave. Adding steamed veggies is a great way to add vitamins to any meal.

Microwaving broccoli requires a knife, unless you can find a bag of chopped broccoli (Whole Foods and TJs offer organic versions). You will also need a small casserole dish with a lid or, in a pinch, a small bowl and a plate large enough to cover it.

1. Chop broccoli into bite-sized pieces.
2. Place broccoli into microwave-safe casserole dish or bowl. Add about a teaspoon of water. Cover with lid or plate.
3. Microwave on high for 3 minutes for a regular-sized bowl.

Microwaving sweet potatoes is even easier. All you need is a fork!

1. Pierce two potatoes several times each with a fork.
2. Cover with a paper towel (not strictly necessary).
3. Microwave for 5-6 minutes for medium-sized potatoes (about 6 inches long). You may have to experiment a bit with your microwave to get it just right. They are done when you can easily slide the fork in and out of the potato.

Single-skillet tacos.

Over the weekend, some awesome friends lent us a few kitchen essentials so we were finally able to cook a real meal. They also gave us grass-fed ground beef from a nearby farm (seriously awesome friends!). We had only one skillet, one knife, and a mixing bowl, but we were able to put together skillet tacos from some more ingredients we bought at Whole Foods. We were able to find organic refried black beans without any added vegetable oil, and we opted for pre-cut (conventional) veggies. We also added organic curly (also called dino) kale for extra nutrients.

Cooking implements required:
- Can opener
- Skillet
- Spatula or spoon
- Knife (if using avocado)

- 1.5 lbs grass-fed, pasture-raised, happy cow ground beef
- Organic black beans (refried or whole)
- 2-3 cups sliced veggies (such as bell pepper, onions, squash, or zucchini)
- ½ bunch of curly kale
- Organic corn taco shells or corn chips (optional)
- Amy’s organic salsa
- Taco seasoning mix

1. Rinse kale. I especially like using curly kale because you don’t even need a knife to work with it. Pull the leaves off the stems, and rip any large leaves into smaller pieces.
2. In large skillet over medium-high heat, break up ground beef and begin to sauté. When the meat has cooked to pinkish, add the taco seasoning mix and stir well.
3. Add kale and sliced veggies. If you have a smaller skillet, add the veggies slowly allowing them to cook down to preserve space before adding more.
4. When the meat is fully cooked (no pink) and the veggies are crisp-tender, remove from heat.
5. Microwave the beans, if you prefer them hot. The easiest way to do this is to spoon the beans into the bowls you will be eating from and nuke those.
6. Break up the taco shells or chips over the beans (if desired). Add the meat and veggie mixture. Top with salsa and avocado, to taste.

These tacos were a big hit. We had more meat and kale than we actually needed for 4 dinner servings, so we added the mixture to take-out veggie bowls from Chipotle. We also added the leftover kale to various meals throughout the week. It’s pretty tasty raw and goes well in scrambled eggs or with lentils. Just one cup of chopped kale has over 200% of your RDA of Vitamin A, 134% of your Vitamin C, 684% of you Vitamin K, and is high in folate, B-vitamins, manganese, copper, potassium, and calcium. It also has 2g of protein and 1g of fiber. (Read more about this awesome vegetable here.)

Moving, traveling, a busted pipe, or a broken stove… Many things can take you out of your normal cooking routine. Even so, there are easy ways of preparing healthy nutritious food. I hope this post helps you navigate these tricky situations in the future. Get creative, and get cooking!