Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stepping out of my bubble...

Over the past 14 months I've been living in what I can only call my green bubble. I've been surrounded by people who recycle, compost, grow their own food, shop at Farmer's Markets, turn off their lights, choose bikes over cars, study and work in fields that strive towards sustainability and, at the least, are trying to learn more about how they can improve the world we live in. I get daily emails about events taking place in the name of sustainability including fruit tree planting in the park and there is always some influential speaker, like Bill McKibben, Thomas Friedman or Slow Food's Josh Viertel visiting campus.

In short, I live in a green bubble where my hopes and dreams of a sustainable lifestyle flourish.

Don't get me wrong....I am aware that outside of this bubble there is a community that is not yet on the sustainability track. I visit those communities often when I travel for work, but until recently I had not realized how far off track some of these communities truly were. I had not realized how far from reality my green bubble had drifted.

I don't expect everyone to compost (although honestly, why not?) or grown their own vegetables (although, it seriously is a great way to save some money) or choose a bike or energy efficient car over their big gas guzzlers (okay, maybe I do expect people to reconsider purchasing gas guzzlers, but I am realistic and know some people just won't). I don't even expect people to know why it is important to become more sustainable, but the one thing I did expect everyone to know about was recycling.

So imagine my surprise when I heard the principal of a small school in rural North Carolina announce to her students that they would start recycling soon. Did she say START recycling? Isn't this 2011? Didn't a law go into effect in 2009 making recycling mandatory in North Carolina?

Source:Green Living Answers
Despite this law, none of these children (or teachers) knew which items could be recycled. They didn't know, because not only was their school not recycling, they weren't recycling at home either. That's 25 families that are throwing away 4.5lbs of trash per person per day of which at least 50% is probably recyclable.

The worst part was that it was not their choice whether they recycled or not. Not only were these people not educated about the importance of recycling, their communities and governments were actually not providing them with ways to recycle! No bins per home, no recycling pick-up, no recycling container within the apartment complexes.

So here we are trying to educate people on living a more sustainable lifestyle, but the main problem isn't that they don't want to do it, they just can't. Sure they can drive their recycling to a drop-off point or pay an extra fee for a special pick-up, but you don't have to be a behavior analyst to see that recycling, a behavior that should be reinforced, is actually being punished. And let's be honest, wouldn't you be a little less likely to recycle in this situation?

Source: Headwaters Cooperative Recycling
There's a law in place mandating recycling in North Carolina, yet in 30 days, these 25 families (or approximately 75 people) will be sending nearly 5000 lbs of trash to the landfill that does not need to be there. And they are not the only ones!

In 2007, Treehugger published data that showed that 23% of Americans did not recycle and some sources suggest that this number is actually closer to 30%. Not only are these people probably not educated about recycling, but they also have limited access to recycling facilities. Resource Recycling stated that only 63% have access to curbside recycling and only 68% have access to drop-off recycling.

The government keeps talking about jobs. Well here's a simple job creating idea...teach your country to recycle. Not only does this reduce our waste, but according to A Recycling Revolution, it also creates 1.1 million U.S. jobs. Even better,  it creates 4 jobs for every 1 job created in waste management, all the while costing less than a regular waste-collection program. On average, it costs $30 per ton to recycle trash, $50 to send it to the landfill and $65-75 to incinerate it. Additionally, in many cases reusing recycled products to create new products actually saves resources and money.

Here are a few fun facts courtesy of A Recycling Revolution:

  • There is no limit to the number of times an aluminum can can be recycled and a used aluminum can is recycled and back on the grocery shelf as a new can in as little as 60 days.
  • If all of our newspaper was recycled, we could save 250,000,000 trees!
  • Recycling plastic saves twice as much energy as burning it in an incinerator and as many as 1 million sea creatures.
  • Substituting recycled glass for half of the raw materials needed to produce new glass, cuts the waste produced by more than 80%!

So if you aren't recycling, start today!

Each city has their own recycling rules, but in general paper, cans, glass and plastic can all be recycled. Plastic bags (including clean and dry Ziploc bags and the plastic packaging of many items like toilet paper, electronics and water bottles) can also be recycled (check out Plasticbagrecycling.org for more).

So while I bring my green bubble closer to the real world, I highly encourage you to step into my green bubble. While recycling may sound tedious and time consuming, it's actually an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint, help create new jobs and reduce the cost of your future purchases (especially if you buy products made from recycled materials)! When combined with reusing and some smart purchasing (i.e. use a Brita filter and water bottle instead of plastic water bottles and our household absolutely swears by our SodaStream), you'd be amazed how much money you can save, and who doesn't want to save some money nowadays!

Source Environment-Green

Friday, October 21, 2011

Why We Need Sustainable Food Systems

The truth about our food system is that it is completely broken. Our current system is costing us a lot of money and literally costing us millions of lives. You may not be green or eco-friendly or into leading a sustainable lifestyle, but I highly recommend that you consider the importance of a sustainable food system. Your health and the health of our future generations depends on it.

The way I see it there are 2 major problems.

First, we produce enough food to feed every single person in this country, yet people still go hungry every day. According to the US Department of Agriculture in 2010 14.5 percent of the people in this country were food insecure for at least some part of the year. That is over 40 million people who do not know where they will get their next meal.

Compare that to the fact that we waste about 40 percent of the food produced in this country  (Wasted FoodSoSAand you start wondering what is wrong with our food system. The food wasted is both food that people purchase and just never eat and fresh produce from farms that is never harvested and basically left to waste. Perfectly good food wastes away while over 40 million people go hungry every year! That is not a sustainable food system and, in my opinion, completely unacceptable.

YSFP Farmer's Market Table
Second, those of us who are food secure are eating foods that are basically making us sick. Consider that some of the leading causes of death in the U.S. are heart disease, cancer and diabetes (CDC). All of these diseases are preventable, if only we feed our bodies a better diet. 

Somewhere along the way, people lost sight of the importance of feeding our body the nutrients it needs to function properly. We stopped caring about nutrition and started accepting expensive, processed and low-nutritional value foods. More importantly, those people we trust to provide us with high quality food also stopped caring about nutrition.

We have lost touch with the importance of fresh nutrition-dense food and it is time to reconnect. We need to reconnect ourselves with our food sources, consider the types of food we eat and address the importance of our food's nutritional content. We have to find a more sustainable food system. 

This is not green, tree-hugger talk, this is basic science: Our body is like a machine. We have to feed it the correct combination of nutrients so that it can function properly. This does not mean you only have to eat fruits and vegetables and never touch a cupcake again (hmm, I love cupcakes) or that you will be eating tasteless foods (you would be surprised how delicious fresh produce can be). What it means is that we have to reduce our dependence on processed foods. We have to find ways to get fresh food to everyone. We have to think about what we feed our bodies and we have to go back to a system where the focus is our health and well-being and the health and well-being of future generations.

The good news is that there are many ways to do this, whether you are part of the food secure or the food insecure population.

If you are part of the food insecure, let me go ahead and bust one myth. Healthy food does not have to be expensive. As Slow Food USA's $5 challenge has shown, there are many healthy and delicious meals you can create for $5 or less per person. All it takes it a little bit of effort.

There are also wonderful organizations like New Haven's CitySeed, where I volunteer, that are working hard to make sure fresh food is accessible to everyone. CitySeed doesn't only promote the purchase of local foods and therefore support our local farmers, they also set-up farmer's markets in various areas which make it easier for people to access and purchase these local foods. CitySeed also works hard to educate people about SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) -formerly known as Food Stamps-, which are now accepted at many Farmer's Market, thus making fresh food even more accessible to everyone.

Then there are inspirational stories like Susan Gregory Thomas' story of how she Went Back to The Land and found ways to grow her own food, keep her own chickens, create her own cleaning products and feed her family for only $100/week. As Susan says, it is a lot of work, but she also says that it is definitely doable.

If you are part of the food secure, you can also learn from Susan and others who have chosen to grow some of their own food. There really is nothing more satisfying then picking your home-grown lettuce and tossing a salad or biting into a freshly harvested tomato or carrot. There are also many other ways to contribute to improving our food system. You can actively work on reducing the amount of food you waste (and thus saving yourself money). You can start thinking about the content of your food and make better choices,which in turn can prevent your family from getting sick.

If you want to be more active in food system reform, there are literally thousands of organizations that you can support. From large organizations like Slow Food USA and Feeding America, to small local organizations like CitySeed and specialized organizations like Cooking Matters and Society of St.Andrew who have a large gleaning operation, where they go onto farms and salvage perfectly edible food that would otherwise go to waste, there are many ways to get involved.

Another way is to ask companies, like grocery stores, restaurants and other places that might have excess food to donate that food. There is even a Good Samaritan Law that "protects companies from liabilities surrounding their (food) donations" (EPA). Another way to influence companies, particularly large food producers, is by modifying your purchasing decisions. For some reason we have come under the control of the food manufacturing companies, but the reality is that they are providing us a service and thus we are the ones who are and should be in control. If you are not happy about the quality of your food, say something.

The truth is that we can all benefit from a better and more sustainable food system, but it is not going to fix itself. We have to actively work together to make it happen. We have to let our voices be heard and demand better food!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Our children are our future

These past 2 days have been eye opening for me. As I listened to farmers, chefs and educators from all over the country, my beliefs in sustainability have been reaffirmed. I was also finally able to define sustainability. Not in the objective behavioral terms I have been trying to use, but in human terms. All of a sudden, it was all so simple: sustainability is our children.

While I was impacted by all the speakers at Dickinson's Seeding the Future Conference, one person in particular stood out and I think it is fair to say that he has forever changed my life. In his 2 presentations and my personal conversations with him, I felt passion, dedication and commitment that was contagious. His words ignited my ambitions and my emotions to the point where I had to fight back tears.

I have always been an active and involved citizen. I volunteer, advocate for the things I believe in and run a small business that focuses on improving people's lives. Despite these achievements, I often still question my purpose on this planet and the impact my actions can have.

Today Chef Tony Geraci answered those questions. "Everything I do has a connection to kids. If it doesn't, then I don't do it," he said, "It's just not worth it." The emotions I felt, as he spoke those words, consumed me. As an educator, as a behavior analyst and now as an aspiring educational farmer, kids had always been at the center of my actions. Our children ARE our purpose. They are our future and they deserve the very best we can offer. They deserve a good education, good food, good support and most importantly they deserve to be empowered.

As for making an impact, Geraci said he did not believe in experiencing life as a bystander. He expressed that we were only here for a nanosecond of time and that we should make the most of it. "I want to carve my name on the world and let people know I was here and made a difference," Geraci told a small group of people chatting with him after his keynote address. If you want to make an impact, he said, it is as simple as creating a plan and putting it into action. "START! START! START!"

In case you don't know Tony Geraci, also known as Cafeteria Man, he is a successful restaurateur who in recent years has dedicated his life to farm-to-school programs. He believes in providing our children with real and nutritional foods, so that they are better able to learn. "You cannot have the expectation that a teacher can teach if the kid is hungry or jacked up on sugar," Geraci said. Even cooler is Geraci's belief in a system where the farm isn't just a way to give our children access to better food, it is also a way to provide our children with real-life hands-on educational experiences.

What Geraci spoke about during his presentations was not new to me. As an educator and behavior analyst, I feel comfortable saying that I know what the components of a good educational program are. The powerful part of his presentations was to see those principles applied; to see that guidance, support, reinforcement and empowerment are four of the strongest tools you can give a child. And to see that with some vision and dedication you CAN really make a difference.

In Geraci's farm-to-fork approach the children don't just eat fresh food and learn where their food comes from, they also learn how to grow it, how to plan a farm, how to plan and create a meal and what the history of the food being grown is. And because not everyone wants to be a biologist or famer, the program is integrated into all subjects. In his program in New Hampshire for example, some children made beehives during their woodworking class, others created budgets during math, others created marketing materials during art and yet others determined the menu's nutritional content during science. They learned the value of community and teamwork. They learned to appreciate each person for their unique set of skills. Additionally, the programs also empowered the students by allowing them to have a voice and teaching them how to take ownership of their education and food choices.

It's not just about providing our children with the quality of food they deserve. It is also about shaping the future citizens of the world into people who care about the communities they live in and the planet they depend on. So if you ever question your purpose on this planet or the importance of sustainability, remember this: Sustainability is our children and our children are our future.