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Road Rules…for an eco-friendly trip

October 20, 2009

Oh the road trip: as American as apple pie, football, and Austin.

This past weekend for fall break, Austin, Blake, and I piled into the car and journeyed 230 miles west to his hometown of Hays, KS (fondly known as Hays, Amuurica).

Traditionally the classic road trip requires a few essential elements: gas station snacks, emergency restroom stops, and multiple rounds of I-spy.  For this trip, we tried to minimize our carbon footprint by employing some methods to maximize our gas mileage (a round trip to Hays generates .2 tons of CO2).

Here’s a video of some of the things we did!

Another way to minimize your environmental impact?  Pack your own road trip snacks!  Not only are you reducing the amount of waste you generate from snack wrappers and containers, but you also get to enjoy fresh, healthy (or not so healthy) snacks.

For more greening your roadtrip tips, click here!

See the world, Save the world

October 18, 2009

“I want to hang a map of the world in my house, and then I’m gonna put pins into all the locations that I’ve traveled to. But first I’m gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map so it won’t fall down.-Mitch Hedburg

I love to travel: from eating in hole-in-the-wall restaurants to sending postcards to jealous friends back at home, from not

The Alam Sari Keliki Hotel in Bali recycles all water and waste, uses solar panels, and grows organic produce.

The Alam Sari Keliki Hotel in Bali recycles all water and waste, uses solar panels, and grows organic produce.

having to fold my bed in the hotel to exploring the sights.  It opened my eyes to the beauty and vastness of the Grand Canyon, the Pacific Ocean, the Colorado Rockies and so much more.  Yet what are we to do when traveling the world also pollutes it?

Whether you call it eco-tourism, sustainable travel, or responsible travel, more and more environmentally friendly travel options are now available for those who wish to see the world without negatively impacting it.

Your mode of transportation is by far the greatest impact on the environment when you are traveling.  While traveling by boat or train creates a much smaller carbon footprint (though walking and bike-riding are the most eco-friendly), sometimes flying is the only way to get where you’re going.

To minimize the impact of your flight, booking direct flights are more eco-friendly.  The ascent and descent of a flight is what consumes the most amount of fuel.  Therefore, flying direct rather than flying to multiple stops is better for the environment (and your sanity…who ever enjoyed a layover?)

Another option for minimizing your carbon footprint is to purchase carbon offsets.  A carbon offset is a credit for emitting a ton of CO2 by investing money in someone else to absorb or avoid releasing a ton of CO2.  The money you spend on carbon offsets can go to companies or organizations that work on sustainable forms of energy or projects aimed at minimizing CO2 emissions.

Yet while this all seems nice and dandy, carbon offsets are quite controversial.  Where is your money going?  Do carbon offsets really help the environment?  Does this create an illusion of carbon-free air travel for those with the money to travel guilt-free?  If you are to purchase carbon offsets, I would definitely do some background research first.

What if air travel is inevitable and you choose not to purchase carbon offsets?  My family is from Taiwan and we fly there every other year to see our relatives.  Since biking or driving across the Pacific definitely isn’t an option, air travel is our only choice.  To minimize our overall impact on the environment, we try to be more eco-friendly in other ways, such as using public transportation and eating locally.

For those who are unable to stay with family while traveling, green accomodations for all budgets are becoming more widespread and for those who are traveling to an area without an eco-friendly hotel, there are a number of things you can do:
1. So you don’t have to fold your bed in morning, but you can still reuse the sheets and towels rather than having them laundered every day.
2. While you don’t have to pay an electricity or utilities bill, it is still important to conserve energy and water. Keep your thermostat low and your lights off when you’re out seeing the sights.
3. Bring your own toiletries in reusable containers.  Refrain from buying new travel-sized toiletries to conserve the amount of plastic waste you produce.

You don’t have to sacrifice seeing the world to help the world, especially with all the green travel options now available.  Tune in soon to see the environmental impact of our trip to Austin’s hometown of Hays, KS and how we tried to minimize that impact!

Veggie Burgers: the new mystery meat

October 11, 2009

The guy at the check-out counter kept sneaking weary glances at it, a puzzled look on his face.

“They’re veggie burgers,” I said.

“Veggie burgers?”

“Yeah, they’re made out of soy and milk and stuff,” replied Austin.

“Oh, um, that’s cool,” the guy muttered, quickly stuffing the Boca Burger box into our shopping bag.

I wondered why a veggie burger, with its plant-based ingredients, would make the poor guy nervous, while an industrial hamburger patty, with its unknown animal contents, would more than likely escape his notice.

But it got me thinking:What the heck is in a “veggie burger” anyway?

In your average grocery store, two kings rein over the meatless meat freezer: Boca Foods and Morningstar Farms (a brand of Kellogg company), each with a loyal fan base.  Though both boast of meatless burgers, chik’n, and breakfast entrees, the taste and composition of their food is quite different.

While I’ll leave the taste testing to you, I took a deeper look into the Boca and Morningstar websites to learn more.

As is with all processed foods, the ingredients list was a medley of words I couldn’t pronounce- words like Disodium Guanylate, Nicotinamide, and Thiamin Mononitrate.  Yet in chosing processed food, these mystery ingredients are an unavoidable part of the package.

Both companies revealed that the soy beans used in their products are likely from genetically engineered soy plants.  However, for consumers who prefer to stay away from genetically engineered products, both companies provide “organic soy” products, which do not contain GE soy.

Then how about all the processing?  Though veggie burgers provide an alternative to meat (a source of environmental problems), are the veggie burgers themselves eco-friendly?  We may feel better that some veggie burgers contain no GE soy, but we can’t ignore the fact that they are still manufactured in factories, requiring a lot of energy and resource input.  I found a post that looks at an article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition about the environmental impacts of food production.

A summary from the post:

“The journal picked soy studies for a comparison, lucky for you. Meat production took more land (6 to 17 times as much), water (4.4 to 26 times), fossil fuels (6 to 20 times), and biocides (a lumped-together category of pesticides and chemicals used in processing — 6 times as much). In fact, meat lost in every category. When processing and transport is factored in to the equation, the difference becomes less extreme, but it’s still there. Meat-based diets use about twice as many environmental resources as soy-based diets. Despite concerns about deforestation and genetic engineering, soy appears to be the winner here.”

In this food showdown, the veggie burgers have triumphed.  Yet figuring out what foods are healthy, environmentally friendly, and delicious can still be quite an Omnivore’s Dilemma. Do you pick organic or local?  Natural or fresh?  Meat or meatless?  Sometimes you just want to throw in the towel and hit up Subway (which I’ll admit I did last night).

However, in figuring out the mystery behind the mystery meat-less, I’ve realized how easy it is to search around on the internet to find your answers.  It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to contact those companies or talk to those farmers, ask a few questions, and figure out your food.

Meatless Monday for the Meat Eater

October 7, 2009

“Dude, for every tofu burger you eat, I’m going to eat a steak.”

Let’s just say Austin’s roommates were not helping the situation.  This week we tried Meatless Monday, a day that Austin had been dreading for weeks.  How would this staunch carnivore ever survive a day without his precious steak?  And why should he in the first place?

Meatless Monday, a non-profit initiative in association with the John Hopkins’ Bloomburg School of Public Health, asks that we reduce our consumption of meat by cutting it out of our diets once a week.

Why?

The mass-produced meat industry also mass-produces greenhouse gas emissions, nearly 1/5 of the total amount, in the form of methane.  One pound of meat also requires an estimated 1,800 to 2,500 gallons of water to produce.  (That’s a lot of H2O for a steak!)  And as the global demand for meat continues to grow, the demand for crops such as corn, soy, and other grains to feed our meat grows as well, leading to various other environmental problems.

Essentially: More meat consumption –> more mass-produced meat –> more feed for the meat = more greenhouse gases and water pollution + less land to grow food for us.

In no way am I saying that we should all become vegetarians.  Personally I couldn’t imagine giving up my favorite meat dish: baby back ribs (yum!).  However, going meatless once a week is an easy way to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on the environment.

And for those of you who, like Austin, are self-proclaimed carnivores, here’s something to help you navigate the world outside of the steakhouse:

Austin’s “How to Survive Meatless Mondays if You Love Meat” Guide

image source: flickr

image source: flickr

Breakfast: Instead of bacon…try egg and cheese biscuit sandwiches.

Some may consider eggs to be meat, but for most, eggs and dairy products are ok.  Pop some refrigerated biscuits into the oven, scramble some eggs, and throw a slice of cheese on top.  A hearty meal to start your day!

Morning Snack: Instead of beef jerky…try dried fruit.

What is morning snack?  For foodies like Austin and I, morning snack is a legitimate time of the day.  Dried fruit are a sweet alternative (pun!) to the beef jerky that he loves.  Raisins, apricots, strawberries, mangos, the list goes on.

image source: yahoo

image source: yahoo

Lunch: Instead of a hamburger…try a Boca veggie burger.

I think Austin was more scared to try a veggie burger than sweetbreads (cow pancreas) at a restaurant we went to.  He sat there staring at the Boca burger, took a deep breath, and then took a bite.  His final verdict: “Not bad flavor, but the texture is different.  Overall, it’s ok.”

Mid-afternoon Snack: Instead of a turkey sandwich…try a protein shake.

I don’t understand how boys think turkey sandwiches are snacks, but apparently they are.  A protein shake can be just as filling and provide the protein you need for the day.  Austin’s favorite flavor?  Strawberry.

image source: hookedonheat

image source: hookedonheat

Dinner: Instead of chicken stir-fry…try veggie fried rice.

Add some stir-fry sauce, maybe scramble some eggs and you’d hardly notice that there’s no chicken! Plus, it’s a great way to clean out all those odds and ends veggies that you don’t know what to do with.

And a Janie tip: Focus on what you can eat, rather than what you can’t.

What’s your favorite meatless food?

Would You Like some E.coli on that Burger? Part II

October 4, 2009

“Meat is meat.”

How do we go from this...

How do we go from this...

I just stared at him.  I couldn’t believe it.  After having him read the recent New York Times article, “E.Coli Path Shows Flaws in Ground Beef Inspection” and explaining to him the health and environmental implications of industrial meat for the past half hour, that was all he could say.

“But aren’t you weirded out by the thought that one hamburger patty could have meat from four or five different cows?” I ask.

“Why would I be weirded out?  Nothing bad has happened to me yet.  I have no reason to stop.  Most, if not all, of the food that I eat is chemically modified or processed in some way.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Janie, my point is…meat may be stuffed with antibiotics and hormones, but ecologically it’s all connected…the vegetables that you eat may also contain nasty chemicals because farmers use livestock manure to fertilize their crops.  Why be afraid of all those additives in meat when it’s in everything?  Some E.coli may slip through the cracks, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.  It’s like driving your car–there is always an inherent risk involved, but we continue to drive our cars without worrying about the what ifs.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Well, food just has its risks that we have to deal with.  Honestly, I think our biggest concern is treating livestock with antibiotics. We inject our cows full of antibiotics but then the bacteria evolve and eventually become even stronger.  The development of resistant bacteria reduces the effectiveness of human medicine…now that’s what we should be worried about.”

...to this? And is it possible?

I couldn’t agree with him, but I couldn’t disagree either. I’m no perfect eco-eater.

It’s funny, when it came to reduce, reuse, and recycle, it was easy to convince Austin to do those things.  How come food was so difficult?  Was it because it came with a monetary cost or because it was less convenient?

Guilt trips, scare tactics, informational articles didn’t seem to make a difference.  He’s seen the feedlots in Garden City, KS and visited the Lawrence Farmers Market.  He’s tried everything from organic and grass-fed, to vegetarian and vegan.  What would it take to change his eating habits?

Sensing my frustration, he gently added, “I would shop at the Merc for every ounce of my food if I had the money and I’m sure there are people out there who do.  But as a college student, sometimes I can’t have access to the healthier alternatives…so I make due.

It’s good to know where your food comes from but in all reality there is little we can do to control whether it’s safe or not. We as the consumer just have to be conscious about expiration dates and cooking/washing our food thoroughly.  I can’t travel down to Garden City and demand that my steak be perfectly safe. I just have to put up with the fact that it may contain residue of bacteria, and trust that it most likely is ok to eat.”

Would You Like some E.coli on that Burger? Part I

October 4, 2009

A year ago, Austin introduced me to my first hamburger.  (pause for shock and awe)  Ever since I was little, my mom always encouraged a white meat diet and so beef was never an option.  Yet it was in that moment, with that burger in my hands, that I realized that a piece of meat stuck between two slices of bread with a little ketchup and cheese on top could taste soo good.

Yet in my local vs. industrial foods comparison last week, this amateur Hamburgler realized that maybe not all hamburgers are created equal.

Some are free of hormones, antibiotics, and the risk of mad cow disease and come from health-friendly, animal-friendly, and environmentally-friendly sources.  Yet others have questionable contents and come from questionable sources such as  confined animal feeding operations (CAFO).

Austin and I have had our share of industrially-produced hamburgers–they’re so cheap!  But the reasons why they’re so cheap may also be reasons why eating them can be like eating puffer fish: potentially risky.

Yesterday, the New York Times published an article reminding us that E. coli, that ever elusive food-bourne bacteria is still hanging around.  Though some strains can be harmless, others can lead to severe or even life-threatening infections.  The woman in the article, Stephanie Smith, is now paralyzed from the waist down due to eating an E.coli infected hamburger.  Who’s responsible for overlooking this safety issue?  Now that culprit is a bit harder to find than the E.coli.

In our lineup:

image source: ecoliblog.com

The Food Processor- Cargill is responsible for the production of the hamburger patties.  They only test for E.coli after the ingredients (including meat from four different slaughterhouses) are mixed together.

The Slaughterhouses- Meat from Greater Omaha Packing Co, Lone Star Beef Processors, a slaughterhouse in Uruguay, and Beef Products Inc. makes up the hamburgers.  Though each slaughterhouse utilizes safety measures, the safety of the meat is not guaranteed.  Some unwritten agreements between slaughterhouses and food processors keep the latter from testing the meat shipments they receive for bacteria.

The U.S.D.A.- The Agricultural Department allows slaughterhouses to decide their own safety plans.  But when U.S.D.A. officials conducted spot checks in 2007, many were found to be failing their own safety plans.  Should there be more government regulation?  Or does responsibility lie within the companies?

The Chef- Should responsibility lie in the hands of the consumer?  Hamburgers must be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that any E.coli are killed.  Raw meat that touches cooking utensils, counter tops, or towels can also result in cross contamination.

The Verdict? Personally, I think all parties play a role in ensuring food safety.  Though we as consumers could cook our meat more thoroughly to ensure the safety of our food, I think the companies that provide us with that food should be held accountable for its safety before it ends up in our freezers.

With fall here in full swing, nothing is better on a crisp weekend afternoon than friends, hamburgers, and football.  While I wouldn’t want to give that up, I wouldn’t want to risk an E.coli infection either.  Until policies change at the government and corporate levels, there are a few things that consumers can do to ensure the safety of their food.  Meat can be purchased from trusted local farmers or cooked more thoroughly.  Using a food thermometer is an easy way to double check those burgers and make sure that they’re not only tasty, but safe to eat.

Who do you think is responsible for the safety of our food?  What do you do to make sure your food is safe?

Man vs. Local Food… vs. Industrial Food

September 27, 2009

The Challenge: Which tastes better?  Our farmer’s market meal or our supermarket meal?

On the left, our challenger, local food.  On the right, defending this title, is supermarket.

On the left, our challenger, local food. On the right, defending this title, is supermarket.

The Menu:

Farmer’s Market
All-Natural 95% Lean Beef Patties  $8.23/4 patties
All-Natural Beef Bratwurst                 $6.95/4 brats
Zucchini                                                       $0.75
Heirloom Tomatoes                               $2.50
Sweet Potato                                              $2.00
Total                                             $20.43

Supermarket
91% Lean Beef Patties                           $8.99/12 patties
Beef Bratwurst                                          $2.50/5 brats
Zucchini                                                       $0.79
Roma Tomato                                           $0.79
Sweet Potato                                             $1.00
Total                                             $14.07

Shopping:

Farmer’s Market: We woke up early on a Saturday morning in order to make it to the Lawrence Farmer’s Market in time (coffee helped make this possible).  From beef to bell peppers to doggie treats and flowers, the farmers market surprised us with its wide range of products.  We chatted with various farmers to learn about where their produce or meat came from and how it was grown or raised.  What surprised us was that though most farmers used organic methods (no chemicals, pesticides, hormones), very few were certified.  Those who weren’t explained that this was because certification wasn’t worth the money or the bureaucracy.  Furthermore, the intimate setting of the farmer’s market allows conversation between producer and consumer.  Shoppers can go right ahead and ask whether or not the farmer’s products are organic or sustainably grown.

Supermarket: I ran in, threw the ingredients I needed into my basket and checked out.  Quick, easy, and no conversation necessary.

Cooking:

Our friend Blake helped us out by grilling the hamburgers and brats while Austin and I prepared the veggies.  Though the two batches of produce looked a lot alike, there was definitely a significant difference in the meat.  Here’s a video of Blake grilling the burgers to give you a better idea of those differences:

We started off with 5 simple ingredients and it wasn’t long before we made a huge mess of the kitchen.  However, finally we were done grilling, sauteing, and microwaving and sat down to enjoy our feast.

Can you see the difference?  Local on the left, supermarket on the right.

Can you see the difference? Local on the left, supermarket on the right.

Critique:

Local brats: A
Supermarket brats: B+

Local burgers: A-
Supermarket burgers: B-

There was a significant difference in meat quality.  The local meat had much more flavor (kind of like jerky) and had a thicker texture.  Austin noticed that the supermarket brats were saltier, which we contributed to the preservatives.

Local sweet potato: A-
Supermarket sweet potato: A

Local zucchini: B
Store zucchini: A

What surprised us the most was that the supermarket produce tasted so much better than the local produce.  The super market sweet potatoes were sweeter and had much more flavor.  The supermarket zucchini also had a tangier taste.  Could this be because of all the hybridization that goes with industrial produce?  Hmm…

Conclusion:

Though Austin and I had a lot of fun shopping at the farmer’s market and cooking, we felt like the taste didn’t justify the costs.  We would like to incorporate more local food into our diet, but as of right now, with our food budget, it just wouldn’t be financially viable for us to switch over to local food completely.  Still, we loved having the chance to compare the two and most of all, to experience a different way to eat.

Taste alone didn’t justify how much we spent on local food.  What would justify it for you?  What would it take for you to eat locally?

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