Backyard Cows: Too Lovable For Hamburgers?

image via.International Miniature Cattle Breeds Society and Registry

We’ve been here before.
First it was backyard chickens. We had a nostalgia-tinged notion of endearing creatures, deliciously fresh eggs, and serious locavore status. The dream ran up against the reality of filthy, shrieking fowl that barely edge out snakes in cuddliness, and are prone to ailments like poultry mites and pasty butt.

So we turned to goats. […]

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Starbucks or McDonald’s Coffee? Fair-trade begins at home.

            image via B.S. Report


The coffee beans were fairly traded back in Guatemala, but what about the person who poured you a cup on your way to work?

There are more than 30,000 McDonald’s outlets employing 4 million workers just in the United States. Nearly 1 in 8 American workers has spent time, at some point in their careers, toiling under the Golden Arches.

Burger-flipping at its finest.

A shift behind the counter at McDonald’s is everything it’s cracked up to be. The pay is low, few work skills are demanded or acquired, turnover can approach 100%, and there is little chance for advancement. The meager benefits include a much-criticized employee health plan that requires most participants to pay annual premiums of $728 for coverage that maxes out at $2,000—an amount that would be eaten up in the first hours of a typical hospital visit.

With a mind-numbing work environment of vinyl and fluorescent lighting and stultifyingly proscribed behavior, it’s the definition of low status minimum wage labor. Literally. The term ‘McJob,’ defined as low-paying dead-end work, was added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2003, over the objections and threat of litigation from McDonald’s legal team. The 11,000 U.S. Starbucks employ 105,000.

Despite paying most of its hourly workers little more than minimum wage, Starbucks consistently ranks among the best U.S. employers. Training is extensive, benefits are relatively generous, and there are very real opportunities for advancement. While McDonald’s health plan is a joke, Starbucks spends more on health care for its U.S. employees than it spends for coffee bean purchases.

Starbucks has been beaten up by the global recession and underwent a few years of corporate retrenchment that scaled back compensation, prompting some recent employee grumbling. But overall, the company retains its commitment to a warm and fuzzy, healthy work environment that will attract and retain an enthusiastic corps of workers.

Your coffee can be fairly traded and organic. It can be shade-grown, carbon neutral, and bird-friendly. You can drink it in a recycled cup with organic soy milk and sugar from plants that haven’t been genetically altered.

We understand how our coffee choices impact global warming, the rain forest, and the working conditions of coffee pickers in Latin America. Let’s pay attention to how they impact the economic lives of the people that brew it for us.


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Got Milk? How About the Not Milks?

Calvin and Hobbes comic via United Feature Syndicate


Got milk?
Gotten milk recently?
It’s no easy feat. The dairy case seems awfully crowded these days.
Soy milk, the dairy alternative, has been joined by a slew of soy alternatives. Now you’ll find milk made from nut varieties, grains, and even law-skirting hemp seeds. […]

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How Big is Your Water Footprint?

Who knows their water footprint?
You know about your carbon footprint, that it looks at the impact of your day-to-day life on the environment by measuring the greenhouse gases produced as a result of your activities. Your water footprint takes the same kind of look at water usage.

The water footprint concept just hasn’t gotten the same kind of attention. Maybe it’s because fresh water is so commonplace and ubiquitous, at least in the developed parts of the world, that it’s easy to forget what an incredibly valuable resource it is. But we can’t afford to forget. Here in the U.S., where water is generally plentiful and well-managed, water managers in 36 states anticipate periodic water shortages over the next 3 years.

Americans are the water hogs of the planet.
That should come as no surprise, given our resource track record. It takes 1,800 gallons of water a day to keep each of us afloat, the vast majority going toward the production of the food we eat. On average, each of us uses water at twice the world-wide rate. Typical usage in China is less than 500 gallons a day per person, and even much of Europe uses less than 1000 gallons a day per person.

When you drink a 12 ounce cup of coffee in the morning, you’re actually gulping down 37 gallons of water when you account for the growing, processing, and transportation of  the coffee beans before they even got to the local roaster. A glass of wine at the end of the day? It takes 57 gallons of water to produce just 8 ounces of chardonnay.

The worst culprit of all is beef. Dairy products, poultry, pork—they’re all heavyweights—but nothing guzzles water like an industrially-raised, grain-fed cow. It takes more than 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, mostly due to the ton of grain the cow has eaten by the time it gets to market.

Of course it is not simply the amount of water that’s used, but where the water is located. It takes about 500 gallons of water to produce a single bag of peanut M&Ms, and only 50 gallons to produce a jar of spaghetti sauce. The cocoa and peanuts are grown in temperate zones with high rainfalls, while tomatoes need heavy irrigation to grown in their typically warm and dry climates. This makes the pasta sauce much more likely to contribute to water scarcity.

Know your water footprint. National Geographic has an online calculator that tallies your personal usage based on home, garden, diet, and energy practices.

At Water, you can explore a water footprint database of 132 countries, and a footprint gallery of food products.



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To Eat or Not To Eat

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Oh, if only it were that easy.

Even Michael Pollan, author of those oft-repeated seven words, felt the need to refine the edict with an entire book of rules.

After he exposed us to the ills of the American diet and the inherent dangers in our uber-capitalistic food industry, Michael Pollan left millions of readers wondering what to eat. He began to compile a list of rules to eat by. A mention of the project on his blog resulted in a flood of reader-submitted suggestions— more than 2,500 of them. […]

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Buying Local: Is it style over substance?

image via Hotpoint


Howdy neighbor.

Multinational conglomerates— especially those best known for corporate steamrolling— are touting their locavore cred:

Lay’s potato chips is running a series of television commercials featuring five of the farmers/suppliers who bring the simple happiness of farm life to big cities across America— including one whose ‘local farm’ covers 17,000 acres in 11 states.

McDonalds billboards trumpet locally-sourced french fries that are from here, for you; although the company admits that it hasn’t actually changed its buying practices and, of course, “participation and duration may vary.” […]

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Grow Your Own White House Garden


You can’t get any more local than your own kitchen garden.

Already popular with anyone with a hankering for freshness, superior taste, good health and nutrition, and saving money— which pretty much includes everyone— interest in kitchen gardens really took off when Michelle Obama oversaw the planting of the first White House vegetables since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden during World War II. Even Queen Elizabeth II succumbed to the ‘Michelle factor’ ordering a yard bed for Buckingham Palace. […]

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You (yes you!) Can Help Clean Up the Oil Spill

It’s been nearly two months since the BP oil drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 workers and resulting in the largest oil spill in U.S. history. As we witness the devastating impact on health, livelihoods, habitats, and wildlife, we have to ask ourselves what we could be doing to help.

The answer is plenty, even for those of us who don’t live close enough to volunteer. And some of the ways to help will surprise you. […]

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Locavore? Try one-block-avore.


Forget about the 100-mile diet. How about the 100-yard diet?

Sunset Magazine has taken local foods to a whole new level with its One-Block Diet. With a long history of expertise in cooking, gardening, and DIY, and utilizing just the open space on their Menlo Park, California campus, the magazine staff is attempting to grow, cultivate, brew, ferment, breed, and distill everything needed for a complete diet.

Not exactly soup to nuts (no nut trees planted yet), the goal is not total sustenance. There is some daily eating that reflects ripening, harvests, and cooking schedules, but the bulk of the food production is geared toward a series of seasonal feasts that are meant to inform, educate, and inspire the magazine’s readership.

Responsibility for the One-Block Diet has been assigned to teams of staff members in more than a dozen categories.

  • Honey, wax candles, and mead, a traditional honey wine, come from a team of beekeepers.
  • Beer brewers and winemakers go from garden to bottle, with enough left for cooking and salad vinegar.
  • There is a cow for milk and cheese, and eggs to collect from the chickens.
  • The mushroom team germinates spores, the olive growers run a press for cooking oil, and the salt crew learned how to harvest from the ocean and nearby salt ponds of San Francisco Bay water.
  • A gardening team grows and harvests fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, culinary herbs and teas, aided by the garden snail removal provided by Team Escargot. It’s all put together in a series of seasonal meals by the kitchen team.

By now, the virtues of going local are well known. In fact locavore is so much a part of the modern lexicon that it was named word the year for 2007 by the Oxford American Dictionary.

Even if you don’t plan on milling your own grains or getting honey from a backyard hive, the One-Block Diet is more than a lark for a bunch of magazine editors playing at farming. At a time when supermarkets sell fish from Viet Nam, plums from Chile, and apples from New Zealand; and the safety and integrity of our food supply is under attack from genetic modifications and food borne illnesses, an experiment like the One-Block Diet opens our eyes to the possibility of fresher, healthier foods and varieties that just taste better than what the supermarket offers.

Any volunteers for Team Escargot?

Team blogs, how-to manuals, menus, recipes and more are found on Sunset Magazine’s One-Block Diet website.

The Locavore app, available through  Apple’s iTunes store, tells you what’s actually grown near you and what’s ripe and available at any time of year.

Eat Local Challenge covers the local foods movement in communities spanning the U.S.

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The Last Banana on Earth

       image courtesy of Geostationary Banana Over Texas
Bananas are on a crash course to extinction.
10 years, give or take. That’s how long scientists are giving the banana.
Then what will we slice on our morning cereal? […]
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Is That for Here or To Go: coffee in motion

Four Seasons Hotels announced that it will begin offering to go cups with its morning coffee service.

If there is anywhere that cups and saucers should be right at home it’s Four Seasons. The hotels are bastions of luxury and elegance, where mornings have been a time for the genteel hush of dining rooms and lobbies broken only by the sounds of crisp newspapers and the ring of spoons against fine china.

The rest of the world has always considered the to go cup to be a somewhat uncouth symbol of America’s go-go culture. Order a coffee in virtually any cafe in Europe and it is sure to be delivered in a proper cup, frequently on a tray with niceties like a glass of water and maybe a little cookie or chocolate. To go isn’t even an option for most of the world’s coffee drinkers. […]

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Don’t Be a Picnic Hater: Love it and Green it


  • it’s relaxing
  • it’s affordable
  • there’s still plenty of time to worry about fitting into your swimsuit

Why not go on a picnic?

What do you mean you hate picnics? I suppose you don’t like puppies, rainbows, or ice cream either!

We’re not talking about something out of an episode of Survivor; just a patch of green and a sack of food. No forced march, no cooking over fire. You don’t even have to touch a frisbee if you don’t want to.

Just one requirement: you gotta go green. All of those cups and plates and little plastic forks add up to an awful lot of trash, much of it the kind that sits for all eternity in a landfill. There’s no excuse for all of that waste. With plenty of eco-friendly choices, nearly everything at your picnic can be reused, recycled, or composted. […]

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I Didn’t Know I Could Recycle That!

[image via Living Etc.]

Yogurt containers into toothbrushes, Cheetos bags into CD cases.
While you were dutifully rinsing out tuna cans and bundling newspapers, recycling kept moving forward.

Specialized recyclers have sprung up to handle everything imaginable— or unimaginable in some cases: broken crayons, used dentures, old sports trophies, even sex toys. The kitchen is particularly fertile ground for recycling. Following are kitchen items that you’ll probably be surprised to learn are recyclable.

Hershey’s Kisses
Those little bitty foil wrappers sure add up. Around 80 million chocolate Hershey’s Kisses are wrapped every day. That’s enough aluminum foil to cover nearly 40 football fields. Instead of tossing it out, toss it into the bin with aluminum cans.

We like our chocolate and our wine. 13 billion natural wine corks are sold each year. Get mailing instructions or find a local cork drop-off location on the websites for recyclers ReCORK and  Yemm & Hart. Used corks can  find new life as placemats, shoe footbeds, flooring, and other building materials.

Terracycle turns food packaging into products like clipboards and backpacks. Terracycle aceepts:

  • Drink pouches (like Capri Sun) and single-brew coffee pouches (like Flavia)
  • Single-serve treat packaging (granola bars, cookie, gum, and candy bar wrappers)
  • Lunch kits (like Lunchables)
  • Chip bags
  • Cooking oil

I hope you know not to pour used cooking oil down the drain. It’s the number one cause of clogs, so clearly a lot of people are pouring it out. Whatever you’ve been doing,  you might be surprised to learn that your used oil can be recycled into biofuel. Check Earth911 for a nearby recycling location.

Bottle caps
Bottle caps need to be removed for plastic recycling. But don’t toss them. Salons and retailers that carry Aveda hair products partner with local schools to collect caps—threaded caps from water, milk, juice, and soda bottles, flip tops from ketchup bottles, and squeeze tops caps from dish and dishwasher soap. Find a participating drop-off location.

Produce stickers
Barry Snyder doesn’t recycle but will upcycle all those little stickers that come on supermarket produce, turning them into mosaic homages to well-known works of art. Visit Stickerman Produce Art to check out his work and for sticker shipping details.

Kitchen appliances
Remodeling a kitchen, or even just replacing the old toaster— use the Steel Recycling Institute’s location finder to pass along old appliances large and small.

If your unwanted items still have some life in them, get them into the hands of people who can use them. Sell them or offer them up on Freecycle, Craigslist, Throwplace, or

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Farm Volunteers: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

     image courtesy of Culinary Cory

Budget travel. Eco-tourism. Agri-tourism.

If you’re looking for the kind of relaxation that comes from sitting on a beach, this is not for you. If you take your rusticity in small, controlled doses then I suggest you look elsewhere.

If you would like to make a genuine connection with the food you eat, gain some practical skills, and immerse yourself in the culture of the sustainable food movement, this is your opportunity. […]

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Putting your money where your mouth is


image courtesy of Saving with Shellie

Blame Thoreau.

In the mid 1800’s he engaged in an experiment in simple living and self-reliance, moving into a small, self-built cabin on an isolated piece of land outside of Concord, Massachusetts. Lacking a blog, Thoreau documented his experiences in the American classic Walden; or Life in the Woods.

The present-day conceit of this form of social experimentation has become all too familiar. Temporarily adopting some nouveau-Thoreauvian form of deprivation (the minimalism of No Impact Man or the stringency of the 100 Mile Diet), the blogger is able to transcend the wasteful, destructive consumerism that is the lot of so many of us. […]

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Cool Coffee for a Hot Planet


There’s fair trade and organic coffee, shade-grown, and even bird-friendly. You can drink it in a recycled cup with organic soy milk and sugar from plants that haven’t been genetically altered.

But still… carbon neutral coffee? […]

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Community Supported Foods


It started with Community Supported Agriculture.
CSA programs invite consumers to buy advance shares of a local farm’s harvest. Each week of the growing season shares of the harvest are distributed to the participants. What started in 1986 with two small farms in Western Massachusetts looking to improve their pre-harvest cash flow has grown into a full-fledged movement involving more than 12,000 farms in all 50 states.

Now the model is spreading beyond corn and kale with consumers subscribing to everything from sauerkraut to bacon. […]

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A Bone of Contention

Infographic courtesy of Good Magazine

Just try to sort out the information on fish.

It’s undeniably healthy: low in saturated fats, high in essential fatty acids, and an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, and trace minerals. But what kind of fish can you eat without worrying about mercury, PCBs, chlorinated pesticides, dioxins, furans, PBDEs, and other nasty contaminants? And what about dwindling fish stocks and damaged habitats from unsustainable fishing practices

There are some basic guidelines that you can follow to help pick seafood that is healthy and sustainable: […]

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A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a meat eater in a Prius

One Gorgeous Cow by Pikaluk.

That’s the assertion made by author and food activist Michael Pollan while speaking on a panel as part of last weekend’s PopTech 2009 conference.
What a notion!

The EPA estimates that a 2009 Toyota Prius generates about 0.56 lb. of CO2 emissions for each mile driven (taking into account all aspects of operating a vehicle but not its manufacture). Assuming 12,000 miles driven annually, a Prius generates approximately 3.5 tons of emissions each year. While the 2009 Hummer H2 eludes EPA testing through its truck classification, independent emissions testing reports estimate that the HUMMER H2 expels 1.46 lbs of emissions per mile. Multiply this by the 12,000 estimated annual miles and the H2 delivers nearly 9 tons of annual emissions. […]

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Making Sense of the Sugar Wars

ad courtesy of the Center for Consumer Freedom

ad courtesy of the Center for Consumer Freedom

The Corn Refiners Association is causing quite a stir with its print ads and television commercials pushing an image makeover for high fructose corn syrup. In one TV ad, a mother pours a glass of bright red punch; in another, a woman offers a cherry-colored Popsicle. In both commercials, the women are challenged to defend their choice of food containing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Each has this ready response: high-fructose corn syrup is made from corn, has no artificial ingredients, and has the same calories as sugar. Of course they know to exercise moderation, as with any other natural sweetener but otherwise, they wonder, why all the fuss?

Is it possible that high-fructose corn syrup has gotten a bum rap? […]

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