Saturday, October 28, 2006

Tricks in Treats

Tempted by all of that chocolate this year? Don't forget that a lot of those "fun size" goodies laying around are made with cocoa harvested using child labor, in terrible conditions. Companies like Nestle, Hershey and Mars have agreed to work to eliminate child labor and slavery from their sourcing, but they continue to source from the Ivory Coast, where these problems are rampant, and continue to refuse to offer fair trade prices to their cocoa growers. You don't really want to eat something harvested by impoverished (and by some claims, enslaved) children, do you?

If you're giving out treats, check out Endangered Species chocolate squares, packaged up in a jaunty orange wrapper for Halloween. This is the second year in a row that we'll be giving them out. They're on sale at WFM this week for $2.99 a bag! (That's an incredible deal.) If you get kids who make a face and say: "What's this?" (Not that that's ever happened here!) you can either launch into an expose on fair trade and all-natural chocolate, or simply say, "Beggars can't be choosers."

In-Depth Info from
Care 2 Petition to Nestle/Mars
Fair Trade Chocolate Sources
Wire Tap Magazine Article 2005

Thursday, October 26, 2006

And now for something completely different...

I was using up apples today: dried some (more later on Sustainable Harvest), made and froze Thanksgiving's pie (it's gonna be so purty), and had a few left over... This is the second time I've made individual tarts with leftovers from pie fixin's. There wasn't much crust left so I pulled out the cookie cutters. I have a love-hate relationship with cookie cutters. Today I loved them.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Real Life

Lately I've been reeling with the press of the responsibilities of my life. I have a huge event for work coming up, an event that comprises a third of my non-profit's budget; an event that is flopping. I've been stressed and putting in extra hours and trying hard not to completely fail in my role as a mother in the meantime. Beo has convinced me that I needed to put my foodie-nature aside and keep meals a bit more simple until life has calmed down a bit. I must admit that I've been feeling sorry for myself and haven't been the kindest person to anyone, myself included.

Last week I had a reminder about what life is really about. Beo called me on Wednesday to tell me that a friend of his had passed away. This beautiful girl was a former co-worker of Beo's. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor almost two years ago. She fought an admirable battle and came through with flying colors. We last saw her about six months ago, and things were going well. We learned this past week that things suddenly turned around and she declined rapidly, and died a peaceful death on Sunday after having a chance to say goodbye to her family and closest friends, and drifting to sleep. She was 22. Life isn't a given. Life is a gift to be cherished and celebrated. This week was a reminder to me to not put my head down and push forward through life, but to take each moment as a blessing, breathe deeply, be grateful. I'm grateful for this reminder, even though it's a painful one, and I choose to honor her life by remembering to honor the life all around me, including my own.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Guilt-Less Shopping Guide

The more I've researched, the more I've found how complicated the issue of responsible consumerism really is. I have some tips for how to do research on what you're buying, but I also want to make clear that I realize that it's not feasible to be perfect. In fact, we have very few "perfect" options. Even Fair Indigo, whom I cited in my last post on this issue, takes flak for not revealing the source of their Fair Trade products. Mostly I think that's just a PR issue for competing retailers, and Fair Indigo has defended themselves well. If you're just looking for a good store or company to do everyday shopping with, is a good starting point. If you are trying to find one brand of something that you're going to buy a lot of, then that's the place to really dig deep. For example, after hours of research, we buy 99% of the kids clothes from Hanna Andersson. When I was re-stocking my wardrobe, I bought new from amazing Patagonia and also Prana, and tried to buy things that weren't so fabulous company wise second-hand. We buy a lot of high end shoes, so I really did my research on those. If you tend to stick to one brand of beauty products, do your research. You get my drift. Now, some pointers for doing that research.

1. Google! Search the product name followed by "human rights", "labor practices" "factory" "working conditions". A lack of information is a good thing. If nothing comes up, make sure there isn't a higher up parent company. Merrell shoes, for example, is owned by Wolverine Worldwide. While nothing comes up for Merrell, Wolverine has a history of violations. I discovered that they have taken major steps to turn things around, which brings us to the next point.

2. Make sure you have the most recent information. I was dissapointed to see that a number of flags came up for violations from 2-6 years ago. A lot of this outdated information was on Amnesty International's watch site. I personally felt that a lot of their information was really digging too far, and "eating our own", but they do have very thorough information. Further digging showed that things have really turned around. If you do find information on past violations, you'll have to dig deeper to see what they've done to correct things. Look for things like changes in CEO, using overseas watch dogs to monitor conditions, etc. Levi's used to be a major violator, but they have won awards for their turn around, and are actually going to be introducing an organic cotton line.

3. Stay away from China. Unfortunately, there's something to be said for buying Made in the USA, although that's not a guarantee of fair labor practices. (Just look at Walmart!) European companies are generally good on labor as well. Just make sure that their product is manufactured in Europe and their sourced items are clear too. Ecco is a shining example. They own everything that goes into their shoes, right down to the farms where the leather is sourced. Look on their website and you will even find the addresses of all of their factories. Transparency is a good thing.

4. You get what you pay for. Even if something is expensive, do your research, but it tends to hold true. The fact of the matter is, the reason you can pay $1 for a bottle of shampoo is that someone got paid pennies to make it. Aveda is another award winner for their natural sourcing and labor practices. They have extensive reports that even analyze their shortcomings. Will your shampoo cost you $32? Yes, but it was sourced sustainably and someone got paid fair wages to make it. The same is true all the way down the line. Learn to love more with less. Pay for equity and justice. Vote with your dollars.

So what if you go through all of these steps and either can't find the information or are concerned about violations? Contact the company. I have sent out a plethora of e-mails over the past weeks. Most I got a form response, and they basically said that they do their best. I trusted the ones that told me how they make sure that their standards are met. I vetoes the ones that I got no response from. This isn't a foolproof way to do your research, but it's still important because the company hears that you care and are concerned about the issue. Especially if you are a devoted customer of a brand, make sure they know how important labor issues are to you--even if their record looks clean. The fact is, it is hard for big companies to find fair labor, and only demand will increase supply at this point. Of course, buying second-hand is almost always responsible in every way imaginable, but not always an option.

We can't all be perfect, but we can all make an effort to do our best to make sure that the world is what we want it to be. The first step is opening our eyes to the reality, the second is acting to change, and the third is speaking out. So please, take the time to do the research and make sure that your votes with your dollars are educated.

Ethical Consumerism

Prepare for me to wax dramatic. I'm feeling very passionate about this issue. I've long been a supporter of fair trade coffee, chocolate, and sugar. I check the labor practices of the companies I buy the kids clothes from. Somehow I've remained blind to the big picture.

We recently watched "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price". If you haven't seen this movie, I highly reccomend that you do. I don't think it's a perfect movie, and in fact I think some of it was a stretch. The film makers also have a website, but there is some inaccuracy there for sure, as they list Jefferson, WI as a "victory" having stopped Wal-marth and unfortunately, the nearby town is actually throttling full-steam into Walmartdom. However, there is some good information in the movie. There was much in this movie that was disheartening and depressing, but it was one relatively small portion of the movie that hit me the hardest, and that was the manufacturing labor.

The film makers visited a company in China that manufactures products for Wal-mart, and showed the squalid conditions that the workers are forced to live in. (They are charged rent whether they "choose" to live there or not.) The food is so bad that workers rent kitchens to prepare their own food. The workers work long hours in terrible conditions, and make cents an hour. You really need to watch the movie to see the conditions. I will admit that I sobbed through the last portion about the labor practices. The film makers interviewed a former Wal-Mart employee whose job was to evaluate the labor practices. He didn't realize that his real job was to lie about the factories, and he got fired for telling the truth. This wonderful man said that the first day that he visited a Wal-Mart factory, he went back to his hotel room and wept. I would too. We are paying $15.99 for a toy that cost Wal-Mart .37 cents to make. This is slavery people. Slavery. Slaves got room and board too, right? That's about all these people are getting. Thousands and thousands of people, working for pennies, sweating, slaving.

What bothered be the most was the almost instantaneous realization that it's not just Wal-Mart. If I walk into Target and buy that toy, I'm no better off. What about clothes? What about towels? What about everything that my dollars go to? You'd think that a little research would go a long way, but I'll tell you that I haven't found it all that easy. While I've found great websites for Europe and Canada that help consumers figure out who and where to buy, I couldn't find much that was simple for American consumers. I googled and googled, and I did find links to, and various fair trade organizations. I wanted to find something that helped me find the best everyday companies though. Long ago I found a site that did this, so I hacked back into an old chat board and found my posting. The site is As far as I can tell, they do a great job of creating a ratings system that is based on the values you choose, be it environment, labor, gay rights, etc. It is not comprehensive and often gives ratings for stores rather than brands, but it's a good start.

One thing I discovered is not to trust the website of the company. Of course they paint a very rosy picture. I checked out Mattels corporate responsibility practices and standards, and they all look great. Unfortunately they don't hold to their own standards. I found various reports of them paying factory workers 40% less than the legal minimum wage for where the factory was located. So really do your research. I researched for hours, literally, until I was convinced that Hanna Andersson was the company we would buy the kids clothes from, guilt free.

We have a responsibility as members of the human race to educate ourselves about where our products are coming from. Before you spend another dollar, make sure you're not paying for a rich executive to get fatter while someone sweats and starves. It's dramatic yes, but sadly it's also the harsh reality of America. We're living our lives on the backs of poor workers. It needs to stop.

Other Resources:
Recent Chicago Tribune Article
Fair Indigo
Global Exchange
Fair Trade Federation
Sweat Free Shopping

Friday, October 13, 2006

Wholesome Breakfast

Fall is here in full force, with the tempature dropping from pleasantly sunny but balmy to 35... to 29! We had our first snow of the season earlier this week, albeit a small one. On these chilly mornings, a warm hearty breakfast is a must. Steel cut oats started out as something I heard about on Weight Watchers. We went back to them when we started cracking down on our waste, and realized how economical they are while saving packaging. Yesterday I got an organic cotton bag full of organic steel cut oats for 89 cents a pound. Steel cut oats are more nutritious and filling than rolled or quick oats, which have been steamed, thus releasing much of the nutrients. Steel cut oats do take a bit longer to cook, but you can always do them in the slow-cooker and wake up to a warm breakfast. The basic formula is 1/4 c. steel cut oats to 1 c. water. Here's my favorite way to prep them.

Autumn Morning Oats
1 c. Steel Cut Oats
4 c. Water
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tart apple, diced
1/2 c. raisins

Place water and oats in a large saucepan, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 20 minutes, stir in apple and vanilla. After 30 minutes, stir in raisins. When 40 minutes has elapsed, remove from heat. Stir in cinnamon to taste. If desired, serve with milk, yogurt, or maple syrup for topping.

Obviously you can get creative with whatever ingredients you want to add. I will mention that it gets a bit messy and sticky. Some recipes call for butter, which may keep it from sticking to the pan so much. I hope you enjoy experimenting with steel cut oats and experiencing that pleasantly warm and full feeling that gets me through my morning!

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Sense of Wonder

My Mom is an early childhood professor and involved with early childhood at a national level. Over the past couple of years, she has been co-authoring a book about preschool standards that focuses on nurturing children's natural sense of wonder. This past summer when she and my Dad visited, we set up some photo shoots for the book with Sprout and Bird. At the time it was just fun to get the great shots, but as time has gone by, I've been more aware at what a sense of wonder they really have. Lately I've been amazed at how much joy and learning can be celebrated in the very food they eat.

This summer was full of wonder in our own backyard. We plant a seed, and months later it provides us with food. Amazing! Bringing the kids into the food preparation brought a new aspect. I was thrilled with the joy they found in combining ingredients to create new things--the wonder of sticky batter transforming into popovers, how good pesto became when the basil was torn from the stem by their own hands.

Fall has brought new wonder as we've visited local farms during their Harvest festivals. I'm entranced by the passion the kids find in picking apples right of the tree, or spotting chickens rooting through the vegetable gardens. They've seen bees at work making honey, and maple syrup tapped from the tree. At one local celebration, a local farmer commented on how good it was for the kids to see where their food comes from. A discussion ensued about how so many kids have no idea where various foods come from--how they don't even know where milk comes from. How many kids are in this position? How many have never seen the stars? I wonder how many parents know where their kids' food comes from, and how many would change their buying habits if they knew. I believe strongly that giving children a sense of the true wonder of organic, local food, makes them healthier in many ways. Nurturing that sense of wonder for them can open up the wonder of it for us as well.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Belief-O-Matic has an intriguing quiz, the Belief-O-Matic, that asks a series of questions and then matches your response with the faith they fit. There are questions about the nature of God, morality, the afterlife, and more, and you can even rate each question on how important it is to you. Someone posted the link to this quiz on the Weight Watchers Veggie Board this week, and it was neat to see all of the results, and people's responses to them. I thought that the quiz was well done, and wasn't at all surprised with my results. I consider myself a Unitarian Universalist, and if pressed for details, I'll say I'm a UU with a Buddhist bent, and many Pagan beliefs as well. My top 10 Faiths were:

1. Unitarian Universalism(100%)
2. Neo-Pagan (98%)
3. Liberal Quakers (93%)
4. New Age (92%)
5. Mahayana Buddhism (86%)
6. Secular Humanism (82%)
7. Theravada Buddhism (82%)
8. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants(81%)
9. Taoism (76%)
10. Reform Judaism (67%)

I've only recently heard about the similarities between Quakers and Unitarian Universalists. Today I heard an interview with someone who attended a Quaker day-school, and was suprised at her descriptions of some of their services. They were much more in-line with my thinking than the Christian way that I had thought of them in the past. The interview was with the Authors of "The Faith Club". They are three women in New York City, who got together after September 11th with the intent of writing a children's book about how their faiths (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) were similar, but ended up finding a real need to hash out the prejudices, sterotypes, and real diferences before they could do anything else. It sounds amazing, and I look forward to reading it. They also have a website which encourages people to start their own Faith Clubs. People reaching out, getting to the root of our differences, acknowledging our similarities, and trying to achieve peace. Imagine that.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Little House in Suburbia

A couple of weeks ago, I quietly tested the canning waters. I decided that with all of the grapes and apples from Prairie Dock Farm, I'd attempt not only my first canning, but my first jelly. I don't like the taste of packaged pectin, and I hoped that the fruits were tart enough to literally hold their own. Had I realized the extent of work involved in the process, I might have backed out. First came de-seeding two pounds of grapes. That would be tedious enough with conventional grapes. The organic grapes held quite a few..."surprises". Then I cooked the salvaged grape pulp down, squeezed it through cheesecloth, and was left with a dishearteningly small bowl of lovely purple juice. That sat uncovered overnight in the refrigerator. The next day I quartered apples and removed any "surprises" as with the grapes. Same process--cook, strain, apple juice! It was difficult to see all of the "waste" created in the juicing process, although I knew it would benefit our own gardens in time. Then came the real test of combining the juices, adding sugars, and cooking to the right temperature. I was very nervous about the judgement of when it was ready, due to the Spring's marshmallow debacle. I persevered through my fears, poured the thickened juice/gel into the jars, sealed them, processed the jars. The small amount that was left in the pan gelled encouragingly. I scraped it onto some crackers for Sprout and Bird, who dubbed it "Super Jelly".

It took me a while to even get up the courage to test the seal on the jar, even though I knew that if the seal was bad, I'd be up a creek. Luckily, the seals were good. I was still too nervous to test the jelly to see if it had set though. I couldn't imagine going through all of that work for a failure, though I acknowledge that failures are often a necessary part of the path to success. Last night we went to the Harvest Festival at Prairie Dock, and I figured it would be fitting to take a jar of the jelly I'd made with their bounty. First, I had to make sure I wouldn't embarass myself. So we popped a seal on the jar, and I nervously stuck a knife in. Success! It had gelled beautifully. We spread some on Beo's freshly baked sourdough. It was wonderful. It's amazing to have something so comforting made from such simple components. I can certainly see the joy that creating and preserving brought to our prairie ancestors, and to modern preservers of today. I hope to experience it more often now that I've overcome my intial fears. I realize now thought that jelly like this must have been quite a luxury, and while I'm thankful for the bounty of local farms, and my ability to create from it, I'm also quite thankful for grocery stores.