Check out my new book, The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You, available from Amazon.

2012 Silver winner in the Health/Medicine/Nutrition Category of the Independent Publishers Book Awards

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Crunchy chocolate - organic and ethical

Seeds of Change ChocolateI do love me some chocolate. My husband is quite the chocolate connoisseur and you'll find a few books on the history of chocolate and chocolate making on our bookshelves. Add to that our propensity for making our own truffles and chocolate pastries and, well, let's say that we know our way around the Cluizels, Guittards and Valrhonas of the world. Add to that the chocolate making classes and you wouldn't be too far off from calling us chocolate snobs. And, I'm okay with that.

Unfortunately, there's a huge derth when it comes to high quality, good tasting organic, fair trade chocolate. It's an unbelievable injustice, I say. Basically, I stick with Green & Black's or Theo Chocolate if I want to go organic, but they still lack the same sort of mouth feel that the high-end chocolates invoke. I like both of them well enough, but I still would like a whole lot more selection with organic chocolates.

So, when Seeds of Change contacted me to review their new product, Seeds of Change Chocolate, I was more than delighted. Gleeful, even. The chocolate is certified organic and ethically produced. They also donate 1% of net sales to promote sustainable organic farming initiatives worldwide.

They sent me quite the variety of their chocolate bars and I've been (slowly) sampling through them. I'm not a huge fan of milk chocolate so my son, chocolatier in training, has been helping me out on those. This is the same child who informed us that his Valentine chocolates from a friend at school didn't have chocolate filling, but ganache. Brought a tear to my eye. Sniff.

Anyway, I generally like my chocolate straight up without any doo-dads in them, but Seeds of Change Chocolate has a number of flavors with extras in them if you go for that sort of thing. The Dark Chocolate with Coconut was a little too Mounds Bar-esque for me, but I liked the Dark Chocolate with Mango & Cashew as well as the Dark Chocolate with Cherries & Vanilla. The Milk Chocolate was exceptionally good (for a milk). All the dark chocolate varieties have a great mouth feel, good flavor and no bitter aftertaste. My only complaint is that the percentage of cacao is only 61% - I tend towards the 70% and higher.

Of course, all this has been tempered (get it? tempered - I so entertain myself!) by the fact that we've been eating chocolates my brother just brought back from a month in Paris. La Maison du Chocolat is the best freaking chocolate on the planet, in my opinion. Oh, how the couverture crackles over the ganache! Ooh la la, indeed.

But, I digress. If you want to go organic, sustainable and ethical, Seeds of Change Chocolates should definitely be on the top of your list along with Theo and Green & Black's. Getting hungry?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Food Budget Challenge wrap-up

Sustainable Food Budget Challenge - April 2009It appears that I have completely failed my own challenge. I'll have to say that this is a first. Usually, I'm a lot more adept at keeping up with my own challenges, but this time we just weren't paying attention. Or, actually, completely disregarding it, which is probably more honest anyway. We ended up eating out. A lot. And going out to coffee. A lot. So, in the end we overshot the amount we were allotted for food with the Sustainable Food Budget Challenge. But, let me also admit that most of the food we overshot the challenge on was locally obtained, sustainably grown, locally sourced and owned food.

These last two weeks have been hit and miss. The previous week we didn't eat out at all, even though we went out for coffee a few times. The last week we ate out twice and manage to go out to coffee a whopping five days in a row. It was rather unusual. If I have done this challenge late last year we would have easily come in under budget because we never ate out.

So here's the latest rundown:
$140 for the previous week (it was my Mom's birthday dinner this week too)
$145 for the last week (not including a couple nights eating out because the cost was, well, embarrassingly high, but amazingly local and good)

I am afraid to calculate a running total for the month because I know we are no where near the food budget allotment for the month [Okay, we are supposed to spend $588 this month and we spent more like $1000. Yikes! I need an invention]. One thing I did learn, however, is that it is possible to buy everything organic or sustainably or locally grown. The cost differential is substantial on only a few items and I could find sales or other deals (due to items being in season) that kept the costs at an average price. So, I will continue to buy more organic or sustainably raised items in the future.

One other thing that totally compounded this experiment (besides the crazy eating out we were doing) was the fact that I switched partially over to a raw food diet. What this means is that for every meal and snack, except for dinner, I am eating fruits or vegetables, raw nuts or dried fruits. Since I started doing this I have gained a lot of energy and feel a lot healthier (and dropped a few extra pounds), but since I'm buying organic, this has been an expensive change in eating. But it has been totally worth it!

How has the Food Budget Challenge gone for you this month?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Weed eater: Lambsquarters

Weed Eater: LambsquartersI have to admit that I've been avoiding weeding the backyard like the plague. I'm just not up to even looking out there and seeing what the heck is growing. I spent an hour digging up dandelions out of the front yard a few weeks ago and barely seemed to have made a dent. You know you're in trouble when your neighbor comes over and mows your lawn. I know that makes us sound horribly white trash, but they do it for other reasons which I won't go into here. And, frankly, they do an awesome job even though we beg to pay for it and they refuse.

Anywho, yesterday I glanced out back while I was enjoying some organic chocolate samples (more on that in a later post) and, holy smokes people! I have a bumper crop of lambsquarters growing under my back deck again this year. Like enough to feed a family of, say four, for a week. I can't say I did any work to cultivate this masterpiece of garden edibility, but between that, the kale that is taking off and the spring dandelion greens (which I can't yet bring myself to snack upon), we should be good to go for greens for a while.

Have you ever tried lambsquarters? Some people actually plant it, but around here is grows, well, like a weed. If you do have lambsquarters growing unannounced, here's a great recipe for it. It tastes a bit like spinach, but is more nutritious:

Lambsquarters and Beans
adapted from The Vegetarian Times, July 1997

1 pound fresh lambsquarters or spinach, bigger stems removed
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 leeks, finely chopped
1 cup canned pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon chili powder
salt and pepper to taste

Rinse greens several times to make sure that all sand and grit are removed. Steam greens in tightly covered pot until wilted. Drain greens and finely chop them. In large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic/leeks and cook, stirring frequently, until leeks are soft, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in greens, beans and chili powder. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes or until heated through. Season with salt and pepper and serve. Makes 6 servings.

Makes 6 servings.

Per serving: 90 Calories; 3g Fat (25% calories from fat); 5g Protein;K 14g Carbohydrate; 0mg Cholesterol; 217mg Sodium

Friday, April 17, 2009

Getting skinnier as we get fatter

The mighty meatwichI was just minding my own damn business last night when reader, Kevin, was kind enough to forward a bunch of pictures of some artery-blasting food "creations" that apparently have cropped up in the American food space. Since I'm mostly vegetarian, I really can't comprehend eating any of these items. Even when I do eat meat, it's generally grilled fish and light cuts of meat. I can't stand anything remotely resembling gristle or fat - I get the gags. Well, not really, but I've been greasy meat averse my whole life.

So, wonderful items such as these don't do it for me:

  • The Double Bacon Hamburger Fatty Melt: Three bacon-stuffed grilled cheese sandwiches for buns, cheese, bacon and two four-ounce beefs patties
  • The Hamdog: A hot dog wrapped in a beef patty that’s deep fried, covered with chili, cheese, onions, served on a hoagie bun topped with two fistfuls of fries and a fried egg
  • The Bacon Explosion: Two pounds of bacon woven through and around two pounds of sausage and slathered in barbecue sauce

I'm sure there's a market for this stuff out there but why, in god's name, would anyone go out of their way to invent such a thing, let alone eat it? Is there some sort of pride in bragging about ingesting a full 5,000 calories and 100 grams of fat? "Dude! I just shaved 2 years off my life and probably moved up that quadruple bypass by at least 6 months!"

And, while the average American gets more corpulent, the people we look up to (no, not intellectuals or politicians, but celebrities, silly!) get skinnier and skinnier. When someone's head starts getting so disproportionately large in comparison to their body, you know something's wrong. Or, as someone joked (I can't remember who) you know a celebrity has reached success when they are five pounds away from organ failure.

Is it because the average American is bordering on obese that we are so enamored of the skinny? And, as we get morbidly fatter, our "dream girls" get morbidly thinner? Now, I know most guys are not pushing the skinny chick trend and some blame the clothing designers for this trend, but I think there's a hefty amount of blame to be placed on the female consumer. It's the women that buy the women's magazines and products that feature these cachectic bodies.

Too fat or too skinny?In the meantime, model Heidi Klum (at right), has recently been declared as being too "fat" to model on the runway. If she's fat (and, mind you, this woman has had three children), what does that say about the average American woman? Thirty years ago, the average model weighed 10 pounds heavier for the same height as they do today. Speaking in terms of numbers, the average model today weighs 115 pounds and the average American woman weighs 147 pounds. And, that's not even considering the height differences.

American women are 24 pounds heavier compared to a generation ago. Ironically, I don't think many women are the target market for those delightfully meaty products I mentioned above. I don't know what that says for the average male waistline. So, as we get heavier will this trend continue? Something has to give because we're starting to head towards celebrity starvation camp territory already and there's not much wiggle room. What do you think of current trends in fashion/celebrity weight? Do you like the bobble headed look or do you prefer a more curvy figure? Or, do you just ignore it altogether?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bartering in a new economy

A lot of people have been discussing using bartering as a method of exchanging goods and services in the new economy, one where jobs may be scarce and the money tight, but where the need for exchange still exists.

Well, a Seattle company has created a website, called Dibspace, where you can post and exchange bartered services and goods. Basically the way it works is that you offer your services for a certain number of "dibits". Each dibit is equivalent to one dollar. So, let's say I sold my services providing canning lessons to someone for 25 dibits. I now have a credit that I can use for another service on the site, say housecleaning, window washing, sock folding, whatever is being offered. (For more detailed info you can read the FAQ.) The site does provide the appropriate tax forms at the end of the year as there are tax liabilities with bartered services.

The nice thing about Dibspace is not only is it free (for now), but you don't have to find someone to match an exchange with since you are bartering for dibits. It's an interesting concept and one might wonder why not dispense with the dibits business and just use dollars altogether instead? Their site offers the following answer:

Dibits pick up where the dollar leaves off. Even in a strong economy there's a whole lot of productive hours that go unfilled. Why? Because consumers don't always have enough dollars to afford to consume it all. To fill that gap, a specialized currency is actually necessary.

Consider the current economy. Cash is getting harder to come by and people are spending less. As a result, businesses are getting less work and consumers have more unmet needs. In economics-speak, we're value rich but cash poor. Dibspace.com makes it possible for businesses and consumers to continue to trade even when the US dollar isn't up to the job.

This isn't the only online bartering website. The issue with Dibspace, at this point, is that it's local to Seattle only. There are other online bartering sites that are national, like Joe Barter and ITEX, but you have to register to view data or make an offer and there just isn't much there in the way of services. Basically, the problem here too is that you have to find someone willing to accept some exchange that you can provide for their goods or services.

These sorts of sites offer some practical services (accounting, web design, etc.) along with more recreational things like pet portraits, photography and the like. I would love if there were a site similar to Dibspace that hooked up people needing basic homesteading goods and services in a similar fashion since finding someone to trade services where both parties match what they need is difficult.

Would you be interested in this sort of homestead bartering website? What kind of services would you be able to offer?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sustainable Food Budget Report - Going off the wagon

Sustainable Food Budget Challenge - April 2009Oh dear. I have totally gone off the challenge wagon this week. I really feel like I lost control this week, mostly because I was being awfully lazy and by gum, I was too damn hungry when I went food shopping so my challenge went out the window.

Granted, I did buy more organic items than I normally do by about 50% but that still leaves a few items that weren't organic. Like the pineapple from Costa Rica (only $2.40 people) and the mango. Oh, and the grapes from Chile. They just didn't have the organic version available and, well, no excuse is a good one.

I did blow a wad on salmon for Easter dinner, but it was fresh, line caught Coho and it was friggin' amazing. So, my total for this week was another $177 for main food shopping. We also went out a few times earlier in the week for other items that cost around $20. Oh yeah, and the pizza we ordered on Friday. Hmmm. That was another $25. Not exactly sustainable, but at least it was from a local business. Oh yeah, and lunch at Le Pichet. I almost forgot about that. Another $30. Why did we wait for the food budget challenge to eat out all of a sudden?

Anyway, I hope that this upcoming week fares better. Otherwise, we'll be eating rocks and dandelions for the rest of the month to make it under budget. How are you doing?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Grass fed beef and methane

BelchI'm sure you've all heard the argument - raising cattle for beef is a high green house gas emitting activity. It breaks down to about 19 kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted for every kilogram of beef eaten. [1] But what about the other end? The methane emitted from all that cattle belching and farting is high as well. Cows emit between 2.5 and 4.7 ounces of methane for each pound of beef they produce, depending on production. The big problem with methane is that it has roughly 23 times the global-warming potential of CO2. [2]

Another issue I'm sure you've read is that grass fed cattle are even worse for the environment than grain or corn fed cattle because they emit even more methane. In some studies, they suggest that grass fed cattle emit 50% more methane. The reason, according to Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is that "it’s related to the much higher volumes of feed throughput and associated methane and nitrous-oxide emissions." Additionally, most pastures were highly managed, and subject to "periodic renovations and also fertilization." Pelletier also added that, with grass-fed cattle, "there is also a high [grass] trampling rate. So the actual land area that you need to maintain magnifies that difference". [3]

Sounds like a pretty stinky problem for proponents of grass fed beef. Well, Mother Earth News recently published an article on grass fed beef and stated that:

There are studies to suggest grain produces less methane, but those studies, by and large, compare conventional pastures with feedlots. However, conventional pastures contain high-fiber, low-quality forage, which produces more methane. On the other hand, studies of rotational grazing have shown decreases of as much as 45 percent in methane production, when compared with conventional pastures. All studies seem to agree cows produce less methane when nutrition is best, and the very reason for rotational grazing is to improve forage quality.

So what's a concerned consumer to do? If you are going to eat beef, make sure that you choose meat from cows that are raised in a sustainable manner. Get to know your producer and find out how the cattle is raised, if it is grass raised or if it is just grass finished. Finally, make sure that the grass fed beef you choose is from a farm that practices rotational grazing. But, really, when it comes down to it, what's the best thing to do? Eat less beef or none at all.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Backyard beekeeping

The following is a guest post from reader, Karen O'Brien, who writes the blog, My Own Beeswax. I asked her to write a little something for y'all since there was a bit of interest in beekeeping from my Skills post the other day.

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Frame full of beesEveryone should keep bees. At least, in my biased opinion they should. Bees are, as beekeepers like to say, less trouble than a dog, but more trouble than a cat. More to the point, every third bite of food we eat is brought to us thanks to bees and their work as pollinators.

I became interested in bees when I learned about "colony collapse disorder" which since 2006 has ravaged the global bee population. In that year the bee population dropped by some 30-40%, and in the years since the syndrome has persisted (though it seems to be getting a bit better). Given that so much of our food depends on bee pollination, this is a big deal. The PBS program "NOVA" did a great overview of this phenomenon. The jury is still out on why this is happening, but one of several potential culprits to emerge is pesticides.

I got my first hives – two of them – last month. I built the hive boxes, painted them and put them on stands in the backyard (ok, to be honest my husband and his father did most of the actual labor, but I made many helpful suggestions). I ordered two "packages" of bees, each with its own queen, through a local beekeeper. I "hived" them almost three weeks ago and named my queens Elizabeth I and Kathryn the Great.

Generally I am a risk-averse person and am completely un-brave about being stung. I have all the protective gear (suit, hat, veil, smoker, not to mention Benedryl and an Epipen, just in case). But somehow in the thick of a cloud of bees I feel quite calm (maybe it’s the suit). The thing is that one must be totally in the moment while working with the bees, move calmly and deliberately, breathe and focus. Bees can tell if you are impatient or irritated and will react accordingly.

To prepare for this adventure I took a beekeeping class through the county extension. This was really helpful, plus it introduced me to kindred bee-spirits who are as obsessed as I am. I joined the local beekeeping association, and was given a mentor (whom I try hard not to continually badger with anxious questions). And I read everything about bees I could get my hands on from fiction to entomology articles.

I also prepared my neighbors beforehand. One doesn’t just pop a hive up in the city without giving folks some warning. I live in a small city, which tends to be fairly eco-groovy, surrounded by farmland. One of my neighbors has gotten as excited as me and helped build the hive stands. He comes out to the fence and drinks a beer and talks with me when I work the hives. My other neighbor’s father kept bees. Who knew?

Bees are extraordinary creatures, living in a highly specialized, exquisitely sensitive, matriarchal society. They communicate among themselves both by "dancing" to indicate where food is, and by chemical exchanges through pheromones and feeding one another. The more I learn about them, the more in awe I am.

I did not get bees for food production, although I would be very happy if my garden produced more due to their presence. Nor even for the honey, although that certainly would be nice. I am in it for the bees.

Recommended Resources:
American Bee Journal
Bee Culture Magazine
John's Beekeeping page
New York Times topic: honey bees
Basic Beekeeping

Karen O'Brien is a novice beekeeper (so far just a "bee-haver", we'll see about the "keeping" part), who lives in Charlottesville, VA, with her husband and son. When not thinking about bees, she is Executive Director of Advancing Green Chemistry, a non-profit organization linking science and sustainability (www.AdvancingGreenChemistry.org).

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If you have any comments or beekeeping questions, feel free to ask Karen here or on her blog!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Banking energy costs

The other day I was reading a comment over on The Oil Drum that I thought was an interesting idea. Basically, the reader was banking the money that he should have spent on oil prices if they had stayed at market prices from last summer.

So, for example, you use the high of $5.20 per gallon of gas (the reader had set a floor for energy prices at $4.00 per gallon, so this is flexible), what you would do is save the difference for what you are actually paying now, like the $2.20 per gallon at my nearest gas station. For example, let's say I filled up with 10 gallons of gas at $2.20. Compared to last summer's $5.20 a gallon (in some areas of CA), I would put that $30 difference into savings.

What do you do with the money you save? Well, use that money to invest in energy saving upgrades for your house. Or save towards a more fuel efficient form of transportation. The reader had managed to save enough from gas, heating oil and propane, using the high of last summer's oil prices as the baseline, to purchase a tankless hot water heater for his home.

I thought this was an interesting idea to take advantage of current low fuel costs yet forces a saving program to help with future energy costs. Is this something you would be interested in doing or are you just happy that oil costs are dirt cheap right now?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Skills you want to learn

I know we are all busy learning new skills either for a hobby or to prepare for an uncertain future, either one that is a result of low energy or one that may be altered by climate change. Which of the following skills do you wish you knew more about or would like to learn?
  • Food gardening and food storage (canning, dehydrating, pickling, fermentation, etc.)
  • Seed saving and/or fruit tree grafting
  • Foraging for wild foods, mushrooms, etc.
  • Composting

  • Animal husbandry (chickens, goats or larger)
  • Beekeeping
  • Animal skinning, processing
  • Sheep or other animal shearing
  • Spinning wool
  • Knitting
  • Sewing

  • Cooking, baking
  • Making own cheese and/or yogurt
  • Making beer and/or wine
  • Solar cooking

  • Alternative medicine and/or first aid
  • Making soap (cold process from oils and lye)
  • Making candles

  • Carpentry
  • Plumbing or electrical
  • Bike maintenance and repair
  • Appliance repair

What is the biggest thing preventing you from learning to do these things? Time, money? What would make it easier?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sustainable Food Challenge report #1

Sustainable Food Budget Challenge - April 2009This here challenge is turning out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be in some regards, but already we are hitting the skids on the budget part of things.

So, for the first week of this challenge, I spent $104.95 on food groceries (starting the Saturday before the first of the month) with only buying a few non-organic/sustainable or non-local items mostly because I just wasn't thinking straight when I went shopping. I am such in the shopping mode for buying with cost in mind that I wasn't thinking about the sustainable part. It wasn't until I got home that I realized I could have easily just purchased the same items (they were all produce) in the organic section. Duh.

Yesterday I spent $106.30 on food for the upcoming week+ and bought all local and/or organic foods. I really had to wrap my brain around going to the right sections for food, since I tend to shop a bit on autopilot. But, I'm really happy that I bought everything that fit within the guidelines and it didn't cost much more.

Now for the overall budget thing. Going over the budget has little to do with actual food shopping, but more to do with the fact that we bought Indian food the other night. It was enough for two nights worth of dinners, but it still ended up being an additional $50 (does anyone know a decent Indian restaurant in North Seattle that doesn't totally suck and isn't outrageously overpriced?).

We also went out a few times to coffee shops. Since the kids were on spring break last week we were more apt to eat out since our schedules were a bit off. And, normally, we never eat out anymore. But, I suppose this is more realistic in terms of the challenge - under normal circumstances we occasionally eat out. I can't say the Indian food was at all local or organic in origin, but the restaurant is a local one, so at least we are supporting the local small businesses.

According to the allotment chart, we've got $588 to spend this month for four people for food. So far we are up to $275 and we are only five days in. But, to be fair, I'm calculating based off of the month starting the Saturday beforehand, so this total is really for two weeks (not counting any coffee, etc. that may be consumed this week).

One last thing I wanted to mention is that food prices in metropolitan areas are going to be higher, so on one hand it will be harder to stay within the allotment, but on the other hand you'll most likely have more access to sustainably grown foods since you'll probably have more shopping choices.

How is the challenge going for you so far? I know it's only a few days in but, have you hit any snags yet?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Parenting a special needs child

Yesterday was Autism Awareness Day and the following post is a bit of a departure from my usual writings. I wanted to share with you the struggles we've had in raising a bright, loving, wonderful child with special needs.

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"I can't do this anymore!" I screamed, as I threw the breast pump flange at the door where my husband was standing. I was exhausted, stressed, terrified and sick of pumping and trying to feed my son every two hours around the clock. I had been crying every day for the previous two weeks, hormones raging post-partum and generally out-of-control. The shock of going into labor 4 weeks early, coupled with non-stop doctor visits, consults with lactation specialists and the fear and disappointment of being told that I wouldn't be able to breastfeed my son was taking its toll.

My son was born premature and that defined every moment of our lives for months afterwards. His start to life was a rough one filled with tube feeding, light therapy and some serious swaddling to keep the sensory input low. We knew fairly early on that he had some problems dealing with his environment as he never let us put him down and he would never let a caregiver out of his sight or he would scream mercilessly until the offending person returned.

I had wanted to follow attachment parenting with him and, fortunately, many of the techniques seemed to suit him perfectly. We coslept until he was 17 months old (when my daughter was born). We carried him around in a sling, whether we wanted to or not. He would only sleep during the day in the sling and refused to be put down. I breastfed him for a year and, even though I returned to work during the day part-time, he refused to take a bottle. Ever. He would rather hold out until I got home and end up nursing all night long to make up for it.

We thought these were just sensory issues from being premature or bad habits we couldn't break him from, but the look of suspicion he constantly had on his face as he peered out of the sling showed to us that he had a highly sensitive and anxious personality. Traits we hoped he would outgrow as he matured. Yet when he was old enough to interact with other children, he would avoid them, clearly afraid of their noise, in-your-face movements and unpredictable actions. He didn't know how to interact with them and he much preferred adults that were more easy-going and predictable.

At parties, he always clung on to us, afraid to move out of his comfort zone, preferring to watch from the sidelines rather than participate. It was just too much for him. I searched endlessly for explanations of his behavior, not really ever getting anywhere concrete. He didn't appear to have autism since he didn't exhibit some of the more classic traits - he made eye contact and was extremely verbal.

In fact, he had a tremendously large vocabulary by age two, high comprehension and advanced verbal skills. His motor skills, on the other hand, were quite lacking. He could sit up at the normal age range, but he never crawled, he went straight from sitting to standing/walking at 12 months. Since he was always so intently studying whatever he was playing with, it was if he didn't need to bother with moving about. Many people commented on his abilities of concentration and interest in something for long periods of time.

His anxiety and discomfort with the world around him became more apparent as we took him on outings and he became terrified of anything large that moved, was noisy or was unpredictable. We quickly learned that going places like the zoo, science museums, and really any large venue was so uncomfortable for him that they became off-limits and we stuck to the sanctuary and safety of the house. It was just too exhausting to do otherwise. He was miserable on these outings and we, in turn, were frustrated and disappointed with these attempts.

We muddled along like this for years, avoiding sending him to preschool for fear that the school environment would be too much for him to bear, and helping him learn to interact with his younger sister, of whom he had much animosity and jealousy. He was able to remember in amazing detail events that had happened years before, showing an ability to recall information that most kids that age lack. He was also extremely adept at perceiving other's emotions and excessively sensitive to those who exhibited sadness or fear, yet unable to identify those same emotions in himself.

When we did finally send him to Montessori preschool with his sister when he was 4/5 (we figured he would do better with her there with him), his difficult behaviors became even more apparent. Initially, he had major separation anxiety and issues participating in group activities like circle time. It was too overwhelming for him. He clearly wanted to befriend some of the boys his age, but he just didn't know how and his lack of ability at expressing himself emotionally and communicating with others made him frustrated and act out. This generally resulted in him hitting or biting. Oftentimes these behaviors erupted out of the blue simply because he got so overstimulated.

I lived in fear every day of the preschool calling for us to pick him up, or reporting that he hit another child, or bit someone or caused some other panic. Another issue was his potty talk, particularly when he became anxious. I dreaded the day I would get a call that he would be kicked out of preschool, but fortunately, that call never came. The school was willing to help intervene and see if there were accommodations they could make for him. They recommended having a public health nurse come and observe him in the classroom and make some suggestions, which ended up being somewhat helpful but they certainly didn't make many of the problems go away.

By this time, I was suspecting that something more than just anxiety was going on. His disinterest in kids and inability to interact with them were clearly flags. The nurse had recommended getting OT to deal with the sensory issues he was having and we got on the 6 month waiting list for that to begin. In the meantime, I arranged to have him seen by a pediatric neurologist for assessment. Given all the behavioral traits he was exhibiting I was fairly sure he had Aspergers, or high functioning autism.

It was another long wait to see the neurologist and we didn't get an appointment until the third week of Kindergarten. By then, he was already experiencing severe and debilitating behavioral and emotional issues with the transition to school. He was eventually diagnosed with a tic disorder, OCD, ADHD, anxiety and sensory disorder and was started on a medication to help with them. Again, the new school worked to help him and he made great improvements such that during his SIT meeting (Student Intervention Team), there was no recommendation for an IEP (Individual Education Plan) since he was doing so much better. The school year ticked on and, even though he still was having major social issues with the other students, he was managing okay. Behaviorally, at home, he was still extremely challenging and homework was an intense struggle.

Towards the end of his Kindergarten year, he started having more problems, this time with the OCD. He had experienced a few occasions where he had gagged on some food, the first time it was asparagus and the second on a tomato skin. He became obsessively worried that he would choke, to the point where he started refusing to eat or drink, fearing swallowing. He started losing weight and, even though I hoped this phase would pass, it was getting worse. We consulted with his doctor and eventually started having him see a psychologist to deal with the OCD and anxiety, doing cognitive behavior therapy as a treatment.

This last year, first grade has been both a lot better and a lot worse. He still has issues with hitting when frustrated or unable to express his desires. His anxiety was less at the beginning of the year but then he had a relapse with the OCD and eating, this time triggered by a bout of stomach flu and vomiting. He refused to eat and drink yet again and dropped weight quickly. When he finally started back to school again after winter break, his anxiety was extremely high and behaviorally, he was having more issues with his OCD becoming completely debilitating. It was absolutely miserable to watch.

We went back to the neurologist and he was started on another medication, this time for the OCD. No parent wants to medicate their child, but then again, no parent wants to watch their child waste away in front of them either, living in fear that you will have to admit your child because they are unable to cope with the world. The side-effects with SSRIs are always a little bit of a tradeoff, particularly as the patient is adjusting to the new medication.

"He seems much more relaxed and content at school and came back this week flawlessly." We initially were getting good reports from his teacher yet we struggled with the decision to keep him on the new medication because, while his anxiety is considerably lower and he's choosing to eat more food and a broader variety of food, the side effects are an increase in aggression and impulsivity and he's had more problems with getting in trouble at school for hitting.

A few months ago his teacher recommended another SIT meeting, this time because it has been difficult to assess what he is learning since he oftentimes refuses to participate in reading and is so rigid in his thinking that his writing exercises are unusual. This isn't surprising since he has obsessive thinking about whatever his current interest is, whether it be Legos, Egyptology or the like. All writing exercises end up being a variation on his fixation. At the SIT meeting we decided to pursue an IEP, to make sure that he would get access to whatever services would be helpful for him to succeed at school, most likely many of them being behaviorally based. He was already getting reading tutoring and doing a social skills club to learn how to interact and, basically, be a friend, but with a formal plan, those services would be enhanced, documented and carried with him from grade to grade.

We just recently finished the assessment process, with recommendations that he be tested for Aspergers, which comes as no surprise to me. The neurologist didn't think he had Aspergers, but he never did the formal, hours long testing. They also suggested having him tested for the advanced learning program, since he tested high in some subject areas and extremely high in spatial reasoning (98%). Must be all those Legos.

He still has coping issues with school as we try to find the right balance of medications and we've been dealing with the aggression issues as much as possible. Add to it the confrontations from parents of students who he is hitting and their thinly veiled threats don't exactly help the situation much. Between struggles at home and struggles at school, having a child with special needs is very emotionally and physically draining.

On the flip side, in spite of all our worries, our son is a tremendous joy, bringing an amazing intelligence, humor and perception into our lives. His intense interest and excitement is unmatched in most kids his age and, when he is in his element, he is unstoppable. His enthusiasm is contagious and his capacity for affection is enormous. I do worry for him and his future, as most parents do, but we can only do the best we can by him and advocate for him to make sure that he is as successful as he can be. He may not be considered "neurotypical", his brain wired a little differently, but then again, that is true for many of the greatest minds in history.

And, I hope that with patience, understanding and acceptance by students, parents and strangers, kids who struggle to operate in an oftentimes foreign world can achieve the great things they are meant to without being held back by ignorance or discrimination. So, on this day after Autism Awareness Day, I hope that the next time you or someone else sees a child acting up or acting differently, that you give both them and their parents the gift of understanding.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sustainably grown certifications explained

There are so many certification labels on food these days and the most confusing are the ones stemming from organic, organic alternatives, naturally grown and the like. As you try to choose sustainably grown foods, it is important to have a good understanding of what each of the labels means.

So, I've put together a brief primer of what the most common certifications generally mean, so you have a better idea of what you are buying and can feel confident when you are purchasing from sustainable-oriented farms that you are choosing something that is safe for the environment, your health and your family.

Certified Organic - When a product is labeled "certified organic" it means that the grower has complied with the following standards:
  • avoided most synthetic chemical inputs (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge
  • used farmland that has been free from chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more)
  • kept detailed written production and sales records (audit trail)
  • maintained strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products
  • undergone periodic on-site inspections

    Claimed Ecologically Safe - There is no certification for this, it is the producer making the claim to use organic practices (see above), but without being checked. Not all farmers can afford the process of becoming organic certified, so they will follow the organic farming guidelines but won't pay for an actual certification.

    Certified Naturally Grown From the CNG website, "when USDA's Organic program was implemented in 2002, many farms earning more than $5,000 per year were forced to make a difficult choice: either pay high certification fees and complete mounds of paperwork to become Certified Organic, or else give up using the word 'organic' to describe their produce and/or livestock.

    Believing that neither choice was very attractive, some farmers created Certified Naturally Grown to provide an alternative way to assure their customers that they observed strict growing practices. CNG strives to strengthen the organic movement by removing financial barriers to certification that tend to exclude smaller direct-market farms, while preserving high standards for natural production methods."

    Details of the certification standards can be found here, but suffice it to say that they are very similar to the Organic certification standards, just more affordable.

    Food Alliance Certification - The Food Alliance site states that this certification is: "independently verified by a third-party certifier. To be certified, farms, ranches, and food handlers need to meet a comprehensive hierarchy of standards, evaluation criteria, and indicators."

    These standards include (but are not limited to):
  • Providing safe and fair working conditions
  • Ensuring the health and humane treatment of animals
  • No use of hormones or non-therapeutic antibiotics
  • No genetically modified crops or livestock
  • Reducing pesticide use and toxicity through integrated pest management
  • Protecting soil and water quality
  • Protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat

    And, for those of you who live in the Northwest:

    Salmon Safe Certification - According to the Salmon Safe website: "The Salmon-Safe label on a product means it was created using healthy practices that keep Pacific Northwest rivers clean enough for native salmon to spawn and thrive. Farms and urban sites earn Salmon-Safe certification after a rigorous assessment that includes on-the-ground inspection by expert independent certifiers.

    Land managers can do much to promote healthy landscapes for salmon by planting trees along riverside areas, improving irrigation systems to reduce erosion, and limiting pesticides and other pollution from reaching waterways. On a product, the Salmon-Safe logo refers to how the crop is produced, not to the food or beverage product itself."

    So, there you go. I hope this helps clarify some of the labels and certifications you see when making food purchasing choices. Really, the best way to know how your food is grown is to talk to your grower by visiting their websites, meeting them at farmers markets and going to their farms if at all possible!
  • Wednesday, April 1, 2009

    Eco book roundup

    Since I posted this last Saturday, I wanted to bump it up to make sure people got a chance to add their own recommendations and read the ones already submitted...

    I've got books coming out of my ears. They are literally piling up on most surfaces of the house: end tables, in the bedroom, pretty much everywhere there's a flat surface. I'm so behind on my reading that it's not even funny. These are all books that I'm either actively reading or mean to read in the short-term.

    And then I keep getting more, like the book that I got in the mail today, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, which I'm very excited to read (I heard the author on a local NPR show). These are all books sent by publishers and authors, so I am in no way complaining - I totally love it. I am an unabashed book whore extraordinaire.

    Anyway, just like the eco cleaner roundup, I wanted to get your input about your favorite environmentally related books (purchased or borrowed from the library or elsewhere). You can give one or more answers if you like in any of the following categories:

    1. Organic gardening/permaculture
    2. Food or cooking related (slow food, eating local, etc.)
    3. Green lifestyle
    4. Climate change
    5. Peak oil/transition
    6. Homemade/homesteading/self-sufficient
    7. Frugal living/finances
    8. Green economy/politics
    9. Simple living
    10. Green parenting

    Feel free to add what you liked about the book, if you have time, for others to get an idea if this is something they would like to add to their reading list. These roundups are turning into great resources thanks to your input!

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