About Bonnie Lee

I am curious and passionate about science and its ability to shed light on the under-explored connections that govern life. I strive to understand how biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics shape the haphazard elegance of our existence and to share those discoveries with any pair of willing eyes and ears.

Rats!

I know its been a long while, but I’ve not been myself lately. Firstly, I am now more involved with the community–attending my Neighbourhood Council’s Green Committee, signing up to become a member of Ocean View Farm, and seeing what other local steps we can take to help stop food waste from an individual consumer’s perspective. I stepped away from the computer and, more alarmingly, out of my home.

I was also mulling on a new problem: how to create a zero-waste kitchen when all signs point to a serious rat problem in our new neighbourhood. No, I am not being paranoid. We saw them.

First, on moving day, Pyx (one of our cats) and I were enjoying our new view when two brown/grey rats started frolicking in the patio below. I texted Jean-Francois and asked him to keep the compost bin in the garage, until I learn more.

This is the garden view from our balcony. Several birds, butterflies, squirrels, and rats call this space home.

This is the garden view from our balcony. Several birds, butterflies, squirrels, and rats call this space home.

Two nights later, Pyx is going nuts, asking to be let out and staring intently into the darkened air. Her fur ruffled, and tail fully puffed. Our Japanese Bob Tail was clearly excited.

Three weeks later, Jean-Francois and I saw nine rats playing in the garden below. NINE. Nine, happy, fat, playing rats. Some brown, but most were grey. Clearly, pets and vermin had formed a colony. And the colony was thriving.

This is our view of the garden below. The corner that the rats enjoy. Note the lovely garden on the other side of the fence. That is the home of the squirrel-whisperer.

This is our view of the garden below. The corner that the rats enjoy. Note the lovely garden on the other side of the fence. That is the home of the squirrel-whisperer.

It turns out, one of the other tenants feeds the squirrels. The rats benefit by eating what’s left. And we lose our composting option. Lest anyone suggests keeping the bin in the garage, it is not in the lease. I also suspect we might offend neighbours if we bring food scraps to a bin before our car as part of a nightly ritual performed by greenie-types who have gone off the deep-end.

Before we resort to scaring our new neighbours, we need to control the rats and find a better way of saving our scraps from the bin.

Hence I became civically active and started making friends with local groups. Santa Monica used take food scraps in bins, but they had to stop because of contamination. Apparently apartment dwellers are BIG liabilities–we are temporary residents with a weak connection to common goals. Elected officials work with the easy, visible winning programmes and blame tenants for failures. We are not invested enough, it seems.

Yet, there are options. Inconvenient ones, but solutions that do show commitment. You see, it turns out, that people in downtown Los Angeles have chickens and gardens and want food scraps to keep both happy and healthy. I learnt this at the Mar Vista Farmers’ Market. And, my mind raced. There are possible solutions that will require keeping our kitchen compositor, only, we will need to find a new home for our beloved (now dormant) worms.

The lesson I learnt about being more sustainably pro-active: Answers come when you step out of your door and start talking to your neighbours.

The moral of my story: Be annoying and persistent. It works.

Radio Programme: Food and “The World”

Starting today, PRI’s The World is looking at food production and consumption around the world. Those interested in finding sustainable solutions for food production as our global population soars, check out “What’s for Lunch?”. This news feature should run all summer, with different regions getting time in the spotlight.

The first episode looked at technology that will help Singapore break its dependence on Malaysia and other nations. They are working to produce more food locally, indoors, and on the vertical. According the report, these high-tech A-frame gardens are 10 times more productive and use fewer natural resources than regular farming. Next time I am in Singapore, I will try to get a closer look.

http://www.theworld.org/2013/06/to-increase-local-food-production-crowded-singapore-goes-vertical/

The hassle of microwave popcorn?

Continental breakfast?

Americans are off microwave popcorn. At least that is the gist of a story in the Los Angeles Times yesterday that left me shaking my head. No, we are not embracing simpler, healthier  ways of popping corn. We are buying already popped and bagged corn. It seems microwaves, air poppers and stove top approaches to popping our kernels are fraught with risks.

The few comments on the story are insightful.

wdwpixie writes: “How about the fact that there’s been health issues associated with the microwave popcorn?  Every time I make a bag here at work I have to hear about it from a pharmacy associate….it’s not a lazy factor, it’s a possible health risk, plus the pre-popped can be put in a lunch bag or taken on the road as a snack.”

And, Xalm1983 says she’d “rather buy ready-made popcorn because it just tastes better and doesn’t stink up the apartment if burned.”

justdoit1 seems to prefer the limitless bounty of flavours that manufacturers add to pre-popped corn.  S/he argues that “The already made comes in various flavors, which is hard to do at home without opening up 10 different packages.  most (sic) people buy it because it’s cheaper in bulk than buying 10 different flavored popcorns.”

The thought that popping corn is easy and very inexpensive seems not too have occurred to these commenters. And I think I understand way. They’d rather pay for the convenience (and the waste that comes with it) than take that extra step in their own homes. I mean, is it really easier to buy pre-popped corn with additives to preserve freshness and flavour than air pop some kernels and top them with salt, olive oil and grated cheese?

We consume rather than create. And this focus on consumption that “saves us time” is helping us avoid the larger issues surrounding food waste, hunger, and obesity. And it couldn’t be more disappointing.

On 20 May, Jean-Francois and I “Got Wasted” with a remarkable group of people (both in the audience and on the Panel) and talked about the problem of food waste and hunger in Los Angeles. It was a motivating event that generated a lot of talk on Twitter. You can link to the audio recording of that discussion and Twitter feed below:

(BTW, we’ve moved, unpacked, found computers and plugs, and calmed our cats. And, I have finally found my rhythm in the new place…so I hope to post more regularly.)

Leftover Butternut Squash Smoothies

Last night I roasted a whole butternut squash that has been in the fridge for nearly a month. It was a smallish squash, less than two pounds, but I still had two cups of leftover squash at the end of dinner.

As I stared at the remaining, flesh and the two bananas on the counter, I dreamt about breakfast. (Yes, I know, a full tummy and I can still daydream about my next meal.) Would a squash and banana smoothie be tasty?

Turns out yes, and I am not the first to pair the two. I googled and found two recipes that piqued my interest:

  • On the food blog, Perks of Being a Foodie, I found recipe that spiced up the smoothie so the author could get her pumpkin fix. And,
  • And VideoJug shows how to combine juice, bananas, and squash into a smoothie that kids will drink up.

Since I find the squash and banana sufficiently sweet, I omitted the honey and simply combined a banana, a cup of butternut squash, and some almond milk with ground cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. I suspect you can add any combination of spices. Any takes on a madras banana and squash smoothie?

Spicy squash & banana smoothie

Spicy squash & banana smoothie

In my research, I found a few other creative ideas that involve butternut squash. I did not want a pie or soup or gnocchi treat. Two recipes in that search have me thinking of new sauces and veggie ideas that go way beyond the squash.

Oh, and if you are wondering about our zero waste goal: I will eat the whole squash. Seeds can be roasted and the skin is edible. Simply roast your squash whole in the oven with a bit of oil and salt on the skin and you will have a tasty nosh that is 100% edible. I like it almost as much as baked potato skins.

One way to reduce food waste: Campus Style

UC Davis Dining Commons Demonstration of what college kids waste for Love Food, Hate Waste in January 2013.

Two days ago, I saw a headline in my news feed that I nearly passed over. It read: “Elimination of trays decreases food waste in dining halls.” All I could think about were the opportunities to trip classmates struggling to carry their milk and dinner plates to a table. And then I decided to read on, and learned that in just two years Manchester University has saved:

  • 15,000 pounds of food from becoming waste, and
  • 200,000 gallons of water.

How? They removed trays from the dining halls. They removed convenience, and judging from the article it wasn’t a popular solution. But its makes a lot of sense.

If you drive to the supermarket, grab a big shopping cart, and have a lift to carry your groceries from car to home, then it is very easy to just pile unnecessary food into your life. If you have to think about how you are going to carry it all to the car and into your home, you probably make different choices.

I like that one simple decision has changed how an entire community consumes. It would be interesting to see if that same choice also helped students maintain weight. I mean, if not using a tray helps that freshman not gain infamous 15 pounds that many do gain in the first term, wouldn’t they willingly embrace the idea?

If the same could be said about using smaller shopping carts to lose weight, would people be more willing to embrace a small change?

Weekend food waste roundup – 28 April 2013

28Apr13

What happens when a politician attempts to tackle food waste? Well, if you are a politician in Great Britain, you get rotten tomatoes tossed your way.

In fact, when Environment minister Richard Benyon claimed that Britons were wasting about £50 GBP (or about $77 USD) a week, he kicked up quite the storm.

For a  while I felt like I was reading celebrity gossip and not news about ways to approach the complex issue of solving our food waste issues. And then The Guardian publishes “Should it brie in the bin?” which attempts to look at the numbers and explain how food waste is a problem in a nation facing severe austerity.

Here in the United States, Liz Neumark summarized what she learned at the National Food  Policy Conference in Washington DC. She shares some new numbers on food waste in the  nation:

  • 1 in 4 Americans need government food or nutrition assistance program.
  • 68% of food-insecure families have at least one adult working full-time.
  • About 30-40 percent of what travels from farm on the way to the fork becomes food waste. That is over 65 billion pounds of food a year according to the EPA.

And finally, there were two articles with nice tips and strategies for helping individuals reduce the amount of food they waste. First, “Having a meal plan— and sticking to it — can cut waste and your waist” in the Calgary Herald makes the case for more discipline in shopping and cooking. Second, Care2.com recommends a FIFO (First In, First Out) approach to food in your fridge.

Eggless, Yeastless Yummy “Stone Soup” Bread

Vegan bread with sun-dried tomatoes, onions, and sage.

Vegan bread with sun-dried tomatoes, onions, and sage.

In our new apartment, I want to have a “Zero Waste Kitchen”, but that means I have to use up as much as possible in the current apartment before we move. The idea is to start with a clean slate. To do that we need to make sure we do not bring bad habits with us. Today, I made bread, and in the process used up the last of our sun dried tomatoes, blue corn flour, extra jar of white four, and baking powder – as well as some almond milk. What I got, had the texture of a nice country loaf.

And it was 100% vegan.

Why Stone Soup Bread? Because, like Jean-Francois’s idea for stone soup, this recipe is so flexible that practically anything can go into it, and it complements salad or soup, and makes a nice sandwich. You could even use stone soup broth in the mixture. Best of all, I doubt I will ever miss traditional breads ever again.

I cannot take credit for the idea. I found the source recipes on the internet when searching for ways to use flour without eggs and yeast. I have Tish’s recipe at Food.com, Veggie Bon Vivant’s adaptation of Mark Bittman’s (How to Cook Everything), and a half day of looking at nearly empty jars and wondering what would work together.

Here’s what I did:

  1. Preheat over to 400F.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 3 cups of a variety of flours (blue corn, unbleached, corn meal, and whole wheat) with 1 tablespoon baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt.
  3. Chop 4 withering green onions and about 1/2 cup sundried tomatoes (in oil) and add them to the flour mixture. NOTE: I chopped the tomatoes on a wooden chopping board and left the oil on the board to use later when shaping the bread dough.
  4. Add 2 teaspoons dried sage to the flour mixture. Any herb would work, be creative.
  5. In a 2 cup measuring cup, combine 1/4 cup olive oil and 1-1/2 cups almond milk.
  6. Add liquids to flour mixture and mix until flour is moist but not very sticky.
  7. Turn dough on to wooden board (the one with the tomato oil). Flip a few times to shape into a ball.
  8. Drop ball onto baking sheet.
  9. Cook for 45 minutes.
Just out of the oven, not the blue colour from the blue corn flour.

Just out of the oven, note the blue colour from the blue corn flour.

And voila, two veggies saved from compost, three jars empty and ready to be packed, and a nice hearty snack to get me through the afternoon. I suspect this bread will toast up nicely and make heavenly croutons, too.

It’s a joke, right?

Cover - Good Omens

Sometime around the time Jean-Francois and I started dating, he presented me with a few books to read. Some were his favourites (Kurt Vonnegut), two were books he picked because he wanted to show that he “got me”. One, Foucault’s Pendulum, was a literary historical suspense thriller by Umberto Eco. It had me researching references for weeks. The other was Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, a comedy about the Second Coming that was also lush in layered interpretation, jokes, allusions and generally good fun.

There is one joke in Good Omens that is like a latent virus in my memory. It flares in response to certain events or topics centred on food and nutrition. It is a joke about one of the four riders of the Apocalypse: Famine. In this novel, Famine is a ruthless 1980’s business executive in the food industry. His latest two projects, Nouvelle Cuisine and Highly Processed Fast Food, both so beautifully meet his primary goal, that he cannot help being a bit smug. His goal, starving humans to death.
Why does Famine keep coming to mind? Because I think anyone who works in the industrialized food industry worships, intentionally or not, at his altar. My reading list this week supports this theory:
Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss, looks at the science behind make food we crave–even if it is bad for us. I am on the second chapter of this one, and really loving his investigated challenge to these moguls. It’s like he wants us to ask them all: How could you not know that you are helping to make us all sick?
Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner is more about how the demands of our lifestyles created a market for processed foods that now is making us fatter, slower, and sicker. Combined these two books look at the relationship between our desire for convenience to enjoy the good life and our desire to make enough money to have the good life.
And then there is Just Food by James E. McWilliams, published in 2009. This book looks at how those of us trying to make smarter, healthier, and more sustainable choices about what and how we eat, is creating deep anxiety in regular people. Basically we feel guilty all the time.
Each of these books is well-written and researched. But the subject matter makes me flip between the three. Why? Because each reminds me of Famine, and his cool, clean, metro sexual smugness. Pratchett and Gaiman were joking, trying to remind us that not all food is created equal. So, why are we still choosing to grow, make, market, and buy foods that hurt us and some many of our friends and family? Famine is winning despite the availability of nourishing food for many of us. (Don’t get me started thinking about all the food deserts created by executives who put cost benefits above humanity when deciding where grocery markets should be located.)
Yes, Jean-Francois always did understand how to set my mind on fire. He still does.

Weekend food waste roundup – 21 April 2013

21Apr13I suppose some of you are wondering why our weekly digest of global news on food waste is getting less weekly. The answer is simple, the people writing on food waste are stuck on three basic themes:

  1. Shock: calling attention to the problem of how much food is wasted annually. Most pointing fingers at Americans and then driving the outrage home with a “but even on the local home front, we are wasting XXX tonnes of food a year.”
  2. Turning food waste into a useful resource: Methane generators, food scraps into animal feed, and composting.
  3. Food waste and Hunger: This one probably speaks for itself, but the issue of getting food that is heading to the bin rerouted is a more complex civil challenge than most of us realise.

And while all three of these are great, not one addresses the problem of our excesses at grocery store, markets, restaurants, and anywhere where food is available (think weddings, conferences, amusement parks, banquets…).

Thankfully, tomorrow is Earth Day and at least one reporter went a little deeper.

The Star, a Malaysian paper, reported on a Toyota led initiative in that nation to help turn the next generation of Malaysians into solutions-focused Eco-Citizens. These sixteen year olds are not starting with the food waste already generated. No, they are looking at ways to reduce portion sizes in cafeterias and restaurants BEFORE people even buy the food. I like how they are thinking.

Getting Wasted: L.A.'s food excess

Getting Wasted: L.A.’s food excess
photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

And this brings me to an act of shameless self-promotion. On 20 May, Jean-Francois and I have been asked to join a interactive panel discussion to think about how excess contributes to the food waste problem and steps might be possible to curb it through grass-roots initiatives, technology, and individual actions.

However, our experience is limited. If you could share your ideas, opinions and local solutions, it would help us in our brainstorming. I’d love to share your practical, non-compost, solutions with like-minded Angelenos.

We’d also love to see you there.

Composting–one year later

About one year ago, Jean-Francois and I adopted a small colony of red wrigglers, following a sustainability session at the Natural History Museum. As proud parents, we immediately set about finding the best bedding, bins, and strategies for keeping our new arrivals happy. The biggest challenge for us, as apartment dwellers in a large complex with strict rules, was finding a bin that would pass as patio furniture. (Since we don’t consider compost trash, we assumed that the rule about trash did not apply.)

We settled on the Worm Factory 360. It looks enough like a Japanese Stone Lantern that it could be argued that it is decorative. We supplement our system with a bamboo compost pail for the kitchen. And, we spend an evening making our worms comfortable.

A snapshot of our colony on feeding day.

A snapshot of our colony on feeding day.

Our worms get regular doses of coffee grounds and tea leaves, toilet paper rolls and scrap paper and linens. They also get a lot of egg shells, banana peels, okara (when I cannot find a use for it in time), and bread that goes mouldy.

And they are thriving. Sure, we are still trying to figure out the right mix of brown and green (see pdf below) to add to the mix, but we are learning.

This pdf is useful for helping us determine what browns and greens our worms needs.

At six months, we even expanded our bin by adding a new layer. All winter things moved along fine, albeit a bit slowly. But as Spring set in, so did culture shock.

  1. Our worms were reluctant to move to the new layer.
  2. Worms were escaping both the bin and the balcony.
  3. Other bugs started to appear.
  4. The worm castings on the second layer were WET. We could not get them to dry.

We are now trying to manage moisture, bugs and a growing ickiness-factor (at least on my part, Jean-Francois seems to enjoy mucking around in the compost). And, we have no way to share our worm tea or our beautiful worm pooh with gardeners. The grounds here are landscaped by a company that has no interest in going green.

Any thoughts on how apartment building and condo dwellers can help urban gardens and communities by composting? We are moving to a street lined with apartments, and I’d love to find a community solution that we can advance. It may also be a way to help people eat better and waste less food BEFORE it goes to the compost.

I am not alone either. Others have written about the challenges facing us Urban Composters and some offer solutions. If you are square foot challenged, and lack a green thumb, but really want to try composting, here are a few resources we have found useful:

BTW, I would not recommend the bamboo pail. It looks old and beaten up after two months and is also too soft a material for life on our kitchen counter.