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.

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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.)

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.

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.

Cords, adapters, disks, and leftovers

I stress about things. Not like most people, but with such a degree of obsessive focus that I can forget all about the bigger picture. This tendency gets worse when I have deadlines or when Jean-François is in Singapore. When both hit during the same week, I become a crazed hermit-like creature who mumbles to herself and forgets to brush her hair.

Such has been my life for the past week or so. My current obsession: reducing the amount of stuff in our closets and cabinets as we prepare to move. I even created a daily routine with a task-based schedule so I do not miss a beat.

My “Move Routine”

  • Wake up
  • Prepare Coffee, when I run out, switch to tea.
  • Eat breakfast. (Strategy: Finish Oatmeal first, then cream of wheat, then use up flour making biscuits.)
  • Pack one box of books.
  • Test one computer and two hard drives.
  • Test four computer cables.
  • Lunch: start with fresh veg and fruit in lower bins. Serve with steamed rice (couscous when rice is gone, other grains when that is gone) and use ingredients on door in cooking.
  • Do my job for 6 hours.
  • Dinner–Veg and herbs with pasta. Use cheeses and condiments for sauces. When pasta is gone, make cheese plates with veg, biscuits.
  • Do 2-4 more hours of work.
  • Visit clothes pile–sort by season first, then toss/donate stuff not worn in two years.

So far, I have stuck with the routine, but I am getting tired of rice and pasta. Oddly oatmeal is going down well. With luck and persistence, I may get our food stock to near zero before  moving day.

But any pride I might feel for not wasting food fades when I look at all the computer and IT stuff that we need to send to recycle. It looks like we replaced food waste habit with an e-waste habit. Just look:

Two Japanese-English electronic dictionaries, three external hard drives that are no longer compatible with our computers, cables galore, speaker for iPod that does not work with newer models, several electronic mice, and electronic toys.

Two Japanese-English electronic dictionaries, three external hard drives that are no longer compatible with our computers, cables galore, speaker for iPod that does not work with newer models, several electronic mouses, and electronic toys.

We have six notebook computers (seven if you count the Dell that Jean-François needs to drag around for one client). Two 27-inch monitors. Two bluetooth keyboards for notebooks, two for our iPads, one for my mobile phone. One raid storage, one server, six external hard drives, three mobile phones from Japan that we no longer use, one from Singapore, two point and shoot cameras, two flip video cameras, two DSLRs, three robots (two are cat toys and one a flying thing we just had to have), cordless phones for a landline that we do not have, a recording pen, an old digital voice recorder that is not compatible with newer computers… I could go one.

To be fair, we both work from home and the monitors, iPads, phones and three notebooks are always in use. One of the DSLRs travels with Jean-Francois, the other I use when he is travelling, sometimes. But the bulk of this stuff is junk. These pieces are too old, or broke during the move from Japan, or do not provide enough speed or capacity for what we think we need. It is easier to upgrade than fix.

And this may be why I am annoyed. What good we are trying to do by changing how we consume food is more than offset by our nonchalant attitude to our digital assets. We are tech-gluttons and I am sure there is a special place in hell for people like us.

The four on top have battery life issues (no life at all, really). And no, we don't have a Mac-gadget addiction. No, not us. No sirey.

The four on top have battery life issues (no life at all, really). And no, we don’t have a Mac-gadget addiction. No, not us. No siree.

Any thoughts on what we should be doing to stop the insanity? Better yet, anybody want a free, 5-year-old 1TG hard drive with all its cables? Or a free Nikon D70 with two lenses?

[Sorry for the off-topic rant, but it has been all I have been thinking about for days now.]

Weekend Round Up: 7 April 2013

paint roundupWe are moving next month and now I have two new food waste related goals. First, I  want empty the current kitchen without wasting any food. Second, I want to find ways to make sure the next kitchen becomes a “Zero-Waste Kitchen”. It seems the key to success is better planning. Here is the round-up of what I learned:

Tips on wasting less in the kitchen

The Nourishing Gourmet recently published 7 waste-reducing tips on her website. These are more conceptual tips with one real exception–date your leftovers. I mean this is two ways. First, she recommends writing the date on all leftover containers. And, she recommends including a leftover day/night in your week to clean out the bits and ends of the week’s meals. Dating leftovers? Yes, rebound relationships do work, after all.

For more practical ideas, look at the Reader’s Digest slide deck. This presentation has over 13 tips for wasting less food in the kitchen, many of which are practical, easy, and clever. For example, did you know that you can regrow scallions? All you need to do is cut the ends, drop them in glass with water, and give them some sunlight. They also recommend keeping lettuce in brown paper bags, using citrus peels to ward off ants and mosquitos, and re-crisping celery with potato slices or lemon juice.

The Green Cycler also had general tips for creating a zero waste kitchen, but the one Jean-Francois likes best: Get A Chicken – a hen to eat food scraps, provide eggs, and terrorize our little cats.

And how do you set up a kitchen for zero waste?

This answer is going to be harder to find, but I fell in love with one site that I am going to lose hours on. The Kitchn website has a whole section with ideas for setting up your kitchen. True, the goal there is for ease of use, but a number of these ideas are inspiring for a girl with a container fetish.

If clutter is your challenge, you may want to check out Sue Rasmussen’s website. She provides tips for de-cluttering each activity that takes place in a kitchen.

And finally, Real Simple has approaches to organizing your kitchen based on the type of chef that you are (daily, gourmet, Sunday-only…).

But what about all those jars of spices?

This is the real issue in my chef’s (a.k.a. Jean-Francois’) kitchen. He is search challenged when it comes to looking for ingredients on the spice shelf. We’d love a solution that keeps our spices out of the light, but easy to find. If anyone can point us to good ideas, I will send Jean-Francois to your home to cook you dinner.

Frozen Food Month: Celebrating with Bananas, Rhubarb, & Strawberries

My task list and I have a passive-aggressive relationship. I look to my Reminders app to help me remember things I must do, but get angry each time a reminder pops up on my calendar, iPhone, and tablet. I mean, the app is stalking me. Nagging me.

It nags me to write-up the recipes for the dips and dishes we served at a party way back in early January. It reminds me to take photos of our Japanese lantern inspired compost bin (inside and out) and write about lessons learned. It reminds me … sorry, I am sure you don’t care about my relationship with my task list. I never seem to cross things off. With each new, yummy success, I find it harder and harder to revisit the meals and food waste ideas we tested last December and January. But I will get to time someday.

But today’s entry is based on a treat that is too good to wait. And seasonal. It combines a springtime favourite of ours, rhubarb, with strawberries and frozen bananas. Its vegan. It healthy. Its easy. And, its yummy. What is it?

Mock Vanilla Ice Cream with warm Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote

Mock Cream with Compote

Make the compote first. If you are fans of rhubarb, make lots. It can be used on toast, mixed with yogurt and muesli, added to muffins and smoothies, and served with pork and chicken. We also make a crumble with the compote that Jean-François devours. The compote is a great way to save fruits and berries that are showing their ages.

Also, we freeze bananas. Every banana that enters our home is immediately stripped and frozen. This is a great way to keep fruit flies at bay and have bananas on hand when you need them for pancakes, smoothies, breads, and mock-ice cream. If you do not do this, put one unpeeled banana per person in this freezer at least three hours before making this  dish.

For the compote:

  • 8 oz. fresh Strawberries, washed with tops removed, and quartered
  • 6 stalks of Rhubarb, washed and chopped into 1/4 inch slices
  • 1 cup fresh Orange Juice (with lots of pulp)
  • 3 tablespoons Coconut Sugar (Honey would also work if you are not vegan)

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Cover and let sit for 2-3 hours until the rhubarb sweats and the strawberries begin to release their juice.

Bring fruit mixture to a simmer on medium low. Simmer until rhubarb is very soft. Remove from heat and set aside.

Mock Vanilla Ice Cream

To make the mock-vanilla ice cream:

  1. Remove one Banana person from the freezer
  2. Slice Banana(s) into 1/2 inch discs. (This is highly advisable, or you risk damaging a beloved household appliance.)
  3. Add Banana(s) to food processor, mini-prep, or blender with a good dose of Vanilla (we added 1 Tablespoon per person) and a tablespoon of the juice from the compote.
  4. Pulse until creamy.

Spoon the mock-ice cream into bowls. Top with compote. Enjoy.

 

 

 

Weekend food waste roundup – 24 March 2013

Weekend RoundupI found a few good stories on food waste this week, but one has so completely captured my thoughts that I want to give it centre stage.

Let me set the scene. About two weeks ago at a dinner party, I adamantly argued that the Good Samaritan Law protects any business and individual in the United States that wants to donate leftover food to non-profits working to feed the hungry. By adamantly, I mean I was dogmatic and unwavering in my opinion. (Any one want to place odds on whether or not I will be invited back?)

Well, the Los Angeles Times published an article this week that makes me wish I had been less pig-headed that night. The Good Samaritan law protects donors, but it does not, it seems, protect the non-profits who distribute food from local health and safety codes.

This strikes me as odd. I mean, the caterers must abide by the same codes, so why would the non-profits refuse food? Because, they cannot afford to be shut down because of a violation or lawsuit.

I am annoyed enough about the red tape and obstacles facing food redistribution that I want to learn more. If any of you know of communities that have found ways to work around these codes, or change the laws to help donors and charities get food to people who need  it, I’d love to hear from you.