May 08, 2009



It's official, folks: I've retired Small Failures for the time being. I just don't have the time these days to devote to an additional blog. But fear not: you can always peruse the archives using the main menu at the top of the page, and definitely check me out at the Roughstock Library, where I'm now blogging about many of the issues I used to cover here. Thanks for reading, for linking, and for generally being interested in this stuff!

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April 17, 2008

Poster Download: Spread the Word on the Spray

For those of you who live in California and want to spread the word, please help yourself to this poster. Download a PDF of either version by clicking on the image. Then take it your local copy shop and start passing them out to friends, neighbors and especially local businesses (and if you are a local business, please post this in your window for all to see).

stop the aerial pesticide spraying in San Francisco, Marin, Santa Cruz, California - free poster for download

stop the aerial pesticide spraying in San Francisco, Marin, Santa Cruz, California - free poster for download

The petition continues to grow, with over 22,000 people refusing to be sprayed. Let's keep it growing!

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April 14, 2008

California Plans to Use Citizens as Guinea Pigs: Why Every U.S. Resident Should Care

Beginning this summer, airplanes will fly 500-800 feet over California, spraying hundreds of thousands of California residents with an untested pesticide called CheckMate. This will start one night in June, and will happen again three nights a month for nine whole months. None of us will know which nights our towns are being sprayed, and none of us will be able to stop it. Your children will wake up the following morning, head to the park, breathe in the air, play on the jungle gym, and you will have no idea if their little hands are coated in the CheckMate pesticide. You might even be walking home from the BART station one evening, and hear that low-flying plane hum over you as it drops its load.

California plans aerial pesticide spraying of CheckMate over San Francisco, Marin, and other counties

This ain't no horror story - it's actually going to happen. The State's Department of Food and Agriculture is initiating the largest aerial pesticide spray in the history of the United States because it's afraid the light brown apple moth will take over our plants.
And why should anyone who lives outside of California care? One simple reason: we are the nation's guinea pigs. The USDA recently announced plans to survey all 50 U.S. states to see if the light brown apple moth can be found anywhere else. If they do, you can bet that state officials where you live will look to California as an example for how to deal with it. Even though California's approach won't work.

So what can we do? Do we sit back and inhale the fumes? Do we let agribusiness dump pesticides literally on our heads? Close our eyes and hope we don't get sick? This is not a joke, and this is not the State's choice to make for us.

Join the tens of thousands of other residents who refuse to be sprayed! You don't have to become an activist, and you don't have to give up your valuable time. Just pick and choose from the following easy steps, and make your voice heard.
  1. Sign the petition to stop the spray.
  2. Learn the facts about their plans.
  3. Write an email to Gov. Schwarzenegger, who currently supports the spray.
  4. Write an email to Sen. Migden, who's filed legislation to delay the spray.
  5. Send an email to everyone you know telling them about the spray (or linking to this blog post).
  6. Write a letter to your legislators voicing your opinion.
  7. Attend the meetings on 4/15 and 4/16 to add your voice.
  8. Flyer your block, neighborhood or town to inform your community.
  9. Send out a MySpace, FaceBook or other social networking bulletin about this.
  10. Blog about the spray, or simply link to this post.
Get loud. Get angry. This is your air, and your body. Don't let them f--- with it.

California plans aerial pesticide spraying of CheckMate over San Francisco, Marin, and other counties - area spray map

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August 30, 2007

Eat Local Coming Up!

Before I start posting regularly again, I just want to remind everyone that the Eat
Local Challenge
starts on Saturday. I'm going to try and participate even though I hadn't done any of the planning ahead and research I'd planned to (thanks to you know what). That's okay, though; the beauty of the challenge is that it's only as strict or as accommodating as you want it to be.

I'd also like to point out that yesterday was the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The Times-Picayune published an article remembering the disaster, the victims and the survivors.

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August 01, 2007

Factory Farms Near You

If you want to see something really scary, check out the interactive map of the factory farms living throughout the U.S., provided by Food and Water Watch. Click on your state, zoom into your county and BAM! Discover the warehouses of caged animals living in death and shit near your neck of the woods.

I warned it you it was scary.

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July 27, 2007

All Future Cities Will Be Green?

I'm fascinated by the built environment; I blame my father's many architecture books scattered across our shelves when I was a kid (my personal favorite was an Adolph Loos "picture book" that I never got tired of flipping through). The shape of our cities, suburbs, countryside, and so forth have all changed—and continue to change—dramatically as our behaviors and expectations change. This is obvious, but the resulting environment is not so obvious; we are so often oblivious to what we see around us, to how we interact to our environment, and to how our environment actually marks us.

Developers, planners and real estate professionals are starting to recognize this. Some of them are actually taking deliberate steps towards making communities more sustainable and more conducive to human interaction. From folks like Eric Fredericks from the Walkable Neighborhoods blog (he's got an incredible series right now of brief photo-essays as he tours various walkable, and not-so-walkable, neighborhoods around the country), and LJ Urban (who are producing some fascinating community-based developments), are taking risks and challenging our concepts of the typical American city.

Califia ecocityThere is another project that I just caught wind of, and it's a doozy. The Green Century Institute is planning a new city, known as Califia, to house 7,000-10,000 residents within 30 miles of the San Francisco Bay Area. Califia is being called an ecocity: "a living example of an ecologically and economically sustainable urban development that leverages the evolutionary culture of Northern California in a real estate development integrating advanced green design features, network-facilitated community development, and forward thinking partnerships with private, non-profit, commercial, and civic institutions."

And Califia needs you. GCI is asking anyone interested in helping to visualize this new concept city to submit a single sketchbook page to the project depicting your own slice-of-life interpretation. It's a great idea, but what will it look like once it's built and inhabited? Perhaps you can help determine that. Read more about the Califia project and the design competition's submission requirements at GCI's Califia site.

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July 12, 2007

Walk It Out

How does your neighborhood rate on the walkability scale? Get your hood's Walk Score now! This is such a great use of Google Maps it kills me. Not only does it rate your area, but it shows you all the cool stuff nearby.

My hood rates a 92 out of 100, which fails to take into account minor details like the recent rash of muggings and hold-ups in the area. But still, 92 is pretty damn good!

[via Triple Pundit]

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July 07, 2007

What's Your Foodometer Read?

What a great little vid that reveals a whole lot of depth in a wonderful way:



[Via the wonderful Ethicurian]

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July 03, 2007

They Found Us: Link Love

Small Failures' readership has been growing steadily over the months, and many of you discover us through other blogs and sites, some which have a green theme and some which don't. I've decided to start mentioning these blogs on a semi-regular basis as a way of saying thank you to those folks who feel we're worth linking to.

Cider Press Hill: A thoughtful, personal blog from Kate (I believe), who offers a quiet look into her own life as well as those around her. Some great links on this blog.

The Worsted Witch: Clearly this really is "the malformed love-child of [Jasmine's] indecorous passions for knitting, sustainability, gothic horror, and illustration." A sense of humor, an elegant design aesthetic and a cat named Chekhov makes Jasmine worth a long read.

Simply Green Living: This fairly new blog covers the writer's journey to simplify her life, although she's been living green for fifteen years.

And thank you, readers, for continuing to support Small Failures! I've got some cool ideas coming up for the site, and eventually I'll be hitting you up for some feedback. Stay tuned!

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June 26, 2007

Forward Thinking in Action: Farmers Market Food Stamps

Shopping at farmers markets is just too expensive! How many times have you either heard this or thought it yourself? As much as I'd like to deny the naysayers, the fact remains that for many people across the country, spending food dollars on local farmers markets where you are likelier to have access to organic foods is just too cost-prohibitive to be justified.

I was reminded of this myself recently when I went down to my own local farmers market, which is incredibly affordable (dare I say cheap). At Alemany I filled my large canvas bag full of fruits, veggies and eggs—almost two weeks worth of food for two—for about $20. Later that morning I was running errands in posh Noe Valley (think Birkenstocks and baby strollers, as they say), when I discovered that I'd forgotten carrots and onions for soup, I cruised over to the Noe Valley farmers market, which is much smaller than Alemany but shares some of the same vendors. I picked up two organic carrots and one organic onion. The vendor weighed them up and casually asked for $2.50. That's just outright insulting (and no, I didn't pay it).

It's no wonder that organics and farmers markets have a reputation! So it's phenomenal to see more and more farmers markets accepting food stamps; after reading an article about an Athens, Ohio farmers market that now accepts food stamps, I did a little digging. Turns out there are quite a few out there, including:
I know there are many more, so please feel free to add your own resources. If you point me to statewide lists, I'll add them above. The next challenge is getting farmers markets set up near communitites that really need them. There are a few organizations working towards this, but not nearly enough. In an upcoming post, I'll talk about how you can start a farmers' market in your own neighborhood!

[Edit: Thanks to the Ethicurian, I just learned that the Logan Square market in Chicago is Illinois' first farmers' market to accept food stamps!]

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June 20, 2007

5 Steps to a Better Farmers' Market Experience

I was graciously invited to join a blog carnival focusing on small actions to change the world by Oliver Adria of Sustainabee. I'll admit that I actually had no idea what a blog carnival was until he clued me in: basically, a host assembles a group of posts from multiple blogs on a given subject. The idea is to hop around from post to post on the given day and enjoy the sites. So here we go...

I'm on a farmers' market kick as I discover the joys of spending $10/week on fresh, organic veggies and fruits and eggs. One thing I've discovered, though, as I return week after week: there is an art to shopping your local farmers' market. Here are a few tips to help make your first (or third, three hundredth) trip to the farmers market a bit more enjoyable:
1. Find one.
Seems obvious, doesn't it? Start by doing a quick geographical search at Local Harvest or the USDA (which may be less current). If neither of those resources work, contact your state's agricultural department and ask if they can point you in the right direction.

2. Grab a bag and use it.
Your bag should be reusable (canvas totes are great), roomy and comfortable to wear. Backpacks and courier bags are great options, as they're easy to manipulate and they'll hold enough produce for a whole family. Once you've got your back, make sure you tell those vendors that you don't need a plastic bag. For some reason, farmers just really want to make it convenient for you to carry your stuff around, so they automatically reach for a plastic bag. Just let 'em know you've got your own.

3. Arrive as early as possible.
Although it can be painful to pry myself out of bed at 8:00 am on a Saturday, it's often less painful than getting jostled by the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd that always seems to gather by noon. Of course, that may be because I live in San Francisco, an overpopulated city of rather insular people. You may find that your local market is just fine a little later in the day (check it out at different times and see for yourself). There's one more good reason to go early, though: you get your pick of the best produce available.

4. Talk to your vendors.
These are the ladies and gents putting food on your plate! Don't you want to know where they came from? Ask 'em a question or two, let them know how much you loved the strawberries you picked up last week, and ask them how they like to prepare their foods. You'll learn a lot about how to cook different foods, what to look for when picking an eggplant, and when to show up for the zucchini blossoms that are only around for a week or two.

5. Show up regularly.
Once you start to show up at the farmers' market every week, you'll start picking up on things you couldn't possibly know if you only went occasionally. Things like which vendors offer the best bargains, who likes to add a few ounces to their scale, and who shows up with the best tasting citrus. You'll also discover that your grocery store has been lying to you all these years: that asparagus you bought out of the cold case last week was shipped in from Chile after spending a week in transit (yes, they spray veggies with "stuff" to keep it pretty for you). As weeks and months go by and your farmers' markets visits stay regular, you will learn what foods grow best in your area and when they are at the height of flavor. This is kind of a remarkable discovery. If we all thought a little bit harder about what we eat and how we eat it, we might feel differently about a lot of things.

Bonus! Cook the foods you bought with friends.
Now that you have all this fresh produce grown by folks who live just miles from your door, invite a few friends over and savor it! Food, after all, tastes better when eaten in the company of others.
So there you have it. With just a few sinple steps you, too, can eat better, make more of your weekends, and support your local economy.

Hey! If you dig this post, please digg it!


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June 08, 2007

The World Is Your Library

The library is my weakness. As a kid (and bona fide bookworm), I would spend hours buried in the darkest corner I could find reading random book after random book. It was a safe haven for me and to this day I am instantly calmed when I step inside a public house of books.

It's just a plus that libraries are a wonderful way to:
  1. Reduce your dependence on Stuff.
  2. Reduce your paper consumption.
  3. Support your community.
And now I've discovered WorldCat, where I can search libraries all over the globe! Kind of exciting, that.

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June 04, 2007

The Walkable Neighborhood: An Interview with Eric Fredericks

There is a book written by Italo Calvino about a poor man named Marcovaldo, who spends his days clinging to the slivers of nature that are so hard to find in his large and overwhelming city. On his way to and from work, he inhales the slices of sky that slide between the building skylines, fearing they’ll disappear as quickly as the diminishing pop of a flashbulb. Marcovaldo felt like many of us do these days: trapped and bumbling through an unfriendly, inhuman environment of concrete and glass built to an inhuman scale for as far as the eye can carry.

Cities need not be so cold and uninviting, though. The walkable city—and its general counterpart, the walkable neighborhood— offers its residents an open invitation to explore, to connect, to experience the sights and sounds and smells and people that make such dense living truly worthwhile. Better still, it's possible to make a seemingly unfriendly neighborhood a walkable one. Eric Fredericks, urban planner and author of the Walkable Neighborhoods blog, recently offered Small Failures (and our esteemed readers) a few insights into the benefits of a walkable neighborhood:

How does a walkable neighborhood impact the daily lives of its residents?
A walkable neighborhood completely impacts the daily lives of most of its residents—but the same can be said for just about any neighborhood. A walkable neighborhood just makes you appreciate the impacts more. For instance, typically walkable neighborhoods have multiple destinations that are within a safe and comfortable walking distance of your residence. You wouldn't even consider driving to these places because it just seems silly to drive such a short distance. So, you end up walking to places like the grocery store, the park, the barber, local restaurants, and so on. Then, you realize that in a suburban setting things are so spread out or hostile to walking that sometimes it's difficult to go to these places on foot - and maybe even frustrating to drive to them as well.

This has an effect on people in a couple of ways :
  1. People don't interact with each other as much because there is a general lack of close places to interact.

  2. You end up spending either an inordinate amount of time in your home or in your car.
Walkable neighborhoods really coax people into walking and interacting more with their neighborhood because so many activities are close by. That has an enormous effect on physical and mental health. You don't even need to read publications to realize this - you can just go to any walkable place (non-touristy, mind you) and see that its residents are generally thinner than other types of neighborhoods. In addition, walking in these types of neighborhoods is often pleasant, and that can help lower stress levels immensely.

What should we be aware of when interacting with our neighborhood throughout the day?

Focus on the things in your neighborhood that you really enjoy. Make mental notes about all of the things you appreciate about your neighborhood. If you happen to live in or get to spend time in walkable neighborhoods, my guess is that your positives will far exceed the negatives.

I try and notice all of the little details: the squirrels climbing around on the trees, the architectural differences between homes, the canopy of trees over the street, the diversity of people walking around the neighborhood. My personal stress level is much lower when I'm thinking about the things going on around me in my neighborhood then when my mind is focused on other things.

How can we each help make our neighborhoods more walkable?

This is a tough question because it really varies from place to place and what the local preferences are. If you're having a problem with aspects of your neighborhood, the first thing is to bring the neighbors together and talk about the issues. You might find that an easy solution can come from this. If a solution can't be derived from this one-on-one approach, it's important to form a neighborhood organization to discuss problems.

I would be very wary of [easy] solutions—many times the best solutions for improving walkability in a neighborhood are counter-intuitive. I would highly recommend talking to a walkability expert first; your local traffic engineer may not be aware of the best solutions either. And no, speed bumps are not going to solve your problems.

Getting the help of a livability professional may also help ease neighborhood apprehension to ideas that you might not have dreamed of considering. For instance, most people seem to be scared of higher density or taller buildings in their neighborhood. However, if the design is done correctly, even though the buildings may be taller or close together they can have a low-density feel about them. The key is all in the design. For any neighborhood to be walkable, in reality, you need a mix of land uses, higher density of residents, and small block sizes with connected streets (usually not cul de sacs or sound walls, and never gated communities).

Eric's comments highlight an important element of any walkable neighborhood: so much of its success relies on people simply noticing their surroundings and talking to each other. Even if you're in an area that requires long distance driving, consider hopping on the bus instead of isolating yourself in a car. Smile at the folks you pass on the street, say hello to the store clerks and bus drivers and delivery guys you come into contact with. These individual actions create small connections as you go, and enough of them can create a real sense of community.

I think there's a little Marcovaldo in all of us, desperate to feel comfortable and safe in the outside world. Walkable neighborhoods create these feelings—but it's people that create walkable neighborhoods.


Eric is currently planning a website that "will profile many of the various walkable neighborboods in the U.S., so people interested in living in these types of neighborhoods can more easily find them." In the meantime, he's provided the following resources on walkable neighborhoods:

Suburban Nation by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck
Fast Food Nation gives some history on sprawl
Other books that I've heard are fantastic, but I haven't read include: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, and The Geography of Nowhere by James Kunstler.

For blog junkies like myself, my favorites are:
My own (of course): walkableneighborhoods.com (I do have a list of helpful links and resources there)
CoolTown Studios
Planning Livable Communities
Veritas et Venustas
LivinginUrbanSac
StreetsBlog

Other great websites include:
walkable.org
Walk Sydney Streets Photos
Planetizen
Smart Growth America
American Planning Association's website

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May 24, 2007

Dump Your Waste on Students!

I just received a really nice email from the editor of a local book publisher who has found a fantastic, simple, easy, efficient way to get rid of a large portion of the company's waste.

When bringing a book to print, publishers create what they call dummies: mock-ups of a book that demonstrate where everything will go, often with blank pages. These books get tossed in the trash or, less frequently, recycled, once the book goes to print. Weldon Owen is no exception to this practice, and the company was faced with hundreds of dummies piling up and destined for the trash heap.

Cue the editor, who contacted a local parents group to see if they could use these books. The response was incredible:
"Oh. My God...dozens of folks wrote back, saying they'd love to have dummies for schools or summer art programs. I just brought the dummies home (probably 400 or more—once I started getting the avalanche of responses, I sent round an all-company e-mail, asking everyone to clean out their stashes), stacked them in my driveway, and sent an e-mail to all the people who'd responded, saying 'Come and get 'em!' In one weekend, all the dummies were gone, and I got several e-mails from folks asking if there were going to be any more, because their school could use more."
So not only did Weldon Owen get all those useless books off their hands, but they gave a large number of kids art supplies. Talk about two birds with one stone. So if you're a publisher looking to unload a number of dummies, contact teachers and parents groups. And if your a parent who needs some cool blank books for kids, try reaching ou to a local publisher and ask if you can have their dummies.

And here's a list of organizations who take "waste" and use it to make art:
Can't find a materials exchange organization near you? Try contacting your local trash pick-up; often they have recycling and materials reclamation programs that aren't well advertised.

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May 01, 2007

Help Green New Orleans and Win Big!

A tragedy, a city of opportunity, and a whole lot of green prizes!

Christal and Kaden White would like to go home. But Christal's story is not your typical post-Katrina plight of a mother and her newborn son struggling to make it back to New Orleans amid a broken and neglected system. Sure, Hurricane Katrina destroyed Christal's childhood home. And yes, Katrina also took the home Christal had just purchased and renovated—her first—only two weeks before mother and son were to move in. But Christal's quest to return home is marked by a different struggle: the struggle to not just rebuild her own home but to rebuild her entire city, and to rebuild it sustainably.

"In the wake of Katrina," says Christal, "I was blown away. I walked into the remains of my home with a breathing apparatus on to take inventory of what was left. And to say goodbye. It was heartbreaking." But rather than lose hope, or walk away, or even concentrate on rebuilding her own home, Christal had an altogether different response: "In that moment, it all clicked. Everything that I had been doing was good but it wasn't good enough; more had to be done. And if ever there was a time to change things, this was it."

So Christal has organized a fundraising raffle to benefit the Green Project, a New Orleans nonprofit that reclaims building materials, recycles them and resells them at below-market cost to help the New Orleans rebuilding efforts. The Green Project is more than just a demo company: it also incorporates a recycling center, a community garden, and an interactive community space that uses salvaged material to create art. Christal champions the Green Project and all they have done for the city: "The Green Project is an amazing organization that helps to deconstruct piece by piece and salvage everything that they can from buildings to preserve history and architecture. The Recycle for the Arts portion of the program takes anything seemingly unusable and puts into use in art projects that capture the local culture and flavor of my unique city. They were the eco-logical choice."

If you're starting to get the sense that Christal has a thing for being green, you might be right. When she temporarily relocated after Hurricane Katrina, she did so with the help of her employer, the Kimpton Hotel Group. Christal, in fact, is working as an eco-concierge in one of their hotels until she can move back home (perhaps she can convince them to donate a hotel stay to her raffle...hint, hint).

Christal's unique job seems to be serving her well; she's organized a series of prize drawings in which she'll be giving away bags stuffed with green goods from the likes of Big Dipper Wax Works, Terrapass, Ikea, Method Home, Greenfield Paper, Simply Organic, Envirosax, Greenfeet and more. All it takes is a small—and we do mean small—donation. Just $10 will enter you (but we'd suggest buying a few tickets to increase your odds; heck, why not buy an entry for your best buddy?). All of the proceeds go to the New Orleans Green Project, who will use the money to supplement the organization's operating expenses.

And boy, do they need the money. According to the Green Project's director, aptly named Angie Green, "People are forgetting that we still need help. Right now, The Green Project is focusing our efforts on directing the building materials from damaged homes back into reuse, instead of the landfill. " You can help their efforts by purchasing a raffle ticket through Christal's fundraising blog, where you'll find additional details including drawing dates and a prize list. If we play our cards right, this just might be a situation where everybody wins!

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April 03, 2007

New York Politicoes Recognize a Poverty-Diet Connection

A recent blurb in New York Magazine announced the formation of New York's first ever Food Policy Council. If that sounds boring to you, take a closer look: the Council has been assigned the task of getting local and organic foods into low income NY neighborhoods.

Take a walk around any low income urban neighborhood and you're likely to find a liquor store on nearly every corner. Large grocery stores, which tend to carry foods at a cheaper cost than specialty or convenience stores, are hard to find—and those that do exist often feature a dismal selection of fresh produce. Good luck finding affordable organics or locally-produced options. The problem isn't just one of convenience or deliciousness; studies have shown that lower income communities have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related conditions.

This is where food policy councils come in. Although your state or community may already have one, chances are you don't know about it (see this list for your local council). These councils tend to operate in the background, with small budgets and little attention. That's what happens when your focus is something as mundane as how food gets from point A to point B.

Luckily, however, the tide is starting to turn. Thanks to a huge burst of press, not least of which includes Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, people are paying more attention to their food supply. As farmers scramble to plant more corn (no, not for consumption—for fuel, instead), and children continue to go hungry right here in the U.S., how we handle our food becomes extremely important. Call me crazy, but I can't help thinking we're in for a massive cultural shift when it comes to feeding ourselves. Hopefully.


Further reading:
"Transportation, Food Supplies and Local Economies" at Worldchanging.com
"Healthy Foods, Strong Communities" report by the National Housing Insitute
People's Grocery, a mobile grocery store based in Oakland, CA
State and local food policy councils FAQ


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March 27, 2007

Can You Eat Locally Without Spending a Fortune?

The folks at Eat Local Challenge are at it again. This time they're putting their money where their mouth is: for one week, participants will attempt to eat only foods produced within their local foodshed and do so within the budget of the average American.

Given that one of the most common excuses for not eating organic, or not eating locally, or not eating lower on the food chain (pick one), tends to be the high cost of good food, this should be an intriguing challenge to watch.

Of course, it begs the questions: How much does the average American spend on food? Are these limits realistic? To the group's credit, they are using 2005 statistics from the Department of Labor that limit a family of more than two with two wage earners to $144/week. Does this seem realistic for a family of four? Does this seem realistic for your region? Check out the budgets for other household sizes and let me know if you think this is doable.

To learn more or join in, visit the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge Nuts and Bolts Page.

[Am I participating? Not in this one, no. The Captain and I are about to start planning for our first 1-month eat local challenge, and we're going no-budget on this one. We will, however, keep track of our budget and I'll report back here.]

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February 28, 2007

Walkable Neighborhoods

What does the phrase city planning conjur up in your mind? If you're like most folks I come across, you have one of two reactions. Either your eyes glaze over and you visualize boring suits at ineffectual hearings making pointless decisions for the rest of us, or you think of traffic jams, road rage, no parking and chain stores.

Either way, if you think city planning doesn't affect you, think again. Every step you take outside your house is impacted by the folks who planned and created your built environment. There was a great example of this in a recent edition of the SF Chronicle. The article in question discusses how the residents of the New Urbanist community in Hercules, CA aren't in walking distance of a local coffee shop. They have to get in their cars to run to the corner store. That's not just inefficient, it's bad for the environment.

I brought up the benefits of walkable neighborhoods long before I came across the Walkable Neighborhoods blog. Although apparently somewhat commercial in nature (the group works to link realtors with homeowners who value a walkable community), it offers really great insights into the benefits and possibilities of neighborhoods that encourage residents to interact with their environment and, ultimately, each other.

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December 04, 2006

Sustainability is Closer Than You Think

Do you have a Sun Fat? How about an El Chico #4? These are just a couple of the neighborhood markets we've been frequenting recently as we try to wean ourselves from the expense that is Rainbow Grocery and the chain that is Trader Joe's.

Don't get me wrong—I love TJ's, especially their seemingly unlimited house brand selection and the fact that their staff is always—and I mean always—friendly and helpful. And I love Rainbow's selection of cheeses and craft beers. But not only do I have to drive to either of these places if I want to buy more than one bag of groceries, Rainbow is frighteningly expensive and TJ's ships their products all over the country to a rather gas-guzzling degree.

So in an effort to stay local, we went exploring. My 'hood really is just that—corner liquor stores every two blocks (one of which brilliantly blasts classical music at night to keep the thugs from hanging on their corner), dollar stores, about a dozen bars in a ten-block radius, gang members every now and then, dirty streets.

But it is also a thriving neighborhood—one of the few places in the city where families and immigrants (mostly Mexican) can afford to live. A tiny little park was just completely overhauled, and there are mom-and-pop shops everywhere. These are the places that often have more to offer than meets the eye.

These stores don't look like much from the outside. They might be in older buildings, or lack the branding of an Ikea or Starbucks. Most of them have signs that aren't in English, so unless you either know about them already or are willing to poke your head inside and get a strange look or two, you might never even notice them. But shopping at these stores reduce your environmental footprint, keep your money in the local economy, and often encourage a tighter community overall.

Some of our favorites are:

El Chico #4: A Mexican grocery that has a great selection of really good-looking produce, sundries and meats. They are always friendly and the store is always clean. The best part? I can walk out weighed down with two full bags of groceries for less than $10.

Sun Fat Seafood Company: I don't eat meat, but the ol' man does. And in his effort to cut down on red meat, he discovered this gem after searching high and low for a fish market worth frequenting. I generally don't like the smell of fish, but this place is incredible: immaculate, odor-free, well-stocked and cheap. Even I thought the fish looked appetizing, and the ol' man reports that it tastes "really good."

Philz Coffee: I've taken a break from Philz because his Turkish coffee is so intense I can only take it in small doses. But holy crap, is it good! He hand brews every cup from any of a dozen or more different hand-roasted blends.

Maybe I'm lucky that I live in el barrio because it puts me within walking distance of so many incredible family-owned businesses. But no matter where you are you likely have some, too. And the only way you'll ever discover them is if you leave your car at home, your expectations and hesitations aside, and take a walk around the 'hood.

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