November 14, 2007

Pennsylvania Says Information is the Enemy

If you're one of the thousands of consumers who likes to know what chemicals go into your food, Pennsylvania has a big screw you for ya:
"Effective Jan. 1, dairies selling milk in Pennsylvania, the nation's fifth-largest dairy state, will be banned from advertising on milk containers that their product comes from cows that have never been treated with rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin."
That's right—dairies are no longer allowed to let their customers know that they don't give rBST to their cows. The result is that customers will have no way of knowing which dairy products they buy are hormone free (unless they buy certified organics).

Monsanto lobbies states to ban rBST free label on dairy.

The law is likely going to spread (New Jersey and Ohio are next) as Monsanto, the country's largest producer of agro-chemicals used on our nation's food supply, lobbies state governments to increase the ban. Their logic? Letting customers know what's not in our milk "implies that competitors' milk is not safe."

There is something excruciatingly perverse about this ruling, and it's not just that agribusiness and government are trying to keep information from consumers. What's really perverse is that dairies are labeling their milk "rBST free" because consumers want them to; it adds value to the product. Monsanto recognizes this, and instead of adapting their business paradigm to meet this dramatic shift in consumer demand, they are forcing consumers to conform to their standards. That's not really how the free market is supposed to work, though, is it?

Further reading:
Full story from
Bovine growth hormone information from the Organic Consumers' Association
List of rBST free dairy producers

[Cross-posted to Blog!]

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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 13, 2007

What the World Eats

The hands-down most striking thing I've learned as I continue to integrate sustainability into my life is how deeply rooted the food supply is into everything I do. I worked on the graphic design for an incredible documentary film called Crude Impact, which traces our dependence on oil through every facet of our lifestyle (including food, clothing, transportation, etc), and I am constantly reminded of the supply chain now when I pick up a bag of hot dog buns or sample an organic strawberry at our local farmers' market.

This never-ending connection between the food on my plate and what it took to get it here seems even more extensive when I consider What the World Eats, a photo essay capturing a week's supply of food for average families across the globe (the photos are excerpted from Peter Menzel's Hungry Planet). I was reminded of this project when reading Sugar Mountain Farm's own version. Farmer and blogger Walter Jeffries describes the challenge of actually pulling out one week's worth of food, particularly given that the family tends to buy in bulk and eat very seasonally. Any photo would only capture a fraction of the family's dietary reality.

Given these challenges, it's easy to understand why we're all not emptying our fridges and laying our cabinets bare for all to see. But such an exercise forces us to consider two very important ideas:
  1. How much we pay for the food we eat. In Time's photo essay, for example, the difference is remarkable between the Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp ($1.23/week: sacks of grain, rice, beans and what looks like small amounts of dried fruit), and the Revis family of North Carolina ($341.98/week: Diet Coke and Capri Sun, bags of chips, take out pizza).

  2. What we eat. It's easy to overlook our habits when we take each one in isolation; that order of fries at lunch was no big deal, but five days in a row?! Seeing everything in one place forces us to witness patterns and habits, for better or worse.
These immediate issues are significant ones for sure. But there are other, subtler, issues that are worth thinking about, too. What did it take to get this food to my plate? When the farmer hands me a tomato he's grown himself, there is an accountability and a reassurance that doesn't exist if I were to pick up a tomato at Safeway. The Safeway tomato must be treated to prevent it from over ripening before arrival, trucked across who knows how many states, and then stored in Safeway's own facilities. Not only is it not as fresh (although it may look deceivingly so), I have no idea what's been put on it, how it's been grown, etc. And I have nobody to ask.

All of this may seem obvious to those who make a conscious effort to eat locally and organic, but that's still a very small percentage of the population. Projects like What the World Eats quietly call attention to these subtler issues, and raise questions we may or may not have yet asked ourselves. Regardless of how and where we eat, and with whom, it can be a real eye opener to spread it all out in once place and take a cold, hard look.

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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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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 11, 2007

Which is Greener: Cloth Napkins or Paper?

Which is Greener? Cloth Napkins or Paper Napkins?No one would accuse me of being too civilized; I eat asparagus with my fingers, thank you very much. And so I am a napkin user. I grew up in a household that used paper napkins at every meal—the standard issue 6"-square, white paper napkin that crumples nicely and doesn't quite hold up to stuff like barbeque.

The Captain, on the other hand, grew up using cloth napkins. The first time I visited his folks, I was amazed by how many sets of cloth napkins his mom kept stashed away for every meal. Wow, classy! I thought. And then it occurred to me that perhaps this was a much better way to treat the environment: instead of wasting paper napkins mutliple times a day, we could reuse cloth napkins over and over and over again! Less waste, right?

The Triple Pundit doesn't think so, though. When asked the question "Is it more efficient to use linen napkins (factoring in the energy for picking them up and washing them) or paper napkins (recycled paper napkins)?" columnist Pablo Päster answers with a remarkably detailed breakdown of the various environmental considerations involved.

The result may surprise you; it sure surprised me. Turns out that using 100% recycled paper napkins may, in fact, have a less detrimental effect on the environment! So it looks like I'll leave the cloth napkins in the closet until our next dinner party, and switch back to paper for regular meals. Just to make things even greener, it turns out that in San Francisco it's perfectly acceptable to compost our soiled paper napkins!

Pablo's response—in addition to offering a practical response to a common environmental question—highlights another important point: we can't just start blindly making changes to our lifestyles and habits (on either a micro or macro scale) without first understanding the complexity of the issues. It's important to base our decisions on reality, not blind assumptions. As we continue to ask questions as simple as which napkins should we use? and as complex as how do we feed the world without destroying it, too? we need to remain open to some surprising discoveries and counterintuitive answers.

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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
"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 30, 2007

USDA: Stop Testing For Mad Cow Disease!

Imagine that a private organization began offering free HIV testing for anyone that wanted it, giving people the opportunity to take control of their health. Now imagine that the federal government threatened to sue said organization, claiming that widespread HIV testing could potentially cause false positives, thereby harming the HIV testing industry. Does this seem assinine and backwards to you?

Well, that is exactly what the federal government is doing when it comes to testing for Mad Cow Disease. Not content with reducing their own testing by 90%, the USDA has threatened to sue a midwest ranch who requested permission to voluntarily test all their cattle for BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow). The USDA feels that allowing one company to make sure its customers can eat mad cow-free meat would be detrimental to the meat industry as a whole. Huh? That's right: free enterprise be damned, let's not give the rest of the industry any ideas. God forbid we should have massive testing for a fatal disease! And at the expense of...the company producing the meat, no less!

One of the principle tenets of sustainability is the recognition that each individual choice we make has an impact that extends beyond our immediate actions. Unfortunately, we continue to allow the federal government to make these choices for us. More significantly, we allow the federal government to make more of them, at a greater cost, with a wider impact. It is unconscionable that a company trying to provide vital information to its customers is being hamstringed in such an insidious way. But why is the Department of Agriculture so opposed to Creekstone Farms' plan to test for BSE? The reasons are threefold:

It might undermine the USDA's current testing system.

The USDA claims that allowing a private producer to conduct widespread testing would cast a poor light on the government's current practice of random testing on less than 1% of slaughtered cows by implying that Creekstone's method is better than the USDA's.

It might cause widespread testing to become a national standard.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association supports the government's position, agreeing that should Creekstone be allowed to voluntarily test all their animals, other producers would be pressured to follow suit to accomodate consumer demand.

It might put the fear of God into meat eaters.

If Creekstone increases the frequency of testing, it stands to reason that they will be likelier to test more positives and/or false positives, statistically speaking. Either way, it might affect consumers beef buying habits at the expense of the cattle industry's (aka large meat processors') profits. And we all know how concerned the USDA is with the industry's profits.
This is the kind of backdoor regulation that most consumers never find out about. Luckily, a federal judge has ruled that the USDA doesn't have the authority to regulate the BSE test to the degree that it was. If the USDA doesn't appeal, then Creekstone can go ahead with its $500,000 testing lab. So what can you do to ensure your meat is safe? The best you can do is take the time to understand what you're putting in your body:
  • Know your supplier. Choose meats from local ranchers who have committed to humane and/or sustainable practices (you can search the Eat Well Guide and Local Harvest).
  • Ask them questions, like do you use steroids or sgrowth hormones? Do you allow animals pasture land or space for free roaming? Do you feed animals antibiotics or animal by-products (the big one)?
  • Don't make assumptions about what you read on labels. You may need to do a little legwork to discover what phrases like "humanely raised" and "free range" really mean to each individual supplier.

Further reading:
Creekstone Farms' press release
2004 article on original USDA refusal
Letter to the editor from one angry cattle veterinarian

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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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March 10, 2007

Soda Pop's Popularity Drops

It might be hard to believe but if beverage sales are any indication, Americans are paying more attention to their health. For the past two years, the sales of carbonated soft drinks like Pepsi and Coke have decreased, according to a recent Beverage Digest report. The decline is slight, which on its own might not hold much significance. But now consider this: while soda sales have gone down, juice sales have increased even more dramatically. This is good news for a couple of reasons:
  1. Consumers vote with their dollars. If demand for high fructose corn syrup-laden products falls demonstrably, manufacturers will put their dollars elsewhere.
  2. We'll see more healthy options. The surge to release healthier, premium beverages with an organic focus has already begun, according to a recent article in Beverage Industry Magazine.
The trend towards healthier products shouldn't come as a surprise; the public has been throttled by reports of contaminated foods, inhumane industry practices and rising obesity rates. And it looks like Americans are learning the lesson: eat and drink healthier. Who woulda thunk it?

Quick Tip!
If you're in need of hydration, skip the bottled waters that litter the shelves. At around a buck a bottle (and often more), it would cost you $8 a day to drink all the water you need. And just think of all those bottles wasted.

Instead, consider a nalgene bottle filled with filtered tap water. The dishwasher-safe bottles last forever, and they pay for themselves many times over. You can get 'em almost anywhere these days; I got mine at REI (it's even on sale for four bucks!).

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March 04, 2007

How Far Has Your Food Travelled?

Years ago, President Bush signed a law. This law required that meats, fish, perishable agricultural commodities (produce) and other foods be labeled with details about where they come from. This way, consumers (you and I) could read a label and decide if we want to buy foods produced in the U.S., or foods shipped overseas from other countries and trucked in from all corners of the continent. A good place to start if you're just beginning on the local eating path.

But two years later, the law had not been implemented and Bush signed a new law delaying its implementation until 2006. Then in 2005, he signed another law delaying the original requirements until late 2008. What do you think will come of that law if this continues?

Seems likely it will keep being delayed and delayed until a law is passed wiping it off the books forever, and consumers will continue to be left in the dark about the foods they eat. But a group of farmers and consumer advocates hopes to change that. The Farmers Union, the Organic Consumers Association, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and others have officially "urged Congress to implement the law by September, 2007," according to a recent Reuters report.

You can do something!
Does it matter to you where your food comes from? Would you like to know whether those potatoes are from Chile or from Idaho? (Small Failures doubts that Chile produces many potatoes but you get the idea.) If you think this is important, we encourage you to send a quick email to the man in charge, one Stephen Altizer (you can edit the subject and body of your message to reflect your own words if you like).

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February 26, 2007

Do the Oscars Mark a New Trend?

My interest was piqued this morning when I went looking for the Oscars winner's list and came across this tidbit at SF Gate instead:
Oscar goes green
There's a push for green products and practices at this year's Academy Awards, and gift bags will be bursting with eco-friendly products. And even though rehab is becoming de rigueur for celebrities, several Oscar events will feature Mothership Wit, an organic beer by New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins, CO (the maker of Fat Tire Amber Ale ), which boasts that it is the country's first fully wind-powered brewery. Finally, a beer we can feel virtuous drinking. -- Karola Saekel
One of the events, it turns out, was Global Green USA's pre-Oscar party. Now, that's a party worth attending! If what our country's celebrities are drinking during their before- and after-parties is any indication, sustainability is on the rise in the brewing world. Of course, New Belgium is getting all the press but there are other breweries doing their part as well. Some of these folks brew organic beers, while others focus on making their operations more sustainable. No matter how you pour it, these breweries are giving beer a good name:
  • Sierra Nevada: A pioneer in sustainable brewing technology and great beer, too!
  • Otter Creek: Are you suprised their Wolaver's organic line of beers is brewed in Vermont?
  • East End Brewing: Local to Pittsburgh, East End is committed to operating sustainably.
  • Brooklyn Brewing: Just like New Belgium, Brooklyn operates on wind power.
  • Anderson Valley: The makers of Boont Amber went solar last year.
  • Uinta: Also wind-powered and energy efficient.
  • Butte Creek: They offer a line of organic beers.
  • Sam Smith's: The U.K. brewery's gotten in on the act with their organic lager and ale options.
  • Peak Organic: A lil' brewery in Massachusetts, these folks do organic beers exclusively.
  • St. Peter's: This brewer of traditional styles offers an organic ale and an organic best bitter.
  • Bison: California locals can enjoy their entire selection of organics.
  • Roots Organic: Looks like Oregon's first organic brewery is only available at local restaurants.
  • Pitfield: A U.K. beer shop and brewery offering organic options.
  • Seven Bridges: Supplier of homebrewing ingredients and equipment with an organic bent.
While that's a pretty decent list, I've decided to compile a more comprehensive version (because I don't have enough projects on my plate). So this is an official "call for entries;" if you know of any organic beers, organic breweries, breweries who are taking measures to operate sustainably, or if you're an organic and/or sustainable brewer yourself, please please please get in touch. You can either email me at jessie [at] smallfailures [dot] com, or just post a comment here!

[Cross posted to Bar Stories] And in case you're wondering, I have covered this topic briefly before.

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February 21, 2007

Green Your Trip to the Grocery Store

When Safeway announced their house O Organics brand, we knew change was a-comin’. But Florida-based Publix has one-upped the California chain with its plans to open four locations dedicated exclusively to green groceries. These Publix GreenWise Markets, the first of which is set to open in Palm Beach Gardens, FL in late Summer/early Fall of this year, will offer shoppers a wide range of products that focus on “health, natural and organic foods.”

As far as Small Failures can tell, Publix is the first major supermarket chain to open a location—let alone four of them—that exclusively features products with a green focus. While the final product mix has not yet been determined according to Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous, offerings will include the supermarket’s private label GreenWise brand and will focus on prepared foods. There’s no word if the supermarket will offer options such as recycled or reusable grocery bags, or other environmentally friendly practices.

Here are seven tips for making your trip to Publix GreenWise (or any other grocery store) even more sustainable:
  1. Walk to the store.
  2. Bring your own bag.
  3. Ditch the plastic produce bags (that’s an awful lot of landfill for a bag used for no more than a few minutes).
  4. Read the label (look for less processed and natural ingredients, organic and Fair Trade labels, local addresses, and recycled or recyclable packaging).
  5. Buy recycled paper products (think about all the paper towels and toilet paper you consume, then think about switching to recycled, unbleached products).
  6. Consider safer cleaning products (Method, Mrs. Meyers and other non-toxic brands are increasingly available in mainstream markets).
  7. Buy bulk (it’s harder, of course, if you didn’t bring your car but buying larger quantities means fewer trips to the store).

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February 20, 2007

Save the World a Sandwich at a Time

peanut butter and jelly sandwich campaignI have always been a sucker for a peanut butter sandwich, ever since having to write a step-by-step instruction guide for making one in the 5th grade (this was a lesson in following directions and literalism, or something).

But apparently my peanut butter addiction has been making a difference: every sammich I've eaten has saved anywhere from 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions than if I had eaten a hamburger! Given how many peanut butter sandwiches I've eaten over the course of my life, that means I've saved at least 7,500 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. Damn, I'm good! (I also happen to have saved over 36,000 square feet of land from deforestation, overgrazing, and pesticide and fertilizer pollution!)

And now you, too, can help save the sandwich at a time. The campaign appears to be the work of do-gooder Bernard Brown, who perhaps has just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma. Regardless, who can complain? Eat up, smokey!

[via Sustainablog] [Edited to correct my stupid statistical math.]

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February 16, 2007

Kids Think Green is Gross!

We all know that kids are picky eaters, but it turns out that it may have more to do with marketing than with actual taste. According to an article in the Buffalo News, local schoolchildren there turned up their noses when their name brand yogurt was replaced with an organic brand that actually won in blind taste tests with those very same kids. Yogurt sales plummeted more than 50%.

Even before Reagan proposed that ketchup be considered a vegetable, school lunches were barely enough to keep kids full, let alone healthy. Originally intended to affordably feed the nation's hungry students, whose schoolwork and health were suffering from hunger pangs, the national school lunch program fell frighteningly short of its goals. Increasingly, though, city kids are discovering new options that leave their bellies full and their hearts just a little healthier. The question now is, how can we sell our kids on it?

Many of the healthy lunch programs being toyed with these days have goals that go beyond getting kids to simply "eat right." They recognize that children are inundated with advertising these days, and need to be trained to make connections that until now have been deliberately severed: like how the food we put into our bodies affects our state of mind, our ability to function properly and our long-term health. And even how the food choices we make impact the world around us, on both a local level and a global one.

Programs like Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard teach schoolchildren how to grow their own food, thereby making these connections. This is a growing movement, and is largely grassroots in nature. If you have a school-age child, seriously consider whether they are getting the nutrition they need when you send them off each day. Because chances are, they are gulping down sugar-laden sodas, and fat-ridden chips and candy.

If you want your kids to eat something different, try these options:
  • Feed them better at home: According to the Buffalo News report, that is the most effective way to get kids to make better choices when they're on their own.
  • Talk to your school district: Tell your child's educators what you expect of them. Get other parents involved for a stronger influence.
  • Get help: Many organizations work with city school districts to educate kids about nutrition in fun, effective ways. A lot of these even help schools start vegetable gardens and educate the schools themselves on how to serve more nutrutional food. A few programs to get you started include Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard (California), FoodChange (New York), the School Food Trust (U.K.) and Sustainable Food Systems (a consulting firms for schools).
Also check out Two Angry Moms, a documentary about what happens when parents finally get involved in their kids' diet.

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February 06, 2007

Will You Be Eating Cloned Meat?

Cloned meat is on its way but you won't have a clue when it hits your local grocery store. According to the Detroit Free Press, the U.S. government, which passed preliminary approval of the sale of cloned meat and dairy products in December, doesn't plan to require that those products be labeled for the consumer. That means that when sale of cloned meat is approved (likely to be sometime this year), you'll have no warning.

As vegetarian as I may be, I don't intend to rail against meat-eating as a practice (although I will plug independently ranched, grass-fed beef over the typical corn-fed factory beef most Americans eat). But that's another story. So how will you know whether your hamburger was grown in a petri dish, so to speak?

Well, apparently the watered-down organic labeling laws here in the U.S. at least cover this much: any food carrying the USDA organic seal of approval must be clone-free. If you are as worried as I am about ingesting a giant experiment conducted by the nation's corporate factory farms and subsidized by the U.S. government, here are a few ideas for ensuring your meat is clone-free:
  • Search the Eat Well Guide for organic ranches
  • Search Local Harvest for organic ranchers
  • Ask to speak to the manager of your local grocery store and express your concern
  • Ask the restaurants you dine at if they intend to purchase clone-free meat, or label their dishes
  • Send a letter to the FDA expressing your concern with the click of a button

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January 30, 2007

Composting Food Doesn't Have to Be Gross

compost your food scrapsI am lucky to live in one of the greenest cities in the U.S. (San Francisco). I can recycle almost all of my waste, find organic foods within walking distance and take public transportation (however scummy) almost anywhere I need to. But until this week, I was passing up a huge opportunity to reduce my waste even more.

Just like many of my neighbors, my kitchen is quite small. In fact, until recently we didn't even have counters (actually, does the single square foot of granite next to our stove count?). This fact kept me from feeling too guilty about not composting my food scraps. But the other thing our kitchen lacks is a garbage disposal, which means all of our food scraps get scraped into a trash bag. And then, of course, the trash bag goes into the landfill. So what's a conscientious girl to do?

Composting would require too much floor space (for a composting can), too much smell (we'd have to save a whole lot of compost before it was worth a trip to drop it off), and too much time (we'd have to find a place that accepts compost materials, load up the car and deliver it). And then our city came to the rescue. Actually, San Francisco has been offering composting services for some time now, through it's waste removal contractor, Sunset Scavenger. But stupid me didn't realize it until our upstairs neighbors dragged the big green can outside one day.

As soon as I saw that green can sitting there next to the blue recycling bin and the black waste can, I began thinking about how much of our daily trash is made up of food scraps. There's the coffee grounds and filter I throw out every morning, the waste from prepping dinner every night (you know: carrot peels, zucchini tops, rinds from Parmesan cheese...what can I say, I like to cook), and the inevitable old leftovers that occasionally turn my fridge into a science experiment.

composted material turns into useful garden fertilizerIt turns out that finding a new and useful home for all that waste isn't as difficult—or as dirty—as I thought it would be. I simply used an empty cardboard milk carton to store the scraps, which is great for two reasons: it's small enough so that it doesn't take up any space, and I can keep it in the fridge, which cuts down on the smell. Once it's full (about 5 days later it's still got room), I can just drop the whole thing in the big green can. No muss, no fuss, no smell, and no need for a giant pile of rotting food in the garden that I don't even have.

But what if your city doesn't provide you with big green composting cans? A quick Google search (just enter your city and "composting program") turns up all sorts of options. And if you still can't find a local program, you can always try these options:
  • If you have a garden, use it: You can make your own compost pile or purchase composting bins to fertilize your own garden (it's cheap, safe and easy).
  • Give to another gardener: Neighbors, community gardening groups and local farmers might all be grateful to receive your scraps.
  • Give it to a commercial composter: Many cities are home to commercial composting facilities, who will be more than happy to take your waste. Again, a great time for a Google search.
Ultimately, composting can be as easy or as involved as you want it to be. And since about 35% of all municipal waste in the U.S. is made up of food scraps (that's about 26 million tons!), it's a great way to reduce your impact.

Further reading:
A Complete Guide to Composting
How to Compost
Composting 101
Journey to Forever's Compost Pages

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January 06, 2007

Cool Jerk: Control Fridge Waste

What is it about the Quest for the Holy Snack? You know exactly what I'm talking about: you're craving something delicious—maybe sweet, maybe salty, maybe crunchy, maybe ice cream—so you open the refrigerator door to see what you've got. And then you stand there and stare.

How many times a day do you do this? If you're like me, you do it a fair amount. But I'm on a new quest now—one to change my fridgerly habits. Surprisingly, I've discovered that it's really quite easy...

Step 1: Clean the fridge outside
Refrigerators are remarkable easy to move. They generally slide right out from the wall. From there, you can see all the nasty bits and dust that collect along the coils. Clean it up! This stuff keeps the fridge from running at maximum efficiency. Do it once a month (that's about 5 minutes of your time), and you're good to go.

Step 2: Clean the fridge inside
Nobody likes a casserole dish full of mystery loaf. When you get rid of old and expired products, it becomes much easier to see what you actually do want eat. Try storing items in clear glass containers—they're reusable, and you avoid the out of site, out of mind phenomenon.

Step 3: Close the damn door!
This one's easy. Now that your fridge is clean and organized, and you can see all your food through glass bowls, it shouldn't take you long to decide what you want. Why is this important? Because your fridge loses a lot of cold air when you open it even for a minute and it takes extra energy to re-cool once you close the door. It's been reported that the standard snack-seeker increases their energy use by 5-10% through the simple act of routinely opening and closing the fridge door.

Step 4: Turn it down
How cold does your refrigerator run? If you can stand to turn down the temperature even a single level, you'll save a lot of energy. Do the same for your freezer if it has a seperate control.

Step 5: Fill 'er up
While normally I would never recommend simply filling your fridge with useless foods that you'll probably never eat, I can't deny that a full fridge uses less energy than an empty one. This is because the air required to stay cool takes up less volume than the food itself. This is particularly useful for your freezer, where you can store food for longer and waste less.

Step 6: Replace it altogether
Not everyone can do this—us renters are stuck with the fridge we've got. But if you're a homeowner, consider replacing your fridge with an Energy Star rated appliance. Not only will you use less energy, but some gas & electric providers actually offer additional discounts on your bill when you buy these products. You can download a handy Excel spreadsheet to calculate just what you'll save.

Aside from replacing your appliance, all of these steps require about 10 minutes of your time per month. So what are you waiting for? Once you're done, you can reward yourself with some cookies—and you don't even need to open the fridge to get them.

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December 26, 2006

The Path to Recovery is Paved with Fresh and Local Vegetables

The year is winding down and reflections are inevitable. Small Failures is still very young and I am still feeling it out, choosing new directions, and generally learning about what makes sense for both Small Failures and my readers.

I received a wonderful Christmas gift yesterday: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. This book has been getting a lot of press, much like Fast Food Nation did when it came out, and for good reason. The book traces several food chains that we all live with nowadays: industrial agriculture (factory farms, etc.), alternative agriculture (organics et al.), and hunter-gatherer agriculture (few of us ever participate, of course). Pollan's writing and use of language is remarkable, and I look forward to devouring the entire book.

Having only read through the introduction, I find myself wondering about my own ability to really affect change. The whole point of Small Failures is to begin with one, me (or you, the reader), and work on that. I do believe in the need for mass institutional change, but I also believe that successful social revolution begins at the individual level and ripples outward. (Geez, I promised myself I wouldn't get all polemic up in here.)

With all that said, I have discovered a blog that beautifully captures this idea: Eat Local Challenge. A group of folks scattered across North America is exploring what it's like to only eat food produced locally. This is a tough challenge, one many of us have a hard time with. But as Pollan's book and my own experiences both reveal, I don't believe I need to sacrifice anything but old habits in order to do so.

So onward into 2007. Small Failures wishes you well and encourages you to share your own Small Failures with us. Email me at jessie [at] smallfailures [dot] com or simply post a comment. It matters.

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December 11, 2006

Menu for Hope: Feed and be Fed

How can you go wrong with a $10 entry fee and prizes that include Paris chocolate tours, a candy-red Kitchenaid mixer, and any number of other fabulous books, art pieces, tours and food items?

The proceeds this year go to the U.N. World Food Programme (last year participating food bloggers raised $17,000 for UNICEF). The raffle ends December 22nd, so get your bids in now and you'll end up with an incredible Christmas present for someone you love (yourself, perhaps?).

Go for it: Menu for Hope III

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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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December 02, 2006

Safeway “O” Organic Mac ‘n’ Cheese

It’s been getting mighty wintery around here lately, at least by San Francisco standards, so last night I figured to make myself a comforting bowl of macaroni and cheese. Lately I’ve been trying to master the art of Mac ‘n’ Cheese but that cheesy, creamy phenomenally addictive quality keeps eluding me. With my recent failures, small though they may be, still lingering, I opted instead for the box of Safeway “O” Organic White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese that had been tucked away for weeks in my kitchen cabinet.

I was leary as I eyed the box, wondering just how much cheesy goodness could really lie within. Would this grocery giant, whom I generally dislike for being one of the most inefficient, un-customer friendly chains I have ever experienced, really be able to pull off organic?

I even went so far as to rummage through my fridge to see what I had for Mac ‘n’ Cheese-worthy cheese. Nothing. The box it would be. After going through the typical Kraftesque motions, I sat down with what appeared to be a quite normal bowl of that most perfect of comfort foods. And to my surprise, it was halfway decent. Nothing spectacular, mind you, but what cardboard box full of powdered cheese ever is?

Packaging: Standard cardboard box with envelope of powdered cheese, apparently not made from recycled materials. Not too surprising, as the O brand is focused on health, not sustainability or eco-friendliness. It carries the USDA Organic label. As with most foods, the actual food fills up only 1/3 of the entire package. C-

The same as any boxed mac ‘n’ cheese. For once, the boiling time (8-10 min.) is actually accurate. Add in a little butter, milk, and the accompanying powdered cheese and you’ve got yourself a dinner. The only problem was that the cheese wasn’t easy to melt (even though I left it simmering while I added everything in). B

Looks darn good, if you ask me. White cheddar cheese means there’s not much color, but it looks creamy and cheesy. B+

Taste: It tastes like quality cheese, as opposed to fake powdery stuff. It doesn’t have that addictive quality (I prefer Annie’s for that), but it also doesn’t feel too heavy. Because the cheese didn’t melt very well, the result was a somewhat uneven cheesiness. Ah well, you can’t ‘em all. B+

The upshot:
A great alternative to any of the conventional brands. I have yet to try Annie’s Organic Shells & White Cheddar, but my local Safeway charges almost a dollar more for it. That’s one of the advantages of the house labeled products. If Safeway were my only shopping option, I’d likely keep a couple of boxes on hand for emergency dinners. But for now, I’ll stick to scratch until I master the Mac ‘n’ Cheese. B

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Dangerous Fruit: Just What Are You Eating?

The USDA recommends eating about 5 servings of fruits and veggies a day (cue mom). But are all fruits and vegetables created equal? They may start out that way, but thanks to factory farms and consumer demand for unblemished peppers and perfectly plump strawberries, dozens of pesticides are sprayed on and soaked into our produce.

Those chemicals inevitably find their way into our blood stream. And while many researchers insist this is a-okay, I'm just a little uncomfortable with that. Especially after reading about the Dirty Dozen, a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group. According to the report, eating the top twelve worst contaminated fruits & veggies will expose to you to about 15 different pesticides, while eating the bottom twelve on their list will expose you to about two.

The Dirty Dozen
Bell Peppers
Grapes (imported)
Yikes! I eat at least half of those items regularly. Luckily, we've been washing all of our produce religiously in a veggie wash called Environne, an all-natural wash that doesn't leave any taste on our food. We've been very happy with it, but we may not actually need it.

After reading about the Dirty Dozen, I tried to find research confirming that commercial produce washes actually work. The good news is they do. The not bad yet a little disappointing news is so does water (see this study, and this one—scroll down to find it). But these studies only tested for surface pesticides. Unfortunately, some pesticides sink in past the skins and can't be washed off. So if you want to reduce the amount of pesticides you ingest every day, try the following:
  1. Eat organic. USDA regulations require that foods labeled "100% organic" must not be exposed to any synthetic pesticides.
  2. Wash your produce well. Soaking your produce and agitating the water will remove many pesticides, although by no means all.
  3. Try a produce wash. You can buy a commercial wash, or even make your own using diluted vinegar and water. Be sure to rinse well, or your veggies may taste like that vinegar!
For an interesting back-and-forth about the benefits of veggie wash, check out the comments on Treehugger. And then think about the fruits and vegetables you eat every day.

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November 26, 2006

Are Your Organic Groceries Really Sustainable?

As the grocery giants jump on the organic bandwagon, their actions beg the question just how sustainable are the organic foods we buy at our local grocery store? If a core reason for buying organic—in addition to the health issue—is to contribute to a smaller, sustainable food economy, then where does our dollar really end up when we walk out with our bag of organic lettuce, or carton of organic milk?

It's no secret that organic is now big business; Wal-Mart has introduced what they call an "aggressive" plan toward sustainability, Safeway has rolled out their "O" brand and, according to a 2002 report, 39% of the U.S. population uses organic products. As a result, many sustainable-minded consumers (that's—hopefully—you and me) are trying to buy their food from smaller, independent companies. But there is one really, really big problem with this approach: it's nearly impossible.

In the chart above (view a larger version at creator Phil Howard's site), you can see how the organic food industry is already dominated by Big Business. Whether you buy from Whole Foods, Safeway or Wal-Mart, that organic milk you just picked up most likely came from cows lined up in feedlots much like conventional cows. So what? you ask. As long as it's legally labeled "organic," what does it matter? Well, for starters:
  1. Large-scale organic producers must ship their goods thousands of miles, depleting fuel resources and causing significant air pollution in the process.
  2. Big Business muscles their way around Washington, diluting USDA definitions of organic and loosening labeling restrictions.
  3. Large-scale organic producers inevitably rely on non-sustainable practices to remain profitable.
But this doesn't mean that you shouldn't buy organic products. In fact, there are plenty of things you can do to buy sustainable organics. Some are simple, while some may take a little more effort:
  1. Read labels: Look for production facilities that are close to home (this is by no means a fool-proof method, but it may help give you an indication of how far the item has traveled).
  2. Visit a farmers' market: Purchasing from nearby producers stimulates your local economy and helps reduce the freight impact of shipping over long distances (find a farmers' market near you).
  3. Subscribe to a vegetable box: Many farms offer a weekly or biweekly delivery service so that you don't have to hunt down organic produce (find a local subscription).

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November 17, 2006

Eating Sustainably, Eating Well

Think about this the next you buy some hamburger meat at Safeway, or Kroger, or some other chain grocery store: according to the Society of Concerned Scientists, 24.6 million pounds of antimicrobials (aka antibiotics commonly used to treat human diseases) are fed to U.S. cattle every year. And that's the stuff fed to livestock that isn't sick. There is growing concern that this kind of antiobiotic pumping can lead to drug resistence in humans, among other problems.

Eating sustainably means avoiding antibacteria-laden meats, produce and other foods. But
sustainable eating doesn't only address the problem of antibiotic resistence. It also helps solve some of these problems:
  • Factory Farming: The vast amount of food consumed in the U.S. is supplied by huge "farms" that cause massive damage to our air and water. Employees of these companies also commonly suffer from health effects caused by unsafe and toxic working conditions.
  • The Freight Effect: Shipping food from the source to the end user relies on huge amounts of fossil fuels, which causes serious environmental damage.
  • Community Fallout: Local producers who adhere to sustainable practices dump less waste in their neighborhood, grow healthier products and contribute more to their local economies compared to factory farms.
So how do we eat sustainably? We don't all have a Whole Foods in our neighborhood, after all. And not all of us can afford to pay higher prices for organic specialty products. Luckily, there are plenty of ways we can make better food choices, wherever we happen to live. These include:
  • Get Smart: Knowledge is power so find out where your food comes from, what ingredients are in it (and what those ingredients really are), what processes were used to make it, etc.
  • Think Twice: Ask yourself what you are willing to change and what you aren't. Don't want to stop eating meat? Then try to find a local butcher who can tell you where his meat came from and what processes were used. Make every purchase an active choice.
  • Meet the Neighbors: If you live in a rural community, you probably don't have the luxury of an all-organic grocery store. But you do have the ability to get to know the farmers in your area and identify those who rely on sustainable agriculture. City-dwellers have a lot of options when it comes to making purchases, so take advantage of them.
  • Buy Local: Farmer's markets, if you have one near you, are a great way to buy fresh, local and organic foods. Don't hesitate to ask sellers if they use pesticides or antiobiotics.
If you don't know where to go to buy sustainably-produced foods, visit the Eat Well Guide, enter your zip code, and voila! You'll get a list of sustainable farms, restaurants and stores near you.

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November 14, 2006

Brewing Better Beer

I love me a good beer and I suspect you do, too. In fact, I love it so much that I write about it for a living. During my vast research (I must be professional about it, you know), I've come to learn that the craft beer industry is a tight-knit, help-each-other-out kind of community. Brewers share advice, methods, ideas and some even share technologies, all in the name of quality beer.

This sense of community seems to be extending further and further out as many brewers either go organic or convert their facilities to be as self-sustaining as possible. Often this involves giving their spent grains to local farmers who can use it in cattle feed and compost. But from coast to coast, breweries are going even further and, if their beers are any measure, it seems to be working:

  • Brooklyn Brewery: Not only do they produce great beer, but this New York brewery is 100% wind powered!
  • Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.: This ain't no basement brewery—Sierra Nevada has over 300 employees and the facilities to house them. One of the most forward-thinking breweries out there, SN is almost entirely self-sufficient. Powered by fuel cells that are twice as efficient as standard power, the brewery recycles their waste byproducts, their water waste, and are working on plans to recycle the CO2 emissions produced during fermentation!
  • East End Brewing Co.: I've heard good things about their Big Hop IPA, but as East End only distributes in PA I have yet to taste it. Their commitment to sustainability runs deep, influencing everything they do from equipment purchasing (they buy used and buy local), to wort cooling (reusing the water instead of throwing it down the drain).

So the next time you're in the mood for a cold one, remember that there are plenty of really good options that are worth supporting. Seriously, aside from East End (whose beers I haven't had the pleasure of trying yet), I would recommend the above in a heartbeat even if they weren't sustainable.

And please, if you know of or work at any other breweries working towards sustainability, let me know!

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