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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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 STLtoday.com
Bovine growth hormone information from the Organic Consumers' Association
List of rBST free dairy producers

[Cross-posted to Blog!]

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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 18, 2007

Terrorism vs. Climate Change: Americans Reconsider

I just discovered some good news today: Americans are not as ignorant as some make us out to be. How do I know this? Because a full 63% of survey respondents believe that the U.S. "is in as much danger from environmental hazards, such as air pollution and global warming, as it is from terrorists." This is according to a recent survey from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

It's just further proof that public discourse helps to advance critical issues—and that people really don't mind thinking about things in shades beyond black and white. These numbers, however, are set against another set of very telling statistics: Only 50% of respondents say they trust television news and 45% trust newspapers when it comes to environmental coverage. This tells me that a lot of folks out there rely on other means for their environmental information. This isn't just about blogs spreading the word, though; it's about other facets of American culture stepping up and covering this topic. The vast majority of survey respondents trust universities and their scientists aove all others (like industry scientists) for environmental information. Once again, we see the fundamental impact of America's educational insitutions.

Perhaps the most reassuring statistic, though, is that 81% of respondents also agreed they have a "responsibility to help reduce the impacts of global warming." So not only are we thinking more critically about the issues, we're actually starting to recognize that we each have a key role to play in making change.

Download the survey's key findings.

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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 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 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 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 18, 2007

Five Minutes to Midnight

Could we be facing immanent nuclear warfare? Last week I mentioned that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a group that includes numerous Nobel winners, were to make a "very important announcement" and yesterday they did. The conclusion: that we have awoken to the dawn of a new nuclear era.

This seemingly dire announcement has been punctuated by the Bulletin's decision to move the Doomsday Clock forward by two minutes, to five minutes to midnight. Contrary to popular assumption, though, the clock is not a gauge of how close we are to nuclear war waged by our world's politicians.

In fact, the clock reflects “basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age, and will continue living, until society adjusts its basic attitudes and institutions.” This subtle difference is an important one, as it stresses the need for a fundamental shift in our way of approaching the way we live in the world. Is it not suprising, then, that the Bulletin also concludes that "the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons."

The full statement is well worth reading. Most fascinating to me is the report's description of how our nation's administration has relaxed its attitudes towards nuclear weapons, embracing this technology to a degree unheard of since WWII, and the direct influence this has had on today's nuclear proliferation.

But it's not all dire doomsday warnings. Even more important than the current "threat level," to borrow the language of the current administration, are the Bulletin's recommendations. Among the very specific steps that can be taken to reduce the nuclear threat are some obvious ones—begin dismantling the 20,000+ nuclear warheads we've got stored everywhere—and some less obvious ones. These include beginning an international discussion about the ramifications of nuclear energy (particularly salient as nuclear becomes more and more attractive as an alternative energy source), and securing current nuclear materials that are, as of now, dangerously insecure.

All of this nuclear talk can seem so distant to those of us who've never had to duck under a desk. But North Korea's recent testing should start bringing these dangers home to us—hopefully not directly, but at least by impacting our actions. So what can you and I do to influence our nation's approach to nuclear weapons?

We can start by educating ourselves (read the news, dispel the myths) and forming an opinion. Then share that opinion with those whose fingers dangle limply over the Big Red Button. Vote, send emails, start conversations with friends and neighbors. Whatever you choose to do, choose something, please. Don't you think it's time to stop letting others make our decisions for us?

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January 12, 2007

Doomsday Draws Near?

Thanks to the folks at Development Crossing, I am now officially scared sh--less.™ They've pointed out a recent Reuters article announcing that the hands of The Doomsday Clock (cue Jaws music) will be moving for the 18th time since 1947. The clock was created by those in the know in response to the (still) rising threat of nuclear proliferation: the idea is that when it hits midnight, you can kiss your ass goodbye.

But the question remains to be answered: when they adjust the clock next Wednesday, will it be moving back or forth, and what time will it be when they're done?

The answer of course, is wait and see. A visit to the clock's creators, the
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, warns simply: "On January 17, at 14:30 GMT (9:30 ET), the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists will launch a new website and make a major announcement."

Who knew scientists could be so...thrilling? Actually, a little digging reveals that the clock is currently set at seven minutes to midnight. You can read a bit more about its current status at their old site, including how North Korea's recent nuclear tests have affected nuclear Doomsday.

Stay tuned for the future of humanity...

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January 03, 2007

Urban Rivers

Work, in Plain English pointed out a remarkable scene recently: a river running through a congested city that actually looks healthy. Penina points out how important it is that an urban river actually engage passers by and should rely on naturally occurring elements to keep it healthy and flowing safely.

City planning in the U.S. should be so good.

Further reading:
More on rivers than you probably want to know.
The abstracted article that inspired Penina's post.

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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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November 29, 2006

And the Nobel Prize Goes to...Microlending!

I first caught wind of the microlending concept early this year while reading Fast Company's Social Capitalist issue. Several microlenders were mentioned, including Accion and Grameen (whose founder, Muhammad Yunus, has won this year's Nobel Peace Prize), and I was startled by their premise: that poor women make the best loan recipients.

Microlenders loan small amounts of money on what amounts to an honor system to the most impoverished recipients, who in turn use the money as capital for starting businesses. The idea is that these bootstrap loans help stimulate a local economy and reduce poverty, all on the locals' own terms.

And now that my curiosity's been piqued, I seem to be running into the idea everywhere I go. First I catch Yunus making an appearance on the Daily Show with John Stewart a couple of weeks ago, and then I stumble across an interesting summary of his bank's method posted just days earlier. Could this idea be about to explode stateside?

Microlending does have its detractors. Because its success (loan repayment) relies heavily on the ability of the recipient to succeed over the long term, it demands a lot of support and training from the lending institution. After all, recipients are often uneducated, inexperienced in business and disenfranchised at even a local level. If that support's not there, or if any number of other detrimental factors are there, the recipient might easily default or sink deeper in debt.

So will microlending work in the United States? Well, some real challenges will need to be met before Smells Fargo and Crank of America start handing out checks to inner city and rural poor. One of the biggest hindrances is the current availability of "support" in the form of welfare programs and such. Microlending relies on loan recipients being committed to the real risk of having no economic support system to speak of, as this is a determining factor for their business success (see
Using Microenterprise Programs in the Rural United States for a more scholarly explanation).

But perhaps there are similar options. Credit unions come close: they also offer localized loan opportunities, often at better rates and terms than conventional bank loans. Although you typically need to be a member, credit unions are growing exponentially in the U.S. and are now much more accessible than they once were.

Financial self-sufficiency is a fundamental element of modern sustainability: individuals must be able to support themselves financially in order for their local communities to survive, let alone thrive. Credit unions are a strong start, offering great opportunity. But the most successful microlending programs, along with proper training and support systems, might offer a more in-depth solution to a problem that runs deep whether you live in Kansas or Compton.

If you need a loan or other financial services, try looking up your local credit union or visit Accion USA.

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