Day 44–Non-toxic Food Storage

Almost all the plastic ever produced still exists on earth. That totally creeps me out.

One of the jobs I have been meaning to tackle involves researching food storage safety, and finding out more about plastics and food safety. After reading many articles and several studies, my take on it is that no one really knows the full extent of plastic safety, and most scientists and health advocates recommend further study of plastics and food.

Most people are familiar with BPA (bisphenol-A) by now and many manufacturers (including Tupperware, Glad and Ziploc)  have worked hard to create BPA-free products. BPA is known to damage the reproduction systems of animals and its ability to mimic estrogen is thought to contribute to prostate and breast cancer. But really, is BPA the only thing to worry about? Food microwaved in BPA-free plastic still tastes weird, leading me (not a scientist by any stretch) to think that there is more to it than just BPA. Indeed, many plastics also leach phthalates. Banned in Europe, Japan, Mexico and Argentina. The U.S.? Nope.

Here is the crazy thing. Leaching petrochemicals and other potential toxins into your food is ALLOWED by the FDA if they are present in levels the FDA deems to be “safe”. Note that these materials have not been proven “safe,” they just haven’t been proven “unsafe.”

Considering the FDA’s lackadaisical record for food supply safety lately and combining that with the plastic industry’s heavy-handed lobby, I think I’m not feeling to trustworthy of their definition of “safe.”

But plastics are EVERYWHERE, even in the linings of your canned food and the linings of jar lids. How can you avoid them or at least reduce your risk to known and potential carcinogens? I’ve crossed checked several sources and put together a list of tips on how to reduce your family’s exposure to plastics. Ready? Here goes!

  1. Know your numbers–every plastic has a number on it (usually on the bottom of the container). Numbers 1,2,4, and 5 are thought to be safer (not SAFE, but SAFER) to use with food. Numbers 3,6 and 7 should be avoided, as these plastics are known to be unstable, especially if reused.
  2. Never serve or store hot foods in plastic. As plastics warm and soften, they can leach petrochemicals and other toxins into your food.
  3. Do not store high fat foods in plastic. For similar reasons as above, high fat foods interact with the plastic in such a way that transfer of chemicals and toxins are more likely.
  4. Never microwave food in plastic. Not only can toxins leach into your food due to warming, toxins present in the steam can be inhaled.
  5. Avoid using deli or plastic wrap. When shopping, you can ask your deli to use unbleached paper or unbleached waxed paper only. Or you can transfer your products into safer packaging when you get home.
  6. Store and reheat your leftovers in glass containers. Unlike many plastics, you can reuse jars as long as they are cleaned well.
  7. Buy pots and pans without Teflon or other non-stick coatings. If you use non-stick pans, run your kitchen ventilation system while you cook.

My weekend task was to clean out all of our plastic food storage and relegate those containers for camping equipment and craft supplies. We now have glass food containers in various sizes for our leftovers. Bed, Bath and Beyond has sets that are affordable ($19 for a set of 5–less if you have your coupon!) and Crate and Barrel also has some that look good, but are a bit pricier. I have to say, I feel a sense of relief knowing that we have made a small, but meaningful step toward reducing our household toxicity!

Day 41–Farmhand Foods Meatbox

Meat in a box. When we began our journey almost 7 weeks ago, I wasn’t sure what resources were available to our family other than what we could find at the farmer’s markets (and that was more than I though also!). What a wonderful coincidence that I saw a tweet from @farmhandfoods for a winter meat box. Meat in a box sounded strange, but in the spirit of adventure, we thought we would give it a try. I promised an update on our experience, so here it is!

Farmhand Foods of Durham works with NC pasture-based beef and pork producers who have a commitment to sustainable livestock production and who raise antibiotic and growth hormone free animals that are pasture-raised and pasture-fed. After doing a bit of research and reading their online protocols, I found that Farmhand Foods is a highly reputable organization with a sincere passion for improving food supply options. Founded and operated by two smart women–Tina Prevatte and Jennifer Curtis, Farmhand Foods also works with small-scale, inspected processing facilities that practice humane animal handline and care. Together with Sales and Distribution Manger Drew Brown, Farmhand Foods connects pasture-based farmers with the consumers who love their products throughout the Triangle area. I really love their business model and commitment to having a sustainable food system.

But back to the meat box. When we ordered our box in January, I wondered if it would be an affordable addition to our budget. We ordered three boxes (Jan, Feb, March) and each box worked out to $45. Each box includes three different cuts of meat–a braising cut, a grilling cut and a roasting cut. Two of the cuts are beef and one is pork. I’m not positive, but I think our first box was about 8-10 lbs of meat, which is a decent amount of food for three people!

We just finished the last of our January box for Super Bowl Sunday, and I think we all agree as a family that it was a great choice. Our January box included two meaty beef shanks, a large skirt steak and a 3 lb. mini boneless ham. The beef shanks were braised for an Italian ragu and they were, quite frankly, amazing. The skirt steak was very flavorful and surprisingly tender (I think I had confused skirt steak and flank steak, but skirt steak is much, MUCH better). And the ham, which we roasted with a local honey and mustard glaze, was so darn good that I dreamed about it. Really. I have never had ham that tasted so good.

Each cut of meat provided more than one meal for our small family (the ham alone provided at least three meals), so were able to work it into our weekly budget very easily. The meat tasted a lot better than store-bought, was healthier for us, and provided us opportunities to experiment with new recipes and cooking methods. All in all, we deem this experiment a success. And we can’t wait for our February box, which arrives next week!

This is all to say, that if you are in the Research Triangle area, Farmhand Foods is a high quality resource that we recommend. If you aren’t in this area, I would encourage you to find out if something similar exists near you and to give it a try. You just might be pleasantly surprised!

Day 24–“Wildly Affordable Organic”

English: A hand reaching for organic tomatoes ...

I recently came across a great resource for staying on a budget while eating organic and thought I would share it. Although our goal isn’t specifically to eat “organic,” it is a part of our overall goal to eat sustainably and to reduce our household toxin load, and organic foods are a big part of that.

The resource is a book, website and blog titled “Wildly Affordable Organic” (www.cookforgood.com). Author Linda Watson (of Raleigh!) claims to have the secrets to living on $5 a day or less while eating organic (and vegetarian). In flipping through a borrowed copy of the book, there are some good tips for frugal living and some good tips for eating organic. The vegetarian and vegan recipes online look good enough that I might go ahead and purchase the book.

While the frugal tips are good, eating “organic” and eating “sustainably” are not necessarily the same thing. Buying organic produce does lessen the world’s pesticide load, but buying organic tomatoes from Mexico when you live in Maine does little to alleviate the carbon footprint of your food–especially if you can get minimally treated tomatoes or organic tomatoes locally at a slightly higher price. And are organic tomatoes from another country sustainable if the “farm” is a large agribusiness and laborers are not paid a fair wage? And are “organic” canned beans packaged in a can with a liner that uses BPA really worth the price if you’re getting a packaging toxin along with your healthy beans? You can only imagine the dilemmas swirling around my mind…

At some point, though, you have to stop and actually eat. Philosophical foodway issues aside, this seems like a good reference book for beginners on how to purchase organic foods without breaking your budget and how to make low cost, vegetarian dishes. Check out the website and see for yourself. Any day I can learn a few new tricks is a good day!

Day 18–A Locavore’s Lunch–The Remedy Diner

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I try to be a good friend, but most of the time I feel like I fall short of the kind of friend I would like to be. You know, the one who always has a warm bundt cake or soothing casserole ready for a friend in need, or a fresh pot of chicken soup for someone who is sick. Or someone who just remembers to call.  I fall pretty short of all of those bars. So, on those occasions when I can reconnect with a friend over lunch, I savor every moment of time spent talking about children, relationships and kindhearted gossip. And I should savor every moment, because friends are good for us. Friends boost our immune systems, they increase our endorphin levels and relieve stress. They are the remedy for many of life’s ills.

So it was fitting that lunch with a friend was at the locavore-friendly Remedy Diner in downtown Raleigh. The Remedy has a good selection of vegetarian and vegan entrees as well as traditional sandwiches and salads that feature dairy and/or meat. They strive to use local foods “whenever possible” and make all foods from scratch. I had the turkey reuben, which was actually not a heavy sandwich  and featured plenty of good-for-you sauerkraut. I had a side of red cabbage slaw, which was also very light and healthy.

Food as Remedy?

During our lunch, we talked about how the folks we know having severe health problems are no longer parents of our friends, but they are now our own friends. How we reached this age, I have no idea. Weren’t we 20 just yesterday?

We shared stories of two very wonderful people in our lives who have struggled mightily with cancer. We were also astonished that both of these women, after completely changing their diets to organic whole foods, no GMOs, no processed foods, little meat or gluten, have been able to dramatically alter the progression of their diseases without palliative chemotherapy. Now, I am not a doctor and am not advocating that cancer patients disregard their oncologist’s advice. Both of these women were terminally ill (and still are, for that matter) and given very little time to live. But still, the impact that dietary change has had on their overall health and their bodies’ ability to deal with the disease is truly amazing. I wish I could say that their cancers disappeared completely, but that isn’t true. They have gained stamina, energy, and boosted immune systems, making the time they have left more enjoyable and, hopefully, longer. I can’t help but think–if this way of eating can improve the lives of people who are so ill, what can it do for the rest of us who are not ill? And good lord, what does it say about what processed foods are doing to our bodies???

Food as remedy. The stories of these two wonderful women are sustaining me through this journey. And I hope they will sustain you as well.

Day 13–Wrapping My Brain Around A New Way of Grocery Shopping

English: An Italian shopping list for groceries.

When we undertook this challenge to eat locally and sustainably, I knew there would be changes–changes in the food we eat, the way we cook and where we buy our food. But I hadn’t adjusted my process for shopping. So, today, I ran into the first of what I will assume to be many errors.

My grocery shopping strategy usually involves coming up with a weekly menu of dinners. Not only does this help me make sure our week has a good balance of proteins and vegetables, but it helps everyone in the family contribute to selections and alleviates the nagging “What’s for dinner?” question. From that weekly menu, I develop a shopping list of foods I need. And here we have the problem. My process, you see, is backwards.

I developed my menu and list based on what I found in the farmer’s market LAST week. In the meantime, we’ve had several freezes. So I found myself at the farmer’s market with 30 minutes left of my lunch hour and a list that was only partially achievable. What to do? I could have bolted and headed for the nearest Trader Joes, but no. That would be wrong. And then I’d have to tell you about it.

In this case, I made a blind stab at what I thought might work. And it will work, because, well, it has to.  It will be interesting to see what comes out of this. And so, I have learned a lesson: when eating seasonally, buy what is fresh and good, but be flexible.

I’m trying to figure out how this will work next week, but we’ll see! Any ideas?

Day 3–Finding New Sources for Sustainable Food

Salers Cow. Milk and meat from cows and other ...

We are big believers in shopping our local farmer’s markets and we are lucky to have 3 to choose from. Unfortunately, two of them only operate April-November and the one that is still open doesn’t have a lot to choose from this time of year. So, on the positive side, we are beginning our journey at the most challenging time of year and it can only get better from here. On the down side, we are starting our journey at the most challenging time of year!

I’ve found some bright spots though, and one is a relatively new group in Durham, NC, called Farmhand Foods. They connect North Carolina pasture-based livestock producers with individuals, restaurants and retailers. They source only from farmers who raise their animals humanely, on pasture, without antibiotics, added hormones or animal by-products.

Best of all, they are offering a Winter Meat Box for January, February and March with pickup locations around the Triangle area. Each box contains three different cuts of meat (2 beef, 1 pork), with a total box weight of about 7 lbs.

Doing the math, each box is $45 and at 7 lbs. we’re paying about $6.50 per pound of meat. A lot compared to the grocery store, mass-produced meat, but a lot less than the average price at Whole Foods.

So, we signed up, and will pick up our first box on January 19. I’ll work the cost into our weekly budget and report back on the quality and overall value of the meat we get. If you are interested in Farmhand Foods, I’ll add a link to the sidebar.

What do you think? Is it a ridiculous amount to pay for sustainable, locally produced meat? Or would you think it’s worth it? I do believe we will be eating less meat as a result, which is not a bad thing either. Would love to hear your thoughts!

A Year of Healthier Living on a Budget. Is it possible?

We try to live a clean and sustainable life. Really. Well, not so really. We recycle, we try not to overconsume, my husband takes the bus to work, we belong to a CSA. But there’s a lot we’re not doing–getting rid of chemicals and toxins in our house, eating locally grown produce and meat all year, walking instead of driving, and eliminating severe toxins in our food supply (I’m talking to you, Mr. Diet Soda…).

So this is our year-long journey to see how a family of 3 (+dog +cat) can make a shift in living a healthier life without blowing our budget in one trip to Whole Foods. Because, let’s face it, our commerce system makes it challenging and expensive to live healthy.

Can we do it? It will be an interesting journey and I’ll share with you our triumphs and pitfalls along the way. Here is to ending 2012 feeling good, living healthy and with money in the bank. Let’s begin!