Monday, August 13, 2018

Bikers to the rescue!

Readers, there is nothing more attractive than a man doing good. Well, maybe a man on a bicycle doing good. And I am lucky enough to be dating one. Fancy that.

I hate wasting food. It is shocking the amount of perfectly edible food that is thrown away in this country every day, especially while an unacceptable number of Americans suffer from malnutrition and food insecurity. I regularly see giant trash bins outside of supermarkets and restaurants spilling over. I hear food waste and hunger statistics bandied about so frequently that the problems seem too big to take personally, and I worry that the majority of us don't understand that these problems concern each and every one of us. Some days I find it hard not to lose hope. But then there are moments that I realize that the solution can also concern each and every one of us....

Today I had the good fortune to accompany Matt on his first shift as a food rescuer: picking up already prepared, delicious, unsold food and delivering it to a great, local program that needed food. Usually a car is needed for this sort of assignment, but after a bit of research Matt learned that some food donations can be delivered on two wheels. It was actually pretty easy, and we ended what was otherwise a rather lazy Sunday feeling pretty good about life.

12:30pm - While checking his email at the farmers market, Matt learns that the load of baked goods he'd signed up on his Food Rescue app to deliver this evening was going to be a bit large for a single cyclist to haul, so he asks me to join him. I happily agree, eager to see the program in action.

1:00pm - Eat lunch near the farmers market.

2:00pm - Start watching Game of Thrones, Season 6. (Don't judge me, it's good. And don't you dare tell me what happens in Season 7!)

4:30pm - Thunder and rain begin.

5:30pm - Bike over to Seylou -- home to the most amazing whole grain breads, including croissants (I know, I couldn't believe such a thing existed!) -- to pick up bread donation.

6:00pm - Load 4 enormous bags of bread into our (thankfully waterproof) bike panniers and start heading north to Christ House. Rain intensifies.

6:30pm - Bread delivered. Delivery volunteers adequately soaked and smiling, and about 50 pounds lighter. Rain stops. Head back to my apartment to change into dry clothes and watch a bit more Game of Thrones. Easy peasy.

Interested in helping to address hunger in your area? Consider joining the Food Rescue project, as a donor, recipient, or transporter. Or maybe starting a chapter in your town. Learn more here.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Get your hands on plants

Readers, I'm a night owl. It is a tough sell to get me out of bed, nevermind dressed and at a workshop at the crack of 9am. Especially during the summer, and especially the Monday after school lets out. But every so often an amazing opportunity comes along that has me out of bed and excitedly biking headlong into a humid, 100F+ degree day: the U.S. Botanic Gardens' HOPS Teacher Institute was one of these instances.

Over the course of two, very busy days this past June, I and a couple dozen other environmental educators explored water, soil, sunlight, and plants in ways that I can't wait to bring back to my classroom. We got to play with all kinds of cool gadgets: looking at the critters wriggling around in water droplets under our microscopes; analyzing soil samples as part of a CSI-style plant theft mystery; discovering that grape juice has more sugar than cola using our refractometers; making our own sundials; building a model watershed; making found object collages with photo paper and the power of the sun. We got to mess around with pH testing strips, create botanic paintings, dissect flowers, melt chocolate in a solar cooker, and fiddle with thermometers and compasses. I think my favorite moment was getting to poke at a venus fly trap. I'm sure that video clip, which for some reason I cannot locate, will surface if I run for public office one day....

Many thanks to our fearless instructor, Lee, who sent us all home with a GIANT bag filled with all of the tools we used throughout the training, so that we can get out students excited about plants and their surroundings, too! If you ever have a chance to attend this summer teacher training at the Botanic Gardens, go!!

(Ah, this photo? It's my view from Ollie's saddle, biking down Pennsylvania Avenue with our treasure trove of scientific tools, posters, and a banana tree seedling last week.)

Monday, June 18, 2018

Don't forget to vote!

Yes, I know that DC always votes overwhelmingly Democratic, but I'm telling you your vote matters. While we don't get to have a voice about, say, who runs the EPA, alas, there are folks who are doing important work to further human rights, environmental justice, and access to healthy food in our city. Don't forget to vote tomorrow: find out where here.

(Oh, that sign? Yeah, I couldn't stop giggling when I saw it last week on my walk to the P Street Whole Foods.)

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Bee careful

The pungent aroma of raw honey and herbal tea permeates the air in my kitchen as I type this, and I think to myself: I'm glad I didn't die from a bee sting earlier this week. I love honey, and quite enjoy beekeeping, but after a bee sting about a little over a month ago I began to worry that I was developing a more serious allergy to the little flying ladies.

It was late April, and had finally stopped raining for a day. My beekeeping mentor, Kevin, and I were inspecting the West End Community Garden's five hives. All was going fine that sunny afternoon, except I was getting a bit antsy with us poking and prodding around, box by box, frame by frame, for a solid hour and a half as we checked for brood, hive beetles, and nectar stores. I had been feeling a little tickle on my shin for a few minutes, and began to worry that a bee had wandered up my untucked pant leg. Foolishly, perhaps, I gently shook my leg a bit while I tried to remain calm and pry another frame out of the hive. The tickle moved a bit further up the inside of my pantleg. I froze. I lifted another hive frame out for inspection. Further north still, the tickle moved. I shook my leg a little more and started to sweat. Bam! Stung. Right on the ankle, probably while the disoriented bee was trying to escape my khakis. It hurt, sure -- it always does -- but a few hours later my ankle began to swell. The couple glasses of wine I had at the WAMU donor reception that evening meant that popping a couple of Benadryl probably wasn't a good idea, so I just slapped an ice pack on it, put my foot up, and called it a night. I wasn't having trouble breathing, at least, and there wasn't a rash. See? Nothing to worry about.

The next morning, as Matt and I took the bus up to Connecticut for the weekend, the swelling and aching continued. By that night, one couldn't even tell I had anklebones. For the next week, I popped a couple of Benadryl a few times a day, icing and elevating my foot whenever possible. I got back to town and checked in with my doctor, and though the swelling was going down she immediately had me tested for bee venom sensitivity. I figured it was just a precaution: I've been stung a few times in my life and while it smarts for a few minutes, or at most a day, I never showed signs of a serious allergic reaction. Well. It turns out you can develop a serious allergy to bees. My bee venom blood test came back positive. Suddenly everyone I mentioned this to had a story to share about a friend or family member who had an extreme and unforeseen bee sting reaction. Not the best thing for a hypochodriac to be hearing.

My doctor prescribed an EpiPen. Wouldn't you know it, there is a shortage of EpiPens on the market right now. "Just call back at the beginning of July and check and see if we have any in stock," the pharmacy worker at Kaiser told me over the phone, "And try to stay away from bees."

I work in school gardens, lady! And what exactly am I paying hundreds of dollars a month for, if my insurance company doesn't have a common medicine in stock and can't be bothered to call me when the potentially life-saving medicine is ready for me to pick up? Honestly.... So now I carry around a bottle of liquid children's Benadryl to chug if I get stung. Because I certainly wasn't going to miss out on the honey harvesting last week. Luckily we were only messing with the bees for about 30 minutes, then it was on to the serious -- or perhaps not so serious -- harvesting of the honey from the frames:

Bees, I would like to propose a truce. I will continue to make sure your hive stays healthy, and you don't sting me. We can split the honey 50/50. Okay. Okay! 60/40, you win.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Use Less Plastic

Anyone who has been to my apartment or my classroom has a pretty good idea how I feel about plastic. I am perhaps an old lady before my time, compulsively washing and rewashing ziploc bags and drip drying produce bags that show up from time to time for reuse until they are no longer functional (at which point I trek to my local Giant* to recycle them, along with other plastic bags and the odd bit of saran wrap). I've had the same roll of plastic wrap in my kitchen since I moved from my old apartment in Columbia Heights nearly five years ago. I give stern looks to friends and loved ones who don't use cloth shopping bags... and I really try not to do the same to strangers in line at my local Whole Foods or the farmers market, but sometimes I can't help myself. Don't even get me started on how often I have washed and reused old yogurt containers....

But it's not just me, I swear! It's reinforced by the company I keep. My students in the Student Sustainability Corps -- an opt-in, after school program for kids in grades 3-8 -- are just as adamant about responsible use and disposal of plastic. I credit that largely to my friend and co-conspirator in all things sustainability, Karin, who also teaches at the school. Once kids learned about where their plastic utensils were coming from earlier this year -- how plastic forks they had been using in the cafeteria every day were made and transported, how long they were used for, and where they often ended up -- they FREAKED OUT. And came up with some brilliant solutions, including Finger Food Fridays: having foods in the cafeteria that don't even require utensils at all! This simple, replicable idea caught the eye of some pretty big muckety mucks in city government, who recently awarded them a city-wide award:

But they didn't stop there. These bright and determined young people kept on thinking about things any kid or school could do to reduce their use of plastic. They created and posted signage to encourage their peers to be mindful about their plastic utensil usage and consider reusable water bottles, researched compostable utensils, and even brainstormed ways to create a reusable lunch kit (cloth napkin made out of an old tshirt + a small, metal fork and spoon). They took their ideas to the annual Anacostia Environmental Youth Summit... and won first place for their idea to improve the local watershed by reducing plastic's entry into it in the first place. They came home with a check for $1,000 to implement a watershed-improving project of their choice. Reusable lunch kits, here we come!

I'm so proud of these kiddos. Now let me ask you:  what are YOU doing to improve our local watershed?

*An aside on Whole Foods: don't take your plastic bags there for recycling. I've informally audited their bins over the course of a handful of months and I can tell you unequivocally that the people who shop there apparently can't be bothered to put their TRASH in the clearly labeled TRASH BIN nor their COMPOST in the clearly labeled COMPOST BIN in the P Street store. The also-clearly-marked RECYCLING BIN is a disaster. Maybe they pay some poor worker to go through each bagful afterwards, but I doubt it. While I can't seem to help myself fishing trash and food waste out of the recycling bins in my school's cafeteria, I draw the line at doing the same at a grocery store. So I bike eight blocks in the other direction specifically to Giant so I can drop off my plastic bags for recycling in their PLASTIC BAGS ONLY bin, which, incidentally, does not have TRASH or COMPOST in it. Thank you, Giant Food. :)

Friday, May 18, 2018

Swim to Work day

I've been a dues paying member of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association for almost a decade now. And though I bike to work most every day, today was the first time I officially registered for Bike to Work Day. Mother Nature decided to weed out the fair weather bikers, it seems, but the upshot was that the Shaw rest stop on my way to work had plenty of size small tshirts and snacks for those of us who braved the wind and rain. So did the rest stop in Foggy Bottom on my way home, so I picked up a tshirt for Matt, too, who recently was in a little bike accident and so was not able to bike -- or swim -- to work today. (Oh, he's fine, just a little banged up, and with a front brake that needs adjusting.)

But seriously, this rain. It's been nearly a solid week of precipitation, readers! My cabbages have more than doubled in size over the past two weeks, as have the lettuces, kohlrabi, late-starting sugar snap peas, and too-early-transplanted tomatoes. My plants have gone a bit nuts in the school garden, to be honest. The flora may be loving this break in the drought, but I am getting a little bit tired of it. Also: my rain pants, it seems, are no longer waterproof. *sigh* I think there's an REI sale coming up soon, at least....

As Ollie and I sloshed through the rain on the way home from school this afternoon, I mused that perhaps WABA might broaden their efforts beyond cycling to triathalon training. Then they could have easily marketed today as Swim to Work Day!

Monday, February 26, 2018

De la chacra a la mesa

Many thanks to my oldest and dearest friend, Becky, for setting up one of the most memorable days we had during our trip to Cuba. After pulling myself out of bed before the crack of 7am on a drizzly Wednesday morning -- hey, this is vacation, and that's earlier than I get up for work! -- we packed a jumble of breakfast foods into tupperware containers, grabbed bottles of water, and stumbled out to our waiting taxi that promptly whisked us off to Caimito, where we would be volunteering on an organic farm for the day. (Interestingly, our friendly cab driver was the ONLY person in the entire island nation who, rather than being multiple hours late, was actually a half hour early.) As we zoomed through the rainy morning, the day became sunnier and the air clearer. I hadn't noticed how thoroughly diesel fumes had infused my time in Cuba until they were almost gone in the rural quiet of the countryside....

Upon arrival, Farmer Annabelle welcomed us with coffee, juice, and some delicious yogurt made by her neighbor. Then we pulled on some rainboots, squished out to the field, and started transplanting tomatoes and onion starts. The sun came fully out, and both Becky and I marveled at how lucky we were to be in this beautiful place with our hands in the earth, helping good people do good work. We chatted as we tucked the seedlings into their new homes, following behind the quiet older Cuban farmhand who marked out holes for us to dig and plant into. After some water and a bathroom break, we were tasked with adding soil and seeds to rows of starter trays in the open-sided nursery. Meanwhile, divine smells began to emanate from the kitchen....

Over a fabulous, lingering lunch, we learned that Farmer Annabelle, a Nicaraguan transplant, had studied and worked in a number of fancy Parisian restaurants. She had learned a lot about the need for quality ingredients during her time in France, and had developed a passion for the delights of food's seasonality. Upon reflection, she and her husband Alfredo decided that what they really wanted to be doing wasn't cooking in fancy restaurants (or working in IT, as he was doing) but helping to grow food and teach others how to improve the land through sustainable farming. They just needed some land... and to learn how to farm.

After visiting Alfredo's parents in Cuba, they decided to put down roots there. With help from family and the government, they took over an old house and began to fix it up while they cleared space to grow food. The plan was to start with planting trees and row crops, and eventually expand to more growing space and adding in livestock. Rather than burning down the existing foliage, as their neighbors had done for generations, they researched ways to more sustainably prepare the land and build up the soil's resilience and nutrient content. They composted on site, collected local seeds and introduced little known crops (like broccoli and leeks) to their planting plans, and shared with others as they learned. Now, four years later, they've built a community of sustainable farmers who share knowledge and seeds... and, in the case of the day we were visiting, a friendly meal around the farm table.

I'm still trying to decide which was the best meal of the trip: this unconventional one that featured white bean hummus and a veggie and free-range pork stirfry, or the traditional Cuban lunch from our cooking class. I daydream about both of them still. If you go to Cuba, dear reader, you might have to try both!

[Here's Annabelle harvesting a broccoli that she sent us back into town with that afternoon. Boy did we scarf up that hard to find vegetable with our dinner that night!]