Wednesday, June 22, 2011

clean and dirty

I think a lot about my food, where it comes from, and what the quality is like. So when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released their most recent "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" (a list of produce with the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residues, respectively), I scribbled it down in the little green notebook I carry everywhere, between the grocery lists and subway directions. Make sure to buy organic when getting apples, celery and strawberries. Conventional is okay for onions, sweet corn and pineapples. Got it.

Except it's not quite that simple. Because often the produce with the least chemical residues (and therefore the least risk to the consumer) is the most dangerous for the farmworkers doing the planting, tending, and harvesting. Tom Philpott, who writes about food and agriculture issues for Grist and Mother Jones, explains that demand from consumers for less pesticides left on fruits and veggies when they get to the store has pushed growers to rely increasingly on fumigants. Prior to planting, the beds are covered with plastic and pumped full of poisons that kill everything (good and bad) living in the soil. Because fumigants are volatile and highly reactive, they break down quickly and don't show up on produce. But they are also very dangerous for the farmworkers who handle them, and have been linked to central nervous system disorders, lung and kidney problems, and birth defects. After all, what do you expect from pesticides originally designed as chemical weapons?

So is buying organics the answer?

Yes and no. Yes, because organic farmers are prohibited from using non-natural pesticides and herbicides, so no one has to handle these chemicals, and the soil and surrounding environment are able to maintain healthy biodiversity. I had the pleasure of witnessing this even on our little five acres in Oxnard. And no, because organic certification has nothing to do with the actual levels of pesticides found on produce. At the farm I worked on last year, a single lane dirt track was the only "buffer zone" separating our organic field from the neighboring conventional one. The Santa Ana winds would regularly blow dust for miles across the Oxnard plain, carrying with it everything that had been applied to other fields. Buying organics is a start, but it doesn't do much for farmworkers, most of whom have very little choice about where to work. They may be washing organic celery in the morning and picking conventional strawberries in the afternoon.

In the end? It may not solve everything, but I always feel better when I can talk to the person who grew it.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

what I'm learning

This past year has made me conversant in a number of new subjects. Social welfare programs in the US. Things tourists do that annoy New Yorkers. Taxes. Taxes in Spanish. The subway system.

One thing I got an education in that I wasn't expecting: criminal justice in the US.

A year ago, I couldn't have told you with certainty which was more serious, a felony or a misdemeanor. I didn't know the difference between jail and prison. I'd never seen a stop-and-frisk. I wouldn't have believed that a person's right to vote could be taken away for life if they were convicted of a crime. I couldn't have distinguished parole from probation. I wouldn't have understood the signficance of "felony-friendly" employers.

I've learned all this on the job, from men who launch into a speeches trying to minimize their felonies as soon as they sit down to be screened for our services. From calling clients to follow up on their benefits applications only to be told that they are federal inmates and can't receive personal communication. From mothers, wives, grandmothers, aunts, girlfriends who can't include everyone in their household on their food stamps cases because felons and the families that take them in can be kicked out of public housing.

But I hadn't put the dots together until a sermon I heard a few months ago. The pastor used evidence from Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to talk about the unjust laws, practices and attitudes that have brought us to the point where one in three black men in the US is under the control of the criminal justice system. Alexander argues that changes in the criminal justice system in the last thirty years, particularly the War on Drugs have created a caste system in the mold of slavery and Jim Crow. Black men are no more likely to break drug laws than their white counterparts, yet they are stopped, searched, charged, and convicted at exponentially higher rates and their sentences are usually much harsher.

She describes not only the criminal justice system, but also what happens to those released from prison with felonies. The can be denied housing, jobs, public benefits, and the right to vote (among other things). I'd estimate that more than half of my male clients check "yes" next to the question "Have you been convicted of a crime". This is fair game on any job application, and for many of them it makes finding employment nearly impossible. Indeed, some of the only "felony-friendly" employment options are also some of the most dangerous jobs available - work in construction, commercial driving (with a focus on transporting hazardous materials) and environmental clean-up (involving removal of toxic materials like asbestos). It's no coincidence that these careers are a focus for my organization. But all the job placement in the world doesn't touch the injustice of the system.

The pastor ended that sermon with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, and with the spiritual "Let My People Go".

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt's land

Tell old Pharaoh

Let my people go!

Read the book if you can. If you can't, at least read the sermon.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


I had the privilege of growing up in what I believe is the most ideal climate possible. Nairobi has average temperatures in the sixties and seventies. I wore flip-flops almost every day and had my window open year-round, allowing for breezes in the dry season and sound of heavy rain in the wet months. It never got too hot, cold or humid. I might need a jacket in July and August, but otherwise my wardrobe didn't vary throughout the year.

Seasons have been an adjustment. Four years in Chicago and one of the snowiest New York winters on record mean I think I've got winter figured out (although that doesn't mean I enjoy it). And now, in New York City without AC, I'm having to figure out how to do summer.

A few of the things I've learned to do in the last couple weeks:

1. Move outside. The sidewalks and stoops in my neighborhood are now host to domino games, family gatherings, and impromptu water fights made possible by open fire hydrants (I saw three on my walk home from work today and it was only 85 degrees). In one apartment building I noticed two older ladies with pillows permanently placed on their window sills so they have a soft spot for their elbows while they watch the street and try to catch the breeze. I've taken to hanging out on the roof of my building, which has the added bonus of a great view of the entire Manhattan skyline.

2. Eat cold stuff. My roommates and I are avoiding anything that adds any extra heat to the apartment, so that means the stove and oven. I've started looking for the coolest days of the week and doing all my cooking then, and even so I'm switching to lots of raw or mostly raw recipes.

Dinner of apples, celery, cucumber, broccoli and avocado with tahini lemon yogurt sauce.

Other recent creations include cucumber salad with peanuts and lime, raita, dilly potato salad, and I'm looking forward to experimenting with different types of gazpacho. I've also started making cold-brewed coffee in my french press. It's great because it makes a concentrate that I refrigerate and dilute in the mornings with cold water and ice for iced coffee.

3. Wear less. The first thing I do when I get home in the evening is change into a tank top and shorts. Unfortunately this doesn't qualify as business casual, and it's been tough figuring out clothes that are both cool enough to allow me to walk to work, and warm enough to keep me from freezing in my way over air-conditioned office. One of the things I love about thrift shopping for clothes is how finding things I like that fit me is like getting a little gift from the universe. I knew I needed a black skirt for work, and within 2 weeks I had 4 (although this did nothing to address the fact that 95% of my wardrobe is black, gray or brown).

4. Ventilate. I love my apartment. I love the big windows and all the light and space.

Why yes, that is a hammock swing.

However, only one pane of the beautiful old factory windows opens. And the size of the space means it would be too expensive to cool the whole place (if we had a functioning air conditioner). And we just so happen to be on the top (and therefore warmest) floor of the building.

I live at the top of that ladder, on the opposite side of the apartment from the windows. My room gets really stuffy. So I have a large fan to point at myself, and a small one in the little space between my wall and the ceiling that is sucking some of the hot air out of my room (I hope).

But do I feel ready for the first 90+ degree day tomorrow?

Not so much.