Friday, February 20, 2009

No School Lunch Left Behind

Here's an oped from today's Times by the great Alice Waters, talking about how to make school lunches more healthful. She points out that while things like candy and soda machines often get negative attention when they're placed in schools (and rightly so), school lunches that are no better (chicken nuggets, pizza, etc.) are served every day.

Every public school child in America deserves a healthful and delicious lunch that is prepared with fresh ingredients. Cash-strapped parents should be able to rely on the government to contribute to their children’s physical well-being, not to the continued spread of youth obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other diet-related problems. Let’s prove that there is such a thing as a good, free lunch.
She points out that this would require a commitment by the Agriculture Department to provide and deliver fresh ingredients, and from the Education Department "to teach students to choose good food and to understand how their choices affect their health and the environment." This last part is especially important, given that school lunches are predominantly for kids of limited income, who may not immediately like healthier choices given the fact that the unhealthy choices are full of fat and salt and all the things kids (and adults, for that matter) love. Also, kids may not be getting much better fare at home, especially if they're low income.

I did a volunteer day in my kids' school a couple of weeks ago, and they served chicken nuggets, bags of chips, a little plate of peas and a cookie. The peas, of course, were the most unappetizing looking things you could imagine, and I would venture to guess that no more than 5% of them were actually ingested by the children. (My kids bring lunch every day.)

This would be a lot more likely to happen if parents took an interest in this issue and pressured their school boards and elected officials to help make it happen. Here's a sample page from a parents group in California, with a lot of links to material about junk food, some of the health concerns, and letters to school boards and Congress.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The wind in Kansas blows mainly in the ... state house

Cross-posted on the COEJL blog, To Till and To Tend

Sometimes in Kansas it feels that we are far removed from the decisions being made on the major issues of the day. But right now we are on the frontlines of the struggle to move America away from polluting energy generation technologies toward a more green and sustainable future.
Some background: last year the head of the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment (KDHE), Rod Bremby, overturned plans to build two massive coal burning plants in Western Kansas (known as Holcomb), on the grounds of their impact on global warming. Sunflower Energy, which had proposed the plant, sued in state court, but the courts have supported Demby’s authority to take the action. At the same time, the state is politically quite conservative, and majorities in both houses of the Kansas legislature passed laws a) to strip Bremby of his authority to veto the plants, and b) to specifically approve building them. Three times such laws were passed; three times they were vetoed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius; and three times the Republicans failed to muster enough votes to overturn the veto.

But the issue dominated business for the whole of 2008, as very little else could get done, least of all any kind of comprehensive energy policy. For instance, net metering, by which it is possible to give the excess energy one generates oneself, through solar cells or wind power, back to the utility, has not been approved in Kansas; approval of it last year was included as a “sweetener” in the Holcomb plant bill, and therefore was vetoed as well.

So now here it is 2009, and climate activists have been waiting to see how this issue will be developed this year. Now we know:

The fight over building two coal-burning electric power plants in southwestern Kansas starts again today with a public hearing on House Bill 2182 in the House Energy and Utilities Committee.

The bill makes no mention of the proposal to build two 700-megawatt coal-fired plants near Holcomb in southwestern Kansas.

But it limits the authority of Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Roderick Bremby in a way that will require him to approve permits for the plants, according to opponents of the project.
If the KDHE secretary is stripped of his decision-making powers, then there would be no need to have a second bill specifically to support the plants. Of course, this bill is likely to be vetoed by Gov. Sebelius as well (and if she goes to HHS, by her Lt. Gov., Mark Parkinson).

There are two ironies in this whole thing. First, it’s quite clear that the “regulatory uncertainty” that Chamber of Commerce types complain about is actually coming, not from Topeka, but from Washington:

With concerns over climate change intensifying, electricity generation from coal, once reliably cheap, looks increasingly expensive in the face of the all-but-certain prospect of regulations that would impose significant costs on companies that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The article also points out that, far from Kansas being unique in this, in fact

In the last two-and-a-half years, plans for 83 plants in the United States have either been voluntarily withdrawn or denied permits by state regulators.
The other irony is that Kansas is uniquely qualified to be a trailblazer in the area of alternative fuels, particularly wind – as you know if you’ve ever been here. Gov. Sebelius calls the state the “Saudi Arabia of wind power.” If only the state legislators and industry leaders would turn their field of vision from the past to the future, that is.

I am on the steering committee of Kansas Interfaith Power & Light, the local outpost of a national organization that engages diverse faith communities in the issue of environmental stewardship. We do this mostly on the retail level, by going from congregation to congregation to encourage them to green their facilities and to teach the religious imperative to care for the earth through the fight against climate change.

But we also realize that one Holcomb plant (two, actually) would do more damage to the environment than 1,000 churches caulking their windows could fix. That’s why we’ve turned our attention to the legislative process, to encourage our state officials to support conservation, energy efficiency, and green energy options rather than the continued reliance on the outmoded energy-generating technologies of the past.

After all, we are convinced, it's the godly thing to do.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tu B'shvat

This coming Monday is the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, also known as Tu B'shvat, the "new year of the trees." This is based on the following mishnah:

There are four New Years days: the first of Nisan is the New Year for reckoning the reigns of kings and the feasts; the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of the cattle; the first of Tishrei is the New Year for reckoning of the years and taking stock of human lives; the first of Shevat is the New Year for the fruit trees. That is according to the school of Shammai; the school of Hillel says on the 15th of Shevat."- Mishnah Rosh Hashanah
The mystics of Safed developed a seder for Tu B'shvat; like other places in the Jewish tradition where the framework is there but the halakhic demands are not too developed, the Tu B'shvat seder has been reclaimed and repurposed in recent years as opportunity to put an awareness of the natural world around us into a religious context, and also to remind ourselves of the damage we can and do do to the world and the steps we can take to change it. After all, tikkun olam of course literally means "repair of the world."

Many resources for Tu B'shvat seders are available on the internet: a good overview from Shomrei Adamah is found on the COEJL website here, and in fact there are numerous Tu B'shvat programs on the program bank section of the COEJL website - click here and scroll down to T.

The gist of it is that there are four cups of wine/grape juice, as on Pesah - each cup corresponding to one of the "four worlds" of kabbalistic thought. Fruits and nuts that correspond to the "world" being spoken of are eaten, and readings and songs and crafts are included to fill the thing out and give it a festive air.

The first "world" is assiyah - the "physical, everyday world that we live in, the world of earth." The environmental message of this could be the profligate use of the earth's natural resources - oil, coal and others - and the reliance on landfills to get rid of so much of the waste that we generate with our rather profligate lifestyles and the way we have arranged our society and our economy.

The second world is yetzirah, "the world of water." Water, of course, is about the most necessary thing for human survival, yet we waste it terribly - particularly in rich countries. I think of Phoenix, with its desert climate but its myriad resource-intensive golf courses. I think of how it is illegal to reuse rainwater in Colorado without a permit. I think of the shrinking water resources around the world and how some experts are saying that water is one of the resources (along with oil, of course) that may cause wars in the next century. I think about how development and climate change are affecting the coral reefs along our shores, and how the damage may be irreversible if we don't make serious changes now.

The third world is briyah, "the world of air." Another of the things most necessary for human survival. This year I'm thinking about the increase in asthma rates, both in America and worldwide

Currently, experts are struggling to understand why the number of asthma sufferers is rising by an average of 50 percent every decade worldwide. In the United States alone, according to the WHO, the number of asthmatics has leapt by over 60 percent since the early 1980s.
and its environmental causes

In recent years, scientists have shown that air pollution from cars, factories and power plants is a major cause of asthma attacks. And more than 159 million Americans -- over half the nation's population -- live in areas with bad air. A research study published in 2002 estimated that 30 percent of childhood asthma is due to environmental exposures, costing the nation $2 billion per year. And studies also suggest that air pollution may contribute to the development of asthma in previously healthy people.
and how the way we behave, the way we heat our homes and power our cars and all the actions we take, how these affects our lives, the lives of our children, and the lives of people all over the world who's fates we never even consider.

And the fourth world is atzilut, the world of fire. Not represented by any food, this world is symbolic of perfection, of the spirit, of God. This is an opportunity to think of the godliness we experience through nature - of the natural world as an expression of holiness, of God's creativity. I'm not that outdoorsy a person, but I have been blessed many times to feel such a great sense of holiness in a beautiful natural setting.

As the liturgy says, "milo kol ha'aretz k'vodo" - "the whole world is filled with God's glory." It's up to us to help keep it that way. If our Tu B'shvat practice can in any way reinforce our ability and our willingness to do that, then it is a valuable practice indeed.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bread machine blues

A little before Hanukkah the pan on my bread machine cracked, so I couldn't use it. (The liquid would leak out.) It was under warranty so we called the company and they said to cut off the cord and send it back, and they would replace it. So we did that. In the month or so since then we've been relying on the 99-cent, day-old bread pile at the health food store.

In the end the company sent us back one that is a slightly higher-end model than the one we had. It's significantly wider, with two blades in it instead of one. We have enough counter space for it, but for some reason I haven't worked up the enthusiasm for it as I had when I first brought the original one home.

One complication is that because the machine is bigger, the size of the loaves is bigger. The first one had measurements for 1, 1.5 and 2 lb loaves; this one has recipes for 2, 2.5 and 3 lb loaves. So I can still use the measurements for the larger size loaves in the old book for the smaller sized loaves in this one. Also, the new book only contains one recipe for each setting (wheat, white, fast-bake etc.), as opposed to the other one, which had 4 or 5 recipes for each setting. Also, the new one relies heavily on milk as an ingredient, where the other one didn't; I was avoiding using milk so as to keep the thing pareve so I could eat the bread with meat if I wanted to.

So ... I need to find a recipe book for bread machines that gives measurements for the right size but doesn't rely on dairy. (The ones in the library mostly do rely on dairy, but I'll google it eventually, I'm sure I'll find something.) Then I need to get back into the rhythm of doing it a couple of times a week. Maybe I should re-read the chapter in Barbara Kingsolver's book, that might help. I'll get used to it.