J500 Media and the Environment

Media, the Environment, Food and ME
April 30, 2010, 10:12 am
Filed under: J500 Week 14, Local Events + Action, Society + Media

Thinking about the environment through the lens of food. Source: http://www.gamestown2010.ca/

If I’m being honest, I’ll have to admit I had no idea what I was getting into in this Media and the Environment class.

I had heard it being promoted before, but assumed the topics covered would be about sustainable practices, wind energy, solar panels, climate change, or even biodiversity. But, food? I had never even thought of our environment through the lens of food before, and had no idea the amount of issues that impact our daily lives through food.

If I’m still being honest, it took me quite a while to start caring. Toward the beginning of the semester, I thought that all this talk of vegetarianism, organically grown foods, and cage-free chicken ranges was a lot of something I didn’t really care about or take much interest in. But when I realized that when I left the class to go eat dinner, my fridge was full (or lacking) of what we had talked about in class, and I began to realize it actually affected me.

Without this class, I never would understand what it means for food to be local. Organic. Hormone-free. But now, I can be a responsible shopper, and have even started participating in the growth of a local movement! Not only am I doing so through the purchases I make each time I visit the grocery store, but I am able to participate in the beginning of what I know will be something great: the Douglas County Food Policy Council, or DCFPC. By participating in a Service Learning project to help start a local food system for Lawrence, KS and the surrounding areas in Douglas County, I am truly giving back to society and helping the environmental movement where I live.

So what did I gain from a semester of JOUR 500: Media and the Environment at the University of Kansas? A new way to see, understand, and help my community–and the world.

–Ben P.

Portions in restaurants need to “SuperShrink”

“Are you gonna eat that?”–the question that always seems to come up after a meal shared with friends. And it usually comes from me.

You might be thinking I’m just an incredibly hungry, insatiable 20 year old male, but the truth is, I ask to help finish people’s plates because I hate waste so much.

Growing up, I was always taught the idea of a “happy plate.” Finish all that you were served, no matter if it was meat, potatoes, vegetables or pudding, time at the table wasn’t done until everything was eaten up. And this didn’t seem to be a challenge for my sister and I as children, one because we were decent eaters and not particularly picky, but also because Mom never over served us, making sure we had just the right of food on our plates.

While it wasn’t until later I ever heard the threat of “there are starving kids in Africa, eat your food!”, I just knew it was my duty to finish what I was given, and that value has stuck with me ever since.

In a culture where restaurants serve way too much,

A 30 oz steak? How many meals could you make from that? Restaurants need to lower portion sizes. Photo from Flickr by TheMuuj

it’s hard not to waste. It’s not always practical (or possible) to ask for that doggy bag, but when possible, dinner the night before often makes a great lunch the next day. In reality, though, restaurants really should be making portions smaller to avoid such blatant waste. I don’t think customers would complain really, either. How many times has a waiter come to your table to ask about dessert and you have to deny them on the basis of your stomach already being at carrying capacity? No wonder obesity is such an issue.

With eating out being something Americans just don’t seem to want to give up, restaurants should respond by offering healthier, smaller portions of their food at least an option. The restaurants would save money, and the consumers could save some pounds.

–Ben P.

Food Pantry brings hope in a world of problems

Catherine Keeton, coordinator at Just Food Food Bank in Lawrence, Kansas, helps bring "justice for all" to struggling families. Her medium of choice: food. Photo by Ben Pirotte

On a visit around the Lawrence community to try and find those most connected with food and how it is used to solve problems, I came across Just Food Food Bank.

Just Food Food Bank is a food pantry that provides food for those in need from around the Lawrence community. The pantry is open from Monday to Friday from 9 am-12 pm and 1-4 pm. The organization also provides what they call a “mobile food pantry” distribution once a month. This past Monday, the mobile food pantry distribution was able to stock the shelves of 197 households in the Lawrence community, providing sustenance for those going through some difficult times.

Catherine Keeton, the organization’s coordinator, has a lot of faith in her organization. “Food is what we do. We take it very seriously,” she said. “I think [food] is the most direct way you can help somebody.”

The pantry provides for many families throughout the community on a daily basis. But to Keeton, one story seems to illustrate best what the organization is all about.

A single mother of four children was literally on her last $10. With nowhere else to turn to feed her family, she came to Just Food. With the help of the pantry, she was able to feed her family for just the amount of time it took her to get a job. Feeling especially grateful, she now gives an “anonymous” donation to Just Food once a month, sneaking into the warehouse and leaving the bag of groceries. “She really felt like she had been taken care of by her community,” Keeton said.

Keeton believes that providing food is the basis of solving so many problems faced with our community today. “By providing an adequate, nutritious, regular source of food, people can focus on other things,” she said. Sometimes, those other things could be a critical step in security for a family, like the case of the single mother. Without the help of the food pantry, she might never have had the chance to get back on her feet.

Charles, a long-time volunteer at the pantry since 1972, showed me around the warehouse. Photo by Ben Pirotte

Community involvement is something the organization stresses. Without the support of faithful volunteers like Charles, a carpenter by trade and father of 9, the pantry would not survive. Charles has been volunteering since 1972, unloading and reorganizing the many donations that come from generous organizations from around the community.

This tall man guided me through the pantry, pointing to each box and describing its contents, and even took me into the freezer. “You should take an ice cream!” he said, “they really are pretty tasty.” While I decided to pass up the cold treat, I was not able to pass up the warm vibe the generous people at the food pantry were sending my way.

It’s people like this that give me hope in my world.

–Ben P.

Water: the liquid of our lives

1 in 8 people don't have access to clean drinking water. Photo by Wespionage on Flickr

I hear cars sloshing around the puddles that fill the unnaturally high amount of potholes that spot Lawrence streets outside my window.

I take a sip of the Brita-filtered water that fills my glass next to my computer.

I hear the flow of the water through the pipes of the incredibly thin walls of my apartment building while my roommate takes a shower.

But do I actually sit back and think about where this water is coming from? Do I realize that 1 in 8 people has to live without clean drinking water? I take for granted that when I turn on my sink, clean, drinkable water will flow. I even complain when it takes too long to achieve that perfect temperature.

With World Water Day just a few days ago, it seems relevant to talk about one of the most important issues that plagues our planet today. While we in developed countries take it for granted that our government will take care of our water, and with the taxes we pay, give us the cleanest, safest, and best access to water wherever we are, many developing countries throughout the world are not given that luxury. As Americans, on average, we consume about 400 liters of water per day. In desert cities like Phoenix, Arizona, their consumption increases up to about 1,000 liters to keep their lawns looking like they live in Ireland. Comparatively, in third world countries such as Mozambique, the average use is just 10 liters. And that 10 liters probably isn’t even safe to drink.

So, how are we, as a world of only 2.5% freshwater, going to deal with world water shortages, and give access to those who don’t already have clean drinking water? There are many solutions out there, but there are some you can do at home that will help you and the whole world.

Conserve your own water. While you probably don’t think you’ll be able to make that trip to Mozambique to help install a well for a poor area in the bush anytime soon, you can conserve your own water usage by doing a few things:

  • Take a shorter shower.
  • Fill the sink to wash your dishes instead of individually rinsing them.
  • Keep a pitcher of water in your fridge. That way, you won’t have to wait impatiently for the sink to make ice-cold water.
  • If you live in a climate that can’t naturally support an English garden, maybe it’s time you gave up that green lawn. Places like Phoenix and Los Angeles were never meant to look like Seattle. Maybe designing a desert garden could be a good alternative.
  • Learn about your world. Without access to clean, safe, drinking water, many of those you share this big planet with are actually dying. Understanding their plight could help motivate you to stop running the faucet while brushing your teeth.
  • Never think you can’t make a difference.

–Ben P.

Costa Rica: a small country with a big environmental impact

To fight the harsh Kansas winter, my family decided to pack up and leave for sunny, warm Costa Rica. Known around the world as an eco-paradise, this tiny, Central American country has a lot to protect.

Papaya and cocktail shrimp--a meal of local flavor.

Fresh food, especially fruit, is an important part of Costa Rican’s “Pura” lifestyle. At the hotel, shrimp cocktail fills a papaya bowl. The shrimp was caught off Costa Rica’s coast, and the papaya was also grown nearby. Talk about eating local! As a plus for living in this tropical environment, locals pay significantly less for their products. A pound of bananas at a local market only cost 19 colones  (that’s only 3 cents!), compared to the cost in the US of an average around 30-40 cents.  However,  is that the true cost of a banana? Unsustainable practices in Costa Rica’s banana industry include heavy use of pesticides, deforestation, and improper treatment of many banana harvesters.

Tourism is booming in Costa Rica, which claims to be one of the most eco-friendly tourist destinations in the world. However, places like Costa Rica’s North Pacific coast, in the state of Guanacaste, are sometimes trading tourist dollars for safe environmental practices, as resorts and the winter homes of rich migratory North American retirees flood the landscape.

Hotels and resorts in the Guanacaste region could threaten Costa Rica's eco-attitude.

Biodiversity is an incredibly important part of Costa Rica.

A howler monkey hides in a tree in Costa Rica’s rainforest.

Tree root forms interesting shapes in the Costa Rican rainforest.

Comparable to the size of West Virginia, this small tropical country contains five percent of all of earth’s species. However, pressures from population growth and development from tourism are a constant threat to Costa Rica’s abundant wildlife.

An aloe plant blooms in the rainforest.

While there, I learned this tiny country is a big player in environmental sustainability, despite its miniscule size. However, no country is perfect, and Costa Rica is no exception. With the tourism industry booming, and a global desire for a tasty banana, this Central American country has to deal with some difficult choices.

Hopefully the sun isn't setting on Costa Rica's eco-friendly practices.

Photos and text by Ben Pirotte

Family Farming to Industrial Agriculture

My grandfather, or “Granddad,” as we call him, grew up on a farm in western Kansas.

My Granddad outside his one-room school house, near the farm he grew up on in western Kansas. Photo by Ben Pirotte

Like most of his generation, he grew up healthy, happy, and with strict values. One of those values: frugality. But why is frugality such an important value of a person who grew up in the Depression? Because they had little to nothing. So, surviving on just a few dollars a week, and only buying the materials necessary to clothe, feed and house your family became what was important.

Just a few years ago, my family and I were able to go visit the land my great-grandfather used to till. Strangely enough, there’s a plaque installed on the property marking the geodetic center of the lower 48 states! Today, it is an “active cornfield,” which goes to show just how important farming is in the makeup of the United States, being right at its heart.

However, much has changed from the days of Granddad’s childhood. What used to be a country of many small farmers that made up 21% of the US workforce, all insistent on making a new life for themselves and their family, has now turned into just a few “desperate” farmers trying to make ends meet, and a few giant business conglomerates.

So, has the nostalgic, pastoral idea of farming died? With the mechanization of farming as an industry, and with yields from farming being more productive than ever, large, mono-crop facilities produce the vast majority of our food at a cheaper price to the consumer. But what about the cost to the environment? Industrial agriculture requires more use of pesticides, and with mono-cropping, soils are depleted through time and eventually need more and more fertilizers to create the same output. There seem to be alternatives to this model–such as buying organic and local. But are these ideas realistic?

While it is clear that we most likely won’t be returning to the days of small farmers in places like western Kansas, there is a need to reform our food system. Industrial agriculture is imposing a problem not only to the quality of our food, but is also a major problem to the health of our environment. Small steps can be made to reforming the system, but until our world as a whole is able to factor in all the costs associated with industrial farming, and not just the cost to grow, produce, harvest and ship a product, we won’t be able to see the necessary change.

–Ben P.

Grading the Pantry

A lot of Clementines, Sun Chips and of course, MILK–staples in my kitchen. While I’m a sucker for convenience, I try to stay relatively healthy and be at least conscious of my environmental impact. So what do these particular items say about me? Because you are what you eat, right?

Let’s start with the Clementines.

Clementine mandarins- a fridge favorite. Photo by Ben Pirotte

I buy relatively large bags of Cuties, which are small varieties of mandarins. They’re easy to peel, small, and seedless. They’re a convenient and seemingly healthy snack from California. However, to achieve that convenience, they are treated with Imazalil or Thiabendazole, both common pesticides used on citrus fruits. The peeling is also waxed and possibly even gassed in order to increase shelf-life and appearance. Turns out being “cute” comes at a price.

So, first item examined: I’ll give myself a B-. Even though the’yre definitely non-organic, gassed, and shipped over 1000 miles to get to me, they’re still relatively healthy, right? Yikes. Scratch that. I probably deserve more like a C.

Next item: Sun Chips. I’ve been eating them since I was little, so they have the nostalgia thing going for them. They’re a crunchy, well-seasoned snack. So, what does that new 100% compostable bag business really mean? Am I being a more environmentally responsible consumer for buying Sun Chips? Well, if we’re talking about buying local, for example, this would constitute a “fail.” The company that produces Sun Chips, Frito Lay, is a national chain that ships all over the United States and the world. If we’re talking about buying organic, again, not so much. Sun Chips ingredients include artificial flavors, and even Maltodextrin. However, the new ad placed on the bags of the product indicate the chips are contained in a compostable bag. While that doesn’t mean you can just compost the bag, it does leave less of a carbon footprint because it uses less petroleum-based plastic. Also, apparently at least one of the plants that produces Sun Chips is solar, with plans for further solar plants in the future. Not bad, right? I think I will give myself a B+ for the Sun Chips. While still supporting a large chain, I am proud of supporting at least a sub-company that supports greener production.

Now for the milk.

Iwig Family Milk-local goodness. Photo by Ben Pirotte

Milk is my favorite beverage, hands down. I would much rather drink milk than pop, juice, or even water. My milk purchase is something I feel proud of, though, because I have recently started buying from local producer, Iwig Family Dairy, who sells milk in a reusable glass bottle in grocery stores around Kansas. They’re an organic dairy farm not far from where I live in Lawrence, Kansas. It’s tasty and guilt free. Tecumseh, where the milk comes from, is only about 25 miles from Lawrence. Organic: check. Local: checkity-check. The reusable glass bottle adds a nice touch. Milke grade: an honest A.

While I’m sure I have committed several more food sins with my Double Stuffed Oreos, Ramen noodles, and pepperonis, I think I’m at least headed in the right direction. It’s rough to think about what you are is what you eat–when what you’re eating might not be so great.

–Ben P.

Words Matter

Green. Healthy. Organic. Biophilia. Sustainable. “Global warming” or “climate change?” It all seems so overwhelming!

Word choice is important to help understanding of debated issues. http://phsgirard.org/images/calvin-on-scientific-law__word_choice_1_.gif

With the recent trend of the “green movement” and the idea of wanting to have a positive impact on our environment come a lot of words. And they can often be really confusing.

So, how do we begin to define words like these? How do we know these definitions can be trusted? The truth is, one definition almost never suffices, and making sure you’re educated and well-rounded in the sources you use can help.

For example, this week in my Media and the Environment course at the University of Kansas, our class had a guest lecturer from Kansas State University named Ben Champion who heads a sustainability group at the university. We looked past our school’s sports rivalries and had an informative discussion about the definition specifically of sustainability. We wondered if sustainability is even truly definable? However, we came up with a few definitions.

Ben Champion used his own definition: “[a] healthy system composed of relationships that do not damage the integrity of those economic social and environmental relationships.”

Ok, so we are kind of starting to get an understanding of what sustainability means. What about words like “organic?”  Dictionary.com has multiple definitions for organic. But here’s two I picked that seemed to pertain to what is talked about in regard to environmental issues (especially involving food). 1.”pertaining to, involving, or grown with fertilizers or pesticides of animal or vegetable origin, as distinguished from manufactured chemicals: organic farming; organic fruits.” and 2. “developing in a manner analogous to the natural growth and evolution characteristic of living organisms; arising as a natural out growth.” See? Now you know at some basic level what that label on your milk is boasting. Whether or not the company is truly upholding its values is another story. But if you understand the basics, you might be able to do some of your own research to come to your own conclusions on the reliability of companies.

It’s hard when we have so much to already worry about to try and wrap our minds around issues like these. So, it’s important for not only journalists, but people in all fields to use their words wisely. If you’re trying to talk to someone about the problems we face as a planet with the change in the Earth’s overall temperature, do you use “global warming” or “climate change?” What if it’s the coldest winter you ever remember. Would global warming really have an impact then?

With such heated topics as climate change or the green movement, it’s important to choose your words wisely. You never know the impact it can have on someone.

The Travel Challenge

The cold is driving me nuts.

I’m tired all the time, I don’t ever want to leave the comforts of my warm bed, and class is about the last thing I want to do. But what do you do when you live in Kansas, where the weather sometimes doesn’t even make it above freezing during the winter?

Well, the solution my friend and I came up with is to visit a mutual friend in California,

The warmth of Southern California sounds like heaven in Kansas winter -photo by Ben Pirotte

where the sun is shining and the lows there are still higher than our highs here.

However, the only real way to get to California in a reasonable amount of time (and going for just a few days, trying to miss the least amount of class possible), is to fly. While the ticket price seemed reasonable for going 1,500 miles just to soak up some sun, the question then becomes, is that what it really costs to our environment?

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s online calculator, my friend and I will be dispelling quite a bit of CO2 into the atmosphere. 970.34 kg, or just over a ton, to be exact.

The carbon cost for travel is daunting. But do we have alternatives? Source: http://www.icao.int/

As an avid traveler, my love for exploration will not die anytime soon, but I would also like to lessen my carbon footprint. How will we, as travelers in our society, be able to do this?

A few new ideas have sprung up recently about more efficient airplanes like Boeing’s 787, or a recent flight test conducted by Virgin Atlantic airlines partially powered by palm oil.

While these seem like partial solutions to the problem we face, I think a possibly more efficient and more practical solution is something I learned about on my travels: public transportation.

While the United States at one point was the world leader in train travel with more tracks and more distance covered than any other country in the world, we have fallen short on train travel as an option for passengers. While the freight rail service seems to be thriving, passenger rail in the United States is basically non-existent. Europe, on the other hand, has a thriving passenger rail system, with many rail lines connecting cities throughout the continent, and with new developments in things such as high-speed rail, places like Spain and France have been able to cut the amount of passengers in need of flying down significantly. According to a New York Times article, there is a new link between two of Spain’s major cities, Madrid and Barcelona. In its first year of operation, it was able to snag almost half the passengers that normally fly between the cities!

Not only is taking public transportation economical, but it is also very easy to run on alternative energy, as high speed trains engines are often electric. That electricity can be created easily from wind or solar plants, making the carbon footprint from travel almost at zero.

However, there are many differing opinions held by Americans, and many of them stem from the idea that rail seems impossible in such a large country as ours is. But when I think of rail usage, I don’t expect to take a train to LA, for example. I would love to be able to take a train to Chicago, or to Wichita for the weekend, or even somewhere like Denver. A hub-and-spoke type system would be advantageous here, I think.

With Obama’s new high-speed rail plan, the possibility of passenger rail travel in the United States seems closer than ever, but will Americans be receptive to it? Would you be willing to take a train to get to your next destination?

–Ben P.

Checking Checkers

It was a weeknight and a couple friends and I had made dinner. It was a relatively healthy meal with some chicken, vegetables, and even got a little fancy with some cous-cous on the side. But a few minutes of conversation about ice cream got us craving some, and therefore spurred a late night trip to the store for some frozen desert.

I had recently attended a meeting for a Food Policy Council meeting here in Douglas County, Kansas where local food growers, business owners, and those interested in eating locally gathered to talk about how the county and surrounding areas could benefit from local food.


A place to eat local!


I noticed one of the members of the council was representing a local grocery store, Checkers. This interested me because I had never really gone to Checkers before, as I am from Wichita, Kansas and I was very used to shopping at Dillons grocery stores. However, after seeing the presence of this grocery store at the meeting, I wondered what sorts of options they had for local or organic foods.

So, when the craving for ice cream arose, the suggested place for purchasing said desert became Checkers. But while my friends were scouring the freezers for the most exciting flavors of their delicious mid-night snack, I ventured off to see what I could find that’s “organic.” I looked in the dairy products, and immediately found milk cartons boasting a “USDA Organic” label. But what does this really mean? I remained somewhat skeptical. After doing some further research, I also found some ads boasting Checkers’ commitment to being “local.” This seems to be a term thrown around often when referring to eating responsibly, but according to this ad, actual local suppliers sell their products at Checkers. Some of these include local milk producer Iwig’s, and beef from M&J Ranch. Who knew?!

Even though there is a lot on our minds today, and we are bombarded with an incessant amount of causes and reasons to care, it looks like eating locally just got a little bit easier.

–Ben P.