J500 Media and the Environment

Victory In Vogue

Victory Gardens are a hot topic right now. As Angela Greene, creator of the Salt of the Earth Youth Garden, puts it, “they’re definitely in vogue.”

Vintage Vogue Magazine Cover

Vintage Vogue Magazine Cover

As the days get warmer and the price of everything gets higher, many people decide to do more than just consume. They create. A Victory Garden can provide enough fresh produce, flowers and herbs to feed a family with enough left over to share with neighbors. You can even throw a chic dinner party for your hippest friends. Plus, there are lots of ways to get creative with your garden.

Some growing trends of the moment are tea or dye gardens, wine and beer gardens, cuisine themed gardens and using eco-friendly and recycled gardening products.

Cuisine gardens offer growers a steady supply of just the right ingredients for a series of delicious meals. For Chinese meals you‘ll want mung beans, bok choy, water chestnuts, Chinese parsley, snow peas, and ginger. For Mexican inspired dishes try tomatoes, jalapenos, bell peppers, onion, and cilantro. And a Thai palette will require kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, chives, ginger, and cilantro.

A wine-pairing garden is a popular choice for enthusiasts of spirits. Red wine enthusiasts will want to grow tomatoes, eggplant, sage and olives. Melons, citrus fruits and apples are delicious options for white wine lovers.

But before you begin planning your home-grown meals, you’ll need some tools. One of the most convenient and cost effective ways to begin is by looking at what you already own. Look through your kitchen, garage and basement for items that can be recycled as garden pots, raised beds, stakes, forks, trowels and spades. Try planting in an  old Red Flyer Wagon or roller-skates. And an old head board works great as a garden gate or a trellis. Get creative!

This is one fashionable band-wagon you won’t regret joining.

-Mackenzie Steffen, Group 1 – blog post

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the carrot is mightier than the sword

Working with the KCCUA has been a real eye-opener for me. Honestly, I was pretty ignorant of the whole urban agriculture movement. Once upon a time, I read somewhere about some good people growing good food in a city. It didn’t seem to resonate with me then. But visiting these farms and talking with those involved has changed that.



I had no idea there are so many different types of urban farms, so many cultivation techniques, and so many people benefiting from this congregation of growers. Urban farming isn’t just about “some good people growing good food in a city.” It’s people rising above the set standard for decent living, it’s people going beyond the average perception of responsibility. Urban farmers are stewards to the earth and their community. They feed, heal, educate and lift up those around them. And they work incredibly hard.

On any given day there are countless elements working against the urban farmer. April snow showers, toxic neighbors, ravenous deer, politics, a lack of funding, resources and land, to name just a few. The farmer must adapt, constantly evolve, to suit present conditions.

I’ve also learned that access to fresh foods can change people’s lives. There are kids living in the Midwest who have never eaten a fresh carrot. There are whole neighborhoods that must shop for groceries in gas stations. And thanks to the agrarian warriors of the KCCUA there are now kids who love to grow and eat produce of every variety, spirited markets held in a church parking lot, and an influx of satisfied appetites in the neediest of neighborhoods.


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Gas Station Groceries

Growing up I never thought of the supermarket as a luxury. Walking the expansive aisles, in awe of the limitless choices, I believed everyone shopped this way. Sadly, I was wrong.

For many communities, those of which are deemed low-income or of minority population, supermarkets are an urban myth. Residents of these neighborhoods must turn to gas stations and dollar-themed stores or take a series of buses to “nicer” areas, to put food on the dinner table.

Milk was available at this gas station.

Milk was available at this gas station.

In one area of Northeast Kansas City, Kansas, options range from Citgo to Quick Pick. There are small ethnic markets that cater to Asian and Hispanic residents, but these are typically the size of an average convenience store as well. The local Family Dollar is the best option for many residents.

One might ask, what types of food can you buy at Family Dollar?

A shopping list might look something like this:
bacon                          lunch meat
fruit punch                  pop tarts
hot dogs                       cheese
cake mix                      cookies
chips                             eggs
frozen pizza                ice cream
frozen French fries

Ok, so you could argue for the eggs, cheese, and maybe the lunch meat. But where are the fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and unprocessed meat? Unfortunately this diet consists of a lot of sugar, sodium, fat and preservatives.

Urban dwellers are forced to forgo the healthiest of staples because they just aren’t sold in their neighborhoods. But these residents have a lot more buying power than corporate giants would ever like to believe. Social Compact, an non-profit organization that researches underserved urban markets, found that nine of LA’s grittiest neighborhoods had been grossly underestimated by the US Census Bureau. The annual income for this area was found to be $1.9 billion higher than what the census had reported.

Frozen pizza of every variety!

Frozen pizza of every variety!

$1.9 billion higher. Sounds like these people have the income to buy fresh produce, if only it was made available to them. If the well-being of these people isn’t a draw for major chains, the cash in their pockets should be.


photos from my local convenience store

The forecast calls for white-out conditions

Cocaine. It’s the drug of choice for uptown socialites, swanky power brokers and runway darlings. For many it is a status symbol, the chicest of highs.

In reality it is an ecological symbol of destruction. Every step of the cocaine production process involves environmental devastation. Every gram of cocaine destroys four square meters of rainforest, causing soil erosion, landslides, and species extinction. Colombia’s rainforests are home to approximately 10 percent of the world’s species and more than 51,000 species of plants. The Amazon alone creates 15 percent of the world’s oxygen supply. Will a blizzard of cocaine production freeze out this fragile life force?

Chemicals used to process the raw coca leaves, diesel, kerosene, sulfuric acid, acetone, and carbide are often dumped into rivers and streams, polluting vital water sources and killing aquatic species.

Colombia produces 60 percent of the world’s cocaine supply each year. And despite the “efforts” of the US drug policy, it isn’t slowing in the slightest. The UN reported  a 27 percent increase in coca growth from 2007 to 2008.

Coca offers the best livable wage to Colombian farmers who create a paste from its narcotic elements. Traffickers pay little more than the cost of production supplies, which are often paid for on credit. These traffickers then turnaround and make a huge profit by selling processed cocaine in the US and Europe. In the meantime, the farmers must grow more and more coca to pay their debts and keep food on the table.

And there are countless causalities who are gunned down by drug lords and petty street criminals. South American traffickers work directly with Mexican cartels, pushing the war zone farther north. This intricate web of violence has now spread to 230 US cities.

Cocaine destroys people, from the rich who snort it up their rhinoplastic noses to the poor Colombian farmers who slave over it.

What does it say about Americans, whose status symbol is a shackle that threatens to pull us from our high and sink us all?


video courtesy of youtube

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The Beauty Cult

Argan fruit & Moroccan landscape

Argan fruit & Moroccan landscape

It seems every couple of months the beauty industry reveals a new “it” component and an answer to our vainest prayers. The most popular of which hail straight from nature, of course.

Recent stars and some has-beens, in no particular order, include the acai berry, jojoba, lemongrass, baobab and goji berries. These quirky ingredients have been added to smoothies, energy drinks, hair treatments, lip balm and wrinkle remedies. All have made the beauty industry a lot of money (in 2006, sales of  skin care products topped $60 billion) and all have been ousted by the next, like an old dog competing with a new puppy.

Argan oil appears to be the latest hot commodity in the skin care world (as well as culinary). Argan oil is derived from the fruit seed of the Aragania Spinosa tree indigenous to Morocco. The oil contains high levels of antioxidants and essential fatty acids, and may lower cholesterol. Boasting claims of miraculous healing powers for skin, hair and finger nails, it is destined to change the lives of many women.

It is the women of Moroccan who gather, dry, hand-crack, and press the seeds to extract their oil. With a literacy rate of only 39 percent, Moroccan women don’t have a lot options. In 2006, there were nine cooperatives that employed roughly 2,000 women to produce the lucrative oil. They were paid four euros per day. There are no real numbers for how many women may be working outside of these cooperatives, which are said to pay as little as one euro per day. The average yearly income is roughly 1,015 euro.

Moroccan women hand-cracking argan seeds

Moroccan women hand-cracking argan seeds

Shiny hair and glowing skin may sound wonderful but at what cost are we achieving such aesthetic pleasures? Before I pick up another miracle serum I’m going to find out whose hands extracted the spoils of my fountain of youth.


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Precocious isn’t always precious

Should they make a coloring book version?

I can still remember eavesdropping on the phone call my mother made the day I got my first period. She was breaking the news to my father. I thought I would die of embarrassment. Luckily for me, I was at the normal age for puberty and was just mature enough to handle the situation. But many girls, especially African American girls, are having to deal with “womanhood” earlier and earlier.

There are different types of precocious puberty. Some are linked to “natural” causes like genetics and a high BMI, but other types are linked to exposure to external sources of estrogen and testosterone. Exposure can occur through many vehicles. Our food and hair care products can be major culprits.

The FDA currently allows six steroid hormones for use in food production. They are most commonly used in the beef and dairy industries, which means these hormones are passed to us by consuming hamburgers and milkshakes. While large studies have not been conducted to determine whether exposure to hormones through food directly causes premature puberty, it’s a risk I wouldn’t take with my children.

Many hair care products targeted towards the African American community are made from animal placentas. These products contain high levels of estrogen and estriol. One study found that four girls, ranging in age from 14 months to 7 years, began developing breast tissue and/or pubic hair after being exposed to placenta hair products. Once the use of these products was discontinued, a regression occurred in their premature development.

Puberty is arguably the most confusing, and embarrassing time in a young girl’s life. Can you imagine the physical and psychological effects of becoming “sexually mature” at the age of 2, 5, or even 7?


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I’m Tired of Being Pleasant

Diarrhea is never a pleasant subject. For those of us with access to clean water supplies and basic medications, it’s usually nothing more than unpleasant. But for the more than 2 million children who will die of diarrhea and related diseases this year, it is much more than unpleasant.

I will never get over the fact that so many children die from something that is so easily preventable and treatable. I want to scream! Why is this happening? The two maps shown below represent the areas of the world with the poorest water sources and the most cases of childhood diarrhea. They look awful similar to me.

Poor Water

Poor Water

Childhood Diarrhea

Childhood Diarrhea

Diarrhea is most often caused by a lack of clean drinking water and poor personal and food hygiene. It can easily be treated with a re-hydration solution with sugar and salt additives. But families must have access to the solution and they must understand how to use it as it can take up to 24 hours of constant use to work.

Breastfeeding can be one of the easiest ways to prevent diarrhea in babies. Unfortunately, companies like Gerber and Nestle have been pushing expensive formula in underdeveloped nations for decades. Mothers often mix contaminated water into the formula making every meal a toxic one for their infants. The viral, bacterial and parasitic causes of diarrhea have now become a major ingredient of baby’s meal.

Systematic waste removal is another solution to the messy situation. Doctors studied the epidemiological effect of a public service project that increased household access to city-run sanitation in Salvador, Brazil. The goal of the project was to increase sewer coverage from 26 percent to 80 percent. After comparing the number of diarrhea incidents in 1997 to those in 2004, it was found that cases were reduced by 22 percent.

Warning: bad pun here: It’s time to sh*t or get off the pot. I do not want to make light of such a serious issue, but now is when we need to put pleasantries aside and do something. There are a lot of ways to get involved.

You can join the Nestle Boycott (they might make more products than you imagine), you can donate to Engineers in Action, or even join Engineers Without Borders-University of Kansas (KU students of all majors are welcome).


maps courtesy of worldmapper.org