J500 Media and the Environment


Cordley students whet their appetites for local food by jmuselmann

Excitement was in the air today at Cordley Elementary. It was the familiar, childlike vigor the comes from trying something new, and it was shared by both adults and kids alike as they filed into the gymnasium — not the cafeteria — for their first-ever locally sourced lunch. The term is “farm-to-school,” and judging from the content faces forking up the lasagna, it hit the spot.

The lunch was the culmination of a week of learning for the students, which spanned teaching about the benefits to local and organic foods to fields trips picking strawberries and gathering eggs from local farms (both of which were popular in the salad bar). In surveying the participants of the grand experiment about the typical lunch fare in the cafeteria, I got a sea of downward thumbs and “baaaad.” Fourth-grader Ainsley Agnew said it was just “grossness,” while on my other side was Pria Jean-Baptiste, also a fourth-grader, giving me a minutely detailed lesson about how to make the pasta from scratch. I should have taken better notes.

But the satisfaction didn’t come just from the good food, which included vegetarian and beef lasagna, bread sticks, salad, Iwig Family Dairy milk and a strawberry rhubarb confection, but also in the hard work to plan for it. Linda Cottin, the event’s organizer, said the meal had been in the works since November.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of community support, and I am happy that there’s a way to do this without all the work and make this an everyday function in the schools,” she said.

Rick Martin, head chef for the event (and at Free State Brewing Co.), agreed, saying that “After having this model, it will be easier” to accomplish in other schools and on a more permanent basis. That indeed was the consensus in the organizers’ post-lunch discussion, noting that Lawrence has the nearby farms and public interest to achieve it.

In a sense, the setting was typical: rambunctious kids at lunchtime, cracking jokes and playing with their food before politely running outside for recess. But it wasn’t. For the grown-ups — smiling volunteers and paparazzi abuzz to capture the moment — it was an accomplishment in the face of convention. Lindsey Kellenbarger, a teacher, also brought her camera for the momentous occasion, knowing the potential impact this seemingly ordinary lunch could have on the students.

“I got a kid to eat a turnip that I didn’t think would. That’s exciting,” she said.

—Jacob M.



Discerning service learning by jmuselmann

Sula Teller, food manager at The Merc, just after our interview.

Up until recently, it was difficult to put the scope of my involvement with the Douglas County Food Policy Council in perspective. Our class, Media & the Environment, has been a fusion of journalism and environmental studies departments, and each week we have been blogging about food as a way of getting our feet wet  with both these issues.

But a big part of our class was also to work for the newly formed food council as an interlocutor, surveying different stakeholders in the community as well as Lawrence residents to report back our findings — along with some research — to the council. The goal was to the “What,” the “Why” and the “How” of a local food system for Lawrence. Our group tackled the “Why” aspect.

In going out and interviewing local stakeholders as well as residents, I really started to realize how much of an impact the DCFPC could have, and how important these issues are to everyone, whether they take the time to think about it or not. Simply the act of putting everything else on hold and sitting down to talk about everyday things that most people don’t pay much attention to made me realize the pervasiveness of food attitudes that permeate other aspects of life. Calling attention to these seemingly mundane details about their work, food, and sustainability helped me see the importance of the DCFPC, and also why I had initially written it off as something bureaucratic whose goals I already had the gist of.

Wrong! It’s now apparent to me that the DCFPC is striving to be as vital as the issues it is fighting for. It really hit home when I spent a day in the Section 8 affordable housing district in north Lawrence. There I got to see and hear about how food accessibility (or rather the lack thereof) is directly affecting the lives of entire families. Hearing about families’ struggles made abstract goals of the DCFPC become very real, pertinent and necessary.

All in all, I’ve loved working for the Douglas County Food Policy Council. Working in small groups with a specific goal was rewarding. It felt good to know that we were making a difference and doing work for a task force that really needed our help. That kind of learning and satisfaction transcends earning grades in a grade book — it is immersive, substantial and can meaningfully affect the lives of many people for the better.

—Jacob Muselmann



Reflections on the semester: The whole enchilada by jmuselmann

Food is at the fiber of our very being. It is passed around piping hot with potholders, it is handed to us, self-contained, through the car door in paper sacks and divvied accordingly. It’s what we eat because our family does, our friends have tried, our mothers can afford. We throw it away, and we raise it high above our heads for to honor a friend or deity as an intentional sacrifice. Boxed up, it is heaved and flown across the world, passing some to bless others.

One way or another, people get their hands on food. And then we all have the decision of what to do with it. Some have the luxury of waiting to eat it, others use it as currency or a positioning of power, while for many others, who have not been able to make the decision in quite some time, it is always this: Put it into the holes in our faces in time to prolong death.

Of course by this point, we know we aren’t just talking about food. But rather, how food passes and intersects with our needs for a healthy environment and body whole. The need for change is dire and yet lingers on. The idea of going green is gaining unprecedented momentum, and yet, in many ways, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. People can easily eat their organic cake and not recycle, and we let them. But even within the green universe, there lies a wad of inconsistencies and tradeoffs to be sifted through and decided upon. It’s a voyage that has caused more than one breakdown in the grocery store, where I’m stunned into inaction, clutching my wallet in front of the onions, biting my lip at the global repercussions. Often I leave almost empty-handed. Pressure too great.

People say, “the choice is up to us” as consumers, but it sure is hard. Without good legislative infrastructure to guide food ways, it shouldn’t be surprising that it veers toward the same reckless trajectory as other things in this country, trailing irreversible damage in the wake of progress and profit.

Take me, for example: At least in some point in my life, I have recycled. I have also littered. Oh, and I have been the one calling into report the tags of those I see throw things out of their cars while driving: approximate time of infringement, rough location, type of violation, what kind of model and the company make. I guess this class has shown me that maybe I don’t need a number in my glove box to bring about change, I need only open my fridge instead.

—Jacob Muselmann



Zoos: Sources of wonderment or “Pitiful Prisons”? by bendcohen

I open myself to teasing sometimes, and I’m perfectly fine with that.  When I received an onslaught of jabs from friends about a month ago over Facebook for my fascination with the application/game Zoo World.  For the uninitiated, Zoo World is like Farmville, but for cool people, but I digress.

I and most kids I knew growing up loved the real life zoo.  When you are nine years old, a zoo seems like a magical place with strange creatures that you don’t get to see anywhere else.  With that sense of juvenile wonderment, you don’t really consider that the place with the animals is still run by people who are prone to mistakes and bad habits.

Even I tended not to consider this fact, having not been to my hometown’s self-proclaimed “World Famous” Topeka Zoo in several years. The zoo had clearly lost its luster some time ago, having lost national accreditation almost  a decade ago due to mistreatment of animals, something which was supposedly rectified a few  years later.  Sadly, one of my occasional trips to the Topeka-Capital Journal’s website (nostalgia, I suppose) revealed this to  not be true.  A few offenses listed include poor safety procedures to both keep people protected from dangerous animals, and vice versa; elephants not having their feet examined on a regular basis; and a hippopotamus not being allowed in its pool for periods of up to eight hours, extremely difficult for an animal that has no sweat glands and is accustomed to spending most of its time in or near water to keep cool.

I thought this picture, purportedly from a zoo in China, was awesome at first. Lately, it's occurred to me that it's rather sad.

Environmental stewardship can mean a lot of things.  We tend to think about recycling, energy use, land conservation, etc. as ways of protecting our planet, but we all have to learn the value of it sometime.  To give somebody, a child or otherwise, some sense of a connection to the world outside of their hometown, it is well and good to stir their imagination with examples of the wondrous things they can find hidden in the trees.  This is why I still believe in zoos as valuable to communities, and why I would like to see the one I used to love as a kid hold a higher standing than it apparently does now.  It infuriates me to no end that PETA might be on to something when they refer to zoos as “pitiful prisons“, partially because PETA in general annoys me, but if we can’t maintain the wildlife (a term I suppose I’m using loosely here) we use to exemplify the more amazing aspects of nature, we really can’t expect people to understand the value of protecting it.

~Ben C.



Food Pantry brings hope in a world of problems by bpirotte

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.



Learning what to pass over during Passover by bendcohen

"Hey Timmy, I'll trade you my pudding for your shank-bone!". From, ironically, the evangelical blog Dwelling in the Word.

When I was little, I dreaded the holiday of Passover.  Being Jewish, I was required for a week every year to cut out breads and any leavened foods (generally interpreted as anything with yeast, and any pastas).  I thought it would be impossible to survive without cookies, pizza, sandwiches, and all the other basic components of a grade-schooler’s diet.  The school cafeteria certainly wasn’t accommodating, leaving me to regularly bring a lunch-bag with matzoh, some macaroons, perhaps some fruit, generally stuff that my friends weren’t going to touch when they could have the rectangular globs of ingredients we were told was pizza.

Over the years, eating during Passover has gotten significantly easier, both as I’ve learned that one can survive without PB&J for a week (unpleasant as it may be), and as I’ve discovered how many other options there are to consume in general.  As a kid, I knew little about variety in my diet because two of the three meals I’d eat a day became standard very quickly.  Cereal in the morning, something frozen and from a plastic bag for lunch at school (along with the requisite tiny carton of chocolate milk or half-cup of condensed orange juice).

Generally, breaking out of a dietary routine at that age is impossible.  A few kinds of cheap, processed foods are going to be regular sights at public school lunches, and there is little that will last in a paper sack in a kid’s locker for four hours before they eat that is actually healthier than the aformentioned pizza blobs I ate in my early years.  With government funding to public schools being cut on a regular basis, they really can’t splurge on nicer products, and even the awareness raised by a few well-meaning projects like British television chef Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” isn’t going to do more than raise eyebrows and get a few kids a few better lunches.  I really admire the mission statement that “every child in America has the right to fresh, nutritious school meals, and that every family deserves real, honest, wholesome food”, but culturally, I have to look at what factors have brought about the epidemic of poor nutrition which Oliver is concerned with.

I’ll go far enough, cynical as I tend to be, to disagree with another British TV star, Ricky Gervais, who criticized Oliver’s campaign by saying that American children “know why they’re fat, and they like it.”  The problem has been increasingly recognized, and the USDA is becoming more involved in fighting the problem, but parents without the time and schools without the money aren’t going to change how they feed their children.

So, while I now shop for myself, and went to a Seder this year that, to my surprise, served baba ghanoush, somewhere there is a Jewish kid, probably growing up in the Midwest like I did, who dreaded the beginning of Passover this year because they don’t know how easy it is to cut a few things out for a week.

~Ben C.



Water: the liquid of our lives by bpirotte

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.