Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gluten-free, Nut-free, Homemade-free? Options for Halloween Parties at School

Gluten-free, Nut-free, Homemade-free? Options for Halloween Parties at School
The e-mail request on the surface seemed simple enough. The room mother still needed treats for the goodie bag for the class Halloween party.

And then I got to the end of the message.
Also, please make sure none of the treats include peanuts (SEVERE peanut allergy) and 2 kids are gluten free!
Wow. That moment gave me pause. Because while I've learned to adjust to my child's friends' food allergies in real life (play dates, parties, etc.), I had no idea what to do in a classroom setting. And it was even made worse by a school rule that said no homemade treats.

At one of our local stores, I scoured product after product for ideas that might satisfy both requirements. I learned quickly that there is no labeling standard for nut-free or gluten-free products. I even asked a store employee, who asked two other employees for ideas. They just looked at me sadly.

If you're in the position of searching for last-minute party bag treats as I was, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Gluten-free candies: A list of many gluten-free and gluten-friendly candies. So apparently not all candy is off the list.
  • Non-food items: Personally, I'm opposed to spider rings, stickers, plastic toys and any other item that can clutter up my home. But think about pencils, glow sticks for trick or treating, Play Dough or other ideas.
  • Carmel apples
  • Mandarin orange fruit cups decorated with a jack-o-lantern face on the top.
  • Rice Krispy Treats
  • Popcorn balls
  • Clementines decorated as a jack-o-lantern
  • Grape "Eyeballs"

Have other ideas for gluten-free, nut-free celebrations? Please share them below!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Here's a Scary Story About Bats

Mindful Echo has the scariest story of all: bye bye brown bats.

Happy Halloween, Boothers!

Everyone have a good costume ready? Something scary? Maybe a vampire? Or a bat?

For a long time we've saddled bats - the sweetest nocturnal critters ever - with a decidedly undeserved reputation as ghoulish, creepy, and evil. I suppose we can blame Dracula, or the fact that they sometimes live in cold, dark caves, or maybe we can say it's because they're creatures of the night.

Regardless of their stigma from days past, I think we all know that, in reality, bats perform a formidable service for our ecosystem. Primarily insectivores, bats feast on my least-favourite pests like moths and wasps (the real villains, if you ask me). Truly, bats are the best!

Here's Where it Gets Spooky

The scary truth is that we're remarkably close to losing another species of these dark-winged devils altogether.

In New Brunswick, Canada, a once robust population of brown bats has been decimated by a fungus known as white-nose syndrome, which grows over their faces while they hibernate in the winter. Headlines have declared that we've lost over 99 percent, dropping the numbers from 7,000 to only 22. (source)

7,000 to 22.  7,000 to 22.  
If those numbers don't give you nightmares, I don't know what will. 

Scarier still is the fact that the fungus appears to be moving westward with predictions that it will inevitably appear in the Prairies before a solution is found. (source)

It's both sad and terrifying to watch our list of endangered animals grow and grow. I get chills down my spine whenever those animals are later switched to the extinct list. It's so disheartening.

Bat populations are being affected across North America. In Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Fund is currently promoting efforts to help bats but please look into your local, regional conservation efforts. Whether you can adopt a bat or build them a house, just remember that these furry fellas aren't the evil creatures they're made out to be - they're darlings, not demons - and they need our help. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

An Honest Post

Today is my day to post...

But after the events of this week in Ottawa, I'm really at a loss as to what to say.

I'm not even ready to really share my thoughts on what it means to have a Terrorist attack our Canadian parliament, or against our national military forces, by individuals who were BORN and raised Canadians. Or how I feel about the loss of a personable and approachable (relatively) political space.

So. This is what I'm sharing with you, boothers. An honest tidbit: I really don't feel very hopeful at all; I actually feel pretty darn conflicted.

I am not a fan of warfare. I'm pretty much a leftist, tree hugging pacifist that feels we should be investing more in our education, health systems and less in military fighter jets and air strikes. I don't believe in paranoia. I feel extremely uncomfortable with the fact that in Quebec they shot and killed the man who ran over those two soldiers with his car when all he was carrying on his person was a knife.

This week has shaken that resolve (not squashed it) and for the first time in this long battle against climate change, sexism and right wing political leanings I feel tendrils of fear that perhaps we won't get a happy future. I have a better (not even close to complete) understanding of my American neighbour's reactions and subsequent cultural shift in 2001.

Yes, this is dramatic. But it's my birthday and... yep... I'll dramatize if I want to.

How do you carry hope?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Overcoming Green Living Fatigue

The Climate Crusader is battling green living fatigue.

I have a confession to make: sometimes I feel tired of being an environmentalist. Sure, I carry around reusable bags and reusable water bottles and reusable cloth napkins. I do my best to pack a litterless lunch now that I'm volunteering in a local school three days a week, and I bring my compost and recycling home with me so that I know it doesn't end up in the landfill. I walk my kids to school and buy organic.

I try to do my part. I really do.

Sometimes, though, I feel discouraged. It seems like in spite of the efforts that ordinary people like me make, big institutions like governments and corporations aren't pulling their weight. I read about climate change and toxic chemicals in our environment and species extinction and I feel powerless to do anything. Some garden pest has eaten the little lettuce sprouts I so carefully planted and tended, and there's nothing I can do about it. And on top of that I crave a Diet Coke and a bag of completely non-organic chips. Or maybe a meal from a fast food restaurant.

So, what's an environmentalist to do when it all feels pointless and overwhelming? Here are four things that have helped me.

1. Look for Good News Stories

There's plenty of bad news, we all know that. Amidst the doom and gloom, it's easy to overlook the good news, but it's there. When you're feeling discouraged, seek out some good news. If searching online is too overwhelming, ask your friends or family. Put the call out on Facebook. Or look here, I've gathered a few to get you started.

2. Let Go of Something

If you feel like you're carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, it's easy to become overwhelmed. No one person can save the world on their own. If you can relate, let go of something that isn't feeding you. It's okay to say 'no' sometimes - and in fact, letting go of obligations that are sapping your energy can free you up to do more in areas that are meaningful to you. Even a day out doing something you enjoy can make a world of difference to your outlook. Speaking of which ...

3. Get Out in Nature

Spending time in nature can be very healing. Whether you're feeling stressed out about the state of the planet or work or pretty much anything, the great outdoors can provide a great antidote. Getting outside in all seasons is also a good way to re-connect with the environment that sustains us. It may also help you to renew your commitment to sustainability.

4. Make Connections

It can be easy to feel alone as an environmentalist in your day-to-day life. There are countless other people out there who are also doing their part to protect our planet, though. Making connections with them can help you beat your enviro-malaise. Plus, isn't it great to make friends? This is one of the things I love about the Green Phone Booth, in fact - the way that different bloggers come together to share. There are online groups, blogs and organizations you can connect with, as well as local groups. You can choose whatever works best for you.

How about you - how do you overcome green living fatigue?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Overcoming Nature Anxiety

Queen Composter needs your help.

I am passionate about gardening as a way to connect us to our food, and I enjoy spending time in the outdoors, connecting with the plants and animals that live amongst us. I believe that this may be the only way to have people truly care about protecting the environment and see that our well being is tied to a healthy planet. I also believe in the power of modelling and education to shape children's perceptions and behaviours. The best way to desensitize children to the "ick" factor and sensitize them to the diversity of life around us is to spend time in nature.

My daughter mistakes any flying insect for the stinging
variety, even harmless flies. 

However, I am also aware that children often come out with their own fully developed personalities and temperaments, and this has been one of the most challenging aspects of parenting for me.

This past summer I struggled with a daughter who does not want to spend time outdoors; "I've had enough fresh air, can I go inside now please?" She has always preferred indoor pursuits, but in the past has been willing to engage in outdoor play with some encouragement (usually because her sisters are outdoors and she wants to be with them). She is a sensitive person who can have strong sensory reactions to situations. This past summer a series of events occurred that affected her deeply (multiple insect bites and stings), and she refuses to go outdoors. When she does, she constantly scans the air and ground for insects, and imagines insects crawling on her when she feels an itch or breeze on her skin. While her anxieties are understandable, it presents many challenges.

The dreaded wasps. This variety is especially aggressive.

I have continued to encourage her to spend time outside in our backyard and at parks. Together we read information in books and on the internet about insects, animals and plants that we see in our backyard garden. We have talked about the important role that each insect plays in the ecosystem. I make sure to limit her exposure to situations where I know she will be stressed (and made the decision to cancel a camping trip because of her extreme anxieties). We have also limited eating food outdoors because of the insects that food attracts.
Many insects are hibernating or dwindling
for the colder seasons, but the sight of this
sends my daughter into fits.

When we find insects in the house I make sure to remove them in humane ways. For example, despite pleading on her part to squish any spider we find, I use a glass to capture them and put them outside. As I do this I take the opportunity to make observations about the spider with my girls (all while squelching my inner desire to scream and run away). Already I have seen spin-off benefits from this; my oldest daughter has taken on the role of spider whisperer when I am not available, and I am so proud of her. Incidentally, overcoming my fear of spiders began when I had children.

You know a spider is big when you can see the stripes
on its back. We find these inside all the time.

My fearful daughter has made some growth and occasionally will join me in my garden for very brief periods of time, but I fear that if I don't help her, next spring and summer will continue to be torturous for both her and me.

So I turn to you now for some suggestions to help me help my daughter overcome her fears and begin to enjoy time outdoors again.

Have you overcome a fear of creepy crawlies? What has helped you? Do you have any suggestions to help me?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Service Projects for Kids?

From the bean of Green Bean.

It was a cool and foggy September morning.  I knew which day it was.  Saturday, the 20th.   I had had this date marked on my calendar for months, even a year.

Still, I ignored the calendar entry.  There were so many other things I could do on a quiet Saturday morning.  The kids could be sucked in by screen time, forbidden during the week.  I could work in the garden, plant seeds for fall, lay down sheet mulch for spring.  Hit the Saturday farmers market instead of the Sunday one.  The possibilities were endless.  And yet, I had wanted to do this since last year.  Or at least thought we should try it.

Pick up other people's trash.

I loaded the kids and hubs into the car and headed West, to the beach, to join in our first ever California Coastal Cleanup Day.  When we arrived, the parking lot was an empty.  A single gentleman surrounded by empty trash bags and paperwork waved us over, set us up and we were off.

Creeping over invasive ice plant and down along the kelp washed up on the shore, we scoured and picked, like a treasure hunt.  One son proudly found a Starbucks cup and straw.  The other, not to be outdone, located a full beer bottle amongst the seaweed.  "I saved a sea turtle, " shouted one, waving a deflated balloon.  "I saved some fish," bragged the other, holding a straw overhead.

By the time we had reached the end of the beach - our bags full of Styrofoam and plastic, we turned to head back.  Apparently, we were just the first of many volunteering that morning.  The shore crawled with a boy scout troop, twenty-somethings on a "girls day out", a 4H group, and a number of others aiming to make the world - or at least our little sandy corner of it - a better place.

We left invigorated, excited about the prospect of having made a difference and without having found a single plastic bag - thanks to our county-wide bag ban that went into effect over a year ago.  My family cannot wait until next year to pick up more trash.  (In fact, we may not wait).

But in the meantime, what our service projects would you recommend for children?  How, as the holidays of overindulgence come roaring around the corner, can we keep that sense of giving alive?  What service projects have you done and how have you liked them?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Do Carbon Taxes Work?

The Climate Crusader looks into the results of a carbon tax in British Columbia, Canada.

I live in British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada. Much like the US, Canada's west coast is associated with left-leaning liberal hippies. Here in Vancouver you'll find an abundance of vegan bakeries, food trucks, craft breweries and community gardens. This city was the birthplace of Greenpeace, and it is the home of David Suzuki. We're far from perfect, but it's fair to say that the number of environmentalists per capita who live here is at least a little higher than average.

Here in British Columbia we've had a carbon tax since July 1, 2008. The rates started out low but increased to their maximum in 2012. When it was introduced prices for gas, heating and so on rose. There was also a lot of public debate. Some people argued that it would create an unreasonable burden on businesses, who would pass those costs along to families. Some people argued that it wasn't significant enough to change behaviour. Others argued for different systems.

Six years on, though, you don't hear too much about it. We've gotten used to paying it - and I'm happy to report that I haven't noticed that my cost of living has skyrocketed as a result. But did it work? Has it made a difference? I recently went online to find out. Here are some highlights from a 2012 progress report:
  • Sales of gasoline, diesel, natural gas, coal and oil decreased by more than the Canadian average after introducing the tax.
  • This decrease happened at the same time as the population grew by five per cent, which was also above the Canadian average. 
  • The province's GDP growth was above the Canadian average, including during the global recession. And the Canadian economy performed better during the recession than the US economy.
  • There was a 48% increase in sales in the clean technology sector.
  • The tax was designed to be revenue neutral, so increases in the carbon tax were offset by decreases in other taxes.
Something else that is worth noting is that British Columbia has a large resource sector, including coal. We mine billions of dollars in coal every year in this province. This is not a place where we all grow organic kale for a living.

Given all of that, it was with interest that I read an article in The New York Times about President Obama's failed bid for a carbon tax in the US. Senator Mitch McConnell is quoted as saying:
President Obama’s war on coal won’t have any meaningful impact on global carbon emissions. What it will do is ship American jobs overseas, raise the cost of living substantially for middle and working-class families and throw thousands more Kentuckians out of work.
Of course, the experience in one place is not necessarily going to be repeated in other places. However, it is a good starting point. Given what's happened here where I live, I can say that the carbon tax fear-mongering hasn't played out. The cost of living hasn't skyrocketed. People in the resource sector haven't been thrown out of work. And carbon emissions have gone down. It seems that carbon taxes can work, and that the downsides can be mitigated.

It is my fervent hope that the world does put a price on carbon. It's past time to act. We're all in this together, and we need to pull together to create real change. And based on what's happened here, real change can happen. That's the good part. Now the only question is whether or not we'll rise to the challenge.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Kitchen Scraps Garden Part Two: Carrot Seeds

Queen Composter has been doing some gardening experiments.

Most kitchen gardeners grow carrots, and I am no exception. My daughters love eating them, and generally I find them easy to grow. While seeds are not overly expensive, I find I go through a great deal of them each year because of having to sow so many then thinning the seedlings to allow for adequate growth.

I have been experimenting with growing food from kitchen scraps, and I saw a post somewhere about planting the tops of carrots to produce seeds. As a novice gardener I am delving into seed saving, which has so many benefits. This seemed like a perfect fit.

In the early fall last year I did just that and I was excited to see what would happen in the spring. Carrots require several weeks of exposure to cold, or vernalization, for the flowers to produce later in the year, and planting them at this time was one way to do it.

Carrot flowers: Image source

Carrots are biennial plants, meaning that their life cycle is over two years. In the first year the carrot root grows, which is the part that is the most familiar to us. In the second year, if left to continue to grow, the carrot flowers and produces seeds. 

In the spring I forgot about the carrots and when I was tilling my garden beds I pulled up many of the carrots, which had started to regrow. In the end this might have been a good thing as I had an entire area overgrown with flowering carrot plants.

The carrot flower buds are fascinating close up.

Over the summer I was impressed with how many pollinators my carrot flowers encouraged, and I spent many happy hours watching the insects and taking macro photos with my Olloclip lens and iPhone. 
A soldier beetle hunting for food and pollinating my flowers.

By early September the flowering tops had dried sufficiently enough to cut and save. This is the part that I found the most interesting. Using gardening gloves, I rubbed the dried tops between my palms to release the seeds. What I found resembled an alien insect more than a seed because I wasn't expecting the spiky chaff surrounding the individual seeds.

A quick google search informed me that commercial seed companies remove this for packaging purposes, but it was fine if I left it on them.

The seeds are now stored in a paper bag in a glass jar in my refrigerator (to control for humidity). 

Another thing that I learned about carrot seeds is that if they are planted near Queen Anne's Lace they will cross pollinate and not produce true carrots. Also, if the seeds are from hybrids they will not produce carrots either. I planted a variety of hybrid and heirloom carrots last year and because I did not know that hybrid seeds will not produce and I do not know which kind of carrot tops I planted last fall, I do not know if my seeds will produce carrots next growing season. In the coming weeks I will be sure to only plant my heirloom carrot tops.

So the carrot seed experiment will continue.


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