What You Need to Know about Food Labels and Waste: Part 1

My husband and I have many “discussions” about the dates that are printed on our packaged food.  He claimed that the printed dates were simply dates by which the stores need to sell the food, which means that we could still eat the food days later.  But I, on the other hand, tossed out the food on the dates listed because I didn’t want to get sick eating spoiled food.  Apparently we weren’t the only ones confused by these dates. 

The entire grocery industry also had difficulty with the wording used on the food they sold.  Today, manufacturers use wording like “Expires on” to “Use by” to “Better if used by,” which can mean anything from the food will be spoiled to the peak flavor will be best if consumed by this date. There hasn’t been any regulations in place so it has been up to the grocery stores to interpret these dates.  Only 20 states mandate that grocery stores pull food after expiration dates – hmm – so 30 states don’t pull food off the shelves?

The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association just announced that they’ve standardized product date labels. That’s the good news; the bad news is that they aren’t going to do this until 2018.  Until then, I plan to do the sniff test.  If it smells good, I’ll eat it.  If it smells rotten or looks off, I’ll toss it.


Teaching Kids to Vet Fake News

Did you know that Marie Antoinette didn’t actually say, “Let them eat cake!”? Yup!  Fake news has been around for centuries and as you can see, it this particular statement has been repeated so often that it has ended up in our history lectures still today.  But today fake news is so prevalent that most students (in all grade levels) don’t have the critical thinking skills to decipher what’s real and what’s fake.  So here are ways that teachers – and you – can help students wade through all the propaganda thrown at them.

According to teacher Scott Bedley (who was interviewed by NPR’s Sophia Alvarez Boyd), you can play Simon Says to encourage students to make their own educated decisions about what’s true and what’s false in the news.  Students should consider the following before answering:

  1. How reliable is the source? (Was it written by a major magazine or legitimate expert?)
  2. What does your gut say? (Does it sound possible?)
  3. Does it make sense?
  4. Can you find 3 other sources to verify this same finding?
  5. Have experts in the field commented about it?
  6. Does it have a copyright?

Bringing awareness about how easy it is to create fake news on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media is the first step in preparing students for wading through the junk they read on the internet. Then making sure that students don’t perpetuate or inadvertently spread these lies by sharing news that they don’t carefully vet is the next step. These are things that we all need to do to maintain truth in social networking and information sharing.  Instant access to information can be a blessing and a curse.


4 Tips to Protect Your Digital Privacy When Crossing the Border

Whether you’re an American traveling abroad or a foreigner visiting the United States, you need to protect your digital privacy.  US Customs can legally search your devices and demand access to your computer and phones with little formal cause or oversight – basically breaking the 4th Amendment of our Constitution. Yup!  But there are steps you can take to make it more difficult for them to invade your privacy.  Here are 4 tips to protect you and your personal information:

#1: Lock Down Devices
Encrypt your hard drive using BitLocker or Filevault.  Turn off your devices before entering customs because you’ll have full protection with these tools when your computer is fully powered down.

#2:  Withhold your Passwords
Legally, American citizens can’t be deported for refusing to give up passwords but custom officials can detain you and they can seize your devices for months. But, they’ll have to allow you to return to the US and you will be able to go home – but your devices may be held up in a forensic facility if they really want to get into them.

#3: Phone Home
Call a friend or family member (or your lawyer) before you enter and after you get through customs to ensure that someone can represent you should you be detained.  Without your phone or devices, you may not have the ability to get legal help while in their custody.

#4: Make a Travel Kit
If you’re concerned that you may be a target of suspicion at the border, leave your computer and devices that contain all of your sensitive and private information at home.  Travel with a laptop and devices that have been wiped clean and have only the information you need for your travels. 

These tips may seem extreme, and they probably are for most of us, but if you have a Muslim name or you’re traveling to and from Muslim countries, these tips may protect you from personal invasion. To learn more about how to further protect yourself, read Wired’s article “Guide to Getting Past Customs With Your Digital Privacy Intact.”  


Electricity Can Kill You Through The Ground

With all the rain, power outages and road closures, I was fascinated to learn that we could accidentally get electrocuted by downed power lines – even if we don’t touch them! 

Who knew the ground carries electricity? When a power line hits your car (or your house), learn how to get to safety and save your life!

How to Balance Real Work Expectations: Focus and Push

Multitasking is not a thing.  You can only do one thing at a time well so you might as well plan out all of the necessary steps to get everything done.  Right?  You can also take this a step further to ensure that you have enough time each week to handle big projects that seem to get put on the back burner.  Here’s how.

Focus: Block off 3-4 hours FOCUSING on just one project once or twice per week.   With this uninterrupted time, you’ll be able to think and delve deep into a project.  We all have those projects where you need to research an idea to make a proposal or develop a presentation for a conference.  You know what I’m talking about – the projects where you feel you need to hang a sign on your door that reads “Do NOT Disturb” or “Out of the office; Back at noon.” By blocking off time to focus on one thing, you can take the time to do that one big thing that keeps getting pushed back each week because your other responsibilities – the squeaky wheel gets the oil! – gobble up your time.

Push: By setting aside focus time, the other 34-36 hours can be productively spent PUSHING individual tasks and putting out fires. You can make preemptive phone calls, collect data, handle emails, and oh yeah, manage the onslaught of interruptions by employees, coworkers, supervisors, and clients. There’s no way around answering questions, making calls, returning emails and general business tasks so handle them around your focus time.

The best way to make sure that you, and your coworkers, respect your focus time is to block off a permanent time each week in your planner for the whole year.  Enter your plans for each focus time to ensure that you’re meeting your deadlines and then stick to them.  Use a sign or send an email that staves off interruptions so you really can complete your project during the allotted time.

You’ll find that you’ll be more productive, meet your deadlines, and most importantly, be happier when you block off time to handle the various types of projects you need to complete. For me, I either get to the office before the staff arrives, or I stay later after everyone is gone, to ensure that I have my focus blocks of time.  I always feel productive when I’m done and I enjoy my daily pushing of tasks much more when I don’t have heavy projects weighing in on me. 

Why Foreign Students Feel Isolated From Their American Counterparts

Casual relationships and friendly conversations are part of the American culture.  We’re generally politically correct (PC) and find it easier and more comfortable to hang out with people who share our political, philosophical, and even cultural values.  We can joke without accidentally stepping on other people’s toes, and to be frank, it’s just less hassle to associate with like-minded people.  But, we welcome meeting new people and even gravitate with curiosity to check out international people, be it students on campus or acquaintances at parties.  So why do 40% of these international people feel isolated and lonely here in America colleges?

We’re lazy.  It takes a tremendous effort to communicate with people who don’t speak English fluently.  We need to listen carefully to decode their thick accents and to garner whatever we can from their words to comprehend what they are trying to say.  This takes a lot of work.  To do this for a few minutes as you exchange niceties, is fine.  But to have a conversation with any depth, about say politics, philosophy, or even describing a new concept requires too much effort for most people.  International students have trouble understanding jokes because they don’t have the history or contextual background or vocabulary.  When American students want to hang out with friends, they usually don’t invite their international acquaintances simply because it’s exhausting.

Take me for example.  I’m 100% Japanese American (3rd generation) but I don’t speak Japanese.  Yet, every time my friends have Japanese friends visiting America, they expect me to jump on board and be the “hostess with the mostest.”  So while I’m cooking and cleaning to prepare for a dinner party, I am also supposed to engage with guests where small talk takes intense listening skills and triple the time that I may not have because I’m juggling 5 other things. Hmm. No.  

I also found this true with my deaf friends.  I grew up and went to school with several deaf students and we share a wonderful bond because of our high school memories.  It’s been several decades since we were in high school and we get together every once in a while. After our visits, I’m grateful for the time together but I’m exhausted by the brain power it takes to communicate with them – especially since I’m rusty at reading lips and interpreting their speech. It makes me feel terribly guilty writing this because I pride myself on my color- and disability-blind philosophy.

As I watch American teens squirm every time I suggest that they invited an international high school student to join them while they shop, go to the beach, or just hang out, I realize this phenomenon is happening at the high school level too.  At first, I pressured American high school students to entertain these international teens, but then after much resistance, I stopped doing it.  I was doing what my friends were doing to me. Not fair.

Foreign students on high school and college campuses are feeling isolated, no matter how large their class sizes are or how integrated their demographics.  Sadly, I don’t see American students making social changes that will incorporate these students to bridge the gap.  I believe that the international students will need to be brave and join clubs and groups to become part of the American culture.  After all, they’re here to learn and the best way to understand our culture is to jump right in.  I think then the international students will immerse themselves in conversations and become fluent much quicker – bridging the gap and making American friends.  

Can We Really Discriminate Against Ugly Food?

Ever notice the perfectly stacked apples and other fruit in the produce section of the grocery store has perfect fruit?  You’ll never find a misshapened apple or any miscolored veggies in the store.  Some stores even spray wax on apples, peppers, and other fruit to make them shiny. Until I planted a fruit orchard 7 years ago, I assumed that fruit generally grew in these perfect shapes.  I remember when I grew my first “weird” carrot in my garden that looked like twins because it had 2 carrots that grew out of one top.  I thought that to be an anomaly – something I should photograph and send off to friends for some oohs and awes.

After the advent of the assembly line when industries became streamlined, we became removed from basic things like growing our own food. We came to expect to buy perfect strawberries and unblemished tomatoes.  With 2 working parents in the home, nobody had time to start gardens when you could pick up veggies at the corner store.  Then marketing made perfect fruit and veggies expected by consumers.  

Growing up in a city and living on the beach in Malibu where we had 2’ by 4’ of dirt next to our carport – seriously – we obviously didn’t have a veggie garden.  My mother planted tomatoes in big pots on her deck but that was it. In college, I remember how I didn’t know how strawberries grew: did they grow on bushes, vines, or trees? I know that’s embarrassing to admit now, and that’s why when I had children, we picked strawberries at Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville every year until they went off to college.  I was determined that they would know where their produce came from.

While this may sound like an extreme case of ignorance, the concept of expecting perfect fruit is not. Europe has started a movement to stop food waste by getting farmers to sell “ugly” food at a discount rather than to landfill them. After all, most produce that we eat is chopped and mixed with other ingredients so their colors or shapes really don’t have anything to do with the quality of the food. Getting food manufacturing companies and grocery stores to purchase this ugly produce will offer savings to consumers and more profits for manufacturers.

America is beginning to recognize this potential market for huge profits while preventing food waste.  I’ll be blogging about other ways to prevent food waste in future blogs. 

Wasting Food is Not OK

The first time I saw flagrant food waste was when I was on a Caribbean cruise.  I must have gained what felt like 50 lbs in just 2 weeks from eating 7 decadent meals a day – Yup.  Watching the chefs carve beautiful birds out of a watermelon and huge sculptures out of ice to provide the garnish for feasts was such a thrill UNTIL I saw the tons of food they threw out to sea when nobody was looking.  What was worse than just the volume of precious food being tossed out was that when we pulled up to Haiti – an impoverished country known for its massive starvation – the captain of the ship announced that we were not allowed to feed the Haitians when we toured the island! Bulls**t!

That’s when my family vacation became my mission to feed the starving.  I started stockpiling bread, fruits and veggies, and anything non-perishable in my suitcases and bags in my cabin.  The ship’s crew warned us that if we fed the hungry, they would mob us.  I was sickened by their cavalier attitude about hungry people and this gauche solution to keeping the fat and privileged Americans from being inconvenienced by these starving people. So I came up with a plan to feed as many people as I could during the one day I spent in Haiti.

I told my family to take their tour without me so I could feed the Haitians (that wasn’t the reason I told my father).  With Rob by my side, we carried bags of food into the center of town and left them on street corners where passersby could easily find them.  I didn’t want to create a riot or mob scene. Then we returned to the ship and carried bags of food out for the entire day.  We even went up the buffet to grab piles of cheese, meats, and whatever we could when we ran out of the stockpile in our cabin.  Surprisingly, the crew didn’t say anything and didn’t try to stop us.

Food waste is rampant all over the world, and as our population increases, we will face massive starvation because our food production system is wasteful.  I’ll be blogging about ways to change this paradigm we have become accustomed to so that we can feed the planet without resorting to genetically-modified foods or other unhealthy means.

Using the Pokemon Go Idea to Help Others

Remember the craze over Pokemon-Go? I never quite got it.  Watching thousands of people searching for an imaginary character here in the real world for the sake of, um, well, "catching" one seemed odd to me. While not into the game itself, I was most impressed with the marketing strategy used to get intelligent, busy people to find time to travel out of their way to play this game.

While talking with one of my clients during our session, we mused about the Pokemon-Go phenomenon.  What happened next was really exciting. This 16-year-old student decided to create an app that is similar to the Pokemon-Go game in concept but with a wonderful twist.  Instead of luring gamers to chase inanimate objects, his app would connect people who need a little help with nearby caring people who have a little time (and desire to win a lottery!). Yup!

Ever wish someone could pick up some diapers or coffee creamer for you when you’re in a bind?  Or if your back goes out while carrying in groceries, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone carry them in for you? There’s always someone nearby but they just don’t know you need help. So instead of chasing a Pokemon character, you would be checking to see if anyone needs help.  My student is setting up an app that connects these people by creating a point system for the volunteer and a nominal-fee system for the person needing help. To encourage the do-gooders to check their app to see if anyone needs a little assistance when they might have 10-15 minutes to spare, the nominal fees go into a big pot (like a lottery) that can be won by any of the do-gooders

Now that’s a game even I would play.  I could help someone out when I have extra time and I could win some money?  Um, yeah! If he could get a fraction of the people who chased Pokemon to help others, imagine how we could transform our communities into a more giving and loving world. I’ll keep you posted on my student’s progress.  Want to help him build the app?  Call me at Merit (831-462-5655)!

Wondering About "Real" Information on Climate Change?

I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed with politics in our nation’s capital, which has made it more difficult to wade through the volumes of articles, blogs, and news about what’s really going on with climate change. 

If you live in Santa Cruz County or the San Francisco Bay Area, you might be interested in attending the Climate Science and Policy Conference 2017 at UCSC.  This year’s focus is on ACTING NOW TO SECURE A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE.  It’s on Friday night, Feb 24th and all day Saturday, Feb 25th up on the beautiful UC Santa Cruz campus. 

Registration is free!  Check out the list of speakers 

Hearing from professors from Stanford, George Mason University, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz, and elected officials and government agencies should be entertaining.  Sometimes it’s best to hear from people who are actively engaged in research instead of the media.  Hope to see you there!