Everything I Know About a Low-Waste Lifestyle I Learned From My Family
& 9 Tips for Using What You Have
By Jazmine Velasquez
My family's defining motto is "Siempre usa como lo que tienes." ("Always use what you have.") Mom and grandma have used the expression so many times, I hear their voices every time I want to get a $15 poke bowl after class but have leftovers in the fridge at home. I hear them when I have the urge to buy new clothes that I don't need or get a nice notebook when I already have too many. This impulse becomes even stronger when I cook, because for my family, food is love and not to be wasted.
My matriarchs taught me to cook with love and intention. But my dad, who works as a prep cook at Pebble Beach Resorts in Carmel, California, taught me most of my cooking skills. When I cook, it's dad's voice saying, "Mija, I know you can use more of those onions. You know better than to waste good food." When I'm at a loss as to how to refresh leftovers I've eaten for the third day in a row, it's dad who gives me ideas for a new sauce or salsa to try. In my family, we couldn't afford to waste anything. We made whatever we had on hand work.
Making Ends Meet
I grew up in Salinas, California, which is best known for being the heart of agriculture on the Central Coast. My grandparents lived 10 minutes away in Prunedale. They'd moved to California from Mexico in 1972 and grew raspberries in the cool, temperate climate and grainy soil. While this may sound idyllic for an aspiring foodie like myself, it wasn't always easy.
My parents divorced when I was very young and I bounced between dad and mom, who lived with my grandparents. Mom was a single parent to two kids and worked full time as a jewelry salesperson. Dad paid child support with his wages as a cook. My grandparents, who had a raspberry farm to cultivate, worked hard to help mom get back on her feet after the divorce. No one in my family ever had much money, and we relied on our resourcefulness to make ends meet every month.
Nothing was off limits; we could reuse anything and everything. T-shirts became cleaning rags until they were threadbare. I wore my older brother's hand-me-downs as pajamas. We used margarine containers to hold leftovers, washed milk cartons to hold powdered drink mixes like Tang and hand-washed plastic bags to get a few more uses out of them.
Food was no exception. Ripening food needed to be cooked immediately, food scraps were turned into stocks and broth and stored in the freezer, and any food that had gone bad went into a compost bin to go right back into a garden or the raspberry fields. I can still feel grandma's intense glare when I couldn't finish everything on my plate.
More Privilege, More Waste
When I left home for college, the first in my family to do so, I brought my low-waste habits with me. Living on two part-time, minimum-wage jobs while going to school is difficult, but a lot easier if you're already pretty good at being frugal. Not only is it hard for me to waste food and toss plastic and paper products, but I now know the environmental and climate impact of a wasteful lifestyle.
The amount of food Americans waste every year is horrifying. We send 52 million tons of food to landfills annually while 10 million tons of food are left in the fields unharvested, according to ReFed, a nonprofit focused on food waste. It's a number I can't really wrap my head around, given I grew up on stories of my parents suffering from food insecurity as children living in Mexico and later in the U.S. as child migrant workers. The result is stunted growth and other health issues that they are still dealing with today.
Even here in the U.S., one in eight Americans are food insecure. Worldwide, 815 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment. Living in the global North also means that each person creates a higher percentage of plastic waste, five times the amount produced by the average Mexican citizen. So while becoming a first-generation Mexican American allows me more economic and educational opportunities, I'm also producing more plastic waste as a result of the privileges I enjoy.
Small Changes, Big Impact
To minimize my carbon footprint, I invest more of my money on sustainable shopping practices, like thrifting at second-hand clothing stores and packing my own meals in a lunch bag. I collect recipes that allow me to cook with overripe or wilted foods. The wilted kale in my crisper may not work in a salad, but it's delicious in my favorite sweet potato hash. That isn't to say I don't have a long way to go to achieve my low-waste goals.
In fact, sticking with sustainable practices at school has been more challenging than I expected. As a student, I create rivers worth of paper waste when printing out assignments. I write down lecture notes on paper because that's the best way for me to learn and remember. I have yet to find plastic-free beauty products that keep my skin happy and breakout-free. I'm notorious for regularly forgetting my reusable shopping bags at home. Amazon Prime doesn't make it easy to live lean when it promises next-day delivery on campus.
But I have an advantage many college students don't. My school, the University of California at Berkeley, is committed to achieving a Zero Waste Initiative by 2020. On campus, we have convenient big bucket trash cans that have separate bins for landfill, recycling and composting waste. We have water bottle spigots for reusable bottles in every building. The university sponsors sustainability projects through various grants and fellowships like The Green Initiative Fund. Even my housing apartment included a compost bin and a recycling bin when I moved in. It makes me want to make more small changes in my everyday life that can create a large impact, like switching from paper towels to compostable, reusable bamboo towels.
It's always good to have a journal full of your favorite recipes on hand in your kitchen.Jazmine Velasquez
Nine Tips for Using What You Have
When new friends come over to my house, I sometimes feel self-conscious. I can tell by their facial expressions that some of the things I do in my daily life weird them out. I keep my compost bin on my counter. I am diligent about saving food scraps. I internally cringe when they casually toss leftovers.
But more friends are curious than judgmental. When they ask for tips on how to adopt lower-waste strategies to help both the environment and their limited budgets after the expensive tuition and living costs in the Bay Area are accounted for, they mainly come to me for help on lowering their weekly food and personal costs. Here's the advice I share on how to have a lower-waste lifestyle — and save money, too.
1. Keep a stock bag in the freezer. In a freezer bag, save scraps of carrots, celery, onions, garlic, potatoes and parsnips to make a stock. Cook these scraps in a large stock pot with salt, peppercorns and two bay leaves for up to 12 hours on low heat. Your homemade stock can be used for soups and stews. Reuse your freezer bag, too.
2. Freeze what you can't get to. My freezer is filled with berries, bananas and tomatoes I couldn't get to before they became "old." Frozen berries go into smoothies or become cobblers. Frozen bananas make a pretty good ice cream alternative when combined with cocoa powder and almond butter in a blender. Tomatoes turn rice into Spanish rice, a nice side for tacos.
3. Add yourself to a local "buy nothing" Facebook page. This page allows you to post items you don't want anymore. If you are looking for something in particular, as I was when I found the food processor I hunted down a few weeks ago, you can put out a call to get what you need for free, plus save items from the landfill. I've seen everything from kids' toys to vintage furniture on the page. If there isn't an existing "buy nothing" page, start one. Nothing wrong with a little community building!
4. Go thrifting. Before you buy something brand-new, see if your local thrift stores have anything you need. Since I'm job hunting now and looking for outfits for interviews, I'm checking out my favorite thrift stores, like Out of the Closet (which benefits the AIDS Healthcare Foundation), for one-of-a-kind pieces like a mustard yellow skirt or a lace blouse. Beautiful clothes at a major discount, helping organizations I support and keeping clothes out of landfills — what's not to like?
5. Keep a spreadsheet of the food in your fridge and pantry on your phone. This may sound strange, but hear me out. Most food waste is created because we don't remember what we have on hand when going to the grocery store. Updating and deleting items from your food spreadsheet will let you know ahead of time what you need to buy and what you don't. You can also share the spreadsheet with anyone who you share the refrigerator with so they can help keep track, too. I use Google Sheets since the app is easily accessible on my phone.
6. Reuse old t-shirts. Old t-shirts can be reused as cleaning rags, patches for jackets, tote bags and dog bedding. I use an old t-shirt as a towel to dry off my wavy hair and keep it shiny and frizz-free.
7. Reuse single-use plastic takeout containers. Since I don't keep margarine in my fridge anymore, I've found other ways to keep from buying plastic containers. Containers I get from the rare occasions I do go out to eat become part of my food prep system. I usually fill these containers with pre-cut sweet potatoes, kale, onions, garlic, carrots and celery for quick meals during the week.
8. Carry a reusable mug and water bottle. I drink a lot of green tea and dark roast coffee throughout the day. (I'm still in college with lots of competing deadlines.) That container helps me save at least six disposable cups a day, which adds up to 1,560 disposable cups a year that are not going to landfills.
9. Create a Pinterest board for recipes that can use overripe foods. If you happen to be scrolling Pinterest for new recipes, make sure to save recipes that call for or can easily use overripe foods. When you need to use an ingredient in a pinch, you have it right there on your phone or other device for easy access.
Siempre Usa Como Lo Que Tienes
My family is much better off than it used to be. Mom has her dream home and is married to a wonderful, loving man, and I have a six-year-old sister who loves raising her chickens in our large backyard. Dad owns his own food truck business in Arizona. Grandma and Grandpa are happily retired with all the time in the world to relax and enjoy their golden years. Here I am, the first person in my family to graduate from college this spring.
We got through some rough years thanks to many of our intentional low-waste strategies. I plan to continue following these practices going forward, but now it's mostly because of my concern about our climate-challenged world. I feel like I have an obligation to use my education and opportunities not only to benefit my future but my little sister's, too. "Siempre usa como lo que tienes" is part of who I am.
Recipe for Spanish Rice
Spanish rice is a side dish staple of any Mexican meal. I love this family recipe because soft, overripe tomatoes are perfect to use. If you don't have any vegetable stock on hand, no worries. You can use vegetable bouillon and water instead. Serves 4. Time: 35 minutes.
3 large tomatoes, quartered
1 medium onion, quartered
3 cloves of garlic, whole
3 cups of vegetable stock
1 cup long-grain rice
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste
1 bag of frozen peas and carrots (optional)
1. In a blender, add tomatoes, onion, garlic and vegetable stock. Blend until smooth and set aside.
2. In a large saute pan, add oil on medium heat. Wait for oil to heat up and simmer, about 2 minutes.
3. Add rice to the pan, stirring constantly to toast rice for 10 minutes or until rice is golden brown.
4. Take the pan off the heat and add the tomato mixture slowly until the rice is fully covered. Put the pan back on the heat and cook on low undisturbed for 20-25 minutes or until rice has fully absorbed the tomato broth.
5. If you are using frozen peas and carrots, add to rice, gently incorporating vegetables through the pan. Let sit for 2-3 minutes. Serve with your favorite Mexican entree.
Jazmine Velasquez is a graduating English major at the University of California-Berkeley. She is a news fellow for Stone Pier Press, an environmental publishing company with a food focus.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
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By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
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By Katie Howell
A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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