HATCH: Green Eggs and Yam

If you worry that you’re a big consumer of resources, consider your kid. For parents committed to reducing their child’s carbon footprint—without breaking a sweat or the bank—more help is available than ever before to minimize waste and raise conscientious, ecologically-aware children.

It Pays To Eat Organic

Organically grown food used to be a rare luxury for middle-class families like that of Ladan Sobhani, a 33-year-old Berkeley mother of two who works as a consultant for nonprofits. While Sobhani herself was an early adopter of foods grown without pesticides, she’s found that since her first daughter was born four years ago, the percentage of her shopping list that is organic has shot up to about ninety percent. “I was always conscious that eating organic was better for the environment,” she explains. “But when I had kids it became more important to me that organic was good for my kids’ health, especially since they are so much more vulnerable.”

Environmental advocates support Sobhani’s preference for pesticide-free foods. When pesticides aren’t used in food production, farm workers and nearby residents are spared exposure to chemicals that could hinder fetal development and cause developmental delays in children, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, DC research organization. Yet whether eating organic products is healthier for children than eating their non-organic counterparts is still uncertain, says Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ nutrition committee. He says there is “no evidence at this current time” that organic products are healthier for kids than conventionally grown foods.

Efren Ávalos, an organic farmer in San Benito County, takes no chances. Before he began growing his own produce, Ávalos picked strawberries for a large company in Monterey County, and he experienced headaches and nausea every time a nearby celery field was sprayed with pesticides by helicopter. “When I worked for the company, I was not allowed to bring my kids to the fields because of the spraying,” he says. “Now I have my son and daughter with me.”

Eating organic produce, especially locally grown products, is a good way for a family to reduce its carbon footprint, says Timonie Hood, an environmental protection specialist at the US Environmental Protection Agency. In the past few years, the array of organic food choices, including several kinds aimed at kids, has widened as prices have fallen in the marketplace. Even mainstream stores like Safeway, Target, and Wal-Mart have embraced organics, rolling out affordable lines. Safeway’s O Organics, which boasts more than 300 foods, is so popular that the Pleasanton-based company plans to sell it internationally across retail and service food channels.

A quick comparison of the price tags of O Organics against better-known, non-organic brands such as Kellogg’s and Gerber reveal just how mainstream organic food has become. Organic baby food is just a touch more expensive: this summer, the Pak ‘n Save-branded Safeway store in Emeryville has been selling the O Organics four-ounce jars of baby food for 79 cents. It also carries six-ounce jars of organic Earth’s Best baby food for $1.28. The Gerber jars sell for 65 cents for the four-ounce and 85 cents for the six-ounce. For older children, Safeway’s organic cereals—as diverse in flavors as better-known brands—actually beat other prices. O Organics frosted flakes (fifteen ounces), for example, cost $3.39 whereas the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes (fourteen ounces) cost $4.49. Even the EnviroKidz frosted flakes at Whole Foods in Berkeley are cheaper—$3.69. Yogurt, another kid favorite, is only slightly more expensive than the non-organic brand. A six-ounce cup of O Organics yogurt was recently selling four for $5. A Yoplait of the same size cost five for $5, or ten for $7. Those savings add up for buyers paying with food stamps or a food voucher, a community that the Emeryville Pak ‘n Save serves. Safeway spokeswoman Teena Massingill said the O Organics line has had no trouble finding its way into the shopping carts of all shoppers, affluent and penny-pinching alike. She says the company expects sales of O Organics to explode from $310 million last year to $410 million this year. “Many people have found organic foods to be cost-prohibitive,” she says. “O Organics is priced so that people who have never considered organic foods will try them and realize that organic doesn’t mean sacrificing quality or taste.” National sales of organic food shot up by as much as 94 percent in 2006, the last time such numbers are available, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). In 2005, organic food sales at mass market grocery stores, which do not include stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats, made up approximately 35 percent of the organic market. By 2006, that figure rose by nearly two percent in one year. Even big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart saw respectable gains in market share, from five percent in 2005 to 5.3 percent a year later, according to the trade association. “When you look at the consumer surveys, in general, people see organic products as fitting in with their efforts to live a more healthful life,” said OTA spokeswoman Holly Givens.

What’s Up With Lead in Toys?

One of the most frightening news stories for parents in 2007 was the Thomas the Tank Engine recall. The $20 wooden trains, favorites of pre-schoolers, turned out to be loaded with lead paint, which even at low levels can cause permanent brain damage.

Berkeley mom Sobhani was bewildered by the news, but she did not join the many families who returned the trains. Instead, she simply kept them away from her one-year-old who was prone to putting things in her mouth. “I actually feel kind of guilty that I never scrapped the whole train collection and tried to find an alternative,” she says. “But it was hard to take them away from my four-year-old.”

The scare has had a silver lining. The public outcry over Thomas prompted more information about recalled items and heightened scrutiny of toys imported into the United States. California Assemblymember Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) has threatened to draft legislation banning lead in children’s products if the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency in charge of regulating the chemicals in consumer products, does not take up the task. Ma previously authored successful legislation banning another toxic chemical in baby and toddler toys: phthalates. It is now illegal to manufacture, sell, and distribute toys, such as baby teethers, that contain the chemicals, which are known to cause reproductive defects and the early onset of puberty. In a prepared statement describing her proposed legislation that would ban lead in toys, Ma declared, “California continues to lead the nation in protecting children from dangerous chemicals and in safeguarding our environment. & AB 1108 sends a clear message to the Consumer Product Safety Commission that if the Bush Administration won’t act, states will.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission currently prohibits the sale of paint, including that manufactured for toys and furniture, with a lead toxicity of more than 0.06 percent, far below the levels permissible in the ’70s, when consumers became aware of lead’s harmful properties and the chemical was phased out of products like gasoline. But watchdog groups say the agency is too under-funded and understaffed to adequately enforce the law. “That’s why we have to be engaged as citizens,” says Joan Blades, a Berkeley mother of two and founder of parent-activist group MomsRising (www.MomsRising.org), which is advocating giving the CPSC more law enforcement power. “[CPSC] is now half the size it was in 1980, and George Bush has taken away funding,” she says.

The Poop on Diapers

One of the most agonizing decisions for an environmentally-minded parent is choosing a diapering method. On average, a child will soil 5,000 diapers, each of which has the potential to end up in an air-tight landfill. While disposable diapers have a terrible reputation as non-biodegradable landfill-cloggers, the EPA’s Timonie Hood says that they actually don’t have a very heavy effect on the environment; they make up less than one percent of solid waste. She says that lifecycle studies have shown that both cloth and disposable diapers require a lot of resources, most obviously water (disposables require it for manufacture, and cloth requires it for cleaning). The EPA does not make an official recommendation on diapering. “I wouldn’t say that one is definitely better than the other,” Hood says, but adds quickly, “Speaking for myself, I think it is great to reuse whenever you can.”

For parents concerned about their child’s Huggies piling up in the landfill, there have never been more diapering choices than there are now. Cloth diapers need not become another stinky pile in the hamper for an already harried parent to deal with in the evenings. There are diaper services, like ABC Diaper Service (www.ABCDiaper.com) in the East Bay, that will drop off, pick up, and launder dirty diapers. High-efficiency Energy Star washers allow parents to wash cloth diapers at home on the cheap. And as for those prickly pins our parents had to contend with, they’ve been replaced by comfortable and trendy snap-on plastic wraps sold on Web sites such as Baby Bunz (www.BabyBunz.com) and Little Sprouts Diapers (www.LittleSproutsDiapers.com). ABC Diaper Service also sells the wraps.

Companies like Seventh Generation and Whole Foods sell disposable diapers manufactured without chlorine, which, when treated with water and organic matter, forms compounds called trihalomethanes. (THMs are linked to cancer, miscarriages and birth defects, according to the Environmental Working Group). However, ABC Diaper Service washes its diapers in bleach, demonstrating that the cloth vs. disposable diaper debate is not black and white—or chlorine-free.

The product that has garnered the most buzz thanks to endorsers like Julia Roberts is the hybrid gDiaper (www.gdiapers.com). The gDiaper works like this: You stuff what looks like an oversized maxi pad into a cloth and plastic diaper wrap. When your child soils it, you tear it open and flush the cotton down the toilet. The good news is your child’s excrement goes where it should—into the sewer. On the flipside, gDiapers are not widely available, and environmental scientists have yet to study their impact on sewage systems.

Something all eco-conscious parents can agree on is that it’s best to cut down on the number of diapers used. Sobhani, who is originally from Iran where the word for diaper is literally kohne, or “rag,” has been taking her daughter Ahva to the potty since she was four months old. Ahva, now twenty months old, regularly straddles a BabyBjörn potty ($10) to relieve herself. Even more impressive, she has not soiled a diaper for the past month. In contrast, most US children are in diapers for between 36 and 44 months, according to statistics compiled by the National Association of Diaper Services, which promotes cloth diaper use.

Some point out that training a baby to use the toilet takes being on call 24-7 to interpret when a frown means “gotta go.” Sobhani, who works, also has her mother and a nanny ready to take Ahva to the bathroom. Sobhani is not as stringent in her beliefs as diaper-free experts such as the renowned Laurie Boucke, who believes that you’ll have reached the Promised Land only if you eliminate diapers altogether. Sobhani has one goal: to reduce the number of diapers she uses. She has been able to cut down disposable diaper use for naptime and at nighttime. “A lot of information out there about potty training is all or nothing,” Sobhani says. “You have to put your kid in underwear and deal with accidents. For me it was about making it easier… A lot of people say, ‘I can’t do this because I am a working mother.’ If you have five extra minutes to take your infant and sit her on the potty and have that bonding time, then you’re on your way to teaching your kid to be aware of the fact that the toilet is where they need to eliminate.” She recommends enticing a baby or toddler with a book in the event she won’t sit still on the potty.

Educating Children to be Stewards of the Environment

Parents are their child’s first teachers, and these first moments can be about conservation and stewardship. “Teaching your kids to be aware [is] hugely important,” says MomsRising’s Blades. “The love of the earth is something that comes very naturally to them. It’s not a hard thing to teach.” Teaching children the three R’s—reduce, reuse, and recycle—is an invaluable lesson that can be reinforced by everyday behaviors like dressing children in hand-me-downs and showing them how to recycle appropriate items.

Bill Walker, a father of three who heads the Oakland office of the Environmental Working Group, has seen the benefits of modeling friendly environmental practices such as toting a refillable metal bottle instead of throwaway plastic ones and explaining to children why it is better to eat organic food. “My kids are better environmentalists than I am,” he says. “When they see me buy a plastic bottle of water, they call me on it. They’ll say, ‘Dad! Dad! Dad! You bought plastic!'”

Another tip he offers parents is to give children allowances with the proviso that they set aside an amount to spend, a percentage to save, with the rest for charity. Because he has spoken so much about the importance of protecting the earth, his two oldest children, ages nine and seven, give to environmental causes. Walker’s oldest daughter, Sasha, uses her to money to help organic farmers. She attended a week-long agricultural camp (www.SlideRanch.org). Her brother Rafie loves raptors and has donated money to protect birds. It is very easy to track down environmental causes on the Internet, Walker says, adding that nearly every environmental organization has a section for kids on its Web site.

It is never too late for parents to educate themselves and adopt good behavior for their kids to copy. Blades points to numerous online forums, including MomsRising, that draw attention to environmental concerns such as recalled toxic toys. Katy Farber, who runs a blog called Non-Toxic Kids (www.Non-ToxicKids.net), recommends signing up at the CPSC website (www.CPSC.gov) to receive regular notices of recalled toys. Countless sites such as craigslist let people responsibly dispose of old furniture and kids’ clothes and buy second-hand baby items.

Blades says it is easy to shoot off an e-mail to your state legislators by signing a MomsRising online petition. The organization keeps tabs on the legislation, drafts the letters and then delivers the signatures to the appropriate officials. For a busy parent, political activism has never been easier. “I recommend online participation,” Blades says, who has seen exactly how powerful it can be—she helped found MoveOn.org.

Parents can also flex their political muscles using their wallets. The Environmental Working Group’s Walker says simply switching to foods with the least pesticides—replacing apples, which have a high pesticide load, with mangoes, for example—eliminates about ninety percent of pesticides in a family’s diet. The EWG conveniently ranks foods (www.FoodNews.org/index.php) according to pesticide level. The organization also evaluates cosmetic products like baby shampoo and kids’ toothpaste: www.CosmeticsDatabase.org/special/parentsguide.

Walker warns that just because a product is labeled “natural” doesn’t make it better for the environment—or children. “The government doesn’t enforce standards on these products,” Walker says. “Right now there is an unregulated marketplace where companies can make whatever claims they want.”

If an organic or chemical-free product is more expensive than the conventional brand, would Walker make the switch? Walker’s answer is a resounding yes. “The decision I’ve made with my child is that’s worth the money,” he says.

Elisa Batista, who cofounded parenting Web site Mothertalkers.com, can be reached at elisa@mothertalkers.com

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