New nets employed in fights against Lake Michigan’s Asian Carp

**This article first appeared on on April 4, 2013

When it comes to Asian carp invasion, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources does not take chances.

For decades, Asian carp have posed a major threat to Lake Michigan’s ecosystem. Now, the IDNR has teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others in the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee (ACRCC) to keep the species far away from the Great Lakes.

After a recent committee study about carp environmental DNA readings, IDNR is going even further to ensure the lake remains carp-free by purchasing new nets for commercial fishermen.

There are no Asian carp currently in Lake Michigan, said Kevin Irons, IDNR’s aquaculture and aquatic nuisance species program manager. IDNR keeps a close eye on the carp population with a new method called eDNA, which detects potential carp presence by analyzing shed cells, slime and urine in water samples.

“The threat to the Great Lakes is extremely important,” said Charles Wooley, deputy regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. “We’ve very concerned.” 

But that could all change if carp make it through the electric barrier on the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal. The structure, which was erected in 2002 by the Army Corps of Engineers, repels carp backward from Lake Michigan.

In an effort to keep the lake clean, IDNR recently placed orders for brand new fishing nets, which will be distributed to visiting commercial fishermen who may be carrying carp residue beyond the barrier. IDNR often invites commercial fishermen into Lake Michigan so they can catch invasive species, Irons said. But their net residue may be causing inaccurate eDNA tests and ultimately reducing the IDNR’s ability to combat carp invasion.

The new nets will be distributed to fishermen before they cross the electric barrier and are guaranteed to be carp free, Irons said. IDNR is also discussing new methods of cleaning and bleaching fishing boats to reduce the presence of carp slime. Irons cites collaboration with the ACRCC as a huge factor in the ongoing fight against carp.

“It’s amazing how much we’re doing,” he said. “It’s really the next step in natural resource management. In a time where we really need to be fiscally responsible, this is a way we can get the job done.”

These carp, which originated in China and come in four varieties, were initially brought to America by the U.S. government to clean catfish environments, Irons said. But when the carp escaped their enclosures and swam up nearby rivers they began to pose a threat to Great Lake environments, which rely on plankton to maintain their salmon and bass populations.

Carp invasion is a real but often disregarded topic in environmentalism, said Mark Silberg, the vice president of sustainability for the Associated Student Government, who has studied the issue.

“The Asian carp issue seems, to most people, to be irrelevant and a waste of our efforts,” he said. “But it is important we keep a close eye on this.”


Quinoa: A Once-Sacred Food Now the Seed of Global Controversy

For years now, vegans have known a secret. It’s an ancient secret, tracing back to 3000 A.D. in the land of the Incas, where farmers discovered a plant called quinoa and named it their “mother grain.” Like the Incas, vegans love and cherish the nutrient-rich quinoa. And now, the rest of the world does too.

Quinoa, as we now know it, is a tiny, circular seed with a nutty flavor and a pearly complexion. It’s got a markedly high protein count and a nutritional breakdown to make health freaks swoon[i]. Once a niche commodity, quinoa has been trending in urban communities over the past few years, gradually developing into America’s favorite grain (couscous is still seething about it).

Now, we can get quinoa over café counters, on four-star entrée plates, and in bags at healthful quick-service chains. Starbucks sells a quinoa salad, and Chicago’s Protein Bar once offered a quinoa-blended pumpkin spice latte. The United Nations even named 2013 The International Year of the Quinoa. It’s a big old quinoa party. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that quinoa isn’t ours. It’s cultivated by small-scale Bolivian farmers, who have historically regarded it as a dietary staple and source of small profit. But as the global demand for quinoa skyrockets, the strong foundation on which the life-seed is grown is slowly crumbling.

In an effort to cultivate more land for quinoa, farmers are selling or relocating the native llamas who graze there, despite the fact that the llama manure helps maintain the soil. Bad news for the llamas. Bad news for the soil.

Further, outside investments in mechanized quinoa farming are pushing Bolivian farmers to prioritize quick, mass production over sustainability. According to the Environmental Advocacy Department of the University of Buffalo, the use of heavy machinery in Bolivia means the loss of 70 metric tons of soil per year. Not to mention that this soil is traditionally given 4-6 years of rest between sow periods- a practice that has been widely discarded over the past decade as market prices for quinoa rise. If gone unchecked, experts say the break-neck pace of production could lead to desertification in a matter of years.

On the bright side, there are alternatives in the works. Since the mid-1980’s, White Mountain Farm in Colorado has been growing quinoa in the Rocky Mountains, where the cool, dry climate and low-nutrient soil help quinoa plants to thrive. But the crop is finicky and can’t be grown in bulk, said one assistant manager, adding that White Mountain is the only quinoa farm in North America. She said it’s difficult to keep up with demand and the store’s supply often runs out. Of the 71,000 metric tons of quinoa imported in 2010, less than 10,000 pounds were produced in the United States, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. Domestic production is not enough.

There are nearly 3,000 types of quinoa, but the most common strain is Royal Quinoa, available in red, golden, or black, which is probably what you’re accustomed to buying in the grocery store. Studies show that over 95% of Bolivian farmers are now producing exclusively Royal Quinoa. This kind of standardization leads to what environmentalists call a monoculture, which can be very harmful for the land.

So what can we do about it? We don’t need to renounce quinoa (and I don’t know if we could if we tried). But we do need to stay informed about the quinoa controversy and think twice about the way we consume our favorite super-grain. On the one hand, the quinoa boom has resulted in huge profit for Bolivian farmers, who can now afford Western commodities that were previously beyond their reach. The Bolivian government is incorporating quinoa into nutrition packets for pregnant women, and Peru is infusing it into school breakfasts. So in some ways, the quinoa boom is a positive force.

But still, the environmental impact of mass consumption is daunting. Domestic production isn’t enough to sustain the nation in its desperate, quinoa-craving state, but it may be the most plausible solution for vegans to eat quinoa ethically. Also keep an eye out for Fair Trade Quinoa from La Yapa Organics or Alter Eco Foods. Let’s make sure these quinoa farmers (and their llamas) don’t get left in the dirt.

Big Abuse Under the Big Top: The Not-So-Glamorous Side of Circuses

**This blog post first appeared on on July 25, 2013

Summer is here- and that means two whole months of sunny strolls, vegan food on a stick, sandcastle contests, and all the other images of “family fun” that are floating around in your melting brain. For a lot of families, that ”fun” includes a trip to the circus.

Any animal-lover knows that the public gallivanting of elephants and large cats is not “fun” at all. The animals are not having “fun” when they perform unnatural tricks for gawking children. They’re not having “fun” when they’re getting poked and prodded by abusive trainers. Just imagine an elephant- the largest land mammal (and a vegan, by the way!)- being squished into a hot train car for hours on end. These beauties belong out in the open- not under a tent.  At many circuses, captured elephants are forced to perform painful and unnatural acts.


6840.elephants-chained.jpg-594x0Native Foods Café uses this photo courtesy of PETA.


Big-time circus companies like The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s have a longstanding history of abusing animals, and groups like PETA and In Defense of Animals have a longstanding history of fighting back. Already this summer, circus protests have sprouted all over the country-  in Las Vegas and Phoenix, and Los Angeles– coming one after the other like a stampede of angry animal-lovers.



People everywhere are protesting the use of animals in circuses. Native Foods Café uses this photo courtesy of


With any luck, their shouting and sign-holding will help to push forward some bans on animals in circuses, or at least some more formal regulation on the treatment of these poor performers. Proof of the progress that’s possible hit the news in June, when the nation of Colombia managed to ban animal circuses nationally. Really, it’s an inspiration.

Even if you’re not the megaphone-holding type, one thing you can do is boycott these abusive corporations and instead take your family to animal-free circuses like the ones on my list below. There are plenty of ways to enjoy yourself this summer without supporting the abuse of innocent animals.  Here’s our list of suggestions:

Animal-free circuses:

  1. Cirque du Soleil: Rather than exploit animals, this global sensation hires the world’s best dancers, acrobats, contortionists and trapeze artists to put on a show unlike any you’ve ever seen. Six of cirque’s 19 touring shows currently play under a “big top” rather than in an arena, and several are animal-themed (for example, Ovo is about the world of insects and Varekai is set in a whimsical forest). Over 100 million people have seen Cirque du Soleil this summer. Why not become one of them?
  2. Circus Vargas: This traditional traveling circus used to feature plenty of exotic animals, but in 2010 changed its ways and put on its first show with no animals whatsoever. And guess what? It’s still really good! The current touring production, aptly named “Magikaria”, features jugglers, motorcyclists, trapeze artists and more. It’s a family-operated business that performs in smaller venues, so it’s a more intimate (and very memorable) experience for kids.
  3. Circus Finelli: All preconceptions about circus art will go out the window when you see this quirky original production featuring exclusively female clowns and instrumentalists. Drawing on both European circus tradition and American vaudeville, this show incorporates accordions and trombones, unicycles and hula hoops, and best of all: marionette puppets!



Cirque du Soleil features acrobats rather than animals. Native Foods Café uses this image courtesy of

Cutting-edge Schools Think Outside the Lunchbox, Increase Vegetarian Options

**This blog post originally appeared on on August 1, 2013

As much as we hate to admit it, summer’s on its way out. It’s August, and the rush for back-to-school supplies is growing near. For some parents, this means restocking the fridge with triangle-cut whole wheat sandwiches, natural fruit juice boxes and healthy portable snacks. But for others, the fate of their child’s health—so much as it’s affected by daily lunch—rests with the school nutrition staff, a fact that was once daunting but now holds promise.

‘School lunch’ once meant compartmentalized trays piled with frozen pizza or mystery meat and coolers of unwanted whole milk cartons. Brown bagging it always seemed, at least to me and my health-conscious mother, the safer option. But now, thanks to a revolutionary program called Meatless Mondays and a few health-positive school districts, America’s schools may finally be rethinking what they put on kids’ plates.

And it’s about time. The U.S. obesity rate has been climbing steadily for the past two decades, and the Center for Disease Control now reports that more than one third of our nation’s youth are overweight or obese. Thanks to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that she pushed forward in 2010, that number is headed downward. In order to keep it that way, kids need access to healthy food at all times—school included. The USDA’s new school nutritional standards (they just changed for the first time in 15 years), puts limitations on calories, saturated fat and sodium and mandates a certain amount of whole grains, non-fat dairy and fruits/vegetables per meal. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? More veggies and whole grains fuel healthier, happier kids. And healthy, happy kids fuel a healthy, happy future.

Meatless Lunch Tray

Native Foods Café vegan restaurant uses this image courtesy of

So that’s where Meatless Mondays come in. Thirty districts and 57 schools nationwide have now adopted the program, which helps cafeterias go all meatless or mostly meatless one or more days a week. The movement is spearheaded by a Johns Hopkins-affiliated non-profit which gives children and teachers the resources they need, including health-focused educational materials and vegetarian menu ideas. It has garnered positive response from coast to coast, and new reports say 2 out of 3 schools offer some vegetarian option on a regular basis. When you compare a vegetarian lunch tray to a meat-heavy lunch tray, it makes a lot of sense.

Rank Worst School LunchItems Disturbing Nutritional Facts
Worst Beef and Cheese Nachos 24 grams of fat and almost 1,500 milligrams of sodium
Second Worst Meatloaf and Potatoes 472 calories and 78 milligrams of cholesterol
Third Worst Cheeseburgers More saturated fat than a child should consume in an entire meal
Fourth Worst Cheese Sandwiches, including toasted cheese and cheese quesadilla More than 7 grams of saturated fat and almost 1,000 milligrams of sodium
Fifth Worst Pepperoni Pizza More than 6 grams of saturated fat; pepperoni is a processed meat that increases cancer risk
Rank Healthiest School Lunch Items
Healthiest Vegetarian Chili: 7 grams of fiber, almost no saturated fat
Second Healthiest Veggie Burger: 262 calories, 15.9 grams of protein
Beans and Rice: high protein
Hummus with Pita: 10.4 grams of fat, 2.6 grams of saturated fat
Whole Grain Pasta with Marinara or Primavera Sauce:5 grams of protein, lots of fiber

Native Foods Café uses these images courtesy of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

As you see, vegetarian meals are the way to go. And, as many schools are discovering, there are tons more options beyond these five. We’d like to turn the spotlight on a few schools with cutting-edge school lunch programs that are driving the nation’s progress toward healthier eating.

  1. Active Learning Elementary School (Queens, NY): This urban public school is the first in the nation to go all-vegetarian five days a week, which put it all over the news last spring. Students there report enjoying tofu stir-fries, falafel and brown rice dishes.
  1. Oakland Unified School District (Oakland, CA): This west coast district recently overhauled its school lunch program to incorporate fresh garden veggies and other farm-to-table products. Many of the schools have regularly maintained vegetable gardens that are used for nutritional education, and vegetarian options are available daily.
  1. Pinellas County School System (Pinellas, FL): The first district in 11 years to score a 100 on the National School Lunch Report Card, Pinellas is a role model for schools nationwide.  It boasts low-fat vegetarian options, like pasta fagioli and southwest salad, five days a week and features  a “fruit or vegetable of the month” (recently included avocado, pomegranate, purple sweet potato).

If you don’t live in one of these districts, don’t be afraid to find out what your child is eating outside of your home—you may be surprised by what you find. If you’d like to see more plant-based options on your child’s school lunch line, write a letter to the nutritional director or to talk to the Meatless Mondays campaign about how to make it happen. And in the meantime, if you need inspiration for plant-based meals for your own child, check out these cool vegan lunchbox ideas


Native Foods Café vegan restaurant uses this image courtesy of

Lake Michigan Pollution Gone Overboard- Help!

**This blog post originally appeared on

If you’re anything like me, you spend your office time dreaming about sizzling days on Lake Michigan, playing sweaty games of beach Frisbee before jumping into the cool, refreshing water. But unfortunately, due to high levels of pollution and the effects of climate change on water quality, a dream about a perfect swimming day is just that- a dream.

Hundreds of people take advantage of our 22,000 square mile lake every year, be it on a kayak, a surfboard or a jetski, but few are aware of the myriad perils lurking beneath the surface. When the Natural Resources Defense Council surveyed lakes nationwide in 2012, the Great Lakes had the highest percentage of monitoring samples that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s health standards for E coli. Eek!

Lake1A boat sailing on our much-loved Lake Michigan. Native Foods Café uses this photo courtesy of

What we’ve got going on here are two parallel events working in conjunction to turn the lake into a bacteria-riddled waste-hole. The first is a little thing called “runoff pollution,” which is what happens when rainwater falls onto streets, buildings and cars and then flows directly into lakes and rivers, taking with it anything and everything it picks up along the way. Considering the state of the developed world, you can probably guess why this is a bad thing. The NRDC reports that pollution in the Great Lakes Basin increased by 12 percent in 2010-2011, and that most of that is due to nitrates and pesticides running off from municipal water treatment plants, agricultural sources, metal facilities and food and beverage manufacturers. It’s just one more reason to hate GMO’s.


Native Foods Café vegan restaurant uses this image courtesy of

At the same time, severe weather and unprecedented droughts associated with global warming are causing the water levels in lakes to decrease across the board. Over the last 43 years, studies show that Michigan is among the fastest-warming states, with Wisconsin and Minnesota not far behind. And when it comes to water loss, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron were hit the hardest of the Great Lakes (see chart). Lake Michigan experienced a record low water level last winter. Drought doesn’t just mean less water, it also means a much higher concentration of bacteria in that water. This probably explains the average of 400 beach closings on Illinois shorelines per year since 2005. If you’re worried, you might have a reason to be.  Droughts cause severe drops in lake water levels in 2012, and seem to be going down in the long term.

Lake3 Native Foods Café vegan restaurant uses this image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

But there’s good news. Groups like the Alliance for the Great Lakes put in loads of time, money and effort each year to research and advocate for the clean-up of Lake Michigan. They address everything from helping surrounding industries go green to cleaning up beach litter. And you can help! Their Adopt-a-Beach Program enrolls 10,000 volunteers who conduct litter removal and monitoring, and then complete a beach health assessment that includes testing and scientific observation. Join their team and doing something vitally important while soaking in your sun.


Volunteers take a break from picking up garbage during a Great Lakes “Adopt-a-Beach” cleanup day. Native Foods Café uses this image courtesy of

Salvaging the lake is our job. If we want the next generation to enjoy the same placid beauty and sparkling majesty that we see on a regular basis, we’ve got to take an active role in ensuring that. Whether it’s a volunteer day or a donation, find a way to clean up your beach. Until then, you’ll have to be wary of what you’re splashing around in.

Riot Roundup: The Summer’s Best Environmental Protests

**This blog post originally appeared on on August 22, 2013

There’s no better way to reflect on the season than with a few “best of summer 2013” lists, and I’ve got one for you right here. This summer, it wasn’t just the weather heating up but also the environmental activists, whom I hold near and dear to my heart. With universities out of session, rebel-rousers young and old have an open three months to rally, flyer the streets and stand on busy corners asking for donations.

But there’s more than just talk going on in the green community, and I’d say it’s time to commend some of the serious action that’s taken place this summer. Here are my top 5 favorite protests from Summer 2013. Some are extreme. Some are commendable. Some are just plain silly:


1. Greenpeace Climbs the Shard

While temperatures were climbing, so were six very brave Greenpeace women, who climbed for 16 HOURS up the side of the tallest building in Western Europe. The building, called The Shard, is designed to resemble ice, which is just what’s being threatened by Shell Oil Company’s harmful arctic drilling practices. The daredevil move got tons of live coverage and put Shell under the spotlight in a bad way. Now they’re under heavy media fire for contributing to global warming. Way to bring it to a whole new level girls!


The-Shard-GreenpeaceNative Foods Cafe uses this image courtesy of


2. 350 organizes Summer Heat

So it turns out I’m not the only one clever enough to equate heat with rebellion. National non-profit beat me to it with their “Summer Heat” campaign, whose motto was “As the Heat Rises, So Do We.” During the last two weeks of July, they organized protests from San Francisco to Massachusetts, the biggest of which was a Keystone XL Pipeline protest in Washington DC. At the DC rally, protesters lined up in front of the Environmental Resource Management building and physically held themselves together using a tool called a lockbox. Police managed to pry the boxes off and arrest 55 of them. But still, that’s dedication right there.

Keystone-protest-nov18Native Foods Cafe uses this image courtesy of


3. Manhattan Flash Mob against Rockaway Pipeline:

To lighten the mood a bit, I’d like to give a round of applause to the green folks in Manhattan for one of the most entertaining and eye-catching protests of the summer. Described on its Facebook page as “highly visual and spectacular,” the protest event featured giant pipeline puppets and a live brass band. The show may have been festive, but the subject is no laughing matter, as the new pipeline could cause even more water contamination in an already polluted city. You may have missed the June 26th party, but you can still learn about the party pooper here.


Ny flashmob

Native Foods Cafe uses this image courtesy of


4. Seneca Lake Flotilla versus U.S. Salt

This one’s more of a demonstration than a protest, but it gets extra credit for occurring entirely on water. On July 1st about 90 vessels, from kayaks to sailboats, launched into this New York Lake and started chanting outside the U.S. Salt Company, whose parent company Inergy LP wants to store 88 million tons of propane gas dangerously close to the lake. Gross! Thanks sailors for getting out there and taking a stand (or a sit, technically).



Native Foods Cafe uses this image courtesy of


5. Maine Blockades Fracked Oil Carrier

Talk about standing your ground. On June 27, dozens of people stood on a train track in Fairfield, Maine to prevent a Pan Am train from delivering 70,000 barrels of fracked oil from North Carolina. Fortunately no one was hurt, but six people were arrested for the cause. The anti-fracking movement has been growing for years, partly because of the toxic nature of the oil and partly because of the damage the trains do to the environmentally sensitive areas of which they pass. Sounds like these protesters are on the right track.