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.”


Registry Week Finds Fewer Homeless People in Suburban Cook County

**This article originally appeared on on February 17, 2013

The Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County recently released the results of its first Registry Week, which counted 125 unsheltered persons and nearly 1,000 sheltered persons in the areas north, west and southwest of Chicago, a decrease from last year’s count.

Founded in 2004, the alliance is a nonprofit organization that coordinates a range of services and housing options for homeless people in Cook County. Since 2005, the organization has conducted a biannual “Point in Time” survey, in which teams visit suburban regions of Cook County to calculate the number of unsheltered persons sleeping in public spaces.

This year, the survey team amped up its efforts for the first Registry Week, which involved canvassing areas for three consecutive days between 4 and 7 a.m., rather than just one night. They also conducted vulnerability surveys to gauge risk factors for homeless people, such as substance abuse and medical conditions. The Registry Week additions are a requirement for the alliance’s participation in the 100,000 Homes Campaign — a national movement to find permanent homes for the nation’s homeless.

Loren Seeger, program coordinator for the alliance, said homelessness can be particularly problematic in suburban areas like Evanston because communities are usually uneducated about it.

“A lot of people think that because you’re in a suburb, there are no homeless people in that area, when that clearly isn’t true,” she said. “A lot of people also think that more affluent communities don’t have this issue, and that’s a misconception … The fact that it’s sometimes more hidden in the suburbs makes it more of a problem.”

Of the 125 unsheltered persons found in this year’s count, 33 were in the North subregion, which contains Evanston, while 49 were in the west and 43 were in the south. In addition to street interviews, the alliance conducted surveys at several suburban shelters, including Hilda’s Place, a homeless shelter in Evanston. In total, volunteers conducted 346 interviews. Within this group, they found that 32 percent had a high mortality risk and 35 percent were suffering from a serious health condition.

The organization also identified a number of homelessness “hot spots” in Evanston, including Burger King at 1740 Orrington Ave., Uncle Dan’s Great Outdoors Store at 901 Church St. and Cinemark Century Theaters at 1715 Maple Ave.

The sidewalk in front of CVS Pharmacy at 1711 Sherman Ave. is often occupied by persons asking for money. Andre Green, assistant manager of that store, said these people are most likely homeless, but their presence has not disturbed business so far as he can tell.

“I haven’t had any problems, and I don’t think we have a policy on it,” he said. “They do come in because when they collect enough money, they buy things. It’s one of the most popular fronts on the street, so they probably get a lot of traffic here. But there haven’t been any incidents that I know of.”

Alex Thurston, a fourth year religious studies graduate student, said as an undergraduate he lived on Clark Street and frequently interacted with people on the streets — which he still does today. On Sunday, he stopped and talked to a man outside of CVS, whom he referred to as a friend.

“I see different guys every day,” he said. “They usually tell me stories. Usually they’re funny. It’s important for people to treat each other with dignity, regardless of if money changes hands or not.”


Stroger Clinic Opens for LGBT Youth

**This article originally appeared on on May 7, 2013

John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County is now home to an LGBT clinic.The Same-Gender Loving (SGL) Clinic at Stroger opened Feb. 1 and has been providing weekly care for uninsured and underinsured LGBT youth since.

SGL is one of three county-funded clinics serving teens ages 13-24, but it’s the first and only to cater specifically to the needs of the LGBT community.

At the clinic, which operates between 1-5 p.m. on Tuesdays, youth can drop in for general health services like those offered at the other two adolescent clinics. They can also meet with a physician or psychiatrist to receive counseling on sexuality, gender identity, hormone therapy, safer sex or a slew of other topics.

Dr. Margo Bell, a senior attending physician in the Division of Adolescent Medicine, who encountered many uninsured LGBT teens while doing outreach work on the South and West Sides, first conceived of the clinic.

With the help of colleague Dr. Lisa Henry-Reid, Bell got the pediatrics department chair to quickly approve the new clinic to supplement the general clinic and the HIV clinics that run on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The new clinic is funded entirely by Cook County and is staffed by three rotating physicians as well as two psychologists and a health educator.

“We’re skilled in taking care of this population of adolescent young adults,” said Henry-Reid. “We provide very developmentally appropriate care, and we can do that in a setting where you’re not going to be judged. We’re all about making sure that you’re healthy and trying to promote that in whatever way we can—by the tests that we do, by the education we provide.”

An average of three youth visit the SGL clinic each Tuesday, said Bell. Most, who are over 18 or are with a consenting adult, are seeking mental health services and hormone treatment.

Charlie Person, a 16-year-old transgender female from the North Side, started visiting the clinic about six months ago to learn more about transitioning, which she had only read about on the Internet. A few weeks ago, Person brought her mom, Deborah Person, into the clinic to try to educate her on transgender issues and ask approval for hormone treatment.

Deborah, who knew little about transgender issues before that visit, said the announcement was a little shock to her. It has been accompanied by some conflict over whether her child should be wearing female clothing.

But many conversations with Bell, have made her more sensitive to Charlie’s needs, and she will consider hormone therapy for the future.

“The clinic is very informative, very patient, giving you all kind of literature and information, opening questions,” said Deborah, who still uses male pronouns for Charlie. “My position is loving him unconditionally, letting him accept who he is and not letting society dictate to him who he is. And that he lives comfortable within himself as well as outside, and be productive in society as he does this transformation.”

Charlie is more at ease in the SGL clinic than at a standard clinic, she said.

“It’s important because a lot of people don’t have anywhere to go to take hormones, or a lot of people don’t feel comfortable going anywhere else,” said Charlie. “They treat you how you want to be treated and they comfort you and make you feel welcome more than any other clinic you go to.”

The only hurdle in running the clinic so far, said Bell, has been establishing a gender-neutral bathroom on the floor, which took a fair amount of paperwork and debate.

Future plans for the clinic include hiring a caseworker for visiting adolescents, which would require grant money. Plans also include further engagement with the lesbian community through a weekly lunchtime meeting.

Opening an LGBT clinic on the West Side was important, said Henry-Reid. Bigger LGBT centers like Howard Brown Health Center and the Center on Halstead (which does not provide medical services) can be geographically inconvenient for underprivileged youth in other parts of the city. Most youth travel to the clinic by public transport, she said, and some money is available to help them with travel if needed.

The clinic is also unique in its level of cultural competency and sensitivity toward LGBT issues. Henry-Reid and Bell have led trainings with nursing staff and residents on LGBT health issues, especially transgender issues.

Stroger LGBT Clinic to Serve Detained Youth

**This article originally appeared on on June 6, 2013

At the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, gender matters. It determines where inmates sleep, where they take meals and what they do for gym class. Most importantly, it determines what kind of healthcare they receive while in confinement.

While this used to be problematic for LGBT residents, center officials say a new collaboration between the center and the pediatric department at Stroger Hospital could lead to more pointed and culturally competent care for incarcerated youth across the gender spectrum.

The Same-Gender Loving (SGL) Clinic at the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County opened Feb. 1, providing LGBTQ detained youth with access to affirming care.

This level cultural competency may not always be present in the Juvenile Detention Center, but the staff is becoming more educated all the time, said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, medical director for the center.

Over the past year, detention center staff have undergone hours of training to learn how to place transgender individuals in the way that will be most comfortable for them, rather than the “one-size-fits-all” policy that was in place before.

When youth arrive at the detention center, they receive a medical exam in their first two hours. For the rest of their time, which can be anywhere from a few days to a few years, they receive weekly care at the clinic, staffed by Bell and two other Stroger physicians.

Dr. Margot Bell a senior attending physician in the Division of Adolescent Medicine, conceived of the clinic.

If Bell or Ngozi sees that a youth has a problem that may be better suited for care at the SGL clinic, they can arrange for an appointment back at Stroger. There’s a precedent for that, Ngozi said, as inmates have been to the other adolescent clinics in the past. Though youth from the center have not yet been taken to the clinic, both physicians see it as a possibility for the future.

“Dr. Bell—she’s almost like a human conduit,” said Ezike. “It’s very seamless. They’ll easily give us an appointment to accommodate our kids from here. That’s a pretty strong and well-established connection.”

One of the biggest issues with caring for incarcerated transgender youth is sorting out their hormone treatment, said Ezike. The youth in the center are mostly under the age of 18, so they cannot receive hormones without parental consent. Some youth come in already on a hormone treatment that they bought on the street or on the internet, but Ezike cannot continue that treatment without getting guardian consent. If inmates can get parental consent, Ezike could bring them over to the SGL clinic to start or continue on hormones. Beyond hormones, Bell and Ried said they can help youth from the center with LGBT-specific mental health issues.

“Because we still have a presence there, we started having a conversation about partnering to make the whole of the county system more LGBT-friendly in terms of providing care for youth, and that’s how we got tied in together,” said Bell.

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