Insulate Yourself!

Since heating is usually a household’s largest expenditure of energy and the cost is low, insulating your house is one of the most cost-effective conservation techniques around. An even cheaper option is to insulate yourself, but how much good can that possibly do? We don’t often think about our clothing as insulation, but as long ago as 1946, scientists have examined the insulative value (similar to the R-value of house insulation) of clothes, which allows us to figure out what impact it would have.

These researchers created a scale that allows you to figure out your comfort level based on air temperature, activity level, and clothing. Their baseline, 1 ‘clo’, is the amount of clothing a normal person would need to wear to be comfortable sitting around at 70 degrees. 1 clo is the equivalent of wearing a business suit with normal underwear. To figure out the clo value of an outfit, you just add the clo values of each individual item.

Some common clo values are 0.1 for a short-sleeved T-shirt, 0.2-0.4 for a sweater, 0.25-0.35 clo for pants, and 0.22-0.77 clo for a long skirt.

For every 2 degrees Fahrenheit, you need 0.18 more clo to be comfortable (or you need to be more active). A pair of extremely insulating long underwear can be purchased for $25 and provide about 0.36 clo, which would allow you to drop your thermostat 4 degrees! Depending on where you are and what you’re heating with, that could save 15% on your heating bill.

I had a hard time believing those numbers, but I recently got a good pair of long underwear and they’ve made a huge difference in comfort.  That makes it pretty clear that insulating yourself can have a huge benefit, especially if you’re currently wearing just a T-shirt and slacks!

How can something as simple as long underwear be so efficient? Air is a good insulator, so keep still air near your body helps insulate you tremendously. Your body is already producing heat too, so all you have to do is trap it rather than using a lossy process like a heat exchange to produce heat. Best of all, you only have to hear the small area right around your body rather than a whole room or even a house.

Last year, my biggest problem was keeping my hands and feet warm. Since I primarily work from home, I had to have warm enough hands that I could type comfortably. Luckily, I’ve found that keeping the rest of your body warm keeps your hands warm too, even without gloves! When your head and torso are cold, your body adjusts by drawing heat away from your extremities. Warming your head and torso mean that your body leaves them alone and your hands and feet stay comfortable even when it’s well below 60F.

If you’d like to learn more about clos, I highly recommend the article in Low Tech Magazine that introduced me to the concept and the clo numbers I listed above (and more)!

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Organic on the cheap

Hands holding a piggy bankAs our economic troubles deepen, Americans all over are cutting back. Before leaving organic food on the cutting room floor, try these strategies for reducing the cost of organic food. If you have any additional ideas, let us know in the comments!

Grow your own

It’s a long-term strategy, but growing your own food can be a good way to turn time into money. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck for things like fruit trees and berry bushes that produce year after year. Highly producing plants like tomatoes, peppers, and zuchinni are also good. If you don’t have space for a garden outside, or you want to get started before it warms up, you can grow herbs in your kitchen.

Shop co-op

Although not available everywhere, co-ops can be great ways to get cheap organic food. The National Cooperative Grocers Association has a map of stores, but there are many co-ops that aren’t part of the organization. Some co-ops will give a rebate at the end of profitable years. Others will give a discount if you volunteer for an hour or two a week or for paying a one-time membership fee. It’s worth checking out!

Coupons and sales

Organic food tends not to be used as a loss leader at grocery stores, but you can sometimes find coupons anyway. Check the website of organic brands that you buy (like Organic Prairie or Kashi) and see if they have any coupons. Our local co-op even puts their sale prices online, so that you can check for bargains easily.

Buy bulk basics

Instead of getting packaged foods, buy the ingredients and make your own. Pizza, for example, can cost $6 for a small frozen, $8 at a local restaurant, and $3 if you make it yourself! Bread and pasta are similarly cheap. If you can find a local store with bulk bins, you can usually get good deals on beans and rice as well. Some co-ops, ours included, even have bulk containers for shampoo and soap!

Join a CSA

This is pretty similar to buying in bulk, but a CSA can give you additional savings. Basically, you pay up front (or agree in advance to pay through the season) and in return you get a discount. If you’re a picky eater or plan to be gone some weekends, get a friend to join with you and split your CSA. We did this with Maggie’s parents and it worked well. Some places even have dairy, bread, or meat CSAs!

Visit the farmer’s market

In some places, the farmer’s market is significantly cheaper. Around here, it’s about the same, since our co-op buys from the same people who show up at the farmer’s market. Even here, though, there are bargains to be had. If you show up towards the end of market, farmers are more willing to make a deal. Anything they don’t sell they have to get rid of (if it’s perishable) or lug back home (if it’s not), so they’re motivated. The drawback is that your selection is liable to be limited, although a CSA can generally fill in the gaps.

Pick and choose

If, in the end, you decide that you still can’t afford to eat organic, don’t quit entirely! Figure out what organic items matter most to you and splurge on those while cutting corners elsewhere. For example, Maggie has decided that organic butter is better, so it’s worth the premium. Other things, like beans, don’t matter as much to us. If health is your main concern, focus on organic goods that bioaccumulate (like dairy products). If environmental impact is what gets you to buy organic, then maybe you should get local, organic beef.

This is also a good time to be buying local, whether it’s organic or not. Money spent at local businesses is much more likely to stay within your community and might make the difference between a lean year and going out of business.

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Book Review: The Education of Little Tree

The Education of Little Tree by Forrest CarterI’m kinda surprised I didn’t find The Education of Little Tree before, as it’s right up my alley. It is the autobiography of Forrest Carter, who grew up in the 1930’s living with his Cherokee grandparents in the Appalachian Mountains. He talks a lot about learning “the way” of the Cherokee and learning to live in peace with the land. They certainly didn’t have an easy life but they sounded truly happy to be living off the land in an isolated mountain valley full of deer, wild turkeys, and beautiful sunsets.

Probably my favorite part of the book was the folk wisdom, which was doled out from all the different characters. I think my favorite lesson was from Mr. Wise, a Jewish tinkerer who traveled around the mountains fixing clocks and selling bobbins of thread.

He said if you was thrifty, you used your money for what you had ought but you was not loose with it. Mr. Wine said that one habit led to another habit, and if they was loose with your money, then you would get loose with your time, loose with your thinking and practical everything else. If a whole people got loose, then politicians seen they could get control. They would take over loose people and before long you had a dictator. Mr. Wine said no thrifty people was ever taken over by a dictator. Which is right.

I highly recommend the book as a comfort read, a reconnection with nature, and an inspirational tale of the simple life. I will warn you, however, that there are some very sad bits. I’ve moved past the trauma I experienced as a young child reading “Where the Red Fern Goes” but there were a few parts in the book that brought me to tears. I guess that’s part of life and it’s silly to ignore it.

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Green Video Challenge

Video CameraStudent Doctor Green has challenged us to make a short video clip about green living and we’re scrambling a bit to think of something good. It reminds me of a story in The Tightwad Gazette. The author said that there were a few years in the early 90’s when she was plagued with journalists wanting to cover her family’s tightwad lifestyle. Almost every one asked that she hang laundry to dry in the attic so they could take pictures. It was the only tightwad technique that they found visually interesting.

She suggested them taking pictures of her family NOT buying expensive packaged foods at the grocery and NOT stopping to eat at the restaurant but the photographers just sighed and tried to explain that you can’t take pictures of people NOT doing things.

Anyway, I think we have a good idea for our first video entry but if you have suggestions I’d love to hear them. We’re thinking this could be a fun new addition to the site, although probably not more than once a month unless it takes a lot less time than I’m picturing.  There are also some green video challenges floating around the internet, like the one through Juntoventure with a bunch of prizes, although it kinda looks like you have to be from California to enter?  I find their site confusing and it’s a little worrisome that they had to extend their deadline an extra two months because they didn’t get enough submissions.

Will used to teach a class at IU about making documentaries so I’m hoping he can pull together something a little more impressive than the wholly incomprehensible home videos my brother and I used to make. Although I should try to find some of that old footage. I’m sure there are a few treasures in amongst the hours of videotaping out the car window on road trips.

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Sustainable fun: geocaching

Will looking at his GPSOne of the most sustainable leisure activities out there is just taking a walk: no equipment, low impact, definite connection with nature. I sometimes find it hard to get outside, though. It seems frivolous to just walk, so I don’t spend much time at it (although I make an exception for beautiful days like today). For someone like me who’s more goal-oriented, geocaching adds that extra kick that walking lacks.

Geocaching started several years ago as GPS units started becoming more affordable. In its simplest form, geocaching is an invisible treasure hunt. You use your GPS (I use a Garmin eTrex that I got for Christmas) to find predetermined coordinates. Once you get there, you’ll usually find a hidden cache with a logbook and some small goodies inside. The amazing people at have created tens of thousands of caches all over the world. Some are multi-stage, historical, or more puzzle based. All of them are a great excuse to get outside.

At the beginning of the month, Spring Mill State Park held their second annual geocaching event. Dozens of people, including us and our neighbors, headed out on a brilliantly clear day to explore the park a little more than we ever had. Every cache was placed in or near ruins of the settlements that used to be in the park. For example, one of the caches was across a creek where an old mill used to be. Despite some troubles with people hiding the cache too well, we had a lot of fun spending a Saturday outdoors.

Don’t think that geocaching is only for rural locations, either! There are lots of caches in urban areas. For example, there are 27 caches in downtown Bloomington!

Unfortunately, there are fewer caches south of Bloomington where we are, so I’d have to drive to get close to any. Once we move downtown, I plan to geocache a lot more and a lot greener.

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When Should We Buy Organic?

Baby Eating An AppleI try to eat organic foods when possible. I believe we need to lobby for organically, sustainably produced whole foods and that it’s important to put my money where my mouth is but it can be challenging to follow my ideals and still stay within our grocery budget ($240/month). There are times when cheap and healthy align well (oatmeal is cheaper than PopTarts) and times when they conflict (organic cheese costs a lot more than Velveeta).

I was excited to read what Get Rich Slowly had to say about An Easy Way to Go Organic. J.D. referenced a New York Times article that suggested switching to the organic version of five common foods – milk, potatoes, peanut butter, ketchup, and apples.

I love the list but would change it a bit myself. I am currently taking a cooking class called “Healing With Whole Foods” that is based on Traditional Chinese Medicine and the idea that eating the right foods can strengthen the body and immune system, while eating the wrong foods can tear us apart. The instructor, Andy Reed, is very good about constantly reminding us that nobody’s perfect and it’s all about compromise. He tries to eat mostly organic but can’t afford to, like many of us, so he suggested prioritizing which items we buy organic. His number one suggestion?

Buy organic butter. This was a new concept for me but it really made sense when he started to explain. Conventional butter comes from cows that have been given antibiotics, growth hormones, and feed made from pesticide-filled grain. Most pesticides are lipophyllic, meaning they bioaccumulate in fat, so butter is one of the most important things to buy organically.

He also suggested buying only organic meats and dairy products for the same reason. Most of my motivation for buying organically raised meat comes from my belief that we should treat animals well but I also enjoy eating meat that is free of pesticides and antibiotics. I am currently reading “My Year of Meats,” which is a fictional novel by Ruth Ozeki but it includes some factual and disturbing information about the dark side of conventional meat production (thanks, Dana).

Get Rich Slowly had another post about Organics versus Ethics and how to decide how much environmental health or personal health or food quality is worth to us, in dollars, and how to tell if organic is really “worth” it.  That’s a big question that I personally am not quite ready to tackle.  I believe we need to move towards a food system that produces nutritious, affordable food while keeping our environment in good shape, and the organic label is at least one step in that direction, so I’ll do what I can.

We buy organic butter, meat, peanut butter, rice, beans and a random assortment of other products. (Sometimes I wonder if there’s really much of a difference between organic crackers and conventional crackers – I definitely doubt the benefits of choosing organic Cheetoes.) We buy a mix of organic and conventional produce. And so far we seem to be fairly healthy and happy.

I think the next step will be switching to organic cheese. We looove cheese and it’s hard to afford buying the quantities we want at organic prices. Anybody know of any good sources of cheap organic cheese? And ice cream? Mmmmm, ice cream….

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Five tips for reducing packaging

Time to Buy Girl Scout Cookies!Crinkle.  Crinkle.  Rustle.

“Maggie, are you eating cookies?”

Curses!  Foiled again, by the excessive plastic packaging that is separating me from my beloved Girl Scout cookies!  I started in Girl Scouts when I was six and was an active participant all the way through college and even led a troop for a couple of years so I’m a big supporter of the cause and I’m also admittedly addicted to the cookies (especially Tagalongs and Samoas).  Alas, I am not a fan of the packaging.  Usually I would choose not to buy a product with this kind of unrecyclable, unnecessary packaging but we all have our weaknesses.  I did visit the Little Brownie Bakers website to file a request that they make their packaging more recyclable.  It didn’t feel like a very powerful step but if enough people comment on the packaging, they’re bound to change it.

For items other than Girl Scout cookies, here are some tips for reducing packaging

1. Buy in bulk using your own containers.  There are a couple of smaller grocery stores in Bloomington that offer a variety of foods in bulk bins.  There are lots of grains (rice, oats, flour) and dried foods (fruits, nuts, spices) but also items such as peanut butter, dish soap, and laundry detergent.  Of course, it doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re filling up plastic bags and throwing them away, so I’m getting better about packing up my canning jars and tupperware containers to refill them.  (It also tends to be cheaper).

2. If the packaging is ridiculous, don’t buy it.  I have been volunteering at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, one of our local food pantries, and they get a really interesting variety of surplus food.  Last week a big shipment came in of South Beach Diet Chicken Salad Lunches.  Each little box contained a plastic spoon, a plastic bag of croutons, a plastic dish of chicken bits, a plastic packet of salad dressing, and a tiny plastic container of jello.  It was ridiculous.  This is the kind of item I find easy to avoid.

3. Contact the manufacturer about unnecessary packaging. I honestly believe this is the way to get manufacturers to change their ways.  Consumer demand, folks!  It’s supposed to play an important role in our market-driven economy!  Make your voice heard!

4. Bring your own reusable grocery bags.  I have an embarassingly large collection of tote bags, mesh bags, drawstring bags, backpacks, and other cloth containers for holding things but darn it, they’re incredibly useful!  I do occasionally get the odd look from grocery baggers but I have learned to smile sweetly and thank them for helping me support the environment.  I also try to take my own plastic bags to the produce department to bag things like lettuce that are often soaking wet.  (I’ve also found that the bags worth washing out and reusing hold up a LOT better than the ones they tend to give you.)

5.  Buy the big box.  Will and I recently joined Sam’s Club so we can stock up on cheap food in large quantities.  It goes against the grain a bit for me since I’m a big fan of supporting local businesses and quality food.  However, I believe it can be a good choice for us both economically and environmentally so we’re giving it a shot.  (We would have preferred Costco but there is not one in Bloomington.)  The two main challenges are finding products that really do have less packaging (as opposed to the big box of cereal that is in fact many smaller boxes of single servings all packaged together) and finding products that meet my criteria for nutrition and sustainability.  (There’s also the fact that buying the giant bag of Chex Mix does not in fact save money or packaging volume if you go home and eat the entire thing in one serving just like you would with a small bag.)

And a bonus tip….

6. Grow your own, for the ultimate reduction in packaging. I’m getting ready to start some seedlings for a little herb garden on our deck and maybe a couple of tomato plants.  I’ll keep you posted.

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Snot rags… I mean, handkerchiefs

Maggie’s noseI have been a long-time fan of the handkerchief as opposed to Kleenex but I realize there are lots of folks like Student Doctor Green who are a little grossed out by the concept of blowing your nose into a piece of cloth and sticking said piece of cloth back into your pocket. Yes, I admit, it’s a little gross but it’s not *that* gross. (Oh, and by the way, when I say “Kleenex” what I really mean is “Seventh Generation Recycled Facial Tissues.”)

I have never been a dainty nose-blower. I am much more of the honking type. I also learned early on that my nose will inevitably run when I am as far as possible from a Kleenex box. This led originally to the habit of stuffing my pockets with Kleenex in the morning and then holding onto them (fresh or used) during the day so I would always have at least some corner of dry tissue to use. Well, I also held onto my used Kleenex because there never seemed to be a good place to throw them away. It got to be a bit of a problem when I would invariably wash a pair of pants with three tissues in the pockets and discover that my clothes had been coated in a fine layer of white Kleenex dust.  This was well-covered in the recent Ode to the Humble Handkerchief.

I’m not sure when I actually switched over to handkerchiefs. I have a collection of about twenty now and have developed strong opinions about what kind are most effective. I really like the men’s thin white handkerchiefs that are still available in some department stores. They’re small enough to fit comfortably even in the pocket of my jeans but they have enough surface area to hold up well. Bandanas are bigger and sturdier but also bulkier and I also have some hesitation about blowing my nose on a piece of cloth I might also use to tie back my hair. It’s best not to mix the two. I also have a few dainty handkerchiefs I inherited from my grandmother. They remind me of her, which is nice, but they’re really designed for gentle nose dabbing, which never seems to accomplish much. In the end, whatever kind they may be, handkerchiefs are cheaper than Kleenex (in the long run) and easy to use.

So here’s my routine. It’s early in the day and my nose is just starting to run. I pull the fresh handkerchief out of my pocket and unfold it until there are about two layers. I find a good corner, blow my nose, and then fold the handkerchief to keep the moist part in the very middle, and stick it back in my pocket. Later, I can unfold it and find a different clean spot for the next nose blow. Usually I can find a clean spot and refold carefully to keep my hands and my pocket unsullied. If I have a cold and am producing a lot of snot, it’s time to switch to Kleenex although I often keep a handerchief as backup in case I run through my Kleenex supply. At the end of the day (or maybe a couple of days, I confess) I throw the used hankie in the laundry. Easy as pie!

Will thinks the whole process is kinda gross (especially if I try to take one to bed) but he mostly just looks the other way. And he’s good at reminding me that it’s probably best to wash my hands frequently, hankie or not.

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Ready for a fast, cheap, local pizza?

It’s getting close to dinner, which is a dangerous time to be reading a friend’s food blog. Luckily, the entry that caught my eye was all about pizza. As Maggie has mentioned before, I love pizza. It’s a fast, easy and filling meatless meal. Takeout pizza is too expensive for us and the frozen ones are full of fat. And, of course, both use ingredients that have travelled long distances to get here.

Flatbread pizzaI’ve found that making pizza from scratch can be faster, greener, and even cheaper! I got my recipe out of the Complete Tightwad Gazette, which includes a lot of great ideas of reducing consumption. It requires no fancy ingredients and takes about ten minutes of mixing and topping, ten minutes of rising, and ten minutes of cooking, which puts it on par with ordering delivery.

The first time I made it, the dough was hard to roll (there’s a reason you see people tossing pizza dough!), which made it uneven. That wasn’t a big problem except that the thick parts cooked a lot slower than the thin parts, which made the whole pizza a little doughy.

My next experiment was with adding some whole wheat flour to the mix. It gave a great texture, but also created some pockets of dough that were even more difficult to roll. We ended up with a square pizza (or, as I told Maggie, “gourmet flatbread”). I also made sure to keep all but the edges of the dough thin. Some places were so thin that I accidentally pulled holes in them. Pushing the edges of the hole together fixed that problem but exacerbated the square pizza problem.

Luckily, Maggie is a sucker for “gourmet flatbreads,” so she was happy with it. I was happy that the thin spots thickened during cooking as the dough rose. In the end, even the thinnest spots of pizza were thick enough to be tasty and it wasn’t anywhere near as doughy as my previous experiment. In the future, I’m going to make sure to keep the middle a little thicker so that it can carry the weight of all the toppings I put on.

Another bonus for me is that there are a couple periods of downtime (while the dough rises and while the pizza cooks) that give me just enough time to wash the stuff I got dirty in the previous step. That makes it a snap to clean up after dinner when I’m full and lazy. It takes only a minute for me to pack up the leftovers, if there are any, and toss the plates into the dishwasher.

As a quick dinner, it’s hard to beat!

This version (based on the one in the Tightwad Gazette) uses a food processor, but I’m sure you could make it by hand as well.

1/2 – 3/4 cup warm water
1 T yeast (1 packet, although yeast is a lot cheaper if you buy in bulk)
1 t sugar
2c flour (optionally, replace 3/4 cup with whole wheat flour)
1 T vegetable oil
1/2 t salt

Combine 1/4 cup of water with yeast and sugar. Stir and let stand about 5 minutes. Put flour, oil, and salt into your food processor and process about 5 seconds with the metal blade (if you’re making a larger recipe, you may want to use a bread attachment. Check your user manual to be sure). Add yeast mixture and process for 10 seconds or so. Turn on the processor and drizzle water in until the dough forms into a ball. Then, process the dough until it turns around the processor 25 times. Put the ball onto a 14-inch greased pizza pan (a pizza stone or cookie sheet work equally well). Cover with a bowl and let stand 10 minutes. Pat the dough and spread it out. If you’re adventurous, try tossing it! Remember to make sure that the dough is thicker on the outside. The dough will rise as it bakes, so the rest of the pizza can be pretty thin. Cover with pizza sauce (this article seems to have a good recipe for sauce, but I haven’t tried it yet), cheese, and your choice of toppings. We usually like onions, peppers, and black olives.

Bake at 450 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Be aware that the edges will cook faster than the center!

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