Does eating organic reduce pesticide exposure?

Kale at Pescadero Farmer's Market

Veggies for sale at the Pescadero Farmer’s Market. (Photo credit: Kristine Wong)

Civil Eats | Nov. 3, 2015

When parents spend the extra money to feed their children organic food, it’s often in hope of keeping the overall amount of pesticides in their bodies to a minimum. (If you’ve seen this popular video of the Swedish family that made the switch, you know what we’re talking about.) But a new study by a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that diet is only part of the equation, especially for kids who might be exposed to insecticides at home or pesticides from agricultural fields nearby.

Researchers fed 40 Mexican-American children in Salinas (a rural agricultural area) and in Oakland, California a diet of conventional fruits and vegetables for four days. Then they fed the kids (between the ages of three and six and 20 in each group) a week-long diet of organic produce before returning them to a conventional diet for the last five days. The researchers tested the children’s urine daily for the presence of insecticides and herbicides.

Overall, the results showed that the presence of two kinds of pesticides (organophosphate insecticides and the herbicide 2,4-D) in the children’s bodies decreased after eating organic produce (by 40 and 49 percent in the insecticides and by 25 percent in the herbicide).

But researchers didn’t detect any decrease in the levels of other pesticides (such as pyrethroid insecticides like home bug sprays), according to the paper published recently in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

“That could mean that the diet wasn’t an important source of exposure for those pesticides,” Asa Bradman, a researcher at Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health who led the study, told Civil Eats.

The study results, he emphasized, point to the importance of considering the cumulative amount of pesticide exposure levels in children from other sources when considering the greater health risks (such as lower IQs or delayed development) to this population—especially those living in areas where pesticides could be applied to farm fields or to areas nearby their schools or homes.

“The Salinas children generally had higher concentrations of pesticides than those living in Oakland,” said Bradman.

Pesticide use near California schools could be a significant factor, as documented by a state health department report last year. It found that Latino children were 46 percent more likely to attend schools with “pesticides of concern” applied nearby than other kids in the state.

Bradman’s previous research found that because several farmworker families often live together in one apartment or house, crowding occurs that can lead to pest infestations and increased pesticide use at home.

The Berkeley study is the first to look at the effects of an organic diet among a Mexican immigrant population and test the effect on insecticide levels. Other studies at Harvard looked at the effect of an organic diet on organophosphate pesticide exposure and found similar results.

“Any results like this are really valuable because there’s so little known when it comes to dietary exposure and pesticide residues,” said Emily Marquez, a scientist at the nonprofit advocacy group Pesticide Action Network. “We also don’t know about how exposure changes due to cultural differences in diet.”

While the Centers for Disease Control asks a sample of the U.S. population about exposure to chemicals in the environment ever year, Marquez says, it’s not clear whether respondents live in urban or agricultural areas. And though FDA and USDA test pesticide levels in food annually, she added, much of the focus is on imported produce.

California is the only state in the U.S. that requires the reporting of pesticide use (though the island of Kauai in Hawaii has a voluntary reporting system that could be expanded statewide later this year). Now the state is moving forward to regulate the application of pesticides near schools. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which gathered input this past summer from the public on how it might approach setting these limits, is planning to release draft regulations in December.

Parents and community groups are pushing for a one-mile buffer zone around schools, as well as two-day notice before any pesticides are applied, the Los Angeles Times reports.

And in Iowa, a coalition of farmers and the Pesticide Action Network are trying to get laws introduced that would improve reporting and regulations around pesticide drift.

Despite all of the talk regarding children’s health and safety when it comes to pesticide exposure, both Bradman and Marquez are quick to say that they don’t want to discourage children from eating conventional produce if their families can’t afford organic fruits and vegetables.

“When considering risk from exposure, I wouldn’t say that conventional foods are unsafe,” he added. “If you look at the American diet, there’s definitely great need for more fruits and vegetables and less refined carbohydrates.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reducing pesticide exposure overall. And Marquez says her organization is working toward that end.

“We can change the agricultural system so that it’s no longer dependent on pesticides,” she said. “One way to do this would be to subsidize farmers to help them convert their land—by improving biodiversity and creating a conservation wetland, for example. That will help them begin to transition away from pesticides.”

How schools are seducing students with food trucks

Civil Eats (reprinted in The Atlantic) | Oct. 21, 2015

Boulder Valley School District food truck

Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District was one of the first in the nation to start serving school lunch from its own food truck. (Photo credit: Curry Rosato, Boulder Valley School District)

Getting high school students to embrace healthy eating is an age-old battle. And when it comes to lunch, many eschew their school cafeteria in favor of eating off-campus, where healthy choices don’t always abound.

Now school districts are starting to lure their students into eating better—by getting their own food trucks up and running on campus.

“Food trucks are a great addition to school food service—both from a way to engage the older kids and a way to engage the community,” says Ann Cooper, director of food services at Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District. “It’s part of a great overall marketing strategy.”

Last year, Boulder Valley became one of the first districts in the U.S. to start serving school lunches at a food truck during the academic year. The truck, which has been attractively styled as a cross between a rustic farmhouse and a milk truck, was funded by a $75,000 grant from Whole Foods Market.

Cooper says that though the truck mostly serves the same food as the cafeteria and the prices are identical, the students find the truck food more appealing.

“It’s meeting the kids where they are to provide a cool environment,” Cooper says. “There’s a different vibe to it, with music playing.”

In addition to rotating among local high schools during the week, the truck also comes to the district’s elementary schools for special events.

“Cafeteria participation has been up and so is the number of kids eating at the food truck,” she says. “So we’re getting a demographic that never [ate at] the cafeteria before. … Kids who walked off campus are now eating at the food truck.”

This spring, the Minneapolis School District will start serving daily school lunch from its food trucks, which have successfully been feeding students at field trips and special events for three years. Like Boulder Valley, the truck will rotate among its high school campuses.

“Principals have been begging us to get the truck out there,” says Bertrand Weber, the director of food services. “The main challenge is that we can’t keep up with the demand.”

Weber worked with chefs at local restaurants to develop the truck’s brown rice-based carnitas bowl, orange chicken bowl, and curry chicken bowl recipes. They’re part of the district’s partnership with chefs to develop healthy recipes (such as beet hummus) made with local food.

“In just the first three weeks of this school year alone, we served 28,000 pounds of local produce,” Weber says. He also has found ways to work with producers to develop new markets for their products.

“I worked with a small local turkey farmer and developed a turkey burger and hot dog—and found a processor to do this,” he says. “We’re working next on a breakfast sausage. We’re another outlet for dark meat [since] not as many buy the leg and thighs.”

MinneapolisThe Minneapolis School District set up its first food truck three years ago, after Hunger Free Minnesota asked it to write a grant for a vehicle to feed underserved students during the summertime.

The district acted quickly. By June 2012—just four months later—its truck was out at parks and libraries dishing out lunches in four neighborhoods.

“It took about one and a half months to find a bus and two months to convert it,” Weber says. “We worked with our transportation program and they found us a minibus that had been used for disabled students.”

With only a food warmer, refrigerator, and sink on board, the truck isn’t well-equipped to prepare food. But when parked on campus, Weber says that it can serve up to 700 students in 90 minutes, thanks to the ability to bring in more food stored in school refrigerators.

The truck—which has been decorated with the district’s “True Food” campaign theme using bright photographs of fresh produce—has served students at special events such as parties, graduations, and school year kickoffs. It’s also tagged along on school field trips to serve up to 350 students hot lunches or dinners.

The strategy of using mobile units to feed hungry children isn’t entirely new. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began sponsoring summertime buses and food trucks across the country in areas in which it was difficult for children to access the agency’s established food service sites.

“Mobile feeding is a successful strategy that community and state partners have found to improve their capacity to reach food insecure children when school is not in session,” said Audrey Rowe, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service administrator, in an email.

Minneapolis and Boulder Valley have also found that the trucks can help raise money for the district’s food service programs.

To break even, Minneapolis’s truck needs 200 students to buy meals during one lunch service—but has the capacity to serve 500 more during that time period.

“Anything above that helps our entire [food service] program,” Weber says.

And Boulder Valley’s truck moonlights for the district’s catering operation, where it has appeared at TEDx Boulder and a local harvest festival. (The district obtained a city and county license to serve food.)

For Cooper, using the food truck for catering provides more than just extra money.

“It’s a driving billboard,” she says. “That increases our visibility overall and the quality of what we do.”


Seismic Safety in Question at Cabrillo Unified Schools

by Kristine A. Wong

At least one school building in Half Moon Bay has been listed as vulnerable in the event of an earthquake, while over a dozen additional Cabrillo Unified School District building projects are listed among those not certified as meeting state seismic safety standards, according to a media watchdog investigation.

A 19-month California Watch investigation, which was released Thursday, uncovered holes in the state’s enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools.

California began regulating school architecture for seismic safety in 1933 with the Field Act, but data taken from the Division of the State Architect’s Office shows 20,000 school projects statewide never got final safety certifications. In the crunch to get schools built within the last few decades, state architects have been lax on enforcement, California Watch reported.

A separate inventory completed nine years ago found 7,500 seismically risky school buildings in the state. Yet, California Watch reports that only two schools have been able to access a $200 million fund for upgrades.

While none of the district’s schools were found to be located in an Alquist-Priolo fault zone, liquefaction zone, landslide zone, or within a quarter-mile of a fault, the investigation identified a 10,000 square-foot building at Half Moon Bay High School as “likely to not perform well in an earthquake” and “in need of a structural evaluation.”

half moon bay high school buildingThrough a state inventory list dated March 30, 2011, Half Moon Bay Patch found the building has one story, is located in seismic Zone 4 (the highest-risk classification in the 4-zone system developed by the U.S. Geological Survey) and had its records placed on file with the state on Jan. 1, 1961. The building, which could not be specifically identified, has not been shown as ever being seismically reviewed or retrofitted, according to California Watch, nor has it been demolished or sold, according to the March 30 inventory list.

Thirteen other projects located throughout the district were included in California Watch’s uncertified list, including building projects at Cunha Intermediate School in Half Moon Bay, El Granada Elementary, Farallone View in Montara, Kings Mountain Elementary in Woodside, and other projects at Half Moon Bay High. Four of these projects were described as “various locations” throughout the district.

California Watch also found that one project at Hatch Elementary in Half Moon Bay was once listed as a “Letter 4” level of risk under the Field Act – the highest level in its ranking system — but downgraded to a Letter 3 on March 25, 2010 by the State Architect’s office. While it is not clear whether this is the case for the project at Hatch Elementary, California Watch’s investigation found that some projects upgraded from a Letter 4 status did not appear to have resolved the structural issues which deemed the building as high risk in the first place.

When presented with California Watch’s data for district schools, Facilities Manager Jim Tjogas said he was confident that the district’s facilities are safe.

“All of our buildings were built after the Field Act,” he said. “When they were built, they were built to standard,” he said.

The state’s records of monitoring and assessments of the seismic safety of its K-12 school buildings has consistently been a work in progress. Its Tracker database does not include any projects submitted to the state before Nov. 12, 1997. To rectify this, it is currently working to get a backlog of paper records scanned into this system, installed more than five years ago.

Other problems with the state’s database include incorrect addresses on file for specific schools, including Cunha Intermediate School in Half Moon Bay. The address associated with Cunha was that of the district office — 498 Kelly Ave. — instead of its physical address at 600 Church St. This problem prevented California Watch from being able to match every project in the uncertified list with the school each project was associated with.

With knowledge of the discrepancies in the state’s tracking database, Half Moon Bay Patch asked Tjogas for documentation from the state showing that the projects on the California Watch list were certified as safe.

Earlier this week, Tjogas said that he could not provide that. “I don’t have info on that or those records,” he said on Thursday. “I don’t know where they are offhand. We have them in some boxes and they’re scattered all over,” Tjogas said.

Half Moon Bay Patch inquired about district records with Jim Hackett, the acting regional manager of the State Architect’s Oakland office where the state houses the school district’s building records and correspondence. Hackett did not return a call to Half Moon Bay Patch by the time of publication. Half Moon Bay Patch has also filed a public records request with the state architect’s office for the district’s building records.

Following Half Moon Bay Patch’s inquiry with the district for the records, Tjogas said that he contacted Hackett’s office on April 6 in regards to obtaining and reviewing the district’s records.

“This is a statewide problem that’s affecting all schools, not just the Cabrillo Unified School District,” Tjogas said. “It would be really nice to have money to get the records on microfiche, but we haven’t been given those funds,” he said.

District Superintendent Rob Gaskill elected not to be interviewed for this story.

Half Moon Bay Patch is continuing to investigate this story and will provide updates as they become available.

This story was produced using data provided to Half Moon Bay Patch by California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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