Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Things Worth Knowing: 12.30.14

Some charity must have shared my name. I have been barraged with new requests to support groups who state similar philosophies and missions. Some have snail mailed me address labels and decals; others have promised calendars and tote bags as a membership benefit. All seem to be worthy causes. ’Tis the season to give, but how to decide which causes are most worthy?

When you are involved in your community, you have a pretty good idea of how local organizations allocate their resources. You may know the executive director, serve on the board, or know others who do.

But how do you gauge the integrity of a national or international organization? How do you differentiate between two charities whose missions, philosophies, and perhaps even names seem so similar? I’m no Grinch, but I want to make sure that any gift I give really counts; I can always buy my own tote bag.

I turn to Charity Navigator to help me make the most of my financial contributions. 

Founded in 2001, Charity Navigator’s team of professional analysts has developed an “unbiased, objective, numbers-based rating system” to evaluate the financial health of over 7,000 of America’s charities. Specifically, Charity Navigator's rating system examines two broad areas of a charity's performance —its Financial Health and its Accountability & Transparency.

Go to Charity Navigator, enter the organization’s name, hit return, and, if it is in Charity Navigator’s databank, you will receive a rating of from 1-4 stars. Then click on the charity name to receive three scores: Overall, Financial, and Accountability and Transparency, followed by detailed information including percentage of donations spent on programs, and the salary of the executive director.

What you discover may surprise you. Of all the requests in my stack, the most highly rated was my local Connecticut Food Bank, with an overall score of a whopping 99.68 (out of 100) followed by the Sierra Club with 97.13 I discovered one of the well-known groups in the pile only scored two stars, with 72% of its budget spent on programs and services vs. 90% or more for the top-rated charities!

There are other useful tools on the site including: A Holiday Giving Guide, Top Ten Lists, 4 Star Charities, CN Watchlist, and Donor Advisories. You can also browse rated charities by category. If you are willing to create a free account, you will have the ability to compare charities.

Charity Navigator is a 501(c)(3), but it is not eligible to be rated since it has not yet filed 7 full years of Form 990s. It relies on donations from users of the site for its operating expenses and is now officially classified as a public charity. You can read more here

I hope this tool helps you navigate your way through the last of your year-end giving. Remember that as long as your credit card is charged in 2014, you can claim the contribution for this year.

Give wisely and well.

Happy 2015!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Meatless Monday: Best Apple Cake Ever

One-half the recipe baked in an 8 x 8 pan
Apple Cake, from the cookbook Simply in Season, by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert, is my goto recipe when I want a no fail cake that serves a lot of people. “Best apple cake ever” was the compliment this cake received when I brought it to a Thanksgiving dinner for which it was baked as a special request for people who might not want pie [!!].

Apples are the main ingredient in this cake; the others are probably in your kitchen cupboard. The apples do not have to be the most beautiful, or even the most crunchy. In fact, this is an excellent way to use up any fruit remaining from your apple picking trips in the fall. 

Here’s the recipe.

Apple Cake 
Serves 12-16

Preheat oven to 350° F
Grease a 9 x 13” pan


Combine in a large bowl
  • 5 cups apples, unpeeled and chopped
  • 1-1/3 cups granulated sugar
Combine in a small bowl
  • 1/2 cup oil [I use canola.]
  • 2 eggs (slightly beaten)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
Combine in a medium-sized bowl
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup unbleached white flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup nuts [Optional. I use walnut pieces.]

  • Stir flour mixture into the apples alternately with egg mixture, beginning and ending with dry ingredients.
  • Pour into baking pan.
  • Bake for 50-60 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. [Note: I would first test at 45 minutes.]
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1/4 cup milk or cream
  • While cake bakes, heat to boiling, stirring occasionally.
  • Remove from heat.
  • Mix in 1/3 cup powdered sugar.
  • Drizzle over hot cake.
[Note: I have been told that if you are watching your carbs, you can omit the topping. But, also note that I have never gone this route.]

Normally I follow the directions and bake one cake in a 9 x 13 inch pan. This time I decided to bake two 8 x 8s — one to include in a gift box and one to keep at my house for a holiday treat. At 40 minutes, a cake tester inserted into the center of each came out clean. I hope my cake travels well!

Cake on a plate, briefly.

Simply in Season was commissioned by Mennonite Central committee to “promote the understanding of how the food choices we make affect our lives and the lives of those who produce the food.” There is a young person’s version as well. Both make excellent gifts. Simply in Season is sold at 10,000 Villages  or online.  

That’s it for today. Happy Meatless Monday. Happy holidays. 

Good health to you, and to the planet.

On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Freebie Friday 12.12.14

Thanks to the CT Master Gardeners’ email list, I have this freebie to share.

Without soil we can't live. In recognition of this fact, the United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of the Soils. 

In honor of world soil day, December 5, 2014, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)  and partners made this beautiful film, Symphony of the Soil, available for free streaming for one week. Today is the last day for you to enjoy this gift. Check it out here.

The FAO site offers this summary of the film: This new documentary by Deborah Koons Garcia, director of The Future of Food, is an artistic exploration of the miraculous substance soil. Filmed on four continents, it gives voice to an amazing cast of soil users : from scientists to farmers, activists to policy makers, historians to entrepreneurs featuring esteemed scientists and working farmers and ranchers. It also highlights possibilities of healthy soil creating healthy plants creating healthy humans living on a healthy planet. 

Visit the Symphony of the Soil site to learn more.

FYI Why a piñata? Just like a blog link, until you open it, you won’t know what’s inside.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Saturday Shorts: Ant Power

Something I read this week brought to mind the song “High Hopes,” the Academy Award-winning theme song of the 1959 film “A Hole in the Head.” The song’s lyrics celebrate the ability of one “little old ant” to “move a rubber tree plant.”

Armies of Ants Keep New York Squeaky Clean,” an article that appeared online in NewScientist Life on December 3, reported that ants and other arthropods remove a significant amount of food litter dropped in New York streets. Researchers from North Carolina State University placed potato chips, cookies, and hot dogs at dozens of sites in Manhattan and discovered that arthropods removed as much as 59 percent of the food within the space of a day! The authors of the study termed the contribution of ants to keeping Manhattan’s streets clean “modest, but notable.”  

Entomologist May Berenbaum, University of Illinois faculty member and recent recipient of the National Medal of Science, was quoted in the article as saying: "Recycling is among the least glamorous of ecosystem services provided by arthropods, and this was a great study highlighting both its magnitude and importance.”

A Google search for the number of ants in the world turned up this estimate: 100 trillion! Just think of the possibilities if we could somehow harness a fraction of that power!

Why Saturday Short Subjects? Some readers may recall  being dropped at the movie theater for the Saturday matinee — two action-packed feature films with a series of short subjects (cartoons or short movies, sometimes a serial cliffhanger) sandwiched in between. Often the short subjects were the most memorable, and enjoyable, part of the morning. That explains the name. The reason behind these particular posts is that we are all short on time. My Short Subject posts should not take me as long to write or you as long to read (or try).

Monday, December 1, 2014

Meatless Monday: Kitchen Tips for the Next Holiday

Thanksgiving 2014 has come and gone, but more holidays loom just ahead on the horizon.

Those of us who cook and bake have only just begun our work.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as we prepare for the next celebration(s).

We should do our best to minimize waste. I have blogged about this before; if you want the statistics on how much food Americans waste each year, I invite you to click on this link

Just before Thanksgiving, Food Day and Interfaith Power and Light shared a guide to sustainable food choices and meal preparation; the tips apply to Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations as well.

Here are a few tips of my own.
  • The water in which you boil a rutabaga (or other root vegetables) makes a great soup base. If you aren’t ready to make soup right away, freeze it for future use.
  • Leftover roasted vegetables (should you be lucky enough to have some) freeze very well when sealed in ziplock freezer bags. I have had particularly good luck with brussels sprouts and mashed butternut squash.

Stock up on locally-grown seasonal ingredients. 
  • Now is the time to buy the last of the locally-grown winter squash. Try to buy squash with the stems attached, and store them in the coolest place in your house. If you don’t have such a spot, cook and store the squash in the freezer.
  • Buy fresh cranberries while you still can. If you are not ready to use them, put the bagged berries into the freezer right away. They will last for months in their original bag; just be sure to rinse them well before preparing them.

And, of course, plan ahead, and do your best to pool your shopping trips.

That’s it for today. Happy Meatless Monday. 

Good health to you, and to the planet.

On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”