“Where there is dirt there is love.”

March 23, 2016

Composting Recycle Landfill SignCHW LogoSo said my niece Alice as we were planting a tree in memory of her cousin, Finley. Now I’m not one to argue with a 4 year-old with a romantic streak, but I’d put it differently, if more prosaically: where there is dirt there is life. No dirt, no plants, no food – no us. But dirt gets little respect.  Until our language loosened up in the 1960s, “dirty” was the 4-letter modifier of choice: dirty liar, dirty rat, dirty dog, dirty deed.  Today the word seems quite mild, even quaint, but there is still a huge phobia of dirt.

Dirt – the kind you dig in – is nothing more than decayed organic matter.  Leaves fall in autumn, and by the next year they have been miraculously transformed into a rich soil in which the tree’s seeds can germinate and grow.  All kinds of organic material can decompose into soil, including food scraps and paper.  By composting, organic waste becomes dirt; what is useless becomes useful.  As the saying goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure.

Which is why I am excited that Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin just became the first hospital in the Milwaukee area to begin composting its food waste.  Starting in our Seven Sisters café, we will collect unused and uneaten food, paper goods, and compostable food containers.  Our partner is Compost Crusader, a local company that picks up compostable waste and turns it into fertile soil.  It’s a perfect example of the triple bottom line: less waste, better health, lower cost.  Here’s why:

  • When organic matter goes to the landfill, it decomposes anaerobically, generating methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Composting avoids this major contributor to climate change
  • When compost is applied to gardens and farms it reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, which are expensive and environmentally hazardous
  • In part because the compost product can be sold, having food waste removed separately for composting is less expensive than including it in our usual waste stream. At CHW estimate we will save several thousand dollars annually.

Americans generate an estimated 133 billion pounds of food waste easy year.  (No, that’s not a typo.) This is almost 1/3 of all the food produced. Composting can have an enormous positive impact not only on our environment, but ultimately on our health.  So far with our trial we are on track to compost over 10 tons of food waste per year.

Undoubtedly some people will be a bit squeamish about something as dirty-sounding as composting.  But think about it: how much worse is your uneaten pizza crust or unpopped corn kernels in a separate bin than mixed in with everything else?  I’ve been composting at home for decades and if anything, it’s tidier than having unsorted trash.

So when you see the new compost bins and signs, go ahead and pitch in!  We’re starting in one area to get out the kinks, with hopes to eventually expand to all of our food service areas.  It’s better for the earth, better for Children’s, and ultimately better for children.  As Alice would say, go ahead and create some love.


Progress on Disparities

March 9, 2016

CHW LogoDespite its resemblance to a reality TV show, one positive effect of this year’s presidential campaign is that the issue of inequality in our society has been brought to the forefront.  In addition to economic polarization, there are persisting disparities in both health outcomes and the important determinants of health, especially for children and especially in urban areas like Milwaukee.  The vision of the children in Wisconsin being the healthiest in the nation can seem unattainable in the face of such gaps.  So I was especially heartened by a series of articles in the journal Pediatrics from the first few months of 2016, each providing a glimmer of hope that we may be inching closer to the goal of health equity for all children:

  • The prevalence of asthma in the US, which doubled from 1980 to 1995 and continued to increase, with widening racial disparities, has flattened, and the racial difference stopped growing. Moreover, this is being driven primarily by a plateau in the rate of asthma among black children.
  • A study of cigarette taxes over time across the US shows that higher cigarette taxes and prices are associated with a decline in infant mortality rates. This benefit was strongest among African-American infants. (Of note, Wisconsin has one of the highest cigarette taxes in the nation, 11th highest at $2.52 per pack.  New York is the highest at $4.25, while the lowest is Missouri at $0.17.)
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes genital warts and also accounts for the majority of cases of cervical cancer, is now preventable by a vaccine. Although there has been considerable controversy about the vaccine, there has been a 64% decrease in HPV prevalence in 14-19 year old girls following its introduction.  Since HPV disproportionately affects men and women of color, this benefit will be especially great for minorities.  (The HeLa cell line, now widely used in medical research, was obtained unknowingly from a black woman who was treated for and succumbed to cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in the 1950s.   The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks recounts her story and is a fascinating read.)
  • The lasting consequences of adverse childhood events – ranging from poverty to violence to family instability – are increasingly recognized, but little is known about how to mitigate the effects. An intervention among poor minority middle school youth in Baltimore schools demonstrated that mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques led to significant improvements in psychological and behavioral outcomes: less depression, somatization, negative coping, and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

There’s still a lot of work to do to erase the pervasive disparities in our community, but it’s great to get some encouraging news from time to time.


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