Through her work giving children with cancer a safe, fun and healthy place to play at the 4,000 acre Imus Ranch, to the countless green initiatives she's launched at The Deidre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology, Diedre Imus is an eco-force to behold. While it may seem like she has enough on her plate, she'll tell you she's just getting started. Next up? Greening schools, hospitals and even doctors.—Amy Palanjian
What was your eco-awakening, or the point when you first became interested in greening your own life?
It goes back to my childhood. I remember wearing a dress made from the plastic tabs of 6-pack Coke bottles. But at the point, I didn't really understand the impact. Seven years ago when we started the Greening the Cleaning program at the Diedre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology at Hackensack University Medical Center, people didn't know what 'green' meant. When you see statistics like one out of every six kids lives in poverty, one of every six has a neuro-developmental disorder, one out of every eight babies is born premature, when 46 children a day are diagnosed with cancer and you have asthma as a leading chronic illness, you have to wonder what's happening. Especially since these numbers have increased substantially over the past 20-25 years and research has shown that a good 80% or more of these illnesses are from environmental toxins from the products we are exposed to everyday.
Through your work at the Imus Ranch and with The Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology, you work very directly with trying to make life better for kids with cancer, as well as implementing practices that will make their lives healthier. How has this impacted the way that you're raising your own son—or what do you hope he learns by experiencing these situations through and with you?
We all need to be practicing what we're educating, because otherwise it's phony. We make adjustments to how we live everyday, and we acknowledge the reality of the world we're living in, but I'm trying to teach by example. Our son will be 10 in July and he's grown up this way. He's constantly asking questions about the food we eat and about his school. One day he told me that his school smells and that he was feeling nauseous. I found out that they were using chlorine bleach and ammonia to clean the floors, which he hasn't been exposed since we don't use them at home. Since then, we've implemented the Greening the Cleaning program in his school.
Speaking of schools, one of your newest initiatives is helping schools go green. What are some of the reasons that you've decided to devote your resources to schools specifically?
Bottom line: Our kids spend 80% of their time in schools. We launched the Greening the Schools campaign about a month ago, going around the country implementing the program by speaking and educating schools about how to incorporate green habits like recycling. Since most schools renovate when they shut down for the summer, we're teaching them about nontoxic, no VOC paint, nontoxic cleaning products and pest control. And we're showing them how to do this affordably because we know their budgets are tight. We implemented the program at the Hackensack University Medical Center in response to the realization that there was no better way to prove that nontoxic cleaning solutions work as well, if not better than their conventional counterparts, than by doing it on a large scale in the highly scrutinized environment of a hospital. It's been incredibly effective and cost competitive. We've been able to yield a savings of about 15% just by implementing these greener products.
Your second book in the Green This! series, Growing Up Green, is about to be released. Can you tell us a little bit about what we'll find in the book?
I say the book is for anyone with a child from in utero to university. We're essentially giving very comprehensive tools for raising a child in the healthiest way possible in an increasingly toxic environment. I go month-by-month, year-by-year during the growth of the child in terms of what the potential exposures are and what the parents should be conscious of. Some have said it's like the Dr. Spock of the 21st century. And it's knowledge that your mainstream pediatrician isn't qualified to give you, like how to choose a healthy baby bottle, or how to vaccinate your child safely. Throughout the book, there are interviews with leading doctors and scientists, like Dr. Oz and Dr. Larry Rosen.
For parents who want to be more eco-aware in their daily life, but don't know where to start, what are three things that you would recommend they start with?
Starting with the home environment: Change your cleaning products and pest control, which are major contributors to allergies, skin rashes, concentration problems and asthma because a lot of them contain hormone disrupters and neurotoxins. My first book Greening Your Cleaning goes into detail on how to do it. And then look at the food you're eating. Make a list of the foods your family and your kids eat in abundance and make them a priority. Every kid eats a few apples a week and they can be loaded with pesticides, so buy organic apples. If your family eats a lot of cereals, make sure you buy ones with whole grains that don't contain dyes. If you are using a lot of dairy milk, make sure it's organic. If cost is an issue, just make one change for now until you can afford to make the other changes. Even one small change can make a huge improvement to your family's health.
Do you have any green products, whether beauty, home or food related, that you can't live without?
Organic coconut milk. It's an indulgence and it can be expensive, but the benefits are enormous and it's nice to have an alternative to rice and soy milk. There are loads of vitamins in it, and my son and I like to have it with cereals or with smoothies. Just this morning he had a smoothie with coconut milk, yogurt, strawberries and bananas. It's delicious. Like most families, we never have that much time in the morning, so we plan things out ahead of time to make sure we're making our quick snacks healthy and satisfying.
I've heard rave reviews about the food at the Imus Ranch, which you and your husband co-founded as a retreat for kids with cancer. What's a dish that never fails to win over skeptics who may not think vegan food can be delicious?
Sautéed kale. We've had over 700 kids at the ranch and when they are at home, they don't eat kale, or bok choy, or brussel sprouts or beets. We grow the green leafy vegetables in abundance in the greenhouse because they are loaded with anti-cancer properties. The kids pick them out of the garden and then we make them taste good when they get into the kitchen—otherwise they just won't eat them. So for the kale, all we do is sauté it for 2 to 3 minutes in olive oil and a little bit of balsamic vinegar, then add a dab of soy sauce and Himalayan pink sea salt. My son eats bowls of the stuff, though he especially loves it with minced garlic. All of the recipes we put in the cookbook we did a few years ago, The Imus Ranch: Cooking for Kids and Cowboys, were tried and true dishes that almost every kid liked. They love the 'crabby-less' crab cakes made with zucchini and topped with a lemon dill sauce. And the broccoli cheddar bake that we make as an alternative to mac 'n' cheese. It has the crunchiness of a regular mac 'n' cheese from breadcrumbs and the kids always finish it off. They can't believe it's so good and many times they will be in the kitchen writing down the recipes so their moms can make it for them at home. These kids know that when they support their immune system, they are making themselves healthier.
What projects do you have in the works that you're most excited about?
My environmental center has a very strong green building program. We've built the first green hospital, The Sarkis & Siran Gabrellian Women's & Children's Pavillion at the Hackensack University Medical Center. All of the materials that were used structurally are entirely green, like the recycled steel frame and the blue cotton denim insulation. We're now building the first green cancer center in the country, which will be significant because we're also looking to have a green pharmacy and green doctors down the road. We're doing one program at a time and we're trying to get children's health on the agenda of the presidential campaigns because no one's addressing it.