About this Blog
I created this blog in 2009 when I began working at the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. My work at this organization opened my eyes to food justice issues in America, and I had a strong desire to better understand the difficulties many people face when trying to access healthy food on a limited budget. So, I embarked on my own Food Stamp Challenge, living on $31/week as a vegan. I used this blog to chronicle my experience.
While my Food Stamp Challenge project has come to an end, you can see what I learned from it by reading the Greatest Hits posts linked to the right side of the page. Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Several months ago I posted about this jarring public health ad campaign.
It shows a bottle of soda being poured into a glass. As the soda pours out it turns into human fat. The poster asks the viewer: "Are you drinking yourself fat?"
Over the holidays I was in New York and got to see the ad for myself.
What do you think of this ad?
Does it gross you out enough to put you off soda?
Got the following text from my best high school friend last night:
Think im eating too much to compensate for feeling inadequate!
This text followed her update to me that a situation with a certain boy had not gone as she'd hoped. I was super impressed that she wrote that down and sent it to me. How many of us know but never admit that we're eating in direct response to our emotions?
When I think of emotional eaters I think of a girl that just got cheated on wolfing down a gallon of Ben and Jerry's while watching Bridget Jone's Diary. So, if I'm not doing that, then I'm not an emotional eater, right?
False. I have been known to eat because I'm bored, to reward myself for something (ironically, that something is sometimes exercise!), even to punish myself for something. Yes. I have certainly eaten junk to "punish" myself for eating junk in a sick guilty cycle. Its that whole "Well, I already fucked up my healthy eating streak... might as well go all the way..." mentality. All too familiar at holiday time! As if I need me to help me make it harder to get back on track after the holidays are over. Alas, sometimes I do it.
Why not just savor the treats in moderation and then stop when I've had enough instead of sliding down that icy slope? I think that in my case it is because guilt gets wrapped up in there and makes me "hate" myself a little bit for eating something I don't think I should eat. Once I get in that "self-hate" mindset, no matter how subtle it is, I am more likely to continue to bring myself down. I feel weak and powerless because I gave into the bad food once, so it is that much easier to do it again.
What would break the cycle?
Probably detaching that guilt and self judgement would help. When I write it out it seems very cruel to admonish oneself for too many Christmas cookies, no? But I know that in a subconscious way, that is my mental process.
The text conversation progressed as follows:
Me - Major step twds stopping is realizing that. I swear therapy has helped me lose weight more than exercise haha
Her - Haha i know. Cheers to drinking water when u feel u want to eat!
Me - or tea!
It is true what I said to my friend. I have been taking much better care of my emotional health in the last 6 months, and it has actually greatly improved my diet and physical health. I am a real believer in the strong bond between spiritual, emotional and physical health. Journal writing, therapy and self love really do do wonders for the body.
Now here is the thing. So far I have been talking about Christmas cookies in my parent's nice comfortable house in New England, or cupcakes at a co-workers birthday. I am talking about my emotional relationship to eating sweets, but I want to add in another element.
What if instead of Christmas cookies I was talking about fast food. And, instead of just eating it myself, I was feeding it to my children. The guilt was not only a matter of the food being tasty but fattening, it was also a matter of money and time. In addition to beating myself up for not having enough self control to resist the fatty indulgence, I might also feel guilty that I do not have the time or the money to feed my children low-calorie, nutritious foods. They rarely get enough vegetables and are both slightly pudgy from the fast food heavy diet. I would not only feel "weak" for giving in to the forbidden food and setting that example for my kids, I would also feel inadequate because I was unable to provide for my children in the way I wanted to. Talk about feeling powerless.
I know that if that were my situation, I would find it pretty hard to scrape my emotions off the linoleum kitchen floor and get myself to a Farmers' Market to buy some raw vegetables to cook, weather or not they accept my Food Stamps. Would I have the confidence to waltz into that market, pick up an unfamiliar vegetable and bring it home to cook?
I love kale, and have recently been experimenting with whatever type of green (collards, mustard, turnip, or good old kale) is the cheapest.
TIP: shop for your greens 15 minutes after your Farmers' Market is scheduled to close. Most farmers will be trying to get rid of those greens fast and will be willing to give you a good deal!
This week I had collards, and found a recipe in my new cookbook - Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant. (Thank you Santa, aka, Mom.)
The recipe was very simple but it called for something I'd never encountered: Hot Pepper Vinegar.
As it turns out, Hot Pepper Vinegar is quite simple to make.
You could make it just by looking at the picture. In case you want the proportions, here is Moosewood's recipe:
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 tsp - 1 tblsp (depending on your spicy tolerance) hot sauce
You can also mix in some cayenne to taste
In a cruet or glass jar, combine the vinegar and hot pepper sauce and cayenne to taste. Shake it up! Hot Pepper Vinegar keeps indefinitely, refrigerated or not.
I'm putting mine in the fridge just in case. Makes for some easy, flavorful greens and I want it to stick around for awhile.
To make my greens:
Saute 1 onion or shallot in a little bit of olive oil in a big pot.
Add some garlic.
Put in your well washed greens, roughly chopped. (You should soak greens first to remove any dirt or grit, then rinse them off in a strainer before chopping.)
Pour a bit of water and some hot pepper vinegar over the greens and cover to let them steam. The amount of liquid you add depends on the quantity of greens you are cooking.
I sprinkled some rubbed sage on my greens at the end.
Optional, but tasty.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Apparently not, according to this article in yesterday's LA Times:
More than a dozen major companies pledged to push healthier foods two years ago, but study found ads for sugary cereals, fast food and sweet snacks made up more than 70% of the total.
This articles tells us that despite agreements several years ago, 70% of the advertisements targeting children during the period studied are for fast food or sugary snacks.
Ok. So, kids are getting an overload of information persuading them to eat these unhealthy foods.
What about the information about health, nutrition, and sustainable lifestyle choices?
Are there commercials persuading them to eat whole greens and plenty of vegetables?
How about extensive programs in their schools educating them about the basics of eating well, and cooking vegetables?
Not last time I checked.
What continues to concern me, is how much of what most Americans know about nutrition comes from advertisements. Nutrition and health education in American public schools are not arming people with the knowledge they need to make good decisions about what they put into their bodies. And, given the findings of this study that is really cause for concern.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
December 7, 2009, 7:37 pm THE EDITORS
A recent article in The Times by Jason DeParle and Robert Gebeloff detailed the effects of the soaring dependence on government food stamps in the United States. The social stigma of using them has faded, the Times writers found, yet judgments are still made.
If people buy fresh vegetables or other relatively expensive though nutritious foods, they are considered to be living high on the hog at the taxpayers’ expense. But if they buy cheap foods like hot dogs they are criticized for poor health habits.
Despite these common complaints, does the system work? Are the current rules fair in regulating what people can buy and not buy? Or should the requirements be changed? Should un-nutritious products like soda be banned? Is there a better way to distribute free food and promote nutrition in this country?
Click on the title to go to the original page and see what other food policy experts and Bloggers have to say.
What I am really excited about is the heated comments section that follows this piece. What a great discussion it generated!
Sunday, December 6, 2009
I have drawn the comparison between smoking and unhealthy eating before in this blog and I found an interesting new study that compares the two in this week's Los Angeles Times.
I am always thinking about what we can learn from the problem of Smoking in America. At one point, smoking was the biggest public health concern in our country. Just like we see with the food industry today, tons of large and powerful tobacco corporations had a lot at stake. There were major profits involved, but alarming numbers of people were dying.
This week, I found an article in the Los Angeles Times that really startled me.
In her article, Rising Obesity Rates Imperil Health Gains, Jeannine Stein explains that while the decrease in smoking over the past few decades has increased the average American's life expectancy, recent increases in body mass index have actually decreased the life expectancy enough to make for a net life expectancy reduction.
This is a short article, and I recommend reading it through.
This is a big deal.
What it says to me is that obesity and poor diet are enough of an issue in America right now to demand a bit more attention than they're getting.
Just think of everything that we've done to discourage and educate people about the dangers of smoking:
- We've put out massive anti-smoking PSA advertisement campaigns.
- We've flooded our schools with education programs to prevent our children from starting this deadly habit early.
- We've banned these hazardous substances from school grounds, from restaurants, and many public spaces.
- We've taxed the hell out of them to discourage people from buying them.
- We've sued the corporations that push these substances in billion dollar class action lawsuits to get a little payback for the costly harm their product has produced for our society and to our health care system.
- We've created aids from gum and patches to step by step programs and support groups to help people break their addiction and get their health back on track.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Monday, November 30, 2009
While we were all chowing down on mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie this weekend, the University of Chicago released a new study about the rise of Diabetes in America. Get a load of this:
2009 - 23.7 Million people in America have Diabetes 2034- 44.1 Million people in America are projected to have Diabetes according to this study.
It is no surprise that with the prediction that the number of cases of Diabetes will nearly double, comes the prediction that spending on Diabetes care will also increase. The study estimates that by 2034, spending on Diabetes care will TRIPLE to about $336 Billion.
Meanwhile, the United States Senate returns from their Thanksgiving recess to debate the greatly anticipated Health Care Bill. Of course, the financial aspects of the bill are of great concern to all parties - how much will it cost in the short term? How much will it save us down the road? Can we afford to wait any longer?
Well, I sure hope those Senators caught CNN's story about this University of Chicago study. Here is a great quote. Really, my favorite:
"It is estimated that if we could control diabetes we could save $217 Million dollars PER YEAR in health care costs."
And here is another one.
"What do we have to do to slow this increase in Diabetes cost and prevalence?" the News Anchor asks the reporter.
The reporter replies, "You know, there is nothing mysterious here. We're talking diet and exercise."
Now, I have proudly watched my mom get her pre-Diabetes condition turned around with some healthy diet and lifestyle changes in the last year. It wasn't easy, but she's doing it, so I know that it is possible! [Click here to read a previous post in which my mom wrote in about this experience.]
The big thing here is that if we are really going to ask people to do their part to help save our health care system (not to mention our economy and our planet) by changing their habits to avoid diabetes, we need to make it a bit easier on them.
- Money: Good healthy food needs to be affordable. Maybe we could shift some of the federal subsidies from corn and soy and big farm production to make fresh local produce more affordable for a change?
- Knowledge: People need to learn about health, food and cooking from informed and objective sources, not food advertisements. Maybe we could education people about nutrition in school so that they can make empowered decisions at the grocery store or (better yet) Farmers' Market?
- Support: Healthy habits and life style changes must be rewarded and supported in our communities and our work places. What if you got an extra 15 minutes for your lunch break if you used that time to take a brisk walk outside? What if you saved money on your health care co-pays if you lost weight or got control of your Diabetes?
Sunday, November 29, 2009
With food stamp use at record highs and climbing every month, a program once scorned as a failed welfare scheme now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Japanese eggplant is very cheap at the Asian Grocery Mart and also at the Farmers' Markets in my neighborhood, and I recently came up with an interesting recipe to share.
One thing about living alone and having a looser food budget (around $50/week now, including a cheap meal out!) now is that I am much more willing to really experiment with food. I am coming up with crazy combinations like this one:
(Seriously. Just hear me out.)
In a bowl combine several teaspoons of olive oil, several teaspoons of balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon of curry powder and mix well.
Toss the eggplant in the above mixture until it is all covered.
Put eggplant in a pan to roast, but before you put it in the oven drizzle honey over it.
Pop it in the oven at about 425 degrees for 30-45 minutes.
Monday, November 23, 2009
If the video doesn't work well for you within my blog, view it directly by clicking here.
It was great to work with Shawn on this video. He does fantastic renegade philanthropy all over the world, and he recently landed in LA. Check out more of Shawn's adventures on his YouTube Channel.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Today, I went to the Hollywood Farmers' Market to get my week's groceries, and I had an incredible impromptu cooking lesson from a man selling beets.
I walked up to his stand to buy some beets, planning to roast them as usual.
I noticed that he had samples. "So, are these roasted?" I asked. "No," he answered, "raw."
Hm. I popped one in my mouth.
He'd used a traditional combination from Mexican cuisine in a way I have never encountered before: lime juice, salt and paprika on thinly sliced BEETS. On mango, ok, I might expect this combo. It is very common in the fruit stands all over Los Angeles. But, BEETS? Unexpected and incredibly delicious.
I ran home and made my own version of this Mexican Beet Salad just a few hours ago.
Here are the directions:
- Wash beets thoroughly
- Peel off the skin
- Slice them as thinly as possible
- Squeeze lime juice all over them, making sure to toss them in the juice so that they are fully covered in citrus-y goodness. For 3 beets I used 3 limes, but number of limes will vary depending on how juicy your limes are.
- Sprinkle paprika and salt to taste
- Party in your mouth!
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
My partner for Fall semester was my good friend Dave. Dave just moved to London after spending a year in San Francisco, and last night he sent me the following email "P.S.":
Hey - I totally forgot one of the other things I was contacting you about. I am trying to eat healthier and thought you would be a good person to ask for some input. I am having a hard time cooking for myself every night when I get home from work and a long commute - whenever I am tired/lazy I tend to resort to not as good food. Started making a fair amount of salads etc, but was wondering if you had any staple foods, meals etc that you like/resort to. I don't plan to go completely vegetarian but I don't think that should matter. I have been to a couple farmer's markets, but I can tell you it's definitely not California anymore so your local produce knowledge might not be too applicable. Anyway, any input that you might have would be greatly appreciated. Talk to you soon. Hope you are doing well.
Wow, Dave, you asked the right person.
I too am struggling with the balance of money, time and health. When I was doing the On Food Stamps challenges I felt like every waking minute was devoted to cooking or getting food. I had no time for socializing, exercising or painting/crafting. Now that things have calmed down a bit, I have found some really great foods that make it possible for me to eat well on a budget without spending all of my time cooking.
Here are a few suggestions:
Lentils are my best friend. I buy a week's worth of lentils for less than $2 and have found a million ways to cook them. Lentils work well with any of the following:
- curry or other traditional Indian spices
- coconut milk
- lemon, lime or any other flavorful citrus juice
- diced tomatoes in a can
2. DEPENDS HOW YOU CUT IT...Cut down on prep time by watching how you cut your food.
Working veggies like zucchini, eggplant or squash into the meal can be a real time drain if you try to chop the veggies into small pieces. Tonight I experimented with cutting large chunks of zucchini instead of small circles and it worked out great. By minimizing prep time you can create meals much faster.
Cutting pieces as you see above required only 2 cuts per zucchini rather than the 15-20 cuts required to cut the zucchini into even little circles. Major time saver!
3. OVEN vs. STOVE
Stove top cooking tends to require a lot of stirring and prep work. Baking or roasting dishes in the oven can be a lot easier. In most cases you can pop something in the oven and do other things while your meal cooks. And by the way, I am using the term "oven" loosely. If you don't have a working oven don't worry, I don't either! I have a great little toaster oven that I use for all of my baking and roasting. Since I am cooking for one person these days, the smaller oven really makes sense. I got the little toaster oven pictured below for free at a tag sale, and it has really been an awesome addition to my kitchen.
I suggest the following:
- SQUASH: Not sure about London, but the winter months in my corner of the world mean squash and root vegetables galore. I have found that cutting a butternut or acorn squash in half, drizzling some olive oil over it, adding some cracked pepper and popping it in the toaster oven takes less than 10 minutes. I can forget about this squash for an hour, and when I return it is ready to eat. Sometimes I put it in the fridge and save it for breakfast or lunch the next day.
- ROASTED VEGGIES: Similarly, I recommend getting comfortable with roasting vegetables. All it takes is a glass dish, and a little olive oil and basil over chopped potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, carrots and onions. Throw in some cherry tomatoes as well! I roast my veggies at around 450 degrees until they seem soft enough, usually 40 minutes or so.
This is a bummer. I love salad, but when I'm pressed for time I just can't make them, and I think that Dave is asking a lot of himself when he turns to salads for a healthy meal. Washing lettuce and chopping veggies takes a lot of time. Salads also tend to be pretty expensive to make - mixed greens are costly. I've had success lately roughly chopping veggies such as jicama, cucumber or carrots (any veggie that tastes good raw is great) and drizzling homemade dressings over them. I make dressings with oils and vinegar, soy sauce, mustard, herbs and fruit juices.These chopped raw vegetable concoctions are much like salad, but they incorporate cheaper produce and take me less time to prepare.
5. DESIGNATE 1 DAY PER WEEK FOR COOKING
It is really hard to get home from work and cook every night. I have found that establishing a "cooking day" each week is key to preparing cheap and healthy meals.
Sunday is my day, and I really look forward to it. On any Sunday around 4pm you will find me wearing an apron and dancing around my kitchen to great music. Most likely there are beets or squash medleys in the oven, lentils simmering in a pot, and broccoli or zucchini steaming away in garlic and spices all at once. I usually cook enough food for at least 75% of my week's meals during my Sunday cooking session. Its almost as if I make my own "TV Dinners" in a sense.
I rely heavily on my army of Tupperware containers to carry my pre-prepared meals to work. This system works out fantastically for me because once I am cooking one dish it doesn't take too much more effort to put a pot of lentils on the stove or pop some veggies into the oven to roast at the same time. Using containers to separate the cooked food into meal size quantities also helps me control my portions. It is all about being economical with your time.
Does anyone else have any food prep time saving techniques to suggest to Dave?
Special thanks to Karoline Dehnhard submitting a great recipe.
As any penny-pinching health nut would know, letting produce go bad in the fridge is no good. In fact, it is forbidden in my apartment. Karoline made an awesome soup out of what was left in her fridge. Check it out!
A note from Karoline:
To me, the point of making soup is to use up food that might otherwise go bad. My leftovers in this case are broth, pinto beans, my last broccoli stalk and some spinach. The rest of the ingredients should be available in all active kitchens as they keep well.
Try adding miso paste to create a flavorful broth. Or, get in the habit of saving the water you use to steam veggies for "Whats in the Fridge" soups. I know I used the last of my carrot water from last week tonight, and it made the my dinner more flavorful. Using leftover homemade veggie broth also incorporates more nutrients into your meals.
I love Karoline's use of random left overs. It is very On-Food-Stamps of her. Feel free to tell me about your creative use of left overs in the comment box.
Here is Karoline's Recipe:
What’s in the Fridge Soup with Turmeric
4 cups broth*
1 celery stalk
2 carrots (outer layer scraped off with knife)
1 broccoli stalk
hot peppers to taste (Karoline grew these peppers herself in a little pot over the summer.)
2 garlic cloves
handful of pasta (could add rice or another leftover grain)
handful fresh spinach leaves
1 cup leftover pinto beans
turmeric to taste
parmesan cheese (optional), salt and pepper if needed
Preparation time: 1 to 1 1/2 hours, Servings: 4-5
- Start heating your 4 cups broth (cover pot with lid)
- Chop 1 celery stalk, 1 potato and slice 1 onion and add to pot
- Chop 2 carrots and add. When broth comes to a boil, reduce to simmer and leave a little opening for the steam to escape.
- Chop broccoli stalk and add to pot (everything but the tough outer layer of stalk)
- Thinly slice hot peppers and add to pot (turn heat up if necessary to simmer)
- Chop garlic and add to pot along with a handful of pasta
- Sit down and relax for 5 minutes and then do a taste test
- Add handful of spinach leaves (optional: chopping might make eating easier!)
- Add water if needed (I added 1/2 cup)
- Add 1 cup leftover pinto beans
- Add turmeric (try 1/4 tsp at a time)
*the extra flavoring you might need will depend on what is in your broth. If you have no broth, you can use water and add flavoring as needed.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
The waitress in me can't believe I'm writing this post, but here it is.
Now that the extreme Food Stamp Challenge days are over I am back to the normal flow of going out occasionally to eat with friends. However, my budget is still very tight, so I'm really conscious of money while eating out, even if it is at the $7.99/per entree Indian food place. (Young, Broke and Fabulous. Yes.)
At the same time I have conversed with many of my women friends about our mutual desire to eat well and keep our portions under control. What is interesting is how often "Seriously. You've got to help me stick with it this time. I really want to lose weight and eat better." leads to ordering another round of drinks and asking to see the dessert menu while everyone moans about being too full.
Why do we do this?
What is with the weird binge-guilt dynamic that so many of us engage in around the table?
I think much of this is a part of our cultural relationship to food. In Arianna Huffington's book On Becoming Fearless, she touches on this topic in a section called "Stop the War with Food". She compares her food-centered Greek upbringing, which featured lots of fresh seasonal produce, olive oil and gastronomic pleasure to our food culture in America:
Either way, finding a healthy and moderate way to indulge one's desire for pleasure seems like the answer to this troubling pattern so many of us know too well.
This weekend I had one such experience, and it really merits unpacking. My friend Stacey and I agreed to meet up for a hike and then some sort of meal. I really needed to save money, so I suggested we either just have coffee after the hike or split something if we did decide to eat. We agreed on that idea, so the expectations were already set before we met up. Despite the fact that we started our hike with a conversation about our efforts to be healthier, in my sweaty post-hike glory I found myself tempted to suggest we order our own Vegetarian Breakfast Burritos. But, given the fact that we'd already established we were going to split something I felt really awkward about suggesting that we each get our own, and I stuck to the deal.
I walked in to order. One Vegetarian Breakfast Burrito, cut in half, please. Total: $7.00 + tax.
Splitting the Burrito only saved me about $4, but that is an important price point in my money-conscious brain. If I'm spending less than $5 on a meal it feels fine (more like a coffee than a meal, really). It is fine, actually. Once I hand over a Hamilton I feel like I am really spending something. The decision to split the food was certainly an important one from the money standpoint. I felt free of guilt when I paid.
I will admit, my half of the Burrito looked pretty small when I brought it back to the table and sat down. In my brain I briefly wished again that I had my own food, and I think Stacey did too. Once I finished eating though, I really felt fine and satisfied after about 10 minutes. It took a few minutes once the food was gone to feel that pleasant satiation feeling, but there it was.
Normally I leave a meal out with a friend feeling slightly too full and guilty about the food, the money, or both. I walked away from the split Breakfast Burrito experience extremely happy and light. So here is my suggestion: SPLIT IT.
Next time you go out, see if you can agree to split the entree with a friend and order way less food than you think you need. I'd love to hear how it works out for you.
Just don't forget to leave the waitress a fat tip.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
My new cubicle mate Wendy and I have established a great rapport: we're both trying to eat better, and we're both working within pretty tight food budget constraints. It helps that we are both very open to trying new foods. We're always trading recipes and bites during lunch, and I think this supportive atmosphere is really helping me stick with eating well.
This week, Wendy copied a recipe for me.
Baked veggie casserole courtesy of a magazine she picked up while waiting for the bus. I'll report back once I make it.
She also got me talking about flavoring water. Drinking water is an important part of wellness and appetite control. But, sadly, water can be boring. Wendy made me lemon water at work this week.
Other things that make water Fabulous:
- Frozen fruits (I'm a fan of black cherries)
- Mint (cheap and GREAT!)
Here's a close up so you can make it yourself.
- Slice up the carrots and boil them until they are super soft.
- Take them out of the pot and set them aside. Save the carrot water!
- Put a few tablespoons of oil in the pot and start sauteing the ginger. Add some onions and garlic if you like!
- Once that gets going, I bust out the blender and potato masher.
- Put some of the carrots in the pot with the oil and ginger and mash them up.
- Put the rest of the carrots into the blender, adding enough of that carrot water you saved to allow the blender to work up a good orange swirl. The liquid to solid ratio is up to you.
- I also had some left over roasted spaghetti squash on hand. I recommend adding a little bit of some thing besides carrot to your soup. Try a potato, an apple, or a roasted squash. Simply cook the extra ingredient (bake the apple!) and put it in the blender to add some variety to the carrot-y-ness.
- Once you get enough pureed carrot (and squash, or apple, or whatever you add) from the blender, add that to the roughly mashed carrots in the pot.
- Add the curry, basil, and coconut milk.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
There is a new person working next to me these days. Her name is Wendy, and we share a cubicle. We both only have 30 minutes for lunch each day, so we tend to eat at our respective cubicles. (Grumble. I know. That is bad.) Since we are right next to each other we are always seeing what the other is eating.
Wendy paid me an incredible compliment recently.
She came in to work in the morning and she said, "Julie, I thought about you when I was buying groceries this weekend. I thought, 'She always eats healthy.' Look, I brought carrots today."
Wow. Now that is awesome. Looks like I did, indeed, Lead a Meal Time Revolution. Hell. Yes.
From here on out this blog is going to record my experience with the American Food Revolution and my real-time quest to eat better. (I put that whole "American Food Revolution" thing in caps in an effort to will it into existence. I'm rooting for the movement for better food to gain enough momentum that it deserves an all caps title. Looks pretty good like that, don't you think?) The posts may not be as frequent and I won't be doing extreme food challenges. But, the way I see it, I'm living my own real life food challenge every day. My budget it still tight - I cannot afford to spend much more than $50 a week on food. I am still searching for ways to get healthier and eat in a sustainable way without breaking the bank. And, I still have a lot to say about food culture in America.
What I want to focus on now is that fact that I am not alone. In my office, in my circle of friends, at my neighborhood Farmers' Market... people around me share these goals. I'll be writing about my adventures with food and my interactions with others who are on the same page, starting with me and my cubicle mate, Wendy.
Monday, September 7, 2009
The summer has ended, and my blog project is coming to an end.
Since May I have learned a great deal about access to nutritious food. I feel that this project barely scratched the surface on the issues it discussed, and I am now looking forward to exploring new ideas and projects on the same theme.
I am working, for example, with the manager of my local Farmers' Market on a CSA/Market Basket type program to increase access to Farmers' Market produce for everyone in my neighborhood. I will continue to blog about these follow-up projects intermittently on this page, so stay tuned for monthly updates if you wish!
Through the On Food Stamps blog I have had a good fortune to connect with tons of other people who are doing great projects about food access, too. I have linked many of them on the right side of this blog. One of my favorites is Mother Connie's Food Stamp Cooking Club.
Mother Connie is a retired Senior Citizen living on a limited Social Security income. She does not qualify for federal food programs such as SNAP/Food Stamps, WIC or the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. Gas to drive to her "local" food pantry, Angel Food Ministries, is prohibitively expensive. As you can imagine, Mother Connie lives on a pretty tight food budget. But, she also loves to cook so she didn't let her limited budget get her down. As she became increasingly skilled at eating well on the cheap, Mother Connie thought about others in her community that might be in a similar situation.
"I was concerned," Mother Connie wrote to me "about those people who believed that they could maintain a life with Ramen noodles." So, Mother Connie developed a website devoted to educating people about how to prepare healthy meals with little income. Her project grew to incorporate a cooking class which has really brought people in her community together around healthy food in a great learning environment - Mother Connie's small and charming kitchen!
I really admire Mother Connie's work. It is a testament to the fact that all of us can do something in our communities - be it at the family dinner table, the break room at work, or our entire city - to help the movement towards healthy, sustainable eating gain momentum.
September is Hunger Action Month, and I am asking everyone who has been following my blog project to accept my passing of the torch. As I bring my project to a close, I am asking each and every one of you to accept my challenge: Make a commitment to do something in your sphere of influence to keep the momentum going.
You don't have to be Michael Pollan, you don't have to produce a film like Food Inc. You don't have to be Michelle Obama and plant a vegetable garden. You don't even have to do a food stamp challenge. There are plenty of ways to influence the people around you in a positive way when it comes to food, even if your budget is tight.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Shop at your local Farmers' Market.
- Just ask: When you do go to the chain grocery store, ask the employees about the produce you see there. Where was it grown? What types of sprays or pesticides were used? Most likely they will have no idea, even if you ask for the store manager. The important part is that you are expressing the fact that you, as a consumer, care about these questions. CREATE THE DEMAND for healthier, locally grown products in your chain grocery market. We'll never get the things we want if we don't ask for them.
- Improve your diet: Eat more vegetables, and keep your portions small. Anything you do to eat better will be noticed by the people around you and it will create the right kind of social pressure, as we've discussed throughout this blog.
- Eat healthy dinners with your friends or family. Make it an event. Enjoy preparing food together, and invest some time and money into what you are putting into your body.
- Tweet, post, or link anything that gets you thinking about food in a positive way. In this age of social media, each and every one of us is a self publisher. You may not have a website or blog of your own, but do you have a Facebook news feed or a Twitter account? Use it to get a conversation going about sustainable food!
In the meantime I am signing off for awhile. Thank you for following my blog. I couldn't have done this project without your comments and support.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
I have calmed down from yesterday's rant about dieting shortcuts.
I might even be singing a different tune. Well, slightly.
This evening was full of food conflict. I got home late. I wanted something healthy, mostly vegetables. However, I really really didn't want to cook. I wanted to read and meditate and write in my journal. I was in the mood for some higher level activities, some genuine spiritual evolution, not hours in the kitchen. Hm. Healthy fast food? No, I was too broke to hit up the Whole Foods salad bar or anything of that sort.
So, I sucked it up and spent an hour chopping and cooking. It wasn't enjoyable. I felt rushed. I just wanted to get it over with so I could do the things I wanted to do. I honestly felt that cooking tonight was holding me back somehow from pursuing much more important tasks. It felt primitive.
It got me thinking about what hunting and gathering must have been like for Homo sapiens living on the verge of the first Agricultural Revolution. Think about that for a second. Imagine being an upright walking hunter-gatherer with an ever increasing amount of brain function. You're cranial abilities call you to develop a written language, study the astrological calendar, build permanent dwellings, develop religions and civilizations... but you aren't quite there yet. Every member of your species still has to spend nearly every waking hour acquiring food like the rest of the animals. Imagine what it must have been like to live through any part of that slow Neolithic transition from nomadic to sedentary civilization.
While the transition was slow and complex, the development of agriculture was a huge part of man's evolution at this stage. It allowed for surplus time which led to specialization of labor and increasilying sophistocated societies, for one thing. At that point in time, "faster food" was a major asset to man's evolution.
Flash back to me in the kitchen. I'm chopping. I'm cutting. I'm 10 pounds overweight. I wish I was reading and increasing my brain power. I wish I was free to develop in more sophistocated ways. Faster food would have been a real asset to my personal evolution.
Am I in the middle of another evolutionary food crossroads for humanity?
Gone are the days, in America at least, in which taking in enough calories to survive is a challenge. Instead, I am surrounded by cheap, fast, incredibly calorie dense foods. As a human trying to acquire food in 2009, I am faced with a perplexing situation. Food choices that match up with my animal instinct to maximize calories and keep the cost of acquiring those calories low are everywhere. As far as the primitive Homo sapien in me is concerned, McDonald's is a really good deal.
Lots of calories at a low cost.
"Bingo," says the primitive being inside of me.
That is when the evolved being inside of me speaks up. It brings my awareness to the fact that those calorie dense foods are actually harming my body. Unfortunately, as calorie dense food has become cheaper and easier to get, I have become more sedentary and need less and less of it to thrive. I don't hunt for a living anymore. I sit in a chair. Hopefully, my brain has developed enough to internalize that fact and respond with more self control. Hopefully, my brain is sophistocated enough to turn down the animal voice inside of me that wants more fats and sugars, and turn up the voice of higher brain functioning. Let's be honest, many Americans (myself included sometimes) feel stuck in that primitive place where we know what our bodies need and don't need, but we can't seem to intellectually overpower the physical cravings for harmful, calorie dense foods.
In my better moments I transcend the calorie craving animal inside of me and think even bigger. I tap into that part of myself that is really educated, that has even become mentally sophistocated enough to grasp the impact that my food acquisition methods have on the rest of my environment. If I am really on, I might move beyond the battle of self control to the desire to be a benevolent force in the universe, to make sure my food choices weren't contributing to pollution or the exploitation of other living creatures.
But lets face it, evolutionarily speaking, most Americans don't seem to be there yet. I know that I certainly don't always eat as a highly evolved human, and I write a blog about sustainable food access. That certainly says something, don't you think?
I admit it. I had a spoonful of Nutella with Peanut Butter before I wrote this post. The calorie craving animal in me took over, God damn it! I just couldn't be bothered thinking about the production of Nutella, and how much fossil fuel was spent shipping that vat of sugar and chemicals to their spot in front of me on the counter. All I could think about was the sweet flavor of Nutella on my tounge.
My spiritual evolution it still young and fragile, and it failed. Then my intellectual evolution failed. Then, finally, my self control also failed.
So, faced with the consequences of this all too common pattern of human behavior (Need I say it? An obesity epidemic, a collapsing health care system, an industrial agriculture system that is raping the pilaging the environment... yada yada yada...), what do we do?
Do we accept that self control and highly evolved eating habits are just beyond most of us right now and develop a mechanism to correct for this limitation? Humans are really good at recognizing our limitations and building tools to overcome them, after all. That is what separates us from most animal species.
I'm thinking futuristic, space-age food solutions here: an iPhone application (50 years from now, when iPhone technology has become as basic in America as running water) that measures exactly how many calories we need in a day given our activity level. The technological application communicates with our fridge, via USB cord maybe, and out pops a meal with the appropriate level of calories. This meal was produced in an incredibly efficient and sustainable way. All the veggies in the meal were grown on the roof of our home, for example.
In this futuristic world of carefully prescribed sustainable food solutions, we wouldn't have to have self control, and we wouldn't have to spend time on food. Ever. Instead, humans would spend time on spiritual evolution and intellectual growth. We'd invent things that helped our planet thrive in harmony with other species and with other planets in the solar system. We'd be highly evolved creatures.
Not a bad sci-fi vision, if you ask me. The only problem is that in the above system, all of the sensuality is taken out of food preparation. Although, given the fact that Americans spend about $1 billion on fast food every year, maybe that wouldn't bother most of the population that much after all.
Part of me screams, "No! No! Don't take away cooking. Food production is an essential sensory human experience, like sex. It helps us connect with our most basic physical needs. It is essential to our awareness of our bodies!"
But, then I wonder - did primitive man feel that way about hunting?
Monday, August 24, 2009
Looks like the good people of Herbalife were kind enough to pay my little car a visit today while I was at work. Thanks, guys. I was looking for a path to Good Nutrition. I bet your overly priced vitamin supplements are just what I have been looking for.
Before I got home and started Googling, my biggest problem with Herbalife was that it was a product that advertised itself as being a "natural" miracle weight loss solution. I know that getting healthy and losing weight is hard, and I am suspicious of anything that promises incredible results with no effort or sustainable lifestyle changes.
These types of products really play into our collective denial about health in America. We want our food to be fast, cheap, and easy, and that system makes us fat. Once we are fat, we want our health solutions to be fast and easy at least. Herbalife is exactly the type of product that perpetuates the dangerous denial we are in - most of us can't seem to admit that sustainable health solutions require us to commit to healthy lifestyle changes and maintain them.
That was how I felt about Herbalife before I started Googling.
I soon realized that in addition to perpetuating unhealthy shortcuts, Herbalife seems to be quite a scam. A child of the web 2.0 generation, I have no problem judging things based on the words that my Google search query associates with them. So, when I typed in "Herbalife" and found that Google offered me secondary words like "scam" and "complaints" I became even less of a fan of Herbalife. While some people on message boards swear by it, it sounds like a house of cards to me. A really unhealthy house of cards.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
This week I have been doing a lot of my eating with people I love. I am thinking more about how the energy that goes into food preparation affects our bodies, and about the social dynamics of healthier eating.
Last night I was out with a group of close friends, and the conversation took a turn that is particularly relevant for this blog.
We began talking about the similarities between quitting smoking and quitting eating crappy food. I have made the comparison between poor eating and smoking before in the context of voluntary behaviors that cost our health care system a good deal of money. In this case, we were talking about the "tipping point" when choosing not to engage in a unhealthy behavior (like smoking or eating a gallon of ice cream) changes completely. At a point it stops being about holding yourself back and resisting doing something you are craving to do, and it starts being about listening to how your body feels and actually being grossed out the by unhealthy behavior.
Getting to this point clearly takes some effort. You have to slow down, and you have to listen to your body. Those are two things that many Americans find hard to do, especially in the context of food. We are really attached to the idea that food is quick, cheap, and easy. Listening to our body after we eat it would require a change in our food culture, which tends to revolve around packaged food eaten on the fly.
Stacey said, "I keep hearing that how you eat is almost as important as what you eat."
Hm. The conversation was getting good. We all decided to go for another round of the $3 Syrah and dig a little deeper.
My friend Tera was in Paris last year, and she made the inevitable comparison between how Americans eat and how the French eat. One thing she said she noticed while in France was that the food seemed to be alive. People interacted with it in a really special way. They made it for each other with fresh, live ingredients. They ate it slowly, and often with their hands. The food and the food experience was all about life.
In America, she said, food arrives in front of us in a package, like a carcass. It is a dead, scientifically modified and factory produced product. Listening to that comparison, I had flashes of the type of futuristic nightmare world you read about in sci-fi books: food looks like astronaut ice cream. It only comes in a box. Maybe even just as a pill. Wow. All of a sudden the current American packaged food system seemed a bit like a horrific sci-fi book to me.
Who produced that sci-fi looking packed food? No one seems to know.
What kind of energy went into the production of that food? We started to discuss the difference between packaged food and food made by someone who loves us. We all seemed to agree that food that was alive with the energy of loving preparation was much better than the factory produced alternative.
Everyone knows this is true. The idea that "mom's home cooking" is the best food there is is pervasive in America, ironically. We all agree with this fact, but instead of looking to our mom's to cook and teach us how to eat we have begun looking to companies like Stouffers that market "home made family style macaroni and cheese - just like mom's!" Trust me, if the link between mom's home cooking and quality wasn't heavily ingrained in the American mindset, Stouffer's a similar companies wouldn't have bothered to hijack it.
The trouble is, Stouffer's type food is not just like moms. It wasn't prepared by someone who loves us. It was prepared in a factory by people who have no problem making us fat. It was made with tons of weird ingredients. It was frozen and shipped across the country. It isn't particularly healthy for us, but it is engineered to make us want more after we finish eating it.
Some might think this point is too abstract, but I think the energy that went into the preparation of food is a pretty big deal because it impacts how we consume the food as well. When someone makes us something with love, we eat it with love. We eat it slowly, we express gratitude for the food, and we focus on it while we are putting it into our mouths. That level of presence in the moment while eating leads us to register what we have eaten and therefore eat more sensible portions.
At the close of our conversation, my friend and I vowed to start eating dinner together on Sunday nights. We have decided that we are all in agreement that the energy that goes into food preparation is really important. We are all trying to be healthier, and we all want to support each other in this effort with some healthy pot-luck dinners full of lovingly prepared food.
Monday, August 17, 2009
My own efforts in the last 6 months to eat really well have certainly illustrated to me just how much our diets are effected by the eating habits of the people we surround ourselves with. The social dynamics of the food environment are a huge part of the healthy eating equation.
This week, my own experience is reinforced by yet another study linking social environments to food consumption. The August issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition released a study that looked at children's eating behaviors when paired with friends or strangers with varying body types. Here is what the researchers found:
Results showed that friends who ate together consumed more food than participants who were paired with someone they didn't know, and that friends were more likely to eat similar amounts than participants paired with a stranger.
Most human beings, unfortunately, take their cues about when to stop eating from their external social environment and not from their bodies. It is a lot easier to pig out on a pint of Ben & Jerry's with a friend who is doing the same than it is with a friend who eats only salads. It is not surprising, really, that kids who ate in the company of obese peers wound up consuming more food. Something about the obese peer, be it their eating habits during the study or their size, made these kids feel ok about eating more calories.
These findings really underscore the importance of the right kind of social pressure in the quest for healthy, sustainable, and affordable food. The message is clear: in order to eat better, we need positive role models to send us the right social clues. And, all of us have a duty to become better role models to the people in our lives by improving our own dietary habits.
Last Monday the LA Times ran an article titled "Does it matter what the doctor weighs?" Apparently, there is a war going on about healthy role models. On one side there are people who are calling on doctors to practice what they preach about diet and exercise and lead by example. This camp feels that Obama's nominee for surgeon general - Dr. Regina Benjamin - is carrying around too many extra pounds and is thus sending the wrong message to the American public. We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic, after all.
On the other side are the people of the Fat Acceptance Movement. They say, first of all, that a doctor's size does not matter because people come in all shapes and sizes. On a more exteme level, proponents of Fat Acceptance call for Fat Pride and decry descrimination again the obese. Some even challenge the claims that obesity is really all that harmful to one's health, saying that current research has blown the health consequences of obesity way out of proportion. Two years ago the New York Times explored the growth of the Fat Acceptance Movement with a look at a new academic discipline: Fat Studies.
Since then, Fat Studies and the Fat Acceptance Movement have continued to gain momentum, and I am pretty concerned about that trend. I consider most elements of the Fat Acceptance viewpoint to be a considerable barrier in the quest for healthy and sustainable lifestyles. I actually think radical Fat Acceptance is downright dangerous.
No one should be persecuted for their size, and we certainly need to recognize that overweight is a very complicated issue involving a mixture of voluntary behavior, heridity, and involuntary barriers to a healthy lifestyle such as lack of access to good food and lack of education about nutrition. I do not in any way think that obese Americans should face cruently or discrimination. No one should.
But, I do agree with the scientific evidence that suggests that obesity is indeed bad for one's health. I think it is dangerous to encourage people to be proud of a condition that has been so clearly linked to preventable diseases and early death. Rather, we need to be compassionate to our friends and ourselves in this regard, recognizing that we all need support in getting healthy - from the people around our dinner tables to the people sitting around conference tables making decisions about food policy in Washington.
I think that a doctor's size does matter. Do doctors and health care professionals have to be perfect, muscular, and totally fit? Of course not. In fact, a doctor who has had to work at establishing a healthy lifestyle is a huge asset to the profession because they are able to empathize with patients who are struggling with diet and weight issues. A doctor doesn't have to be perfect, but I do not think it is ok for them to be "dangerously overweight and proud of it" either. There is a line between being obese and being a healthy, curvy, non-supermodel human being, and I think the more radical voices in the Fat Acceptance Movement are missing that line.
Don't get me wrong, I celebrate Love Your Body Day with the best of them. But, I think that part of loving your body is respecting it enough to keep it healthy with good food and adequate exercise. Health care professionals should make an effort to be good role models by loving their own bodies and taking care of them.
Dr. Regina Benjamin is overweight. She is also an incredibly accomplished woman who probably works crazy hours and has little time to exercise. But, instead of declining to comment publicly about her weight, Benjamin could have addressed the issue head on. What barriers has she faced in the quest for better health? Benjamin is blessed with a huge megaphone: she is a well known public figure, and people will listen if she talks. So, why not talk about the challenges she is facing? Why not set an example but setting some goals? Hell, she could even blog about her own quest to get healthier and thus inspire other Americans to do the same.
If I am aware of the fact that study after study continues to suggest that our eating habits are heavily influenced by social and societal clues, I am sure the nominee for Surgeon General is aware of them too. I would like to see her sending a better message, because role models do matter.
The Food Bank for New York City has a fantastic campaign on their website called The Change One Thing Pledge. This campaign calls on people to make one diet change that will simply move them towards "a more active, longer and healthier life." I would like to see doctors around the county, especially Dr. Regina Benjamin, take this pledge. Maybe I should send her the link?
(I am not blessed with a huge megaphone. Yet.)