About this Blog

Welcome! Thanks for checking out On Food Stamps.

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 Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.

Stay Hungry,


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Trying to get a Supermarket in an underserved residents

Check out the article.

This is not a test

What you see above is a pile of bills and receipts, and my dinner: a bowl of green beans, oatmeal, and 2 Vegetable Thai Gyoza from Trader Joe's all steamed in miso broth.

What do these two things have in common?

They have a cause and effect relationship. This is a tough financial week for me, for real.

Rent is due, and I just got a parking ticket (I was literally 2 minutes late. I screamed really loud on the street when it happened.) and a bill from the DMV to renew my registration ($242.00). My trip home and to New York was great, but it wasn't free. Honestly, I'm fucking broke. I already had to transfer money from my savings account into my checking to cover this week's expenses, and spending money on groceries just isn't an option. I have Friday off for 4th of July, which is a good thing. But I hope to god that it doesn't mess with pay day. I hope I get my paycheck early or something. Will that happen? I doubt it. More likely I'm going to have to get through to Monday on essentially NO money.

Luckily, I am already quite skilled at eating cheap. The stakes are higher this time though, and the actual budget is about 1/3 of what I spent on my Food Stamp budget before.

In my pantry I had a reserve stash of 2 cans of soup from Trader Joe's and a bunch of quinoa I bought in bulk at $2.99/lb a week ago. There were also two jars of peanut butter. This week I'm using the Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Peanut Butter I bought at the Peanut Butter & Co. shop in New York. In my freezer I had 6 frozen vegetarian dumplings, frozen peas, frozen spinach, and 1 pack of those green beans I froze weeks ago. In the fridge I had a bag of limes and that miso paste.

I had to go shopping Monday morning before work to avoid eating out. I had no other option but to hit Save-a-Lot in Echo Park at 7:30AM. This is what I bought:
  • 1 head of broccoli at $0.99/lb = $0.44
  • 1 bag baby carrots = $0.99
  • 1 block of cheddar cheese = $1.79
  • Goya brand lentils, 1 pack = $1.19
  • 2 grapefruits at $1/2lb = $0.87
  • A loaf of whole wheat bread, the best I could find in that store = $4.29 (OUCH. I almost put it back when it rang up...)
  • 1 sweet potato at $0.79/lb =$0.40
  • another huge thing of Quick Oats = $1.89 (Fuck yea. This baby is worth at least 30 breakfasts, as I learned last time.)
Total = $11.86

That is it. I am trying to get through the entire week on what I have already and what I spent on Monday. This is not a test. This is for real this time.

Tonight I wound up eating a weird food combination, but I actually discovered that oatmeal can indeed be a savory food. I cooked the green beans, dumplings and oatmeal in miso broth and found that oatmeal for dinner is actually quite ok if not downright good.

I made a huge batch of lentils and quinoa last night and had that for lunch today and will again tomorrow and the next day. The bread will go with that awesome peanut butter for breakfast. I think I'll make it through the week alright but this is certainly an interesting twist no?

As I mentioned early in this blog, the Food Stamp challenge arose primarily from my interest in exploring issues of food access. However, it was also an important way for me to save money while trying to set up my apartment and get settled in a new city. While I will not pretend that I know what it is like to actually be on Food Stamps and try to feed a family on that money, I do know what it is like to make my food choices based on my bank account. I do it every week. And this week is especially tight. It just goes to show that if you don't have much of a financial cushion unexpected things like vehicle renewal notices or parking tickets can really put you over the edge.

Monday, June 29, 2009

"Food Stamped" Documentary

A similar project being made into a documentary. Can't wait to see it. Thanks to Jasmine for sending it my way!

New documentary “Food Stamped” explores whether you can eat healthy on food stamps

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“Eat Green” Messaging: What do we swallow?

I am now back in L.A...

During the long periods that I am away from home in Connecticut, my mom saves articles in newspapers and magazines that she thinks will be of interest to me. Whenever I return home I find a nice little stack of reading material beside the bed I slept in growing up. As usual, mom got it right despite my long absence.

She left me, among other things, a February 2009 issue of Bon Appétit magazine. There is a huge steak on the cover. At the top is printed, in green: Special Feature/ 50 Easy Ways to Eat Green P. 68 To drive the point home, the Bon Appétit magazine title below has the “o” and that neat little accent above the last “e” also printed in green.

I immediately flipped to page 68.

On the left side of the spread is the title of this Special Feature, nice and big. On the right side is a close up shot of a huge juicy burger and a sneak peak at Tip #5: MAKE A BISON BURGER.


First, lets talk about audience for a second. Bon Appétit magazine boasts a total average circulation of 1,426,992 . The readers are mostly female (73%) and have a median age of 49. The median household income of Bon Apetite readers is $83,563. Who is reading this article? Late middle aged women with a comfortable disposable income.

I admire the encouraging, upbeat tone of this article. I think it aims to make sustainable eating accessible and downright fun to this wealthy, middle aged female audience. The opening paragraph tells us a bit about the audience here: “If only eating green were as simple as going to a farmers’ market, buying organic, and reusing that shopping tote at the grocery store.” (Record screech sound effect, here.) Ok, sorry, Bon Appétit. Even when I am back to my normal, $50 a week shopping budget for 1 person (plenty generous, I think) shopping organic and going to farmers’ markets is not easy by any stretch. And, when I was shopping on less than $35/week, accomplishing both of those things was very difficult.

No matter what my budget, eating local and sustainable is still, unfortunately, inconvenient in America. It requires a lot of commitment to plan your weekend around a Farmers’ Market that is open only 3 hours on a Saturday morning and to accept that while you get your food at that market you’ll have to run another set of errands to buy the non-food items you need.

I am glad that Bon Appétit seems to know that to its readers buying organic and shopping at Farmers’ Markets is now a given. In one sense, I find that pretty encouraging. On the other hand, I think it is likely a little bit out of touch with the shopping habits of a lot of Americans, and I think it skips over some of the deeper issues of sustainable eating.

I am afraid that the tone of this article goes back to a theme I have discussed in the past. That is, I do not think that we are ever going to be able to improve the way we eat on any type of mass or egalitarian scale unless we acknowledge how difficult it is to do so. Changing the way we eat is just not as simple as “50 Tips to Eat Green,” and I’m not convinced that cutesy list-articles that suggest food reform is a matter of buying Bison instead of beef are even a good thing.

I found the tips in this feature were very light hearted. Some were good (“Ask Your Farmer…”) and some were ridiculous: “Buy More Chocolate” (follow a plug for a specific fair trade chocolate company). I suppose it is good that the article is recommending sardines instead of over-fished tuna and recommending that readers choose grass-fed beef from local farmers, but it barely addresses the larger issue that eating meat in general, no matter how “local” or “cage free”, is significantly less “green” than eating a vegetarian diet.

There were several instances where this article seemed a great example of the type of “consumerist explosion” I referred to in the previous post. The article has a very upbeat “try this new thing!” tone, rather than a tone that urges readers to make any food choices that require sacrifice or real change in behavior.

I don’t doubt this is because no one wants to sacrifice or change, and that an article that lectures people about changing their diet is certainly not going to sell magazines. People like nice little lists of “Tips” that are short and cute.

Bon Appetite’s 50 Easy Ways to Eat Green reveals something pretty essential about where our collective head is at in the quest to move towards more sustainable, local, and healthful foods:

Eating better is on our mind. We’re talking about it and writing about it in various media outlets. It is trendy. Buzz words like “Eat Green” are selling magazines. Restaurants that serve local, sustainable fare are getting positive press. But we still want it to be easy. We still want it to be fast. We don’t want to cook, and we don’t want to make any big changes like, say, cutting down on our meat consumption in any significant way. It is pretty ingrained in our American culture that food and eating are associated with quick and easy.

So, either we make sustainable food quicker, cheaper, and easier, or we need to talk a bit more about the fact that maybe we need to reframe the way we think about food and eating. And, that neither that conversation nor that change is going to be easy or quick.

As with all things, I think the answer to the American food crisis is a balance of the two. I’d like to see us start with actually talking about the issues though, and maybe investing in things like educational campaigns about sustainable nutrition and incentives for people living healthier, more sustainable lifestyles.

P. S. In the meantime, Hellman’s Mayonnaise is launching an ad campaign to convince us that eating Hellman’s is synonymous with “eating local.” This is a prime example of the fact that “green” and “local” have become major, hot-sell buzzwords. I am quite sad that I have been unable to find you a You Tube version of a commercial for this campaign. Has anyone else seen these ads? For now, the website will have to suffice: www.eatrealeatlocal.ca/ Note: the website is geared towards Canada, but commercials for "Eat Real. Eat Local." are running in America as well. I saw one. And I scremed. (Really, I did. Ask my dad.)

Is it a bad thing that audiences clearly have positive associations with the words “green” and “local”? Of course not. Does it trouble me that the information most Americans are getting about reforming their diets to make more sustainable food choices comes from a Hellman’s Mayonnaise commercial? Yes.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Depression Era Moms: Green Before Green Was Cool

The last page of Whole Life Times most recent issue has a great article in which a woman talks about growing up with a mother who lived in very environmentally sustainable lifestyle “not out of any kind of ‘green’ philosophy or liberal political identity, but because that was the way she lived in the world.”

Back in the day, sustainable living was part of an overall culture of frugality, of a Great Depression inspired desire to reduce waste and eek the most out of every product we every bought. While its great that Green has become both a chic identity label and a household term, I am sometimes concerned that our efforts are misdirected.

Have you ever felt that the whole Green Living and Sustainable Food thing has just provided people with more products to consume? Sometimes I feel that way when I walk into yet another chain store selling its brand of reusable bags to “reduce plastic bag use.” Ok, but how many of those damn reusable bags are we producing? And, how many of those do we all have in our trunk already each time we buy a new one?

Sometimes the whole thing doesn’t seem genuine. I’m glad that Save-a-Lot sells reusable bags now, but it would be a lot better if I was at a Farmers’ Market instead of the Save-a-Lot check out line. The author of this article seems to agree with me. She says that her mom would have been “appalled by the consumerist explosion of the environmentalist movement” that has led people to buy things like cool little racks to dry out zip lock bags after washing them.

The mom in this article tended a compost pile and cultivated the majority of the family’s fresh produce in the back yard. When harvest was high, she was in the kitchen drying fruit and stewing tomatoes, storing produce for the winter months. Instead of liquid hand soap, she conserved the family’s bar soap slivers and tied them into the foot of an old pair of pantyhose. She encouraged her kids to bring home glass bottles and tin cans they found on the road to return them for a deposit. My favorite line in the article is when the daughter writes “It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that other people threw away Ziploc bags after just one use.”

For her, reuse was about frugality and eliminating waste as a basic value. NPR has reported a little bit about this fact that not too long ago, frugality was virtuous. I will be honest. I am 23, and I was not told that frugality (in the way I eat, spend money, or consume any type of food or product) was a virtue when I was growing up. Frugality was not part of the Messaging Points from my parent’s generation, it seems. I grew up in a house where we bought so much food that produce routinely rotted on the shelves before anyone got around to eating it.

Today is my last day in New York before I go back to my hometown. As I continue to get closer to my home and my parent's fridge, I am thinking about how it differs from mine back in LA. There is no wasted food in my apartment, no rotting produce on my fridge shelf. Maybe it is left over from the Vegan /$35 challenge, but I think it’s the fact that thanks to the Recession I have a lot of values in common with Depression Era moms all of a sudden. Since I knew I was leaving for New York, I didn't go food shopping last weekend. Instead, I stretched last week’s food through Tuesday night of this week, and for those extra two days this week I ate brown rice and frozen peas for 4 of 6 meals. (That's all I had left.) Maybe the Recession is going to help us get a little more conscious of how we buy and consume food. That would be a silver lining, no?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More on Food Deserts

I have mentioned Food Deserts several times in this blog, but today’s post will go further. Food Deserts, again, are areas characterized by limited access to healthy or affordable food. Research has suggested that the poor food environment in these areas, which are typically in low-income neighborhoods, contribute to negative health outcomes for individuals who live in the Food Deserts such as obesity and heart problems.

I work in a food desert. There are few supermarkets, but plenty of mini-marts and liquor stores. Farmers Markets are small and offer limited selections. There are lots of low-income residents, and they rely on the bus for transportation. Fast food restaurants are everywhere, plunked at the middle of each busy and uninviting intersection. Suffice to say I bring my nice little vegetarian lunch to work every day.

If I forget my lunch well, I’m usually shit out of luck. There is this one little oasis area of food establishments that I can go to in a pinch. It has a place called the Salad Farm (which serves what its name suggests) and a few healthier Subway-type sandwich places. It takes me my entire 30 minute lunch break to drive there, park, get my food, and get back to my desk, and the salads cost about $8. Lots of effort, lots of $, and the only way I can do it is because I have a car. Even then, it is a pain to get a salad.

Working in this industrial and economically depressed zone, I have begun to learn what a food desert feels like, and I have become very interested in how this vacuum of good food options impacts the people who live there. My sense, from my own experience trying to get a salad once in awhile or buy an apple to supplement my brown-bag lunch, is that the food desert situation creates some major barriers for low income individuals trying to access affordable, nutritious food.

Food Deserts are getting more research attention, and they are also the topic of some debate on several fronts. For example, there is the question as to weather or not they actually exist or are just based on anecdotal experiences. I work in one, so I can tell you that they do, but anecdotal evidence only goes so far.

The Centers for Disease Control just released a Canadian study called A Systematic Review of Food Deserts, 1966-2007. This study is one of the first I have seen that compares Food Desert environments in different countries. Researchers systematically reviewed evidence in an effort to confirm or deny that Food Deserts exist in low-income areas. They found that in the United States “a high proportion of low-income or African American residents were underserved by food retails compared to more advantaged areas.” In other words, YES, there are concrete structural inequalities in the food system in urban America. Other countries studied, such as Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, did not yield conclusive enough results to confirm once and for all that Food Deserts exist in those countries. America was another story.

The CDC study made some recommendations for policy initiatives that might mitigate the current food access problem in low-income urban America. Among other things, they called for government interventions to facilitate supermarket development in these communities.

This type of intervention, encouragingly enough, actually seems to be happening. On June 17th, New York Times ran a story titled “With a Little Help, Greens Come to Low-Income Neighborhoods.” The article explains a campaign in NYC inspired by the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which provided grants and tax credits to retailers who invest in creating or improving stores in low-income neighborhoods. New York officials have also experimented with relaxing zoning laws for developers who put supermarkets on the ground floors of buildings in underserved areas.

Will it work?

Well, the Pennsylvania program has led to 69 projects so far with a very low failure (store closure) rate and the residents interviewed in the article seemed thrilled. Some smaller markets and wholesale vendors complained of unfair competition with the federally subsidized projects, and Goldman Sach’s (a high profile urban investment group) thought the city’s efforts were admirable but warned that even heavy subsidies might not lead to success in this weak economy.

Here’s my two cents: getting supermarkets into these food deserts is great, but it is really just the first step. Obviously, if you are trying to help residents in low-income neighborhoods access good food you have to first get that food to where they live. Once its there, a host of other access barriers remain. You have to teach people to cook differently, introduce them to new foods; you might even have to change their taste to help them learn to like vegetables. You have to get them to alter their diets to include the fresh produce that is now available to them. You have to intervene in a food culture that is dominated by fast food chains and Hot Cheetos, and educate people about nutrition and you’ll be up against multi million dollar junk food ad campaigns competing for their attention. And, you have to hope that people even prioritize nutrition and their health at all when they are already burdened by the many difficulties and inconveniences that come with poverty. Frankly, you have to get them to care, and I would argue that unfortunately, that is not easy.

Just as our national “food problem” is connected to weaknesses in our education, health care, and environmental system, so are individual poor dietary habits connected to a host of other issues including lack of education and resources, cultural influences, and income levels. It is important to put the food issue back into the bigger picture here, because it reminds us what a truly complex social problem lack of access to healthy, sustainable, and affordable food really is.

Speaking of lack of access to healthy, nutritious, and sustainable food, I just bought a sandwich in LAX airport for a whopping $10. Oh, airport food. That $10 could have lasted me through at least half a week of healthier fare…

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Nia Vardalos & the Big Fat Secret to Health


I am not usually one to follow celebrity or Hollywood gossip. But, when I got wind of Nia Vardalos's recent post about her weight loss on CNN's AC360 Blog, my ears perked up.

Now, I wasn't even aware that Vardalos- writer and lead actress in My Big Fat Greek Wedding- had lost weight. Apparently she has. And, apparently it has been getting quite a lot of attention.

Vardalos recently lost 40 pounds.

Why? How? What is her secret?

Well, on June 12th she posted a response to these questions on Anderson Cooper's 360 Blog.

In this post, Vardalos talks a bit about her frustration that her weight loss has gotten so much attention when she has also had some major career and personal accomplishments within the last year - mainly releasing a new film (My Life in Ruins) and adopting a baby girl. She seems frustrated by how image and weight obsessed most Hollywood reporting and press publicity tends to be. She talks a bit about the differences in issues of appearance for men versus women. But, I think the most interesting part of her post is the section in which she talks about how people react to her explanations about her weight loss.

When people ask her about losing those 40 pounds, Vardalos puts it very simply: "I had a blood sugar problem so my Doctor ordered me to lose weight, it was really hard but I did it through diet, exercise and it took a year."

And, she says, most people do no want to hear that answer. Vardalos writes that she can see most people go glassy-eyed and tune out as soon as they hear the words "health reasons" "diet" "exercise" or "took a year" in her answer.

That is not a sexy answer. It is not glamorous. It is not tied to any product (like, say, my good old favorite the Lap Band), nor will it sell any books or pouches of powdered shakes.

I am really happy that a celebrity is coming out and saying that she lost weight the good old fashioned way- through diet, portion control, exercise, and yes, hard work. In my one month trying to eat as a vegan, I became much more aware of just how intense the social pressures around eating were in my life. I talked about how dietary changes can impact relationships because one person's reformed eating habits can be threatening to those that do not want to change. And, I touched on the fact that adhering to a stricter, healthier diet was just plain hard. There were days when I hated it, days I wanted to quit, days when I cheated and then felt weird and guilty about it. The truth is that changing your diet isn't easy, and genuine sustainable change is never going to come down to one big secret or one miracle pill.

I think that our denial about this reality is a major part of the obesity problem in America and a barrier to food reform, so I applaud Vardalos for speaking out so honestly about her experience.

If we are ever going to change the way we grow, buy, and eat food, we have to come out and admit that (#1) a lot of people in America - our friends, our family members, our neighbors, maybe even ourselves- absolutely need to lose weight for health reasons that impact not only individuals but the environment and our nation's health care system and that (#2) losing weight and changing our diets to be better for our bodies and better for the environment is NOT easy.

If we could wrap our heads around those two things, really face them, we might have a fighting chance. At least then we could support each other in our quest to improve instead of denying that we even need to change at all.

While my 1 month Vegan challenge is over, I am continuing to try to eat better and exercise more. I'm not kidding myself; I'd be better off if I lost 10 pounds. In order to do that I am going to have to control my portions better, drink less beer on the weekends, and limit my consumption of sweets. Oh, and I'm going to have to work out a bit more too. It is a process, and I'm working on it. Sometimes it is really hard.

One thing that makes it much much easier is that I have several people in my life who are outwardly trying to make the same changes. For example, I have a colleague at work who is also working very hard to get healthier, and the camaraderie between us on this issue has been immensely helpful to me. When I see her eat a small sliver of cake and say no to seconds, or drop a few more pounds, I am inspired to keep at it myself. I am grateful for this positive social pressure around food. It is helping me get and stay healthier. I think this type of social pressure could really catch on, but first we have to admit that there is no new, simple, Big Fat Secret to health.

Props, Nia. Thanks for putting the message out there.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Let no fruit go to waste


I recently got wind of a fantastic grass roots effort going on in the LA area. This new initiative prioritizes local food, reduces waste, and addressed the issue of food insecurity among low income residents in and around Los Angeles.

The organization is called Food Forward. The graphic on their homepage (above) is sweet, and their site is simple and well organized. They must have a great graphic designer on their team. More important than their cool looking site though, is their work.

Check out their description of what they do:

FOOD FORWARD is an all volunteer grassroots group of Angelenos who care about reconnecting to our food system and making change around urban hunger.

Several times a month we convene at a private property we have been invited to and glean the excess fruit on their trees, donating 100% of it to local food pantries.

Our current receiving partner is SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, a 501c.3 program of Jewish Family Services, which distributes food to over 7,000 clients a month across Southern California.

I am majorly impressed by this effort.

While their site lists all of their major picks, they have also launched a blog to keep people up to date on more last minute opportunities. It seems that they sometimes get more last minute offers for picking, so the blog allows them to invite followers more spontaneously. You can also follow them on Twitter.

There are several reasons why I am a fan of this effort. The fact that it brings local, and in most cases organic produce to food pantries is clearly a great thing. This project certainly benefits low-income Angelenos. However, I am also really happy about the impact it has for those who volunteer to pick the fruit and those who allow the trees on their property to be gleaned. Through Food Forward, pickers are able to reconnect with natural sources of food in their climate. I imagine that picking large amounts of fruits for a day makes people think more about where their food comes from; it may even lead them to prioritize buying local or organic in the future. Furthermore, the resident who offers their tree or orchard for picking is clearly thinking more about waste and trying to reduce it. That is encouraging. I am sure donating their excess produce to a food pantry also makes tree owners more aware of the issue of food insecurity among the poor in their city.

Happy Friday everyone.

P.S. You can also follow me on Twitter. Most of my tweets relate to this blog, some relate to my life. Its not an exclusive blog-content account, but it is a way to follow my project and learn more about me if you care to do so.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Farm on the Roof

Photo Credit: Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

Maybe it is just the fact that my trip to NYC is quickly approaching, or it could be that I just got my New York Restoration Project newsletter in the mail, but I am feeling jealous of urban gardeners and sustainability enthusiasts in the Big Apple today.

I am a huge fan of Green Roofs. In my senior year at Brown, a few of my fellow urban studies classmates and I designed a Group Independent Study Project to learn about and eventually construct a green roof for course credit. At the end of the semester we actually laid the groundwork for a pretty sweet deck and roof garden on a remodeled brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

In his famous 1926 publication, 5 Points of New Architecture, Le Corbusier asserted that roof gardens were an essential element to any work of architecture. In his view, the roof garden served to restore the space that was taken up by the building to the earth, and was really a no-brainer. To Le Corbusier, building a roof garden was an essential element of balance in any building project. Over 80 years later the green roof movement is finally gaining some momentum.

The photo above comes from an article in yesterday's New York Times titled Urban Farming, a Bit Closer to the Sun. Thanks to my buddy Colleen Ferguson for bringing it to my attention. The article has an impressive laundry list of green roofing projects. From restaurant owners to bloggers (creator of Civil Eats - linked on the right side of my page, for one), to entire public schools, people are planting edible plants on their roofs. There is a enviable amount of movement towards greener, more edible urban planning in New York right now.

One of the most exciting parts about this article, to me, was that it talked a bit about the impact of tax incentives designed to encourage green roofing projects in New York and Chicago.

It is incredibly exciting to me to see state and local governments encouraging people to make their roofs greener. I also find it really heartening that several of the urban roof gardeners profiled in this article were chefs or restaurant owners who were in part responding to the demand for local and organic produce from their clients. Sweet.

The New York Restoration Project newsletter highlighted the Million Trees NYC initiative, which aims to plant 1 million new trees in the 5 boroughs of New York City within the next decade. Since it was launched in 2007, MillionTreesNYC has planted over 200,000 trees. Before this effort began only about 15,000 trees were planted in New York each year. To me, that is pretty incredible.

My one recommendation would have been that they plant a high percentage of fruit trees that would naturally thrive in New York. Apple trees might be nice. Since they're focusing on planting in public housing projects and underserved neighborhoods, an element of food provision would have been a great touch.

Ok, Los Angeles. Lets get with the program and put some money behind edible green roofs. We've got a fantastic growing season.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ants on my Figs

I went for a run today at the reservoir in Silverlake and found more public fruit. This time, it was FIGS. After a bit of searching around the tree I found four figs that came off of their branches easily. I don't know much about picking figs, but when a fruit comes off of its branch easily that is usually a good sign as far are ripeness is concerned. I practically skipped back to my car. Figs! For free! Hanging into the sidewalk! I LOVE CALIFORNIA! (Those are my thoughts.)

I got back home and cut them open. One was overly ripe and already had some ants living in it. I left the other three alone for a few moments, and when I got back there seemed to be ants all over all of them. Determined to make this work, I washed the fig with the fewest ants and cut off a little piece. It didn't taste too ripe to me. Suddenly I started to think this might not be the best idea. I googled "poisonous figs" just in case. I didn't come up with anything alarming, but the ants had really ruined the whole experience for me. I chucked the figs.

Later, I tried those lemons from yesterday. They were not what I was expecting. They weren't sour at all. In fact, they were sort of sweet. Like a mix between a lemon and an orange. It was a very strange experience because I tasted the slice I cut with my entire mouth bracing for the familiar sour flavor of a normal lemon. It reminded me of drinking flat Sprite when you think you're getting water. Not unpleasant, just a weird mouth sensation.

I started googleing lemon varieties to see what I might have picked. It seems there are many different types of lemons out there, but I couldn't pin down a description that matched my roundish, yellow, and sort of sweet citrus fruit. I'm keeping those mystery citrus fruits, but I'm not sure how to use them. I have to get more comfortable with their flavor.

Clearly I have a lot to learn about California fruit varieties before I get too excited about public fruit. And, if we're going to use our urban space for micro-farms like I suggested earlier, we might have to be more strategic about planting familiar edible plants. (With respect for native varieties, of course!)

If anyone has any idea what that lemon thing is that I picked, let me know. I'm going to sleep a bit disappointed that my recent public fruit triumphs turned out to be... well, failures.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Lemons in my alleyway

After I spent several hard earned dollars on 5 non-organic, not necessarily local lemons at Trader Joe's (which I drove to) I realized that there is a perfectly great lemon tree bursting with fruit in the alley across from my apartment (50 foot walk). This tree is located within the gates of a motorcycle repair shop, but a huge bough full of fruit hangs over into the alley, which according to most sources makes the fruit public.

Public or not, there were a ton of squashed, wasted lemons on the ground, and the tree was hanging heavy with fruit. Even if it wasn't public fruit, no one seemed all too concerned about harvesting these lemons so I had at it. I picked 5 lemons - more than enough to last me through the week. I was elated.

This discovery brought me back to something I've been wanting to write more about for awhile. In the post that was published on Change.org I touched on the fact that I thought a new urban planning model that made room for urban farms and community gardens could go a long way to fix the food problem in this country. I still feel very strongly about this idea.

The concept of public fruit is an interesting one, and it is getting more attention lately. There is a very cool activist art project going on in my very own neighborhood of Silverlake called Fallen Fruit. This project involves the mapping of fruit trees that hang over into sidewalks, parking lots, and other public spaces. By mapping where these public food resources are located the group hopes to bring about more local eating and less waste of perfectly good produce.

On June 9th, the New York Times published an article titled Neighbor, can you spare a plumb? This article talks about the growing movement of fruit and vegetable sharing across the nation, and mentions public fruit harvesting projects similar to Fallen Fruit all over the country.

The organization Urban Farming's mission says it all: Urban Farming's mission is to create an abundance of food for people in need by planting gardens on unused land and space while increasing diversity, educating youth, adults and seniors and providing an environmentally sustainable system to uplift communities. The organization plants food anywhere they can find space. They even hang edible gardens off of walls.

It is really encouraging to me that people are starting to unite and share food in this way.

I mean, we've done it before. During the peak of the Victory Garden movement during WWII, small plots in suburban backyards and urban communities alike yielded 40% of the produce consumed in America. Today, most of what we eat is specially engineered to travel great distances to get to us, and it arrives wrapped in packaging with all sorts of nutritional claims on it. It isn't local. It isn't simple, sustainable, or necessarily good for us. It is built to travel and make a profit. And, judging from the obesity, diabetes, and heart disease going on in this country right now it hasn't gotten us any healthier.

So, what if we focused a little more on using our urban space more efficiently? For one, a lot of food producers and advertisers would lose a lot of money. On the other hand, a lot of us (including mother earth) would be a lot healthier.

Imagine an urban landscape where some of those medians at street intersections had fruit trees in them. Or, where the roof tops of our apartments had planter boxes on the perimeter with lightweight soil and space for some tomatoes. What if your boss brought the extra oranges from his tree in to work to trade you for the mint growing wildly all over your yard? How much fruit could we grow if we installed vertical planting walls on the walls of building in our cities? Maybe enough to make a difference, block by block, in the food insecurity issue in low income communities.

I know I said "imagine" up there in that paragraph, and I know I put most of my sentences into questions, but I am serious. I don't think this has to be a hypothetical necessarily. It would be a matter of a change in priorities.

Small start: lets start taking advantage of the public fruit and urban farming resources we already have. I'll tell you, as long as that lemon tree in my alleyway is bearing fruit I'm not wasting any gas to get to Trader Joe's and buy a bag of lemons. I'd love to hear about the public fruit you found in your neighborhood or the trade you orchestrated to get some peaches in exchange for your surplus of basil.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why food?

There are a lot of social issues out there to put your passions and energies behind. Even if you narrowed your focus to issues in American cities, there would be hundreds of thousands of things to try to make better or to be outraged about. So, why food?

Why would access to nutritious food trump other social issues?

Because food and inadequate nutrition are incredibly connected to a host of other issues that impact the quality of life for low and high income Americans alike.

Food insecurity impacts a child's ability to learn and grow. Not having enough food at home can lead to trouble focusing in school, aggression/anger, and can impede physical and mental development.

The fact that most of what we eat travels for thousands of miles to get to us impacts our environment. That fact that most of it is highly processed and over packaged is also a drain on mother earth. Everything we eat affects our environment, and in the case of our current food culture the affect is harmful most of the time.

Education about food and health is also pretty basic, and it is surprising how little most people know about this fundamental part of personal health care. I've had to work pretty hard to learn about how what I eat affects my body, and I would still not consider myself any sort of expert on nutrition. The fact that most low-income Americans really do not have access to reliable and practical information about food doesn't make our education system look very good.

Lack of access to nutritious food has a major impact on our health care system. On my first post of this blog I wrote a little bit about how poverty, food insecurity, and obesity are linked. Obesity is a major concern. I was speaking to a nurse at a free clinic yesterday, and she told me she felt like "everyone" had diabetes these days. She said that a disturbing percentage of the clients she sees walking through the doors of her clinic - where they do not refuse anyone based on ability to pay- are overweight and suffering from heart problems or diabetes as a result. Now, this is purely anecdotal, but Diabetes is certainly on the rise. I found an article which explains the global Diabetes epidemic pretty well. The article asserts that since 1985, the number of people with diabetes worldwide has grown from 30 million to 230 million, and the World Diabetes Foundation estimates 3.5 million people die from the disease annually.

If that seems like a lot to you, check out this map of US obesity trends from the CDC which Jasmine suggested to me - it shows the spread of obesity and overweight across America since 1985. Its pretty disturbing. Look and that map and think about how much overweight is associated with diabetes. Then think about how much health care Diabetes requires. Think about how broken and over burdened our health care system is, and how many Americans are uninsured or under insured. Then check out the facts on the World Diabetes Foundation website. Do you see the one that says 80% of type 2 diabetes is preventable by changing diet, increasing physical activity and improving the living environment. ?

What would happen if we started eating better and cut down drastically on overweight, obesity, and diabetes in America?

I think our health care and education systems would be a lot stronger.

Unfortunately, the last month of eating well on $31/week has shown me that "eating better" is pretty complicated. What would it take to incite a mass movement of healthier eating?

Well, a cultural shift for one. People would have to learn how to cook nutritious foods, and they would have to have a lifestyle that allowed them the time to do it. Healthy food would need to be more accessible and more affordable. Processed food would have to become more taboo and less socially acceptable. People would have to care enough to put some effort into eating better and exercising, and those that did care enough would have to have the tools (time, for example) to make it feasible to even do that.

I'm down to start the revolution, but I'm pretty intimidated by what I'm up against. How about you?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cabbage and the WIC Cookbook

Remember that cabbage I bought at the Hollywood Farmers' Market two weeks ago?

Well, I hadn't cooked it yet frankly because I just didn't know what to do with cabbage. I have worked with it in a few dishes in the past, but I have never really found a great go-to cabbage recipe, I just haven't had any desire to tackle learning to cook a new vegetable. Cabbage isn't something I typically buy either. Its not a very exciting vegetable and has a reputation, like brussel sprouts, for not being very tasty. But, it is incredibly cheap and goes a long way, so I'd bought it because it was one of the few things in my price range at the Hollywood market two weekend ago. Since then I'd cooking and eaten every single piece of produce in my fridge and never touched the head of cabbage. Today out of bare necessity I broke down and decided to cook the damn thing.

I pulled out a few of my vegetarian/vegan cookbooks, and I also consulted the WIC program cookbook, which I picked up early last month at the South Central Farmers' Market. This cookbook wasn't totally new to me, I'd leafed through it before, but I hadn't realized quite how fantastic it was until today.

What is WIC? The website describes the program well: WIC provides Federal grants to States for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk. Just think Women, Infants, and Children. The name makes sense.

If you drive through a low income neighborhood you will likely see markets, mini-marts, and stores with signs saying that they accept WIC. In a lot of cities there are also special WIC stores that pop up; there are several near where I live. WIC is different than food stamps because it is more specific about which foods you can buy with your benefits. If you go to a grocery store that accepts WIC benefits, you will probably see certain items marked with the WIC logo to show shoppers that these items are WIC approved. This page give more information about which foods are WIC eligible.

As you can imagine, going into a store where only some of the items are "allowed" can be difficult and frustrating. I bet it isn't particularly fun to take your small children to a grocery store where they will see tons of snacks and foods they want, and stick to only a few specific WIC approved items every time. It makes sense that WIC-only stores spring up in low-income neighborhoods. I bet these stores make shopping with WIC benefits much easier.

The WIC program in LA is currently engaging in a lot of outreach to get mothers to use their benefits to purchase more fruits and vegetables. Like food stamps, WIC benefits are accepted at Farmers' Markets around the city, and when I went to the South Central market WIC was running a nutrition class and handing out information. The Healthy Harvest cookbook was one thing they were really trying to get out there.

The cookbook's sub heading is "Recipes and Tips for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables". In the box at the bottom of the cover this text appears:
South Los Angeles Health Projects
WIC Program

We care about you and your family!

Inside the cookbook there are different types of fruits and vegetables. It starts with apples and goes all the way to winter squash. Each vegetable or fruit gets one page. At the top there are three sections - one on how to select the particular produce item, one on how to store it, and one on use in general.

The Cabbage listing looked like this:
Select: Firm heavy heads that are free of yellowing leaves, bruises, splits or spots
Store: Cabbage in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks (Phew. Two weeks. I just made it!)
Use: Rinse well and remove damaged and wilted leaves. Slice thin and team to use with sauces, or cut in larger chunks and steam to eat with vinegar, or butter and salt.
Then down below there were two very simple, easy to follow recipes.

I was really impressed with this resource. It not only makes produce accessible by staring with the basics of how to choose good produce and store it so it stays fresh, it also provides realistic and quick recipes that wouldn't require a ton of cooking know how.

As this week progresses I am going to try recipes from the WIC cookbook. I'll let you know how they go.

Tonight I settled on a cabbage recipe from another cookbook. I essentially simmered the cabbage in canned diced tomatoes with onions, garlic, salt and pepper. I had a lot of basil left over so I threw that in too. In the spirit of wasting nothing, I diluted some of the tomato sauce that the cabbage was cooking it in and used it to cook my rice. This way I conserved some of the nutrients from the cooking cabbage and tomatoes and wound up with more flavorful brown rice.

The dish I came up with was really great, and I think it is safe to say that I won't avoid the cabbage for so long next time around. Still, I really do want to express how long I put off cooking this vegetable simply because I didn't know how. If you are not used to cooking vegetables in general, I can imagine integrating more produce into your diet would seem like a real pain. Lack of knowledge about how to cook and eat produce is a major barrier, and I am glad this WIC cookbook is out there.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

LA vs. El Monte

This morning I went to El Monte, CA for work and I arrived a bit early for my meeting. I decided to do some exploring. El Monte is part of LA County; it is about 12 or 13 exits east of downtown LA on the 10 freeway though, so it feels a bit out of the city.

I wanted to share an observation I had about the cost of living in El Monte vs. the more urban areas of Los Angeles. The above cup of coffee, which I bought in a donut store in El Monte, cost me $0.95. A cup of coffee at a coffee shop in Echo Park is $2.75. Now, granted, my area of LA (Echo Park/Silverlake) is certainly gentrifying, bit it is no Beverly Hills either. When I tell people where I live I still get the occasional joke about watching out for gun shots. Even though it is not a very posh neighborhood yet, the cost of living here is still quite high.

The cheap cup of coffee in El Monte made me think about that pricing. What would it be like to live in El Monte? The rent, like the coffee, would be much cheaper. So would food prices, probably. I could see wanting to live in El Monte to save money. However, it didn't seem to me that there would be many jobs in El Monte. More likely one would have to get into the urban zone of Los Angeles to work every day, and if you didn't have a car this would be a tremendous pain.

That is a trade off that is becoming a theme: cheap or convenient? Live in El Monte and you can get a 3 bedroom apartment for less than $1,000/month and coffee will cost you $0.95. The bus ride in to work will also be 2 hours at rush hour and will be dangerous late at night. Live in Echo Park or East LA and pay higher prices for living expenses, but have less of a commute. What types of things would you have to cut out of your budget to afford the higher cost of living in urban LA? Medical care? Quality food? Seems like you loose either way.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Time, Time, Time


This month I discovered that time is a huge issue in the quest to access healthy, sustainable, and affordable food. The most challenging part of the last month was not being able to stretch my $31/week to buy enough food to avoid hunger. Rather, the hardest part was planning out each meal and finding the time to cook everything from scratch. Prepared foods were usually out of my price range. I could afford plenty of raw ingredients to feed myself, but it was incredibly time consuming to cook them up into wholesome meals all week long.

During my final week this month I began keeping track of just how long it took me to cook and clean up every day. Breakfast was always a drag because oatmeal took me a few minutes to cook, and I always had to wash the pot after I was done. Lunch isn't even counted in this total because every day I was just reheating left overs from dinners cooked the night before. I had big cooking days on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday where I put in anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 1/2 hours depending on the dish. Monday was a light day, but still required some work. On the other days I was able to relax a bit more and eat left overs from the big cooking days.

While having a few big cooking days allowed me some free time on the "off" days, it also meant I was eating the same dish for about 3 days straight. For example, on Sunday I cooked a huge quantity of beans and rice. I ate some variation of that rice and bean dish for Sunday dinner, Monday lunch and dinner, Tuesday lunch and dinner, and Wednesday lunch. Sure, I rotated in things like raw carrots, an orange, some almonds, maybe an additional steamed vegetable like broccoli at dinner, but it was very very repetitive.

During that week I spent a total of 8 hours and 50 minutes cooking and cleaning up. On three days of my week the entire time between work and bed was consumed by cooking and cleaning up afterwards. That is really a good chunk of time. It left me very little time to do errands or laundry, visit with friends or relax, and I am only working a 40 hour work week.

This week has been a dream in comparison. The other night I went out for dinner and ordered a modest dish - a quesadilla. Because I have become much better at eating smaller portions, I was able to conserve half of my dinner to take home with me. I ate the other half of my quesadilla for breakfast this morning.

Right now I am about to go out for dinner again, this time to Little Ethiopia with a friend. Entrees at our favorite restaurant are no more than $10, and I am sure I will be able to make two meals out of what I order tonight. While driving home from work an hour ago I had a moment of panic left over from last month. (Yes, I am still having weird day-dream nightmares about last month's challenge. What does that tell you about the level of anxiety it created for me around food?) I realized I was about to go out to meet someone for the rest of the night, and that I hadn't cooked any food for tomorrow's lunch. I wasn't going to have time! I was going to have to stay up late and loose sleep for cooking again! When I remembered a second later that I was going out to dinner and that I could save half my dinner for lunch tomorrow, I was tremendously relieved. The same goes for the day earlier this week when I was able to order a small package of take-out rice to balance out my skimpy lunch. I hadn't had time to make rice the night before, and it was a real blessing to be able to buy a bit of extra food to save myself time.

By the end of the week I will have gone out to two meals where the entrees cost an average of $10 - by no means extravagant by most American standards. I will have only spent 3 hours cooking and cleaning as of tomorrow night - I estimate the week's total will only be 4.5 hours at most. It has been a much more relaxing week for me thanks to this extra time. The additional time has also allowed me to be more productive; because I do not have to devote so much of my time to cooking and worrying about my food I have been able to accomplish things that I have been wanting to do for a month like visit more with my family (over the phone, unfortunately), read and exercise more. I could also have been learning English, taking a class, or taking better care of my child if I had one. The the extra $15-20 I have to work with this week are making a huge difference in my productivity and overall well being.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Great Grains

Americans eat a lot of grains. Most of us grew up with a Food Guide Pyramid that told us to eat 6-11 servings of grain per day. The Pyramid below looks exactly like the one I remember going over in science class as a kid. What grains can I choose from for my 6-11 servings per day? Rice. Bread. Pasta. Cereal. See below. That is how they trained me.


Luckily as I've gotten older, I've taken it upon myself to learn about what I eat (which is a product of my social class and educational opportunities, no doubt). I found out that there are a mind boggling number of grains out there if I am willing to spend the time to learn how to cook them. As a vegetarian I have always had to watch my pasta/rice intake, and normally I do pretty well in that category. Before I started the Food Stamp Vegan challenge last month I had moved from brown rice to mostly quinoa. At one point I would pretty much only cook barley, quinoa, oatmeal, or millet at home. While there are lots of nutritionists out there touting the merits of different grains, quinoa and millet are usually rated pretty high in nutritional value and low in calories. This is a decent comparison chart for grain nutrient values. (Does anyone have any others that they recommend?)

On the Food Stamp diet my grain intake totally changed. As you might have noticed this past month I ate a lot of brown rice and oatmeal (still do, actually - haven't run out yet!). When I bought that crappy loaf of high-fructose corn syrup "whole wheat" bread, I ate all of that too. Those were pretty much my only grains for the month. While they aren't horrible, they are not nearly as nutritionally powerful as grains like quinoa or millet would have been. Unfortunately, they were my only options.

The grain options at the stores I was going to all month were very limited. I usually had to choose between these items:
  • white tortilla, whole wheat if I was lucky
  • brown or white rice - sold in BULK sometimes
  • white pita (never found whole wheat)
  • pasta
  • highly processed breads - there were often multi grain or whole wheat options but they were by no means baked on site and always had high fructose corn syrup in them
  • crackers, cookies, chips, pretzels in every flavor I could ever dream of and at a relatively low price
  • cereal - always the boxed variety, always with a handful of healthy options (such as that box of Total) but still not too many
If I went to a Farmers' Market in a low income neighborhood, there were no grains at all. No bakers at these Farmers' Markets, just a few booths selling the bare essentials.

Quinoa was nowhere to be found anywhere I shopped last month. Millet, no way. I did find some "Whole Wheat" that had some things written on it in Arabic, but I haven't been brave enough or motivated enough to try to cook it yet.

If I had really wanted to get quinoa, I could have. Whole Foods accepts EBT in most LA locations, and they sell quinoa in bulk for $2.99/lb. But think for a second. I lived off that $3 five pound bag of brown rice from A Grocery Warehouse for almost the entire month (and counting). There was NO way it was worth it to me to truck it all the way to Whole Foods and pay almost 5 times as much per pound for a specialty grain. Even if it is a complete protein.

After 1 month of my food stamp challenge, I have come to the conclusion that there are some major issues surrounding grains for low-income Americans. Here are my biggest concerns:
  • Low quality carbohydrates, such as chips, crackers, highly processed breads and pastas, are a very large part of our diet. These inferior grain sources are cheap and readily available in mini marts and chain grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods. We have developed a real taste for these types of foods, despite the fact that they are high in calorie and low in nutritional value.
  • In order to get any higher quality grains, one would have to shop at Whole Foods or an expensive specialty market. What would motivate people to try these strange and exotic grains even if they were available? You may recall a lesson from my recent post about my bean soup fiasco: experimenting is not a good idea when you are on a very tight food budget. If something goes wrong or you don't like a food you have made you are stuck eating it anyway, and you are also out a bunch of time and money.
  • Most Americans are very comfortable cooking items like pasta or rice, but would likely find more nutritious grains such as quinoa, barley, or amaranth (which I had never even heard of but is apparently now ranking above quinoa on some grain rating charts...) incredibly strange and intimidating to cook. Again, it would be risky to experiment with these on a tight budget. It took me months of experimenting with quinoa to figure out exactly how I liked it, and now all of a sudden there is this new grain called amaranth that I am supposed to learn to cook? Seriously. It makes me want to throw in the towel and go back to something simple again like rice.
  • There is an unhealthy degree of fad diet publicity and guilt surrounding grains and carbohydrates. I am no nutritionist, but I feel like sticking to whole grains in moderation and getting a variety of different grains is probably a safe strategy, but I don't seem much of that happening in American food culture. First, there is the food pyramid telling us to eat a lot of grains all the time, across the board. Then there are the low-carb diets that have spiraled out of control - it seems I could buy a low-carb version of any junk food I want these days. Oreos? Are they low-carb? Great! I can eat as many as I want and still not be cheating on my diet! There are even fads surrounding grains in the whole food circuit - take the switch of spotlight from quinoa to amaranth as a prime example. I think most people just don't know how to feel about grains, myself included. One second we are supposed to be limiting carbs and the next minute we're supposed to be eating more "whole grains". More whole grains. Ok. Great. But what is the difference between the highly processed bread or the chocolate chip granola bar that now has the words WHOLE GRAIN printed all over the package and a bag of brown rice or oatmeal?
For now I am looking forward to buying some quinoa again. I will let you know where I find it the cheapest after I search for a bit. But first, I have to get through that bag of rice.

Ok, it is too late for a full post, so here is a mini.

1. Did anyone see this article today? LA Times reported on a bill that would set minimum standards for food at child care centers in California. Movement in the right direction.

2. This is more obscure, and it is much more distressing. I've been focusing a lot on urban poverty and food insecurity, but this article paints a pretty bleak picture of what summer will be like for kids in the rural desert zones of California. When school lunch is the best meal you get all day, what happens when school's out for summer?

Also- the fact that school lunch is the best meal some kids in America see all day, it is all the more important that that meal be of high quality food, no?

3. Food-wise, things are going well for me overall.

Good: I was able to balance out the food I brought with me for lunch today by buying $2.50 of rice when my co-workers were ordering take-out. This was a blessing, because I hadn't had time to make rice and was going to just do without. That little flexibility went a long way for me and it meant that I didn't have to loose sleep to make rice. (In this case I'd chosen the "fuck the rice, I'm going to sleep" option ahead of time, but I was able to still have a balanced meal thanks to a little more financial wiggle-room.)

Bad: I made some pretty bad bean soup this weekend. Unfortunately, I made a lot of it. I am not going to waste it, but I learned that it is never a good idea to try an experimental I'll-make-it-up-as-I-go-along recipe in bulk quantities. What can I say? The kitchen goddess got cockey. I have to get through at least 2-3 more meals of these beans, and I'm not happy about it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

First Meal Out

At around 2pm on Sunday I met a friend for some food to officially end the first phase of this blog: the 1 month, $35/week Vegan scenario. We met at Masa in Echo Park.

It felt incredibly luxurious just to sit outside and be waited on. Ordering whatever I wanted was almost overwhelming. I settled on 1 fried egg ($1.50), 1 huge Cuban Roll ($2 - Masa is famous for these and they are truly fantastic) and a Cafe Latte ($2.75). I almost ordered a coffee, but then I realized I could have milk, so I decided to really go crazy.

It was almost embarrassing how excited I got when the food arrived. I didn't think it'd be that big of a deal to me but it really was. I think the fact that the month of extreme dietary restrictions and social isolation was finally over just put me over the top. The arrival of the food was symbolic. My excitement really illustrates how difficult this month has been for me at times. While I found that eating for $31/week as a Vegan was totally do-able, it is a massive relief not to have to eat in such a restrictive way or work so hard to do it. The fact that I felt I had reached a finish line when the food arrived, that I do not have to continue to eat like this every day for the rest of my life, certainly shows the limits of my kick-off experiment. The things I discovered are valuable, but in the end they were discovered with the knowledge that in 3o days or less I would be sitting at Masa drinking a Latte and feeling like I had my life back.

Because frankly, that is what living as a vegan for very very cheap was for me - it became my life. It was all consuming. It forced me to alter everything about my daily routine. It took hours of my time each day. It affected my relationships. It left me feeling lonely and isolated after several weeks. I did it, but it was incredibly draining. Granted, I chose a somewhat extreme dietary restriction (Veganism) that is likely not common among low-income Americans. The point was that it was a change in diet for me, and that it was challenging. Just as eating less meat and more vegetables would seem extreme, foreign, and challenging to someone who has never done that before, so was Veganism a bit extreme for me.

Overhauling what I eat for $31/week gave me a new understanding of just what exactly makes it so hard for low-income individuals to access nutritious and sustainable food. I started out thinking that the main barrier would be money; that I would simply not be able to afford the healthy foods I wanted to buy. I found, rather, that time, social pressure, will power, frustration and emotional associations with food also create barriers.

Still, there are some things I have left untouched.

Through this entire month I used my car to get groceries. What if I didn't have a car ?

I also chose a diet that while extreme, was in some ways familiar to me. I am already a vegetarian normally. I have been a vegan before for short periods of time. I know how to cook vegan/vegetarian food, and I have developed a love for vegetables. What if I choose something more foreign to me?

I touched a little bit on how illness might play into accessing sustainable, healthful, and affordable food, but did no examine it to any great length. I want to look into that further.

While I am going to return to my normal diet and budget for a little while now, I will run similar scenarios in the coming months to explore some of the other barriers I have mentioned above. This blog is by no means over. In fact, I actually think this coming week is going to be one of the most telling of the Vegan scenario. Now I can return to normal - so what changes? Normal for me is a pretty strict $50/week food budget (not too hard if I don't eat out more than once or twice a week), and a vegetarian diet. One of the first things I want to compare is how much time I gain back now that I can spend $50/week instead of $30. How much convenience does that extra $20 buy? How much healthier does it allow me to be? (Will I, for example, be able to afford more Organic produce?) I hope you will stay tuned as this project develops. If you have a scenario you want to explore or think I should try out, suggest it in the comments section.

Vegan at the Greystone Mansion

So, I went to the Wine Tasting yesterday, and I didn't do so horribly. First of all, I made sure to be pretty full when I got there so that I wouldn't be tempted to eat something right away. (Had lots of lentils and rice on the way there.) By the time I did need to eat, I circled the entire place for vegan food. As you can imagine, there was quite a lot of cheese at this wine tasting. Normally I really love cheese, so it was sort of painful to pass by all the aged Goudas and exotic goat cheeses.

I was able to make a decent dinner out of pita, hummus, and grapes. For dessert I went over to the back section and ate two plates of cantaloupe and strawberries. This was actually pretty nice, since I have not been able to afford either of those fruits for this entire month.

Yes, there was a chocolate fountain, but I didn't cave for that. My co-worker enjoyed her fruit with chocolate on it, but I resisted.

For the most part I did not "cheat."

I said "No thank you" to an offer of food exactly 12 times, and I said "No, you can't" to myself at least 26 times before I quit counting. (Pretty much every time I looked over at a table with amazing cheese on it.)

One of the biggest motivators for me to stick to my dietary restrictions was that pretty much every single one of my co-workers knew that I would be at this event, and that it was the last full day of my On Food Stamps as a Vegan challenge. We had already spoken about it at the office. The fact that I was going to be at the Wine Tasting and would resist pretty much everything there was getting a lot of hype. This built up a lot of social pressure in my favor. Sure, people were kidding around with me and trying to tempt me, or they would offer me something and then slap their hands over their mouth in embarrassed apology, but the overall vibe was supportive.

That is why when I finally cheated I did so when no one was looking.

Normal chocolate I could totally resist. I have had good chocolate before. I know what it tastes like. But chocolate goat cheese was another story. Honestly, I have never seen anything like that in my life, and I decided it was worth breaking the rules for. I had one small bite of the cheese pictured below.

I felt fine about that breech of the rules while I was doing it. I consumed only a very little bit, and it was a food worth cheating for. I found, however, that I while I'm writing away about this cheating on my blog, I was very embarrassed to tell my co-workers about it. No one out right asked me if I'd cheated yet, but when they asked me how it was going I did not mention the chocolate goat cheese.

Overall I would say that the social pressure was in favor of me adhering to my dietary restrictions this time, and not the other way around. Why? Because I told everyone about it beforehand. My will power was built up very big, and the challenge of resisting the food at this event became very public. A few people tried to cajole me into breaking it, but even they let me be after one "No, no I can't, really."

To me this outcome illustrates that it can be very powerful to tell others around you about your diet rules. People love drama, and the mini saga of weather or not you will cheat on your diet becomes pretty interesting if you build it up ahead of time, believe it or not. Of course, such a saga is only fun for other people when your diet doesn't impact them. If the event was not a Wine Tasting but a family dinner, and my decision to eat cheese or not impacted weather or not I would cook with it for the rest of my family, there would likely be much less support. It is also very important to note that my dietary restrictions came from a sensationalized challenge - Julie will live on $31 for 4 weeks as a vegan! - not a normal diet. (Which would be more like Julie has 20 pounds to loose and is trying to eat healthier. Woo. Hoo.)

I have seen social pressure in favor of positive diet change work before. For example, in my house my mom has to eat in a pretty controlled way to manage her blood sugar without any mediation, and when anyone sees her eating dessert they ask her, "Mom, can you really have that?" She always has to tell everyone that it is ok, that she hasn't had any sugar that day, that she has it under control, etc. But, I am sure that our watchdog social pressure affects her food choices when she is eating in front of us. It is easy for us all to be supportive, though, because everyone in my family is an adult and is perfectly capable to preparing food for themselves. My mother's dietary restrictions do not really affect everyone in the family, and this is a pretty rare case.

I am curious, also, about how much more or less supportive people are of other's dietary rules when the rules are due to an illness versus weight loss alone. From my dietician readers - any comments on that?

What have I learned? It seems that social pressure around food can work in one's favor if family, friends, or co-workers know about the diet before everyone eats together. Letting everyone know about your eating rule ahead of time makes it much more embarrassing to break them. However, I really think that people are less likely to support the dietary restrictions of a friend or family member when those restrictions affect them as well.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Freezing Fresh Vegetables

I bought these green beans at the Echo Park Farmers' Market yesterday for $1.

There was no way I could eat them in time. In my fridge I still have fresh carrots and cabbage, lots of recently cooked beans (incorporated into two dishes), a yam, and some other random produce that will go bad if I don't eat it soon.

Even though I am still well stocked with fruits and vegetables, I couldn't pass up these beans because they were a great deal. Freezing them was the only way to go. If this works out it will prove to be a pretty powerful new skill. Freezing means I will be able to buy lots of a certain vegetable when it is cheap and conserve it for later on.

I followed the directions on this website.

I found them pretty easy to follow.

The whole thing took me 30 minutes.

Now the green beans look like this:

Ready to freeze.

Whenever I incorporate them into a meal I will let you guys know how it goes. I hope those tupperware containers hold up. I got them from the 99-cents-only store so we'll see...

In a few hours I am going to be face to face with massive amounts of food that I can't consume. I will be going to a Wine Tasting event for work. It is our biggest fund raiser of the year, and I am interested to see how it goes for me. For months everyone in my department has been working their asses off for this Wine Tasting. All the food is donated, and it will be enough for 500 people.

I'll have to make sure to bring my will power with me, eh? I hear there's a chocolate fountain.

Farmers' Market = 99-Cents-Only Store

I was really hoping that I'd make it to the Echo Park Farmer's Market today. I hadn't checked it out yet, and I thought maybe I'd spend the last few dollars from this week on some exciting produce. I had $9.47 left to spend this week.

Unfortunately, I wound up staying at work pretty late. I didn't leave my office until 6:45, and the Market closes at 7pm. There was some traffic on Sunset Blvd today too (maybe there was a Dodger's game? I live near the stadium...), so I didn't wind up at the Market until quarter after 7. That is 15 minutes after the official closing time.

And let me tell you - 15 minutes after the official closing time is the BEST time to arrive at a Farmers' Market.

Most of the stands were closed, but one or two were still open and I ran right up to them. On farmer had a pretty decent selection of green vegetables, squashes, and herbs. It was sort of a mad rush, but I bought the following:

  • Bag of Basil = $1
  • This strange Japanese cabbage, not sure what it is. The name sounds like Bok Choy, but it is not Bok Choy. He told me I could use it in soup, salad, or treat it like spinach in any cooked dish and I decided to give it a try. $1 for a huge bunch of it.
  • 4 Japanese eggplants = $1
  • He sold me a huge bag of fresh string beans for $1 as well.
Hell yea!

On to the fruit stand...

I got there just in time. This fruit stand was all organic, and there were four huge boxes of really sweet looking peaches still out. Several people were gathered around the table scrambling to take advantage of the closing hour deals. This guy from another stand, who I guess is friends with the peach vendor, saw me looking at the peaches.

"Have you tried one yet?" He asked.
I hadn't.
He grabbed a really ripe one out and said, "I know he won't mind since this one is too ripe. Here. Try this."
I haven't had a peach this entire month. It was really good. I was sold.
I only wanted two, but he gave me 4 peaches for $1.
Very nice. I was starting to feel like I was at the 99-cents-only store, except everything was local and "spray free."

On my way out there was one little stand that had one box of apricots still out. This cute little old man was beckoning me over, so I went to try one. It was a great apricot. "No Sprays" according to the sign. $1/1lb. Again, sold. I gave him a dollar and said I'd take a pound, but he gave me a pound and a half and said "God Bless You."
Not bad.

I was in and out in 10 minutes, and I got some amazing stuff for a grand total of $6.

Now I am going to take Jasmine's advice and try to freeze those green beans.
Here goes.