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 Please excuse any out-of-date links, as I am no longer updating this blog on a regular basis.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

Julie

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Letter from Mom

The following is a guest post from my mother, Marianne Szeker Flynn. Mom has been kind enough to write to me a little bit about her experience with food growing up. Thanks Mom, I love you. Readers - Enjoy!

Julie,

Recognize that chubby girl in the photo?

It’s me, your madre, mother.

Can you see past the size and find me in there, just waiting to walk out?

I told you I came from a family of hardworking eastern European over-eaters, happiest with other relatives cooking, baking, eating and drinking (and I don’t mean water). Farmers from both sides of the family emigrated to America in the early 1900’s with hearty appetites and unforgettable eating traditions they passed on to me.

I remember rolling out Babka dough on the kitchen, pinching sweet tufts off the sides when it was baked and then smearing butter over thick slabs we’d toast. Or, how about learning the art of making cream puffs or stuffing potato into doughy crescents and then frying them in browned butter? Or eating all the bacon so you didn’t taste the fried liver! You see, we weren’t just eating smores-food for dessert, we were eating it all day long! Big surprise, I was a chubby kid.


Tea. 1953. My first experience of drinking tea began when I was about 4 years old and my Ukrainian grandmother, who didn’t speak any English, would call my friends and I up for “tea”. We ran up Sophie’s stairs and hugged her pillowy waist through the faded apron. She had diabetes, which I didn’t know about. She showed us how tea was made. First, 3 teaspoons of sugar, then cream. Lastly, dunk soft buttered rolls into the steamy liquid and watch the yellow swirls melt into the white cream.

Lunch. 1955. My best friend, Marie lived in a multi-family house with her grandmother, who had her specialties too. I’d go to her house for lunch occasionally and we’d eat spaghetti warmed up in butter and sauce until it was sticky. Or sometimes, she’d cut pork fat into kernels. We’d pop in the salty crunchy fat into our mouths like popcorn.

Dinner. 1956. Our new home in New Jersey. In my immediate family there were 4 of us, 3 with double chins. My one brother, your uncle Peter, was a rebel and avoided meals. He didn’t have a double chin. He was thin and handsome and all the girls at our new school wanted to meet him. Of course, I was fat, tall, and permed and usually called fatso. Or, fat bathtub. Never, ever understood what that meant. Ugh.

A lot of activity in the New Jersey house centered around the kitchen. Everyone congregated there, talking while my mother cooked. Our favorite food was fried chicken, which was fantastic. To this day I have never tasted fried chicken that beat my mother’s. MMMM… Deep pots of fat with floating sizzling chicken.

It took a long time to cook and talk. Dinner was often late, and when I complained I was getting hungry my mother would suggest buttering bread and putting gravy on it to hold us off. I ate buttered bread with gravy while I waited to eat the deep friend chicken. Really. That is how we ate.

SURPRISE. 2008. Mom has diabetes. At first, it scared me. I learned that I was probably eating 2-3 times more carbohydrates and fat than my body could process at one time. So, while I wasn’t overweight like my diabetic mother and grandmother had been, I looked older than I was. The extra carbs were turned to sugar which went into my bloodstream. The trouble is that oxygen is supposed to be in our bloodstream, not sugar.

Once I learned how to change my diet and got over the shock, I found that eating right really really isn’t that hard. I just took it one day at a time, and I had to re-teach myself how to eat. The food culture I grew up with certainly didn’t hold the answers. My new eating style felt like a game of choices. I can still have a lot of great foods, just not all of them in large quantities all of the time. I have to choose.

Hey, it gives me something frivolous and colorful to think about…counting strawberries, splitting my bananas in half so has not to overwhelm my body with sugar (even the natural kind!), savoring a few orange wedges. I discovered I don’t even like gravy. Give me olive oil and lemon juice. In moderation, of course.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Trust

Ok, this is pretty frightening. The LA Times published a piece recently titled Dialysis patients at risk from 'enhanced' meats. Apparently, two doctors from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey found that poorly labeled meat products in supermarkets can contain additives which are dangerous for dialysis patients.

Now, this might seem like an overly specific gripe, but hear me out.

Imagine your kidney have failed, maybe from Diabetes actually, and you are on dialysis. Since your body can no longer regulate the compounds circulating around in your blood properly, you are very vulnerable. You must rely on a dialysis machine to remove certain substances - extra phosphorus and potassium, for example.

You are most likely going to great lengths to monitor your diet and eat in a way that will keep your fragile body in balance. And, how are you going about that? Well, you are probably shopping at your local market, eating the foods your doctor suggests, and above all reading the labels of everything you consume.

Stop there.

You are reading the labels on the foods you buy and eat to make sure you are not going to create a dangerous imbalance in your now unregulated blood stream. Ok. So, you are putting a great deal of trust in the hands of the people who produce and label the food you buy. You are trusting that somewhere along the line your government has (1) required food companies to label their products with everything that you need to know and (2) enforced the labeling requirements to insure that the food companies actually follow through and do what they are required to do.

Well, Dr. Richard A. Sherman and Dr. Ojas Mehta of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey give us reason to think otherwise. They found that 8 of 25 random samples of meat and poultry plumped up with additives to make the meat more attractive (the term used was "enhanced") were not labeled properly.

In this case the improper labeling was highlighted because it posed a specific risk to dialysis patients. Managing a body with failed kidneys is hard enough already; having to worry that foods are not properly labeled or vetted before they hit the supermarket shelves should not have to be an additional concern.

Zoom out even more. In the context of what seems to be a growing number of food scares (think spinach, tomatoes, PEANUTS) this evidence of failed regulation and labeling is disconcerting.

Supermarkets carry massive amounts of processed foods. Lots of them that we all know are highly processed contain labels. Those labels can be really hard to read and understand, but at least we are on our guard when it comes to the foods they describe. Someone who must carefully monitor their diet would hopefully be aware that processed foods should be approached with caution. But what about foods that we don't consider to be "processed"? Foods that we don't approach with our guard up like meat, or eggs, or fruits or vegetables?

What if you are trying very hard to monitor your diet because you have failed kidneys, and your doctor says that chicken is ok for you to eat, and then it turns out that the chicken you trusted all these channels and safety checkpoints to deliver to you contains harmful ingredients that aren't even on the label? Ouch.

This specific example fits into the context of a larger problem. Can we really trust the big companies and supermarkets that get the food to our neighborhood stores to have our best interest at heart? Can we really be sure that the person who runs the huge poultry company 3,000 miles away from us cares that our loved one has failed kidneys and depends on proper food labeling to stay alive? I guess we can't.

With food producers so far removed from food consumers and with so little known about the health implications of processed and "enhanced" food products in the long term, eating in America today is fraught with danger.

I am immensely frustrated that even people who are overcoming massive barriers to make a real effort to watch what they eat might still be in danger. It seems that even being conscientious about food, consulting your doctor, and reading labels is not good enough anymore.

I don't know about you, but I am sticking to the Farmers' Market where I can feel at least a bit better about the ingredients in my food, and I'm continuing to steer clear of meat. Most vegetables don't have incorrect ingredients labels, at least. And while I do not pretend that Farmers' Markets are the perfect solution to safer food (soil and growing methods are always still a concern), at least my food producer has to look me in the eye when I thank him and skip off with a bag full of his peaches.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cigarettes and chocolate milk...

I found another article which draws a parallel between cigarette smoking an obesity. This comparison continues to be very intriguing to me whenever it pops up.

Smoking cigarettes, like eating a poor diet, is a bad behavior that negatively impacts our health.

Those of us that are smokers tend to wind up getting very sick and requiring treatment that costs our health care system, and thus our fellow tax payers, a great deal of cash. Similarly, the health consequence of obesity and related issues such as diabetes and heart disease are majorly straining the already floundering American health care.

For decades, billions of dollars went into making smoking not only socially acceptable but glamorous and sexy. I can't count how many times an adult around my parent's age has told me about the days when everyone smoked, when no one even knew smoking was a bad thing, when doctors endorsed certain brands of cigarettes as better than others. The same can be said of the Big Food industry, which has also spent billions and billions of dollars developing and marketing highly processed, sugar loaded products and making us think that eating them will somehow make us sexy. Just as changing the culture of smoking was challenging because the tobacco industry was so powerful, so has changing our food culture proved difficult in the face of food industry stakeholders. As Ellen Goodman says in her article, the culture of overweight America, like the culture of the American addiction to tobacco, "is not some collective collapse of national willpower, but a business plan."

Clearly, as Goodman also admits, the smoking/obesity comparison is not perfect. It all but ignores the barriers to healthy food access for low-income people which I have discussed in this blog, which suggest that smoking is a much more voluntary activity than consuming bad food.

Still, what interests me is the fact that in a matter of a few decades smoking cigarettes has fallen off of its pedestal. No longer is this bad habit a perfectly socially acceptable, openly admired practice. Once we discovered just how unhealthy it was, we slowly but surely shifted our societal view of smoking. We were up against one hell of a big, rich, and powerful industry, and it didnt' happen right away, but we did it. People still smoke, of course. But, they feel guilty about it. Our views have certainly changed.

I would really like to look at what made that shift possible, and see what parts of the anti-tobacco smoking movement might also work in an effort to make certain food consumption habits taboo as well.

Here is what Ellen Goodman has to say in her article "Is the public turning against big food?" :

Michael Osbun / Tribune Media Services
Published: Thursday, July 23, 2009 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 5:54 p.m.

What caught my eye was not just the ashtray sitting forlornly on the yard-sale table. It was the sign that marked it “vintage,” as if we needed to label this relic of midcentury America.


Click to enlarge
Ellen Goodman

Ashtrays that once graced every airline armrest, coffee table and office have gone the way of spittoons. Today the car’s cigarette lighter is used to juice up the cell phone. Ask any restaurant for the smoking section, and you’ll be shown the doorway.

If I had to pick the year attitudes changed, it would 1994, when seven CEOs of Big Tobacco came before Congress and swore that nicotine wasn’t addictive. A lobby too big to fail and too powerful to oppose began to lose clout. Smokers are no longer seen as sexy and glamorous but as the addicted dupes.

I don’t know that we will ever have such a dramatic moment in the annals of Big Food. But I have begun to wonder whether this is the summer when the (groaning) tables have turned on the obesity industry.

Now that two-thirds of Americans are overweight, the lethal effects of fat are catching up to those of smoke. We regularly hear the cha-ching of obesity costs in the health care debate. And we are beginning to see that Overweight America is not some collective collapse of national willpower, but a business plan.

A measure of the moment is “Food Inc.,” a documentary chronicling the costs to the land, worker and customer of a food industry that’s more grim factory than sylvan farm. A system that makes it cheaper to buy fast food than fresh food.

A more personal measure is David Kessler’s best-seller, “The End of Overeating,” which is both a thinking person’s diet book and an investigation into an industry that wants us to eat more.

The former head of the FDA had crusaded against smoking, but found himself helpless before a chocolate-chip cookie. So this yo-yo dieter set out to discover what exactly we’re up against.

Kessler is a scientist, not a conspiracy theorist. But he writes about how the food industry has learned to produce “hyperpalatable combinations of sugar, fat and salt” that not only appeal to us but “have the capacity to rewire our brains, driving us to seek out more and more of those products.”

And if words that Kessler uses like “craveability” and “conditioned hypereating” sound exaggerated, he takes you to an industry meeting where a food scientist on a panel called “Simply Irresistible” offers tips on “spiking” the food to make people keep eating. We eat more when more is on the plate. We eat more when snacks are ubiquitous, when flavors are layered on and marketed as “eatertainment.” As one food executive admitted to Kessler, “Everything that has made us successful as a company is the problem.”

Sometimes it seems that our consumer society sets up the same conflict again and again. Sophisticated marketing campaigns hard-sell everything from sex and cigarettes to the 1,010-calorie Oreo Chocolate Sundae Shake at Burger King. And we’re told to stay abstinent or tobacco-free or skinny by resisting them. We are even promised “Guiltless Grill” entrees at Chili’s that can weigh in at almost 750 calories and are only guilt-free when compared to an order of Texas cheese fries that tip the scales at 1,920 calories.

The analogy between Big Tobacco and Big Food is imperfect. You can’t quit eating or wear a food patch. We are also quite torn between “size acceptance” — a fight against the fat bias that has even been aimed at the new surgeon general nominee’s waistline — and criticizing fat as a health risk.

But if the campaign against smoking provides a model, it’s in the effort to label restaurant foods and expose the tactics of Big Food. It’s also in recasting the folks who bring us bigger food, drinks and snacks as obesity dealers. As Kessler writes, “The greatest power rests in our ability to change the definition of reasonable behavior. That’s what happened with tobacco — the attitudes that created the social acceptability of smoking shifted.” Are we the addicted dupes of the Frappuccino? The honchos at McDonald’s may never confess how the Big Mac made us bigger, and the food scientists at Frito-Lay may not explain why we “can’t eat just one” potato chip. But maybe this will be the year when an entree of chicken quesadillas with bacon, mixed cheese, ranch dressing and sour cream — 1,750 calories — begins to look just a little bit more like an ashtray.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

On Eating Alone

The social aspect of eating is an incredibly complex and, to me, interesting element of the food access equation. So far I have written about negative group eating culture, but what about eating alone? I live by myself, so I wind up eating alone most of the time. I thought this was worth investigating.

In general I find that I don't mind eating alone. In some regards it has helped me to be healthier.
I have complete control over the food that is in my apartment. There is no one else here to buy foods that will sabotage me; none of that "I don't buy this crap but it is in the house so I wind up eating it" excuse. My will power only has to go as far as the grocery store or Farmers' Mark, and that is not too hard. I am also free of all of the possible negative social pressures that are a part of eating with other people. No one offers me junk food at home, no one indulges in bad eating habits in front of me thus tempting me to do the same.

When I eat by myself, I am alone with the food I chose to buy and my eating habits, for better or for worse. This weekend I have had some very positive social eating experiences, and it made me realize that eating alone may not be all it is cracked up to be.

When I eat alone, there is no negative social eating pressure, but there is no positive social eating pressure either. Solo eating is also somewhat depressing. It becomes cruder. All the ritual and fanfare is sucked out and it becomes more about filling the belly than enjoying cuisine. When I'm alone, for example, I sometimes eat out of the pan because I don't want to wash an extra plate. Wow. That is so depressingly practical, to eat with more consideration for the dishes that will need to be washed than the eating experience itself.

I also tend to read or flip through a catalogue while I eat when I am alone. That means I am distracted and not focusing on my food in a way that will help me register that I am full.

I get lazy too. I won't heat leftovers up sometimes, I'll just eat them cold. They are much less satisfying that way. So, when I am done eating I still feel unfulfilled because the eating experience has not been pleasurable, and I go back for more regardless of weather or not I need more food. When I am alone I am more likely to "graze" through an entire mealworth of food. I'll eat standing up. I'll eat with the fridge door open. I would never do that kind of thing if I didn't live and eat alone.

This weekend's eating experiences were different. Quite healthy in fact.

The first positive experience happened on Friday night. After I loaded up on produce from the Farmers' Market, I hit the kitchen and started cooking for two. I made kale in a sauce of garlic, cumin, and tomatoes. I made a salad of various colorful tomatoes with red onion, cracked pepper, and lemon basil. I steamed some brown rice in Miso broth, and then my friend Rashi arrived. We ate and chatted. It was leisurely and social. I noticed that I ate much more slowly because I was focused more on catching up with my friend than I was on shoveling food into my mouth. Rashi is a slow and patient eater, and I found myself matching her pace. She did not go back for seconds after her plate was clean, and so neither did I.

If she had not been there I would have engaged in one of my bad eating-alone food habits: eating more as I pack up the food and wash the dishes. Since I cook in bulk portions most of the time, there is always a lot of food around on cooking days. I find that as I return to the counter to wash my dishes and put all that extra food in Tupperware containers I tend to eat a few more spoonfuls of everything. Before I know it I have eaten too much.

The second good eating experience happened yesterday. I ate a delicious and healthy lunch with a family and their friends at a lovely beach house. The eating environment was very pleasant; we were outside on a terrace near the ocean, about 10 of us gathered around the table. People were quite relaxed and happy. There were bowls of salad, fruit, vegetables, and burger condiments all over the table. Again, the pace of eating was slower because everyone was chatting. I was also aware that everyone at the table ate very reasonable portions and didn't continually go back for more. I followed their lead. Eating more food, in most cases, required asking others at the table to pass the food around. If I was going to eat more fruit salad, everyone was going to notice; I had to announce it with a loud "Could you please pass me the fruit?" I found this simple fact deterred me from eating too much. If the other 10 people at the table have totally stopped eating and you are continually asking them to pass you more food, you feel embarassed. In this case the social pressure was not about over eating, it was about reasonable portions and eating slowly.

This meal really made me realize how positive eating around a table with ones family can be if your family members have healthy, reasonable eating habits. Especially when it comes to small children, eating as a family can be a crucial teaching environment about food consumption. This page from the Washington State University offers a good breakdown of the pros and cons of eating together with one's family.

My own experience suggests that while eating alone can be beneficial for me, it is also probably a good idea to make an effort to eat with others more often. It will slow me down and allow me to observe and hopefully adopt the positive eating habits of others. I also understand how a single low-income senior citizen living alone on food stamps might wind up with some eating habits that reflect a lonely, depressing eating environment. Or, how a 10 year old girl who is put in front of the television with a bag of chips before dinner might eat the whole thing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

1/2 Cup of Food is Not Much

Vegetables Examples of 1 serving:
Drawings of examples of one serving of vegetables: 1/2 cup of cooked carrots or 1/2 cup of cooked green beans or 1 cup of salad.

Examples of 2 servings:
Drawings of examples of two serving of vegetables: 1/2 cup of cooked carrots plus 1 cup of salad or 1/2 cup of vegetable juice plus 1/2 cup of cooked green beans.

Examples of 3 servings:
Drawings of examples of three serving of vegetables: 1/2 cup of cooked greens plus 1/2 cup of cooked green beans and one small tomato or 1/2 cup of  broccoli plus 1 cup of tomato sauce.

Before I launch into the Diabetic on Food Stamps scenario and try to stick to the portions above, I want to take a look at what an average eating day is for me.

This week has been a very average eating week:

  • I am eating a vegetarian diet.
  • I am working with fruits and vegetables bought at last Friday's Farmers' Market (about $25 worth) and a few items from A-Grocery Warehouse (about $12).
  • Tomorrow is shopping day again, and I have a surplus (as usual). I still have enough for about 5 meals left. Since I have extra food, I will spend even less this week to even it out.
  • While this is not a perfect quote, I estimate that I have consumed about $30 worth of groceries this week.
  • On one occasion I did go out to lunch. The salad and Tadzhik cost me $11. The splurge of the week. It was nice. Worth it.
  • I have actually hovered pretty comfortably around the $30/week food budget, minus that one time I ate out. This has become typical for me. Now that I have learned how to eat this cheaply, I haven't really gone back to blowing $70/week a Whole Foods. The only difference is that I do go out once or twice a week for cheap meals now that I am not doing the Vegan on Food Stamp Challenge.
Within this average week, today was an average day:
  • For breakfast I ate 1/2 cup (1 serving) of oatmeal with a teaspoon of natural honey and some cinnamon. This was a carefully measured serving since oatmeal requires the right ratios of oats to water. I ate it at my desk because I had been in a rush in the morning.
  • At around 10am I accepted my cubicle-mate's offer of "Chocolate Roasted Almonds." I am not proud of this decision. First of all, I have a thing against any food that comes in a 100 Calorie Pack. That tends to mean right of the bat that it is: (1) In a pack. So, packaged and processed food. (2) Probably bad enough for me that I shouldn't eat a lot of it. And, (3) Likely addicting in the "Once you pop you just can't stop" kind of snack food way. Best to steer clear. But, I didn't. I ate one of those 100 Calorie Packs. And I felt guilty.
    http://www.emeraldnuts.com/press/images/Cocoa%20Roast%20100%20Calorie%20pack%20boxes.jpg
  • For lunch I had about 1 1/2 cups of brown rice and 1 1/2 cups of lentils with curry, almonds, spinach, and some other spices. I probably didn't need to eat that much, but I did because that was how much was in my Tupperware containers.
  • I ate about 10 Organic baby carrots with (I am guessing here) 1/2 cup of Ceder's Original Hummus. That was at about 3:30pm.
  • At 4:30 I accepted a Watermelon flavored Jolly Rancher candy. Lots of sugar all over my teeth. Whatever. Everyone else was having one.
  • I got home from Boxing at 8:30. By 9pm I had eaten: 1 1/2 cups of zucchini cooked in a bit of olive oil and soy sauce, half a steamed ear of corn, 3 bites of lentils (same ones as lunch - my fridge is stocked) and 1/2 cup of brown rice. I kind of wanted more food but I kicked myself out of the kitchen.

Starches Examples of 1 serving:
Drawings of examples of one serving of starch: one slice of bread or one small potato or 1/2 cup of cooked cereal or 3/4 cup of dry cereal flakes or one 6-inch tortilla.

Examples of 2 servings:
Drawings of examples of two servings of starch: one small potato plus one small ear of corn or two slices of bread.

Examples of 3 servings:
Drawings of examples of three servings of starch: one small roll plus 1/2 cup of peas plus one small potato or 1 cup of rice.

How did I do? I am going to look at how many servings I had of each of the items listed on the Meal Plan guide chart from my last post, and I am using the serving size guidelines posted on that same page (some of which are pictured in this post):

Vegetables: About 4 cups or 8 servings
Starches: About 2 cups or 6 servings
Fruits: Wait, Watermelon Jolly Ranchers don't count as fruit? ZERO
Milks: ZERO
Meat and Meat Substitutes: ZERO
Fats: 4 servings (Olive oil for cooking + the crap junk food)

So, based on my meal plan chart that is way too many vegetables (8 not 3 servings), on point with starches, too many fats/junk food items, and no fruits, dairy, or meat substitutes. I am not sure if the lack of fruit, dairy, or meat substitutes is necessarily a bad thing. And, I don't think that too many vegetables to compensate for these other categories is a bad thing either. What do you think, nutritionist readers?

I think I'm going to be ok on this diet. It will be hard for me to always say no to sweet things; I have a sweet tooth. I'm going to have to watch my starches too. I was quite close today. I am concerned though, about how many times I am going to have to say no to food that people offer me or avoid dangerous/tempting food environments like office birthdays etc. How isolating will this be?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Why Diabetes?


My next challenge is quickly approaching. I have chosen to explore barriers to accessing healthy and sustainable food on a budget through the lens of a disease that is common among minority populations in America: Diabetes.

The American Diabetes Association tells us that 23.6 million people in the United States, or 8% of the population, have diabetes. The disease is alarmingly more common each year. From 2005-2007, the total prevalence of diabetes increased 13.5%.

About 95% of people with Diabetes have type 2 or late onset diabetes. Type 2 Diabetes is strongly linked to a sedentary life style, poor diet, race/ethnicity, and obesity . In fact, the International Diabetes Federation states that 80% of people with type 2 Diabetes are overweight.

Spending on Diabetes is also a major concern. Right now, lawmakers in America are struggling to create a better health care system. I think they need to take a hard look at what is going on with Diabetes and the broken food system that is so rapidly increasing its prevalence.

Last Fall news outlets all over America highlighted a study by researchers from the University of Chicago and Stanford University. The study found that the cost of drugs for Type 2 Diabetes cared had DOUBLED from 2001-2007. We are developing and prescribing new drugs to treat Diabetes, and spending more and more money on them even though not everyone seems to agree about just how effective the new drugs are. Another study by the American Diabetes Association study titled Economic Costs of Diabetes in the U.S. in 2007 concludes that the total national cost of Diabetes in 2007 was $174 billion. That $174 billion is comprised of $116 billion in medical costs, and $58 billion in lost productivity resulting from the disease.

That is a hell of a lot of money spent on a disease that is, in most cases, preventable. I want to explore just how difficult it is to stick to a Diabetes Menu Plan on a SNAP/Food Stamp budget. Nicole Laverty, Dietitian at Manna, a non-profit organization in Philadelphia which delivers nourishing meals to low-income people with life threatening diseases, suggested several great resources to me. I found the following on the website for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

How much should I eat each day?

Have about 1,200 to 1,600 calories a day if you are a

  • small woman who exercises
  • small or medium-sized woman who wants to lose weight ** This is me
  • medium-sized woman who does not exercise much
Choose this many servings from these food groups to have 1,200 to 1,600 calories a day:
6 starches 2 milks
3 vegetables 4 to 6 ounces meat and meat substitutes
2 fruits up to 3 fats

Now, clearly in order to follow the above chart I am going to have to investigate just what a "serving" of my favorite foods really looks like. Serving sizes in America are much too large, and while I eat healthful foods, I know that small portions are not my strong point.

In preparation for this challenge I'm going to start measuring my food. I bet I'll be in for a shock!

Monday, July 20, 2009

List


After about 4 hours on hold at AT&T (where I jammed out to "your-call-is-very-important-to-us" Musak the whole time) my Internet is back up and running. I haven't blogged in a week so this is a bit overwhelming. So much to say.

When I am overwhelmed I find making lists helps me out, so this post will be a bit list-ish. Hope you don't mind. Since we last spoke:

1. I have fallen in love with my local Farmers' Market. For awhile I found making it to the Farmers' Market was bit of a pain. The one closest to me was only open on Fridays from 3-7pm, and getting to it required me to skip my boxing workout. I wasn't sure if it was much cheaper than A-Grocery Warehouse, and it was generally difficult to get myself to go. Despite all those deterrents, I finally made a public commitment on this blog to work harder at buying local and Organic, and during this period of Internet malfunction induced silence I have indeed followed through. Three Fridays in a row I have made it to the Farmers' Market. I am now officially hooked.

The biggest draw, for me, is that I am actually beginning to establish relationships with the people who produce my food. I have talked to the soap maker about how his mother taught him to make soap and candles when he was a child growing up in Mexico. After 3 weeks, he remembers me and knows my name. I have befriended the hunched little Jewish man who sells plumbs and peaches, and I let him convince me to buy fresh prunes this week. I'd never tried them before, but after a few taste tests I was sold. I talked to the girl who sold me Lemon Basil last week about how I incorporated her fresh herbs into my cooking, and I bought Cinnamon Basil this time around on her suggestion. I told the honey vendor about my seasonal allergy problem, and she convinced me that a teaspoon of local honey a day will help my immune system build up a resistance to local pollen. She told me to report back to her through the coming months about my allergy problems; she wants to know if her local honey improves my health. Wow. My local food producer actually cares about my health. Imagine that.

Granted, there are some things I still can't buy at the Farmers' Market. For those items I do have to trek to A-Grocery Warehouse. But, after I have begun to befriend my local farmers I don't mind the extra trip. It is seriously worth it for me to put in that extra effort to make it to the Farmers' Market in my neighborhood, and shopping there hasn't even broken the bank. I am still comfortably within a $40/week or so budget for food. I think I spent around $30 this week so far, and I have no doubt that I can make it to next Friday on the food I have right now.

2. I have been inspired by several other people working hard to make their communities healthier. First, there is Elenor Brownn, founder of Sisters Staying Healthy - a group devoted to supporting black women in their quest to improve their health. After she learned that black women were among the most unhealthy population in America, Elenor embarked on a crusade to organize her peers and help them get healthy. Click on her name to read the LA Times article which tells her story.

Then, there is the 12 year old boy who I posted about earlier today. His blog, Happy Chickens Lay Healthy Eggs, is a fantastic resource. It makes me feel genuinely optimistic about the future of our food culture. He posted trailers about the HOME project movie, which is really worth seeing as well.

Finally, I have talked to several people in my office who are making a concerted effort to improve their diet. This may seem like a little thing, but it isn't. In the span of 1 week I have talked to three of my co-workers about their efforts to get heathier. I am not sure if they have chosed to talk to me about their own efforts because they know about my blog and my Food Stamp Challenge, but either way it has inspired me. One person has sworn off soda. Another is counting her calories and cutting back portions. Talking to people in my immediate community about their efforts to get healthier has inspired me to keep on track and continue to improve my own diet. I am all the more convined that the food choices of our family members and co-workers have a major influence on how we eat and weather or not we succeed in making healthy choices.

3. I have done some major research about Diabetes. As soon as I run out of the food I bought at this week's market, I am going to embark on a 1 week, $30 Diabetes Challenge. I have been overwhelmed by the amount of resources out there for Dibetics. I am glad it is out there, but it also reminds me how prevelant Diabetes truly is. From my research thus far, it seems like my Diabetes challenge will be all about vegetables, whole grains, limited intake of sweets and fruits and above all PORTION CONTROL.

This is going to be very difficult for me. I am good at eating veggies and whole grains. I am good at avoiding junk food. I am NOT good at eating small portions. I imagine that measuring everything out to insure that I do not take in too much of any food at once will be difficult. Stay tuned!

Back in action!


WOOOO HOOOO my internet is FIXED.

I am cooking a huge batch of lentils and will do a full post after. Dancing to music, drinking Sangria made w/ plums and peaches bought at the Echo Park Farmers' Market.

For now, I want to share my new favorite blog.

12 year food activist. Awesome. His motto is : Happy Chickens Lay Healthy Eggs. Follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/HappyChickens.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Truck Farm

The Internet in my apartment is completely out of commission so I have not been able to post. I am working to get this technical glitch taken care of this weekend, and in the mean time I am researching for the Diabetic on $30/week scenario (which will start next week assuming my Internet is up and running). If anyone has any resources they recommend for creating a good Diabetic Meal Plan, please pass them along in the comments section.

For now, I want to share this quick video clip with you. I love this idea. If you don't have a roof to farm on, why not try the bed of an old pick up truck? Urban Farming at its most creative!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Money Talks

BIG and exciting news.

Many of you may have read a post I wrote in early June for the website change.org. In this post I explored why so few SNAP/Food Stamp recipients redeem their benefits at Farmers' Markets in their neighborhoods, despite the fact that many local governments have gone to great lengths to make sure the markets accept them.

While the benefits of shopping at Farmers' Markets are many, they are often not enough to outweigh issues relating inconvenience and unfamiliarity, which drive low-budget shoppers away. Many of the benefits, such as supporting local farmers, protecting the environment and avoiding pesticides are just not as valuable or important to people who are wondering where their next meal will come from and are living in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence. My own experience living on a tight food budget proved to me that there would have to be some major incentives to make Farmers' Market shopping more attractive to America's urban poor.

Enter the Wholesome Wave Foundation.

Did someone say major incentives?

Well, how about DOUBLING the value of SNAP/Food Stamp benefits when they are redeemed for Farmers' Market produce? I know it would get me to go to a Farmers' Market. That is for sure.

Through various funding sources, the Wholesome Wave Foundation has been able to offer SNAP/Food Stamp recipients this incredible deal. When the money available for food is doubled, waking up early on a Saturday to hit the Farmers Market is suddenly worth it.

What I really love about this program is the fact that it speaks to what really motivates people: MONEY. Education about nutrition and the impact that individual shopping choices have on the environment and small farmers is all well and good. It might persuade people to alter their behavior. But, the truth is that financial incentives will always be much stronger than the slow patient persuasion of education and outreach. The Double Value Coupon Program provides a no-nonsense incentive that is hard to ignore. It is rare to see a social program cut to the chase so well. It seems very raw, and I really like that.

I have no doubt that this program will motivate many more people to shop at Farmers Markets. I hope that a few months of doubled benefits will be enough to get people hooked on Farmers Market shopping so that they return even without the powerful financial incentive. People get into routines in life, and food shopping is no exception. The misconceptions and worries that often prevent people from changing their patterns can be cleared up by introducing new ways of doing things, but you have to make it worth it for individuals to part with their comfortable routine. No one really likes venturing into the unknown all that much at first. It is scary. It is risky. It is, well, unknown. So, doubling people's money if they're willing to try something new is really a great idea.

At first I had trouble going to Farmers' Markets because of the limited hours and extra effort it required. I recently pledged to work a bit harder to prioritize local and organic buying, and I have thus wound up at the Echo Park Farmers' Market the last two Fridays in a row. Even without a doubled dollar, I am falling in love with going to the Market. Sure, it is annoying that I have to worry about parking meters and can only shop during a three hour window. But, I am starting to get to know the farmers and the produce quality is incredible. I find that I am starting to get hooked. I am forming a good habit. All I needed was a kick in the pants to get myself there.

I can't help but imagine what would happen this type of thing happened all across our food system. What if a salad was cheaper than a fast-food burger? What if the price of local, in season produce plummeted while the price of Oreos and Wheat Thins stayed the same? What if we did't have to try quite so hard to eat healthfully and sustainably? It just reminds me how truly messed up it is that calorie dense, nutrient poor, highly processed foods are so cheap and convenient in America. The food industry has made it so incredibly easy to fail at keeping yourself healthy, especially if you don't have much time or money to spend on quality food. While I am excited that this type of incentive is being offered, I also can't help but be a bit sad that it is necessary to incentivize healthy food habits so heavily.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Chinatown: Food as Medicine


I just got back from my first visit to Chinatown in Los Angeles.

In LA, unlike San Francisco or New York, Chinatown seems to get lost in the list of interesting ethnic neighborhoods, trumped by Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Little Ethiopia and any of the colorful Hispanic boroughs. Nonetheless, I found this little area east of Downtown a very interesting experience in food culture.

My first observation was that grocery stores were very different. Today, most large American grocery stores have several elements: they sell food, household goods, plenty of toiletries and over the counter drugs, and might have one of those "Seasonal" aisles in the middle with themed items depending on the time of year. Some have full service pharmacies, but in most cases the filling of prescriptions and the buying of Tylenol is left to the big pharmacy chains.

Not so in the Chinese grocery stores I saw today. These were relatively small, neighborhood establishments without a huge amount of floor space to sell their products. Yet, again and again I noticed that each grocery store had an entire section (and team of staff) devoted to healing herbs and teas. The pharmacy was in the grocery store. Every time.

This is probably because Traditional Chinese Medicine puts substantial emphasis on the relationship between diet and health. I am no Chinese Medicine expert, but I do know that experts in this area view food as a vital tool in the quest to restore balance and harmony to organ systems and thus cure illness.

The thought that a diet which is out of balance, unhealthy, or generally taxing to the body might be the root cause of a lot of human ailments does make a lot of sense. It is logical to wed food and medicine, as these Chinatown grocery stores seem to do. But, when Super Stop & Shop puts food and medicine together it is a white or metal pharmacy counter stuck as far away from the produce section as possible, dispensing transparent orange bottles with neat white labels. A lot of these transparent orange bottles contain pills to counteract or cure the sicknesses that result eating too much of the "food" items that take up the rest of the store.

When Chinese super markets put food and medicine together it seems to be much more organic. There are herbs in clear jars right next to the teas, and bulk bins of medicinal roots next to bulk bins of rice. The distinction between food and medicine is blurred. The whole thing seems more fluid. Food and medicine and mixed together because they are in harmony with one another.

I also noticed that the proportion of processed and packed foods was very small. Instead of dominating the entire center of the store, processed foods were in one tiny section at the end of a row. Most of the items sold in the Chinatown grocer were raw food items.

Further down the street I found another type of food shop: the candy store. This was really incredible. Way to the back of the shop there was a small section of items that I recognized as "Candy" - chocolates, highly processed candy bars, a few American name brands. The rest of the shop was filled with huge glass drums of dried fruits or sea creatures. You could get dried spicy crabs, shaved dried octopus that looked kind of like shaved coconut, dried lychee, pickled mangoes... any type of natural sweet snack you could imagine. You could taste everything: every single one of these drums had a cup inside with bit sized pieces and toothpicks. (Take that, Whole Foods.) There were no packages with name brands or advertisements. No nutrition labels. No ingredients labels because the name on the jar - "Pickled Mango" - said it all. The place was really bustling. I couldn't get over how different the selection was from the candy aisle at Walgreens.

Quite a culture shock. Right here in my home town.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Obesity: Gobbling California Whole


Today, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy released a study titled The Economic Costs of Overweight, Obesity and Physical Inactivity Among California Adults – 2006.

The CCPHA worked with a consulting firm to estimate just how much obesity, overweight, and physical inactivity cost the state of California in health care expenditures and lost productivity.

So, just how much does obesity cost the Golden State?

CCPHA says 41 billion dollars.

I am wary of the category of "lost productivity" as this seems very difficult to accurately measure. So, lets pretend we cut out the cost of obesity, overweight and inactivity in terms of lost productivity and just focus on the health care costs of these three conditions. The number is still pretty astounding: $20.7 billion in health care costs associated with the three conditions, according to this report.

The state of California started issuing IOUs this week. It is dealing with a budget deficit of about $24.3 billion right now, and counting. Be careful, it would be an over simplification to juxtapose those two numbers and say that California's budget deficit could be solved if everyone the state shaped up and got healthy. But, considering the current budget deficit does put that $20.7 billion number in perspective.

Right now people are panicking about a $24.3 billion budget deficit. That number is high enough to be a panic number. So, I don't think it is too much to say, at least, that any public health issue that is costing us anything in the ballpark of $20 billion (and remember, I am cutting the reported cost estimate of this study in HALF already) is cause for major concern.

The exciting thing about this study is that it makes a good case for some of the preventative measures such as education and social services to reduce obesity that are often cut when funding is tight. It seems that it might really be worth it to invest in creating better food environments and helping people learn to be healthier.

Obesity is really a tough issue though. In one sense, health problems resulting from obesity and overweight can be viewed as voluntarily begotten, like the problems that result from cigarette smoking. NPR ran a story today about the fact that states all over the nation are hiking cigarette or "vice" taxes; apparently this tends to be a popular fund raising tactic in a recession. Mississippi State Rep. Cecil Brown is all for taxing people whose voluntary bad health choices drain the state coffers. He was quoted as saying:

"The Medicaid budget in our state is just about to eat us alive, and a substantial number of people who are on Medicaid are smokers. If people are going to choose to smoke and it's a voluntary activity, and they are costing the other taxpayers in the state money, then they should contribute to the cost."

Does the same go for obesity? Is obesity really a condition arrived at by purely voluntary activity?

My own experience living on a low budget would suggest that it isn't, at least not in all cases. Sourcing healthy and affordable food is quite challenging, and many low income neighborhoods do not support good food choices. As my blog has explored, the elements like time, money, culture, social conditioning, education, and geographical layout of food sources all come into play.

Whats more, the fact that obesity and poverty are very clearly linked suggests that obesity has quite a bit to do with lack of education and financial resources. But, I am not going to totally let the citizens of America and Los Angeles County (where the rates of financial costs of obesity, overweight, and inactivity were the highest) off the hook totally here. A portion of the obesity problem is also the result of laziness, apathy, lack of desire to change, and straight up over consumption of shit quality food items that people know are bad for them. We're at a point where we know Big Macs are too big and no good, but we're still in the drive through line, and that has to be addressed.

I would not say that obesity is voluntary, but it is a condition we can do something about. It is not a disease without a cure. It is the direct result of poor diet and lack of exercise. Punto. As far as I'm concerned, this is just another call to action across the board from dining rooms to urban planning maps and legislative offices.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Variety


While I am not technically in the middle of any On-Food-Stamps scenario right now, I have been trying to eat on an extremely tight budget for the past two weeks. (See my post "This is not a test.")

I am happy to report that I have done pretty well. Two weeks ago I made it through most of the week on about $11 worth of groceries and a few items already stored up in my cupboard. This week I have spent $20 and have more than enough food left to get me through the week. Apparently my 1 month, $31/week Vegan scenario really taught me the ins and outs of budget shopping, eh?

Hunger has not been an issue at all. In fact, sometimes I have eaten too much and been overly full. What is beginning to concern me is that my diet seems very out of balance.

In order to eat cheaply and within my dietary restrictions (I am a vegetarian), I have had to stick to a few simple and cheap foods.

On Sunday night of this week, for example, I cooked a huge batch of lentils with tomatoes, onions, garlic and a touch of miso. I also prepared about 6 servings of quinoa. I am a big fan of both of these foods, and I don't really mind eating them over and over again. I accept that food boredom is just sort of part of the picture if you want to save money.

What concerns me are the potential health implications of this lack of variety.

For 4 straight days now 1 of my meals has consisted entirely of well cooked and then reheated lentils and quinoa. Tomorrow will make day 5 of this meal.

Breakfast has had a bit more variety - toast with peanut butter and oatmeal, a banana on two days, and today a fried egg over quinoa.

For three dinners straight I have eaten the same Japanese Eggplant with spinach which I sauteed in olive oil and cumin.

All of these foods are pretty healthy. However, I am getting the exact same nutrients over and over. I am not eating anything raw or uncooked. While I am not a raw food diet die hard, I do know that cooking food decreases its nutrient value and that having some raw food in my diet is very important. My grain intake consists of qunioa, for the most part, again and again.

Here is my dilemma. I do have the ingredients in my fridge and in my cupboard to have more variety each day. I could have cooked a smaller batch of qunioa and made brown rice for a few days before returning to qunioa again, for example. But, variety would really cost me time.

Cooking in bulk saves me tons of time. I have eaten 5 lunches this week off of a single 3 hour lentil and quinoa cooking session on Sunday, and that extra time is very valuable. I am discovering that variety and bulk cooking do not go together.

I am really curious about the health implications of eating the same food over and over for a week at a time or longer.

Lentils and quinoa have been major staples for me for two weeks now. The combo is cheap, filling, low-fat and good for me. I have now become very familiar with my favorite method for preparing these foods, so cooking time is shorter. Me, and my lentils and quinoa have a routine and I like that. I doubt I will switch out lentils for beans next week; experimenting with a new food would slow me down. Suddenly I really understand how easy it is to get into a deep food rut. When you find something that is cheap, satisfying, and easy for you to prepare, it is very hard to diversify.

I am not a nutritionist, so I am not sure if my concern over lack of variety in this case is valid. I wonder, at what point does eating the same foods over and over negatively impact a person's health? I suppose it depends on the balance created by those foods, but I am finding that I am eating a huge proportion of cooked vegetables and whole grains. Not too much fruit. Hardly anything raw. Should I be both worried AND bored?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What Do Sub-Saharan Africa and South Central Los Angeles Have in Common?


Malnutrition, apparently.

This past weekend, Dr. Cyril O. Enwonwu, a professor of molecular biology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, wrote in to the Baltimore Sun pointing out that in some cases overweight children also suffer from malnutrition.

This excerpt draws a comparison between two 14-year-old boys, one suffering from malnutrition in Nigeria, the other suffering from the malnutrition in Baltimore:

Today, global health research tells us that malnutrition is as much about what we eat as what we do not; it is either a lack of adequate food or an overabundance of nutritionally bankrupt foods.

Take a 14-year-old African-American boy living in Baltimore. Like many Americans, he eats too much junk food, while watching hours of television or playing video games.

He knows he is obese. What he doesn't know is that his body is starving for omega–3 fatty acids and other essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals required for good development and health.

Now take a 14-year-old boy from Nigeria. He has poor, uneducated parents and has to share a small bowl of rice and legumes with his three siblings every day. He walks several miles to school daily, often in intense heat. He is emaciated and frequently endures pangs of hunger. For Nigerian children like this, malnutrition usually starts before they are born due to poor prenatal care.

They are an ocean apart, yet both boys suffer from malnutrition, ranging from undernutrition with resulting short stature and below normal weight for the Nigerian to overconsumption of high-fat foods with little or no exercise leading to obesity for the American.

Clearly, the overall quality of life for a low income American is much much higher than that of an impoverished Nigerian. If I had to choose between being an obese boy in Baltimore and a starving boy in Nigeria, I would pick a life in "Charm City" in a minute. This is in no way meant to compare the two situations overall.

What I am glad that Dr. Enwonwu pointed out is simply that the face of malnutrition is not necessarily that of an African child with a distended belly. Malnutrition is also the much too chubby kid in the housing projects of an American city. Malnutrition is a problem that I doubt many Americans would claim; it falls into the "that doesn't happen in my country" category.

Unfortunately, malnutrition does happen here, in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world. I guess our food system is indeed that broken. I am embarrassed.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Big Fat F


Today, the Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released the 6th annual version of their study called "F as in Fat, 2009."

Their findings?

Well, simply put, too many Americans are too fat. The obesity epidemic is threatening our health care system and the productivity of our country as a whole.

I guess this isn't really a surprise, but a few facts that blew me away:
  • Currently, two-thirds of American adults are either obese or overweight.
  • In 1991, no state had an obesity rate above 20 percent. In 1980, the national average for adult obesity was 15 percent.
  • Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since 1980.
  • 9 of the 10 states with the highest rates of obese and overweight children are also states that rank as having the highest rates in poverty. (Ok, we know there is a correlation between poverty and obesity but that fact sure drives the point home, eh?)
I am just really having trouble getting my head around the fact that 2 out of every 3 adults in America have an obesity problem. In a lot of communities, that means, being overweight is not only socially acceptable but it is the norm. The physical health consequences of obesity are often talked about, but I am more concerned about what it says about our mental and emotional health. What is going on in our families and our communities when a health issue that is very preventable is so widespread?

To me, this is an outrageous problem. I'm pissed. But, I'm not sure where to direct that outrage.

Natalie pointed out a recent story for me that serves as a great analogy for my outrage direction dilemma. Recently, a Baltimore mother was charged with neglect when authorities deemed her 14 year old son's weight had become a major concern. The kid weighed 555 pounds.

That level of obesity, like the level of obesity in America as a whole, is crazy. But, who is at fault?

The mother? Maybe, but the poor lady worked multiple low wage jobs and probably didn't know how to handle her son's problem. She says that she couldn't make the many appointments that social service officials tried to make her attend to get her son's weight under control. She couldn't afford the gas.

The son? I mean, 14 is old enough to know when to stop, right? But then I think that the poor guy probably wasn't having an easy time with his mom gone all the time working these jobs to try to make ends meet. Maybe he was eating as a comfort. Maybe no one ever taught him how to address loneliness or emotional difficulties in a healthy way.

What about social service officials? They claim they tried to intervene but that the mother wouldn't cooperate. But what I want to know is, how realistic were the demands they placed on her given her level of poverty and lack of free time?

In the end, the blame for this kid's obesity, like our nation's, could go a lot of places. The full version of F as in Fat 2009 study calls primarily on the US Government to step in and take control of America's weight problem but I'm not totally convinced. While legislative reform is important, it can also be very slow and in this case might seem a bit too Big Brother if administered incorrectly.

I am still a fan of quiet dinner table revolutions. I think we might be able to see more tangible, personal change that strengthens our communities if we step up as individuals to lead by example in our various spheres of influence.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Lead a Meal-time Revolution



The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research released a policy brief recently that suggests that parents' eating habits play a significant role in teen obesity.

The study, titled Teen Dietary Habits Related to Those of Parents, found that adolescents are more likely to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day if their parents do. Contrarily, teens whose parents eat fast food or drink soda are more likely to do the same.

The study also pointed to very poor food environments in low-income areas as a major concern.

Read an abridged version of the findings here.

The overall theme of this study to me was that our environments have a major impact on what we eat. Bad food habits in family kitchens will lead us to bad food choices for all of the individuals in that family. And, if our neighborhood food culture centers around the liquor store on the corner we're probably not going to eat too well either. I am not surprised that this UCLA study has found that the eating habits of individuals, especially children and teens, are affected by the food environments that surround them.

I know I have found that I eat differently depending on who I am with and what type of environment I'm in. I also know that I have absorbed a great deal of information and social conditioning about food from my parents and my social network over the years. In my case most of this has been positive, luckily. But, if you are a 14 year old boy living in South Central Los Angeles this is likely not the case.

More likely you've been fed a lot of fast food by a mother who is struggling, alone, to hold down two jobs and feed you something, anything, when dinnertime rolls around. You probably haven't developed much of a taste for vegetables over the years, and you certainly don't know how to cook some of the weird stuff that shows up in that Farmers' Market that cropped up in your neighborhood last year. Most days after school you and your friends hit up the hot dog lady with the push cart of crackling greasy sausages outside your school. Maybe you go to the Mini-mart (which is the only place to buy food in walking distance of your house) to get chips or Coca-Cola. Even if your mom did pack you an organic apple for an after school snack, you'd be laughed at if you passed on Hot Cheetos to eat it.

Bad food environments and habits don't only exist in low-income urban areas, though. While poverty and obesity are very strongly linked, overweight and poor diet are problems that transcend class in America. Honestly, we're all pretty fat, and most of us aren't eating too well, weather we are poor or rich.

I grew up in a place very different from the food deserts in South Central that I often focus on in this blog. I grew up in a semi-rural, upper-class Connecticut town. While most of the food information I absorbed as a child was relatively positive, there were certainly some problems. I was greatly influenced by a culture of overeating in my house and among my peers. To this day I am still trying to get my portion sizes under control.

I was a child that grew up with a wealth of processed after school snacks - Fruit by the Foot! Pop-Tarts! Handi-Snacks! Dunk-a-roos! Those rolls of slice-and-bake cookies (we always just ate the dough and gave up on baking cookies). In the teenage years it was restaurants. My family and friends and I would go out to dinner pretty often, and we would eat until we were stuffed. Everyone would admit that they were very full, but we'd order a dessert to split anyway. Then we'd all moan and laugh about how overly-full we were; sometimes it was downright physically uncomfortable but totally socially acceptable. In the morning we'd all head to the gym or hit the trails to run off that 600 calorie dinner of Chilean sea bass on couscous followed by a "famous" flour-less chocolate cake. Next weekend, we'd do it again.

There was always this weird glut and guilt thing going on in my childhood food environment. No one was obese really, but there was a back-and-forth between habitual overeating and strict dieting. The concept of smaller controlled portions as a lifestyle wasn't really there. Instead of eating until I wasn't hungry anymore and then putting my fork down, I learned to eat until the food was gone or I was going to burst. I learned to eat too much and feel really guilty about food. Granted, urban food deserts are certainly more of a struggle, but my experience illustrates that even in upper-class rural Connecticut we absorb the bad food habits present in our environment.

This UCLA study gives me some real hope though. If people are so significanly impacted by the eating habits of those around them, then one individual's shift to a healthy diet can have a real impact in their social circle. (Enter Michael Jackson with "Man in the Mirror: "If you want to make the world a better place take a look at yourself and make that change..." - see previous post.)

I have heard many people tell me that they think it is stupid or futile to be a vegetarian or eat locally/healthfully themselves, because the problem of our food system is so big that one person's dietary choices make no real difference. They say that we need to change the way we farm and produce food, not the way we eat as individuals. That is too small and it doesn't matter. I think this is bogus. And, I think its a cop out for people who want to sound informed but don't want to deal with changing their diet. If that statement aliented you, I am sorry. But, that is the way I feel.

The UCLA study only makes me feel more strongly about this. Our eating habits have a major influence on how those around us eat. Think about how many people each of us interact with every day at home, school, and work. Every day we eat at least 3 meals, and in most cases we do that in the company of other people. So, every day we have 3 chances to lead by example and to open up the dialoge about food and the significance of what we eat.

Should every meal be a soap box lecture about sustainable food and healthy diet? Of course not. But, does one person's general eating habits have a major impact on their community? Yes. Is it lame to say that you keep eating meat and highly processed foods because your diet is insignificant in the grand scheme of things? Yes. Sorry. It is.

Personally, this study is pretty strong evidence that it is important for me to stick to my previous pledge to eat locally and sustainably more often. I am also going to make a real effort to break free of that over-eating culture I grew up with, especially now that I am more aware of how much it affects the people I eat with.

Friday, July 3, 2009

On Kale

http://www.theallorganicfarm.com.au/shop/images/kale.jpg

I've had some requests for a post explaining a bit more about my favorite super food - KALE. I had this on my "To-Post" list, but I just found a fantastic post on the topic on the fivedollarday blog. Couldn't have said it better myself. Check out the post on Kale.



Photo Credit: theallorganicfarm.com - got this off Google images, can't seem to load the website...

No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer

video

I have had a strong emotional reaction to Michael Jackson's death. I can't stop listening to his music, all I want to do is drive and rock out to his masterful pop hits. The man had a hard life, and I feel a great deal of compassion for him. To me his death sends a message about compassion and forgiveness, recognizing the good with the bad, that really "[couldn't] have been any clearer."

One of my favorite Michael Jackson songs is "Man in the Mirror." Seriously. I know it is possibly a bit cheesy to some, but I spent many nights in my small hometown in Connecticut driving around at night blasting that song with my best friend and singing it at the top of our lungs to the snow covered tobacco fields. Its a great tune, back-up singing chorus ladies and all.

When I watched the video above - with all the people reacting so strongly to this call for each one of us to change our lives to help better the human race - I cry. I actually cry and get goose bumps all over my arms.

If you don't know the lyrics, check them out. I have italicized and bolded the lyrics that are particularly relevant to this post :

"Man In The Mirror"

I'm Gonna Make A Change,
For Once In My Life
It's Gonna Feel Real Good,
Gonna Make A Difference
Gonna Make It Right . . .

As I, Turn Up The Collar On My
Favourite Winter Coat
This Wind Is Blowin' My Mind
I See The Kids In The Street,
With Not Enough To Eat
Who Am I, To Be Blind?
Pretending Not To See
Their Needs
A Summer's Disregard,
A Broken Bottle Top
And A One Man's Soul
They Follow Each Other On
The Wind Ya' Know
'Cause They Got Nowhere To Go
That's Why I Want You To Know

I'm Starting With The Man In The Mirror
I'm Asking Him To Change His Ways
And No Message Could Have Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World
A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself, And
Then Make A Change

I've Been A Victim Of A Selfish Kind Of Love
It's Time That I Realize
That There Are Some With No
Home, Not A Nickel To Loan
Could It Be Really Me,
Pretending That They're Not
Alone?

A Willow Deeply Scarred,
Somebody's Broken Heart
And A Washed-Out Dream
They Follow The Pattern Of
The Wind, Ya' See
Cause They Got No Place To Be
That's Why I'm Starting With Me

I'm Starting With The Man In The Mirror
I'm Asking Him To Change His Ways
And No Message Could Have
Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World
A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself And
Then Make A Change

I'm Starting With The Man In The Mirror
I'm Asking Him To Change His Ways
And No Message Could've
Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World
A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself And
Then Make That . . .
Change!

I'm Starting With The Man In The Mirror,
I'm Asking Him To Change His Ways
No Message Could Have
Been Any Clearer
You Can't Close Your . . .Your Mind!
That Man, That Man, That Man, That Man
With That Man In The Mirror
That Man, That Man, That Man
I'm Asking Him To Change His Ways
You Know . . .That Man
No Message Could Have
Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World
A Better Place
Take A Look At Yourself And
Then Make A Change
Gonna Feel Real Good Now!

I'm Gonna Make A Change
It's Gonna Feel Real Good!
Come On!
Just Lift Yourself
You Know
You've Got To Stop It.
Yourself!
I've Got To Make That Change,
Today!
Hoo!
You Got To
You Got To Not Let Yourself . . .
Brother . . .
Hoo!
You Know-I've Got To Get
That Man, That Man . . .
You've Got To
You've Got To Move! Come
On! Come On!
You Got To . . .
Stand Up! Stand Up!
Stand Up!
Stand Up And Lift
Yourself, Now!
Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!
Aaow!
Gonna Make That Change . . .
Come On!
You Know It!
You Know It!
You Know It!
You Know . . .
Make That Change.

What I love about this song is that Michael recognizes his own need to change something about himself to make the world better, and then he goes on to call on everyone else to do the same. The end where he is chanting and repeating "stand up! gonna make that change! you know it!" really gets me, and that part relates very specifically to this blog and my "Fix Our Food System" message.

I feel very strongly that each one of us has a responsibility to make small changes to increase the healthfulness and sustainability of our eating patterns, especially given the current state of the environment. When I went to the Save-a-Lot this Monday, I bought food that came from all over the place. It wasn't local. It wasn't sustainable.

My oats came from Earth City, MO.
My grapefruits and key limes from Mexico. (And I live in Southern California!)
My canned soup from Monrovia, CA.
My multi-grain bread from a plant in Fort Worth, TX.
That gyoza package is gone by now, but I image those vegetarian dumplings were not from Southern California.

Personally, I need to make more of an effort to eat local and make it to those Farmers' Markets. Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes, like on Monday, it is impossible. But for the most part I can do it, and I am going to make that change from now on. I am really going to focus on buying local and sustainable more heavily from here on out.

What about you? What change are you making? Do you think it makes any difference in the overall health of our food system?