The Healthy and Basic Challenge

Casu Marzu, a type of cheese. This image was m...

I read an interesting article in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about repulsive foods. The author described some items that would make weight loss easy, including hákarl, which is decomposed, dried shark; and casu marzu or maggot cheese. Apparently, this cheese is made by adding fly larvae to overly fermented sheep cheese and letting the worms’ digestive enzymes transform the final product. Unfortunately, the worms become a live, wriggling part of the result.

This got me thinking about a survey I ran back in December that asked readers if food benefits should be spent on healthy, basic foods or if recipients should be left to make their own decisions. By about a three-to-one margin, respondents voted for further restrictions. Currently, the guidelines only rule out hot, prepared foods (i.e. deli or restaurant food), alcohol and tobacco, medicines and non-food items.

But clearly, people’s opinions about individual foods vary. Otherwise, I too, might find casu marzu a gourmet treat or be out on Puget Sound trying to catch a shark to rot in the sand. To illustrate my point, I spent some time on virtually touring the grocery aisles to determine what might be considered healthy and basic.

I started in the cereal aisle. Most nutritionists say that beginning the day with cereal and milk and a glass of orange juice is reasonably healthy.

Probably everyone can agree on plain Cheerios as a basic option. After all, mothers everywhere feed them to their toddlers. But if we allow Cheerios, do we also allow Chocolate Cheerios? Or Fruity Cheerios? Or Cinnamon Burst Cheerios? Do they still count as healthy? And what about General Mills Cookie Crisp cereal or my favorite, Count Chocula? Each box still contains the same added vitamins and minerals. (Check out this fun experiment for separating out the added iron. My kids loved it.)

On the flip side, how would you categorize a cereal like Annie’s Homegrown Totally Natural Cocoa & Vanilla Bunnies cereal? It’s organic. Totally natural. Would it count as healthy? It is expensive. sells it for $3.50 for 9 ounces ($6.22/pound). Or how about some other choices that are marketed for their health benefits: Kellogg’s Special K with Red Berries, a 12-ounce box for $6.65 per pound; and General Mills’ Fiber One Original Bran cereal, $5.82 a pound for the 16.2-ounce box. Do we consider these too expensive when other cereals cost less?

How do we sort these choices? If we want healthy, do we limit the grams of sugar? Dictate a certain amount of fiber? Say no one can buy cereal with an animal or a monster on the box? And if we want basic, what does that mean? Nothing organic or containing nuts or berries or marshmallows? No spin-off products like Chocolate Cheerios?

So let’s try to decide by price instead. Generic Raisin Bran is fairly reasonable. But I could buy Fruity Dyno Bites in a bag as cheaply, and I’m guessing I’d get a few frowns in the check-out line.

If the cereal aisle is difficult, the snack aisle is worse. Everyone seems to agree that people on welfare shouldn’t buy chips. But what if they buy baked sweet potato chips? Or Good Health Veggie Stix? Or Quaker Plain Salted Rice Cakes? Are these still too unhealthy? Too unnecessary? Okay, so then maybe we say no one should buy anything they don’t need in order to live. But then what about nuts? Most nuts are a great source of protein and heart-healthy oils and make a good alternative to meat. They’re also expensive. Wouldn’t you wonder if you saw someone buying a big can of Planter’s Peanuts with their food stamps?

And so it goes from aisle to aisle. Maybe we can rule out frozen burritos and pizza. But how do we decide about Lean Cuisine Chicken Stir Fry with Ginger Garlic? Or Healthy Choice All Natural Tortellini Primavera Parmesan? Or Boca Vegetarian Organic Burgers? They’re not unhealthy. But they’re not cheap either.

Even in the one aisle where you’d think you wouldn’t have a dilemma, the drinks aisle, you run into questions. Soda’s a no-brainer. But what about sparkling water or juices? Too unhealthy? Not basic enough? And what about other juices? Orange juice is healthy. It’s approved by WIC. But what about pomegranate juice? Or orange-carrot-mango juice? Or blended vegetable juice? You can’t say these aren’t healthy (fattening maybe). You can’t say prune juice or apple juice isn’t basic. But would you allow people to spend their benefits on them?

In the end, I think a lot of our unhappiness when we see these items in the carts of EBT shoppers comes not from how unhealthy the foods are, or how processed, but from our discomfort with knowing these people are buying food with our dollars. We automatically assume they’re not making the best choices. Otherwise, why would they need our money? We worry they’re buying things we ourselves can’t afford. How many people can purchase steak or pomegranate juice every week? What it comes down to is that no matter what people on food stamps buy, they are getting for free what others have worked long hours to earn. And no healthy or basic guidelines will make that easier to swallow.

In reality, the system we have may be the best one. Give people the lowest amount of assistance possible, and that number will ensure reasonable buying decisions.

Our own experience has been that the amount is overly generous. Every month, by buying generic brands, no processed foods, no expensive meats and no junk foods, we’ve had money left in the account. From October to January, the unused amount now stands around $1,100, or $275 each month. It helps that the garden provides most of our vegetables, and I realize these numbers vary from area to area and from family to family. We’re blessed to live in an area where groceries are plentiful and reasonably priced. The formula isn’t always as generous for everyone as it has been for us.

But I don’t think costly decisions on each food or food category will improve the system. Such micro-management would be difficult and expensive to maintain. The current guidelines are reasonable. Instead, reformers should re-examine the benefit amounts and the qualification guidelines.

And I challenge everyone to go to their grocery stores and try to choose which items to include and which to exclude. See how far you make it down the aisles, and let me know if you come up with a workable plan. And remember, one person’s necessity is another person’s casu marzu.

February 15, 2012–Recently the Florida legislature has been debating a bill (SB 1658) that would restrict food purchases under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The bill, proposed by Florida Sen. Ronda Storms, would ban the purchase of all “non-staple, unhealthy foods.”  According to the bill, these would include “foods containing trans fats; sweetened beverages, including sodas; sweets, such as jello, candy, ice cream, pudding, popsicles, muffins, sweet rolls, cakes, cupcakes, pies, cobblers, pastries, and doughnuts; and salty snack foods, such as corn-based salty snacks, pretzels, party mix, popcorn, and potato chips.”

Here are a few articles that discuss the bill:


Ice in Seattle

I guess Mother Nature doesn’t like to be mocked. No sooner had I posted “Snow in Seattle” making fun of our two inches of snow, than the real storm arrived with serious snow, followed by freezing rain, more snow and finally wind. After four days without power we’ve emerged to a landscape of split trees, fallen branches and crushed plants. As the ice formed, you could stand outside and hear the rifle-shot of branches crashing to the ground and watch the plumes of falling ice and snow. It left a beautiful landscape in its wake.

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Snow in Seattle

Snowmageddon has arrived!

For Seattle, this means a few inches of snow. Some areas have considerably more and some less, but all are in a state of paralysis that makes the rest of the country laugh. I come from the Midwest near the Canadian border, and the reaction amuses me–until I have to leave my house. Then I’m quickly reminded of the differences between here and there:

  1. Midwesterners plow their streets. And they believe in salt—lots of salt. It amazed me when I moved here that 20-year-old cars can exist with no rust. The cars of my youth only remained shiny for a couple years before they broke out in scaly, brownish-red patches. Here only the main roads get plowed—and that after a day or so. Various environmentally friendly de-icers are applied, but they don’t seem effective.  Ask the last mayor, who was run out of town after failing to clear the city streets.
  2. There are fewer hills in the Midwest. You don’t realize how slanted the ground is here until you try to drive a stick shift or go out in the snow. Even the gentle slope of my driveway and the slight rise out to the main road seem as steep as Mount Rainier after a couple inches of ice.
  3. Seattle drivers don’t know how to get up hills in the snow. They timidly creep up at about five miles an hour, figuring they won’t slide if they go slow. Of course, this means they lose traction by the time they’re halfway up, and then they slip back down. They try an opposite tactic on level roads, speeding along without considering that they might need to stop or turn at some point. To go down hills, they creep along until they start to slide, at which point they slam on the brakes and twist the wheel in the opposite direction from the way they were traveling. This has the predictable result of sending them sideways down the hill.
  4. People in Seattle are eternally optimistic. Every time it snows they figure the roads won’t be that bad. Then they get stuck in the resulting gridlock on the freeways or on a hill or a side street and decide to abandon their cars. This of course means the plows can’t do their work.
  5. Snow in Seattle tends to be wet and heavy. It turns into slush during the day, then re-freezes into an icy mess at night. All this makes for beautiful snow-covered trees and great snowmen but difficult driving. And the weight tends to take out branches over the power lines, like now. I’m sitting here in my living room next to the glow of the wood stove as I write—at least until my laptop battery dies.

Because of all this, the citizens of Seattle freak out when snow is forecast. As I tell my kids, I used to walk five miles (it might have been closer to two, but don’t tell them that) in several feet of snow to get to school, which never closed in even the most raging blizzards. Here, the schools have been closed three days because of a couple inches of snow.

My point to all this is that you can’t judge Seattle for its lack of snow savvy. Even though I make fun of the news anchors breathlessly racing in their news vans to catch sight of a snowflake, it’s still true that I’m trapped in my house by two inches of snow. The hills and lack of snow removal equipment and inexperienced drivers make this a far different experience than winter in the Midwest.

I think this same principle applies to judgments about welfare. It’s easy to wonder why people can’t get a job or why they can’t stretch their food benefits to the end of the month. It’s easy to think they should be able to plan for crises like broken-down water heaters or getting the flu or a lack of day-care. But unless you’ve been in that situation you don’t know the truth of it. Perhaps they don’t have the same education or experiences that would enable them to cope. Perhaps some underlying problems keep them from reacting differently. Maybe they have their own hills or a lack of infrastructure or maybe they’re in a new situation. Maybe they’ve never been in a place where the people know how to manage.

They may be facing snow in Seattle.

The Accidental Rutabaga

Something you do today may produce unexpected results. You may think you’ve failed. You may think your efforts were wasted. But weeks or months or years from now, you may harvest the reward.

I discovered this over the weekend as I worked to prepare the garden for a new growing season. Winter had brought us one of those pleasantly freakish days where the warm temperatures reminded me it’s time to start seeds for spring.

 We’re still eating frosted cabbage, carrots, beets, chard and kale from the garden, but as usual, I’m behind on cleaning up. The last of the fall crops that couldn’t survive the cold have become twisted black stalks, and the bare patches that didn’t get covered with leaves or hay have sprouted blankets of shot-weed. Uncollected seeds are scattered around the nasturtiums and calendula like chicken scratch.

As I cleared away the dead plants, I made an amazing discovery. A giant vegetable peeked out under the end of one slimy row. I bent closer. A large, tan bulb bulged out of the soil under a tall, green stalk. I decided it was a rogue beet. It sprouted near the beet patch and had months to grow with no competition, so what else could it be?

I hauled the big root home, and the next day my son came downstairs and spotted it. He has an anti-vegetable radar that instantly detects squash or beets. “Why did you have to grow a rutabaga?” he asked. Then it hit me. Months earlier, I had planted rutabagas in that very spot.

I’d never planted them before. I’d never eaten one. I just like the name. My dad used to make rutabaga jokes. But the crop failed. The seeds didn’t sprout, or if they did, I didn’t recognize them and weeded them out, something that’s easy to do when you’re fighting platoons of weeds. Or they may have fallen to the slugs that deploy in spring. I tried to replant, but somehow used the wrong seeds, resulting in a sunny bank of calendula.

Unknown to me, one of the rutabagas survived under the flowers. With no slug bait, or fertilizer or weeding, it grew to surprise me one winter morning. It was a reminder to me that when you plant a seed or send an email or help a friend, you don’t know what will result. Every action is a stone in a pond, sending out ripples. The payoff may not be what we expect. We might not recognize it at first. But it could be something beautiful, like a field of flowers. Or it could be a rutabaga.

Now if only I knew how to cook it.

Hey dudes, I’m Poor Now

I get junk mail, therefore I am.

I’m staring at my mail basket and thinking, “What the heck? When will these people get a clue?” In front of me sits the following:

Algarve coast

Image by MeckiMac via Flickr

  • A glossy 144-page magazine on “Virtuoso Life: The Traveler’s Guide to Inspired Pursuits,” graciously sent to me by an on-line travel service. This is the Europe issue, giving me the “50 Reasons to Go Now” and “Exploring Southern Portugal’s Algarve Coast.” Now trust me. I’d love to discover the Algarve Coast, but my plans this year are more in line with exploring beautiful, downtown Tacoma and convincing my kids that camping in our spider-infested tree house will be fun.
  • An invitation to the BMW Mission to Drive Sales Event. Apparently, now I can enjoy an “on-road combination of raw power, unrivaled efficiency and total refinement all at once.” Somehow that doesn’t sound like King County Transit. Or the ’88 Toyota pickup–although the screwdriver holding up the window adds a classy touch.
  • No fewer than three credit card offers. I’m tempted to send these in and list my food stamps as income. Or to fill one out for the dog and discover if she can get a credit card. I guess I should be glad our credit rating is intact, but these ads don’t reassure me the debt crisis is over.
  • Pleas for money from charities, magazines and  organizations like the Pacific Science Center, who wonder where we’ve gone. I regret dropping some of these. But they might need less money if they’d purge their mailing lists. We cut our magazine subscriptions and memberships three years ago, yet it’s a rare day when we don’t get mail or calls begging for us to come back. It’s like some horrible zombie movie with a horde of telemarketers pawing at the door with special return offers. Yesterday a Comcast dude knocked as I was writing. He asked me about our cable. I told him we didn’t miss it a bit. He stepped back and cleared his throat and asked about our long distance and Internet. I told him we were happy with our stripped-down service. In the end, we chatted about the pouring rain for a minute, and he shambled down the driveway. Now that I think about it, his arms were at an odd angle.
  • A catalog for, my favorite on-line seller of stringed instruments. I took up violin for my mid-life crisis several years ago, and I buy my strings from Shar. But I haven’t played lately, because my daughter is using my bow until we can afford to replace hers. The dog howls less now, but I miss the music. And I can’t go play on the corner until I get that bow.
  • Next is a renewal offer from the AARP. My mid-life crisis notwithstanding, I have months until I qualify for AARP, and I want every one of them! Although the discounts might be good. But a renewal!! Not even the free insulated travel bag is worth the indignity.
  • And finally, my favorite of the day: the 2012 National Agricultural Classification Survey. This one may have come because of our food benefits, which also originate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Or because we live on an acre. The survey is used to “make policy, business and funding decisions affecting U.S. farming and ranching operations.” Participation is required by law. Do two goats and four chickens constitute ranching? The form asks for the largest numbers of layers, pullet and roosters in my flock at any one time. That number was six before the coyote incident. But then the survey asks what is the primary type of layer/pullet operation. There’s no check-off for “pets.” Nor do we have any bees, and we eat or donate all our crops. So in a few months or a year, you can feel good knowing your tax dollars went to inform you of the number of bee keepers in the country.

So I guess the mail does reflect my old life pretty well. What will I get in the future? Check cashing offers? Coupons for Tacoma? An offer for the dog? I can’t wait to find out.