Monthly Archives: December 2008

As heard on NPR with Brian Lehrer.

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This morning we did an interview for National Public Radio with Brian Lehrer on WNYC. You can listen to it by clicking here.

The article that I talked about concerning the cost of living in the United States versus the cost of living in a third world country can be read here. Again, most of the article is about the increase of food costs in the US, but the last line is worth investigating, “the cost for food in the U.S. per income level is the least expensive in the world.”

Additionally, yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor article was picked up today in the Chicago Sun-Times.

– Christopher & Kerri

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As seen in the Christian Science Monitor.

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Eliene Zimmerman showed up at our house a few weeks ago, laptop in hand, ready to get down to business. She pulled up a chair to the island in the kitchen and fired off questions, typing frantically as she spoke. Her presence was warm, her tone friendly, and her fingers determined. She was one of the few journalists we’ve spoken to so far that I actually felt like we could relate to. What made her so great is that she treated us like people, not just a story. She did her job and did it well, the results of which are in today’s Christian Science Monitor.

I’m thinking of asking her to be a guest speaker in my journalism class; I’m always planning something.

With the 2009 on the horizon, I suspect many of our readers are planning as well. Much of this scheming will revolve around getting in shape, eating better, and of course, financial planning. The aspirations towards goals related to these issues is entirely predictable, but I wonder how many of us actually sit down and make new year’s resolutions. I don’t. When I want to do something, I do it. I start immediately. Procrastination kills momentum.

If you want to get in shape, eat better, or save money, then do it. As the legendary hardcore band Gorilla Biscuits would say, “Start today!” There’s no susbstitute for action.

For those who want to eat well, here’s a short list of the healthiest foods out there. I take issue with a couple of them (salmon and turkey), mainly because both omega-3 fatty acids and selenium are found in nuts. For omega-3 fatty acids, flax and walnuts are far superior choices. In the case of selenium, there is five times as much in mixed nuts as there is in fish. Additionally, if you avoid animal products you’ll be avoiding cholesterol as well.

While there are reasons to continue eating industrialized animal products, there are better reasons to avoid them; many of which are very compelling. I won’t list them here, as I suspect our readers are savvy enough to do their own research. However, I would start with The China Study. Beyond the complexities of nutrition, you also have to wonder why our country is serving meat that Mexico won’t even allow across the border.

Here’s to making positive choices, today, and tomorrow!

– Christopher

PS. If you’re new to the site, clicking on the FAQ page might be helpful.

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Viola Loves Salsa.

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With equal amounts of pride and oblivion she strides in from the backyard. The look on her face says it all. I can tell she’s had a wonderful day, and her gaze serves as a testament to her happiness. I love seeing her like this. Nothing is more important to me than the happiness of those I love. I continue doing the dishes thinking about how in the midst of the world’s great challenges, and the stress of daily life, she has found a way to feel satisfied. But then I see it, like a small detail in a painting that changes the whole picture.

Viola has a bell-pepper in her mouth.

We love salsa. We love it so much, that over the summer Kerri and her mom decided to plant a “salsa garden.” They muddied their hands planting tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, bell peppers, and a bunch of other stuff, only to have our resident troublemakers reap the rewards before we could make our first bowl. Time, money, and energy went into this endeavor, which inevitably only served to supplement the diets of our two 75 lb. dogs. Kerri still hasn’t overcome the defeat.

Lots of our readers told us to grow fruits and vegetables during our experiment, and we would have loved to, but for us that would have meant a serious amount of time and money that we just didn’t have in September. Our situation hasn’t improved since then. Before we can make full use of our backyard, we have to figure out how to make it a place for growing food, and a place for our dogs to grow. Part of this compromise will include building a small fence, that at present we don’t have the time, money, or know how to do. However, it is on the agenda for 2009.

We have already re-thought the way we approach eating, now we just have to rethink our living space in order to make our vision edible. We want change to happen in our backyard, but it requires a fundamentally different approach, much like the global food system.

An article appeared today from the BBC that addresses this need to re-think the system. Shopping smarter is part of the immediate solution to get by, but ultimately, cutting coupons to save money on food is akin to trying to surf your way out of a hurricane. We need a better way to get out of this mess; one that will empower us to take back our health and our planet. Here are just a couple of appetizers from the article to whet your pallet:

“Essentially, what we are dealing with at the moment is a food system that was laid down in the 1940s,” he told BBC News.

“It followed on from the dust bowl in the US, the collapse of food production in Europe and starvation in Asia.

“At the time, there was clear evidence showing that there was a mismatch between producers and the need of consumers.”

Professor Lang, from City University, London, added that during the post-war period, food scientists and policymakers also thought increasing production would reduce the cost of food, while improving people’s diets and public health.

“But by the 1970s, evidence was beginning to emerge that the public health outcomes were not quite as expected,” he explained.

“The consumer today has got to understand that when they make a choice, let’s say an apple – either Chinese, French or English one – they are making a political choice, a socio-economic choice, as well as an environmental one.”

I hope you enjoy the article.

– Christopher

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The Mysterious Case of Food Costs and Short-sizing.

originalWe’re not economists. We’re not grocery store executives. We don’t transport food. And we definitely don’t grow it and sell it. Our role in the food production machine: consumers. We’re at the end of the line.

We shop, we cook, and we eat. Which I assume makes us a lot like everyone else. We’re not really sure why the cost of produce goes up or down. We have little insight into why raw ingredients like corn, soy and wheat are more expensive than ever. And with the cost of fuel dropping to levels that make us sigh with relief, we wonder, why haven’t food costs come down?

There are a number of factors that determine why particular food items cost what they do, some of which we know of, others we’re still learning about. But there is one thing we know for sure: we need healthy, affordable food.

An article was published today in the Chicago Tribune explaining why it will be a while until consumers feel some relief at the supermarket, even though commodity prices have fallen dramatically since summer. Essentially, it will take months for those cuts in cost to work their way through the intestines of the American food machine. While companies have already enjoyed the benefits of a cheaper meal, most of us are still eating crap, and paying through the teeth for it.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for another way to save at the store, search for the cost per ounce on items like coffee, sugar, condiments, cereal, etc.

In speaking with Kerri’s grandfather over the holiday, who spent his career in the corporate side of grocery retail, he said that someone should do an expose on the shrinking size of products. While this may not be news for many of you, companies have continued to charge the same amount for things like mayonnaise, even though they’ve shrunk the size of the jar. The volume has changed, but the cost is the same.

I did some searching, and it turns out he’s right. From yogurt and cereal, to coffee and peanut butter, short-sizing (as it’s called in the industry), is an all too common way to pass off cost increases to customers. And they’re doing it all over the store. In fact, some news organizations did cover it, including Consumer Reports. The New York Times published an article about it back in September; it is quite an enlightening read.

I leave you today with a question: What can we do about it?

(This is not a rhetorical question.)

– Christopher

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As seen on Fox 5.

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If you were to walk into my classroom at 7:50 a.m. on a “Bon Jovi Day,” you would see 35 tenth grade students getting out their homework and warm-ups while bobbing their heads and singing along to (of course) Bon Jovi. One student, who frequently walks in just after the bell, smiles and bursts into song as she comes through the door. I play music every morning while my students are coming into class and getting settled, but Bon Jovi Days are special.

It started on a day in September when I knew I needed an energy boost in the morning. So, I played “Wanted, Dead or Alive” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.”  I always sing along, but now (no joke) my first period class sings along with me. Not everyone, but close to it. They used to only chime in on choruses, but we are at a point now where they know most of the words to “Livin’ on a Prayer.”  It is probably a good thing that the teachers on either side of me don’t have classes first period; we can get pretty loud.

I had never really thought about the connection between “Livin’ on a Prayer” and the reality that informs the song. For those of you who may not love Bon Jovi the way that my class and I do, this song tells the story of two young people who are working hard, Tommy on the docks and Gina in a diner, but they are still having a difficult time making ends meet. In fact, Tommy had to hock his six-string, and Gina cries in the night.  Everyday we hear more stories like this.

While some of our news coverage has seemed to send the message that our project is a great way to save money, for some people, saving money is not the main concern; it is how to get by. As we have said before, during September, I believe, it is not always possible for people who are struggling to live the way we did. We bought in bulk at the beginning of the month. We also have the means to store large quantities of food, and we had the ability to cook from scratch. These things are not realistic for everyone. With the struggling economy and the increasing rate of layoffs, things are tough right now, and we don’t all have Bon Jovi’s  “Tommy” to whisper the reassuring “Baby, it’s okay.”

This past week has been another adventure with the media. On Thursday, my school’s newspaper, The Mustang (it just won a Pacemaker Award!), had an article about our project. On Friday, we were on  the Dwyer & Michael’s Morning show, a radio program in Davenport, Iowa. Today we were on our local Fox 5 news show with Raoul Martinez.

This afternoon we will stop by the Community Resource Center to deliver 25 lb. bags of beans and rice along with some household goods. It’s not too late to help others in your area. We recommend that you re-visit “Living on a Prayer” and make this week count for all the real Tommys and Ginas out there.

– Kerri

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As seen in “In Touch” Magazine

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There I was, standing under the blinding florescents of Long’s Drugs. Middle-aged women walked by, shooting me concerned looks. I flipped through the pages, scanning headlines like an FBI agent scans a crime scene. O.J. is convicted. Britney’s desperate to succeed. Friends worry Madonna’s suffering from a midlife crisis. More troubles for Winona.

Feeling the anxiety that only teachers do, I pretend to be invisible just in case a student is out picking up some cold medicine for an ailing parent.

Then, on page 80… “Penny-Pinchers”

Late last week Kerri received a message on her school voice mail from a woman who said she represented a company called ‘In the News.’ Neither of us was sure who they were, or what they wanted. Then we received another message on our home answering machine from the same mysterious woman. We assumed it was some type of media contact; someone who wanted an interview with us, or something like that.

We were wrong.

It turns out that ‘In the News’ is a company that sells plaques made of newspaper and magazine clippings. The woman was calling to inform us that for $136 we could have our December 22nd appearance in In Touch magazine turned into a plaque for us to cherish for years to come. Say what?

We didn’t even know we were in the celebrity rag to begin with!

After picking up burrito’s from Rico’s taco shop, we stopped by a drug store to search for a copy of said “In Touch” weekly, and there we were, right underneath four adorable baby bats that had been rescued on the Gold Coast of Austrailia.

It was, in a word…bizarre.

– Christopher

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The Power of Community.

Presenting the check to Community Resource Center exuctive director Laurin Pause. Photo by Lynda Holeva.

Presenting the check to Community Resource Center executive director Laurin Pause. Photo by Lynda Holeva.

A dozen tables were lined up end to end with nearly thirty volunteers on either side packing and filling boxes with food for tomorrow’s opening of the Holiday Basket Program through the Community Resource Center. Throughout the weekend, over 1200 families will be given the chance to have a dignified “shopping experience” as they make their way through a converted race-track hallway the size of a football field and pick up items that will help them make it through the holidays. With the recent economic downturn making it difficult for people to make it through the season, programs like this one, run entirely on hard to come by donations and thousands of volunteer hours, are more important than ever. Tonight we were given the opportunity to see the power of our community at work.

To put it plainly, we left the opening reception in awe of what happens when people work together to get things done for others. We’d like to once again express our gratitude to everyone who donated to our project. It was on your behalf that we donated $2,300 to the Community Resource Center this evening. When folks start to show up tomorrow to fill their baskets with a new coat, gifts for their kids, and food to put on the table, it will be possible because of people like you.

Thank you.

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The Middle.

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A report released today by the Food Bank of New York City, and reprinted by the Wall Street Journal, stated a challenge that many people are dealing with at this very moment: they can’t afford to eat.

For the folks who are determined to keep believing that, “those people just aren’t working hard enough,” I’d like to point out that many of the people struggling to eat are actually working hard.

The report cites that, “the number of middle income households experiencing difficulty affording food has tripled: among households with annual incomes between $25,000 and $49,999, difficulty increased from 21 percent in 2003 to 59 percent in 2008 (jumping 40 percent within the past year alone), and among households with annual incomes between $50,000 and $74,999, difficulty increased from 14 percent to 43 percent (jumping 59 percent within the past year alone).”

With job losses and under-employment climbing, we will continue to see people just like us struggle to feed themselves. The report also points out that those most effected by the struggle are  young children, and senior citizens.

I’d like to encourage you to find out if the food bank in your community is struggling. If you can, consider donating. It’s never too late to plan something that could help others.

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(Re)Gaining Control of the Cart

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I mentioned in a previous post (way back in September) that my very first job was at a movie theater. However, my second was at a grocery store. I worked there for six and a half years, and for quite some time I was a courtesy clerk. Part of my job was helping people to their cars and bringing in carts from the lot. When I pushed in trains of heavy carts, if I noticed a lone cart off in the distance, I took note to get it as quickly as possible. If someone did not get to that cart fast enough, within minutes there would be six or seven more joining it. It sometimes felt like they were planning a secret rebellion. Some of my co-workers and I called this the Shopping Cart Conspiracy.

I still suspect that carts have minds of their own.

It has been ten full weeks since our project ended. I’ve been thinking about the way it has made me look at grocery shopping which used to just be something we did on autopilot. We knew the foods we usually had in our lunches and the basic ingredients for the dinners we commonly ate, so we would let our cart lead us down the aisles as we dropped our regular foods into its waiting belly.

Our shopping trips are different. They are not only less frequent, but what we buy has changed. We now spend most of our time on the outside walls of the store where there are few packaged items. Pre-September, we did not do very much price comparing, but we now put things back if we don’t think they are worth the cost. Yesterday when we checked out, I was a bit disappointed to see that our bill was $115.59.  I thought we had moved away from spending that much.

Tonight, when I sat down to write, I took out the bill to really look at what we had purchased. We bought a number of household items that we were out of:  toilet paper, paper towels, dish soap, shampoo and bath soap to name a few. Our biggest ticket item was dog food; our dogs each weigh about 75 pounds. After I subtracted those, it turns out our food items were $56.35.

Not bad. We bought only a few packaged items, tofu and almond milk among them, but most of our food came from the produce section. We are still using the remains of our project as a base for many meals and supplementing with produce. Last night we made dinner for Christopher’s mom’s birthday, and the only items we needed to purchase to make the meal were chard (the recipe actually called for kale; I messed up, but it tasted fine) and an onion.

Our vocabulary about food had changed as well. We no longer say there is nothing to eat in our house, instead we say there is nothing prepared. Our cupboards are mainly made up of raw ingredients. I no longer buy the prepared packaged broth that I like as a soup base, but instead I use the much less expensive boullion. One day soon (maybe over winter break), I will attempt to make my own broth from scratch. It is not difficult, but due to the convience factor, I have never tried.

I am glad that we have taken a step toward gaining control of the cart.

– Kerri

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Change We Can Eat!

corn_with_dollarsA 64 year old man is living in the back of a grocery store and wants recipes from us so that he can make bread with his hot-plate. Kathleen’s  family of five was plunged into 14 months of unemployment and she, “literally wept when milk reached $3 a gallon.” Will Wilson in Anchorage had to quit his job to take care of his son, and the money his wife makes barely covers the utilities. These are people in America. Their stories are documented here as comments throughout our blog, and they are not isolated cases.

Many of you have posted your tips, ideas, and comments about how to cut food costs, all of which are vital for many people who are trying to make ends meet. However, Wilson is smart to point out that, “the government controls everything.” The great majority of us will do what we can to make the best choices available regarding the economics of food, but the policies of our government play a large role in framing how the food system in our country works.

As someone who is staunchly independent when it comes to political affiliation, and sees the two party system as two strands of the business party, I patiently waited for either of the presidential candidates to talk about food. While concerns about health care, foreign policy, and the economy are essential to our progress as a nation, how we feed people should have played a more significant role in the campaign. Quite simply, everyone has to eat in order to survive, and so, few things could be more important than how we feed ourselves.

Around 700k people have visited our little blog, and if that isn’t evidence that this is a crucial conversation to have, just read some of the stories from people around the country (and the globe).

The current system in the United States, overseen by the Department of Agriculure, is actually subsidizing the foods that are the least healthy for us. As Nicholas Kristoff notes in a recent New York Times piece, “The Agriculture Department — and the agriculture committees in Congress — have traditionally been handed over to industrial farming interests by Democrats and Republicans alike. The farm lobby uses that perch to inflict unhealthy food on American children in school-lunch programs, exacerbating our national crisis with diabetes and obesity.”

And this is just part of the problem with how our food system works in the United States.

Kristoff goes on to challenge Obama to pick a new “Secretary of Food” that will represent the interests of 300 million Americans instead of a system that undermines the health of our citizens and our planet. Knowing that we can’t rely solely on politicians to get things done, we must continue this dialogue about food until we have a system that doesn’t force people to make choices between bread and fresh vegetables.

Which is why I have signed the Food Declaration.  It’s starts off…

We, the undersigned, believe that a healthy food system is necessary to meet the urgent challenges of our time. Behind us stands a half-century of industrial food production, underwritten by cheap fossil fuels, abundant land and water resources, and a drive to maximize the global harvest of cheap calories. Ahead lie rising energy and food costs, a changing climate, declining water supplies, a growing population, and the paradox of widespread hunger and obesity.”

It doesn’t matter where you stand politically, the future of food depends on what we do right now.

– Christopher

P.S. If you have a library card, I also recommend the book “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn, as it provides some interesting ways of looking at the implications of the agricultural revolution.

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