No “Specialty” Food for Poor People

Today, I sent the following letter to Activistas. I hope you’ll take a moment to read it, too.

I would like to call your attention to a serious frustration that I have been dealing with as a mom on government aid.

I have two daughters, ages 23 months and 5 months, and I am on WIC and food stamps. It’s common knowledge that it is very difficult to feed a family on food stamps alone, but with my husband in school, we have been doing our best to do just that.

Recently, I have been taking great pains (see to switch our family over to organic food. As you can imagine, making food stamps stretch to cover an organic diet is a huge challenge, but I believe that my daughters deserve to eat food that is free of pesticides, antibiotics, and artificial hormones. This has meant regular trips to discount grocers in search of soon-to-expire organic goods, a reduction of meat in meals, more cooking from scratch, and paying a premium for produce, but I think it’s worth it.

A sweet little grocery store, The Green Grocer, just opened across the street from my discount grocer. Sweet! I thought. I can go over there after my discount trip and pick up the things that I didn’t find on discount! I was excited to discover that they carried hard-to-find organic produce, like fresh ginger (a good ginger tea is great for a cold!), as well as the best prices I’ve seen on organic bread and organic palm oil shortening.

I was not so excited to learn that they had been denied the right to take food stamps. When I called the USDA to complain, the woman in charge said, “You are not allowed to shop at specialty stores.”

Apparently, pesticide-free food is too good for me.

True, I can get some of these foods other places, although I have to drive 3 times as far for most of it. But it is very frustrating that I can’t frequent the new local market where the sweet owner gives my daughter free snacks and I can buy almost anything in bulk to avoid extra packaging.

This is almost as frustrating as WIC, which is essentially useless to me now, since they do not allow anything that you buy with their checks to be organic (the exception is the $20 in farmer’s market money that they give out every summer). Free milk with antibiotics, hormones, and pus? Free cheese filled with accumulated pesticides from all of the over-treated grain that the cow has eaten? Free hydrogenated peanut butter? I’m thankful that these services exist, but I wish that I didn’t have to choose between what’s best for my family and what’s most helpful to our budget. If WIC allowed me to simply purchase half the quantity of food that they do now, but to purchase organic food instead, it would be such a blessing!

Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful for both WIC and food stamps, and to the taxpayers who are helping us to make ends meet as my husband gets through school. Our experience at the receiving end of these services has caused me to actually look forward to being in a higher tax bracket, because I will know that our taxes will be going to people who are experiencing what we have experienced.

But when the government insists on distributing that money in a way that limits my ability to care for my family, I am upset, not only for myself, but also for all of the taxpayers who are funding this program, and will later have to fund health care to undo the damage that these products are doing to our bodies. These agencies are very behind-the-times scientifically if they think that organic food is elite and unnecessary. And they are bigoted if they believe that lower-income people do not deserve healthy food.

I would like to urge anyone willing to take a stand to contact WIC, the Department of Human Services, and the USDA, as well as the media and anyone else who might be influential, and to tell them that the government should lead the way in healthy eating. With our current epidemics of obesity, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes, the current method of taking care of the underprivileged is unwise and unacceptable.

You can go here to contact WIC,  here to contact the Oregon Department of Human Services, and here to contact the USDA.


Burt’s Bees – How Should We React?

By now, it’s no secret that Clorox has recently purchased Burt’s Bees.

There has been a lot of debate among hippies like ourselves about whether this is good, bad, or neither. I’d like to take a moment and share what I believe about the subject.

Burt’s Bees, first of all, creates great products. Their products are natural, environmentally friendly, affordable (more or less), and widely available. Being able to drop into the nearest supermarket and pick up a tube of Burt’s Bees lip balm is a wonderful convenience for the environmentally-minded consumer.

I use Burt’s Bees tinted lip balm and Burt’s Bees diaper rash cream. I have been very pleased with both products.

So, obviously, there are practical reasons to buy Burt’s Bees.

HOWEVER, if it is important to you to make sure that you money is only going to do good things, I would discourage you from buying Burt’s Bees.

People are arguing about whether Clorox is trying to truly “go green” or if it is just trying to cash in on the current popularity of environmentalism. Sadly, I am confident that the latter is true.

The reason why I would discourage buying from Burt’s Bees is the same reason that I will always choose Wendy’s over McDonald’s.

When trans fat came under scrutiny, Wendy’s pledged to eliminate all trans fat from its restaurants, and immediately set to work doing so.

When Super Size Me, among other things, brought McDonald’s under intense scrutiny, they added some salads and apple wedges to their menu.

Do you see the difference? The sincere people change what they’re doing wrong, and the fakers add something that seems right.

Clorox manufactures bleach, along with many cleaning products that contain bleach and other harmful chemicals. These chemicals are toxic to the environment, and to your family.

If Clorox truly cared about the environment, they would start phasing out their more dangerous products in favor of more natural alternatives. Buying Burt’s Bees? Probably either a business investment or a publicity stunt. Or both.

The moral of the story? If all you can afford or access is Burt’s Bees, keep right on buying it. It’s a far better product for you and your family than conventional brands. But if you can make the switch, find a better company to give your hard-earned cash to.

in my pantry & in my head

even before jenni did her post about her changing kitchen, i had started documenting my also changing pantry.

i can’t say that i’ve bought into the stock up method with quite the gusto that jen has, but i love the idea. i think i still need to sort through some cupboards and carve out some space for stocking up. it’s been a slow purging process, but it’s starting to pick up speed. i’ve kept a box in the kitchen for the last week and any time the thought strikes me, i toss another item into the box to be donated.

probably my biggest realization is just how lazy i can be. i have 2 food processors- one large and one small. i have a chopper that you pound on with the palm of your hand in order to mince your onions. i also have 3 cutting boards and a handful of okay-this-one-will-do knives. i can’t help but wonder how many of these tools i really need. what if i had just decided to invest in one really awesome knife and forgone all of the other gadgets?

well, maybe i’d have to hold on to the large food processor….

it’s a slow process as my pantry reflects. i have my tree top apple sauce next to my organic santa cruz blueberry apple sauce. i also have the S&W tomato paste neighboring the hunts organic tomatoes. i have a nice selection of bob’s red mill beans and irish soda bread mix (mmmm…), but i still need to use up the pizza sauce.

this doesn’t bother me though. we’re making the shift.

to my credit, i gutted the pantry and was able to purge a box and a grocery bag of food that i’ve been schlepping around (probably through the last two moves). these are now in my car trunk and waiting to be donated to the food bank. i’ve also purged the “snack cupboard” and loaded it with whole grain cereals, seeds, and home made bread. the bottom of the fruit bowl hasn’t seen the light of day for days now, but there’s always a hand grabbing something organic, local and juicy out of it. the people in my house are making better choices because those are the only options they have.

after a quick errand yesterday, our clan came home ravenous and in search of a substantial lunch. the girls were content with their usual- a tortilla with sun butter and an apple on the side. tom and i were looking for food though- real food. our eyes settled on the overflowing bowl in the bottom of the fridge. eggs. it was settled. we weren’t shy. i scrambled up 7 of the suckers and laid thick slices of homemade whole wheat bread on the side. thank god my mom has chickens and happily shares the wealth with us. we were singing those hens’ praise yesterday!

i realized later that part of the shift that we’re making is to look at meals differently. who on earth decided that sweet breads and eggs were for breakfast and sandwiches were for lunch? what’s wrong with mixing it up, depending on what you have on hand? eating with the seasons and the changes of the earth seems natural and harmonious.

our final step is to go local. our lunch of eggs was a great start. i fully realize that this will be very difficult to implement, but we’re going to give it a shot. already the challenge has eaten up hours of internet research but fortunately we have outstanding resources all around us so it’s not going to be impossible. expensive and time consuming at first? oh yes. beneficial? you bet.

i’m excited to learn the art of canning and food preservation. it’s something i wish i had learned from my great grandmother, but will be content to learn from anyone willing to teach me (or from a website, if necessary). next winter, instead of seeing hunts canned tomatoes in my pantry, you’ll see my labels facing out.

Evidence of a Changing Kitchen

I’m making little changes. Just step into my kitchen, and you’ll see!

An empty, glass bottle of organic juice is soaking in hot, soapy water. I plan to remove the label and use it as a water bottle.

A glass pitcher of water sits on the counter. We pour our water in here from the Brita pitcher immediately after filtering, to prevent the plastic from leeching into the water.

2 bunches of organic bananas! I wanted to make sure we had more than enough. I’ll probably use some of them to make banana bread.

Let’s peek in my fridge! There’s some homemade chicken broth chilling – couldn’t let those free range chicken bones go to waste!

A gallon of organic milk and a glass jug of organic, unfiltered apple juice sit beside the broth, as well as an almond butter jar that is being re-used to store leftover soup.

On the bottom shelf, you can see the organic butter that I bought yesterday.

On the table sit two ripe, organic tangelos, waiting to be eaten. Beside them, paper bags full of organic oranges and apples sit ripening.

I have a long way to go, but it’s heartening to see the changes happening. When I notice these little differences, it warms my heart to realize that I am taking steps toward taking better care of my family and myself.

Cleaning My Kitchen With Food

I’m doing it! I’m cleaning my kitchen with lemon juice and vinegar!

I was very hesitant to try it, but now that I’m doing it, I’ll never look back.

First of all, I cannot possibly tell you the peace of mind that comes from cleaning your kitchen with food. I can make a sandwich on top of a freshly cleaned countertop without worrying about residue from cleaners.

And it’s so inexpensive that I can use it liberally without a second thought. I don’t just swipe a rag over my table now. I really clean it.

Is it effective, you ask?

Cosmetically, it’s definitely effective! The acidic properties of the lemon juice and the vinegar break down dried-on food and grease. I just spray, leave to soak for a few minutes, then come back and wipe for a clean stove-top. Cooked-on food wipes away like a charm!

In terms of bacteria, we need to first review the real idea behind cleaning. We’re not looking to eliminate ALL bacteria, just to greatly diminish their numbers.

We want enough to give our immune system some exercise, but not enough to make us sick. This is why, unless you have an immunosupressive disease, you should not use antibacterial cleaners on everything. The medical community widely agrees that overuse of antibacterials can lead to allergies, as the immune system seeks things to attack.

That said, lemon juice and vinegar CAN kill bacteria. They are not potent germ-killers, but they do kill some germs. Combine that with their ability to dissolve spills for easy clean-up, and it’s a perfectly safe, effective cleaner for kitchen use. If you really want something antibacterial, you can add a few drops of tea tree oil.

A convenient, unexpected side effect of my new, liberal use of this cleaner is that my kitchen rags smell cleaner longer! The vinegar seems to be preventing bacteria from growing on the rag as quickly. Nice! I go through so many kitchen rags…

To make the solution, you mix 2 parts water, 1 part vinegar, and 1 part lemon juice. It needs to be diluted because vinegar can harm some surfaces if left on them at full-strength.

I didn’t like the vinegar smell, so I added a few drops of sweet orange essential oil. That greatly decreased the smell. You could use any essential oil.

Gettin’ all Frugal-y and Organic-ish

So, I’ve been subscribing to a few frugal-minded blogs that I’ve found through various links, including Like Merchant Ships, Frugal Hacks, and The Budget Ecoist. And, while a lot of what they say doesn’t apply to me, I have also gotten some good tips, and have been generally inspired.

One of the blogs I was reading recommended a book called The Tightwad Gazette. I went online and ordered it from my library (yay, books are free!), and have been going through it over the last few days.

There are a lot of great ideas in here! Many of them will only save you a few cents, but they’re also really simple, so you might as well, right? All those pennies add up!

According to the USDA, Americans spent 24.2% of their income on food in 1930, but only 9.5% in 2004. You can imagine that the numbers would have been even higher before the industrial revolution. I have heard before that, about 100 years ago, it was closer to 50%.

Is it any surprise that Americans are so malnourished? Is organic food really expensive, or is conventional food just absurdly cheap?

If people in 1930 could afford to spend more than twice as much on their food as we do today, then there must be a way that we can do it. Enter my interest in frugal living.

Amy Dacyczyn suggests making a notebook of food prices. Each sheet of paper is for one specific food. On the page you list both the retail prices and the sale prices that you find in various stores. This way, you know not only where to buy the food cheaply when you need to re-stock, but you also know when a sale is REALLY a killer sale, and can stock up.

Stocking up is what enables you to feed your family on so much less money. She used her methods to bring her food bill way down – I plan to use it to bring my food quality way up.

For example, I bought some organic blueberry applesauce at Grocery Outlet the other day, and Ariel LOVED it. She couldn’t stop talking about how yummy it was, and she’s consumed almost a whole jar in two short days! So I went back and bought 7 more jars.

Then I made a sheet for applesauce in my new food notebook. I wrote the date of the sale and GO for Grocery Outlet in the margin. I also wrote the price, number of ounces, cost-per-ounce, and a short description of the specific product. Next time I see a sale on organic applesauce, I can compare it to this one to see if it’s really worth stocking up on.

Applesauce wasn’t the only thing I bought up! Grocery Outlet is a great place to go for organic foods if you’re not shopping from a list. You never know what will be there, but it will probably be a good deal! In addition to jars of blueberry applesauce for $1.29 each, I’ve stocked up on cans of organic diced tomatoes for $.69 each, organic animal crackers for $.99 a box, organic nuts for $.99 a bag, and 54 ounce boxes of organic granola for $4.99. SCORE!

According to Dacyczyn (pronounced “decision”), this costs a little bit more money the first few months, but quickly becomes inexpensive as more and more of your food comes from your inexpensive bulk stores instead of from weekly trips to the grocer.

I’m really excited to be making the switch! There are SO many reasons to go organic, and if you’re reading this then I probably don’t need to tell you them, but suffice it to say that the peace of mind that I have when I pick up an organic item from a grocery store shelf is worth the high price. Well, except at Grocery Outlet, where there’s no high price to worry about. Then it’s more than worth it!

in response….

i was the first girl in my class to get a bra and get my period (4th grade).

the bra was a little exciting because it made me feel girly and i knew i was the first one in the class. plus, i think that for many, many reasons developing breasts are a right of passage. it’s the first change from child to woman. and let’s face it, we live in a society where breasts are glorified and easily become a woman’s identity.

as a woman, i think breasts are really beautiful. i think that even flat chested women can have beautiful breasts. and i also think that a breast cancer survivor who’s had a double mastectomy is incredibly beautiful! there’s something heroic about her.

my period was a different story. i was completely embarrassed and overwhelmed. i was only ten for gosh sakes. i was still learning about basic hygiene. this was a whole other realm of horrors. my mom was great about *trying* to make it exciting, but i was horrified and deeply embarrassed. i think the worst part was that my mom made this ridiculous “rule” that we couldn’t get our ears pierced until we got our periods. as an adult, i still can’t see the reason behind that “rule.” it meant that all of my girlfriends knew exactly what happened when i came to school with little opal studs in my ears. there was no way i wasn’t going to get them pierced that night though. i had waited my whole life for pierced ears so i was ready to take on the snickers and giggles when i walked into the classroom that day. if i was going to be made fun of, i was going to make sure that i was at least going to look like everyone else on the outside.

these stories and life experiences are part of the reason why we’re making the lifestyle changes that we are beginning to implement. the other reasons are the obvious health risks.

and really, i don’t think that they’re going to be tons different from their peers anyway. it seems like most of the families we know are either organic or vegetarian or both. if we end up putting the girls in the co-op or the waldorf school, i think they’ll be in exactly the same place as the other girls in their class.

i feel like if we can make healthier, better choices for our girls, then why wouldn’t we?
if i can stall their developing breasts and everything else that puberty encompasses…
if i can stall the unwanted looks and advances from men and mischievous boys…
if i can make girlhood last just a little longer and help to put off the adult decisions that go with a developed body…

i have to try.