Friday, September 30, 2011

SOLE on SNAP: No easy answers

The more I research for the SOLE on SNAP project, the more I am realizing this is an issue that has many layers of complexity.

This article just created like 10 more questions in my head, that I don't have the answers to.

Frankly, I don't think anyone has the answers to this issue.

One thing that is becomming clear to me is that the solution to the problem most likely won't be the same from place to place. Sure, it's easy for me to visualize how I can eat for a month on $367. No sweat. But I have a car. A grocery store is less than 3 miles from my house. The farmer's market I buy a lot of food from conveniently delivers my weekly order to a church parking lot that I pass on my way home from work. Less than 2 miles from where I work, and less than 3 miles from my home is another farmer's market, that I frequent.

What about the people who live in a "food desert?" What if there isn't a farmer's market nearby? Or what if there isn't a grocery store nearby or near public transportation? The deck is stacked against you. That's what.

I'm going to try to keep these factors in mind as I get through the month of October. Hopefully, I come out the other side gaining some perspective and maybe teaching some of you along the way that there is hope.

Not to get all fluffly on you, but this is a public health issue. I see it in my work when I read about healthcare costs as they relate to state budgets. To me, the reasons why this is so important are right there in black and white (and most recently red) numbers. The food revolution is gaining some momentum, but it's still early in the battle. The food revolution needs to address and overcome the criticisms (some legitimate, some natsamuch) to continue to move forward.

Sometimes I get so sad when I see these criticisms reported in the media and on social media. Everyone has a right to voice their opinions. And many people are reluctant to embrace changes. Especially when it comes to food. Food might be something that you don't give much of a sideways thought to, but people have very deep emotions about their food. It's something that every human needs to survive. Which is why these issues seem to polarize people so starkly. I just hope that one day, we all look back on this time as much healthier adults raising healthy children in a thriving economy, and realize it was a tough path, but worth every step.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

SOLE on SNAP: Some background reading.


I mentioned in my first SOLE on SNAP post, that I had had enough when I read about a new study that found that meeting the recommendations of would be more expensive. For the past couple years, I just get disappointed when I hear people say the food revolution is elitist. Or that eating healthy is just too expensive. Such statements conjure up images of an urbanite trolling around town in a Range Rover to the specialty butcher shop to get some grass fed organic lamb meat for a bazillion dollars per pound. From where I sit, that just isn't accurate.

I was doing some searches about the topic of eating healthier being more expensive. I think those are the exact words I used in the search, and I got a ton of hits.

This one is just fraught with contractions in its message:
First, the headline proclaims "Healthy eating adds $380 to yearly grocery bill"!!!! (Exclamations are mine...) However, buried down at the bottom, the article does talk about the nutrient that will cost this $380 to bring up to the recommendations is potassium. And that the cost is likely so high because people assume the only way to get more potassium is to eat a lot of fruits and veggies. This is true. Fruits and veggies are extremely high in potassium, and just about everyone could benefit from adding more fuits and veggies to their diet. The article does point out that there could be more cost effective ways to get potassium in one's diet, but doesn't mention what those sources might be.

I have one for ya. Coffee.

When I got the idea to do this project after I read about the study, I started tracking my own potassium intake. I was surprised to find out that two cups of coffee, which is what I drink on an average day, has 261 grams. This is like eating half a piece of fruit. Apparently the government's guidelines recommend hitting 3,500 grams of potassium every day. This is no doubt a challenge for some. But my point is that there are some unexpected ways to get potassium. I'm not advocating drinking a whole pot of coffee just to hit the 3,500, but you don't need to be eating fruit salad at every meal either. If you load up on one kind of food just to get a specific nutrient, you'll be lacking in another. The idea is to eat a balanced diet that gives you adequate amounts of all the necessary nutriets.

And, what risk does a potassium deficiency pose anyway? It's not like a huge crisis you are hearing about on the news: The Great American Potassium Deficiency. I suspect its not terribly threatening, or more food would be fortified with potassium, like so many other nutrients. Bing tells me that more often than not, there are no symptoms. A potassium deficiency can contribute to high blood pressure, however, but so can stress and excessive sodium. Also, symptoms can include cramps, constipation, fatigue and irritability. In most cases, these aren't life threatening.

My search for news articles about the study seems to give me hits of the same AP story over and over again, which ran on August 4, 2011. However, the topic goes back a few years.

Here is a story from 2008 that points out that eating healthier is more expensive than eating junk food.

Here is a story from 2007, that cites a University of Washington study that tracked the prices of food and found that healthy food is more expensive than junk food:

The point I'm trying to drive home here is that, yes, SOME healthy food is more expensive than junk food. I am not even quantifing the hidden costs or indirect costs (I'll get into that some other time) of health care costs associated with a poor diet and environmental costs associated with the commercial production of subsidy crops that eventually become most junk food products. I'm talking straight price verses price. But I speculate that the flaw in the studies is that they are simply looking at the prices of these foods in the grocery store at any given time.

Sure, if you go to the grocery store in August and compare the cost of fresh asparagus (flown from Argentina) and a package of snack cakes ounce for ounce, obviously, the asparagus is going to be substantially more. But what if you went to a farmers market in September and bought a box of bushel cucumbers for $5 (like I did) and compared it to the cost of a bag of chips ounce for ounce? I think there's no question the cucumbers are cheaper and you get A LOT more traction out of those than you do a bag of chips. If you eat a suggested serving size of the chips everyday, how long does that bag of chips last? A week, maybe? But you could eat a fresh cucumber every day for a week as a snack instead, and STILL have more than enough left over to make a batch of pickles, that would last you months. You could literally eat on those cucumbers for the next six months.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Project update: I came up with a name and a little intro into the planning process.


I couldn't resist.

I mentioned earlier this week that I cooked up a project for this blog. The Hubs and I were going to eat on what would be the amount of SNAP benefits for two adults for the entire month of October.

I knew I needed a catchy name. But I'm not good at thinking up those sorts of things. That's my disclaimer. It's kinda cheesy: "SOLE on SNAP."

I'm a big fan of acronyms, you know. SOLE is jargon for "Sustainably, Organic, Local, Ethical." Those are food principles I try to live by. I don't always adhere to them perfectly, but I certainly strive to. Of course, SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as "food stamps."

So now that I have a name, I wanted to talk a little bit about how I'm preparing for the project.

I started out by doing what I do every month. And, let me just say, I know I'm a little type A when it comes to this. But this is just what I do.

I go grocery shopping on or about the 28th of every month. Why? Well, because my credit card billing cycle starts over on that day. To be honest, my credit card is usually on "lock down" for about the last week of the billing cycle. It is what it is.

About a week before I go grocery shopping, I start thinking about what I'd like to make for dinner next month. I take inventory of what I have in the freezer/pantry/larder that I can use. I flip through some of my favorite cookbooks to see what strikes my fancy. And I think about what's in season at the farmer's market. I make a list of about 20 or 22 dinners, based on all this inventory, cookbook perusing, and cravings. I've been doing this for more than a year, and I've determined I only need between 20 and 24 dinners for the entire month, based upon our eating schedule.

As I make a list of the dinners I want to make, I also make a store list, adding things that are in the recipes that I will need to buy. And of course, adding the things that I buy on a regular basis like yogurt and lunch stuff.

After I have my list, I print off a blank calendar from outlook. I look at my schedule for the month, and mark off the days I already know I won't cook. Then, I fill in the dates with the dinners. I try to make it varied, i.e. not having fish twice in one week, etc. I also take into account evenings that I have meetings or if I expect to be working late, and try to schedule crock pot dinners or something that I know Jeremy won't mind cooking. The final product looks something like this.

I leave a few days open for spur of the moment meals and things like that. We do eat dinner out about once a week, and we usually visit either both or one set of parents on the weekend, and we'll have dinner at their house.

Now, I'm ready to shop. I do try to make one big shopping trip per month. I know that I'll need to go back, hopefully only one more time in the month to get things like milk and a few odds and ends. If I have something on my list for a meal late in the month that is perishable, I'll usually hold that off until the second run to the grocery store. I also order from the Monroe Farm Market, which delivers every other Thursday. I usually get eggs once per month, and maybe some meat or vegetables, depending on what's offered by the market. I also have my "Delicious Potager", from which I get some vegetables and herbs too. (It's still going strong, by the way. I planted arugula Monday, and yesterday I picked some peppers and radishes.)

I would say the whole process of flipping through cookbooks, making a list of menus, making a store list and filling out the calendar takes 3 or 4 hours. But I don't do it all in one sitting. In the evenings when I sit down to watch tv with Jeremy, I might grab a couple cookbooks and flip through them. Or sometimes when I'm eating breakfast, I am thinking about what I'll make for dinner and adding menus to the list. The hardest part is filling out the calendar, because I have to think about "are we eating too much red meat this week? are we going to get burnt out on meatless meals this month?" and I have to take into account my busy schedule. (Seriously, I need to drop some committments... Junior League, Eastern Star, serving on the session at church... It's getting out of hand.)

I can get my shopping done in an hour or less, and I try to go on Sunday afternoon, or an evening through the week, if that is when the 28th falls. One thing that saves a huge amount of time at the grocery store is making a good list. I am pretty familiar with my grocery store, and after I get my store list done based on the menus, I make a new store list, with the items listed in the order I come to them in the store. Like I said. I'm type A. I also write down if I have a coupon for the item. I do coupon, but I'm not an "Extreme Couponer."

So, I know this post is already REALLY long, and probably boring, but there are a few loose ends I need to tie up for the project.

I'm still not really sure how to count the stuff I already have in the freezer/pantry/larder. We have quite a bit of chicken in the freezer, as late summer is the time of year to butcher chickens. I bought a lot of it from the farmer's market in July and August, when it was available. I'm still mulling that one over, and I'll figure something out.

And I'd still like to talk to someone who has formerly received or is currently receiving SNAP benefits, just to ask some general questions and get some perspective. I WILL NOT use any names on this blog. I think that the project would have a little more credibility if I could get that perspective from someone. At any rate, I'm moving forward. And excited to get this thing started.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A project.

I've come up with an idea for a project on this blog. It's a "challenge", similar to the ones I've done before.

For the month of October, Jeremy and I are going to eat on what would be the amount of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as "food stamps") benefits for two adults.

I get so tired of hearing that eating sustainably/healthy/locally/all the above is too expensive for lower and middle income families. Or that the food revolution is elitist. It's just not, from my perspective. As a matter of fact, I've spent less at the grocery store on average monthly than I did two years ago before I really started eating conscientiously.

I've said it once, and I'll say it again. It's not more expensive to eat sustainably/locally/healthier, but it does take more time and planning.

Last month, I read something that was the straw that broke the camel's back.

WebMD reported a recent study that in order to meet the new recommendations of the new, Americans would have to pony up 10% more of their food budget. Here's the link:

If you read the story closely, those who "spent the least on food, and average of $6.77 a day, were also the furthest from the goverment's daily guidelines of 3.500 milligrams of potassium, 25 grams of daily fiber, 10 micrograms of vitamin D, and 1,000 milligrams of calcium. On average, they were getting around 2.391 milligrams of potassium, 16 grams of fiber, 5 micrograms of vitamin D, and 854 milligrams of calcium."

Now, call me crazy, but I think those numbers aren't too shabby, if we're looking at the big picture. While it would be great if people were getting more fiber, arguably the immediate goal of the was awareness. This is how much and what you SHOULD be eating at every meal. I think it was universally agreed upon that the former USDA dietary guidelines were hopelessly confusing.

A Bing search for words similar to those in the title of the study reveals at least a half a dozen more similar stories.

In case you're wondering, for a household of two adults, SNAP benefits would total $367 per month. When I told Jeremy this, his response was "Jesus! We'll eat like kings next month!" That pretty much sums it up. My average grocery haul for the month (including farmers market) averages around $300 to $325.

So, I'm going on about my business as usual. And I'm going to eat healthy and write about it. And about how much it costs and things like that. For your reading pleasure.

There are a few kinks I am trying to iron out as of yet. For instance, do I include things I have in my pantry/freezer in the budget, and how do I assign them a value? Especially if they were free, i.e. from my personal vegetable garden or if its deer meat Jeremy killed last winter? And, I need a catchy title for the challenge. Any ideas? I'm not really sure about all that yet, but the clock starts on Oct. 1st. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The apple (or pear/tomato/blueberry) doesn't fall far from the tree.

I might have mentioned on here before that I have fond memories of canning tomatoes with my mom when I was little.

(Truth be told, and I'm sure my mom would agree, that a more accurate account of canning tomatoes with her when I was little sounded something like this: "It's hot. I'm bored. This is stupid. How much longer do I have to help? When can I go outside?" Funny how time makes things more nostalgic...)

At any rate, I was at her house on Saturday, and we were making sweet pickles. I had to make several trips to the basement to get canning supplies or odds and ends that were needed during the process. At some point, it all hit home. "Wow," I thought, "I wish my larder looked like this."

She's got tomatoes, pears, hot pepper jelly, apple sauce, blueberry jam and chutney, salsa, pickles, and weiners and peppers.

She's a old pro (but not really old, right, Mom? haha) when it comes to canning. I have a pretty good grasp on hot water canning, but pressure canning still makes me nervous, even after taking a class the local extension offered. Last weekend, we canned hot weiners and peppers in the pressure canner. I kept asking questions and second guessing myself, so I'm glad she was there to give me a refresher. She used to always do these in a hot water bath, but after taking the extension class, decided she really should be pressure canning them because of the meat. She's pressure canned two batches and had a handful of quarts not seal because they run over in the pressure canner--something she never had trouble with when she used the water bath. So, she's decided to go back to her tried and true ways of doing those. Sometimes the new way of doing things has it's drawbacks, I guess.

I'm so glad that my mom taught me to can. I really enjoy doing it, actually. It makes eating local whole foods so much easier and economical, and it allows you to stretch what's in season now through the winter. And, it makes me feel a connection to the past. On the top shelves of my mom's larder (and I should have gotten a picture) are several half gallon jars, which are almost impossible to find now. Along with those half gallon jars are a few jars of canned goods that my granny canned when she was alive. Of course, they aren't any good to eat now, but It's just nice to see something like that now that I'm carrying on the tradition.

After all, one of Michael Pollan's food rules is to "Eat like your granny." I truly do.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Move over Emeril. Michael Mina is in the house.

So, the Hubs and I just got back from a little jaunt to Vegas. It's our most favorite place to visit, and boy did we have a good time. Probably too good a time. But what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, right?

Except for the pics of this piece of fabulous animal flesh. My apologies to the vegetarians.

Forgive the picture quality, it was an iPhone in a dimly lit restaurant. But it could be the best steak I've ever eaten.

Before we went, I picked up a couple gift certificates from to use. Mandalay Bay has a lot of their restaurants listed, and I got one for StripSteak.

You might have heard that Vegas is a new food mecca. All the celebrity chefs are opening restaurants there, and all the one's I've visited have not dissapointed. So, when we go to Vegas, the Hubs and I always joke that we put more planning into where we're going to eat than anything else. I did lots and lots of research on Yelp before deciding on this one.

The thing on the yelp reviews that caught my attention was the "amuse bouche" of duck fat fries. I put "amuse bouche" in parenthesis because (according to the official definition on wikipedia) its traditionally a single bite. And these were a pretty hefty portion for FREE. Yes, free. Like the basket of bread some places bring you before your meal. StripSteak brings you a tray of duck fat fries. That's how they roll. There were 3 cups of fries with different seasonings and three dipping sauces. We couldn't pick a favorite between the black truffle oil-sprinkled fries with black truffle oil aioli or the parsley fries with the ginger ketchup. Both were mind-blowingly good. (Hello--I could totally make ginger ketchup, I think. I need to try.)

We also ordered some drinks. I had a dry red and Jeremy had Fat Tire IPA, I think, while waiting for the rest of the order. I'm kinda a traditionalist when it comes to ordering steak at a restaurant. Probably 99% of the time, I get a wedge salad and creamed spinach with my steak, which I almost always order NY Strip and medium rare. I don't deviate. So this time, I did get a wedge salad, with was fabulous, as far as wedge salads go, but fellow yelpers reported StripSteak's bacon creamed spinach as "meh." I got goat cheese artichoke hearts instead, and they were very good, but I would probably say they were nothing special above goat cheese and artichoke hearts. Jeremy got as his side the truffle mac and cheese. Yelpers proclaimed this as the best thing on the menu, and it definitely was in the running. It. Was. Unbelievable. I wanted to swim in it. Seriously. It was all white cheese, I'm not really sure what kind. But I did detect finely shredded parmesean on top. Which was fabulous with the nuttiness of the truffles. If you ever go there, do not bother getting any other side. And, the a la carte sides are quite generous. One would have easily been enough to share for two.

On to the steaks. Our waitress told us that the steaks were poached in butter for a bit before being grilled. What? I'm sorry. I don't think I heard you right. Poached in butter??? These steaks were so juicy and I'm guessing the butter helped with the ever slightest brown crust on the outside of the steak while the inside was heavenly. I just hate to guess my saturated fat intake for the meal. But hey, it's vacation, right? They didn't have a NY Strip, but they did have a Kansas City Strip. I can't find any discernable difference between the two online or otherwise. Maybe it just depends what coast you're on when you order it... I don't know how a more done steak would have fared with the butter poaching. I presume it would have helped a well-done (shudder) steak remain more juicy and tender. But the Hubs and I both got our medium rare.

Previously, while on our honeymoon in Vegas a few years back, I thought I'd had my best meal in my life at Emeril's Delmonico Steakhouse. The honeymoon is a happy blur, but the memory that petite filet with blue crab hollandise risotto will always remain with me. I'm afraid, though, that I might have topped that meal with this one though. It was so delicious I would even consider going back there sometime, which I am usually against. There are just too many great restaurants in Vegas to repeat one. This one could be worth it, though.