Sunday, January 31, 2010

We Need a Food Revolution

Soooo, Tom and I watched Food, Inc. on Thursday. Thanks to Netflix and the lack of new Thursday night television, I had a life-changing moment (or series of moments) right on my couch.

I don't want to sound dramatic, but watching this movie has revolutionized the way that I think about food. I didn't really expect that anything in the film would be particularly surprising to me. My mom got her master's degree in nutrition while I was still in high school and both of my parents are medical professionals. Healthy eating and exercise were always a way of life in my family and McDonalds has long been an anathema, so I didn't expect to be so totally floored by what goes in the food industry in this country.

I felt after watching this movie much the same way that I felt after watching Bowling for Columbine, incensed by the fact that these obvious and egregious wrongs are not just allowed to continue, but are blatantly supported by our government. Just as I cannot imagine how anyone could oppose a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, I cannot wrap my mind around how anyone could possibly object to holding those who control 80%  of the nation's food supply to a certain standard cleanliness and common decency. One of the things that sticks out most in my mind and that brought me to tears as I watched was the similar disregard with which these giant corporations treat the animals they farm and the workers who raise and process them. It is unconscionable.

A second point has really stayed with me in large part because it applies as well to the education system as it does to the food system. The point was made that the system through which food, meat in particular, is farmed and processed in this country is irreparably broken and yet the food industry's reaction to this systemic problem is not to rethink the system but to come up with high-tech fixes that keep the system intact. Having just endured a 90 minute staff meeting in which the latest, greatest, fancy-pants new lesson plan writing system was rolled out and mandated, that point really hit home.

The difference between Food, Inc. and Bowling for Columbine is that Food, Inc. left me feeling not just angry at the system, but also empowered to change it. The point was made at the end that everybody gets to vote with each meal and each item scanned (or not scanned) at the supermarket. After I watched the movie on Thursday night, I immediately got online and started researching ways that I can implement some of the changes that, after seeing the film, Tom and I agreed are nonnegotiable. My entire prep period at school on Friday was devoted to looking into CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture programs in which individuals purchase a weekly share of a local farm's produce and receive in return a box each week that is full of freshly picked, in season, local fruits and vegetables.

Then, after school on Friday, I settled in to see what I had missed on Oprah this week, and as she so often does, O came through with the perfect topic at the perfect time. On Wednesday, the inimitable Ms. Winfrey had Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and now Food Rules, was a contributor to Food, Inc. and has this simple, seven-word healthy eating manifesto: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. 

Pollan's first point is that too much of what Americans eat would not be recognized as food by our grandparents. His suggestion, and one that I am going to attempt to implement, is not to eat anything that includes ingredients that a third grader could not pronounce. Now, this poses a serious threat to my friend Diet Coke, but I am going to start cutting out as much of the fake, processed "food" out of my diet as possible. This leads to another "food rule" that Pollan offered up on Oprah: Eat junk food if you want, but only if you make it yourself.

He doesn't suggest that we deny ourselves anything, just that we limit ourselves to food we can make ourselves. So when the craving for fries or brownies hits, we can have it, but only if we want it bad enough to make it from scratch. Sold. Although, this may mean that I need to get my hands on an ice cream maker as I am not about to give up frozen treats altogether.

I know that it will be an adjustment, but it is one that I am committed to and excited about. In an effort to kick of my own personal food revolution, I hit Whole Foods after work on Friday and the farmer's market this afternoon. Here are the changes that Tom and I making:
  • No more factory farmed meat. Gross. Oh, and: F you Purdue, Tyson and company.You guys are real douchebags.
  • No more sneaking high fructose corn syrup and other nonsense into my food. I had already pretty much eliminated high fructose corn syrup from my diet, but Tom has been going through his food staples in horror over the last two days...
  • Real, quality foods trump low-fat, sugar-free, chemical-filled ones. 
  • Buy in-season local produce as much as possible by shopping farmer's markets and possibly joining a CSA.
The main message that I will walk away with is that we need to be more conscious about what we are putting into our bodies and the bodies of those we love. Sorry for the long-winded, soap-boxy rant, but I am fired up. Go watch Food, Inc.! And just in case you need another reason to watch the movie, this guy is in it:

He is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia's Shenendoah Valley, author, farmer, environmentalist, and voice of reason.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

After the Storm


Just a few of the reasons why I love January in southern California.



Tom and I spent a lovely afternoon in La Jolla visiting with the seals and checking out the post-storm surf...ten to twelve foot swells, fyi. The beach in the winter and afternoon naps are two things that restore me, and today I got both. I'd call that a successful Saturday.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Good Day

On days like today, I really love being a teacher. I detoured from my characterization lesson plans today to talk about the catastrophe in Haiti, and the kids were riveted. Only about twenty percent had even a vague idea of what had happened, and the vast majority had never heard of Haiti. I spent ten minutes or so giving them background - we found Haiti on the map and talked about the abject poverty that plagues the country. The kids were floored to realize that there is a place where people are poorer than they are in Mexico, and their compassion for the Haitians was obvious.

After that very brief introduction to Haiti, I played a few reports from CNN to give the kids an idea of the level of destruction and the gravity of the public health situation. Next I had them write down their thoughts about why it seems that natural disasters always devastate the poorest of regions, and I was blown away by their insight. Lastly I asked them what responsibility people in other countries have to help the people of Haiti. Of course, there were a couple of knuckleheads (Knucklehead seems to be the go-to teacher euphemism for asshole; as in: "Johnny just carved Die Whore into his desk, he's such a knucklehead!") who had comments  like, "It's not my problem" or "I'm poor too!"  but they were the minority and were quickly shut down by their classmates. Without any prompting from me, collections were started in each class, and one of the groups came up with the idea of extending the fund-raising efforts to their own neighborhoods.

The students were more engaged in class today than they have been in a while, I was inspired, and the funds have started rolling in. All in all it was a very good day.

Prayers for Haiti

Last week it would have been difficult to imagine how life in Haiti could possibly become more difficult. When the average citizen eats one meal every other day, 30% of the population lacks potable water, and less than half of the population can read or write, it would be a gross understatement to say that life in Haiti is a struggle. Now that Tuesday's earthquake has claimed untold thousands and destroyed much of what little infrastructure existed, it is difficult to imagine what new obstacles lie ahead for the people of this beautiful country.

I only spent one week in Haiti, but I was changed by the experience. My most vivid memories of Milot involve the children who I met and observed there, children so dedicated to their educations that even a lack of electricity did not stop them from studying. At night they gathered under streetlights to finish their reading, and they were up at dawn, in incredibly pristine school uniforms, practicing their English with any travelers willing to chat with them.

Given that these same children are the future of Haiti, I am hopeful that, with the world's help, the country will recover and emerge renewed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I Lose, Now Jenga!

In the spirit of getting out of the house more, I joined Tom at the Bareback Grill this evening. After spending all day fighting to be heard over education-resistant teens, the last thin I usually feel like doing is heading out to a bar to fight to be heard over house music, lame pick-up lines, and/or the "woo girls."

Tonight, however, there was live music, free burgers, and best of!

I lost at Jenga twice, but good times were had by all.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Starting Fresh

With freshly waxed floors, some new posters, a fresh seating arrangement, and Gandhi and Mandela watching over us, I am hoping that the kiddos and I will be able to take advantage of the new year and get off to a fresh start tomorrow. Fingers crossed.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Paying Attention

Pay attention. This was the simple advice offered to all incoming freshman at the welcome Mass at the College of the Holy Cross. It then became the closing sentence in every one of the weekly letters my dad sent me during my four years in college and beyond. I guess that "Pay attention" could be perceived as a stern, teacherly admonishment; I've certainly been guilty of using it that way! I don't hear it that way though. To me it sounds like a gentle nudge toward mindfulness, a quick reminder to stay present.

I always try to pay the people around me, the simple pleasures of the day to day, what my body is telling me (Put the computer down and go to bed, woman!), but it is hard. I have a serious addiction to multi-tasking, and it is impossible to pay full attention when your focus is divided.

Lately, however, I am finding myself paying greater attention to the world around me, forcing myself to notice beauty or interest in small details. I credit this solely to my commitment to taking a photo a day. I am only 29 days in, but I have already exhausted the obvious photo subjects in and around my house. Today I went outside just as the sun was setting and tried to see with new things to photograph. I paid attention, and I was rewarded. I found both an abundance of new things to take pictures of, and a new appreciation for my mailbox, the tree next to my parking spot, and the fence around the apartment complex next door.What a lovely surprise.

I think that this list is going to end up being very good for me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Finding the Balance

One of the many things I love about vacation is the extra time I have to peruse blogs in search of inspiration, be it culinary, crafty, literary, or otherwise. Yesterday I discovered a blog written by a woman who gave up eating out for two years, choosing instead to eat food prepared almost solely with her own two hands in her New York City kitchen. This idea both fascinates and terrifies me. Eating out is one of my favorite luxuries and takeout sushi is one of my favorite pick-me-ups on days when my precious, darling students have been neither precious, nor darling. In any event, I lost a solid half hour exploring Not Eating Out in New York and reading random entries in Cathy Erway's culinary diary.

One recipe that caught my eye was Karol Lu's award-winning "I Love You, But I've Chosen Chili" chili. Now, I have no idea who Karol Lu is or how she names her dishes, but the recipe called for sweet potatoes, a bottle of beer, and three kinds of chili peppers; so I was sold. The problem, however, was that the mysterious Karol, while willing to divulge the basic ingredients of her magical chili, was apparently hesitant to get too specific about quantities or cooking times...she has a championship to defend after all. In her effort to protect the sanctity of her recipe, Karol even withheld one secret ingredient from the recipe.

I started working on the "I Love You, But I've Chosen Chili" chili around five and presented  it for dinner around 7:45. It turns out that I tend to be a little overzealous with the spices when left to my own devices, so there was a good twenty minutes devoted to attempting to find the appropriate balance of seasonings. The recipe called for chili powder, ancho chili powder, and chipotle chili powder. I went with about tablespoon and a half of each. This was way too much, fyi. Since I knew that recipe could benefit from the addition of some nameless mystery ingredient, I felt free to experiment. Some dark brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice, a sprinkling of chocolate chips, and an hour of simmering later, the chili had the perfect balance of spicy and sweet. It was so tasty that I decided to whip up some corn muffins to keep it company. It was a triumph if I do say so myself.
So, today I learned that:  1.) recipes are not gospel, 2.) I can allow myself some freedom to experiment in the kitchen, and 3.) chili is not the most photogenic of foods.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Welcome, 2010!

letter B A letter L letter A City Carpet Letter N Ceramic C in shades of teal and aqua E
Created using Spell with flickr

bal-ance (n) [bal-uhns]:
1.) a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.
2.) mental steadiness or emotional stability; habit of calm behavior, judgment, etc
3.) a state in which opposite forces or influences exist in equal or the correct amounts, in a way that is good
4.) the pleasing harmony of various elements in a design, painting, musical composition, etc.; harmonious proportion 

Having never been a huge fan of new year's resolutions, I was immediately intrigued by the possibility of forgoing them altogether, guilt-free. They may work for some, but for the most part, resolutions have become empty cliches, the same promises made and broken year after year. When I read (here and here) about the idea of replacing a litany of resolutions with a single word, it made sense to me and the word balance immediately came to mind. 

On her blog, Christine Kane explains that resolutions don't work because we are resolving to do something (i.e.: lose weight), but what we really want to is be something (i.e.: confident). She suggests that if we shift our focus and concentrate on who or what we wish to be, the things we need to do will naturally follow. The idea then is to choose one word that will be a kind of touchstone, a constant reminder of what you want for yourself for the coming year.

                                Sunset yoga by GrahamKing

So, this year, instead of making my usual yearly recommitment to eating well, exercising regularly, sleeping enough, and demonstrating fiscal responsibility, I am focusing instead on the idea of balance. I will try to think about bringing balance to my life as I go about my daily business and hopefully this will guide me to make the healthiest possible decisions and maybe even improve my tree pose.