Monday, November 25, 2013

Confessions of a Food Justice Advocate

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve written regularly on here. But I want to get back into it. Like the phoenix is reborn to new life, I am hoping the lessons I’ve learned and insight I’ve gained over the past few years will allow me to add life to this blog. 

We often hear that the perfect is the enemy of the good.  A trap I fell into, wanting to make this blog more than it needed to be and therefore not finding the time to write on it at all.  I didn’t have a strong enough conviction that none of us is perfect and we must share what we can, in humility, in order to grow.

We will be most alive, successful and happy when we are most ourselves. But we can’t fully become our true selves until we face our own insecurities.

I’ve been challenged a lot recently and have felt compelled to take a “SNAP (food stamp) challenge” – or in other words learn what it’s like for low-income people to try to eat healthy on a very restricted budget.  It’s something I’ve known for a while I should do.  How can I best communicate to low-income folks about eating healthy if I haven’t lived through and experienced doing it myself? 

I was very fortunate growing up to have had a mother who cooked great family meals every night.  It wasn’t processed, packaged foods – she made real, wholesome meals, practically every night of the week. I didn’t comprehend how important this skill of cooking and knowing how to prepare food really was, and took advantage of it, not learning the skills myself so that I would be able to use them later on in life.  This was all before I decided to study nutrition in college, of course. I had no idea my career was going to take me down a path that would bring me back to the importance of food and knowing how to prepare it. I never really understood how lucky I was to have those family meals until I was out own my own. In college, I was fortunate to have had great dining halls, but it left me with a nagging feeling that post-college I would not have the skills to prepare meals myself on a regular basis. I could go shopping and follow a recipe, but is not something I was committed to doing on a regular basis because I was so committed to so many other extra-curriculars.  I continued on this path in grad school and afterwards, working for an organization that has taught me about health disparities which fostered in me a real passion for food justice.  I’ve focused so much of my time over the past several years on seeking food justice because it bothers me that so many people don’t have the ability to afford healthy foods and don’t have access to things like fresh fruits and vegetables and the like.   But in retrospect some of this passion may have really just been a way of hiding from the challenge of figuring out how to eat healthy on a budget so I could share this wisdom with others. 

I didn’t see a point in figuring out great meal plans for myself if the population I was working with wouldn’t be able to relate to it. So I didn’t do it.  I live in a house where we care about building community and have weekly dinner nights where we share a meal with our housemates and neighbors/friends. So once a week I have my meals taken care of (once a month usually I commit to preparing the meal).  Many of the other nights of the week I have typically been out at meetings/events (where sometimes a meal is provided) or I’ve worked too late at night to come home and want to cook  (especially in a kitchen that’s over-crowded with food and dirty dishes your other housemates have left lying around).  I’ve also not been very structured about using the time I do have (usually on weekends) to plan out my meals for the week.  I’ve tended to stick with very simple dinners for myself that probably wouldn’t satisfy anyone but me.  A very basic kale salad for dinner?  Ok.  Or an egg or two with salt and pepper - maybe with some bread lying around.  A roasted acorn squash with maple syrup.  A potato or sweet potato.  In the summer, sautéed eggplant and squash from the farmer’s market.  Only when making meals that involve other people have I been more diligent about trying to prepare a balanced meal with carbs, protein and vegetables.   And for lunch, I must confess a typical day consists of a trip out of the office to Pret a Manger for a basic (usually vegetarian) sandwich, which wastes so much more packaging than if I had packed my lunch myself.

Another challenge for me is when shopping at a grocery store, trying to find foods that were packaged in as little an amount of plastic & material as possible, because unnecessarily filling up landfills, clogging oceans and killing animals with our trash just doesn’t sit right with me. Which has led me to often shop at a farmer’s market (where I can use a reusable bag for the vegetables) or participate in a community supported agriculture / farm share program to get fresh, local vegetables, straight from the farm, without all the middle-men steps and relying on the broken industrialized food system.

But there are still many lessons we can learn from each other in trying to eat healthy for ourselves and our families. And I’m committed to seeing how we can all learn from each other – I think it will lead to a more fulfilling life if we can provide wholesome, nutritious homecooked meals for ourselves and our families more often.  Last week I made a Lentil & Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie which tasted delicious and I’ve been able to get several servings of leftovers out of it too. (Other recipes I’ve made in the past you can view on my Pinterest Recipe page).

Some geniuses recently came out with the “Plant Based on a Budget” website with recipes and meal plans for eating tasty, wholesome meals without spending too much money.  Also, a few members of the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group have committed to taking the SNAP challenge and some of their experiences are being posted to the HEN Facebook page.  HEN member Karen Ehrens, who inspired others to begin this project a few months ago when she took the SNAP challenge, collected her experience in an article you can read here. In addition, Registered Dietitian & Secular Franciscan Stacey Antine was recently challenged by the Bergen Record (the major daily paper in Bergen County, NJ) to shop healthy on a SNAP budget of $146 for a family of 4 – and was able to do it, documenting here experiences here.
While I haven’t yet figured out a meal plan for myself to eat healthy on a SNAP budget, I would like to make a goal of learning to do this better over the next several months – and trying to keep this up as best I can afterwards too. If anyone would like to join me, below are the guidelines offered by HEN member Garnel Bruell:

SNAP Challenge Guidelines
How much money will you be limited to? Please see the attached chart that shows the maximum benefits / family members. And note that since November 1st, this amount has been reduced to the pre-2009 Recovery Act levels.
What else can you cook with? Although this is a call all your own, I would say don’t feel the need to buy additional cooking oils or spices. You could deliberately limit your spice use to things like salt/pepper and homegrown spices, but ultimately this is your decision. 

Especially in this time of Thanksgiving when so many people will be reminded of their constant struggle to put food on the table for their families, may we be grateful for the food that we do have and strive to eat simple, wholesome meals so that others may do the same. 

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