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December 7, 2006

Local treats and good eats for under $12

Squash and pumpkin

Due to a recent snowfall and unusually cold temperatures, I hadn't ventured to the local farmer's market for awhile. I combined today's trip with doing photography for this site as well.

I had a short list, and I think one reason why I didn't walk away with ten times as much is because I refused to buy anything that wasn't local, with the exception of mandarin oranges and a German marzipan-chokolade bar. (It's a Christmas treat.) I kind of wanted lettuce, but none that I preferred, if any, was local. It was from California. The only local peppers were green ones, and I chose them over the red/yellow/orange ones from Mexico.

Local-grown nantes carrots

Here's what I got and what I paid:

- Three green peppers: $0.92 ( @ $0.79/lb)
- Approx. 12 mushrooms: $0.90 ($2.19/lb)
- A dozen Chinese Mandarins (loose): $2.21 ($0.69/lb)
- BC Hot House "on the vine" tomatoes: $0.93 ($0.89/lb)
- 2 medium onions: $0.28 ($0.29/lb)
- 6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes: $1.16 ($0.49/lb)
- 1 Certified Organic + local buttercup squash: $1.53 ($0.59/lb)
- Dozen large free run eggs: $3.69 ... which is only 30c more than Superstore's President's Choice free run eggs which has more packaging (though recyclable). The eggs I bought are from Abbotsford, which is local, instead of Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, or simply Canada, which is where the eggs from the other two brands I get are laid and/or packed. No wonder the eggs expire before their date.
- 1 200g marzipan bar: $3.39 (yes, I'm guilty)

Total: $15.21, 20 cents of which was GST on the marzipan, which I wouldn't include in the total to begin with because it's not produce! Therefore, I paid only $11.61. Most of that should last for 2 weeks for 2 people. (However, my boyfriend won't touch the squash, oranges, or mushrooms.) I would have bought closer to 10 potatoes, but I had something to carry home from school in one hand.

BC grown potatoes

I did some environmental conservation today. I stopped at the market on the way home from school. I take public transit both ways, and the walk home from the bus stop is a good 8 minutes with bags. So I feel pretty good about what I did. Somehow, I always manage to feel really good when I go to the market, no matter how the rest of me feels. There is just so much colour and life there, with tons of variety, textures, smells, and interesting people. Sometimes I find little treasures, too, that you don't get in a big grocery store... like marzipan! or honey in jars. The other great thing was they had descriptions of what "free run" and "born 3" eggs meant. I had a bit of a dilemma, not by price, but by ethics vs. my own health. I've read how good omega-3 fatty acids are, and I should simply eat more fish. I'm more interested right now in supporting free run hens, even if the space they have to run in isn't ideal. It's still better than prison, and I won't support that kind of treatment. The born 3 snippet they had from wherever it was didn't appear to mention how the chickens are cared for. Look for a post about their treatment later.

December 6, 2006

Food security, health care, and responsibility

Guest contributor Angela

As a dietitian and someone with a keen interest in human rights advocacy, food security is an important topic to me. It is not only that I believe that everyone should have access to affordable food. That's only part it. I believe that everyone should have access to food that is also safe, nutritious, and personally acceptable. "Acceptable" includes taste preference, moral issues, and ethical ones. By this definition, someone who receives food they dislike from a foodbank is not food secure. Nor is a vegetarian whose accessible food involves mainly meat products, or a person of Jewish faith who has free access to pork and not much else.

When it comes to food insecurity, particularly at-risk local populations include those living in the downtown Eastside of Vancouver (due to a number of demographics associated with those living in the area), those on social assistance (including disability benefits), senior citizens on fixed incomes, or single parents working minimum wage jobs.

A recent post on this blog mentions that organic food is more expensive than convetional products. This issue is hotly debated within the scope of this article and in the feedback from readers. I firmly believe, however, that organic food, on average, does cost more. This isn't to say that there aren't conventional grocery stores that charge a fortune, or some well-priced organic markets. But, arguing that everyone can get good prices for organic food assumes that everyone has the ability to seek out those markets and the time and transportation to get there.

The article talks about subsidies that conventional farmers get which allows their prices to be lower. Many readers replied that food is already cheap, that farmers don't get paid well, and that we should
all be willing to pay more for food in general. While I agree that farmers should make a decent wage, try telling our food insecure people mentioned above with $50 per month for food from their social assistance cheques that nutritious groceries should cost more. Or that if only they would travel 2 hours on transit to their nearest organic farm, after they finish their 12-hour shift working for minimum wage, that they would find inexpensive organic groceries. Or that if the masses would only "suck it up" and pay more now, they would save money on organic produce in the long run as prices come down. I also saw one person argue that changing spending priorities would ensure that people could afford organic food. While this might occasionally be the case, I am a bit overwhelmed at the judgmental attitude this person professes to have with regard to how low-income families spend their money.

On another note, if we are going to examine spending, health care dollars are a frequently mentioned subject in this country. I can personally attest to hospitals being short of beds, short of staff, and overcrowded. I cynically smirk whenever the "overcapacity protocol" is announced over the intercom. Personally, I think it would be more efficient to have a permanent overcapcity protocol and announce when there are actually beds for everyone.

There's no doubt that there are many factors leading to increased health care spending. We are living longer and getting sicker. Rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, mental illness, HIV, etc, etc, etc are all increasing. (Let it be known that I don't believe that obesity is a health risk, but rather, eating poorly and not exercising are health risks. That's another blog entirely.)

Similarly, there are many factors leading to our health decline. We cannot rule out environmental factors. I haven't done an extensive literature search recently on the health effects of pesticides. A few years ago, literature was inconclusive on this topic. The only thing we knew for sure was that those whose job it was to spray pesticides had higher rates of cancer. I personally don't think it's a far reach to suspect that pesiticides aren't doing us any good in terms of health over the long term. I can't imagine that our health would do anything but benefit if we all had access to organic produce and fresh air and water that wasn't contaminated with pesticides. Research is still inadequate on this topic. We've done so much to destroy our environment and health that to separate the effect of pesticides from all other factors is no easy feat.

Now is the part where I'm supposed to offer some brilliant solutions to be had. Unfortunately, I don't have a degree in economics. I have no idea whether changing farming subsidies to organic farmers would be useful economically as well as for individuals. I can't propose a national budget that would allow us to perfectly balance health care costs, education costs, environmental changes, and social assistance that allows people to live with dignity and food security. How feasible is it economically to suddenly ban trans fat? Or to tax "junk food"? What do we define as "junk food" while still allowing
people to be food secure? How do we maintain personal responsibility and free will in letting people make decisions about their own health care, while still keeping national health care costs as low as they can be?

What I do advocate for is dialogue. Among politicians, economists, environmentalists, health care providers, and any other interested individuals and stakeholders. I believe that there is more research to be done, and better balance to be had. If only we could agree on a common goal and start some conversation. Much easier said than done.

Angela (Vancouver)

December 1, 2006

To Wheat Or Not To Wheat

Guest contributor Elena P.
From To Wheat Or Not To Wheat, March 2004

When I think about the kinds of food to prepare, my mind wanders back to the foods I ate while living in Scotland, Nepal, Japan and other places where I have lived or traveled. It is important to note, however, that it is the properties of these foods, rather than their exotic affiliations, that drive my eating habits. I do not eat sushi, pad thai, and kim chi because I wish to participate in cultural food colonialism, as Heldke (2003) contends. I simply eat these foods because I have an allergy to wheat. No wheat means no cookies, no crackers, no bagels, no breakfast cereal, no cake, no hamburgers, no chicken stripes, no calamari, no burritos, no pizza, no pasta, no bread, and in some cases, no beer. Needless to say, it is extremely difficult to find wheat-free foods at most Canadian restaurants, bakeries, delis and coffee shops.

Eating wheat-free meals is much less challenging when I buy all of my food from the grocery store. As a student, however, I spend at least 12 hours a day on campus and, consequently, I usually end up buying all of my meals from the university's cafeterias, restaurants, coffee shops, and vending machines. Occasionally, I make a lunch at home and bring it to school, but this endeavour usually depends on time. Unfortunately, I have found the preparation of wheat-free foods such as rice, potatoes, and oatmeal, to be particularly time consuming, and consequently, usually end up buying expensive, quick, processed or pre-made snack foods. Fortunately, the average vending machine on campus is equipped with some wheat-free options, namely, chocolate, corn chips, potato chips, and granola bars. Most of the time I buy granola bars because, in my opinion, they are the healthiest option. I will proceed to explain how I came to develop this view.

When I was a child, my grandmother used to make me porridge, served with milk and blackberry jam. When I was especially young, she used to spoon-feed me. At the time, I thought being spoon-fed was the most enjoyable thing in the world. Most days, to my grandmother's dismay, I would employ a series of porridge-blocking techniques before finally biting down onto the spoon. Only seconds before the mound of steaming oats was transferred into my mouth, I would quickly purse my lips together and block the delivery! I thought this was hilarious, and would employ this porridge-blocking technique several times in a row, only yielding to my grandmother['s] plea, "come on Elena, open up. Porridge is good for you!"

As it turns out, my grandmother was right. Oats are, indeed, significantly healthy (Eborn, 2001). Oats belong to the grass family, scientifically known as Poaceae or Gramineae, and to the genus Avena (Wych, 2001). One of the most beneficial components of oats is that they are high in soluble and insoluble fibre (Innvista, 2000). Fibre, in turn, has multiple benefits such as increasing fecal bulk, speeding up fecal transit time, binding bile acids, and promoting fermentation in the large intestine (eDrugstore.md, 2003). In effect, fibre lowers cholesterol levels and decreases the chance of heart disease (Eborn, 2001). According to Eborn (2001), oats contain significantly more vitamins and minerals than wheat [see nutrition table]. Moreover, oats are said to be high in quality protein (Wych, 2001), and complex carbohydrates (Eborn, 2001).

These are among some of the positive characteristics that I have come to associate with oats and, interestingly, with granola bars too. In fact, it is thoroughly ingrained in my head that anything made with oats is healthy! Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Due to repeated heat-processing, instant or quick oats are rendered significantly less nutritious than old-fashioned oats (Innvista, 2000). Although I don't usually buy packages of 'quick oats', I do consume copious amounts of granola bars that are made with quick oats called "Oatmeal to go". In addition to quick oats, these granola bars contain hydrogenated vegetable oils. According to Graci (2000), hydrogenated vegetable oils should be avoided because they contain dangerous trans-fatty acids.

Literature Sources

Graci, S. The Food Connection. Toronto, ON: MacMillan, 2000, pp. 203-236.

Heldke, L. Exotic Appetites: ruminations of a food adventurer. London, UK: Routledge, 2003 pp. 23-59 (The pursuit of authenticity).

Wych, RD. (2001). Oats. In The World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 14, pp. 640-641.

Internet Sources

Eborn, Doug. (2001). Walton feed. Retrieved March 20, 2004, from http://waltonfeed.com/self/oats.html

Oats. (2000). Retrieved March 20, 2004, from http://www.innvista.com/health/foods/seeds/oats.htm

Michael Pollan and our dysfunctional food systems

Drawing of corn
Eat Local Challenge posted a great summary of author Michael Pollan's (The Omnivore's Dilemma) talk at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis.

An excerpt:
Did you know you are 10 times more likely to have a conversation at a farmers' market than you are at a grocery store? Or that Americans get 80% of their diet from 4 or 5 plants? By the way, if you guess that two of them are corn and soy, you're right.


I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the other ones are wheat and potatoes, and... well, I was going to say sugarbeets, but I think most of the sugar we consume is actually (from) corn syrup. If you're as surprised as I am to see soy on there (given that tofu is often regarded as yucky), remember soy sauce, soy protein (which I think they put on Safeway chicken thighs, and I'm allergic to those), soy milk and soy-based "meat" (what I affectionately call "fake meat") such as Yves Veggie Cuisine. Soy — and corn and wheat — are more prevalent in foods than you may think. They put some kind of soy protein extract in my favourite soup, and god knows what else. There is wheat in soy sauce. In fact — and this is totally off-topic but just in terms of unnecessary food additives — they put salt in Jello chocolate pudding! Why?! I bought one without salt. What's worse is the very real situation Thomas Pawlick describes in which meats are "seasoned" with salts before they even get to the store. Companies then expect you to simply avoid meat, period, if you have high blood pressure. (I guess they don't need your dollars.)

Ah, here we go. Pollan says in his book that since the 1970s "soybeans have become the second leg supporting the industrial food system: It too is fed to livestock and now finds its way into two-thirds of all processed foods" (35). Thus we are not necessarily consuming it directly, as with corn... and we're consuming a lot of it. So there you have it.

This is also interesting. He says, "A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef. (Modern-day hunter-gatherers who subsist on wild meat don't have our rates of heart disease.) In the same way ruminants* are ill adapted to eating corn, humans in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn" (75). Further down he mentions how in Argentina, steaks are produced on nothing but grass. As they should be: cows eat grass; corn makes them terribly ill. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

*Ruminant (from American Oxford Dictionaries):
1) an even-toed ungulate mammal that chews the cud regurgitated from its rumen. The ruminants comprise the cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer, giraffes, and their relatives.
2) a contemplative person; a person given to meditation.
From Latin ruminant- 'chewing over again,' from the verb ruminari, from rumen 'throat'.
Compare to ruminate: to "think deeply about something," from Latin ruminat- 'chewed over,' (American Oxford Dictionaries).

My comments at ELC's post:
Wow, thank you for this exciting review! I bought Pollan's book probably 2 and a half months ago for research, but since I needed to attend to library books first, I left his on my shelf, waiting. Your post inspired me to open it up and find those details. I couldn't find the one about the 4 or 5 plants we eat, but I did find some very interesting facts on corn and soy. I was surprised about soy being in that list until I read what he said, and realised it has penetrated our diets as an additive possibly moreso than as a directly consumed food. My soup tonight had soy in one or two forms in it, in addition to potatoes, potato starch, corn starch, and wheat. That would make everyone in my family terribly ill, with the exception of my dad and myself. I'm happy not to see anything chemical on there except MSG (cleverly disguised in its spelled-out form), although I have to wonder... what was genetically-modified? What was treated with pesticides? What was imported? I also wonder whether I'll buy that soup anymore. It wouldn't be hard to make my own. My mother always did.