Eating on $21 a week?

Four U.S. Representatives — three Democrats and a Republican — are spending the week eating on $21 in groceries because that’s the average benefit of someone living on food stamps. They’re blogging their experience, and the comments are getting very interesting.

I won’t be cynical and say the effort is a political ploy; perhaps, rather, that they are trying to make a political point for increased benefit and the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. Say what you might but even a small government could do worse for its own survival and the well-being of the citizenry than give away food.

But is the $21 figure fair? Or realistic by the USDA’s own logic? Can you effectively reproduce the experience of someone receiving food stamps this way?

My problem with the experiment is that such a little amount of money is never meant to cover all food costs, but rather supplement expenses. Looking at the USDA March 2007 (latest available; PDF link) costing for various food plans you see the Thrifty plan, from which food stamp values are derived. For a man aged 19-50 (as I am) the weekly Thrifty grocery costs should be $35.20, very tight but better than $21. So would Hubby and I get $70.40 hypothetically? No, because the USDA recognizes that smaller families and individuals can’t buy food as cost effectively as larger families. A household of two men our age would “rate” 10% more or $77.44. A male-female couple the same age range — as at least one of the House member participants probably is — would merit $73.90, not $42. That’s $320 a month. The difference comes — I’m guessing — in the lower allotments for small children averaged in or that food stamps don’t cover everything.

The calculus for these values is beyond my comprehension, but fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, fish and some meat is factored in. (PDF link.) This improved understanding includes contemporary foodways and a broader selection of ethically-appropriate choices than when I first started looking at the Thrifty plan years ago. I certainly lived on this budget for longer than I care to remember.

Yes, hunger and health are big national issues; but looking at the numbers I think I’ll reserve my anger for uncontrolled housing and health costs which are more likely to put a family in peril.

A minimalist kitchen

I don’t understand the fascination for the kind of gigantic designer kitchens promoted as the norm on home shows and in magazines. You don’t need that much to cook well, if you have desire and a willingness to learn. (Yes, this also takes time, but a big kitchen isn’t going to give you any more time; indeed, it may be a time sink maintaining it.)

The Gray Lady shows how one food writer could kit out a kitchen for $200, $300 with a few frills.

A No-Frills Kitchen Still Cooks” (New York Times, 2007 May 9)

Accomodating different needs in a meal

Ms. Theologian gives good advice for vegetarians and vegans who might not be well served at work-related meals.

Most church event planners are not pros and can get into a bind when trying to make a special church-related meal — say, a canvass dinner — incorporate a variety of diet needs, even common ones. Say vegetarians, but also those on diabetes care diets and those with lactose intolerance. Or perhaps you’re planning a wedding reception or have been tasked to put together an awards banquet. Or perhaps you’re the vegetarian and want to serve something different than Black Bean Extravaganza.

How can you keep all these needs in mind?

Now, don’t laugh, but there’s this site I like to visit called where travelers and flight crews photograph and describe their onboard meals. I don’t know why this appeals to me, but it does, and there’s a special meals category. I would be proud to serve some of them — especially from first class and on the better international carriers — to my friends and fellow church members. (And there are some fun ideas for those who brown bag regularly, too.)

Once you have an idea of the menu, I like the recipes at the BBC for creativity and contentiousness, if you’re cooking or have a special working relationship with who is.

In meat descent? Seek out Muslim suppliers

Mama G (Mom to the Left) described her family’s meat reduction and functional vegetarianism. She would, she says, buy meat that was slaughtered fairly and (I intuit) was easier to get than an hour-long run to the closest Whole Foods.

I am no vegetarian but I eat very little meat. In the last seven days, I have had a taste of Hubby’s lamb at one of our favorite — but soon to close — Chinese restaurants and a roasted chicken thigh from a Pakistani take-out yesterday. Like Mama G, I’m concerned with inhumane raising of animals and their slaughter, labor conditions of slaughterhouse and packing employees and the environmental costs of eating meat. I suppose I have a health concern, too, but that accents — not drives — my desire for more ethical outlets and reduced consumption.

When I owned a car and cooked meat at home, I would drive to one of a number of Muslim groceries or butchers in the suburbs and buy halal meat. Perhaps that’s an option for Mama G and those in a similar pickle. Why?

  • I may be wrong, but halal slaughter isn’t as industrialized as commercial meat slaughter.
  • Meat slaughter isn’t a happy affair, but I would rather see it handled by someone with a sense of divine responsibility than not; there’s no point for the butcher to be dehumanized or the animal conceptualized as a messy protein blob.
  • Working in smaller quantities, I had a better idea of where the livestock came from — like the time I saw a goat carcass unloaded from a truck identifying a West Virginia farm.
  • I get a sense more of the beast is sold and used.
  • You aren’t going to get pork, which is O.K. seeing how miserable the conditions are for factory swine.
  • Halal meat is usually cheaper than kosher or organic/fair/Whole Foods-like meat, since cost is a consideration. For lamb, it tends to be cheaper than ordinary grocers, too.
  • You sometimes have a real service butcher who can cut meat to your specifications.
  • You can sometimes get other staples there, like feta cheese, olives, pita bread, peas, tea and spices that might be unavailable or more expensive elsewhere.

Failing a full-service halal grocery, sometimes you can get halal meat in a cryovac pack or, as with my chicken thigh, eat at a halal restaurant (many of which have good vegetarian options, too.)

Lastly, there’s an affirmation of American pluralism that comes from conducting business outside your ethnic and religious custom; indeed, I bet a few dozen regular non-Muslim customers at a neighborhood halal grocery might start to build bridges that community meeting and rallies never could.

A good feel with this diet

This is all about self-care.

I started a new diet this week — really a new mode of eating than a diet I intend to abandon when I get to a more desirable weight. It is one of those glycemic index plans: effectively low fat, high fiber and very little refined carbohydrate and sugar. Since diabetes runs in the family, and since this is very close to a diabetes management diet known outside the United States, I figured I could adopt this diet now — and preserve my health — or adopt it later . . . .

Too early to see any results of course, but I like this idea because

  • it matches much of what I already eat, especially oats and legumes
  • it can easily match my low-cost and agricultural sustainability preferences
  • with one small exception, I’ve not been hungry
  • it does demand all-meat or no-meat, but so far I’ve been effectively vegetarian
  • it respect that I have to read what my body’s telling me and not just look up food on charts

On the other hand, it will be a bear to eat out.

I’ll keep you posted.

Good Friday fasting and pluralism

As I mentioned yesterday, I was going to scale back my eating on xerophagic lines: bread, water, fruit and simply prepared vegetables.

So far so good. My staple has been raisin bagels — which remind me in composition of the hot cross bun, too — with a little almond butter. (Fat and protein to keep from spiking out on carbohydrate.) So I went to the bakery, a chain Hubby and I call “Awbuhpuh” and got some. I was thus thinking, in line:

  • This baked good is associated with Jews, but since this is Passover and they’re leaven, observant Jews won’t be having them. (Some people would have a problem with a raisin bagel, Passover or not.)
  • Their circular shape suggests eternity, a suitably religious concept.
  • Oh, and the guy who sold them. His name was Muhammad.

“Where cross the crowded ways of life” indeed!

Celiac disease and Communion

I cannot believe that after nearly four years of blogging I have not written about celiac (coeliac) disease (and other gluten-intolerance diseases) with respect to Communion. (Perhaps I did; several of my early posts were completely destroyed by Internet worms.) Hubby and I talked about this last Saturday over sandwiches and some yummy chickpea-flour crisps, marketed as gluten-free.

In short: persons with celiac disease have a “lifelong autoimmune intestinal disorder” where gluten — the springy protein in wheat, rye, barley and triticale, and perhaps oats — destroys the part of the intestines that absorbs nutrition. (Source.) All of these grains must be carefully avoided, even in small trace amounts. No bread, no pasta, no beer, no malted milk. I’d want to curl up in a ball and hide in a hole. But friends want friends to be included, also at church.

This means making an accommodation for Communion, which has been received with different levels of success in various churches. I experimented with an accommodation in my last pastorate, even though there were no known celiacs in the congregation, using cubes gluten-free rice bread in foil. (Site where I got the idea.) I had hoped to make a targeted outreach. Why? Catholic (the “non-independent” kind) canon law is clear that communion hosts (bread) made without wheat is invalid. And there’s no way to guarantee perfectly gluten-free hosts. A segment in this week’s Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly reminded me that some Catholics are trying to accomodate, but there continue to be some people who cannot be helped as canon law is written.

I’m not talking about a tiny number of people; the NIH estimates that about two million Americans have the disease.

Sensible people should be aware of gluten-immune disorders, even if Communion is their last worry. Friendship and community is linked to food, and food generally and wheat are intertwined. Good to know that formula doesn’t work for many people.

Fast food

Well, I’m a bit hacked at a certain church near the Day Job. Their website promised an ecumenical Good Friday service at noon, but neglected to add thatit wasn’t at their church. Hmph!

I don’t fast on Good Friday in the usual sense, but will abstain from meat and cooked food, but since I am prone to having a bowl of raisin bran for dinner, that’s not much of a concession.

After the failed service attempt, I decided to go to a chi-chi bakery and get hot cross buns. That’s traditional for Good Friday, and so I’m satisfied if not shriven.

Hot cross buns