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Time to ‘Grow Your Own Way’

1 Feb

This is my first post this week. Have I died of starvation or blown all of my food stamp budget on an ice cream and cake bender?

Do you feel less guilty if you're being patriotic?

Do you feel less guilty if you’re being patriotic?

Neither, luckily.

Instead I have been in Chicago all week and have been busy with meetings and visits to discover the world of food stamps in a very big (and very cold) city. More of that in the next post.

Chicago snow Wednesday 30th Jan

Chicago snow Wednesday 30th Jan

First, I want to clue people in on a ‘secret’ project I have been working on in my own little Area 51 behind our house.

You think it's just an innocent vegetable garden...

You think it’s just an innocent vegetable garden…

A project which will change nutrition as I know it. A project that will help me meet the challenges of living on food stamps.

A vegetable garden.

Just one more bed to make...

Just one more bed to make…

Here is an unassuming wooden bed that has remained empty since we moved into the house a year and a half ago. Ignored and unloved. Even weeds couldn’t work up the energy to grow in the thing.

All that changed when I was paid a visit by a man with the greenest of green fingers, Oscar Carmona, manager of the Foodbank’s Grow Your Own Way program.

Oscar Carmona

Oscar Carmona

Oscar has been a tireless promoter of the simple virtues of growing your own food and the benefits this brings families. He is the owner of the Healing Grounds nursery in Goleta, and you can always see him at the downtown SB farmer’s market on a Saturday morning looking cool in his wraparound shades and selling seedlings.

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The ‘Grow Your Own Way’ is a beginner’s program that helps encourage and provide training for people to grow more of their own food. Growing food is not something that can only be done by people wearing open-toed sandals or who have big backyards.

The idea with GYOW is that this is the program for people who are convinced they cannot grow anything beyond their own toenails. It is for people who are convinced they have no space whatsoever to grow food. In other words, it is designed for people like me.

Healthier than a bucket of chicken

Healthier than a bucket of chicken

We start with the belief that anyone can find a place to grow. A plastic bucket on an apartment balcony – fine for some cilantro or a tomato plant, a raised bed made with old wood and plastic on a piece of cracked concrete.

Vegetables are a vital part of our diet and fresh produce is the most expensive element when we hit the supermarket, so by growing a little bit of produce yourself, you can make a big impact in your health at minimum cost. You also get the freshest food possible, not something that was shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away

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Mia takes a bath the fun way

I don’t want to get all zen here, but nurturing something and watching it grow and then having it nurture you in return is also good to combat stress. And remember even if everyone else in your life is sick of listening to you, your plants never will be…

The earth is speaking to me!

The earth is speaking to me!

We have started a ‘seedbank’ at the Foodbank where free seeds will be made available to families in need. Currently these are available through our Healthy School Pantry program and Brown Bag programs, but we hope to have it more widely available (all seed donations taken).

Because my food stamp challenge only lasts a month, Oscar helped me out with some seedlings, so that I could skip a couple of weeks in the process.

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Lili and Mia get planting

I was also lucky to have two helpers in two of my beautiful daughters, Mia (18 months) and Lili (15 – 16 in August – she’s constantly checking that I still remember her birthday, as if alzheimer’s is going to strike me at any moment). Both girls took to the task of planting the seedlings with gusto. Even Mia realized intuitively that there was something special about planting something in the ground and watering it.

We planted primarily different types of greens for salad (arugula, butter lettuce etc) as well as cilantro and two types of Kale. (You can’t escape Kale at the Foodbank, believe me).

Salad garden

Salad garden

We live in Santa Barbara County, with an amazing growing climate. It’s hard to mess it up here, and even if you do, you can check in regularly with GYOW to get help and advice.

To get the fresh vegetables is wonderful. Almost as important is the feeling that you are directly involved in generating food for yourself. If you are going to a luxury market or a free food distribution, you are still relying on someone else to provide food for you. Eating something you grew yourself gives you a satisfaction and energy that neither of these places can provide.

Natural Born Poseur

Natural Born Poseur

Just what I need to sustain me, living on food stamps!

In the belly of the SNAP dragon

26 Jan
Is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program a cute, friendly little dragon or a mean fire-breathing dragon?

Is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program a cute, friendly little dragon or a mean fire-breathing dragon?

So, forgive the tortured metaphor, but SNAP (aka food stamps aka CalFresh here in the Golden State) really can appear very differently to different people, depending on their situation, emotional state – and how long the line they are standing in stretches.

In previous posts I’ve discussed the polarized views that food stamps trigger in the community at large, but this is also true amongst those who are eligible for or receiving them. Most people do not want to or enjoy being on food stamps. Some feel intimidated from signing up or come off the program before they are really able, sometimes because they can’t keep up with the reporting requirements or because they take a hopeful view on how their income will hold up. Then you have those who are afraid of the government having detailed information on them or applying when they are in the middle of putting forward an application for citizenship. There are many fears, myths and barriers which prevent people from taking the help they are entitled to.

Sometimes they are afraid that the hand that feeds might also bite.

So, cuddly or spiky, I got a chance this week to enter into the belly of the beast. I took a visit  local DSS office, which is at the County complex in Goleta to interview three staff members. As you can see, the building looks pretty classy on the outside:

DSS in SB

DSS in SB.

Inside it is still nice, but it is hard to escape the cubicles and glass barriers environment completely, and a waiting room full of people, who I did not want to take a photograph of. (The feeling was mutual on their side).
Dang, they have Dora the Explorer playing.

Dang, they have Dora the Explorer playing.

The DSS version of the iPad!

The DSS version of the iPad! And you can only push one button.

I spoke to Maria, Mario and Maria, which could be a wonderful mariachi group, but who are in fact Maria Gardner, Deputy Director County of Santa Barbara, Department of Social Services, Mario R. Velasco, Division Chief Santa Barbara, Department of Social Services and Maria Dwyer, Eligibility Supervisor for Calfresh in Santa Barbara.

These are nice, hard-working, dedicated people, and they indicated that SB County has a current total CalFresh participation of approximately 14,000 households or 31,000 people.  (Out of a total population of 400,000). They saw an 8% increase last year alone and indicate that they are seeing a different population of people, more middle class.

Mario: We process 2000 applications per month during busy time and partnering with the food bank to do outreach helps us draw people in.  We start interviews at 7am and can go through to 6pm to try and accommodate people’s schedules. We tried doing interviews on weekends but out of the 20 clients we scheduled only 3 showed up. If it is a rush application, we guarantee to process it within three business days.

Maria Gardner: The lives of clients can sometimes be pretty chaotic which makes it hard for them to make interviews sometimes. If their car breaks down they don’t typically have AAA to come to the  rescue. So there are lots of perfectly understandable reasons why clients can’t show.  

Maria Dwyer: They don’t realize that they can call to reschedule and don’t show and then reapply again later, slowing things down.

Maria Gardner: The amount you receive will only get less if the household composition or circumstances of income change, but otherwise they stay consistent. People are coming off and on the rolls all the time (especially in Santa Maria, where there are a lot of agricultural workers whose income yo-yos). People don’t want to be on the program, so sometimes they come off the program prematurely and that causes a lot of ‘churn’ and reapplications, which slows things down somewhat.

We try and dispel myths about fraud and waste in the system and we often find ourselves in the defensive mode of justifying why we are administering these programs which are a basic safety net for our community, rather than being able to present the positive side that 99% of all these recipients are legitimate and not defrauding.

Mario: Often people see someone using their EBT card in a supermarket and think: ‘ How dare they buy this extravagant thing, when I am in line to buy this frugal or unhealthy thing’, so there is judgment about that. They might not see that person next week because they have no benefit left. It is down to individual choice but we try and steer things with education.

Maria Dwyer: There is a large nutrition education element to Calfresh these days. There are publications and recipe cards and we partner with public health for some of these activities.

Erik: Thanks for letting me speak to you.

As with most things in our lives today, getting any attention or help comes down to how much we want to wait in line or hang on the telephone or answer questions. The CalFresh program is a complex administrative machine which can be unyielding and sometimes impersonal, but this is the system we have, so we first need to protect it and then steadily improve it, from within and without.  I’m sure I’ll get plenty of comments about people’s experiences with the DSS.

Not so much time to dip into the food stuff this post and will report more next time. Still, I have been pleased how many great comments I have been getting from people about their experiences. Please take a moment to take a peek at the comments on some of the posts if you have not already done so. These include the challenges of people facing food insecurity. Someone also wanted to know where I got the fish I mentioned in one of my meal logs but not in my list of purchased items! I’m glad people are keeping an eye on me. (And by the way the fish was purchased with my food stamp money but after the first listing I provided).

On Thursday I braved hellish rainy traffic to go to Orange County for a board meeting of the California Association of Food Banks (I serve on the board). We work very closely with them through the Farm2Family program which helps us purchase low-cost produce from across California and we also work with them on State level advocacy.  For the meeting, I planned ahead and packed a lunch for myself and warned them not to get me one.

I turned my back on the nice packaged lunch, thereby remaining virtuous and saving another tree for the box

I turned my back on the nice packaged lunch, thereby remaining virtuous and saving another tree for the box

Captain Virtuous - I stayed with my trusty Ak Mak crackers and kind of yummy tuna and fresh vegetable mix with rice vinegar, with tomatoes and cucumbers on top

Captain Virtuous – I stayed with my trusty Ak Mak crackers and kind of yummy tuna and fresh vegetable mix with rice vinegar, with tomatoes and cucumbers on top

This Friday I spoke at a National Conference of State Legislators Hunger Partnership meeting which breezed through town, featuring  Senator Renee S. Unterman, Georgia and Representative Dwight Evans, Pennsylvania and a bunch of others. We had been asked to speak to them about our innovative programs at the Foodbank and I mentioned about the Food Security Challenge. There was a lot of interest from representatives around the country about adopting the type of approach espoused by our organizations and which I have been pushing through my ‘From Hunger to Health Blog.’

I have been super diligent about not taking any of the food and snacks that are offered to me at meetings and other business situations that I have to navigate. I have only been taking tea or water so that at least people don’t feel that I am totally snubbing their hospitality. However this time I definitely didn’t snub the hospitality because I took home 5 of my favorite tea bags from the presentation. Call me a thief, call me a cheat, but no one’s going to miss that from a huge hotel catering department, and you have to be aware of the ‘low hanging fruit’ in your environment when you’re on food stamps!

Which would you rather have? Five teabags or a state representative's business card?

Which would you rather have? Five teabags or a state representative’s business card?

Next week I am going to Chicago for three days. I sit on the National Advisory Council for Feeding America (the nationwide network of Foodbanks) and we meet five times a year to advise the senior management team of Feeding America about the issues involved in taking what can be perceived as a very local issue (hunger) and giving it a national perspective and solution. There is a lot of focus on joint advocacy, food sourcing and training. Hey, I know I go to a lot of meetings, but they do actually lead to things happening or I wouldn’t go.

So, Chicago is a very beautiful city, but the problem is that I’m on food stamps, and all my food is, like, in Santa Barbara…

I’ll be offered nice dinners and lunches and I’m going to have to ‘Just Say No’ again. The bigger challenge will be sourcing food and being able to keep to my budget while staying there. If I try and smuggle any more packets of my frozen chili, the TSA will be convinced that I am trying to smuggle plastic explosives on the plane – and my chili just doesn’t have that kind of kick.

In Chicago I’ll be meeting with SNAP experts at Feeding America and also checking out a SNAP outreach/ Food Distribution on Chicago’s South Side. It should give me a chillier view of the world of food stamps, where having a nice little salad might not cut it if it is freezing cold outside.

Let’s see how this Santa Barbara ’60 degrees is freezing’ wimp does in the Windy City!

Stamp Collector or Literary Genius?

24 Jan

Yesterday I was bemoaning the repetitious nature of my Food Security Challenge diet. Today, I was able to do something about it, to get some new ideas, to get stimulated about nutrition again. I didn’t put my feet up and watch the cooking channel hoping that some inspiration would magically transfer to me through the airwaves. No, instead I headed down to the Foodbank’s Healthy School Pantry at Isla Vista Elementary school.

Healthy School Family Pantry logo email

Healthy School Pantry is a program we are very excited about at the Foodbank. Last year we won a national Hunger’s Hope Award for the program as the best child nutrition program in the country.  The concept behind HSP is that you can’t help people become more food secure by just giving out food. You have to provide the education – what we call the ‘food literacy’ – for families to make effective and economic use of the food they have.

Many of us are reasonable cooks and smart about what we buy, but a lot of those skills can go by the wayside when people are incredibly busy. The easy solution is sought out and that is usually not very healthy. Also we do see families where the parents are pretty much heat and serve. The grandparents can cook, but the parents have forgotten, were never taught or are too busy.

I’m finding in my own challenge that food literacy skills are not something that is nice to have, but that are absolutely essential if I am going to make it through the month with very little money for food, but still wanting to stay healthy. How can I stretch my food stamp dollars? How can I utilize that large quantity of a carrots that I got from the food distribution before they go bad?

We made the decision to focus a lot of energy on a series of programs for kids, called Feed the Future, which starts food literacy training at the youngest age possible and then builds on skills all the way until high school graduation.

This is not going to stop people losing their jobs, or avoid the effects of a national recession. What it will do is give them the skills to take the modest safety nets we have (food stamps and Foodbank/Member agency food distributions) and utilize them to stay healthy. The great thing is that these ‘survival’ skills are really ‘thriving’ skills, because they are equally applicable in better economic times. Using good nutrition to be healthy is the number one preventative health tool we all possess, and Feed the Future is designed to make it available to all.

So, what did I find down at IV Elementary School? Not some food distribution where everyone is standing in a line, feeling disempowered, but an exciting circle of activities where people are learning how to cook a delicious dish, how to grow more of their own food, about nutrition and even having some some fun and games on our bike blenders.

This is how the pantries are laid out:

How the HSP model works.

How the HSP model works.

My first stop was to see Foodbank community health volunteer Angie Rios and Foodbank Health Education and Evaluation Manager Serena Fuller and the recipe of the day they were demonstrating.

Serena and Angie

Serena and Angie

The good thing about HSP is that it provides the actual ingredients you need to cook the recipe that is featured. That may not sound like much, but in the food bank world, where we are used to just giving out the food we have on hand, it is an epic achievement.

Microsoft Word - 13-01-15 HSP Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Mar

This recipe used basic ingredients like a boxed macaroni and cheese and a bagged marinara sauce that were both availabe at the Foodbank and then incorporated minutely diced celery, carrots and cauliflower to make a dish that was not only incredibly good for you, but down right delicious and wolfed up by hordes of kids, never suspecting just how many fresh vegetables they were ingesting.

Simple ingredients, delicious result

Simple ingredients, delicious result

Whilst at the HSP, I had to try out a healthy smoothie using the amazing bike blender. Last month we made an amazing smoothie with kiwi fruit, bananas and spinach, where no kid noticed the spinach and everyone loved it. This time we had frozen strawberries with bananas and apple juice.

Foodbank CEO pretends to assist child whilst stealing entire blender of delicious smoothie

Foodbank CEO pretends to assist child whilst stealing entire blender of delicious smoothie

People were also learning about nutrition from Justine Meyer, our Dietetic Intern.

Justine talks practical nutrition

Justine talks practical nutrition

A key component of HSP is a chance to get involved in our Grow Your Own Way program  Program Manager Oscar Carmona shares some spinach seeds and the skills to plant them.

Oscar shares spinach seeds

Oscar shares spinach seeds

Providing this friendly and supportive range of services is augmented by volunteers who are helping us get eligible people pre-screened for food stamps.

Our wonderful Calfresh volunteers

Our wonderful Calfresh volunteers

The HSP also includes a distribution of other food items and is current serving 14 schools around the county.

Visiting the HSP certainly fired me up to try a new skill, which is to make up some large batches of a very healthy marinara sauce with pureed fresh vegetables, which will enable me to create a whole new raft of dishes for my next week on the Food Security Challenge. Stay tuned!

Our HSP was visited by County Supervisor Doreen Farr

Our HSP was visited by County Supervisor Doreen Farr

Download the recipe at:

13-01-15 HSP Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Marnara Sauce and Breadcrumbs

Food Log Wednesday

B – 2 rice cakes and orange

L – curried chicken salad and Ak Mak Crackers

D – Salsa and chips and HSP free samples!

Truth or Dare

23 Jan
Visa, Mastercard, American Express...or EBT?

Visa, Mastercard, American Express…or EBT?

I have now completed the first full week of my Food Security Challenge, and the challenges it is bringing are beginning to come into focus.

And they are not just nutritional.

I knew this was a touchy area before beginning the challenge, and that was part of the point. To get the conversation going on this vital area of federal support that could bring another $80 million into the community to be spent locally, an investment that would benefit the entire community, not just those on food stamps.

There has been quite a lot of reaction to the challenge from all sides of the political and personal spectrum. My own mother warned me that I could be seen as a ‘poser,’ spending a limited amount of time living in a situation that millions can’t walk away from at the end of a single month.

And you have to listen to your mother, right?

So I wanted to take the opportunity to spell out again that the reason for the challenge is to bring to attention a difficult situation that many face. It is not to make light of their situation, but to bring light to bear on it. It is not a lark, it is serious business. And if I want to try and have fun doing it and crack a few bad jokes, well that is just me, and no one should take it personally.

Food distributions, the lifesaver.

Food distributions, the lifesaver.

So, explanations over. The simple facts of my current situation are that I have spent $67.80 of my allotted $200 after the first week of my month. (See below for a breakdown) Not wildly over the $50 per week I would spend if I was dividing my total available food stamp money into four. Also  I have purchased some things like cereal and cooking oil, which will last me more than a week. I also have a good 8 meals still frozen. On the negative side I have to remember that I was on the challenge for three days before I could spend any food stamps, so really that figure represents four days of purchasing, not seven.

One thing is already crystal clear – that I would have no chance of remaining healthy and well nourished for the whole period without the additional help I have accessed from the Foodbank and our partners in the community. I received groceries of the value of $80 from the first distribution and produce worth $25 from the Mobile Farmers Market I attended.

The production line is cranking out the meals, but mass-produced is never as yummy.

The production line is cranking out the meals, but mass-produced is never as yummy.

I am eating well, and eating healthily. Yet my diet is boring. I have been busy and have not had as much time to devote to cooking as I would like. Also that would require more money. I would need extra ingredients and my money would run out pretty quickly. When the Foodbank first started devoting a lot of attention to teaching ‘food literacy’ skills (cooking, shopping, budgeting) people felt that it was a nice addition to our activities of providing and distributing food, but that they were not core to what we did. Now it is clear that these basic skills are what can help people use the food we provide to be truly healthy. You don’t need to be given a recipe and to follow it slavishly, but to use basic techniques which allow you to produce a number of variants of the same basic ingredient.

So I better start practicing what I preach and make my food life a little more ‘literate’ than it’s been the last few days.

And now I see that 18 month old Mia has eaten the last of my pretzels. How could she…

Week One Food Stamp Purchases
Tomatoes 3.49
2 x Hothouse Cucumbers 3.38
Oat and peanut bars 2.29
2 x AkMak Crackers 3.38
2 x Rice Cakes 2.98
Almond and Seed Bars 3.99
Salsa 2.99
6 x bananas 1.14
2 x brown rice 2.40
Rice vinegar 1.20
3 x Avocado 2.97
Poblamo peppers .79
Cilantro .49
Parsley .49
Flax Plus Cereal 2.99
Pumpkin Granola 2.99
Tortilla chips 2.69
2 x black beans 1.78
Fire roasted peppers 1.99
Olives 2.29
Corn .89
Chocolate cat cookies 2.99
Eggplant hummus 1.99
2 x garbanzo beans 1.78
Olive oil 4.99
Licorice allsorts 2.29
Multigrain pretzels 1.39
Cucumber Hothouse 1.69
Onions .79
Tomatoes 2.29
 TOTAL  67.80
 AMOUNT OF $200 remaining 132.20

My exciting diet

Fri

B – Cereal

L – salad

D – soup

Sat

B – x

L – Chicken soup

D – Chili and salad

Sun

B – Eggs

L – Chili

D – Fish and rice

Mon

B – Cereal

L –Tomato and Bean Salad

D – Chili and salad

Tuesday

B – Cereal

L – Eggplant hummus

D – chili and green salad