28 March 2011

Things I did this past weekend

I have a friend who does "Movie Mondays" on her blog, and since I saw two movies (planned three, missed one because I got out of work too late) I thought about writing about it, then I realized I did some more interesting things this weekend, so here it is. A post without an agenda, for the most part. And not many pictures!

The movie I missed was "The General," which was being shown with piano accompaniment. I love classic movies, I like silent films, and it's fun to see them with live music. I've gone to "Metropolis" at Real Art Ways twice, where they have The Alloy Orchestra offering music and it's fascinating and fun.

Saturday started out semi-routine with physical therapy (usually I do yoga, but not until the knee improves) and then my Torah class, after which I went to Cinema Classics for "Strangers on a Train." I hadn't seen it before and it was typical fast-moving, tense Hitchcock. We all liked it. I couldn't go for lunch with the others afterwards because I had to get to the office and see how things were going on the deal we're trying to close - and which should at this stage be in proofreading, but of course, it's not........

Saturday night I went to SWAN DAY CT, which is a celebration of women artists. It was great, crowded, noisy, supportive.........I bought some jewelry, clothes, and artwork. I'm taking the picture to my office, it's bright and will add some colour to the dull walls. A friend was showing her photography and I told her I want to buy two prints for my office also. She didn't believe me, it's the first time she's shown her work, but I'm serious!

Sunday morning, I slept in. :) Then I worked in my stash storage, having decided it was high time to have another round of sales on eBay. Every time I mention this I get a suggestion from someone that I should use space bags and other things for added storage, but my idea is to weed out items that I am very sure I will not use, and send them to people who want to use them.

Another movie followed: "Jews and Baseball." OK, I am a baseball nut. I freely admit it! I played as a kid (who didn't?) and follow my beloved Cubbies through everything. They had two cinemas showing the movie (it's part of a film festival) and both were PACKED. Fun!

Afterwards, home, and back on the computer for work. Watched some of my usual Sunday night TV shows - "Chopped All-Stars" especially. Was very happy that the hot Aarón Sánchez won his round. But I am torn between him and Nate Appleman for the ultimate winner. I'll have to tune in next week - hopefully I'll be back in time from the foodie adventure my friend Judy has scheduled.

27 March 2011

A Day with Tibetan Monks

About a month ago, a local church hosted a group of monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in India. The monks, exiled from Tibet, are on a tour to help raise funds for the monastery by sharing information about their faith and Tibetan culture and traditions. I visited when a friend's art gallery hosted the monks in the past, where they created one of their spectacular mandalas. On this tour, the monks did that at some locations, but at the church they answered questions and held workshops where we could make prayer flags, create our own mandala designs, and otherwise gain a deeper understanding of their faith. The afternoon began with a soup lunch that was very good. The same dough was used to make dumplings in the soup and rolls on the side. The monks cooked it for us as part of their ministry. Then we had opening ceremony and Q&A, while the main room was set up for projects. When we went back, we could learn how to use the tools to make sand mandalas: You scoop sand into the metal cones and rub one against another to control the flow. While some of the designs we tried were traditional, we mostly went free-form. This is the part of a mandala that I made, with people working on their designs in other areas:

These mandalas are on very non-traditional brown paper, so to make the cleanup easier when it is time to return the sand to the earth. Usually they put it into a moving body of water, but there was no stream or river near enough to the church. You'll see the ceremony further down.

We also made prayer flags that were strung around the room. The monks would help us with designs and names if we asked, but most people did free-form ones.

The lady in white was one of the organizers of the event. These are mine:

You could buy a string of preprinted prayer flags and many other items, such as bags (of course I did!) and prayer beads. If you bought beads, the head monk would bless them and you:

At the end of the afternoon, we danced (something a local group does, begun in the 1960's, and not a Tibetan Buddism activity, but the monks were very nice about participating) and then the monks conducted a thank-you ceremony and the closing prayers:

They swept up the sand and we followed them outside where they prayed that the energy in the sand would help to heal the world:

I found a couple other writeups of the day, including one that has me in the background of one of his photos.

23 March 2011

Guest Blogger says it all

I saw a guest blogger post on the website of our major local newspaper that focuses on the plight of children in one state, but many of the facts would apply to other states where I've lived. Children who do not get enough food not only can't grow properly, but their brains don't develop correctly, they can't focus in school or study at home, and they pretty much start out with losses that can't be recovered later. Summer is coming, and that's when many families face the most strain on their food budgets as the children no longer get free meals at school and the family has to provide all the food a child eats in a day. Last summer, the number of persons coming to the mobile food truck at which I assist (it's coming around tomorrow) every four week tripled over what we see in the winter. Not just doubled - TRIPLED.

Programs are available. We have to make sure they stay available, are fully-funded, that the families know about them, and that the kids get the food. In a country like ours, there's no reason for children to go hungry.

Edited to add: One such program has been launched in my state. Does your state do something similar? Let me know, I'm interested to see what the country is doing to prevent childhood food insecurity, hunger, and related problems.

18 March 2011

I learned from another post that the items I had made were not sent to Afghanistan as intended, and probably were thrown away. So disappointing! Especially because I took a lot of time away from a family event to try to finish before the deadline. Apparently a totally sleeveless vest is OK, and long-sleeved sweaters, but not the short-sleeved sweater on the top left. Well, it was all the yarn I had and I could not find any more in those colours. Next time, I'll stop at vest and throw away the rest of the yarn or donate it someplace, and not waste my time with knitting.

Sorry, I shouldn't sound so nasty, I know. But when you knit for a charity, and put hard work and a lot of money into something, especially shipping it to them, and then they publicly post that your items are worthless, well - I am annoyed! I offered to send them money to retrieve my items, but since they are probably already thrown away it will likely get ignored.

Anyway, here is the message I posted on the blog for the charity, a note I have now deleted:

These were mailed from a relative's house, I was visiting as I finished the final sweater. I believe they made the last shipment, based upon when the postcard was returned to me. My relative had to send the picture because I didn't have my camera.

Top Left: Lite Lopi, doubled. This sweater has short sleeves because it's all the yarn I had. This had been in my stash for a while to make a fulled ("felted") bag but I thought this is a better use. It was going to be just a vest until I finished with one ball of each (I'd started with three of each colour) left over, so I decided to do as much of a sleeve as I could. I know that full-length sleeves are requested, so I thought of this as an extended vest.

Top Right: This was my UFO vest of alpaca-wool yarn, to which I added alpaca sleeves and neck ribbing. I happened to have in stash a few balls of a solid that worked very well with the pastels in the original yarn, and since Ann kept asking for sweaters, I was glad to oblige. It also gave me the opportunity to try a top-down set-in sleeve, and I think they came out OK.

Bottom Left: Red "whatever" sweater. Mostly using up yarns. The cuffs and collar are a brown-red handspun, the rest is this and that of commercial wool yarns such as Muskoska.

Bottom Right: A yarn called "Limbo," knitted double. It is 100% superwash wool. I used the Steppe sweater pattern, with the added collar. I still have a lot of this yarn left, so you will see it in the next campaign as well.

The socks in the middle are Red Heart's Heart & Sole in "Mellow." This is a proper sock yarn in wool and nylon, and I knitted double-stranded for speed.

SNAP and Special Diets

Earlier this week, my friend Rebecca mentioned to me that she could not imagine living on $21 per week because of her family's special dietary needs. "Wheat and dairy are cheap," she pointed out, but both will make members of her family quiet ill. "I don't think the family would agree to live on rice and beans." I told Rebecca that I have been working on a post about this topic, and here it is.

I knew going into the SNAP Challenge that I am lucky because I can, and will, eat almost anything. I have done various diets for various reasons over time: vegetarian, low/no dairy,
gluten-free vegan, and so on. Now I seem to be happiest, and healthies, as an omnivore. Having been on the more limited diets, I know what an additional cost it is to buy rice or potato noodles, grain- or nut-based milks (if you're not allergic to nuts also), and so on. As Rebecca said, you can live on rice and beans and potatoes only so much - meat is hard to come by on the SNAP allowance.

I am also reminded of this because Passover is coming, and there are racks at the grocery filled with the special foods that Jewish people must eat during this holiday. Kosher foods are, as a rule, not cheap, and Kosher-for-Passover foods are even more expensive. Many places
have a kosher food pantry, but getting donations before the holiday is probably tricky.

For people who require a special diet just to survive, there are few options. Food banks that cater to special diets are very rare. There is information that you can deduct the difference between what special-diet foods cost, and what the regular equivalent would be, but you still have to buy the food in the first place. I have read articles where a parent tells the writer that they have to make a decision whether to buy the food for one person who cannot eat gluten or dairy or whatever, or buy food for the whole family and the substance-intolerant person has to suffer. Since some of these problems can lead to more than just pain and illness, but can affect brain function and major organs, it's not a simple problem. It's not like telling a fussy kid to eat around the peas. If all you can afford to serve is macaroni and cheese, and you have someone who can't eat the macaroni, or the cheese - that person has no meal.

That person, or that family, may indeed be facing a life of nothing but rice and beans. Yes, people in some countries live on that - but with a bit of vegetable also, or some meat to season it. As I've been documenting, on the SNAP allowance it's hard to afford much of either vegetables or meat. I can sign up for a CSA at the equivalent of about $8 per person per week - but I need the money to pay upfront for the season, and CSAs don't accept SNAP. During the summer, Foodshare may have coupons to hand out that can be used at certain farmer's markers, which encourage people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. But that is only in the summer, and depends upon whether a very generous (and much appreciated!) grant is renewed. Otherwise, Foodshare has only what is donated in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables, for handing out at the mobile food trucks. You never know what it will be.

So much of the time, a person who cannot eat certain foods, or who has people in the family who cannot eat those foods, has an additional challenge. A regular box of wheat-based pasta may be $1.00 on sale, or even 88 cents, but buying rice-based pasta can cost $3-4 per box. A bag of wheat flour costs $1.89, a bag half as big of gluten-free baking mix runs $4-5 each. Buying the bread can cost 99 cents if you are lucky, more often $1.88-2.99 a loaf - and gluten-free bread can cost twice as much. Not everybody is willing to go without bread - children often want to have a sandwich in their lunch at school, not a cold rice dish.

So, something else to consider. There isn't an easy answer, I know, except for food pantries that specialize in gluten-free or other special-diet foods. Where these don't exist, people need other means to get the food that will keep their family members healthy and fed. It's not just the dearth of fruit or vegetables that I have experienced this week. For some people, the very food that other people can easily eat will itself make them sick. And this isn't included in the SNAP calculation, nor the additional cost of the food that they can safely eat.

17 March 2011

Is the SNAP Challenge Condescending?

I was working on this post, and wanted to think about it over night. Then one of my daily emails came with this THOUGHT FOR TODAY:

"Think of the poorest person you have ever seen and ask if your next act will be of any use to him."

-- Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

The topic of this post was suggested by a discussion I had last night. I was at my rabbi's birthday party, and met another person who is in the SNAP Challenge, and we were discussing whether we could partake of the pizza and ice-cream. As I've posted previously, one of the rules is that you can only accept free food if it's something available to the community. Technically, events such as this are open to the community, although realistically it's just the congregational community. (A different thing would be our post-services oneg. At my father's church, homeless persons often turn up on Sundays, more for the coffee hour treats than for the spiritual uplift.) My decision was no; his was that since it was his first day on the challenge, and since he hadn't bought his full pantry he wasn't planning to do it for a week all at once, he was going to have some pizza.

Then the rabbi came by and urged us to eat. The other participant explained that we're doing the SNAP Challenge, and apparently it's a sore point with our rabbi. He said he doesn't agree with Rabbi Berman, who hosts the event, because my rabbi feels that we should be doing things to help others, not to artificially deprive ourselves and possibly (in his view) harm our health. I pointed out the element that we were supposed to calculate the difference between what we would normally spend (my delta being roughly $2.5-4 per day, if I cook at home, more if I eat out) and donate that difference to Foodshare, Hands on Hartford, or the MANNA Food Pantry. My rabbi is more OK with this idea, but pointed out that people don't need to do the SNAP Challenge for it, you can just do the math and write a cheque.

The other participant noted that there had been a comment at the kick-off dinner that the SNAP Challenge is condescending. The person who said this pointed out that this is a fake exercise, for people who can stop at any time or simply reach into their pantries for more. The other participant said he thought it would be increasing empathy for persons who are food-challenged, but the speaker said that pretending to be poor is not kind. My rabbi agreed - he believes in getting out and helping people. His opinion is that if the SNAP Challenge were really to get food into the hands of the hungry, it would be a worthwhile exercise. But simply to eat on a minimal amount of money for a week is not beneficial to the partipant or to the poor.

So, point of discussion: Is something like this condescending? I am looking at it as an educational exercise for those who aren't doing it, to show exactly how one's meals are affected by such restrictions. It's more than just having to eat rice and lentils and beans and canned corn, it's also the extra time cooking, the repetition, and sometimes wondering if it's worth the effort to try and cook something different or special just to fight against the monotony of the severely limited pantry. It's recognizing that if I had not been lucky with finding things on sale, I would not have as extensive a pantry as I do. (The other participant commented that he was having trouble finding milk in a size and cost to fit the budget, and that he was contemplating eating a lot of carrots and tuna this week because they were on sale.) Increasing food costs, as I noted yesterday, also affect what one can buy. Lack of time can push me into quick, unhealthy meals (especially grilled cheese or peanut butter sandwiches), although I try to cook with an eye towards healthful contents of the meals as well as taste. As I'm coming to the end of my week's pantry, this is getting trickier.

I'll be interested to read your comments.

16 March 2011

The rising price of food

I had a different post in draft for today - two, in fact - then I saw a link to an article that noted we're seeing the "biggest jump in food costs in more than 36 years." I found out about the article from a link that Foodshare posted; they are the largest food pantry system here. I've already noted how I vounteer at one of their mobile distribution trucks every four weeks.

This steep rise in food prices affects people in two ways. One, it is harder for them to afford to buy food, whether with money or SNAP or WIC or whatever they manage. Second, it is harder for food pantries to get the food they need, because donations drop, and when they need to buy food the money doesn't stretch as far.

One person, posting on a friend's comment about the rising cost of food, suggested that people plant gardens. That works for some, not for all. Not everybody has space they can garden. There are programs that encourage gardening in the city, by children and to donate the crops to food pantries. Some towns rent space to people who want to garden and can't do it near their home - maybe they live in apartments, or condos, and have no yard. This should help, if people can do it, because the steepest rise in costs was for vegetables.

But if all food gets more expensive, and less accessible to the people who need it, what then? We need to do what we can, whether it's donate to a local food pantry, help distribute food, or prepare and serve meals at a soup kitchen. But we also need our legislators to understand how difficult it can be to provide nourishing, well-balanced food to people on $3 a day in the USA.

I've had some people ask whether my health will be in danger if I continue with the limited pantry I have. Maybe over time, although for now I seem to be doing OK. I definitely crave fruit in any form - the two apples a day are nothing like my usual ration. I still take my vitamins, and I am monitoring myself for any signs of trouble. But if you're worried about me eating this menu for a week - think of the people who have to eat on $3, or less, a day for months. It's no surprise that low-income persons have a higher rate of illness than other income groups. And it should be no surprise that this has been reported for years.

I know that I alone can't solve the problem. But I do what I can to help. Eating on $3 a day may not seem like a great contribution to fight hunger - but donating the difference between my $3 a day this week, and what I usually spend on food in a week, can help.

15 March 2011

Ten on Tuesday

I got this idea from my friend Mary Kay, who got it from someone else. Although yesterday was officially Pi Day, which I missed because of the SNAP Challenge (and because the cheap leftover mini-pies I'd seen at the grocery on Saturday were GONE on Monday), the theme is one that is close to my stomach. Even though I cannot make a pie until the weekend, and I may not make one elaborate enough for the Pi Day Baking Challenge (although I'm tempted to borrow an idea from last year), here are my Top Ten Pies (subject to change with the seasons, of course):

1) Fresh peach. Only if you can't get fresh peaches to eat without wrapping in crust. It's a good thing to do with underripe peaches.
2) Fresh blueberry. OMG! Probably THE BEST pie ever, except maybe for.......
3) Fresh sour cherry. Yes, I have a theme here.
4) Spiced meat pie. I have had these with beef, lamb, and chicken. Some are based upon medieval or renaissance recipes and contain raisins or figs and other things you might not consider. A wedge is a really lovely meal, side of salad optional. Steak-and-kidney was a popular cheap meal when I was a student in Oxford, although the shop had a lovely mixed-veg that I liked as well. I suppose that Shepherd's Pie would also fit into this category, as does b'stilla.
5) Spanakopita. But only if it's well-made and doesn't have an oily, soggy bottom crust.
6) Pumpkin. My great-grandmother's recipe is a family tradition.
7) Apple. My mother's recipe, preferred. She adds crushed cornflakes to the bottom crust.
8) Citrus, usually with meringue. But the meringue should be well-done and not soft and gooey. This is very tricky. I've had these in the most-common lemon, and other times in orange, lime (NOT the same as Key Lime Pie, which is also good but too often very badly done and an excuse to carry whipped cream), and grapefruit.
9) Mixed fruits. Apples and pears, plus chopped dried fruits and spices. Another from my historical cooking background.
10) Italian Easter Torta. Meal in a crust! Very pretty layers of all kinds of things, vegetarian or with meat, simple or elaborate. Terrific to take on a picnic.

I realize that the generality of #4 and #8 could be considered insufficiently specific for this, but really for those it depends upon the type of pie. Plain old chicken pot pie doesn't do it for me, possibly because I had to eat too many of the cheap ones as a struggling student. But add a bit of wine or vinegar, and some crispy vegetables, and spices and chopped dried fruit and nuts - lovely!

14 March 2011

Monday - First Workday on the Challenge

This would be the first tough test: workday. I packed a box of the lentil-and-rice casserole, and a cheese sandwich, and two apples. Off I went.

Overall, things went pretty smoothly. When the sandwich lunch arrived, and a couple of people walked through reminding the others "Lunch is here! Lunch arrived!" I pretended to be engrossed in something that needed work Right This Minute. After a bit I nuked the casserole, and found that although it wasn't a huge amount, it was so filling that I could not finish it. I left the part I didn't eat and reheated it in the late afternoon for a snack.

When I got home, I made the mac-n-cheese I'd planned to do yesterday. For various reasons, I got as far as the mac, and no further. Tonight, it was a quick mix: milk, spot of mustard, and cheese. I mixed it in the pot I'd used to cook the macaroni, so that the starch left behind would work instead of the cornstarch I don't have. The sauce looked thin and pale and didn't taste very cheesy. So I grated in some more cheese, and liked it much better. So if you make the recipe linked in the previous post, you might want to up the cheese quantity - I ended up using the full amount from the recipe, although I halved everything else. I was using an extra-sharp cheddar, which I grated to measure, none of that preshredded stuff. Not only is it better quality, but remember there is a big affordability factor, and you pay for the convenience of preshredded.

I didn't want to wait - I got home late! after an adult learning committee meeting at my congregation - so I skipped the baking step. I thought the quantity looked pretty small, but this stuff is RICH. So even a third was more than I felt like eating. I put the rest into a small casserole to bake another night. I did miss that crispy burned crust that forms when you bake mac-n-cheese. Maybe tomorrow night, when I have to be home for a board meeting by Skype(R).

I've already begun thinking about what I would buy for a second week. Margarine, definitely! More cereal, maybe a $1 box of raisins. I recognize that I lucked into some great sales and discounts this week, such as the $1.28 peanut butter, the 99 cents cheese and eggs. I don't know if I would be that lucky next week, or if I could find the canned goods for the same price. The bread, yes - the bakery in one of the local grocery stores has a good rack of day-old goods at half price, and that's a nice-sized loaf for 99 cents. Tastes better than the fluffy white square stuff that would be the cheap bread elsewhere.

I do miss drinking something other than water. A couple mugs of tea at work was a treat, even though it was the inexpensive nearly-generic bags that most dedicated tea drinkers (such as myself) eschew for more entertaining blends. I look forward to being able to drink one of those - and to eat raisins by the multicoloured handful.

13 March 2011

Sunday - Cooking for the Week

This is something I usually do on a Sunday, prep a bunch of meals for the week. I have a fairly hectic life, and while we're in negotiations (as now) I can count on getting a lunch provided at the office (so that we can work through the time), on the SNAP Challenge I'm not allowed to accept that. I have to pack my own lunches. So I'm doing my regular lunch-prep, but with my SNAP-limited pantry.

First, a shot of what I had for breakfast today:

Cheese omelet with herbs and toast. The herbs were dry and so was the toast, since my pantry has no butter or margarine. But the melted cheese inside the omelet spread nicely on the toast. I don't usually eat toast this pale, and had thought of making fried potatoes - but that came at the end of omelet-making and I know better than to leave the eggs to stand. So very fast toast it was!

I learned to make omelet from Julia Child's original TV show, which was rerun on our local PBS station when I was a kid. It was in the afternoon, after school and before supper. My result might not win kudos on "Worst Chefs in America" because it was folded in halves, not thirds (small pan made the eggs thickish) and for the crispy bits on the left that I didn't trim away. But I like the crispy bits!

Lunch was a bit of this and that, as I followed my usual weekend practice of making a couple things that I put into boxes for quick lunches. No need to have peanut butter sandwiches every day! I riffed on a baked rice casserole one grandmother taught me decades ago, mixing three-quarters of a cup of lentils and a cup and a half of rice in the casserole. I chopped half of my little onion and sauteed it in a bit of oil, added that and herbs, lots of water, and cooked until all done and the water was gone. Then I mixed in the package of frozen mixed vegetables and the one of turnip greens. Four portions went into boxes for lunches, and the remainder (about half a portion) became part of my lunch. I also boiled four of the eggs, to make them easy to carry, and as is typical for my family added a shot of food colouring to the water so it's easy to tell which is raw and which is cooked in the carton.

I do still have a couple portions of the beans-and-corn stew I made yesterday, seasoned with garlic-pepper-salt and chili powder:

It's not really chili, so I won't call it that, nor a succotash. It's decent, not great. Went together fast. It could be a side dish if I didn't need it for a main course. Filling, cheap, protein and fiber.

For supper tonight, I am thinking of a half-batch of macaroni and cheese. I don't have dried mustard in the pantry, but in existing condiments (allowed in the challenge, moderately) I do have made mustard, and might try a small spoonful of that instead. No butter either, I will sub oil or leave it out entirely. We'll see how this works.

I had a bit of discussion with a friend about my cooking. As someone who likes to cook, it's natural that I would try to make things that are more of a recipe than just buy fourteen one-dollar (or less) cans of soup or canned ravioli or something. Or I could have bought a lot of boxed mac-n-cheese and margarine and milk and eaten that all week. I would not be happy with that, however, and I wanted to show that some creativity is possible even on a limited pantry. You can find a recipe index at the USDA website that allows you to put in a specific ingredient or two - something similar to my rice-and-lentil casserole is on the site. It's harder to feel deprived when you can eat things that are more-or-less like a proper meal, such as the omelet. If I were in a group doing this, I know I can cook well, and there would be much more variety. If I had flour in my "pantry" I would definitely make some gnocchi, but for now that would have to wait for a future week, if I continue.

Already I am missing things, particular raisins and fruit. There are raisins in my cereal, but I often grab a handful as a sweet treat, especially the three-raisin mix I pick up at BJ's. I do the same with almonds, but I haven't missed them yet. I also miss having a lot of fresh fruit and veggies around to snack on. Making the bag of apples last all week limits me to two a day, hardly enough to fill my usual consumption. I am already looking forward to next weekend, and I may spend Sunday eating nothing but fruit! Except perhaps for a hotdog at the hockey game. Yesterday I went to a maple sugar festival, and couldn't sample any of the pancakes or baked beans they served - outside my budget.

12 March 2011

And so I begin - SNAP Challenge 2011

I realized a day or so ago that there was no reason to wait until Sunday to begin the challenge, so I started this morning. As I've previously said, I didn't want to start immediately because yesterday was my cooking club's monthly meeting, and I wasn't sure how to work that. In the Participation Guidelines for the challenge, we are told to "[a]void accepting free food or meals from family, friends or coworkers including meeting or reception drinks, snacks, and meals - since these wouldn't be available to the general public." I would guess that a potluck is OK as long as you contribute something, but waiting until today to start was just easier.

This is a picture of my basic pantry for the week:

The two items not shown are a bottle of oil, which I forgot to put into the picture, and a loaf of bread. I didn't think I could do both pasta and potatoes, but I found a few potatoes on the hurt produce rack and a dented box of pasta so it worked out. I did really want to have a real onion, and it took some looking to find a small one. I'm used to buying bags of onions, but that would mean I couldn't have something else on the table. Since this is a starter pantry, some of these items - such as the rice - will be left for the second week, so I could buy something else such as a whole bag of onions. But not this week.

I was lucky that several items were also on the hurt food rack, which is cheaper and expanded my options:

I saw some other goodies, such as a large can of diced tomatoes at 80 cents, but I already had the smaller cans (2 for $1) and decided that I couldn't do the swap.

I'd about decided to do without cereal when I found the $1 boxes at one store. Not a great selection - the Raisin Bran I got (which happens to be a favourite of mine) was the only one that didn't seem to mimic some children's treat. "Apple Rings" and "Frosted Grain Flakes" and "Multicolored Fruit Rings" and "Coco-Bits" are some of the other options. Interestingly, this was the only cereal that said it had a mere four servings per box; the others mostly offered seven. I decided that I could eat smaller portions to stretch this to at least five, because I just didn't think I could eat the sugary ones all week.

Other cereals I found were $1.66-1.79 for the cheapest ones. Yes, they offered more servings, but balancing the opening pantry need for variety, I went with the cheapest option. In some cases, it would be on sale at 2 for $3.00, but you might have to actually buy two to get the sale price and that wasn't in the budget. Or I could get something for free - with $20 additional purchase, also not part of the budget.

We are allowed to include a few items from our existing pantry: "With the exception of basic spices/condiments, eat only the food that you purchased for this program, not items that you already own." So the oil might be dicey, but I figure that I eat very few "condiments" as a rule, so it will be in place of someone else's catsup or mayonnaise. I also decided that I would use more basic spices, the ones I often buy when camping or cooking for a crowd, so that I don't lose or use up my expensive ones. I guess that someone on limited income is more likely to buy Spice Islands than Penzeys or Tavolo:

For today, I am going to be out and about a lot. I hurt my knee last weekend so I am skipping yoga class, so my day starts with a haircut, then the Maple Festival at Sweet Wind Farm. After that I will try to get to a friend's musical performance matinee, then a break before going to see "Princess Ida" at the Simsbury Light Opera with another friend. So I am packing a peanut butter sandwich (yes, no jelly - I almost never eat jelly on my PB sandwiches) and a couple of apples. If there are any snacks offered at the festival, they will be candy and syrup, and since I can't stop or simply munch on the trail mix and nuts that I keep in the car, I have to be sure to pack that I am allowed to eat. It might be a long time before I get home today. I had some of the raisin bran cereal for breakfast, and water. I usually put juice on my cereal - but that's something I can't afford on $21 per week.

If you want information about a past SNAP event, on the site I linked above they have some press information from 2008. It's worth a read.

11 March 2011

Virtual Baby Shower

My friend Afton had the idea that we should have a "virtual baby shower" for another lady on KnitTalk, who was missing out on our annual list gift swap due to being, possibly, otherwise occupied at the time. Semi-secretly Afton organized people to make items for Suzanne, and I agreed to be the collection and shipping point.

We had everything from socks to sweaters to blankets and bibs. One lady sent a tote bag with some teething items that will come in handy later, I am sure.

I thought that taking a picture of the gifts arranged around a rocking chair would be appropriate. Since I am the sending person, I didn't wrap my gift for this photo, but except for the tote bag [the giver said that she thought the bag was the wrapping for the contents], everything came wrapped:
In the photo below, you can just see my wrapped gift in the corner. Luckily handmade baby gifts squish well, as the box was PACKED. I had to use the more serious customs form, and hopefully they will not give Suzanne and her husband any grief over the size of the box.

Below is a picture of the cardi I knit. My favourite pattern, and usually about a one-year size, which I think is more useful. I had hoped to find maple-leaf-shaped buttons and do something red-and-white, but the only ones I could find were olive green. Not the effect I wanted! So I used this colourful self-striping yarn which is mostly red-and-white, and found some fun and funky retro-looking op-art buttons:

I also tucked in some "stress relief" scented soap from a local maker, and some vanilla tealights, which are supposed to be relaxing. A new mother may need it!

Maple-Bacon Cupcakes and Laotian Laap

I know - I'm about to do the SNAP thing, so I post recipes I probably couldn't make on the program. But I've been ruminating about the situation in which I find myself today, which was part of the reason I waited until the weekend to start the SNAP challenge.

The second Friday of the month is the night my cooking club meets. There is a theme, which is supposed to be a vague suggestion of what to do, and everybody brings enough of something for people to try. January was "Comfort Food" and I made my Aunt Lee's moussaka, which is wonderful stuff. Unfortunately I left the remains at the hostess' house - I hope she liked it!

This month the theme is "The Long March." For a long time the hostess didn't post an essay about the theme, and since March is when maple syrup (and sugar, and candy) is made (hence the text colour today), I figured I would riff on that theme and make
these. Then the essay was posted, and it's all about the three-day walks for cancer and the March of Bataan and Trail of Tears, and the cupcakes seemed too frivolous to me. Luckily the new issue of Food & Wine magazine arrived, with an article on Laotian food, and the Laap seemed more in keeping with the theme.

I've been thinking about how I could participate in the cooking club if I were in SNAP and limited to $3 a day. I would probably do something with rice, and lentils, and vegetables. I couldn't run to the Asian market for lemongrass and cilantro and fresh limes. I probably couldn't afford the ground meat for the recipe, which was on sale this week. Even on sale, the quantity for our group (usually 20-30 persons attend these evenings) worked out to two or three pounds of meat. I also need endives or something like that for serving.

A big pot of rice (I got a two-pound bag for one dollar) with some lentils added, and maybe a couple eggs for a kind of fried rice effect, and a bag of frozen veggies that I've thawed and stirred in, would make something that costs under two dollars and would make a lot. Not fancy, but possible. So I could still participate in the cooking club even on a very restricted budget. For a different theme I could riff on baked french toast, or buy the 99 cents loaf of italian bread (a Friday sale at one grocery) and maybe make some hummus or a similar spread to put on slices. If I had the ability to acquire sugar and flour I could do a simple cooky. We're allowed condiments and spices, but a reasonable amount. I would guess that some of my more specialty items from Penzeys and the like would not be in the cupboard of someone on SNAP, although they might be if I had them before going into the system.

That's something to consider, and which I've had to face when between employments. Having a good pantry is helpful when you don't have much food money. It's one reason I buy extra when I see things on sale: extra cans of soup or beans, extra boxes of pasta, extra bags of beans or rice. Extra condiments such as hot sauce, or vinegar. Extra bags of sugar or flour. But if I'd been thinly employed for a long time, what would be left?

Last night, a group of us from work went to Barcelona, a tapas restaurant and wine bar, for supper. Even without dessert (we were pretty full after sampling most of the tapas menu plus paella plus a few main plates) the tab was about $50 per person. Because most of the people are here from out of town working on a huge deal, someone put it on his corporate card and they will sort out the expenses. Still, in one evening the per-person amount was twice what I will have to live on for a week. And SNAP funds can't be used in restaurants, or for most prepared foods.

For today, I will make the laap.

08 March 2011

It's a SNAP.

I went to the kickoff for the SNAP into Action Against Hunger 2011 event last night. The idea is to try living on the SNAP benefit of $1 per meal for a week or more.

People can also track what they usually spend and donate the difference to Hands on Hartford, which was chosen as this year's beneficiary. I've started doing this as part of my blogging about the event, and I will be sharing the numbers with Charter Oak and the other sponsors. Just as an idea, I counted up what I would usually eat in a day for yesterday (I ate the rice and beans at the kickoff, but counted up what I usually would prepare in the evening) and was $5.98 over the SNAP amount, not including beverages. I'm someone who cooks at home and brown-bags lunch, so a person who buys meals would have a much greater difference.

"SNAP" stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and it has replaced the food stamp program. The maximum benefit in my state is $200 per month for one person - which works out to about $15 per day. That is for someone with a net income well below $900 per month. Most people receive less than $200 per month, with the minimum being the $90 per month that our challenge amount would equal. Based upon my accounting from yesterday, assuming that is an average, my spending is closer to $270 per month. I could probably drop to $200 for the month, we'll see how I do on $3 per day.

Also, according to information handed out to applicants, the SNAP benefit is limited to three months in a three-year period for able-bodied adults who are not working, and who do not live in a household with a minor child or disabled person for whom they care. This is a federal rule; even though the states administer the SNAP program, the funding and guidelines are set by the federal government.

One downside of SNAP is that you can't really stock up. If you are lucky and find something very inexpensively, you might be able to buy an extra. For example, finding dented boxes of pasta marked down to 60 cents each. You might be able to buy an extra one, but not many. This is due to the way SNAP works. You get a debit-type card and it is loaded every week, not once a month. So you really do have only $21 (or $50 or whatever) to spend that week. I think that if legislators who try this would be limited in the same way, it would be a great reality check for them.

I can buy ahead, I can stock up. I can get a lot of beans or pasta or canned fruit one week, and the next week pick up eggs or milk or tomatoes. I can buy in bulk, or buy sizes that usually don't work for a single person (such as a box of milk powder, which is about $4-6, or a carton of something at the warehouse club) because I can stock up one week and not have to shop for the next two or three. I just signed up for a CSA. The cost works out to about $8 per week for an individual's quantity (one-fourth of a share), but you have to pay for the whole summer in advance, about $175. Even though it would be a great benefit to get that type of produce, it's not possible for someone on SNAP to accomplish. Foodshare makes an effort to include produce on the trucks that go out to the neighborhoods, and someone at the event last night told me how much he appreciates getting it, since vegetables are hard to buy on the SNAP allowance. Another person at the event said that even though SNAP can be used to buy soda pop (not possible in all states) she doesn't recommend it because it's empty calories.

Among the rules we were given for the time we're trying to live on the SNAP allowance is that we can't take free food at work. If it's something commonly available such as tea and coffee, that's OK because a lot of places offer that to their employees. But if there's a pizza party or someone puts out leftover donuts after a meeting, no. Those are not something upon which a person on SNAP can rely. Next week I'll talk about my pantry and what meals I am making. I decided that pasta and potatoes and rice would be too much starch when I have cereal and bread also on the menu, so I am skipping the pasta since I already have a bag of potatoes. I guess instead of mac and cheese I'll have potatoes au gratin.

07 March 2011

Basic Human Needs

Wavy Gravy wrote a song called "Basic Human Needs", part of which goes:
Wouldn't it be neat
if the people that you meet
had shoes upon their feet
and something to eat?

And wouldn't it be fine
if all humankind
had shelter?

I went to see "Saint Misbehavin'" last Friday, a documentary about him. Learned quite a lot. I recommend it to everybody. We got to talk to Wavy and his wife after the film, via Skype(R), with some people reminiscing (he was born around here and lived here until his 20's) and others asking questions. This got me thinking about a number of things, including the hunger problem. I assist at a Foodshare mobile food pantry truck every fourth Thursday, and tonight is the kickoff for the SNAP into Action initiative.

I've been emailing with a friend about my plan to try the SNAP challenge this year. (My grandmother, by the way, issued dire warnings to me that I should not try the "Dollar a Day" challenge, "that's not for you." I told her that mostly I'm blogging about it, and it's $3 a day, but I'm not trying to live on it. I didn't exactly mention that I wouldn't be living on it permanently, but I am definitely planning to try it for a week, or however that works into my schedule.) My friend has pointed out that I'm not the target audience for this. I already know about buying food frugally and using my money wisely. This is part upbringing, as we didn't have a lot of money to spare when I was a kid and when I learned to cook it was cheaper cuts of meat and non-meat meals. As an adult on my own, I've had a number of times when money was stretched tight, or even stretched enough to get a bit holey. So I have fairly frugal habits as is.

I agree with him.

However, I pointed out, there are a lot of people who don't understand how low the amount is when you just have food stamps. How little you get. So I'm doing this not just to educate myself, but to (hopefully) educate others. So I won't just tell you how I eat on $3 (or less) a day, the way some blogs do. I'll compare it against what my normal food patterns are, and what someone who eats most of their meals out might be spending.

Of course, the people who really need to try this are legislators. The people who think that $3 is enough for a person. I've heard of legislators who've tried, but one made a big deal about how she went over the food allowance and decided to solve the problem by freezing half of her package of chicken for the following week, then subtracting that from her purchases. She completely misses the point that if you are given $21 for the week, that may be all you have that week. You can't go over your limit. (My friend suggested she try borrowing the money, and then have to figure out how to pay it back from the same $21 the next week. I said she should have to borrow at the usurious payday loan rates, not just from family and friends and colleagues.) So I'm going to try to buy at or slightly under the limit, and let people know how I'm doing. Maybe some legislator will pay attention.

I was recognized!

[I actually wrote this almost a month ago, but getting the photos in place has been slow. Then a friend sent links to video a friend of hers made, and I decided to get this posted.]

I am a theatre rat, have been most of my life. No surprise to those who know me and have shared a show, or who have heard me talk about working on shows. Since I was 14, almost all my effort has been backstage because of a nasty case of stage fright I developed at that age. I have overcome it for giving presentations and arguments in court and so forth, but not for performing. This works out well enough, because performers need backstage people, and the way my mind works I'm good at it.

A couple years ago I decided I need to work on the stage fright a bit more. When I moved to Connecticut, where people don't know me, I thought that it would be easier to do. But I still ended up backstage, until I heard about Charter Oak Cultural Center doing "The Vagina Monologues." I decided to go, since raising money for shelters aligns with some of the social justice work I have done in my lifetime.

The director pretty much cast anybody who didn't fall over when we were required to speak words about women's body parts. I liked it. The energy, the challenge, and after one show I was complimented by an actor who'd read for a show I stage managed (and was deemed wrong age for the parts) because I was "off-book" for a small piece. I was actually less nervous memorizing it than I was when I tried reading it from the page. But that boosted my confidence.

This year, different director, but I was cast again. And I went off-book again for one piece (I couldn't get the other completely memorized), when I portrayed a six-year-old girl answering questions:

For that one I channeled nieces who were or had recently been six. People told me that my height helped the illusion. sigh! The second night I remembered to get my scrunchie in so I had a ponytail. I had another bit in "My Angry Vagina" which I mostly memorized:

And then we had two long pieces where people read a word or two here and there. For "The Lists" we had different words each night, which created some confusion when people missed rehearsals due to the storms and then tried to figure out which words they were supposed to read out which night. The other was "Say It - for the comfort women" and it was very powerful. I was honored in that one to say the final words.

Someone from work was also in the shows, and a friend of hers videotaped the pieces she was in with an iPhone. So they are not terrific, but you get to see (or hear, when I was on the opposite side of the stage) me in some of them. Just click on the links in the paragraph above.
The good news is that we sold out both nights, and raised quite a lot of money for local shelters and programs. I look forward to doing it again next year!

And a cool thing happened about a week later. I was going to Cinestudio to see "Made in Dagenham" (which I highly recommend), and when I bought my ticket the girl in the ticket booth asked wasn't I someone who'd been in the cast the previous weekend. Yes, I had been, I said. She complimented the performance and said she and her friends had gone and liked it very much. I floated! I've had friends who are actors, and directors, and they get recognized all the time, but nobody every compliments the stage managers. (Having friends do it isn't the same thing.) I'd never been recognized before! And I didn't think it was just me, it was the whole show, which made it matter more.

03 March 2011

Could You Eat for $3 Per Day?

(I need to get a couple other posts finished and "live" but have a new topic to start.)

I have worked with Social Justice/Action types of groups most of my life. When I was a child, I helped put together gift boxes for families around holidays, particularly Christmas, which included food. I learned that not everybody had a lot of money for food. When my family was led by an underemployed (or underpaid) single mother, we learned that there is a difference between having the food you need and having the food you want.

As a result, I have generally been frugal about food. I buy day-old bread and bruised produce and stuff on sale and I use coupons. Being just one person I'm not as radical about it as some people who seem to base their life on trying to get stuff for free, but I do OK. Yet I've never had to live on food stamps, and never tried to live on the food stamp allowance, although I've read blogs and articles by persons who have.

I've just heard about the local SNAP Into Action Against Hunger program, and I'm going to try to do it this year. Not for the whole month, because I have some travel upcoming and am busy with meetings and so on, but for at least a week. If I can, I'll do one week at the base amount, and another week at the increased amount you get if you complete the application form, although the link for that appears to be from a past year and may not be valid.

Kickoff event is Monday night. I am already doing some shopping and planning menus. I know some people take their allowance for the week, buy stuff, and try to just eat that stuff for a week. I would think that people who are always on this food budget would learn to shop ahead if they see a sale and plan, although I could be wrong. That's what my family did, and that is what I plan to do.

So far, I have pasta, rice, lentils, canned tomatoes, potatoes, eggs, cheese, and some frozen vegetables. This put me at $12.84 so far, which is more than half the budget for a week ($3 per day for 7 days, unless the per-day amount has increased - I notice that Illinois used $4.50 this year). I didn't actually buy the macaroni because I had just stocked up, so I am cheating slightly by using what is in my pantry but using what I would have paid at the store, where it is on sale. I don't yet have milk (I'll use dry or canned) or breakfast cereal, or fruit. I'll get bread when I start, to have a fresh loaf.

This is going to be very different from my usual meals. I don't usually eat the cheap white bread, and while I am not a big meat eater day-to-day I do eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. I may not be able to afford these. I'm definitely giving up most of my usual beverages - no soda pop, no juice, no tea. Even though the water is free, the tea bag costs something!