August, 2010 browsing by month


A tale of retail [foodchoices]

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Let’s go back a few posts and look at the various retail options we have for buying food.

I’ve already written enough about Wal-Mart, and I imagine that most people have their own thoughts for or against them at this point.

What about the other big chains like Safeway, Kroger’s, Ralphs, etc.? I’ve regularly shopped at all of them at one time or another and used to think that as long as you bought organic foods, it didn’t really matter where you bought them.

The other choices are “specialty” stores with the big three national chains being Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe’s. We always loved shopping at Trader Joe’s when we had one nearby. Their food is fresh, natural, delicious, and a fair amount cheaper than Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

What I didn’t know until recently is that these specialty stores make a real effort to stock ethically produced foods. They look at things like how their suppliers treat their animals and how they address other areas of social responsibility, like the environment and fair trade.

And now that “organic” has become a marketing buzz word, all the larger chains like Safeway, et al (even Wal-Mart)  have organic lines of product. However, the food they sell as organic is still produced in factory farms. While they adhere to the technicalities of organic labeling law in the U.S., they don’t adhere to the spirit of it. (There are a few exceptions like the dairy products from Organic Valley, which are produced ethically on small farms. The also-organic Horizon line, though, is factory farmed with all its horrors. It’s not what many of us would consider “organic.” Without a lot of research, it’s hard to know the difference.)

The bottom line is if you want to avoid factory-farmed foods, avoid the big chains.

There is one other choice, and it’s one I’ve become more familiar with now that I’m thinking more about food and we have no local Trader Joe’s. It’s local food co-ops. These are cooperatives that provide natural, organic, and ethically-produced food. In some towns, there are retail store-based co-ops. (We have one in Bisbee and one in Silver City. Contrary to what I thought, you don’t have to be a “member.”) There are also small informal co-ops. We have one in Portal that we can order from each month. The only drawback is that you have to order in cases, but we’ve found that that is really not a problem. Here is a directory for co-ops. You can also order a lot of organic, non-factory-farmed foods online. For example, most of what we get through our local co-op is available through Amazon at very good prices. The only challenge is that you have to know what you want….and research what brands meet your own considerations for good food choices.

Food prices and policy [foodchoices]

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Good article in the NYT last Sunday about using policy to improve Americans’ health by influencing food choices. (I have mixed feelings about this. I’m all for free choice, but with the health care system becoming completely unmanageable — whether you favor a public system or an employer/employee-supported one — something needs to be done. I guess I think that as long as the policy is designed to influence choice and not mandate it, it’s a good thing.)

One of the points of the article is that subsidies have created an environment that greatly favors unhealthy fat- and sugar-loaded fast food. Subsidies on corn and soy (used for animal feed and oil) are huge. (Some day someone will explain to me why the people who supposedly stongly favor the market economy favor subsidies.) As a result, in the last 15 years or so, the inflation-adjusted price of a Big Mac has dropped 5.4% while the price of whole fruits and vegetables has risen 17%.

Everytime I see fast food pricing, I’m amazed by how cheap it is. Tacos for $.33? Burgers for under $1? It defies logic.

People are very sensitive about food pricing though. As a friend pointed out to me recently, someone who chooses the cheapest eggs or milk because of a dollar or so difference might easily spend $100 or so on dinner out and a movie. When we buy food at the grocery, we think it should be cheap and often don’t equate price differences with differences in things like health, the environment, or humane treatment of animals.

Milk is milk, and it should be cheap. Or so the thinking goes.

In a lot of ways, this is the same way most Americans view pricing of gasoline and even water. It is as though we have a god-given right to these things being cheap. In all of these cases, it is subsidies that have made the commodities historically cheap. And it seems unlikely that this is sustainable.

Interestingly, in Europe, food, gasoline, and water are all priced at something closer to a real market price (and are much more expensive than they are here). I rarely read about food or the environment (including the above-mentioned NY Times article) where the significant differences in European and American policy aren’t discussed.

Longer term thinking would serve us all well. In the meantime, individual choices do make a difference.

Weather or not

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

Amazing. We found the rain gauge that we thought we’d gotten rid of in the move. When we won this in a bar contest years ago (in Florida), we never thought we’d find it useful. And the rain for yesterday came in at about 1-1/4″.


We’re at the center of it all [foodchoices]

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

OK, hopefully, we’ve all had time look around their pantries and think a little about food.

Clearly, in the culture we live in, we have many food choices. (I have a keen sense of this having lived in a country where there was much less food choice. Try explaining that in America, there really is no “staple food.”) So why do our food choices matter?

Most obviously, our food choices matter to ourselves. In particular, many of our food choices are made based on:

  1. Personal preference/taste
  2. Convenience/time
  3. Finances
  4. Health

First, we all have things we like and things we don’t like. And for the most part, as adults, we buy food we like (although that is moderated by other considerations like health and perhaps finances).

In my own thinking about food, I’ve come to realize that we sometimes confuse what looks best with what tastes best. Nowadays, food is often engineered to look good. A fair amount of genetic modification work is designed to produce food that withstands mechanical picking and very long times to market and still looks good. (Pringle, 2003)

Organic produce or small farm produce doesn’t always look as good as the colorful (often waxed and gassed) produce you see in chain supermarkets. But it tastes much better. And if you aren’t sure about this, just think about the difference between a tomato from the garden and those bright, beautiful, but tasteless tomatoes at the grocery.

Nothing tastes better than garden tomatoes (Credit: David Steltz)

Nothing tastes better than garden tomatoes (Credit: David Steltz)

Another huge personal consideration regarding food is convenience. Think about fast food. As a nation, we eat tons of it, and yet I don’t think anyone (with the possible exception of my nephews) really think it is superior food. Convenience and finances are a big part of this food choice.

Convenience is also a factor in purchase decisions we make at the grocery. Ever since TV dinners came out, we have been in love with convenient food. But think about the last ready-to-eat boxed meal you bought and popped in the oven. Granted it’s gotten better since the Swanson days, but I still don’t think it measures up as really great food.

But we are a nation on the go and so we often make food choices that don’t measure up in terms of taste or health because of convenience.

Then there is the issue of finances. Can we really afford to make better tasting/healthier/more ethical food choices? Organic food comes to mind — most consider it “better” (healthier, more ethical), but it is more expensive than regular grocery food.

It’s hard to talk about food and finances without talking about Wal-Mart. They have built an incredible empire around low prices. From a sheer marketing and business strategy standpoint, they are a case study worth studying.

But as several books I’ve been reading point out, low prices come at a cost. Food costs what it costs, so why are Wal-Mart’s prices so much lower than everyone else’s?

The answer is that while the costs are the same, Wal-Mart has been successful in passing part of their costs on to folks other than their customers. Here are a few examples of how they do this. First, Wal-Mart is notorious for squeezing their suppliers to cut their prices each and every year. How do they do this? Suppliers make compromises in their own procedures, and they squeeze others further down the channel. This results in things like lower wages and longer hours for workers (especially foreign ones), less adherence to environmental guidelines (more run-off pollution, etc.), and less attention to animal welfare (inhumane conditions, more chemicals to spur production, etc.) Essentially, this passes on costs to those who have no say in the matter — workers, communities, animals. But it does save the consumer money.

Wal-Mart is also notorious for paying their workers less than the competitors. While the numbers are hard to come by, a discrimination case in California brought out some interesting figures. One was that the average non-salaried Wal-Mart worker in California also received over $2,000 in state government assistance (food stamps, welfare, Medicare, etc.).  (Singer and Mason, 2006) So in this case, Wal-Mart is passing on costs to the government. Other grocery chains were so concerned about the downward competitive pressure on pricing that would result from Wal-Mart supercenters moving into to new neighborhoods, that there was a statewide grocery strike in California in 2003-04. Some were concerned that overall movement to Wal-Mart level prices could bankrupt the state (and that was before the current economic crisis).

OK. Enough about Wal-Mart. The bottom line is that someone pays the cost of below-market pricing.

Fortunately, for the vast majority of us, we have the flexibility to choose something other than the lowest cost provider if we want to. The added cost (e.g. $.25 per egg) can be offset against the cost of one or two lattes a week, an extra week of vacation, or some other extra luxury. Most of us live in a comfortable enough situation that these are choices we can make. So we must weigh the benefit of low cost vs. other things like taste, health, and the effects on others. And choice is the whole point here.

So that brings us to the last aspect most of us probably consider in terms of the personal effects of our food choices: health.

When choosing food, we think about things like fat, calories or carbs, chemical additives, GMOs, etc. We try to read the labels. (Future article coming on that.) But it’s all pretty confusing. Organic food — which uses little or no chemicals in its production — seems like a good idea, but is it worth the cost? And do we know what “organic” really means anyway?

For now, let’s just put health on the list and hope our food choices support good health for ourselves and our families. We’ll revisit some of these issues as we proceed.

Exercise of the day: Think about the personal considerations of preference/taste, convenience/time, finances, and health in terms of the food choices you make every day. Rank them. Which is most important to you? Which usually wins out when you put food in your grocery cart? If there is a disconnect, what could change the dynamics at play?

Bibliography [foodchoices]

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

While I’m thinking about it, here is a partial bibliography of some of the reading I’m doing on the whole food thing. It’s annotated with some of my own comments. If you have your own favorite books in this area, feel free to add a comment.

Lappe Moore, Frances and Anna Lappe. Hope’s Edge. New York, NY: Putnam, 2002.

    This book is about a lot more than food. It is a mother-daughter journey around the world to explore issues of food, labor, politics, activism, and more. This is the book that got me thinking about working at our own small local farm.

Nestle, Marion. Food Politics. Berekely, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

    This book is by a former adviser to the federal government of food and nutrition issues documents the influence of the food industry on our food choices.

Pringle, Peter. Food Inc. – Mendel to Monsanto – The Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

    This book by an investigative journalist takes a very balanced look at the pros and cons of genetic modification of food. After reading it, I was less concerned about the health implications of GMOs and more concerned about the patent issues that are being raised.

Robbins, John. The Food Revolution. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 2001.

Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Way We Eat – Why Our Food Choices Matter. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 2006.

    This book takes a look at three different types of family diets and examines the implications of each backed up with a lot of research. has a definite perspective toward the humane treatment of animals, but I would challenge even the most adamant omnivore to read this and not rethink what they eat. This is a thought-provoking book that everyone should read.

What food choices do we have? [foodchoices]

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

In thinking about food choices, a good place to start is where we eat (out at restaurants or at home). Since I’m less interested in restaurants these days, I’m going to focus on home food choices.

Eating at home first entails getting food, whether fully prepared meals or raw ingredients, so let’s look at some options for that. (Click to enlarge.)

Of course, where you shop depends on many factors, some of which I’ll cover in my next post. For store-bought food, it’s also worth thinking about where your food came from before it got to the store. (Again stay tuned for more on that.)

I’m not sure most people think about what “form” they buy their food in, but it turns out that it’s pretty relevant to the effects of our food choices (on ourselves, our community, and the larger world). For example, say you like scalloped potatoes. Do you buy it as:

a) A container of already-made scalloped potatoes from the deli counter or a frozen, ready-to-pop-in-the-oven pan of scalloped potatoes.

b) A box of scalloped potato mix, just add milk and butter.

c) Buy whole potatoes, milk, butter, cheese, and make it from scratch.

Perhaps because I am a contrarian myself, I can start hearing the objections. “I don’t have time.” “I can’t cook.” “I’m in a single person household.” “My kids are picky.” etc. I’ll talk more about these issues in upcoming posts, but for now, I think it’s worth just reflecting on the food we eat. This morning I went into my kitchen and pantry and looked around.  You might do the same, and think about what’s there, where it came from, and how much you know about it.

We think so much about so many things in life… and yet, most of us don’t think that much about the food we eat. What could be more important than food? Not only does it have a profound impact on our own health and well-being, but it also has a huge impact on our community and the larger world.

[Sidenote: If you’ve read this far, please feel free to add comments below or on subsequent posts with your thoughts, questions, objections, etc. I have a pretty diverse group of readers, and while a few of you are probably right here with me, others are thinking “Here goes Karen down one of her weird paths that really doesn’t work for most people.” I’d love to hear your thoughts as I progress through this series, especially since this is in part preparation for a presentation to a group of people not very much like me. Thanks.]

I love food [foodchoices]

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

[This is the first part of a series of posts about food and why our food choices matter. It is related to a bunch of reading I’m doing and a presentation on these topics that I’ll be making next month. Since it has nothing to do with the ranch, I will be tagging the posts as “foodchoices” so you can choose to read or not.]

I love food. And when we moved here, one of the things I worried about was that there wouldn’t be the kind of food choices I was used to living in a big, diverse city.

Over time though, I’ve come to see that we all have many food choices, no matter where we live. And , in fact, Brad and I are eating better now than we ever have…even in LA.

Why is that? In large part, it’s because of thinking more about the food we eat.

In LA, we typically shopped by the meal. Each night on our way home from work, we stopped at a grocery and bought the main ingredients for our dinner. We also ate out a fair amount, usually one or twice a week.

Here, we need to think a little further ahead. With no local grocery here, we must buy ahead and plan. When we first moved here, we went to the grocery every week or two. Now we go once or twice a month on average, and it is almost always when we have to go to town for some other reason. (Restaurants are in limited supply here as well. There is one restaurant that is open evenings about 10 miles away. We have eaten there once in 20 months and that was when we won a free dinner there.)

Shopping for several weeks of meals forces me to think about what we’re going to eat several weeks out (instead on what we’re going to eat in a couple hours which requires very little planning and results in much less interesting menus).

Stay tuned for the next installment…food choices we have.

The guest house is officially open

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Yes, you guessed it — we now have a bathroom door.

More pictures here (I especially love the slide bolt latch from Wild West Hardware.)

The monsoons have been continuing here. This week, we had at least two downpours that lasted several hours. We were in the truck one afternoon when a bolt of lightning struck within 20 yards or so. (I’ve since learned that cars act as Faraday cages and that it is a good idea to wear shoes and not to lie on the floor during a storm if you have concrete floors.)

The rains have brought a plague of giant grasshoppers. The ground is crawling with them, and they are particularly attracted to concrete.

They are the most unbelievably uncoordinated things. If prompted to jump, they land on their heads or backs at least half the time. While I am preparing for the likely eventuality that they may eat my entire garden, I am hoping for something better. In the meantime, we have enjoyed eating beans and one tomato (more on the way) from the garden. The cucumbers are also finally taking off.

We had our first day with Internet down today.  (I am actually writing this offline. Of course, as you read this, you will know that it has been restored.) I guess it’s good that it hasn’t happened until now. When we were in the rental house, we seldom had Internet outages, though the power went off nearly every time it rained. Brad takes great delight in the fact that our (solar) power stays on regardless of the weather. I can’t quite get used to it and still cringe when I’m on the computer and a big bolt of lightning strikes.

Tumbleweed: the movie

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Last year, I did a video walkthrough of Tumbleweed to show how the rooms were laying out. I thought it would be fun to do a new updated video now.

[coolplayer autoplay=”0″ loop=”0″ charset=”utf-8″ download=”1″ mediatype=”wmv”]

Tumbleweed walkthrough

Green is a lovely color

Monday, August 9th, 2010

The monsoons continue here, and things are really greening up. Every day that it rains, we hope it is not the end. It is beautiful and looks so different from how the land looked just a month or so ago.

Back across the septic field...bare dirt just a few months ago!

toward the Peloncillos

toward the Peloncillos

Toward our front gate and the Chiricahuas

Other miscellanea for this week…. We have eaten some unusual, truly native food. First, we ate some seeds from  acorns. They were really good, something between a pine nut and a pumpkin seed. I’m thinking of making pesto from some of them. (We have far too many to plant them all.) We also harvested some prickly pears and made lemonade and cocktails from them. For those unfamiliar, prickly pears are the dark red fruits that grow atop a certain type of cactus. We have lots here. They are not only exquisitely colored but delicious.

We had a very nice hike down “our” Horseshoe Canyon Friday.

The garden is doing great. The cucumbers finally have fruit. We have one tomato ready to harvest and several more on the way. We’ve been eating beans and green onions, and they are delicious. The eggplants look very healthy, but no blooms yet.  I’ve transplanted a few watermelon plants outside. They are very spindly and small, but we’ll see.

(Also for anyone interested, here is a post I did for the farm this week on freezing food that has some good tips in it. This week, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking and freezing for the farm. I am officially sick of zucchini! I know we’ll all enjoy it in the winter though.)

Wildlife sightings this week include our bobcat (who we haven’t seen for a couple weeks), a horned lizard, a few desert turtles, and lots and lots of bats in the evenings. They must love all the bugs that are around right now.

On the house, I’ve been working on the bathroom door. Brad’s been doing several miscellaneous catch-up projects while we wait for the consultation on framing for the next house so we can begin on that. I am hoping to get the much-requested  “walk-through” video of the house done this week.

And my big project for work is done! Yay!