Stop Singing Me the Blues–Do Something!

Recently, I listened to an interview about The Weight of the Nation, a documentary about the rising occurrence of childhood obesity, on NPR’s Fresh Air podcast. It was a fascinating discussion that highlighted the relationship between poverty and obesity.
Though it can be somewhat difficult to get healthy foods on a budget, it is possible. Even those who are eligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) and WIC can have healthy foods. In fact, I looked at the list of approved foods for both programs in Oregon, and one cannot buy very many processed foods at all with these benefits. I was really surprised to find this out. So I asked myself how is it that when you watch shows like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, you see that kids don’t know what broccoli is? They don’t know that French fries come from potatoes! Why are they lacking the fundamental knowledge of where food comes from and how to prepare it healthily? It’s a simple, two pronged answer, in my opinion.
Parents are making bad choices in what they are feeding their children. They are tired, overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, and sometimes lazy, so they slack off on their responsibility as a care-taker to prepare nutritional meals that help young bodies develop properly. I’ve seen parents spend their last $20 on a fast food meal because they simply don’t want to cook for their kids. Sure, this is okay once in a while, but when it happens so often that the kid can’t identify a vegetable, it’s a travesty! No wonder these kids are obese.
The other prong? Greed in the schools. As much as I want to scold the schools for trying to make a little extra money by pushing Taco Bell, French fries, mystery meat, and vending machine food like Cheez Balls, part of me understands that they are doing it out of necessity. Education is one of the most (probably THE most) under-funded programs in America. I find it incredibly depressing that we see the schools as the bad guy for selling high-sodium, high-fat snacks and meals, when they probably need that money just to keep textbooks in the classroom—and let’s be real…with the amount of low cost/free lunch programs out there, they barely come out even.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that brings me to my next point. Earlier this month, I volunteered at the annual Waterfront Blues Festival put on by the Oregon Food Bank. It is widely known as the best in the west, and in fact is the largest one west of the Mississippi, and has won several national awards. It is on the Willamette waterfront, of course, on beautiful green grass with large stages spread out so thousands of Oregonians can hear, see, and smell the glory that is the Blues Festival. I worked the main gate for three and a half hours, collecting donations for the Oregon Food Bank.
I remember when I was a kid, seeing the boxes and cans that were donated to those who couldn’t afford to feed themselves. My mother always impressed on us that it was important to give back, so we volunteered at shelters and donated to food drives many times. It was always mushy green beans and high-sodium meals in a box. On that Thursday at the Blues Festival, however, I saw more people donating healthy (healthy as nonperishable food can be, anyway), organic foods than I have ever seen in all of my shifts at the Food Bank. It gave me a great feeling of positivity and hope. Perhaps this can be the start of a change that our country desperately needs. While it is really depressing that many of our poorer citizens don’t have the knowledge that would aid them in feeding their children healthy food, it behooves those in a better position to help out in such a fantastic yet simple way. It is a beautiful thing to see a helping hand extended when someone has fallen.
I realize that we can’t all be advocates in a big way. We have our own problems and lives to deal with. We aren’t being paid like Jamie Oliver to change the world, but even something as small as consciously donating a healthier can of food makes a difference in someone’s life. If you’re truly led to help out more, there are constant opportunities at the OFB, and not just in organizing donations. Volunteers can teach parents how to cook healthy meals for their children and even how to garden their own fresh produce. I volunteered initially at the Food Bank because someone asked me to be their “partner in crime.” They were interested in going, and we all know that everything is more fun with a buddy. So I joined her, and went back several times on my own. When the email about the Blues Festival arrived in my inbox, I didn’t hesitate to sign up and recruit a friend to come with me.
I hope you’ll be inspired by the spirit of philanthropy, feel the drive to educate yourself like I did, and reach out in your own unique way. Don’t ever hesitate to ask me to be your volunteer buddy! I’ll be there right beside you.
Picture courtesy of the Waterfront Blues Festival website.

Waterfront Blues Fest Crowd 2012

The Urban Garden of Eden

Because it has been requested, because I scored about six pounds of free blueberries this week from a friend just itching to get rid of her backyard blueberry surplus, and also because I just found the coolest website on a similar topic, I have decided to write this week’s blog on Urban Gardening—The Becky Update. I’ve found the idea of urban gardening to be so much more absorbing than I thought it would be. It seems simple, the concept of growing your own food. It costs less than buying at the grocery store, and you know exactly where your food is coming from, but, like I said before, up until a few months ago I had never even consider growing my own food to be a realistic option. So why now? Recession, a new hobby, the inarguable rise in awareness of the important of knowing where our food comes from…urban gardening has definitely been a new and fruitful (ha ha) experience for me, and I’m excited to share more about it.
My garden has been blossoming! Back when I began, I had my lone tomato plant, Bernardo, and a few other herbs and leafy greens. Now I have three tomato plants, a cucumber, a planter of beets, two types of peppers, cilantro, chives, oregano, and lavender! I’m pretty impressed at my fine gardening skills too, which include watering when the sun is low (Plants can get sunburned too!), clumping like plants together so they can compete and grow larger, and whispering sweet nothings to them from time to time to keep up morale. My plants don’t reside in the most beautiful garden, after all, but they have certainly brightened up my life and my alley! Note:  I moved everything that needed major sun to my little alley. The front patch was just not cutting it, sunshine-wise. Not all of them are ready for consumption yet, but I’ve been able to pick some of my cherry tomatoes, which makes me so very happy. The herbs of course are continually giving; I recently made a delicious enchilada dish with my fresh oregano. What a difference fresh makes! The flavor really popped out.
My gardening interest piqued, I was reading my usual Portland community blog on when I came upon a post asking about the availability of wild-growing blackberries in the Portland area. One of the answers led me to an intriguing website called Urban Edibles: It is a guide to finding all the produce that’s free to pick, whether it’s behind a Fred Meyer or on a median strip in the middle of a street. The tag line across the top of the home page reads “A Community Database of Wild Food Sources in Portland, OR.” Below, “Urban Edibles is a cooperative network of wild food foragers. By creating awareness about what is available in our neighborhoods, we hope to re-establish the connection between people, environment and food.” Right above it are the links to get you started. I noticed an “ethics” link, so I clicked on it. One may consider most warnings to be common sense (Don’t pick on private property without asking first!), but I was glad I read it for their take on urban foraging etiquette. On the website, you can search by location or item in the greater Portland area. I typed in my address and saw that there were at least seven different food sources within walking distance of my home. This kind of website is exactly why I love Portland so much. Many people are eager to share the resources that keep them in good spirits during a less-than-happy economy.
The website led me to another idea to share about obtaining food outside the grocery store. Besides growing your own produce, ask your friends about a trade. A friend of mine has a considerable backyard garden, but she also owns chickens. When the going is good, she has more eggs than she can handle. Being the great friend that I am, I always volunteer to take the surplus off her hands. When I have something to barter, I offer it. What a fantastic and frugal way to get my groceries!
The urban garden experiment so far has been really pleasurable. It gives me a sense of heightened environmental consciousness and presents me with an activity where I can see the direct results of my efforts (a Virgo MUST). When more crops are ready to harvest, I hope to write another update. If you live in the Portland area, maybe we can do a veggie exchange!