Great Recession shows families with improved diets

This month’s edition of the USDA Amber Waves reports that:

The fact that a decline in FAFH [Food Away From Home] consumption was only observed among working-age adults, and not among older adults, suggests that the recession was a large factor influencing where working-age adults obtained their food. However, the fact that accounting for household income did not affect the estimated change in FAFH consumption over the period suggests that the recession effect was not mainly through income, but through other channels such as increased time available for shopping and preparing food at home.

Researchers also found that most of the improvements in diet quality were not a result of the decline in FAFH consumption. The quality of at-home and away-from-home foods improved, perhaps from consumers focusing more on nutrition when selecting foods. Whether or not these changes are a result of the recession or are due to other factors cannot be determined with the data. However, the fact that improved diet quality was observed among older adults and that they also reported greater attention to nutrition information suggests that this nutrition focus is not simply the result of higher unemployment. Food manufacturers may also be responding in part to consumer demand for nutrition by improving the nutritional content of foods that they produce.

Cutting back and eating more food at home correlates with improved nutrition and family time.  That’s good — but not surprising — news.  Although there is no direct link between the two, priorities have shifted.  Read the full article here.

That’s not all.  The United States added 5 million home food gardeners from 2008 to 2009, an increase of 14%.  41 million people who garden for food at home might be impacting those improved nutrition numbers a bit.

Unfortunately, the need for gardening for food for economic reasons is likely here to stay.  The Congressional Budget Office report “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024” forecasts a solid pace in economic growth through 2017, although they don’t expect unemployment to drop below 6% until 2016 and then not by much.  But after 2017:

Beyond 2017, CBO expects that economic growth will diminish to a pace that is well below the average seen over the past several decades. That projected slowdown mainly reflects long-term trends—particularly, slower growth in the labor force because of the aging of the population. Inflation, as measured by the change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures (PCE), will remain at or below 2.0 percent throughout the next decade, CBO anticipates… In CBO’s projections, the growth of potential GDP over the next 10 years is much slower than the average since 1950.

That’s a projection, not something written in stone.  As baby boomers continue to retire it will cause a demographic, cultural and economic shift in the United States, the likes of which haven’t been seen since they were born.  Many will be healthy, active and likely to spend decades in retirement.  It’s hard for anyone to say exactly what the full ramifications of that demographic transition will be, and any projections must be viewed as a possibility, not a probability.

If you are involved in home food production, you have a lot of company right now.


When herbal medicine use becomes herbal medicine misuse

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) – topical astringent available OTC in any pharmacy as an extract

The sales of herbal medicine products have climbed steadily over the past 30 years in the United States, most of those sales in just a few trendy herbs that come into fashion and then fade back.  But herbal medicine is far from new — it is the original medicine, and 40% of the US Pharmacopeia today consists of botanical products.  Many modern widely prescribed drugs are botanically derived, including Tamiflu, codeine, Pseudoephedrine, reserpine, Teniposide, Taxol and Topotecan.

Unfortunately, herbal medicine misuse is also increasing: on the side of suppliers who extend their profits with adulterated products or simply are not trained to recognize raw herbs properly, a growing pack of “herbalists” with no medical training and most frequently of all, misuse on the part of consumers armed only with the internet and an herbal encyclopedia, but no understanding of chemical interactions, contraindications or diagnostic skills.  Consumer misuse generally rises from one of two states:

  • An innate belief that herbal medicine doesn’t actually have power, which manifests as assumptions that herbal remedies are safe because they are “natural.”
  • An innate belief that herbal medicine is all-powerful, which often manifests as fear of taking a therapeutic level dose and/or persisting in taking an herbal remedy which is not working.

Herbal medicines do not work because they are magic natural pixie dust, they work because plants contain specific chemicals and chemical cocktails that cause changes in the body.  One person may have high blood pressure and another low blood pressure, but neither should blindly take an herbal product because it says “heart health” on the label: they may get the opposite effect they need.

This post was inspired by a story I heard recently.  The story is second-hand and may not contain all the exact details, but I’ll treat is as-is for the purposes of the example.  A mother has a young infant who has been agitated, crying and having difficulty breathing due to congestion for two weeks.  The mother posts in a forum online that she has been rubbing the infant’s throat and chest with rosemary essential oil, but is looking for other suggestions of essential oils with which to treat the child.

In this example, we see a) an innate belief that the herbal treatment must be safe, b) the belief that a particular treatment must be effective despite all evidence to the contrary, c) the application of the wrong treatment d) the wrong method of dosing anyway, and e) very likely an overdose given the dangerous concentration of chemicals in essential oils applied to an infant, causing stomach, intestinal and kidney irritation.

This is a thorough case of herbal medicine misuse although the mother has the best of intentions.  The child is being treated with a concentrated transdermal and inhalant application of a nervous and circulatory stimulant, which will not help with the pain and congestion but will make it difficult for the infant to rest.  It may be making the situation worse by increasing the child’s distress.  In this case, the consumer is misreading the “uses” of rosemary listed because she doesn’t understand what the chemicals do, and how and in what situations it would have the desired effect.  At two weeks it is long past time to seek professional help when dealing with an infant.

Don’t be an herbal misuser.  If you wish to make herbal remedies part of your health care practices, seek out a qualified practitioner or a training class.  If this is beyond your means, some science-based or reputable links are given below to get you started.

University of Maryland Medical Center
NYU Langone Medical Center
Henriette’s Herbal
PDR for Herbal Medicine
Google Scholar (in lieu of regular web searching, but still use care and judgement evaluating sources)
Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians
The Practice of Pharmacy (1886)

Food storage cooking: the essential tool chest

Mitla Black tepary bean seeds

Mitla Black tepary bean seeds

It’s cold.  You are thinking about fresh greens for spring, but aside from a few edible spring weeds and any squash and sweet potatoes you have in storage, fresh food is at the grocery store imported from distant locations, not in your yard.  75 years ago, scarcely anyone had fresh foods in winter and certainly not in the early part of the year called “the starving time.”  They were eating their canned, pickled, fermented, dried and smoked preparations from last fall.

Food storage today, for those that practice it, mostly consists of commercially prepared foods and whole grains and beans.  Today I want to focus on those whole grains and beans because many people have lost touch with cooking such simple foods.  Cooking these items from scratch is often considered too difficult and time consuming, but it needn’t be with the right tools.

Let’s start with the old fashioned way.  You don’t need a special appliance for cooking rice and beans; they can all be cooked on a stove top in a saucepan, but if you go that route you need to have the time to pay attention to them because they can burn quickly, especially rice.  The basic recipe is easy.  Boil water, add grains, cover and simmer until done.  Rice is done in 20-60 minutes, depending on the rice.  Beans should generally be soaked overnight beforehand to reduce cooking time.   Cast iron cookware is preferred here, particularly if you will ever want to be cooking outdoors, but cast iron may turn your rice gray unless it is ceramic coated.

Next up is a tool almost every kitchen has: the old fashioned slow cooker, also known as a Crock Pot after the most famous market name of these appliances.  These run $20-70 if you don’t have one already, and have many other uses.  Slow cookers excel at beans.  You add water and beans, set the cook time and walk away.  You can cook rice in them, too, and they are fantastic at slow cooking cheaper cuts of meat.

But if you are going to be cooking these foods a lot — and you should if they are part of your food storage program — you want to give serious consideration to a rice cooker.  Millions of Asians eat rice every day and wouldn’t consider it a kitchen without one.  Even travel versions are popular.  You have two choices here: an on/off cooker or a fuzzy logic cooker, both of which can be used for more than just rice.

I prefer the fuzzy logic cookers.  With a fuzzy logic rice cooker, you can put in beans or whole grains and the appropriate amount of water, tell it to cook it and walk away.  They are very flexible and adaptable to different sizes and densities of grains, and can cook oats for you overnight or beans for your dinner, or both.  When it’s done, it will keep your food warm and fresh for many hours.  This is your most flexible option, but it will set you back $150 or more.  Induction cookers are also available for stratospheric prices but don’t work any better.  For smaller households, I suggest the 5 cup models; the 3 cup models are really too small for soup and similar dishes.  (Bear in mind that is 3 metric cups, which is slighter smaller than the cup we use in the States.)  The cheaper ones, I’m sorry to say from personal experience, do not last long.  If you buy one, don’t go cheap, just buy a Zojirushi.

On/off rice cookers specialize in white rice.  If you have every wondered how the rice comes out so perfect at your favorite Asian restaurant, it’s thanks to a huge commercial rice cooker in the back.  These kinds of rice cookers can be had quite cheaply at the low end ($20-30) but the cheaper ones have sporadic quality.  The Japanese-made Tiger rice cookers are probably the best available and are designed to work for years and years with daily usage, but they aren’t much cheaper than their fuzzy logic cousins.  The on/off cookers do an excellent job with white rice, and are functional but less proficient with brown rice, beans and other whole grains.  On/off cookers also cook rice faster than fuzzy logic cookers.

There’s one exception to my preference for rice cookers: they tend to badly overcook lentils and split peas.  The stove top method is superior here, in my opinion, and is also fairly quick.

If you do get a rice cooker of either kind, the Rice Cooker Cookbook by Hensperger and Kaufman can help you get the most out of it, but while they set out to prove you can cook almost anything in one of these machines, some recipes (like risotto) are just easier the regular way in a pan.

Beans and whole grains are exceptionally healthy for you, store well and are very affordable.  Even the pricier trendy grains like quinoa and amaranth can be reasonably priced if you buy them in bulk, but simple wheat berries, barley and oats make great additions to meals.  If time is a concern, consider a specialized appliance, otherwise don’t be afraid to cook these on the stove.  They are not as difficult as some would like you to believe.

Turning DIY into a hobby for fun and (somebodies’) profit

spool of thread and needle-2

It’s tough to be frugal in the 21st century.  It used to be that if you were poor, you did things for yourself to save money, but today, DIY is a mega-profitable industry, and those huge profits mean you are often not saving any money.  Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Growing up, my Mom had the time and talent to make clothes.  She made high quality clothes for us at a fraction of the price similar quality clothes would cost in the stores.  While somewhat cheaper clothing was available, it didn’t come with hand tailoring and customization.  There was an upfront cost — a nice sewing machine — and knowledge needed, but it saved money.  Now, the cost of making a nice shirt will be 4 or 5 times the cost of shirt imported from a sweatshop overseas.  There’s no supply side reason denim costs $10/yard in the US, nevermind the zippers, buttons, thread and labor, when it’s the same denim used to make dollar store jeans.  Buying second hand isn’t always a bargain either when the thrift store charges $15 for used dollar store jeans you can get new for $17.
  • A few years ago, I priced out the supplies and equipment rental needed to add 15″ of insulation in my attic at Big Blue and Big Orange home improvement megastores.  It was almost $100 cheaper to hire someone to do the same job, and when the blower broke down, they repaired it and had it running again in 15 minutes instead of requiring a trip back to the store for me.  As a bonus, I didn’t spend all day in the attic, and a couple of guys earned some money for their families.
  • Two years ago, I priced out building a shed.  The material came out cheaper, true — but when I considered how many hours I would spend on the job, hours that I otherwise would spend on something more productive, hiring the local shed building pros to come out and spend half a day was not only cost effective, I didn’t have to run all over town trying to find all the parts I needed.  Nor did I lose the next 3 weekends sweating over a shed in the back yard.

This is not to say you can’t save money at all with DIY.  Calling a plumber out to replace a $15 faucet cartridge would cost me $100.  It’s okay with me if Big Orange marks it up 185% over their cost because it’s the only way I’m getting it direct, and the only thing else I need is a screw driver.  But when you are trying to be frugal, you have to look at the whole picture. Do not assume that doing it yourself is either good for you or good for your local economy.

Early I mentioned there was no supply-side reason for the high prices of sewing supplies and notions — however, there is a demand side reason.  Most people who sew now do it as a hobby.  It’s entertainment.  Or it’s something special, like a child’s Halloween costume.  And most of these people have at least one of two things in abundance: time and/or money.  You choose to spend time and money on a gift for your child; it is not driven primarily by financial considerations.

So what, the reader is asking, does this have to do with gardening?

Everything.  Garden shops, seed stores and catalogs know that many people who are gardening are doing it as hobby.  Many gardeners are single income families because they choose to be, either permanently or temporarily while there are young children at home.  Or, they are retired, and despite the high numbers of elderly people living in or near poverty, older people statistically have more disposable income than younger people (and what’s more, are more likely to spend it at home instead of in a bar, restaurant or on an experience like traveling).  Like sewing, for this group gardening is entertainment.  And so, prices go up, particularly for seeds and supplies that have a certain cache.  Organic.  Heirloom.  Green.

If you are gardening for financial or preparedness reasons, you need to be very careful where your money goes.  There is no supply-side reason why tomato seeds cost $4.50 for a packet of 20 seeds, while a $3.00 packet of broccoli seeds might have 300 seeds in it, seeds that took two years to produce and were harder to save.  If you are not saving your own seeds, or are not part of a local community that has seed swaps or plant swaps, you may be at the mercy of catalog prices, whether they make financial sense or not.

The long term solutions include saving your own seed, but for most of us with small plots of land this may mean years of experimentation to find the one vegetable variety in each species that does best for us.  That brings us back to the need for gardening communities and relationships that foster mutually beneficial exchanges.  Don’t forget to check out your locally owned garden centers and farmers for seeds and transplants that may be cheaper than what you can order.

And whatever you do, be very wary of obscenely overpriced gardening kits, be they raised beds, rain barrels, hanging bag vegetable things or glorified self-watering containers.  These are not marketed to you, the frugal gardener, they are marketed toward people for whom plunking down $150 for a square of four foot lengths of plastic and some connectors is a raised bed experience.  You can do better.  And if you are truly DIY clueless and don’t want to learn, this is an excellent opportunity to trade either a physical item or your expertise in some other subject for some handyman labor.

Caveat emptor.

What drought means for anyone who eats

NOAA Spring drought forecast

Spring drought forecast

Drought isn’t receiving much press outside of California, but it should.  The looming drought in the Central Valley — one which might be as bad or worse than 1977 — has the potential to drastically affect the production of food in the United States.  California produces an astonishing amount of food, but can only do so as long as the irrigation water is flowing.  Rivers are tapped that no longer flow to the sea, deltas are dried up and measuring the snow pack in the mountains is an annual ritual fraught with drama and anticipation for farmers.  Conservation measures by both homeowners and farmers and ecological restoration have modified the delicate balance of water usage, but tap water is sold at artificially low prices so for the homeowner there is little incentive to xeriscape the acres of non-native turf grass or retire their swimming pools.  Homes built in ecological zones where wildfires are normal (and in some cases, necessary to the health of the environment) will be preserved by taxpayer money and the sweat, blood and perhaps even lives of fire fighters.

Indeed, all across the West, the water situation looks dire.  Yet in Southern California, officials are only pondering cutbacks of lawn watering on some days, a feeble response that will not be strengthened unless their reserves drop precipitously.  So much for thinking ahead.  Meanwhile, environmental laws that preserve things like critical salmon runs and smelt habitat are suspended in the wake of the emergency declaration.

Half of the production of America’s fruit, vegetables and nuts happens in California.  Strangely, no one on the news seems to be talking about how the plight of California farmers will affect food prices.  Not just fresh produce will be affected, but also a lot of our condiment processing happens in California, and meat and dairy farms will be affected as well.  We can just import all our food from South America and China, right?  And if fresh food prices skyrocket, well that won’t affect well-paid journalists, pundits and politicians too much.

It will, however, have a ripple effect across the country, and there are three things that need to be done in every home.

First, every household should have at least a week worth of essential water supplies stored at home.  Not just those in drought-prone areas: drought can happen anywhere and water supplies can be disrupted for many reasons.  (Just ask West Virginia.)  Once you have water stored, start thinking about an alternate water source.  For many, that will be storing rainfall and having a way to filter it to make it safe to drink.  Storing rainfall is easy and an astonishing amount of water goes down your gutters in even a small rain shower.   When not in a drought, rainwater is better for your plants than tap water, so use it for watering outside.  (In some places, rainwater harvesting is illegal due to old water rights laws.)

Second, if you are on a tight budget, you need to think about allocating your food dollars now to storable supplies so you can stretch your budget later if food prices rise.  Don’t store anything you don’t eat, and don’t store so much it will go bad before you eat it.  Processed food will be affected less than fresh food (since much of the cost is tied up in processing, shipping and marketing instead of the actual food cost), so while buying three bottles or catsup or four boxes of breakfast cereal when they are on a great sale is good for your budget, it should take a back seat to any efforts you make in your home to can, freeze, dehydrate or otherwise preserve fresh food that you don’t grow yourself.  Nuts grown in California are an excellent candidate for buy-ahead programs, since they require little if any effort to store for the short term, particularly unshelled nuts.

Third, every household needs to think about securing local food sources.  This is, so of course I think that growing some of your own — even one thing that you normally buy but could be grown at home in a cost effective way for your region — is the very first thing you should consider.  But few of us have the land, time or ability to grow everything we eat or even a majority of what we eat.  Support your local farmers and other food producers.  By supporting them, you help create strong local food systems.  Decentralizing food production helps buffer the market (and your pocketbook!) against regional disruptions.  Buying local also helps stimulate your local economy, and it may improve your health because produce that has languished for days in transit has fewer nutrients than that fresh off the vine from a home garden, or that picked one or two days ago at a farm 30 miles down the road.

With any luck, the drought out West will not be as severe as anticipated, and food prices will be buffered by a good year in another region of the world.  Nonetheless, personal preparedness is always a good strategy, particularly for anyone who need or wants to be frugal.

By the Numbers: Cabbage

Frost on cabbage

Frosted cabbage

Is cabbage cost effective in the home garden?  Well, sort of.  Let’s run the numbers.

This year, I planted three varieties of heading cabbage from seed, “Brunswick,” “Early Jersey Wakefield,” and “Glory of Enkhuizen.”  All are fairly well respected varieties, but of those, I only got two smallish heads, from the Brunswick and Early Jersey Wakefield.  Since their failure has more to do with the horde of slugs and snails that infest my garden than any problem with plant productivity, I’m going to skip these for the purposes of this evaluation.

Instead, late season I was gifted with 10 small cabbage plugs of a commercial variety by my friends over at Food From the Yard.  They went into the garden quite late: September 1st.  I had ample room, so each cabbage got a full 4 square feet; I filled one 4’x10′ bed.  They were sprayed twice with Dipel DF to control cabbage worm, which is another pest I have in abundance.  Dipel is Bt, which is a very safe and specific control for lepidoptera pests.  (Don’t spray on plants that harmless butterfly larvae consume; it’ll kill them, too.)  I did lose two seedlings to slugs despite an application of Sluggo (iron phosphate), which is another very safe pest control option.

  • Cost of plants: none, but usually these would cost about $5
  • Cost of pest control: about $2
  • Labor: transplanting, two spray sessions of Dipel, one Sluggo application
  • Space: 400 sq. ft
  • Yield: 8 2.5-3.5lb. heads for 24 pounds of produce
  • Cost at retail: $0.62/lb. x 24 = $14.88
  • Gross value per square foot: $0.0372

So cabbage technically has a positive cash flow, if you ignore labor costs and have the available space in your winter garden.  Even if I had purchased the plugs, I would have netted about $7.  But that’s $7 for about 1 1/2 hours of work: well below minimum wage in any state.

Aside from the financial impact, cabbage stores and ships fairly well, so nutrient loss in cabbage that comes through the food distribution chain is minimal, and if there is a taste difference, it’s not one that I can detect.

I suspect, however, that I will continue to plant cabbage.  There isn’t much else that I can plant in late fall as garden bed space opens up that won’t be in the way next spring, so the space would otherwise be unproductive.  And while the financial benefits are borderline, the psychological benefits of seeing greenery in the garden and harvesting fresh food in December or January are hard to beat.


The frugality paradox


Not quite a balanced budget

Keynesian economists would insist that by saving money and reducing your consumerism, you harm society by slowing the overall economy.  I don’t know enough about formal economic theory to pick a school of economics, so I will refrain from making broad generalizations about the greater economy, but any economy which is dependent on the debt and misery of its citizens doesn’t sound like a healthy one to me.  I can only say for sure that my personal economic situation has certainly improved since the day I decided that a lifestyle of debt was no longer something I would participate in, that I would not continue to pay interest to someone to use my own money.

It’s easy to pay off debt when your financial situation is stable or your income is even increasing.  It’s easy to say, “I won’t buy a new car,” when you already have a reliable vehicle, or access to effective public transit.  It’s easy to say you won’t take on debt, when you don’t have any you are responsible for already.  It’s easy to reduce your household expense budget by buying staple foods in bulk and stocking up when items are on sale, when you have the extra cash to get started.  And it’s easy to stretch that budget with gardening, when even the most humble of garden starts will require tools or seeds or something that you may not be able to get for free.

If you are fortunate enough to be in a relatively secure economic position, consider how you might increase your security with less debt, savings and multiple income streams.  Your day may come when your household is less financially secure, and can use all the preparations you made.  If you are not so fortunate, make a plan and take one small step at a time in a better direction.

Be the grasshopper, not the ant.

(By Nicole Castle)