Magic Beans

asst beansThis is not going to be a post about the magical beans for which Jack traded his family cow, although trading a cow (beef or any other meat for that matter) for beans in your diet once in a while is as good a trade as the one Jack made.  The beans to which I am referring are the beans you eat, and more specifically dried beans.  Dried beans are a valuable weapon in both the fight against hunger and the struggle to stretch food dollars.  Dried beans are cheaper than canned beans and can be stored for extended periods of time if kept in a cool, dark place.  Beans are such a good source of protein that the USDA classifies them in the Protein Food Group in the recommended dietary guidelines, making them an economical and healthy meat substitute. The USDA also classifies them as part of the Vegetable Group because they are high in fiber, which is good for lowing your risk for diabetes and heart disease.  Fiber also takes longer to digest, so foods high in fiber will help you feel fuller longer.  Finally beans are high in antioxidants, helping to protect your cells from free radicals, and are low in sugar, which means they help prevent insulin in the blood from spiking.  In spite of their health benefits and economical cost, most Americans do not incorporate beans into their diet, and when they do they often opt for canned beans over dried beans.

Some people may not know how to cook beans or may have a basic understanding of how to cook beans, but are under the misconception that it is difficult or requires a large amount of time.  I admit beans do take some time to cook and you can not come home from work and expect to put a meal using dried beans on the table in a short period of time without planning ahead.  The time required to cook dried beans, however, should not prevent you from incorporating them into your diet.  Most of the cooking time is unattended and can be done in advance, when you have time, like on the weekend or a day black-beansoff.  One just has to plan ahead to incorporate dried beans into your diet.  If you do it regularly, cooking beans will become almost effortless, whether you do it weekly or every couple of days.

In his book, Food Matters:  A Guide to Conscious Eating, Mark Bittman claims he is on “a mission to make sure every fridge or freezer in America is stocked with a container of home-cooked beans.”  Bittman’s philosophy is to regularly cook a quantity of beans to have on hand, storing them in the refrigerator, to use in recipes, toss in salads or just eat for a snack.  His recipe is simple.

  • Put some beans in a large pot and cover with cold water by a couple of inches.  Bring beans to a boil and let boil, uncovered, for about 2 minutes.  Turn off the heat and cover the pot, letting the bean soak for 1-2 hours.
  • After soaking, try a bean for doneness (they won’t be).  If it is at all tender, add a pinch of salt.  Make sure the beans are covered by about an inch of water, adding more if necessary.  If beans are still firm, do not add salt and make sure they are covered with 2 inches of water.
  • Bring pot back to a boil, then adjust heat so that the beans gently bubble.  Partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally and checking for doneness every 10-15 minutes.  Add water as necessary to keep the beans covered.  Small beans may take only 30 minutes extra cooking time and larger beans may take up to an hour more cooking time.  Add salt when the beans are just starting to become tender and stop cooking when they are the doneness you prefer.

Cooked beans can be used all at once in a recipe or saved in the refrigerator for several days to use as needed.  As a rule of thumb, 1 pound of dried beans equals 2 cups of dried beans equals 6 cups of cooked beans.  They can also be frozen and will keep for months.  If you do not need the liquid in which they were cooked it can be saved and used as a soup base.  It’s as easy as that.

chickpeaMark Bittman’s method requires little foreplanning, but does require you have a bit of extra time, as beans that have not been presoaked will take a longer to cook.  To shorten the cooking time by 1/2 or more presoak the beans in salted water (2 teaspoons salt per 1 quart of water) overnight or at least several hours.  When cooking beans always keep an inch or so of water over the beans and only salt the beans toward the end of cooking, within the last half hour.  If you are not going to mash your and you want to preserve their appearance, let the beans cool in their cooking liquid before draining so that the skins do not dry and crack.

Beans can be flavored as they cook or once the primary cooking has been completed.  Some flavorings that can be added to a pot of cooking beans include:  bay leaf, thyme sprigs, parsley, mirepoix (diced and sautéed onion, carrot and celery), garlic, smoked meats, like bacon or ham hocks and even leftover bones from pork, beef or chicken can be used.  The cooking liquid need not always be just water either.  Beer, wine, coffee or tea can be used alone or with water to flavor beans while cooking.  Flavoring can also be added to the beans once they have been cooked.  Make sure most of the cooking liquid has been drained from the beans before the final flavoring is added.  Some good flavorings to add to cooked beans include:  the herbs rosemary, sage, or thyme, cumin, garlic, hot sauce, cooked tomato sauces or salsa.   After adding the flavoring, continue to cook the beans for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavor to infuse the beans.

Fun Fact:  Beans cause gas because they contain indigestible carbohydrates which provide humans no nourishment, but do nourish the microbes in our gut.  When these microbes dine upon these carbohydrates they produce gas in our intestines.  When cooking dried beans you can reduce the indigestible carbohydrates by soaking them overnight or doing the quick soak detailed above.  Discard the soaking water and start with new water to cook the beans.  Just remember, removing indigestible carbohydrates removes color, flavor and nutrients as well.  Also, feeding the good microbes in our gut helps keep our gut microbiota in balance and recent research has suggested a link between unbalanced gut microbiota and a variety of negative health issues.

black and white beans

We offer dried pinto beans to clients at the food pantry and most of them take them, but every now and again someone declines.  To help those who are reluctant to try cooking dried beans, I am working on some recipes, using pintos as well as other beans.  I will share them once I have gathered them.  Have you ever tried mashed beans on toast for breakfast?  I learned about this from Jamie Oliver.  Evidently the Brits eat it all the time.  I’m sold!  As my family will tell you I have been known to eat strange things on toast.


SNAP Challenge

Gwyneth's food
Gwyneth Paltrow’s SNAP Challenge purchases

I have thought about taking the SNAP Challenge several times over the past few years.  Participants of the SNAP Challenge pledge to live on roughly $4.00 per person per day, which is the amount of the average daily food stamp benefit.  Emergency food providers have taken the challenge.  Politicians have taken the challenge.  Celebrities have taken the challenge.  Although usually garnering positive coverage Gwyneth Paltrow received tons of negative press earlier this year over her food choices when she decided to take the SNAP Challenge.

When I became serious about understanding the issues around food insecurity, taking the SNAP Challenge seemed like one of the most obvious things for me to do if I really wanted to understand what it would be like to experience food insecurity.  Yet I never have.  I have my reasons.  The first being that I have a family, and while this is my mission and they support me, they would not be too happy to subsist on a SNAP Challenge diet, nor do I think it is fair to ask them to participate to that extent for my cause.  Additionally, do not I want to do double cooking duty by preparing a separate meal for me.  Neither my family’s dietary discomfort, nor my lack of time to prepare double meals is the main reason I have never taken the SNAP Challenge.  As a person who likes to cook a wide variety of food, I have a very well stocked kitchen pantry and I spice cabinethave not quite figured out how to take that pantry out of the SNAP Challenge equation.  I could decide to not use any items in my pantry, but that seems a bit unrealistic.  Most food insecure people have a minimum of kitchen staples to use.  I could purchase only ready-made, preprocessed foods, but that doesn’t fit my mission to help those who are food insecure eat as healthfully as they can while stretching what little food resources they have.  And so consequently, I have never taken the challenge.

This summer the perfect opportunity to take the challenge presented itself, and if I had only been thinking ahead I could have capitalized on the opportunity.  Every few summers my family vacations in a cabin in Maine.  The cabin belongs to another family and we rent it from them for the week.  While the cabin is stocked with food belonging to the other family, we bring whatever food we need for the week.  This would have been the perfect chance for me to take the SNAP Challenge, without having to worry that I was cheating by using some of the staples in my own kitchen.  We could have bought our food, staying within the parameters of the challenge, and relied on whatever spices or other small quantity ingredients were available at the cabin.  The only problem was that I didn’t think about trying this until half way through our vacation.

To be honest, it is probably for the best.  I’m pretty sure my family would have revolted at the thought of turning our vacation dining into a SNAP Challenge even though when we take this spaghetti and saucevacation we tend to eat simple, easy to prepare meals. (Except for the lobster dinner.  We were in Maine after all!)  This is in part because the cabin in which we stay does not have electricity, and while it did have running water, it was pumped from the lake and not potable.  The adequate, yet primitive nature of our cooking setup, dictates relatively simple meals.  Some of the meals we ate included spaghetti with jarred sauce, vegetarian burritos with beans and rice, sandwiches, leftovers and other ready made foods like soup.

Once the missed opportunity occurred to me, however, I did begin thinking about what we had purchased, how much it had cost and what we could have done without.  To feed my family of four for a week I would have only had roughly $112 to spend.  Our total shopping bill was well over twice as much as that.  When you factor out alcohol, lobsters, and items that can not be purchased by SNAP benefits, like toilet paper, our expenses would have been lower, but still considerably more than the SNAP Challenge allotment.  Since we were on vacation I bought fun items, like cookies, chips and soda.  Those items could have been sacrificed.  We also had to bring in all our drinking and cooking water, as the water from the lake was not potable.  That is an expense not usually factored into the average SNAP Challenge.  Even without all these items I still do not think our total would have been the roughly $112 we would have had as our benefit.

no snacks

In the abstract I knew SNAP benefits did not allow for much food to be purchased; they are not intended to totally supply a monthly allotment of food, even though they do for many.  What this mental exercise accomplished for me was to concretely demonstrate, not only how little food SNAP benefits provide, but how difficult eating well can be if relying on SNAP benefits and how repetitive one’s food choices would be.  I will probably never take the SNAP Challenge and I am okay with that.  While I understand the intent of the challenge, I find it a bit flawed.  Here is the challenge I have for you that I think will demonstrate the point the SNAP Challenge is attempting to make.  Next time you go shopping keep your grocery bill.  How much was it?  Now figure what your household SNAP benefit would be ($4 per person per day for the number of days your shopping trip would cover).  After you deduct all the non-food items, how far over that amount is your grocery bill?  Now, examine what’s left and decide what you would do without to come within your SNAP benefit range?

Food Revolution Day

food revolutionToday is Food Revolution Day, sponsored by British chef, Jamie Oliver.  Oliver is concerned with the obesity epidemic and believes that if you teach kids in a fun engaging way about healthy food and how to cook it the number of overweight and obese children will begin to decline.  He is encouraging people world-wide to sign an online petition urging leaders of all G20 countries to make compulsory practical food education part of school curriculum.  Currently the petition has over 1 million signatures from people in 196 countries.  The link is below.  Check it out.  There is also a link on that site to Jamie Oliver’s Food Foundation USA which is worth a look too.

jamie oliver

Bread Need Never Be Wasted

breadAll of the talk last week about the importance of cooking from scratch put me in the mood to write about cooking again.  This time I am going to focus on what to do with stale or excess bread.  As I mentioned in a previous post, each of the pantries where I volunteer gets bread donated from large retailers who have pulled the bread from sale in their establishments.  By bread I do not mean sliced bread for sandwiches, but loaves of bread, like French or Italian bread.  These donations come in once a week.  Sometimes they are barely enough to distribute to all the clients, but other times they are bountiful.  When the donations are large, excess bread is kept in the freezer or refrigerator.  When the current week’s bread arrives, any remaining from the previous week must be discarded to make space.  A couple of weeks ago I happen to be volunteering when a large bag of bread was brought out to be discarded.  It bothered me to see perfectly good, albeit stale, bread being thrown away.  I decided to take it, with the idea of finding uses for it.

As I started going through my cookbooks looking for recipes using bread I came across the sentence I used for my title in a cookbook by Alice Waters.  Boy was she right!  Here are some of the uses for stale bread that I found.  The first use for stale bread that immediately came to mind was bread pudding.  My mother made this dessert quite a bit when I was growing up.  While I was familiar with bread pudding as a dessert, I also discovered recipes for savory bread puddings that can be used as a side dish for dinner.  Like adding raisins or other fruit to a dessert bread pudding, the savory bread pudding can be made with vegetable add ins, like winter squash, roasted peppers or eggplant.  Sticking with side dishes, a great use for stale bread in the summer when tomatoes and fresh basil are plentiful and flavorfulpanzanella is Panzanella, an Italian bread salad.  Fattoush, a Lebanese bread salad, is also good in the summer.  It is usually made with pita bread, but I have substituted a cubed sturdy loaf bread in place of the pita bread and it worked just fine.

Stale loaf bread lends itself to breakfast casseroles as well.  My kids love a baked French toast casserole I make or you could just slice the bread and make individual slices of French toast.  Additionally, there are numerous variations on the breakfast strata, which is a layered stratabreakfast casserole consisting mainly of eggs, bread and cheese.  To those main ingredients you can add any of the breakfast meats and/or vegetables like spinach, peppers or mushrooms.  The great thing about most of these breakfast casseroles is that they can be assembled the night before and would just need to be cooked in the morning.  The strata I make the most calls for ham, which is a great use for leftover ham as well.  I think stratas make a great breakfast-for-dinner meal too, add on a salad or better yet, make the strata with some spinach for a one dish meal!

The recipes I have discussed so far are dishes using bread, but stale bread can be transformed into other things to be used in recipes.  Homemade croutons are a good use for stale bread.  Just cube the bread up, toss it with some oil (preferably olive oil) and herbs or garlic, and bake until the bread has dried out.  Croutons can be tossed in a salad or served in a soup.  Similarly,croutons you can make homemade bread crumbs too.  Finally, I have made toasts for snacking.  This is particularly good if you have a baguette, as the slices are the perfect size.  I mix together spices and olive oil, then brush it on the thinly sliced baguette and bake until the slices are crunchy.  The ones I make have a spicy mixture of spices on them, but I have often wanted to try ones with a mixture of Italian spices and maybe some cheese.   Finally, bread, wrapped well, can be frozen for up to 3 months, so if  you have the ability to freeze it for a later use that is always an option too.

I did not make all these recipes with the bag of bread I brought home, but I have made a version of every recipe I mentioned, sometimes with fresh bread, but most often with stale bread which usually works better.  Although not the recipes I used, I have included links to recipes for a couple of dishes I mentioned to give an idea of what the dish is like.  One thing did concern me as I was reading over recipes, particularly the ones for casseroles.  Most of those recipes called for several eggs and a good deal of milk, or even cream.  These ingredients are often precious to people who are struggling to make food last as long as it can.  In discussing making bread pudding with my mother she mentioned she sometimes makes her grandmother’s recipe.  I knew from stories my mother had shared about lean times during her childhood, that this recipe would be a simple one yet would still taste good.  I asked my mother for the recipe and sure enough it uses less eggs, a bit less sugar and omits the vanilla all together, while still being tasty.  I have included this recipe below.  Thanks Granny, both of you!

Granny’s Bread Pudding

  • 3 cups bread torn into bite sized pieces
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • optional ingredients include 1/2 cup of raisins, blueberries or chocolate chips or a sliced banana

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Mix bread and milk together and let sit for 15 minutes.  Mix together slightly beaten eggs, sugar and cinnamon.  Add this mixture to the bread/milk mixture and stir.  Add any optional ingredients and stir.  Turn into an 8x8x2 inch baking dish and bake for 50-60 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

If You Teach Someone to Cook. . .

I have written previously about cooking from scratch, highlighting its decline and noting its importance in stretching food dollars.  Now I would like to share a my vision for the promotion of cooking from scratch, particularly among those who are food insecure.  I have tried to tailor my solutions to what will most likely work within my community.  I currently have two ideas for promoting cooking from scratch.  One is relatively simple.  The other one will be a bit more difficult to implement, but definitely possible.

Often people are hesitant to cook something new because they do not know how to prepare it.  I have heard anecdotal stories about the difficulty of trying to get food pantry clientskale heart to take kale when it was offered last year.  Many people were hesitant to take it because they had never eaten it or prepared it.  They didn’t know what to do with it.  The easiest step to take to encourage people to cook something with which they are unfamiliar or in a method with which they are unaccustomed, is to provide them with a detailed recipe.  These recipes would work for fresh produce and larger meat options like a whole chicken.  I envision them being written in more detail than the typical recipe to accommodate the person who has little experience cooking from scratch.  The recipes would also have a minimal ingredient list or at least include inexpensive and/or easily obtained ingredients.  In addition to offering the recipe, actually having a sample of the finished product on hand for people to try might further encourage them to take the new food item and try it themselves.

Expanding on the idea of providing a recipe, I would like to facilitate a partnership between the food pantry and another entity, like a grocery store or farmer, that would donate one more item needed for the recipe.  For instance, if a recipe for baked chicken was provided to anyone who took a whole roasted chicken herbschicken, partnering with someone who would provide the needed fresh herbs, lemons or heads of garlic, depending on what was needed for the recipe, would be ideal.  The lemon, herbs or garlic would only be available to those clients who took the chicken.  I see a similar paring with those items and various types of produce or cinnamon and a container of oats, but I am sure there are many more parings to be made.

The next obvious step to promote cooking from scratch is to demonstrate to people how to cook by offering cooking classes.  This undertaking will be more difficult in my community as the two pantries I am familiar with do not have kitchens.  To offer these classes these pantries would have to partner with local organizations that do have kitchens, like a church, fire hall or municipal building. These classes would focus on cooking from scratch with whole ingredients and teach a variety of skills, like how to get the most from the ingredients on hand, budgeting and shopping and healthy cooking.

The ingredients used in the recipes for these classes would either be things people might already have on hand, distributed by the food pantry or inexpensively obtained at a local grocery store.  The classes would include a cooking demonstration as well as nutritional information and cooking tips and shortcuts when applicable.  I would also like to see informational classes that did not necessarily involve a cooking demonstration provided as well.  These classes would cover topics like the importance healthy eating and how to achieve it, meal planning and creating a shopping list, and strategies for stretching your food dollars.

CM cooking classI am not reinventing the wheel here.  Emergency food providers across the country are already doing most of this and more.  Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end child hunger in America, has a program called Cooking Matters.  Through this program parents, caregivers and children learn about cooking, budgeting and decision making food skills to get the most out of their food dollars.  Many larger food banks across the United States offer Cooking Matters programs through their facilities.  Additionally, other large food banks have developed their own programs, as is the case with the Food Bank of Delaware.  Their program does not have a cooking class component, but it does offer informational classes to low income participants on some of the topics outlined above.

As I go forward on my journey I will endeavor to advance these ideas in my community.  The first area on which I will focus my efforts will be compiling recipes to be distributed.  In addition to recipes provided by food panty staff and volunteers, I hope to encourage those clients who do cook to share their recipes to be included in this undertaking as well.  As I gather recipes, I will share some here and I encourage those of you who like to cook to share your favorite recipes.  Provided they meet the criteria stated above, I will gladly share them with food pantry clients. recipe card

Chicken in a Pot

As I mentioned in a previous post, my mother cooked dinner from scratch most nights.  I came from a family of modest means and I understood that my mother cooking was one of the ways we saved money.  I was taught that food was never to be wasted, so we ate leftovers.  I learned that if you knew how to cook it properly, a cheaper, lesser cut of meat tasted wonderful and wasn’t tough.  But cooking from scratch means more that just knowing how to prepare food.  It means knowing how to plan meals, budget your time, make a grocery list and go shopping.

grocery listOne of the best ways to get the most for your food dollar is to create a shopping list and stick to it.  To make a shopping list, you would first need to create a meal plan so that you will know the ingredients you will need.  When planning meals, it is important to consider what is on sale, what you already have on hand and what time you have available to cook during the week.  Once you have a detailed grocery list you are ready to head to the grocery store.

It is easy to look at a grocery store’s sale circular or clip coupons and purchase the cheapest processed foods.  You may feel you are getting the most food for your dollar and possibly you are getting more items, but at what cost?  Mark Bittman wrote a good op-ed article in The New York Times, entitled Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?

In this essay he compares the cost of feeding a family of 4 at McDonald’s to the cost of feeding that same family a home cooked roasted chicken dinner.  The home cooked meal is cheaper, and could cost even less if the meal was not as heavily meat based.  Additionally, one must consider the hidden cost of eating heavily processed foods–obesity, diabetes and other diseases that accompany being overweight.  What you save today, may cost you down the road in doctor’s bills and poor health.

To demonstrate how cooking from scratch stretches food dollars I will use a whole chicken versus a bag of chicken nuggets.  The price of a whole chickencartoon chicken at my local grocery store was $1.29 per pound and the average chicken weighed 7 pounds, making the cost of the chicken roughly $9.00.  The most economical bag of chicken nuggets I could find was $4.49 for a 1 pound, 11 ounce bag.  You could by two bags for roughly the same $9.00.

One can assume the chicken will contain roughly 35% waste in the form of bones and excess fat deposits.  Using that assumption, a 7 pound chicken will yield 4.55 pounds of meat, compared to 3.38 pounds of chicken nuggets from the two bags combined.  Not only does the chicken produce over a pound more meat, but once the meat has been eaten off the bones they can be used to make a soup or chicken stock.  Finally, the chicken meat is only chicken meat.  The nuggets contain other ingredients than chicken, including added salt, sugar and fat.  To illustrate the unhealthy result of the extra ingredients in the nuggets just look at the percentage of fat in the calories for each service size.  For the brand of nuggets I used as my example, roughly 60% of the calories in the nuggets were fat calories, compared to roughly 40% for the roasted chicken with the skin.  The percentage would be even lower without the skin.

Meal planning, creating a shopping list and cooking from scratch may seem time consuming and more difficult that microwaving some chicken nuggets, but they get easier with practice.  The Environmental Working Group has aEWG pamphlet helpful pamphlet, entitled Good Food on a Tight Budget, free on their website

or with a contribution you can receive a copy.  The pamphlet provides numerous tips and tools for budgeting your food dollars, meal planning and shopping.  It also contains recipes.  Having a good all purpose cookbook is a must too.  These cookbooks provide instructions for the basics like hard boiling an egg to more complicated recipes.  They also contain information on meal planning, nutrition, shopping tips, cooking techniques and other helpful hints.  The Joy of Cooking and the Fannie Farmer Cookbook are two examples of classic, all purpose cookbooks.  How to Cook Everything is a more contemporary all purpose cookbook that includes numerous variations on recipes.

joy of cooking             fannie farmer              How to cook everything

To make your food dollars stretch takes time and commitment.  The key is to know your schedule.  Try to find a block of time each week to look at your schedule and plan meals, basing that meal plan on the time you actually have to cook the meals.  When you have a day or two where you are limited in meal preparation time,  try to prepare items for those days’ meals ahead on a day off or when you just have more time.

For those who are food insecure and may never have cooked this way, attempting to cook from scratch is probably a scary prospect.  What if something goes wrong in the cooking process and the food is ruined?  They do not have the funds to just try again.  In my final installment of this series I will present some ideas I would like to see offered through my local food pantries to help those needing assistance learn how to make the most of the food they receive from the food pantry.  I know many of these ideas are currently offered at larger food banks, so if anyone has any experience with these ideas, positive or negative, I welcome the input.

Under Cooked, Over Processed

dad cookingI grew up in a household where my mother cooked, almost every night, almost always from scratch.  Watching her come home after working a full day and then prepare a meal from scratch instilled in me a belief that cooking was an important task in running a household.  I started cooking in the second grade when I was in 4-H.  I entered my first cooking contest when I was 7 or 8.  When I was living by myself I cooked a big meal every weekend and ate off the leftovers all week.  Now I cook dinner for my family on average 5 nights a week.  And by cooking, I mean from scratch, using whole ingredients.

I am not writing this to toot my own horn.  I like to cook, always have, and usually find it a relaxing, creative outlet.  Given the pleasure I get out of cooking and the importance I place on the task, I was surprised to learn in a report from the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that Americans spend an average of just 30 minutes per day cooking.  This earns us a rank of 34th out of 34 countries in the amount of time we spend cooking.  I’m sure the reasons Americans cook so little are as varied as our foods.  I understand not everyone is going to have the zeal for cooking that I do.  Some people even hate cooking, ranking it right before their worse household chore.  Others may enjoy cooking, but don’t cook very often for a variety of reasons.

busy mom

Many Americans will tell you the lack of time is a major factor in why they do not cook from scratch.  Most American households now have both parents in the workforce.  Additionally, today’s families are involved in so many activities that often evenings become a series of comings and goings as children need to be shuttled to and from practices or lessons not to mention any evening activities Mom or Dad need to attend.  Finally, in today’s work environment, Americans are having to work longer hours to meet the increased demands of their job or work more than one job to make ends meet.  All of these demands add up leaving limited time for meal preparation.

Coinciding with the time constraints most Americans experience in their lives is the rise in availability of convenience foods.  I am not sure if the proliferation of prepackaged, processed convenience foods is a response torice a roni our fast paced lives or has allowed our fast paced lives to continue, but these foods have shortened the amount of time required to put a meal on the table.  Michael Moss chronicles the creation and marketing of convenience foods, mostly as these foods relate to the obesity epidemic in the United States, in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.  He discusses how the marketing of these foods is aimed at working mothers and the ease these foods will bring to their lives by freeing them from the task of cooking from scratch.  I have to admit that I have reached for these convenience foods when I need to get a quick meal on the table between picking one son up from an after school activity and taking the other one to an evening practice.

Another reason for the decline in cooking might be found in this disturbing statistic reported in a Huffington Post article from September 2011.  The article states that 28% of Americans do not know how to cook.  That is almost one third of us!  Why is this?  Perhaps this statistic is a by-product of several decades of increasing reliance on prepackaged, convenience foods.  Parents are not passing on the skills of cooking from scratch if they are increasingly adding water or milk and a prepackaged spice mix to a box of noodles.  Furthermore, according to the author Michael Moss, Family and Consumer Science classes, formerly called Home Economics, often rely on the use of these convenience foods when instructing students in cooking.   That would be in the schools were Family and Consumer Science is still taught.  In many schools it has disappeared completely from the curriculum.  I guess it is not surprising that so many people do not know how to cook, if there exists little opportunity to learn to cook.

That so many people do not know how to cook troubles me profoundly for a couple of reasons.  After reading Michael Moss’ book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, I am convinced our reliance on processed convenience foods is a leading cause of our obesity epidemic and the dangerous rise in diabetes rates.  Being able to cook whole foods that have not been heavily processed and do not contain added salt, sugar and fat is a necessity to bring those rates down.  But cooking from scratch has another important benefit.  Knowing how to cook from scratch makes money spent on food go further.  In my next post I will address how cooking from scratch stretches food dollars, a benefit to all, but a necessity to the food insecure.


On the Brighter Side

bns and greensI just looked back over my posts so far, and while I am proud of what I read, the overall tone is a bit depressing.  Perhaps not surprising given the topic, but I also want to keep readers hopeful by reporting on successes and positive outcomes.  I have “liked” my county’s food bank on Facebook, and recently I have gotten a couple of posts from them on my news feed that have made me smile.  Today I will pass their upbeat posts on to you.  The food bank reported that in the past few weeks volunteers have peeled, cut and bagged 15,000 lbs. of butternut squash.  I love butternut squash and am excited to see so much of it being offered in our local food bank and pantries.  They additionally released the amount of venison they received this year from Hunters Sharing the Harvest–3,000 lbs.  As someone who regularly dodges deer as they dash across the road, I am glad this successful program is in place.  Finally, on this St. Patrick’s Day, the food bank posted that the spring greens have been planted in their local greenhouses!  I look forward to seeing those greens as they are distributed to the food pantries in the coming months.

family cooking

I am very encouraged and pleased fresh produce and unprocessed meat is being offered in our local food bank and pantries.  I will explain why over the next few weeks as I publish a series of posts about cooking.  This series will be at least three parts.  I will be discussing the decline in cooking in the United States, and by cooking I mean from scratch.  I also will explain why I think it is important to cook from scratch whenever possible and how cooking from scratch is beneficial to those experiencing food insecurity.  Finally, I will address how I think the decline in cooking is often unintentionally aided by food banks and pantries and propose some ideas they can use to combat this decline.

This series will take a bit of research and careful thought, so stay tuned over the next couple of weeks as I formulate and publish these related posts.  While I always welcome comments, this topic is one area where I really want to hear what others think.  I realize there will be some challenges and hurdles to overcome in what I am proposing, so I need help in looking at the topic from several points of view.   In the meantime, find some time to dust off some of your favorite recipes or find some new ones and cook something!

Ex Libris

In my blog title I call this a journey and that is what it is and what it has been.  I have been socially conscious for as long as I remember, but my interest in this topic has developed and increased over time.  I would like to share with you some of the books I have read that have increased my interest in food insecurity or helped me to understand the complexities of the issue.  Most of the books I will share are not specifically about food insecurity, but seem crucial in my journey.  All of them, however, are good reads!

animal-vegetable-miracleThe title that probably started me down my current path of helping the food insecure is Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.  This book chronicles Kingsolver and her family’s attempt to eat locally.  They intended to eat only food that had been produced so close to their home that they knew who grew or raised it or they grew or raised it themselves.  From this book I learned the importance of eating locally and seasonally.

As a result, I changed the way I feed my family.  Our yard is too shady to grow a garden, so I frequent farmers’ markets and farm stands.  I also purchase a share in a CSA (Consumer Shared Agriculture).  A CSA share is vital in the winter when most of the farmers’ markets and stands are not operating.  In the grocery store I try to stay away from produce that I know could notsunchoke or Jerusalem artichoke possibly be grown around here at the given time of year.  There is no way asparagus is grown within a hundred miles of Pennsylvania in December!  As a result, we are not only eating better tasting produce, we are eating new things too.

You may think it is a leap to go from this book to food insecurity, but it wasn’t for me.  This book got me thinking about how people used to eat, generations ago, when giant grocery stores did not exist.  That thought lead to how people manage today if they don’t have access to all the food in today’s giant grocery stores either because they can’t afford the food or because they live in a food desert.  Additionally,  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle touches on our current agriculture industry, including how we farm and what gets subsidized.  Topics, I would later learn, that are critical in understanding how we can grow so many crops and yet still have hungry people.

Within a few month of reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural omnivore's dilemmaHistory of Four Meals by Michael Pollan.  In this book Pollan follows food from it’s source to the final meal.  He examines how Americans feed ourselves by looking at industrial food production, organic or alternative food production and foraged food.  This book rocked my world and shattered more than one belief I held about what I should be eating.  If there was a list of books that all Americans were required to read, I would argue that this book should be on that list.

Like the Kingsolver book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma does not discuss food insecurity or even hunger in America, but it does address how we feed ourselves and how far we have drifted from how our great grandparents fed themselves.  Several of the problems Pollan addresses in his book are the same ones touched upon in Kingsolver’s work and are interwoven into the problem of hunger in America.

Both of these authors have websites associated with either the specific book or the entirety of their writing.  I will include links below.  The website for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle contains excerpts and indices from the book, links to websites referenced in the book and all of the recipes discussed in the book.  Michael Pollan’s website has links to synopses of all his books, his articles, and websites he finds to be good resources.

I will continue to share books and articles that have influenced and/or educated me on the topic of food insecurity as well as the broader topic of food in America.  I welcome suggestions as well.  I’d love to hear what has shaped your thinking on this topic.