Sunday, April 1, 2012

Who Are the 99%? Who Are the 1%?

I absolutely agree with the primary stated purpose of the Occupy Movement. Although there is no formal organization of the Occupy groups across the nation, the position they are all by and large rallying behind is that government and big business have become too entangled. The resulting policies of this entanglement have done great damage to the middle and lower classes – the 99% of Americans.

Due to this entanglement, middle and lower income wages and true buying power is retracting, while the income and true buying power of the 1% is experiencing enormous levels of growth. This is a reality that is difficult for any reasonable person to argue. By nearly every measure income, buying power, and opportunities for upward mobility for a large portion of the 99% of Americans is shrinking.

Government and big business are much too entangled and it is bad for the nation and for the world. This scenario has to change and “we the people” need to take responsibility for that change.

Although I agree with the stated premises of the Occupy Movement, what I strongly dislike is the “them” and “us” component of the movement. Human beings are tribal beings, so it is a understandable tendency. But, “us/them” thinking has led to terrible things over the millenia – war, discrimination, racism, genocide just name a few. Effectively defining groups of people so that the enemy can be identified and appropriately hated is good military and propaganda strategy, but it is a sad and dangerous over simplification of the human condition.

Since the Occupy Movement started in earnest I have heard from people I love and respect some nasty things. “They are all a bunch of greedy –astards.” “The 1% simply don’t give a -amn.” Comments directed at the 99%, specifically the 50-51% of households that do not pay Federal Income taxes have included statements of similar spirit. “They are all a bunch of moochers.” “They are lazy and should get what’s coming to them.”

Replace the words “the 1%” or “the 51%” with the words “black people” or “Hispanics” or “women” or “whites” or “Jews.” See what I mean. Broad, negative generalizations make me really uncomfortable and in the case of the 99% movement it has been painful to a degree to think about people I know, successful friends, some of my clients, people I work for, people I respect......are the enemy....the "other."

So who are the 1% after all?

In 2009 although the average household income of the 1% was $960,000, the minimum household income to be included in the 1% was $343,927. The 1% is comprised of approximately 1.4 million households.

In 2009/2010, the first year of the current economic recovery, the 1% experienced 93% of income growth resulting from said recovery.

The 1% are:

  • Warren Buffet
  • Corporate executives
  • The doctor and lawyer couple who live a subdivision over from yours
  • The successful business person sitting down the pew from you at church (who donates large chunks of money to the church and other charities)
  • An unscrupulous financial planner
  • Keith Richards
  • A woman who inherited wealth and spends her days working tirelessly for various charities and causes
  • A callous company executive who cares about nothing other than his career and bonuses
  • A CEO of a small company who has difficulty sleeping too many nights worrying about successfully continuing her father’s legacy and being able to afford to continue to employ her workers
  • The person who clawed their way to the top stepping on many others in the process
  • President Obama, Senator Kirk, Senator Durbin, Mitt Romney....,,
  • Leaders of leading financial institutions striving to win “the game” and accumulate money with little consideration of the consequences
  • Some of the greatest inventors and job creators the world has every known
  • Rupert Murdoch
  • The person who played a key role in making sure the drug that saved your spouse’s life got to market successfully
  • A successful farmer
In 2009/2010, the first year of the current economic recovery, the 99% experienced 7% of income growth resulting from said recovery (this is an enormous problem that is directly rooted in the composition of our current economy…more on this later).

The 99% are:

  • Moderately affluent business people
  • Teachers, firefighters, police officers, and public servants of all stripes
  • A father who has been out of work for nearly 18 months, hasn’t worked to find another job, and called the unemployment office from a cruise ship to secure this week’s unemployment check
  • Clergy, social workers, counselors
  • A single mother working three jobs to support her kids
  • Factory workers
  • A man who uses his welfare check to get a tattoo
  • People who were laid off and rehired as temporary workers so that their employers did not have to provide health insurance
  • A third generation welfare family
  • Union and non union labor
  • The working poor
  • The cashier at your grocery store
  • The homeless
  • A man collecting unemployment who chooses to drink all day everyday instead of looking for a job
  • The unemployed
  • The receptionist at your doctor’s office
  • The father who has been on dozens of job interviews and prays that today is the day
  • A woman who games the food stamp system and uses the money to buy cigarettes and beer rather than food for her kids
  • A father of two small children who wants to go back to school to acquire new skills so that he will be in greater demand in today’s job market, but can’t fathom how he can afford to do so
  • A woman who has been given the opportunity for further education and training and declines because she doesn’t want to work that hard

The 1% and the 99% are not homogeneous blocks of people who are either bad or good. I can’t wear t-shirts or pins, carry signs or beat pots and pans for a movement if it is framed in a context of “they are bad and we are good.” I also would like to think I would not be able to paint “Dirty Jew” on Jewish storefronts or spit in the face of a Jewish prisoner being marched through town during Nazi Germany. I hope at no point in American history would I have been able to say or feel “lazy –igger” sentiments. There were unscrupulous Jews in Germany to be sure and lazy blacks throughout history….but these categorizations certainly do not fairly represent entire groups of people.

We are smart people, we know categorizations are often hateful, mental and emotional laziness, and dangerous. If we dig deep within ourselves we know the same holds true of the 1% or the 99% (depending on which side of the tracks you live) groupings. We know that it is simple untrue to categorically say that “the 1% don’t give a –amn” or that the “51% are lazy moochers.” Yes, there are “-astards who don’t give a –amn” within the 1%. There are people within the 1% who I contend are evil….or at least committed evil actions. There are also lazy moochers within the 99%.

Progress is rarely made until people are willing to do the hard work of looking at, thinking through and doing the work of change. And, I contend that the incredible challenges we are facing as a nation are the most complex we have ever faced and will require much more than bumper sticker slogans or propaganda perfect images of hate.

Too many Americans (myself included at times) have allowed our systems to become so complex and devoid transparency. Complexity creation virtually never favors the common person. Although sometimes things can only be simplified to a point, legal system complexity, financial system complexity, a wildly ridiculous tax code and other mazes placed before us always favor the “game makers.”

We are told (directly and by implication) that we are not smart enough to understand “it” and we should leave “it” to the experts. We are told this enough times by the game makers that we finally believe it, like a child will come to believe he/she is no good if told enough times by their parents.

We give into the frustration of trying to understand critical elements of our political, legal, financial, education, medical systems and we become the people Hitler was so thankful for.

“What luck for rulers that men do not think,” Adolf Hitler.

Demonizing the 1% will not get us anywhere other than looking like a bunch of jealous children who are easily portrayed negatively by propaganda generators. Thinking though and taking action on the issues that are critical to our current challenges is our only way out. We are the 99% after all and we each have a voice and a vote. This is not Community Russia, Nazi Germany, Imperialist China or Medieval Europe…..yet.

So, what are the problems and what do we do? My series of posts will address eight areas that are in my opinion the critical areas needing to be addressed:

  • Composition of our current economy
  • Financial system
  • Education systems (primary, secondary and continuing education)
  • Health Care system
  • Political system (including campaign approaches and financing)
  • Government policy (which is different than politics in some ways, but certainly related)
  • Tax code
  • The thought process and actions of the 99%

So let’s Occupy…..let’s occupy our minds and our energies to work on the issues to better our nation, the world and our futures. Let us focus on issues and actions rather than trying to cast our enemy in over simplified evil images. Let us focus on what WE can do to better our futures to secure “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Japanese Beetles, You are Mine Now.

I have a live and let live attitude toward insects and other creepy crawly things. We all have to make a living, so I am willing to share to a point. Have a snack, nibble around the edges…I am OK with that. But, start destroying my stuff or come into my house - we have a problem.

My occasional posts on this blog are typically headier topics, but there is nothing like a hoard of Japanese Beetles to get the synapses firing.

We have had a few Japanese Beetles in years past and they particularly like the green bean plants in my garden. In years past, they have not been an issue. This year; however, they are ransacking my green beans to the point that if I did not do something fast they would kill the plants. This year they are attacking beyond a little “lacing” here and there – they are methodically stripping the leaves down to the veins.

I saw no other choice other than to approach the buggers in a strategic and aggressive fashion. A multi-prong war plan was needed and needed quickly. This is what I am doing and if you have additional ideas or things that have worked for you, please share.

1. Spectracide Bag-A-Bug Japanese Beetle Trap
The trap has a disc of scented material that the beetles are attracted to. The beetle land on the lure and fall in the bag. The scented discs are not classified non-toxic, but the material is not being sprayed on the plants and it is not in the confines of your home – so I am relatively OK with it. I do not use spray pesticides or non-organic fertilizers, so I am pretty hesitant when it comes to these types of solutions. But desperate times call for desperate measures and for the reasons listed above I decided to go ahead and use them. This approach is not a solution in and of itself, but I have one trap on either end of the garden and they have been trapping 100-200 beetles a day per trap as long as I change the bags every other day or so.

2. In the mornings and evenings when the beetles are lethargic a garden blogger suggested knocking the beetles into a bucket with water and dish soap. This seems to be helping and it is pretty easy to do. In the morning in particular they fall right into the bucket by knocking them off of the plant leaves and they drown right away.

3. Another garden blog suggest spraying a mixture of garlic powder and cayenne pepper powder dissolved in water on the plants the beetles are attacking. I just did this tonight, so I will let you know if it helps. 8/1/2011 update - this seems to be working. There were still a few beetles on the green bean plants this morning, but only a handful not the dozens and dozens of previous mornings.

4. Japanese Beetles do not like garlic (hence the solution above), so a number of garden bloggers recommend planting garlic around the perimeter of the plants the beetles most love – they love green bean plants, roses, they eat my zucchini plants a bit and there are several other plants they like. It is too late to use planting garlic as part of my solution this year, but I am definitely going to plant it next year.

5. Japanese Beetles like and tend to breed in piles of dead wood. We had a couple of piles of logs not fit to bring indoors that we burn outside in the fire pit in the fall. Some of that wood was on the nappy side so I got rid of it.

6. Japanese Beetles send scouts the beginning of June or so to survey for feeding grounds. A number of garden bloggers recommend being very vigilant during this period in terms of having your garlic planted and going, spraying the plants the beetles most love with the garlic and Cheyenne pepper solution and knocking the beetles in to soapy water and leaving the bucket with the dead beetles in out in the middle of the plants Japanese Beetles tend to like. These actions will cause the scouts to look for feeding grounds other than your garden. I did not know this beetle behavior, so will have to be on top of this in June next year.

7. 8/1/2011 Update - a friend reported that she had a problem with Japanese Beetles in past years and she sprayed water with dish soap on the affected plants and it worked. I think I am going to stick with the garlic/pepper mixture more one more evening, then try the soapy water approach. 8/3/2011 Update - I have tried spraying the plants with soapy water and I think it works. Seems to have the same level of effectiveness as the garlic/cayenne mixture. The nice thing about the soapy water mixture is that it is a little easier to deal will than the garlic/cayenne.

Any other ideas or things that have worked for you please let me know. I am willing to try it all. The only thing that is off the table are spray pesticides as if I am going to all of the trouble to garden in order not to eat pesticide coated vegetables, using toxic spray pesticides is fairly pointless.

Whatever it takes, these darn beetles are mine!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What a Difference 25 Months Can Make

Tonight, after 50 weeks and a 64.2 pound loss, I hit my Weight Watchers goal weight. I am thrilled and feel a sense of accomplishment. But, my journey really began 25 months ago - the day I quit my pack-a-day smoking habit.

I believe it is safe to say that for many of my fellow Weight Watchers, food is their drug of choice. My drug of choice unquestionably was cigarettes. Cigarettes were my constant companion when I was happy, sad, stressed, relaxing, angry, anxious, excited, pensive, in a sociable mood or feeling solitary. Unlike sometimes people, cigarettes never let me down.

The only problem was just a couple of concerning side effects. I was beginning to show signs of early stage emphysema (aka smoker’s cough) and my husband’s doctor found decided lung damage in his lungs due to second hand smoke. Although I never smoked in front of my stepson Alex, he knew that I smoked and I knew well that I was not serving a positive role model in this area. Everything I owned reeked of smoke all of the time, the expense of the habit were getting ridiculous and my addiction had taken over my life to a much larger degree than I felt comfortable.

Some people sit in their closet and stuff Oreos in their mouth, others try to hide the fact that they drink too much. I had rigged up a system so that I could smoke in our downstairs bathroom when Alex was over or when we had weekend guests, as interfering with my smoking habit could not be tolerated. So I committed to quitting, and with the help of modern pharmaceuticals succeeded.

On my cigarette quit date I was fat, but over the course of the year after I quit smoking, my weight went completely out of control. Although food would never be the faithful companion cigarettes were, it amazed me the degree to which food could fill in as a substitute drug.

By the one-year anniversary of my cigarette quit date, I was officially obese, my blood pressure was high, my energy levels were fairly low and I was in horrible physical condition. Playing soccer in the backyard with my stepson was not fun and I begged for mercy quickly playing with my nieces. Little girls excited to play with their Aunt Tonia, and I had to sit down. "Let Aunt Tonia rest for a few minutes," my sisters would mercifully step in and say. I was far too young for this.

So, I joined Weight Watchers. This weight loss effort was different than efforts of the past. This time I was not losing weight to look good in a wedding dress or in some vain attempt to participate more comfortably in the swimsuit season. I was not a kid anymore and this time it was about my health. Did I want to begin to belly up to the full buffet of pharmaceuticals, or did I want to get this under control now before it became even more difficult and more dangerous?

The reality is, being fat will age you much faster than necessary and it will kill you. The toll obesity takes on your body is tremendous. Cancer, diabetes, heart disease, joint pain….we all know the list. I love living – truly living – and I am far from ready to accept the need to “slow down.”

108 weeks later I cannot stand being around cigarette smoke, let alone the thought of smoking a cigarette. I am a healthy weight, am in good physical condition and I feel great. My "drugs" of choice are yoga, gardening, walking at the
Rollins Savanna, running, vegetarian cooking and Indian food.

How I did it is no secret. This time on Weight Watchers I left my ego at the door and followed the program. I track religiously, I exercise 4-5 times per week, I weigh and measure "danger" food especially when I start to feel myself becoming out of control, I stay within my points and I attend weekly meetings. Maybe most importantly, I step on a scale at least once per week.

I am looking forward to ongoing participation in Weight Watchers and to becoming a Lifetime member. I am also looking forward to encouraging as many other people as I can to reach their weight and health goals. We only get one shot at life - LIVE!

June 2010

June 2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Avoiding Self-Delusion Through Objective Behavior Tracking

I think this post will resonate immediately with my fellow Weight Watchers, but for patient non-Weight Watchers there is a message for you as well.

I have been committed to the Weight Watchers program for eleven months. I have lost 62 pounds, in much better physical condition, and I feel great. For those not familiar with Weight Watchers, the program is designed to bring focus and awareness to food consumption via daily planning and tracking. In addition, the program forces accountability and provides support through a multitude of tools and venues like weekly meetings and online tools.

I had an unusual week last week and I am sharing it because it is a shining example of how easy it is to fool ourselves. I am not sharing this to beat myself up as although there are a few things I would have changed if I had it to over again, there are many things I would not or should not change if a redo magically presented itself.

It is awfully easy to fool ourselves in many areas of our life – eating habits, drinking habits, relationships, time management…the list goes on and on. My experience this past week merely illustrates the need to monitor ourselves within areas of our lives we want to change as changing anything is nearly impossible unless we are able to truly “see” the behavior that is causing the problem.

My Weight Watchers stats and approach at a glance:
  • Daily PointsPlus Allowance - 29 pts
  • On a typical week I exercise 4 or 5 times and earn 21 – 24 Activity Points
  • I typically eat about half to two thirds of my earned activity points on weekends and virtually never dip into my weekly PointsPlus allowance.

Last week was not a typical week. My PointsPlus and activity points log tells an interesting tale.

Monday, May 30 (Memorial Day)
Breakfast – hummus, pita and a banana – 6 pts
Lunch – Jimmy John’s Beach Club no mayo and Skinny Chips – 16 pts
Dinner – hummus, pita, cheese, salads – 14 pts
Dessert – McDonalds Vanilla Ice Cream Cone – 4 pts
Total: 40 PointsPlus consumed
Activity: Three and a half hours of gardening (light and sometimes moderate intensity level) 9 activity points

Tuesday, May 31
28 PointsPlus consumed

Wednesday, June 1
25 PointsPlus consumed
Activity: Walked 60 minutes – 4 activity points

Thursday, June 2
29 PointsPlus consumed

Friday, June 3
35 PointsPlus consumed
Activity: Bikram yoga class – 4 activity points

Saturday, June 4 (Avon Walk for Breast Cancer Day 1 - 26.2 miles)
Breakfast – eggs (2) and 2 slices HealthyLife Bread – 6 pts
Lunch – turkey sandwich, Sun Chips, apple, carrots, cookie– 18 pts
Snacks – Uncrustables, pretzels, Ritz Bits Peanut Butter crackers – 15 pts
Drink – Gatorade periodically – 5 pts, lots of water – 0 pts
Dinner – bread, pasta, meat balls, green beans, salad with a little dressing, piece of chocolate cake– 22 pts
Total: 66 PointsPlus consumed
Activity: Walked 26.2 miles (and then some), about 7.5 hours, 22 activity points

Sunday, June 5 (Avon Walk for Breast Cancer Day 2 - 13.1 miles)
Breakfast – eggs, potatoes, oatmeal, fruit – 15 pts
Lunch – turkey sandwich, Sun Chips, apple, carrots, cookie– 18 pts
Dinner– Sushi and dumplings- 16 pts
Dessert - McDonalads Vanilla Ice Cream Cone - 4 pts
Total: 53 PointsPlus consumed
Activity: walked 13.1 miles (and then some), about 4 hours, 13 activity points

Weekly Summary:
  • Walked 43.3 miles (and then some)
  • Expended significant time and energy gardening
  • Sweated profusely and worked hard in a Bikram yoga class in which the studio temperature is about 105 degrees
  • Total Activity: 52 activity points (again, my normal week is 21- 24 activity points)
  • Total Food Consumption: 276 PointsPlus (my typical week is about 203 – 210)
So, about 66 more weekly PointsPlus than my norm and about 28 more activity points than the norm…..hmmmmm.

Again, I am not posting this to beat myself up. When I look back on the week, there are about 20 – 25 PointPlus I could have easily and arguable should have trimmed.

It was really hot for two thirds of the day on Saturday during the Avon Breast Cancer Walk. I needed to drink some Gatorade (which I never do) in addition to lots of water and I needed to eat some salty snacks to balance dehydration and water retention risks - both uncomfortable and potentially dangerous outcomes of being active in intense heat for as long as I was. Also, eating a small piece of cake and having a McDonalds ice cream cone after walking the distances I did seemed like reasonable rewards. However, the Ritz Bits and the Crustables on Saturday was pure “entertainment eating.” I also could have trimmed a few points on Friday and eaten Subway instead of Jimmy Johns on Monday.

There are some specific learnings and things I would have done slightly differently had I to do it over again. For instance, who eats Uncrustables? They are not even good. I can certainly live without Ritz Bitz (I never eat that kind of stuff) and I did some random noshing at a couple points in the week. However, the larger point and the point I wanted to illustrate to you is just how easy it is to lose track of what we are doing and to fool ourselves. If you walk a marathon and a half, plus a lot of other activity in the week you should be able to eat anything you want to, right? Wrong. But, it is so easy to fool ourselves as it relates to our eating habits as well as in a whole host of other areas of our lives.

Non-Weight Watchers if you for some reason hung in this long, this is my point for you. In any area of our lives, if we are not getting the outcomes we want we have to honestly and objectively access what is going on. The power of the Weight Watchers program is that the program is designed to bring objectivity and clarity to our food intake and activity levels. But, what if we applied a similar approach to other areas of our lives where we are experiencing outcomes other than those we desire?

If we are having time management and prioritization problems, a Weight Watchers approach I think would work brilliantly and I am going to try it. Just as Weight Watchers outlines how many PointsPlus (which translate into calories) we can eat per day, we all only have 24 hours in the day - seems like a similar dynamic. If our life feels out of control (work and/or personal), if we log our time there will undoubtedly be a lot of wasted time we did not realize we were wasting just as most Weight Watchers members were eating a lot of calories they did not realize they were eating.

This type of approach could work in a lot of other areas too. For instance, a modified approach could work for trying to improved strained relationships. This is tricky because close relationships tend to be so emotional, but maybe we could figure out a way to gain clarity on our contribution to strained or failed relationships by somehow logging our behavior in these relationships. Just as I hate looking at days I have gone over points in my Weight Watchers food journal, maybe I would hate looking at a record of unflattering behavior just as much. I am not sure this would work, but it is a thought.

If you are concerned that you might be drinking too much, watching too much television, spending too much time playing video games….log it so that you can analyze an objective picture rather than the heavily modified mental image we all create for ourselves. Pictures that are always full of justifications and delusion.

We can’t log every aspect of our lives all of the time or we would spend all of our time logging and no time living. But this past week, a week where it would be so, so easy to fool myself then be disappointed when I got on the scale because after walking 43.3 miles it is simply not "fair" not to lose, brought clarity to the power of tracking in order to facilitate change.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reflections on the Death of Osama Bin Laden

Often, our days and weeks are marked by a series of small rituals. Most every Sunday night I turn on CNN for a few minutes before shutting off the lights to go to sleep primarily to make sure that there are still 50 states in the union, that most of Europe still classifies themselves as allies of the U.S. and that the population of some unfortunate locale has not unexpectedly sharply decreased due to a horrific disaster. On Monday mornings I fire up my computer as soon as I wake up to check largely to make sure that the market is not predicted to crash upon the ringing of the opening bell.

Nearly every Sunday and Monday these little rituals deliver uninteresting results. Of course, Sunday, May 1, 2011 was not a normal Sunday night. Rather than a desperate CNN program host trying to make a meaningful analysis of Paris Hilton’s latest stunt, America and the world was informed that Osama Bin Laden was dead. Not suspected to be dead, but dead. Indeed, this was not a typical Sunday night.

After making sure that I was hearing Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer correctly, I immediately surveyed how I felt and started to think about what this might mean.

Nine days later, my feelings about the killing of Osama Bin Laden are basically the same – almost an eerie lack of emotion. Sort of the same emotion as having a wart removed. Having the wart removed was not an option – it had to be removed before it spread further.

As perhaps you have guessed I was not shooting fireworks, or out in the streets shouting U-S-A…U-S-A. My thoughts immediately turned to the 9/11 families and our nation on that horrible day and to initial projections about what the death of Osama Bin Laden would actually mean after the fanfare died down. I am not a pacifist (by and large I tend to align with Just War theory), but celebrating the death of anyone seems quite barbaric to me. Killing Osama Bin Laden was the correct decision, just not a result that feels worthy of celebration to me. Reverence and reflection was and is more my state of mind.

I do not claim to know what his death will mean and I am highly suspect of anyone who claims to have conclusions. But, there is no doubt that his death is important. Some of the factors that seem important to me are:

  • The cache of intelligence information we captured from the compound’s computers seems to be quite extensive. Only time will tell how meaningful or actionable the information will actually be.
  • The United States fulfilled a promised and regained some strength on the world stage. We promised to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden and we did it. Let’s face it, we are floundering a bit as a nation. The Iraq War was a fair disaster in my opinion and we have struggled for meaningful results in Afghanistan. I greatly admire and am thankful for our military and their families. No matter how much I have disagreed with these wars, I am always proud and thankful when I see a member of our armed forces in uniform. However, I do believe these conflicts were misguided and for many years mismanaged.
  • Perhaps America now has a different picture of what military success can look like – what some wars of the future will look like. People that continue to support HUGE military spending on traditional types of weapons and systems are nuts. They are merely supporting the military industrial complex and wasting billions and trillions of dollars. We can blow up the world with our nuclear weapons dozens of times. More nuclear bombs to facilitate yet another occurrence of global annihilation is ridiculous. Kill him. Kill him dead….seems a bit redundant does it not? Yet, we continue to spend billions on our arsenal of 20th century weapons.
  • Maybe America will redefine the definition of “ally” a bit. Pakistan is an “ally” of necessity, but are not our friend. We have known this for quite some time now. Perhaps our sometimes Kindergarten-style approaches to foreign policy in which we lay out all kinds of rules before a conversation can happen might be replaced by a more common sense approach. Almost a “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer type of approach.” An approach that recognizes that unfortunately we all aren’t going to be friends, but we all reside on the same giant sphere.

The only thing that is clear is that the death of Osama Bin Laden does not mark the end of anything. I suppose the world is safer without Osama Bin Laden, but not really. This event was prepared for and only time will tell how quickly Al-Qaeda will restructure and re-strengthen.

While we watch the pages of history unfold, we should be wildly thankful for our armed forces, the brave and highly skilled Navy Seals, our intelligence forces and our Commander-in-Chief whose orders should inspire us all to find the courage to make extraordinarily difficult decisions.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Love-Hate Relationship Continues

Walmart and I have an odd relationship. For the last several years I very rarely, in fact almost never, shop at a Walmart or Sam's Club. I am not a Walmart shopper very much by conscience choice.

On one hand I am disgusted by the lead role Walmart has played in hammering down prices to the point that way too many have become modern slaves providing cheap labor for a beast (the American consumer) that cannot be quenched. Direct and indirect environmental impacts are atrocious, not to mention the company's highly questionable approaches to fair labor and equal rights practices.

In general, I also do not like the power Walmart wields over suppliers of consumer products. A consumer products company with a mass product would be committing economic suicide if their products that did not meet with Walmart's approval.

However, tremendous power can be used for both good and evil. Walmart did recreate the entire American food industry supply chain creating a much more efficient system. Although the arrival of a Walmart drives many independent retailers out of business, Walmart's arrival also brings a greater variety of affordable products to communities that previously had very limited choices.

Walmart is also making strides to "green" their stores. They are driving the creation of technologies and products that will allow other retailers to follow suit.

Now, the airwaves are buzzing with the announcement that within five years
Walmart pledges to offer a greater assortment of healthier foods including more affordable fresh produce. Once again, I find myself applauding their decision while simultaneously holding my breath waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I admire their commitment to support First Lady Obama's campaign to better America's eating habits, especially that of children. However, Walmart does nothing (especially not a commitment this large) that does not promise healthy profit returns. If they can make money, help Americans to eat healthy diets and honor moral approaches to doing business, I would be thrilled. I must confess, however, to having my doubts.

This post is by no means meant to accuse them of doing things that they have not done yet. However, having watched Walmart for quite a number of years now, the following are some of the potential issues I see.

1. "For instance, Walmart has identified "key product categories," or thousands of foods sold by both national manufacturers and Walmart's house brand, that the company says could be reformulated to be healthier. The goal is to reduce the sodium content in foods such as deli meats and salad dressing by 25 percent by 2015." (, January 20, 2011)

A 25% reduction in obscenely high sodium levels is a start, but will not necessarily result in a healthy food product. Be mindful of the buzz. One frozen dinner that has two days worth of sodium will hardly be healthy after a 25% sodium reduction.

2. "Added sugars in various sauces, fruit drinks, or dairy items will be reduced by 10 percent, while all trans-fats will be completely removed from packaged food items." (, January 20, 2011)

How about no added sugars in things where sugar should not be canned diced tomatoes? The inclusions of transfats is simply ridiculous.

3. "The company estimates it could save Americans $1 billion a year on fresh fruits and vegetables if its plans are successful." (, January 20, 2011)

Watch this one closely. I can tell you that today's produce industry is awfully lean. To keep prices low, the industry already uses illegal labor, breeds Frankenstein-like hybrids that are tasteless and often uses pesticides and fertilizers that are frightening to think about.

I will be curious as to exactly how they plan to lower costs further. There is no way Walmart will agree to accept lower profit margins. Again, I do not want to accuse Walmart of something they have not yet done, but there will be incredible temptation for produce suppliers to do what they have to do to either win or maintain Walmart as a customer.

Although I do not know of cases where Walmart directed suppliers to behave in immoral manners, I do know that Walmart is quite good at shielding themselves from the facts. They most often do not care how suppliers are able to give them the wholesale prices they need. Both suppliers and Walmart have to make a profit, so the money has to come from somewhere. Agriculture workers and food safety practices are the two areas most likely to take a hit.

Hopefully, Walmart is pure in spirit as they make this move. But, we need to pay attention and vote with our pocketbooks.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Response to "Divided We Eat"

This post is a response to “Divided We Eat,” an article published in the November 29, 2010 edition of Newsweek

I applaud Lisa Miller's effort to address food-related socioeconomic issues. However, I disagree with many of the key points within the article. As a compassionate Progressive I believe that no one in America should go hungry, that all Americans should be assured access to quality health care and be assured access to a quality education.

There are many reasons for poverty and for food insecurity and I believe that we need to research causes with the goal that a better understanding of the causes will provide understanding for us to create solutions.

Many of the viewpoints outlined in “Divided We Eat” are exactly the kind of views that give liberals a bad name. Much of the article seems to suggest that low income people are victims of their circumstances, that people in bad circumstances are not in bad circumstances as a result of poor decision making and that if only the poor could afford to shop at Whole Foods all would be O.K.

Let’s walk through some of the issues. In more than one bullet point I think I am channeling my Depression-era maternal Grandmother.

1. “He (Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington) argues that the most nutritious diet—lots of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish and grains—is beyond the reach of the poorest Americans, and it is economic elitism for nutritionists to uphold it as an ideal without broadly addressing issues of affordability.”

I do not agree with this. Yes, shopping at Whole Foods and probably even local farmers markets is going to be out of reach for those on food stamps and other assistance programs. Heck, I would love to buy all of my groceries at Whole Foods, but it is out of reach for me. However, I contend that there are several approaches to healthy eating that are far less expensive than junk food.

About two years ago my husband and I conducted an experiment. For six weeks we cooked most of our meals from a cookbook called Extending the Table. Extending the Table is a cookbook with recipes from around the world compiled by missionaries and aid workers who worked in very poor areas. What did we learn?

We learned to appreciate food a lot more. We learned that cooking like poor peoples in other parts of the world produces very tasty and nutritious foods for very little money. I learned that I can put a quick, tasty, nutritious, protein and vegetable rich meal on the table and serve four people for no more than $3.00 - $4.00. Tell me how you can fill a family on junk food for this amount of money.

Now, my $3.00 - $4.00 meal was not filet minion, lobster tail and high-end wine. Beans, rice and vegetables were much more common features on our dinner table.

2.Food deserts are very big problems in some areas and this area needs to be addressed.

3. The article tends to paint the poor as victims rather than adult (children cannot be held responsible for their position while they are children) people who are making chronically bad decisions. I am a compassionate person and know that people fall into poverty for all kinds of reasons—it is not a simple issue. And some food insecure people have circumstances that are out of their control. But at one time or another, we have all noticed a food stamp recipient ahead of us in the grocery line making very poor choices.

Pop Tarts is not a better choice than oatmeal and oatmeal is a lot less expensive. Doritos is not a better choice than homemade hummus (about $0.75 for 4-6 servings) and pita bread. Carryout pizza is not a better or more economical choice than vegetable soup made from heavily discounted ripe produce.

So when food stamp recipients chose high-sugar, high-fat, high-calorie foods rather than less expensive, healthy foods, the conclusion can only be made that some decision making skills may not be finely honed.

4. Obesity and tightening restrictions on what can be purchased with food stamps. I do not agree with the idea that imposing restrictions on what can and cannot be bought with food stamps is an undue intrusion into the lives of the recipients of benefits. Social safety net programs are necessary and I fully support the existence of safety net programs, but they cost a lot of money. Obesity resulting from poor decision-making while using these benefits will only cost American tax payers even more money. To put this issue very crassly….does a food stamps recipient have the right to consume huge amounts of Cheese Whiz and Fritos for years on end, then ring up an even bigger tab by becoming diabetic at the age of 40 or a heart attack at 48?

What do we do about this? I am not totally sure. I do not believe in a “Scarlet Letter” approach as no one should be embarrassed or made to feel lesser…but the way we are executing these programs today is not working.

5. Nutrition, cooking and life/household management courses must be made mandatory for as many people on assistance as possible. Basically, I believe that courses of this nature, including completed homework assignments, should be made mandatory for able bodied people with appropriate levels of ability (courses may or may not be appropriate for developmentally disabled, or other mentally/physically handicapped people).

What are the answers? Tough love coupled with education and improvement of the factors that are truly problematic (like food deserts) have to be key components within a solution. Also, perhaps a realization that people on benefit programs many not have exactly the same freedoms as those not receiving benefits. This is also a bit crass, but Doritos are a privilege, not a right.

As a Progressive I believe that we need to start from scratch and think creatively. The beginning two-part premise needs to be “No One In America Goes Hungry. Our National Debt Cannot Keep Rising.” Solely adding funding to our existing programs will not accomplish either aspect of the premise. I have some crazy ideas, but I would love to hear your thoughts.