Friday, August 31, 2012

Stop the Demand, End the Supply

I've noticed an interesting thing as I've started my quest toward a nonconsumerist lifestyle: Most of the other people interested in this same thing tend to be animal welfare activists.  Not just the vegans and vegetarians I know, but the omnivores as well.  I think this interest in animal welfare goes deeper than the question of whether or not to eat flesh.  I think it strikes at the very core of non-consumerism. 

Let me pause to give you a bit of back story.  I started rescuing rats in 2008.  Since then, I've taken in over a dozen unwanted rodents myself, and I've helped rehome about 50 to forever-homes.  I have friends who are fellow rat-rescuers, dog rehabilitators, cat TNR workers, you name it.  But it's all a similar goal: Find homes for as many unwanted animals as possible.  

When you work in rescue, you become pretty fanatical about spaying and neutering.  That's because the more animals that are born every year, the more end up being unwanted.  Worse, new puppies displace older dogs in shelters.  Every puppy or kitten that's born is a death sentence for some other animal.  And it's insanely difficult to get that into people's heads sometimes.  Try as we might, animal rescuers are time and again confronted with the backyard breeders who bred puppies "because they were cute" or some other asinine reason and now want us to clean up their mess. 

Anyway, a friend of mind in the rat rescue business has this very simple quote in her signature for all online dealings:  Stop the demand, end the supply.  

And I thought -- wow, that's powerful.  Not just for animals, but for everything else we consume. 

The Power of the Consumer

It's easy to think that consumers have no power.  We feel buffeted around in a world that's bigger and scarier than us.  "What difference can I possibly make?"  We say.  "Why does it matter what I do, when the rest of the world is still doing other things?"

What we don't realize is that we are the rest of the world.  The decisions we make do make a difference, and in a very real way.  When you stand up and demand something, people will listen.  They have to, because you're the consumer.  You're the person funding their payroll. 

If you stop the demand for certain things, they'll stop getting made.  It won't be instantaneous, but it'll happen.  If people couldn't make money by breeding cute puppies, fewer backyard breeders would churn them out.  If food companies couldn't make money by selling you prepackaged convenience foods, they wouldn't make them. 

Instead of bemoaning the state of the world and feeling helpless about it, make your stand!  If you don't like something, don't buy it.  Don't support industries you disagree with just because "it's the way the world works" and you're too intimidated to change.  Vote.  With every purchase and decision you make, vote.  One person at a time, one issue at a time, the world will start to change. 

Stop the demand.  End the supply. 

And with that, I'm off for the weekend.  I have a stack of library books to read and lots of new food to try out!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Homemade Chips and Guacamole Dip

What you're looking at is lunch from today:  turkey, havarti and avocado sandwich with homemade guacamole and homemade oven-fried chips. The bread is Earth Grains 12-grain, which is probably the best commercial sandwich bread I've found so far. 

I've always been quite proud of my guacamole, so I decided to be adventurous and try making some tortilla chips to go with it.  The tortillas are made by hand in the bakery of the HEB.  They still have a few more ingredients than I'd like, so I'll keep searching for good local tortillas (considering the neighborhood I live in, that shouldn't be too hard), but they're still better than the commercial ones. 

 Chips are so stupidly easy to make that I don't understand why anyone would ever feel it necessary to buy them.  These are crispy and fresh and you only have to eat a handful of them to feel satisfied -- it's not like regular chips where you pound through a bag in one sitting.

All you have to do is dip/brush/spray the chips with oil, sprinkle with salt and bake them at 375 for about five minutes.  If they still seem a bit soggy or under-done, pop them back in the oven.  It's as simple as that. You can use the same technique to make taco shells, rolled tacos, etc.  You could also deep-fry them if you wanted, but this is much less messy.

Your method of oil preparation will determine how much fat the chips have in them.  You can also spray them with cooking spray, or just put the oil in a regular spray nozzle bottle.  This allows you complete freedom over what type of oil you use, how much salt goes onto the chips, etc.  You definitely don't have that same flexibility when dealing with commercial chips!

And here's my famous Guacamole. I could eat this plain with a spoon, it's that good.  People get intimidated by guacamole -- I've even seen grocery store guacamole mix, which seems ridiculous -- but it's actually insanely simple.

Here's what you need:
  • 1 large avocado 
  • 1 tomato
  • A bit of diced onion - I use about two tablespoons of finely diced onion
  • A clove of garlic
  • A tablespoon or so of freshly-chopped cilantro
  • Fresh lime
  • Salt & pepper to taste
Just combine all of the ingredients together in a bowl.  Mash up the avocados as you fold in the other ingredients to be sure your flavor gets distributed evenly.  Everything goes in by taste, so adjust it to the way you like it.  This makes just enough to serve two people comfortably.  You can scale up or down accordingly.

Other than eating with chips, guacamole is a great replacement for mayonnaise on sandwiches.  If you happen to have leftovers (blasphemous, I know) just cover it up with plastic wrap. Be sure the plastic wrap is touching the surface of the guacamole or else it oxidizes and turns brown.  It doesn't hurt it, but it does look pretty gross.  I've also heard you can freeze guacamole, but I haven't tried it myself so I can't make any guarantees there.

Anyway -- I hope this inspired you to experiment a little. 

The Benefits of a Whole Foods Diet

I hate sales pitches.  This probably shouldn't surprise you, considering I'm running a blog all about non-consumerism, but I'm serious:  I really hate sales pitches.  My biggest complaint with them is that they try to masquerade as information, but all they are is hype and rhetoric.  You think you're reading something valuable, but no -- you're just being sold something.

What I really do like, though, are well-researched arguments, essays, research papers, etc.  Things with independent research that I can fact-check and review and draw my own conclusions from.  

So I'm not going to try to sell you on whole foods just because I say they're great.  I'm going to explain to you -- like a persuasive essay -- why I choose to eat whole foods.  I'll even cite my sources.  And at the end of it, you can make your own choice, and I won't think any less of you no matter what you decide.

Benefits of a Whole Foods Diet

First, let me define my terms.  For benefits of this discussion, a whole foods diet refers to foods that contain one ingredient -- whatever they are.  So fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy, meat, grains, legumes.

Here's why eating a diet made up entirely of those foods is good:
  • It's cheaper.  Intuitively, this makes sense, but people disbelieve it.  Probably because whole foods have to be eaten and consumed as part of recipes, which requires cooking, which is scary to some people.  And because buying every ingredient of a recipe is probably more expensive than buying a single pre-packaged product, but only if you're not looking at serving sizes.  Per unit, the whole foods will always win out.  Here's a very simple example you can research for yourself: Look at the price of a tub of oatmeal vs a box of single-serving instant oatmeal packets. 
  • It's healthier.  Here's a dirty little secret of the food industry.  Fresh foods usually taste pretty good all on their own, as a benefit of being fresh.  When you're making something with an eye toward profit margins, you can't use the freshest ingredients.  Instead, you make your food out of crappy ingredients, then pump it full of salt, sugar, and fat (the three things that always taste delicious) in order to make it taste better.  Fast food is especially terrible about this.  Which is why when I deep-fry potatoes at home, the resulting fries have 220 calories, but a similar number of McDonald's fries have 380 calories. And it's not just about calories.  Fresh foods have more nutrients intact thanks to being, well, fresh.  And if you're cooking your own food, you control exactly what goes into it.  
  • It's not tied up in quite a many commercial interests. Of course, whole foods have their political ties but you have more flexibility by buying local or growing your own or whatever.  Incidentally, commercial interests and political power is one reason that high fructose corn syrup is in basically everything that comes in a package. 
  • It generates less waste.  For example, a box of cereal includes a cardboard box and a plastic bag for freshness.  If you buy cereal in a bag, you reduce the waste a little, but cause a whole new set of problems with your non-recyclable bag.  And that's not including the amount of energy expended by the factor that makes both the packaging and the cereal itself, and the fossil fuels used up by the truck hauling it to the store.  If you buy bulk grains in a re-usable container, you minimize this waste.  
So there you go.  It's cheaper, healthier, non-commercial and eco-friendly.  There's no bad here.  Have I convinced you yet? 

    Tuesday, August 28, 2012

    A Reaction Post to Food, Inc

    If you've never heard of it, Food, Inc. is a really great 2008 documentary about the things food producers don't want consumers knowing about, like the way meat is produced and packaged and the government subsidies that run the food industry.  I absolutely recommend that everyone watch it.  If you have Netflix, it's available on the instant queue, and I'm sure there's places to find it online as well if you do some searching.

    Anyway, I was happy to note that my boyfriend watched it with me from beginning to end.  He sometimes has a hard time getting really fired up about social issues the way I do because they're often so distant and nebulous.  He cares about real people and concrete things much more than ideas.  So I think it was extremely helpful for him to get to see the individual stories and really understand how these things affect real people.

    I already knew a lot of the information covered by the documentary, but some parts of it were really shocking.  The worst part might be the human rights violations on behalf of the big businesses.  It was also heartbreaking to see the low-income family struggling with feeding themselves on their low budget and turning to fast food as a solution.  I know exactly how that feels.  I've been there.  And that really underscored, for me, the importance of what I'm trying to do here.

    I can't solve everyone's problems.  On my own, I can only do so much.  But if something I say can in any way inspire a few people to make some changes that affect their life, then it's worth it.  If I can help people figure out how to eat responsibly and sustainably on a miniscule budget, then maybe fewer people will be faced with the fast food dilemma.

    The other thing that really fascinated (and repulsed) me from the documentary was the sheer amount of political power that the big corporations have.  It's something that always makes me uncomfortable, and it strengthens my resolve even more to make my stand against consumerism.  Yes, we have to live as a part of this world, and it may be impossible to bring down the whole capitalist system at once -- but we do our small part every day, and those things really do add up.  It might not seem like we have much power as consumers, but in fact we are the power.  Without consumers, the entire system collapses.  It's our job to find the better way and forge that path.

    Anyway.  As you can tell, I'm all hyped up and ready to change the world, which is always a great place (emotionally) to be.  If you've seen Food, Inc., drop me a line and tell me what you thought!  If you haven't seen it yet, I really recommend it.  It's well worth the couple hours of time. 

    Monday, August 27, 2012

    Five Things to Drink Instead of Soda

    I have a pretty awful soda addiction.  It's gotten better in recent years through a concentrated effort at not buying any, but left to my own devices I can easily inhale a 3-liter of soda all by myself in a day (or less).  There was a time in college when Mountain Dew was essentially its own food group.  In fact, there was a time in my life when my lunch consisted of a Mountain Dew, bag of Funyuns and a Little Debbie snack cake (followed up by a cigarette).  Needless to say, whole foods didn't really cross my mind as I was feeding dollars into vending machines.

    Anyway, like I said, I'm getting better about the soda consumption, but it's not really a "scale back" kind of food.  It has zero redeeming qualities and is, for the most part, something you should keep at a distance of at least ten feet. 

    What's Wrong With Soda?

    (More importantly, what's not wrong with soda?)

    First, the health aspect.  Soda is essentially just water infused with high fructose corn syrup, a handful of artificial colors and flavors, and injected with carbon dioxide to make it fizzy.  You get essentially the same nutrition from drinking soda as you would from gnawing on 10 sugar cubes.  Except we usually drink more than one can of soda at a time, don't we?  Yeah.  Not good.

    Oh, and in case you're not worried about counting calories (and I respect that), soda has some other problems.  For one, it rots your teeth and can cause acid reflux and other digestive issues.  For another, the phosphoric acid in soda may actually leech calcium out of your bones.  And, of course, there's the caffeine issue, which is a whole separate can of worms.

    Diet sodas can be even worse.  Artificial sweeteners have this terrible way of making you feel even hungrier, some of them are linked to cancer,  and they're chemically addictive.  Oh, and diet sodas have all the same problems as regular soda in terms of acid.

    In case you don't care about your health at all, soda is still pretty terrible for the environment.  See, soda goes flat really fast, and flat soda is disgusting, so companies have to make individual-size servings of it.  Which translates into a whole lot of waste, not to mention the pollution from producing and shipping the stuff.

    Oh, and one more thing to make you really, really hate soda?  Big soda companies have really obnoxious habits.  Like, say, destroying large swathes of India.  In fact, it's cheaper to get a Coca Cola in many developing nations than it is to get clean water.  Because obviously it makes more sense to sell chronically impoverished people an addictive substance with zero nutritional value that will slowly erode their bodies instead of using that money to fund, say, a water treatment facility.  Naturally.

    Some of the Alternatives Are Just as Bad

    If you do absolutely nothing else that I advocate in this blog -- if you don't make any other changes to your diet or buying habits or lifestyle -- quit drinking soda.  This one single exercise will save your health, the environment and developing nations all across the world.  And it'll save you money.

    If you're looking to cut sodas, though, beware that some of the "alternatives" are just as bad:
    • Bottled water is almost always manufactured by a soda company.  So when you buy a Dasani, for example, you're still supporting the Cocoa Cola company and everything it stands for.  
    • Fruit juice has just as much sugar in it as soda.  Even if it's 100% juice, you're still essentially just drinking sugar water (although the extra nutrients are nice) since the fiber of the regular fruit is gone.  And of course, some of those juice companies are pretty terrible, and the juice has to be packed up and shipped to you.  If you really want fruit juice, squeeze it yourself. 
    • Sports drinks, energy drinks, "vitamin waters"....don't get me started.  
    So here.  Here's five things you can drink right now that are better for you than soda and will help curb the craving.

    1. Water.  You knew I was going to say this, didn't you?  It's a dirty trick.  But it's true.  Water is the only beverage the human body actually needs.   And it's really not that bad once your taste buds acclimate to it.  In fact, it's pretty delicious.  Drink it over ice and be grateful that you live in a country where clean, fresh water is available from a tap.  
    2. Agua fresca. If you live in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, you can get this basically anywhere.  If not, it's essentially water blended with fresh fruit, berries, seeds or whatever else is on hand.  Sometimes there's sugar involved, but it's honestly not necessary.  Blend up some cucumbers or melons with your water, or just dice some, soak them in water overnight and strain the next day.  
    3. Unsweetened tea. I know, living in Texas, I am contractually obligated to drink sweet tea.  And it is delicious.  But I actually like -- and sometimes prefer -- the taste of unsweetened tea.  You can drink it hot or cold, and there's actually a tremendous variety of teas that you've probably never heard of if you're accustomed to Lipton and Brisk.  I grew up on herbal tea, and I'm a big fan of green tea, white tea, chai tea, you name it.  Loose-leaf teas produce less waste, and you can dump the leaves right into your compost heap.  
    4. Lemonade.  There's a caveat to this.  First, you have to squeeze your own lemons.  Step away from the powdered mixes.  Only add as much sugar as you absolutely need.  Train yourself to start appreciating the tart taste of lemons on their own.   Add more water to thin it out instead of sweetening with more sugar.  Add berries.  Try other citrus, like limes and grapefruits.  And don't go too nuts -- if you drink it too much, the acid will damage your teeth (but it's still miles better than soda). 
    5. Beer and wine.  No, I'm serious.  No, the beer and wine isn't exactly a health food, but it's lower calorie than the soda, and you'll be satisfied with less of it.  When I spent a summer studying in London, beer was way cheaper than soda, and you got a ton more of it.  Find a micro-brew in town that you like, visit a local vineyard, or learn how to make your own.  
    How about you guys?  Do you have any favorite non-soda beverages that help liven up your beverage consumption?  Let me know in the comments!

    Sunday, August 26, 2012

    Revising Your Idea of "A Good Deal"

    There's a problem that happens when you're accustomed to a lifestyle of extreme frugality: You start to really resent paying full price for anything.  This makes it really difficult to convince yourself that you're getting a good deal on new, healthy foods when you're accustomed to eating in a certain way.

    The key, as you might suspect, comes from understanding the difference between "cost" and "value."  This extends to other areas beyond food, of course, and it's a crucial distinction to learn when avoiding consumerism. 

    The Myth of Couponing

    I stumbled into my life of frugality somewhat on accident.  I'd grown up in a fairly minimalist household, but I spent most of my college life without thinking about money.  I had plenty of financial aid, and I spent all of the money I got from my part-time job on movies, candy, ice cream, DVDs, video games, or whatever else struck my fancy.

    It wasn't until grad school that I started to suffer financially.  I was living by myself for the first time, and cost of living was high.  I also had a hard time finding work and ended up as a part-time stocker for Petsmart, a job which was neither glamorous nor the path to riches.  For a few months, I was basically living off of credit cards and falling slowly into debt as I tried to figure out how to feed myself for a month on $70.

    And that's when I started reading about frugality.

    I learned "on the job" and started picking up skills pretty fast.  I baked my first loaf of bread, then tried my first bagels.  I figured out just how useful eggs are and discovered the amazing utility of soup.  After a couple of years, I managed to perfect the art of eating pretty damn well on a low budget.

    How low?  Well, let's put it this way:  My boyfriend and I eat for about $200 a month.  For clarification, that's $167 less than we would get allotted to us by SNAP.  If I'm trying to keep us on a very, very tight budget, I can pare that down to about $150.

    And the part that often shocks people when I tell them this?  I do all of this without using any coupons.

    Why I Don't Use Coupons

    I tried the couponing thing.  I read books about couponers and how much money people were saving by using them.  I diligently bought copies of the Sunday paper and clipped and sorted coupons.  I brought my sorted coupons to the store -- and found, time and time again, that I saved more money by not using the coupons.

    Don't get me wrong.  Some people can absolutely save money with coupons.  But when you're eating for $50 a week, it's pretty likely that the items you can buy with coupons are not going to be the same items as you're already buying.

    Why?  Because coupons are always for brand name, pre-packaged items.  You'll find a ton of coupons for Pillsbury crescent rolls, Kelloggs cereal and Dannon yogurt.  But you're not going to find coupons for the staples of a healthy, cheap diet:  bulk beans and grains, fresh produce, meat, store-brand dairy.

    And let me tell you a secret.  Whoever is telling you that you can't save money by eating a whole-food diet most likely has an agenda that they're trying to push on you.  Because pound for pound, fresh whole foods will always be cheaper than brand-name processed items.

    There is one caveat to this:  Organic.  You will pay more for organic produce.  I'll go into the explanation of all that later, but that is something to keep in mind.  If you're going into your quest wanting to eat better, cheaper, and you can't afford the organic -- fine.  Of course organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef is better.  But if you can't make that step yet, if you can't afford the extra cost of the higher-quality stuff, buy the regular store-brand produce instead.  That's still miles better than subsisting on frozen pizza and boxed pasta mixes.  

    Coupons: Advertisements Preying on Frugal Shoppers

    Here's the reason you'll never see coupons for simple whole foods:  They're an advertising strategy.

    As far as advertising strategies go, it's one of the more insidious ones.  It really makes you feel like you're doing the right thing.  It reaches out and pats you on the back for saving money, even as it quietly picks your pocket.  By making you feel like you're getting a good deal, you get conned into getting things you probably wouldn't normally buy, and you're tempted to buy even more things because you "saved so much money."

    Even if you do everything right -- made a list, only used coupons for items you're planning to buy, doubling coupons up with sales -- you're still buying right into the hands of the advertisers.  You're still telling yourself, "I need these items.  These items are necessary for me to have a happy, healthy, cheap kitchen."

    Here's how coupons work, in case you don't know:

    The manufacturer prints up a bunch of coupons and distributes them through whatever distribution channel it uses.  Some of these end up online, in the paper, printed on the back of receipts, etc.  You then obtain these coupons and hand them over with your cash at the register.  The person at the register most likely puts the coupons somewhere specific -- a certain drawer or box by the register.  At Petsmart it was a box underneath the register.

    At the end of the night, the manager collects and counts all of the cash, and sorts all of the coupons.  These coupons then get mailed back to the manufacturer, who reimburses the store for the difference.

    Yes, that's right.  The store doesn't lose money when you use coupons.  The manufacturer loses money, but makes it up immediately with the sheer bulk of people buying a product they wouldn't normally have bought, and they're hoping to convert you to their brand after you try their product.  So of course the grocery store wants you to use coupons.  Of course the manufacturer wants you to use coupons.  Nobody is doing you a favor by giving you these discounts.  They're using you.  The only person getting hurt is the poor shmuck who spends more money on groceries than she needs to because she thinks she's saving money. 

    If there's a brand that you really like for whatever reason and you subscribe to their coupons, fine.  I won't judge you.  But just know: Your coupons aren't doing you any favors.  I promise -- if you change your eating habits and start eating more whole foods and less processed crap, you'll get more for your buck and you don't have to worry about clipping all those damn coupons.

    Saturday, August 25, 2012

    How to Make a Compost In Your Apartment

    What's So Bad About Consumerism, Anyway?

    For better or worse, human society is intimately connected to economics.  And that's not a bad thing.  The barter system works okay for some things, but it's unwieldy in practice.  If you're in a barter system, and you want something from someone who doesn't want what you have, you're in trouble.  If you can pay them with something that represents purchasing power so they can buy what they want, you're in business.

    So there's nothing inherently wrong with money or technology.  I would be lying if I said that I wished there were no money or technology.  I like having clean running water and indoor plumbing.  I like electricity, and Internet connections, and laptops and video games.  In order to have those things, we need to pay for them, and in order to pay for them we need jobs, and most jobs require producing goods and/or services that other people need to pay for.  It's a system.  We're part of it.  You have to accept that.

    Consumerism - A Symptom of Fear Culture

    The problem with the consumer mindset is that it's excessive, wasteful, and it preys on fear.   Advertisements are carefully created to make you feel insufficient.  They show you a wonderful life and promise that you, too, could have it if you just bought their product.  They show everything that's wrong with your life, even things you didn't realize were problems, and tell you the only way to fix this problem is to buy their product.

    And even this, on its own, wouldn't be so bad.  I actually like watching commercials.  I find them to be some of the most effective storytelling on TV. Commercials are often better-written than any of the shows actually on air.  But most people who watch TV aren't looking at commercials as clever marketing tools or well-crafted short films.  They're passively absorbing the lessons inherent in them without stopping to examine the effects of those ads on their life.

    Full disclosure:  The next car I buy will probably be a Kia Soul.
    And there's several reasons for that -- gas mileage, cargo space, price -- but I would absolutely be lying if I didn't admit that I am at least partially influenced by the dancing hamster commercials.  

    Critical thinking skills are not something that most people have learned to cultivate, and that puts them at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous advertising companies.

    Money, Power and Politics

    The worst part about consumerism, though, is the power it wields.  It wouldn't be so bad if every advertisement made itself obvious, but advertising is more insidious than that.  For better or worse, power and money are synonymous in our culture, and there are few things more dangerous than the intersection of politics and financial interests.

    We like to think we can trust certain authoritative sources of information.  Unfortunately, a lot of what we grow up believing to be simple fact is actually clouded by financial interests.  For example, the "Got Milk?" campaign that was so incredibly popular a decade ago?  That came from the National Milk Processor Board, as pretty much a shameless attempt to get more Americans to drink milk.  These ads exhort how wonderful and healthy and essential milk is, which wouldn't be so bad on its own except that the USDA supports these claims despite pretty compelling evidence that milk isn't actually that healthy for you and may actually be bad for you.

    So someone we thought we could trust -- the USDA -- is cowing (no pun intended) to the dairy industry.  And who suffers?  The people who are drinking their 2-3 servings of dairy a day because that's what they genuinely believe is healthy for them.

    I don't say this to make a statement about dairy one way or another -- that's an issue for a different day -- but to point out the danger of assuming you can trust any single authoritarian source to tell you the truth.  You can't, because of their financial interests.

    And that, friends, is my biggest problem with consumerism.

    This kind of political power overlapping with monetary gain is in every part of our society, from industries funding political campaigns (traditionally, the biggest backers of presidential elections are Wall Street and the insurance industry) to corporate sponsorship of events (like McDonalds being the official sponsor of the Olympics -- wtf?) to chicken fast food companies donating money to political causes that many people find aberrant.

    Not to Mention the Environment...

    And all of that doesn't touch the ecological impact of all the trash we're dumping into landfills (not to mention in our oceans), the fossil fuels burned making and shipping the goods we buy, the pollution created by manufacturing plants and the natural and unnatural products that go into things that are made, consumed and thrown away every day.

    I'm not saying we need to own nothing.  We need to own some things.  But we probably don't need to own as much as we do, and the things we buy aren't necessarily the things we need.  I'm just saying we need, as a society, to become more conscious consumers.  And maybe the first step to becoming a careful consumer is to stop consuming altogether first -- going cold turkey -- and realizing then what you really need to buy and what you're willing to pay for.