Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thoughts on Real England

I just started reading a book by Paul Kingsnorth, Real England: the Battle Against the Bland. Written in 2008, it is in part a eulogy for traditional English pubs, shops, and breweries that have been taken over by multinational corporations. An English pub was where you hoisted a locally-brewed pint and talked with your neighbors. It was a small place, a family business. The brewery was a family-owned business, turning local grains and hops into beer. The beer was great, or possibly mediocre depending on the location, but the companionship was the real attraction. A warm place on a chilly rainy night. A place to drown your sorrows, not yourself. Maybe a local singer or fiddler some nights.

Many of the traditional pubs have closed, in the villages and small towns. Others have been taken over by a new profit model: vertical drinking. Nowhere to sit (because you drink more standing up), nowhere to set your beer (because you drink more when you have to hold your beer in your hand). Maximum beer intake per hour occupancy means maximum profits. And some have just gone to Bland: mass-market beer, popwines, pop music. Most of the small breweries likewise have gone out of business, with only hundreds left out of many thousands a hundred years ago. Every local beer is unique, a product of the water, the climate, the grains and the hops, and the hand of the brewer. Mass-produced beer is all about consistency: the same in every factory, the same in every country, the same in every bar.

It made me think about local food, about Colorado, about our local food cooperative. Unlike the England of 2008, microbreweries are thriving here; the beer scene in Colorado has changed almost totally since the 1950s. Some use locally grown barley and wheat. Some have pubs, although they don't play the same role in our community that English pubs in their social gatherings.
Food used to be different in each place; you mostly ate what you grew, or what your neighbors grew. The Christmas orange was a special treat (unless you lived in California and had an orange tree in your backyard). You mostly ate what was in season. In winter and spring, you mostly ate what you had put aside from the previous harvest.

Now almost of us shop at the "Perpetual Summer" supermarket, where we can buy strawberries in January, shipped from Argentina or Peru. Almost everything there has GMO corn or soy in it, as corn, cornstarch, or high fructose corn syrup, as soy oil or protein. The meats come from gigantic conglomerations (four companies sell 80% of the meat in this country), and they are stuffed with GMO corn and soybeans too. Thousands to millions of individual steers go into each batch of ground beef. You don't want to know about the lives of the chickens or pigs that end up in plastic on the meat counter shelves.

Am I against eating meat? Not at all; humans have been omnivores as long as there have been humans. For 95% of that time, humans ate wild animals. For 5% of that time, humans ate domesticated animals. For a fraction of a blink of an eye, humans have been eating animals unnaturally caged or fenced, fed a diet that destroys their health but is very cheap. It's not good for you to eat such things. We omnivores DO have a choice. We can seek out local small growers of grass-finished beef, pastured pigs, free-range bug-eating poultry. They're out there, pretty much under the radar of the massive conglomerates and their tamed regulatory agencies.

What about the fruits, the vegetables? There is the same disconnect between us and our food, though not as severe. Massive monocultures in California, Arizona and other states grow most of it, and everything you find in the supermarkets. But farmers markets and CSAs are taking more and more of that market (though still miniscule in comparison). If you look for local fruits and veggies, you can find them.

Grains are more problematical. Almost all are grown on massive farms (some of them in Colorado). And each area specializes in the grains that do best there. In Colorado, we grow wheat, loads of wheat, high-gluten wheat. Some oats, some barley, some corn. In the southern part of the state a few pioneers are growing teff and quinoa. Grain growing and harvesting now is so specialized, that few small farmers even try to get into it. The whisker-thin profit margin for the farmer precludes experimentation. That $4.00 loaf of bread in your shopping cart probably has about 10-20 cents going to the farmer. As the movie King Corn pointed out, even in a good year corn growers don't make ends meet; they are subsidized by the government, and by the demented law requiring 10% ethanol in gasoline. (Side point: on the Energy Return on Energy Invested front, ethanol barely breaks even; using the equivalent of a gallon of petroleum to make a gallon of ethanol does not reduce our dependence on foreign oil.)

So where's the connection with Real England? Real England is (was?) a place, actually a large number of small and larger places, where people live, where they know their neighbors, where they buy and sell to each other, where the profit stays in the community. I dream of a Real America, thousands of villages, towns, and cities, nourished by their local farms, cheered by their local beers, in all their endless variety. A place where the person you see on the street supports your business or farm, and you support theirs. A place where the profits and jobs stay in the community. A neighborhood.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Free Food!

Now that I have your attention.....

There is FREE FOOD everywhere in your neighborhood now, and for the last couple of months. People have fruit trees in their yards. The fruit ripens, maybe they pick some, maybe they let it all fall onto the grass or the sidewalk. Maybe they eventually pick up the rotting carcasses of the fruit and throw it in the trash.

We have had a WONDERFUL fruit year here in Northern Colorado. No late freezes in the spring means that our fruits were 3-4 weeks early in ripening, starting with the cherries, apricots, peaches, apples, pears, etc. The crops are very large, and at least for our fruit nicer than usual. Less insect damage.

So, introduce yourself to your neighbors whose fruit trees are groaning and breaking under the burden, and offer to pick the fruit for them. Chances are they will be thrilled. You can bake them a pie, give them a couple of jars of preserves, or just give them a bag or two of nice-looking picked fruit for themselves. If you have more than you can use, drop them off at your local Food Bank. They will be thrilled to get them. Apples, even organic apples with some worm damage, are very welcome there.

Obviously, don't take them fruit that is already rotting. Give that to someone you know who has chickens, or a pig or horse. Our chickens have eaten so many windfall apples in the last month, they are eating almost no chicken food. Every day I collect a bucket of decent looking ones and throw them in the chicken yard.

Our Fruit Parade:

  • May: Texas wild mulberries (delicious, if we can steal some from the robins); Nanking Cherries (like pie cherries but half-sized)
  • June: Pie cherries, apricots (first crop ever for these trees)
  • July: Early apples (4 weeks early this year); peaches
  • August: more peaches, greengage plums, purple plums, and wild plums; grapes
  • September: main crop apples (an old Delicious variety which really IS delicious); wild grapes
Our main crop apples usually ripen around October 1. Being a Delicious variety, they are watery, watery, watery, until they are ripe; then they have a beautiful sweet honeyed flavor. They make perfect applesauce (no sugar needed), are an excellent eating apple, and keep until March if you pick through them every 10 days or so and keep them in a cool place. Why the former owners of our property planted three standard trees of the same variety is beyond me (and our neighbors each have at least one tree of the same kind: cheaper by the dozen?). A semi-dwarf tree makes more sense for a family, but we have these Delicious apples, and are trying to find homes for them since the crop is well far and beyond what we can use.

We've been picking now for a couple of weeks, and many have fallen off the tree and gone into the chicken yard, and there are still about 1/3 of them up there. I've taken five boxes to the Food Bank, given away dozens of bags, and there are still more. The bounty is just astounding.

So, go out and pick some free food.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Amazing Lilies

Did you realize that onions and garlic are in the lily family? I am constantly surprised by the robustness of the onions. When you pick a head of lettuce, it will keep for a few hours without being chilled. When you pull a carrot, it will keep for a few days on the counter. Yet those marvelous lilies can keep nearly from one harvest to another, at room temperature.

About a month ago I harvested the garlic I planted last October. I used 4 big heads, planting 6 cloves from each, and ended up with 24 healthy and hearty garlic plants. In dry periods during the winter, I watered them a bit. In the spring they were off to the races. They were hardneck varieties, and in May and June gradually unrolled their beautiful seed-stalk, to more than 5 feet high. When the bottom leaves start to yellow and dry out, it's time. I dug them gently, tied them in bundles and hung them in the open air of our back patio, just out of the sun. After 3 weeks, I rubbed off the dirt and trimmed back the roots and stalk. From each of the 4 varieties, I picked the biggest and most beautiful head, to save for seed. Each seed garlic got its own brown paper bag, with its name on it. Then I had 20 heads to use for culinary garlic. I put the paper bags into the garage, a slightly cooler place, but one which does not freeze.

When you harvest garlic at the right stage, and cure it carefully in the open air, you can probably get it to last until next June or July. Isn't that amazing? I learned about garlic from the book "Growing Great Garlic". Garlic, which wants to be in the soil, can hang around for months and months waiting to get there, trusting that one of us humans will make it happen. As months go by, sometimes it grows a tiny beard of roots, just living in hope, waiting for dirt. And occasionally a green shoot will come out of an impatient clove.

Garlic is the queen of lilies when it comes to keeping qualities, but other onion varieties are also good. I recently used the last of the shallots I bought through the food cooperative. I bought them in April. They were grown on an organic Colorado farm. Harvested no later than early November, probably in October. They've stayed healthy in the garage in a cardboard box, enriching soups, salads, and veggie dishes. I only had to throw out two or three of them which were sprouting, out of 10 lbs that I bought.

Next in the list are well-cured dry onions. I've had both yellow and red ones on hand, grown and harvested in October, from a Weld County organic farm. I bought them in April, still good. As the months went by, some of them sprouted. I used the sprouts as scallions, and as much of the bulb as was still crisp and good. The last few went into the compost in June.

Last summer I raised a few red onions from seeds. I harvested most of them, but missed a couple of little ones. This year, those small bulbs shot out a seed stalk probably 5 feet high. They happened to be where I had planted my garlic, and at first I thought they were weird-looking garlic. But no, after I dug them, I noticed they were my stray onions. I quickly packed them back into the wet dirt. They continued to grow and mature seeds. I recently cut the seed head and shook out some black onion seeds. I will plant these next spring. They must like it here.

My other culinary lilies are chive plants. They're up first thing in the spring, blooming with pretty magenta flowers by June, then staying green and good, ready for some snipping, until frost in the fall. The one clump I had three years ago has had children: three more good-size clumps I put in pots, plus more little ones in the garden to give away. The flowers are also good in salads, with a pleasant pretty onion-y flavor; just tear them apart into petals.

I love spring onions, fresh onions with their greens that show up at farmers' markets and in our cooperative in June. By August, now, the onion leaves are dying back, and farmers are harvesting and curing onions for this fall and winter. With some care and attention, and good storage areas, you can have the amazing lilies in any month of the year.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Food Restrictions and Local Foods (and a little history)

Back in the olden days, when I was young, I ate just about anything I wanted to. In my late teens, lunch was a 10 cent packet of dried soup (calories about 3, nutrition 0). Married at eighteen, pregnant at nineteen, knowing nothing about nutrition or caring for myself, stick-thin, miscarriage at 5 months.

In my early twenties, glazed donuts for lunch, dummie me! I got on a fiber kick and ate cracked grains cooked in a thermos every day for a year. At the same time I made bran crackers and ate them every day (read the wrong book!). Intestinal explosions were common. Keep that in mind, #1.

I once went on a diet of only hardboiled eggs (3 per day) and vegetables (low-calorie variety). I lost 30 pounds in 30 days. I Do Not Recommend This. I was weak, tired, and cold. Those 30 pounds came flying back as soon as I stopped. Keep this in mind too, #2.

I tried macrobiotic diets, without the optional fish, in my 30s, and could NOT force myself to stay on them for more than a couple of weeks. Cravings ate me alive. At least with a growing interest in nutrition I stopped drinking sodas. Hypoglycemia was a big problem for me, from age twenty onwards. I taught myself to stay away from juice, fruit, and cereal in the morning, and soda at all times.

After I turned 40, all the dietary sins of my youth came back to haunt me. The weight I had been keeping at bay with frequent crash diets came back to stay. My body strictly refused to eat more than a few eggs per week (#1).

In graduate school (around 40 years old), I ate my way through a bag of corn chips Every Day, putting on the weight as you can imagine, developing arthritis in my knees, not able to go jogging or hiking any more. Keep this in mind, #2.

And probably the most serious, I started working my way toward celiac disease (gluten intolerance causing serious digestive problems). Here is #1, back at me. The "low-fat vegetarian diet" was the last straw for my insulted gut. My hypoglycemia got more and more serious; I was eating constantly, Snack-Wells, fat-free cookies, pretzels, bread, pasta pasta pasta, and still hungry every minute of the day. Loose stools a dozen times a day. Tired, muscles aching, depressed. It worked its way to a crescendo after a business trip, and finally the light-bulb went on. "It's the gluten." By that time I actually knew what gluten was at least.

I went gluten-free, absolutely, for 3 weeks. Symptoms went away very nicely. I challenged with a pasta meal. All back, first the depression, then the intestinal upsets. Repeat. That was enough. The rigors of staying vegetarian and gluten-free were too much for me, so I started eating chicken and fish, and eventually red meat. I had been semi-vegetarian for two decades, and full-on vegetarian for three years, so it was a big change both nutritionally and culturally for me.

I later realized I had probably compromised my gut with the bran crackers and the cracked-grain lunches, years earlier. The cheap processed foods, and my high-stress job at the time, just finished the job. I do realize there are more intelligent ways to be vegetarian. But for me, starting with nice healthy starches promotes the roller coaster of hypoglycemia crashes and constant hunger, and ends with caramel corn, candy, cookies, and tears.

So, my first really serious dietary restriction is gluten-free. This means no wheat, rye, and barley; no spelt, no kamut, no seitan. No wheat-containing pasta, cookies, pies, cakes, breads, muffins, pancakes, breaded foods, meatloaf, croutons in my salad. The list can be pretty intimidating. Some celiac sufferers can't eat oats either, without repercussions, and I found that I fell in that category.

So, still not getting the picture about the starches, I turned to rice and corn. Weight kept climbing, hunger kept increasing. I hit my all-time high weight. Gluten-free junk food is STILL JUNK FOOD. Too much popcorn, too many GF crackers, too much ice cream, too much taffy. Too many colds, too many attacks of the flu.

It was just too hard to do gluten-free and low-fat vegetarian. I hit my all-time high weight. Something had to give. I rethought, researched, and found books by Ray Audette, Loren Cordain, and Boyd Eaton, on paleo eating. Fifty pounds came off, and I had more energy and far better health.

The years since then, about 1999, have seen much improved health, though if I ever get off into starchland, especially with corn, weight comes back on and my food choices deteriorate again. Before long, I was eating only starches and a little fat, and giving protein a miss. I also was getting increasing fibromyalgia, with depression, fibro-fog, continual muscle and joint pain. Troubled sleep, unable to stand more than a few minutes at a time, unable to walk or hike for pleasure. Just a misery. Pain-killers really don't touch fibromyalgia pain.

I started with local foods in Fall of 2007. I had no problems satisfying the demands of gluten-free eating, and it allowed me to find really high-quality humanely-raised meat and eggs, so it actually helped.

In 2010, I learned about dietary oxalates. Oxalate is a dietary poison, not a sensitivity. Plants express oxalates to discourage plant-eaters, 2-legged, 4-legged, and 6-legged. Most people's bodies have techniques to tie up the oxalate with calcium or magnesium and excrete it before it causes a problem. But some people, and celiacs are particularly prone to the problem, can't excrete enough of it, so it gets stored in the body. In the muscles, in the endocrine glands, in the bones and teeth, in the kidneys (kidney stones, anyone?), in the mucous membranes (such as vulvodynia). For more information, see Lowoxalate.info website. I joined the Yahoo! forum Trying_Low_Oxalates, and read about list members with fibromyalgia, vulvodynia, interstitial cystitis, irritable bowel, kidney stones, and autistic children, who had been helped by a low-oxalate diet. For a recent article from Britain, see The GP Who Gave Up Fruit and Veg.

You don't have to give up ALL fruit and veg, but there is a long list of high-oxalate foods to stay away from. We can start with spinach and chard, rhubarb, starfruit, chocolate (sigh!), whole wheat, brown rice, most alternate grains, beets, carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes, dried beans, nuts.... the list goes on. I gave up my CSA membership, since I was giving away more than half of my share every week. I gave away a lot of my stored staples to friends who could use them.

Net result: my fibromyalgia is down by 90% in pain and distress. Others have had similar results. By any objective measure, I just don't have it any more. Is it worth it, all the restrictions? You bet!

Summary up to this point: no wheat, rye, barley, oats, few eggs, half the veggies prohibited, half the fruits, no nuts in any but minute quantities, no dried beans except for split and fresh peas, potatoes, chocolate, carob, no buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, teff, etc.. Can I still eat locally? Yes, for the most part. In fact, I grow a lot of veggies in my garden, the ones that I can eat, and eat fruit from our own trees, which is as local as you can get. Local humanely-raised meat, eggs. Do I still enjoy my foods? Yes. Do I still enjoy good nutrition? Yes, far better than in the olden days.

Last step: Moving into my late 60s, insulin resistance was rearing its ugly head, and weight was still a problem. I went on Jack Kruse's Leptin Reset diet, starting Jan 1, 2012. For this I removed all sugars, honey, and artificial sweeteners, as well as the rest of the grains and starches. Seven months later, down 27 pounds, fasting blood glucose back to normal, blood pressure back to normal, energy back to normal. Another 20 pounds would do it. Dr. Kruse suggests seafood, which was a big change for me, and pretty much not local (except for the trout raised in Boulder County).

Summing up: I'm working with celiac disease, oxalate problems, and staying low-carb. 90% of the foods in the grocery stores are off-limits to me. Maybe 95%. Most of the shelves are full of packaged processed high-carb foods. Just don't go there. I eat local veggies and fruits, local meat and eggs, local cheeses. Not so local: some seafood, some tea, a bit of coffee, olive oil, coconut. I'm still running our local food cooperative, which supplies most of the foods I eat except for what I get in my front yard. So, the answer is yes, you CAN eat local foods and work with food restrictions.

I wish I could go back and undo some of the really stupid food things I have done in the past. But at least I feel that I'm on the right track now.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Off in the Weeds

I never finished my series on Food Rewards, because I started a new plan, the Leptin Reset diet of Jack Kruse (see his website Jack's Blog. My Leptin Prescription. Briefly, the plan requires eating the "Big A** Breakfast" with 50 grams of protein, doing no snacking, eating a basically paleo diet, and eating your last meal 4 hours before bedtime. Easy! From the very first day, I lost all my cravings for starchy, sugary foods. Just like magic.

Cravings have always been a problem for me. I can use my resolve to not eat the Food Rewards kinds of foods: junk food, fast food, candy, popcorn, gluten-free cookies, etc. etc. etc., but eventually the strongest resolve fades in the face of overwhelming cravings for these foods. With the Leptin Reset diet, I could stay on the plan because I had no cravings at all. I ate my big breakfast, I was not hungry until lunch and then not much, and ate a modest-sized dinner.

It caused me to reexamine the whole concept of Food Rewards. Attempting to regulate my eating using the concept of Food Rewards (all during 2011) took me into the weeds as far as weight loss was concerned. The secret is carbs, causing insulin to be released, eventually causing insulin resistance and leptin resistance. My fasting blood glucose was not much below 100, much too high for good health, though not overtly diabetic. I tried at least 6 or 7 times in 2011 to get back on the weight-loss bandwagon, but to no avail.

The usual time for people to be on the Leptin Reset diet is 6-8 weeks. I was on it for 29 weeks, starting Jan 1st 2012. I think I have reset now. My fasting BG is around 80. I have lost 26 pounds. I can now eat a moderate amount of carbs at breakfast and not have a blood sugar crash before lunch (as would always happen before). My fingernails have stopped breaking, and my color is better.

The Rewarding Foods

Just to say another few words about Food Rewards: what are the rewarding foods? Foods high in starches, and/or sugars, and/or fat, and/or salt. Before agriculture, finding a stash of fruit was the occasion for a big feast (because you WANTED to gain weight for the winter). Convenient for fruit to be available in late summer and fall, just when you wanted to put on weight. Just like a bear heading into hibernation. BTW the bear has been coming into our yard, to tear down the chokecherry bushes. I'm worried about the nearly-ripe plums on our two trees. He only shows up in the night, after we are asleep, but can do a lot of damage to the fruit trees in the course of eating his fill.

Fat alone is not one of the rewarding foods. Sitting down with a nice stick of unsalted butter is not anyone's idea of a binge. You can't keep eating plate after plate of steak, like you can eat bowls of popcorn. Steak is satiating. Butter is satiating. But have a nice stack of fresh steaming baked potatoes, or a big bowl of popcorn, and a little salt, and that stick of butter can disappear in a hurry.

The meals I've been eating are simple: meat/poultry/fish and two or more veg for supper, a light lunch with a couple of brazil nuts, a little meat, some raw veggies, and for breakfast side pork or ground pork with an egg or goat cheese, or perhaps an omelet. Very satisfying. Now that it's fruit season, I have one or two pieces of fruit daily, usually from our yard. Very rewarding meals, with fresh clear tastes not burdened with too many spices or sauces. No commodity foods, nothing from a factory, nothing from confined animal feeding operations (CAFO). No grains. That's a shock, huh? No grains. No bread, no pasta, no GF desserts. In a Yahoo group I belong to, someone asked what they could put their sandwich filling on, since they are eating gluten-free and low oxalate. My answer, a bit facetious: a spoon!?

I will speak about low-oxalate foods in a future post. This has been another big change in my eating patterns, which poses a few challenges for local eating, but not insurmountable. In two years my fibromyalgia pain has dropped by 90%, so it's certainly worth it to avoid spinach, chard, rhubarb, chocolate, and other high-oxalate foods.

In some ways, I've relaxed the rules on local eating (e.g. the Brazil nuts), but in other ways most of our food is more local than ever, with meats and eggs from northern Colorado, veggies and fruit mostly from our garden and fruit trees, or from Colorado, with only a bit from California. Cheese made in Colorado. I'm still using a little olive oil from California, a little coconut oil from Asia. Tea from Asia, coffee from central America (but not often). Nothing from packages, nothing prefabricated, no ready-to-eat meals. Occasional dining out. With the food cooperative I manage, we continue to have better and better sources for local foods. I buy most of my foods through the coop.

A fun blog: The Diet Doctor. Dr. Andreas Eenfeldt is Swedish, and his blog supports LCHF (low carb high fat) eating. Sweden is 2nd lowest in Europe for obesity (after Switzerland). Food CAN be rewarding without being high-carb.

Next post: Eating locally with food restrictions.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Another Tragedy of the Commons

The original phrase Tragedy of the Commons was based on a paper by Garrett Hardin. The idea is that when people use resources from a common area, there's nothing to keep each person from maximizing their own takings, until the resource and area are degraded and everyone loses. As humans, we don't seem to be able to manage resources in the long run without a rush to depletion.

As Garrett Hardin acknowledged later, we have historical knowledge of many well-managed commons that continued for many hundreds of years without depletion. But it takes a community, firm rules and penalties, and close attention. Shaming was pretty effective then. During the Middle Ages, commons were, well, "common", in such realms as woodlots, pasture for animals, and forests for collection of mushrooms and other wild foods and herbs. It was only when the aristocracy decided they could make more money selling the wood and using the resultant land for sheep rather than human needs that commons became "uncommon".

Commons appears now in a modern variant, the homeowners association, which may be well or poorly managed, but the principle is the same. The modern tragedy is the commons of the ocean, where factory ships are crashing one fish stock after another. We're eating lower and lower in the oceanic food chain, because we've nearly killed off all of our favorite fish. This is a particularly hard harvest to manage, because the only "owner" of the ocean is all of humanity, and it's hard to assess the status of fish populations. Shaming certainly doesn't work in this situation. The fishing regulations have no teeth and are generally ignored.

It is especially tragic in that once a fish species has been removed from its habitat, the habitat closes around it, with other species occupying its niche. Example: the codfish. Codfish will never recover. They were so thick 400 years ago that fishermen said you could almost walk on the codfish in the water. Now there's no way it can insert itself back into the North Atlantic.

The exception to fish species destruction that I know about is the wild salmon fishery in Alaska, very carefully managed and pretty much honored, since there still IS a wild salmon fishery in Alaska.

I read an excellent article recently about Wal-Mart's problems. Their same-store sales are flat to declining over the last eight quarters. Wal-Mart the Latest Victim of Global Labor Arbitrage. I got to thinking that this is an example of the Tragedy of the Commons.

The Unspoken Rules of Labor

American industry really got going in the 20th century. After WWII, the U.S. was the top manufacturing nation on the planet. How the mighty have fallen! Now almost all manufacturing jobs have been offshored to places with cheaper labor, much cheaper labor. During the heyday of U.S. manufacturing, there were two unspoken rules for labor.

1. If you did your job well and showed loyalty to your employer, you would have a job for life, barring unexpected catastrophes. Your employer showed loyalty to you.

2. If you worked hard in this economy, you would make enough money to support your family and buy the products of this economy. Note that up until the 1970s, this was generally ONE wage-earner per family. Henry Ford doubled the wages of his factory labor back in the 1920s, so that they would have enough money to buy the Model T they were assembling.

What goes around comes around, in other words. Manufacturers didn't try to abuse, lay off, and short-change their workers, since it was their workers as a population that kept the cash registers ringing with their purchases.

So how is this a commons? What is the resource of this commons? It's Purchasing Power. Manufacturers put purchasing power into the commons by paying living wages. Workers used the purchasing power to buy whatever they needed for themselves and their families.

Wal-Mart formed its business model with very cheap products and very low labor costs due to low wages and no benefits except for managers. This means, of course, that the government IS paying for health benefits for Wal-Mart employees, and often food stamps as well. So we're all subsidizing Wal-Mart's cheap labor.

And Wal-Mart violates both of the unspoken rules, but in particular the second rule. Almost all goods sold in Wal-Mart are imported, most from China. The purchasing power that you spend there goes only minimally back into the common pool of U.S. purchasing power, through the low wages of the employees. Most goes to foreign companies and into the pockets of workers and managers in China or Bangladesh.

This doesn't matter so much when manufacturing, jobs and wages are strong in the U.S. It's just a little bite, even if Wal-Mart is a huge entity. They get the free ride by short-cutting the system. But plenty of other companies noticed that they could also cut their labor costs significantly by off-shoring. This means laying off most of their U.S. workers.

There is very little manufacturing being done in the U.S. these days. I used to try to avoid items with "Made in China" on them. It has become impossible. The latest I saw was "Hecho in China", perhaps an attempt to hide the origin by using Spanish? The manufacturing jobs that were plentiful in the U.S. in the 1950s are gone now. Are those jobs coming back? Just think about it.

If you are a CEO, and you have no notion of the commons, and your outlook is no further than the next quarter's earnings, are you going to hire a $40k U.S. worker, or a $4k Chinese worker? Easy answer. It doesn't matter if corporate taxes are reduced; it doesn't matter if your personal taxes as CEO are reduced, it doesn't matter if your wages go up by 50% per year, you aren't going to hire U.S. workers when you can hire cheap foreign labor.

It doesn't matter if the President is Democrat, or Republican, or Tea Party, or Socialist, or Green. It doesn't matter who controls Congress.

U.S. companies have broken both employment rules. The very concept of loyalty to employees is antiquated, almost laughable. For a few years, the companies expected loyalty, but did not give it. Now they don't even expect it. But the worst fault is breaking the expectation that working wages will provide a living. Just who do they think will buy their goods? The workers they just laid off? The workers who they hired at half the wages of their previous workers? The workers in China? (no, they buy Chinese goods).

It is a Tragedy of the Commons. A few companies could get away with it, relying on the rest to keep pulling the load and filling up the Purchasing Power commons. When they are nearly all trying to cheat the system, the system stops working.

What Would It Take to Bring the Jobs Back?

How could we get meaningful jobs in the U.S. again? Here are some possibilities:

1. The cost of transportation goes so high due to peak oil that it overcomes the wage differential between U.S. and foreign workers. But if that happens, we're in a world of hurt in other ways.

2. Wages in the U.S. descend to par with third world countries. In other words, $4k per year per family, or perhaps $10k. All workers are below the poverty line, except for management. I don't think we're prepared to go through the pain of that.

3. Corporations finally see the light: oh, if nobody has a job, nobody is going to buy from us. That's a fantasy. Even a few cheaters with cheap foreign goods will put a stop to that, as their profit margin increases relative to the good citizens. Apparently the reward of doing the right thing is laughable compared to the reward of making a fortune.

4. Tax rules are changed, rewarding companies for using U.S. labor and punishing them for using foreign labor. Tariffs are a blunt instrument for accomplishing this, and generally cause reprisals from those tariffed-against. But taxation rules can accomplish this. And it is well within our power. We'll have to listen to the tantrums of the CEOs. But since the rules MUST MUST MUST apply to all companies equally, they'll decide at some point to live within the rules rather than scream about them.

The OTHER Problem--Automation

I've always felt uneasy reading the rah-rah "jobs of the future" articles, where everybody in the labor pool needs to learn to develop software and snazzy computer graphics and games. It's not going to happen. Not everybody has those kind of skills. And there are not very many of that kind of jobs even if by some miracle you created 60 million experts in that field. There is NOTHING WRONG with making things. Supervising a bunch of robots isn't much fun, and there aren't very many jobs left in a fully-automated factory. Actually making something with hands and tools is rewarding.

We've been focused on the wrong kind of efficiency. We've focused on saving labor, and saving money on labor, by off-shoring and automating. Now we have a huge oversupply of labor in the U.S. with nothing to do. The wheels of economic growth are grinding to a halt. The pool of purchasing power, the commons, gets smaller day by day.

We need less automation, and more actual work to do. We need more loggers and fewer logging machines, more factory workers and fewer robots, more customer service people and fewer automated
phone trees, more Americans answering the service calls and fewer Pakistanis. Our fields and orchards need more care from humans, and fewer herbicides, insecticides, and artificial fertilizers sprayed on from expensive equipment by a few bored operators.

So the next time you hear about restoring growth by short-term projects on roads or bridges, or American consumers putting themselves farther into debt to buy cheap foreign goods, just think. With two changes: reduced automation, on-shoring American jobs, we can bring back employment. Without those two changes, no amount of government spending and private debt will bring back the jobs.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Local Food and Weight Loss, Part 2

I first brought up this subject in Part 1.

Stephen Guyenet at Whole Health Source has an 8-article series on food rewards and obesity. As he points out, and it is important to stress, food reward is not the ONLY cause of obesity. There are a number of lifestyle factors, such as stress, sleep status, and exercise. Plenty of genetic and epigenetic influences (the genes your folks gave you, and what you have done with them). And developmental factors such as your childhood nutrition, and your mother's nutritional status when you were in the womb. But food reward is one which has changed markedly in the last thirty years, over exactly the timeframe that food reward through restaurant food, fast food, and junk food has skyrocketed.

So what's wrong with something tasting good? As humans, we're hardwired to seek out sources of sugar/starch, salt, and fat, and consume them when available. Availability was pretty scarce in the olden times (really olden) when our ancestors hunted animals that were mostly lean, and collected foods that were very rarely sweet. Modern fruits are just bags of sugar compared to wild fruits: compare a sweet apple and a crab apple. Salt was rare unless you lived on the seacoast.

Now, we live in a caveman's dream: sugary, fatty, salty foods available at every turn, three meals and innumerable snacks per day. Very high reward factors here, lots of happy dopamine on offer. Modern foods are also engineered to have highly-rewarding textures and flavors. We like crunchy and melty, especially in combination. Grilled cheese sandwich? M&Ms? This highly-rewarding food doesn't need much chewing; just a few lovely bites and down it goes.

So what's wrong with something tasting good? When it tastes TOO good, it overcomes your body's natural tendency for homeostasis (your fat set-point). Your body has several mechanisms for keeping your weight stable over the decades of your life. Good thing you don't have to take care of this matter yourself: even 10 calories daily more than your body needs would put on the pounds over the years. Even using a gram scale and counting every step would not allow you to control your input to this exactitude.

Leptin is a very important player in this arena, although discovered only recently, and there are many things that researchers don't know yet about how it works. But as a practical matter, numerous studies have shown that you can fatten rats quickly by giving them supermarket food: cookies, crackers, chocolate, etc.

Think of the foods that you just can't leave alone. Oatmeal among them? That's plain oatmeal, no salt, no sugar, no funny flavors? I didn't think so. Make a list of the foods that are very hard for you to resist. Probably chocolate, ice cream, chips and crackers, pizza; maybe soda, maybe particular fast food sandwiches; maybe chips and salsa. Each person's list is a little different, but there are big commonalities: fat, sugar/starch, salt.

In fact, if you are concerned about your weight, make that list now. Try for a list of ten foods or food categories that give you the most trouble. Write it on a 3x5 card and stick it to your frig.

Although these foods are highly addictive to you, you always have an opportunity to say no to them. That's before you get into the argument with yourself: I deserve this, I've been working so hard. Once you start the argument, it's hard not to eat the food because that means saying that you do NOT deserve this, and nobody wants to hear that. Not having them in the house is a good first step. Control the source. Not going to the restaurant that layers sugar on fat on salt on sugar on fat and adds the big flavors.

I have a secret for you. If you can stay away from these foods for a few weeks, they will lose most of their power over you. Try sugar: really stay away, not even a teaspoon, no fruit juice (just flavored sugar), no soda, no sugar in your coffee or tea, no ice cream, cookies, etc. And if you are a really hard case, no artificial sweeteners which can keep that craving alive. Strangely, after a few weeks, you won't crave it. Other foods start to taste sweet to you. Your tastebuds recover from their sugar surfeit. So the pain of giving up these "rewarding" foods is limited to a few tough weeks.

If you want to try this, here are five steps to take (thanks to Stephen Guyenet). I wouldn't rush into Level 5. Start with Level 1. That will be enough challenge to start with. See how it goes. Then maybe Level 2.

Level 1: the low-hanging fruit. Avoid your addictive foods, sugar, candy, pizza, baked goods. Minimize calorie-containing beverages, such as soda, juice, and sweet alcoholic drinks (wine or milk is OK). And don't snack. Snacks are for children.

Level 1 will almost certainly stop your weight gain, and probably turn it around.

Level 2: In addition to Level 1, eliminate packaged processed foods. Minimize restaurant meals, and when you do eat out, choose simple foods (not the layered loaded sugar-fat-salt bombs). Avoid seed oils (corn, canola, soy, sunflower, and safflower). Olive oil is OK. Try to cook most of your foods at home, from simple ingredients.

If this is not enough to start you losing weight and losing cravings, take it to the next level.

Level 3: In addition to Levels 1 and 2, make your cooking even simpler. Don't add fat to your foods. If the food has fat, like meat, that's OK. Don't butter your vegetables. Reduce your grain consumption, especially foods made of flour such as bread. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are recommended instead, but don't use butter or sour cream. If you want fat, such as butter, eat it separately, away from meals (preferably unsalted).

I can see the eyes rolling on this one. "Why would I eat a baked potato if I didn't get to put butter, sour cream and salt on it?" Aha!

If you have successfully settled yourself at each of the above levels for a period of time, and want to go farther, here are the last two.

Level 4: (yes there's more) Eat single foods. The end of cuisine, right? No vegetable medleys. No herbs and spices on the food. Broccoli. Ground beef. Baked potato. There you go. Don't salt your food. Do have some salt separately, 1/2 tsp in a glass of water once a day. Salt is necessary for life. Cook food by gentle methods: no deep frying, no sauteeing in oil, no grilling. Roast at low temperatures, simmer or boil. Don't drink any calorie-containing beverages. Only eat foods that taste good when you are hungry; avoid foods you would snack on if you weren't hungry and they were available.

Level 5: Eat just three foods, simply cooked. One kind of meat or protein food, one kind of starch, one kind of green vegetable. NOTE: Don't do this longer than a couple of weeks. Get bored with them. You'll eat less, and only enough for your body's needs. Eat your three foods at each meal.

So there you go. Some things to try. Traditional diets (of local foods) generally have one staple starch, one or a few staple meats, seasonal vegetables in varying quantities. These simple diets sometimes have a staple condiment that they use to add flavor to their bland food. We'll talk about traditional and local foods in the next segment.