Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Good Food on a Tight Budget

An NGO has produced an excellent guide to basic, cheap, healthy cooking: Good Food on a Tight Budget. Their press release announcing it and giving some other info is here.
I have reviewed it, and aside from a few little details, it is very good. It starts with a guide to foods that are cheap and healthy, and then gives recipes. If I were to write a guide to how I shop and cook, it would look very much like this. My diet basically consists of about half of the foods they recommend, and about half of their recipes they show. I plan on experimenting with the other half.
There are so many good points. They tell you how to make salad dressing. They recommend yogurt and tell you how to make good things with it. They recommend eggs. They give the basics of making oatmeal.
Most of the people in my family will know much of this, but I would still recommend that you read it as a refresher, and to pick up a few tips. You should definitely bookmark it as a reference, and have it handy to send to friends. Following this guide will tell you how to feed a family well on a budget that is smaller than SNAP benefits.
If you are not a healthy eater, you can use this guide to make a few easy changes to your diet that will have big rewards. I'd recommend starting with replacing your snacks and desserts with their yogurt parfait recipe. Then follow their advice for healthier breakfast foods. Just make one easy change every couple weeks or so, and within a year you will be feeling a lot better and your health will improve.
Information like this is the best way to improve the health and quality of life of people in this country. If everyone had this knowledge and acted on it, then people would never go hungry, and most of the health problems in the country would go away.
Now, for the nitpicking:
The biggest problem is that they push organic foods. There is no good evidence that organic foods are any healthier, or that the levels of pesticides in normal foods cause significant harm. If you are poor, you do not need to be spending money on organic foods. The health gains from lowering pesticide exposure are tiny, if they even exist, and there are many, many things that are a better use of your money.
They say, "Buy brown rice in bulk and mix with white rice if needed to lower cost." This is bad advice. Brown rice needs to be cooked about twice as long as white rice. If you mix different types of rice, you will get a nasty hash of overcooked white rice and undercooked brown rice.
Typo alert: they have 'mungo beans' when they should say 'mung beans'.
They really should have produced a printer friendly version without all the background graphics. This is something that I would like to print several copies of to give to people. This is something that you might want to print dozens of copies to to give to people in your church.
I am guessing that some of the foods they recommend would cease to be cheap if more people started buying them. There is only so much starfruit and squid to go around.
They assume you know basic cooking tasks like how to peel and chop vegetables. This can be hard to figure out on your own, and it is very easy to get disappointing results and get discouraged. Even experienced cooks like me and my family sometimes have trouble dealing with the exotic Asian or Hispanic things we buy as experiments. You need to learn food preparation by seeing someone doing it. There is a learning curve to cooking, and this guide will not get you past it if you are a complete novice. They should have recommended a cooking show for people to watch for tips. I have no idea which show is best, but I know there must be some good ones out there.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Politics of Food

Here is a good article about the politics of food.
But far fewer people pay attention to reverse food snobbery—to folks who are proud of eating junk, and lots of it, in part out of the conviction that doing so offends Whole Foods shoppers, who, on this view, "think they're better than us." When Michelle Obama announced her program to encourage American children—one in three of whom is overweight or obese—to eat healthier meals, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin attacked the First Lady as a busybody and a fatso.
Children need guidance on how to eat and what's good for them; that's what adults are for. If you define "what's good for kids" as "what kids want to eat," they would gorge on cookies and ice cream at every meal. The right thing to do is not always the easy thing. Isn't this common sense—especially for conservatives, who profess a belief in personal responsibility?
Apparently not. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the states with the worst childhood obesity rates are all in the South, the most culturally conservative region in the country.
Read the whole thing. I come from a Crunchy Con family, and this is the kind of article I might write. I agree with it, and I learned some things:
Granted, nobody on a limited budget can afford to shop exclusively at Whole Foods. But then again, Americans expect to spend far less of their income on food than do other industrialized nations. The USDA reports that in 2010, the average American spent 7 percent of his income on food—roughly half of what Western Europeans do, the UK excepted. European Union 2011 statistics show that though Britons spend only 9 percent of their income on food, they are the most obese population in Europe.
Another bit of evidence that cheap food makes you fat.
Interestingly, I did not find it from the food-related RSS feeds I subscribed to after working at the FDA. I got it from an old favorite: Atomic Nerds, who linked to the article and added more good commentary.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thought and Categories

Alleged Wisdom is back, for the first time in months. I find that I miss writing, and my family misses reading my writing. For various reasons I hardly ever log onto Facebook anymore, so this is once again the ideal communication mechanism. I'll try to post at least once a week, but don't bother checking more often than that.
Today's thoughts are a tangent from an article I happened across. I want to give my thoughts first and the link at the end, so you can read the article with a persepctive that most people do not have.
Uneducated minds always try to fit things into well-defined categories. The human mind has a very strong desire to categorize everything. This is a natural result of human history; the ability to instantly and correctly categorize an unknown object as 'snake' or 'root' is very important. People whose brains had a strong tendency to decisively categorize things were more likely to survive and reproduce.
This habit often causes problems in the modern world. Proper scientific thought usually involves unknowns, probabilities, and lots of interesting things that do not fit neatly into pre-defined categories. It is very difficult to be a good scientist if your brain insists on making categorical judgments. A reliable way of telling the difference between good research and pseudoscientific nonsense is to look for clues that the author has already put things into categories and is looking for reasons to justify that choice.
The attitude causes even more problems when we insist on putting people into categories. One of the fundamental tensions in the modern world is the fact that we simply do not have the mental ability to treat everyone we meet as the unique individuals that they are. We have to make assumptions about how to properly interact with them. One way of defining 'culture' is the default assumprions you use to interact with people.
As civilizations become more enlightened and less barbaric, they use fewer categories to define people. The social ideal is to treat everyone the same, rather than fitting people into byzantine category systems of race, caste, family, and/or social status. There are massive benefits to this from increased human freedom, but there are also costs. Interaction can become more difficult if you do not know exactly who you are dealing with.
It may be the case that forcing people to confront the complexity of other people as individuals makes them better scientists. If you live in a society where everyone is categorized, then you are trained from birth to think that everything in the universe fits into neat categories. If you live in a more modern and free society, your thinking will be less lazy.
This understanding of the benefits of non-categorical thinking influenced my thoughts as I read this article about tolerating differences in children. As I read this article, I felt very optimistic about the future of our society. Mainly this optimism was because the article hints at a future where freedom of human thought and action will be respected and cherished, but I also feel that we will all be better thinkers as a result. Consider the following talk with an 8-year-old:
"No, I don't want to be a girl," he said, as he checked himself out in his bedroom mirror and posed, Cosmo-style. "I just want to wear girl stuff."
"Why do you want to be a boy and not a girl?" I asked.
He looked at me as if I were daft. "Because I want to be who I am!"
By way of explanation, he told me about a boy in his third-grade class who is a soccer fanatic. "He comes to school every day in a soccer jersey and sweat pants," P. J. said, "but that doesn't make him a professional soccer player."
If he came up with that explanation himself, he has a more coherent and creative thought process than most people in our society.