Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Role of Food in My Life

This past year as a I started my term as a US-2 I've had a lot of experiences centered around food, so I'd like to share a few!

1. The first big one was becoming a "vegetarian" during training. Contrary to popular belief, it was the Methodists and William and Mary ecology professors who got me started on this, NOT the hippies in Seattle! One of my professors sophomore year was really big on explaining how much eating meat (at least in the US) contributed to pollution. The big boys were cows, pigs, and chickens whose costs of living and dying are causing major problems for the environment. Cutting meat out of your diet is one of the most environmentally-friendly moves you can make!

At the same time, many of the fish we eat are harvested in unsustainable methods. Many that are wild-caught are gradually decreasing in number over time without being replenished. Many that are raised in farms are either causing a lot of pollution for maintaining them, or they are being fed prime species of smaller fish that the species we over-fish eat, contributing to a further reduction in the populations. Not to mention that super rich countries, like the US, go into developing countries and out-fish them, leaving them with a smaller food source.

This information impacted me at the time, but I had no idea how I could live without meat. Especially since I was still living with my family!

Well 3 years later, come time for training, we were at Stony Point where they have amazing food all-around. One day I realized that I had gone 3 whole meals without eating meat without meaning to! Hearing from some of the current vegetarians about their experiences made me remember what I had heard in class, and so started my confusion over what I should eat. I still agreed that changing my diet would be a good practice for the world, although it was obvious that one person doing this would not help our growing problem with pollution. I've been reminded multiple times though that even if the impact is not even noticeable, it doesn't change the fact that I should do what I believe is right in my life.

I say that I am a "vegetarian" because I recognize that sometimes other factors have priority over the save-the-environment approach. For one, I wasn't sure I could do it at a homeless shelter when I got here. Turns out I can! Two, I think hospitality trumps personal choice sometimes so I wouldn't reject something given to me from someone I didn't know well who made a great effort to feed me (not related to meat, but this idea comes up later!). And three, there are 4 animals I will currently eat: deer because they are plentiful and often over-populated, tilapia because they are farm-raised but vegetarians so not causing a depletion problem, catfish because they are omnivores but are fed vegetarian because it's cheaper and therefore are not causing a depletion problem, and Alaskan salmon because Alaska knows how to sustain its fish populations!

Of course, all of this will go down the tubes in the event of a zombie-apocalypse where you gotta eat what's available!  (except zombie flesh)

2. Composting. Sure, my mom did it with fruit and vegetables in her garden in Virginia. But OH NO this was nothing compared to Seattle where any type of food and paper is composted, and compared to overcoming my gag reflex in touching other peoples' food! Not to mention mold, endless mold. Working at the Jeremiah Project where you got dirty everyday got me over the fear of soiling my clothes with any number of unspeakable smells, but my first month at Mary's Place got me over the fear of not only cleaning off other people's half-eaten food, but literally digging through the compost buckets to hunt for plastics that no one can remember to throw in the trash can. Oh yes, moldy bread, coffee grounds, used tissues, gnawed-on bones, fruit slime, spaghetti, old cheese, and icing make a lovely smell, and feels great when it seeps under your gloves!

3. Becoming a "vegan." I realized about halfway through my trial as a "vegetarian" that dairy products and eggs are the same problem as cows and chickens causing pollution since they produce these products!  Yogurt and cheese were my go-to's to help me get over the loss of meat, so how was I to let them go too?! Well, I was able to do it, at least at home. I slowly found substitutes that were not super expensive (except fake cheese, it's not really worth it!), and I started reading labels when I bought things.

Obviously, this would not work at Mary's Place if I was to eat actual food! I also realized that this would not work at friends' houses or restaurants as again I would not be eating anything, and I could very well offend most people by making them prepare special meals for me if I came to visit. So right now I am satisfied with the idea that I will buy "vegan" in my home, and eat "vegetarian" elsewhere as much as I can. "Vegan" is also not exactly so, as I don't care about eating animal products like honey, but not eating dairy and eggs makes it look vegan, as only eating 4 animals makes me look vegetarian.

I also watched a movie on the treatment of meat animals in the United States, and that got me again, although I never would have thought that I'd change my eating habits for the sake of the animal.  However, the way we treat most of the animals we eat is really, I would say, evil. I have no problem with the fact that my body was made to digest other animals, but it is not worth it if they suffer their whole lives for me to enjoy a cheeseburger.

4. Finally, the Food Stamp Challenge! I participated in this through my church the last week of April, and it was harder than I expected. For a single person, you would be using $7 a day for meals. I calculated it out, and that's $49/week = $196/month. I get $200/month as a food stipend, so I was like pshh I already do that and have money left over! But then I talked to some people and realized how much free food I get from Mary's Place. So for that week I ate all my breakfasts at home, brought lunch, and didn't go out for dinner with friends. You also could not use any food you currently had in possession, so unless you bought some, you couldn't use oil or any herbs.

Here are all the things I bought for 7 days worth of meals:

Peanut Butter
Frozen orange juice mix
Almond Milk
Frozen Broccoli
Pasta Sauce
Canned black beans
Can of soup
Canned peaches

I bought them over a couple of days and I was used to living on less, so I figured I'd be fine and have at least a little leftover.

I spent $10 more than I was supposed to!! What?! I bought all the cheapo brands, and still went over! Wow. It was hard living on just that too; PB sandwiches at work everyday with no snacks and repeat dinners with no extra flavorings was really hard mentally to do. Especially since there was so much candy in the office that week, and we eat real good for lunch at Mary's Place!

There were some flaws in the system: the biggest one is that when you have food stamps you have the whole month's worth at once. So essentially it wouldn't have mattered that I spent $10 more one week if I spent less the next. I usually end up doing $60 or so at once and then don't go back to the store for 2 weeks except for little things. Another thing is that I didn't eat all of the food I bought, so if I had left out a few options and ate a lot a lot of similar meals, I would have made it. Also, a few coworkers pointed out that many women who are on a low-budget food stamp program do use services like Mary's Place, so their meals are supplemented too.

But the really big point is that I got to feel what it was like to eat much plainer things, and much less, than I was accustomed to. I got to go home after a small and boring lunch and not be able to pig out on food. I was never starving, but I wasn't ever satisfied either. It really made me frustrated, but then appreciative of all the meals I do have, and that I got 3 meals each day.

An unexpected problem was the hospitality thing, in that this week all the moms who don't speak English and all the kids kept trying to feed me! How do you explain to non-English speakers and kids that no I don't want your food because I am living on $7 a day which can only come from my pocket money, but yes I still like you and appreciate your gifts? You can't. So I cheated a little :) But really, people rarely live in complete isolation, and I've found that a lot more "poor" people than "rich" are willing to share and give to others, wanting nothing in return.

~I don't know how long my weird changes in diet will go on, and I've worried a lot about people thinking my decisions were stupid or at least hard to understand, but I am really glad that God's been teaching me about food this year. I've started to find in the last month that grains are becoming about 50% of my diet, which is way unbalanced. This seems to be taking the place of the yogurt and cheese which took the place of meat, so I really need to start finding some healthier options (and self-control!) to put me back in check.

So it looks like the next lesson is how to be a healthy "vegetarian" "vegan" !

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