Rethinking Local

Recently, I’ve run into some interesting articles going against the “buy local” mantra, mostly via @cblatts. In particular, I read an article on the book industry and one on food – and while neither were groundbreaking, they did make me stop and think about what really helps the community – whether that community is where I live or a more abstract community like authors or farmers. This is stuff I’m not well-versed in and I definitely have some reading to do, but this is just a small part of me trying to clarify my opinion – and I’m taking you along for the ride.

The first piece I read was this Slate article explaining that Amazon was better than local bookstores. The author spends most of his time explaining why Amazon is better for the customer and for “literary culture”  because it can afford to lower prices, effectively allowing people to buy and read more books. I do a share of shopping on Amazon, but I also love book stores. I always enjoyed wandering the aisles in Borders and I got coupons for 30-50% off an item, which brought the prices down enough to be comparable. I love the stuffy, crowded atmosphere of Old Town Books in Tempe, and there’s even a cat that lives there. But I’m not delusional about the role bookstores play in the industry – or the role Amazon plays. I think the article is right in pointing to Amazon not as the killer of literary culture but its savior.

The second piece I read was a short note from Ben Casnocha about buying food locally versus globally. Buying local (and organic) is definitely become a trend for the suburban hipsters among us. I visit the ASU Farmers Market every once in a while for some good tamales, but I’ve never gone full-local for my produce. But what I never thought of was what buying local does to the global – the farm workers in poorer countries that aren’t benefiting from the trend. Casnocha later put up quotes from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist:

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by huge increase in fertiliser use in Africa, the adoption of drop irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chicken and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between)

As people continue to buy into the whole organic lifestyle, it inevitably bleeds into more than just your neighborhood farmer’s market. But that quote is (in my opinion) an important thing to remember – rural farmers in developing countries have been selling organic and local for years because they have to. The best way for them to increase their revenue is by increasing their inventory or by expanding their customer base. When you barely make enough to cover expenses and survive, it’s difficult to invest. When not abused, things like pesticides and international barges can help tremendously. While many suburbanites with the time and money continue to choose to buy local, it’s important to remember that not everything that’s good for your community can (nor should) be extrapolated to the global level.

Ethical Eating, Or How I Tried to Continue Eating Everything Without Remorse

When it comes to types of diet, I have always been firmly in the omnivore bracket. I have had plenty of friends that run the spectrum of vegetarianism for a variety of health and ethical reasons, but I haven’t really changed much. Taste-wise, I like meat too much and vegetables too little. Health-wise, I still have a hearty metabolism and I keep semi-fit. Ethics-wise, it gets a little fuzzy. I’ll get to a point soon, I promise, but for years I have been aware of the lack of humane treatment of livestock in the farming industry. Kim and I have had plenty of conversations about how meat is made and what kind of food we should actually eat.

I don’t think I’m very close to becoming a vegetarian, but if I had the option I would definitely become an ethical omnivore. This would mean, of course, that I only supported the ethical treatment and humane slaughter of animals. If you raise your cows living in their own waste and you cram chickens into poorly ventilated barn houses, you wouldn’t be seeing my money. If you let your livestock roam freely and killed them humanely, I’d be a consumer. While some think that this doesn’t mean much because I’m still eating a murdered animal, I’ve been a firm believer of nature’s gracing of humans with the means to be omnivores and I know that plants strive to survive just as much as animals even if they don’t have faces. What I’m not a firm believer in is mistreating animals just because you can or just because you’re going to eat them anyways. And so I look to more ethical eating and I find relatively little satisfaction because free range, come to find, means little.

A rigid search for the standards for free-range is relatively fruitless. The term, historically at least, refers to ranchers who allowed their herds to wander without fences – freely. As far as the food industry is concerned, it used to mean farms that kept livestock outside and able to move and perform natural acts – like perching, dust bathing, the like – until it was time for slaughter. But when it comes to the food I eat, what does free-range mean? According to the USDA, it doesn’t really mean much. Evidence A is a pdf with the specifics of a law pertaining to animal welfare:

§ 205.239 Livestock living conditions.

(a) The producer of an organic livestock operation must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including: (1) Access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment;

Concerning the National Organic Standards, the USDA had faced the problem of defining what it meant to have “access to the outdoors,” and in a memo in 2002 [PDF] tried and failed to give it an adequate definition:

Access to the outdoors simply means that a producer must provide livestock with an opportunity to exit any barn or other enclosed structure. Access to the outdoors does not require a producer to comply with a specific space or stocking rate requirement. Neither does the requirement mandate that an entire herd or flock have access to the outdoors at any one time nor does the requirement supercede the producer’s responsibility for providing living conditions that accommodate livestock health, safety or well-being.

In other words, “access to the outdoors” means leaving a door open. For some farms, this means a barn house with poor ventilation and no light and packed with chickens wandering in their own filth might have a minuscule enclosed patio with a little bit of sun. And so I continued my search and finally found the words “free-range.” I was exhilarated! It was exactly what I had been looking for all along: the Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms page. That must have a thorough definition of what it means when I buy something that has a “free-range” sticker on it!

FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING:
Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

Thanks, Government.

The Unconventional Lunch

I’m nearing the end of my week of low-cost meals, and it’s been interesting. I’ll list a day-by-day at the end of the post so you can see what I’ve been living on, but this post is more about what I’ve been doing and what I learned. Chief among them, I spent the wee eating $1.50 worth of food each day, which has been interesting. It wasn’t impossible and it wasn’t crippling, but it wasn’t easy.

Posing with my first meal and $1.50

I lost choice. My selection for meals was drastically reduced when considering the budget and the schedule. Planning ahead led to small meals in anticipation that I wouldn’t have enough for later, so I was always looking for the most filling but most inexpensive option, which is scarce. This is especially compared to my normal diet. Even if I avoid fast food and restaurants and make my own food at home it is usually comprised of meat (expensive) and layers of goods (think burgers, nachos, pasta – all with tons of extras). When it came to finding food this time I was restricted to the inexpensive and the simple: rice, noodles, beans and the like.

Food gets boring. The slim pickings also led to boredom with food. The third time I was eating rice I was far less enthused. I’ve eaten the same food a lot before, but I usually have the option to change it – add something here or mix it up a little – and that option goes away. No choice means things get pretty bland, and there are only a few ways around that.

I drink too much soda. That is not news. Like, not at all. I routinely drink three to four sodas a day, and I knew that would be my biggest hurdle of this challenge. On Monday I had a headache by 5 o’clock, and I sacrificed some budget for a soda. I decided that, in an effort to stymie the headaches, I would set aside 37 cents for a soda each day. This kept pains away, but also cut down on my budget even more.

I’m faking it. I’m clearly not living the same life as someone under the poverty line. There were several occasions in which I fell back on society’s cheap, overly preserved foods. Nearly every meal was made with a luxury appliance: stove, rice cooker, microwave, something. Most people living below the poverty threshold do not have these opportunities. They can’t toss a potato in the microwave or grab 16 cent Ramen noodles. They also don’t have a VIP card at the local Fry’s to grab all the ingredients they could ever need. A meal requires the time, in addition to the money, to get the necessary ingredients before you spend even more time cooking. It reminds me of the Black is for Sunday video (Invisible Children, in case you hadn’t guessed) when Katie tries to make dinner and explains that the second you finish one meal you have to start making the next one. I did not run into that problem. I was able to do my own thing and then make food in a few minutes before carrying on with my own thing – a luxury few of the world’s poor have.

This was just food. I lived off of $1.50 a day – for food. I used utensils and cookware that were already paid for, and I utilized electricity and technology not always available to the less fortunate. And that’s not talking about my fuel expenses, electricity for non-food use, entertainment (cable, internet, what have you) and other expensive items. The poverty line is how much you make, it’s how much you have to spend on everything.

26 cents of the smallest pasta ever

In summary, I’m just about done. In yesterday’s 2nd hour and this morning I talked with some students about all sorts of food, which made me crazy-hungry all day. BUT! I haven’t felt full since Sunday, and it’s been a very interesting challenge. I’m going to say that it was informative or empowering or whatever – but it was something worth doing. I learned a thing or two about food and I was able to bring up the issue of poverty with several dozen teenagers. All in all, I’m glad I did it and I’d gladly do it again. For more information on the campaign, go to LiveBelowtheLine.com, or you can look at the Global Poverty Project. Also, my friend Erik used to work for ACF International, which runs food security programs all over the world – kind of like an anti-hunger welfare system. While I am not familiar enough with any of these groups enough to endorse them, I think they are all worth a look.

Meals I Ate This Week

Monday: Steamed rice (45 cents), a soda (37 cents), and two packets of Ramen (28 cents)

Tuesday: Two eggs (24 cents), a soda (37 cents), and two more eggs (24 cents)

Wednesday: Two Pop Tarts (68 cents), a soda (37 cents), and one half of a Kraft Mac’n’Cheese (45 cents)

Thursday: Seven ounces of rice (49 cents), two eggs (24 cents), potato (40 cents), and a soda (37 cents)

Friday: One Pop Tart (34 cents), approximately 15 ounces of pink lemonade from a student (18 cents), pasta made up of two ounces of spaghetti noodles (10 cents) and four ounces of Ragu pasta sauce (16 cents).

Living Below the Line

Today is the first of five days during which I will be living off of $1.50 of food per day. It’s a part of , Live Below the Line, a campaign led by the Global Poverty Project. World Bank marked the international poverty threshold at $1.25/day in 2005, and since then inflation has bumped it to around $1.50. That’s for everything – housing, fuel, education, transportation, food, all of it. And over a billion people live below that line, struggling to afford to live.

So I’m going to try to feed myself with $1.50 a day. It’s not the same as living off of that, and I’m not alleviating poverty directly. I know that. But, it has led me to make this blog post, and I hope it’s informed you a little bit about poverty. It’s a huge problem that a diverse number of groups are trying to bring to an end. This week, I’m taking part in a campaign to raise awareness about it.

This afternoon I broke my fast with 45 cents worth of steamed rice. I’m having 37 cents worth of soda right now (I was going to go soda-free for the week, but caffeine deficiency got the better of me). I’m debating dinner right now but it will probably be some sort of noodle. It has been an interesting day so far, and the week promises to be a challenge as I go forwards. I’ll try to post again about it before the week is out.

North to South

So, the passed day or so since my last post has gone more or less as planned, though with some delay.  Last night, almost immediately after I updated this blog, I met JACOB.  That’s right, I met Jacob.  For those of you not as intrinsically hopped up on Invisible Children, Jacob was one of the four boys that the IC crew met on their very first trip.  He had escaped Kony’s ranks and was in hiding in Gulu with his brother.  His story and his resilience are a huge inspiration, and meeting him was really exciting.  I didn’t want to be one of those starstruck types (like I was in San Diego in 2007) so I quickly went back to my own thing at the cafe.  But when I got ready to leave, Jacob offered to walk with me to the office the next morning!

Spent the night in a small but decent room.  Woke up really early to get things ready and headed out to Kope Cafe to meet up with Jacob.  We walked for a while before Richard rode by us on a bike!  Richard is an IC mentor and, specifically, Tony’s mentor.  Tony (another boy from the first film) and Richard came to Arizona this passed spring as a part of the Legacy Tour.  After we made it to the office, I met up with Jessica, my contact, and we had a long sit-down talking about the different programs and going into some of the specifics about the way they work.  After talking for a while, I had a look at the local IC store and nabbed myself a messenger bag! Totally awesome. I also got one of the famed yellow bracelets which you can only get at the office here.  Awesome.

From there, I went and checked out of JoJo’s before heading back to Kope Cafe for a bit.  I made a little bit of progress uploading pictures, but was ultimately foiled in updating anything.  But!  As I was getting ready to pack up and thinking about finding the bus park, Alison texted me that she’d be in Gulu.  Happy to join a friend, I agreed to head to her favorite Ethiopian restaurant in the country.  Said goodbye to Jacob and walked with Alison to Abyssinia and had Ethiopian food for the first time (that I can remember).  It was actually pretty good!  The injera takes some getting used to, but all in all it was pretty good and I’ll have to make it a point to visit the one by ASU when I get home.

From there, Alison and I walked to the bus park where she met up with her ILF crew and I found a bus to Kampala.  A very empty bus.  Buses usually don’t leave until they’re full, and I ended up waiting for almost two hours for the bus to get moving.  Part of this time I passed reading, and part of this time I spent outside (I saw the ILF truck pull over nearby so I went to chat with Alison and her co-workers [both of whom had tried teaching me to dance at the ILF party] after getting some biscuits).  Then!  We moved!  And five hours later we arrived in Kampala and I had no idea where I was.  I made it to the Jaguar bus station and now I’m waiting for the 1:00am bus to Kigali.  I should make it to Rwanda around 6 or 7 I think, and arrive in Kigali at 9.  But that’s if I believe them.  I’ve heard it usually takes at least a couple of hours longer than that, so we’ll see.

Owner of a Lonely House

So, I’ve been hanging tight in this house alone for about six days.  Monica and Nadja left on Friday morning to Kigali and Kampala, respectively.  That evening I met up with Alison at Sankofa for some yummy pizza and a good amount of chatting.  All in all a good night.  That night, as you know, I had my big white ant encounter, which was a heck of a lot of fun.

On Saturday I shaved for the first time in about four weeks, so I’m looking a little cleaner but a little less-traveled. We’ll see whether I decide to keep clean.  Then I headed over to the ILF House and hung out with Alison all day.  She let me take a bunch of movies and we watched Definitely, Maybe and Hotel Rwanda between lunch.  That night I reheated a bunch of leftovers on the stove for a decent dinner.  It rained on me pretty bad on my way home, which made me wonder if white ants would return – they did (but in lesser numbers).  Sunday I got to talk to people on the internet a lot in the morning while making scrambled eggs.  Headed to Sankofa for a bit and hung out with Alison/watched TV before going to dinner at Aanya.

Monday was a pretty slow day at work.  Had a lot of “fun” trying to find maize seeds for the chickens – got the wrong bag and didn’t know it until I had hauled it all the way home! But the crisis was averted eventually.  Tried hopelessly to make Alpen macaroni (Nadja made it on Sound of Music night and it was delicious!) but it came up lacking.  Yesterday Lucas came by and spent the night in town, so we teamed up on a pasta with onions, garlic, and tomatoes and all in all I think it came out pretty well!  And as I type, Nadja and Erik are on their way back from Kampala.

All in all, I spent a hefty sum of my week passing time with Alison, which was really nice.  Plus I was able to use the internet and talk to more people back home.  I ate in town quite a few times, but also tried – with moderate success – to make food at home.  Today after work I’m going to finish preparing some dumplings, but I’m not sure when they’ll be cooked.  Now that people are on their way back to Lira town, I’ll find some much-needed partners in cooking.

Cuisine

So, I thought it was about time to write about the food here in Uganda.  I knew a little bit about the local food here, but it was interesting to experience it first-hand.  Fresh off the plane on my first night in Uganda, Morris and George took me to their favorite hangout (and a place I frequented while in Kampala for its proportions and prices): People’s Choice.  My first meal was beef stew, but what was exciting were the sides.  The stew came with all sorts of staple Ugandan foods on the side: things you know like rice and beans, along with local versions of yams. But also: matoke (you take not-quite-bananas and steam them before mashing them up), posho (a type of cornflour blob), and cassava (a tuber [i think] that can be cooked a variety of ways).  Here’s a dimly lit picture of my first meal:

from the bottom, counter-clockwise: matoke, rice, cassava, yams, beans with posho in the middle.

In the days before I left Kampala, I seized the opportunity to go to a burger place in Wandegeya. I figured that I should try to get a taste of what Ugandans thought was American food before I left for a smaller town where I may not have the option.

The burger seemed oddly lonely on the plate. Next time I got it I ordered chips (fries) to go with it!

Oddly enough, I haven’t had traditional food since I’ve arrived in Lira. Sankofa, the internet cafe here, has delicious samosas among other things (I just tried their pizza today and it was not too shabby albeit not Pizza Hut). Twice I’ve been to an Indian restaurant called the Hotel Aanya where I’ve made the unique (to my party) decision to have Chinese food. At home we’ve had Mexican food, potatoes, macaroni, and soup. And every morning before he left I teamed up with Erik to make fruit salads for breakfast with mango, papaya, passion fruit, watermelon, and pineapple.  I’m hoping to check out some other places in town for regional foods and local stuff.