Tuesday, December 18, 2012

D.C. for Christmas

I've been missing D.C. a lot lately and so have begun a time-sucking search for paraphernalia that will feed my nostalgia. Some of my favorite (and now highly coveted) knick knacks include:

D.C. Map Earrings from the Urban Gridded Collection at Aminimal
D.C.-shaped cutting board and cookie cutters at Hill's Kitchen
Customizable D.C. pillow by ilovecalifornia on Etsy.com
D.C. monument-shaped chocolates by Chocolate Chocolate

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Before the Cliff: Mini pies and cinnamon ice cream

Black & Blue (berry) Mini Pie
Well, I've been in San Diego for exactly three weeks now. As predicted, the daytime temperature rarely strays below a breezy 75 degrees. My proximity to the coastline (about two miles) and at least a hundred great hiking trails are great sources of happiness. I'm still working remotely for my D.C. employer, exploring ways that business and philanthropy in the United States and Mexico can bolster the non-profit sector across the border. (Paying attention to Mexican non-profits would be a good start, I've learned.) And I'm doing some ad hoc work for my soon-to-be San Diego employer, a community health group. Through those experiences, I'm re-entering the world of food and physical activity policy, writ large, a huge excitement for me. And I'm interacting with the community again, which makes this whole move a bit sweeter.

In other news, I'm working on becoming a big sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters. I've joined an area women's book club, appropriately called "Hip Chicks Book Club," whose next read is the first book in Game of Thrones. There's an amazing YMCA down the street from my apartment, which I plan on joining as soon as their New Years joining fee waiver goes into effect. I'm planning a container garden from my partial-shade balcony to be seeded early next year. And I've bought the supplies necessary to paint a foolproof forest scene, using this handy YouTube instructional video. Plus, I'm forcing my boyfriend to partake fully in Christmas festivities, including but not limited to tree adorning, stocking hanging, gingerbread house constructing, cookie decorating, and Christmas music jamming. We'll see if he endures...

I'm hoping to start work full-time with the San Diego folks in early January. In preparation for the big job transition, I've been invited to their holiday party tonight. It's a potluck, and I signed myself up to bring a pie. After much Internet research (and a new ice cream maker), I've decided to make mini apple and berry pies using a standard muffin tin, and a creamy cinnamon ice cream. I sort of crowd-sourced my pie recipes, but you can find more information on making these adorable desserts at Dollhouse Bake Shoppe and Zoom Yummy. The cinnamon ice cream recipe I stole wholesale from this rave-reviewed one on AllRecipes.com. As the commenters suggested, I used just 3/4 c. sugar, rather than a whole cup, but otherwise followed the instructions exactly. Most of my produce is from Sprouts, my new hangout and a welcome throw-back to my time in Phoenix, where Sprouts was also king. Fun fact: produce is ridiculously cheap in Southern California.

I feel a little ironic, baking pies and ice cream for the staff of a childhood obesity prevention group. But hey, if we're going off the fiscal cliff in the next couple of weeks--Wile. E. Coyote-style--I'd like one of my last meals to be a miniaturized dessert. (Read a smart column on the ubiquitous Cliff conversation by my current boss here.) And I know the end of the world is predicted for the 21st, but doesn't anyone else find the date 12/12/12 a little fantastic? This is the last time this century that we'll have a matching date, month, and year. (The only cooler date was last year's 11/11/11, when all the digits were the same.)

The only conclusion I can draw is that we should all eat pie.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cash Cows? What Writing for Slate Taught Me About Making Milk

Holstein cows grazing by F.d.W. / flickr.com
"If being a dairy farmer were like riding a roller coaster, 2009 was the loop-de-loop. 

"This summer’s drought was the gut-wrenching vertical drop."

In the wake of this summer's drought, how are dairy farmers faring? You probably never asked yourself that question because it's an unobvious one to us non-farmers. 

Before starting research for this series of articles on Slate I might have guessed that the worst-off farmers were the corn farmers. There's a drought, their crop is destroyed, they lose money, right? Not so. In fact, dairy farmers and cattle ranchers are in much worse shape than the princes to King Corn. The cheap corn and soy that dairy producers rely on is suddenly much more expensive, and the prices they receive for their milk are hardly rising. They're watching their life's savings flow steadily out of their bank accounts, retirement accounts, college savings accounts. Read more from Slate HERE...

There's a lot to this whole debate that I didn't explore in the article. One issue is the labyrinthine milk pricing system in this country. In attempt to understand it, I read the USDA's 20+ page primer on the issue. A half-hour later I was no smarter and battling a serious headache.

I figured an ag journalist would do a better job explaining the issue to a laywoman like me. I decided to talk to Pete Hardin, who edits and writes probably 80 percent of the content in a fantastic trade publication The Milkweed. When we got on the phone, I told him simply: "I want to understand how milk prices are set in this country." There was a pause when I was sure we'd been disconnected, then laughter. He had been sitting in his car, parked in his garage, trying to dig up some old papers and stats for me. He was laughing so heartily I imagined him doubled over his steering wheel, wondering who this supremely naiver writer was.

Finally, he took a deep breath in and said seriously: "If you don't have to, I wouldn't touch that issue." Even though he writes about it ad nauseum, he said it's highly politically charged and--to be honest--pretty boring. Unless the piece is really about milk prices, it'd be better not to give the issue short shrift.

But I got into it a little bit, and I think you should, too. The people who make our milk are getting short changed by ineffective, cobbled-together policies that don't respond readily to market pressures. It's not just that dairy farming is hard or unprofitable. It's actually impoverishing farmers across the country. Those hard-to-understand federal and state milk prices make it easier for monopolistic practices to rule the day. Big diary is on the way. Small family dairy farms are becoming a thing of the past.

And the few young people who have tried to enter the business--and it's incredibly costly and risky to do so--are being driven out. In the dairy sector, perhaps more than any other, we're losing our new farmers. The average age of American farmers is 57. This summer's drought will likely erase any progress we've made in the last five years enticing young people to the biz.

Family Farm Defenders and the National Family Farm Coalition are good sources of information. The Rodale Institute, which focuses on small-scale, organic production, is a great organization, too.

Take some time in the midst of the election shenanigans to think more deeply about your milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and coffee creamer. My new dairy farmer friend Chris Kraft pleaded with me: "Think behind the shelf."  The people who make our milk need us readers to dare to take on the complex, even the boring. It's often the dense stuff, the weedy policies, the will-not-be-sound-bited issues that matter the most.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Magazine Doing It Right

When I was a senior in college and my campus minister was retiring from her job as my pastor, she reflected on her experience with Duke kids. They seem so tough, capable, even cold, like they've got everything together. They don't need help from anyone. But when you touch them, they just melt.

I was reminded today that this is not just true of Duke students; it's true of people. This brief blog post is a shout-out to Los Angeles-based event series and online publication Zócalo Public Square*. This magazine never ceases to amaze me by capturing people as they're melting. Their editorial staff makes intimate personal experience available to the masses--to the readers, sure, but also to the writers who end up sharing their stories. Many of them wouldn't call themselves writers, but Zócalo gives them the space to become one. A recent piece by their deputy managing editor, Jennifer Lee, who I've met in person a couple of times, moved me to my core. Give it a read and tell me what you think!

*Full disclosure: My boss is their editorial director, and I've written a piece for them.

Monday, September 24, 2012

My SNAP Experience: The Myth of "This Isn't So Bad!"

Safety net by heber F / flickr.com
One year ago, around the same time in September (Hunger Action Month), I was slouched over my desk in my downtown Washington, D.C., cubicle, grumbling to every coworker within earshot. It was Friday of the 2011 SNAP Experience, and despite my best efforts, I’d seriously underestimated my appetite and overestimated my willpower. I was looking at a weekend of toast, spaghetti (but no sauce), and those waxy Red Delicious apples bred not for their stellar taste but for their uniform aesthetic.

But this year, my colleagues weren’t party to much whining. I’d put much more effort into buying food that would fill me up and last the whole week. On my last day of the 2012 SNAP Experience, I had toast and apple juice for breakfast, a banana and a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and a pollock filet and fresh green beans for dinner. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. I’d been successful in keeping my commitment to eat only what I’d purchased, too. I hadn’t turned down any tempting banquet invites, but I’d declined plenty of after-work drink and dinner opportunities to stick to my budget. It seemed I’d exercised unprecedented restraint. Feeling a little smug, I’d thought to myself, “this isn’t so bad!”

But I’m really no superwoman of self-control. This week was not easy – staying within my $33 food budget (the average weekly SNAP benefit in D.C.) had proven challenging – but it seemed do-able because I’d had the game-changing advantage of a flexible non-food budget.

As the week wore on, I realized just how much energy it takes to resist dietary urges. The free Nutrigrain cereal bars at work and the smell of warm Quiznos on my walk home threatened my resolve. Homemade guacamole nearly broke me. At the same time, I enjoyed virtually no flexibility to choose among the foods I’d purchased for the week. So strictly portioned were my meals that I ate the same thing, in the same quantity, for breakfast and lunch every day for seven days. For dinner, I had my choice of fish and green beans (two days) or spaghetti and salad (five days).

By mid-week, I felt deeply tired from denying all those food cravings, and I desperately wanted to splurge, to feel renewed control over my spending and my choices. On Tuesday, I did finally open my wallet, just not for food. As luck would have it, my sister’s 21st birthday was Thursday. Due at least in part to my weakened powers of self-control, my sister received a Dooney & Bourke purse, a Calvin Klein scarf, and a glittery pair of earrings for her birthday. As much as I love her, I’d certainly spent more on her gift than I originally planned. And I’m convinced that extravagant assertion of my financial autonomy is what made sticking to my SNAP budget relatively easier.

In some ways, my experience did mirror that of a family who relies on SNAP. No matter who you are, research affirms that we spend a lot of time debating whether to eat or abstain. In their fascinating book Willpower, authors Roy Baumeister and John Tierney describe a self-control experiment carried out in Germany in 2010. Two hundred Germans wore beepers that went off seven times a day. Each time their beepers vibrated, the subjects reported any desires they were currently experiencing or experienced recently. Sifting through more than 10,000 momentary reports, researchers concluded that people spend one-fourth of their waking hours resisting their desires. The most popular desire will be obvious to anyone who participated in ACAA’s SNAP Experience. The urge to eat was more popular than any of the other commonly reported desires, including the desire to sleep, the desire for leisure, and the impulse for sexual activity.

But unlike in my imperfect poverty simulation, SNAP users are living in or near poverty, and are forced to restrict spending in all areas.  Behavioral psychology researchers help explain [PDF] how making budgetary decisions in a context of poverty is particularly taxing:

“Imagine packing for a trip, using either a small or large suitcase. If you have a large suitcase, it is an easy task to pack everything important with room to spare. You may even choose not to completely fill the suitcase. With a small suitcase, however, the task becomes much more complex. If not all important items will fit, you must consider trade-offs, such as what to take out if one more item is added. The suitcase can represent any resource, such as money. In that case, someone with ample resources can easily purchase all needed items with money left over. They may consider the wisdom and value of a particular small purchase, but are not likely to explicitly consider what other item must be given up in its place. In contrast, someone with limited funds must spend a lot of time and mental energy thinking about what to purchase, as each item chosen means some other item or items is foregone. In other words, having fewer resources makes decision-making much more complex. Complex problems draw on limited cognitive resources, which in turn means that there are fewer resources available for self-control.”

The SNAP Experience, then, is like trying to pack a large-sized suitcase with a too-small compartment for food but plenty of room for everything else. Participants like me were making difficult food shopping and consumption decisions (if I buy this meat, I can’t afford those vegetables; I can eat either these eggs or that banana), but they maintained the option to splurge in other areas, like birthday gifts, when their self-control reserves got too low or they wanted to make a spontaneous purchase just to remember what it felt like.

People living in poverty and receiving SNAP benefits also deal with the too-tiny food compartment (their low SNAP benefit level), and they can also pack away food in the remaining space (they could hypothetically spend money out-of-pocket to supplement their SNAP benefit). But their suitcase is so small that spending more on food means there’s less money left for rent, utilities, child care, transportation, health care, and a host of other necessities. The endless task of considering those much more complex trade-offs is exhausting. Difficult budgetary decisions tire people out, and—as we know after our own SNAP Experience—choosing among cheap and often unappetizing foods is a little dehumanizing, too. The Dooney & Bourke release valve isn’t really an option, and those families that do splurge anyway feel the damning financial effects almost immediately.

All this is to say that my SNAP Experience wasn’t a true experience of poverty—not by a long shot. I knew that when the going got tough in the grocery department, I could find other ways to exert choice. I could rent a movie from RedBox, buy a new blouse, take a taxi when the bus refused to show up, or even take a couple days off from work for an impromptu weekend getaway. (I didn’t, but it sounds pretty good, right?) I may have been stuck with peanut butter sandwiches, but my consumer autonomy remained firmly intact.

This is no indictment of the SNAP Experience. Every poverty simulation is imperfect because it’s exactly that—pretend. It’s impossible to experience poverty unless you’re really in it for the long haul. But after my third SNAP Experience I have learned two important lessons: First, everyone, no matter her income, wants to feel financially autonomous. Second, the psychological effect of poverty makes sound decision-making incredibly difficult.

Caring for each other as friends, neighbors, and direct services providers requires that we all appreciate the messiness and frustration of poverty. It’s not as easy as cutting the fat or tightening the belt. Heroic personal responsibility won’t make high-stakes financial trade-offs any easier. As voters in a representative democracy, we must also work to identify leaders and spokespeople who truly get it. A debate on SNAP benefit levels is about hunger and health, sure, but it’s also about how we hope people with limited resources will participate in the economy and how we can ease the financial and mental strain of poverty to enable people to make the best decisions possible. SNAP could be a tool for this kind of empowerment, but $33 per week in D.C. won’t get the job done.
Together, let’s elevate the conversation about this important program and work to weave a social safety net that doesn’t just catch us when we fall, but makes it easier to make the long climb back up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Awesome video interlude

This video from the New York Times makes my point about say-nothing convention speeches almost too well. Just watch.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The SNAP Experience

This week, I'm participating in the third-annual Arizona Community Action Association SNAP Experience. (See their blog HERE.) This means I'll be consuming only the food I was able to buy with the average weekly SNAP (a.k.a. "food stamps") benefit in Washington, D.C. -- $33. (That's right! SNAP participants in D.C. receive, on average, less than $33 per person, per week for food.) The point of this exercise is to raise awareness around (1) how little the program provides, (2) how difficult it is to buy healthy foods on such a limited budget, and (3) how important the program is to families and the communities they live in.

After a stressful trip to Giant in Columbia Heights and a $10 taxi ride home (the store is far from my house, and my haul was too heavy to carry on the bus), here's what I have to choose from this week:

1 half-gallon skim milk - $1.69
1 box cereal - $1.00
1 jug 100% apple juice - $2.00
1 loaf wheat bread - $2.00
1 jar peanut butter - $2.99
4 yogurt cups - $2.29
7 bananas - $2.35
2 jars pasta sauce - $3.00
1 box whole wheat linguine - $1.49
2 frozen cod filets - $3.49
1 lb. green beans $1.93
2 bags romaine lettuce - $2.99
4 tomatos - $1.99
1 single-serving frozen pizza - $0.88 (splurge #1)
1 box sugar-free Popsicles - $1.49 (splurge #2)

TOTAL - $31.34

Look out for a status update later this week!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Party in the U.S.A.

2012 Democratic National Convention by stevebott / flickr.com
Wait...are the Olympics back on TV? For the last two weeks, TV and online media have been dominated by panoramic sweeps of packed arenas, hero-worship of American sweethearts, personal tales of trial and triumph, and unending news commentary about missteps and upsets, all to the soundtrack of the standing ovation. No doubt about it. If you hibernated from early August to early September, you'd think we're still in London.

It's not new, but political conventions are feeling strangely like rallies for America, writ large, and not earnest attempts to talk about the things politicians claim to care and know most about--policy issues. David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that he was disappointed that Obama's acceptance speech didn't contain much substance. I agree, and by my own estimation, neither did any of the others at either convention. Even FLOTUS Michelle Obama's speech, which was expertly delivered and moving, didn't touch on her own biggest policy priority--growing healthier kids.
The question is not are convention speeches substantive, but why aren't the substantive.
There are lots of reasons, but I think the most important is politicians' estimation of their audience. Convention speeches aren't substantive because lots of people watch them. The Republican National Convention attracted 30.3 million viewers on its final night. Nielsen hasn't posted the viewership for the final night of the Democratic convention, but I'd guess it will be even higher, as the Democrats attracted more viewers on nights one and two than the GOP in their first two nights. I haven't found a good estimate of how many Republicans watched the Democratic convention and vice versa, but in 2008, half of convention viewers watched both. If that holds true for 2012, that means about 15 million people watched the Democrats, 15 million watched the Republicans, and 30 million tuned into both. In all, 60 million Americans are engaged at some level with the conventions, which is about 20 percent of the American population. Put simply, there is no other opportunity in a candidate's campaign to address a larger or more diverse crowd.

The message, then, has to speak relatively well to all viewers, and especially well to those who agree (read: likely voters for party X) or might agree (read: independents) if given a little inspiration. Nothing works better for energizing a base and bringing over a few stragglers than touting Americans' enterprising spirit, the importance of maintaining/restoring the American Dream, and the debt we owe to veterans. Flag-waving, "God bless America"-ing, and multi-colored confetti don't hurt either. Extensive plans to reform tax law, campaign finance, or entitlement spending, to name a few looming issues, don't play well for a national audience.

The problem is that my party affiliation is not my religion. I am perhaps inspired, but not swayed, by tent revivals and promises of on-the-spot miracles. Voters yearn for speeches that educate them on the issues, honestly lay out policy differences between the camps, and assume that they read or watch a little news. My voting is not faith-based--it's an intellectual calculus--and I don't think I'm alone. Fictional President Bartlet on The West Wing asked several times throughout the series when politicans began assuming voters were so stupid. I wonder the same thing now. I wish the conventions catered better to our collective decision-making process, and less to our supposed interest in shiny things.

According to the American National Election Study, 10% to 29% of voters make up their minds during the conventions. This is a actually a pretty impressive proportion of people. Let's give them all a chance to base their decisions on the issues, and not on hair-dos and high-flying rhetoric. I think we're all smarter than that.

To party leadership, network execs, and electeds across the country: Please leave the fireworks and all-consuming patriotism for July 4th. Here's to convention speeches worthy of a thoughtful, discerning America.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Can the Clean Plate Club Save the World?

Clean plates by iampease / flickr.com
The first line in a recent Washington Post article begins this way:

"Americans throw away up to 40 percent of their food every year, cramming landfills with at least $165 billion worth of produce and meats..."

That's outrageous! That's like buying lunch every day of the workweek and then tossing two of those lunches in the trash. If you did this every week, all year round, you'd buy 260 lunches and throw 104 of them away. If you spent even $5 on those lunches, you'd burn $520, on top of the labor and environmental costs of choking America's landfills.

But the author doesn't stop there. She goes on to lament that all this food waste happens, "at a time when hundreds of millions of people suffer from chronic hunger globally."

Now I get the rhetorical appeal of this point, but I have to admit I'm rolling my eyes.

It sounds a bit like your mom pleading with you to finish your now-cold fish sticks and overcooked green peas because, hey, don't you know there are kids starving in Africa? My unvoiced response to that line of argument was always, "and will you be the one to lovingly Saran wrap my half-masticated microwave dinner and UPS it to Niger?"

As an adult, my rebuttal now has less to do with logistics, and more to do with upsetting local markets, preventing local problem-solving, and choking--not American landfills, but now--foreign countries with food its inhabitants are unused to cooking and eating. (To be clear: in cases of natural disaster or acute famine, feeding desparately undernourished people clearly warrants those costs to the local ecnomy and culture. But in cases of chronic famine, I would argue, it's less clear cut.)

Rather, authors who write about domestic food waste should talk about domestic hunger. What if your mom instead admonished you: "Hey! Eat those fish sticks and peas. There are kids in your class at school who won't have supper tonight." This argument stands up much better to five- (or twenty-five-) year-old scrutiny.

First, it's probably true. In 2010, the latest year for which national government data is available, 14.5 percent of American households didn't have enough food at all times for an active, healthy life. In government jargon, one in seven housoeholds was food insecure. (The Food Research and Action Center, which measures whether a family can afford enough food, said it was closer to one in six people. [PDF])

Though children are less likely to suffer from food insecurity than their parents (parents are often kind enough to shield their kids from hunger by eating less and giving their kids more), there were still 16 million hungry kids in the United States in 2010. Many of them receive free and reduced-price meals in schools, but schools rarely provides snacks and dinners. Backpack programs and food pantries can help, but the 2010 statistics reflect food insecurity even with those vital resources taken into account.

Second, this line of reasoning makes much more sense. The implication of "finish what's in front of you, or else..." is that the "or else" could both (1) realistically take place and (2) actually help. In fact, you could easily cook a big lasagna and donate it to a local food pantry. Kitchens have different rules, but it's worth a call to your local soup kitchen or food pantry to see what's most useful to them. (From experience working in a kitchen, I can assure you that your uneaten birthday cake is less helpful than a big bag of apples, but most kitchens will take and use well what you bring them.)

And, again, this might actually help your neighbors. Unlike donating food en masse in a foreign country with its own agricultural market, your hungry neighbors depend on domestically-grown food. And though food pantries, which annually give away thousands of boxes or bags of nonperishables, can admittedly make more out of your money than your canned goods, it's still worthwhile to give your unused (but still usable) food to these important community organizations. And now, it's not just an empty threat but an actionable step.

In fact, what if we reconfigured those handy iPhone calorie counting apps, into number-crunching food waste motivators? Rather than counting what you put on your plate, why not regularly calculate the cost of what you push off it into the garbage disposal? The Green Egg Shopper is an early attempt at this, but it doesn't do enough.

The very real hunger in Niger has little to do with your kid's greens, and it's disingenous to claim it does. A family serious about finishing the fish sticks for social justice reasons would calculate what it wastes and give at least as much in money, food, or labor to the local pantry or soup kitchen.

Let's stop threatning to do something about hunger and create a Clean Plate Club that really works.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Quinoa Salad

I've made a protein-packed quinoa salad for a few recent pot-luck dinners. Even people who can't pronounce quinoa and are a bit skeptical of its rice-meets-couscous-like texture really enjoyed it. (And of course my tofu-pressing, kale-munching, vegan-cupcake-eating friends loved it, too). The basic idea is to cook the quinoa in vegetable broth (throw the raisins in halfway through to plumpen them up) and let it cool. On the side, mix together everything else. Combine and serve! Beware: this recipe makes a ton I would recommend halving the recipe.

12 ounces (2 cups, or 340 g) prewashed dry quinoa
5 cups (1.2 l) water or low-sodium vegetable broth
1 packed cup (165 g) raisins
1/4 cup (60 ml) apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup (60 ml) fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup (120 ml) olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons red pepper flakes, adjust to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh green onions
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Pinch sea salt, adjust to taste
Cracked black pepper, adjust to taste, optional
Heaping 1/3 cup (50 g) salted roasted pepitas
4 large carrots, peeled and finely grated
One 15-ounce (425-g) can of red beans, drained and rinsed
One 15-ounce (425-g) can of black beans, drained and rinsed

Recipe and photo credit to Have Cake Will Travel.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Mirage of Clean Politics

By Sean MacEntee / flickr.com
There's a new Facebook group on the loose, "100 Percent FED Up". Recent posts include a photo of FLOTUS in the arms of U.S. Olympic wrestler Elena Pirozhkova and the sarcastic caption, "OUR FIRST LADY REPRESENTING OUR GREAT NATION WITH CLASS AND INTEGRITY AT THE 2012 OLYMPICS!" Another is a meme admonishing food stamp recipients for owning iPhones. Still another questions the existence of Obama's birth certificate. (Are people STILL doing that?) And my favorite: side-by-side photos of Joe Biden and Herman Cain. Under Joe Biden's photo (labeled "Democrats" and--tongue-in-cheek--"Not Racist"), a caption reads: "Think Black people are incapable of achieving anything without the help of white people." Under Herman Cain's photo (labeled "Republicans" and "Racist"), the caption reads: "Think Black people can achieve anything they set their minds to without help from anyone." None of these is smart, or useful, or kind. Just to prove I'm equal opportunity, I will say that Change.org has also been guilty of some of the same counterproductivity, to coin a term.

Indeed, I am fed up, but not in the way this pseudo-political group implies. I am tired of political ads that are blatantly misleading. I am tired of personal attacks, which by definition reveal nothing useful about the leadership abilities or policy positions of their victims. They are wrought in back rooms by spin doctors and wielded haphazardly, as weapons. I am tired of the barrage of fundraising e-mails--even from a candidate I support--with pithy, curious subject lines. At least once a day they beg for my donation to add to an (at least partially) ill-used war chest. I am tired of watching my candidate wrestle in the proverbial muck, wasting his time and sullying his character. I am tired of disingenuous promises. I am tired of opportunistic photo ops. I am tired of all-too-transparent pandering. I am tired of oversimplification, of quotes stripped of their context, of slogans without the details. I am especially tired of mudslinging at the expense of marginalized groups--the LGBTQ community, people of color, and low-income moms, to name a few.

Is this really how we elect a president?

To be clear: I applaud get out the vote efforts that seek to engage underrepresented people. I am happy that some portion of my campaign donation goes to pay hardworking field organizers (and many of them are unpaid), thoughtful policy advisers, and the under-recognized staff who turn the gears, pour the coffee, advance the gigs, etc. I am even okay with the use of my donation to power an informative website, or print a campaign flyer, or stamp a button. I understand that campaigns are expensive, and I appreciate that being out-raised imperils your chances of success. What I hope we can eliminate in my lifetime is the resource-intensive part of this process that ashames and frustrates me--the part where we call each other dirty names.

It's time to clean up our elections. In 2016, the candidate who sticks to positive ads, sets achievable goals, and puts out substantive policy positions gets my vote. Period.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On American Presidents: A Journey through Books

Cover of Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
It's been far too long since I've written here. Job changes, the fun of summer, and a debilitating obsession with The West Wing, Mad Men, and Modern Family have kept me from my blog. But I'm now returning to begin progress toward a new goal--a presidential reading project. I plan to read one highly-acclaimed biography of every American president, in order. I will use my blog to post at least once in the course of reading each book to share a little-known fact, reflect on an important finding, or, in some cases, express surprise (and maybe a little disgust) at the heroism we posthumously impose on our most deeply flawed American leaders.

I was inspired to undertake this project after reading Candice Millard's absolutely excellent book Destiny of the Republic about the short-lived Garfield administration, and, more interesting, the tragic saga of his death. It is meticulously researched yet reads like a thriller. It turns out that Garfield was a fierce advocate for equal rights, yet his all-important presidential legacy is nil and his broader life story has been muted by his truncated time in the White House. From my reading of Millard's book, Garfield promised to be a far more admirable, if not influential, leader than the author of the Emancipation Proclamation himself. I feel robbed, having not heard this story til now. I have decided it's time to get educated.

I also feel my formal education--K through college--failed to really ignite a passion for history. As James Loewen has written in Lies My Teacher Told Me, many history teachers fail to appreciate the power of stories to teach history. Joshua Foer explained well in his brilliant book Moonwalking with Einstein how the memory requires context and imagination to absorb facts. The more memorable the context, the more easily we can recall the fact. (Foer says it's much easier to remember the word "baker" [the profession] than the last name Baker, because "baker" has a memorable context--the smell of bread, the taste of a fresh bagel, the starched aprons and white hats.) A list of presidents, important dates, or war battles does far less for long-term understanding than an engaging story which touches each of those data points and imbues them with meaning and emotion. I feel the historical names, dates, and places I was taught (to little effect) have been missing memorable linkages for a long time. I hope this project helps me understand our nation's history, reflect on the injustices that were committed to make the country, and recall names and dates--and the stories that make them important--more easily.

Wish me luck! My first two books are Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner and John Adams by David McCullough.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The (Green) Revolution Will Not Be Robotic

Or maybe it will. America's young farmers will decide.

Check out my new piece on Slate on the unraveling future of on-farm robotics...

Last July, Iowa-based Kinze Manufacturing gathered its dealers to debut a new on-farm toy: a John Deere tractor pulling a grain cart. The scene might have been unremarkable—dealers have seen the cart in action countless times—except that there was no one at the wheel.
The driverless tractor won admirers at NPR, Wired, and the Wall Street Journal. But Midwesterners saw Kinze’s system as a welcome but predictable upgrade in the über-mechanized world of commodity growing. For more than a decade, farmers have enjoyed the advances of precision agriculture. The highest-tech farm vehicles across the country now boast real-time kinematic GPS and auto-steer technology. Farmers are just along for the ride, accompanied by  Beyoncé videos.

There’s no doubt that big bots are the future of big ag. The question is whether autonomous technologies will ever penetrate the rest of the market—smaller-scale, diversified, labor-intensive operations popping up across the country.

As of the USDA’s 2007 census of agriculture, the average American grower is 57 years old. For every farmer under 35, there are nearly six who are 65 or older. The agriculture industry is poised for sudden, widespread employee turnover from the last generation to the next. These incoming growers, far more than the outgoing ones, will decide the fate of robotic farming. And from what we know of new farmers, two very different futures are possible. READ MORE...

Photo by Wheat initiative / flickr.com

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Upcoming Event

In partnership with Slate magazine and Arizona State University, the New America Foundation is hosting an exciting event, entitled "Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks." Next Thursday, April 12, 2012, from 9:00 am - 3:15 pm we will explore how we will feed ourselves in 2050, when population growth, climate change, and shifts in diet will challenge the global food supply. Find more event details and an RSVP form here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why the Critics and the Evangelists Are Wrong About Church

This subject warrants a much longer post by me, but I want to write quickly that I'm so distraught by some of the things I read from conservative Christians, who love their churches, and also from those who grew up in those churches and have rejected them as adults. This post by Rachel Evans, popped up on my Facebook feed (I don't read her regularly), and I wanted to respond by telling her "thank you" for an honest, insightful response to her upbringing in a conservative Christian church, but also to say that this story does not paint a valid picture of the entire universe of organized religion in the United States.

I have attended several wonderful churches--particularly Methodist, Presbyterian (USA), United Church of Christ, and Unitarian congregations--that are doing all of the things most people say churches do wrong, right. They are inclusive. If you visited, you would see women on the choir risers and in the pulpit as salaried clergy. In fact, you would see people of color in those places, too. And gay and lesbian clergy. And a whole mix of folks sitting in the pews, next to one another, talking to one another, and interacting warmly and genuinely in the coffee hour after church, too. These churches are multi-generational, and all types of families show up on Sundays. Doubts and questions are expected, even encouraged. Perhaps these churches err on the side of assuming everyone is voting Democrat, but I've been to some that don't assume at all. From the pulpit, and in Bible studies, and in the impassioned conversations in women's groups (even youth groups!), talk about sin is almost exclusively about the ways people commit injustices against each other. There are plenty examples of that in the Bible. Sex is part of the conversation, sure, but it's about sexual violence, and misplaced societal value on sex, and sex as a means of subjugating certain people, not really about abstinence.

These churches believe deeply that every person (not just people in church) are works in progress, even that the Church and its doctrines are works in progress, too. People at my churches believed in evolution and also respect and study the Bible. "Community service" is an act of humbling ourselves before God, being accountable to the creation we nurture (and often destroy), and practicing an unconditional love and care for other people, as God loved us. It is often about collecting stories and sharing them with friends; breaking bread with people we might not have otherwise met at a dinner table. It is never about converting people or showing them why they are wrong to believe or live as they do. My churches make an active effort to avoid becoming a "country club" of the rich, white, and well-dressed, and instead aim to be just a meeting place, where we practice being members of the type of world we envision would bring about the most peace (in the broadest sense of the word).

I admit that these churches are rare. They take effort to seek out, but they exist, and they offer an organized, loving community whose reality and teachings run completely opposite to everything the un-churched or dislocated conservative Christians say is wrong with modern religion. I understand the need to rebel against institutions that oppress you and people you care about. I support that, in fact. But I wish those rejections didn't reinforce such a one-sided portrayal of who Christians are. I am progressive, and justice-seeking, and full of doubts, too. And going to church on Sundays edifies who I am at my core.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why We Keep Coming to DC

Today, I achieved one of the goals I set for myself upon snagging my new job--publishing a piece of writing. My wonderful boss is also the editor of Zócalo Public Square, an L.A.-based online magazine and lecture series on social cohesion. He asked me to write a piece on the disconnect between polling data on D.C. and the experience of living in Washington. Here is what emerged...

Ms. Lawrence Goes to Washington
But the Rest of the Country Thinks I'm in Sin City

Exactly one year ago, I was packing my suitcases to move from my childhood home in north Texas to a three-bedroom group house in Washington, D.C. My mother, standing close by to inspect my work, hooked the shoulder of a blue dress on her index finger and raised her eyebrows. “Don’t forget,” she said, “what happened to Monica,” drawing out the name for effect.

Ignoring the implicit attack on my character, I pointed out a crucial difference between Ms. Lewinsky and me: “I’m going to work for a non-profit, Mom.” Later that afternoon, my father—ever the comedian—called out to me from behind the TSA security line at DFW Airport, “Don’t spend all the taxpayers’ money!”

To my parents, Washington is populated not by young idealists but rather by those eager to consort with sex-crazed lawmakers and to squander dad’s paycheck...


Photo credit to {Wes} on flickr.com.