Posts Tagged ‘food stamped’

What’s Cooking with Julie & Julia

August 22, 2009

Meryl Streep

There’s been loads of ink spilt on the foodie flick Julie & Julia. Indeed, I may well be the last food writer on the planet to weigh in on the film. If you’ve been out to lunch, this is the movie where Meryl joyously channels Julia Child and Amy Adams has the unenviable task of attempting to match her on screen as Julie Powell, whose claim to fame is her highly successful blog-turned-book Julie & Julia, which chronicles her kitchen adventures as she ploughs through the recipes in Child’s classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Lots of snarky stuff bandied about regarding Ms. Powell on the web and elsewhere. I don’t quite get all the meanness and I’m not alone.  Dianne Jacobs neatly sums up all the whining on her blog Will Write for Food. It seems to center on the fact that Julie is neither a chef nor a writer before she embarks on her online project (some may sniff she isn’t either of these things now). Could, um, jealousy be at work here? Just a guess. Regardless, there’s no denying her admittedly gimmicky conceit — and its popularity — helped to bring Julia Child’s story to the screen. Not a bad thing, folks.

Could the talented Ms. Streep have carried a bio-epic on the entertaining Julia Child on her own? You betcha. Would it have put bottoms — and young ones at that — on movie theater seats? Debatable. Regardless, while I agree that it would be great if seriously good food films like Food, Inc. and Food Stamped got the kind of attention this movie has, at the end of the day, it’s a Nora Ephron vehicle people. Relax and enjoy a delicious romp.

Here’s what I’ve been chewing over since leaving the theater: Both these women found themselves through food, pursued their passion for cooking with great gusto, and married this obsession with a burning desire to write. Both showed courage and determination in reaching their goals despite setbacks.  Both did time in boring government gigs and were supported by kind and loving hubbies. Neither of them had children. I wonder if either would have achieved the recognition they earned if they’d had kids in the kitchen.

What do you think? Oh, and there’s one more takeaway message from this movie: Butter is a glorious thing.

Frugal Gourmet: How to Eat Well on a Budget

July 31, 2009

Yuriko Gamo Romer and her family no longer stroll down the street to eat sushi, burgers, or pasta at the restaurants that dot the main drag of their neighborhood in San Francisco.

The Silas-Gonzalez clan from Oakland now spends more time cooking meals from scratch. The dads in both these families were recently laid off, so they need to find ways to keep food costs in check.

silas-gonzalez-familyPhoto of Silas-Gonzalez family by Sarah Henry

With the jobless rate in California hovering around 11 percent, you don’t have to look far to find people impacted by the recession. (Three out of nine families from my former mamas group have been hit by job loss in the last year, including the two families in this piece and, um, me.) After housing, food is often the next biggest expense a family faces. Bad-for-you food is cheap but these folks are committed to getting nutritious meals on the table at a reasonable price.

How to make those dollars stretch at dinnertime? Eat in. Both families agree that the first thing to cut from your budget is routine dining out — at kid-friendly restaurants, taqueria joints, or the museum cafe. Nowadays they make favorite foods like burritos or sushi at home for a fraction of the cost they’d pay eating out.

They’ve also become smarter shoppers. They buy in bulk at stores like Costco and spend more time comparison shopping. Julie Silas says she now knows the exact price of most food items that she buys  — and can usually estimate, within a dollar, how much the bill will be at the checkout.

Neither household eats a lot of meat, another cost saver. They site cheaper sources of protein such as tofu, beans, and peanut butter as staples in their kitchens. (Julie and Yuriko both mention with glee that Costco sells creamy, organic peanut butter for dollars less than the price of other grocery stores.)

They also accept assistance. Julie’s neighbors passed on their Community Supported Agriculture box of produce once a month to the family of four. “That’s such an awesome gift; it really makes a difference in our lives,” she says, while making a stir fry with green beans and onions plucked from the CSA box. Yuriko’s mom bought her an electric skillet so she can make grilled dishes at home.

Each family has a small number of items that they’ll pay more for. For Yuriko it’s high-quality short grain rice from a Japanese market. “But relatively speaking, rice is cheap, so that’s not too much of a luxury,” she says. Julie can’t live without goat cheese — her girls love it — but found an affordable source at Trader Joe’s.

Neither family feels that nutrition or health has been compromised in their efforts to trim the family food budget. Both Julie and Yuriko estimate they now spend 20-25 percent less on food.  Yuriko says she finds herself thinking about the nutritional content of a grocery item and makes purchasing decisions accordingly. So jugs of juice, while popular with her husband and son, don’t make the cut. She’d rather spend that money — around $4-6 a bottle — on whole fruit, so her family gets the benefit of fiber as well as vitamins. Julie buys less organic fruits and vegetables these days, using the Environmental Working Group’s guide to pesticides in produce as a reference. That means organic apples, strawberries, and spinach, but conventional avocados, kiwis, and bananas to help keep the shopping bill down.

Both families say that they’ve discovered an unexpected benefit of unemployment. By going back to basics they’ve become more creative cooks. “A whole organic chicken, which costs us about $12, can form the basis of a homemade chicken noodle soup; the shredded meat ends up in enchiladas or a pot pie, and leftover broth serves as the sauce for a third meal,” says Isidro Gonzalez. In comparison, a package of chicken breasts costs around $8 and only provides one dinner for the family.  Yuriko prepares favorite Japanese recipes for family and friends more frequently now. She’ll make sukiyaki, a beef and vegetable dish, and okonomiyakia, savory pancakes, and each dish can feed about six people for the price of just one of these items at a restaurant. “We’ve had some really affordable feasts,” she says, “by making food at home.”

Find more easy ways to make your food buck go further from the makers of the movie Food Stamped.

How has the bad economy affected your eating habits? Have you found new ways to eat cheap and eat well? Share your cost-cutting tips below.

Food, Inc. May Make You Lose Your Lunch

June 30, 2009

A film about what we eat could well win the award for the best horror flick showing in theaters this summer. Take a look, if you’re game, at Food, Inc., though a heads up for animal lovers and vegetarians: This documentary is hard to stomach.

If you’ve read both Fast Food Nation by writer Eric Schlosser, a Food, Inc. co-producer,  and Omnivore’s Dilemma by author Michael Pollan, dubbed the ethical epicurean by the New York Times, you may feel like there’s nothing new to be said on the subject of mass produced food. Nonetheless, these two food gurus serve as the talking heads on this doco by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner.  In the course of the film Schlosser rightly refers to himself as an investigative reporter. As a journalist with a muckraking past, I was pleased to hear the term and disheartened that it now applies to covering what we consume. Still, as a mostly vegetarian farmers’ market fan, I also figured I was immune to the evil things cooked up by the multinational food conglomerates that Pollan and Schlosser calmly and methodically feed us throughout the film.

Wrong on both counts. I was surprised and outraged all over again about what’s happened to how food is grown and sold in the U.S. and how a few large companies control almost all the food served up in supermarkets. Consider, too, as the film does, a poor Latino family of four who deal with a dilemma faced by many working Americans, namely how to eat cheaply and well. When a burger costs a buck at a drive-through and you can’t even get a pound of broccoli for that, what are you going to do? Deal with a dad with type 2 diabetes and a young daughter well on the way to getting the disease, that’s what.

And don’t get me started on the whole soybean seed saga. Turns out Monsato, a chemical company infamously known for producing both DDT and Agent Orange, has the monopoly on that franchise — its patented a gene in 90 percent of the country’s soybean seeds — and uses its multimillion-dollar muscles to squeeze out any small-time, old-school, seed-saving farmer who stands in their way. Nice.

Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm yogurt is supposed to play the role of the bright spot amid the gloom.  Hmmm. Not sure I buy that one. We watch as Hirshberg starts selling his organic yogurt to Wal-Mart and listen as he tells us that every food purchase is a political act. There’s an ironic moment when an organic dairy farmer tells the fresh-faced Wal-Mart reps that her family has boycotted the chain store for years. And we learn that Stonyfield was recently bought by global behemoth Groupe Danone, the France-based makers of Dannon yogurt. Call me a worrywart, this kind of corporate match-up makes me nervous. Despite the film’s lively use of music and graphics and a catchy call to action at the end it all feels a bit bleak — until Schlosser points out that Big Tobacco eventually took a beating from consumer activists — take that corporate corn lobby!  I hope he’s right. Time will tell.

Hungry to see the film for yourself? A word to the wise: Have a meal before heading to this movie. And skip the artificially-buttered, non-organic, genetically-modified popcorn, which, as the screen reveals, is a big part of what’s wrong with the current food system.  As for high-fructose corn syrup? It’s the stuff of nightmares in our house now.

The last word goes to my son, who sat cowering in his seat for much of the playing time, when he wasn’t whispering, ” Mum, why did you bring me to see this movie?” Mind you, this is a kid with a healthy appetite for screen violence, fantasy films featuring orphaned children, and other frightening standard movie fare.  But animal abuse, E. coli, and early death by diet — it’s enough to turn a young one off his food forever. As he said on the way out, “Sometimes the scariest films are the ones that are real.”

Food, Inc. screens nationally, check local listings for details.

This is the third in a trilogy of food-themed films reviewed here this season. Read about the documentaries The Garden and Food Stamped in previous blog posts. And chime in if you have your own recommendation in this genre. I hear, for instance, that both King Corn and Dirt! The Movie are good, but haven’t seen either documentary yet. Have you?

Food Stamped: A Film For Our Times

June 22, 2009

Who knew that a documentary on the food stamp program could be funny, infuriating, informative, and entertaining? Food Stamped sets out to answer a simple but important question: Is it possible to eat well for a week on the federal supplemental food aid program?

In this new film nutrition educator Shira Potash and her movie-maker husband Yoav take the food stamp challenge — with a healthy twist. At a screening last Saturday night we watch as the engaging twosome shop for inexpensive, wholesome food, plan menus for a week of eating on just a $1 a meal, and cook from scratch every night such nutritious recipes as Sweet Potato and Swiss Chard Frittata. The couple trade coffee for organic lettuce, stock up on free grocery store samples of outlawed items like cheese and chocolate (deemed too exxy on their tight budget), harvest herbs from their garden, and forage in the garbage bins of whole-grain bakers.  (What’s with all the dumpster diving in my neighborhood of late…an economic indicator, perhaps?)

As well as detailing their experiment, the film weaves in footage of Chef Shira serving up healthy greens in cooking class to eager elementary school children from mostly poor families; these same kids get hideously unhealthy and unappetizing options come time for school lunch.  And nutrition experts weigh in on how hard it is for low-income Americans to put three-square meals on the table. Let’s face it: Money and time is tight and fast food is cheap. Why not load up the shopping cart, as one food stamp recipient does, with pallets of Top Ramen noodle packets?

But as we learn, the price is right — for all the wrong reasons. Junk food cranked out by industrial food producers costs less because of government subsidies for big agriculture that small organic farmers simply don’t get.

The film is full of food stamp facts: One in eight families is eligible for such assistance, though only one out of 15 participate in the program. And 40 percent of those families are white, in case you’re wondering. By all accounts California does a bad job reaching folks who could really use food stamps and critically underserves the Latino community — the required fingerprinting is a huge deterrent to immigrants, according to a post-screening panel discussion, though food justice activists are all over that one.

But does it even matter if people who need food stamps aren’t getting them if it’s impossible to eat healthily on assistance? Or, put another way: How did the documentary duo do on a food-stamp diet of about 50 bucks a week? Spoiler alert: The Potashes were well fed  — but only because they live in bountiful Berkeley and poured their combined knowledge, skills, time, and energy into the exercise. Still, they came up short in calories and some nutrients despite their best efforts. And, truth be told, things got a little testy on the domestic scene as the week wore on and the rationing of staples like carrots and peanut butter proved necessary. As for meat, snacks, or desserts? They simply went without.

If you’ve worked up an appetite to check out this family-friendly film and you live in the Bay Area, take the kids (you may want to feed them first) to a screening next Sunday June 28 at 7 pm at the JCC East Bay Theater in North Berkeley. If you live elsewhere, then look for this excellent educational offering coming soon, I’m almost certain of it, to a PBS station near you.

Image: Shira Potash


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