Safe, healthy food a must for everyone

I wrote recently about how we as individuals and families need safety nets and support from extended family and society around us. What’s on my mind the most is that of all the issues we as families (and in my case, being the mother and “home manager” of a family of six) face, it’s impossible to fix them all or deal with them all on our own.

As just one example, I have many concerns about public education, but I can’t change them alone; I can only try to speak up when I can and get involved in the big picture (higher levels) in what are fairly limited ways at this stage of life. I also have decided I am not capable (mentally, mostly) of home-schooling my kids, so I send them to public school and try to be involved and aware at the school level.

Health is another big topic. Health care and health coverage systems are a part of that. I’ve written a little about that and found one book really a great overview and resource: Catastrophic Care, by David Goldhill. Another issue we face that is part of our health is that of our food supply. Obesity in the U.S. and in other developed nations is a huge problem, and one I’ll admit I personally struggle with. (And might I point out that I exercise daily and cook healthy meals at home almost daily, and I’m STILL significantly overweight. What about all those out there who don’t exercise at all, who don’t cook, who eat junk food, etc.?) Yes, there are some “obvious” issues, such as the easy availability of food that’s bad for us, sedentary habits, and the heavy marketing and research done by large food corporations (just read Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss: Yikes!). But there are also more insidious things going on with our food supply that are affecting everyone: hormones and antibiotics and other fatteners being fed to the animals that we eat for meat, pesticides, and even sugar substitutes (just to get a taste of these problems, read a recent article on Salon).

If we’re having a hard time as a country educating individuals and families about healthier ways to eat, just putting together balanced meals at home with vegetables and lean proteins, etc., as well as getting people to just move more, it’s going to be a pretty hard sell to get everyone to eat organic and/or locally produced food, including dairy and meat, which either costs more money and/or takes an extra trip (or two or three), to get to farmers markets or specialty stores. Again, I consider myself to have the motivation, interest, and time (as well as a decent income) to be able to shop well and cook well on the first count. But I admit I balk at spending three times or more the amount on produce and meats and dairy to get foods that supposedly come without coatings of pesticides or added hormones or antibiotics, though that would certainly be ideal.

I'm working on being more involved in our backyard garden and learning more about it. This way, we get fresh, healthy food we like right from our own yard.
I’m working on being more involved in our backyard garden and learning more about it. This way, we get fresh, healthy food we like right from our own yard.

There are possibly some alternatives to the above pricey/time-consuming options for me and others who might have the time and at least a little extra cash to put towards them, such as growing your own food (if you have the time, the space, the know-how, etc.), contributing to raising a community garden, or just shopping local. But these options, again, are ones that are going to work when education efforts get past just the simple things of getting people to eat better, cook, and exercise.

No, this goes back to our society as a whole, including how our government is involved in regulating (or not overseeing) our food supply. It’s becoming more clear and more substantiated that these pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, plastics, etc., are contaminating our food and introducing all kinds of chemical problems into our bodies, making us fatter and just less healthy, maybe causing cancer. But government is slow to regulate and corporations are certainly not going to change of their own accord unless we as consumers really get educated and speak up with letters/phone calls to these companies or at the very least speak with our wallets by not buying their products. But that latter option leads again to this issue: what are average Americans going to buy if most of the big food producers aren’t providing healthy food? Most can’t afford organic or specialty stores.

As a mom and home manager, I am daunted and sometimes overwhelmed by all that is wrong and all I have to “protect” my family from, all that I need to “fix” or address in some way. What about all those others who don’t have even the luxuries of time and some extra money that I have? I feel a responsibility to do all I can not just to make life better for my own family, but for them. But I don’t have THAT much time or extra cash.

Yes, government can and must do better. Companies can and MUST do better to be responsible to consumers. Those with greater wealth and time to do good can do better to help those who don’t have what they have. Each of us can do a little something to spread the word, to raise awareness about whatever issues we’re facing, and to just speak up and let our voices be heard: voice our discontent, ask for specific things to be changed and improved. It comes back to my starfish post: I can’t save everyone, but by doing a few small things, they might add up to saving at least a few others. Give back by doing just a little, just whatever you can do.

Let’s fix our health care system before it breaks entirely

Catastrophic CareI just finished reading David Goldhill’s excellent book Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father — and How We Can Fix It. I don’t say this often, but EVERYONE must read this book. MUST.

It’s important to note that Goldhill is a Democrat and a liberal, as he states in the book. He wants everyone to have access to health care, at reasonable prices for them. But even he is clear that the American health care system as it has evolved over the past 40 years or so is broken and that having our government step in and use the current messed-up system to provide more care is not a viable solution. Indeed, the costs of this bloated, convoluted system are already at levels that can’t possibly be sustained, and as time goes on, the whole system will hit a critical level at which it can no longer function, and no one will receive adequate care.

There are a lot of problems going on. One is that we’re already getting poor care from the system; hundreds of thousands of Americans die every year from medical errors. Most of us have cause to complain about our insurance or health care (which are not synonymous but which are essentially tied together in a sick, symbiotic beast), but we feel helpless to DO anything about it. Goldhill writes that the problem there is that we as patients are simply not the consumers/customers of the business of health care: the insurance providers are. The system itself has pushed us out of the loop so we feel we can’t demand better care or prices.

Goldhill makes his case very clearly and simply and walks readers through how we got where we are today; read my review of the book for more information, but then read the whole book to really get the idea. That background of health care/insurance’s history then allows us to understand why the government “fixes” are just going to make the problems even bigger and worse. By the end, Goldhill even comes up with his own plans for making health care available and affordable to everyone in this country, even for rare and costly illnesses.

I can’t emphasize enough that we as consumers and patients and citizens of this country need to get better informed and then act to change the situation. Only if we all urge our political leaders to make an overhaul — and then prepare ourselves to take more responsibility on ourselves as consumers — will the system change and be something that will give us better care, prices, and customer service. Unfortunately, it may well take a terrible catastrophe or crisis (not too far off in the future) before we decide to act. I only wish we could act before that happens.

Everyone can give something

Whew! It has been quite a week in this country. The election seems to have brought out the worst in everyone, just before the vote and since the results were announced. I’ve been pondering on several topics connected to what has gone on and what people have talked about (or yelled about or written about in scathing words), and one has been the great divide in how people see wealth, or the lack of it. I have observed a lot of heated discussions about the rich, the poor, and what it means for individuals and the government to provide aid to the poor (thereby “taking” from the rich or even the middle class in the form of higher taxes).

What I’ve thought about is that everyone can give of their time and talents, whether they have money to spare or not. Money is not the only resource we all have. Even the poor can give of who they are and what they’re good at.

I live in California, where there are particularly bad problems with the economy, the state budget, and social programs, particularly education. I’ve observed in just the past four years while I’ve lived here most recently just how much education has suffered. Class sizes have gotten larger and larger, and schools’ budgets have gotten smaller. At the same time, I’ve been encouraged to see individuals doing all they can to help schools by just giving of their time. I have four children, one in high school, one in middle school, and two in elementary. My youngest is in half-day kindergarten. The teacher, as most do, asked through notes home if any parents could help out in the classroom. Given that I volunteer in a variety of capacities and write and do editing (part time, the only thing for which I earn any money) out of my home, I can’t give a lot of time to one area, but I can try to do something. So I told the teacher I could help out once a month. I did that the first time a few weeks ago, sitting in the back of the class and helping students with some projects. I watched the teacher manage a huge class of 30 5-year-olds. THAT is a huge job, let me tell you. I also watched one other parent sit at a table and go through all of the children’s daily folders and check that homework was done and everything was in order. She relayed the necessary information to the teacher. I was amazed to learn that this parent is there EVERY DAY, for the whole 3 1/2 hours the students are in the classroom. She volunteers that much of her time. And believe me, it definitely looked as if the teacher would have a hard time doing without her. She was pretty busy with that class FULL of little kids.

Not everyone can give that much of their time. But everyone can do something. Giving of ourselves makes us truly human, in all the best ways, I think. And it brings such a sense of satisfaction to us, while we’re providing needed help to others. It’s important for each of us to give of ourselves voluntarily and from the heart. At the same time, however, I think some people can sometimes use a little nudge. This is the only place in this post I’m going to really write about my “political” view, but here goes: I firmly believe that if people are being given assistance, from the government or from a faith-based organization or other group, then they can give something back for that aid. I love how Habitat for Humanity works: it requires that people give “sweat equity” to help build their own homes. They are provided a wonderful new home of their own, and they put in hours to build it and others’ homes. That’s part of why I like to donate money to that organization; I like its philosophy. I don’t think that requiring this kind of “payment” is all about “fairness,” though that is a part of it (if you’re going to get something, you should work for it in some way); it’s also about helping people to feel that they are valuable and able to give, able to work somehow. Those who are just given things without earning them tend to not feel as confident about themselves. So… I’m not against there being a government-sponsored safety net. Everyone ends up in a rough patch at one time or another, so it’s vital to have something available. But I would like to see that those who use that net for a while give back. Hunt for a new job, perhaps, for half of your day and spend the other half volunteering somewhere. This is just a general idea.

At any rate, I salute those in our society who work hard to take care of themselves (that’s SO many of you!), and then still spend more time working hard to help others. Whether you give money or time or any other of your particular resources, you are helping to build and maintain civilization.

My take on “Hunger Games” …

… because I have to weigh in.

I tend to hear about many books that end up being “hot” early in the game thanks to all the ways I stay connected in the publishing world. In the case of The Hunger Games, I heard about it on Stephenie Meyer’s website. I have found that Ms. Meyer has quite good taste in books. She talked about Suzanne Collins’ eventual blockbuster on her website when the first book came out, and I ran out and bought a copy. (She also recommended a fantastic “duo” of books starting with Dreamhunter, which I really liked as well but which isn’t the phenomenon that The Hunger Games has become; in fact, I’ve run across no one else who has read it.) I was thoroughly impressed by the fascinating premise and by the skilled execution of the great idea. I think a lot of what got my attention was the idea that in some messed-up future, the most horrific of survivor reality shows would be enacted. I’ve never been a fan of pretty much any reality shows on TV, preferring well-written, original scripted programs whether they be comedy or drama, so I thought it was brilliant to take our current society’s obsession with the cheaply-produced stuff that passes for entertainment to its gory and worst-case conclusion.

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence star in "The Hunger Games." credit: Lionsgate Films/Murray Close

Of course, since I read the first book when it was newly published, I had to wait a year for Catching Fire. As it happened, I ended up putting my newly purchased copy on a shelf and holding on to it for a year until Mockingjay was published. At that point, I then had two fresh, unread copies of the rest of the series, but it had been two years since I’d read the first book. That meant that I had to reread The Hunger Games so I could refresh my memory. Since the books are so intense, I still had to take a little break between reading the second book and then the third, reading one or two other books in between. From what I hear, this is unusual; everyone else I know, including my husband, who isn’t a BIG-time reader, just sat down and gulped the books down in practically one sitting, reading all three straight through. For me, I just needed to take a step back from the violence and, well, sadness. Either way, though, I was gripped by the story and how it unfolded. I liked how it showed people’s resilience and the need to rebel against an oppressive government. Collins had a wonderful idea for the books and then just showed great talent as a writer in taking the story through to its conclusion. I knew that she wouldn’t tie everything up neatly in a bow and that there wouldn’t be perfect happy endings for every character; I could tell, as most readers probably did, that this would be a gritty, more “realistic” set of books, with messier but mostly true-feeling plot lines. Some were shocked by how she finished the series, but I didn’t find myself completely taken aback or annoyed by it. It worked for me.

Now that I’ve had an opportunity to see the movie adaptation, I can say I’m very satisfied. Books turned into movies can be generally very un-satisfying propositions, so to be able to attend this film and say, “Wow. That was really well done” was a happy ending for me. I wasn’t terribly pleased with the first several Harry Potter film adaptations, feeling that although they did bring to big-budget life main plot points of the first books, they somehow lost a lot of the “feel” of the books. Part of what I loved about J.K. Rowling’s writing was not just the complex world and plot arc over seven books, but the whimsy. They are so clever in the names and in all the little non-crucial, witty touches. They made me laugh. The movies just didn’t do that at first. They felt lifeless. And Twilight… that’s a whole other story altogether.

So I was pleased with the movie because it completely captured the feel and tone of the books, the harshness of the regular citizens’ lives and the hopelessness, and the barbaric nature of the Capitol’s Games, carried out with such pomp and calculated publicity every year, even as 24 teens were brutally encouraged to leave behind their humanity and kill each other to survive, just to go back to their bleak lives.

The acting was superb and the script was deftly adapted. A movie really is a different animal than a book, and much as book lovers hate it, movies must make changes as the story goes from one distinct medium to another. I love good films (my dad taught me how to appreciate the classics), and I enjoy seeing how a director and all the other skilled people who contribute to a film really bring out the best in a story using all the tricks up their sleeves. For instance, the fact that there wasn’t much music in the film was a method that contributed to its tone. When music was used, it was spare and simple, echoing the story lines.

I think what I most appreciated, though, was that the visual nature of film really struck home to viewers the messages of the story even more than the book. The book tells us about totalitarian regimes and what governments do when they have too much power; it tells us about how people still can’t keep their eyes off of watching others fight and suffer, even in larger-than-life color (the rubbernecking, train-wreck mentality). It showed us the obliviousness of the people living in the Capitol to the real lives of the rest of Panem’s citizens. The movie, though, because of its very nature, really made me think about how silly and superficial those in the Capitol were, how they pranced about in their lives of ease and wealth, wearing their ridiculous clothes and crazy makeup and hair, not caring at all that people in their own country were mostly poor and always hungry and struggling. The Hunger Games were really just a game to them, a spectacle. It was disturbing and made me realize yet again how absolutely wealthy I truly am compared to so many people around the world, and so many of us here in the United States are, but even so, most of us complain that there are still others richer than we are, rather than thinking about the many who are poorer. We go around getting plastic surgery and Botox and spend ridiculous amounts of money on electronics and fattening fast food while others are struggling just to have something to eat. We sit in our comfortable living rooms watching big-screen TVs with scenes playing out of “reality” that’s not at all real: people pretending to love each other and women fighting each other for the “love” of one superficial guy, other people supposedly using survival skills to “win” on a remote island that’s been rigged for the show.

I was nervous about the violence of the movie, since the books truly are about violence. I will just briefly say I was pleased not to be too overwhelmed by violent images. The issue of violence in books and movies in general is something I find really interesting and important, but that will be a topic for another day. Suffice it to say for now that I enjoyed both this book and its movie version, and I was pleased that it made the leap between mediums in a satisfying manner.