Last year about this time I offered a few salad recipes as a way to beat the hot, dog days of summer. That phrase, by the way, while it has come to mean the hottest, most humid part of summer in the northern hemisphere, actually originated with the ancient Greeks who saw the star Sirius (the dog star) rise around late July, at which point their summer was moving into its hottest phase. Nothing to do with dogs! Anyway, maybe I’ll make this an annual post, since salads seem to be the most popular dinner at my house this month. So here goes – some Cool Salads For Hot Days!

 

Quinoa Super Salad

My new favorite!

4-6 c. torn or chopped lettuce of your choice
3/4 cup dry white or red quinoa
1 15-ounce can black beans or 1 ½ c. cooked black beans
1-2 ears fresh corn, removed from cob, or 1 c. frozen corn, thawed
1 small zucchini or 3-4” of a medium zucchini
1 avocado
1 red bell pepper, roasted or raw

½ c. prepared salsa
½ c. mayonnaise (I use Just Mayo)
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, seeded and chopped
½ t. ground black pepper

Mix together last four ingredients for dressing, set aside.
Rinse the quinoa in a fine mesh strainer. Bring 1½ c. water to a boil, add the quinoa and stir. Bring back to boil, reduce heat to a simmer. Cook 15 minutes. Stir, cover, set aside. Any remaining water will be absorbed; plus the quinoa should be room temperature for the salad.
If using canned beans, drain them. Steam the corn very lightly, allow to cool. Cube the avocado. Slice the bell pepper thinly lengthwise, then cut the strips into 1” or so pieces.
When all this is ready, place ¼ of the lettuce on each of four plates. Top with ¼ of the quinoa, the beans, the corn, the avocado, and then the peppers. Drizzle each with the dressing. Serves 4. Enjoy!

 

Kale Salad with Cranberries and Pumpkin Seeds

This is a simple salad, a good one to accompany a simple pasta dish or light fish entrée. And it needs no cooking!

 1 large bunch kale, Tuscan or curly
1/3 c. raw pumpkin seeds
1/3 c. dried cranberries (I found apple juice sweetened at Natural Grocers)
1 lemon
¼ c. olive oil
1-2 t. honey
1 t. Dijon mustard
Pinch salt, dash black pepper
Remove large stems from kale, chop the leaves, and place in large bowl. Squeeze one half the lemon over the kale and massage it into the kale to soften the leaves. Allow to rest about 10 minutes.
Mix the oil with the juice from the other half lemon, the honey, mustard, and salt and pepper.
After the kale is relaxed, toss in the cranberries and pumpkin seeds. Pour the dressing over and mix well. Serves 4.

 

Roasted Beet Salad with Walnuts and Cheese

3 medium beets, washed and trimmed
1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
2 T. sherry vinegar
1 T. honey
1 T. minced onions
1/2 t. Dijon mustard
4-6 c. baby spinach
1/2 c. crumbled goat cheese or bleu cheese
3/4 c. chopped walnuts, or halves

Preheat the oven to 400° F.
In a lidded jar add the olive oil, vinegar, honey, onions and Dijon and shake well.
I prefer to cube the beets and roast the chunks – doesn’t take as long. Peel the beets and cut into 3/4” cubes. (Yes, this can be messy!) Drizzle with a bit of olive oil and shake to lightly coat. Place on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer. Bake about 15 minutes, then remove from oven and turn them over. Return to oven another 15 minutes and check for doneness. When a knife slips in easily, remove the beets from the oven to cool.
Place the spinach in a bowl, add the beets and dressing and toss to coat. Top with the cheese and walnuts. Serves 4.

Adapted from http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/nancy-fuller/roasted-beet-salad-with-walnuts-and-goat-cheese-2383008

 

Chicken Fajita Salad

This salad does require a bit more cooking. If you use forethought and are grilling on a weekend, you could grill some extra chicken and grill the onion and peppers in a grill basket at the same time. I use the stove because I don’t usually think about it when grilling something else!

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken, or equivalent cooked chicken of your choice
1 med-large sweet onion, sliced 1/4” thick and into half circles
1 medium red bell pepper
1 medium green bell pepper
1 medium yellow or orange bell pepper
2 jalapeno peppers
20 or so grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
6-8 c. torn or chopped lettuce of your choice
2 T. chopped cilantro
Oil for sautéing

2 T. organic canola oil or EVOO
1 T. red wine vinegar
1 T. balsamic vinegar
2 T. prepared salsa

Mix the last four ingredients together for the dressing. Set aside.
Slice the onion into 1/4” thick slices and then cut slices into quarters. Remove tops of bell peppers, remove seeds and membranes, slice about ¼” thick, and cut slices into quarters. Remove seeds and membranes from the jalapenos (unless you like it hot!) and slice thinly. Slice chicken thinly.
Put a small amount of oil in a skillet large enough to cook the onion and peppers, not all at once unless you have a really large skillet. Heat the oil over medium-high heat, then add the onion quarters, spread them out and sauté until translucent and a little browned. Remove from skillet to a dish to cool. Repeat with the bell peppers, I usually do one color at a time, adding the jalapeno slices near the end of the last batch. Last, add the chicken to the skillet if not using already-cooked chicken. Cook thoroughly, set aside to cool. Add more oil as needed as you go through this process.
Place the prepared lettuce and the tomatoes in a salad bowl. When onions, peppers, and chicken are warm but no longer hot, add to bowl and toss with dressing to coat. Serves 4.

 

I would love to know if you try any of these, and what you think of them!  Post a comment!

Summertime! For those of us who don’t get to spend the whole summer on a beach being lazy, especially those who have kiddos who are bored even though they don’t want to be in school, I’d thought I’d write about cool things to make for lunches. It’s too hot to eat heavy and who wants to heat up the kitchen with a lot of stove use? But, we also don’t want to eat out all the time – at least, I hope you don’t! And, getting the kids involved is a good way to teach them about where food comes from and how it gets from farms to your table, not to mention instilling a practical skill they will have for life.

Moving past PB&J or cheese sandwiches or hotdogs, what are some interesting and fun lunch ideas that don’t need a lot of heat? Wraps. Rollups. Pasta salads. Sloppy Joes. Kabobs. Tostadas. Salad-in-a-jar. Tacos. Zucchini pizzas. Panini. Keeping in mind what foods your kids like and what you think they might try if presented with a fun chance, all of these ideas could work well. You’ll want to keep these ideas in mind as you prepare for other meals and shop for ingredients. I also will make lunch out of unexpected leftover bits and bites, and many of these ideas lend themselves well to that. Will some of the lunches for the week need beans? Cook extra or make sure to have canned ones on hand. Making mini-pizzas? Be sure you have extra of your favorite marinara – homemade or bought – and cheese. Tortillas? Check. Fresh carrots and cucumbers and lettuce and other veggies? Check. Cooked chicken, either leftover from a dinner or rotisserie chicken from the store makes it easy? Check. As with planning dinner menus, it helps to have all the ingredients available. Then all ya gotta do is prep and eat!

Depending on the ages of the children, if you have any around, they can be assigned various tasks to help. Older kids may want to help plan or even dream up their own ideas, and certainly help with prep and any cooking. Younger kids can help assemble and even chop and slice – good way to teach safe knife handling. Little ones can help add ingredients you have prepped and measured, stir, and help assemble. The results may not be as pretty as the pictures but will taste just as good!

Most kids like pasta, and a cold pasta salad can be a fun dish to prepare, and a good way to get some veggies in their mouth they may think they don’t like. It seems raw veggies, especially cut into fun shapes, are more tolerable to reluctant tasters. Italian-style dressing is common but may not be to kids’ tastes – maybe a creamy, ranch type dressing would be better liked. Sure, pasta has to be cooked but it’s minimal and if you plan extra when making another meal, you’ll have it ready to mix.

Skewers (cold kabobs) of favorite and not so familiar items are fun. Roll up sliced turkey or ham and cut into 1” pieces, do the same with soft cheese slices like provolone or cut small cubes of some cheddar or Monterey jack. Prep items the eaters will like or you think they might like, such as cucumber or zucchini slices, grape tomatoes, folded up lettuce leaves, pitted olives, and even grapes or strawberries. Choose foods that will slide onto a wooden skewer easily. Put these in small bowls and let the kids build-your-own-kabob, no cooking needed! You can turn wraps into rollups if you layer the contents well, using hummus or similar consistency spread as first layer. Once you’ve layered the wrap, roll it tightly, and then cut into 1” wide slices. So maybe hummus, slice of turkey or ham, slice of cheese or shredded cheese, maybe young spinach leaves or some shredded lettuce, a bit of shredded carrot or other veg. Just don’t use large chunks – they don’t roll well or stay rolled up well.

Tacos and pizzas don’t have to be hot, or have meat that requires cooking. These pizzas will be a little messy to eat but fun. Slice a day-old, whole-grain baguette or a medium zucchini into 1/4-3/8” slices. Top each slice with a bit of marinara, a bit of shredded cheese, and maybe an olive or halved cherry tomato. You could add some finely chopped herbs, like basil or oregano too. Pizza! Tacos could be fresh (less crumbly) or dried small tortillas, with maybe some cold leftover chicken or leftover beans and rice, some salsa, and other taco toppings of diner’s choice. Again, put the toppings in small bowls and let the kids build-your-own-taco, no cooking needed!

If the children are salad eaters it can be fun to make a salad in a jar (or one pint translucent plastic tub for picnics). Put the dressing in first, then layer the preferred fixin’s in, with the first one being something that can touch the dressing without damage. (So I wouldn’t start with lettuce.) Use lots of colorful veggies is various shapes  – orange carrots cut in tiny cubes, purple cabbage thinly sliced to show off its curls, dark green spinach to contrast with lighter green lettuce, red bells in skinny strips, etc. Put the lid on, store in fridge until lunchtime. Shake the jar to mix the dressing around, and now all that’s needed is a fork.

Here’s a vegetarian ‘sloppy joe’ recipe. Requires little cooking, and does well in a crockpot. In addition to being different from what a sloppy joe usually consists of, serve this mix in a pita pocket to make it even more interesting. Also, it makes a lot as written, so maybe this helps out for a pool party.

Vegetarian Sloppy Joes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large white onion, sliced
2 medium carrots, or 1 large, shredded
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 cups cooked pinto beans
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 8-ounce can no-salt-added tomato sauce
2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce or tamari, or Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2-1 cup water
2-3 cups very thinly sliced green or purple cabbage
1 medium zucchini, diced
1 cup corn, fresh or frozen (optional, I omit this)
3 tablespoons mustard of choice, or to taste
Salt, black pepper to taste

Preparation
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until starting to
brown, about 8 minutes. Stir in carrots and garlic and chili powder; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 15-30 seconds. Remove from heat; stir in vinegar and scrape up any browned bits.
Coat a 6-quart slow cooker with cooking spray, if desired. Mix the tomato paste with 1/2 cup water until smooth; add remaining water a bit at a time if mixture is too thick. Add this mixture and the rest of the ingredients to the slow cooker. Stir to combine.
Cover and cook on High for 1 hour or Low for 2-3 hours. The cabbage should be well cooked. When done to your liking turn the cooker off. Check the seasoning, adjust to taste.
Serve on buns or in pita pocket bread.

Note: If you sauté the onion/carrot/garlic in a large stove top pot, you could add the rest of the ingredients to it instead of a crockpot. Heat to low simmer for 30-40 minutes and check for consistency. This method may require a little additional water.

[Modified from http://www.eatingwell.com/recipes/vegetarian_pinto_bean_sloppy_joes.html]

 

Now I was saying how kids like pasta. Disclaimer here – I have not tried this! But it seems so easy I thought I’d add it.

5 Minute Homemade Mac and Cheese
1/2 pound cooked pasta of choice (we used small shells)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup whole milk
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Place pasta, cheese, milk, salt and pepper into a microwave safe bowl. Stir to mix. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and microwave for 3 minutes. Stir and microwave for an additional 2 minutes. Stir until creamy and smooth. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings

[http://picky-palate.com/2012/02/20/5-minute-homemade-mac-and-cheese/]

 

Anyway, I hope this gave you some creative ideas for cool, easy lunches, whether you are feeding kids this summer or not!

Chances are you also struggle with some of the challenges I have been thinking about. We are told some basic ideas for eating well and taking care of ourselves, yet find that doing so may not be great for the planet’s health. What’s a health-conscious person with a conscience supposed to do?

Take eating fruits and vegetables, nine servings a day as recommended. We want to eat high quality, preferably organic, and in-season produce. But we live in North America and except for certain small areas like southern California, the growing seasons just don’t allow for much growing during a big part of the year. Sure, the grocery stores are full of every kind of produce all year long. But at what cost to the environment, not to mention to the quality of the produce? Most fruits and vegetables have to be picked long before they are really ready to be eaten, packed, shipped long distances, and distributed to trucks which take them even further, until they finally show up at your store. Of course this is true even when the produce grows in the USA and gets shipped across country, just maybe not picked as early and not shipped as far. This is why I prefer local produce – I feel it is fresher and I know it took less fossil fuel to arrive at the market. Yet I chafe at the lack of variety some months and cringe at the price of some items not easily grown here and wonder how I’d cook if I couldn’t get bell peppers all year long. Then I read about a group of women in a poor country who got helping starting a farm and they grow vegetables for the American market (because we are insatiable) and now they can send their children to school. How can I not want to help support them?!

The next challenge I think about is that of drinking water. The general opinion is we should drink 64 ounces a day or thereabout. It can seem difficult to consume that much water but it’s really not and the benefits are worth forming the habit. Of course we want that water to be clean and free of contaminants, and preferably come out of our home faucets like that. But many areas don’t trust their tap water or don’t care for the ‘taste’ (which probably means they are right to avoid it because water shouldn’t ‘taste’, should it?). If you don’t like or trust your tap water what do you do? There are various filtering options for the home, and there’s also home delivery of those big bottles. What about the times you are away from a ready source of good water, like hiking, biking, traveling, etc. and need to carry water with you? With so much controversy over BPA and phthalates leaching from plastics and being known hormone disrupters, we don’t want to use containers made from polycarbonate plastic or polyvinyl chloride (those have #1, #3, #6, or #7 stamped on). But glass won’t work for these activities. I have a stainless steel bottle, but it is not large so if I needed more water than it holds I’d have a problem. I encourage you to avoid purchased bottled water because it is a trash hazard, a waste of plastics, and due to news of some heavy-handed bottlers diverting water from towns and buying up water rights. Yet bottled water helps people in crisis situations have clean water, at least short-term.

The third challenge I have been pondering is eating fish. Not from a vegetarian or vegan point of view – that’s a subject for a different post. We omnivores are encouraged to eat fish several times a week for the omega-3 properties. I like fish so that’s not the problem. What is a problem are the warnings we get about mercury and other contaminants in many species. And another problem is the over-fishing that depletes the fish stocks, and the bad fishing practices that causes many fish to be caught and killed but not brought in for consumption. So how do we eat fish a few times a week if we can’t get fish that is safe to eat? I avoid farmed fish, fish from countries with poor food-safety regulations, and foods on the watch list from Monterey Bay Aquarium. Good info on their site – I recommend checking it out.

I can’t claim to have answers to these puzzles. There are many ways to solve them for you, in a way that works in your life. And there are many other challenges in the world of eating well – which ones are puzzling you these days? We can only do so much at one time, so pick the issues that bug you the most and work to do what you can do to relieve it.

Image courtesy of jscreationzs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This is the time of year many appeals to help feed the homeless and the hungry are sent out. And many people answer those appeals by donating money, food, or time. I would bet everyone reading this blog and others like it is not ‘food insecure’. How do you help those who are? Is it only when reminded by the holiday appeals that you help or do you assist in other ways all year ‘round? I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty or obligated – just wondering if this is something you think about.

For those who are able to help with donations of money or food, I would encourage you to check out the program(s) you consider supporting. Some do a better job of helping those most in need than other programs. It is so disheartening to hear of a food bank where the volunteers skim off the best products, although I’m hoping that is rare. Some food banks prefer cash contributions to food stuffs as they can sometimes get wholesale prices and more products for the dollar. I also like to donate a bag of personal care products – things that cannot be bought with food stamps but are necessary for personal dignity. Many families make it a tradition to help prepare and serve meals at shelters – this is a great way to impress on children the importance of sharing.

While you may not be food insecure – you have enough food, good food, can eat when you want – are you hungry in other ways? Certainly one can imagine the hunger of the homeless and the very poor for more than just food. Hunger for security, for safety, for someone who cares, etc. Yet even those who aren’t homeless or poor may hunger for these things; or for family and friends with whom to share; for meaningful work; for better health. The nutrition school I attended considers what we eat to be “secondary food” and lifestyle issues to be “primary food”. This is an important distinction! Yes, food is essential to live and good, clean food is essential to good health. But to get the most from this life, our relationships, our home and family life, our work, our health, and our spirituality are also essential. This is true regardless of socio-economic status. How can we feed these needs, satisfy the pangs?

First you need to identify what it is you hunger for, where is your life lacking? If you love your work and feel you contribute to society by doing it, then that is all good, but if not, is it time for a change? Do you feel a lack of a spiritual center? Are there money troubles? Is your marriage suffering from lack of attending to it? Once you know where the effort needs to go, what you need to feed, you can make a plan.

By helping those who are most in need, we feed our compassion. Maybe you offer your time and money as part of a spiritual practice, so that feeds your spirituality. Perhaps stress at work has you snapping at a family member, so you could make a focused effort on refraining from taking it out on them and on explaining why you have been so cranky. From that discussion may follow ideas on how to relieve or remove the cause of the stress – at the very least sharing with a loved one brings understanding and caring. If there is a health concern, what changes can you make in other areas of your life, like your diet, alcohol consumption, or stress level to resolve or alleviate the concern? Engaging in mindful meditation can bring many benefits to your life, in relationships, spirituality, compassion for others, and health. Expressing true gratitude for the food you eat and for all the people who had a hand in getting that food before you is another way of feeding the inner hunger.

I just encourage you, in this season and all seasons, to consider both life hunger and food hunger, for yourself and for others. In helping others, you help yourself in ways you may not even know.

20161108_simple-pleasuresSome of my favorite things:

  • Getting up early when the world is quiet but for the birds.
  • Holding a sleeping baby.
  • Lunch with friends.
  • Meaningful conversations with someone with opposing views.
  • First sip of fresh-brewed coffee.
  • Wine tastings and winery tours.
  • Saturday night card games with family.
  • Curling up with a good novel and a cup of tea.
  • Looking at old pictures.
  • A satisfying workout, especially done outdoors.
  • Lending a hand to someone in need.
  • Rainy days in the desert.
  • Cooking a new recipe that turns out great.
  • Baking bread.
  • Cold beer on a hot day.
  • Working on my latest hobby project.
  • Meeting someone new and really clicking with them.
  • Hiking in Dreamy Draw Park.
  • Getting help from an unexpected source.
  • Finding $20 in a jacket pocket.
  • Pictures of Penny.
  • Trying a new restaurant that hits the mark.
  • The sound of ocean waves.
  • Sunsets in Phoenix

What are yours?

This is the month when reminders to be thankful are all around. Not that we should need them from card companies or department stores! But we do often get so caught up in our day-to-day tasks  that we forget all the little things that make life rich. You may have seen magazine articles or social media posts about starting a gratitude journal – writing down every day three things for which you are grateful. It’s a nice idea, a way to recall the good things in your life if you run into a rough patch. Being grateful doesn’t have to be formalized in writing. You can also just take a few minutes before you go to sleep to utter gratitude for your day. Maybe the weather was great; the dog obeyed all commands; you got a nice compliment from someone. And being grateful isn’t only for big or material things, celebrate the simple pleasures because these are what string together to make for a fulfilling life.

Image courtesy of Yongkiet at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


20161025_autumn-treeWe don’t really have four seasons here in the Valley of the Sun. We have two: nice weather and summer (which most people don’t consider “nice”, LOL!). It’s late October and our afternoons are still in the mid-90s although overnight lows are in the upper 60s to low 70s – nice and cool in the mornings! I spent the bulk of my life in the Midwest so I feel like I should be wearing jeans, sweaters, and boots this late in the year but I’m still wearing shorts and sandals during the days. I loved autumn in the Midwest and miss those crisp, fall days. What to do?

To start with, I follow my long-time fall routine, just maybe a month or so later than I used to. That means – heavy duty cleaning. True, the house was mostly closed up all summer with AC on so not much dust got in. It just seems the air must be stale, so I open the windows and clean! Once upon a time I was really ‘scrubby Dutch’ but that time is past and I really have to have a reason for this now. Like, company coming from out of town to stay a few days – that gets me moving! They will be here in two weeks so I better get rolling.

Heavy duty cleaning means I move a lot of things around to clean in, under, and closer, and that means I find things that really, we don’t need. “Why did we keep this?” I wonder. There’s not a lot of storage room in our condo so space for needless things just doesn’t exist, and have I ever mentioned that I don’t like clutter? Someday I will get up a lot of motivation and clear out the garage, but that day is not here yet! Still, I’ll end up with a bag or box or two to donate, and probably a fair amount to toss. So I find this a good time to de-clutter.

While I’m taking a break from all that cleaning I might browse a new magazine or the web and come across recipes for soups and stews and chilies that sound delicious and warm and cozy and cold-weather satisfying. But it’s still too hot for those dishes, I tell myself! That doesn’t stop me from saving the recipe for ‘later’ although by now I have dozens of these recipes saved and few of them actually tried. Still, a few will get tested, a few will get tossed without trying (why did I save this one??), and a few more will morph together into one brand-new recipe. I do make some soups in the summer but they tend to be lightweight, like a cool gazpacho or a nice, light cauliflower soup that is good hot or cold. My cool weather soups are heartier, with heavier flavors, bigger chunks of veggies, and more beans and/or grains. I also do more baking in our cooler season, for obvious reasons!

Another habit that came with me from my roots is stocking up the pantry as the weather changes to winter. Who wants to go out when it’s cold, windy, snowy, or icy? Not me! So I’d make sure I had plenty of ingredients on hand for the days I didn’t feel like getting out. Not that we encounter many of those days here in the valley; it’s just habit. And now that habit seems to last all year, because who wants to have to run to the store when it’s 114? I try to always have staples on hand – onions and garlic, dried and canned beans, plant-based milk, frozen veggies, canned tomatoes, spices, dried pasta, and nuts and seeds. Summer meals usually mean lots of fresh salad veggies and ingredients for dressings. Winter meals also have lots of fresh vegetables but I make fewer salads.

My last transition activity is shifting clothes. Like I mentioned, not a lot of storage here so sweaters, heavier pants, long sleeved items get packed in boxes in spring and brought out in fall; shorts and sleeveless tops and summery skirts go into the boxes. This year I need to take a really critical look at my wardrobe because really, I have too many clothes. Since I gave up corporate work, I don’t need all the clothes I did before but it’s been hard to get rid of perfectly good items. Now I think I’m ready to let some go to a better home. Still not time to pull out the heavier sweaters and switch to wearing boots, but it will be soon!

Living here has simplified my seasonal transitions for two reasons. One, I only have to switch twice, from hot to cool, and cool to hot. I used to have to adjust to four seasons. Two, no daylight savings time – that change always hit me hard and I love not messing with adjusting my internal clock to arbitrary clock changes.

What are your seasonal transitions like?

20161011_meditationDo you find it disturbing when you hear someone nearly bragging about feeling exhausted and stressed out? And then realize he/she is the twentieth person you’ve heard talk like that just recently. And then realize that you empathize with them all, because you are in the same boat. We boast of our ability to multi-task. We try to out-do the other person’s list of to-dos. We carry our mini-computers, otherwise known as “smart phones”, and respond instantly to whatever chimes or chirps it makes, even at dinner with loved ones, while walking with our kids, while working out. We say “yes” to every request for fear of being labeled ‘weak’ or ‘can’t-handle-it’. Because it’s all so important.

I’m sure you’ve heard of mindfulness meditation by now. It’s a big thing, one more thing for your already too long task list, to fit into your day, to buy new clothes for, to seek out a guru, and don’t forget the cushion. It’s the thing to end your stress, calm your mind, settle the WWIII going on at home, help you get a good night’s rest. Or is it?

What is meditation? Meditation is a practice of training or focusing the mind in order to be present with Now, with what is before you in this moment. It brings clarity to an unfocused mind that jumps from thought to thought constantly – what is often called ‘monkey mind’. While meditation may be a hot topic currently, it has been practiced for centuries by many cultures and religions, and in various ways. Mindfulness meditation or “mindfulness” as a practice is really the same as plain old meditation, but maybe a more acceptable term for those who associate meditation with a specific religion. Mindfulness is the label popularized in the West by a program started by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where patients with severe medical problems learned to meditate to help alleviate some of those problems. It’s not just for those with stress or health problems, but is good for anyone looking for self-improvement.

One does not have to identify with a religion or movement to practice meditation. Benefits of a regular practice include more calmness, better clarity, reduced anxiety and stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and more compassion and awareness of self and those around you. It takes time to build up a good practice and reap the benefits of it, and of course not everyone experiences meditation in the same way. But those who stick with it definitely find it worthwhile. Much research is being done to study and measure actual impacts of meditation on various physical and mental health issues.

There are many methods of meditation, and since I am not a trained instructor in the art of meditation but only a novice practitioner, I will not elaborate on those. Suffice to say no special equipment, clothing, or education is necessary. A dedicated time in a quiet space is all one really needs. There are many books, classes, audio programs, and online programs that help people learn to meditate, and much information on the web about what it is and is not. Some guides will strongly recommend you begin with a qualified teacher and other guides tell you to jump right in. I have read many books and online articles on how to meditate and listened to several guided meditations, but always return to the method I initially learned. It’s a simple practice – I start my day with 20-30 minutes to sit and follow my breath, not trying to not think but keeping focus on my breathing, in and out. I like mornings as that is when I am least interrupted or disturbed by activity or noise. Did I mention that I am a novice? Yes, my monkey mind is far from tamed but I do feel progress in being able to focus on what is right in front of me.

One caution I will state: if you are someone with deep emotional or mental disturbances, I absolutely recommend working with a trained instructor who can guide you, as sometimes looking deep within oneself can stir up deep memories that are painful or frightening.

Some of the books I have read and will suggest are those by Pema Chodron (How To Meditate), Jon Kabat-Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are), and Thich Nhat Hanh. Wikipedia has good entries about ‘meditation’ and about ‘mindfulness’. As well, the web has thousands of entries on the subject, some with detailed instructions, some with guided meditations. Explore for yourself, and give meditation a try. You may find it is just what you need!

20160927_fam-farmIf you know me or follow me on Facebook, you likely know that I am a big fan of farmers’ markets. I often post pictures of my Saturday morning market haul. About 80% of the food I buy comes from the market! Why? I like to support local growers. I like that the produce didn’t travel hundreds of miles and is fresher than the stores’ produce. I like the community atmosphere of the market. I like the variety of food and people I find there. Even though some produce costs more than at the nearest grocery, I think the value offsets the cost. I thought it was great to see new markets opening up, creating more chances for shoppers to ‘buy local’. Yet all that said it seems lately I have noticed an increase in reselling – the vendor buys non-local produce at wholesale and resells it at the market. (Some markets prohibit this but not the ones near me.) It made me wonder why – is it because the AZ growing season was at its most quiet or is something else going on? Then I came across an article in Edible Baja Arizona written by Debbie Weingarten.* It shed light on why I might be seeing more non-local produce, but even more it opened my eyes to the disconnect I think the majority of us have. That is: the disconnect between how food we eat magically appears in the stores and markets and what it takes for small producers to grow it.

In this article, Debbie highlights the stories of several small farm families that gave up their farms because, while they were good farmers with high productivity, they could not sustainably make a stable living. The usual things were tried – diversity of products, CSAs, farmers’ markets, and more. All those farmers’ markets I was so happy to see – well, they have to be staffed and supplied each week, and that means lots of extra time each week. Some years were profitable but many more were not, and the constant worry and concern adds non-financial costs. Most of us like to romanticize family farms, visualizing bucolic settings of old-fashioned house and barn, lush fields, happy cattle, and apple-cheeked kids hugging their 4H pigs. Yet these small farmers have the same responsibilities that we non-farmers have – mortgages, saving for college, making ends meet – on top of making the farm successful and all that entails. Why is it so hard to grow food and make a living at it?

Let’s define “small family farm.” First, a farm is defined by USDA as any place where $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold or could have been sold in a year. Small family farms are those that gross less than $350,000 per year, which includes sale of product, any subsidies (more on this later), and other farm related income. Then this group is further divided into farms where the owner is retired or has an occupation other than farming, and those farms where the owner’s only occupation is farming. Then there are mid-size and large-scale family farms, owned by the operator and other family but where gross farm income exceeds $350,000 a year. [Note this is gross farm income, not what they live on! The cost of inputs has to be taken from the gross income, and those costs can be huge. As well, the gross income fluctuates from year to year with market conditions, weather events, and so forth.] The vendors I meet certainly fall into this category of small family farms. Just under half of these farms have annual gross farm income under $10,000. So while you may come across a report of median farm household income exceeding that of non-farm households (in 2014, latest I could find) be careful! This reflects ALL family farm households, some of which have over a million dollars of gross farm income annually.

Subsidies. Every time the US Congress takes on the budget, especially when they have to renew the Farm Bill, people start talking about the subsidies farmers get, “free money for doin’ nothing” people will say or make claims that farmers are rich because “look at the size of the subsidies” (expected to be ~$10 billion in the 2016-2017 payment year). However, most of that money goes to mega-corporate farms, certainly not to the small producers I try to support: “Since 1995, 75 percent of federal subsidies have gone to 10 percent of farms, the same consolidated group of commodity crop growers who will continue to eat up a disproportionate share of the subsidy pie under the new system, too.” and “While some family farms receive subsidies, they disproportionately benefit corporate mega-farms, which are able to buy more land and dominate the market. As the Heritage Foundation has noted, about 75% of larger farms collect subsidies compared with 24% of relatively smaller farms. The massive amount of money that goes to larger farms, in turn, increases demands (and prices) for land and other resources small farmers need.” Now, there are many, many detractors of crop subsidies and many supporters. And there are good reasons to have subsidies in place. But like so many well-intended programs, this one is no longer doing the good it was meant to do, and the people you think ought to be getting help are not; the crops which are better for our health and just as susceptible to natural events are not being supported at all. Too much of the money goes to corn and soy that is not even used to feed people but instead goes to industrial uses. Subsidizing crops is a way bigger subject than I will go into further, but my point is – small producers are not getting any of this assistance. Check out Environmental Working Group’s site for more info on who gets how much: https://farm.ewg.org/

Again, if you know me or follow me on Facebook, you likely know that I am very opposed to genetic engineering (GE) of food crops. You will also know I am a firm supported of local businesses and would rather pay a bit more buying from a local shop than ordering from Amazon. These are just two more reasons I write this post. I want to encourage each of you to think about who is supported by your purchases. Sure, the clerks at Walmart have jobs because people shop there and retailers haven’t figured out how to totally get away from humans at the checkouts or stocking shelves. But is your purchase there really keeping that store open? What if you spent that money at a local store or the farmers’ market? How much more would your purchase support – consider you pay the producer for the product, covering his cost and hopefully some profit; owner pays local taxes (real estate, sales, business, excise) because she lives here too, so that helps your community; owner may provide jobs for one or many people as his business stabilizes and grows and he can support his family; said family shops here too, maybe at your business, thus continuing the circle. Then too small producers are less likely to use GE seed and the attendant pesticides because 1) they likely can’t afford the inputs, and 2) they listen to their consumers better. So consider how you might shift your purchasing, especially of food, to support local growers. We need them.

For an excellent book on how small farmers can positively impact water conservation and global warming, read Water In Plain Sight by Judith D. Schwartz.

 

* Weingarten, Debbie. “Quitting Season.” Edible Baja Arizona. July/August 2015. 120-136. Print.