10 green things

A friend recently blogged about how she spent her frugal day (hello, Katy Wolk-Stanly and the Non-Consumer Advocate) and all the cool things she did in just a typical day that saved money. Shamelessly riffing on her Frugal Day is this, my Green Day, or how I – without pain or needless suffering – make green choices every day.
1. Reheated yesterday’s coffee. I didn’t finish the pot of coffee yesterday, and sure, I could have thrown it out and made new fresh coffee. But where does coffee come from? Not Alameda County. No, it’s generally shipped from at least Central America or Hawaii, and at most, from Africa or farther afield. Shipping the coffee here uses fossil fuel, and coffee in general has a pretty big carbon footprint (four pounds of carbon per pound of coffee, estimated). As well, it takes energy to grind and brew coffee. Reheating yesterday’s coffee saves the planet in a small way – which adds up if over a year, you make half as much coffee. (You can buy carbon-neutral coffee, btw, or drink tea, which has a lower footprint, and avoid milk, which adds more greenhouse gasses than either coffee or tea. Cows and methane, you know…)

2. Used waxed paper to wrap up the Boy’s lunch. Plastic wrap takes a jillion years to decompose but waxed paper is compostable. Waxed bags are just as handy as plastic baggies for chips or other crunchy snacks.

3. Reused a bag to hold his school lunch. We used to have about five reusable lunchboxes but somehow they’ve been lost along the way. I am hoping to find a decent one at Goodwill or other thrift store; in the meantime, we’re reusing bags that show up at our house.

4.  Parked at the mall and walked to all the storesI needed to visit. I batched my errands to avoid using fossil fuel for repeated stops and starts in the car. Walking to the post office, pet food store, office supply store and more made for free exercise as well as a savings in the fuel budget. Note that green activities often save you money, which is just completely bonus. Took my own bags, too.

5.  Purchased recycled products: 100% recycled paper for the home printer, recycled paper bathroom tissue, recycled aluminum foil, and ball point pens made from recycled materials.

6.  Attended a marketing webinar at home, which saved on travel expenses, fossil fuels and all the expenses of leaving the house (coffee, parking meters, bridge tolls, etc.)

7.  Switched out rechargeable batteries for son’s video game controller.  We haven’t bought new batteries in months – maybe years. Invest in a charger for AA and AAA batteries, and 2-3 sets of batteries. Put one in each room where batteries are always in use (TV remote control or garage door opener?). That way it’s easy to find them when you need them, and the batteries get used over and over.

8. Cleaned out empty paint cans and half-used junk from the basement. These are loaded in the back of the car for next time I swing through Oakland and can drop off (for free!) at the toxic waste place. (More on this in the next blog.)

9. Took own water and coffee in the car; took own coffee cup to the coffee house whenever we go there; hang onto the cardboard coffee-sleeve (or use one of my home-knit ones) for reuse. I keep coffee sleeves in my purse and glove box just for this. I also keep one of those fast-food 4-cup cardboard cupholders in the car, under the front seat, for the next time we do a drive-through. Why not reuse the one instead of getting a fresh one every time?

10. Ate leftovers for lunch. How is this green? Food waste is one of the biggest offenders in creating methane gas. And studies show Americans throw outas much as 40 percent of the food they buy. That’s just not cool.
What are you doing to be green today? And, just a thought, how much are you saving by greening your life?

Just one more screed before bedtime

When I was a wee single mom some 6-ish years ago, with three daughters in three different schools in two different towns (part of the fun of a divorce), I applied to get my daughters in the free breakfast and lunch program. I filled out the USDA paperwork and then descended into the 9th Circle of Hell at one Alameda school as we tried to make good on the program.

My daughter (12) went to the lunch line, they told her to “go fill out the papers” and sent her away hungry. I called the school and complained. The next day — repeat. The third day they sent her away hungry again and I blew a gasket. I called everyone at the school district office and gave them a very long and articulate piece of my very pissed off mind — about how this is a hungry 12 y.o. child who is at the mercy of the system, and the people who are there to help her and to make sure she receives the benefit to which she is federally entitled have failed her; and that as custodians of our children, you are obligated to take care of these kids, and don’t your employees know how the program works, and if they don’t, couldn’t you send around a flyer or hold a training so kids don’t go hungry? and if I were not there to advocate for her, she would still be sent away hungry every day, even though…etc. No one called me back, needless to say.

I marched into the school with my daughter the fourth day (it took that long to get the facts straight). By then the school office was in a twist because they had all gotten in trouble from the main office. There actually was a system in place for getting lunch tickets and getting them punched, etc, but it was never explained to my daughter. No handout, no orientation, no instructions from anyone in the entire school. They just kept telling her, You have to fill out the papers even when she said (in tears) that we had done so. (What 12-year-old can “fill out papers” about gross annual household income?!)

They continued to send her away hungry until I raised the roof. In a grumpy way. Luckily for my daughters, and quite unluckily for the school, I am a highly educated, middle-class-sounding woman with a vocabulary that blew their socks off. That’s what made me maddest — that they scampered and scurried when I made a fuss and used big words and name-dropped the newspaper as a sort of afterthought, but if I hadn’t made a fuss — my child could have continued hungry and rejected from a service she was entitled to.

What if I were a non-English speaker with no literacy or fluency? “Looked poor”? Fewer words in my arsenal? Lived in my car? I would have had the same rights for my child but no way to access them because the system is the problem — the very delivery system of the help is where the problem is.

Further, the issues with school lunch programs or food stamps (both federal programs under the USDA, not social welfare programs) are not that participants are “taking advantage of the system,” pulling one over on hard-working Americans, or sucking the life out of America. The issues are that poverty begets poverty, hunger itself sucks the life out of you, and that most people live in fear that it could happen to them. We are but a wet piece of Kleenex from living in our cars, losing our homes or getting in the unemployment line. Fear builds walls, and says, “Keep away from me, poverty is contagious, and I don’t want to get any nearer the edge.” And we all need someone to blame, don’t we?

I could go on, bleeding heart-commie-flower child-of the-ecosystem that I am. You know I could. But I will end the JFSC by accounting that of our $454.50, I spent all but $8.50 to feed my family for the month of June, with some food left over. When I do a little bit of financial juggling of our own precarious budget, I will follow that with a donation to our local food bank and a great thank you to the Universe for the lessons that came to rest at my feet this past month. Things that make me say “Ow!” and then, “Wow!” are good things to learn. Big breath of freedom. Big sigh of gratitude.

And the menu today? Lots of good stuff, including but not limited to ciabatta bread and butter, hot coffee with CREAM, chocolate, grapes, local apple juice, whole milk, an egg McMuffin, and more.

Thanks for reading — and please let me know if you also make a donation of money, food or time to your food bank. It makes a big difference.


Wow, great questions coming in from readers near and far. Thank you for reading and for all your interest. This post will just answer questions — I have today’s stuff to write for the JFSC but don’t want to leave you hanging on unfinished business. And, by the way, thanks, Katy Wolk-Stanley, for blogging about me on your NonConsumer Advocate blog. You rock the house! So —

1) Will I write about more sustainable, green, urban homesteading, frugal topics, etc, henceforth? Yes. Funny, this blog started out as a how-to for writers; if you look back in the archive, you’ll see that at least for the first year or so (2004), I ended each post with “Advice to Aspiring Writers” — I was editing the newspaper and promoting my novel at the time, plus teaching night classes in writing of all sorts. But I’ve definitely evolved (devolved?) into the farm-girl-in-the-city, with my garden, chickens, clothesline and jam-pot. You like this stuff? Stick around. If you are a wanna-be writer, you might also pick up some funny tips because I’m still doing that as well. (Ask me about the whoredom of promoting your own books, or finding your passion in what you write, or the desire to throw yourself in front of a train when someone tells you, “You should write a book about my life!” Oh, really? Thanks for the tip…aaaaaagh!)

2. How to clean your oven? Baking soda paste. Add a little water to baking soda, dab it onto the crusty parts of your oven, let it sit overnight. You might also put in a pan of water and warm the oven up a bit, turn it off, then leave the door closed overnight. The paste should work its magic. Don’t think dish soap is strong enough. But baking soda is like a magical ingredient from Narnia or the Lady Galadriel. It does everything. (But it tastes nasty when you get a lump of it in a cookie, so use a sifter, sister!) Word!

3. Why am I not a vegetarian? Long answer, so refresh your beverage and slip off your shoes. Short answer is that I generally am 90% vegetarian, but not for the usual reasons. I’m also a farm girl. I don’t have false ideas about the dear little Bambi creatures who frolic on a farm until Mr. Mean Old Farmer machine guns them and wraps them in plastic and Styrofoam for the grocery store shelf for voracious carnivores. I also know about the slaughterhouse and the factory-type farm, well before Michael Pollan and Food Inc. made them popularly unpopular. Nope. I raised sheep, rabbits, we had cattle and horses, chickens and ducks (no pigs, though). My brother worked at the feed lot/slaughterhouse (I used to wash his bloody clothes). I watched our lambs at slaughter. I’ve watched chickens and rabbits go to their end, too (note — they do make noise). I’ve eaten all those bits and pieces, too. Platter of lamb tongues for dinner? It’s what’s for dinner. Also, we lived in the “Egg Basket of the World,” surrounded by chicken farms and egg trucks. I passed the “egg factory” every day where they candled the eggs, sorted and shipped. Our property was a former chicken ranch (see postcard) with room for 45,000 hens, though we repurposed the land and barns for other animals, and never had more than a dozen chickens ourselves.

So I’m not one of those who is squeamish and unrealistic about animals and meat. I know how it’s done from both sides.

In my house right now, we have 5 people at home, but we are a co-family with 5 kids, and for a while there we had about 3 to 5 extra couch-surfing feral teens, plus a foster daughter. Dinner for 10 was not unusual — in fact, it was the NORMAL state of affairs. And we are so not rich. If we served meat, it was as a flavor enhancer — part of soup or stew or a pasta sauce. I vividly recall one time when we were going to have hot dogs for dinner and I went down to the organic butcher for sustainable hot dogs. It cost me $26 for hot dogs – about $1 each, actually, to feed the crew. Compare that to $1 for a 10-pack of Oscar Meyer on sale and you’ll see why taking the high road with meat when on a tight budget and feeding a crowd may not be feasible. I will blog more on this in the next few days…

If you look back at our menus for the month, we have eaten cheaper meat — chicken leg quarters, hot dogs, bratwurst and salami (all on sale). But these are on the menu once or twice a week, not daily. That is downright unAmerican for the rest of the nation. I am depriving my children and husband of their need for dripping red meat, many people would argue. So do note that we have not eaten a lot of meat, comparatively. (More on this in the final analysis.). Please also note that the JFSC is an experiment for us, and not the way we normally eat. It is an approximation of how we would try to make it on food stamps. I also have some blog up my sleeve about food ethics and where they go when the money is gone. If you can wait a day or two for that, I’ll be thanking you.

How do we really eat, in our “real life” off the JFSC? Not much meat. Very little, in fact. Maybe once a week, but it is sustainable. That means freaking expensive. We choose local ranchers, sometimes buy a part of a lamb or other to share, and I literally ask the butcher, “Do you know what hill this animal came from? Did this animal live a good life?” That makes a dinner of lamb chops into a $50 expenditure just for the chops. Because we choose to eat what I call “happy meat,” we don’t eat it very often. It isn’t factory farmed. I buy our eggs (for now, till my lazy-ass slowpoke hens get a move on) from the farmers’ market, from a farmer who lets his chickens out and allows them to eat bugs and rocks and grass, not antibiotic-laced, genetically modified Monsanto corn. Our fish is locally caught (one tiny example: unless you can see that lobster pot being pulled from the water, you shouldn’t be eating lobster. It has been caught, frozen, and shipped from thousands of miles away — too many food miles to make this worth eating, nutritionally or for the health of the planet). Our fish is on the safe list (visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium for a free downloadable list of what fish is good, safe and sustainable to eat, while there are yet fish left in the ocean to eat). We use only local dairies for butter, milk, ice cream and yogurt. And we grow and preserve as much as possible. What we do buy, in our “real lives,” is as sustainable as possible. And that sometimes includes meat — happy meat. Two of our 5 children are vegans, though, and I am more often a vegetarian than not.

A final note about the sustainable/vegetarian food we eat. We know it is expensive to eat this way. Thus, we have made considerable lifestyle changes to make sure we can do this. We don’t own a house; we rent. We have two older cars and no car payments. Mr. Husband takes public transportation. My adult daughters pay rent at home. We do not use credit cards at all, ever, and are vigorously paying down whatever debt remains from divorces and past lives. We trade, barter, buy used, fix things, and live simply but richly. I make a lot of stuff. If we want something, we save for it.  Our kids go to public schools, walk, take the bus or BART, and ride bikes, skateboards or pogo sticks. None of my adult daughters has a license, or drives. I drive just 2 days a week, and am whittling that down to 1 day if possible. I work at home. No gym membership, country club, subscriptions, bottled water, shopping as hobby, etc. We use the library, shop Goodwill, read a lot, play sports or walk, ride bikes, practice various arts, etc. I could go on — but this is how it is. It’s all about choices, right?

4. What about your garden and chickens? The hens are not laying yet (click the link to see my little chicks when we got them in February). I expect they will in the next month or so. Our garden is just starting to produce and I just picked 5 zucchini yesterday! There are 3-4 tomatoes ready to pick, etc. But we won’t eat these til Thursday when the challenge is over. I kind of feel like it is cheating to add in this extra food. I didn’t express it well in my previous blog entry, I guess, but we have the privilege of a space for a garden. We really do very well on our typical food budget because of home-grown vegetables and fruit — but that gives me an unfair advantage in the JFSC, so I didn’t use much of our preserves — I did use one jar of fruit salad, and my mom’s jam, but other than that, I stayed away from the other veggies. It is just good timing to end the JFSC now. I’ll be glad to start eating my own stuff and save more in weekly shopping — but it is a different budget than the food stamps. Hope that makes sense. Because, really, we’re not on food stamps, even though we’re on a budget. They’re two different things. Could be mutually beneficial in some ways, but still, trying to make a distinction, and walk a mile in the more typical FS recipient’s shoes.

OK, clear as mud. Thanks for reading — you have added extra shine to my day.

Ten Catastrophes for a Hungry Person

**This post is part of the June Food Stamp Challenge located over HERE.**

  1. Burnt toast. You were going to eat the last piece of bread for breakfast and the toaster got stuck and now there is no more bread so you have to scrape it and eat it anyway, or do without.
  2. Spilled milk. You think this is funny? It’s not. If this is a week’s supply and it spills, or a bug flies into it (fish it out? drink it anyway? give it to the cat/dog? argh!). Kid forgets to drink it, it’s all warm and you think it might be bad — drink it anyway or toss it?
  3. A chalky apple. Mushy strawberries. A dried-out orange. Black banana. Wormy corn on the cob. Whatever it is, if you were counting on this one piece of fruit for a meal, and it isn’t good, you have to  eat it anyway, or my, how pissed off you’ll be throwing it away (not everyone has a compost heap, or the ability to make bruised fruit into something else edible, like a compote for dessert, or banana bread).
  4. Moldy bread. See Item 1.
  5. Unexpected company. An adult friend comes by and you want to offer a glass of wine or a beer — but it’s not in the FS budget. FS don’t buy wine or beer. No money? No beer. Instead, you can offer coffee or tea, if you have it, or maybe iced tea, or maybe water. Maybe even some cookies, cheese and crackers? Nope. It’s not OK. It’s just slightly wrong, or feels that way, so you don’t offer anything, or you don’t invite them in, or you don’t answer the door. Shame: It’s a built-in part of being hungry in America.
  6. Your kids’ friends coming over. Of course you want to meet them and know what your kids are up to, especially if you’re a working parent or single parent who has to rely on a latchkey for afterschool care. But nothing strikes fear into your food budget like the sight of half a dozen teen boys trooping through the front door, eating your precious $1 apiece apples or nectarines, the ONE bag of chips you bought as a family treat, the muffins you made for breakfast (but now it’s gonna be oatmeal again).
  7. Burnt meat. Burnt dinner. Burnt anything. See Item 1.
  8. Cat or dog eats/chews on defrosting meat. (Wash it off? Eat it anyway?) Or the birthday cake you baked yourself because you couldn’t afford a bakery cake like your child begged for, but you could afford the box cake mix. A pity we don’t eat cat or dog in this country because at this moment, you could KILL it.
  9. Leftovers you had planned to take home from a work party or other gathering get thrown in the trash, or someone gives them to the dog, or takes them home. Your next three meals suddenly evaporate.
  10. Buying a meal kit or box meal thinking all the ingredients are there and this once you won’t have to cook from scratch. Discover it’s missing the one critical piece — like meat, or sugar, so that the product is inedible. Having to fake it to the kids, hide it, fix it or give in and go buy dinner from the $1 “Value Menu” because there is nothing else. Buying extra burgers to give the kids for lunch the next day. Knowing it’s a modern-day sin. Doing it anyway.
  11. Watching other people waste food. Hearing them talk about it, proving that they’ve never known a day without a full belly. Knowing they have never missed a meal. Sneaking home a couple of tea bags or cocoa mix from the office kitchen or snack bar to consume later. Looking at other people’s lunches in the fridge at work and contemplating stealing them. Contemplating stealing food. Actually stealing it.
  12. Lying about what you’re eating because it came from the food bank, a brown bag program, or a Dumpster. Lying to say you’re not hungry when someone offers to buy you lunch. Lying that you’ve had your coffee, or you don’t drink wine, or you don’t really want a bagel but thanks anyway, because you can’t repay the favor, ever, and you hate the feeling of being a charity case, even if no one really knows. Being unable to bring something to a potluck. Lying to your kids that you’re not hungry, and letting them eat. Eating their leftovers, if there are any left, after they’ve left the table, even bread crusts and cold peas or that one last bite of baby food in the jar.
  13. Being outed. People knowing how crappy your life is. People seeing how you’re not doing your job as a parent and as an adult. Everyone seeing and knowing. Shame on you. Shame.

yeah, well, so it’s Monday.

So what has occurred since last time I posted? The Tax Man. We’ll leave it at that.
Meanwhile, we spent the weekend digging up dirt (not on the neighbors, but for the garden). Planted more strawberries (8 new plants), and one new artichoke. Next spring will be crazy with plants. Will we still be here? At the current rate of attrition of children-leaving-the-nest, one wonders. We’ve been thinking about how long to stay in this dreamhouse as the nestlings fly away. A 5-BR house was perfect when we moved in in 2006. Now there is one empty bedroom, an office, and the other two girls make noises like they might go live their lives elsewhere. How many offices and sewing rooms can a family use? Thus, when we get down to one Boychild and two adults, we shall have to reconside the living space. The garden and chickens will come along or stay behind, and we’ll see when that day comes.

The tomatoes are in bloom, and I will not pinch any more blossoms to promote growth. I want some fresh tomatoes, dammit. Celery is lush; so are sage, parsley, oregano and even the straggly basil has perked up. Onions are green and prospering. Beets are popping up, as is the rocket (aka arugula). I planted a plotful of mustard greens, which I found growing rogue at an empty house last week. The mustard will feed the chickens or mix into salad greens, but solo, is too bitter for me, raw or cooked. The corn is doing nothing — not a single sprout yet, and it’s been at least 2 weeks, if not 3. All of the squashes/pumpkins/cukes are sprouting second and third sets of leaves, and I think, barring hailstorms and slug-hordes, they’ll all be fine.

Just now I have pegged out a line of sheets and pajamas to dry. They are flapping in the breeze. Yesterday the cats got fed canned cat food twice (Mr,.Husband and then me, not knowing that anyone else would do the morning job). Today there is no canned food left, so I am cooking up a batch of cat food. They also have kibble, which they eat only as a snack. It isn’t real food to my fussy little stinkers.

Tasty Treat
Cat food = the carcass of a chicken plus an extra scoop of gizzards and hearts (on sale, frozen), stewed with carrot, some salmon oil and kelp (vitamin tablets), and later, a whole egg (shell, too) and a cupful of either oatmeal or brown rice. Cook together till the bones are mushy-soft, then puree in the blender with a scoopful of plain yogurt, cottage cheese or powdered milk. It is more nutritious (organic) than canned, and actually cheaper, with no recycling or trash (I reuse plastic tubs to refrigerate/freeze it). This batch will make the equivalent of about a month’s canned food (1/4 cup per day per cat). I could also add spinach or another mild green. I don’t have any spinach on hand, though. I don’t give them pork or beef as a rule, and I once tried cooking a fish variety but it was too nasty to cook a fish’s head for several hours. The bulging eyeballs made me ill. Plus, boiled fish = stinky house. So chicken is our only flavor.

Note: The kids love the smell of this cat-food soup when they think it is our dinner. When I say it’s cat food, they gross out. It is the same stuff, either way, and just smells like chicken stock cooking — kinda chickeny with a little herb scent. It’s perfectly edible, without the bones or eggshells.

Speaking of chickens, but in a different way altogether — we finished raccoon-proofing the henhouse, and the girls slept in their coop last night for the first time. They got freaked out when night fell and were cheeping and crying for some time. They have never been outside at night. It was sad to listen to them, but I had to do the mommy thing and let them cry it out. Eventually they nestled down and shut up. And this morning, they are all safe. Yesterday Patrick spent most of the day drilling and sawing and screwing in hinges and locks. The new door, made of salvaged plywood and a piece of the Ikea dresser we cannabilized, features 2 locks and 2 hinges, with 2 carrabiner hooks to keep the locks closed. The hinges and hasps required a trip to the hardware store but we had the hooks already. Glad to have that task out of the way, and no longer have to shuttle the chicks back and forth to the garage at night, have 2 cages to clean, etc. I am very grateful for that reduction.

Today’s chorelist also includes ironing a few more shirts out of the mountain of ironing. Bills to pay. Clean off the dining room table, which has become my downstairs desk. Cookies? Maybe snickerdoodles. Dishes, some kind of dinner for 5, same as it ever was.

Feels like as good a time as any to say I am glad to be alive. Not a very exciting life, but a good one. Peace out, y’all.