Sunday, February 28, 2010

The February Blues

This time of year is rough for me, with personal history of a family death and my birthday always linked and the chilly grey skies no help. Sometimes it doesn’t hit as hard, but this year, after all that snow and maybe due to the hormones of pregnancy, I am battling what I’d called situational depression. I know it won’t last forever, but it can still shoot out short, virulent doses of debilitation and self-doubt, resulting in my wanting to crawl under a rock.

While I manage to fulfill societal roles – volunteer group organizer, volunteer newsletter editor, tutor, workshop participant – I am no good for regular social mingling. It’s hard. You might think it would help, and it sometimes seem to distract for a short while, but if other people are happy and I am struggling just not to be in tears, it’s really a challenge to be in social situations. So, while I lick my wounds, I just kind of disappear from just plain communicating with friends and from anything that doesn’t serve some outside purpose.

I know I used to feel like this most of the time, and I know what medication helped, but I no longer consider pharmaceuticals an option for me. They are too hard on my liver and my body in general, and as long as I stick to eating the right foods for my body (no gluten, dairy, corn or soy, and limit the yeast, egg white, and even natural sugar, too!), I don’t think I should ever get so far gone that I would need meds.

But I also have to do other things.

I have to consider exercise a non-negotiable mental health prescription.

I need to spend time on my yoga mat, preferably with a CD or DVD or some kind of groovy music so I can get into my body and out of my head. Classes are great if I can fit them in without feeling guilty about the money (or mad about the time it takes to sign up and get there when I should just be doing it more at home).

Last week I got out my SAD light, and that seemed to help a lot.

I need to keep taking Vitamin D and cod liver oil, and probiotics (especially if I overindulge on sugar of any kind). I just started liquid chlorophyll to help with my iron. Maybe that will help.

And I need to write.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Secretary Vilsack talks to mommy bloggers about nutrition

Last week I participated in a conference call organized with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who wants to get the word out about the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act and to help promote the First Lady's new Let's Move Initiative to combat childhood obesity. The call was organized and moderated by Alix of Silicon Valley Moms Blog, a sister blog of DC Metro Moms Blog, where I contribute as Claire Jess. The post below also appears on my other other blog, Inexact Science: Raising Healthy Families, where I share recipes and write about nutrition and alternative health.

“This is a different USDA,” announced Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week on a conference call with members of the public to share information about the agency’s response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s new Let’s Move initiative to combat childhood obesity. The call was a great opportunity to hear about high-up efforts to address the federal school lunch program and more general issues of helping people gain health through nutrition.

From my perspective as a whole foods and local foods advocate, there was much to cheer about what Secretary Vilsack had to say about changes in the school lunch program. As an advocate of traditional foods, however, there are still a lot of concerns to address. If this is a different USDA, I'd still like to wait for the next version.


The four main pillars of the Let’s Move Initiative are to 1) give parents the support they need to make healthy choices (including support for breastfeeding as a healthy start), 2) provide healthier food in schools , 3) promote physical activity, and 4) increase the availability of affordable healthy food.

The Child Nutrition Act was up for reauthorization by Congress in 2009, as it is every five years, but it has been extended through the Agriculture Appropriations Bill and is now up for reauthorization in 2010. The USDA puts out a plan and a budget, and it is up to Congress to decide where the funding will come from and to make adjustments and changes. The purpose for the conference call was to get folks aware of the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization and to describe the efforts of the USDA in light of the Let’s Move initiative.

I'm all for education, and some of these efforts sound great, but I still found myself shaking my head during parts of this call.

First, the heartening news

The USDA is paying attention to the fact that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has produced a report that is highly critical of the quality of school lunches. Secretary Vilsack explained that 31 million children participate in the school lunch program and 11 million in the breakfast program, both of which he said offer foods that have too much sugar and sodium, and not enough dark green and orange vegetables.

Secretary Vilsack said that the USDA wants to give schools incentives make healthy options more appealing to kids. “We are looking for a way in which we can significantly improve foods in school outside of lunch,” Secretary Vilsack said, including a la carte offerings and vending machines. “We want a consistent message” in schools, which would include getting sugary drinks and snacks out of vending machines.

The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program is one effort to get schools connected with local sources of food and to help students see a connection to food. Secretary Vilsack said the USDA is expanding research into organic farming and is trying to increase the number of small businesses in agriculture. “We are looking for creative ways for these guys to make ends meet,” he said, noting that the USDA does not want to arrive at a day and age with just a handful of really large producers and, on the other hand, very small producers.

One of the current areas of research, Secretary Vilsack explained, is how to make nutritious food compelling for children and how to encourage them to make healthy choices. “This requires us to focus on early childhood, to encourage kids at a young age to put a rainbow on their plate,” Secretary Vilsack said. Parents and educators alike need to explain the difference between everyday foods and sometimes foods. There has been work on a textbook and toolkit for parents participating in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program to “get them started in the right direction.”

If parents are more engaged in these kinds of conversations, Vilsack said, perhaps they will be more involved in school board decisions. Sometimes school boards see extra money in their food budget and direct it to another area that needs funding. “Part of our challenge,” Secretary Vilsack said, “is to make sure people understand that this is as important as any other thing that goes on in school.”

Educating consumers

In the Q&A portion of the call, Nutritionist and Silicon Valley Moms blogger Alix, the moderator for this call, shared her concern about “nutritional illiteracy” of parents who, for example, don’t realize that Goldfish crackers have a glycemic index as high as a lollipop. Secretary Vilsack responded that we need better labeling so that people know what the better choices are. He spoke highly of a NuVal, a numerical system currently in place in stores in his home state of Iowa that rates items on a scale of 1-100, with 100 being the most nutritious. Having this information helps consumers, he said, which will then lead to better options. “As we make those more nutritious choices,” he said, “the market will be compelled to do better.”

A quick look at the NuVal website shows that 2% Horizon Organic milk gets a rating of 55, while 1% Organic Valley milk gets a much better rating of 81, and Garelick Farms Over the Moon Fat Free Milk gets a super-high rating of 91. Nevermind that the less of the naturally-occurring milkfat you take out of the milk, the harder it is to digest (and that pasteurization kills milk’s enzymes!)

Since NuVal gives Silk Soymilk Light Chocolate a decent rating of 56, I am guessing that this “patent-pending algorithm” does not take hormone and endocrine disruption into consideration. Probably not the difference in products made from grassfed vs. industrial feedlot cows, either. I am just learning about this system and look forward to investigating it further.

What about the food pyramid?

Alix pointed out that the IOM is basing its conclusions on the food pyramid, a construct that many health-minded writers and practitioners find problematic, preferring to look at the way author Michael Pollan talks about what should be in our diets, including the idea that “real food” usually does not contain more than five ingredients.

Secretary Vilsack said that the food pyramid guidelines are going to be revised. With some 20-30 people working on this “extensive effort based on what we didn’t know five, ten years ago,” the pyramid will be adjusted. He explained that what the USDA is going to want to see are “steps being taken by local school districts to better align with the IOM study” and with the new food pyramid guidelines.

There are many areas of concern about the current food pyramid, and it will be interesting to see what the revisions include. For one, traditional foods enthusiasts might want to see the “oils” page differentiate between chemically-produced unhealthy oils like canola oil and margarine compared to naturally-occurring fats that are necessary for optimum absorption of nutrients. Healthy fats include butter and coconut oil, which is not even on the list of oils at

If the researchers working on the food pyramid are familiar with this research on traditional diets and fats, then perhaps they will veer away from the low-fat craze. But based on Secretary Vilsack’s insistence that we do not have enough of a focus on “low-fat dairy products,” I’m concerned. It’s unfortunate that people think that incomplete foods are somehow better recognized and utilized by our bodies than foods in their natural states (i.e. full fat). The real fats to avoid are manufactured fats like canola oil, corn oil, and soybean oil that were never intended to be removed from the rest of the food and that hold no nutritional value or provide assistance with the absorption of nutrients.

That pesky corn issue

Alix asked Secretary Vilsack if we could get a commitment that school lunches would not have foods with more than five ingredients and if the school lunch program will respond to parent desire to get high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) out of all foods that cross the school threshold. The answer, in short, was no. “I’m not sure we’d be as prescriptive as that,” Secretary Vilsack began. This might get pushback from members of Congress, so the better way to go, he said, is for the USDA to push for incentives for schools to make better options available. “What we can say is that food has to be consistent with dietary guidelines.” And then, he said, we have to trust people.

The next concern came from Sophia, a mother whose children’s school lunches are run by a private company that has told her it has gotten questionable food off of its menu except for “what the government sends us,” which includes HFCS and meat raised with hormones and antibiotics. She questioned the subsidy system that makes it profitable for farmers to grow genetically-modified corn. Secretary Vilsack initially respondd that organic farmers can qualify for a number of USDA regular programs in which they can receive direct payments if they raise “certain crops.” And he added that the USDA under the Obama administration has increased its participation in conservation programs that the Bush administration tried to get rid of.

Secretary Vilsack thought that roughly one-quarter of what is provided to schools is in the form of commodities, adding “If a district is insistent on what they want for their kids, we need to figure out how to be more responsive to their needs.” But he went on to explain that in the U.S., “we’re going to continue to grow corn for a lot of reasons.” This includes corn as a source of power, and Secretary Vilsack went on to reference other alternative power sources being developed. The USDA is not, he said, going to stop providing resources to those who grow corn but will try to support more mid-size farms.

Where to go now?

The call inspired me not so much to sing the praises of the Child Nutrition Act but simply to continue to share my concerns about mainstream ideas about food, problematic ideas that include promoting whole grains (despite a lot of research that says many people have gluten sensitivities) as a health food and low-fat dairy as a necessary ingredient in the fight against childhood obesity. We were healthier when we ate real food with full fat and not so darn much bread!

Although my son is not yet in public school, I look forward to learning more about the efforts Secretary Vilsack referenced and how they are being implemented in my local area. As a chapter leader with Holistic Moms Network, I will continue to try to educate my community about healthy eating. I hope to find ways to make healthy food more widely available and to share information about how to access affordable healthy food.

Related posts:
Sophia's blog post about the call and Secretary Vilsack's response to her question
A post at the Slow Food USA blog about what sounds like a similar call with a larger audience
A shorter post of mine (with a little more attitude) at my column, "Reading Ingredients: Tales from Health-Conscious Mom" at the Washington Times Communities

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I sewed! It's a miracle!

While cleaning out a closet in the midst of the current series of snowstorms, I came across some felted wool that I cut out to make a little person as my last project in last year's Waldorf school Parent-Child class. Now, I might have made my son a Halloween costume, but I'm not one of those crafty mamas in general, and I was downright pathetic by Waldorf school standards. I was in near tears trying to learn to knit, and the stitches on the mouse, snail and gnome I made in class are not exactly going to win any awards.

But there is part of me that really wants to model for my son making things with one's hands.

(Besides food, that is. Today when I was saying that his dad was better at some things and I was better at others, and E said of my top skills, "Like chopping vegetables?")

And there are so many times when he asks to do something we've been saying we were going to do for a long time and I just never get to it. (Including the fact that in all these days at home, I still haven't made homemade ketchup or mustard as planned).

So, since Daddy was on a conference call and it was way too windy and cold to go out today until after 4 when it finally stopped snowing, I said okay. I used all the thread I had on the pants and quadrupled some regular thread for the rest. The doll is not going to be a prototype for a new Etsy business or anything, but my boy enjoyed making the little guy walk and play, and he said multiple times, "I love him," though the little fellow still ended up face-down on the floor later. Old habits die hard.

It struck me how much easier it was for my son to amuse himself and to be patient while I created this real thing than it is for him to deal with me working on the computer. Shouldn't be a surprise, but it was still worth remarking.

I do hope this snow shut-in comes to an end next week, but I'm also worried that, in all my trying to clean out and purge and not get further behind on work-related stuff, that I won't have amassed enough moments like this one when this period is finally over.

Not exactly living in the moment. Maybe racking up some points? And does it make up for the fact that I never got dressed today?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Homemade Chicken Stock

Homemade chicken stock is an inexpensive way to make a mineral-rich, healing liquid that can soothe testy tummies and enhance the flavor and healthfulness of any soup or cooked veggie recipe.

I just posted a recipe/protocol for making homemade chicken stock on my more food-focused outlets: on my blog "Inexact Science: Raising Healthy Families" and also on my Washington Times Communities column, "Reading Ingredients: Tales of a Health-Conscious Mom."

If you're snowed in like me and happen to have recently cooked a chicken, there is no time like the present to get started on a delicious and healthy food staple!

What is a snowstorm good for?

Just what all does one do during a snowed-in weekend like we've had here in the DC area? I got an email this morning telling me that DC Metro Moms Blog was low on posts, so I imagine I’m not the only one who did not use the time to catch up on writing. (I hope that’s not for lack of electricity, but there are still some outages, I hear. We got lucky [knock on wood] and clocked in at only 18 inches, a low for the region!)

Over these past three days, I have let the computer collect some dust. I took an unplanned two-day hiatus from even opening the email box for the nonprofit group chapter I run. (That’s going to have to end soon. Just as soon as I get up this post!) I was already behind from just general life and from last Wednesday’s thoroughly unnecessary snow day with no preschool.

Since the snow began to fall on Friday, I have avoided finishing a freelance assignment and replying to long overdue personal notes, taking the time only to delete emails from lists I should get off of and from yoga studios telling me they are closed. Oh, and I took photos of the snow and sent links to my family. That’s about it. It’s kind of revolutionary to see the lid of my laptop closed and my phone quiet.

The only real thing I’ve wanted to do is clean the house... Read the rest of this post at DC Metro Moms Blog.

My apologies to my sister DCMM writers who I found out after writing this post have been -- and in some cases still are -- without power!