Edible bounty

I recently signed up to join a produce-buying cooperative called Bountiful Baskets, which operates in most states. I’m not exactly sure what their structure is, but it seems to work: they buy produce at rock-bottom prices and allow people to make a contribution each week in exchange for a (ahem) healthy portion of that produce.

Eager to pick up my first basket, I headed out into the frosty dawn this morning to a slightly seedy industrial section of town not far from my house, down a street along the railroad tracks that I’ve never traveled in my more than six years of living here. As I approached the facility from which the food would be distributed, I noted several cars parked along the road, filled with individuals and families, engines running to ward off the single-digit chill. I turned around and found myself a place to park, and waited. Before too long, an invisible signal apparently came from somewhere, because as if on cue, engines switched off and car doors opened all up and down the street. I didn’t know what the protocol was, so I just followed the lady in front of me through the ice-clogged parking lot and took my place in line. We waited 15 shivering minutes or so before finally the door swung open and a volunteer cheerfully called “come on in!”

The line began to move slowly forward, and I took the time to look around behind me. The crowd had grown considerably, stretching out the better part of a city block. Everyone carried a handful of reusable grocery bags and the occasional laundry basket. I was amazed to see how popular this service is in a small town in the frozen heart of winter.

After a few minutes, I got my turn to go inside and found an industrial shop turned into an enormous temporary pantry. Rows and rows of white plastic baskets filled with fruits and vegetables were set out neatly over every inch of free floor space. I initialed next to my name on the list, showed my printed order confirmation email, and was directed to pick up two of the baskets—one of fruits, the other of veggies. I quickly transferred everything into my reusable bags and was on my way in minutes. Quite a pleasant experience, all in all, despite the wait in the cold.

I got my bags home and unpacked them with great anticipation of meals to be made! Here is what I received:


  • 2 English cucumbers
  • 2 bunches of green onions
  • 2 bunches of red radishes
  • 1 bunch of baby asparagus
  • A 1-lb plastic bag of carrots, plus 3 unattached stragglers
  • 11 red potatoes
  • 3 huge Jonagold apples
  • 7 Fuji apples
  • 6 navel oranges
  • 2 Asian pears
  • 1 personal-size watermelon
  • 9 exceedingly green bananas

I don’t know how many pounds that all adds up to, but probably around 15, and the total price for the lot of it was only $15. So I think I made out like a bandit! I have already devoured an orange, some of the watermelon, and a couple of carrots. I gifted the asparagus, some green onions, a few potatoes and two bananas to my neighbor Sue, who teased me that I turned her down when she offered to go halves with me on one of these baskets several months ago because “you were in your butter phase then.” Well, I guess I’m in my veggie phase now, and looking forward to making some great meals from all this bounty!

Oh, also, I want to mention that the impetus for my interest in fresh produce and recently intensified interest in cooking is this presentation by food activist and author Michael Pollan.

I am currently reading his latest book, Cooked, and am finding it fascinating. Highly recommended.



Dietary disappointments

Food has not been my friend lately, and this makes me sad. I realize that most of the food that is readily available to me is not good for me, and a lot of what I eat doesn’t seem to be doing my body any favors. Eating used to be my favorite sport! Now it’s more of a game of Russian roulette, although with indigestion and lethargy instead of bullets when I make the wrong choices.

For instance, I’ve been making smoothies for breakfast the past couple of days using Greek yogurt, banana, frozen mango, canned pineapple, and a dash of whatever fruit juice I have on hand. Sometimes a scoop of wheat germ. I thought this was a healthy concoction and it certainly tasted fabulous, but my body is hating it, big-time. Let’s just say it gives me … a stomach ache … all day long, and leave it at that. Apparently too much fructose at one time is difficult to digest. Who knew?

This is kinda how I feel.

This is kinda how I feel.

Funnily enough, my standard breakfast of two eggs with toast and butter (along with my single cup of coffee of the day) has never once disagreed with me. Nor does a heavy-duty dinner such as chicken and waffles. My body processes protein and fat very well, or at least is very comfortable doing it, whereas with fruits and vegetables it is … not so comfortable.

One would like to make good choices at every mealtime, but this is getting harder and harder to do without a considerable investment of time (to research the many, many options) and money (to buy the best food). What’s good for me to eat is also difficult for me to eat for various reasons: preparation time (home cooking), expense (choosing organic foods), taste (I have never liked leafy green vegetables) or convenience (fresh foods don’t stay fresh very long).

In addition, most of the food for sale in the supermarkets is processed junk full of fat, sugar, salt, preservatives, trans fats, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and other suspicious ingredients that I would do well to avoid. I am distressed that food companies are not required to label foods that contain GMOs, nor are meat packers required to label cuts of meat that have been mechanically tenderized and therefore may be more likely to be contaminated with deadly microorganisms. I think consumers have a right to know such things so that we can make the best choices we can, and I am profoundly unsettled by the idea that a huge segment of our economy absolutely depends on all of us either knowingly or unknowingly making unhealthy choices nearly every single meal, every single day.


When I was walking through the supermarket last week, I was almost overcome with a wave of sadness and disappointment that everything I looked at was essentially junk food, even the supposedly healthy stuff in the produce section that was probably grown in a fog of pesticides in a foreign country and shipped here by airplane, leaving an enormous carbon footprint behind it. Nearly every conventional food choice we have is bad somehow. If it isn’t organic and locally grown, there is something nutritionally, biologically, chemically or ethically wrong with it.

Why do the food companies give us all this crap to eat? Why do we buy it? The answer is the same on both sides: it’s cheap. Profitable for them, convenient for us. But I think we all deserve better nourishment than that.

Related: Thinking about food


Four foods that are cheaper than ramen

Ramen noodles have long been synonymous with poor people on a poor diet.

If you mix Taco Bell hot sauce with your ramen noodles, it tastes exactly like poverty.

This image came across my Facebook feed the other day to underscore this fact, which I think is a sad commentary on so many things, including nutritional knowledge in this country. My comment was, “Whenever I see people buying ramen by the case, I just think ‘you poor ignorant b@stard, there’s much better food to be had in this store for the same d@mn money.’ Like a sack of potatoes, for example. All the starch with a bizillion [sic] percent more nutrition.”

Several people responded with their favorite ramen recipes (mayonnaise, really?) and enthusiastic appreciation for what I consider to be a pseudo-food. Sure, I ate my share back in the day, when I was kid and didn’t know any better. But now I do know better. So tonight I headed to the supermarket to gather some evidence to support my thesis that even if you’re very, very poor, you don’t have to eat ramen*.

I went to one of my local supermarkets that is about in the middle for pricing, so one might find slightly higher or lower prices than these elsewhere in town, but here’s what I found:

Ramen Noodles
  • Price: $0.20 per pack
  • Price per Serving: $0.10, since a packet is technically 2 servings, but we all know one packet equals one serving, so the price per serving is really $0.20
  • Nutrition: 380 calories/~135 from fat per packet
White Rice (store brand)
  • Price: $2.98 for a 5-lb. bag
  • Price per Serving: about $0.06, at 50 servings per bag
  • Nutrition: 160 calories/5 from fat per serving
Pinto Beans (store brand)
  • Price: $3.79 for a 4-lb. bag
  • Price per Serving: about $0.09 at 41 servings per bag
  • Nutrition: 150 calories/5 from fat per serving
  • Price: $2.29 for a 10-lb. bag
  • Price per Serving: hard to say precisely, but less than $0.10 if there are at least 25 potatoes per bag
  • Nutrition: 110 calories/0 from fat per potato
Masa Harina (ground corn meal for making tortillas)
  • Price: $4.49 for a 4.4-lb bag
  • Price per Serving: about $0.07 at 66 servings per bag
  • Nutrition: 110 calories/10 from fat per serving

Also, let’s not forget that a typical packet of ramen with seasoning contains 1,500 or more milligrams of sodium, and that doesn’t do anybody any good.

For my money, masa harina is the best buy in the entire grocery store. Mixing up a batch takes less than 30 seconds, cooking the tortillas takes about 5 minutes, and then you can top them with anything you happen to have in the house to make an incredibly filling, tasty, cheap and nutritious meal. A bag of masa and a bag of dried beans (which you can cook up in the Crock Pot) could keep you in dinners for a month for less than $10, with no fat, no cholesterol, no gluten, and plenty of protein. (Budget Bytes is a terrific resource for healthy, delicious and affordable recipes, by the way.)

And when you need a sweet treat, top those hot, fresh tortillas with butter, cinnamon and sugar. I guarantee you’ll love it.

Go get yourself some masa today! You can thank me later.

* Unless, of course, you really like ramen. In which case, disregard everything I just said, and good luck to you!