Sunday, July 26, 2009

Independence Challenge - July '09

Whew. Mom spent another week in the hospital after a string of "episodes" that culminated in what looked like a big TIA in the doorway of her doctor's office. After a lot of testing, they basically don't know what is wrong, but it's probably not more TIAs. It might just be the blood pressure meds they had her on after the first June TIA. She has a history of sensitivity to medication, and she hasn't had another episode since she stopped taking the Vasotec.

It did delay our move by two weeks - the landlord agreed to give us an extension. I was spending a lot of time at the hospital and we were not getting packed.

There is another factor influencing my preparedness - harder to wrap my head around. With DH gone at grad school, and my self-employment dissolved, I have no income while I care for Mom. I've had to apply for food stamps, Medical Assistance, and welfare. I don't like it, but it does help quite a bit. It's the first time I've had medical coverage since DD12 was born - I hardly know where to start.

We get $529/month in food stamps, far more than I expected - and far more than we spent on food with our own cash. But we don't eat like a lot of families do, and I have food storage. My mother technically does not live with us, but I also feed her from our food stamp budget. Several effects on our food patterns:
  • We eat in more variety. We can afford more than the cheapest protein. I can afford some fish, organic chicken, organic store-brand milk. We can afford more fresh fruit and vegetable variety. I can take advantage of seasonal sales on a more efficient scale. I can't be a spend-thrift, and we still eat a lot of rice, beans, oatmeal, eggs, and potatoes.

  • I can re-build our storage. I didn't have enough money to replenish what we were using, which was worrisome. Summer should be the time we stock up, not eat down.

  • We eat far less locally. Almost no vendors at the large farmer's markets take food stamp cards - none of the produce vendors. None of the orchards or producer markets take the cards at all. Not only are we unable to spend our food stamp largess locally, the local vendors are missing that whole market of clients. So, we cannot buy local milk, produce, meat, seeds, or baked goods (except the stuff that makes it into the grocery stores). We do shop at the most-locally-focused grocery stores, Weis and Redner's. I really miss the producer markets and the pick-your-own orchards.
It's been hard to get much done regarding the Independence Challenge. I've been trying to wait until we get fully moved and organized at Mom's house. But I did mange to get a few things done:

Planted: I bought a slicing tomato start on clearance and put it in a big pot on Mom's front walk. It's got a number of tomatoes. I am planting at least basil, cabbage, peas, and carrots for a fall garden.

Harvested: Mint for tea. My chocolate mint died over the winter, so the mint is my less-favorite spearmint. It dries poorly, I discovered last year - almost no flavor from dried leaves. We also used the dill from a small volunteer plant in the backyard. Mom has peppermint and apple teas in her yard, so I look forward to experimenting.

Preserved: Not so much. I hope to make pickles, pesto, and more jam in August.

Reduced Waste: Oh, not. The problem is my Mom's house. Her approach to reducing waste was to simply save it. And to bring in hundreds of cardboard boxes to organize it. And now years of paper, plastic, metal, cardboard, and glass must go, in one extended outpouring. We recycle as much as we can, with the municipal program and at various scrap buyers. We will also have yard sales, freecycling, and ebaying. But still, we have been putting out 16 large bags of trash each week, plus a bulk item.

We are have much stuff for the county's fall hazardous waste collection. Decades of expired medication, nail polish, mercury thermometers, old oil-based paint, batteries, pesticides, herbicides, anti-freeze and motor oil. I have a pick-up truckload of metal scrap, and am hiring someone hourly just to flatten cardboard for a truckload delivery.

On the positive side, Mom has an established composting area that we will expand. There are some elderly canned goods that we will eventually empty into the compost stream when I get more worms. Some, I will just flush or dump in the sink. For instance - she had a dozen cans of Hawaiian Punch from the 70s. Apparently, it can eat through metal, because the contents leaked from some of them. The rest must be full of dissolved metallic elements - I am dumping that into the sewer system.

We could compost some of her paper and cardboard, but not most of it - it would exceed the capacity of her 1/3-acre yard. We put out 20 bags of paper for the recycling pick-up this past Monday alone. I am looking for a place to take wood scrap - maybe a biomass generator. There are lots of wooden odds and ends that I won't burn in a home fireplace - painted, varnished, poly-coated, particle board, soft wood, etc. A biomass generator will have a scrubber stack.

We did a bunch of plumbing work - new hot water heater, new bathroom sink/faucet, toilet guts, and a pressure-reducing value. Mom's split-level was built in the 50's and the builder was cheap with plumbing and electrical work. My parents did almost nothing to improve on that. By simply adding a pressure-reducing value, we have already solved years of plumbing fixture abuse, wasted water, and wasted water-heating energy. We couldn't have a tankless heater without seriously upgrading her natural gas lines, so we just went with a more efficient heater.

Electrical work is next - new 200 amp service (she has a 60-amp fusebox), more lines for outlets in the basement, and GFI outlets for bath and kitchen. I need to be able to plug in my freezer safely. I realize now that Dad spent his whole garage workshop life using only an extension cord plugged into an outlet screwed into the ceiling fixture. WTF, Dad? He was not nearly as handy as I thought he was when I was a kid.

We are also planning a DIY kitchen upgrade that starts with stock base cabinets, surplus counter, and maybe a vintage cast iron sink. We need to stretch Mom's funds to cover as much renovation as we can, so we will do the kitchen in stages. I hope to post photos after we have done enough clean-up not to embarrass Mom. The girls are old enough to learn to use tools, and I have a lot of renovation experience. My hands are wrecked, but I can instruct and demo, and they can be the hands.

Preparation and Storage: I stocked a case of assorted canned beans, canned tomatoes, peanut butter, bulk popcorn and split peas we stored in juice bottles. These food stamp benefits will run out, maybe within 6 months, so I hope to do a lot more stocking by then.

I am still skimming Craigslist out of habit, and I saw a pressure canner go by. I just had to email, and I got it! Only used a few times, for $20. I am planning to start by canning some chicken stock as soon as we get settled.

We have also found more things at Mom's. Old comforters that can become window quilts, lots of fabric for quilting, Lots of kitchenware, even more canning jars. I will have to buy new rings and lids by the case. I also found a few older organic gardening books that I had intended to buy. Mom must have gotten them years ago, with good intentions, but never really grasped what "organic" meant, judging by the amount of commercial fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide in the garage. She saved a billion articles about using vinegar and baking soda, but still bought dozens of chemical cleaners. We will help her get back on the greener path.

Build Community Food Systems: No. But I am collecting ideas for future activism. My food stamp experience alone gives me ideas for things that need changing. If food stamps are our society's temporary family safety net, they need to be spendable in the local food economy, not shut people out of it.

Eat the Food: We were eating too much convenience food at first. We were working for 8-10 hours a day at Mom's house, and cooking just seemed impossible. But we have now fallen into better patterns. We make oatmeal, yogurt, and fruit for breakfast, then spend the mornings doing email and phone work, or packing at our old house. We have lunch, often soup and sandwiches, and leave to work at the house for 4-5 hours. Then we come home and make dinner. Mom usually naps at home with one of the girls in the evening, and I take the other one back to work at the house for another 2-3 hours, usually leaving around 9:30pm. I try to go to bed by 10:30, and get up at about 7:30.

Having Mom around does keep us on more of a schedule than usual. She has had a loss of appetite, so she doesn't ask for food, although she will eat and enjoy it if I bring it. I have to remember to feed her so she can take her medications on time (and not get loopy from lack of food). I'm not used to that - if the kids are hungry they either demand a meal or go rustle up their own food. We usually only ate dinner together. Now, I am preparing three meals a day.

I gave up making yogurt, for now, but we do make crockpots of soup, and often something else for sandwiches, like roast turkey or meatloaf. Dinner is usually some form of boneless chicken with vegetable, salad, or side dish. DD16 might make chicken curry with green beans over rice. Or I might make chicken Caesar salad. There is often fresh fruit at every meal. The four of us can go through most of a watermelon in a day, a whole cantaloupe or pineapple in one meal. Cereal, bananas, and leftovers fill in the gaps.

By my next Independence Challenge report, I hope to be able to say I have my new pantry set up, my kitchen renovation underway, and our composting expanded.


fullfreezer said...

It sounds like you've got a lot on your plate right now. I'm impressed at how much you are accomplishing. Keep up the good work.

pelenaka said...

When I was in Nursing school my daughter & I qualified for stamps. Truth be told we never ate so good because like you their budget for my food was much more than I was ever able to afford. I use to have stamps left over @ the end of the month. I also used coupons when possible.
In NY State most vendors @ farmers markets accept the debit food stamp cards. Shame it isn't universal.
On a side note it sounds like you are making great headway despite some set backs.

Anonymous said...

As Judy said, every time I read your posts I shake my head in awe and admiration for all you are accomplishing and doing, in spite of dealing with a lot of struggles that would leave most other people in the dust.
Good thoughts for the kitchen/home renovation plans. Expanding the compost pile is a good idea, and hooray for recycling fabric and old comforters. Please do share your ideas for community food systems and the problems that need changing. I would love to hear your perspective - and I think it is a necessary one to hear.

Anonymous said...

Wow, again. You are doing so much! I am aghast at the amount of hours you are all putting in, day after day. I can hardly imagine the amount of stuff your mom must have had! Good for you on all of it. I wish I could come help because I love the feeling of accomplishment you must be getting. I hope you're getting that, anyway!

eunice said...

yes, it is a shame that farmer's markets can't take food stamp. perhaps you can contact the folks at the Wholesome Wave Foundation to help you to get some action happening on that front...not that you aren't already doing so much yourself, superwoman that you are.

risa said...

That farmer's market plan is a good one. "Make it so!"

The one time I applied for food stamps was in the seventies. I had a kind of weird job as a subcontractor so my paycheck wasn't coming for another six weeks, but they asked how much I was earning a week and I told them and they disqualified me. I got out in the middle of the room and lectured them: "Here I am WORKING to support myself and going HUNGRY and can't get FOOD, you'd think somebody would come up with a food LOAN system for hardworking folks that are stuck between paydays ..."

I left, and one of the old ladies followed me to the parking lot and made me take a ten dollar bill!

Some friends heard my situation and made up a "CSA" box for me and so when my money came in I went down to town and gave her her $10 back and she was so pleased! Have never darkened their door since but I know that I have gotten away with a lot, it's good to have it there when you really need it!

You're doing so much and that has a lot of value; just because it's not a "job" doesn't mean beans and my wide-brimmed straw hat's off to you, sis. Hang in there. If you ever make it out here you will come by, right?

P.S. We lived a year in 1982-3 in Topton/Mertztown area, not so far from you. There were a lot of Old Order Mennonites there.

stefe said...

I feel I am following in your foots steps so to speak. Just moved my mother in with us 2 weeks ago after 5 months of hospital stays due in part to aneursym that has left her miserably unable to do what she use to. I am scared to be honest and only hope you will be able to blog more so I can follow in hopes of learning a thing or two..

Marie said...

I hope you and your family are well. Your silence has me worried.

Marie said...

Wishing you a blessed Christmas filled with loving memories of Christmas past and looking forward to a future filled with joy, peace and hope.

Juliet said...

Good evening!

I have just recently stumbled over your blog and would like to find out how to get in touch with you. Please allow me to introduce you to Renee Restivo, head of a culinary tours company in Sicily. She is an adamant supporter of Slow Food and orgainic, sustainable, local cuisine; she has integrated these movements into her company's philosophy - where intimate groups are taken on extensive tours through the orchards, vinyards, farms, and fishing docks that supply food, not only to eachother, but to the "mom and papa" restaurants nearby. The tours also show guests how to make some of the region's dishes in cooking classes and demonstrations taught by locals.
We would love to find out how to contribute to your blog and were curious to know your writer's guidelines for sending you our press release and to also, perhaps submit a story idea to you!
I thank you for your time and thoughts.

Kind regards,
Juliet Falcone

fullfreezer said...

Spring is here. I hope all is well with you.