Thursday, August 1, 2013

July Grocery Challenge Review

Well folks, July was my "ethical foods" grocery challenge where I tried to see how difficult and/or expensive it would be to buy only foods that were either organic, local or salvage. I was hoping I could still stay within the "food stamp budget" ($137/month) but alas, I totally blew it and ended up spending $209.

I have to say that this was my most difficult challenge yet for a whole variety of reasons. And I do think that if numerous circumstances had been different I probably could have come a lot closer in terms of budget.


So here's the shakedown.

First and foremost, it was a hard month from the kitty-mom standpoint.

Sputnik's urinary symptoms came roaring back a few weeks after he had his antibiotic therapy back in June, so he had to be put back on Baytril for three weeks. He's tolerating it pretty well, and his symptoms are much improved, but that required several vet visits and it's one more medication to give each day.


Smoky continues to do better in terms of his edema (swelling) although he's still anemic and the doctors are pretty much at a loss to explain why. Thankfully he's now down to one med per day instead of three, and he at least seems stable. At this point they're not sure if he's got some sort of weird infection or an autoimmune disorder.

He's on doxycycline for another few weeks and we'll re-evaluate at that point. And, of course, just when I thought FeLV was off the table, the vet informed me yesterday that it's still possible that he's got it in his bone marrow even though he keeps testing negative for it in his blood. Goody gumdrops.

In a funny way the kitty thing sorta ended up cutting both ways with this challenge. I didn't have much time and/or energy to devote to my grocery bill, but on the plus side, I did have to drive around to various vets, pharmacies, and specialty pet food stores, and that did allow me to combine trips to some grocery stores that I wouldn't otherwise have visited.

And that brings me to one conclusion that this challenge made completely and totally clear for me. I HATE driving.


In general I've been very fortunate to have found ways to arrange my life to keep my need to be at the wheel down to a minimum. I've only owned one car in my adult life, which was a gift from my mother upon graduating from college. It was new then (1990 Honda Civic) and it now has a grand total of 86K miles on it. When you factor in several road trips across the country and one to Mexico that she's taken, you can see that my day to day driving has always been quite minimal!


However, since I stopped working 7 years ago, my need to drive has been reduced even further. And I find that the less I drive the less tolerance I have for the entire process. I mean, eee gads! Sitting in traffic, dealing with idiot drivers, trying to navigate unfamiliar territory, road construction and parking... It all just gives me a headache!


Throughout this month I kept thinking that I should drive out to the farmer's market, or the salvage grocery store, or the natural foods co-op, or the Costco... but honestly, I just couldn't make myself do it. So I ended up making do with what I could find at my local King Soopers (Kroger) and several stops at Whole Foods and Sprouts markets that weren't too far out of my way when I had to be out and about anyhow.

And that brings me to another topic: Availability.

I know I've griped about this before. Since I live in the "barrio" there really isn't much selection of organic foods at the stores in my neighborhood. I fear this lack of availability tended to throw me into a bit of an unhealthy "scarcity mentality".


I ended up buying some things that I really wasn't very interested in eating simply because they fit the rules of the challenge. And even worse, I managed to give myself hives a couple of times by trying to "push the limits" on my food allergies more than I should have. That was not only bad for my health, but it also meant that I ended up tossing some perfectly good food because I couldn't eat it.


The selection does improve vastly once you get into wealthier parts of town, but BOY did it push a lot of my buttons to shop in those areas.


First of all, I just couldn't get past the giant size of the stores in other neighborhoods. I mean, there's a King Soopers about 5 blocks from me, but the King Soopers stores in the trendier parts of town are literally 3-4 times the size of ours. They all have huge floral sections, giant delis full of ridiculously expensive imported meats and cheeses, and aisle after aisle of stuff that isn't even food!

I dunno... I just couldn't escape the feeling that I was helping to support an incredibly wasteful system. I mean just think of the amount of energy it takes to heat, cool and light one of those enormous places! And the bigger and fancier the store was, the less likely they were to have "salvage areas" selling things like day-old baked goods, stuff nearing its expiration dates and less than perfect produce. It leaves one to wonder if they just toss it out.


And don't EVEN get me started on Whole Foods. I have such incredibly mixed feelings about that place. I mean, part of me is really glad that they're taking organic foods and nutrition to the mainstream, but geez... it just seems to me that they're essentially a big corporation that's cashing in by playing on people's "food fears" and do-gooder instincts. I mean, the very same products at Whole Foods will generally cost at least 30-40 percent more than they do at King Soopers, and they do have some very questionable corporate policies.


Plus there's the whole issue of John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods. Talk about giving me mixed feelings! I mean the guy is a huge advocate for organic foods and animal welfare, and has done admirable things like reducing his own salary to $1/year, setting caps on executive pay, and setting up emergency funds for workers facing tough situations. BUT, he's one of these crazy libertarians who opposes unions, and health care reform, and while he's not a climate change denier, he basically thinks it's nothing to worry about.


But for me, the bigger issue with Whole Foods is how they've literally gobbled up virtually every other health food store around! As I was driving around town in service of my felines this month, I found myself thinking about all the little co-ops and small health food chains that have either been bought out by Whole Foods or simply couldn't compete with such a giant corporation.

Of course, buyouts just seem to be the way things are done these days. Sunflower Markets were recently purchased by Sprouts and they've gotten significantly more "trendy" since then. I dunno... it's not that I think that everything that's trendy is bad, I'm just left wondering if I'm really paying for better food or for a hipper, cooler shopping experience.


There is one small player left in the market though, and that's Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage. They used to be just Vitamin Cottage and sold, you guessed it, vitamins! But they've expanded to include more food items in recent years. There is much to like about this company. They're locally owned, their stores all have small footprints - no shopping opulence here, and they are very environmentally responsible - they don't even offer disposable shopping bags, you have to either bring your own or hope that they have some boxes lying around.
That's where I was finally able to find some locally produced chicken by the Boulder Natural Meats company. Their chicken isn't organic, but it's antibiotic, hormone and steroid free and as close as you can get to humane (free range, no de-beaking, reasonable amount of space per-bird) without being actually pasture raised (which is virtually impossible to find here.) I also discovered in reading their web page that perhaps one of the reasons it's soooo hard to find pasture raised poultry here is that aside from Boulder Natural Meats, there are virtually NO poultry producers in Colorado. Not sure why that is, but it sorta explains the mystery of why it's so hard to find here.
Natural Grocers carries their chicken at $2.99/lb for bone-in thighs, which, while still significantly more expensive than factory farmed chicken, is much more reasonable than the $13.99/lb price at the farmer's market! Of course, other than the chicken I'm not so sure about the selection at Natural Grocers. They do carry mostly organic products, but their produce mostly seemed to come from other continents, and geez... $4.50 for a can of tuna?


I'm not entirely sure where I've landed on the entire question of "ethical" foods. Throughout this month I sort of felt like I was in a constant tug of war trying to choose between the lesser of a whole slew of evils.

Is it better to drive across town and spend 4-5 times as much money to buy organic food that has been flown in from half-way around the world from a giant corporation that has some very questionable policies, or is it better to walk down the street to the King Soopers where I can find a lot of locally grown (but not organic) produce for MUCH better prices... or what about the Save-a-Lot store where I can find food that isn't organic or local, but I'll be supporting an employee-owned company that's actively working to bring grocery stores into "food desert" areas? I dunno... it's all a tough call for me.


I guess in the end I'll probably just end up splitting the difference and trying to do the best I can within the confines of both my budget and my "driving intolerance syndrome." I do think there is great value in supporting the stores here in my neighborhood, and I think that if I make a point of buying organic and local options when they are available in those stores, it might encourage them to carry more of those types of products.


But I do think that this will be the end of my grocery challenges for a while. I'm sorta feeling like dealing with my kitty situation is enough of a challenge for me at this point. But I do think this entire thing has been a really amazing experience, and I've learned an incredible amount.

I've convinced myself that I am perfectly capable of living within a food stamp budget if I need to. I've also broadened my horizons quite a bit in terms of exploring new and different options for food acquisition. And while I haven't exactly been diligent in terms of keeping up my price book, paying closer attention to prices has been a very valuable learning experience that I will certainly try to carry forward.

And I actually did manage to eat my way through pretty much the entire contents of my chest freezer, which is currently empty, cleaned out and turned off. I think I'll wait until the garden harvest starts coming in to turn it on again.

But I'm curious to know what y'all think about my tug-of-war emotions in this department? Do any of you feel torn by these issues? How do you choose between all of the "evils" out there?






51 comments :

  1. Wow you've covered a lot. Love the article and wil share on FB. It is extremely hard to eat healthy, mindfully sourced foods and maintain a budget. I struggle with it daily. I too live in an area of limited choice. I stock up at Trader Joe's once a month, buy locally grown when available.

    It is a topic I feel very strongly about and have recently started a website - Healthy Food Matters. Just remember when you spend your dollars you are voting for values.

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    1. Hey Dan, Thanks so much for visiting.

      It is a constant challenge, that's for sure. I too eat a whole foods diet. I got there because food allergies really left me no choice, but it's turned out to be one of those real "silver lining" situations.

      Your webpage says you live in Colorado, I'm curious where you've found a Trader Joe's. They're supposed to be opening one in Denver and one in Boulder soon, but I didn't think they had any other stores in our state.

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  2. No easy answers to the food question. I think we all just have to do what is best for us at the time and place we are in our lives and realize that others may be in a different place. I won't drive out of my way to get organic food. However, I try to buy the healthiest food I can at my local stores. I also hate driving and think the extra gas presents a new problem of its own. I try to combine shopping trips when I go out of the neighborhood and take advantage of things I can't buy locally.

    As for Whole Foods, I don't know about all of their corporate policies, but I do know that their prices are high and are priced out of many people's budgets. However, I don't have any close to me, so I don't have to worry about if I'm going to shop there.

    On other fronts, it sounds like that the kitties are at least not getting worse. Hope that things approve.

    Also, it's been a long time since I've heard the phrase, "Goody Gumdrops" Made my day.

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    1. Oh, it always makes me happy when something so simple can brighten someone's day!

      I'm with you on the combining trips thing... I tend to plot "expeditions" whenever I have to leave the neighborhood to try to make it a bit more worthwhile.

      I'm hoping that the kitty situation improves soon, although we just got some disappointing news on Smoky's latest blood test - while his symptoms are better, his numbers aren't. So it's back to the vet tomorrow for more tests. The fun just never ends! Goody Gumdrops! :-)

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  3. I believe that there are two very sad fact about living in cities: lack of good grocery stores and lack of good banking services. The poor and urban dwelling segment of our population suffers as a result. Where we are, there are now Aldi and Price Rite stores that make it possible for low-income and city dwellers to afford fresh produce. I think that is a service to the community that can't be underestimated. Look at the per-capita presence of banks and ATMs in your area and compare to the more affluent/suburban areas -- you'll be just as outraged.

    As for your Kitty's UTI, have you looked into ursa uvi? It's a herbal remedy that might help from a preventive standpoint and is a recognized treatment in Europe.

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    1. Oh man... I could write a novel-sized rant about the disparity of services in poor urban areas. I mean even access to basic things like telephone and internet service is a challenge. I have a landline and DSL and every single time it rains I lose my service. They generally come out and fix it within 3-4 days, but it's just SOOOO frustrating!

      Apparently the lines in this neighborhood are still the original lead cables that were strung in the 1950's when everything was built. And even though they've been replaced in virtually every other neighborhood in the city, they have no plans to replace them here because they don't see it as "cost effective!" AAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHH!

      I've thought about switching to a cable modem and digital phone service through Comcast, but my neighbor has it and she too loses service in the rain because their lines are getting old too and they're too cheap to replace them.

      And then there are the city services. Our city council rep has had to go to incredible lengths just to get them to pave the alleys in our district, even though the rest of the city got them done 20-30 years ago.

      And we've got the lowest per-capita amount of parks and open spaces in the city, even though we've got the greatest need. When CatMan and I ride through the affluent sections of town it just kills be to see these enormous beautiful parks with all sorts of fancy playground equipment that are almost always completely empty! Meanwhile, kids here play in the streets, parking lots and drainage ditches. It just makes me want to scream!

      Anyhow, sorry for the rant, guess you struck a chord!

      Thanks for the tip about ursa uvi, I will look into it. Sputnik, the kitty with the urinary problems actually has a bladder tumor/polyp which is both responsible for a bunch of his symptoms and also makes him much more susceptible to bladder infections. He's doing remarkably well given the fact that the vet gave him a few weeks to live back in December. He's 16 now, and I'm really hoping that we can continue to keep his symptoms in check so he can live out the rest of his little kitty life in relative comfort.

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  4. It is a minefield, isn't it?! There may not be a perfect ethical company with cruelty free/organic/local/low carbon footprint/no packaging...so I suppose you just have to decide which of the factors are most important and aim for those. I go to a fqrmer's market, which has loads of local meat, cheese, fish and veg...but we have to make a special trip once a week and drive there. On the other hand, I try and either walk to the supermarket (about 30mins walk away, but good exercise!) or drive there on my way somewhere else. I think it is an ok balance..

    I can't believe the differences between the shops in your neighbourhood and in the richer neighbourhoods! I've never noticed that here, but then I have never lived in a city big enough to have multiple versions of the same supermarket.. Personally, I prefer the little supermarkets which just have food- I always feel overwhealmed in a Tesco or other giant shop where the aisles are endless and they sell pretty much everything!

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    1. I am SOOOOO jealous of your farmer's market. We've got some here, but they are pretty heavy on the "market" and pretty light on the "farmer". In other words, they sell lots of things like soap and crafts, and what food they do have is generally "ready to eat" fair food or pre-packages stuff like salsas, relishes or jams, none of which I can eat. They usually have one or two booths selling a handful of veggies, and there's one company that makes the rounds with their ridiculously expensive beef (which you can't actually purchase on site, they just hand out brochures so you can place an order.) It is sooooo frustrating!

      In many ways my little neighborhood feels sorta like it's been forgotten by the city. I'm sure some of it is racial as well as economic. The neighborhood is largely full of Mexican immigrants, who are the scapegoat du jour here in America.

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  5. I can totally relate to this. My grocery shopping is all about compromise. Mostly, I'm just not prepared to pay the extra for organic, as it's so much more expensive. On the other hand, I am prepared to pay more for meat that's local, free range, and sold by an independent butcher (several plus points for the extra money). I pay about £11 for a 4lb chicken, which is about $4.16/lb (prices are always approximate at this butcher, as we ask for several things and he gives us a total price, which tends to be in whole pounds. I think we get a good deal, but I'm never quite sure).

    Milk is almost impossible to buy ethically, so I support the village shop by buying it there (also walking distance, which is good, too) - or I did until the shop closed last week. Apparently there isn't much profit in milk and newspapers.

    Most of my 'store-cupboard' goods are chosen on price alone and bought from the supermarket. I hate supermarket shopping and do it as rarely as possible, which at least cuts down on the driving.

    Hmm, this is looking like more compromise and less ethical choice. At least veggies grown in the garden are organic, healthy and zero food miles!

    I love the weevils picture :-)

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    1. I agree, it's all a compromise. I think you're lucky to have a butcher who can sell you local free range meats. Haven't found anything like that here, but I will keep looking.

      Most of the milk at our grocery stores is local... well except for the organic milk which is flown in from across the country. I don't drink much milk though so I haven't worried too terribly much about this one.

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    2. We're really lucky with milk- one of the main reasons we started going to the farmer's market is that you can buy fresh from the cow (unpasturised) organic Jersey milk. It's about twice the price of that in the supermarket (£1.50 for 2 pints) but as the money is going directly to a local farmer (who names her cows, keeps them until they are old and as far as I can tell does pretty much all of the work herself, including making butter and yoghurt) I don't mind!

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    3. Oh... that's so sweet... I'd love to know that my milk came from a cow that was loved enough to have a name!

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  6. As far as not having services in poorer urban areas, it's just not there. Rural areas are affected as much or more. Where I grew up, many places don't have the option of internet or cable. It's just not available yet. Too expensive for the companies to put in. There is also a problem with medical help. Most doctors can't make much money in rural areas, so they don't set up there. That's a problem for someone without a car or can't drive much. This has been very evident as I have seen my parents age. If they want to see any kind of specialist the have to drive a couple of hours away (which they don't do anymore) or wait until the the doctors visit the town--usually once a month.

    Also, where poor cable services are concerned, we have had some problems even though I live in a nice, middle class, suburban neighborhood. Our cable used to go out a lot, but since fixing it only involved 10 customers because of how it was set up, we were always last on the list to be fixed. Areas with more customers were fixed first. I understand that, but sometimes ours had gone out before others they fixed first. Also, our phone gets a bad static on it every time it rains.

    And the list goes on. We all have services that we wish were better. It's not an all or nothing thing in any area, but I am curious about counting the banks per capita in different areas.

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    1. The banks thing is interesting isn't it. Now that I think of it, I can't come up with one that's within this neighborhood. Poor people don't have money, I guess! :-)

      But I've heard that internet services can be hard to come by in rural areas... but if DSL runs off of the plain old phone lines, I wonder why DSL wouldn't be available. There's probably more to it than that.

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    2. I work for an independent phone company in a rural area. Small, independent rural phone companies receive subsidies from the government (universal service fund) to provide coverage in remote areas. Recent changes in this funding mechanism are putting pressure and incentives on companies in these areas to enhance DSL coverage over "traditional" phone lines. In many cases, smaller companies are investing in fiber optic cable, directly to the home. If you are served by a larger company that doesn't receive these incentives, there would be more of a problem.

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    3. Janeen, that's all very interesting. My brother lives in suburban Maryland and a few years ago his landline went out. The company basically said that they weren't gonna replace it, and his only option was to upgrade to a fiber optic connection and digital phone - which only cost about three times what he had been paying. He ended up ditching the land line and got a smartphone as his only phone.

      Not sure what it all means, but it's frustrating when you consider that in Europe, fiber optic connections are pretty standard these days. Somehow, I don't think all of our "free market competition" is working out the way it's supposed to!

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  7. Luckily, I live in a rural area and only have two local choices for buying food - the farmer's market (about a 10 minute drive) or the grocery store (about a 15 minute drive). Of course, these two are in the opposite directions away from my house, so I usually alternate weeks unless my work takes me past one or the other. The selection varies at each, and I usually just try my best - but like you, everything I buy is a compromise - it's either locally grown or organic, in a plastic jar with real ingredients or packaged in glass with artificial sweeteners.

    I think considering what you had going on at home and your feelings toward driving (and I agree!) that you did really well with the challenge. Were you able to eat anything from your garden this month?

    I'm happy to hear your kitties are at least "okay" for now. Hopefully the worst is behind you :)

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    1. The garden is lagging behind I fear. It was an odd year with snow on the ground until mid-May, and then searing heat and practically no rain in June. I've harvested a few zucchini and some snow peas. The garlic and onions didn't do too well... most of the plants have died leaving very small bulbs behind. Oh well...

      But the tomato plants are finally starting to get little green tomatoes on them, and the peppers are finally blooming, and I harvested a few immature cucumbers today... they haven't grown much in the past week and were starting to look yellow around the edges so I'm not sure if they'll taste OK or not.

      My desire for a greenhouse continues to grow... if I had one I could start the seeds much earlier and have space to transplant them into bigger containers but still shelter them from the weather until it was safe to put them in the ground. We'll see...

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    2. That's a shame. Gardening is so tough! Maybe August will be better.

      Could you start some plants in your house or is a greenhouse the only option? My cats would eat any seedlings, I'm sure! They act like I don't feed them whenever they're around greens. :)

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    3. I do start things inside - but I've got limited window space so I don't have room to transplant them into bigger pots before putting them in the ground. If I did, then I could start them earlier and they'd be more mature when they went in instead of little tiny seedlings, and the plants might start producing earlier. I also got a late start this year and didn't get the seedlings going until April. Ideally I'd start them in January or February.

      And it is QUITE a challenge to keep the cats from eating the seedlings! My current system is that I have a clear plastic storage box which I turn upside down and use as a little mini-greenhouse in a south facing window.

      I've seen little greenhouses that don't cost much money like this one:
      http://www.amazon.com/Gardman-R687-4-Tier-Mini-Greenhouse/dp/B000NCTGQE/ref=lp_11055931_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375498731&sr=1-1

      I'm just not sure if they'd offer enough protection with our unpredictable spring weather. I also keep thinking that I should be able to cobble something together instead of buying it... but maybe it's not worth the hassle.

      Hopefully we'll be out of kitty crisis land by the time I need to make those decisions, so I'll be able to give the garden a bit more attention! :-)

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    4. I like your mini-greenhouse idea - clever!

      It might be worth it to try to build your own greenhouse, then you could build it exactly how you want it.

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    5. It would be nice to have it exactly like I want it... unfortunately that would probably mean putting a $20,000 addition onto the house! :-)

      I dunno... I've been hemming and hawing over this for well over 10 years now, maybe I should just fork over the $40 for the miniature thing and see how I actually like it before I get too attached to my grandiose ideas!

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  8. In spite of living in a huge, wealthy metropolitan area, we don't seem to have many choices when it comes to food regardless of how far we drive. I'm impressed how many stores you have around! Our solution is to do a CSA program in the summer. In the winter we're mostly stuck with the Safeway and the Giant that we can walk to.

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    1. I've done CSA's in the past and I think they're a great option for most people. Unfortunately for me, I was allergic to a good portion of the food so it wasn't such a good deal. That plus there aren't any CSA's with distribution sites near me, so it would be a weekly drive to pick up the food which doesn't seem worth it. Usually it works out OK because the CSA and garden produce overlap a great deal. Assuming we don't get another big hail storm that is... :-)

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  9. I'm also torn on Whole Foods. For what it's worth, the $1 salary isn't as awesome a move as it seems: it's a move some executives use to allow their real compensation (usually company stocks, in this case WFM) to simply not be taxed. If your taxable income (e.g. - salary) puts you in the 10% or 15% marginal bracket (and earning a dollar certainly does that), you don't have to pay capital gains on the potentially millions you are making via your stock holdings.

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    1. Ha! Well, so much for corporate altruism!

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  10. PART 1: I am going to post something more thoughtful on your topic later, but I have to let you know I know exactly what you are going through -- exactly -- with the FELV thing.

    I may have mentioned this here before, but on June 14th (my birthday month in which my favorite cats always choose to die) I lost one of my 13-year old cats, Miracle. She was one of the two cats I scooped off the streets of Italy when I was there on business and couldn't stand the sight of this sickly litter that was going to perish if I didn't help. I had brought her to the US with three other kittens, presumably all her littermates, and all four turned out to be female. They were all very sick when I got them here. Mostly feline herpes, huge pussed up eyes, crusty noses, URIs -- but also worms and lice and mites and fleas and ear infections. It took me six months of hard work to get them even reasonably healthy. Then I adopted the two healthiest ones out, and kept Miracle, an all black kitten, and JuJu, a brown tabby/white kitten, who were the sickest two and very bonded.

    I had been told by someone, probably in Italy, that the reason it is so easy to bring cats to the US from Italy (no quarantine, just a "health" certificate from a local vet, and a miniskirt really helps when you are trying to get that) is that they don't have rabies there, or FIV, or FELV. Not sure why the vets here in the US never thought to test them for FELV. Guess they were too busy dealing with the more obvious issues, but it seems these kittens were never tested. You can see the set up I'm creating here.

    Now, when they joined my household, I already had two cats, one of whom -- my "firstborn" Toonces -- was the kitty love of my life. I wouldn't have wanted to expose him to anything, but I knew he'd already tacked feline herpes so i wasn't too worried. Toonces died in 2006 2 years after being given a massive insulin overdose by his veterinarians son, which left him brain damaged and one day I came home and he had seizures and never could get up again, so I had to let him go. The seizures were from the brain damage from the overdose.

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  11. PT 2:
    Miracle and JuJu I became very very close to. They were very bonded, and Miracle was the gentlest cat in my house. She never picked on anyone, didn't have a mean bone in her body, and was always the cat who just seemed to absorb my sadness and grief when bad things were happening. Her sister, quite her opposite, is high strung and a princess, very endearing but entirely narcissistic. Anyway, the two groomed each other all the time. As the years have gone by since Toonces died in 2006, I've had many foster cats and adopted another male kitty. I had in my house, before Miracle's death, four kitties who are "mine," one foster cat, my mother's former feral, and my sisters cast-off -- a total of seven (which explains why cat supplies cost me $5k last year).

    Miracle has always been snotty because of the herpes, it did permanent damage to her tear ducts and "nasal turbinates." So, this late spring/early summer when she was getting snottier than usual, and seeming very lethargic, I assumed it was a URI, and so did the ER vet. He gave us antibiotics and told me to bring her back if it didn't clear. I was syringe feeding her, giving her fluids and antibiotics, and later that week she was no better. I took her in to the regular vet who took one look at her and said: "She's critical."

    Blood test showed both severe anemia and a very low WBC count too. An ultrasound showed enlarged liver and huge spleen with blood in the abdomen. The vet thought cancer but she couldnt' see a tumor. She said if I wanted her to be strong enough for diagnostics, they had to do a blood transfusion. I said yes, so we did it. Almost as an afterthought she said, "and we ought to do a leukemia test too . . . "

    12 hours later she was in acute distress, no better from the transfusion, unable to be out of the oxygen tent. I had to let her go. Posthumously, I learned the results of her FELV test were positive.

    Now, this is what I don't get. She was 13 years old. She also had comorbid feline herpes. How could she live 13 years with FELV when she was already immunocompromised by herpes?

    One possibility is that one of my fosters brought it into the house. But there was limited contact with the fosters (except this most recent one), although Miracle had the most contact since -- as the gentlest cat, she was always the one I let them meet first. But all the fosters tested negative before coming to me. Although, the organization I foster with NEVER told me there need to be two tests three months apart for you to trust a negative. They had no problem giving me cats to foster with one negative test on board, until they found out my cat had it and then they had issues with ME because I hadn't double tested all my cats and theirs may have been exposed. (I guess it's OK for their fosters to expose my cats, not the other way around).

    Still, the vets (the rescue vet and my own) think it is much more likely that Miracle was carrying FELV in her bone marrow all these years.

    All the other cats have tested negative once since she died. Now I need to test them again in 2 more months. But her sister is sickly, sneezy and doesn't seem right, she never has actually. So, I'm wondering if I can even trust a second negative test if it can be hanging out in the bone marrow indefinitely?

    STRESSSSSSSSSS ..............

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  12. BTW, I have since found out that the FELV rate among sick Italian street cats is around 30%.

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    1. Wow, you have really been through the ringer with this stuff. I'm so, sooo sorry for what you've had to go through. And I really hope none of your other babies end up having FeLV.

      All of my cats have tested negative. Smoky has now tested negative twice, and so has Princess (the newest family member) and Sputnik & Jasper have both tested negative once. But I'm really starting to wonder if that means anything. I'm also wondering... if a cat has it in their bone marrow, but not in their blood or saliva, are they contagious? It would seem like they couldn't be, but who knows.

      The uncertainty is the hardest part with Smoky's current situation. I mean at this point his edema has cleared up and he doesn't really have any other clinical signs, but his albumin count and hematocrit are still low, so the specialists over at the referral hospital are pushing for more and more invasive tests. I mean, I too would like to know what's going on, but is it really worth scoping his entire GI tract to do biopsies when he has no clinical signs of GI disease? They're also talking about bone marrow biopsies and who knows what else.

      I dunno, I'm currently waiting for a call from my regular vet to talk things over with him. It just seems like these specialists are much more concerned with getting a diagnosis than they are with the cat, if that makes any sense. I think if they had their druthers they'd be in there doing exploratory surgery and god knows what. And every doctor over their seems to have a completely different theory, which tells me that they're pretty much clueless. But so far, other than the low albumin and hematocrit everything has come back completely normal.

      Anyhow, thanks for your support. I'm hoping for the best for all of your babies. They are so lucky to have you in their corner!

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    2. I am with you on the uncertainty being the worst. I too also think it doesn't sound likely that a cat could be contagious if the virus is in the bone marrow but not in the blood or saliva. On the other hand, a cat in that state shouldn't have anemia from it either. And the spooky thing is you wouldn't know when it would activate out of the bone marrow ...or whatever the right term would be.

      Has smokey had an ultrasound recently? That would be the one thing I'd want to do if I were you. Lymphoma can also cause anemia. If they see thickening of the intestines or signs associated with lymphoma, a fine needle biopsy to confirm is not very invasive. I wouldn't do the bone marrow biopsy. Even if the got FELV cultured from there, it's unclear what it would mean and there wouldn't be anything you could do about it other than support his system in staying strong and healthy with good food and low stress environment. I did read about this potential treatment for FELV called lymphocyte t cell immunomodulator, but unproven although some impressive anecdotal stories. FELV is a retrovirus just like HIV, I found info on one owner who got ahold of human antiretroviral drugs for his cat, seemed to help for about a year but when it stopped working it stopped working in a big way.

      And yes, I know what you mean about it seeming like the diagnosis is mote important than the cat. It can be a hard decision whether to do lots of tests to pursue a diagnosis when--if it's something pretty bad, you don't know if you would treat it or not. Listen to your heart, you know what smokey would want. And there certainly is no point testing him again for FELV for several months at least. Vets often see cats as patients who present fun puzzles to solve, but even the better vets don't seem to take the potential risks associated with their procedues very seriously. I can be really hard to say no to them, I try to base the decision on whether the answer the procedure might give will give the chance to make a big difference. If all you are looking for is something you can't do much about or wouldn't choose to treat because it would be hard on the cat for little extra time, then they don't make a lot of sense. It's just hard to know when that is the case.

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    3. They did an abdominal ultrasound on him as well as a chest x-ray, and it all came back completely normal. I was able to talk with my regular vet today and he was very helpful. He didn't come right out and say it, but I got the definite impression that he thinks the bone marrow biopsy and GI endoscopy would be overkill at this point. He pointed out that the specialists over at the referral hospital are in the business of diagnosing, more than treating, so their mentality is always gonna be to do more and more tests until they can come up with a firm diagnosis.

      We're waiting for a special urine protein test to come back in order to rule out kidney disease. Assuming that comes back negative we might just give it another week or two and see if he improves any on his own, or of any other symptoms arise that could point us in one direction or another.

      CatMan did some reading about something called 'protein losing enteropathy' which seems to fit both his symptoms and blood test results. It's rare in cats, but that also seems to fit the situation! It's basically damage to the lining of the intestine which allows serum proteins to seep out of the body and escape through the bowels. It sounds treatable, though the treatment depends on whether the damage is caused by an infection or an autoimmune response. It's a clue at least!

      I guess at this point we just have to wait and see, and try to become an armchair veterinarian! Thanks again for your support, I really appreciate it.

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  13. I don't know the answers, sure wish I did. The world these days really leaves us in a huge bind! I was doing great on my challenge just to use up things from the fridge, freezer and pantry until my son got hurt. I never even got to the part for healthy, organic, local, etc. Now I'm in frugal mode, just buying cheapest and still spending triple what I normally did on groceries trying to feed this boy! Of course I'm giving in to his every whim but still! Thanks for your support by the way :)

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    1. Hey Martha,

      I sure hope your son is doin' better. Going into caretaker mode certainly changes perspective on this sort of thing. I've got 2 sick cats, both of whom are extremely picky eaters, so at this point each of them gets whatever they want... which isn't cheap, and means that the fridge is full of half eaten cans of cat food because it's like each cat is eating something completely different! If I'd included cat food in any of my grocery challenges I'd have had to have tripled my budget!

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  14. Since you are considering a small home greenhouse - are you anywhere near Denver and their fantastic botanical garden? Bet they have a home gardener's class on just this topic.

    The other suggestion I have to offer is look up cold frames. I've taught classes on that subject and they are a simple, low cost option for extending the growing season.

    Another possibility would be a little hoop house with floating row cover to keep things such as kale, spinach, broccoli growing longer into the fall season.

    Greenhouses are lovely, but not the only option.

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    1. Hi Judy,

      I've been meaning to build a cold frame for many, many years. I saved the glass from the neolithic sliding glass door when I had it replaced... I just can't seem to get it together to build the frame. Part of it is that I'm not sure if I should try to place it in an existing garden plot, or make a new raised bed with a detachable glass lid. Indecision seems to be at the root of most of my procrastination issues! :-)

      The hoop house thing is interesting too... I usually plant a fall crop of spinach in one of my raised beds with a dirt level a few inches below the sides of the walls, then I just cover it with a layer or two of frost cloth and it generally winters over quite nicely. Last year we had a very dry fall though, and that combined with a few early cold snaps killed it off before it could get established. Sigh.

      But I dunno... I'm getting frustrated with growing greens in general because the cruciferous stuff like kale, broccoli & collards always gets infested with aphids, and the spinach & chard falls prey to leaf miners. I've sprayed tons of neem oil, but all to no avail. Any suggestions?

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  15. I think as long as you're doing the best you reasonably can within your means, it's fine. Generally not spending everything all in the one shop and making the best choice you can wherever possible. There is plenty we can do on a personal level when it comes to reducing our consumption and waste, by staying informed and by trying to always improve.

    It's not a thing that anyone can do perfectly but as long as you're in some way conscious, you're part of the solution. In my opinion! And I hope your lil kitties feel better!

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    1. Thanks so much for your words of encouragement. Sometimes I have to remind myself that perfection really isn't an achievable goal in this department!

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  16. Finding that balance is really tricky. I would love to eat organic food, but it just costs too much. You do the best you can.

    That's interesting about the supermarkets. I live in quite a wealthy suburb and I prefer to go to supermarkets in the outer suburbs because they are more likely to have things like offal and meat offcuts (but much less likely to have organic food).

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    1. OK, I had to go look up "Offal". I'm not sure if my store carries any of that or not because I haven't been able to bring myself to try any... it just brings back too many horrible childhood liver memories! I guess I'm afraid that "offal" will be "awful"!

      But it's interesting and disappointing about the selection in the stores. I guess it's another example of how we get pigeon-holed by our society in all sorts of non-obvious ways!

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  17. I think what your experiences show and what this post highlights is that we live in a world of imperfect choices. Also, there are multiple dimensions to the choices we make about food: cost, health, ethics, convenience, environmental, enjoyment, the social experience of eating, and so forth. We all have different options; we all have different constraints.

    I think it is "Pollyanna", though, to assume that all will be better if we can just convince more people to grow gardens and shop organic. A thought-provoking article in The Atlantic Monthly recently highlighted some of the challenges we face collectively in changing habits and talked about strides being made by some large restaurant chains. It also went a good mile in de-bunking myths about certain organic and "health" foods:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/07/how-junk-food-can-end-obesity/309396/

    I've read many of Michael Pollan's books, and even heard him speak. I like many of his "food rules" and think he's done more good than harm. That said, at some point we need to get real about the constraints -- time, money, other priorities -- we all have in becoming "pure" eaters. For instance, I'm all for "slow food" on a Saturday when I have time, but the rest of the week??? I wouldn't eat. I'm too busy commuting to my job (another environmental "scourge"), but which is -- frankly -- necessary to support my family with income as well as health insurance (which are also virtues.)

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    1. OK, I'm gonna have to go read that article.

      I think that with this, as with all things, it just ends up being waaaaayyy more complicated than we really want to accept. It's like we want to do the "right thing" but unfortunately there really aren't such clear cut choices in life.

      I think the "diet wars" are a wonderful example of this. Put a vegan and a paleo eater together and let them fight it out. Who's right? Who knows! Ultimately I think we all just have to do the best we can and recognize that what's right for one person might not be right for another.

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  18. Cat, food is such an issue for me. I walk into a grocery store and can't find anything I want to buy. Organic is so expensive and the rest of the produce lacks flavor. To get organic meats you have to drive 15 miles minimum. But we do have options here (besides the few months the farmer's market is open) and those are the bulk food stores run by Mennonites. They can beat the best prices of any grocery store. I can get organic old-fashioned oats for 11 cents a pound just as an example. Then I am surrounded by several farms who to stay in business have small stores on their property. Yes, I would pay a little more but it's a nice short drive down a country road and I shop at the farm itself. The only thing we can't get is local butter as these families can't afford to pay for the federal approval to sell it. We can also purchase anything from 1/4 to a whole cow or pig. You can even visit the farm, pick out and name your animal, visit it often which is big around here with families with young children who want the children to know where their food comes from You pay in installments so it's not one big chunk of money going out at one time.

    Being that I am a vegetarian, it is much harder for me to find food locally and/or organic year round as our growing season is only a few months of the year. I am converting my main window, okay only window, in the apartment into a greenhouse and hope that fills most of my vegetable needs through winter.

    Sorry your kitties are still having problems. I hope you find out what's wrong with Smokey soon.

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    1. The Mennonites sound like a wonderful option. Some of my ancestors are actually Pennsylvania Dutch so I've got a soft spot for all things Mennonite.

      How's your window garden working so far? I fear none of my indoor spinach sprouted, but I do have some baby Swiss chard that I haven't managed to kill yet. It's almost time to plant for fall crops outdoors, so maybe I'll try to get some spinach started in the hopes that I can get it to winter over this year.

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  19. Thanks for this update, and you have my sympathies for your kitties.

    My experience is that growing up we got the cheapest foods we could due to having a low income. And now I am always finding out about horrible things I have been supporting and it makes me angry. We have a culture where we like things to magically be available and cheap year round and we have not been asking enough questions or making enough demands.

    It is impossible to support everything I want to support (sustainable methods, poison-free methods (even slow poisons like hydrogenated vegetable oils), humane methods, affordability, and probably other things I am forgetting). So I go back and forth and try not to do just what is comfortable, but I can be bought (with super cheap sale prices) and I do eat out (where they rarely make the choices I would).

    Right now a very interesting thing is happening in my neighborhood. It was built in the 1950s and has a combination mostly of original homeowners (from the 'fifties), who mostly worked for the state; young minority owners with kids in starter houses; and gay couples with no kids. North and east were scary low-income neighborhoods, south was the airport, and west was the freeway. The airport has been moved out of town and planned development has taken its place. Although a certain percentage of the housing there has to be "affordable," what that really means is "subsidized" and also that it costs a little more than my place, but you have to have a lower income than I ever had (in today's dollars) to be allowed to move into it. (In other words, not affordable, in my opinion.) There is also an old-folks home in there somewhere. But it's mostly full of rich people with very restrictive HOAs.

    Two weeks ago, a new grocery store opened in this new neighborhood right at their boundary with my neighborhood. It's not a Whole Foods, but an HEB, which is an ordinary chain grocery store except that it's privately owned. And maybe not so ordinary because they do have affordable things, organic things, and ethnic things, though at different concentrations in different locations.

    So, the interesting question is what are they offering, and how will that change based on what actually gets bought? Right now there are three other large grocery stores in my neighborhood: a very low-rent HEB with a very small selection, a Hispanic grocery store with nothing I want (no whole grains, no organic anything), and a smaller local store with high prices. We also have some smaller Hispanic grocers with good prices and we have a Target with a grocery section. Normally I shopped at an HEB across the freeway (in a student area), a local coop, and a Whole Foods--plus I also discovered some Natural Grocers (best price on organic grape juice which I'm finally making myself buy because--duh--Cesar Chavez's entire life).

    ** (Oops, too long.) **

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    1. ** Continued **


      But now I'm going to my new HEB to try to vote with my dollars for the kinds of things I want them to keep available--low-priced things that I don't hate yet like canned tuna, whole-grain things, shade-grown chocolate, etc.

      Normally I do a terrible job choosing between my different values. I just can't let go of the grip that price has on me. Also, my tastes are almost completely unhealthy--think of what a six-year-old likes. So, I tell myself that taking small steps in the right direction are good. $1 bags of frozen (conventionally grown) fruit is better than not eating fruit. I only buy shade-grown chocolate--except when I forget or when there's a good sale on something I know I love.

      My best strategy is to try to do more of my own cooking. When I'm buying the base ingredients, I have more control over what I'm getting, and things are cheaper. Cooking in big batches helps make it less onerous.

      And I'm learning that, in lieu of research, I'd rather trust a small company than a big one. Even when a small company is awesome, it seems that they often can't help taking short-cuts on the route to bigness (hello, Whole Foods). I'll pick something labelled local over something that isn't (all else equal, which it never is), just because non-local is probably big. And I generally avoid anything labelled as "natural," assuming that they are trying to trick me and are therefore evil.

      Also, I sign a lot of petitions, mostly against insanely inhumane conditions and untested GMO approval. I am angry that the FDA has not kept up with the times, and I'm angry that it was almost impossible to import phorid flies, which are the only natural enemy of fire ants, and which use only fire ants as their host, even for limited controlled research. because they are alien and might cause problems (see the fascinating movie "Cane Toads" for an example). And yet it so easy to approve a plant that is alien to everywhere on earth because it has just been created (GMOs). Also, a certain GMO company that sort of rhymes with Con-Giganto has A LOT of inethical practices, so I want to hurt them almost any way I can out of general principal. However, it is impossible to avoid GMO with my current lifestyle--all the gas has corn in it, for example, and I bet all that corn is GMO.

      FYI, Trader Joe's lists their locations on their website, though they don't list future locations as soon as they are decided.

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    2. I think buying ingredients as opposed to prepackaged foods is probably the single biggest thing we can do in terms of lowering our 'food footprints'. And wouldn't it be nice if there was some sort of consistency to our government regulations?

      The one that gets me is that you don't have to label GMO's because they are 'materially identical' to non-GMO foods... BUT, you can patent them and sue farmers for patent infringement after you infect their fields with 'frankenfood'. Soooooo, it's different enough to get a patent, but not different enough to label?!? I mean come on, they can't have it both ways. But somehow the FDA lets them get away with it.

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    3. I never heard the "materially identical" argument before. Yikes.

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  20. Cat, I'm so sorry to hear about Smoky... my heart goes to you and your babies. Hoping it's nothing serious.

    I think you did rather well with the challenge, all things considered. And you've raised some very pertinent questions.

    When making compromises regarding food "ethicalness", I usually favor animal byproducts. I've been fortunate enough to find locally produced free range eggs and homemade organic cheese and butter for a decent price, so I'm a happy girl! I'm not really a GMO alarmist, so while I try to eat organic fruit and veggies whenever possible, it's not something I lose my sleep over.

    At the moment I don't feel so bad for driving to stores, as my car has great mileage and I only use ethanol (which in Brazil is made of sugarcane, much more cost effective than corn-based ethanol), but I'm 100% with you in the driving hatred! Too bad the city I'm currently living is one of the most bike-unfriendly I've seen.

    Looking forward to better news on the kitty front, and perhaps more food challenges in the future; these have been very inspiring!

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    1. Thanks Bele, I'm inclined to agree with you in terms of GMO foods - well to a point. I guess for me, it's not so much the fact that genetic manipulation was used, it's what it's used for that concerns me! I get concerned about things like BT corn that essentially have a pesticide genetically inserted into the food. No way to wash that off!

      Anyhow, it sounds to me like you're doing great. I think Brazil has taken great strides as a nation to get out of the petro-based economy, and it should serve as an inspiration to all of us. I don't think ethanol is the answer in all places - as you point out, the efficiency varies wildly depending on which crop you use, but it's certainly a step in the right direction!

      Thanks for the well-wishes on the kitty front. This is certainly a learning experience for me, as taking things day to day isn't exactly my strength. But I'm learning to be grateful for each moment, and trying not to get too caught up in the horrible "what ifs".

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