That’s what apples look like! #NewcastleCan

My teenage daughter is looking suspiciously at the fruit bowl. I blame myself for this. 

It’s not that she doesn’t eat fruit. It’s that the fruit she’s used to is generally supermarket bought; uniform, highly-shined fruit, available all year whatever the weather. 

A couple of years ago I read Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman* and learned about some of the processes that happen to supermarket fruit to keep it shiny and fresh looking. I was horrified. I thought I was feeding my kids healthy fresh fruit, but it turns out its covered in chemicals the shops don’t need to declare because what they’re doing to the fruit counts as a process not an ingredient. 

There seems to be so much to worry about when buying food anyway, excess packaging, food waste, air miles, palm oil, E numbers, fats, sugar, carbohydrates, cholesterol… It’s all too much to take in – so I just filed the information away in my brain and kept buying the fruit. Because some fruit is better than none, and they wouldn’t be allowed to use anything dangerous, would they? 

I’m currently reading Unprocessed: My City Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, by Megan Kimble* and it’s got me thinking about the issue of processed food all over again. In trying to get healthier for the Newcastle Can challenge I’ve been trying to cook more meals from scratch, less take always, less frozen chips, more fruit and veg. But if the fruit and veg I’m buying from the supermarket has already been sprayed with pesticides, shined with wax, and coated with chemicals to make it last longer is it still healthy? 

I don’t think I could completely avoid processed foods but I would like to avoid more of them. I think there’s a connection between the increase in obesity and the rise in power of the food industry. I’m no dietician or nutritionalist, I’m just a very confused ordinary person who wants to do better. But where do I start? 

In the introduction to Unprocessed Megan Kimble describes how a simple suggestion made her see things in a totally different way: “Spend money better.” Her example uses American dollars, but I imagine it would be similar in the UK. 

“If a community the size of Tuscon shifted 10 percent of its spending to local businesses – a 10 percent shift, not an increase – within one year, we would create almost $140 million revenue for the city. What this also means, I realise, is that we would withhold that $140 million from the balance sheets of those corporations that then use our money to influence government policy, to grow unsustainable food, to waste energy – and to process and sell us foods that aren’t good for us. 

This came as a revelation to me too. I mean, I knew buying local was a good thing. I try to support small local businesses rather than big chains when I’m treating myself to cake and coffee, going out for a meal or buying gifts, but it had never occurred to me to do the same for my food shopping. The supermarket is just where you buy your food, it has been all my life (although, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old woman, the supermarkets when I was little were very different from the massive 24 hour stores I’m used to now).

For a while in the late 90s/early 00s I got organic veg delivered. But my budget was tight and organic food started being available much more commonly in the supermarkets, so I stopped. As money got tighter I started only buying organic for the things we eat raw, and gradually only buying organic if it was reduced to clear.

I like to think of myself as frugal rather than penny-pinching, careful rather than tight-fisted. I like a bargain, who doesn’t? As prices have been going up much faster than wages for quite a while I need to watch what I spend, as do most people. 

But I want to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t want to just whinge and worry about processed food, excess packaging, sustainability, air miles and the rest. I want to do something. And I think it would be great if as well as bringing the city together to get healthier the Newcastle Can project boosted the local economy! 

So I’ve signed up to a trial weekly fruit and veg scheme from North East Organic Growers. It felt really expensive, but then I’ve never paid for a full months worth of fruit and veg in one go before. And given what I’m saving on take-aways since signing up to Newcastle Can I have some spare cash.

Every week my fruit and veg is delivered to a local contact person and I collect it from there. I don’t know what I’ll be getting in advance, it’s like a lucky dip and the kids are always keen to help unpack to see what’s there. There will always be staples like onions, potatoes, carrots, apples etc. but there are other things too, things I wouldn’t necessarily pick up if I was food shopping. For example purple sprouting broccoli is something I’d heard of but never cooked with, so it’s challenging me to cook new recipes and try new things. 

Veg I recognise…

… and the odd thing I don’t.
It’s also showing my kids what real fruit and veg is like. I remember when I was little strawberries were a summer treat, waited for with anticipation, then wolfed down in abundance because they didn’t keep. To my kids strawberries are just another item on a supermarket shelf year round. Yes, I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman again, but it was different when things were special, when we didn’t all expect to have everything and have it now! 

Real fruit.

So, my teenage daughter is looking suspiciously at the fruit bowl. I blame myself for this. But I’m working on putting it right.

“Those apples look weird.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

They’re not very shiny. And that one’s got speckles.”

“That’s what apples look like! Just try one.”

She liked it.

– – – – – 

Click here for an extract from Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman

Click here to find out more about Unprocessed, by Megan Kimble.

Ignoring my inner bully.

I was brought up to believe good attendance was incredibly important. You only missed school in our house if you were physically incapable of going. Partly this was because both my parents worked and parental leave was even more of a nightmare in the 70s and 80s than it is now, but mainly it was because it was the right thing to do. 

You’re supposed to be at school, you make every effort to go. You’re supposed to be at work, you get there. You have obligations, you’ve made a commitment. You do it because you’re better than the layabouts, the slackers, the people who don’t try their best. You get on in life by working hard. You stay busy.

Its a mindset that has stuck with me and it’s not uncommon. Every workplace has its share of people who hardly ever phone in sick as they try to struggle on despite cold, headache, fever etc. Good managers will send these people home, both to give them time to recover and to protect the other staff from the germs, but other workplaces expect staff to work through illness, penalising sick leave and treating those who are unwell with contempt.

I once worked for an organisation where “Staff Health” was used as an intimidation technique by managers, if you didn’t stop disrupting their business by being so selfishly unwell they threatened to get rid of you by sending you to Staff Health. I know people who’ve worked for organisations where the staff health systems were well used and supportive of staff with ongoing medical conditions, as it’s surely designed to be. I think it just shows bad managers will treat people badly with whatever tools are at their disposal. 

If I find it really hard to take sick leave when I’m physically sick, it’s even harder when it’s my mental health that’s failing. I saw my GP this morning and was advised not to go back to work just yet. I know I’m struggling, I know I can’t do my job as well as I should just now, and the anxiety about everything would just keep building til I broke if I went to work. 

And yet there’s that bullying voice in my head “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfectly fit. If you can get out to walk the dogs you can get out to go to work. Why are you just lounging about doing nothing? The world would grind to a halt if everyone just gave up whenever they felt sad or worried. You useless waste of space.” And so on. 

But there is something wrong with me, and just because it’s not visible doesn’t mean it’s not real. My whole pattern of thinking is scewed just now. My reaction to any sort of decision making is a fight or flight panic, heart pounding, head hammering, sweaty, breathless fear. The fact I recognise it’s illogical doesn’t make it stop. I know from past experience that if I try to do things when I’m wobbling like this I will just keep getting worse, until I no longer recognise this scewed thinking as illogical. That is where the real danger lies. 

So the break I wrote about last week in Stopping is becoming longer. I will take this time to reset, to ease my mind, get to grips with altered medication, grow my strength. It’s not selfish, it’s necessary. I will try to ignore the voice telling me otherwise. I will try to do things that will fill my spiralling mind without worrying that I should be at home in bed since I’m too ill to work.* 

If I’d injured myself I wouldn’t think it was selfish to go to physio or occupational therapy, so why is self care for mental health seen so differently? Why does our society make us feel guilty for being ill, being less than perfect? Why does what’s visible matter most?

I’m trying to be more open about my mental health, to feel less embarrassed and ashamed of my lack of control of it. I have decades of trying to hide it to overcome, but I know talking about these things helps to normalise them, I know I’m not the only one struggling. Its really helped me to know strong people who were open about their mental health challenges. I don’t feel strong yet, but I’m done feeling guilty for something I can’t help. 

Slightly the worse for wear, but still beautiful.

* I first wrote this section with “I need to” instead of “I will…” but I remembered what I’d written earlier this month about using need too often, and decided I sh/would be more decisive about it! 

This Woman Did! #thisgirlcan #newcastlecan

On Wednesday I took part in the #thisgirlcan UV 5K event for International Women’s Day. This was the first organised event where I’d be doing a physical activity with other people for years. Doing anything outside my comfort zone triggers my anxiety, and this was so far outside my comfort zone that I’d have needed binoculars to see it! It’s an understatement to say that anxiety is not pleasant. I struggle with anxiety a lot.

The person I was walking with was running late. I spent almost 20 minutes waiting for her, watching loads of women going into the park. 

Anxiety lies, and there’s rarely anything logical about it. Despite the evidence of my eyes my brain told me that all of these women were fitter than me, better prepared than me, better equipped than me. 

Anxiety focuses on irrelevant details. By the time my friend had arrived I had convinced myself that they weren’t going to let me walk because my shoes were wrong, and was deciding whether I should protest or just slink away.

Anxiety is invisible. Although all these thoughts were screaming through my head and my body was in full on fight or flight mode with heart thumping and nerves jangling I said nothing to my friend. I don’t talk about what’s going on in my head much. I can write it, but I can’t say it out loud to anyone.

Anxiety can be beaten. Together we joined the women walking to the park, where no one gave a damn about my shoes, and we joined women of all ages, shapes, sizes and fitness levels ready for the off. 

There were runners in full athletics kit, Nordic walkers with poles, loads of hiking boots, trainers, tutus and face paint. There were women in glorious neons and women like myself who are so used to dressing to be invisible that grey is the brightest colour we own. They were all supportive, all enjoying it.

Me and my friend walked the course at a fast pace. It challenged me physically and soothed me mentally. By half way round I was smiling, and by the end I felt great. Sweaty, muddy and tired, but great.

I wish I’d realised sooner that #thisgirlcan is for all ages. I’m still not comfortable with the name, and judging by this article in the Guardian I’m not the only one, but I’ll be looking out for more of their events. And hopefully next time I’ll be less anxious about it. 

Tanking the Takeaway #NewcastleCAN

I’ve had a hard day. And it followed a hard night. Phobic issues led to very disturbed sleep which left me already jittery and anxious to face what turned out to be a very stressful work day. Preparation for tea was delayed by having to drive through awful weather to collect the dog from the vet and my son from his Granny after work. All with a stotting headache. These are the days I inevitably order a takeaway. 

But I remind myself I need to break the habit of stress leading to food. And I already had the one take-away a month I’m allowing myself while being healthier, actually just this week. 

Then I tell myself there’s hardly any food in as I need to go shopping, and what harm would one extra takeaway do? After all it would prevent me feeling stressed. Reducing stress is healthy, right?

Then I take myself to the kitchen where we have one onion, one pepper, the tail end of a bag of rice and some leftover chicken. Add some frozen veg, garlic, ginger and about the amount of time it would take me to walk to and from the nearest Chinese takeaway and…

Enough to feed myself, two hungry teenagers and save a portion for tomorrows lunch. And I get to bask in the virtuous glow of not having given in to temptation. 

I can do this.