Candy Culture

gummy bears

As a kid, I frequently went on errands with my mom–the typical stuff like bank, library, offices of various kinds, supermarket, meat market. Occasionally, if I was really good, she’d buy one of those little square chocolate bars with fruit and nuts, and we’d share it.

Otherwise, candy wasn’t a feature of my day-to-day childhood, and soda was not a regular beverage in our household–we’d have a bottle or two of ginger ale stashed for illnesses, but it was a real treat to get a root beer or a Hawaiian Punch. Holidays and visits to grandparents’ houses were exceptions, of course.

I try to follow that same policy with my son when it comes to treats, but it’s a lot harder to do these days. It seems that in every office, every bank, every place I stop on my errands, there is a bowl of candy sitting there. Heck, in a lot of places, if you are going through a drive-through, they’ll put a sucker or Tootsie Roll in with your receipt if they see you have a kid in the car.

Not only that, but in a lot of schools and at a lot of kids’ activities, prizes for achievement are candy and soda (sometimes three liter bottles!), and many of the fundraising drives done by schools focus on selling sweet treats. You just cannot get away from it.

You can respond, “well, just tell him he can’t have it.” And yes, I can, and I have. But when your kid returns from a field trip with a half-consumed pop in hand, or he wins a prize for reading and comes home clutching a bagful of candy (a large amount of which he’s already stuffed in his mouth), what exactly is the right thing to do?

Great job, kiddo, now give me that soda, so I can dump it down the sink!

It’d be one thing if it was an infrequent occurrence (and if well-meaning adults didn’t think it’s “better” to hand a kid a zero-calorie chemical cocktail as a “healthier” alternative to HFCS-laden pop), but it’s not. Kids today have far greater exposure to sugary treats on a daily basis than most of us ever did. And it’s wearing on parents to constantly say no, no, no to the sweet barrage.

Still, I don’t think the answer is more government regulation of treats. There’s been a great deal of discussion in the health community about whether making sugary beverages “controlled substances” could help alleviate the obesity epidemic in this country–especially among children.

Frankly, I doubt such regulations would pass (as NYC Mayor Bloomberg has discovered), and as a colleague of mine commented, the last thing you want is people holding up a 36oz. soda as a sign of independence or victory over Big Government.

The Ortonville Early Childhood Initiative took a laudable step in the right direction earlier this month by offering healthier treats, like real fruit leather, as prizes at the annual Sports & Leisure Show kids’ carnival. Parents and others who are concerned about the health of children should take an active role in limiting the amount of treats kids are exposed to–by (politely, of course) asking businesses to put away their candy bowls and insisting that schools and organizers of kids’ activities provide healthier treats and prizes.

Stashing the public candy dishes and offering health-conscious prizes and fundraising activities are small steps in the fight against childhood obesity, and government and the health care industry most certainly have a role in the bigger picture, as well.

It will take work on all levels to cut down on the pervasive presence of unhealthy snacks and to curb the candy culture that exists in our country.

What do you see as appropriate roles for parents, educators, government, and others in this fight?

Democracy & the (Im)Polite Objection

How annoying to hear the commentary following last Thursday night’s vice presidential debate.

I’m talking about all the, “Joe Biden was too aggressive” crap. Apparently, it’s “not done” for Democrats and Progressives to call out their opponents on their bullsh…er, malarkey. We’re supposed to be the polite objectors–the effete, “I say old chap! I’m sorry, but I don’t quite agree with what you’re saying over there,” foils to the brutes and bullies stepping on our heads.

Well, I think Joe was great. He called out all the ways in which Ryan and his Mitt’s policies would harm the working class, the middle class, the elderly–the majority of people in this country. And he looked like he was having a great time doing it. It’s not that the issues aren’t serious, but quite frankly, a professorial tone isn’t the best way to reach that majority of people Joe was defending.

And, it’s not that I don’t appreciate calm and rational discussion of facts and the merits of policy. Civil discourse is a great thing. But when opponents are anything but rational and civil, well, the gloves have to come off. And it always amuses me how utterly horrified and alarmed the reaction is from those who seem to think they have a right to wield power.

Just a reminder: the whole point of democracy is that power comes from the people. If you misuse that power and mistreat the people, the power you’ve been given can and should be taken away.

Lately, I’m seeing some of this horrified-and-alarmed reaction on a local level–though here in Big Stone County it isn’t about whether one is a Democrat or Republican. It’s more about whether local government’s process should be by the people and for the people–or whether it should be by a corporation and for them, too.

For one, the citizens have learned that calling out public employees and elected officials on false or misleading statements, conflicts of interest, and non-transparent governing processes regarding permitting a destructive quarry, overstepping jurisdiction, and land-grabbing through annexation is Just. Not. Done.

In the Just-Not-Done view, it’s OK for a public employee to publicly ridicule and attempt to undermine a local government’s state-sanctioned right to engage in their own land use planning process (First Amendment rights!), but it’s Definitely Not OK for local citizens, who are contributing to that person’s salary through their tax dollars, to publicly question how those behaviors affect good relations in and among governing bodies in the county.

One might follow that “logic,” to say that some people have more First Amendment rights than others.

In terms of First Amendment rights, it’s true that the rules for disciplining public employees on their speech are somewhat tricky. But a little research about Discipline and Workplace Rights makes clear that, “[E]ven if the speech addresses matters of public concern, when the employee’s speech rights are outweighed by the disruption that the speech causes to the operations of government, the employer can discipline the employee for speech.”

Shoot. That wasn’t very polite to point out, was it?

The other totally impolite objection to those currently in power in Big Stone County is occurring in a couple of races for county commission. In two districts, write-in candidates are opposing incumbent commissioners who overstepped their jurisdiction and ignored constituent voices in approving the Conditional Use Permit for Strata Corp’s proposed aggregate quarry at the headwaters of the Minnesota River.

In District 5 (which includes Ortonville Township–site of the proposed quarry and current city annexation fight–as well as Precinct 2 in Ortonville City, Odessa Township and the City of Odessa), Mike Hartman is running as a write-in against incumbent Joseph Berning. In District 3, which includes the Cities of Clinton and Correll, as well as Townships of Almond, Akron, Artichoke, and Otrey, write-in candidate Mark Block is running against incumbent Brent Olson.

Reports have it that at least one of the incumbents is completely shocked (shocked!) that someone would run against him, as he thinks he’s done a fine job.

Of course, in a democracy, it’s not really about what an elected official thinks of the job he or she has done, it’s about what the people think of the job he or she has done.

So, it will be interesting to see how well the write-in candidates can get their messages heard and names recognized by the public in the weeks leading up to the election. Write-in campaigns have a notoriously low success rate, but with a small population it may well be easier for those candidates to let the public know they have a choice.

However impolite that may be.

The People’s Business

I get tired of hearing that everything should be run like a business.

Government? Should be run like a business! Education? Run it like a business! As if the world and everything we do in it were so simple that one particular way of, well, “doing business” would be applicable in every single situation one could possibly think of.

There is a reason that institutions like public education and government are recognized as operating in a different sector than business (and aren’t, so far as I know, announcing IPOs). Because they aren’t businesses, and running them like most businesses (that is, on the basis of profit) isn’t an effective way to deliver the things they’re mandated to deliver.

As a friend of mine wisely quipped, schools don’t have the luxury of “firing” their under-performing students–the ones that may put a drag on test scores and achievement rates. I’d add that governments, even when they’re tightening their budget belts, don’t have the option of doing away entirely with expensive basic services. Moving overseas might be a little tricky, too.

Certainly, government and public education need fiscal oversight. But, in the end, their mandate isn’t about making money for their shareholders, it’s about providing specific services to the citizens who pay for those services through their tax dollars.

But, the idea that everything should be run like a business is pretty entrenched among a particular set.  So, if we’re not going to get everyone over that idea, perhaps we just need to suggest different business models.  The models endorsed by most people I’ve heard making this comment seem to be either the single or partnership models or the S or C corp models. That is, all the profits (rewards, services, etc.) end up in the hands of the owners and/or the shareholders who’ve invested the most to begin with.

This might seem fair and just in much of the business world, but what happens when we apply these models to governments and education? Suddenly, the road by so-and-so’s house gets plowed, but not ours. The new confinement dairy operation locates next to (and stinks up) the old neighborhood. The school in the less affluent part of town is falling apart, but the one in the more moneyed area is sparkling new. Social unrest increases due to cronyism and favoritism.

I’d like to suggest that, if a segment of the population is going to continue insisting that our public endeavors should be run like businesses, there is a business model that works better for ensuring democracy and equity in those endeavors. That model is the cooperative.

According to the International Cooperative Alliance, “A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

Granted, not all of our citizens would admit that they’re “united voluntarily”–but then some people who steadfastly refuse to be part of society move off to the wilderness to create their own. The rest of us, when it comes down to it, realize that we’re in this thing together–sink or swim. And because we pay our taxes and call someplace home (however temporarily), we’re participating more-or-less actively in our shared, democratically-controlled enterprises of government and public education.

But maybe you’re not that familiar with cooperative businesses. Maybe you think this is a low-rent model that works only on a small scale or is just an agriculture or health-food related venture? Allow me to school you:

Values-based, community-supported and member-controlled, modern cooperatives have grown steadily since their inception in the late 1800s. Today, the top 300 cooperatives, or Global 300, generate as much revenue as the world’s ninth largest economy, or the economy of Spain. Meanwhile, new research shows that cooperatives worldwide have three times as many members as traditional businesses have shareholders — and provide 20% more jobs. [Reeder, Jessica. “Co-ops are Big: Charles Gould on the Int’l Year of the Co-op.” Shareable: Work & Enterprise, 2-13-12.]

Coops are not just farmers’ elevators, rural utilities, and grocery stores. They’re also banks (credit unions, that is), retailers (who work together with other retailers to maximize their wholesale purchasing power–like IPC pharmacies, True Value Hardware, and Best Western hotels), and worker-owned coops such as Arizmendi Bakery, Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing, Citybikes, and Equal Exchange.

There are producer and distributor coops, housing coops, local newspapers run as cooperatives, and even parks that are cooperatively-owned and operated (right here in Minnesota!).

Cooperatives, like good government and education systems, run on principle before (no, not necessarily instead of) profit.

And what are those principles? Glad you asked!

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership: “Co-operatives are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.”
  2. Democratic Member Control: One member; one vote–sound familiar?
  3. Member Economic Participation: “Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operative.”
  4. Autonomy and Independence: “If they enter to agreements with other organizations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, [cooperatives] do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.”
  5. Education, Training, and Information: “Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public – particularly young people and opinion leaders – about the nature and benefits of co-operation.”
  6. Cooperation Among Cooperatives: “Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.”
  7. Concern for Community: “Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members” [quoted material taken from the ICA’s Statement on the Co-operative Identity].

As much as I’m sick of the simplistic, “run everything like a business” credo, I guess if we must operate our public endeavors as such, this looks like a pretty decent model to me–notwithstanding the “voluntary membership” principle in the face of death-and-taxes inevitabilities.

So, the next time you encounter the, we-should-be-running-our-[insert public institution here]- more-like-a-business ideology, say, “Yes! You’re absolutely right! We should run it like a cooperative!”

And then be prepared to teach them what that means. After all, cooperation is about education, training, and information, isn’t it?

2012 Resolutions & Intentions

I’m not much for making New Year’s resolutions. Creating a lengthy list of ways that I could and probably should improve my life all at once seems like a recipe for failure.

As it turns out, that view is right on target, according to an interview with Roy Baumeister aired December 30 on NPR’s Science Friday. Baumeister is co-author of the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, and his research indicates that while we can exercise our willpower to strengthen it, we can also overtax it by trying to resist too many temptations, correct too many bad habits, or change too many behaviors at once.

Think of it like resolving to run two marathons instead of  making smaller and more practical resolutions to run or otherwise train on a regular basis. Failure and injury are both likely outcomes.

Baumeister suggests that making–and sticking to–one small change at a time can make tackling the next change and resisting the next temptation a little easier. And instead of resolving to do something big (like lose 20lbs), a person is more likely to be successful in the long run by making a series of smaller resolutions in service of that larger goal and tackling them one piece at a time.

So, I’ve made only one resolution. I resolve to take my dog for a walk five days per week. This is really a two-fer resolution because in the process of taking my dog for a walk (which she both needs and loves), I’m getting one, too. It’s going to be a little difficult because we finally seem to be getting some seasonal temperatures, but despite the bitter northwest wind this afternoon, I succeeded for today.

I’m also thinking that monthly or quarterly resolutions probably make more sense. Who’s to say one’s resolve is stronger on January 1st than it is on May 1st or September 1st? If anything, I’d think that sticking-to-it-iveness would be easier in the warmer and brighter months of the year than in the dark and cold of winter.

There are plenty of other things I intend to do this year that I’m not making into statements of resolution–at least not yet. Most of those intentions have to do with leading a healthier lifestyle, doing my job better, or growing things, and most of them I can make some sort of progress on even if I’m not focusing on that specific thing every single day.

Best of all, the research seems to show that as I work toward fulfilling my one resolution, I’ll also be building my willpower to be successful in the next thing I resolve to do!

So…that means by the end of 2012, my whole life will be perfect, right? 😉

What about you? Are you a resolution-maker? Do you make a list or tackle things one at a time? What are your good intentions for 2012?

Boxing Up the Year. And Hiding it in a Dark Closet.

I know, I know. Everyone does a year in review post. But why not review a year that by almost everyone’s account was one of the crappiest ever on record? A sort of celebration of what’s–thank goodness–over. We made it!

2011–get thee behind me!

They say that bad things come in threes. Which means if you have two bad things happen, you either cower under the threat of the third thing or you do some imaginative thinking about an event that was sort of bad that you can claim was the third thing and pretend you’re safe.

This year, I can claim with authority my three very bad things with no creative fudging whatsoever:

  1. My partner, H, had a stroke. It turned out to be a minor one, but that’s relatively unimportant when you’re heading down the road in -15 degree temps at 2am worried that a person you love might be dead before you get there. And when you’re not married to that person, and you can’t get hold of the relatives, the hospital isn’t particularly forthcoming with details.
  2. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. Again, the initial terror that someone you love (mom, no less) might die is a biggie. I was able to be there for the surgery and to help out a little in the week that followed–to be among family was a great comfort.
  3. Someone tried to burn down the house I was renting. While I lost a great deal of stuff, I think maybe the previous not-good, very-bad events gave me a little perspective on what was really important–no one was physically injured. But I’m still dealing with the aftermath of that loss and mess.

There were plenty of other crappy happenings in 2011. The ex moved our son again–right before school started and with about two weeks notice. I also lost a friend and mentor right at the tail end of this year–visitation at the funeral home last night.

But there were also some good things–even coming out of the bad. I saw my folks twice this year (once for the aforementioned surgery); I bought a home after the fire at the rental place. Friends welcomed me in-between homes and I managed to can a few hundred pounds of tomatoes raised in my gardens during my stay with them. Despite the difficulty of the abrupt move, M is starting to adjust and has access to activities he likes.

On the work front, we managed to make some good progress at the Clinton Kitchen and with local foods in the Big Stone County region. In the wider world, the people stood up and protested in defense of their rights–from Madison, Wisconsin to Tahrir Square.

Big Ag and Big Food keep screwing up the seed, soil, and food supply–not good, but it has gotten to the point that more and more people have a healthy distrust of monopoly and manipulation. More and more people are thinking about their food and connecting with local farmers to get the good stuff. And more and more young people are getting into sustainable ag enterprises.

So, altogether 2011 was a pretty unpleasant and disreputable year on all sorts of fronts. But maybe it doesn’t deserve to be sealed up and hidden away–the lessons of those difficulties and tragedies are important to keep with us as we move into 2012.