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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Into the Woods (A Three Little Boys Tale)

One day, three little boys and their parents went walking in the woods near Pigsburgh. As they started down the trail, the oldest little boy noticed a strange thing.

"Look at that," he said. "It looks like a little house made from bricks."

 The family gathered around and marveled at his discovery. Then they continued walking.

A little farther down the path, the middlest little boy noticed another strange thing.

"That looks just like a little tumbled-down house of sticks," he said.

The family gathered around and marveled at his discovery. Everyone was very curious about what they would find next so they continued walking down the path.

The youngest little boy was so curious that he ran ahead.

"Come and look at what I've found!" he cried. "It's a big pile of straw!"

His family hurried up to him and they all gathered around and marveled at his discovery.

The three little boys were delighted!

Then they spotted something on the trail.

"Is that?" pointed the oldest.

"Looks like it," gulped the middlest.

"Run!" cried the youngest.

And the three little boys and their parents ran out of the woods and straight back to their cozy little home.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Kids Need Health Insurance! Healthy Together Can Help

What's worse than a sick kid? A sick kid without health insurance.

This week I participated in the Healthy Together Thank You party hosted by at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh. Here's the first main thing I learned:

Currently, there are approximately 9,000 uninsured children and youth in classrooms and childcare centers across Allegheny County, and almost 2,000 of these children reside in the city of Pittsburgh. Most qualify for but are not enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP. According to research, these children are five times more likely to have an unmet medical concern and three times more likely to not have access to necessary medication such as asthma inhalers. (Source)
The mascot for this campaign is Enrollobot, a cool link to the robotics aspect of Pittsburgh. You can check out #enrollobot on Twitter to read about more aspects of this campaign and see who else is involved. When I brought home some Enrollobots for my kids to color we talked about healthy insurance and why kids need it. We've been pretty lucky in my family health-wise and health insurance-wise.

Not everyone is as lucky. My friend Dr. Debi Gilboa has first hand experience with families that face the challenges of taking care of their children without health insurance. These families are making the tough choices that no one should have to make.

But I also learned there are systems in place in our city to get these kids covered. Healthy Together is a plan to get the eligible children enrolled in healthcare programs. Our new mayor, Bill Peduto is partnering with Allies for Children, Consumer Health Coalition, Allegheny County Health Department and other organizations to make this happen. Also, the city received a $200,000 from the National League of Cities to fund this effort.

Check out this message from Mayor Peduto:

So how do you get an eligible child enrolled? Call 2-1-1 and get connected to the Consumer Health Coalition.

Need to learn more? Visit the Healthy Together website.

And if you really, really need a robot to color, get one here!

Sometimes I write sponsored posts about issues that matter to me. This post is sponsored by Allies for Children, because keeping kids healthy is important to our entire community.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Race Report: Buffalo Creek Half Marathon

I have been hearing about the Buffalo Creek Half Marathon for years but this year I finally had the chance to participate in the race! Last year, I had a boot on my foot and missed both the Great Race and Buffalo Creek. This fall was so different. I was able to run a really fun Great Race and finish in a decent time.

The Buffalo Creek Half is very similar to the Great Race because both have a net downhill, point-to-point course. The weather was chilly and windy, but not unbearable (like the NYC marathon would prove to be). I was lucky to ride up to the race start with friends but I was unlucky and forgot my Garmin and wireless headphones!

This would be my second official half marathon, even though I often feel my first half marathon doesn't really count. It was the Pittsburgh half in May 2011 and I stopped by mile 11 due to hip flexor pain and cried for about 20 minutes. Then I walk-jogged to the finish, still crying, and even another runner offering me a cookie didn't make me feel better.

I felt very prepared for this race and was injury free, so I didn't let forgetting my technology bother me. I focused on how grateful I was to be running this race. And I was wearing special green shoelaces to honor my two beautiful nieces and bring awareness to the need for more research for rare genetic diseases.

The race started and I tried very hard to focus on my race plan. The plan was to run negative splits, or start with mile times that are slower than the final few mile times.

My goal was to finish under 2 hours, but my pace plan would bring me across the finish line very, very close to that 2 hr mark, at 1:56. Not a lot of wiggle room!

Also, not having my Garmin made it a little tricky to know if I was on pace or not and since the race is on a trail the entire way there weren't time keepers at the mile marks. I relied on the app that helps me keep my cadence and relied on how I felt. Could I maintain a conversation?

I found a running buddy around mile 4, named Ed (lucky name for me!) and we talked and told stories until mile 8. He was a terrific guy and we even found each other after the race for a celebratory selfie!

After mile 8, I knew I needed to pick up the pace. Ed waved me forward with best wishes. I sped up a little but by mile 11, I knew I needed to really push it if I wanted to be safely under 2 hours.

There was a small hill very close to the end of the race. A lot of people were worried about it, but I felt terrific getting a break and forcing myself to charge up the incline. We crossed a bridge and made a few tight turns and then rolled downhill to the finish and I crossed in 1:57!

I really enjoyed this race. The course was beautiful and not too crowded. I overheard one runner complain we were moving too fast to enjoy the scenery, but since I was running next to her when I heard her say this, I know she wasn't running that fast.

Even the process of getting people from the parking lot to the start line and from the finish to the parking lot was smooth. Many runners were upset the fire hall wasn't open before the race, but since this was my first race it wasn't something I missed. The finish line food was satisfying and they were right: the hot apple cider hit the spot on that cold day.

I like the technical long sleeve race shirt I received, but since more than 50% of the registered entrants were women, it did bother me it was only available in a men's cut.

After the race I checked the GPS-based mile splits on my cadence app. For the most part, I was able to achieve negative splits. It's hard not to go out fast in that first mile, but I eased up in the middle and my fastest miles were definitely my final miles.

I'm looking forward to running this race again in 2015!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The SNAP Challenge Part 2

In the post "The SNAP Challenge Part 1" I introduced the SNAP challenge.  In case you forgot, here's what it's about:

The SNAP challenge is a very simple concept. People who accept the challenge are asked to only eat food they could afford if they were relying the US federal government Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This works out to about $4.50 a day.

Here are the rules:
1. Each person should spend a set amount for food and beverages during the Challenge days. That amount is $4.50 for all food and beverage.
2. All food purchased and eaten during the Challenge days, including fast food and dining out, must be included in the total spending.
3. During the Challenge, only eat food that you purchase for the project. Do not eat food that you already own (this does not include spices and condiments).
4. Avoid accepting free food from friends, family, or at work, including at receptions, briefings, or other events where food is served.
5. Keep track of receipts on food spending and take note of your experiences throughout your days.
6. Invite others to join you, including co-workers, reporters, chefs, or other elected officials.

You can do the SNAP challenge anytime and you can also take action anytime.

During the month of September, a group of friends joined me in taking the SNAP Challenge. One mom of three in my neighborhood decided to put a special spin on it by taking the challenge as someone with celiac disease, which is a reality for two of her children. She provided some excellent details and I want to share many of them here.

I want to eat what I consider "real food," that is food with minimal ingredients. I may have taken the “SNAP Challenge” as a kid, without even knowing it.  The program wasn't called SNAP then. 
I was shopping at Target for the usual food staples.  In the cereal aisle, I spotted a box of Life cereal on sale for $2.50!  I figured that could cover breakfast, assuming a box consists of many portions.  I made the purchase, and highlighted the price on the receipt with pride.  Then I realized that Life is mostly made of gluten; I forgot my personal challenge guidelines. 
Whole Foods is our typical grocery store.  We’re a vegetarian family with two celiac kids, so it just makes sense. I scooped some into a bag from the bulk bin and weighed them.  I’ve never weighed food in a store before. I went with onion [to season the lentils].  
Walking through the rest of the store was somewhat depressing.  While I only signed up for three days of the challenge, the challenge guidelines made me feel guilty for wanting more expensive items.  We didn’t buy very much food this trip, certainly less than we normally do. At the checkout, the cashier asked what type of onion we were buying.  I forgot what type it was.  I had to say “the cheapest.”   
For breakfast, I had a banana with peanut butter (86c). If we weren’t rushing to get everyone out of the door I would have tried to enjoy each bite.  At work, I had tea (16c); I skipped my beloved morning coffee drink which is typically the biggest motivator for getting out of bed.  For lunch, it was gluten free ramen ($1.50).  This was my only prepared food and it was the most expensive meal of the day.  By dinner, I was cranky.  I had a headache.  Still, I managed to make a spotted rooster like dish for 78c per person.   I would normally use bell peppers for this dish instead of tomatoes, but bell peppers are way too expensive for a SNAP budget.After dinner, I was still cranky and I still had a headache.  I wanted to eat chocolate.  I wanted coffee. 
I’m trying to figure out what I want to prove here.  Do I want to show that you can in fact eat fresh foods (and even gluten free) on a limited budget? This required a lot of planning on my part.  The challenge is difficult on its own, without adding these extra constraints.   
I abandoned my gluten free commitment for the SNAP Challenge on the 2nd and 3rd day.  (I ate gluten!) I took a late lunch today, a 61c Morningstar Farms vegetarian sausage patty.  I heated it and returned to my desk, ready to leisurely enjoy every bit.  A problem at work pulled me away from my tiny lunch and I was angry; I just wanted to enjoy my tiny meal.
My husband and I were more short tempered than usual with the kids.  After work, we attended a planning committee meeting to try to prevent a new residential community adjacent to our neighborhood with the kids.  Again, I was very cranky by the end of the day.  

After participating in the SNAP challenge for a few days, my friend and her son when to an event
supporting gluten free food items for local food banks. She admitted that they donated many more items than they would have before the challenge.
Final Thoughts - It’s a relief to be done with this project and I only participated for three days.  That’s 3 days out of 365 in the year.  I wonder how people can function long-term while being hungry.  Do you just get used to it?  Does it affect their ability to function within their family unit and their communities?  Does it impact their ability to improve their financial situation? It has made me feel spoiled, wasteful, and guilty.  
Those last three words of her notes have really stuck with me. I completely understand those feelings. And I think they are reasonable feelings. But I also know this woman is a good, kind, caring person and she's not to blame for the insanity of this challenge. And I'm grateful for her honesty.

I hope reading this post and Part 1 has given you enough motivation to take action. You can donate, volunteer, or speak out. Which one will you choose?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The SNAP Challenge - Part 1

This is a busy time for most food banks and food pantries, but in case you think that means they are getting enough help and people aren't that hungry, I'd like to take you back to September and learn about the SNAP challenge. 

September is Hunger Action Month and this year, I wanted to try the SNAP challenge as a way to really understand what food insecurity means. I was also hoping that by sharing information about food insecurity and the SNAP challenge, I could motivate people to take action and help people who are hungry in their own communities. I hope by reading this post you, too, will be motivated enough to take action. 

There are hungry people in my immediate community. In our school district, at 180 families rely on our Backpack Initiative to supplement their food. In the North Hills, over 5000 families received assistance from North Hills Community Outreach. This is happening in my neighborhood, to my neighbors. I needed to do something. 

The SNAP challenge is a very simple concept. People who accept the challenge are asked to only eat food they could afford if they were relying the US federal government Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This works out to about $4.50 a day. 

Here are the rules:
1. Each person should spend a set amount for food and beverages during the Challenge days. That amount is $4.50 for all food and beverage.
2. All food purchased and eaten during the Challenge days, including fast food and dining out, must be included in the total spending.
3. During the Challenge, only eat food that you purchase for the project. Do not eat food that you already own (this does not include spices and condiments).
4. Avoid accepting free food from friends, family, or at work, including at receptions, briefings, or other events where food is served.
5. Keep track of receipts on food spending and take note of your experiences throughout your days.

6. Invite others to join you, including co-workers, reporters, chefs, or other elected officials.

I wanted to do this challenge, but I didn't want to do it for the entire month. And I realize that I was completely lucky to be able to make these choices. I had two main reasons for not doing it the entire month. One, I knew I would be terribly stressed out. Two, I was training for a half-marathon and I was sure I couldn't get the nutrition I needed with the financial limits of SNAP. 

And I knew this was going to be hard for me because I love to eat.

My good friend had a great idea. She suggested I recruit people to participate in the challenge with me and cover the entire month. This was perfect! It fulfills #6 on the challenge description and by recruiting more people it spreads awareness of food insecurity and how insane it is to expect someone to eat on $4.50 a day. 

I put the call out on Facebook and got a great response. 

September rolled around and it was time for me to shop. I planned to shop for 4 days at once. $4.50 a day equals $18 and I figured I could get better food that I could stretch over 4 days. 

This was basically it. I factored in the cup of coffee I wanted to have at home each day and the creamer I wanted to use. I also factored in the cost of eggs I had already purchased. I also found a package of frozen spinach for .89. That was the only fresh produce I could afford on my $18 budget! My food was oatmeal with peanut butter for breakfast, eggs and spinach for lunch and pasta and beans at dinner. 

When I explained what I was eating and why to my children at dinner, one of them cried. It was eye-opening to us all. 

When I posted about the challenge and my limitations on Facebook, people wanted to give me free food from their gardens. I had to decline because of challenge requirement #4. Not everyone who receives SNAP benefits has access to caring, generous friends who have productive gardens. Some people live in food deserts. 

Let's hear from some of the other people who participated:

"We did our almost all of our SNAP shopping in Sunday night. Prior to going out to the store and using the newspaper ads for Safeway and Albertson's for pricing, we "purchased" several items from our pantry or refrigerator. These items were: two cans of tuna fish, a 32 oz bag of shredded cheddar cheese, a 12 oz package of bacon, and four bags of microwave popcorn, which used up $14 ( we rounded up) of our $45 for the week. Not an auspicious start. We did more shopping at Albertson's and pretty bought the cheapest stuff that was on sale.
There were several times during the week when we were a little hungry and would have eaten more if not for the challenge.
If we were limited to this all the time, we would also probably surrender even more our somewhat low-carb way of eating and buy more rice and potatoes. Otherwise, on a week-to-week basis, this would get old really fast. We also felt as if we were not able to eat healthy because fresh produce is expensive, especially in relation to number of calories provided. We did not have the extra burdens that come along with hard times and/or poverty." - Mike and Kathleen, Wyoming
My friend not only participated during her training for the NYC Marathon, she also involved her entire family. She's also a vegan and has even more limitations.
Participating in day 1 of the SNAP challenge as part of hunger action month. I'm committed to 4 days total throughout September. The challenge involves spending a daily allowance of just $4.50 on food. (The average amount a SNAP recipient is allotted). This is especially challenging for me as a runner-in-training. I'm trying to make smart healthy choices. So far I've spent 50 cents on a large but boring breakfast of plain oats.
What she didn't post is that she was so hungry by lunch she pushed in front of another shopper at the store to get the last protein bar.
Participating in another day of the SNAP challenge as part of hunger action month. Today I have the whole family onboard— it has been challenging explaining it to the kids. The challenge involves spending a daily allowance of just $4.50 per person on food. (The average amount a SNAP recipient is allotted.) I'm predicting that the kids go to school tomorrow and tell their friends that we don't have enough money for food. If nothing else, I am hoping that it helps them understand a little bit more about reducing food waste and appreciating what they have. -Allison, Pennsylvania
Allison's post elicited this comment from one of her friends: "And hopefully advocating more in the future for those who live this and aren't doing it as a challenge  seriously though good for you. I am consistently astonished at the pervasive lack of empathy and awareness people have towards so many people. They would rather stereotype and make snap judgments rather than bother to learn about individual and systematic reasons."

I'm going to share more about this in another post, called The SNAP Challenge, Part 2. But if reading this has given you enough motivation to take action. You can donate, start a virtual food drive, or speak out. Pick one.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Pokemon on eBay, or My Secret Homeschooling Project

Do your kids obsess about Pokemon? Mine have more cards than they need but not as much as they want. They constantly pester me to visit the store so they can waste spend their allowance on yet another pack. They are constantly on the hunt for EX cards and basically ignore the cards in the packs that are not EX. They often try to trade for cards with friends at school but bad trading habits can lead to hard feelings and lost friendships so I ask them to avoid trading.

But they still want those EX cards. So I introduced them to Pokemon on eBay.

I pointed out the fact that we have way too many cards they don't love. I showed them how you can buy a single, coveted EX card on eBay for a reasonable fee. Most are under $5 and cost less than a full pack of cards. I then suggested we put together packs of unwanted cards, sell them on eBay and use the proceeds to purchase the cards they do want.

And so it began. Yet another life lesson learned via Pokemon, like math and reading.

The boys sorted through their hundreds of cards and put together enticing packs. Then we took photos and wrote up descriptions. We did research online to learn the best ways to list the cards and what made them valuable. We set prices and put them up for sale and waited.

The boys were thrilled when the first packs sold and that led to another lesson about how to package cards for shipment, how to calculate the cost of shipping and how PayPal deducts a small fee to process payment.

It was eye-opening for them, as you can imagine. It led to further conversations about paychecks and bank accounts. All from Pokemon! As the packs sold and we received payment, we kept a running total of their credit on a small index card. We also prepared new sets of cards to sell based on what was popular on eBay.

We aren't selling all their cards, not because I think they will retain their value for years to come, but because I do think they are an important relic of their childhood that they may want to share with their own children.

I have no interest in homeschooling my children full-time, but I also have no problem taking on projects like this to help my children learn how the world works and how to apply the skills they are learning in their classrooms.

(And since marketing is a part of my day job, I thought I'd mention here I can offer you a great deal on a sure-to-delight stocking stuffer of 50 or 100 pack of Pokemon cards with some very nice HOLOs and Rares! The holidays are coming and we can even ship them in a fancy metal tin!)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Travel to Ireland with Kids - 2014 version

We are so lucky to have family in Ireland. And when a beloved aunt and uncle plan a celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary, we knew it was the perfect time to make a trip back to Ireland to see all of our family.

Our last trip to Ireland was in 2011 and the boys were very young. Our youngest and middle, while they had fun, had no memories of Ireland and our oldest had the uncomfortable memory of barfing on the streets of Cork. We assured him that wasn't likely to happen again and hopped on the plane to Shannon.

On the way over to Ireland, my middle son asked if we might just have fun and if I could not try to make them learn something on this trip. I told him I couldn't promise anything.

The high jinx began upon arrival. Despite their sleep deprivation (the flight over is a mere 5 hours) the boys were eager to start taking funny photos.

Here's a photo of the boys and myself at Blarney Castle in Blarney village, County Cork. This visit was in July 2011 and the castle was just crawling with tourists and visitors. The lines to get into the castle were staggering and in no way appropriate for a family with young children, so we skipped a climb and instead explored the grounds.

But in October 2014, the castle was almost deserted! So after waking everyone up from a quick nap we strolled over to the castle, grabbed a cup of tea and some snacks, and made our way into the castle. Things had really changed. Where my boys had run on grass straight up to the base of the castle a chain now blocked the area off. Badger's Cave, once dark and intimidating, was now lit with a bouncy little wooden walkway, wasn't as dark but still intimidating. And the castle was ours to explore. We wound our way up the steep stone stairs to the ramparts and gazed over the countryside.

We stayed in Co. Cork for most of our visit and spent a lovely afternoon at Fitzgerald Park near UCC visiting my husband's cousin and his lovely wife and three daughters. The playground looked the same as when we were there in 2011, but my boys enjoyed it so much differently. While earlier they had been content on slides, see-saws and that spinning circle now all they wanted to do was kick the soccer ball that came as carry-on in a backpack or make themselves sick on the tire swing. Two of my boys were shy around their newly-met cousins, but one made friends rather quickly. One guess as to which boy made friends first.

By the time the party rolled around, there were unfamiliar faces every where. Introducing my children usually went something like, "This is my oldest son, he's nine, then my middle, age seven,…" etc. So after a few rounds of that, my middle soon took over and answered for himself and then followed up by asking adults THEIR names and how old THEY were. He's a delightful child.  My boys loved meeting and playing with all the cousins.

The Irish food agreed with them very much, especially the Pringles and candy found in every siopa, or shop. I had to remind them we weren't in Spain and they didn't have to call Fanta Lemon "Fanta Limon" anymore, but they couldn't break the habit. I was a little surprised to find Finn McCool bars. I didn't have one, but I did pick up a Wellington Square at a shop near Beal na Blath - where we squeezed in a little learning - and was not overly impressed.

While in Cork City we did get a chance to cross something off my Irish bucket list - a visit to the Butter Museum! We squeezed in a little more learning at this museum near the famous Shandon Bells and where the butter market used to be. While it's a small little museum it tells the grand story of how Irish butter, once a small disorganized production system evolved into the massive globally recognized Kerrygold brand. I was incredibly impressed by that bit of history and also impressed by this thousand-year old crock of bog butter. They did not offer tastings at this time.

A highlight of this visit for me was the trip to Cloghroe, the small farm and pub that belonged to my mother-in-law's family for years. Her family doesn't own it anymore but we were permitted to walk the land and we visited Lady's Bridge where the train had once stopped. Now it's nothing but a dirt road, but the blackberries she picked with her brothers and sisters still grow there and still taste as good. This farm is the setting for a love story I've written and I was glad to see it for myself and discover small wonderful details to add to the story.

As for souvenirs, the boys were addicted to acquiring playing cards, called Match Attax,  featuring English Premier League players. Wherever we went they would sniff them out and the lovely Irish servers  at the hotel around the corner from where we stayed gave them tips on which ones to trade and not trade. The boys also got their hands on a bodhran and a whistle and formed their own band. They practiced their instruments for over an hour on the drive from Cork to Feakle, County Clare.

We capped off our whirlwind tour with a visit to a cousin's farm in County Clare. The children rode on a tractor and chased cows in a field. We all climbed a massive hill that gave us clear views of the river Shannon to our right and Lough Derg to our left. We traipsed through a pine forest so dense that light streamed through only at the trunks in straight, striking lines. It was an unforgettable evening that ended too soon.