Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Macy's Path to Peace Rwandan Baskets

Lots of companies have been jumping on the social/environmental cause bandwagon, offering variations of this marketplace-based charity model for selling everything from home decor and body products to shoes and sunglasses.

A recent email in my inbox from Macy's advertised their Path to Peace baskets, handwoven from natural plant sources by Rwandan women who use the funds to support themselves and their families and improve their lives while "enhancing" ours with their works. Macy's has been selling the baskets, which range in price from $46 to $60, since 2005.

According to Macy's the baskets symbolize the hope, progress and success of Rwanda, 17 years after the infamous genocide. Their site features a video of one of the basket weavers, who thanks the viewer for "changing our lives" through the purchase of a basket, which has allowed her to support her family of six, buy a cow and goat, and have enough clothes to wear a different outfit each day of the week. Another woman was able to procure a savings account; one was able to pay for school tuition and uniforms for her children; and another was able to buy her husband a bicycle so he can travel to collect the sweet grass used to make the baskets. This use of "producer" testimonials has become a very popular way of enhancing the consumer experience through establishing a connection between producer and consumer and making the consumer feel like they are really helping someone. Macy's notes that Path to Peace employs thousands of Hutu and Tutsi weavers to produce the well-received baskets, emphasizing the coming together of the two ethnic groups at the center of the 1994 Rwandan conflict.

It's a nice little effort by Macy's, but I have to ask, what percent of the profits are going directly to the women, and how much is Macy's raking in? I doubt we'll ever know. Macy's is getting a cut because they are bringing the baskets to the global marketplace as the middleman, providing an outlet for sales that the "rural" women would never be able to reach. At the same time, it bugs me a little that such a corporation is profiting off women whose misfortunes were likely caused by a combination of larger, historic forces, including colonization, imperialism, war, and various other forms of exploitation that all lead back to the global capitalist system. Of course, we can go ahead and criticize the system and its limitations, and the role of these women as producers who must weave baskets to feed themselves. Or we can view the women as actors with personal and communal agency within this system, women who are making choices and making do, rather than as passive victims of progress who have no say in their futures.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Job interviews: don't forget, you're interviewing them, too!

In a previous post on job interview questions for people with social science backgrounds, I discussed a series of questions I recalled from my various interviews and the direction I went in with each of them. This time, I'd like to share the list of questions I referenced during the same interviews. These are the questions I asked in order to get a better sense of each company/organization and to gauge its respective work culture, to understand the position and what it would entail, and also to show my interest in the position and my ability to come up with good questions for my interviewers (asking good questions does impress people).

Again, I used this list as a reference, which means I didn't ask all of these questions at each interview, but picked and chose depending on the position, what had already been discussed, etc. As expected, some of the questions would be answered without me having to ask them, and it was also often the case that new questions popped up throughout the course of the interview or conversation.
  1. Can you give me some specific examples of projects I will be assisting with?
  2. Who exactly will I be working with and what will my specific role(s) be?
  3. What is __________'s process for research proposals and design?
  4. Since my strengths are primarily in qualitative research, and the position is for a qualitative researcher, will I have any opportunities to be involved in quantitative research and expand my skills in this area?
  5. How would a person in this position be evaluated? What would be your expectations of me in the first six months?
  6. What are the biggest challenges for this position, especially for a new graduate who is coming from an academic environment?
  7. Will there be any travel involved? If so, how much?
  8. What percent of my position would be independent work versus team work and other duties (such as attending meetings, etc.)?
  9. Will there be any opportunities to be involved in grant/proposal writing or project management?
  10. How would you describe _________'s management style and work culture?
  11. Can you tell me more about opportunities for professional development?
  12. It is important to me that I am able to maintain ties with my discipline and can keep up to date on relevant research. Will I have the opportunity to attend relevant conferences and what is the availability of funding?
  13. When do you expect to be making decisions about the position
One piece of advice that I believe is common sense but that some people might forget: Don't ask questions for which the answers can be found on the company's/organization's website or other public materials. If you do your homework, you will know lots going into the interview, which will reflect nicely on you as a candidate, but will also help you to come up with well-informed questions for the interview.

As an aside, I am happy to announce that I have accepted a consumer research analyst position at a large company in the mid-west, contingent upon background check, etc. More details to come once the position is finalized, but it is such a nice feeling to be past the work I put into getting to this point.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

More like "Georgetown Suites Thanks You"...

This is a photo of a sign in a hotel bathroom at the Georgetown Suites in Washington, D.C., I took while I was in town for a job interview. The label reminded me of an article or blog post I read some time ago (sorry, but I can't remember where) about how hotels are appropriating green movement rhetoric in order to cut their own costs for water, power and other materials. Not only that, but labor costs (and the need for more laborers in general) go down when fewer hotel maids are needed to change out towels and sheets if the guests of the hotel don't need or want them to.

Basically, hotels convince guests that they are doing "Mother Nature" (their appropriation of this term is just disgusting) a favor by re-using towels and linens. Yes, we all know that re-using and recycling is good, but the impact of individual acts (via the individualization of responsibility) has a very limited impact compared to the potential of more large-scale changes. Really it comes down to cost-savings for the hotel in both materials and labor. So next time you want to re-use towels, go ahead, but keep in mind who is really benefiting in the long run.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Interview questions for people with [applied] anthropology backgrounds

Now that there's a big, bright light (or two) at the end of the job search tunnel, I thought it might be helpful if I shared some of the interview questions I encountered along the way. The positions I interviewed for fall into the areas of entry-level research associate and analyst positions in consumer research/marketing/branding (for small and large firms as well as corporations) and research associate positions with non-profit consultancies in social policy/health, all with a primary focus on qualitative research

I have tried my best to recall the most challenging and interesting questions (in as close to the original wording as possible) and, for each, have noted my response or the direction I went in with my answer, or any other advice that I think might be useful to those looking for similar positions. I would like to remind readers that I applied for these positions as a newly-minted (I graduated a little over two months ago) practicing anthropologist with an applied anthropology/social sciences background. All of the interviews except one were telephone based since I applied primarily for jobs outside my current location.

Tell me about yourself.

Of course I'm going to begin with this one, not because it's anything new or out of the ordinary, but because there is something about this question that I want to point out to people, which is that it's not a question about your personal life or interests, but a question asking for you to summarize what's on your resume. You will more than likely always get asked this question at the start of each interview. The way I approached it was by beginning with my educational background (dates of degrees, universities attended, and specific training that is relevant to the position, examples of research projects without going into too much detail), moving to my current situation (e.g. I'm a recent graduate, I'm looking for x type of position because of x, y and z; current employment status/position), and finishing with why I would like this position and why I think I'm a good fit. I really see this as the interviewee's chance to sell herself, her skills, her personality, etc. It's like your 2-minute elevator speech, so be prepared with what you want to say and make sure you say it well.

Tell us about some of your past research experiences.

What they are looking for here is for you to talk about two or three projects that are relevant to the job in question. Ideally you will provide a general summary of each project, the research design, the methods used for data collection and analysis (especially innovative methods), how you did your sample (convenience, snowball, probability, etc.), any key findings (not exactly necessary but good to talk about if they're interesting), what specific roles you played (was this an independent project or a group project?), and any other information that lets them know how you handled the logistics and about any products/deliverables that came out of it. I suggest also using at least one example of an independent project and a group project to show you have experience with both. For those who attended applied anthropology grad programs, focus on your practicum experiences and the emphasis of real-world/hands-on experiences in your departments (at least that's how it was at mine).

Why research?

The answer for this, like most other questions, is going to be based on the individual. I gave what I think is a bit of a canned response and talked about how I've always been curious about why people do what they do, how I enjoy the challenges of research and answering interesting questions, and that research is what I am good at and enjoy. I say it sounds a little canned but that doesn't mean it's not true!

Why anthropology?

This is kind of like the "why research?" question above, and the answer can sound canned, but the good thing is that you can put a personal spin on it. I did so by starting off with how I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist since I was 14. I learned about anthropology from a video game called Amazon Trail in which you meet an ethnobotanist-anthropologist. I was immediately hooked, but at that time had a very simple understanding of what anthropology is and can do (it didn't go far beyond the exoticism of cultures, foreign travel and cross-cultural comparisons, etc.) Throughout the years, my understanding grew, especially during undergrad and grad school, and I became more aware of what all I could do with training in this discipline. Thus, its adaptability and flexibility and applicability to nearly everything made it even more appealing. Then I talked more about anthropology's approach to answering questions: it's holistic, cross-cultural, contextual, it looks at the details and the larger picture/systems, it uses both the emic and etic perspective on any given phenomena to better understand it, there's a focus on process, and it's informed by both practice and theory. [My advice here: memorize this list, memorize these buzzwords, because they will come in handy when someone asks you what's so great or different about anthropology, and you will be able to impress them with such a response.]

Why did you decide to attend a liberal arts institution as an undergrad?

I didn't expect a question like this but was prepared with an answer because it's something I've put a lot of thought into in general (I mostly focused on the breadth of a liberal arts education, how the skills I learned prepared me well for grad school, the emphasis on real-world experiences/experiential learning, study abroad, writing, being well-versed in a lot of subject areas, etc.)

What was your favorite class in grad school? What was your least favorite?

This was a fun question that was asked during an HR phone screen. I enjoyed it because it gave me a chance to talk more about a class I loved (Culture and Consumerism) and why, and relate it back to the position I was applying for. It also gave me a chance to talk about a class I wasn't a big fan of (Statistics) and why, but I made sure to give good reasons. The important thing with this one is that you don't want to talk negatively per se, about the class you didn't like, but give constructive criticism of the class and plausible reasons for why it wasn't a good one. A good answer will consist of well-informed, well-constructed opinions.

How would you rate your writing skills on a scale of 1 to 10?

This was a chance for me to shine, particularly because I am good at writing and have experience as a college-level writing tutor. I said a 9/10, but prefaced this bold statement by remarking on how I don't think there are any perfect writers and that I am continuously trying to improve myself as a writer. yes, I could have said 8 or 7, but this is about being honest while not over-stating your skills but also not under-stating them either. Really it's a very subjective question. It also allowed me to talk about my experiences with writing as an undergrad (most of my courses involved a lot of writing and lots of different types of writing exercises) and graduate student (here I could focus on agency reports and class research projects).

Tell me about a brand that really stands out to you as a successful brand and why.

I should have expected a question like this coming from a branding/marketing consultancy, but it caught me off guard, so I had to come up with an answer off the top of my head (I actually like answering questions I don't expect). I used Coca Cola as an example and discussed how it has maintained its image as a classic American beverage throughout the decades while reinventing itself when necessary, but without losing its original brand identity and keeping/growing its fan base. I threw in my trips to the Coca Cola museum and how I was continuously impressed with the brand's global reach. [The interviewer followed this question by asking me to talk about a brand that has had to expand its product range to meet changing consumer needs and lifestyles. I talked again about Coca Cola and how it has expanded its line of beverages and other products, including through the purchase of other beverage companies, to meet changing consumer lifestyles and desires, especially with growing health concerns.]

What challenges do you see with transitioning from an academic environment to a corporate research environment?

I talked about how they are both similar in terms of the tools and methods that might be used for research and about the importance of being skilled at talking about research with/to a greater diversity of audiences, like corporate executives or those who are not as familiar with social science research/anthropology.

How would you go about building relationships with people across the company?

I don't recall my exact response, but I focused on the importance of building good, working relationships and understanding the needs of clients/in-house departments who may need assistance with a research problem.

Have you ever had a time where you were working on a team project and were having difficulties with another member of the group?
I laughed in my head when I heard this one because I had the perfect example from a project I was part of in one of my first grad school courses ever. Without going into too much detail, I talked about how out of seven group members there were only two people with anthropology backgrounds, including myself. This made for a difficult semester because we all had our own ideas for how to design and execute the project, what the research questions should be, what types of methods to use, even down to the final report. Of course, the two people with anthropology backgrounds thought we would try and explain how anthropology projects are usually done without coming off as mean, sounding inflexible or acting like we didn't care about the others' opinions. Our intentions were not well-received/were misunderstood and this created a lot of unnecessary drama. Needless to say, we finished the project, but not without a lot of obstacles along the way. I commented on how I learned about how to work with others, especially those from other disciplines, about humility and about how to negotiate group roles and be respectful of others' opinions. I concluded by saying that I would likely encounter this situation again in the working world and would be prepared to handle it in an appropriate manner.
Most of your experience is with research projects centering around social issues like poverty and health. How do you feel about transitioning from this sort of research to consumer research in a corporate setting?

I responded by going back to my training and background in research methods in applied anthropology, emphasizing the applicability of my training to any area of research, whether it's health or consumer insights or marketing. [Here's a good time to bring up some specific examples of projects or skills you have and how they can be used in the specific area you're applying for. Also, if they're asking for more of a personal perspective in terms of transitioning from a focus on social issues to the corporate, capitalist environment, you have the choice of being honest about how you feel or subtly avoiding the question. What I said is that those things are still important to me and that I can still be involved in social issues in my personal life through volunteering or pro bono assistance for community organizations while working at this particular company. Again, I think it's important to be honest.]

What sort of experience do you have with data analysis?Here you can talk about your experience with qual and quant, what types of analysis you have used in the past with data sets, how you have recruited participants for projects, and give one or two examples from past projects. Mention any software you've used or your training in data analysis for both qual and quant (statistical tests, use of statistical analysis software like SPSS, etc.) When I was asked this question or if I were talking about data analysis in general, I would mention that my strengths are in qual and ethnographic research/analysis, but that I am interested in expanding my basic training and experience in quant data collection/analysis.

You said you are primarily interested in research and can see yourself doing that for your career. Would you be interested in any sort of managerial responsibilities as well?

I wasn't sure about this question, so I reiterated my interest in research and asked if he meant "leadership" roles when he said "managerial responsibilities". He said yes and I responded with a positive "yes", especially if I could still be involved in research in some way.

What is a writing consultant? or Tell me about your work at the Eckerd College Writing Center.

This question won't apply to most, but it's an example of how interviewers will ask you about things that may not be directly related to the position you're applying for, including past jobs/work experience. I was actually asked about my work as a writing consultant (a fancy term for writing tutor) at least two or three times and was glad to talk about it. Even though it wasn't directly related, writing is obviously very important in the research world, so it gave me a chance to talk about tutoring students and growing as a writer, as well as Eckerd's emphasis on making quality writers of its students by incorporating a "writing across the curriculum" philosophy into its liberal arts education. [Ironically, I noticed a typo on my resume in the section where I mentioned this information, long after I submitted the resume and was asked this question by the interviewer. I guess it just goes to show that we're all human, because I was still offered the position. :) ]
What are your salary requirements?

This one's always a toughie, and my best advice is to do some research on the internet about the multitude of ways to answer this question and go from there based on what you feel most comfortable with. The standard answer I came to develop after trying different responses is to use a range of about $10,000 (e.g. $55,000 to $65,000), a range based on the cost of living in the city where the job is located as well as market-rate salary averages for that position or related positions and your experience. is useful for this kind of information as well as job/company/interview reviews. If you give a range, you can ask them on the spot if this is similar to the range they have in mind. In the beginning I resolved to not give an answer right off the bat based on the advice of job search "experts" on the web, but I soon realized that it's better to give them some sort of answer because it helps them to figure out if you're cheap enough (hey, that's the reality of the economy) or if you're going to be too expensive for their tastes. Once when I said I would prefer to discuss salary if we were to move forward with the position in question, the HR rep threw the ball back in my court and said it would be easier for them to determine whether or not to move on if they had this information. Again, this one is never easy.

* * *

So, those are the questions I was able to recall. Ideally, I would have written down each interview question I was asked so I could review them for subsequent interviews and prepare better responses as well as share them with folks who might be interested. Obviously this is nearly impossible to do, especially if you want to remain focused on your interview and do a good job without distracting yourself. I should have done what a good anthropologist would do and written down my "field notes" after each interview, because, as some wise anthropologists say, if you don't write it down, it never happened! I think my excuse, and it's not a good one, has more to do with the exhaustion of hour-long phone interviews and the relief of being done and wanting to do something completely unrelated to job hunting, like vegging out in front of the television.

I think my overall point is that the more you interview, the better you get at it, and I say that from my own experience. My first phone interview wasn't terrible, but it wasn't stellar like some of my later ones. I think this was partly due to the fact that I spent the day before the interview preparing but also fretting, over-thinking it, and being nervous. I realized quickly that this was not the best plan of attack. Preparing is definitely something I advise (researching the company/non-profit, coming up with some possible questions they might ask and what you would say in response, etc.) But don't over-prepare, don't over-think it, and just go for it. My best interview was actually one in which I walked in the door five minutes before they called me and winged it (I purposefully got myself out of the house to do something distracting - I think it was grocery shopping - so I wasn't just sitting around the house and making myself more anxious).

Here are some final, general pieces of advice for the amateur interviewee:
  • Do something that will relax and distract you from worrying too much before your interview, but make sure you are prepared!
  • Don't be afraid to say you are not sure how to answer a question if you don't feel like you have the right answer.
  • Don't be afraid to ask the interviewer to clarify their question if you are unsure about what they are asking.
  • Play up your strengths and be honest about any areas you want to improve.
  • No one is perfect! Almost anyone gets nervous when it comes to interviews, so relax and do your best. And don't walk away focusing on what you wish you would have said or things you forgot. Instead, focus on the positives and how good of a job you did. They don't expect people to be perfect but to be themselves.
  • Prepare a list of questions to ask them. Do not ask them questions for which the answers can be found on their website.
  • Always offer to send a couple writing samples. They will appreciate the offer and it will show them what kind of work you can do. (sometimes they will ask you for this themselves, but it's nice if you can beat them to it.)
  • Remember, you are interviewing them as well! Not only are you vying for a job, but they are vying for good human talent! Contrary to what some may say, you do have power when it comes to applying for and negotiating jobs, so keep that in mind.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Participatory neighborhood timeline

Click the photo for a larger and clearer image

This is a (poor) photo of a really nifty participatory method for collecting data or information in a community-based setting, for example the history of a neighborhood. I saw this particular time line in use at a recent community stakeholder meeting in a local Memphis neighborhood. The photo only shows a portion of the time line, which was the length of the table it was on, or perhaps about 6 feet long (or more). 

I believe the idea of this specific time line was to present major events within the city of Memphis as a whole (the top of the time line), and to have neighborhood residents fill in the bottom portion with events, people, places, etc. that are part of the neighborhood's history. Such a method allows participants to be a part of defining their own history and prioritizing important aspects of it, which often gets written by the powerful/those at the top (history is written by the victors, as they say). It also allows community organizers and officials involved in neighborhood development efforts to get a better sense of the values, priorities, and individual and collective memories of those who will be affected by such efforts, and to appropriately incorporate these into plans to make them as localized as possible.

Ideally, participants would represent a range of ages so that the time line was proportionately filled out instead of responses clustering more toward recent years, but of course that depends on who is in attendance. This method could also be used in other contexts, including focus group/market research, guerrilla-style research on the streets, in participatory museums, PTA meetings (and the list goes on).

An Anthropological Retrospective on The Beatles (from the year 3000)

Hilarious (via Pam at Teaching Anthropology)

Fast food, food habits and kids' nutrition in the U.S.

Photo by circler

According to a USA Today article, 19 U.S. chain restaurants have resolved to offer healthier meal choices to kids across the nation. Approximately 15,000 restaurants, including Burger King, Cracker Barrel, Carabba's, Denny's and IHOP locations, are taking part in Kids LiveWell, a corporate-driven initiative to get kids to eat better by offering "wholesome" meals of less than 600 calories and which have less than 35% calories from fat, 10% calories from saturated fat, 0.5 grams of trans fat, 35% of calories from sugar, and 770 milligrams of sodium.

The program focuses on meals that contain lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. For example, Carabba's offers an exemplary grilled chicken with steamed spinach, broccoli or asparagus (!), as well as a whole grain pasta and a choice of the three aforementioned sides (the caloric range is between 270 and 350 for these meals, which is not too shabby). Interestingly, Burger King's kid's hamburger is on the list at 420 calories, but only because it meets the nutrition guidelines for this particular program. Although the meal includes fat free milk and "apple fries" (apple slices), they come with a side of caramel sauce for dipping. Did I mention it's a damn hamburger?! (what happened to the lean meats focus?) Not surprisingly, the nutritional guidelines page notes that most of the meals listed on the site are not considered "healthy" by the FDA, although I would say that some of them are definitely better than what's offered on the standard kids menu. Take this very revealing statement about the guildines:
The criteria for this website focus on calories, fat and saturated fat, whereas the FDA's criteria for "healthy" also include cholesterol and sodium. So that a sufficient variety of items can be listed, the criteria on this site do not include cholesterol and sodium. However, values for sodium and cholesterol are posted, so that consumers can make informed choices. (emphasis added)
The article got me thinking about how "healthier" meals are marketed to kids, many of whom can be super picky when it comes to eating due to the food habits they are acculturated with by their parents and the habits/desires they pick up from the media and their peers. For instance, there's the linguistic labeling of apple slices as "apple fries", and the inclusion of a not-so-healthy caramel sauce to make eating the fruit more bearable. The fact that we even have to make eating healthy more bearable exemplifies the sad state of nutritional affairs in this country, but anyway... On the topic, there's an excellent discussion of the history and evolution of the consumption of apples in Michael Pollan's (2001) The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, which is appropriate here considering that apples were first consumed for their intense sweetness but have been increasingly replaced by sweets, high fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners to satiate our sugary desires.

There are some inherently troubling questions that surface when it comes to these healthy new choices. Aside from the questionable corporate agenda behind this program, how exactly do you get kids to pick carrots or apples over fries, or how do you get kids to even consider eating these meals (again, grilled chicken and spinach?) when many are used to chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, french fries and macaroni and cheese? Let's not forget the omnipresence of soda and sugary juices (we've all witnessed the atrocity of toddlers drinking soda from sippy cups at one time or another, and we all know parents who think your standard box of juice is healthy because it tastes like fruit). No wonder so many billions of dollars is spent on packaging, advertising, convincing parents of the "nutrition" of processed foods, convincing kids that healthy foods can be fun, etc., etc. Is it really a wonder why health care costs continue to rise year after year?

It's pretty clear that generally speaking, kids in the U.S. aren't eating as healthily as they should be. I know I'm making it sound like there are no kids anywhere who eat well, which is obviously not the case. However, it's definitely a problem that needs to be addressed more sincerely by parents, school districts, and policymakers. Skyrocketing rates of obesity in children are just one piece of evidence, since cultural and behavioral influences factor greatly into eating habits. In fact, kids who eat out, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, consume 1/3 of their calories at restaurants and fast-food joints, which highlights the importance of healthier options outside the home. Busy parents often use the drive-thru lane because of busy schedules and a lack of time to cook meals. Meals offered for lunch at schools are an abomination (greasy, salty french fries, processed meats, pizza, and tater tots were always to be found on the menu when I was a K-12 student, though I hear some school districts have attempted to offer a healthier menu of items). Parents with lower incomes have it the worst and must often deal with limited access to healthy, fresh foods for themselves and their families, not to mention institutionalized and racialized health disparities and limited access to resources and information. Food deserts force those living in impoverished neighborhoods to shop for meals at fast food places and convenience stores, the latter which charge higher prices and offer a limited selection of processed snacks and drinks, or to take ridiculously long bus rides to other parts of town just to get to a decent grocery store.

I think back to what - and how - I ate when I was a kid and how it has affected my eating habits as an adult. My mom and dad, who divorced when I was 4, both cooked wholesome meals on a regular basis, with meats, veggies, grains, etc. This is now something I try to do for myself and with friends at least a couple times a week. My mom was adamant that we didn't drink a lot of soda, but always made sure we drank our daily glass of milk. Nowadays I mostly drink iced tea but enjoy the occasional classic Coke. Although we sometimes ate out with mom, and my dad often cooked quick, inexpensive, bacheloresque meals at home (e.g. spaghetti, mac n cheese), we generally ate from a variety of food groups and were taught to drink our milk and finish our meals. As I reflect, I think that convenience was very important for my dad, who raised us while working full-time and attending college. For instance, I fondly recall the times we would stop at the Dairy Hut after our little league baseball games for $1 hot dogs and ice cream cones. After reading an earlier version of this blog post, my dad reminded me that he also used to grill a lot - chicken, steaks, fish - and had a giant smoker in the back yard, the grills for which were made by my mom's dad. In response, he wrote the following:
I think my idea of eating and cooking definitely came from my parents. They always bought the cheaper cuts of meat and made casseroles and spaghetti and stuff to feed a crowd. There were four of us kids then and my dad never made a lot of money. You made me think some about it while I was reading your blog. We also had a garden sometimes, and mostly ate green beans from it and radishes, lettuces, stuff like that- those were the things that the bugs didn't get to- snow peas too- I remember, we grew them on the wire fence around the garden.
As a result of these different factors, I feel that I was instilled with a less than ideal concept of how to eat healthily, one that I have worked to refine throughout the years based on the results. My brother and I also consumed fast food probably once a week, the incentives of which were quite tempting: tasty, fatty, sugary foods and cheap, plastic toys from China. I remember visiting my grandma and convincing her to drive to every McDonald's in Racine, Wisconsin so my brother and I could each get one of every Power Ranger action figure being offered at the time (this must have been sometime in the mid-1990s, which in my mind doesn't seem so long ago). Of course, this involved buying Happy Meal after Happy Meal in order to complete our collection. I recall being very fond of those chicken nuggets, whatever they were made from (see this HuffPost photo of pre-chicken nugget meat paste, a.k.a. mechanically separated poultry). I think it's telling that feeding children these days is such a struggle for many parents and that it often comes down to entertaining kids and "making kids happy" (hence the Happy Meal) rather than being about sustenance and health.

Getting back to the issue of kids' nutrition in general, I have observed a wide range of eating habits being around various kids, including family members and kids I've babysat. Here are a few examples off the top of my head:
  • Family of four (white, upper income, urban). Parents include a physician (mom) and a political scientist (dad), children are a boy (age 9) and girl (age 11). Family sometimes eats out due to busy schedule, and snacks and treats are part of kids' daily diets (ice cream, dinosaur chicken nuggets, pasta, cereal, etc.) Mom sometimes works late and dad will cook a meal at home. Mom also does not like to eat out very often. Kids are very good about eating appropriate portions and finishing their meals, as well as eating fruits and veggies when their parents ask them to. They are also extremely physically active, which may account for parents letting them eat what they want. Diet consists mainly of processed foods but kids are good about portion control and snacking. Mom has appropriate (not obsessive) concern for her son's weight (he is barely overweight but she monitors his eating and tries to limit his intake of snacks; told me, as babysitter, to monitor as well).
  • Family of three (white, middle income, suburban). Parents include a stay-at-home mom and the dad works for a major corporation in the Midwest, child is a 5 year old girl who often eats candy and snacks throughout the day, which are given to her primarily by her mom and grandmother whenever she wants. Family often eats out and allows the girl to "decide" what she wants to eat from what's on the menu rather than choosing for her or teaching her how to make healthy choices, which usually include fried or greasy foods (cheese burgers, chicken fingers, etc.) and soda or chocolate milk. Dad is overweight and has poor eating habits (eats at Taco Bell multiple times per week). Food is regularly used as an incentive for other treats. Daughter is chastised for not finishing her meals at lunch or dinner, which I have observed is a result of being full from all the day-time snacking as well as the freedom to choose what she wants. Large portion sizes are also a tradition in this family, so perhaps more is expected of her. It is not uncommon for family members (mom, dad, extended) to go back for seconds and thirds at dinner time. Mom does not believe that high fructose corn syrup is bad because it is made from corn. Mom (and grandma) also smoke in the vicinity of the child.
  • Family of four (white, middle income, urban), including dad (a businessman), mom (an interior decorator), son (6) and daughter (8). Food events I witnessed were dinner and snacks, as this was a family I babysat for. Kids would eat a hot dog and macaroni and cheese practically every time I babysat, and would eat candy and snack cakes for snacks in the evening. They obtained other nutrition from some sort of single serving, child-oriented milk drink (usually chocolate or strawberry flavored). Food is used as incentive, and the pantry is stocked with processed foods and snacks. Mom is strict about her own diet and eats lots of yogurt, fruit and small portions.
  • Family of four (white, lower income, urban). Dad manages a local bar, mom sells insurance, boy is 12 and girl is 10. During family dinners and get-togethers, kids barely eat a thing, but drink soda, juice and chocolate milk regularly. Parents do not coerce their children into eating if they don't want to. I'm not too familiar with their other eating habits so it's hard to say anything about what they do actually eat for meals. When I babysat, dad would often come home from work and bring the kids meals from local fast food restaurants, which usually included cheeseburgers and fries.
This obviously isn't a representative sample in terms of family size, race/ethnicity, etc., but just some examples of food habits amongst families I've encountered in the past couple years that I think have big implications for the future food habits of their youngest members.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Food access, farmers markets and food stamps: new program begins in three Memphis communities

Access to fresh, healthy, tasty local foods has recently increased for people living in three Memphis communities. The South Memphis Farmers Market, Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, and Urban Farms Farmers Market (in Binghampton) now have the capability of accepting SNAP/EBT (also known as food stamps).

Market-goers simply swipe their benefit cards and debit the amount they would like to spend from their accounts. They are given wooden tokens worth $1 each, which they are able to exchange dollar for dollar for edible goods sold by vendors. Vendors, in turn, redeem the tokens for the appropriate amount of cash. It's a great system that keeps things easy and doesn't require vendors to have individual card machines. The program makes accessible farmers markets and the fresh, healthy and locally grown produce they sell to those who may not typically shop at farmers markets. This is useful because market-goers are no longer required to use cash they might need for other expenses. It's also great in terms of health benefits for marginalized populations who suffer disproportionately from nutrition-related illnesses because of a lack of access to healthy foods.

To get a better idea of what the program is all about, I spoke with Josephine Williams on my most recent trip to the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market. Josephine is a Cooper-Young market vendor and coordinator of Grow Memphis, a community-based collaborative effort between Memphis neighborhoods and the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center that focuses on urban gardens and community development.

Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market information booth

The SNAP program is in its infancy here in Memphis and began only one week ago (July 2). Although there are multiple farmers markets in the Memphis metropolitan area, the aforementioned three are the only ones offering the program so far. "I think that some of the other markets are just waiting to see how it works out, and will hopefully be interested in doing it in the future" says Josephine. "But it does take a lot of work to do it. It costs money, and it takes administration, so it's a big commitment."

She notes that these three markets are particularly interested in food access as a social justice issue and were each started with the goal of serving local communities through outreach and food access in mind. She doesn't think that the issue of food access is what necessarily draws vendors to the market, but the potential of a good venue to sell produce. However, she adds, "simply by taking food stamps, they are making the effort to get more people to the market because they're trying to make the market more accessible to those who may not come and shop here." As a side note, I have not noticed any sort of food access rhetoric from the Memphis Farmers Market located in the downtown area, which, based on my observations, tends to attract clientele of greater financial means who are interested in the market for its eco-chic as well as the buy local movement.

A market-goer samples some delicious Wolf River creamed cinnamon honey

In terms of the financial investment involved, each market is currently renting the machines needed to swipe SNAP cards, which runs between $40 and $80 a month. There are also administration costs, including staff time for operating the program and writing weekly vendor checks. There has not been much publicity about the new program yet because the markets want to work out all the kinks before spreading the word. However, Urban Farms has been sharing the good news with market patrons via its newsletter and on market days.

Josephine says that so far there has been a positive response from both market vendors and patrons. She mentioned that the South Memphis market was off to a good start and has brought in about $300 in SNAP on its best day. Later this summer, the markets will be introducing an incentive program that will give market-goers an extra $10 if they withdraw $10 from their SNAP cards to use at the market. Josephine believes the bonus program as well as increased advertising will draw more customers to the markets. She foresees the acceptance of SNAP benefits to be a benefit for farmers/vendors as well, who will see increased sales due to the increase in shoppers. "Once we start doing the bonus program, it’s going to get more money flowing through the market, and that benefits farmers. So I hope that it’s going to be an added benefit for the farmers who choose to go to those markets."

The machines used to swipe SNAP cards also allow vendors to accept credit and debit cards, which broadens the forms of payment that can be used to purchase goods and may lead to an increase in sales.

[Author's note: It is my goal to speak with some market-goers who use SNAP benefits so I can get their perspective on this new program. Look for part II of this post some time in the near future.]


Saturday, July 9, 2011

New book from CounterPunch: David Price's "Weaponizing Anthropology"

I was excited to read via AnthroWorks on Twitter this morning that CounterPunch has announced the publication of a new book by David Price entitled Weaponizing Anthropology. I am personally very interested in disciplinary history, especially the deployment of anthropologists in covert research by governments and militaries. This appropriation has been a part of our history since the advent of anthropology during colonial times, and has resurfaced in various forms throughout the decades of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. From the CounterPunch website:
Weaponizing Anthropology documents how anthropological knowledge and ethnographic methods are harnessed by military and intelligence agencies in post-9/11 America to placate hostile foreign populations. Price's inquiry into past relationships between anthropologists and the CIA, FBI, and Pentagon provides the historical base for this expose of the current abuses of anthropology by military and intelligence agencies. Weaponizing Anthropology explores the ways that recent shifts in funding sources for university students threaten academic freedom, as new secretive CIA-linked fellowship programs rapidly infiltrate American university campuses. He examines the specific uses of anthropological knowledge in military doctrine that have appeared in a new generation of counterinsurgency manuals and paramilitary social science units like the Human Terrain Teams.
It’s a very important book, and here’s what Marshall Sahlins, one of anthropology’s current titans, says about it: “Even before he published this masterly and comprehensive account, David Price has long been in the forefront of those warning of the adverse effects of militarizing the human sciences. Now, by matching an extraordinary command of the sources to a telling sensitivity to the political and intellectual consequences, he demonstrates in this definitive work that weaponizing anthropology is as damaging to the soul of the nation as it is to the integrity of the science. “ --Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago
And here’s Henry Giroux: “ This may be one of the most important books written in the last few decades on the merging of the military and intelligence agencies with the academy. Beautifully written and rigorously argued, Weaponizing Anthropology is a must read for students, educators, and anyone else concerned about the fate of the academy, the corruption of anthropology, the militarization of politics, and the future of democracy. –Henry Giroux, McMaster University, Author of University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex.
One more testimonial from David Graeber: Anthropology was always a field of political struggle between servants and opponents of imperialism and it still is - with much of our funding, employment, and research direction still coming directly from the CIA and US military. No one genuinely concerned with the integrity of the discipline can afford to ignore this important book. –David Graeber, Goldsmiths, University of London. Author of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.
Click here to order Weaponizing Anthropology from the CounterPunch bookstore.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Glad to see this on the summer reading table at the book store

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States

This should be required reading for all high school students, and should again be re-read at some point in college.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Elvis as American Cultural Icon

Douglas Holt's 2004 book “How Brands Become Cultural Icons" defines iconic brands as brands that are time-tested, important cultural symbols - they represent popular values, ideas and identities within a culture and are highly symbolic or meaningful in a society. He writes that iconic brands and iconic individuals "serve as society's foundational compass points - anchors of meaning continually referenced in entertainment, journalism, politics and advertising." He continues: "The crux of iconicity is that the person or the thing is widely regarded as the most compelling set of ideas or values that a society deems important," citing individuals like James Dean and Martha Stewart and brands like Coke and Jeep as quintessential examples (Coke is probably my all-time favorite iconic brand).
A recent trip to Graceland, located here in Memphis, got me thinking about Elvis's status as an American cultural icon. What sort of values, ideas and identities does he represent? Or more appropriately, what values, ideas and identities did he represent while he was alive? How about when he first came on the scene in the 1950s as a conservative country boy with rocker potential versus his eccentric later years living in a drug-induced state in the 1970s? What different experiences and perceptions have come to create the multiple stories that surround this iconic brand/image? How did he shape American culture and young people's notions of masculinity, sexuality, and acceptable on-stage behavior? How did people's perceptions of Elvis change throughout his metamorphosis?
I took the following photos at Graceland, the one and only adulthood home of the King, which is totally worth the $30 if you ask me. Many of the items in the museum stand as a testament to Elvis's brandability - you could stick his face or his name on just about anything, from shoes to dolls to wallets to movies to miniature guitars, and it would sell. He's definitely what I call an iconic American cultural symbol.

Lots of Elvis-branded stuff

More Elvis-branded stuff
Elvis the chick magnet.

Feature him in a movie about pretty much anything and it was sure to be a hit.

This advertisement for Elvis's 75th birthday combines the power of two powerfully iconic brands.