Dig It: Research

Follow along as we explore fact and fiction about our food. Whether it's through our own experiments, or by reviewing the work that other people out there are doing, this is the place where we share everying we learn about food, as we learn it. Have a question you'd like us to investigate? Let us know.

Dear Diary: Our Experiments

Here we use ourselves as guinea pigs, investigating the questions we have about food. We dig deep, so you don't have to.

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Our Inner Critics: Reviews

We review books, websites, movies and nonprofits to help you decide where best to focus your own investigations.

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Celebrity Foodie: Our Inner Voyeurs

Our anonymous industry insider gives us the scoop on Hollywood's famous foodies, and what they have on their plates.

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Let's Play: Dissect Your Dinner

We look closely at common meals to determine Monsanto content, organic ingredients and environmental friendliness.

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Sunset: Living in the West - A Review of the West-centric Mag

Written by Sara Padilla.

Title: Sunset Magazine

In a Nutshell: Informational - 5 of 5 shovels




I’ve been a subscriber to Sunset: Living in the West for a couple of years. My initial subscription was gifted to me from a friend who lives an hour north of Seattle on a rural island community. According to Wikipedia, Sunset began in 1898 as a promotional magazine for the Southern Pacific Transportation Company, designed to combat the negative "Wild West" stereotypes about California. I was shocked to learn that it has been in existence for over one hundred years.

My family and I live in Portland, Oregon in an urban neighborhood filled with backyard gardens and chicken coops. The monthly magazine is a source of entertainment, recipes and instruction in backyard gardens, urban agriculture, and other food and farm related information for city dwellers as well as suburban readers. This month, I took the March issue and scrutinized the content for items of interest, ease of read, and aesthetics.

The March 2012 issue contains a recipe that we could not pass up given its limited number ofchardbasic ingredients and attractive photo, especially on a late winter evening at home. I found organic red Swiss chard at our local chain supermarket; the rest we had in the kitchen or in the pantry. The Ruby Swiss chard and white bean soup my husband made tonight was fabulous… what really made it taste good were the large pieces of freshly flaked Parmesan cheese and plenty of black pepper added just before serving.

You can find the recipe at the link sourced below.

Sunset magazine examines the following topics: travel, food and wine, gardening, home and community. Each article is committed to a city, town, or place in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. Since receiving my first issue, I’ve been pleased to see my neighborhood restaurants highlighted for sourcing local food and serving it in creative and delicious dishes. I always learn about new places to visit (and dream about visiting) that include retreats, restaurants, and hotels committed to serving and representing their communities in an authentic and modest manner. Sunset travel writers occasionally describe those exceedingly exclusive dwellings that may never end up on my bucket list, but I don’t mind knowing about them should I find myself able to experience their lux accommodations someday.

For sixteen dollars, subscribers receive twelve issues per year, but if you keep a look out, you’ll quickly find a deal at twelve dollars for twelve issues. My final word is that it’s fun, interesting, attractive – overall a good investment.

Sources: http://www.sunset.com/




Agave: A Not-So-Natural Sweetener?

Written by Kate Darlington.

Question: Is agave nectar a good natural sweetener?

Answer: Depends on who you ask

agave_nectarA few days ago I was shocked to discover that I’d been green-washed. According an article I read on the Real Food Forager, all that “raw,” “natural,” “organic” agave I’ve been guiltlessly ingesting is little better than high fructose corn syrup…or at least that’s what some people say.

Ok, I actually don’t consume all that much agave (I tend towards honey for a locally sourced natural sweetener, and organic raw cane sugar for my baking needs), but nonetheless, I was a bit concerned to learn that the alternative sweetener has been fraudulently parading itself as a good natural substitute for white sugar.  As a Digging Deep contributor, it was my natural duty to get to the bottom of this.

My dive into agave research had me swinging on a pendulum between pro-agave propaganda to anti-agave outcry. After hours on the internet, I learned that, like most things, the truth stands somewhere in the middle.

Agave nectar, unlike its advertisers would have you believe, is not a traditional Mexican sweetener used by the Aztecs. It was invented in the 1990s as an alternative use for the blue agave plant, typically used for making tequila. A traditional product made from the sap of the agave leaves was indeed used as far back as Aztec times, but the product sold as agave nectar today shares little resemblance in its taste or production method.

Most of the agave criticism seems to be a reiteration of a paper written by Sally Fallon Morell and Rami Nagel and published by the Weston A. Price Foundation in 2009 entitled “Agave: Worse Than We Thought.” They assert that agave nectar is a falsely advertised product and no better than High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) for our health.

Here’s how it works: The agave root bulb is made up of starch and inulin, a complex carbohydrate. Without intense processing, inulin does not naturally taste sweet. It requires a multiple step manufacturing process to turn these fibrous compounds into a fructose-rich syrup (most agave is around 70% fructose)—just as indigestible starchy corn must be highly processed to be turned into HFCS.

Studies have shown that refined fructose sweeteners like HFCS are turned directly into triglycerides and adipose tissue (aka “body fat”). Chronically high triglyceride levels can cause insulin resistance, obesity, inflammation, and heart disease. Following this logic, agave nectar, which is very high in fructose, could even be worse than HFCS.

Because of the way fructose is metabolized, agave has a low Glycemic index, which proponents tout as a good choice for diabetics. However, studies showing the correlation between fructose consumption and insulin resistance should make diabetics and those at risk of diabetes weary.

The “Worse Than We Thought” article (and many of its reiterations) fails to explain how agave differs from HFCS in many ways. It claims that the manufacturing process of agave and corn syrup are essentially the same—dependent on chemical refining and filtering. However, for many agave products, this is not necessarily true. Unlike HFCS, organic agave nectar is produced without the use of chemicals—that applies to the growing process (no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides) as well as the manufacturing process (using heat versus chemical enzymes to extract sugar). Additionally, it does not contain GMOs, whereas HFCS is comprised solely of genetically modified corn.

It is important to remember that not all agave is created equal. Chemically refined, non-organic  versions do exist. For those of you who regularly use agave, make sure that it is organically produced. And because it is a high fructose product, it should be used sparingly—which is possible, since, unlike HFCS, it is not ubiquitous in nearly all processed foods. As the Wholesome Sweeteners (one of several commercial agave nectar producers) website advises, “Agave is a sugar and, as recommended by nearly all agave suppliers, it is a discretionary sweetener. You, the individual consumer, get to decide how much you use. We recommend it in moderation.”

So what’s the final verdict? It’s easy to fall into natural foods hype. Be careful what assumptions you make when you see the words “natural” and “raw” on a package—it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you or the planet. You probably don’t need to swear off agave forever, but for sweetening needs, it is better to lean towards more local and unrefined products like honey and maple syrup.


The International Organic Agave Alliance—About Agave

Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought

Real Food Forager-“Why I Never Use Agave”

Wholesome Sweeteners-“Agave: Facts Vs Fiction”

Dig Deeper:

“Fructose is No Answer for Sweetener”

Photo Source: youngthousands


Nonsanto Seeds

Written by April Davila.

We get a lot of questions about how to avoid Monsanto products, including seeds. Monsanto has been buying up seed companies for over a decade. Buying organic doesn't necessarily mean you're buying non-Monsanto.

We're building the world's first VERIFIED NONSANTO LIST. If you know of a seed company that has no ties to Monsanto, add it to the comments or use the #Nonsanto twitter hashtag. We'll verify that it is in fact Nonsanto, add it to the list, and share it with you.



managing the harvest: have a block party

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: How can I use up some of my summer bounty?

Answer: Pass it off to your neighbors.

It's about that time of year - you know, when you stupidly buy five pounds of zucchini at the farmer's market, or your CSA box or your garden explodes. If you find yourself wondering what exactly you've gotten yourself into when you're standing in front of your refrigerator and you can't see the ketchup or the peanut butter through the greens, you're not alone. I often think I'm insane right about this time every year. Last year, it was tomatoes that pushed me over the edge. This year, it's onions.

block_partyI have a foolproof way of managing large volumes of produce that I otherwise would scratch my head over - have a block party and use it up. We're lucky that our (long) street has a get-together every Monday evening in the summer, rotating through yards or in the street with the city sawhorses thrown up. I've often used the Monday night cookouts as a way to dispose of large volumes of produce. When there's thirty or forty people coming, it's pretty easy to make your way through a large salad or grilled veggies with pasta.

Bonus: there's always good ideas to be had from a cookout. Ours are a potluck, where everyone brings a side dish to share (if you want to grill meat, you bring your own, but a hot grill is provided). Last night I saw roasted zucchini and onions tossed with pasta and cheese, fruit kabobs (which my kids actually ate), a tasty red cabbage slaw made from a head of cabbage on offer last week since people were going on vacation, homemade guacamole, and watermelon/mint/feta salad, among many other options. I always see something interesting I haven't thought of before, and am amazed with my neighbors' ingenuity and cooking skills. The downside is that you can't always sample everything before it gets snapped up by the hungry crowd, but that's when it pays to have a conversation strategically close to the food table.  And it doesn't hurt that this is a good way to actually get to know your neighbors.


The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation Giving Assistant

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Founder Jamie Oliver

Publishing Info online

In a Nutshell: Good for Beginners – 4 out of 5 shovels




Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few years, you probably noticed that issues surrounding school lunches have been in the news quite frequently. In addition to Michelle Obama taking up the issue, Jamie Oliver has been agitating for change in school lunch programs. The UK’s resident rabble-rouser has been working through television shows and with the UK government since 2005, won the prestigious TED Prize in 2010, and tackled both the most obese city and the largest school district in the US in his Food Revolution television series.

Thankfully, Oliver’s schtick is that eating healthy is not hard – anyone can do it, and everyone should care about it. As a working mom with a husband in graduate school, I think his Food Revolution cookbook was the only thing that kept me sane (and out of drive-thrus) for two years. So I appreciate his efforts to get busy people moving and motivated on this topic without having to change their lives in the attempt.

The Giving Assistant web app is in this same vein – if you’re interested in helping support the work his foundation is doing, but you don’t have a lot of time/energy/money, they make it easy. The app installs directly into your browser (I now have a happy little ‘fight the power’ fist with a spoon right in my browser header), and when you go to a shopping site (so far I’ve seen it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Target) a yellow bar shows up and tells you what percentage of your sale benefits the foundation. That’s it. Make your purchase as usual, a portion of your sale benefits the foundation, you feel good, call it a day.

account_screenshotI do have a couple of nitpicks about the app’s dashboard (where you see your stats on his site) – the data only updates weekly, which seems odd in this era of instant communication. I have yet to see a list of participating sites, which would help me plan my online shopping. At the moment, I only know that I’m on a site that supports the foundation once I’m at the site and see the yellow bar (I tried googling things to see if the fist icon shows up as the FAQ says they will; it didn’t appear to work). And they’re hawking prizes, which always strikes me as awkward. I’m here because I want to be here, not because I can win a foodie trip to London (not that I would pass up any trip to London, mind you). But I understand it’s a bigger draw if they entice people in.

And yes, I’ve only generated $4.70 so far – but that’s $4.70 they didn’t have before. As I figure out what websites help the foundation, my numbers will go up, I’m sure. Vive la révolution!

Review written by Rebecca Maclean


Farmers Market Finds: Heirloom Tomatoes

Written by Kate Darlington.

Question: Do heirloom tomatoes actually taste better?

Answer: Science says yes.

Summer is in full swing and tomato season is officially upon us. Yes, that’s right, tomatoes do, in fact, have a season. The miracle of modern food distribution has made most of us forget that tomatoes only grow in the hot months. Thanks to sophisticated plant breeding, long-haul trucking, and artificial ripening technology, they are some of the most ubiquitous vegetables (fruits, technically) of the American diet— their pale, mealy, tasteless selves (dis)gracing the sandwiches, salads, and shelves of our restaurants and grocery stores year-round.

heirloomYet, if you’ve ever visited a farmer’s market in the height of summer, you’ve likely spotted a different fruit claiming the same name. Instead of uniformly round, reddish orbs, farmers are selling piles of lumpy, oddly colored things. These would be heirloom tomatoes.

Along with their strange colors and “ugly” shapes, you’ll spot them by their price tag. Heirloom tomatoes often fetch a much higher premium per pound than the ordinary red slicing tomato. Part of it is due to the growing and shipping practices associated with heirloom varieties (smaller-scale farms, non-mechanized harvests, picked ripe). Part of this is due to their popularity with fancy chefs and gourmands. Which begs the question, is the price worth it, or is it just foodie hype?

Well, a recent scientific study is backing up what foodies and farmers have been saying for years: heirloom tomatoes taste better. The flavorlessness of most tomatoes has long been blamed on harvesting and shipping practices—the standard red tomato is actually picked green, “ripened” artificially with ethylene gas, and refrigerated before it reaches your mouth—all of which diminish the flavor. But this study, published in Science, reveals that even without these factors, the ubiquitous red tomato is genetically inferior when it comes to flavor.

That’s because when plant breeders developed tomatoes that ripen into a uniform red hue, they inadvertently bred away the genes that give the tomato most of its flavor. The genetic mutation that allows a tomato to turn a solid red (instead of being spotted or streaked with yellow or green), it turns out, disables genes that allow the tomato fruit to produce its own sugars (instead of just getting them from the leaves) and carotenoids. Uniform coloration is incredibly important to tomato growers because it is demanded by consumers—which means the mutation has been bred into almost all commercial varieties.

Heirloom tomatoes, on the other hand, are grown from seed selected decades ago by home gardeners and botanists interested in flavor rather than high yields and the ability to turn solid red. They don’t have the uniform ripening gene, so their flavors will naturally be more intense and complex. But I didn’t need science to confirm this. In my experience, heirlooms are juicier, sweeter, and tastier than almost any red tomato I’ve ever eaten.

If you’ve never had an heirloom tomato, give it a try. To truly appreciate the flavor, just slice and sprinkle ever so slightly with a bit of sea salt and olive oil. Only you can decide if these pricey orbs are “worth it” in your food budget, but the experience will certainly give you a new admiration for one of America’s most common vegetables.

Dig Deeper:

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012


Flavor is the Price of Scarlet Hue of Tomatoes, Study Finds


How Does Your Garden Grow? A Review of the 2012 Yard, Garden & Patio Show

Written by Administrator.

Review written by Sara Padilla

Founder: Oregon Association of Nurseries

In a Nutshell: Informational, 4 of 5 shovels



This weekend I attended the annual Yard, Garden & Patio Show at the Oregon Convention Center This was my very first “show” experience of this sort, and I was a little bit suspicious about what to expect, especially the “patio” component of the event which sounded like something that targets people with lots of money to spend on imported stone water features, silk chaise lounges, and other luxury items. But I was intrigued at what I might learn that could benefit our backyard garden this year, and so I picked up discount tickets at a local nursery for my husband and me. Kids get in free, so we brought our two boys along, too.

The Yard, Garden & Patio Show was founded in 1988 by the Oregon Association of Nurseries. Part trade show and part education, several non-profits participate whose mission is to educate the public on horticulture, including the Oregon State University Master Gardeners – a fantastic resource for my state. backyard_garden

The best part of the show was a stroll through the “Edible Garden," which included raised beds, a chicken coop and unique ways in which to garden. Flowers are beautiful and a compelling reason to garden, but you can’t (usually) eat flowers. My interest lies in how to make the most of a couple of raised beds and several pots in a semi-sunny urban backyard. Specific questions I had included 1) how much can a family expect to grow and harvest for personal consumption in a typical season? and 2) how do we ensure that we are growing seeds or starts that are locally sourced and a natural part of the Pacific Northwest landscape? Several “edible experts” were on hand and eager to talk about how to prepare garden beds for the best possible results. Their eyes lit up when asked about veggie selection, preservation and other gardening-related tips and ideas. Other interesting and gardening-related information included a presentation on honey bees and how to keep a backyard hive.

The least attractive part of the show focused on those items that to me aren’t relevant – enormous hot tubs, bizarre sculpture, ostentatious outdoor lighting and patio furniture come to mind. But they did not detract from the pleasant and informational event.

The Yard, Garden & Patio Show was well organized and family friendly (except I don’t recommend taking a toddler). Exhibitors were pleased to talk anything related to dirt, compost, seeds and starts. A few over-eager exhibitors put me slightly off as they pushed their wares upon me, and to those I gave a polite “no thank you, not just now” smile as we moved on. But generally the scene was courteous, not pushy. The energy of the edible experts was contagious, and at the end of the day my entire family was excited to get started on our backyard garden plans. Free organic broccoli and lettuce seeds provided by friendly Boy Scouts were just a few of the fun takeaways we brought home.

The sun may not be shining consistently yet, but the show provided a great change of pace during another rainy mid-winter weekend. Spring is truly on the horizon!


Sources: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/mg/



Of Course I Can – Sort of?

Written by Rebecca Maclean.

Question: How do you preserve summer foods in the heat?

Answer: Good question.

While I didn’t try to fry an egg on the sidewalk last week, I suspect I probably could have. The heat wave that blasted large parts of the United States made Pittsburgh a balmy 99 degrees for days on end, with humidity so high that sucked the life right out of my bones.

pieOf course, this was the week that I had bought two pecks of peaches from McConnells’ Farm and had about eight bags of cherries in my fridge. So while cursing my bad luck and wishing I had a summer kitchen, I made jam and pies and baked in my kitchen with the oven at 450 degrees and a giant canning kettle of boiling water on the stove. While the results were delicious, my wilted self was resigned to sweating indefinitely.

And then I heard of freezer jam. Too late to do it with my first batch of peaches, I intend to give it a try soon to see how the results turn out. I have to admit it’s appealing and undesirable at the same time – the lack of a bubbling witches’ brew steaming up my kitchen would be fantastic, but the point of canning, at least to me, is to be off the grid and still be able to eat something. Shoving jam in the freezer seems like a cop-out somehow, but if we have another heat wave, I will likely be a convert.

Somewhat related is my ongoing bemusement as being one of the only people my age I know who knows how to can because it was a skill passed down in my family (and not learned on the internet or through a book). I’ve taught several people how to do hot-water canning, and have another one intending to get to it one of these days. In my internet travels, I came across this article on community canning centers, and am fascinated by the sense of community around preserving food that seems to be lost. We’re lucky in this town to have the ongoing tradition of church ladies in ethnic parishes making spanakopita and pierogies in the basement, but I know this is fairly unusual in this day and age.

Consider these statistics during World War II:

  • 5,000 community canning centers were established across the country – and the centers were used by approximately 1% of the people who canned in 1943.
  • In 1942, 64% of women canned food for their household; in 1943, it was 75%.
  • Families that canned put up an average of 165 jars of food a year.

Wow. This food preserving method that has been pushed to the margins by massive agricultural and food companies was a regular, everyday part of this country’s food system during the war. It was a way to build community and feed your family. Thankfully, it’s making a comeback (or has never left some of us), but it seems to have a subversive connotation these days, when it used to be so normal.

So maybe I’ll put up with my glistening brow over my canning kettle a little longer. In addition to saving some great-tasting peaches for the winter, I can teach my kids that independence from the corporate food system can be a year-round practice. And at least with a pie, I can walk away from the kitchen’s heat for a little while.


The Orchard

Written by Administrator.

By Theresa Weir

Published 2011 by Grand Central Publishing

In a nutshell: Good for Beginners, 4 out of 5 shovels



Part romance novel, part dysfunctional family drama with a strong female protagonist (with an underlying environmental message), Teresa Weir’s The Orchard reads like a cross between Nicolas Sparks and Barbara Kingsolver. And though it reads like a novel, the book is actually a memoir. Before she was a bestselling fiction author (you might also know her by her pen name, Anne Fraiser), Weir fell in love with Adrian Curtis, the handsome heir to an apple orchard, in rural Illinois. A story of passion, heartache, troubled marriage, family feuding, and misfortune ensues.the_orchard_pic

But this book is also about farming and the dangers of pesticides, which is why you’re reading about it here instead of on some chick-lit blog. Throughout her intimate story of love and loss, Weir sheds light on the significant health and environmental hazards of chemical pesticide use. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that the author experiences personal tragedy caused by prolonged exposure to the chemicals used on apple orchards.

The book will make you think twice about ever eating another conventionally grown apple again. It’s not as though the information she imparts is new. The issue of pesticide contamination has been around for decades, and the Environmental Working Group consistently places apples on their annual “Dirty Dozen” list. The most intriguing part of the book is Weir’s ability to get us thinking about this issue in a whole new way, appealing to our emotions rather than our intellect. Her storytelling elicits a reaction against chemical pesticides that statistics and scientific analysis simply can’t.

Another reason I really like this book is that it humanizes the farmers. I have a tendency to imagine industrial growers as faceless, mechanized robots doing the bidding of evil chemical corporations. Weir does a great job at highlighting the difficult choices farmers have to make in order to stay in business. Romantic notions of environmental harmony and a bucolic farming existence aren’t worth much when the coddling moth is destroying the trees that have been in your family for generations. In an argument about the chemicals, Adrian defends his family’s choice to spray: “Everybody does it…Everybody. We couldn’t survive otherwise…And decades of pesticide use have created resistance. It’s going to take stronger and stronger chemicals for farmers to stay in business, not weaker ones.” The issue of pesticide use is complex and multifaceted, and it’s good to remember that once in awhile.

The bottom line: If you’re looking for a good story, not just another lecture on sustainable food, this is a great read. I was initially reluctant to give this book a whole 4 shovels, but despite its sappiness, it is a story with staying power. A week after finishing the book (holding back tears as I turned the last pages), I still can’t get it out of my head-– that’s got to count for something.

Dig Deeper:

[Spoiler alert!] Beyond Pesticides –in-depth information on the link between pesticides and various cancer.

Review written by Kate Darlington


What’s in a Free Lunch?

Written by Sara Padilla.

Question: What’s in a Free Lunch?

Answer: A combination of healthy and sugary food and drink

Yesterday I spent some time at a local park with my five-year-old. As we approached the playground, I noticed something going on… birthday party? Weekday picnickers?

A line of children stood wriggling patiently. One by one kids aged 2 – 12 stepped forward to meet a volunteer who squirted soap into their hands, which they then rinsed at a spicket before accepting a small box.

A huge sign announced “Free Lunch for Kids” in huge dark letters. freelunch

I asked a volunteer about the requirements for the program. None, she explained. The kids just have to wash their hands.

She asked Miles if he wanted a box.

Shaking his head, “no, thanks. I just need to swing now.”

My experience living – temporarily – among hungry and impoverished families took place primarily outside of the United States. Already struck by difference, it was humbling to share a table with a family who often knew hunger. But my experience with hunger or hungry people in my hometown is limited.

It is troubling.

I observed the kids at the park as they took a box and unpacked the goods.

Just what is in a free lunch?

From what I could gather, the kids received an orange, a small carton of chocolate milk, and a PB&J on white bread (probably enriched).

Not so different from what I serve my kids, although they drink regular skim milk and I use whole wheat bread for sandwiches and toast.

I admit I felt a little uncomfortable standing in line to talk to the volunteer about the program, but I wanted to find out more.

My thoughts scattered like sunflower seeds in the garden bed. Some took root, but most were snatched by a clever sparrow before they had a chance to settle.

The volunteer didn’t blink when she saw me, and I confess to wondering if I looked like I needed a free lunch.

Looking around, most of the kids and their parents or caregivers were African-American or Hispanic. Perhaps six or eight non-Hispanic white families were present.

As we left the park, I noticed they ran out of boxes.

A volunteer scribbled in a notebook. “We’ll need to order more.”

She glanced my way. “Sorry, we’ll save one for you tomorrow!”

“Thank you.” I smiled at her. A teenager herself, I observed her quiet eyes and bright voice.

What brought her to serve our community? Is it her community, too?

Oregon kids and teens (ages 1 – 18) get free summer meals five days/week. The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is meant to help fill the nutritional gap that occurs when kids out of school are no longer receiving free or reduced lunch on a regular basis. The meal sites are selected in neighborhoods considered to be high need.

Congress created the Summer Food Service Program for Children in 1968. Funding for meals is provided by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Summer Food Service Program.

In this time of ever-restrictive budgeting processes and obscenely partisan dialog in Congress, it is important for those of us who don’t benefit directly from these critical services to consider what would happen if they were to go away.





Dig Deeper:



This post was adapted from an original post at www.sunshineandsalad.com


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