Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Swiss Farms: A Grocery with Universal Access and Appeal

For an idea that has been around since 1968, it was still a surprise how few people knew about Swiss Farm, a drive-thru grocery. When a location opened here in Charlotte in March of this year, a friend and I were there Opening Day, and have continued to shop there regularly.

Logo for Swiss Farms [Description: White rectangle with a rooster sitting on the letter 'I" in the word "Swiss" with the word "Farms" in green below it. Tag line "America's Drive-Thru Grocer" below that in red.
When you drive up, you spy a quaint brightly-painted barn-like building that doesn't look like very much at first, sitting between two newly-painted drive-thru lanes. Getting closer, you see rows and rows of products through clear glass walls and displays outside overflowing with impulse items, like chips and cold juices. What you can't see deeper into the store is the dairy case full of milk and other dairy products from a local farm in Asheville and the fully stocked kitchen run by a local chef. Hard to imagine that so much fits into so small a space, but Swiss Farms aims to please. The concept is simple. You don't have to get out of your car. Someone comes out to you with the latest circular, and with a smile, takes your order. Simple concept, and yet, Swiss Farms does this with such warmth and enthusiasm that I usually end up sitting in the car, chatting with everyone, hoping there is no one behind me.

Mike Lang, President of Swiss Farms Charlotte and head of Lang Family Farm [Description: Smiling gentleman standing in front of Swiss Farm building, located on Sardis Road, Charlotte, NC]
When the store first hit Charlotte, some people complained about how the store would encourage a  tendency toward laziness. It was written that this was a store for busy professionals and families on the go. But, Swiss Farms does more than just fill the need to shop quickly. Swiss Farms runs an efficient store without a large land acquisition, a larger carbon footprint and wasted resources. With competitive pricing and the ability to accept food stamps (a major coup for all those who may experience food insecurity), Swiss Farms brings down-home neighborliness to your local community; without the need to go into a big box store for a gallon of milk.
Flip Flop Wine - nicely priced at Swiss Farms [Description: Seven bottles of different wines from the Flip Flop Wine Company]
For many in the community of PwDs (persons with disabilities), this is a god-send. The thoughts from someone in that community could sound like this: "No, I don't have to hope the accessible parking spots are free. No, I don't have to hope the public scooters are working. No, I don't have to deal with trying to find what I'm looking for in this huge building with blocked aisles  and deal with people who don't like their job. I can have a great food shopping experience. I can get to know my local grocer (and his family!) on a first-name basis. I can make a late-night run for milk, munchies and wine (not necessarily in that order), and zip in and everyone else."

Two items certain people in my family cannot live without! Thank you, Doreen, for letting us know about them! [Description: Package of Jenkins Livermush and Taylor Pork Roll]
Media releases from the company website talk of more locations to come and the desire to work with each neighborhood to become part of the community. Mike Lang, president and head of Lang Family Farms, confirmed that each store was to have a local feeling, supporting the needs of the customers.

This is the essence of universal accessibility. Not catering to one group at the expense of another, Swiss Farms serves everyone.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Self-Acceptance and Chair Yoga

Palms up resting pose [Description: Hand palm up with
 thumb and forefinger touching]
I was not really athletic as a child.

Dealing with visual and hearing issues as a young child, I was not the most welcome sight coming out to the playground or field. Having an older brother didn't help, since he was a bookworm/smarty-pants and spent most of his time buried in studies.

But, I loved movement! Not the dancing or ballet kind, but the simple, free movement of the body. I rode my bicycle as a child with the wind against my face. I roller-skated to the corner back and forth until nightfall. Later in life, I would partake in every walk- and bike-a-thon I could. Living in NYC, there was always Central Park, which I knew like the back of my hand by the time I graduated high school. In my 20s, I would hike into the mountains of upstate New York, camp out by Silver Lake and traverse the trails of Bear Mountain. Then I turned 30, and life changed.

In my 30s, my body began to betray me. An unknown fatigue and flu-like symptoms drained me of any extra energy before the work week was over. Migraines drove me into darkness several times a month. Chronic back pains eventually put me in a wheelchair before surgery restored my ability to walk and stand. And, at a too young age, I found myself out of the workforce, on disability, yet still raising two young sons.

It was the mental challenge that took its toll. And, honestly, it was fear. Movement no longer brought joy and thankfulness. It bought debilitating pain and weakness. After awhile, I avoided any idea of sport or physical fun. This stretched on into years of barely exerting any additional energy beyond that of taking care of the boys and our small home.

How movement is supposed to stimulate cells in our inner ear. [Description: Medical image of hair cells with and without movement]
Then in 2006, I lost my ability to balance my body on the right side. After a particularly bad flu-like episode, complete with severe inflammation on the right-side of my head, vertigo set in like an new roommate. For months, just getting out of a car after a short drive meant being helped into the house and three hours of complete and utter rest.

In all that time, I missed movement. I missed having control over my body and feeling the stress relieving properties of exercise. Even as friends, like Mia Vayner, who use wheelchairs on a full-time basis, encouraged me to try something, and not give up, I hesitated. I didn't want to go back to a life of pills for everything. The vicious cycle of my life was that if I moved less, I needed less meds, but since I moved less, tension in the muscles and joints built up.

Not qualifying for any rehabilitation programs and having used up all of my real need for physical therapy, it was up to me to find something I could do. I tried different exercise classes only to create more issues than enjoyment due to one physical condition or another. But, today, I finally found something that works! I started Chair Yoga at my local Senior Center.

An example of chair yoga. [Description: Row of ladies in simple green lawn chairs performing a yoga pose]
What an absolute joy! Siting squarely balanced in a level chair, I followed our instructor, Hampton, as he used subtle movements, gentle rhythms and meditative sounds to coax my classmates and I into a wonderfully releasing session of yoga. Calm and comforted in this quiet environment, I closed my eyes, and for the first time in many years, I listened for my body; the body below the pain, inflammation and stiffness. As I breathed, I concentrated more on release than the thought of herniated disks, balance issues and stiff joints. Moving to my own pace (which Hampton noticed and later commented on my self-awareness), I felt a connection to my inner self that had been disconnected for years.

Example of resting position [Description: Woman with her back facing the camera with arms resting on her thighs with palms facing upward]
Hampton talked to us about "prana," the vital life energy of our bodies. He expounded on how important it was to allow this energy to flow in order to deal with long-term health issues and/or chronic pain. During that class, while coordinating my breathing to the movements, I felt the vital energy spread throughout my mind, and for the first time in years, the pressure changes in my ears that I deal with daily (like those experienced when riding an elevator or a plane) slowly dissipated. I didn't clear my ears for the whole class.

At the end, he closed with "Om, santi, santi," while greeting each student with direct eye contact and a smile. I returned the greeting with a deep bow from the waist. The movement felt wonderful! I felt connected again to that child who jumped, ran and knew she was alive by virtue of being able to move freely and joyously.

Yes, I will be there next month. In August, they begin a modified Tai Chi class, and I will be there as well. It feels good to move and enjoy the moving.

Om santi, santi, my friends. Inner peace to you all.

Local Links for chair yoga:

The Yoga Center on 8th Street Studio
Charlotte Mecklenburg Senior Center

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pimiento Cheese - You Are Not in _______ Anymore!

Lump crab cake from, a must have when
living in/visiting Maryland. And, this has nothing to do with pimento cheese.
 [Description: a high domed crab cake]
When I moved from my birth state, New York, to Baltimore, it was part of my acclimation to eat a crab cake. You couldn't possibly move near the Chesapeake Bay with their legendary Blue crabs without sampling a crab cake. If you didn't eat one, it was pure disrespect on your part, and if you turned your nose up at the delicacy, you risked life and limb in some neighborhoods. On top of that, you had to have one from the neighborhood dive as well as one from a high-end restaurant, because EVERYONE knew of a place that made the best crab cake "eva!"

Well, now that I've moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, part of becoming a native is to have some pimento cheese. And, just as Baltimoreans could argue over whether there should be more or less breading, how much oil should be in the pan when frying, and whether any other lump meat should be used besides Colossal or Jumbo, the die-hard advocates for pimento cheese are everywhere with their strong opinions (more like catechisms!) about what goes into making the "perfect pimento cheese." They are staunch in their beliefs, and are willing to go beyond the thought that pimento cheese is a nice spread. They are ready to tell you what makes it a delicacy bordering on manna from heaven.

Chicken & Pimento Cheese Tostitos (courtesy of My Three Sons)
First up, even though pimento cheese has origins outside of the South, I truly believe after doing a little research that our Southern cooks made this a native child. No one talks about the dubious parentage. Obviously, this dish has found its home, is welcome, and never has to roam again.

Funny thing, before I tasted it, I kept thinking, "What could be so fantastic about a mound of cheddar cheese spread?" That was my first mistake, but fortunately, I didn't utter this sacrilege out loud. I had no idea that when mixed with a small amount of mayonnaise, roasted red peppers and allowed to chill that cheddar cheese becomes transformed to a type of holy food.

So, I bought a tub of the stuff...from a grocery store. Big mistake, I was told by purists. If you are not going to make it yourself, then at least have the decency to buy from someone who cares! "Alright, alright!" I exclaimed, somewhat embarrassed at my cheesy (pun intended) attempt.

My next foray was into a Harris Teeter, where they had their own brand and several others jockeying for my attention. I picked out two brands and had an epiphany! Definitely, here were people who cared! OMGoodness! Here is the reason this deliciousness has survived throughout the generations and only continues to get better and better.

My Three Sons Original pimento cheese [Description: Tub of pimento cheese]
The first brand I picked out was My Three Sons (MTS) out of Greensboro, NC. That week, they were on sale. The 10 oz tub of goodness, produced by Cheryl and the Barnett/Trentini Family, sported a cheery orange label that was nostalgic and catchy at the same time. Once I opened the lid, I no longer wanted to even try and make pimento cheese on my own! Why mess with such perfect goodness!?!
Three flavors currently on the market from My Three Sons [Description: Emmy's Original, Fire Roasted Jalapeno and Spicy White Cheedar pimento cheese]

MTS is a chunky version that simply bursts with the tang of high quality cheddar. Nothing much else gets in the way of that taste, and I finished the contents of the generous 10 oz. tub in one short sitting. Based on a family recipe, it retains the feeling of a homemade treasure, something difficult to do once commercial. I decided this brand was a delicacy for me in my stingier moods. I mean, I could try to share it, but more likely, I will point you to the nearest Whole Foods or Fresh Market. No disrespect to any of my BFFs, but it is that good. This tub is mine, get your own. If you are looking for recipes from My Three Sons, please go here.

Next up was Palmetto Pimento Cheese in a slightly larger tub of 12 oz. Manufactured out of Pawley's Island, South Carolina by Sea View Inn owners, Sassy and Brian, this version piles on the flavor as well with just a little heat in both of the flavors I tried. I bought a Jalepeno and a Bacon, and while the Jalepeno was pleasantly mild enough to eat with crackers, tortilla chips and my personal favorite, BBQ potato chips, the Bacon has become a household mainstay.The minute you peel back the cover, the smoky bacon aroma hits you, and the combination of cheese and bacon comes together so smoothly, your mind will automatically begin to think "How many different ways can I use this?"
Palmetto Cheese. Go to the website to read the story about the woman featured on the lid.

[Description: Three tubs of Palmetto Pimento cheese stacked on top of each other: Jalapenos, Original, Bacon]

At a Palmetto Cheese demo in Harris Teeter, I picked up recipes for a Sausage Dip and Deviled Eggs. But, please, go to the website and look through all their recipes. We have already made the Cheesy Grits, and I have eaten this stuff on everything from ice-cold celery sticks to whole wheat toasted tortilla triangles.

So, as you have probably guessed by now, I am a convert. There will be a tub of pimento cheese in my fridge at any given time of the year. I am stuck on these two brands, but please feel free to let me know of a favorite brand where you live. Also, if you have a favorite recipe (possibly passed down from a past generation?), and you feel like sharing, please feel free to post a link or the whole recipe!

Pimento Cheese. You don't have to be southern to love it, but realize if you live anywhere near the south, you are going to have someone tell you about "the best pimento cheese in town!" And, I will be in line!


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Two Hour Visit to the White House is Worth 24 Hours of Travel

I was all set to release a post on one of my new favorite foods sampled here in Charlotte, North Carolina, when I received an invitation from the White House Office of Digital Strategy to be present at remarks by President Obama in Washington, D.C. Now, I am not going to get into a political tizzy with anyone on my blog or on my Facebook page over how others would have responded to this invitation. I have followers of all political persuasions and I promote debate, not derision of parties, people or causes. But, I could not pass up the opportunity to see our President in person and up close. Whatever you may think, and I have always been open to opposing ideas and comments, I would have traveled across the continent to be able to sit near this historic president.

After RSVP'ing for that event, I was then asked if I would like to sit in on an intimate conversation with a member of the President's National Economic Council. The session entailed a more personal conversation; talking to real homeowners who need help keeping their homes and understanding the updated refinance initiative called HARP 2.0 (Home Affordable Refinance Program). Of course, I said yes.

What I thought would be a short trip turned into a 24-hour arduous jaunt complete with sleeping in a Greyhound bus station in the wee hours of Monday morning along with stranded Russian hostel students and homeless people. It involved me packing so lightly that I did not take even a camera (though there were smartphones everywhere snapping pictures I would love to have!). It involved me thinking deeply about what I wanted to do with my new-found life of disability awareness and advocacy.

After that lengthy and painful travel time with true representations of Americans on those Greyhound buses. my mind began to see just how difficult it is to lead a group of people toward change. Everyone comes with their own experiences and mindsets. And, everyone has a different view of their life and final destination. I marvel at the ability of our leaders, on any level, to affect change; in systems, in attitudes, in lifestyles and in civil rights.

You see, regardless of your political position, to become part of the real process of change, it is important to engage in conversation with the current participants. It is easy to armchair run a country or a board meeting or a business, but when you sit in a room with 20 other citizens, hear their stories, and converse on the merits of bills, initiatives, and future laws, it becomes more important and farther reaching than a 160 character tweet. When you get to weigh in with a question and a comment on real life experiences in an advocacy training program, it has far more impact than a Facebook link and clicking a toggle Like button.

It was my first time in the White House. My body rebelled on me several times with legs cramps, fatigue and dizziness along the way, but I was determined to be there. I met a wonderful husband and wife, Reverend Bruce S. Jones and his wife, Letha, who talked with me with excitement about this event; their first visit as well. We all felt a part of something important, even if it was just for us. Ushered into the room full of news cameras and bright lights made me realize the nature of true engagement. It can never truly be captured on television or experienced through a screen. It has to be up close, personal. You have to show up.

When the president walked in the room behind a group of Americans, I was struck again how real life is so different from media driven sound bites. He is taller, leaner and so much more handsome in person. I understand the charisma and charm associated with him. His words were not canned or intellectual as he is often portrayed, but very understandable and down to earth. I found myself liking this person even if I still had issues with parts of his policy and how to pay for them. And, he didn't shy away from difference or debate. He welcomed it. So, I understand real leaders are not afraid of difference. They realize difference creates that cohesive glue toward a common future for all. It is the "stuff" of true and lasting change.

Video of President Obama's speech given July 9th, 2012

You may not like everyone you meet along the road of life. In advocacy, I have seen disparate groups band together for a common cause. In travel, I saw people form loose cooperatives on a cross country bus in order to keep everyone safe. So, we may not like who we have to negotiate with, but we do it for a common good and a common goal.

I want to close with something I wrote on Facebook some days ago that seemed to touch a tender spot for so many in the advocacy world. If you've read it before, sorry for the repeat, but after this trip, I feel it bears repeating.They are words that just flew off my keyboard as if they existed already, and they spoke to a deeper part of all of us. It has become my mantra; my mission and guiding principle in this advocacy world. I have to thank Erin Lindsay, Deputy Director of Online Engagement for her invitation. Little did she know it would cement my dreams and goals.
Collaboration among people with different disabilities is so important. No, you may not understand what it is like to use a wheelchair when you have a hearing impairment. Or you may not understand why captioning is so important when you deal with a child with autism. But, if you take the time to listen and lend support, you now have an ally. One that will listen and be there when you need assistance. Collaboration builds strong bridges made up of committed overachievers, ready to focus their energies against your foe, our foe, any foe that diminishes our quality of life and our pursuit of success; whatever we define that to be.