The Daily Beet

06 Feb The Engine 2 Challenge and the Art of Simplicity

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A few years ago part of my job included the supervising of a soup kitchen near Washington DC. I worked for a non profit, and a large part of my job was in helping the homeless community. It is something I am extremely passionate about. Each week I’d go and walk around handing out bagged lunches to people sleeping in alley ways, on cardboard boxes, underneath bridge overpasses. Around the same time I was part of a lobby group in Washington to protect underserved children across the United States, to make sure they received basic nutrition needs. I also worked to bring awareness to a food-stamp budge, and encouraged people to attempt living on a food-stamp budget.

Last spring I was able to help an organization called “Meals For Health” which helped underserved people in the Oakland, CA community to eat healthy, while providing free health-care. People who were uninsured, and many who had a hard time surviving on a food-stamp budget.

People ask me why I’m so passionate about the issue of poverty and the underserved community. The reason is simple, my parents never could make ends meet when I was growing up with my 2 brothers, we spent a lot of time homeless, often we didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. I remember buying the cheapest food available, because that is what we could afford.

But even at that, we were still fortunate. We had a Church family that helped when they could, we had food banks available to us and assistance from the government.

Others are not so fortunate. Millions of kids go without food every single day around the world, and in the United States. There are parents who cry themselves to sleep because they couldn’t feed their child dinner that night.

I often talk about the simplicity of my life and the way I eat. We have a unique issue in most of our American society, a loss of perspective, and an issue of over abundance.

In many parts of the world (and in many communities in the United States) people would feel overwhelmingly blessed for the amount of food that most of us have access to. Not special food, not easy packaged food, just plain, food.

The availability of vegetables, whole grains, beans, starches and fruits for most of us is more than abundant. Most of us can walk into any grocery store in the country and buy the staples we need.

Yet, every day we get e-mails saying that eating plant-strong is hard, that there are not enough options, that it is too difficult to eat out, that there are not enough (fill in the blank – salad dressing, pizza sauce, eating out choices, frozen food, substitutes for butter, milk, ice-cream, you get the point)

In (most) of our American society people complain about the lack of options when there are millions who would love our “lack of options”.

A lot of my life has given me a lot of perspective when it comes to reality. When I started eating this way I was tempted to complain about the “lack of options”. I was angry that I couldn’t easily get my food through a window at a drive-thru, or that there was just no good butter substitute for popcorn. I was angry that all of these foods were being “taken away”. I couldn’t have meat, dairy, eggs, oil, I couldn’t have excess fatty foods, I couldn’t have caffeine. I wanted desperately for people to see the sacrifice I was making by eating plant-strong.

I was giving up so much.

When I first started, as I’ve written about before, I had a good friend of mine who lived in a remote village in Uganda give me some much needed perspective. She grew up and thrived eating a diet of “mostly yams” as she told me over and over. And not only that, she was thankful for all of it, thankful for the food she had access to, she did not complain about her past and her lack of options in her previous living situation. Not once.

I asked her if it was hard, she told me she didn’t know anything else, why would it be hard?

Yet here we are in the United States with copious amounts of food (the right kind of food) available without having to harvest or grow it, without the need to worry about building an oven, or having clean water to wash vegetables, and yet we (collectively) complain that there are not enough healthy options.

There is an art of simplicity when it comes to my plant-strong life, one that I strive to work toward. My desire is to live simply, eat simply, to be thankful for the abundance that is readily available to me. I have access to every single thing I need, 24/7.

A few days ago I was tempted to to go down the pity party. I was invited to a party (a vegan party) but I knew it would be a lot of junk food. I knew I could make my own dish of course, but was finding myself angry that I’d be at this party with lack of options.

I thought to myself in that moment – other people would feel blessed by the “lack of options” that I had. I could bring my own food, I could eat before and after the event, I could go into any grocery store and buy new food if I wanted. I could stop on my way and get a banana at the gas station. I did not have lack of options, what I had was an issue with perspective.

Our issue in most of the United States is not an issue of lack of options when it comes to plant-strong living, the issue is the abundance of calorie rich and processed foods that has permeated our society has deceived us to believe that we need ALL of it. And that when we go plant-strong we need alternatives to all of it.

The best thing (I believe) we can do for our health, and the health of our society is a return to simplicity. There is an art to simplicity, a rhythm, something uniquely beautiful about it.

I’d encourage you, if you are feeling like there are too many things being “taken away” or that there are not enough options or substitutes to get back to basics. I’d encourage you to be thankful for the abundance that is available.

Do not focus on what you can’t have. Focus on how fortunate you are that there is such a simple answer to good health that does not involve all that much effort. Be thankful that you can walk into any grocery store and get the staples you need. Be thankful that you have a way to clean and cook food. When you are tempted to go down the path of feeling bad, stop for a moment to reflect on all that you do have.

This week, as you start your challenges I want to encourage you to try working toward more simplicity. Maybe that’s a meal of just potatoes, greens and beans. Maybe it’s putting back the expensive “substitute” , maybe it’s walking somewhere instead of getting in your car.

We are so fortunate to have what we do, as you move forward in your plant-strong journey be sure to keep what you do have in focus. More importantly, keep in focus what you WILL have as a result of eating this way

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Natala Constantine
  • Doreen
    Posted at 02:32h, 06 February

    I’m printing this out and reading it every day. As a believer in Christ I should complain less and rejoice more in the blessings that God has given to me. Thank you Natala, YOU are a blessing.

  • Michele
    Posted at 06:28h, 06 February

    Thank you for this wonderful post!

  • Kelsey Steele
    Posted at 07:10h, 06 February

    Such a lovely post. Thank you for sharing! It is a good practice to keep this in mind.

  • Inghram
    Posted at 08:07h, 06 February

    Nice article Natala…well said and true.

  • Jan
    Posted at 08:11h, 06 February

    Yes, we are blessed. I thanked the Lord as I bought my bananas, apples, and blackberries at the grocery store in the middle of winter.

  • Susan Leshinsky
    Posted at 08:15h, 06 February

    Wow – thank you for giving me some perspective. An attitude of gratitude – my goal for the day!!

  • Cheryl
    Posted at 08:30h, 06 February

    NAtala, you should do a talk about this, people need it, I needed it, all I do is complain about food.

  • Jerry Aman
    Posted at 08:30h, 06 February

    Natala, Thank You for all you do. You are an inspiration to me. I was very moved the first time I heard you speak in Sedona(last fall), and once again you have moved me with this article. Keep doing what you are doing….We Love You!

  • Debbie
    Posted at 08:36h, 06 February

    I’ve said it before, but you need a book, your perspective is so honest and real, thank you for this.

  • Melissa
    Posted at 08:42h, 06 February

    I agree with Jerry, you are such an inspiration, I got to hear you speak and I feel so lucky, your story, your message, all of it has changed my life, thank you.

  • Amy Ringo Lane
    Posted at 08:48h, 06 February

    Natala, I love this! Thank you for sharing your most excellent thoughts on this subject! I have found, during my plant strong journey, that some of my favorite, most delicious meals are also the most simple. I love to cook, so I’ve done a lot of the “trying to duplicate this or that” by making things from scratch in my kitchen, but have settled into a MUCH more simple routine now, and I love it! It seems that this perspective problem permeates our society so deeply that it’s in almost all areas of our lives now. I get frustrated so often with my co-workers or my friends on Facebook for the things they are complaining about. I sometimes wish I could give them my eyes and ears, or better still, the eyes and ears of someone much less fortunate than we, so they could see for themselves how spoiled, Joe ridiculous they sound. It makes me sad. Thank you, again, Natala. This was so refreshing to read!

  • Gail
    Posted at 09:06h, 06 February

    Natalia! This was wonderful and so very timely! Thanks for this perspective! It is a great thing to remember at the beginning of this challenge! I think reading this often will help me succeed on this journey! thank you so much!!

  • Kathy Caldwell
    Posted at 09:48h, 06 February

    I love your posts and inspiration. We met at the Farm to Forks event last August and you all inspired me to take the course in Plant Based Nutrition from Cornell. I am taking it now and really learning a lot. Keep up the wonderful work. I am very proud of you. See you again in August! πŸ™‚

  • mikecrosby
    Posted at 09:53h, 06 February

    Natala, Fantastic! Embarrassed to say, I felt the same way about popcorn.

    The more I get away from salt, oil and sugar, the more I realize the beauty of this simplicity. It’s an exciting path. I boiled beans and had for a snack. No salt, spices, nothing but the beans. As I’m reading the internet, I just would pop one bean at a time in my mouth. Before long, the cup was empty and I had the feeling of fullness.

    Is the homeless shelter across from the IRS Tax Court? Years ago my cousin was a nurse there (back in Mitch Snyder days) and he said sometimes he would take socks off of people and their toes would come off too. Not sure if it’s true, but that’s what he told me.

  • Marla
    Posted at 09:55h, 06 February

    Wow! Thank you so much.

  • Lc Starr
    Posted at 09:57h, 06 February

    Excellent post and perspective once again. This reminds me of my friend who grew up poor in Thailand. She once told me a story about her father catching a fish. They used that fish for a week to help feed a family of 6 and they were very thankful to have that luxury to add to their diet.

  • risa
    Posted at 10:37h, 06 February

    Thank you for sharing, this article
    is so true.

  • Ann Bright Jenson
    Posted at 10:41h, 06 February

    I’ve seen it so many times. The more we have the less grateful we are. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Spe Matt Spewak
    Posted at 10:56h, 06 February

    Excellent, excellent post. Thank you for the perspective. The only area I feel that it is hard is going out socially in my town where there are practically no healthy vegan options. I usually just eat before going out, but it does feel isolating. It’s not the lack of options — really it’s no options. Either I eat at home or I can eat iceberg lettuce and onions. So I go out to eat with friends much less now, unless we agree to dine Asian…I am so grateful for ethnic food where I know I can get veggies and rice. Really it’s just the American eateries (S.A.D. is SAD) that I have no plantstrong options. But maybe I need to stop feeling disappointed and work harder to convince these restaurants to change πŸ˜‰

  • justme
    Posted at 12:15h, 06 February

    Thank you so much for this. I too will print it and post it on my fridge. Even before I was an exclusive plant eater, I ate storable staple foods a lot. It is so easy and inexpensive to mail order #25 bags of organic oats, rice, or beans. For a couple hundred dollars, a person can be set for six months to a year. Sprout seeds allow us to grow the very freshest greens right in our own kitchens. It is easy and tasty to live on these foods with some dehydrated onions, carrots, cabbage, spinach, and spices. Because of flavor engineering, we think we have to have TASTE to enjoy our foods. Not so…taste delivered by plain foods is delightful when addiction to TASTE has been broken. I am grateful to have never been hungry and pray it is always my blessing.

  • landog
    Posted at 16:08h, 06 February

    My gas station has no bananas !! πŸ™‚

    • Martha
      Posted at 00:30h, 07 February

      good one landog πŸ™‚ so funny/sad that people would actually say that! Got the sarcasm!

  • macbev
    Posted at 08:06h, 07 February

    I recently came home from a medically supervised fast and refeeding program. When I stopped fasting and began to eat simple foods like steamed zucchini, steamed asparagus, etc., they were sooo delicious! I had never really tasted my food before in an unadulterated “unseasoned” state. Now, I find myself drifting back towards the pursuit of entertainment via food. Reading your post reminded me that I don’t really need to do that, even if everyone around me does. I don’t need to gild the lily. I can eat “plain” and love it!

    • JohnConstutution
      Posted at 20:33h, 08 February

      Yes, plain foods are great! If we train ourselves to eat simply we can enjoy a tremendous variety of flavors that are part of our foods naturally.

  • JohnConstutution
    Posted at 20:30h, 08 February

    What an encouraging and insightful article, thank you for sharing Natala!

    I have been following the McDougall plan for 9 months now and I find myself wanting to simplify my eating. Eating this way has taught me to think of food as fuel rather than as a means of entertainment, so I no longer need constant variety and elaborate recipes. Put a few complimentary ingredients together and I’m happy.

    As a follower of Jesus Christ I am also learning that I do not need to worry about what I will eat, but to be content with what the Lord provides.

    And, like you, I also have a passion for the homeless, whatever I can save by eating simply frees up food and other resources that can be shared with those in need.

  • Isabel
    Posted at 11:19h, 13 February

    Beautiful! This is the best blog I’ve read on this site (and they’re all good, lol!). Thank you for putting it all in perspective, Natala.

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