Kimchi, America’s Favorite Side Dish

Kimchi is a spicy, fermented cabbage side dish that I became acquainted with during my time in Korea and has remained a part of my diet ever since. There are a quite a few varieties of Kimchi. The types of kimchi were created as a practical matter in the time before effective refrigeration and food storage and is based partly on the availability of seasonal vegetables and the weather. Kimchi is a popular and traditional side dish in Asia but for those outside of that region it can be, like the rapper who pretends to ride a horse, an acquired taste.

Relax. You don’t have to be a “foodie” to enjoy kimchi. It isn’t some odd, esoteric concoction that you eat only because it is hip, unique or have to endure once or twice because everyone is talking about it. One of the worst things to happen to kimchi was it being “discovered” by yuppies in America during the late 1980s. The costs of the ingredients skyrocketed, quality suffered and making it from scratch became more of a luxury than a must have condiment in our refrigerator. A few years ago crop failures of the main ingredient caused a crisis that required the Korean Government to take action.

Glass jars are best for storage in refrigerator

Like many foods foreign to the American experience there are a lot of unsubstantiated, unscientific claims attributed to eating kimchi. These are mostly cultural in origin, perpetuated today as selling points and continuing traditions. Plenty of  the restaurants not owned by large chains commonly have signs posted declaring the unrealistic and miraculous health benefits of various dishes. Disappointingly, this is endemic among much of the advertising for consumer products also. Online you can find even more information claiming all sorts of woo-woo magical powers attributed to all sorts of foods so don’t get excited. Cabbage and red pepper are not parts of the formula for the ancient Asian mystic secret of good health, virility and long life. It does not “clean the blood”, “revitalize the spirits”, “strengthen the kidneys” or anything else beyond the basic nutritional value of the ingredients which are not insubstantial. As example of the questionable common knowledge attributed to some foods: An ingredient used for more than a century as a flavoring in drinks touted as a natural health miracle with wondrous properties eventually was discovered to be a very  powerful natural carcinogen. The deleterious effects where ignored or unknown for years because of the power of superstition, folk remedies and the criminal carelessness of homeopathy. Only trust peer reviewed science, kids. 

The Wall of Kimchi at a local market. One of them.

There can be a lot of salt found in the recipe for kimchi. If you have special dietary needs make sure you never trust the hip, word-of-mouth promotion or self-serving public relations and hard sell of any food stuffs. Do some research, read up and be informed. While I can’t grant any special health properties to kimchi I’ve eaten it when congested. From anecdotal experience, the spiciness make me feel better, drains and opens up the sinuses. But so will chomping on a jalapeno,  gnawing on a lozenge or rubbing Mentholatum grease on my chest. Nothing magic there, just the body’s normal and natural responses.

If you have wanted to try kimchi or Korean food then as a start I suggest visiting the Korean restaurants in your city. The All-You-Can-Eat BBQ is enjoying increasingly popularity but that may be over-whelming for the uninitiated. You can cook Korean meals yourself but if unfamiliar with the style rather than going through a trial and error stage find out what the authentic dish tastes like first. As a way of easing into a world of foreign cuisine try the lunch menus during the day at Korean restaurants. They are simpler, priced reasonably and you won’t have to deal with the crowds, wait time and hassle of the evening dinner rush and cooking the meal yourself at the table, though that can be a fun experience.

Most places serve a large spread of side dishes with even the smallest lunch menu item so don’t be surprised by the amounts you receive. If you don’t like wasting food get a to-go tray when done (if the establishment supports that, some don’t because of people that take a yard when given an inch). One of those side dishes will usually contain at least one variety of kimchi. Keep in mind that a lot of these dishes are not created from frozen, processed food that is microwaved and slapped on a plate following some corporate franchise photo-template of what a perfect and homogenized dish will look like. Quality of supplies change daily as expected with fresh items so don’t be discouraged if something isn’t up to your expectations or doesn’t look like you think it should from your experiences in the freezer aisle of the local market. Asian meals have a lot of vegetables in them but eating an authentically prepared dish will very much remind you that meat is made from animals.

Babimbap and side dishes

If you want kimchi regularly at home there are a lot of good cook books available and even recipes for it online. You can eat it as is out of the jar or use it in cooking. Heck, make up your own ideas. Browse a market that carries a variety and decide what size and type of kimchi you want. Many Asian and American markets sell kimchi but it is a Korean specialty so try Korean markets first. I prefer the cabbage that is pre-cut in the jar because it is more convenient to use and less messy. I also enjoy the large radish kimchi. The type you get is based on what you are going to use it for. FYI, when cooked kimchi often gets spicier, via reduction.

Most modern American grocery stores keep a brand or two of small jars of kimchi in the cold aisle, usually by the tofu. These brands are okay but not what I prefer. I personally find the most typical brand found in a regular grocery store to be pale, watery, lacking in heat and tasting strongly of salt and vinegar. A trip to a Korean or Asian market is your best bet for quality kimchi. Just compare the rich colors of the kimchi made for a knowledgeable and particular customer base and the kind you find in a American chain grocery. You can easily see the difference. Unlike many food products in this instance the color is an indicator of manufacture and quality. I also appreciate kimchi in a glass jar over plastic for storage purposes.

 


Kimchi prep at home:
You’ve bought a jar of kimchi, now what do you do? Like most people you are probably just going to put in the refrigerator to keep it cold. Sure, you want to do that, eventually. But first you might want to prepare your kimchi by letting it ferment a while before putting it away. Don’t worry, it’s easy to do though this will be a process that should take overnight. You can eat the kimchi right away after you buy it but letting the contents ferment a bit will improve even the taste of the grocery store brands. I recommend tasting some for a before and after comparison.

Leaving food out overnight is something you have to decide for yourself if you want to do. My wife is a native Korean and we have both prepped kimchi this way for nearly 25 years without ill effects. Some of the ingredients are stored for months without turning. This is how she learned to prepare it growing up in Korea. She is from a generation that still makes almost everything from scratch. Again, up to you.

  1. Before retiring for the day place your kimchi jar in a plastic bag and place it in a sink. If your sink is the type that stains then you will want to ensure any liquids (a brine which will be red in color) go directly into the drain.  
  2. Loosen lid. Loosely tie up bag. Kimchi is very aromatic so be prepared for that to permeate the area.
  3. Leave in sink overnight.
  4. In the morning you may notice bubbles in the jar and swelling of the contents. Some juice will probably have overflowed. This is from the contents fermenting. Tip a bit of the juice out.
  5. Tighten lid firmly.
  6. Rinse exterior of jar thoroughly and dry off.  
  7. Put in refrigerator (I suggest on a paper towel or plate to catch any future drips).

If you sampled the kimchi yesterday when you got home do it again today. You should definitely notice a difference in taste and texture. Kimchi has a very strong presence but keeping the lid tight and exterior of the jar clean should prevent any odors being absorbed by the other contents of the refrigerator.

If you don’t want the kimchi to ferment in the manner I described then make sure you drain some of the liquid from the jar before you put it away. Even kept cold right from the store the contents will ferment a bit over time and the fluid may leak out into the refrigerator

The uses for kimchi in cooking is varied. Other than the many Asian recipes it is traditionally used for I put it on almost anything. Burgers, grilled cheese, hot dogs, burritos, pizza (after I remove the pie from the oven, some like it baked into the pizza) and anything I can think of to spice up the meal. There is a place in San Diego that makes a butt-kicking bulgogi with kimchi burrito and some serious kimchi fries.

Read more about Korea’s side dish online here: Kimchi at Wikipedia.

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Grocery Store Artifact: Probable Causes

This is a follow up to the post Before donating at the register.

Went in to work last week to see the signs threatening employees that don’t ask for donations were all removed. They were removed by a directive from the corporate level. The store manager informed everyone that they are no longer allowed to post signs offering free items for not begging for donations or run raffles. Their are a few likely reasons I can speculate about for this but I doubt it is because the company is taking pity on the cashiers. In last month’s big training session the district manager spent 30 minutes impressing upon everyone to get as much in donations as possible because it is a good thing to do and you can make a difference. The ‘or else’ was inferred but unspoken though we were told a charming story of how the least-donation earning employee in the district in danger of being terminated turned her prospects around and is now a shining example of a ‘can do’ attitude.

Here are some of the reasons I can think of why the signs were disposed of:

Compliance: One scenario is that the law prohibits it or the union has finally responded to what must be a huge flood of grievances from workers. People have been terminated, censured and demoted because they are not bringing in enough in customer donations. A manager would be pretty stupid to put that cause as a reason for termination so they dissemble or fabricate other reasons. An investigation would reveal a disturbing trend and restore the job but unfortunately even with a union at their side many young employees give up knowing they can get a job for same pay with less work somewhere else.

Cost: Since most stores that give away free items have no way to account for them being disbursed (this is a trail many managers would be uncomfortable being tracked and accounted for). The amount of shrink, or rather product loss, on whatever is being given to the customer (2 liter soda, reusable shopping bag, etc) must be prohibitive company-wide. For example, a large retail chain used to give away boxes and books of matches for free. That is, until a few years ago someone saw the annual losses in matches sales and how much the store was giving away and put a halt to it. Likewise someone may have noticed how much the company was losing in bags and soda and made the connections to the timing of donation drives.

Complaints: At least once per hour I receive a complaint from a customer about us asking for donations. Some display a good nature, some resigned. A few are hostile. At more than 4000 customers a day per store imagine the complaints nationwide not just at the store level but those getting phoned in and via internet messaging to the corporate level. This is least likely reason some of the pressure is off the cashiers. Unlike other complaints about service, cleanliness and diversity of products so important is the goal of fund-raising that a company will commiserate with a complaint but they would never, ever stop their attempts to collect for a cause.

Public Perception: Increasingly, particularly due to the fraud and public relations disasters of the last several years charities are under ever more scrutiny as to what they do with their collected funds. Calls for clarity and transparency particularly during rough economic times of charities are increasingly frequent. Charity drives that pledge ‘up to’ 2 million in donations, yet regularly collect 7-9 million during the drive are being asked to account for where the surplus is going. Some companies are forthcoming with where the money goes and unsurprisingly some are very resistant to the idea of letting the people who gave them money become aware of where it all went. Is most of it going to cure a disease or to buy a sitting board member a Porsche or paying for fact-finding junkets to vacation resorts? Some companies that support causes, the most popular of which is for breast cancer awareness, use a marketing tactic known as ‘pinkwashing‘.  This is when a company has minimal involvement or is not actually participating in the cause but for marketing purposes gives the impression through imagery and color scheme that it does. I am also wary of any charity that states they are promoting ‘awareness’ and ‘education’ and not directly making the promotion of medical science and a cure their primary mission. Depending on the charity  the terms ‘awareness’ and ‘education’ could mean nothing more than pink ribbons on things to buy and may not be in their purview or mission to promote such basic preventive services as mammograms or a healthy diet.

Conflict of interest: This is the most likely cause for removing the signage on the registers and relieving the pressure on the cashiers. Among other things how much a store collects in donations has a direct bearing on a store manager’s evaluation. Lesser known is that most companies also attach a financial incentive to performance. Bonuses for top-performing managers can be very lucrative. No single aspect of managing a store can ensure a large bonus and they are evaluated on a whole but politics coupled with success in desired ‘sexy’ areas lead to positive evaluations and then a bigger bonus.

Some time ago in the company I worked for the financial incentive for the cashier that collected the most for a donation drive was removed. It was eliminated because of the discovery that company-wide many would add a donation to the customer’s bill without their knowledge. It would have been a good idea to stop the manager incentive at the same time but the corporate mind-set is that unless threatened the workers will not ask and the managers won’t put in the effort unless they make it worth their while.

Managers are notorious for gaming the system to their advantage. Nothing wrong with that. It is expected they do the job the best of your ability by being smarter, faster and more competent than your peers. But there is a line you don’t cross. They often collect donations prior to the official start date and continue to collect after the drive is completed. Funds from one drive may be diverted to the cause more favored by their direct superiors. Found money or errors in the store’s favor, which is supposed to be applied to the total sales for the day will be instead added to the donation total (such funds are recorded separately and returned if someone claims the money or requests a refund, we just don’t let it sit loose in a drawer). They hold raffles and do other stunts designed to create an unfair advantage over other stores.

Since the signs were removed and word came down that raffles and other donation attempts are no longer allowed then it is highly probable that enough managers made noise about their disadvantages compared to other managers. They may have felt they were marginalized or punished for following the rules. With the added aspect of employees grievances the issue may have been brought to someone’s attention. It is probably that in the interest of ethics, keeping the peace and fairness put a stop to the practice which made life a bit easier for the cashiers. For now.

Truth is, requesting donations over and over sometimes in the same order bears good and positive results. Undoubtedly there will be a marked drop in donations merely due to many of the cashiers no longer feeling they have to request one from each and every customer. If that happens I speculate that the pressure on the workers will return multiplied many times over but be presented in terms that are not so public and will have to do more with an employees’ general attitude and overall job performance.

Grocery Store Artifact: How haste makes waste that affects your food

Thinking of eating at your local deli? Work spaces looks nice and clean, staff looks appropriately groomed, caring and conscientious? Well, before you do take a glance at the phone and any register behind the counter. Regardless of the service and appearance of everything else if the secondary equipment is unclean then in spite of how everything else appears they may be indicative of a greater problem in the service area. In the delicatessen the grime on peripheral equipment consists at the least of a slurry of meat and vegetable oils, fats and other bits of food and chemicals transferred by touch and deposited via the air from venting ovens, fry vats and steam tables. In short the surfaces of any neglected food prep area equipment are a constant and unhealthy vector for germs.

Much of this is directly due to the economy and the way it shapes retail establishment operations. Certainly, any business can be prone too cutting corners on safety. Not all eating establishments fall prey to this mentality but even those who truly care about quality and their products can unintentionally create an environment where food safety is less than a primary concern. When sales are depressed then the number of employees available in store departments are reduced. More work is given to less and less staff without an increase in the time allowed for completing the extra tasks. Budgets for staffing is tight and few stores can afford to have any department work at a loss. This leads to a constant atmosphere of playing catch up with the wrong decisions to let certain things go by the wayside in an attempt to stay current with basic duties. Haste in this instance, makes waste that could end up in the food chain.

Speed and trying to keep up with the basic demands of the department are not the only cause of  sub-standard work areas but most of the problems in an otherwise fine environment stem from time pressures causing stress on the employees. Likewise depending on where you shop basic food prep areas and hygiene may be unfavorable because people are sometimes lazy, slovenly or careless. That is why most cities have entire departments dedicated to training, certification, sanitation, inspection and rating of eating establishments. As a minimum all the equipment whether it is used in food prep or not should be as clean and presentable as possible. Dirty phones and cash registers in the service area, normally not directly related to food prep, may reveal that the staff could be under pressure to serve customers at the expense of department safety. Primarily this may be because of employees feeling they are unable to fully complete their tasks while ensuring they assist customers as close to possible to the end of the business day without occurring any overtime or going past their scheduled shift. Rightly or wrongly employees often feel that they do not have the time to clean anything but the basic equipment before they are forced to sign out from their shift and depart. When the department is closed for the day the equipment, main and peripheral areas should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. If the peripheral areas are not being fully cleaned then the department is not being properly managed. This negatively affects the consumer.

This is not alarmist. I’ve worked in a deli and have often observed people absentmindedly touching a handle, cleaning rag, phone and etc. while properly wearing gloves but failing to change them before helping another customer. While California is stricter regarding food prep standards my deli employment experience was in Maryland. The region is which I worked did not require food workers to obtain training and certifications in handling food safely and instead relied on an employer’s sometimes inadequate and poorly executed on-the-job training programs. In Maryland all my food safety was learned from co-workers and in total consisted of about an hour of common-sense tips of how to clean equipment, cut and handle food over a the span of a week or so while I worked.

The majority of what I learned about food safety wasn’t volunteered and there were no set training tasks to be completed, goals to be met or a curriculum. If I didn’t specifically ask about something I wasn’t told how to do it or how to care for it. For instance, a probe is used to check temperatures on the products in the case to ensure they will not spoil. Employees regularly inserted the probe into the products one after the other. They did this because no one had ever told them that using the same probe was a bad practice and caused transference of one product between another. Since some products were cooked, some raw, some older than others and some were still sealed this violated basic hygiene and caused cross-contamination within an entire stock on a nearly daily basis (The proper way to check the temperatures was to place the probe between each item in the case). In contrast, a class provided by a vendor of popular deli meats and cheeses to learn how to properly present and sell their product comprised of a classroom course of 8 hours a day for 5 days (employees that failed the course were demoted to bagging clerk or terminated, depending on their pay scale going in). While that was Maryland human nature is much the same everywhere and there are problems common wherever you are. Being a manager is guiding human nature into other better directions to achieve goals.

Staff working in rough economic times are often not scheduled past closing for the purposes of cleaning or other duties. For example, if the deli closes at 10 pm then odds are the employees are also scheduled so that there shift is over at about the same time. The closing workers are often forced to clean and prepare the deli for the next day near the end of  the shift and hope no customers arrive which would cause them to clean the equipment again and accrue overtime or work past their schedule which would violate the budget for allotted hours. The deli staff may also be under instructions by management that for a positive customer service experience and in the hopes of one extra sale before closing they must assist any customer that arrives regardless of the time or how near the end of shift a staff member may be. During periods of inadequate staffing employees from other departments may volunteer or be tasked to assist departments that prepare food. Some regions have laws that do not require employees to become a certified food handler unless they work in a food prep area for a set number of days. That means a company can use any employee they choose to assist a deli or meat and seafood department as long as they don’t work there too many consecutive days in a row. Think about that. 

In the interests of speed and getting their tasks done it is not unheard of for family members or friends of the time-pressured employee to pitch in and help them finish their duties. Non-employees helping is unsafe in many ways. Not being employees they may be injured, are a liability and are not trained or certified in proper hygiene as required by law. I have witnessed this occurring in both Maryland and California (and as a manager have taken steps to halt the practice when I discovered it). A favored restaurant in Southern California I used to frequent recently lost their A-Rating Health Certification directly due to repeated violations concerning non-employed family members without food handler certifications working in the kitchen.

Haste to avoid getting censured or terminated for unauthorized overtime or working past the posted schedule can lead to poorly cleaned work areas and equipment. The night shift employees do what they can as time permits but sometimes leave a lot of work to be done by the opening crew. Common wisdom would be that the morning shift will have more employees available but this is not always the case. Even if staffed with a full complement the opening shift employees then however unintentionally perpetuates the cycle by being too busy with customers, morning food preparation and cooking to adequately clean up what was left undone from the day before. In between customers and the regular duties they then are forced to catch up with work from the previous day all while attempting to maintain standards during the busy day. Also, many establishments have a set time limit on how long a customer’s order will take or the item is free. This adds even more pressure to the employee to cut corners in the interest of speed to avoid losing a sale or a customer.
Compounding the problem the prevailing Management theory at most places is if the current employees are unable to do a thorough job in a timely and efficient manner then the next new-hire will. The result of all these factors is employees letting what is considered ‘unimportant’ in the routine operation of a deli slide in the interests of speed and getting done for the day. Unrealistic performance goals and being under-staffed is a reason there is so much turn-over of employees in chain delicatessens. High turn-over means that a good proportion of the staff is always new. A common complaint from customers is that no one in the deli seems to know what they are doing. This is due in large part to the rapid exit of knowledgeable employees who can receive the same wages for far less work and stress elsewhere and the steep learning curve of the new deli staff. In my experience it is not uncommon to see a new hire left alone on their first day in the deli because the scheduling budget will not provide for additional workers.
There is no excuse other than personal rationalization for a dirty food preparation area or equipment but the the reality is that this cycle will continue until such time as employees are under less pressure, assigned dedicated cleaning time that is uninterrupted by other tasks, regardless of if they exceed their scheduled shift with or without accruing overtime.

Grocery Store Artifact: Before donating at the register

I’ll go on record saying I don’t like asking customers for donations. Sure, most of the various causes are worthy but it is annoying. A lot of customers don’t like being asked but at my current work site they are not too hostile about being asked by the cashiers. Some places I have worked in the past the checkers would receive threats, derogatory remarks and complaints to the company above the store level. The complaints were not generalized against asking for charity but worded in such a way that they were attacks against the cashier for “rudeness” and intended to intimidate us into not asking them in the future.

It isn’t like we have a choice. So many cashiers dislike asking for charitable donations from customers that store managers have to threaten disciplinary action against employees for those that do not. The signs hanging on checkout stations promising a customer with some free item from the store is ubiquitous and familiar sight during donation drives. Employees can and have been terminated because they refuse to ask for donations. It occurs in some work locations more than others and that can be due to the customers themselves. Employees just don’t want to deal with the anger and grief they receive and since managers rarely support the employee they eventually get demoted or terminated.

Truth is, if a cashier asks every single customer for a donation the program will probably be at least moderately successful. The checkout experience is designed to maximize the donations. There are donation jars or boxes at every check stand, prompts at the point of sale pad where you pay with an electronic card and then cashier hits you up. At least one out of ten customers will donate something.

Particularly effective is the soft-pressure sales tactic. Many customers balk at giving a dollar but have little problem with donating by rounding up their purchase to the nearest dollar. It’s a really effective psychological trick because often the same customer that would decline giving a dollar will often round up to $1.50, $2.00 or more.

Results at the store level are important. Managers are evaluated by how much they bring in not only in sales but other projects like charitable donations. There is also a large financial incentive for the manager that brings in the most donations. It is not unusual for store managers to personally kick in money from their own pocket to meet the expected goal for that day. Doing that helps them keep their jobs. If they don’t or can’t make their goal…well, there are plenty of people in line waiting for their jobs who say they can exceed expectations. In a lot of ways sales and donations are really things that managers don’t have control over as they are at the mercy of the economy. Employees are under a lot of pressure to bring in donations “or else” so please don’t take it out on them.

People should always feel comfortable about where the money they give is going. Where I work the company gives 100% of what they receive in donations to the charity they are supporting. How the charity disburses the funds after they but receive them is another matter. Stores usually receive materials that describe what happens with your donations but the best bet is to check out their online declarations. You may be surprised at what you find. Some retailers accept donations for a cause but will only donate up to a certain amount, say $2 million. But particularly for large chains over the course of the drive they will have collectively amassed far more than that. Depending on the company the extra funds will be dispersed evenly among the many charities they support year round or in some rare cases just go straight into the store coffers.

Charity Do’s and Don’ts!

DO: Research. Check retailer websites for their list of charitable declarations. It isn’t a big deal. You can even do it on your smartphone while in line. CharityWatch and Charity Navigator might be a few good resources to check where your money could be going.

DON’T
: Dig into the donation jar at the checkstand to help pay your bill. What you buy costs what it costs. If your total is $20.33 don’t take the change intended for hungry, crippled children because you don’t want to break another dollar bill. This happens at least once daily where I work. Stop it.

DO
: Get the tax identification number for the charity ahead of time before you sit down to declare it on your taxes. If the store or charitable organization’s tax identification number for the donation doesn’t appear on the receipt ask for it or look it up. Stores should but don’t always have on hand paperwork stating the TID number for the charity. Don’t count on them being able to find it right away since the office side of a retail store is particularly chaotic and usually overwhelmed with BS. The one document with the information you need will likely be buried in a month-deep flood of motivational/threatening emails or lost in a pile of paper flyers from a promotion that expired 3 weeks ago. Your best bet is to call customer service or look it up on their website.

DON’T
: Come in to the store the last week of April after filing your taxes clutching a handful of receipts demanding a refund for all your checkstand donations over the last year claiming the cashier did it without your permission. That’s just cheap and embarrassing. People do this.

DO: Be nice to the cashier when they ask for a donation. Just say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ even though the point of sale pad requested it when you swiped your payment card. They have to ask.

DON’T
: Give the cashier a story about how you “Already donated” or “Not this time, I give every day” or “I give a lot elsewhere” because A) We don’t care, B) We’re sure you are a good person, C) We know you are lying to feel better about yourself in a public venue with strangers judging you and D) We don’t care.

Discrimination in the workplace

“The Sky Fairy is angered! Hide!”

In between lulls at work the clerks and cashiers, instead of doing prep work or cleaning, often stand around and chat. Eventually, one conversation veered into one of the taboos of workplace interaction: Talking about religion or politics.

Last year a clerk and cashier, who here I will call Cindy and Julie, began trading stories of their brushes with the unseen world. I was kind of half-paying attention while I audited the money of a cash drawer ensuring money coming in and going out balanced.

“I saw a ghost, once, too! It was so weird and scary. Yet somehow, I felt that I was being reassured.” Cindy said.

Julie’s voice became excited. “I know! See, I always forget to clock out for lunch until about a quarter after. Guess when my Grandma died? 15 minutes past two! It’s like she is here telling me something.”

Listening to their exchange caused me to roll my eyes so much I had to recount the cash. Without realizing it I was laughing. It took a few moments but Cindy and Julie realized I was amused by their conversation. They stopped their chat and directed their attentions towards me.

“What’s so funny?” Cindy was sounding defensive. Julie stared angrily.

“You didn’t see any ghosts. There are no such things.” I said, going straight into JREF-mode, still chuckling. Usually when I am exposed to an adult talking about the supernatural as if it were real I’m just kind of sad and disappointed. But today for some reason I found the idea hilarious. I tried to come off as rational and not condescending. I wasn’t very successful at the attempt. When the two repeated that they did see and experience a supernatural event I replied. “No, you didn’t.”

“Are you calling us liars?” Julie demanded. They were both becoming upset. I always have some prepared  statements in the mental file. The argument I put forth was perhaps lacking in tact itself. My mistake was in assuming the pair were open for a debate.

“You are either making it up, making connections where none exist or you are deluded.” I said. “Magic and the supernatural absolutely does not exist. If it did the evidence would be overwhelming. It would be everywhere. No one could dispute it. Without exception it’s all someone’s personal opinion. If it was factual, if it was real it could be recorded and measured in a form other than anecdotal.”

Julie leaned forwards toward me as if to emphasize he words even though we were several work stations apart. “Oh.” She said. Her voice was ripe with scorn. “What are you…an Atheist?”

That’s exactly how she said it. I could actually hear the italics. Total emphasis on the disgust. Yet what I took from it is she just wanted an uncomfortable conversation to end. It did, not because of the attempted put down or because she had an epiphany but because customers started walking up with their groceries to check out. For the rest of the day they both acted chilly and would not talk to me unless they had to.

Cindy let it go by the end of the shift, displaying a cool shoulder towards me probably in a show of solidarity with Julie. Cindy is young and has presumably has access to the internet so there is hope for her. I was over it immediately. But from then on Julie remained stand-offish and treated me like I had the plague. In her job as a manager, the same as I but with her possessing slightly less seniority, she would not address me unless she had no choice. Julie would call an adjacent work station and have them relay requests or instructions. She would not directly interact in person and would move people around to make sure she was a far from me in the row of check stands as possible. Sometimes she would swap 4 or 5 people and their duties around so she would not have to herself personally relieve me for breaks or for shift changes. If she was the designated person in charge of the shift that day I was passed over for opportunities or tasks that traditionally would be mine or excluded from the process of decision-making.

For my part I certainly didn’t hold it against Julie that she was a believer in the Unreal. She was competent at her job and that’s where my concerns ended. Julie was one of the few I worked with who did not adhere to the Culture of Half-Assedness that exists in so many work places. But Julie made it clear she had washed her hands of me. Julie employed a somewhat subtle form of marginalization and discrimination but it was there. It was particularly noticeable when comparing our work relationship as it existed prior to my taking on the role of Ghostbuster.

Julie used to ask my advice on how to perform certain tasks and duties. I was glad to help. She was one of those managers who because of tighter economic times was given minimal training and dropped into the job. It wasn’t her personal failing if she hadn’t been exposed to or given the opportunities others in her position had. Whenever she expressed frustration and not knowing as much about the job as other managers I let her know there is nothing wrong with that, just keep asking questions until you know everything. Something she accepted and I would presume appreciated at least as far as the job went.

In hardly any time at all I went from being a co-worker to The Enemy. If Julie had been in a higher position of authority or had more influence with the upper echelons of management it could have presented me with a problem that could have easily affected my employment. Not from our original conversation about ghosts but due to her trying to force me out of a job solely because I was, in her view, not fit to be around her sort of good people. This discriminatory practice against the non-devout and those with religions not in the mainstream is not rare and in some cases can be quite overt and extreme. Employment can and has been negatively affected. When Julie was transferred to a new work site it was a relief only because her behavior was getting hilariously absurd.  

To this day I don’t know what her personal religious beliefs are. I could hazard a guess based upon her actions and the way I was treated by her but I don’t want to speculate. I require evidence.

This is why you are hated

This section from an actual grocery store receipt I found exemplifies exactly why so many politicians, pundits and civilians display such rage towards those of the public that are receiving benefits from the Government.

Recently I witnessed a customer making a food purchase using EBT card, a State of California benefit card. The card, when used as it is intended, assists those struggling in our society with purchases of food and other necessities. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes people need a bit of help due to the economy, health or other valid reasons. The card is linked to an account containing funds that is then used to buy groceries and other sundry items can be purchased as long as those items are on an approved list. A few examples of items that can not be purchased using the EBT system are alcohol and hot prepared delicatessen foods. Cold sandwiches can be purchased but hot sandwiches will not process.

Some EBT cards also have a cash option included which is drawn from other benefits and linked to the card. This option allows withdrawals of funds just like if someone was using an ATM and is supposed to be used for those items where an electronic payment is not possible or allowed by the system. Paying for a flat tire to be repaired, a monthly buss pass, phone bill or rent to name a few. What the found receipt displayed here reveals is how easy it is to circumvent the EBT system and use it in ways it was not intended.

What the receipt shows is a misuse of funds and a corruption of the benefits system. The same customer, who had just purchased a cart of food using EBT, then bought a bottle of wine with the same benefits card by selecting the electronic cash option to pay for it. Using State of California assistance benefits this customer purchased a bottle of wine for $9.99 plus tax and also received $20 cash back. After the transaction was completed the customer discarded both receipts onto the floor as they walked away.

It is also noteworthy that the customer refused to use their store loyalty card for the purchase of wine, which would have resulted in a saving of nearly five dollars off the total. In the previous transaction when they purchased food they made a point of using their loyalty card and several coupons. They were demonstrably aware of how to shop wisely and were not unfamiliar with how the EBT system worked or appeared obviously judgmentally impaired in some way.

Not taking advantage of store discounts appears to be a common practice among those receiving public assistance and I’ve observed it too many times to count from my time as a cashier. One can’t help but speculate that if this person’s financial situation was so dire, even if they splurged for once, common sense dictates that stretching the benefits as long as they can would be foremost in their decision making. It is a reality that an emergency could arise before the card is reloaded with more funds at the end of the month. The socially disadvantaged, for many reasons, usually have greater out-of-pocket and up-front expenses. Those with greater resources typically have a buffer for health, transportation and other emergencies than those with a fixed or negative income. It is a simple matter of liquidity.

What is likely is that they fear tracking of their purchases and reporting to an agency by the store . This concern has same basis in fact. I witnessed one incident where a bodega owner who routinely used his entire EBT benefit to purchase sodas to stock the shelves of his business was reported to a fraud hotline. Using his “free money” benefits at the grocery store is probably far less expensive than buying the same amount of stock from authorized soda vendors or the discounts offered in a bulk items store. A few people concerned with the bodega owner purchasing soda in amounts far above what would reasonably considered to be for personal use reported him to the benefits office and shortly after that he stopped visiting the store.

Customers who use their EBT card for purchases of alcohol and other questionable items display little worry that their purchases are recorded and tracked by the card itself, which is alarming. Almost all the customers I’ve observed getting cash or buying items one would not associate with keeping the family healthy appear more worried about tracking at the store level than their case worker. Purchasing habits by any form of payment are regularly recorded and evaluated by stores, manufacturers and advertisers but not by the State of California? One would think that any multimillion dollars program would have a vested interest in ensuring the money is well-spent.

It would be hard if not impossible to completely secure the system. Someone will always try to get over and there will always be loopholes and enablers. Rather than require people who already can’t afford transportation or child care to work in order to receive some benefits, as more than a few politicians are proposing, there are other measures that can minimize the gaming of the system. A simple tweak of a computer program (similar to the one the WIC program enacted a few months ago that halted the purchase of some unhealthier foods and minimize costly errors in processing benefits) could go a long way towards making sure that such fraud and abuse by the recipients of assistance was limited. Regular audits of purchases and spending habits that would alert on questionable purchases or cash withdrawals. If such audits are already being accomplished then they are not being monitored effectively. Sure, such attention will cost but the gains from locking down the probably millions in misspent funds would be worth it.

It is clear the benefits system is broken and it is up to California fix it. But let’s consider: If the system is dysfunctional then someone, somewhere is getting filthy rich off of it being so. Is it the small percentage of taxes from cigarette and alcohol sales that allow such purchases to go under the radar? That is extra cash that the State would not receive otherwise. Is their no info-dump of purchases or audits of EBT accounts being performed even randomly?

A common complaint from retail workers and customers is people using an EBT card to buy party trays, BBQ supplies, liquor and cigarettes. But at a store level there is nothing to be done. This has to be addressed at a State level. Change can be accomplished, much like when benefit cards at Casinos was disallowed a few years ago. When it became embarrassingly public that a large number of people were using their benefit cards at casinos California took steps to halt the practice. It was a simple software fix. The cards won’t work at casinos. When that was disallowed people howled, now forced to either spend their funds on groceries or more likely, seek out other avenues to cash out benefits in order to drop into slot machines.

So come on California. I don’t think anyone would begrudge anyone else a hand now and then, but there is a financial crisis going on. Take some basic steps to ensure benefit recipients buy food, not wine and party supplies.