Student debt, costly education, and lots of students – California may be creating yet another model for the nation

We recently learned that student debt in the United States has surpassed $1 trillion. What is a trillion anyway? Well, if you don’t know, it’s the same as a million people each owing a million dollars; or a billion people each owing a thousand bucks. In short, the people who owe this enormous sum are folks who attended an institution of “higher learning” (more on the quotes in a moment) and are now stuck with the bill.

How did this happen? In my other blog – which I co-author with the Consumer Gal (Cheryl Levinosn) we have discussed one major reason in our posts as well as in our book Enough of Us. If parents have kids and hope that their kids will one day go to college, they have to start planning for that eventuality. It makes our blood boil when parents of modest means don’t scrimp and save from the moment they become aware of the pregnancy. No smart phones, cable TV, or expensive gadgets. Forget the plans for upscale vacations or cars for the teens. That money belongs to the college-bound.

We live in the Bay Area; San Jose, to be exact. While the state is in terrible financial condition, it’s still a great place to live (ah, the weather!) But many educators, experts, and general Golden State residents worry about the future of California’s two great state university systems.

The education powers-that-be, including the governor and state legislature, are working desperately on higher education problems. The Cal Grant program helps low- and middle-income students pay for college. The state has formulated performance standards by which schools are eligible to receive funds that have been borrowed by students only if a quarter of students they graduate are able to pay off their loans in a reasonable amount of time.  This standard is an indicator that the schools are graduating young adults with usable skills that lead to jobs.

Unfortunately, not all so-called institutions of higher learning are what they purport to be. There is a spate of schools that promise advanced education and good jobs in fields where openings go begging. They advertise heavily on the Internet and TV. The problem is that they frequently draw their potential students from families that can’t afford to pay the tuition. Those students usually have to borrow from a variety of government sponsored sources. According to California Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski, about 90 percent of these schools’ funding come from Stafford Loans, Pell Grants, G.I. Bill Grants, and the state’s Cal Grants.

University of Phoenix Spokane Campus

California Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski

          The companies that run these schools netted $3.5 billion in 2009 and paid executive salaries of $41 million. Wall Street ain’t the only place where the governments get played for suckers. So while the execs rake in the bucks, most of the students gain few useful skills, have trouble – if any luck at all – finding relevant jobs, and are now burdened with heavy debt. As Wieckowski puts it, “We can’t continue to shovel taxpayer money into shareholder pockets, instead of adequately preparing students for their careers.”

          When Assemblyman Wieckowski introduced legislation this year requiring the schools to meet more stringent criteria in order to receive state grants,  the schools stepped up their lobbying efforts and managed to kill the bill in committee. The legislature never even got to vote on it. However, a coalition of reformers was able to make reforms in the budget process by cutting grants for high-priced schools, raised graduation-rate requirements, “and cracked down on schools with high loan default rates.”

In the meantime, both California State University and University of California systems, as well as the state’s community colleges, need more bucks. Perhaps with the reforms, there will be more state and federal financial benefits available.

This brings us back to the opening dilemma. Why aren’t parents providing for their kids’ higher education? If it’s because they can’t afford the costs, how can they afford the kids? This raises questions like:

  • Did they have more children than they could provide for?
  • Did they overspend on indulgences while the kids were growing up?
  • Would it be more realistic for their kids to attend junior colleges and after graduating look for higher education opportunities?
  • Should the kids work part time to help foot the bill while attending school?

And finally, when people who can afford to pay their share of taxes get significant tax deduction and a free K-12 scholarship for each kid, are we encouraging a system that is forever going to have trouble funding higher education. We go into this in some detail in Enough of Us. We need to consider whether or not we can afford to lower taxes for those families that will be asking the most help funding their children’s higher education.

Think about it and weigh in with your opinion.

Why are there so many lights on when the lights are off?

          I recently conducted an inventory in my house . . . in the dark. Well, almost dark. Just before going to sleep I went from room to room counting the number of lights that were on. Nightlights, digital clocks, power indicators on electronics, and even an indicator on our emergency standby plug-in flashlight.

         Our microwave oven, toaster oven and gas range each showed me the time . . . within a three-foot span! In all, there were more than 50 lights on in the house. It’s nuts!

          Almost one third of all electricity use in California homes is attributable to electronic devices, especially home entertainment equipment and computers. The rest goes to refrigerators, heaters, air conditioners, lighting, stoves, laundry appliances, pools and the like.

          All this electricity use contributes to higher fuel prices, air pollution, the outflow of cash to foreign nations and dependence on not-so-nice countries for fuel. To the rescue (I’m being optimistic here) comes the California Energy Commission. Never heard of it? Neither have most Californians.

          As appliances become more energy efficient, in step all the gadgets, gizmos and whatnots to take up the slack. And heading them off at the pass, the commission is about to ask the electronics industry to think efficiently. So what’s the problem? Well, it has a name: the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Does it have clout? Let me answer listing some of its members: Apple, HP, Intel; you get the idea. And the CEA is behind a bill introduced by California Assemblymember Charles Calderon that would curtail the commission’s authority.

Video gaming makes demands on power supply
Sony PlayStation 3 equipment bundle

          On the other side of the argument is PG&E, Northern California’s mega-utility, which likes the idea of energy efficiency. The CEA, however, makes the case that convergence, where multiple functions are merged into one device as with smart phones, saves on electricity.  By allowing users to avoid employing several different devices to run a variety of functions, they are more efficient than, say, using a cell phone, a computer, and a digital camera, each of which has to be charged or plugged in.

          The state claims that updated efficiency standards would save state residents $7 billion per year, reducing the need for additional power plants and lowering water use by 70 billion gallons. When it comes to water, California is very insecure; so insecure, in fact that if it were a person, no team of psychiatrists could help.

          California is famous (infamous?) for its leadership in environmental regulation. If the state requires greater efficiencies for a variety of gadgets, it’s likely that either manufacturers will sell those more-efficient items nationwide for the sake of financial efficiency, or that other states will adopt similar requirements. “These standards will ensure that new products sold in California contain the latest and smartest technology so that our products sip rather than gulp energy,” said Noah Horowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council, quoted in the San Jose Mercury News.

          Because the California Energy Commission has not yet defined what a computer is (you read that right), it is not clear whether so-called tablet devices will be included in the new requirements. But several popular implements will be facing efficiency upgrades, including gaming devices like Wii, PlayStation and Xbox, as well as monitors and subscription TV service set-top boxes.

          So what does this mean for you? It’s time for all of us to do our part. Where it’s practical, can’t we live with one fewer nightlight, unplugged cell phone rechargers, and audio systems plugged into power strips that we turn off when not in use? And if you live in a house, how many plugged-in lights do you have shining outside overnight? In an age when so many folks are worried about the national debt we’ll be leaving for our progeny, maybe we should all be thinking about how much of a messed-up environment they’ll be living in.

          Go California Energy Commission!

Want to Bitch About Credit Card Issuers? Have we got a Site for You!

You have probably heard about the Dodd-Frank Act. It aims to regulate speculative and unfair practices on the parts of financial institutions. Most Congressional Republicans are out to kill it. Many Democrats want it strengthened. Part of that act is the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). How silly! Complaints against lenders? Why on earth would we big, bullying consumers need protection from those sweet little-bitty banks like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Citibank?

When financial consumer advocate and Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren advocated before Congress for the creation of the CFPB she was raked over the coals by the free market boys (and girls?). It soon became clear that if and when the bureau was created, she had a Klondike Bar’s chance in a microwave of being approved for the post of director. That position eventually went to Richard Cordray, the former attorney general of Ohio, a well-known consumer protection guy. President Barack Obama had to appoint Cordray with a recess appointment to avoid the free-market contingent in the House. Warren went back to Massachusetts to run for the U.S. Senate.

It looks like Cordray is taking this job seriously. The CFPB made a formal announcement today that it has set up a web site that allows

CFPB Director Richard Cordray
Richard Cordray

consumers to post grievances against companies that provide credit cards, mortgages and student loans. The grievances are posted in the form of databases.

Since the bureau opened for business last July, it has received 45,000 grievances – 17,000 about credit cards alone – through June 1, 2012.

“By making our data publicly available, initially in the area of credit cards, we hope to improve the transparency and efficiency of this essential consumer market,” Cordray said in a statement. ‘‘Each and every time we hear from American consumers about their troublesome transactions with financial products, it gives us important insight.”

The public database includes complaints made since June1. Working with the credit card issuers, the CFPB created a number of response categories that show how each complaint has been dealt with and how quickly.

For each category, companies can respond to a consumer in one of four ways. Once the complaint is routed to a company, it has 15 days to respond and 60 days to resolve the complaint. Consumers should expect to receive a refund, an explanation, a correction, a change in account terms, or simply have the case closed.

If you have a complaint against a bank, mortgage lender, student loan provider, or credit card issuer, take it to http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaintdatabase.

For the time being, you will also be able to see the recent record concerning credit card complaints. The other categories should come online by the end of the year.

 

 

Here’s a Way We Can Help the Economy: Buy Stuff Made in the USA

Trivia question: For the 2012 model year, which motor vehicle model uses the highest percentage of North American labor? (Note: This is a trick question)

Toyota Avalon – made in USA (mostly)

According to Todd Lipscomb of MadeInUSAForever.com, that would be the Toyota Avalon, with 85 percent of its labor occurring in North America*. Say what? Hey, why not? After all, most U.S. flags are made overseas, aren’t they? So why wouldn’t foreign automakers make stuff, or buy parts, here in order to save on supply chain costs? Globalization means just that – anything can come from anywhere in the world.

Wondering which American vehicle brands include the most North American labor? They would be the Chevy Express Van and GMC Savana at 82 percent, the Chevy Impala,

2012 Chevy Express

Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator at 80 percent. But Honda’s Accord and Crosstour use that percentage as well. Using between 79 and 77 percent North American labor are the Chrysler 200 convertible and Chrysler’s two large minivans (an oxymoron if ever I wrote one).

The point is this; a lot of American-made stuff is at best mostly made in America. The Consumer Gal and I recently bought a set of Tramontina made-in-America pans at Costco. So far, we really like the pans. Tramontina USA is located in Texas. It makes its cookware in Wisconsin. Its parent company is in . . . Brazil. So while the manufacturing jobs are in Wisconsin, and the office jobs are in Texas, the profits go to Brazil. This is the definition of globalization.

As far as I am concerned, the most important aspect of this is where the jobs are, especially in this economy.

A few years ago I got a call from Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa. Unable to answer the trivia question on their Live! TV show, I received a set of All-Clad cookware. It’s made in Pennsylvania. But the package did not say “Made in USA.” Why? Because the handles are made elsewhere and the Federal Trade Commission requires that almost all – as in 95 percent – of a product’s value must have been created in this country in order for it to wear the Made in USA label. So, the Pennsylvania cookware is not “Made in USA,” while the Brazilian cookware is.

We recently bought a memory foam mattress topper that was made in the America and put it on top of our new memory foam mattress that came from Southern California but, alas, we soon learned, came from China.

What to do? Well, if you give a rat’s behind about where stuff is made, read the labels. Appliances, for instance, are often made here. Whirlpool, Maytag and Kitchen Aid, all from Whirlpool Corporation, are mostly made here, (with the exclusion of all their microwave ovens). Some Fisher and Paykel (a New Zealand company) laundry appliances are made here, along with the upscale Viking, Wolf and Sub-Zero brands.

If you are looking for American-made products, here are some sites to try:

www.StillMadeinUSA.com

www.MadeInUSAForever.com

www.madeinusa.org

As for me, the next time I need jeans (or dungarees, as we used to call them) I’m going to bypass Costco’s 14-dollar pants and try a pair of Texas Jeans, made, ironically, in North Carolina. And I’ll be happy to spend 30 buckaroos on them.

Sometimes patriotism comes at a (retail) price.

Happy shopping.

 

*I use North America instead of just the United States as a criterion since Mexico and Canada have no auto industries of their own, U.S. automakers do some assembly in those two countries. It’s a matter of, “since you buy our cars we’ll do some assembly over the border.” It’s quid pro quo.

 

 

 

 

 

Online Reviews are Great . . . Maybe

When you check product or service reviews online, whether at retailer sites or through rating services like Yelp!, how can you tell if they are honest or just a lot of hype? You can’t for sure. But there are ways to parse what’s being said and maybe get a better view of the purchase you’re considering.

If you are the proprietor of, say, a restaurant, how likely are you to ask friends and relatives to post glittering reviews of your establishment? Plenty. How can any normal person resist the temptation to juice the results unless their ethical standards are so high as to make Nelson Mandela jealous.

Ah, you say, at least I can trust the negative reviews. Not so fast. How do you know the competition isn’t writing bad reviews?

According to an article in the Bottom Line Personal, February 15, 2012 edition, 80 percent of Internet shoppers change their minds about what they’re spending their money on after reading online reviews.

In the article, Jeffrey Hancock, a professor at Cornell University’s communications department, recommends that readers look for certain indicators that are most likely to indicate a legitimate review. His tips are the result of a recent study.

  • The review makes reference to space, size or distance. For example, the distance a hotel or restaurant is from another site. That a product was large or small. That a hotel room is tiny. Lacking distance or dimension references is common among fabricated reviews.
  • When you see a reference on a site that indicates how many shoppers found a particular review helpful, look for ones with high percentages..
  • Go to other sites and see if their reviews are fairly consistent. If they are incompatible, be suspicious.
  • “Beware of reviews offering strong opinions but few specifics,” says Hancock. And without specifics, you cannot tell if what bothered a particular reviewer is something that would be important to you.
  • Be most willing to trust reviews from folks whom the site confirms as verified customer. For example, Amazon (a company of which I am not fond for a series of unrelated ethical reasons) labels a review “Amazon Verified Purchaser,” at least you know that the reviewer actually bought the product. Some travel web sites that book hotel reservations allow only purchasers to review hotels. Trip Advisor, on the other hand, has no such requirement.
  • I always read the negative reviews looking for specifics, even if there are mostly good ones. It could be that what displeased just a few people just might be the flaw that you are trying to avoid.
  • According to Jeffrey Hancock, you can pretty much trust the overall score if at least 50 people reviewed the product or service.
  • Balanced reviews are not always honest. Savvy fakers will sometimes give four out of five stars and mention a minor flaw just to look legit.
  • Hancock warns that rating sites for doctors are not yet up to snuff. So don’t trust them. I prefer to use healthcare providers or trustworthy friends for referrals. If you live in a city that is serviced by the Checkbook nonprofit, as I do, that’s a good place to start as well.
  • Don’t trust reviews from folks who are labeled as among the site’s “Top Reviewers.” According to Hancock, marketers target these reviewers with freebies. If the marketers’ products don’t get good reviews, the handouts halt. So how do you know?  Look at other reviews by these reviewers. They should be balanced fairly well between positive, middling and negative reviews. On Amazon, click on “See all my reviews.” If the review is labeled “Amazon Vine” it means the product just sprouted up in the reviewer’s backyard; that is, the reviewers got the item free.

There are no guarantees that what you read is what you get. So caveat emptor for products, services, and reviews is a good idea.

For more stuff on this topic, visit www.ReviewSkeptic.com. You can perform an automatic evaluation of  Trip Advisor reviews there. The site intends to expand this service soon.

A Web Site for Reporting and for Researching Dangerous Products

I am a devotee of Whirlpool appliances. Until recently, I had never owned a Whirlpool, or Whirlpool-made, product that needed to be replaced. Our Kenmore refrigerator was manufactured by Whirlpool. I do not, however, have an opinion on Kitchen Aid or Maytag – also Whirlpool brands – one way or the other.

Last year the Consumer Gal and I bought a Whirlpool gas range and microwave oven/hood. Both products worked well until the mounting blocks that attach the microwave handle to the door began to crumble after a few months. Whirlpool replaced the door.

A few more months and the bottom handle block repeated its demise. Once again Whirlpool replaced the door. When a piece of the bottom block on the third door fell into a frying pan just below it on the range, I had had enough. Wheat if I weren’t watching and the plastic piece, about the size of a nickel, had gotten mixed into the food I was cooking?

I concluded that this was a hazard caused by hit rising from the range and making its way around the pots and/or pans, rising up to heat the plastic blocks, thereby inducing their disintegration. I reported the incidents to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It found no similar complaints, which dismays me. I know I cannot be alone with this problem. I can only surmise that other folks with this experience just allowed the plastic blocks to go their separate ways and decided to live with the attachment screws, which the blocks hid from view, to show between the handle and the door.

When I applied heat to Whirlpool, it allowed me to exchange the Whirlpool microwave for a similar Maytag model, but one with a steel handle (and a nifty turntable that works with oblong baking dishes).

Recently I discovered a government web site that allows consumers to easily file complaints about unsafe products and to look up products with which consumers may have had dangerous experiences. It’s at www.saferproducts.gov.

Fron CPSC web site
Consumer Product Safetwy Commission recalled items

Here are a couple of caveats: Don’t assume that every reported complaint will be posted on the site. My oven handle complaint is not. On the other hand, don’t assume that one or two posted complaints mean that an entire product line is unsafe. When hundreds of thousands of a particular product come off production lines there is always the possibility of a fluke or two.

My own preference for checking the reliability of major products like cameras, TVs, cars, and the like is Consumer Reports. You can all check retailer web sites for customer reviews.

The buysafeeatwell.org blog gives the example of a particular child’s ball that has a tendency to burst and release a toxic liquid. Now that’s something you’re not going to find in Consumer Reports.

So, if you are a consumer maven like me, you might want to bookmark the government site for your own sake and that of others. Remember, that reporting you own experiences with unsafe products you may be saving others from a lot of grief. And if you are looking for a nifty way to waste some time, the site has a monthly roundup of recalled items.

“Green” Vehicles, “Mean” Vehicles, and the Ones in Between

I am not a fan of the term “green vehicle” unless we’re talking about an electric bus or train. They all use fuel and contribute to a variety of pollution in some way. But the nonprofit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has nevertheless put out its latest report on those passenger vehicles that do the least harm to the environment overall.

It is important to remember that it’s not just about the amount of energy the car sucks up that counts toward a green rating. It’s also about the amount of pollution that comes out, not only when you’re driving it, but while it is being manufactured and deconstructed when your jalopy meets its heavenly (or maybe Detroit, Japan or Bavaria) maker at life’s end.

Not every model, by far, in ACEEE’s top ten list of greenest cars is a hybrid or an all-electric. Have you heard of the i-MiEV? I don’t even know how to pronounce it. It’s from Mitsubishi. And it’s the highest rated set of wheels, with an ACEEE Green Score of 58. I find this ironic because

Most fuel-efficient vehicle

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV has an estimated driving range of 62 miles.

Mitsubishi is a mega-conglomerate that has had its share of controversy for not being a very green company.

You’re probably thinking that Nissan’s all-electric Leaf has to be somewhere near the top of the list. It’s actually tied with – no, not the Prius, the Honda – no, not the Civic Hybrid, but the Civic Natural Gas, with scores of 55.

The Prius trails them by one point (54 – but the new Prius V station wagon gets a 51), followed by the Honda Insight and the Smart FourTwo (53), the Civic Hybrid (52) respectively. Then come a few surprises. The Toyota Camry Hybrid ties the Civic and the Lexus CT 200h trails them by only a point.

Here are some very important variants to consider, however. The Smart ForTwo is the least expensive of the bunch but it’s slightly more roomy than my home recycle bin and Consumer Reports is not fond of its performance. Hybrids sell at a premium and electric cars cost even more – a lot more.

Only three of the 27 hybrids tested have a total cost of ownership over a five-year period that would make them less expensive to own than their all gasoline brethren. For me, that’s not very important because I keep my cars until they plead to be euthanized. The three are the Camry, the Insight and, hold onto your hat, the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid. The latter is so only because it saves on operating costs compared to other luxury vehicles.

This stuff can be more complicated than you might otherwise guess. So allow me to guide you to the Green Cars site, where you can peruse the data in detail: www.greenercars.org.

If you are looking to do the right thing environmentally speaking, that’s the place to go.

Oh yes, the worst offenders? The Chevy and Ford big trucks and the Bugatti Veyron with its 8 liter engine (really?). I guess the Bugatti is vying for a role in the space program.

My advice? Check out a two-year-old Prius or Insight that’s still under warranty. Happy shopping.

 

 

 

Buy a Starbucks Prepaid Card: Give up your Rights as a Consumer

I think I just figured out the meaning of Starbucks’s name. Buck$ are its star. Several public interest groups, including Public Citizen, Alliance for Justice, National Association of Consumer Advocates, and National Consumers League, have started a campaign to protect consumers who purchase Starbucks gift cards.

Personally, I think that while they’re at it they should protect consumers from Starbucks’s coffee itself. Have you ever had drip coffee that was left on the warming plate so long it tastes like someone had taken a blowtorch to it? I believe Starbucks has used that method to sell overpriced coffee to America. But I digress. It’s not about my taste.

Starbucks now not only burns its coffee (at least they came up with their “blonde” roast, so you can get not-burned overpriced coffee); it potentially burns its prepaid card customers. When consumers pay for such a card, they are agreeing to settle any disputes concerning the card by arbitration. And if a dispute arises that concerns thousands, or even millions, of its customers, those caffeine junkies are precluded from joining together in a class action lawsuit. You would have to argue your own trivial case before a Starbucks-chosen arbitrator . . . in Seattle! Good luck with that. This constitutes grounds (I couldn’t resist) for outrage!

As you may be aware, more and more contracts contain corporate language that says the customer may not sue and may not join lawsuit classes that pursue unified redress. As Public Citizen News puts it in the January/February issue: “If Starbucks rips off every cardholder by a few dollars, it would mean millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains – with no accountability for Starbucks.”

Public Citizen even circulated an Internet petition for those who were foaming at the mouth about this injustice. Unfortunately, that petition is now closed.

        So what’s the big deal? Forced arbitration clauses mean that the consumer has to rely on a would-be impartial arbiter to make a judgment. The trouble is that these deciders often depend on the businesses that selected them for repeat business. So, let’s say, Starbucks charges a hidden fee on the use of the card. If each customer buys several cards per year and there are millions of such customers, the company reaps the benefits knowing there is virtually no chance that any one customer – no matter how much anger is percolating in his bean – will initiate an action for arbitration.

In case you think that such a contingency is unlikely, you should know that last November Massachusetts fined the caffeine conglomerate for unlawfully charging customers a hidden $1.50 fee on bags of coffee of less than one pound.

So here’s the upshot . . . make that a double shot: If you are about to sign any agreement or contract, read it first, especially if it involves your money. Second, don’t sign it if you are not comfortable with the terms. And (this makes it a triple shot) always check the receipt to be sure you were not overcharged (or undercharged – c’mon, be ethical).

And one more thing for you to get steamed about –skip the venti mocha cappuccino with whipped cream. It’s fattening, sugar-loaded dessert, not a beverage.

 

Frequent Flier Miles About to Crash? You Might be Able to Save Them

Who ever thought that over the decades frequent flier programs would become so expansive and complicated? And with time limits on accounts becoming so common, many airlines are adopting use-it-or-lose-it policies.

If you are concerned about your hard-earned (read: “paid for”) miles flying away, here are some tips for clipping their wings.

Be sure that each frequent flier program to which you belong has your up-to-date email address. If the programs are unable to notify you of expiring miles, you may forget about those miles before they leave the nest.

My Delta Airlines SkyMiles program has a list of the two credit cards (debit cards work as well) I commonly use. If I charge a purchase at an eatery affiliated with SkyMiles, the program is notified by the credit card company and the miles accrue to my account. By having semi-regular activity in that account all my miles stay active.

As Tim Winship of www.FrequentFier.com advises, if you use multiple accounts – including ones in various family members’ names – consider assigning each of your cards to a different dining program. Then you can pay with various cards in order to extend expiration dates as needed.

Some programs also include chain retailers in their programs, making it easy to add to – and update – accrued miles.

Airlines also partner with banks to offer credit card programs with the airlines’ name and affiliation, but operated by the banks. But unless you spend more time in the air than an albatross, their annual fees could be prohibitive. If you are not that frequent a frequent flier, you might want to take the airline up on a first-year-free offer and then dump the card by your first anniversary. You’ll get the promotional miles, which will extend the expiration date in your account.

Market research companies are another way to earn miles or, better yet, revive about-to-expire miles. The reason I say “better yet” is because these sites require you to take marketing surveys that can be time consuming because you have to take a lot of surveys in order to reach a certain threshold before they will credit your mileage account. e-miles.com, for example, is affiliated with a whole bunch of airline programs. A five-minute survey might earn you 15 points or miles. You’d have to take about 33 such surveys in order to hit their 500-point threshold. It’s a time-consuming way to earn about five bucks worth of points. But if it will save you thousands of already-accrued miles, that’s a plane of a different feather.

Another way to keep your mileage boat afloat (or is it a-wing?) is by taking up the airlines on reducing your miles by using them to purchase something from their “store.” I have done that by buying a one-year subscription to Conde Nast Traveler. It cost me very few miles. I thereby preserved the rest of the miles in that account until the next deadline. Some airlines will allow you to make minimal donations to charities as well.

For lots of tips on frequent flier programs, check out that www.frequentflier.com site.

Santa Clara County, California to set Healthful Nutrition Standards

I live in San Jose. It’s a city of almost one million people. If you don’t know it, San Jose accounts for most of the population of Santa Clara County. Most of Silicon Valley resides in this county. You may have heard of some of the corporations that reside here: Apple, Cisco Systems, Intel, HP, eBay, Netflix. The list is almost endless. There is a lot of money in this area. And while there are a lot of vegetarian and vegan eateries in which the more-educated and health-conscious can chow down, people here seem to be getting fatter, just like the rest of America.

County facilities themselves have not been doing a great job of limiting junk –or at least junky – food. Until now, that is. The county board of supervisors is embarking on a policy to reduce the county’s role as an enabler of people’s bad dietary habits. The idea is to set nutritional standards for any edibles or potables that are offered at county facilities.

Can vending machines become a source of good nutrition?

Vending machines at government facilities already have a 50-percent minimum healthful content requirement. In a pilot program, officials had a vending contractor load one machine in the county building with only items meeting the better nutrition standards. Over the course of a year this machine generated the most revenue by far of any machine in the building. While revenues from all other vending devices dropped, the income from the pilot machine more than compensated.

Starting next July, jails, probation facilities, and even the county fair will have to clean up – or at least tidy up – their acts. In an article in February 28, 2012 San Jose Mercury News, reporter Tracy Seipel quotes Supervisor Ken Yeager, who introduced the regulation: “When you think of how any meals are served to people under custodial care, particularly younger people, and in hospitals, why not give them more nutritional foods?”

Santa Clara County serves four million jail meals annually. The senior nutrition program serves 1.2 million meals. County probation provides about half a million meals and the medical center sells almost that many in its eateries in addition to the 300,000 it provides patients. In all, the county generates about six million meals.

Even event producers at the fair grounds will have to bring in food concessions that offer selections meeting the more healthful guidelines.

California is famous – and sometimes notorious – for being innovative. In keeping with that tradition, this local reform could set the standard – or at least start the ball rolling – toward better nutrition nationwide.

This isn’t the first time the county has been at the forefront of healthy living. In 2005, it adopted a healthful food and beverage vending policy. In 2008, it adopted a very effective menu-labeling ordinance for chain restaurants. In 2010 the state passed a similar menu labeling law.

Also in 2010, Santa Clara County became the first in the United States to enact an ordinance requiring minimum nutrition standards for food offered as part of restaurant so-called “kids’ meals.”

Funding for the new program is paid for by a 2010 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the County Public Health Department. The new nutritional standards are part of the county’s obesity-prevention efforts that support public health goals of reducing obesity, increasing physical activity and improving nutrition.[*]

According to county public health officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, more than half the adults and more than a quarter of the middle and high school students in Santa Clara County are overweight or obese.

The idea behind this new policy is to offer better nutrition options for everyone. That means hamburgers and pizzas offered at county venues will contain more healthful ingredients. Vending machines will contain fewer fried chips, sugary sodas and candy.

Among the nutritional standards are:

  • Increased  fresh fruit and vegetable offerings
  • Milk with one percent or lower fat content
  • Lower fat-content foods
  • No beverages with added sugar
  • Minimal or zero processed foods
  • Low sodium content
  • Reduced amounts of fried foods
  • No trans fats

As a commissioner on the county’s volunteer Advisory Commission on Consumer Affairs (I do not speak for the commission in this article) I applaud this progressive and meaningful effort.

Now perhaps someone can explain this to me: The state does not charge sales tax for potato chips, candy, and 10-percent fruit juice beverages because they are “foods”, but it does charge taxes on vitamins, nutritional supplements and over-the-counter remedies like aspirin, antacids and allergy medicines.

It’s my hope that the county in which I live will set a new standard for California and, subsequently, the country, by being a role model for government sponsored nutrition programs. With wise leadership, such efforts should cost governments virtually nothing and save them money in the long run by reducing healthcare costs.

I can dream can’t I?



[*] For anyone interested in the details of the nutrition standards, here you go:

http://www.sccgov.org/keyboard/attachments/BOS%20Agenda/2012/February%2028,%202012/203860359/TMPKeyboard203876916.pdf