Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dessert Dilemmas

I'm not a fan of teaching dessert classes, because, no matter how you cut it, sugar is just not healthy. Still, realistically, people eat dessert (*I* eat dessert), so I know giving them better options can be useful. I guess I'm always a little wary that somehow the message will come across as "you should eat dessert" not "if you have to eat dessert, these options are preferable".

In last night's Unity healthcare class we made three quick and easy options. The kids were decidedly NOT excited about putting fruit on their ice cream, but it is my way or the highway in the classes. And guess what? Once they tried it, they liked it. One kid even asked for just a dish of frozen blueberries- which truly is the perfect dessert.

Some of our kids helping to dip pretzels

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Dipped Pretzels

There is no redeeming nutritional value in this dessert at all. However, if you've got a few spare calories, it's a lower-fat way to get that peanut butter chocolate taste.

4 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 bag of small pretzel twists/sticks
  1. Melt chocolate in a small pot. Stir in peanut butter until smooth.
  2. Dip one end of pretzel stick in mixture and then lay on a cookie sheet covered in foil or parchment paper. 
  3. Chill in refrigerator for 30 minutes or until firm.
Blueberries with Lemon Cream
Blueberries are packed with antioxidants, so here you at least get a bit of nutritional value. I sometimes serve this on a graham cracker for kids.

4 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese, (Neufchatel)
3/4 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt
1 teaspoon honey
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
2 cups fresh or frozen (thawed) blueberries
  1. Soften cream cheese and break up with a fork in a bowl. Drain any excess liquid off yogurt and add to cream cheese along with honey.
  2. Beat with a mixer or whisk until smooth. Fold in lemon zest.
  3. Sprinkle with blueberries and serve.
Fruit Coulis over Vanilla Ice Cream
Not all ice cream and yogurt is created equal. Look for a brand (in big names, Breyer is not terrible) that has 6 ingredients or less and make sure they are all items you recognize. Avoid low-fat ice creams that don't give you the same sense of fullness/satisfaction and are packed with chemicals and additives.
2 bags frozen fruit (berries, tropical fruit, etc.)
Sugar or maple syrup
Lemon (for juice or zest)
Vanilla Ice Cream or vanilla yogurt (check ingredients!) for serving 
  1. Heat berries over medium-low heat with about 2 tbsp to 1/4 cup of sugar or maple syrup (use as little as you can while still making it palatable- when berries are sweet and in season, you may not even need to use any). Stir constantly. 
  2. Continue to cook about 10-20 minutes until berries begin to break down. Add squeeze of lemon juice or sprinkle of zest and stir.
  3. Cool slightly and serve over ice cream or yogurt.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thank You for Teaching Us Healthy Cooking, but You Could Use Some Help in the Dating Department

This year, I added a great new client to my class schedule- the Even Start program in Arlington, Virginia. Even Start is a national program that helps economically challenged families build literacy skills. It is designed to strengthen the child's education by helping the parent become self-sufficient in English language skills. At the Arlington branch, most of the clients are from Spanish-speaking countries. In addition to writing, speaking and reading tutoring, classes also encompass other life skills such as budgeting/math, managing a household and nutrition. In the fall, I began doing a monthly lesson on healthy eating/cooking on a budget.

The ladies in the program are so friendly and welcoming. As with my other classes, many already know how to cook quite well. Most of the women are eager to share techniques and tips for encouraging their families to eat more produce, as well as challenges they would like to conquer in the grocery store and the kitchen. One of our more recent classes was on choosing a better breakfast. A lot of the mothers are off to a good start, often preparing eggs and homemade tortillas before school. We talked about ways to incorporate more vegetables into this offering. Afterwards, we sampled something newer to most of the women- oatmeal.

Here's a peak at that lesson:

We took a peak at the labels on these items and evaluated their nutritional content. Marketing and false advertising were also discussed (hey! there's no blueberries in those blueberry Special K bars!). It was explained why starting the day with sugar is not the best way to go and how vitamins get into foods with no inherent nutritional content. (Here's a hint: They're sprayed on the food in the factory.)

Then, we looked at a more affordable, more nutritious and almost as convenient of an option: Oatmeal.

The class made a personalized version of this quick and nutritious breakfast. (Although the pictured products are organic, we don't focus on that.) You will notice that I busted out my mad Spanish skills in the recipe.

Oatmeal with Fruit and Cinnamon
Plain Oatmeal/avena molida ($3.79/42 oz. container; about $0.27/serving...1/2 cup dry)
Dried Fruit-raisins or cranberries/pasas ($3.99/24 oz container; about $0.17/serving)
Frozen Fruit (strawberries, blackberries, etc. see above cost)- can use fresh when in season
Apple/manzana ($0.75/depends on type; $0.37/serving- 1/2 apple)
Splash of Milk/leche
Cinnamon/canela ($1.67/container; $0.06/serving- 1 teaspoon)
Brown Sugar/azucar moreno ($1.29/box; $0.15/serving- about 1-2 tablespoons)...use a little less each time you make it
  1. Cook oatmeal with water according to package directions.  Add fruit as desired to oatmeal/water.  Sprinkle on cinnamon and brown sugar.  Stir occasionally for about 10 minutes. To thicken and enrich, throw in a splash of milk/cream as desired. Sprinkle with chopped nuts, if desired.
Cost per serving-approx $1.20

The class recently practiced their new skills by sending me these amazing Thanksgiving cards. (I might have cried when I opened them.) My favorite one was that carrot in the center that read, "Thank you for teaching us the healthy cooking. Also, I hope that you find a good husband."

Hey, we've all got areas for improvement, right?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Follow the Farmer!

This is not Relly Bub Farm. It is a farm in Maryland. But, still, it is a farm.
I've been wanting to learn more about what it takes to run a small farm. Actually, let me clarify that. I've been wanting to learn more about what it takes to run a small farm without running one myself. (I know my limits. And my limits are...way too lazy to operate a farm. Plus, I can't even keep a basil plant alive.) Farmers are beyond impressive people...they not only have to have book smarts (do you know the knowledge you need to run a sustainable farming operation??), but physical stamina (most small farmers can't afford a ton of workers and are usually doing much - if not all- of the field work themselves), patience (oh! so much patience! getting a farm up and going can take so much time) and resilience (sustainable farming practices require adaptability to weather and other unforeseen events). In short, farming requires a whole lot of things that I do not possess.

It also requires a farm. I have a one bedroom apartment.

Lucky for me, I ran across Nathan Winters (@follownathan) on Twitter. (Oh how I love the Twitter for connecting people.) Nathan was once a tech and marketing guy in a big city before he decided to switch paths and learn about farming instead. He spent the better part of a year traveling around and working on small and organic farms, eventually settling in Vermont. His values related to food (go read them here) are very similar (if not identical) to mine. Except, you know, he's actually going to GROW it.

Relly Bub Farm is located just outside of Wilmington, Vermont, and I'm terribly excited to be following Nathan's adventures there. I hope he'll allow me to share some of them with you here on this site, too. Until then, you can check him out at the Relly Bub Farm site and blog.  I can't wait to go and visit once the spring season is under way!

I think more now than I ever have about who grows, produces or manufactures (yick!) food in our country. I'm very excited to follow an actual farmer and hear first hand what running a small farm is like. I hope it gives me an even greater appreciation of what it takes to put food on my plate. And maybe you, too.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

I Thought About Titling This Post "Healthcare with a Heart", But I Am Not Cheesy So I Won't

From the Unity HealthCare website
Just today, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released the results of a physician's survey that showed doctors believe patients' social needs to be as important as their physical ones. Nine out of ten physicians of low-income patients in particular, believe that procuring healthy food, safe housing and adequate transportation have a strong effect on good health. The survey notes, however, that most doctors and healthcare centers do not have the time or the funds to help support these social needs. Short staffed already, they often cannot provide the wrap-around services essential to good health.

Unity Healthcare, here in Washington, DC, sees these gaps and works to address them. Started in 1985 to address the health needs of homeless individuals and those in emergency shelters, Unity has grown to encompass 29 health care centers and a mobile van that serve uninsured and underserved populations of Washington, DC. Many of their clients are recent immigrants. Almost all of their patients would encounter difficulties receiving medical services without them.

Unity also happens to be the first organization I began my classes with just over a year ago. Several of their clinics received resources through the NIH program We Can!  This is a program that aims to give parents, caregivers and children the abilities and knowledge to combat obesity. At Unity, this translates into a once a week clinic where families come in, meet with a doctor to talk about their health and nutritional habits, listen to programming on good nutrition, participate in an exercise program (everything from yoga to Zumba! to belly dancing) and, this is where I come in, learn how to make easy, affordable and healthy family meals.

The participants in the classes I have taught are fabulous. They already love to cook and, for the most part, are willing to sample whatever we make. Clients regularly come in and report dishes and cooking changes they've made at home as well. As a bonus, they allow me to practice my Spanish (which is fairly terrible...the other night I might have mentioned cooking my grandmother by mistake) without ridicule. The cooking classes are approached more as a discussion than a "me telling them" sort of thing meaning that I have learned so much as well. (Including a lot of Spanish translations you won't find in any dictionary!) We discuss how each recipe could be changed and adapted to retain nutritional quality, but still meet budgetary needs and culinary tastes. Because the entire family is in the class, it is also extremely beneficial for parents to see that their children will indeed eat spinach or whole wheat pasta or squash without complaining.

In the future, we are hoping to expand the classes to help participants have more access to a greater variety of fresh, nutritious foods. The Unity We Can! Clinic hopes to partner with Wholesome Wave and work with our classes to utilize their Fruit and Veggie Rx program. Providing more of the ingredients for the dishes we sample that clients can take home with them is another goal. And no matter, the wonderful doctors and nurses at Unity will continue to support participants in making small, steady changes. (In actuality, I frequently have the doctors and nurses tell me they're going to try some of the recipes, too!)

Good health encompasses so many things. I love working with an organization like Unity that recognizes a pill or a surgery isn't always the answer and that patients sometimes need more than a physical to make lifestyle changes.

What are healthcare organizations in your area doing to promote more comprehensive good health amongst patients?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Giving o' the Food

People love it when you feed them. I mean, *I* love it (LOVE IT) when people invite me over for a home cooked meal (incidentally, this never happens...just saying). So this weekend, I threw my annual holiday party. I change from year to year, but this year's was an Open House Cocktail Party. I allowed my friends to bring their children. In retrospect, now that my friends are beginning to have multiple children, this might not have been wise. A 300 square foot living room, lots of glass and alcohol doesn't really scream "toddler". Still, we all survived, celebrated and had some delicious food to boot! Here are two of my favorite recipes from the evening, both well suited to winter and good health.

adapted from a Dec. 2011 Bon Appetit recipe

2 10-oz. packages shelled edamame, frozen (preferably organic)**
2 10-oz. packages peas, frozen **
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tsp (or 2-3 cloves) garlic (adjust to preference)
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
3/4 cup (give or take) extra-virgin olive oil (you will add this slowly and taste as you go)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1/4 cup fresh mint

**You can also buy 1 16-oz bag of each (easier to find) and then adjust the other ingredients for taste/consistency. A lot of making hummus is going by feel anyways, so don't worry too much about exact amounts.

1. Cook frozen peas/edamame for 3-4 minutes in boiling water until tender. Drain and cool. (Can be done up to 3 days in advance.)
2. Place garlic, herbs, some edamame/peas and drizzle of olive oil/lemon juice in a food processor. Pulse until smooth and blended, adding spices as mixture becomes incorporated.
3. Pulse remaining edamame/peas in a food processor in batches. Drizzle olive oil, lemon juice while pulsing to aid in the process. Mix with original mixture in a bowl and adjust for consistency/taste with olive oil as needed.
4. Season with salt/pepper. Blend pulsed ingredients thoroughly with a spoon.
5. Keep in refrigerator for up to 4 or 5 days.

I like to serve with homemade pita chips. (Toast cut up pita bread drizzled with olive oil, salt and red pepper in the oven at 350 degrees until crispy. No need to flip.)

Adapted from a Dec. 2010 Cooking Light recipe
Makes around one dozen cookies

2 large egg whites
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
scant 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1 1/2 cups flaked coconut (I used unsweetened, but the original recipe uses can decide on the amount of sugar, but I think they still taste great with less)

1. Place egg whites in a bowl and lightly whisk. 
2. Add sugar, vanilla, salt, cardamom and whisk until frothy.
3. Add coconut and toss to combine.
4. Place in small tablespoon-sized mounds on a parchment lined baking pan (very important! Macaroon type cookies burn easily).
5. Bake at 325 degrees F for about 23 minutes.
6. Allow to cool and harden on the tray before removing.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Giving and Getting: Purchases Optional

Marion Street Garden: City Blossoms
Ah, December! Consumer heaven. People rush to shop online, in malls, at department stores, all to snatch up  items that quite possibly will be discarded by this time next year. Although I am a firm believer in the magic of holidays, I can't quite get behind presents given just for the sake of giving. Personally, I'd much prefer a lovely handwritten note, a batch of fresh muffins (whole wheat, naturally) and some homemade jam or a donation to a charitable organization then a hastily purchased gift. Hell, I'd even prefer someone *telling* me how much I mean to them then another bottle of wine or knickknack. No purchase required.

Produce purchases at City Blossoms come in a lovely hand-decorated bag
In that spirit, I am embarking on a personal journey this month to try and engage in meaningful giving each and every day. Some gifts will be monetary, some tangible. Others will require an investment of time or energy. All will be gifts of spirit. The goal is for me to think consciously about others, about why I'm giving, how I'm giving and the ways my gift can have an impact on one person or many. Each day, I'd like to bring some joy into someone's life.

A bit of this gift-giving will give me the chance to write about some of the fabulous organizations I've visited, worked with and learned about on my food journeys.  For the first day of my project, my recipient was City Blossoms. Here's a little bit about them.

City Blossoms is a non-profit in Washington, DC that operates eight gardens around the city and uses these gardens as a jumping-off point for lessons on nutrition, science, environment and community. Founded in 2003 by Rebecca Lemos and Lola Bloom (yes, that's her real last name), the program serves as an after-school "center" for many DC children as well as a resource for schools looking to bring more produce education into their curriculum. Rebecca and Lola work with kids (and anyone else in the community who wants to join in!) in the gardens weeding, planting, doing artwork, putting together baskets for their herb CSA shares, cooking and sampling the produce and running a small market. They also go into local DC schools and teach lessons on everything from evaporation to solidification to seed growth to culinary skills. Both the City Blossoms ladies have been generous in giving me ideas on working with preschoolers to middle schoolers! Their expertise cuts a wide swath.

At the Marion Street Garden, herbs grow like, well, weeds. Super delicious and nutritious weeds, that is.
City Blossoms works with the seasons and instills in the children and teens they work with the value of planning. Not only do they rotate each garden through seasonal changes, they also make sure to utilize all that the garden provides. Besides selling CSA shares (mostly of herbs), they sell affordable produce to the communities the gardens are located in, use it for delicious samples of nutritious food (of course!) and donate any surplus to local food banks. Lola and Rebecca also teach young participants how to create sellable products from remaining garden items. Soaps, sea salts and lotions made with their herbs are all sold as fundraising efforts for the program.

City Blossoms sea salts, soaps and lotion soap (my personal favorite)
Where does my "gift" come in? Yesterday, the generous FreshFarm Markets (check out my Zomppa piece on them and all the great work they do here) lent City Blossoms a spot in their Thursday farmer's market at Penn Quarter to sell some of their bath products. I stopped by and bought a few of each of their items (ok, I bought a TON of the lotion's pretty amazing). I can't wait to use it as gifts for friends and family. The money raised from these products will be used to support the gardens, but even better, it will be used to pay for a special celebration for the kids who have worked so hard all year long. Lola said they raised just shy of $200 total through their market sales, and the kids particularly loved being positioned at the market right next to the Dolcezza gelato samples. (Kids of all ages love Dolcezza. Just saying.) These young gardeners' seasonal celebration often involves dining at a nice restaurant (that utilizes fresh,seasonal produce, of course)- something many of them have never had the chance to do. Plus, they've learned valuable lessons about economics by marketing their products. These kids know how to SELL. Happily, they also know the nutrients in a tomato, how to grow a wickedly delicious cilantro and what a healthy, unprocessed meal looks like. And that's a gift worth giving to.

To learn more about City Blossoms, please visit here. To make a contribution to this organization, visit here.

How many 4th graders do you know that can identify "swiss chard"? Go get it, City Blossoms!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

One Pot Wonder

Today, I bring to you...really terrible pictures and a recipe. This week's classes are all about soup. It's affordable, filling and quick (depending on how you make it). Plus, it only has one pot (plus maybe a cutting board and a knife). As my classes know, I despise those cooking shows where they say you can make a meal in ___ minutes (20, 30, whatever) and then they generate tons of dishes. I don't know about you, but there aren't magical elves in my kitchen cleaning up after me as I go. When I say a fast dinner, I mean the whole shebang.

This particular gem takes about 20 minutes total to make (including clean up). My classes asked for seconds and seemed to really like it. We also had a good discussion about other possibilities for quick and easy soups.

The cost per serving of this one pot wonder (using the broth, spinach and whole wheat pasta) is about $2.25/person. Substituting frozen spinach or a different vegetable or using water in place of broth will decrease the cost.

One Pot Meal: Bean Soup
Serves about 4
Olive or Vegetable Oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 qt chicken stock, vegetable stock or water
1 bunch leafy greens, chopped (or frozen, but decrease liquid in soup to compensate)
1 15 oz. can of beans, drained (I use white beans, but kidney could work, too)
1 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes (or stewed) - try to find "no salt added"
1 cup pasta, dried (preferably whole wheat)
shredded cheese for topping, optional
  1. Heat about 1 tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat in a soup pot. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add stock/water, beans, tomatoes and seasoning (salt/pepper and other seasonings you desire).
  3. Bring to a boil. Add pasta and simmer about 8 minutes. Add greens just before removing to wilt.
  4. Sprinkle with cheese to serve.
Optional, for meat lovers: In step one, add some crumbled sausage or ground beef (about 1/2 lb to 1 lb) and cook until brown before adding onion.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Brevity Has Never Been My Strong Suit

Friday was a lovely day in the San Francisco Bay. Crystal clear skies that were heartbreakingly blue, temperatures hovering around 60 (this is good when you are huffing and puffing up and down the hills of the city) and that fuzzy Friday feeling of people about to enjoy a lovely weekend. I had the morning free, so I seized it to do touristy things I never really got the chance to when I lived here. I walked through Chinatown (live chickens squawking from open doorways, color everywhere) to North Beach (full of Italian flags and the wafting scent of garlic and fresh bread) to Coit Tower where I swallowed hard (slightly claustrophobic and mildly afraid of heights) and rode the elevator to the top for some spectacular views. A walk along the Embarcadero and a quick lunch at the Ferry Building ended my morning of sightseeing.

A quick BART ride under the Bay (just don't think about it) to Oakland, and I was ready to begin my conference schedule. Yesterday's workshop was conducted by Ingrid Daffner Krasnow from Berkeley Media Studies Group and was entitled, "Introduction to Media Advocacy: Shaping the Public Debate". I might re-title it, "Learning to Keep Your Mouth Shut and Get Your Organization's Message Out". Condensing, articulating and specifically addressing your audience were the big takeaways.

The session started with a video presentation by Parent Earth, a group that makes videos about food issues to engage and involve families in the dialogue. After viewing a smattering of their work. the speaker encourage us to thinking about using more video to really capture our audience. Films, she said, get people talking and "spice up" what can sometimes be dry topics. She mentioned that if we were intimidated by making our own videos to try reaching out to other media companies that had already produced them. (In addition to Parent Earth, she named and media rights as entities to find video and then contact the filmmaker about using.)

Ingrid's interactive presentation (we often stopped to discuss or try out various strategies/activities) began after a short break. The next 3 hours were a serious lesson in formulating a message succinctly, precisely and engagingly for your organization. Here are some of my key take-aways:

  • Media advocacy is a bit different than social marketing in that social marketing doesn't attempt policy change (in fact, it might focus more on individual change). Media advocacy is a strategic endeavor to push a particular policy agenda.
  • Organizations MUST define their issue, problem, solution and audience before they begin addressing the media (this included giving interviews, writing letters to the editor, pitching stories).
  • As humans, our default is to place responsibility for change on the individual. Media campaigns  must work to encompass the whole story and change people's perceptions to be successful.
  • Placement (as in a particular newspaper section) and outlet (as in a particular news source) need to reflect who is your target audience for policy change.
  • Here is a BIG and IMPORTANT take-away (yes, I am shouting at you): You cannot be both strategic *and* comprehensive. As advocates, we are passion about about causes and want everyone to know as much as we do. However, this is not effective in a media campaign. (Message needs to be short and sweet.) Instead, think about where you want your audience to end up. Then, move them there. They don't have to follow the same route as you to get there.
  • Break down your media goals piece-by-piece. Think about changing the conversation, not trying to change an individual/system/policy immediately.
All of this really hit home for me since I am incredibly verbose 99% of the time (the other 1%, I'm sick). In fact, I'm pretty sure I talked way too much during the session, and I was actually *restraining* myself from asking half the questions in my mind. To address an agenda, I have to learn to be more succinct.

After the session, we had the opportunity to mill about and talk to the other participants. Really, there were so many interesting people there, I wish I could have met them all. The few I did have time to speak with I might have lingered with a bit too long. After all, I'm still learning to keep my mouth shut.

Today's workshop: Planning Successful Community-Based Food Initiatives. I'm already doodling "talk less, message more" in my journal.

Use your words wisely, people. Happy weekend.

One last tidbit. Someone in the workshop recommended a nifty little blog with lots of helpful advice for non-profits. Check it out:

Friday, November 4, 2011

Back to the Bay

From the CFSC website

Last night, I arrived in San Francisco for the Community Food Security Coalition conference, taking place in Oakland. The CFSC is an organization whose mission is defined as "to catalyze food systems that are healthy, sustainable, just, and democratic by building community voice and capacity for change". (, 11/3/11) The coalition works across North America by providing networking opportunities and training, and advocating for policy change. Besides the annual conference, CFSC maintains a listserv to link members and those interested in their mission, assists with grant writing and implementation, offers support for establishing food policy councils, helps run both the National Farm to School program and a network of Healthy Corner Stores, and publishes many papers, newsletters and research reports on topics related to their goals.

I'm here for the entire conference, including a few pre-workshops today and tomorrow. Today's workshop is on "Introduction to Media Advocacy: Shaping the Public Debate" and tomorrow's is "Planning Successful Community-Based Food Initiatives". Sunday-Tuesday's conference schedule involves workshops, forum/networking sessions and a couple of public addresses. I'm both excited to take part (these things always inspire me) and nervous (since many of the people who attend are established food activists in their communities).

However, right now, the only thing I'm thinking about is getting outside for a run (still on East Coast time and just waiting for the sun to come up!). I briefly thought I might not make it here yesterday, because, as I've mentioned, my dog is crazy. Although she's done great for the past few FF trips, she really freaked out about my leaving yesterday. And, if you've read my Zomppa posts (link 1) on it (follow-up story), she can be very, *very* destructive. Luckily, my dog sitter is A-mazing, and I was able to hop on my flight. I was lucky enough to score a middle seat with a guy on one side who itched his whole body while playing Sudoku the entire flight, a guy on the other side who snored tremendously while scratching and grabbing his crotch (how is this even possible??) and a guy in front of me who practically reclined into my lap the whole flight, farting. And the movie they showed was Rise of the Planet of the Apes which just made me feel bad about the dog and cry. (I mean, I didn't openly *weep* on the plane, but I wish they'd shown more episodes of 30Rock instead). It was a loooong day.

Today is bound to be much, much better!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Felonies, Bikes and City Living

After approximately 4 weeks of practicing justification for procrastination, I was forced to commit to a trip to DCPS headquarters today for another round of fingerprinting and completion of  my paperwork to become an "official" school volunteer. In my continuing quest to extend my environmental awareness beyond just food (really, I love things like A/C and paper towels and clothing-that-might -possibly-be-made-by-children-in-factories, so I'm honestly trying to expand my horizons and enlighten myself), I decide to Capital Bikeshare over there. Capital Bikeshare is totally awesome and easy to use. I even borrowed a helmet so my brains don't end up on the pavement (coordination is not my strong suit). Now that the weather is cooler and I won't arrive at destinations with a sweat stain on my butt and a stinky shirt, I'm determined to use it more often. This trip was perfect as it's a straight shot across the Capitol to arrive at the DCPS building. Very little traffic, almost no turns (I can never get those biking hand signals right). Suffice it to say, I arrived alive. Whew.

Back to DCPS. Although I used to teach in the system, I am not gifted with some sort of free pass on criminal investigation. Since I am going to be the guest "chef" at a local elementary school, DCPS needed to once again confirm I am TB and felony free. I visited my school back in September, and it has taken me this long to find a doctor, secure the test and then deliver the appropriate documents to the right people. I'm not proud of this, but this is what happens when you freelance at a dozen different agencies while traveling around the country on a research/writing assignment.

Meanwhile, my school patiently waits for me to begin. I was hooked up with them through Michelle Obama's "Chefs Move to School", a branch of the larger "Let's Move" campaign. This hookup took over a year.

I registered my information with "Chefs Move to School" over a year ago online (they have this nifty little map with little markers all over it proclaiming the happy marriages of chefs and schools all over the U.S.). I was really excited to work at a school since I figured my experience teaching, coupled with my culinary degree, would be a great fit. Unfortunately, beyond taking your information and making it available on their website, not much action happens (generic emails, maybe once a month). I briefly tried being proactive and contacting a couple of DC schools who were supposedly looking to be paired with a chef, but the information on the site was outdated. So, I basically moved on with other things and waited. This September, I received a very lovely letter from a preschool teacher at a school in Northwest DC asking if I would consider working with them.  She was so sweet and excited, I had to say yes. (I didn't mention she was my only suitor.)

So, what is the "Chefs Move to School"(CMTS) program exactly? Well, that's a very good question. It seems to mostly be an idea. An encouragement, if you will. It promotes adopting a school and working with school personnel to envision ways to spread the message of better nutrition through education. There's a CMTS handbook with facts on childhood obesity and school lunches. It includes a template for starting a school program. Could you do all these things on your own without CMTS? Sure. But, as I stated, I think the program basically is to exist as a linking module. And, hey!, now I have a school, so I guess it works in that respect.

It seems there are a lot of organizations trying to use chefs as a tool in schools right now. Besides the CMTS umbrella, there's also the nationwide Farm to School program, and various other entities (such as the American Institute of Food&Wine's "Days of Taste" event) trying to recruit chefs to teach kids about food, for most on a one or two time basis...for a few, more regularly and long term. What do you think of this approach? Is it just a stop gap measure? Does it make actual inroads in helping kids and families eat better? Would these organizations' resources (both time and money) be better spent finding long term programs and participants to commit to schools? Or possibly helping schools to create jobs to bring on nutrition teachers and specialists more permanently? Or training existing teachers to implement food curriculums (see previous blog)? Maybe the chefs are just a jumping off point- to excite kids and inspire schools to start a more comprehensive program once they see the children's interest?

I start at my school this month. I'll be going on a monthly basis to teach lessons for 3 and 4-year olds exploring food (particularly fruits and vegetables) using the 5 senses. We'll be squeezing, smelling, slurping, seeing and squishing all sorts of local products. I can only hope that it creates some excitement in the kids and gets them comfortable with the foods I hope they'll eat for a lifetime.

In other news, I am gushing over Philabundance again over at Zomppa. Check out my semi-stalker status and article here

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What the Heck Are You Doing?

If you've been wondering what the hell I'm up to when I go weeks without making a blog post, you're not alone. My parents ask me similar questions all the time. Not because they're actually reading this blog. They're not. But, because they are very, very concerned about how I'm actually earning an income. Here's a sample phone conversation:

Dad: Well, hello...we haven't heard from you in a while. What have you been up to? Why hasn't there been a Melissa@Market piece on Zomppa recently?

Me: Now that the season is winding down, we are only running those a couple of times a month. But, I have a Food Fighters piece coming out every other week instead!

Dad: Hmm. Well, we're not really interested in those.

Me: oh.

Dad: What else have you been doing?

Me: Teaching classes, traveling, writing.

Dad: Do you get PAID for any of this stuff??

So, anyhow. I'm not sure if you've been wondering where I've been hiding because you're actually *interested* in what I'm learning and writing about or if you're just nosy as to how I survive on a day-to-day basis. My dad wants to makes sure I'm (a) alive and (b) supporting myself (legally). If those are your priorities also, then you can quit reading now. Here's a pretty picture for you to leave on:

Gorgeous mural from my last Philly trip

Actually curious on how I've filled the last 2 1/2 weeks? Here's a brief recap that I'll hit more in depth soon. (I know, I know...I say that a lot. Just trust I have good notes and an *excellent* memory.)

  • Attended the Philabundance Hunger Symposium.  We all already know I've got it bad for Philabundance, but the conference was seriously one of the best 1/2 day events I've ever attended. It was jam-packed with energy, innovation and knowledge. Mari Gallagher spoke about her research on food deserts and Joel Berg gave a rousing anti-hunger speech. And that was just the last 1 1/2 hours. Must find a way to condense soon.
  • Spent a lovely evening at Talula's Garden. The company was unbeatable even if the food was a bit uneven.

  •  Traveled to Chicago. But only after being held hostage in the Philly airport by United Airlines for almost 9 hours. Managed to run into both Joe Theissman and Michael Jordan though, so things were not all bad.

This view from my Chicago hotel room did not suck
  • Visited with the kind and generous Kevin Pierce of The Resource Center. The Resource Center in Chicago runs a variety of projects aimed at connecting individuals and businesses, creating equality and evening the food supply. 

  • Spent an evening with a dear friend eating at the sleek pub The Gage on Michigan Ave. 

  • An early start to check out a couple of local farmer's market including the large Green City Market at Lincoln Park. 
  • A morning tour of one of Growing Power's farms in inner city Chicago where I learned about their upcoming hydroponic project and saw their compost worms in action.

  • Brunch at Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill where I scarfed down this wonderfulness.

  • Attended City Farm's (a division of The Resource Center) Urban Harvest Festival where I saw some of the most gorgeous produce I've ever seen in an urban farm. 

  • Back in DC, tried out a new class with Academy of Hope that I call "One Method, Many Meals". Basically, it involves sauteing protein and veggies and combining them with various Latin, Asian, Italian flavors plus how to turn this knife and fork dish into a soup or frittata. All meals are under $5/serving and feature readily available ingredients. More on that later.

  • Attended the National Food Policy Conference at the Capital Hilton and enjoyed hearing panels on everything from global hunger to nutrition education to the Philadelphia healthy foods initiative. A really solid day of information.  
And that's why my brain is about to explode. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Loud Mouth in the Quiet Car

Tomorrow, I return to Philadelphia as the start of two weeks of crazy travel. I'm very determined not to repeat the travel hiccups of my past two trips (Boston. Tunnels. 'nough said.). When I went to Philly a month ago, I took the train (which I'll be doing again) and had no idea how serious people got about queueing up to board. I ended up towards the rear of the line and, on top of that, was pulled for random drug testing (with that little felt piece that they reuse 50 times in 5 minutes to swipe bags). By the time I headed for the train, all the front cars (back cars? train nomenclature is not my strong suit) were full. Not being a seasoned train rider, I wasn't sure how far I could go on the cars before I hit first class. I stopped to ask an employee, showing him my ticket. Then, I managed to ignore everything he said and walked to the wrong car.

At this point, the train actually started moving, so I jumped into the closest car which happened to be the "quiet" car and under no circumstances should a person like me ever sit in the "quiet" car. I found a seat, catching my breath and then realized my I.D. that I'd been carrying in the same pocket as my ticket was missing. Did I mention the train was *moving*? And that I was in the quiet car? So, I began stage whispering to the poor man who had the extreme misfortune of having the only empty seat next to him. Of course, there was nothing he could do, but he felt terrible so he started lifting up my jackets and flipping through my books while I managed to panic everyone else in the quiet car that I was some sort of deranged lunatic with laryngitis. When our search turned up nothing, I went searching for the ticket guy (again, not good with official train titles).

Pressing buttons and racing through doors like Jake Gyllenhaal in SourceCode, I found him 4 or 5 cars down where I breathlessly explained that I thought I'd dropped my driver's license on the platform. Very calm-like, in a manner similar to which you'd treat a mental patient, he told me to sit down and he'd "check". (I wasn't sure what this meant, but I was having delusions of being tossed from the train in Delaware, so I thought it was best to obey.) Returning to my seat, I continued searching through my purse with the vigor of a chain smoker trying to find a last cig. My seatmate continued to look pained, either because he was the most empathetic person on the planet or because he was envisioning 8 possible hours trapped next to me. (The train goes all the way to Boston.) Meanwhile, I began frantically texting my dog sitter about how I was going to need her to FedEx me my passport the next day. In the middle of a hurricane. (Oh, yeah. Remember how I went to Philly in a hurricane?!) Intelligent woman that she is, she ignored every single one of my texts.

When oxygen began to finally flow to my brain again, it occurred to me that I'd been holding my ticket when I lifted my luggage into the overhead compartment. I stood up, open the bin, lifted the bag and ran my hand along the floor of the cabinet. As it closed around the cool, slim piece of plastic, I couldn't help exclaiming, "I found it!" In the quiet car. Yeah, yeah..."sssshhhh" and all that sh*&.

So, um, I'm just hoping tomorrow's trip doesn't start that way.

Oh...would you like to actual read about some Food Fighting and stuff?! Ok. Here are some good links from the past two weeks for that.

Maybe next week, I'll cover some ways cities are getting inventive in supplying the community with these products and teaching them how to use it all. In the meantime, I suggest old-fashioned oatmeal, fruits and vegetables (anybody can do salad) and a lot of hummus and whole grain pita. Low-maitenance cooking.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Where I've Been and Where I'm Going

A sale chart from the entrepreneurial kids at City Blossoms in WDC
Three months ago, I started this project officially. Time has flown by so quickly, I still feel I haven't adequately addressed half the things I've learned. I'm optimistic though that in the end it will accrue to create one (sort-of?) seamless flow that might be useful not just to myself, but others. One thing is for certain, and that is the fact that all the organizations I've visited so far have been amazing in their own right. I've visited places in Boston, Philadelphia and my hometown of Washington, DC so far, and next week, I'm off to Chicago.

A downtown Philly pop-up garden designed to utilize temporarily empty space.
My visits have been centered around observing three main areas of food equity: production of food, distribution of food and education about food. I've also tried to incorporate any businesses that might be involved in creating a larger network of local, sustainable food for a city. Of course, many places overlap in their focus. Here, I group them loosely based on the central premise of their organization.

I welcome suggestions for more visits and stops! Please use this blog, the email, Twitter or Facebook to send them my way!

Visitors tour Common Good City Farm in WDC
Common Good City Farm, LeDroit Park, Washington, DC: Read more about this 1/2 acre urban farm in my Zomppa post or in this blog post. Best take away: The abundant amount of plant life that can grow in a small space on a former elementary school baseball field. Peach trees! Peach trees!
City Blossoms, Shaw Neighborhood, Washington, DC: I just visited with City Blossoms at their Marion Street location this past week and doggone if I didn't leave with the biggest case of the warm and fuzzies. This spot really puts the "community" in community garden. As with Common Good, education about gardening and fresh food is part of the package. The emphasis here is on kids, but all sorts of community members and volunteers participate.

The Food Project, multiple locations, Boston, MA and surrounding areas: Although the Food Project operates several farms in the greater Boston area, their focus is equally split on growing food and growing community. Teaching youth leadership skills is a majority part of this 20-year old organization's goals. They also work to distribute the food they grow to areas of the community in need, often partnering with health organizations, schools, and youth groups to promote healthy eating. You can read a little more about what I've written about them here.
Walnut Hill Community Farm and Philly Rooted, West Philadelphia, PA: There's a lot more to what Nic Esposito has going on then just this farm outside of a Septa station on Market Street. He's also a big proponent of local entrepreneurship and community mobilization. This farm is ingenious not just for its use of space, but for its design, such as a drainage cistern and pipe that slopes down the public transit system's roof. (Yep, they managed to get through all the government red tape for permission to do it!)
Pennsylvania Horticultural Society: Ok, so they're clearly involved in gardens. But, did you know this organization (originally founded in 1827) also runs a prison greenhouse program and a work release "Roots to Re-entry" program? Their training classes to help organizers start community gardens is innovative in that they focus only 1/3 on actual gardening and 2/3 on community mobilization (often the most difficult component of starting a neighborhood garden). The City Harvest program connects gardeners who can grow surplus with food security organizations that might use it.
Greensgrow, Philadelphia, PA: One of the original urban "gardens" in Philadelphia. Also runs a farmer's market, CSA, and nutritional cooking classes. 

The greenhouse at Greensgrow in Philly, PA
I'll be adding to this list in Chicago where I'm scheduled to stop at:
City Farm, Chicago, IL: Not only will I be touring this farm and speaking with a director at the organization (The Resource Center) that runs it, but I'll also be attending their fall Urban Harvest event.
Growing Home, Chicago, IL: Both exploring this farm and speaking with someone to learn more about their programs.
Gary Corner Youth Center Gardens, Chicago, IL: Another scheduled garden stop!

Bread for the City, Shaw and Anacostia neighborhoods, Washington, DC: I've worked with BFC for several of their farmer's markets. They are an immense organization of wrap-around services that do much more than hand-out food. Education is also a big priority here to ensure their clients become self-sufficient and independent as the ultimate goal. You can read some more about them here and here.
Community Servings, Boston, MA: Originally founded as a healthy food delivery service for those suffering from acute illnesses, Community Servings has expanded its offerings to include nutritional cooking classes that utilize fresh produce and farmer's markets whose proceeds help support the non-profit. Both offer provisions that make them accessible to a wide range of incomes.
SHARE, distribution from West Philadelphia to areas of PA, DE, NJ shore, MD shore and metro NY: SHARE acquires food from the USDA's commodity program and supplements it with local farm goods to create weekly "boxes" of groceries that are then sold for a fraction of the retail cost. Federal and state assistance monies as well as cash can be used to purchase a box which is picked up at a local distribution site.
Philabundance, greater Philadelphia, PA: Philabundance grew out of a food bank system, but does much more beyond mere distribution. If you want to hear me turn all gooey and wax philosophic about them, check out this post.  They have a lot going on! And it's all fabulous!

I'll be adding to this list in Chicago where I'm scheduled to take a peek at the:
Fresh Moves Bus, various locations, Chicago, IL: This produce stand on wheels takes reduced price produce into underserved areas of Chicago.

Working in the City Blossoms Marion Street Garden
Haley House, South End, Boston, MA: Haley House has a wide variety of wrap-around services, but several of their growing projects involve food education and training. I recently wrote about them here on the blog. 
Cambridge Community Kitchen, Cambridge, MA: A fledgling business hoping to host both local, nutritional cooking classes for a variety of populations as well as provide a separate kitchen to serve as an incubator for start-up food businesses.
Chefs Move To Schools, nationwide: A component of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, this program helps to pair those trained in culinary arts with a local school. Resources and ideas are provided online to help chefs and schools incorporate food education. I was recently paired with Takoma Park Educational Center and am looking forward to starting a food exploration unit there. 

This does not even cover the other local DC organizations I partner with who are interested in nutritional cooking education for their clients.  These places include Even Start, Academy of Hope, Unity Healthcare, and the Latin American Youth Center among other non-for-profits.

Shoppers choose from the fresh produce at FreshFarm Market in WDC

Local Sustainable Food Systems
Crop Circle Kitchen, Jamaica Plains, Boston, MA: A food business incubator that carefully and selectively screens potential businesses to maximize efficiency. In addition, CCK provides detailed guidance on running and growing a business. The founder also runs a distribution hub called OrFoodEx that allows small producers and buyers to link up in a way that minimizes costs.
Boston Local Foods, Boston, MA: A linking organization for local businesses and producers designed to emphasize location, fairness and sustainability in the food system. I'll be attending their Boston Local Foods Festival on Saturday, Oct. 1. 
FreshFarm Markets, Washington, DC area: A non-profit that organizes 11 markets in DC, VA and MD filled with farmers from within a 200-mile radius. Several of their markets accept SNAP and WIC and utilize a program called "Double Dollars" that matches federal funds up to a specified amount. And, of course, there's the awesome FoodPrints kitchen , curriculum and garden at Watkins ES.  I frequently work at their markets doing simple cooking demonstrations with the produce and am looking forward to participating in the Watkins program soon! 
Fair Food Philly, Philadelphia, PA: Fair Food Philly began as a way to connect restaurants with local farms and has grown to include schools, institutions and the public at large. A leader in linking food networks in the city. 

Fair Food Philly's Farmstand at Reading Terminal carefully describes where the food originates and how it is produced