Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Yes, I Traveled to Philly for a Hurricane (and other adventures)

Center City
I just got back from another fabulous Food Fighters road trip.  This time to the love-ly city of Philadelphia.  Interestingly, despite my extensive travels across the U.S. (I've been to every state but Alaska) and my mom's insistence of making every summer vacation of my childhood "historical", I'd never stopped in Philly. (My mom was living in Philly when she met my dad.  I'm not saying this has anything to do with her neglecting to cover Our Nation's First Capital on our summer jaunts through ages past, but you have to wonder, right?)  Anyhow, besides a quick there and back for a concert at Veteran's stadium once (R.I.P. in-stadium jail), I'd never explored the city.

And, yes, there was this little thing called Irene in the middle of my visit.

Other than the fact that Philly...what's the word I'm looking for?...overreacted by closing every place of business except the hotel bar by 8pm on Saturday night and keeping them shuttered until well past noon on Sunday, it was another incredible experience.  The people, the food, the city, and, of course, all the organizations I met with completely won me over.  I can't wait to go back.  (No, literally...I've already signed up to go back for this Philabundance Hunger Symposium in 3 weeks.)

Rittenhouse Square
Here's a quick peak at what I did over my 4 days in Philly:

I took the train from DC.  And lost my license before I even sat down.  In the quiet car.  Luckily, the crack search&rescue team at Amtrak recovered it.  Sadly, the passenger seated next to me is still hearing my loud and frantic whispering.

Started Day One at SHARE- a food distribution that serves areas of PA, MD, DE, NYC and NJ.  SHARE compiles food "packages" filled with a mix of healthy staples and produce that will last about a week.  The box may be worth up to $45, but participants pay less than half that amount.  Steveanna Wynn, the incredibly personable director of SHARE, works hard to find local sources of food at the most affordable prices.  SHARE distributes through community centers (where individuals can pick-up) and also services food banks.

The Philabundance Fresh for All produce distribution in Upper Darby
Next stop was a Philabundance Fresh for All site. The Philabundance food banks saw a need for fresh produce and sought to fill it.  This program was the result.  At 12 spots across the metropolitan area in NJ and PA, Philabundance delivers a consistent, weekly amount of produce.  Participants "shop" similarly to a farmer's market, choosing produce they like and would use.  Volunteers are on hand to give cooking suggestions and recipe advice.

One of UNI's gardens
On the way back to downtown Philadelphia, we made a quick stop at one of the gardens of the Urban Nutrition Initiative- a group that works with high school youth to establish gardens and educate and empower youth to engage in healthier lifestyles.

From there, it was lunch at Reading Terminal Market (more on that later) and a discussion with my "tour guide" for the day from Fair Food Philly. Fair Food Philly helps to link various restaurants, schools and community organizations to a more sustainable, local food supply.  They also host various events and run a farmstand at the Reading Terminal Market aimed at helping people investigate where and how their food is raised.

In the afternoon, I headed out to meet Nic Esposito at Walnut Hill Community Farm. Nic recently wrote a book called Seeds of Discent about changing communities.  He's one of those whip-smart entrepreneurs that understand systems and how to interconnect people and ideas.  Nic's got his hands all over different food initiatives in greater Philadelphia. Plus, he tolerated my complete ineptitude with the Philly subway system, and the fact that I was over 30 minutes late for our meeting.  I like that in a man.

Walnut Hill Community Garden
Finished Day One with drinks outside at Parc cafe and dinner at Twenty Manning Grill.

Day Two was hurricane day.  I managed to take a run along the Schuykill River and run the Philadelphia Art Museum Stairs like Rocky.  I also had a brunch of so satisfying whole wheat banana almond pancakes at a Marathon restaurant.  Marathon is a local chain that sources from its own farm and as many other local places as possible.  I'm kind of obsessed.  (I had lunch there again on Monday before leaving.)

The rest of Saturday (Day Two) and Sunday (Day Three) are kind of sad...except for Sunday night when it got inexplicably gorgeous and I was able to both walk all over the city (Old City! Society Hill! Rittenhouse Square!) and people watch at the park while I enjoyed a leisurely meal at Parc.  THAT was blissful.

Day Four (Monday) was glorious.  Sunday night's weather only improved, and it became clear that Philly had been playing coy with me all weekend.  Just as I was about to depart, she really showed off.  I found a sweet coffee spot, and I enjoyed a leisurely walk around downtown.

The Pennsylvania Horticulture Society has been around since the 1820s, and their depth of knowledge is immense.  I enjoyed not only visiting their Market St. Pop-Up Garden (like a pop-up restaurant but better for the environment), but also learning more about their City Harvest and Roots to Re-Entry programs.  City Harvest not only shares PHS's expertise about gardening with local start-up community gardens, but also key tips on community organization and motivation- key factors for a successful garden.

My last visit was with Greensgrow greenhouse in the Fishtown neighborhood. Often referred to as the "original" urban garden in Philadelphia, Greensgrow not only runs a CSA, but also conducts a program known as "LIFE" that makes produce accessible to low income participants and teaches them how to use it.

The only thing Hurricane Irene disrupted was my visit to Greener Partners who I hope to connect with on a future visit soon, along with The Food Trust, a huge participant in the Philadelphia food justice community whose influence is pervasive in many of the other agencies I visited.

That's the quick and dirty on the Philly trip.  Look forward to more on these amazing organizations and some great tips I learned, coming soon!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Kids and Food

Bancroft ES, a public school in Arlington, VA, has a group of parents working to bring more farm fresh produce tastes and education to kids!

Today's Washington Post featured this article on placing more salad bars in the DC Public Schools.  This got me thinking all over again about the cart versus wheel theories revolving around empowering people to eat better.  Does the food access come first?  Or the education?  In my (extremely limited, non-scientifical or research based) experience, some education needs to come first. (Ideally, they'd happen simultaneously.) Especially with kids, experimenting with new foods just because they're placed in front of them (or labeled as "healthy") isn't typically a magic bullet. And having just finished Jonathan Bloom's American Wasteland, I have shivers just thinking about a whole bar's worth of fresh, local vegetables ending up in a trash can, because kids are wary of the new choices.

[Please Note: This is not a dig on local school districts.  I get it.  They have limited resources and limited time. I taught in the public schools for almost a decade.  I know the pressure on test scores is immense, and it's very difficult to integrate a nutrition program into an already packed schedule.]

That said, parents, teachers, administrators and motivated citizens are making change on a micro-level at schools all over the country.  Where a system-wide change might be difficult, on a school-by-school basis making headway is possible.  I wish I could visit more of the school gardens, observe more nutrition classes and attend more school "food days" and tastings as I travel around the country, but it's often more difficult to schedule these than a meeting with a large organization.  Still, the work of the committed people in schools is inspiring, and I try to absorb as much as I can.

Want to get started in your own neighborhood?  Maybe you can be the factor that encourages kids to dig into that produce-laden bar instead of just walking by it!

Here are some resources:

  • Whole Foods Foundation school garden grants: Learn how to apply for a grant to start a project at your own neighborhood school.
  • Food Corps: A new Americorp based program that places recent college grads in schools to help foster nutrition/garden/healthy eating programs. (Check out this Time Magazine article on the program, too.)
  • Ecoliteracy has a solid school curriculum called "Nourish" and a resource guide for making food changes in schools called "Rethinking School Lunch".  You can also learn more about how school are applying the Nourish curriculum in California here.
  • Alice Water's Edible Schoolyard site has lesson plans and various other tools for school gardening.
  • What's on Your Plate?  is a fabulous documentary for kids/teens that lends itself to a whole host of school-centered activities.
  • The Food Studies Institute, run by Dr. Antonia Demas, has a great curriculum called Food is Elementary that is perfect for grades K-5.
  • The nationwide Farm to School network is different in every area but could possibly be of use in your city.  Visit their parent site to find a branch in your neighborhood.
  • Michael Pollan has a kids version of The Omnivore's Dilemma that is the perfect jumping off point for a discussion/study with middle school aged kids or teens.
  • Also, Michelle Obama's initiative Let's Move can help to match you with a chef in your city to start a cooking program at your school.
  • Dr. Marion Nestle also posted a resource collection on her Food Politics blog back in July.  She has a few overlaps with mine and some new links.
Know of other great programs or resources?  Please let me know in the comments!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Day Old

Luxury: Silly to call it anything else

Restaurant Week in Washington, DC brings "specials" of multi-course lunches and dinners at reduced prices to incentivize people to try new places and lure in business.  I tend to take full advantage of the week dropping into places I would otherwise never try.  After meals this week at restaurants in both the Four Seasons (excellent food and service) and the St. Regis (ok food and terrible service), I was certainly fully confronted with two distinct ways of life.  On the one hand, people forced to compromise what they eat on a daily basis due to lack of options or lack of funds and whom the organizations I visit and (err..sometimes...)write about on this blog work to assist.  On the other, people for whom "restaurant week" discounts are unnecessary, possibly even disdainful, and to whom the price of food is merely an afterthought.

In that vein, here are a few links to get you thinking more about issues of food justice and food equity and what it really means to eat "well":

  • Slow Food USA's $5 Challenge: Slow Food takes a lot of heat for being "elitist" with critics calling the idea of a meal that takes time to prepare "unrealistic" for most Americans.  The argument for preparing foods from scratch is much more complicated than that though.  Whichever side you lean towards, the idea behind this event on September 17, 2011 is a good one.  Gather with friends and family.  Prepare a meal that doesn't cost more than $5 per person (the average cost of a fast food meal).  Share in community and realize that not everyone has $5 a person to spend. Discuss change. I'm hosting one for my friends-come by if you're in town!
  • Check out this STIR blog after you consider that event.  It really digs into to some of the issues and potential inadequacies of the Food Justice movement.  Many of the things the author mentions are concerns I have daily.  An important take-away: changing the system has to come from those of us who are blessed with the opportunity of choice.  Your decisions at the grocery store or market affect every demographic around you.  Don't underestimate the power of voting with your fork!
  • The People's Grocery in West Oakland is one organization that is actually keeping not just access, but job creation and health integration in mind.  In this piece, they lay out their wish list for improving the eating habits of a community. 
  • Reuters' Supermarkets in Food Deserts story: Many hope placing more grocery stores in areas labeled "food deserts" will be enough to improve the diets of many Americans.  It's not.  But, it's a start none-the-less.  Read about the differences giant supermarket masterminds and small, independent groceries can have in low-income communities in this piece.
  • Finally, for those wanting to keep costs low and still eat sustainably, here's a story with tips for eating locally AND affordably.
Chew on that over your weekend.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hope Beyond Yourself

Dogs know August

August is a rough month.  The weather is scorching, summer's freedom is ending, and it seems like the world is sucked into its humidity drenched stupor.  It's easy to get lost in the bad news, or dwell on your own shortcomings, rather than think of the promise of tomorrows to come.

Just in time, the Washington Post placed this article on the front page of today's paper.  It's all about how, in the midst of the looming debt crises, rioting in London and seemingly endless streams of bad news, we can still find the simple joys in life.  A dog rolling in the grass, the last serving of a food truck speciality, lunch with your beloved in the middle of the day.  More importantly though, it illustrates how if we frame the world in the light of good, we can have the will to conquer the bad.  Hope in mere possibility is half the battle.  Maybe more.

Light, meet End of Tunnel

This past weekend, a video with Matt Damon fuming at why most teachers do what they do (their love of the job and belief in its importance *not* job security) went viral.  Having been a teacher, and being friends with so many teachers, I, of course, agree.  The world is filled (maybe not quite as filled as it should be, but examples abound none-the-less) with people who do what they do because they believe in it.  Not to become famous, not to become rich, not to have power, not even to make their lives "comfortable", but because they passionately and whole-heartedly believe that what they are doing can change someone else's life.

This is why I have such trouble posting in a timely manner about the "Food Fighters" I visit.  How can I adequately represent these individuals who are usually doing the work of 2-3 people, fighting a battle they'll likely never see the results of in their own lifetime, sacrificing vacation time/family time/personal time, and a decent salary, all without even considering these things an actual sacrifice compared to the people they aim to reach?  I am humbled on a daily basis by the commitment of the people I meet.  But mostly, I am inspired by their hope.  They truly believe that the world not only should change, but can change.

Two weeks ago, I participated in another Bread for the City farmer's market.  This time, it was at their location in Anacostia- a historically, low-income, crime-plagued area of the city.  The day was sweltering.  I must have had a 100 excuses roll through my head about not showing up to do my cooking demo.  Still, I arrived to find tents set-up, produce out and a full arsenal of employees and volunteers already soaked with sweat at 9:30am.  The line of people waiting for opening time took up a whole city block.  When the market started, BFC gave away 3600 pounds of produce in under an hour causing a near riot.  They broke up a fight, managed huge crowds disappointed at how fast the produce went, talked to clients about future needs, and then, immediately starting planning their next event (5000 lbs is the new goal).  While I went home to peel out of my drenched clothing and shower, they went back to work at their offices for another 5 or 6 hours.  That can't be blamed on mere dedication.  I think what you're seeing is hope.

People involved in food justice lift my spirit.  I mean, what other field would you find people who say things like, "Oh man, I wish I could join you on the tour of Detroit!"  Or, "If I had time for vacation, I would totally join you in the SouthEast."  While most people dream of beaches and mountains and someone delivering drinks for a summer retreat, I find people considering a tour of inner-city Chicago.  The desire to find out more, do more, learn more about how to conquer food injustices is overwhelming.

Then, there's the willingness to share.  Everyone says yes. I sit in front of my inbox every day in awe of the response to this project.  Strangers (Fan Watkinson, Megan Bucknum, I'm talking to you) have volunteered to give up whole days arranging schedules for me in different cities.  (Megan: "I have Friday afternoons off.  So, why don't we meet at my office and then, I can take you to places X, Y, and Z."  On her DAY OFF, people.  For me, a stranger.  Remarkable).  People who already work over 12 hour days have taken hours to discuss what they do and what I do, share ideas and bought me lunch to boot!  (Thank you, JD Kemp and Darnell Adams of Crop Circle Kitchen.)  I've been invited into people's homes and given garlic straight out of their garden's (JJ Gonson of Cambridge Community Kitchen).  Organizations have welcomed me in the midst of their busiest season and invited me to attend some of their marquee events (See: The Food Project.)

And the only reason I can think of (since less than 1% of America has heard of the magazine I write for) is their passion and hope.  "Yes!  Let's talk about it!" they respond.  "We'd love to share what we're doing."  It's the "let's take this to something beyond ourselves" motivation.  Where do I find the words for this type of humbling generosity of spirit?

I think the only way I can do this is by hoping, too.  Not hoping that my own life will improve (although, I think it's fine to hope that, too), but by believing that together we can and will bring change in food insecurity, the environment and nutritional, affordable food.  I'm questioning, observing, reporting, because I believe in hope beyond my own life.  Like the outstanding individuals I visit, I believe in the possibilities of the future.

Take that, August.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Went Down in Beantown (Professionally)

Boston Gardens
Boston.  It was incredible.  Loved the city.  Loved the people I met with. Loved the architecture. Loved the restaurants.  Loved the local food scene.  Loved the people.  And the boys were *real* cute.  (What?!  Like I've said, focused...not dead.)

State House
I've described driving out to the Food Project's farm in Beverly, and the lovely afternoon I had on the grounds.  After the sweaty ride back to the city (seriously stinky and filthy but much more direct), I made the decision to check into the hotel, take a quick shower, ditch the rental and be a few minutes late for my second meeting.  (Trust me, it was for the best or our meeting would have been a *lot* shorter.)  I stayed at the Ames Hotel in the financial district of Boston.  The location isn't perfect, but the hotel pretty much is - more on that later. Then, it was off to Haley House for the first of two meetings there.

Gorgeous Lobby at the Ames
Saturday was filled with two more meetings.  (Little bit of a late start on Saturday...we can cover that in the post of what I did for "fun" in Boston.)  The first meeting was back at Haley House.  Afterwards, I took a crash course in the Boston bus system where I was graced with the kindness of a local floral shop owner.  When I ducked into her shop to ask a question about the bus stop (yes, so very tourist of me, but getting on the wrong bus was not an option), she insisted upon waiting for the bus with me and then swiping her bus pass for my ride.  Would not accept money.  This is what I meant when I say I loved the people in Boston.  I consistently met people not only helpful, but friendly and genuine.  (When you  spend most of your time in the Nation's capital, trust me, genuine holds a lot of sway.)  Safely on the bus, I took a short 20 minute ride across the Charles River, through the campus of MIT and into Cambridge.  In a small coffee shop, I met with JJ Gonson the owner and board member of several local food businesses.

Downtown Boston- I mean the architecture is unreal!
Saturday night and Sunday were basically free (in theory, free for writing...yah, well, we see how that worked out).  I checked out the SoWa farmer's market for M@M and otherwise explored the city and its food.  (Described in upcoming post).  Monday began with an early phone interview with a nutritionist from Community Servings and then a drive (much more successful this tunnels) to Jamaica Plains for a visit to Crop Circle Kitchen.  Then, a sad drive back to the airport (so easy that I'm not sure how the debacle on Friday ever happened) where I was trapped by bad weather for six hours (and could have been writing pieces like this).

Here's a little bit more about the fantastic organizations I spoke with and toured on my trip:

The Food Project: Operating since 1991, the Food Project has evolved into an organization with ties criss-crossing the Greater Boston area. Their mission is three-fold and advertised on the T-shirts youth participants wear: Youth Food Community.  Besides increasing food access and teaching teenagers about leadership, responsibility and job skills, the organization builds community by creating groups of youth to "work" each farm (they have 6) that draw from a variety of different demographics.  Participants apply to be a part of the program beginning with a summer program.  Here the goal is to build awareness about fresh, healthy food and highlight leadership skills.  From there, students can apply for an academic year position where they will work on the farm after school, guide weekend volunteers and practice public speaking skills. Finally, youth can progress to the deepest level of participation at the internship position where they lead classes for their peers in the community on cooking and nutrition.  Besides conducting these community classes on food and nutrition, the Food Project also uses the produce they grow on their farms for CSAs, Farmer's Markets and hunger relief organizations.

Haley House and Cafe: Haley House has existed since 1966 as a transitionary location for those without housing or jobs.  The program has grown from housing and a soup kitchen as needs have arisen.  The Cafe, open since 2005, operates two programs.  "Take Back the Kitchen" is a program that works with at-risk youth as well as urban college students and some young adults to train them in job skills and nutritional cooking. The"Transitional Employment Program" works with formerly incarcerated individuals to give them real-life employment experience in the Cafe.  These individuals also receive tutoring and transitional support to ensure their success.  The Cafe is a fully functional dining establishment that also serves as a gathering spot for community residents to partake in nutritious, freshly prepared food.  Game, movie and reading nights are held often.  Proceeds from the cafe help fund other Haley House programs.

CuisineEnLocale/Cambridge Community Kitchen: Both of these businesses focus on utilizing fresh, local foods.  Cuisine En Locale is a catering and food delivery service that uses only locavore ingredients.  Cambridge Community Kitchen is in development but hopes to serve in two capacities.  One kitchen will provide an incubator for small food businesses to grow and receive advice and training in addition to providing commercially licensed space.  The other kitchen will be zoned for education-based services and classes in the use of nutritious, fresh produce for meals aimed at a variety of demographics.  JJ Gonson, head of both enterprises, is a dynamo when it comes to local food, sourcing 80-90% of her ingredients locally.  So impressive!

Community Servings:  Community Servings' main mission is to deliver meals to individuals who are suffering from life-threathening illnesses.  The nutritionist on staff I spoke with described some of the additional nutritional services the organization provides.  Community Servings recently began operating a Farmer's Market that includes a cooking class on how to utilize in-season produce (similar to what I do).  The Market accepts SNAP and all are welcome; able-bodied clients of CS are particularly encouraged to attend.  In addition, Community Servings' nutritionist teaches weekly produce-driven cooking classes that promote low-cost recipes and include a grant that allows participants to take home a Farmer's Market coupon/voucher that enables them to purchase many of the ingredients used in class.

CropCircleKitchen and OrFoodEx: Crop Circle Kitchen is a very successful business incubator kitchen. Its main purpose is not just to provide commercially licensed kitchen space for burgeoning food businesses, but also provide in-depth counseling in business planning and potential growth.  Companies are carefully selected based on their desire to succeed and their thoughtfulness in endeavor. OrFoodEx (short for Organic Renaissance Food Exchange) is a developing enterprise aimed at connecting local purveyors to local businesses in an affordable and accessible way by making use of group storage facilities and materials for transport and avoiding obstacles of scale, cost, geography and distribution.  It's basically an online forum for buyers/sellers to connect without paying a middle man while also providing warehouse and logistical support.  JD Kemp runs both companies and, really, I think he's brilliant.

Look for more of what makes these organizations unique in an upcoming post!

Finally, in case you missed it, the feature piece on Common Good City Farm is up on Zomppa.  Click here to check it out!

This week's M@M is also up.  Treat yourself to some of these zingy lemon/lime/basil cookies!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Blogged Down

Boston Public Gardens.  No, I did not ride in the swan boat.
I'm behind in my blog posts, and that's predominantly because I keep thinking I'll have time to sit down and really dig into these organizations to give them what I feel they're due.  In Boston, I took in so much information in such a short period of time, I feel lucky part of my brain didn't ooze out my ear. Unfortunately, what this has resulted in is no activity on the blog, period.  That's not so good.  This was my first out-of-town trip, so it's all trial by fire as to what will work.

Boston Skyline from Washington St overpass.  I could have spent days just wandering and looking at the architecture in Boston.
(Here's what might not work: Trying to cram in as much play as business.  The reason I wasn't blogging last week when I returned from Beantown was because I was sleeping.  As in, 13 hours a day.  Hi Flame! Meet candle at both ends!)
This is a guinea hen I met while visiting The Food Project's farm.  Did you know what a guinea hen looked like?  Me, either.  
For now, let's just catch up over the next week with four posts.
Post One: The food organizations I visited in Boston and quick synopses (hey, that's a real word! I wasn't spell-checked!) of each.
Post Two: The fun stuff I saw, ate and visited in Boston.  (Um, maybe I had a little *too* much fun in Boston.)
Post Three: Boston's local food scene as a whole and what I'd still like to see/learn about in the future.
Post Four: What I learned to take forward into Philly!  (Rapidly approaching on August 25.) and beyond.

On my Sunday off, when I should have been, um...WRITING, I wandered the city instead, taking pictures like this one in the Back Bay.
Hopefully, Post One will be up by the end of the day.  Until then, amuse yourself with my latest posts over at Zomppa.  Last week's Melissa@Market on the SoWa Boston Farmer's Market and this week's featuring my dog's latest shenanigans while I was out of town.

Here's a hint as to what Lola was up to while I was in Boston.  I now have one of these on my refrigerator.