Thursday, January 27, 2011

My new favorite program: Food Corps

My latest love affair is with Food Corps -- an AmeriCorps program focusing on school garden building, nutrition education, local farm sourcing for school food, and community outreach -- which will be launching the first 10 pilot projects around the country later this year. I've been following the program's development for a number of months now and I recently heard through the grapevine that they're starting to recruit a small staff and there will be a call for applications in February for the first round of Food Corps service workers....

Don't think I didn't have my eye on the pilots in Jackson, Mississippi (I love The South) and central Iowa (ditto) for awhile there, but since I've recently -- and delightedly -- been hired by Arcadia to develop a mobile farmers' market, I'm trying to stay focused on the District, at least for the next few years.

Man, oh, man I wish I could link up with some of this exciting work. Hmmm. Maybe I can figure out a way to link their work with what we're doing at Arcadia, but it looks like I'll have to wait until next year, as the DC area is not home to a Food Corps pilot site. Keeping my fingers crossed....

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I don't mean to draw a parallel to the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran a few decades ago, but I can't help looking around for Ollie North's fingerprints on a recent arrangement between my beloved First Lady's campaign to improve the health of our nation's children and one of the most notoriously exploitative corporations ever. She may think she can dance with the devil in the pale incandescent light for some kind of greater good, but I just don't trust 'em....

When founder Sam Walton opened the first Walmart store in 1962, it was with the belief that he could help people stretch their dollars further. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. He was a businessman who dreamed of helping his fellow Americans get what they needed and not going broke in the process. Sure, I can see why this might seem to align with the work that Mrs. Obama is doing to make affordable, healthy food more widely available, but....

Okay, maybe the company has done some good things, like demanding that manufacturers use less packaging. This was a measure put in place to cut costs, mind you, not because of any environmental concern, but it did cut down on millions of tons of waste that would've ended up in landfills. And the measure did, in fact, cut down on cost and the savings were passed on to consumers. (It also cut down on packaging at non-Walmarts, as competitors struggled to keep up with consumer expectations for cost and waste.) There are probably other positive changes that the chain brought about, but I never managed to make it more than 50 pages into The Walmart Effect. What can I say, it started to get a bit redundant. (Like my lecture about wearing bike helmets. But still: wear a helmet!)

Considering the disproportionate percentage of the market that it controls, the sheer volume of stuff that it moves, and all of the locations it maintains, Walmart has been a major game-changer for a few years now, selling bajillions of dollars worth of (often unnecessary) stuff to people across the country (and via affiliates abroad -- like the "Bodega" grocery chain that I used to unwittingly support during my time in Mexico, though the yellow smiley face signs should've tipped me off). There is potential for good, but I just don't see Walmart executives doing ANYTHING simply out of the goodness of their hearts. (Do they even have hearts? The treatment of employees and cutthroat pricing schemes would suggest otherwise.) A number of months ago, I mentioned the superstore's decision to begin carrying organic food items. Well, that seemed to be a step in the right direction, even if the motive was profit or PR. Considering the purchasing power of this corporate giant, the supply required for even a small amount of organic produce or dairy in each store had the potential to support a large number of organic producers across the country, thereby making organics more available to consumers and creating a steady, paying market for producers. And Industrial Organics were born.

I'm sure Mrs. Obama is trying to focus on Walmart's potential to get more (somewhat) healthy food to more places, perhaps including the five stores the company is hoping to open in the District in coming months. Because it seems that "D.C. residents can't access some resources that suburban residents take for granted." Such as...? That must-have 46" flat screen TV? Adequate parking? A yard? A voting member of Congress? Oh, like more pesticide-laden, under-priced bell peppers imported from a country that most Americans probably can't identify on a world map. Thanks, Walmart.

[Note to readers: because I strive to maintain a G-rated blog that former students may peruse, I am refraining from unleashing a torrent of expletives here.]

While Mrs. Obama points to Walmart's potential as a major food supplier to bring healthier, cheaper, more clearly labeled food products to their expansive empire of stores in poorer parts of the country, I can only just barely resist the temptation to point out Walmart's propensity for preying on the selfsame poor they claim to be helping with their "everyday low prices." It makes my skin crawl. If there were a possibility of a reverse endorsement, I would urge the First Lady to make one immediately.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Handle with care

I spent most of today in a training session to be a certified food handler.

Some of you might be wondering what that even means. It's more than just how to properly wear a hairnet, mind you. In addition to the 8 hours or so it took to read through the manual and take a practice test this weekend -- and trying not to cringe at the grammatical errors and blatant disregard for parallel structure or subject-verb agreement in said manual -- I spent an entire day in class learning how to identify the droppings of different pests, how to correctly wash my hands, and why I will never eat ground beef again. There were a lot of times and temperatures to memorize, too, and to be honest I'm a little worried that the roasted vegetables I had with my scrambled eggs for breakfast before heading to class in Friendship Heights this morning might not have been reheated to the requisite 165 degrees before being scarfed by yours truly. (Was I risking exposing myself to a Clostridium-induced illness? I'd never even heard of the bacteria until going through the training manual last night before bed and hadn't thought much of it until today's review session. Wait, was a sinking feeling in my stomach one of the symptoms? What kind of time lapse should there be before symptoms would normally appear? I imagine this must be a bit like first year medical students' tendency to diagnose themselves with every obscure condition under the sun. But, ooh, that little nick on my pinky, that puts me at a higher risk for a staph infection. Eep.)

Luckily, I aced the exam at the end of the day. Well, almost. My Hermione tendencies emerged when I found myself disappointed with only earning a 95%. Yes, yes, I only needed a 75% to pass, but I swear a few of those questions were *not* covered in class. And the phrasing was unclear. But I did well enough.

So, folks, I'm a certified safe food handler. Now I'm well on the road to becoming your friendly neighborhood mobile farmers' market bus driver. Next up: getting my commercial driver's license. (Now *that* should be a funny transition: going from riding Ollie to driving a short bus, living in constant fear of drifting into the bike lane.) Wish me luck!

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I know I've gushed about a lot of things on this site, from inspired farmers to innovative food education programs to stellar meals. Guilty. But this evening I had the opportunity to check out one of the coolest things I have ever seen run by one of the most driven people I have ever met....

[Photo borrowed from the Farm to Family website; I was too distracted to snap one while I was there.]

A number of months -- whoah, almost a year -- ago, a friend forwarded me a BBC news piece on a couple who'd gutted an old school bus and started a movable farmers' market in Richmond, VA, in an attempt to bring fresh, healthy food into historically underserved areas. I was intrigued, but was still making my way around the country and made a mental note to look into this when I made my way back home. Then a few months ago I heard about the project again, this time in People Magazine. Yes, this was a group to look into, I thought to myself. I should call them. Then two weeks ago I was hired to help start up the DC area's first mobile food market. Or perhaps its second one, I learned, as a week ago I stumbled across an announcement that this same pair, Mark and Suzi Lilly, would be coming up to DC to offer a winter CSA! I almost fell out of my chair. (It's true.) I was beside myself with excitement. Actually, I kind of still am.

Farm to Family's model is fueled by an unwavering conviction that people -- all people, regardless of race, class, geographic location, on which side they prefer to crack their eggs, etc. -- deserve access to fresh, healthy, delicious food. It's this determination that's kept Mark (a natural entrepreneur and food activist) going in the midst of ongoing criticism and antagonism in the very communities he's devoted the past two years trying to help. He and Suzi push onward, seeking existing and potential markets to build a sustainable food system for farmers and consumers alike, recently looking to our not so far away (by bus... not by bicycle) nation's capital. What they're doing is very much in line with the work we're hoping to do at Arcadia, but rather than competing with each other, I hope that my own project -- the mobile fresh food market -- will complement the novel CSA and crucial outreach and food education work the Lillys have been at for a couple of years now.

There is a clear social justice component to the Lillys' work. During our phone chat yesterday, Mark was explicit: EVERYONE deserves access to good food, but the less wealthy aren't simply being given a handout. It's not a charity, it's a business, and everyone involved needs to be able to support himself or herself, whether it's the farmer, the eater, or Mark himself. The food, while not cheap, is accessible. (The 2 turnips and 3 sweet potatoes I purchased to incorporate into Sunday's Slow Food DC potluck offering ran me nearly $5. If I weren't taking those to the potluck, that'd be the better part of two meals for me, maybe over the last of my Cajun Grain brown jasmine rice. Okay, fine, add another dollar for the rice. Two tasty, organic meals for $6! Or one meal for me and a lucky friend. For $6! Now that's a happy meal.) Unlike some of the farmers' markets and most of the CSA options in the District -- at least as far as I can tell -- Farm to Family accepts EBT (food stamp) credit. And though I didn't find it mentioned anywhere on the website, Mark confided that for every ten CSA shares sold, one share is donated to a family in need. (Aha! So he is a bit of a softie deep down.) This is exactly the sort of operation we need more of, and I can only hope I have the opportunity to pick Mark's brain again in coming weeks. He's an incredible resource.

After a rather lengthy chat with Mark by phone yesterday afternoon, he suggested that I stop by for the maiden voyage of The Farm Bus to its CSA drop-off point near the National Cathedral. So Ollie and I made our way across town amid rush hour traffic.... After less than 5 minutes on the decorative, welcoming old school bus decked out with Christmas lights and a beautiful handpainted mural, I was smitten. I want one of these. Not exactly like this -- I can't imagine navigating a full-sized bus through some of the tiny, cobbled-and-potholed side streets east of The River -- but something similar. It's a sight to behold, and a wonder to experience. A movable feast for the culinary imagination.

If you'd like to support Virginia farms and this amazing local food project, bring yourself on by the Maret School parking lot in Northwest DC on Groundhog's Day for the next CSA pickup. It seems there are a few remaining (pro-rated) shares offering a range of options from just produce to ones including dairy, eggs, seafood, pastured meats, and local tofu. Or buy any combination of items a la carte. As the sign along the side of the bus says, "Get on the bus, Gus!"

Monday, January 17, 2011

After School Special: Brainfood

Feed your mind and the rest will follow....

During my first volunteer shift with Brainfood -- quite possibly my favorite after school food education program in the city-- the focus was on whole grains. (What are the chances? I worry that I'm going to develop a reputation as someone obsessed with roughage. I swear I'm not. Though it is important to include in a healthy diet....) As I stood by as an adult mentor, students chopped and grilled and roasted quite the feast, in this case millet burgers, quinoa salad, a hearty veggie chili, and some forbidden rice with coconut milk. Yum. You must guess by now that the way to my heart is directly through my tummy: I've been volunteering with the same group of young adult from high schools around the city every Tuesday night since.

Since that fateful and delicious first experience working with the crew at Brainfood's Columbia Heights location, I've been enamored with the program's careful cultivation of meaningful relationships between teens and adults as students develop valuable team building, time management, and culinary skills. Mentoring had been my favorite part of teaching, back in the day, and it felt amazing to be back in such a role. After only a couple of months, the students and adults I work with feel like an integral part of my life, and I find myself especially looking forward to Tuesdays. And then there are special events like the holiday party: so much fun!

(I guess they like me well enough, too, including me among the group's compiled affirmations and thank you notes posted on the wall at the holiday party last month. I almost cried when I happened upon the yellow sign with my name on it while wandering around with Carina's camera to snap pics of students decorating gingerbread houses or enjoying food that they'd prepared with friends and family, it was so unexpected and sweet.)

I've learned a lot so far from the students as well as Amy, our fearless leader. Just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about chicken -- I had learned to adeptly roast and carve one up awhile back at CulinAerie -- last week Amy went and taught us all about different methodologies for preparing healthy and tasty alternatives to fried chicken. (Or at least healthier: one recipe had an awful lot of mayonnaise, but it was still baked rather than fried and used cereal as the crunchy coating. It was soooo good. I found myself, as the kids did, going back for seconds. And thirds. I mean, come on, who can resist homemade ranch and honey mustard dipping sauces?) And there was the spicy but irresistible tortilla soup from the week before: I hovered nearby asking students about the kinds of foods they liked to make at home as they expertly diced jalapenos and onions, then slurped up a second helping after everyone had their fill during the closing meal. I had to go home and make some myself!

I'm missing them this week. It feels a little funny not meeting -- school's out for the MLK holiday -- but I'm looking forward to next week when we dive back into the kitchen. Soon we'll be wrapping up the segment on chicken and starting to dabble with sauces and seafood. Mmmm.

Enticed yet? Should you be interested in helping out at Brainfood, they welcome volunteers. There are long-term opportunities (they ask weekly volunteers to commit to coming in once each week from September through May), concentrated stints (like the summer program), and one-time events (for guest chefs/speakers). It's time well spent. And they even feed you at the end.

[Photos courtesy of Brainfood.]

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Food for all

One of the regrets I have is that I missed visiting Bill and Nicolette Niman's ranch in Bolinas, CA on my way down the Pacific Coast. I was getting over the random bacterial infection in my thumb, as some of you may recall, and was laying low, relatively speaking, in the Bay Area for a few days. But after reading Nicolette's impassioned op-ed in this Sunday's LA Times, I realize I truly missed a brush with a kindred spirit. Drat. I need to get myself out there one day. We'd have lots to talk about....

Nicolette brings up a number of points that I've been grappling with, including the seemingly mainstream perception that good (aka organic/sustainably produced) food is something that only the wealthy can afford and have the luxury of choosing, and that those who talk of access of all Americans, or, really, all people around the world, to this sort of food are ignorant or elitist. No. There are many problems, but the lack of access to fresh, healthy food for all is not something that just young, well-to-do, over-educated white people sit around yapping about. From urban farmers in Detroit and Milwaukee to activists in Oakland to school gardeners in Houston, we're all working on it. Take the ethnically and age diverse DSLBD (Department of Small and Local Business Development... welcome to DC gov't acronymns) meeting on getting more fresh food into corner stores last Friday: I was one of only a handful of people who looked and sounded like me in the room. We were all there for a common purpose, though we brought a broad range of experience and perspectives to the table. Everyone deserves access to good food. Period.

And producers of that good food should be paid a fair price for it. At the risk of climbing up onto my soapbox -- mom has a gentle way of pointing out how my tone has a tendency to get a little emphatic and borderline preachy, but here goes -- I agree with Nicolette that Americans have got our priorities all wrong. Really, we spend less than 10% of our income on food? What the heck else are we spending our money on? Healthcare? (That's another soapbox, watch out.) Housing? iPhones? Please, after living on a shoestring budget for the past two years, I know what it's like to not have much money to spend. I'll hardly be rolling in it working for a small, start-up nonprofit. And yet I continue to choose to spend a good-sized chunk of it on food -- specifically local, sustainable food -- and put money directly into the hands of small farmers whenever possible. I'm not saying that everyone can (or should) spend nearly a third of their monthly budget on food; I'm saying that we can (and should) spend more than we currently do on feeding ourselves. Better to pay the grocer than the doctor, right?

Responsibly-produced food does seem to cost more when you reach into your wallet to pay for things at the farmers' market. Don't I know it. Certified organic produce and pastured meats cost a pretty penny these days. But consider what you're paying for. In her op-ed, Nicolette references the "true cost of food" that sustainable growers charge, then points to commodity crop subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives offered to farmers whose operations are decidedly unsustainable, whose practices have hidden but substantial health, environmental, and social costs that consumers pay for indirectly. I'm not saying that the government should do away with subsidies, but how about rethinking what is subsidized and how?

Unemployment is rampant in our country and many can barely afford to feed their families. And yet there is potential for enough healthy food for everyone in the country (and the world) if we change the way the system works. Thankfully, not only does Ms. Niman point out systemic problems, but she offers solutions, some of which are the very things up for discussion during last week's DSLBD meeting: more widespread acceptance of food stamps, local initiatives to increase food access in underserved communities.

I can't exactly speak for Nicolette -- as I said, regrettably, we've never met -- but I wholeheartedly agree with her that together we can (and should) demand fresh, healthy, sustainably-produced food for all.

(You know, I just might add another seat for her at my fantasy dinner party....)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

After School Special: Common Threads

Admittedly, I've fallen a little behind on writing about some of the DC-area after school cooking programs I've had the pleasure of volunteering with in recent months. So I've got some catching up to do....

I am pretty sure I've blathered on about how much I love experimenting with food from different cultures. I even did a spot of teaching about international cuisine this past summer. What better way to learn about and appreciate other cultures than through experiencing their food? You can tell quite a lot about people by looking at what (and how) they eat. (I won't get into that topic too deeply, but should any of you want to discuss food traditions and flavors from different parts of the world, just invite me over for dinner, open a bottle of wine, and we can talk for hours. Depending on how long the dinner runs, I should forewarn you that I may try to talk you into getting a graduate degree in food anthropology, as I've been trying to convince my dear cousin Sonia to do for some time now, heheh.)

Anyway. A few months ago I learned of a Chicago-based program that works with 8-12-year-olds on basic cooking skills while touching on nutrition principles and building an awareness of other cultures around the world. As fate would have it, I had an opportunity to meet with Common Threads' culinary program manager for a cup of coffee while visiting my cousin Brooke in Evanston, IL this past September. (I have a lot of cousins, yes.) The fall term had already begun, but I was so captivated by the program that Courtney suggested that I help out at a few classes at DC locations to see if I might want to be a chef instructor during a later session. So a few evenings this fall I volunteered as a food education assistant to Chef Sam at an elementary school in Southeast DC -- not far from where I used to teach, actually.

Each class during the 12-week session begins with a brainstorm to see what students already know about a particular country. It's interesting to see what people's associations are: the kids' own knowledge of Haiti, for instance, centered around the recent earthquake, where my own impressions were largely informed by conversations with my Haitian students back in Brooklyn, the book Krik? Krak! and a former boyfriend's time in the Peace Corps there. After the warm-up discussion, kids work in groups -- with an adult, or sometimes two per group (they are using real chef knives, after all) -- to prepare three or four native dishes. Then it's time for cleaning up and sharing the meal together. It's good food, too. The evenings that I helped out, we made traditional Brazilian and Haitian fare. The recipes were no joke, requiring garlic mincing and marinade concocting and dessert tasting along the way.

Yeah, they're really in there doing the cooking! Look at that concentration. And, yes, though sometimes needing a little prodding to do so, these boisterous kiddos even helped do the dishes.

It's a pretty cool program that encourages kids to be engaged with food on many levels. As Common Threads so eloquently describes its work: "Through the simple process of preparing and sharing a nutritious meal, children who participate in our programs learn to connect with their bodies, their neighbors, and their world in bite-sized lessons."

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dream a little dream job

Faithful readers, friends, and others who may have accidentally stumbled upon this blog while searching for something completely unrelated (sorry about that, but since you're here...), I have big news: I was hired this past week for what might possibly be my dream job! Hallelujah!

After nearly two years of immersion in all things sustainable food around the country, nearly six months of dogged but fruitless job searching since my return to the District, and countless meetings, volunteer work, dinners, brainstorming sessions, applications, near breakdowns and the somewhat serious recent consideration of selling my meager earthly possessions and skipping town with Ollie to go work on a farm until a paid gig in food education should emerge in the indeterminate future, my prayers were answered. (Or, rather, dad's prayers were. Alas, I'm not the churchgoing type, much to his chagrin.)

It looks like I am being handed the reigns to develop and manage the DC area's first mobile food hub. “A what?” A mobile food hub. Picture an old school bus retrofitted with storage bins for fresh produce, dairy, and eggs, and, of course, a brightly-colored, food-themed mural painted on the side. Kind of a movable farmers' market. The idea is to collaborate with local farms (both urban and rural), community leaders, and food activists to bring affordable, organic produce, recipe ideas, and nutrition information to different schools and neighborhoods in a healthier-than-usual variation on the traditional food truck. (BTW, is it just me, or have food trucks taken over the city?)

The project is just one of many novel programs under development at the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture. I'm excited to be working alongside the dynamic group that is also developing a non-mobile food hub (where nearby organic growers can sell their wares to local grocers, schools, and other businesses), a farmer incubation project (to cultivate the next generation of growers), educational farm (for school groups and community members to learn about heirloom varieties and general organic gardening techniques), and more. I'm so honored to be a part of this project. In fact, after I accepted the job, I had to run outside and do a little celebratory dance. (I wonder what the patrons of Buzz Bakery must've thought as they sipped on their lattes on the other side of the front window.) Ollie seemed relieved as well, rolling along more merrily than I've seen her in awhile on our ride back home to Columbia Heights on Wednesday afternoon. The following day it was time to get to work. And a lovely, sunny, 10-mile bike ride it was to the office, mostly along the Potomac River, in Old Town Alexandria.

So, yes, I am gainfully – and ecstatically – employed. I wonder if Michael and Erin will let me put “Short Haul Trucker” on my business cards. Hmmm. Well, in any case, thanks to all of you who have offered me encouragement, food, and support during this journey. I hope to make you proud in this next phase of the bikeable, truckable feast....

Monday, January 3, 2011

Mind your peas and queues

I had the good fortune of ringing in the new year with an outstanding group of old (and new) friends in Burlington, VT this year. Why Vermont? Because, you know, DC wasn't nearly cold enough with its below freezing temperatures through most of December. No, actually, it was a tradition started back at the turn of 2004/2005, a few months after Mark and I left the school we were teaching at in Brooklyn, and a few months before I joined folks I'd met that night for a week-long community service project in Belize. It's that kind of crowd.

[It was quite a journey this year, with a bus from DC's Chinatown to NYC's Penn Station, then a subway ride to John's apartment on the Upper West Side, where a day later I caught a ride up to Burlington, then the reverse series of cars, trains, and buses to get home tonight. Boy am I ready for some quality time with Ollie after all of this time sitting and standing in queues!]

This year, in addition to the usual crowd of exceptional Vermonters, I had the extra good fortune to meet a few more inspiring kindred spirits, including my friend John's girlfriend Christine, an amazing cook, triathlete, and life coach. (I'm not just saying that because of our shared love for all things food, bicycling, and LOST, but they are additional signs of quality people in my book....) As we feasted on her vegetarian version of Hoppin' John, I learned as much about life possibilities -- Christine's an independent nutritional counselor and personal chef -- as I did about food traditions like the Southern practice of leaving three black-eyed peas on one's plate to ensure good luck, fortune, and romance in the coming year. (You'd better believe I pre-counted and scooted three peas to the edge of my plate right from the start, lest in my distracted conversational state I accidentally eat my way to an ill-fated 2011.)

It got me thinking about new, creative ways to share the joy of healthy, well-prepared, sustainable food. Stay tuned for more developments as we move forward into this new year....

(Oh, come on, those of you who also watched LOST are used to cliff-hangers.)

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