Come Together, Right Now, Over Hunger

 

conference-save-the-date-2015This past Monday I had the opportunity to attend an anti-hunger conference, entitled Coming Together: A Community Response to Hunger, sponsored by the Food Bank of Delaware in partnership with Brae’s Brown Bags and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).  The organizers of this conference took an interesting approach and invited both adults and children to attend, so in addition to all the adult attendees, about 200 students representing several Delaware school districts were in attendance as well.   The speakers included a nice mix of local and national figures.  Panel discussions included speakers from the state government, state and federal governmental agencies, the American Academy of Pediatricians, and local and national organizations working to raise awareness of and put an end to hunger.  The attendees, including the students, were given numerous opportunities to ask questions of the panelists.  I left this conference with a renewed sense of hope and optimism for the future as a result of the genuine concern and eagerness to help displayed by the attending students.  I also was reenergized to continue my journey to assist the food insecure.  Additionally, I received validation for my assertion that teaching cooking skills to those experiencing food insecurity will provide them with a necessary tool to use in their struggles against hunger.

The person who inspired me the most was 11 year old Braeden Mannering, who is responsible for Brae’s Brown Bags.  In 2013 Braeden attended the Kids’ State Dinner in Washington, D.C.  This luncheon was also attended by First Lady, Michelle Obama, who asked Braeden how he was going to “pay it forward.”  He didn’t have an answer for her that day, but out of his search for an answer to that question Brae’s Brown Bags was born.  Through his3B foundation Braeden distributes brown bags, containing a water bottle, 3 healthy snacks, and a brochure listing contact information for shelters and other aid organizations, to homeless people in the area.  To date Brae’s Brown Bags has delivered over 3,000 bags to those in need.  He hopes to include specialty items, like toiletries, gloves in the winter and books for children, in the future.  It was inspiring to see what could be accomplished by a single person with an idea and the will to see that idea realized.

http://www.braesbrownbags.org

Not only was I impressed with Braeden, but with all the young people who attended.  One panel discussion was geared specifically for them.  Two State Senators and the Committee Chairman of the DE GOP sat on a panel and answered questions posed only by students.  The students asked well thought out questions on topics including what they could do to best help those who are hungry or whether the legislators would support certain items, like locating a food pantry in every Delaware high school.  Perhaps the bravest question came from a young lady who asked what help and advice they would offer to her and her family.  She stated that even though her mother works 7 days a week, it still isn’t enough to keep them from being hungry.  She completed her question with composure, but broke down after returning to her seat.  The legislators were visibly moved, as was everyone in the room.  It is easy to talk about hunger abstractly, but much harder when you can put a face on it and that face is standing in front of you.

Numerous topics concerning hunger and food insecurity were discussed during the course of the conference, but a considerable amount of time was given to the discussion of childhood nutrition, probably due to the upcoming opportunity to enact a child nutrition reauthorization bill.  On the topic of childhood nutrition, panelists discussed school lunch and breakfast programs, afterschool and summer nutrition programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).  Additionally, Dr. Sandra Hassink, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke about the medical implications of poor childhood nutrition.  She remarked that this is the first time in our history that we have both an obesity epidemic and significant incidence of food insecurity occurring at the same time, with the distinct possibility that people could be experiencing both problems.  Dr. Hassink also stated that it is impossible to eat healthy if you do not know how to cook and rely on prepackaged, processed foods for your meals.

Dr. Hassink’s comment about cooking wasn’t the only time that topic was brought up during the conference.  Other speakers and attendees mentioned either the importance of cooking from scratch or the unfortunate loss of knowledge in how to cook from scratch while discussing the importance of good nutrition or the task of helping people with limited resources stretch those resources.  Additionally, the importance of cooking from scratch was discussed at the table at which I was sitting.  Joining me at the table was a registered dietician from Nemours and  a group of women from the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension who staff the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).  This program provides nutrition, cooking and budgeting information to residents of DE who qualify for SNAP, WIC, Head Start or free or reduced school meals.  After listening to all the discussion about the importance of cooking from scratch, I believe now more than ever that my concern over the loss of cooking skills is well founded and warrants further exploration into ideas to help people learn cooking and other related skills to stretch their food dollars and eat healthier.

ghandi change quote

 

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Curly or Plain or Bumpy Like a Dinosaur

After writing about collecting and distributing recipes yesterday I got inspired to start looking for recipes to include in the compilation.  Because I wrote about kale being a hard sell to food pantry clients and I love kale, I decided it should be a main ingredient in my first recipe.  This is a recipe I have used for several years.  I have altered the ingredients slightly to make it more economical.  I mention all the alterations in the notes so that when people make the recipe they can choose to add what their budget will allow.

3 kales

Penne with Kale and White Beans

  • 1 1/2 pounds kale
  • 3 Tbs. oil (use olive oil, if you have it, for more flavor)
  • 4-6 garlic cloves, minced (use more for stronger flavor)
  • 1/3 C vegetable or chicken stock (can use water)
  • 2 C cooked or 1 16 oz. can white beans
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2-1lb. penne pasta (or any short pasta)

Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil in a saucepan.

Prepare kale by removing the stems from the leaves.  Save the stems for later use (see note).  Tear the leaves into bite sized pieces.  Place the kale in a colander and rinse.  Leave in colander to drain.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat.  Add the garlic and sauté for 2 minutes.  Stir in the kale and stock or water and cover the pan.  Cook until the kale is wilted and tender but still bright green, about 7 minutes.  Gently stir in the beans and salt and keep warm over low heat.

Place the pasta into the boiling water and cook until tender, about 10 minutes.  Drain the pasta, then carefully stir into the kale mixture.  Serve immediately.

Notes:

Instead of kale, you can use chard, collard greens or spinach.  The chard and collard greens will take a little longer to cook and the spinach will take less.

You can make vegetable stock with the stems from the kale.  Put them in a saucepan with about 2 cups of water, a pinch of salt and some pepper.  Bring the water to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for at least 30 minutes.  Remove the kale stems and adjust the seasoning to taste.

You can use any white bean, like cannellini beans, navy beans, or chick peas (garbanzo beans).  If using canned beans, drain and rinse thoroughly.

Any hard Italian cheese, like Parmesan, will give this dish more flavor.  Add 1/4 cup of grated cheese at the end before you serve it.

This dish can be a meal and will serve 4 or can be used as a side dish for meat and will serve more.  If you are making this as a meal, use one pound of pasta or add more beans.  If you are making it as a side dish, you can choose to omit the pasta.

You can use hot pepper flakes or a hot sauce, like Tabasco, to give this dish a little kick.  If using hot pepper flakes, add 1/4 tsp. pepper flakes to the skillet when you put in the garlic.  The hot pepper sauce can be added before serving or placed on the table to allow individuals to season to taste.

kale pasta

 

If You Teach Someone to Cook. . .

I have written previously about cooking from scratch, highlighting its decline and noting its importance in stretching food dollars.  Now I would like to share a my vision for the promotion of cooking from scratch, particularly among those who are food insecure.  I have tried to tailor my solutions to what will most likely work within my community.  I currently have two ideas for promoting cooking from scratch.  One is relatively simple.  The other one will be a bit more difficult to implement, but definitely possible.

Often people are hesitant to cook something new because they do not know how to prepare it.  I have heard anecdotal stories about the difficulty of trying to get food pantry clientskale heart to take kale when it was offered last year.  Many people were hesitant to take it because they had never eaten it or prepared it.  They didn’t know what to do with it.  The easiest step to take to encourage people to cook something with which they are unfamiliar or in a method with which they are unaccustomed, is to provide them with a detailed recipe.  These recipes would work for fresh produce and larger meat options like a whole chicken.  I envision them being written in more detail than the typical recipe to accommodate the person who has little experience cooking from scratch.  The recipes would also have a minimal ingredient list or at least include inexpensive and/or easily obtained ingredients.  In addition to offering the recipe, actually having a sample of the finished product on hand for people to try might further encourage them to take the new food item and try it themselves.

Expanding on the idea of providing a recipe, I would like to facilitate a partnership between the food pantry and another entity, like a grocery store or farmer, that would donate one more item needed for the recipe.  For instance, if a recipe for baked chicken was provided to anyone who took a whole roasted chicken herbschicken, partnering with someone who would provide the needed fresh herbs, lemons or heads of garlic, depending on what was needed for the recipe, would be ideal.  The lemon, herbs or garlic would only be available to those clients who took the chicken.  I see a similar paring with those items and various types of produce or cinnamon and a container of oats, but I am sure there are many more parings to be made.

The next obvious step to promote cooking from scratch is to demonstrate to people how to cook by offering cooking classes.  This undertaking will be more difficult in my community as the two pantries I am familiar with do not have kitchens.  To offer these classes these pantries would have to partner with local organizations that do have kitchens, like a church, fire hall or municipal building. These classes would focus on cooking from scratch with whole ingredients and teach a variety of skills, like how to get the most from the ingredients on hand, budgeting and shopping and healthy cooking.

The ingredients used in the recipes for these classes would either be things people might already have on hand, distributed by the food pantry or inexpensively obtained at a local grocery store.  The classes would include a cooking demonstration as well as nutritional information and cooking tips and shortcuts when applicable.  I would also like to see informational classes that did not necessarily involve a cooking demonstration provided as well.  These classes would cover topics like the importance healthy eating and how to achieve it, meal planning and creating a shopping list, and strategies for stretching your food dollars.

CM cooking classI am not reinventing the wheel here.  Emergency food providers across the country are already doing most of this and more.  Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit working to end child hunger in America, has a program called Cooking Matters.  Through this program parents, caregivers and children learn about cooking, budgeting and decision making food skills to get the most out of their food dollars.  Many larger food banks across the United States offer Cooking Matters programs through their facilities.  Additionally, other large food banks have developed their own programs, as is the case with the Food Bank of Delaware.  Their program does not have a cooking class component, but it does offer informational classes to low income participants on some of the topics outlined above.

http://www.cookingmatters.org

http://www.fbd.org

As I go forward on my journey I will endeavor to advance these ideas in my community.  The first area on which I will focus my efforts will be compiling recipes to be distributed.  In addition to recipes provided by food panty staff and volunteers, I hope to encourage those clients who do cook to share their recipes to be included in this undertaking as well.  As I gather recipes, I will share some here and I encourage those of you who like to cook to share your favorite recipes.  Provided they meet the criteria stated above, I will gladly share them with food pantry clients. recipe card

Chicken in a Pot

As I mentioned in a previous post, my mother cooked dinner from scratch most nights.  I came from a family of modest means and I understood that my mother cooking was one of the ways we saved money.  I was taught that food was never to be wasted, so we ate leftovers.  I learned that if you knew how to cook it properly, a cheaper, lesser cut of meat tasted wonderful and wasn’t tough.  But cooking from scratch means more that just knowing how to prepare food.  It means knowing how to plan meals, budget your time, make a grocery list and go shopping.

grocery listOne of the best ways to get the most for your food dollar is to create a shopping list and stick to it.  To make a shopping list, you would first need to create a meal plan so that you will know the ingredients you will need.  When planning meals, it is important to consider what is on sale, what you already have on hand and what time you have available to cook during the week.  Once you have a detailed grocery list you are ready to head to the grocery store.

It is easy to look at a grocery store’s sale circular or clip coupons and purchase the cheapest processed foods.  You may feel you are getting the most food for your dollar and possibly you are getting more items, but at what cost?  Mark Bittman wrote a good op-ed article in The New York Times, entitled Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/is-junk-food-really-cheaper.html?_r=0

In this essay he compares the cost of feeding a family of 4 at McDonald’s to the cost of feeding that same family a home cooked roasted chicken dinner.  The home cooked meal is cheaper, and could cost even less if the meal was not as heavily meat based.  Additionally, one must consider the hidden cost of eating heavily processed foods–obesity, diabetes and other diseases that accompany being overweight.  What you save today, may cost you down the road in doctor’s bills and poor health.

To demonstrate how cooking from scratch stretches food dollars I will use a whole chicken versus a bag of chicken nuggets.  The price of a whole chickencartoon chicken at my local grocery store was $1.29 per pound and the average chicken weighed 7 pounds, making the cost of the chicken roughly $9.00.  The most economical bag of chicken nuggets I could find was $4.49 for a 1 pound, 11 ounce bag.  You could by two bags for roughly the same $9.00.

One can assume the chicken will contain roughly 35% waste in the form of bones and excess fat deposits.  Using that assumption, a 7 pound chicken will yield 4.55 pounds of meat, compared to 3.38 pounds of chicken nuggets from the two bags combined.  Not only does the chicken produce over a pound more meat, but once the meat has been eaten off the bones they can be used to make a soup or chicken stock.  Finally, the chicken meat is only chicken meat.  The nuggets contain other ingredients than chicken, including added salt, sugar and fat.  To illustrate the unhealthy result of the extra ingredients in the nuggets just look at the percentage of fat in the calories for each service size.  For the brand of nuggets I used as my example, roughly 60% of the calories in the nuggets were fat calories, compared to roughly 40% for the roasted chicken with the skin.  The percentage would be even lower without the skin.

Meal planning, creating a shopping list and cooking from scratch may seem time consuming and more difficult that microwaving some chicken nuggets, but they get easier with practice.  The Environmental Working Group has aEWG pamphlet helpful pamphlet, entitled Good Food on a Tight Budget, free on their website

www.ewg.org/goodfood

or with a contribution you can receive a copy.  The pamphlet provides numerous tips and tools for budgeting your food dollars, meal planning and shopping.  It also contains recipes.  Having a good all purpose cookbook is a must too.  These cookbooks provide instructions for the basics like hard boiling an egg to more complicated recipes.  They also contain information on meal planning, nutrition, shopping tips, cooking techniques and other helpful hints.  The Joy of Cooking and the Fannie Farmer Cookbook are two examples of classic, all purpose cookbooks.  How to Cook Everything is a more contemporary all purpose cookbook that includes numerous variations on recipes.

joy of cooking             fannie farmer              How to cook everything

To make your food dollars stretch takes time and commitment.  The key is to know your schedule.  Try to find a block of time each week to look at your schedule and plan meals, basing that meal plan on the time you actually have to cook the meals.  When you have a day or two where you are limited in meal preparation time,  try to prepare items for those days’ meals ahead on a day off or when you just have more time.

For those who are food insecure and may never have cooked this way, attempting to cook from scratch is probably a scary prospect.  What if something goes wrong in the cooking process and the food is ruined?  They do not have the funds to just try again.  In my final installment of this series I will present some ideas I would like to see offered through my local food pantries to help those needing assistance learn how to make the most of the food they receive from the food pantry.  I know many of these ideas are currently offered at larger food banks, so if anyone has any experience with these ideas, positive or negative, I welcome the input.

Under Cooked, Over Processed

dad cookingI grew up in a household where my mother cooked, almost every night, almost always from scratch.  Watching her come home after working a full day and then prepare a meal from scratch instilled in me a belief that cooking was an important task in running a household.  I started cooking in the second grade when I was in 4-H.  I entered my first cooking contest when I was 7 or 8.  When I was living by myself I cooked a big meal every weekend and ate off the leftovers all week.  Now I cook dinner for my family on average 5 nights a week.  And by cooking, I mean from scratch, using whole ingredients.

I am not writing this to toot my own horn.  I like to cook, always have, and usually find it a relaxing, creative outlet.  Given the pleasure I get out of cooking and the importance I place on the task, I was surprised to learn in a report from the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that Americans spend an average of just 30 minutes per day cooking.  This earns us a rank of 34th out of 34 countries in the amount of time we spend cooking.  I’m sure the reasons Americans cook so little are as varied as our foods.  I understand not everyone is going to have the zeal for cooking that I do.  Some people even hate cooking, ranking it right before their worse household chore.  Others may enjoy cooking, but don’t cook very often for a variety of reasons.

busy mom

Many Americans will tell you the lack of time is a major factor in why they do not cook from scratch.  Most American households now have both parents in the workforce.  Additionally, today’s families are involved in so many activities that often evenings become a series of comings and goings as children need to be shuttled to and from practices or lessons not to mention any evening activities Mom or Dad need to attend.  Finally, in today’s work environment, Americans are having to work longer hours to meet the increased demands of their job or work more than one job to make ends meet.  All of these demands add up leaving limited time for meal preparation.

Coinciding with the time constraints most Americans experience in their lives is the rise in availability of convenience foods.  I am not sure if the proliferation of prepackaged, processed convenience foods is a response torice a roni our fast paced lives or has allowed our fast paced lives to continue, but these foods have shortened the amount of time required to put a meal on the table.  Michael Moss chronicles the creation and marketing of convenience foods, mostly as these foods relate to the obesity epidemic in the United States, in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.  He discusses how the marketing of these foods is aimed at working mothers and the ease these foods will bring to their lives by freeing them from the task of cooking from scratch.  I have to admit that I have reached for these convenience foods when I need to get a quick meal on the table between picking one son up from an after school activity and taking the other one to an evening practice.

Another reason for the decline in cooking might be found in this disturbing statistic reported in a Huffington Post article from September 2011.  The article states that 28% of Americans do not know how to cook.  That is almost one third of us!  Why is this?  Perhaps this statistic is a by-product of several decades of increasing reliance on prepackaged, convenience foods.  Parents are not passing on the skills of cooking from scratch if they are increasingly adding water or milk and a prepackaged spice mix to a box of noodles.  Furthermore, according to the author Michael Moss, Family and Consumer Science classes, formerly called Home Economics, often rely on the use of these convenience foods when instructing students in cooking.   That would be in the schools were Family and Consumer Science is still taught.  In many schools it has disappeared completely from the curriculum.  I guess it is not surprising that so many people do not know how to cook, if there exists little opportunity to learn to cook.

That so many people do not know how to cook troubles me profoundly for a couple of reasons.  After reading Michael Moss’ book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, I am convinced our reliance on processed convenience foods is a leading cause of our obesity epidemic and the dangerous rise in diabetes rates.  Being able to cook whole foods that have not been heavily processed and do not contain added salt, sugar and fat is a necessity to bring those rates down.  But cooking from scratch has another important benefit.  Knowing how to cook from scratch makes money spent on food go further.  In my next post I will address how cooking from scratch stretches food dollars, a benefit to all, but a necessity to the food insecure.

 

On the Brighter Side

bns and greensI just looked back over my posts so far, and while I am proud of what I read, the overall tone is a bit depressing.  Perhaps not surprising given the topic, but I also want to keep readers hopeful by reporting on successes and positive outcomes.  I have “liked” my county’s food bank on Facebook, and recently I have gotten a couple of posts from them on my news feed that have made me smile.  Today I will pass their upbeat posts on to you.  The food bank reported that in the past few weeks volunteers have peeled, cut and bagged 15,000 lbs. of butternut squash.  I love butternut squash and am excited to see so much of it being offered in our local food bank and pantries.  They additionally released the amount of venison they received this year from Hunters Sharing the Harvest–3,000 lbs.  As someone who regularly dodges deer as they dash across the road, I am glad this successful program is in place.  Finally, on this St. Patrick’s Day, the food bank posted that the spring greens have been planted in their local greenhouses!  I look forward to seeing those greens as they are distributed to the food pantries in the coming months.

family cooking

I am very encouraged and pleased fresh produce and unprocessed meat is being offered in our local food bank and pantries.  I will explain why over the next few weeks as I publish a series of posts about cooking.  This series will be at least three parts.  I will be discussing the decline in cooking in the United States, and by cooking I mean from scratch.  I also will explain why I think it is important to cook from scratch whenever possible and how cooking from scratch is beneficial to those experiencing food insecurity.  Finally, I will address how I think the decline in cooking is often unintentionally aided by food banks and pantries and propose some ideas they can use to combat this decline.

This series will take a bit of research and careful thought, so stay tuned over the next couple of weeks as I formulate and publish these related posts.  While I always welcome comments, this topic is one area where I really want to hear what others think.  I realize there will be some challenges and hurdles to overcome in what I am proposing, so I need help in looking at the topic from several points of view.   In the meantime, find some time to dust off some of your favorite recipes or find some new ones and cook something!

Ex Libris

In my blog title I call this a journey and that is what it is and what it has been.  I have been socially conscious for as long as I remember, but my interest in this topic has developed and increased over time.  I would like to share with you some of the books I have read that have increased my interest in food insecurity or helped me to understand the complexities of the issue.  Most of the books I will share are not specifically about food insecurity, but seem crucial in my journey.  All of them, however, are good reads!

animal-vegetable-miracleThe title that probably started me down my current path of helping the food insecure is Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.  This book chronicles Kingsolver and her family’s attempt to eat locally.  They intended to eat only food that had been produced so close to their home that they knew who grew or raised it or they grew or raised it themselves.  From this book I learned the importance of eating locally and seasonally.

As a result, I changed the way I feed my family.  Our yard is too shady to grow a garden, so I frequent farmers’ markets and farm stands.  I also purchase a share in a CSA (Consumer Shared Agriculture).  A CSA share is vital in the winter when most of the farmers’ markets and stands are not operating.  In the grocery store I try to stay away from produce that I know could notsunchoke or Jerusalem artichoke possibly be grown around here at the given time of year.  There is no way asparagus is grown within a hundred miles of Pennsylvania in December!  As a result, we are not only eating better tasting produce, we are eating new things too.

You may think it is a leap to go from this book to food insecurity, but it wasn’t for me.  This book got me thinking about how people used to eat, generations ago, when giant grocery stores did not exist.  That thought lead to how people manage today if they don’t have access to all the food in today’s giant grocery stores either because they can’t afford the food or because they live in a food desert.  Additionally,  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle touches on our current agriculture industry, including how we farm and what gets subsidized.  Topics, I would later learn, that are critical in understanding how we can grow so many crops and yet still have hungry people.

Within a few month of reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural omnivore's dilemmaHistory of Four Meals by Michael Pollan.  In this book Pollan follows food from it’s source to the final meal.  He examines how Americans feed ourselves by looking at industrial food production, organic or alternative food production and foraged food.  This book rocked my world and shattered more than one belief I held about what I should be eating.  If there was a list of books that all Americans were required to read, I would argue that this book should be on that list.

Like the Kingsolver book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma does not discuss food insecurity or even hunger in America, but it does address how we feed ourselves and how far we have drifted from how our great grandparents fed themselves.  Several of the problems Pollan addresses in his book are the same ones touched upon in Kingsolver’s work and are interwoven into the problem of hunger in America.

Both of these authors have websites associated with either the specific book or the entirety of their writing.  I will include links below.  The website for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle contains excerpts and indices from the book, links to websites referenced in the book and all of the recipes discussed in the book.  Michael Pollan’s website has links to synopses of all his books, his articles, and websites he finds to be good resources.

I will continue to share books and articles that have influenced and/or educated me on the topic of food insecurity as well as the broader topic of food in America.  I welcome suggestions as well.  I’d love to hear what has shaped your thinking on this topic.