Thursday, May 29, 2008

Obama on food policy, plus chili recipe

In this article, writer and chef Ari LeVaux interviewed Democratic candidate Barack Obama on food policy issues for The North Coast Journal (Clinton and McCain have not yet responded to LeVaux's interview requests). And his chili recipe sounds passable (non-vegetarian, but still likely to be inferior to Nic's recipe below).

Highlights include:
As president, I would implement USDA policies that promote local and regional food systems, including assisting states to develop programs aimed at community supported farms. I also support a national farm-to-school program and am pleased that the Farm Bill provides more than $1 billion to expand healthy snacks in our schools.
As president, I would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to strictly monitor and regulate pollution from large factory farms, with tough fines for those that violate environmental standards. I also support efforts to provide more meaningful local control over these factory farms.

A letter to the editor

Published on Thursday, May 29 with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Letters to the Editor on the Web. You can find the letter we're responding to right here.

Everyone deserves food
I was appalled by the ignorance of the May 22 Web letter "Government Spending I Don't Like." As an AmeriCorps•VISTA member, I am proudly serving our country by fighting poverty with Just Harvest, a local anti-hunger organization. During my service, I have helped dozens of low-income families apply for food stamps. Public benefits help low-income workers and people who have lost their jobs get by without falling deeper into debt and destitution. It is an insult to portray them as "drug addicts" who "make their living sitting on the couch."

No matter what their situation, everyone deserves enough food -- it's right there in Article 25 of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If fighting wars seems more important than feeding our neighbors, our priorities are seriously mixed up. Let's hope our legislators make decisions based on their belief in human dignity, not greed.

AmeriCorps•VISTA Member
Just Harvest
South Side

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Grassroots recipe #5

Just in case you were concerned by the exclusion of meat from the recipes so far, Nic Romano offers a taste of the southern cuisine he picked up in the Navy years ago:

"While my last contribution was vegan friendly, and I don't want anyone to get the false impression that I endorse that kind of self-imposed culinary lunacy," said Nic. "You don't get to be 'Fat Nic' by eating exclusively off the produce aisle. Without further Adieu, here is my personal variation of Jambalaya!

"Don't worry, I may be a fat white dude from Maryland, but I learned how to make this by watching New Orleans native Eldridge 'Treetop' Coleman do magic. He never would reveal his secrets. I may never come close to matching his Jambalaya skills, but he would eat my Jambalaya -- which is more than I can say for the other white dudes who worked in the bowels of that ship so long ago."

(tends to be spicy)

1/2 lb Andouille sausage. Can't get andouille? Then get some smoked Polish sausage. It's not the same, but it will work. Just slice it.
1/2 lb chicken meat, diced. I like to use boneless thigh meat, as it's cheap.
Shrimp, Crab Meat (if you want to)
1 medium onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup diced celery
1 medium bell pepper, also diced
1-2 hot peppers (cayenne if you can find them, but jalapenos work too. Treetop would probably hit me for that)
2 bay leaves
Fresh thyme
Fresh Rosemary
1 14oz can diced tomatoes
2 cups chicken broth
Ground Red Pepper
Old Bay (but since you live in Pittsburgh you will have to settle for whatever passes for "cajun seasoning" at Giant Eagle)
12oz Bottle of IPA (any beer would work, but I find that the hoppy ones tend to work well with the spicy food)

In a heavy pot, brown the sausage. Add the chicken, and cook all the way. Add the onion, garlic, celery, & diced peppers. Cook with the meat (you may need to add a little olive oil to help things along). When the veggies have browned, add the thyme, rosemary, and a sprinkling of old bay. Stir around a bit to get the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. When that is mixed around a bit, open the IPA, and take a good long sip. Deglaze the pan with the rest. Bring to a simmer, and add the tomatoes. Bring that to a simmer, and add the chicken stock. Bring this to a simmer, and continue to season. When you got it where you like it, drop in the bay leaves and let simmer uncovered for about 30-40 minutes, stirring to keep from burning. If you desire, and at the last possible moment add the seafood, and cook through.

In a separate pot, cook about 2 cups of rice. When the rice is finished, add to the other ingredients. Season to taste. It's good now, and will be better in the morning.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thoughts on the Economic Stimulus Tax Rebate

By Ken Regal, Co-Director of Just Harvest

Many of us have just received or will soon be receiving a “tax rebate” check from the federal government as a part of the Economic Stimulus bill passed by Congress and signed by President Bush earlier this year.

My question is why do we so readily accept the idea that this money is a "tax rebate" or a "tax refund"? When the government decides to pass out checks to poor people who fill out vast paperwork, jump through incredible numbers of bureaucratic hoops, and put up with all sorts of indignities and verification procedures, we call it "welfare." Right-wing politicians score political points deriding those who are allegedly getting a free ride on the backs of "hard-working Americans."

But when the same government decides to pass out checks to just about everybody except those at both extreme ends of the income distribution curve, printing the checks just as fast as they can, and requiring no more paperwork than the tax returns we file anyway, then it's "a tax rebate" or (even worse), the "Bush tax rebate." Let's call it what is really is: welfare-for-just-about-everybody. Then when we're standing behind somebody affluent in line at the grocery store who is buying junk food with cash, we can sneer at them and think "Hey, how dare you! That's my tax money you're wasting on soda and potato chips!"

Now, some have argued that the “tax rebate” is different because it reflects a return of what a taxpayer has already earned. But let’s consider what it means to “earn” a check from Uncle Sam:

Under federal welfare rules, essentially everyone who gets cash assistance from TANF must be caring for dependent children and, with exceptions that vary from state to state, most must be working or in a state-approved "work activity" for a specific number of hours per week.

In contrast, think about the rules of the current economic stimulus rebate: A person who sits on his patio drinking gin and tonic all day and who receives $75,000 in income from interest, dividends, or capital gains will get a $600 "rebate." But the guy he pays $50 every week in the summer and fall to mow his lawn makes less than the required $3,000 to qualify and gets no rebate.

My question remains: among Ms. TANF mom, Mr. Lawn Mower, and Mr. Gin-and-Tonic, who's on "welfare" and who is "earning" what they receive?

So, whether you’ve earned your recent “welfare-for-just-about-everybody” check or not, consider donating part or all of it to Just Harvest and help us keep up the fight against hunger, poverty, and economic injustice.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Grassroots recipe #4

Young psychologist Christine Cinquino-Larson offered this simple Italian meal:

Vienna Cinquino's Pasta and Peas


1 can of tomatoes (Italian Style-l lb 12 oz. approx.)
about 1 oz. olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 green bell pepper (or 1/2 if prefer)
Small can of peas(15 oz. approx.--use less if prefer)
1/4 to 1/2 lb of elbow macaroni

Peel garlic cloves; saute until golden in olive oil. Discard garlic.* Blend tomatoes or put through a sieve. Mix into oil. Add salt, black pepper, and parsley to taste. Then add green peppers. Simmer about 30-45 minutes. Cook elbows about 8-10 minutes, drain, leaving a little water from cooked elbows to mix (as needed) when you add can of peas (at end, allowing 5 minutes for heating throughout). ENJOY!

*I asked Dr. C-L two or three times whether she was sure she really meant you're supposed to discard the garlic. She assured me that that's what the original (i.e. traditional) recipe indicates, though garlic fanatics such as I are free to keep it in.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Humanity and homelessness

As a culture, Americans tend to expect people, like machines, to function. According to this hidden logic, we find purpose through our function, and by working we become valuable to the rest of society. This simple idea may help a parent instill a work ethic into her children, or it might help a teacher explain to his students the value of working toward goals.

Unfortunately, this logic also turns people into appliances, and useless appliances are worthless. Imagine how much unnecessary kitchen machinery is discarded annually. A quick jaunt through any flea market will give you a glimpse of the few things vendors believe to be salvageable, but the vast majority of such "labor-saving devices" find their way into landfills.

The same logic can make "unproductive" people seem useless and worthless. But people aren't appliances; they're members of our families and communities. One shouldn't need to be reminded of human beings' intrinsic worth. But the National Coalition for the Homeless' recent report on violence and victimization makes clear this reminder is necessary.

Homeless men and women continue to be targets of violence because "productive" people have internalized this idea that people who aren't (or don't appear to be) working lack value.

Consider this incident from last year:

York City, Pennsylvania
Homeless Man Attacked By a Group of Teens
August 8: At around 12:00 pm, David Wright, a 38-year-old homeless man, was
fishing near Codorus Creek when he was brutally attacked by three to five
boys. Wright reports the teens punched, kicked, and scratched him.
He was taken to the hospital and was treated for contusions and may have a
broken hand.

In the U.S., the number of attacks like this has risen by 13 percent in the last year, with more than half of the attacks having been committed by teenagers.

Clearly, we need a reminder about peoples' intrinsic worth -- especially as the housing crisis (instigated by many hard-working scam artists) threatens to increase the number of homeless people living on the streets. In the press release for the report, David Pirtle, a formerly homeless victim of violence and NCH Board member, calls for a solution: "If the federal government adequately funds permanent affordable housing, fewer people will be on the street, and fewer men and women will be attacked."

Friday, May 9, 2008

Grassroots recipe #3: azifa

Carnegie resident Matt McGrath shared this recipe for Azifa, an Ethiopian cold lentil dish that he recommends in a pita, as a salsa alternative, or on its own. “When you make it yourself [instead of going to a restaurant], it’s about $10 cheaper. I'm addicted to it now,” said McGrath (a $1.25 bag of lentils is about 9 cups dry).


5 cups brown lentils
1/3 cup red onion
3/4 cup green pepper
2/3 cup baby spinach
1 lg. jalapeno chili pepper
3 tsp ginger
1/3 cup lime juice
some salt & pepper


1. Prepare the lentils. A good combination is 7.5 cups of water for 5 cups of lentils. Boil the water, then add the lentils, turn down flame to low, and cook, covered, until lentils are soft but not mushy. It’s a 2 to 3 ratio (2 cups of water for every 3 cups of lentils).

2. Finely chop up the red onion, parsley, baby spinach and jalapeno chili pepper. Place vegetables into bowl with the lentils. (Also "finely chopped" can't be stressed enough. Really you need to dice everything as much as possible. Especially the spinach.)

3. Make the dressing: combine the ginger and lime juice. Alternate azifa recipes add mustard for taste, or oil for thickness.

4. Stir the dressing into the lentil/vegetable bowl until the mix is even

5. Cover the mixture and chill for at least 7 hours.

Six servings - approximately 1 cup per serving

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Urban farms in the Steel City

While some rural Pennsylvanians are weathering the rise in food prices by buying cheap, expired food from Amish shops, Pittsburghers are likelier to enjoy a more sustainable bounty from urban farms. According to this Post-Gazette story, urban farm sites now include the North Side, Lemington, Garfield, and the Hill District. This is good news for supporters of food localism, not to mention anyone concerned about the accessibility of fresh fruits and vegetables to City neighborhoods.

Speaking of fresh fruits and vegetables, Pittsburgh's farmer's markets return to their usual spots in East Liberty, South Side, Bloomfield, and everywhere else you love to find them beginning Monday, May 12. You can find the farmer's market nearest you on the Pittsburgh Citiparks Web site.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Pity leads to charity; dignity, to entitlement

How hard have rising food prices and economic recession hit Pittsburgh? A recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article compares numbers of people served by one food pantry in South Hills in February 2007 -- 276 -- to February 2008 -- 425, an increase of 64 percent. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank distributes food to this and over 350 other pantries and agencies in 11 counties; their director estimates one in three Pittsburgh residents meet the service's income guidelines (making less than 150 percent of the poverty level).

The article does a good job of painting a picture of the need. But what about attitudes expressed toward the poor? Here's how the piece begins:

If as you grocery-shop this month, you see Boy Scouts standing at the doors of the supermarket soliciting donations to the Scouting for Food drive, don't think of the food going to some anonymous "poor" person.

Instead, picture it going to your neighbor or to the family of your child's classmate. That is where it will likely go, according to food bank directors in the South Hills who said that the number of clients they are serving has spiked in recent months.

Layoffs, the mortgage crisis and the shaky economy have pushed more people into food pantry lines, and among the new clients are people whom what once had been the solid middle class -- those who, in the past, might have been more likely to donate than to use a food bank. (emphasis added)

Now hold on a minute. Sure, it makes sense to remind potential donors that the food they give is likely to benefit their neighbors and people like themselves (assuming most newspaper readers identify as "solid middle class," whatever that means). But it is unacceptable to imply that an "anonymous 'poor' person" is somehow less deserving than someone who recently fell from this so-called "solid middle class."

This is a subtle attempt to persuade readers to consider giving to a charity -- and it reveals much about what the newspaper assumes about readers, not to mention the very notion of charitable giving in America. Conventional thought tells us only those we pity deserve charity. A struggling person who demands food might offend "solid middle class" sensibilities. Likewise, a struggling person in the midst of drug addiction or might elicit little sympathy. An able-bodied individual unable to find a job? The scarcity of jobs is no secret -- yet our solution for this person is simply to demand again that they "get a job."

Unfortunately, the Post-Gazette article perpetuates this categorization of poor people into categories of "deserving" and "undeserving." Its persuasive power comes from the reminder that our donation is likely to benefit the "deserving" poor.

Bravo for the Food Bank and the excellent work they do. And bravo to the reporter and the Post-Gazette, as the local effects of poverty seldom attract media attention. But as for rhetoric that discourages us from acknowledging the common dignity of all human beings -- and that encourages us to think that only a familiar, well-behaved few truly deserve "charity?" Such rhetoric is poison. It's the kind of rhetoric that has and continues to divide struggling people across the globe who would do well to recognize their common plight and work together to address it.

Remember, this is one third of the population of Pittsburgh, or 111,521 people we're talking about.

In response, we who seek to end to poverty need to embrace a rhetoric of human dignity and entitlement. Say it with me now: "Everyone deserves enough food." Otherwise, our constant defensive stance will force us to focus on battling for what little government benefits remain, and our dream of ending poverty will remain just that -- a dream.

-Rick Claypool

Monday, May 5, 2008

Grassroots recipe #2: Fat Nic's Vegan Friendly Beans

From Nic Romano, a social worker friend and guitar hero fan from Baltimore:

Fat Nic's Vegan Friendly Beans & (rice, cornbread, whatever...)

Here's a good cheap recipe that always serves me well. It's cheap, simple, and very adaptable to anyone's tastes. Fresh herbs and veggies really make it good, but a little goes a long way. The following is how I like to do it.

2lbs of dry beans (black beans, red beans, pinto beans, jumping beans, whatever you like, it doesn't matter)
1 medium sized onion- strong, diced
2 bell peppers, also diced
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 lb sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup diced celery
2 finely diced jalepeno peppers.
Fresh basil, minced fresh thyme
Salt & pepper
anything else you think might be good
Lots of olive oil
A big pot

First, soak your beans. My room mate once tried to make chili with dry beans, and threw them into the crock pot straight out of the bag. Some of us just have to learn the hard way. Soak them overnight in cool water, but generally 4-6 hours should do the trick.

The trick to making this 100% veggie style is to make a flavorful vegetable broth first. To do this put about 2 tbsp. olive oil in the bottom of a large stock pot. Add the diced/minced garlic, celery & onion. swish it around so the veggies get a nice even coating of oil. Turn the heat on low, and sprinkle some salt on top of the veggies. Stir them around a little bit so they heat evenly. Put the lid on the pot, and play a song or two on guitar hero. check your veggies. When they are starting to get transluscent, turn the heat off, and add a few more tbsp. of olive oil.

Now add the peppers, mushrooms, and fresh herbs. Crank up the heat, and salt the veggies some more. Stir them around a bit, you may need to add some more olive oil, 'cuz the shrooms will soak up alot of it (for everyone who thinks adding salt is bad, the point of this is to draw out any moisture in the veggies when they cook down, so the flavors will concentrate).

Cut the heat down a little bit, and go play some more guitar hero. Seriously, this game rules. Check on the veggies, stirring them between songs. When the shrooms have shrunk, and the peppers are starting to get soft, cut back the heat and add about 2 cups of water (at this point, sometimes I put a little bit of miso or some kumbo seaweed into the pot).

Put the heat on low, season it up to your tastes, and let it cook down a little, about 20 minutes or so. By this point you've probably gotten yourself pretty addicted to guitar hero.

After 20 minutes, turn the heat off, and stir the mixture around. It should resemble a deliciously fragrant mushy goo. Season to taste.

Drain your soaking beans, and dump them in the pot. Don't rinse them off. Thoroughly mix the beans into the fragrant goo. Add about 2-4 cups of water. Put the heat on low, stir, put the lid on, and walk away. By now you probably want to finish guitar hero career mode anyway. The beans will take about 2-3 hours to cook all the way.

It is a good idea to check on the pot and give it a good stir every now and then. When the beans are tender, take the lid off, crank up the stove, and let it boil for a good 10-15 minutes. This will take care of any excess moisture. Now your beans are done, and you can eat them over top of rice or whatever you like your beans on.

Should feed a small army.

Friday, May 2, 2008

food crisis and free markets

Scary. Transnational corporate agribusiness has managed to create a global food crisis. Readers of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine will be unsurprised at how Cargill, Monsanto, etc. are profiting from the crisis (not unlike how oil companies are reaping windfall profits) -- thus offering little financial incentive to stave of the "social uprisings" that rightly make the World Bank and WTO anxious. NGO Food First offers prescient analysis of the situation by explaining how market deregulation links the causes mainstream media outlets mention (i.e. biofuels and rising meat demand in developing nations). The UN is looking for ways to involve these transnational stakeholders in solutions. Indian activist Vandana Shiva anticipates the likely reluctance of governments to intervene in problems that free market policies create and points to sustainable solutions:

There is a very short term solution – give up the industrial agriculture using fossil fuels, high cost imports. Give up the forced linking with an international commodity market. Allow farmers to grow and give them a just price. We can solve the problem tomorrow. I work with 400,000 farmers in India growing organic food. We have doubled yields and doubled output on farms. Nobody is dying of starvation in the villages where there is organic farming. [...]

The Third World does not need charity; the Third World needs food sovereignty. It needs freedom to produce it own food. Let's just recognise the ecological endowments – it is Africa and Asia that have the best soils, the best sun, the best biodiversity. [...] I'd like to just mention: free trade is not free. Every one of the problems we have … have been triggered by government policy. Globalisation is government policy. Trade liberalisation is government policy. Biofuels is government policy. [...] If the governments have caused the problem, they cannot now throw up their hands and say that they cannot intervene. They have created the price rise, they need to intervene in creating a fair market for famers and ensure the rights of all.

Grassroots recipe #1

Child nutrition advocate DeShauna Ponton was kind enough to share this delicious summertime combination of fresh vegetables and pasta.

Zucchini Spaghetti

1 large zucchini (cut into 1/2-1 inch pieces)
2-3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 chopped green pepper
1 box angel hair pasta
1 can stewed or diced tomatoes, drained (save juice)
1 1/2 Tablespoons chopped garlic
3 plum tomatoes (or 1 regular tomato) skinned and diced
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
Italian seasonings (basil, oregano, rosemary), to taste
salt and pepper, to taste

In a large skillet, sautee onion, green pepper, and zucchini until slightly soft. Add the can of stewed tomatoes. Reduce heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. Add tomato juice, garlic, Italian seasonings, salt, and pepper. Cook for another 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, boil the angel hair pasta according to directions on the box, until tender. Drain and set aside.

Plate your pasta. Spoon zucchini mixture over pasta with juice and top with fresh parmesan.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Grassroots cooking

With a national economic woes, a global food crisis pushing prices higher and higher, and apparently never-ending foot-dragging on the farm bill, it's not hard to feel anxious about the future of food in our communities. But daily meals continue bringing people together. Nothing like sharing meals and sharing recipes bridges generations and cultures -- and there's no better context than the dinner table for debating politics and problems.

In the article "The Extravagant Gourmets," Sara Dickerman writes about the problem with most food writing -- namely, that it's purpose is usually to convince readers to buy more (and more expensive) food. Dickerman's article ends with a call to arms: more food writers should emphasize the economics in home economics. She writes:

The time seems right for a mainstream voice (better yet, voices) to marry the pleasures of the table with the reality of a reduced budget, perhaps by using what we've learned from the food revolution. Michael Pollan has already made a big splash this year by recommending that people shy away from packaged products and eat less meat—two steps that are not only a grassroots vote for a new kind of food system but that will help save money [...] A new home economics could harness seasonal ingredients and real ethnic flavors; it could weave a lusty appreciation of food with a sober appreciation of the grocery dollar.
We've decided to take on Dickerman's challenge by posting what we're calling grassroots recipes. Look forward to cheap, tasty, everyday dishes that come straight from the kitchens of Just Harvest's family and friends. We may not nutritional experts like USDA (whose list of thrifty recipes includes nutritional info and the cost per serving), but our passion for good eating is surpassed only by our passion for advocating that everyone, regardless of income, is entitled to eat well.