Tuesday, June 15, 2010


June 17, 2010

For just about forever, the charitable act of feeding the hungry meant filling stomachs with leftovers. In the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible, to use an ancient example, the wealthy landowner Boaz lets his impoverished relative Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth glean whatever grains of barley the harvesters had left behind. (He later marries Ruth.) Until quite recently, most food-assistance programs gave out canned and dry foods gleaned from Thanksgiving drives and generic processors, and foot-long blocks of tasteless government-surplus cheese.
That's why I was astounded to discover what the St. Augustine Food Pantry here in the South Bronx has been putting in their grocery bags these days: fresh apples and carrots, frozen vegetables and blueberries, whole-wheat pasta, elegant grinders of McCormick garlic sea-salt, bottles of fruit juice, chocolate- chip cookies, boxes of Triscuits, family-sized wedges of Borden cheddar and mozzarella chesses — things everybody loves to eat and drink. Last week's selection even included several cases of Fresh Ginger Ginger Ale with Pomegranate Juice, concocted by Asian-food guru Bruce Cost.
Sister Dorothy Hall, O.P., the food pantry director, recently treated me to a glass.
"Wow," I said as the bits of ginger hit my palate, "this is the best carbonated drink I think I've ever had. Where did it come from?"
"The Food Bank," she told me. "I can't believe the quality and variety of the food we get from them. It's a pleasure to give it out."
Every Monday, Sister Dorothy's pantry in the basement of St. Augustine Catholic Church distributes bags containing food enough for nine well-balanced meals to around 500 people. Her primary source is the Food Bank For New York City, which started out in 1983 as Food For Survival, a clearinghouse to solicit and store food donations and government allocations and channel them to participating food pantries and soup kitchens. This in itself was a major step forward in addressing the growing problem of hunger in the city, relieving the small neighborhood agencies of the anxiety of finding food and of dealing with the complexities of the food bureaucracy. Throughout the years, it has broadened its scope to include nutrition education, cooking classes, school programs, and assistance in applying for federal food stamps and earned-income tax credits.
It's not just about survival anymore; it's about bringing people into the mainstream. "Food Bank" is a more accurate name.
"The old idea of feeding the hungry was that the desperate will take anything," says Carol Schneider, the Food Bank's senior media relations manager. "It's the opposite now. All people have equal dignity, and our goal is to provide the most nutritious and tasty food available and to get people out of the band-aid mode so they can shop for their own food, make healthy choices, and feel good about themselves."
This attitude is no better seen than in the Food Bank's Food Sourcing Division and its director, David Grossnickle. Just a year into the job, Grossnickle has transformed the operation, tirelessly spreading the word to merchants large and small.
"It's all about communication," he says. "When I call up a prospective donor, they usually come to the phone with this mind- set that, oh, you're the group that gives to homeless people. When I explain that there are all kinds of people that need food assistance — families, people that have jobs and a future, young and old, maybe even some of their neighbors — they end up saying, ‘I had no idea.' Usually I can close the deal."
About five percent of the Bank's procurements are wholesale purchases of staple foods that food-assistance programs rely on every week — canned vegetables and fruits, tuna, ground beef, chicken, condiments. In addition, many of the name-brand items like the Triscuits come through Feeding America (formerly called America's Second Harvest; see Ruth, above), a national clearinghouse that solicits and distributes large-scale donations from the big food manufacturers.
The rest of the food comes from local donations.
"Most distributors have excess food at one time or another," says Grossnickle, "and that's when we can help. We make it as easy as possible. I tell them, ‘When you've got a space problem, remember we're just a phone call away.'"
Sometimes Grossnickle lands some very interesting stuff, like Bruce Cost's ginger ale and the load of Greek cookies and biscuits he recently secured from an importer. "These kinds of foods are great because they give people the chance to try something they've never tried before."
Healthy eating is a priority. "We're always looking for foods that are nutritionally dense," he says. "We try to stay away from sugary donations. If a distributor offers us soda, I usually tell them, ‘Well, soda isn't really great — what else do you carry?' That's where a lot of our juices come from."
Accessing fresh foods is another part of Grossnickle's mission. Of the 70 million pounds of food distributed yearly by the Food Bank to over a thousand groups serving 1.3 million people, 13 million pounds is fresh produce. With their warehouse right in the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, the nation's largest wholesale produce distribution center, the Food Bank gets first pick of excess perishables and screens it for quality before sending it out to the programs. The Bank also partners with food banks in upstate New York for a wide selection of seasonal produce from local farmers.
For the Food Bank, it's still about leftovers, but leftovers of a different kind, gleaned from the top, enhancing not only health but human well-being.
Sister Dorothy, got any more of that ginger ale?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


June 10, 2010

At Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx, the summer vegetables — tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra, collards, beans, cucumbers, melons — are growing lustily in the hot weather, shading the early-spring plantings of lettuces, spinach, radishes, and cilantro, which the gardeners are now harvesting. The cool-weather crops of peas, broccoli, and carrots will be ready soon.
At this time of year, the garden is a busy place. Kids off the street and from local youth groups come by to dig for earthworms, shriek at centipedes, pull weeds, shovel compost, plant seeds, water, and wonder at the miracle of life.
Recently, after they'd put in a morning of solid work, I asked the kids if they'd like some lemonade. Before they had a chance to reply, their youth-group leader interjected, "Or I could take you to McDonald's."
Guess which option they chose.
McDonald's! I cringed. After all that hands-on education in urban farming, they still salivate for greasy McNuggets, salty fries, and sugary sodas.
My mind went a step further: But what about my instant lemonade, that sweetened water with a little flavoring? Right next to the pitcher in the fridge was a big jug of apple juice — why didn't I think of offering them that?
Am I becoming a food alarmist? Will I supplement reading the obituaries in the morning paper with reading the Nutrition Facts on the cereal boxes? Will seeing a kid with a Burger King bag cause the same horrified reaction as seeing a kid with a pack of Marlboros?
I hope not — I guiltlessly take in a Whopper now and then — but it's hard to resist dietary paranoia. Every few months some study linking some food to some disease hits the news and the nerves, only to disappear or be discredited. As one friend, a native of the Gambia, West Africa, once told me: "Back home, we eat to live. Here in America, we eat to die."
The latest object of national obsession is childhood obesity, an issue now made prominent by First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign against it.
This may not be paranoia. Something is actually following us.
We all know the statistics, and it's not just about childhood: Over the last 30 years, the percentage of clinically overweight adults in the U.S. rose from 45% to 68%, and those classified as obese jumped from 13% to 34%. For children and adolescents, the overall numbers have increased from around 7% overweight/obese to 30%. The latest studies in New York City indicate that 43% of elementary school children are overweight.
We all know the results of obesity: diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancers.
And we all know the reasons, too: processed foods, sugary drinks, lack of exercise.
Not one of the half-dozen children in the garden that day was overweight — they, among their friends and classmates, probably showed up there because they enjoy the outdoors and physical activity; they may even like vegetables. It may also be that to them and to their parents, a trip to McD's is a rare treat, not a daily diet.
But what about the rest?
Twenty years ago, a nearby pastor celebrated the arrival of the first McDonald's in this neighborhood, right up the street from his church; to him it was a sign that the South Bronx was bouncing back. Now there are three of them, and you'll pass plenty of other fast-food outlets and carry-out delis in between.
You deserve a break today. In fact, you deserve a break this very minute.
At first glance it's crazily incongruous that obesity rates are the highest among the poor. More than one cynical visitor to this area has remarked, "If hunger is such a problem around here, why are so many people fat?"
The answer to this paradox is the paradox of the food- delivery system. A recent segment of the PBS NewsHour profiled the problem of obesity in the town of Lambert, Miss., where farming is an industry, the crops are trucked away, and all the system gives them back to eat comes from the convenience store, the pizza place, and the ubiquitous McDonald's — no good supermarkets for 20 miles. In the midst of plenty, Lambert is what the experts are now calling a "food desert." People have lost their ancestors' skills at raising their own food in their back yards, as well as their ambition for it; stories of picking beans, shucking peas, gathering eggs, and baking blackberry pies for the family dinner are just stories now. Locked in the grip of the system, it's hard to think and act beyond it.
In many respects, the South Bronx is better off than Lambert in terms of food delivery. Supermarkets with a decent if limited selection of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats are within walking distance for most. But the ready availability of the quick-fix — the sweet, the salty, the packaged, the processed — is irresistible. Given the choice, people will bypass the oven for the microwave, the preparation for the prepared, the cookbook for the can. That's especially the case among the poor, for whom instant gratification of open-and-eat is one of their few consolations.
Conquering obesity means conquering the industrial food- delivery system and putting a local one in its place. The gardeners at Genesis Park are pointing the way.