Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Did Poverty Make You Uncomfortable Today?

It is finally raining, and I am so thankful to be spending the winter in a location where I don’t have to wade through snow! I am glad I had the experience of living in the far-out mountains, watching my feet for rattlesnakes and eating antelope steaks, but I am also glad to be living somewhere else now. What I realize I am thankful for most of all, however, is what rural living taught me about poverty.
While living on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana, I was painfully aware that even on my tiny AmeriCorps stipend, I was one of the few people who could regularly afford to put gas in my car. I knew that I could ensure my house always had functional plumbing, while many of my neighbors regularly went without. I was lucky enough to live in a three-bedroom trailer with only two other people, compared to many families on the Reservation who had three or four families living in homes of the same size (houses held together with tarps, cardboard, and other scrounged materials). I saw a level of poverty that I hadn’t known existed in the United States. I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t lived in it, even though I spent eight months living only sixty miles away in Forsyth.
I now know that it is easy, and perhaps particularly so in larger cities, to not see poverty. We live in neighborhoods with people of the same socio-economic status, shop at the same stores and attend the same schools. We know there are communities out there that are both wealthier and poorer, but they are far-removed from our daily lives. It can be hard to imagine that anyone’s lives’ are really all that different from our own. It is also uncomfortable, because those differences (should) make you think twice about your own lifestyle. Living alongside abject poverty taught me that poverty is everywhere, but you have to be willing to look at it.
          Portland is not just a well-educated, well-fed middle-class white community, although that’s certainly the easiest segment to see. My food pantries remind me all the time that not everyone lives that kind of life. This week at one of my food pantries, I helped pack an emergency food box for a family who had been evicted from their home and was living in a hotel. It was a harder box to pack than usual, because I wondered if what I was packing was appropriate. Do they have a can-opener with them? Do they have the capacity to cook dry beans? Is there a freezer that they can put the meat and frozen vegetables in? I started thinking about what a different life they have from my own, how foreign it is and how uncomfortable that makes me.

I also worry that not enough people think about this discrepancy, especially among my peers who have perhaps not had the opportunity to stray from their middle-class niche. So today, I just want you to think about the average 270,000 Oregonians every month who eat food from emergency food boxes. Some of them may be living in hotels, others staying with relatives, and some are still in their own homes. 92,000 of them are children who may be used to going hungry, while others are struggling because they aren’t going to school consistently and are missing out on school lunches. More people are hungry because they don’t have a car, and they couldn’t make the long walk to the bus stop or directly to my pantry today because of the heavy rain. It's hard to see these people.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Who Deserves to Eat?

Last week, a client told the staff at the pantry check-in that he hadn’t eaten in two days. He thanked everyone helping distribute food, and left with what was hopefully enough to sustain him until next week. Thankfully, most of our clients do not come to us in such great need. Incidents like this do, however, raise the question of how hungry someone should be to qualify for emergency food assistance.

I’ve had several conversations recently regarding the concern that people might abuse the food pantry by taking more food than they need or coming even when they can afford to buy their own. Because none of my pantries require identification or proof of income, anyone, regardless of need, can receive food.

I struggle to articulate a response to these concerns. My short answer is that if people care enough to get themselves to the pantry, who am I to judge if they really need food or not? My hope is that people aren’t already starving when they come, and that they are doing what it takes to keep their family well-fed even if that means taking a little more food than they need for later. Otherwise, how do you define how hungry people must be to qualify for help?

What I would like to tell skeptics is an incident from one of my first days working with the SUN food pantry program. I acted as a greeter at the front door for one of the pantries, welcoming people as they came in and explaining to new clients how the system works. I remember one woman fumbling with her shopping bags. Her hands shook so much she couldn’t get them open, and she didn’t look me in the eye. This was the first time she’d ever “needed help,” she told me in a tone of complete humiliation. She was embarrassed and frightened to be there, and I could tell that if she’d had any other options she would have taken them.

No one is proud to accept emergency food assistance, and I have little fear that anyone exploits this resource. My food pantries exist to help feed people with as little judgment and as much respect as possible, and I will never question anyone’s reason for being there.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A New Start

This morning I spent a good chunk of time driving around on a bumpy gravel road in outer Portland trying to find the Errol Heights Community Garden. When I finally stumbled upon it, I filled the trunk of my car with forty-seven pounds of fading collard greens, tomatoes from every stage of life and several monster zucchinis. I can’t help but laugh about the fact that although I no longer serve with FoodCorps, my new job description remains surprisingly similar.
Last week, I started my new job as a Food Pantry Assistant Coordinator for Metropolitan Family Service and the Portland SUN program (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods). I am now responsible for coordinating three food pantries based at SUN schools and the weekly distribution of food to families in need. Because I am still trying to figure out how to best protect the privacy of our clients in this blog, for now I am going t refrain from naming what schools I work at. I will say that they are two elementary schools and one high school all located on the east side of the river.
My day starts at MFS, where I pick up the van and head to the Oregon Food Bank with one other MFS employee where an order has been placed for the school that has a distribution that afternoon. At very low cost, the SUN program buys canned and non-perishable foods, frozen meats, and eggs from the Food Bank for each of its sites. Then we “shop the dock,” which entails looking through the perishable foods that have been donated and selecting what we believe our clientele needs or would enjoy. Last week it included green tomatoes, sweet potatoes, pre-packaged salads, carrots and blue berries. Scrounging in the refrigerator also produced a variety of yogurts. As we select food, we check the expiration date. For dairy, it’s considered safe if we distribute it within five days of the expiration date; for canned food it’s five years. One the van is loaded, we head to the school site. This trip may also include a stop at a community garden or private residence to pick up a donation of produce (which right now are almost entirely made up of enormous zucchini and green tomatoes.)
Each one of my schools distributes on a different day, so the afternoon is spent unloading the van and organizing the food for distribution. Because of space and funding limitations, all of my schools are unable to store food in the same space that it will be distributed, so volunteers assist in sorting and carrying food out to the tables where families will get to browse the selection.
Two of my food pantries are open to the community and one is technically open only to the families of students, although no one is ever turned away. Families converge as much as an hour before the pantry opens, to get in line or to collect their shopping number to determine the order of go. Volunteers, called “shopping assistants,” guide our clients down the tables and help carry bags, select produce and keep things moving. Volunteers may be community members who, by volunteering, get to shop first, students, or members of a church group.  
Each one of my schools serves thirty to forty families, and it is my job to make sure that everyone leaves with an equivalent amount of food. This involves keeping careful track of how much food we have, how many families have turned up, what they’re taking, and being ready to make substitutions. True to my FoodCorps roots; I spend a great deal of time trying to get families to try foods they may not be familiar with, such as kohlrabi or lentils. The extra challenge is that I often have to do all of this in Spanish. Culture plays a role in the foods we seek out- I know that one of my sites serves mainly Hispanic families, who are more likely to want lots of peppers and beans. Another site has a large Asian population, who knows what to do with bok choy and doesn’t want peanut butter.
Each one of my sites is lucky enough to have an AmeriCorps volunteer, who does much of the necessary paperwork and is my main recruiter and organizer of volunteers. I have been enjoying getting to know them, and was thrilled to crash the MFS AmeriCorps orientation last week and meet the approximately 15 service members scattered at schools around the city.
Because this is a part-time job (incredibly enough), I have also secured a job teaching weekly cooking and gardening classes to middle school students at another SUN school. I have yet to get started- I won’t have a curriculum or students for some time, but I am incredibly excited to continue working with kids.
I am not sure how this blog is going to evolve to follow my new path working on urban food access, but I do promise to continue sharing my thoughts and experiences as I learn.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Harvest Time

Every morning when I first arrive at the garden, I walk down the rows to see what has changed from the day before. A tomato cage may have collapsed under the weight of the ripening fruits that adorn it. A dark green zucchini has grown grotesque by doubling in size overnight. Delicately purple potato blossoms keep bees and pollinators hovering over the garden. Tendrils from the pumpkin patch have crept across the pathway and threaten to take over the neighboring beds. During the many hours I’ve spent here, I’ve observed the little quirks and habits that make this garden, and this community, special,
 Just like in an Indiana Jones movie, I’ve learned where to dodge a mud puddle, skip over the prickly leaves of a squash plant, and take shelter on a hot day next to the bed of herbs where the smell of dill makes the heat a little more tolerable. I’ve seen the excitement of summer-school students when I bring broccoli for their snack and noticed how the town goes quiet when I wander the streets to find someone to relieve me of an armful of zucchini.
           Over the past year I’ve gotten to know the town of North Powder pretty well, and what I’ve gained from this community is as ample a harvest as the one I’ve gathered from the school garden. The enthusiasm and passion that North Powder School met me with a year ago have made the past twelve months as their FoodCorps Service Member an incredible adventure. Serving with FoodCorps is as much about working with people as it is with food, and here I have had the opportunity to collaborate with the broadest spectrum of people I could have imagined. I’ve learned something from every person that I’ve worked with, and I do not have adequate words for expressing my gratitude to the people who have helped me develop my skills and pilot this new adventure successfully.
In what I believed was going to be an isolated and lonely town, I found a community that has whole-heartedly embraced me. Although it is true that this part of the state has limited access to the resources available in the Willamette Valley and that can be frustrating, there is just as much enthusiasm, excitement and willingness to learn about food. I've attended weekly dinner parties where I learned to cook Lebanese and Greek foods, parents proudly and randomly tell me what they cooked, and what their child ate, for dinner the night before, and I've had discussions in the classroom and in late-night bars about the details of raising chickens. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my service is that every community chooses its own pace and direction when it comes to food, and it has been a delight for me to follow along as North Powder School helps define this path for the region.
This week concludes my two years of serving with FoodCorps. When I first started my career with food in Montana I did not anticipate how much I would learn, the skills I would gain and the friends I would make. I am saddened to think about no longer being an active member of the FoodCorps family, but I know that the connections I’ve made will endure and support me as I continue along this career path. This week when I pack up my car, I will be heading back to Portland to be closer to my family and to look for a job addressing sustainable agriculture and food justice.
The FoodCorps family
In late August, North Powder will welcome their new FoodCorps Service member, and I hope that the garden and the Farm to School Program continue to flourish as she contributes her own skills and strengths. I wish all the friends that I have made in Montana, eastern Oregon and in FoodCorps across the country all the best as you continue to change the world, one lentil burger at a time, and I look forward to watching the world harvest what we have sown.

Hopefully you are not like me and don’t have dozens of zucchini plants growing in your garden, but in case you suffer from an excess of squash here is one of the recipes I’ve employed recently with delightful results.

Zucchini Pancakes
1 lb zucchini (approximately 2 medium sized)
1 tsp salt
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1 egg
¼ tsp black pepper, more to taste
½ cup flour
½ tsp baking powder
Olive oil, for frying

Grate the zucchini, toss with salt and set aside for 10 minutes. Drain zucchini by wringing it out in cheesecloth or pressing against the edge of a colander. Mix in green onions, egg and black pepper.
In separate bowl mix flour and baking powder, and then add to wet mixture. 

In a cast-iron skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat and drop batter into pancakes, and flatten with spoon or spatula until about ½ inch thick. These will take longer to cook than regular pancakes. Flip when the bottom turns golden-brown, after about 4 minutes.

1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
1-2 Tbs lemon juice
1 minced clove of garlic
Mix ingredients together and serve a dollop on each pancake. The pancakes were good before, but the topping definitely kept me eating more!

The Elkhorn Mountains

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Summer Gardening and flash mobs

It is hard to believe that the school year is over! I had thought that summer would finally allow me some free time for relaxation, but of course with the late arrival of eastern Oregon’s growing season, it is all I can do to keep up with the garden. Rows of cabbage and broccoli expand outward, potatoes leaves creep up through the mulch, and squash plants emerge from the edge of every garden bed, pathway and unused corner. Weeds spring up everywhere. During free moments I munch on green beans from the greenhouse and I have even tasted the first of our (glorious) broccoli crop. I’ve found a nearly full-grown kohlrabi among the cabbage, although I could have sworn we didn’t have any seeds until recently. Unsuspecting students walking by the garden are sent away with bags of enormous spicy radishes and instructions to return for more tomorrow. Thanks to a happy accident, the compost pile is growing literally hundreds of pumpkin sprouts. Kindergarten help in the garden earlier in the year now surprises me daily with sunflowers popping up in unexpected places, and thanks to first grade nasturtiums and marigolds attract pollinators with their blooms. Today it is only a heavy, ceaseless rain that keeps my hands from the soil.
Although I was not sure I would enjoy working long hours in the garden without students, I have found it to be a wonderful opportunity for thought. Weeding offers endless hours for reflecting, planning, and maintaining my farmer’s tan.

Because things have been so busy, I have not had time to share much about one of my favorite activities to take place at this school this past year. 
In December, I helped North Powder’s 5th grade class write and perform a flash mob in the cafeteria during lunch time for Dole Fruit’s annual Flash Mob contest. These students took this project very seriously, and spent hours writing lyrics, rewriting lyrics, and coordinating the performance. On a regular Wednesday when the elementary students sat down with their lunches, 5th grade spontaneously stood up and sang about healthy fruits to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” The video we made does not adequately capture our students’ surprise as their peers interrupted a normally quiet meal with clapping, stomping and singing. 
5th grade, flaunting their money and fruit cups!
We submitted the video to Dole Fruit, and this spring learned that North Powder won First Prize! Thanks to 5th grade, we added $500 to the Farm to School bank account and 10 cases of fruit cups to the lunch line! See the Grand Prize winner’s video on Dole’s website (I do have to point out that it is not a real “flash mob”): Dole Fruit Flash Mob Contest winners. 

This project was so much fun I have recommended that it become part of the 5th grade curriculum, facilitated by the FoodCorps service member (and of course their phenomenal teacher!) 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cooking with Kids

Cooking for and with elementary students is hard work. Organizing a class of twenty in making something palatable can quickly devolve into chaos, and you always run the risk that they won’t like whatever you’re serving. Figuring out how to handle that is a lesson in itself.

Earlier in the year, 3rd and 4th grade helped cut and clean hundreds of pounds of the pumpkins they grew, 1st grade learned how to make Baba Ganoush, multiple classes harvested over 150 pounds of beets, and recently 5th grade ground their own cornmeal for colonial-style pancakes. Some of these activities have been more fun than others (the pumpkin cleaning marathon was definitely a mistake), but overall they've taught these students so much about the fun and challenges that come with working with food.
This week, 3rd grade looked on as I made asparagus soup in my Vitamix blender with fresh, local asparagus. Students excitedly helped me pass out cups of the hot soup and waited expectantly to try it, but when they finally tried the soup there was silence. Several students quietly stood up and walked to the water fountain.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked
“It’s really good, Ms. Estrem, but I just don’t care for it today,” one student said.
“I like it but my body isn't ready for it,” another told me.

Almost the entire class gave me a similar response. This might sound like a failure, until you recognize that not one single “eww,” “gross!” or dramatic face made an appearance in that 3rd grade classroom. Although ideally my students would enjoy every food we try, their response to the asparagus soup was as satisfying as our most successful taste test. Their verbalization that they didn't like the soup today showed me how far they have come this year, by not rejecting it outright. I know I could go into that classroom tomorrow and make the same recipe, and they would try it just as willingly.

As the end of the school year approaches and I look back on all the activities we've done, I can see that it’s not any formal teaching methods or specific information that has brought this success.  Our lessons are often goofy, informal and messy.  We've sung songs, played games and colored in the classroom. My students’ willingness to try new foods comes from the fact that food has become an engaging and fun aspect of their education, and something that every one of them is capable of participating in. 

Asparagus Soup 
(I will attribute the lack of success with this recipe in the classroom to the fact that we had to make a dairy-free version. I like asparagus soup made with plain yogurt or a little bit of cream.)

1 onion
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound fresh asparagus
1 cup vegetable broth
1 dash garlic powder
1 dash pepper
1 cup milk

Saute vegetables, spices and butter and then add to blender with milk until creamy. Heat or serve cold.