Working to help the hungry: thoughts public and private

I live in Washington, D.C., and I care deeply about my city. In particular, I hate when it becomes an eponym for political misdeeds or a focus of scorn. Remember: the 600,000-plus people of the District of Columbia don’t even get voting representation in Congress. And the Congress reserves for itself the power of our purse. And one part of one party has made a hostage of the budget, and with it he livelihoods of many friends and neighbors in the greater Washington metropolis and worldwide.

Despite the jokes of the lazy civil servant, many of these workers are not particularly well-paid (even in the Congress staff itself) and furlough days have taken a bite. How long will it be when some of these same civil servants will need food assistance, even as the programs are on ice? That members of military qualify for SNAP (food stamps) is itself a shame, lest anyone forget.

Baked into the conflict is what the proper role of government should be, and even if the current impasse is quickly resolved, it’s hard to imagine a happy outcome when that one part of one party is dedicated no less to anti-government than anything else. Which makes me question the natural churchly impulse to private, charitable solutions to social harms, like hunger. Isn’t that just playing into an anti-government script? Especially since churches can barely keep their doors open. The same can be said of many secular non-profits. There’s just not enough labor, leadership and plain old money to restore public needs to charity.

But there’s also the difference between a regularly-operating government and a crisis. Today we have a crisis and so today we have a responsibility to give more to charities that pick up where government initiatives fail. (Our task tomorrow is to push the vandals out of office.)

OK: let’s look at a couple of good ideas that other places could emulate.

  1. The DC Food Finder a “project of Healthy Affordable Food For All” maps meal programs, food distribution sites, mutual aid, market alternatives and the like.
  2. One of the market alternatives is the Healthy Corners program, which supplies produce to corner markets in poorer parts of the District. See the video, too.
  3. SHARE DC (SHARE Food Network) provides set packages of low-cost groceries; participants subdivide and package the food. It’s managed by Catholic Charities and operated through neighborhood churches.

The new national weight loss plan

Over the years, I’ve tried to lose weight and am fully aware of what works for me (eating high-fiber, low-fat vegetarian food; counting and recording calories) and what doesn’t (everything else).

My reasons for trying to lose weight, however, have changed. The vain reasons of youth have become the health-preservation demands of middle age. Why, to you the reader, might this matter?

Because it meshes well with one of two ideas I have about the Occupy movements. On the one hand, by pushing the political expectations of the country (I can’t speak to how it plays out overseas) to the left, and by encouraging activists, I think there is more possibility for an equitable political solution. (The main line of the Democratic party isn’t going to do it.) What does that have to do with weight loss? Nothing.

The other hand suggests that the fight is going to be generations-long and that the reliable help that comes will be softer, smaller-scale and sometimes insufficient. Encouragement over aid. Solidarity over programs. Pig-headedness, perhaps, over leadership. It means we’re going to have to take care of our own health, finances, social affairs and even religious needs even while others profit unfairly from our labor and government remains unresponsive to citizen demands. It means preparing ourselves bravely and creatively to have less. Sounds very tiring, but this situation has been decades in the making.

So I’m trying to lose weight to stave off diabetes and coronary disease, and rely on the support of a few good friends to make it happen. It may not be enough, but If that’s as much health care as some people have. Time, I think, to consider self-care — not in that sickly-sweet way ministers once talked about among themselves — and solidarity action. And if that works, then why not housing, food, tools, education and religion? I would rather starve the forces that try to control us than surrender.

Let’s start with the “too big to not be bailed out” banks. Then move to abusive multinationals and the producers of goods who finance the corrupt system we see. That I’m hungry for.

Tea is good

Unitarian Universalist minister, blogger and friend Victoria Weinstein is in London drinking good tea, among other pursuits.

I love tea, and drink it in great quantities. Apart from being delicious and refreshing, tea is an extraordinarily good value; very good tea can be had at a very small cost per serving. But even good leaves and be ruined with poor preparation and — to a degree — mediocre leaves can rise to satisfaction if prepared well. (The heated pot is important.) There’s a good lesson in making the best with what you have, and in that spirit share this British wartime film on tea.

Thinking about food

No great thoughts today. Just a continuous stream of the same (and literally visceral) thought today: food. What I can have, when I can have it. I’ve begun to count calories again today.

I’ve been picking up weight lately. My clothes are tight, my digestion is a wreck and I feel underpowered. I know from experience that if I lose 20 pounds I’ll feel better. I also know from experience that only one way works: to set a calorie budget and stick to it by measuring, counting and recording. I’m ordinarily eat a pretty wholesome, balanced diet. The budget keeps excesses at bay, and puts vegetables first. I love the results; I even love the food. (After a while, I forget about crackers and corn chips: two of my sabotage foods.)

So why do I stop? Because it takes a lot of work to maintain. And I think about food endlessly, especially when I’m resuming and there are tempting foods in the house (and not enough ready-to-eat low energy food.)

The difference now is that I’m prepared to think more about food as a part of the human condition. The fashionable set talk about their preferred foods. (Local! Organic! Thai!) The hungry have to plan carefully to get enough food. The imperiled — I’m thinking of the Japanese right now — upright their lives by securing food.

We celebrate with food. We mourn with food. We worship with food. Jesus taught with food, and my relatives comforted with food.

And so we think — I pray — so we do. But it’s going to be a heluva struggle.

Emergency preparation: can stove

I think my several years of childhood in hurricane-vulnerable New Orleans has deeply affected my approach to emergency preparation. When there’s news of very bad weather coming, the first thing I do is put back at least two gallons of drinking water (Dutch ovens are good, plus a pitcher in the fridge) and plug in everything that can recharge. Then start a load of laundry — the risk of four or five days off-grid is more bearable if there are clean clothes to change into — and then out for supplies. But I try to keep a few days’ worth of food in the house that can be eaten without cooking. Perhaps not desirable, but edible.

Place these thoughts in the context of the current suffering in Japan. Sometimes preparations don’t do much good, but that’s not an excuse not to prepare. And so I thought about what extra resources — not too obtrusive or expensive; butterfly bandages, say– would I put back?

Now, I’m no camper, but a camp stove would be a good choice, and one — like the long-used and much loved beverage can stoves would be a better to have than no way to cook or heat a bit of water at all. Here’s the concept, and here’s a variation I’d want to have on hand. But the idea is that one might be made after the outages if the directions were held back, say on a battery-powered laptop. (Feedback and additions, particularly from actual campers, welcome.)

The coming calorie counts

A bit off-topic, but my favorite part of the insurance reform bill that I’ve actually read is a little-discussed section expanding calorie count information for chain restaurants (of twenty locations or more)and vending machines. At least I can understand it, and I suspect it will be helpful for many people who are trying to maintain a healthy weight. And I bet restaurants will begin offering lighter fare.

Marion Nestle blogged about it at Food Politics, but I thought my readers would like chapter and verse, as it were.

Section 2572 of the Affordable Health Care for America Act is sub-hed-ed “Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items at Chain Restaurants and of Articles of Food Sold from Vending Machines.” (Disclosure:, the source of the act linked, is a project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and my employer, the Sunlight Foundation.)

The change is to Title 21, chapter 9, subchapter IV, § 343 (q)(5)(A)
(Cornell Universisty Law School site for the U.S. Code)

I’m glad to see this coming. (And so much for some profound thought.) But who’s lobbyist missed this provision?

The palate betrays

If you’ve battled with excess weight and it’s ever ground down your self-esteem, you should read David Kessler’s The End of Overeating. An important, helpful book.

Or you can start with this excerpt from The Guardian printed a couple of weeks ago.

(Meant to get this short post out a while back. Blogging with be skiddish for a few more days.)

Cooking for Armageddon

Reports of record snowfall — perhaps the worst since 1996, perhaps 1922, thus the worst I will have seen in my time in Washington, D.C. — have put our buttoned-up city into a tizzy. says it all. The groceries have been busy, and the nearby Trader Joe’s — always busy — last night was one big line snaking up and down the aisles and out the door. (It was a full loop inside the store on Wednesday, when I was there.) Locals, when facing a snow threat, buy bread, milk and toilet paper. (It begs the question: what do you make with that?) But this time other staples, including whole meat departments, are being cleared out.

Day Job, following the federal government’s lead, closed four hours early, and so we dutiful office-folk ambled home. What food, drink to buy? Or would we have to resort to cannibalism? Seems if you stuck to the smaller stores — even the drug store and convenience stores — you had and have much better luck.

I thought this was an opportunity to drag out the bread machine — even though at my neighborhood market still had bread and milk — so I went out for bread flour and dry milk (for the recipe I use). Oh, and a fifth of sweet vermouth for the Manhattans.

The day had taken its toll on the usually well-stocked shelves, and it was clear what people in my neighborhood would be eating over the next few days. Pots of beans, canned and homemade soup, tuna salad, macaroni and cheese, pasta with red sauce.

Some will bake. Gaps in the flour, but a five-pound sack for me. Packets
of cookie mix and chocolate chips gone. Muffins, perhaps, instead of the more esoteric loaf bread and buns remaining.

Coffee and white wine. Plenty of wine. Fresh cases pulled out, but all hands at the registers, so not on the shelves.

I think we’ll survive. Tuck yourselves in and ride it out.

Thanksgiving Dinner 2009

For the fourth year, Jonathan and I have had a smallish, vegetarian — we pardon all the turkeys — Thanksgiving dinner at home. Part of this blog post is scrapbook, part memory aid, part encouragement for others and part proof for my mother that we did have a nice meal.

Dinner on the stove

This year, the theme was sides we already love. (Clockwise from upper left) Fruit salad, steamed butternut squash, corn bread, roasted potatoes, mushrooms pan dressing style and green bean casserole. Festival slaw, below. Not seen: baked apples, cranberry sauce, thin ginger cookies and a nice bottle of Moscato d’Asti. (Chosen because of all the fruit flavors; makes a nice change from cider. Low in alcohol and lightly fizzy.)

I should note that the squash and thyme (in the mushrooms) are local, and the mushrooms are probably local too, since so many are grown in Pennsylvania. I could have gotten local apples, cabbage and potatoes, too. Local is hot this year, no? But the real treat is that the food was easy to find (neighborhood groceries mostly), easy to prepare (thanks, cream of mushroom soup) and easy to pay for. In case you think this isn’t practical.

Festival Slaw!

The mushrooms are seasoned with celery, onions, thyme, sage, pepper, imitation chicken stock and a small knob of butter; thickened with some wheat bread cumbs. The slaw — which I sometimes give a postwar/happy homemaker-style recipe name like “Festival Slaw” or “Chow Chow Slaw” — was inspired by a trip to Amish country. Here with cabbage, carrots, kidney beans, sweet peppers, celery and sweet relish — sometimes with kernel corn, canned (drained) green beans, green onion and vegetarian bacon chips — in a sweet and sour dressing. Plus a touch of tumeric and ground ginger.

Blog posts from 2008 and 2005.