August 21, 2013

Bagging Bread, Stocking Shelves: Volunteering at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger

Pantry Masters Kerry Reid, Haydeth and Ruth Tavira.
Last week I dusted off my bread bagging and shelf-stocking skills and put them to work for a good cause, The West Side Campaign Against Hunger.

Instead of handing out pre-packed bags of groceries this worthy organization runs a supermarket-style food pantry that puts the emphasis on self-determination and dignity. Shoppers push carts through well-stocked aisles, dividing their choices evenly among eight food categories, their allotments based on family size.

No sloppy air pockets or ugly knots here. 
Serving between 200 and 300 families (averaging three to four members) a day, you can imagine how much food WSCAH goes through. My my son and I bagged giant bin after bin of beautiful bread donations collected by the food rescue organization City Harvest. Eli's Manhattan delivers their leftover bread directly, and Lincoln Square Synagogue congregation members deliver remaindered Orwasher's products.

Our supervisors were Pantry Managers Haydeth Tavira and Kerry Reid. Haydeth's seven-year old daughter Ruth was our demanding taskmaster, calling out any bread bags tied sloppily, or with too much air left in them ("They won't stay fresh like that!"). I worked in a bakery at one point in my life,  but no one there ever took quality control as seriously as this spunky, glasses-wearing little Latina girl did. The next day, alas, Ruth wasn't at WSCAH. Haydeth told us she had worked so hard the day before that she was at home sleeping. No doubt keeping on top of our sloppy work did her in.

Shoppers figure out how much of each type of food
they're allowed  on a point system.

Some of our fellow volunteers were also pantry shoppers; one of the smart things about the way the pantry works is that it is run as a customer cooperative. Helping out more than 25 hours a week at the pantry will earn you an extra food allotment.

Our other job was re-stocking continually emptying shelves with yogurt, coconut water, cereals, grain and fresh fruits and vegetables donated by local CSAs. Stewart Desmond, WSCAH's executive director proudly told us that in June the pantry received a Best Practices Award from the state's health department for providing healthy foods way above and behind required levels. You'll find plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables here, and no prepared foods, or foods high in salt and sugar.

WSCAH also offers a full range of social services, from helping clients arrange health care, identifying educational and job training opportunities, providing advice on financial matters and helping navigate New York's public housing system. The organization even offers exercise classes, nutrition workshops and chefs training classes.

The sobering news is that despite improvements in the job market and economy, an increasing number of New Yorkers are in need of WSCAH's services. When I wrote about the food pantry a little over a year ago in this post its resources were being stretched to the limit due to a 40 percent increase in demand over the previous two years. Now, says Desmond, "After a dip earlier this year we are rising again toward our highest [demand] level ever," which he says may reflect the economy's last quarter dip.

August 7, 2013

The Upside of the Cyberspace Echo Chamber

I love it when an article I write leads to the discovery of interesting new people, sites and blogs. Such was the case in the wake of my article on eating invasive species.

An Oxford, England-based environmental geographer named Shonil Bhagwat, mentioned me in his blog, a thoughtful meditation on nature and culture in the anthropocene (a term adopted by ecologists to describe a new geological epoch dominated by the impact of humans). I've learned more from him about the importance of agrobiodiversity and wild crop conservation. Even weeds, he points out, are sacred because we'll need different, hardier species as our climate and geography continue to change.

In writing about out-of-control invasive species, Bhagwat notes that we can try to eradicate them, but another approach is "to reverse our gaze and accept that the invasives will continue to flourish alongside us. For a species of our size, we have changed the rules of the game by having a disproportionately large impact on the planet and in the process created space for other species like us."

I like that. Here we are bent out of shape that feral hogs or zebra mussels are so rapacious (for a list of the most destructive alien invasives, check this out). They might well be thinking in disgust, "that's the pot calling the kettle black."

Here's another example of the ability of social media to bring together worlds within worlds: When my Edible Manhattan profile of catering company Great Performances and its visionary CEO Liz Neumark appeared, it was picked up by a site I'd never heard of called The Triple Bottom, named after the term coined to describe a certain type of organizational success that equally values people, profit and planet. Browsing that fascinating site brought me to similar sites, like Triple Pundit, and this article on how increasing the number of women on corporate boards increases both profits and sustainability.

The only downside to all this connecting? When you fall down one of these virtual rabbit holes, it can be hard to get any work of one's own done.