food insecurity

The food of love

There has been a lot of discussion in recent days, and months, about rights. Constitutional rights. Human rights. Some of them are written down. Some of them are not. We just take for granted that we have them. Maybe we don’t even think about having some of them, because we’ve never been in a position to NOT have them.

No, I’m not about to get political. I promise. But, I wanted to show you a sign that hangs in the Right 2 Dream Too rest site, in downtown Portland, Oregon.

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The last letter up there is blocked, but you can probably tell it’s the word “sleep.” It says, “Sleep is a human right.”
Did you ever think about that, as you climbed into bed at night? I have been in the position of having to sleep in my car a few times over the course of my life, but still, even then, I had a car to sleep in. I could lock the doors. I had a pillow, and a blanket, and a relatively safe place to park so that I could sleep without being bothered. I could exercise my human right to sleep.

I say all of this to explain to you just what a place like the Right 2 Dream Too camp means to those who come there to sleep. As they come into the front gate, they check in with security. No weapons or drugs are allowed on the premises. If they don’t have their own bedding, a pillow and blanket are provided to them. And then, finally, they can lay their weary bodies down, close their eyes, and sleep. It is, as the organization’s website explains, “…a safe space to rest or sleep undisturbed for Portland’s unhoused community who cannot access affordable housing or shelter.” It’s there so that guests of the rest site can exercise their human right to sleep.

Early in the morning, on the last Saturday of October, under drizzly, gray Portland skies, Chef Ryan Spragg, Chef Skye Van Schetsen, and I  teamed up to serve guests of R2D2 breakfast from their on-site mobile kitchen. Under Chef Skye’s leadership, we’re members of an international group of chefs called Kitchen Warfare.

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Thanks to Suzanne Birch and the whole team at Birch Family Services in Portland, we were able to “go shopping” in the BFS food pantry, which provided us with about 90% of the supplies we needed to make the breakfast possible, including potatoes, onions, eggs, fresh pineapple and strawberries, coffee creamer, and enough bagels to fill the trunk of Skye’s car! The generous donors to our GoFundMe campaign helped pay for all the paper goods, forks, spoons, and serving utensils, plus the ever important coffee.

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Thanks to Chef Javier at Urdaneta, a Portland tapas restaurant and Chef Ryan’s home base, we had a kitchen to use (very late into the night) to prep the ingredients for hash browns, and fresh fruit salad.

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Along with the hash browns, and fruit salad, we served scrambled eggs with bacon and burrata cheese, cinnamon pastries, bagels, and fresh brewed coffee.

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As I mentioned in my last post, this was the second breakfast Kitchen Warfare’s had the privilege to serve at Right 2 Dream Too, and we’re hoping to work with them one more time in late spring of next year.  We’ve become quite fond of them. 🙂

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As for me, this experience was the final push I needed to pull the trigger on plans to hit the road next year and really dig into what I’m beginning to believe is a calling… to learn more about our food system through volunteer work on community farms and homesteads, and doing more extensive work with and for organizations that care for those dealing with hunger, food insecurity, and homelessness. I’ll be making stops in New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Chicago, the Pacific Northwest, my home state of Colorado, as well as central and northern California in 2017, and I really hope I’ll be able to expand my adventures into other parts of the country in 2018. Along the way, I’ll meet up with other members of the Kitchen Warfare team to join forces for more great projects, and of course, make some new friends.

This blog will evolve into a bit of a travel/food diary. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop cooking! No way! I’ll keep sharing as many of the yummy recipes I try as I can, but you’ll also see many of my stops between kitchens. Keep an eye on my Instagram and Facebook pages for pictures, videos, and updates, as well. I’m so excited for this journey, which is made so much better because I’ll get to share it with you all.

A Feast of Fermentation

Credit for BFR event photos: Ainslie O’Neil

Sometimes, The Universe conspires to give you a really great opportunity. Typically, it’s not some random chance, but happens as the result of something you yourself put into motion long ago. Maybe you forgot about it, but The Universe didn’t. I guess you could say this post is about the power of intention, and the momentum that can be created simply by saying a thing out loud.

Remember way back in May, when I attended the Forward Food Summit? During our lunch break, I signed up to be available as a volunteer for the Boulder Food Rescue. I didn’t have any real idea how I could be helpful, but, of course, when the form asked me about special skills I wrote down things like cooking and menu planning. Maybe I could teach a cooking class or something? I very firmly believe that community food rescues like the ones in Boulder and Denver are the key to solving our hunger crisis in this country. Being involved in this critical solution has been pretty high on my priority list for a long time now.

Fast forward to July 13th, when an email popped into my inbox with the subject line, “Seeking cook [Boulder Food Rescue].” They asked if I might be interested in helping them out with their annual fundraiser, Feast of Fermentation. I went thinking they were just looking for a volunteer to help cook some food, but after a quick meeting with Hana, the executive director of the BFR, I was officially the head chef of the whole shebang. *GULP*

The event took place on my 41st birthday– September 9th. Our menu included a baked potato bar, taco bar, sourdough waffle bar, and a brats & sauerkraut station. We had tons of great fermented food like kimchi, sauerkraut, and fermented firecracker onions donated by local producers on the menu, along with my own fermented peaches and pickled grapes, fermented Bloody Mary ketchup, and beer cheese sauce, to name just a few of the yummy toppings we created.

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We were expecting somewhere between 180 and 200 people to show up, but ended up with about 240. Thanks to some kind of crazy “loaves and fishes” type of miracle, everyone was well fed and happy. I guess when you’re doing good things, stuff just works out, yeah?

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Along with all that great food, attendees sampled offerings from competitors in a home brew beer competition, as well as local breweries and distilleries. They also bid on a bunch of cool items and experiences, donated by local merchants. in a silent auction. The grand total raised that night? $10,700! That money will go towards continuing the amazing programs the BFR has in place to rescue food from local grocery stores, restaurants, and community farms and gardens, and redistribute it to those in need.

I’m so proud of what we all accomplished that night, and blown away by all the amazing volunteer help we had to prep the food, serve it, set up the event space, and clean it all up at the end of the night. Seeing what a small group of very determined people can do with just a few resources and whole lot of passion has me convinced that the issues of hunger and food insecurity CAN be solved.

On a personal note, I also believe that this type of work is exactly what I’m meant to be doing. I’ll admit, I’ve been struggling to find my place in this movement. Writing about it never seemed like it would ever be enough. Now that I’ve got this event under my belt, I’m ready for what’s next!

What’s that, you ask? At the end of this month, I’ll be headed to Portland, Oregon to join fellow members of a group called Kitchen Warfare in serving breakfast to residents of the Right2DreamToo Unhoused Community rest site. This is the second such meal our group has been involved with at the R2DToo site. I had to organize the last one from here in Colorado, but this time I actually get to be on the ground. I’m so excited!

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We’re looking for just a little bit of financial help to make sure we can cover the cost of food. If you’re able to help, please visit our GoFundMe page. Even $5 helps– but of course, so do prayers, good vibes, and messages of support. We’re hoping this is an effort we can continue at similar camps around the country, so our success in Portland will help provide the momentum we need to keep the love coming.

If you’re looking for a way to help out in your community, just shoot me a message at gonnacookthat@gmail.com, and I’ll help you do the research and provide suggestions. Get on board this love train, folks! There’s plenty of room.

 

 

Hungry at Home: What is Food Justice?

It’s 8am on a Saturday morning, and organizers of the Forward Food Summit in Denver are setting up tables, audio equipment, and projectors at the Mercury Cafe for a day of conversation focused on issues of food and economic justice.

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It’s snowing outside, fulfillment of a promised spring snowstorm for the Denver metro, but attendees all received an email the day before letting us know that even Mother Nature wouldn’t keep the summit from happening. Last minute arrangements were made for those who couldn’t make it in on snowy roads to participate remotely, and that was about as much acknowledgement as the weather would receive. As people start to trickle in, the energy and excitement build and soon what’s happening outside becomes inconsequential.

Hunger, food insecurity, and food justice are complex issues. While I understood this on an intellectual, “Oh, I read an article about that,” level, it wasn’t until I found myself in this room full of people on the front lines of the fight that I began to really feel the full depth and breadth of what’s at stake. Even my own experience didn’t prepare me for just how enormous a topic we were about to tackle. The day, designed through cooperative effort of the Denver and Boulder Food Rescues, would leave us all wondering how we could learn more, say more, be more, do more, to bring light and resolution to these often overwhelming issues.

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Our discussions that day started with an introduction to the Community Language Cooperative, whose volunteer translators helped make sure both English and Spanish speaking participants could be included in the conversation. That was lesson one—the recognition that people from every background, socioeconomic status, and country of origin have a role to play, and that means a multilingual approach is absolutely vital. Not every hungry person speaks English, and in order to help them, to have the best perspective on their experience, we have to make sure that we can understand them, and they can understand us.

This discussion flowed naturally into the topic of privilege. What advantages do you have that make your access to even the most basic necessities less challenging? Access to food—nutritious food to fuel your mind and body to learn and grow… to education—quality education that will prepare you for a future that gives you options, and even greater access to jobs that pay well enough to support you and your family in a way that helps foster a cycle of greater access to the next generation. The advantages or disadvantages of each generation is what sets up the next one for success or struggle. By recognizing what privilege is, and how it becomes a living, breathing character in the story of a life, we start to see how the deck can be stacked against entire groups of people—your neighbors, your friends, your kid’s classmates, your colleagues.

Throughout the rest of the day, we would talk about and dispel many of the myths surrounding living wage legislation. “It’s will raise the price of everything!” some say. But what if, instead, it gave more people the wage needed to not just subsist, but to thrive? Economists will tell you that more people buying more new things—new TVs, computers, cars, and homes, is what allows for economic growth, job creation, and better investment in education and infrastructure. What if, by raising the minimum wage, we were giving another entire population of people the ability to contribute to their local, regional, and national economies?  Living wage panelist Maggie Gomez from 9 to 5 Colorado summed it up best when she said, “If you work 40 hours a week, you should be able to feed yourself.” A living wage provides dignity to every job, simple as that.

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We would talk about food deserts—entire neighborhoods without access to a grocery store, farm stand, farmer’s market, or community farm. For those without cars, this means a long, physically demanding trip to and from the nearest food source, which could be as much as an hour away by bus. Or, it might mean it’s just easier to go to the fast food restaurant up the street, where, thanks to cheap, low quality ingredients, dinner for a family of four can be had for about 20 bucks. All of us can understand the snowball effect rolling from that scenario—health problems due to poor diet that aren’t addressed due to lack of access to proper healthcare and nutrition education, no time off from work to go to the doctor anyway, and children who are going to school under-nourished, making it harder for them to pay attention in class and retain what they’ve learned. This is how a cycle is perpetuated.

We would talk about the successes, too. An entire Denver neighborhood full of families who helped teach each other how to grow their own food.  They’re now in the process of opening a local food cooperative called Re:Vision Co-op. Or, a group of women from the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhood in Denver who are working together to start several food related micro-businesses. They’ve spent weeks and months taking advantage of every bit of training and education they could get their hands on to learn about topics from nutrition, to sanitation, to how to start a business. One woman dreams of owning a fleet of food trucks, serving healthy Latin cuisine. Another wants to open her own bakery, utilizing fresh fruits to help make traditional Latin American pastries lighter and more nutritious. Looking around during this panel discussion, there didn’t seem to be a single one of us in the audience who wasn’t inspired and moved by these women, who, despite a pile of disadvantages, understood the value of what they could do for their neighborhood with just a little help.

“We need help to make these businesses successful. What we offer in return is our hard work, and job creation…To dream is a beautiful thing, and together, I know we will achieve our dreams.”

This is the first of a four part series on hunger and food insecurity, as told through the experiences of the authors. We’ll share their personal stories, and find out that hunger is exactly where you think you’d find it, and in many places you wouldn’t. In the meantime, please join in the discussion here, on Facebook, or Twitter. What’s happening in your town to help fight hunger, and create food justice?

Hungry at Home: Recognizing Privilege

When did you first realize you had more than someone else? Less than someone else? That’s the question we’re posing in today’s installment of #HungryatHome, to open up a discussion about privilege, and how to recognize your own as well as that of larger groups. Boulder food activist and volunteer Celina Ngoti Sekawu stepped up to start the conversation, by sharing her own experience. Please feel free to post your own response in the comments.

Hungry at Home: The Bills are Paid, but the Cupboard is Empty

Hunger isn’t just a news segment. It isn’t something that happens in other countries, other cities, or other neighborhoods. Hunger isn’t only in the bellies of the homeless.

There are hungry people everywhere. They are your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends and acquaintances. While hunger is most commonly seen on TV and at your local homeless shelter, the fact of the matter is that it exists right in your backyard. It may even exist in your very own kitchen.

According to Hunger Free Colorado, a non-profit that aims to help all Coloradans gain access to healthy food and nutrition, 1 in 7 Coloradans suffers from hunger, 1 in 4 working families cannot afford enough food to meet their basic needs, and 1 in 7 people do not know where their next meal will come from.

Hungry at Home – Rachael’s Story

In November of 2014, I was walking to the cafeteria at work with a friend. As we headed downstairs, we were talking about paying bills and buying groceries. Half-jokingly, I made the comment of “Yeah, food is a luxury for me right now. So grocery shopping has to wait until next paycheck.” While I laughed on the outside with my cold pizza in my lunch bag, my stomach wasn’t laughing.

Unbeknownst to me, another co-worker had heard my comment. The next day, as I walked to my desk to start my day I noticed a small envelope. Inside was a $100 gift card to Safeway with a note that read, “Food is not a luxury. Hope this helps.” That random co-worker had no idea how much their gesture of kindness meant to me. That night, my fiancé and I went grocery shopping and stocked our fridge and pantry.

That was two years ago. In my nearly 30 years of life on this planet, I’ve had a job for about 12 of them. I’ve been living on my own for the most part since I was 21. I pay my bills and make sure the electricity stays on. I may not be the first person you’d think of when you think of food insecurity but, isn’t that the point? The bills are paid, but…

The Emotional Side of Food Insecurity

…the cupboards are empty. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you’ve got a job and a roof over your head. The emotions that come with food insecurity can range from shame to sadness, anger to anxiety, and like you’ve totally failed in the eyes of your peers. And they range in severity depending on the circumstances.

The Food Bank of the Rockies serves roughly 411,000 people annually. 25% are educated beyond high school, while 7% have four-year degrees. Hunger affects everyone regardless of educational background or social class.

The effects of hunger don’t just cause physical pain – they can have a lifetime impact on your mental state, causing bouts of depression, anxiety, and fear. We as a society joke about being “hangry”, but the fact is that increased aggression is common when there’s little to no food around, or when you don’t know where the next meal is coming from. Those who experience food insecurity may not always tell their core group that they’re hungry. Whether it be embarrassment or that whole shame thing I mentioned earlier, many people keep quiet about their struggles. Asking for help can seem like an admission of failure, and this ultimately leads to suffering in silence.

But there is hope…

Filling the Cupboard

More and more people are taking to the streets to help those who are hungry. The majority of media coverage focuses on groups feeding the homeless, but there are others who are willing to feed anyone who is experiencing hunger.

Donation-Based Restaurants

Donation and volunteer-based restaurants are opening all over the country. Here in Denver, we have at least two – S.A.M.E. Café in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and Café 180 in Englewood. At these restaurants, patrons donate what they think the food is worth, and if they can’t pay with cash they can volunteer their time as payment. For single moms, families, the elderly living on fixed income, and anyone else in the midst of food insecurity, this is a great option to get something to eat.

Independent Outreach Groups

These organizations vary from city to city, but many people in the community enjoy getting together and helping their fellow man. A local group called May You Have Enough is the perfect example of that. Every other Saturday, the group gets together to make sack lunches and pass them out to those who need them.

Local Food Banks

There are more food banks in the city of Denver than you might expect. Many churches and religious organizations run their own food banks, however, community organizations such as Denver Metro CareRing and Food Bank of the Rockies also provide food to Denver’s hungry. If you need to fill your cupboards and can’t afford to hit the market, these organizations can help.

At the End of the Day, Help Your Neighbor

Whether you’re experiencing food insecurity yourself, know someone who is, or just want to help someone who might be, the opportunity to get help and to make a difference is there. If you can, donate to your local food bank, volunteer at your local shelter, or start an independent outreach of your own. There is always going to be someone who needs you.

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Our next big discussion will dive deeper into the work of local agencies and groups working to not only feed those dealing with food insecurity, but also empower them toward self sufficiency and achievement of food justice. We’ll also discuss the thousands of kids currently receiving a majority of their meals from school breakfast and lunch programs who will struggle to find enough to eat in the summer months.