2.26.2015

The Hand that Feeds: Help bring this film to theaters!

Hello all!  We interrupt your usual broadcast to bring you a plea for donation.  You know I only do this for causes that are really, REALLY worthwhile.  The new documentary film The Hand that Feeds helps bring to light the plight of low wage, undocumented workers in the food industry.
The Hand That Feeds tells a dramatic story of ordinary people taking huge risks to become heroes. At a popular bakery cafĂ©, residents of New York’s Upper East Side get bagels and coffee served with a smile 24 hours a day. But behind the scenes, undocumented immigrant workers face sub-legal wages, dangerous machinery, and abusive managers who will fire them for calling in sick.
 These are the people who literally put food on our plates; without them our food system would collapse and yet we treat them like garbage.  If you have the means, please chip in a few dollars to make sure this film can be seen widely.  IMPORTANT: Funding must be met by TOMORROW AFTERNOON!  So please act quickly.  Thanks all!


2.23.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 12

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 12: Here It Is: The Plan to End Domestic Hunger

Summary:

In this chapter, Berg lays out a plan to "end domestic hunger" by
  1. combining the current programs of the "food safety net" (SNAP, WIC, and some smaller initiatives) into one streamlined program, and
  2. increasing the size of the program by 41%. 
He calls this revamped system the AFFORd (American Family Food Opportunity and Responsibility) program.  Coverage would be wider and more accessible, food choices less restricted.

Berg states that the program would be affordable for both government and taxpayers.  Roughly estimated at a cost of $24 billion in food purchasing power, the total cost could be covered (and rather easily) by a single member of the US's "1%".  This number could also be somewhat mitigated by a raise in wages, also easily accomplished by wealthy corporations.  For reference, tax cuts in the Bush era amounted to about $400 billion in lost government revenue.  Taxing the wealthiest Americans a bit more - getting back some of that $400 billion that was lost - could easily fill the gap.

Other points of AFFORd include universal free school breakfasts; incentives for reducing hunger at the state level; expansion of support for private feeding operations, and expansion of grants for such initiatives to nonprofits (currently only available to faith-based groups); and remodeling of soup kitchen and food bank models to reduce stigmatization and increase choice.  For these things to occur, the gornment needs to stand up to industry bullies and no longer be swayed by the call of campaign contributions.

Berg states that most Americans would support this plan, but anticipates opposition from "a wide range of special interests" from both conservatives and liberals, republicans and democrats.  The most poignant criticism is that if all programs are combined, all support could be lost at once.  And yet, "any system in which a third of those eligible don't receive the help they need is broken."  A broken system is better than none at all, but Berg feels that we can and should improve.


Discussion:

I agree: We can.  We should.  Sadly, eight years after the publishing of this near-manifesto, things look much the same as they did before Obama took office.  Is this a failing of the President?  I honestly don't know.  Having worked within the government, Berg is in a much better position than I am - than most of us are - to understand the possibilities and pitfalls of what government can do.  And yet, there is no doubt that it's a major undertaking that could not be accomplished quickly by any administration, no matter how forward-thinking and compassionate.

As far as the details of the plan itself, this one book chapter obviously doesn't delve into the nitty gritty governmental policy changes that the program would necessitate.  I would like to see more about the "responsibility" aspect - would people be required to work?  Would government provide employment, harking back to the WPA era?  So many questions.

Whether or not this plan is The One, I would love to see an improvement to food assistance programs - particularly in allowing people with felonies to receive aid.  After all, if someone gets out of prison and can't find work and can't get assistance, what can they do but return to crime?  This is surely a driver of recidivism.  Given that Louisiana has the world's highest incarceration rate I believe this affects Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, in no small way.


2.22.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 11

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 11: How Media Ignores Hunger
(Except During Holidays and Hurricanes)

Summary:

Network news does not, generally cover issues of hunger.  Neither is it covered by other mainstream media outlets.  This may be because makers of "the news," being moneymaking entities, tend to pander to their advertisers - which is to say, to the rich.  Media employees also tend to live far above the means of the working poor.  It's unsurprising, then, that an issue of poverty like hunger is ignored.

Generally, the press only mentions hunger during the holidays or in response to a crisis.  Even when it does so, it tends to highlight charity efforts and eschew mention of government accountability.  Celebrities, politicians, and food companies earn great media praise for charitable donations to hunger efforts, despite the tiny fraction of available funds those donations tend to represent.

In one gleaming moment of 1968, CBS bucked the trend by broadcasting a long and painful piece of investigative journalism about hunger in America (called, um, Hunger in America).  The federal government was outraged, and Secy. of Agriculture Orville Freeman demanded equal time on the network to refute the allegations made regarding federal failures.  CBS president replied in writing, calling hunger "a critical shameful national problem" and essentially telling the U.S. government NO.  "The truth that a network president would never broadcast such a show today - nor defend itself against self-serving attacks in such a steadfast way - is exactly what's wrong with modern-day media."

Discussion:

A search on the Nola.com web site for the word "hunger" did pull up a few articles about hunger issues in New Orleans: one about a study showing high rates of hunger in Louisiana, another about a charter school in Gentilly providing free dinners to its students, and a third about a church group's charity walk intended to "end hunger."  There were a handful of others mentioning the issue of hunger.  These though were outnumbered approximately 10 to 1 by stories about The Hunger Games - which I admit are really great movies.  Somehow, though, I think hunger in our own community is a smidge more important than the struggles of Katniss Everdeen.

A similar search for "food insecurity" yields two (2) relevant results in the past year: an article about new nonprofit efforts to help people get food and an article praising Sean Payton of the Saints for donating to a summer feeding program for students.

All of these things are great, but it sure does seem like we only talk about hunger when non-poor, non-hungry people draw attention to it.  Even in the city of New Orleans, where 39% of children live in poverty.  What gives?  Is the media so owned?  Is it so unprofitable to talk about unpopular subjects that make people feel guilty?  Whattaya say, Katniss?

Yes, in 1968, CBS was brave enough (or not yet owned enough) to talk about hunger in a special called Hunger in America.  And thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can watch it!

2.21.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 10

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 10: The Charity Myth

Summary:

Volunteer-run charity groups, despite their good works and extreme efforts, cannot be as effective as government in addressing social needs.  Food pantries and soup kitchens can perhaps prevent outright starvation, but do not have the capacity or resources to solve the problem of food insecurity.

Fundraisers aimed at "solving hunger" are pervasive, and perpetuate the idea that if we all donate a few cans or a few dollars no one will go hungry.  (I am personally guilty of this.)  In reality, that tens of millions of US residents are going hungry represents a failing of government.  many volunteer efforts do more to make volunteers feel good about themselves than to solve any more pressing social ills.  Such is the case when celebrities spend a few hours volunteering in soup kitchens during the holidays.

Food banks that supply community-level feeding operations at churches and the like serve as warehouses for both donated foods and those provided by the government through TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program).  On the other end of the scale, independent operations feed from their own pockets but do a poor job of coordinating efforts among groups.  "[P]utting a band-aid on a problem is better than bleeding to death," but it allows stop-gap measures to be viewed as permanent solutions.

As of 2007, many food pantries were so understocked that they were forced to begin rationing food.  They cannot keep up with rising food costs combined with reduced federal benefits, mo natter how hard they work.  Even during its most prolific times, Feeding America (the country's largest network of food banks) was able to amass only about 4% of the food that would be needed to feed all hungry Americans.  "The fact is, charity is doing the government's job, and unsuccessfully."

Government can feed people more economically and efficiently than charity, but the public doesn't believe that.  They also don't know that food charities receive as much as half of their resources from government.  And while government programs have an overhead of about 15%, that of charity food bank operations can be much higher.  But messaging from many sources perpetuates the idea that charities can get the job done and, thus, that additional government resources are unnecessary.  These organizations, which are perfectly positioned to educate the public and apply pressure on government, instead tend to ignore hunger's root causes and let government off the hook.

Discussion:

I personally fell for the charity trap, and not long ago.  In the winter of 2014 I organized a canned food drive.  Our local Second Harvest food bank - whose motto is "together we can solve hunger" - was asking for donations of frozen turkeys, and I was looking for a way to rally the vegan community to contribute without violating our ethics.  I couldn't stomach the idea of people going hungry during the holidays.

I think many of us who are empathetic and compassionate can't stand by and wait for government to solve the problem.  So we find ways to help hungry people TODAY, RIGHT NOW.  They cannot wait.  Not for a week or a month, much less the years that it takes to effect systemic change.  And we chip in to these stopgap measures, because watching people suffer in our own communities is too much to bear.  We get a little ego boost in helping out, and afterward we can sleep a little better - and what's wrong with that?  Nothing!  And plenty is right with it... as long as we don't fall for the idea that "together we can solve hunger" doesn't include government intervention.

What did my canned food drive efforts do, really?  Perhaps a few more families had a few more cans of high quality beans, and that's something.  To a hungry person, a meal is an invaluable ticket to getting through the next few hours of the day.  But in the end it really is just putting a tiny bandage on a mortal wound.

And so, I reject the notion that addressing hunger is an either / or proposition.  We don't need ONLY charity feeding organizations - this chapter makes a strong case that they don't have the capacity to "solve hunger" no matter what they claim or how hard they work.  As does the reality of the hungry people in every community.  We don't need ONLY better government programs - at least until the system is changed, we will need stopgaps.  In no uncertain terms, we need both.

Ideally, we will continue to feed the people that are hungry today, right now while simultaneously applying pressure on policymakers.  They cannot be allowed on the local, state, or federal levels to make us believe that it is the work of individuals or communities alone to ensure that people are fed.  Fortunately, Second Harvest does encourage people to advocate on a policy level.  As an organization working on both ends of the problem, they are a good group to support if you have the means to do so.

2.20.2015

Let's Talk about Sodexo's New Animal Welfare Standards.

Food vendor Sodexo announced yesterday that it is expanding its commitment to better animal welfare standards.  News of the proclamation filled me with questions, such as: 1) what exactly is Sodexo?  2) are their products sold in New Orleans?  3) what are the new standards?  and 4) do they change the company enough that I'd be willing to purchase its (vegan) products?  With the internet at my fingertips, here's what I've been able to determine.

1. What is Sodexo?
You find the derndest things on
Google image search.
Sodexo is a large, multinational, multi-billion-dollar corporation that describes itself as a "global player in food services."  According to its website, "Sodexo’s comprehensive, integrated solutions cover a wide range of services in a variety of working and living environments. We contribute to enhancing employees’ well-being, optimizing work processes and ensuring the proper functioning and safety of sites for companies, hospitals, university campuses, correctional facilities and large worksites."  But what the eff does that mean, you may be asking?  Practically, it means that the company provides services within other large businesses: vending machines, cafeterias, laundry facilities, and so on.  Ahhhh.  Light is beginning to dawn.  I knew that name sounded familiar.

2. Are their products sold in New Orleans?
Over the past three years I have spent far too much time hanging out in hospital waiting areas scavenging for food.  So I can tell you that every area hospital has both vending machines and cafeterias filled with "food" that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole.  (I have frequently looked on in horror as doctors - doctors! - ate from them.)  But are they supplied by Sodexo?  Yes, most definitely, at least at Ochsner facilities (which is most of them).  They're all up in Loyola's dining services.  And given the size of the company, and the fact that it seems to have offices all over the city, it probably has a finger in many other institutions around town.

3. What are the new standards?
In 2013 Sodexo released a five page position paper on animal welfare, and has now issued an infographic to accompany its statement on new standards it will adopt over the next five to seven years.  Let's take a look, shall we?



If we bullet-point it, they're moving toward:
  • eggs from "cage free" hens
  • no gestation crates for pigs
  • (pain relief for and maybe eventually) no castration, or tail docking for pigs
  • no veal crates
  • (pain relief for and maybe eventually) no de-horning, tail docking, or castration for cows
So... what does this actually accomplish?  It depends on your school of thought.  If you're a hardcore animal welfarist, this is great - because better is better, right?  If you're an abolitionist, though, this is a complete mockery.  On the welfarist to abolitionist spectrum I fall somewhere in the middle, so sometimes for me better is better.  But this... doesn't seem much better at all.  To wit:
  • So-called "cage free" hens might be a bit better off than those in battery cages, but they still live miserable crowded lives in conditions that are terrible for them and the workers alike.
  • Taking gestation crates out of the equation is great, but ignores that even non-mama pigs barely have enough space to move around - often around 11 square feet.
  • Using analgesics to remove body parts is a cute idea... but they're still removing body parts for no reason but to keep animals in too small a space.
  • Taking away veal crates is splendid, but the alternative isn't much better than the crates - they're still separated from their mothers, may not get to nurse, and are obviously still slaughtered at a very young age.
In the end, every one of the animals is slaughtered - and I am in fact of the opinion that there is no such thing as "humane" slaughter.  (Here's a link, but beware - there's some graphic pics.)
 
4. Do they change the company enough that I'd be willing to purchase its (vegan) products?
Overall, the scant benefit that animals will experience from these changes does not improve my opinion of this Sodexo and its products.  That they supply food for hospitals is nothing short of terrifying.  Far more drastic revisions would need to occur to earn my applause... not that anyone is necessarily looking for them.

This effort strikes me as little more than a PR stunt in response to public pressure.  All I can say is, let's keep the pressure on.  This is a step in the right direction, and that's how journeys start right?  But it's just one step in a journey of many, many miles.  Let's give them a brief "thumbs up for trying," and then make sure that Sodexo and other companies like them don't get the impression that one step is good enough.

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 9

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 9:
The Poverty Trap: Why it is So Hard to Escape Poverty in America

Summary:

The structure of government policies makes it more difficult for working couples with kids to receive food stamps and other aids.  Additionally, people who leave welfare for low-paying work end up with less money - for parents, it would be irresponsible to give up aid when they'll be less able to take care of their children by going to work.  Policies surrounding asset limits also encourage spending, rather than saving.  Poverty makes crises of events such as a broken down car, and people in poverty end up in unbreakable cycles from which they cannot escape.

Personal responsibility is crucial, and "[r]eciprocal responsibility should be a cornerstone of all our public policies."  But that responsibility must be shared among all who receive benefits - including tax breaks.  The stigma attached to government aid sometimes prevents needy families from even applying for aid.  This is particularly galling, given the variety of double standards faced by the poor.

"It certainly harms our collective efforts at convincing low-income Americans that the best way to escape poverty is to work hard and follow the rules when so  many people at the top are making themselves even wealthier by skirting the rules and avoiding work."  That is not to say that the poor should be excused for irresponsible behavior - but rather that the rich shouldn't be.  (Currently they are, and how.)

Conservatives both forced removal of women from welfare rolls, and proclaimed that women could not be successful in the workforce.  Women are demonized for not having children, for having them and then not working so they can be at home, and for working and leaving them with caregivers.  (Not to mention aborting them before having to make one of those three choices.)  There is literally no scenario for which women are not regularly criticized when it comes to children and work.  They are of course also paid less than their male counterparts, even when education levels are the same.

Just as "most" people in poverty are not and have never been on welfare (see Ch. 8 summary), "most" people of color also do not receive welfare.  However, 1 in 4 black people and 1 in 5 Latino people live in poverty - vs. 1 in 10 white people.  People of color are more likely to be on welfare than white people, simply because they are more likely to be poor.

Part of the reason for the higher rate of poverty among people of color is their higher rate of incarceration.  People of color are arrested and serve time for crimes at much higher rates than whites, even for crimes that are committed equally by all races.  Incarceration, then, becomes part of the cycle of poverty for people of color.  Black people are in fact committing more violent crimes, likely because young black men have the most difficult time accessing adequate education and finding gainful employment.  As such, they may be more likely to turn to criminal activity to make ends meet.

Individuals, communities, and government programs alike must take more responsibility for creating positive outcomes for everyone.

Discussion:

This chapter jumps around to many different issues in poverty; apologies that the summary is equally jumpy.  Overall, it discusses the fact that, because of lack of opportunity and punitive, nonsensical rules governing aid, people in poverty often can't find a way out.  Many tend to think that poor people are poor because of the choices they've made - when often it's the opposite: they've made the choices they've made because they're poor.

Here's a question: How did you get your first job?  Or the other jobs you've held?  How did you get the one you have now?  Personally, I got my first real job from a friend of my dad's.  I got my last job and almost all those before it through friends of friends.  I got my current job on my own merits, surely - and also because I knew someone who was working there.

How different would my life have been if my dad hadn't had the money to shop at that first store that I wound up working at?  If I hadn't had the opportunity to go to college and make the friends through whom I found most of my jobs?  What would my life be like now if the people in my community were largely unemployed or working part time at menial, low paying jobs?  With the poverty rates of many New Orleans neighborhoods at 50% or higher, this is the reality for many New Orleanians.

It's easy to talk about "bootstrapping" and to judge realities based on glimpses.  How many times have we heard it?  "How can they be on food stamps when they have those expensive shoes / cable tv / a widescreen plasma / that expensive purse / AN iPHONE?!"  As explained in this chapter, people receiving government aid are punished for saving money in bank accounts.  Regardless of how long it took to save the money that is there or where it came from, the minute they hit the government's stated limit they lose all aid.  When that's the case, if a person receiving aid does manage to scrape together a few hundred bucks - but not enough to live on and not from a renewable or reliable source - why would they do anything but spend it?

Ultimately, there is an enormous gulf between having $100-$200 for a pair of nice shoes or a purse every few months, and having the hundreds or thousands of dollars coming in each month that it takes to be self-sufficient.  When self-sufficiency and larger goals in life like college or home ownership are simply unreachable, people take comfort in the smaller things like expensive shoes.  And we destroy them for it.

Like most things, I don't think that poverty can be seen in black and white, all this or all that.  Poor people aren't poor strictly because of failed policies and institutional racism, or strictly because of bad choices and "laziness."  The answer as to why people are poor, and the way out, lies somewhere in between.  I do think, though, that unless our societal systems are improved so that poor people have a reason to try - that there is some possibility of success for every person - we will never move past the current stasis.  On this I believe that Berg and I see eye to eye.


2.19.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 8

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 8:
Let Them Eat Sound Bites: The Polarized Politics of Welfare Reform

Summary:

In the late 1990s amidst welfare reform efforts, overall poverty decreased - but extreme poverty increased.  By 2001, both rates were increasing again.  Neither the political Right nor the Left will assess how much good or harm was done through efforts at reforming the system.  Both sides have taken stances that are wrong.

Scanned from the book because it's too good not to share: Berg's chart of
Conservative vs. Liberal stances on welfare and poverty

Conservative backlash to "welfare" - the support program for families living in poverty now known as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) - began with its inception in the 1960s.  It has never been the case, though, that "most" people living in poverty also receive welfare, as the common rhetoric goes.  The percentage reached its maximum of 48% in the 1970s, due largely to a record-low number of people living in poverty, therefore creating a higher ratio.  Welfare, then, does not seem to create poverty as is sometimes claimed.  In the 1980s conservatives began to claim that welfare and other support programs actually prevented poor people from progressing.  It is true that the welfare program at that time had rules that made things unnecessarily difficult for everyone involved, and did not satisfy needs.  Liberals under Clinton set out to correct this in the 1990s to both improve the system and restore trust in the government.

Nope.
The welfare reform efforts of the 1990s "shifted funding from welfare payments to work-support activities" on both federal and state levels, to both positive and negative effect.  People in poverty continued to struggle despite the new policies' best intentions.  Reform was considered a victory politically, though, because people could be removed from the welfare rolls.

"As of 2008, there has yet to be a comprehensive national study of the effectiveness of welfare reform in both boom time and recession."  Several small-scale studies, though, indicate that roll removal led to the withdrawal of benefits from underemployed families and was followed by soaring rates of issues associated with poverty (food insecurity among them).  Based on national numbers for food insecurity and welfare receipt, there is a correlation between fewer welfare recipients and higher rates of food insecurity.

Nope.
Supporters of welfare reform ignore the issue of underemployment, claiming that any job is better than being on welfare.  Additionally, the system of block grants provided to states doesn't allow for the changing economy: states receive the same funds whether there are a plethora of available jobs or none at all.  Many families who are removed from welfare are unable to find sufficient employment.

"[T]o truly fix welfare - so that it helps poor people achieve self-sufficiency - would require massive new investments in childcare and job training, another other things.  Both [political] sides have other priorities."

Discussion:

Penguins are such moochers.
In my memory, welfare and poverty have always been two of the most divisive political issues.  The conservative / Republican side seems to make aid recipients out to be moochers and layabouts, and the liberal / Democratic side seems to martyr the poor and rage against any implication that aid is not warranted (though in a decidedly less pointed way - I'm having a hard time finding a clear example to link).  I have probably been guilty of the latter more than once, and see it play out in the work of social justice organizations here in New Orleans.  To maintain credibility, it's important to acknowledge that the world works in shades of grey rather than black and white, good and evil.  Few adults are completely blameless regarding their circumstances.  But while personal responsibility is in fact crucial for every functional adult, it's equally important to recognize that "the system" is now and always has been stacked against low-income, minority, and other marginalized populations.

I'd say "Latino" and "black", but whatev.
In the political realm, I think the second-to-last section of Berg's chart above hits the nail on the head: neither side "really want[s] policies that will substantively reduce the power of the ruling elites over the lives of poor people."  As I've said for many years, when you reach the level of federal government you have almost nothing but rich white men who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, regardless which side of the aisle you're on.  Is it a surprise that the system they designed and that they rule puts the odds ever in their favor?

Childcare and job training services would certainly help some of those in poverty to find and keep jobs.  But it won't change the fact that there aren't enough jobs to go around.  Also, for as long as we enjoy our current social structure, we'll be needing cashiers, bus boys, dishwashers, and the many other jobs that currently do not pay a living wage.  Paying these workers less than a living wage is nothing short of creating a second class citizenry.  Underemployment - being unable to find full-time work - is also a huge issue that is rarely talked about, and is prevalent even among the college-educated.  And it's especially prominent in the food industry.

Perhaps, instead of looking to the government to support people who work full time but don't make enough money to live on and the government then looking to taxpayers, we should be looking to the enormously profitable corporations that are passing the buck to consumers and taxpayers by refusing to pay their employees properly.  They can afford to do so, and to do so without the ever-feared price-raising that seems as terrifying to consumers as tax increases.  They choose not to - and you're still giving them your money.  For those of us who can, perhaps it's time we start making better choices?




2.15.2015

Mardi Gras Weekend: Vegan King Cake Showdown

Hello all!  I hope you're enjoying the Mardi Gras season.  Yesterday was Endymion - it's my biggest parading day because it runs three blocks from my house!  To treat my guests properly, I of course procured several vegan king cakes.  Here's what it looked like:


They are, clockwise from the top: Chocolate Coconut "Zulu" cake from Hillel's Kitchen (blue and white); Classic Cinnamon from Breads on Oak (far right); Chocolate "Babka" King David cake from Hillel's Kitchen (middle with classic colors); and gluten free spiced rum from Girls Gone Vegan (far left).

But... how did they taste?  Well I'll tell you.
  • Zulu: nice and chocolatey with coconut adding some texture; a tad dry (perhaps because it was delivered rather than picked up fresh?) but rectified by microwaving briefly.
  • Breads on Oak: a little slice of moist, classic heaven, as always.
  • Babka: mostly the same as Zulu, minus the coconut.
  • Girls Gone Vegan: as good as it looked, I did not like it.  However, several of my friends liked it best!  The icing had a nice rum flavor.  If there was a filling, it was not discernible in most of the cake.  Overall, it's a bit more like banana bread than a traditional king cake.
I missed two available vegan king cakes (beside the Whole Foods version, which I've determined just isn't worth it): Shake Sugary and The Peacebaker.  Maybe next year I can manage to try them all! 

It's not too late for vegan king cake exploits: you can visit Hillel's Kitchen tomorrow between 10am and 7pm!  Which vegan king cakes did you have this year?  Which was your favorite?



BONUS PIC: Me in my Valentine's-themed Endymion costume!

2.12.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 7

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 7:
Dickens Revisited - Life in the New Gilded Age

Summary:

Based on Ch. 7 figures
"Inequality of wealth is one of the defining features of our age."  Further, outdated methods of calculating what wage defines "poverty" prevent many economically disadvantaged people from accessing aid.  It's worth noting that less than 20% of those who do fit within poverty's definition and do not work are able-bodied, healthy, and of working age.

Everyone who earns the minimum wage, even working a full 40 hours per week, lands below the already too low poverty line.  Wages stay stagnant even as living costs rise.  Some advocate for a "housing wage," one that would vary depending on the average housing costs in an area.  Being poor can actually make life more expensive - needing to pay rent weekly rather than monthly or being unable to purchase or store bulk food and home items, for instance.  Those with more capital can spend less on their needs.  The poor are also most likely to fall prey to payday loans and other such schemes.

While public welfare is debated, corporate welfare seems to be handed over by the fistful to the "job creators."  The businesses receiving tax breaks and other incentives in order to enable much-needed job creation don't seem to be able to accomplish it, though.  Campaign contributions ensure that politicians who support these practices continue to be elected and hold their offices.

The poor these days have only two options: work ever-harder just to keep their heads above water, or drown in the ever-rising tide.  "If we don't restore the hope that people can once again move ahead because of their hard work and talents, we are all in serious trouble."

Discussion:

The crux of this chapter seems to be that if the ultra-rich who control our country were willing to pay themselves a bit less, they really could afford to pay us everyday folk more.  Then we'd be able to feed ourselves decent food and live in safe homes without having such dependence on federal aid.  And yet, the rich don't want to be any less rich, even when it would only mean giving up another helicopter.  Even when it would mean literally saving lives.

Yes indeed - the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle is stuck in the mud - because it is the rich who hold political power to make sure that the rich keep getting richer at everyone else's expense.  (Of course, the Heritage Foundation would like to remind us that if you have air conditioning and a TV, you can't possibly be "poor."  Some "poor" people even have the audacity to own cars!)


But what's it got to do with hunger?  This chapter seems a bit of a diversion from the topic at hand - that being hunger.  Of course people with less money are more prone to hunger.  But the chapter does a poor job of tying the ideas together.  So let's do some tying, shall we?


Food insecurity of those living in poverty,
created by ME with USDA numbers
Yes, if people have more money, they are less likely to go hungry.  Or more to the point, those who are poor are almost three times more likely also hungry: per the USDA, a bit over 40% of households living below the poverty line are also food insecure.  (Honestly I thought it would be a good bit higher, but food stamps and other such programs are helping these families a good deal.)  That's a significantly higher percentage than of food insecurity seen nationwide, which hovers around 15%.

It is ironic, and and outright disgrace frankly, that many who work in the food industry remain food insecure.  Farmers are starving.  Farmers!  People who literally grow food!  Are starving!  What better demonstration is there that our food system is severely dysfunctional?

2.10.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 6

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 6: Are Americans Hungry - Or Fat?

Summary:

Despite food insecurity and ever-increasing dependence on food banks, some conservative think tanks continue to generate contagious rhetoric that hunger is not a problem in the US.  These groups also insist that even if we do have hunger, it's not as bad as that of developing countries, rendering it a non-issue.  "They certainly would not want to benchmark the stock market or our military capabilities to the developing world, but they are always willing to let poor people settle for less."

The most effective message propagated by hunger deniers is that the US can't be hungry because it is so fat.  This message ignores the truth that people can be both hungry and fat simultaneously.  Overweight caused by poor nutrition is often the direct result of poor people purchasing (and subsequently consuming) as many calories as possible for as little money as possible.

Local, seasonal tomatoes may be delicious,
but provide very few calories per dollar
when compared to junk foods.
People who eat foods low in nutrition are not particularly unintelligent or uneducated about food; rather they lack the access or ability to afford more nutritious options.  High percentages of people with very low food security report feeding their children low cost foods with little variety, and would need to spend as much as 70% of their food budgets on produce to meet the dietary guideline of 9 servings a day.  (This would not allow them to purchase enough calories to survive, however.)  "To keep tummies full, low-income families eat a lot of cheap fast food and processed foods."

Supermarkets build stores in communities that can afford their wares.  This leads to the creation of "food deserts" - areas where there is low or no access to stores selling fresh, healthy foods.  (Because race and economic class are so intrinsically linked in many parts of the country, this often leads to food deserts in communities of color.)  "Areas without a full range of markets are obesogenic."  (It is unsurprising, then, that we see higher rates obesity and resulting illnesses in people of color.)  Black people with diabetes, for example, are three times more likely to die of the condition as whites.

Incomplete, unavailable, and misleading nutritional information increases the consumption of foods of poor nutritional value.  Cheap, unhealthy food has also been engineered to taste delicious.  Additionally, the psychological effects of food insecurity can cause binging behavior when food is available.  Health effects are compounded by the fact that doctors are not trained in proper nutrition, but only in addressing the diseases caused by poor nutrition - the problem is thus not prevented, only treated after the fact.

While obesity is caused by many mechanisms - including plain old overeating of people who are food secure and do have good food access - poverty and lack of food access can greatly exacerbate the difficulty of maintaining health.  Considering that people of lower income are also less likely to have access to gyms, parks, and other safe spaces in which to exercise, it becomes obvious that the poor face often insurmountable odds when it comes to nutrition and health.

Discussion:

In the summary for this chapter, I could not restrain myself from editorializing - note the phrases in parentheses.  For all this chapter says, there are things that I deem important that were not said.  This book is imperfect!  Shocking right?

In case any reader did not understand the thrust of this section, it is as follows:

***A PERSON CAN BE BOTH FAT AND FOOD INSECURE.  FOOD INSECURITY CAN, IN FACT, LEAD TO FATNESS.***

It works like this: people ho have NO food, who are actually starving to death, obviously lose weight.  We know this.  But people who have *some* food, or rather a very small amount of money for food - such as those on food stamps - buy foods that have the highest caloric content for the least amount of money.  Every one of us is all too familiar with foods that have a ton of calories and don't cost much.  These are the chips, sodas, candy, and other processed foods that fill the center aisles of our grocery stores. Often the least nutritious of these masquerade as healthy foods.  In corner stores and bodegas, these junk foods make up approximately 100% of the food offerings.  And they are utterly delicious, thanks to the miracle of modern science.

The problem is that there's no food in the food.  There are calories, sure.  But they're composed of the kinds of nutrients that our bodies are only supposed to receive in very small quantities: sugars and other simple carbohydrates, salts, and fats.  These components, while necessary, are relatively rare in nature, so our brains are designed to seek them out and enjoy them most of all.  The cheap foods are almost entirely lacking, though, in the kinds of nutrients we're supposed to eat a lot of: complex carbohydrates, insoluble fiber, and sometimes protein.  People who only eat "junk food" because it's all that they can afford can easily get enough or even too many calories, but aren't getting the right balance of nutrients to promote health.  (Of note: it takes a good deal more than plopping a supermarket down in a neighborhood to remedy a food desert... but more on that at a later date.)

Fat Shaming Bingo!
The most common answer to this imbalance is to blame "personal responsibility."  This stems from a myopic view of the issue.  To say to people with food insecurity that they must "simply choose better foods" is to say "don't eat enough calories to survive" - with a distinct "you're lazy and stupid" subtext. In no way is this a legitimate, reasonable, or fair stance.  It's flat out unhelpful, and serves only as a way to clear our own consciences of thinking that we might be playing a role in this situation - or that it could happen to us.  There is no shortage of outright fat shaming, a practice that could not possibly be less productive.  It's also passing the buck, shifting the responsibility for our food environment away from the entities that actually create it and toward consumers, who have little to no control over it.

If we don't control it, who does?  Well that's easy.  There is an increasingly small handful of companies that owns our food, advertises it to us, manipulates how it is displayed to us in stores, and convinces us that we cannot be healthy or even live without it.  These same companies are supported by our government to produce the exact kinds of foods that are killing us: USDA's policies do not support a food environment that allows people to eat according to its own nutritional guidelines.

Something has to give to change this system, and it's got little to do with personal responsibility.  Is it more waistlines - or possibly more lives?

**Addendum!  The inimitable Michelle Moskowitz Brown points out in the comments that obesity is no longer concentrated in communities of lower income - or at least not for men.  This study from the Pew Research Center looks at how it's playing out currently.  I suspect it will continue to evolve.