September 30, 2011

Hunger - Numbers Talk, Actions Speak Louder

Donations sorted by volunteers, ready to be bagged
Think you know what hunger in the United States looks like? Take the Feeding America quiz and see. You may be surprised both at the scale of the issue (50 million Americans without enough food) and by how much the face in the mirror looks like the average food bank user.

I thought I had a pretty good picture of the situation until I volunteered at my local food bank, Second Harvest. It serves roughly 247,000 of my neighbors every single month. Most have housing, which costs more in Silicon Valley than most parts of the country. Most also have jobs, which don't necessarily pay more to keep up with the cost of living here.

Of all the numbers I heard, though, one figure changed how I see my role. I had always thought that picking up a few extra items at the store and donating them was a fun, hands-on way to pitch in. Now that I know that the food bank can obtain five times as much food with a dollar as I can, I'm going to be writing checks, instead. For the satisfaction of hands-on participation, there's always showing up at the warehouse and sorting or bagging donations. That only costs a few hours of my time, and I can see the difference I've made right away. Also, it reminds me why I write that check.

September 29, 2011

Bison Bison Bison

Bison not amused
The American buffalo is so remotely related to the European buffalo, not to mention the Asian water buffalo, that ranchers prefer its binomial name, bison. Or, in full, bison bison bison.

Most bison still graze the range - they do, in fact, roam. Only a few ranchers try to confine them for a few months and fatten them on corn, to make them taste more like beef. Like cows, they are bovines, biologically geared to eat grass but not corn (which makes them ill).

 Unlike cows, they will not plod towards you when called. If you stand in an open field and call, "Here, bison bison bison," they may stampede.

Except for this avoidable danger, bison is the healthiest meats available, being lower in fat while higher in key nutrients. So if you love red meat, save your splurge at the grocery store for bison steaks or burgers. Be careful not to overcook this lean treat, and when you rapturously say its name, whisper.

September 28, 2011

After the Bin - Food Donations

Volunteers sorting at Second Harvest food bank
We've all seen the bins out during food drives, during the holiday, big events, and Hunger Action Month. We glean our cupboards or pick up a few extra items at the grocery store, and then just drop them in. Then they disappear. And?

Between the bin and the food being eaten, there are quite a few steps. First, every item is checked to make sure it's safe to give out. Send, each item is sorted into a bin with like items - condiments, protein, canned fruit, canned vegetables, pastas and rice, ready-to-eat pop tops, etc. This step makes it possible for the food bank staff and volunteers to create bags that provide a little bit of each sort of food an individual or family can use.
 You wouldn't want to be the person who gets a whole bag of canned green beans, would you? Much better to have some pasta, some sauce, some canned meat, some veggies, some fruit, etc. Some creativity may be required to put the meal(s) together; but it makes a good kit.
The sorting also makes it possible for food bank staff to evaluate what items they have in abundance, and what is in short supply.  Here in the Bay Area, local banks coordinate and help each other out with over- and under-stock issues.

September 27, 2011

Food Bank Donations

Hunger Action Month, coming well before the winter holiday surge, is a great time to donate food to your local food bank. When I volunteered recently at Second Harvest, I learned some basic guidelines:

  • Fresh produce is welcome, as there is never enough, even in areas blessed with partnerships with local farms
  • More than a hint of rust on a canned good will send it to the trash can.
  • Large dents or any bulging in a can will also turn it into trash
  • Sell by dates are checked, and some items (like baby food) must still be new, while others can be as much as 5 years past the date.
  • Boxed goods with small rips or tears can still be used, if there is an interior bag as well

Volunteers sort food bank donations
Food safety is a top priority; and staff always stand by to answer questions from volunteer sorters.

Learning how your local food bank works, and following its guidelines, save time and money for everyone.

Volunteering is a great hands-on lesson; but a website visit or phone call can bring you up to speed, as well.

September 26, 2011

Tomato Watermelon Salad

Tomato Watermelon Salad
Some culinary surprises are good - like almond gazpacho, for instance. As lovely as that was, however, the best discovery of the summer had to be tomato watermelon salad, garnished with a mild feta cheese and lardons, and drizzled with a red jalapeno vinaigrette.
I could have eaten mine and then stolen the other three plates, had my family dawdled. Alas, they devoured every bite also. Like summer itself, we were sad to see it go so quickly.

September 25, 2011

Samovar Tea Lounge

The samovar at Samovar Tea Lounge
Samovar Tea Lounge, on the upper level of Yerba Buena Gardens, is a lovely spot for a pot of tea and a snack. The atmosphere is tranquil, and the staff know the tea selection the way a sommelier knows her wine cellar. For the tea connoisseur, just reading the beverage menu is a treat, with offerings not normally found outside a fancy tea shop.

Enjoying the brief heat wave in San Francisco, I ordered a glass of iced chai. Unlike the sweetened syrup mixed with hot milk that many corner coffee shops serve, real chai is simmered in a pot to allow the tea, spices, and milk to meld together. Samovar's was just to my liking, spicy but not sharp with only a hint of sweetness. It perfectly complemented the bowl of coconut milk rice pudding that held me over between lunch and dinner.

September 24, 2011

Hunger Action Month

September is hunger action month. To find out what you can do in your local community, just visit Feeding America's special site for the month and plug in your zip code. While you're there, enjoy the serio-comic celebrity videos, where folks like Matt Damon portray real people telling their stories (and then get a critique from the person).

Scroll down below the videos, and the link to Feeding America's home site will lead you to lots more information about hunger in America, where to find local food banks if you need help, and how to pitch in if you can.