Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Occupy the Food System

Occupy the Food System and Support Local Farmers and Food Businesses

December 4th, 2011 in Zuccotti Park in New York, was designated Occupy the Food System. Farmers, gardeners, food justice activists and others joined the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement to bring attention to the corporate control that has been the hallmark of our industrial food system. One of the ideas behind the occupy movement is that change can come only when you confront your oppressors directly on their turf. That makes them uncomfortable, it gets attention, and it wakes up the public.

In his recent blog, Occupy the Food System: The world can feed itself, without corporate America's science-experiment crops and expensive chemicals, Jim Goodman (a farmer, himself) writes:

The Occupy movement is doing exactly what the prominent student activist Mario Savio spoke of in 1964, when he declared: "There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the apparatus and you've got to make it stop — and you've got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from running at all." The people who are now forming a movement to occupy the food system agree with this sentiment too. Joining this movement is one way to get involved. There are many others as well and we need to use every strategy available.

In Detroit, we know that the food system isn't working for any us. The lack of access to fresh, healthy, affordable LOCALLY grown food is coupled with access to cheap, processed foods, produced by the giant corporate food system with ingredients sourced globally. This is the food system that corporate America has given us and is selling to the rest of the world.

According to an article in The Guardian, NestlĂ© is using a floating supermarkets to take its products to remote communities in the Amazon. Unilever has a small army of door-to-door vendors selling to low-income villages in India and west and east Africa. The brewer SABMiller has developed cheap beers in some African countries as part of a “price ladder” to its premium lager brands, and, as a leading Coca-Cola bottler and distributor, is aiming to double fizzy drinks sales in South African townships.

However, people all over the world are fighting for a better way. We can and do have other options. Detroiters are leading the local food movement and join with national and international activists in creating a healthier, local, fair food system.

So, how can our choices impact the local food system?

According to the report, Local Works: Examining the Impact of Local Business on the West Michigan Economy, A Civic Economics Study for Local First, Grand Rapids Michigan, every $100 spent with local businesses results in $73 staying in the local economy. This compares to just $43 staying in the local economy when purchasing from non local businesses. The dollars that stay in our community supports families and neighborhoods, both directly and indirectly.  Read the study here:  http://www.localfirst.com/

So, when you plan to make purchases for yourself or your family or buy gifts, why not consider supporting local farmers and food businesses? There are many to choose from! From the purchasing directly from farmers and vendors to buying from local Detroit based businesses.

Whenever I need a gift, one of my personal favorites is making gift baskets with local products. There are so many to choose from! To put together a local gift basket with fresh produce and other items, you can start with the farmers and vendors at Eastern Market, which is open all year round. http://www.detroiteasternmarket.com/  

One of the seasonal Farmer’s Markets (generally open from June to October) is a great place, too.  http://detroitmarkets.org/  There are many local farmers and food businesses who participate on Saturdays, so there is lots of choose from. One of my favorite gifts: a two pound bag of potatoes with an array of herbs and spices and recipes. There are also items like coffee, teas, pickles, jams and jellies, potato chips, salsa and many other items.

I am also known to make jams, pickled vegetables, salsas and sauces to give as gifts.  This summer, I made cherry and blueberry vinegar with Michigan fruit.  It's so yummy that I am not sure that it will make it out of the house!

These are easy, fun and delicious ways to Occupy the Food System, but we need to go beyond.  By becoming actively engaged, we can have a bigger impact.  For example, Just Label It campaign in California was successful in getting an initiative on the ballot that would require labeling of all products in the state of California that contains genetically modified ingredients.  If this initiative passes, we can expect more states to do the same.  This would be a huge victory for consumers, who should have the right to know what is in our food.  You can support this project by going to website;  http://justlabelit.org/

Sunday, January 15, 2012

MLK and Food Justice

This Monday, January 16th is a national holiday celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The mainstream media will be filled with solemn quotes from pundits and reflections by activists, many of whom were involved in the civil rights struggle that continues today. This being an election year, there will also be speeches and even emails from politicians asking for continued dedication to the equality struggle.

I have recently started to appreciate the deep sense that Dr. King had for the idea that justice was as much as anything about "freedom from violence." I was reminded of this by Naomi Tutu (daughter of Bishop Desmond Tutu) when she spoke at the Race2Equity Summit sponsored by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. She talked about the process of healing after apartheid ended in South Africa and quoted Dr. King in her remarks.

A major theme of Dr. King’s life was justice. And, I wonder what Dr. King would think about the food justice movement?

Perhaps this quote from Dr. King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize gives us a clue.

“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

Reading his words shows the deep sense Dr. King had for the idea that justice was as much as anything about "freedom from violence." In this quote, King is clearly targeting hunger as an act of violence and the result of institutional racism.

Another of his quotes really drives the point home. "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a...beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

His acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize also demonstrates a commitment to a non-violent transformation of the structures that breed poverty and hunger.

Some think that food system reform, which encompasses access, sovereignty and justice is the next big movement for our country. In Detroit, we have been focusing on these issues for some time now. Paramount to this work is to ensure that Detroiters are leading this reform and that food system changes address the structural and institutional barriers mentioned above. There are many people engaged in this work on many levels. Due to limited space, I will mention just three of them.

The Detroit Food Justice Task Force is a consortium of People of Color led organizations and allies that share a commitment to creating a food security plan for Detroit that is: sustainable; that provides healthy, affordable foods for all of the city’s people; that is based on best-practices and programs that work; and that is just and equitable in the distribution of food and jobs. For more information about their activities and how to get involved, go to www.detroitfoodjustice.org

Undoing Racism in the Detroit Food System At the 2009 Great Lakes Bioneers Conference, Earthworks Urban Farm Outreach Coordinator, Lisa Richter and Detroit Black Community Food Security Network Board Member Monica White, Ph. D., hosted a workshop entitled “Race, Food and Resistance.” They shared discussions that had been taking place about the role of race in growing movement to create a new local, sustainable food system. Participants were encouraged to continue the conversations beyond the conference and since that time, a dedicated group of food activists have met monthly to explore how race and white privilege play out within the individuals and organizations in Detroit’s movement to create food security and justice. The group meets on the first Saturday of the month from 1-3 p.m. For more information, check out their Facebook page.

The Detroit Food Policy Council’s vision statement reads: “We envision a City of Detroit with a healthy, vibrant, hunger-free populace that has easy access to fresh produce and other healthy food choices; a city in which the residents are educated about healthy food choices, and understand their relationship to the food system; a city in which urban agriculture and other sustainable practices contribute to its economic vitality; and a city in which all of its residents, workers, guests and visitors are treated with respect, justice and dignity by those from whom they obtain food. “ The Council meets on the second Tuesday of the month at 5:30 p.m. at Eastern Market Corporation. For more information and upcoming events, see www.detroitfoodpolicycouncil.net.

So, as we pause to reflect on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let’s celebrate the progress that has been made, but also rededicate ourselves to personal reflection and action to create a community that reflects the love, compassion and equality that Dr. King aspired to for all of us.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Torch has Officially Been Passed (My first attempt at Bittlewa!)

One of the traditions in my family around Christmas is making bittlewa, a Lebanese/ Arab pastry made with phyllo dough, walnuts and syrup.  Many people know baklava, the Greek version, which is similar except we don't use honey and include orange blossom water in the syrup.

Until just a few years ago when my Aunt Pat passed away, she and my Mom would get together about a week before Christmas and make three trays of pastry.  Mom typically prepped everything the day before and then, they would spend the day putting it together and baking it.  Each tray takes about 2 to 2 1/2 hours to assemble then nearly 3 hours to bake.  We would come home from school and they would be in the kitchen making the bittlewa.    They always joked about it being "hillbilly bittlewa" because my Mom's people were from the South.  Situe (my Lebanese grandmother) made bittlewa when I was really little, but most of my memories are of my Mom and Aunt.

When Popue (my Lebanese grandfather and the family patriarch) was still alive, there was a whole ritual around the serving of the bittlewa after Christmas dinner.  Popue, my Uncle Roni and Aunt Theresa and my Dad would have a piece on their dessert plate.  They would examine the top to see the layers and the bottom for browning and the walnuts for moistness.  They would then take that first bite.  My grandfather in particular would compare the current year's bittlewa with the previous years.  It's kinda funny to think back about it.  My Mom took all of this in good humor! 

The year or two after Aunt Pat passed away, her husband, my Uncle Harold, would come and help Mom make the bittlewa.  They weren't able to make any for a couple of years, so I decided that it was my turn!  I definitely do not want to lose this family tradition.  So, here goes!

I bought the ingredients to make two trays but decided to do one before Christmas and one after.  The night before I planned to assemble and bake,  I clarifed 2 pounds of butter.  Basically, you put the butter in a saucepot and let heat until it just begins to bubble.  Skim off the white foam from the surface.  Keep doing this until the butter is translucent.  As a last step, pour the butter through a cheesecloth to remove any leftover bits.

For one tray of bittlewa, you will need about 2 1/2 pound of walnuts.  The grinder below attaches to a chair and grinds the nuts in no time!  Add about 1 heaping tablespoon of powdered sugar to the nuts and store in a sealed container until ready to use.

The third and final task for the night is to make the syrup.  Five cups of sugar, four cups of water, 2 T. of fresh lemon juice and 2 t. of orange blossom water.  Boil gently for about 50 minutes.  The syrup should reduce and thicken.  

The next day, take the clarified butter out of the refrigerator and heat through.  Assemble the pan, butter, brush, sharp knife and dough.  The phyllo comes in one pound packages and should not have been frozen.  You need 1 1/4 lbs. for the bottom and the same amount for the top.  Dampen a clean dish towel and lay the dough on top of it, then cover with a second damp dish towel.  

Brush melted butter on the bottom of the pan, then begin laying the dough.  Take one layer of dough and position it in the pan, trimming the edge as needed with the sharp knife.  Brush with butter.  Keep laying the dough and brushing with butter. As you work, keep the dough covered with the towel or it will dry out and crumble.

Once the bottom is assembled, put the butter on the stove to keep warm.  Pour the ground walnuts on top, pressing them evenly in the pan.

Now, begin layering the dough and melted butter for the top.   Once the top is assembled, it's time to cut the bittlewa.  But first, set the oven to 350 degrees and make sure the rack is in the middle of the oven. Cut lengthwise first, into 8-10 columns then diagonally.

Bless the tray by sprinkling the top with water before putting it in the oven.                                                    

Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes, lower the oven to 275 degrees and bake for another 1 hour and 50 minutes.  Remove from the oven and pour the syrup evenly over the whole tray. 


Thursday, November 17, 2011


Tuesday was a beautiful fall day in Detroit so I decided to take advantage of it by pulling a bunch of the carrots that were still in the garden. Here is my carrot patchAnd some of the carrots that came out of it.

I got to thinking that it is such a shame to toss all the tops into the compost bin and wondered if they were edible. I went into the house to peruse my cookbooks. The first book I took off the shelf was Deborah Madison's Local Flavors. I picked it up at a neighborhood estate sale for $1 and have made quite a few recipes from it. It was here that I found this recipe

Carrot Top Soup

1 bunch carrots, tops and roots, about 6 medium
2 T. butter
3 T. white rice
2 large leeks (I didn't have any leeks so I used onions from my garden)
2 thyme or lemon thyme sprigs (I used lemon thyme and because we love it, 4 sprigs)
2 T. parsley, dill, celery leaves or lovage (I used parsley)
salt and pepper
6 cups Vegetable Stock (I used my homemade stock)

Wash and chop the carrot tops. You should have about 3 cups loosely packed. Grate or finely chop the carrots. I used a combination of yellow and orange ones.

Chopped Carrot tops and carrots:

Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add everything except the stock. Cook for several minutes, turning over a few times, Add the stock, bring to a boil and simmer until the rice is done.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Souper Saturday

This time of year, and as the weather turns colder, we make and eat soup at least once or twice a week.
One of our favorite soups is Italian Bean and Squash Soup from Moosewood Restaurant's New Classics. You can use just about any type of winter squash and any type of beans.

Here's the recipe:
1 T. Olive Oil

3 1/2 cups finely chopped onions

6 large cloves of garlic, minced

1 celery stalk with some leaves, finely chopped

1 3/4 cups crushed tomatoes with juice (15 oz. can)

1 quart vegetable stock

1 t. dried oregano

pinch of crushed red pepper

4 cups diced peeled butternut squash

3 1/2 cups cooked pinto beans ( two 15 oz. cans, rinsed and drained)

1 t. salt

freshly grated pecorino chees (optional)

Heat the oil in a large soup pot and saute onions, garlic and celery about 10 minutes, until soft. Add the tomatoes, broth, oregano, red pepper flakes. Bring to a simmer. Add the squash and cook until tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the beans and salt and pepper. Cook until beans are heated through. Serve hot topped with the cheese if desired.

I use my own canned Vegetable Stock, which tastes wonderful and compared to store bought, is so much cheaper. (Store bought vegetable stock ranges from $1.79 per quart to $2.99 per quart for organic). Canning your own stock takes some time and effort but so worth it! I also can tomatoes out of my garden and dried beans so they are ready to use. It's a great way to use your own garden harvest or support local farmers. Canning fresh produce in season tastes better and can be much cheaper. I can usually find dried beans from one of the local farmers down at Eastern Market.

For the batch pictured above, I used pinto beans. I also used the sweet dumpling squash, garlic, onions and tomatoes from my own garden. Enjoy

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Detroit Does Have Grocery Stores, BUT

There is an ongoing debate about food in the City of Detroit. Sometimes called a food desert, other times called a food swamp, the city has no national chains with stores in the City.

According to the Annual Report on the Detroit Food System which was published in May, 2011 and released at the Detroit Food Policy Council’s Powering Up the Local Food System Summit, there are 79 full service grocery stores in the City of Detroit. These stores are independently owned, but with one exception, not by Detroit residents.
At the Summit, we heard from residents who shop in their neighborhood. Some were satisfied with the stores, others were not. We heard from many Detroiters who were not happy with the quality, price and/or customer service at their local grocery stores. Many shop at these stores because they have no other options; lack of transportation was a main reason given.

We also heard from residents who admitted that they rarely go in their neighborhood grocery store, preferring to shop outside the city. The real and perceived reasons: quality, price and customer service.

The Detroit Food Policy Council, through its Healthy Food Access Work Group and the Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative’s Food System Work Group, are working together to identify ways to improve access to healthy, fresh and affordable food. We want to hear from Detroiters on this issue.

If you are interested in this issue, try this:
Make a list of grocery items that you purchase on a regular basis. Go to your neighborhood grocery store and if you do most of your grocery shopping outside of the city, also go to the suburban store that you regularly shop at. Purchase the items on your list, taking note of the quality and availability of the items, the format and condition of the store and the customer service that you received. Compare the two. What did you find out?

If you are willing to share your experience, please send an email to me at detroitfoodpolicycouncil@gmail.com.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Summer Vacation in the Upper Pennisula...A Whole New World

In June, the boys and I joined a group of about 12 families for a fabulous camping experience in Michigan's Upper Pennisula. The trip was part of a National Park Service Program to expose families from Detroit to the National Forest System in Michigan. The group photo was taken at Taquamanon Falls. Here is another pic of the falls. The water is a copper color from the tannins in the oak leaves that line the area.

Our itinerary included Hartwick Pines where we hiked among old growth forest areas that included white pines, oak and maples trees. The Park's educator grew up in the Detroit area and was excited to share the park with us.

We arrived at our home base at Clear Lake Education Center located in Hiawatha National Forest at about 4:00 p.m. The camp site was well equipped with plenty of cabins, a building for meetings and media center and one with a full kitchen and eating area. We were welcomed by two Park Rangers (Mimi and Dave) and were assigned cabins. My boys and I shared a cabin with the Moore's and Dixon's -- three moms and seven boys, ranging from 6 years old to 17 in all!! We are all pictured here with Mr. D...he and his wife were the trip organizers.

We spent a whole day hiking in Hiawatha National Forest where we learned how the habitat here contributes to a healthy eco system and how we (humans) are impacting the forest-- both negatively through pollution and positively through conservation efforts. Although it was raining most of the day, we made the best of it.

This lighthouse was at Pictured Rocks National Shoreline. It was foggy that day but still beautiful. We toured the lighthouse, as well as the historic home that had been restored and learned about the bootleggers who operated in the area because of the proximity to Canada... that's something Detroit and the U.P. have in common!

We had a chance to try six different activities in one day including kayaking, mountain biking and fishing. My favorite was the kayaks and I have since gone kayaking several times.

Evenings were a chance to share a meal, make new friends and play games.

All in all, it was a great trip and one we will remember for a very long time. Thanks to the National Park Service and trip organizers, Delashon and Nick Dicrese, Lisa Perez and Ranger Dave!!