Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why call it SNAP?

If you’re paying attention to the news, you’re bound to hear something about Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps), and for good reason – this September alone over 46 million people used the program. That accounts for 1/7 Americans. The program has never been this big before.

I am among one of the newer beneficiaries of SNAP. I have been on the program for over a year now and at the same time I’ve been working on food related issues as part of the Food Council development and food systems improvement. It’s been interesting to hear the different takes on such a widely used and hotly contested program from which I benefit.

At first I felt like I was cheating the system a little bit: I work (even though it’s for little pay), I have a family that is willing to provide assistance if needed, and I don’t find myself starving. According to statistics, my situation is no exception, it’s the norm. Working households are the normal demographic of SNAP beneficiaries. Since the early 90’s the profile of a typical beneficiary has shifted from the majority being nonworking households to working households. In fact, today there are nearly three times as many working households using SNAP as there are nonworking households (

How did that happen? Well, I’m really no expert, but from what I can tell this demographic shift had much to do with President Clinton’s Welfare Reform in the mid 90’s. President Clinton at the time was trying to cut Cash Aid so as to end dependency on Federal Assistance that had been around since the New Deal. Through Washington politics, the Food Stamp program was mixed into the legislation (Food Stamps were not previously considered a Welfare program). Of course, the new law didn’t completely drop Cash Aid or the Food Stamp program, but the programs became stricter and more rigid (

Eligibility requirements and the direct management of the programs became the responsibilities of State governments. This is why different states can have different eligibility factors. Some states take into account personal assets while others don’t.

The new legislation brought about a shift in outreach to the working poor. This shift started with President Clinton and was expanded by President Bush, later to be fully embraced by President Obama. Originally it was (and generally is still called) Food Stamps, but to reflect the changes in the philosophy of the program, it is now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This reflects the shift in focus from a full Welfare system to supplemental nutrition assistance. Rather than seeking to fully support a family, the program helps a family get by.

I’m not sure that this change is well known or well understood. From what I can tell from reactions I read in articles online and from news interviews, most Americans believe that the majority of SNAP participants are a bunch of lazy people that don’t work and completely rely on the program. While this may or may not have been true thirty years ago, the statistics prove its different today. Most Americans on the program are people in situations like mine. They don’t earn quite enough, and need an extra boost to carry them through. MSNBC had a good story on people who use SNAP today. You should check it out:

I am putting together a series of posts by guest bloggers over the next couple of weeks to highlight their experience and knowledge of how the program works and influences the lives of its clients. I hope you enjoy the articles and it spikes up some debate. If you have any specific questions, concerns, or opinions please feel free to leave a comment.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Support Crescent Elk students, buy a rosemary wreath!

Crescent Elk Middle School is not only home to our mighty Cougars, it has a popular and fun Garden Club.

The club is hosted by Seventh Grade Science teacher Joe Gillespie that pulls from years of experience as an avid gardener and lover of nature. It is a real treat to go down the Middle School and see all the youth so excited about caring for the vegetables and flowers, and trying new gardening practices.

The garden is a well known cornerstone of the school. Just last year, Crescent Elk’s garden was able to produce 30 pounds of broccoli that was served at lunch throughout the school district. But if you were to go to the garden, you would see that isn’t broccoli, lettuce, or chard that make up the majority of the garden. Proud and beautiful rosemary bushes adorn the back and outer perimeter of the garden granting the garden a pleasant aroma and a good wind breaker.

“Why so much rosemary?” you might ask. One reason: because the Garden Club wants to save the world.

Every winter, the Garden Club trims back the Rosemary bushes to create these beautiful rosemary wreaths which they sell to school district employees and the community at large.

The donations do not go to the Garden, but instead to Heifer International. Heifer International works to empower impoverished communities by giving families livestock such as sheep or a goat. In small, rural, impoverished areas of the world, livestock are a true commodity. Livestock serves two purposes: to help end hunger and empower economies. Agricultural goods are still currency, and so by buying a $150 Llama (for example) you are giving a family and community a way to trade, live, and provide for their young ones. If you wish to learn more about Heifer International, please visit their website:

So, make time today, go to Crescent City Ray’s between 3:30pm and 6pm and support the Garden Club. Buy a wreath, and help a family have a means to support itself this next year. $15 goes pretty far in our world!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Guide for the Winter

One of the most frequent questions I'm asked is "When do I plant this vegetable?"  Followed closely by "How do I grow this vegetable?"  Being Community Garden Coordinator for Community Assistance Network, I'm expected to actually have answers to those questions.  And with a long enough title, people expect you to have a better answer than "Put it in the ground and see what happens," which is what I usually tell myself when I'm thinking about gardening.

The short answer to both of those questions, as well as many other questions about gardening, is that it all depends.  How close are you to the coast?  When is your last winter frost?  Are you growing in a greenhouse?  How much space do you have?  Most people accumulate answers to these questions over years of gardening and working with plants; truly, one of the most fun and exciting aspects of gardening is experimenting and playing around with the idea of "put it in the ground and see what happens," until you have a good sense of what grows best where.

While it is a lot of fun to try to grow as many different crops as you can, planting them in different ways at different times, it's very helpful to have a guide that shows you the optimal times and practices for your region.  Working from a planting guide, along with a planting calendar, you can begin to grasp how different plants have different life cycles; in a way, you begin to understand the parameters for what it takes to grow a certain crop.  Once you know the optimal conditions, you're free to experiment with those parameters and figure out how far you can push an early planting or beets, or how many successions of peas you can get through one season.

With that in mind, I created a planting calendar and a planting guide for the Del Norte coastal region.  These resources will be available to all of CAN's community gardeners; as well as anyone who reads this blog!  Both the calendar and the guide are lifted heavily from the book "The Humboldt Kitchen Gardener" by Humboldt County farmer Eddie Tanner, with modifications and tips based on my own experience gardening and my time at Ocean Air Farms.  Eddie Tanner's book, as well as seed catalogs like Territorial Seeds, and of course the internet, are all great resources to learn more about gardening in our climate.

And remember, these are just guides; take them as a general guideline for when you can do your gardening and what you can grow, and then have fun trying new things with your crops.  Both the calendar and the guide are written for coastal gardening; if you live more inland in places like Gasquet or the Klamath Glen, you can get away with planting warm-season crops outdoors, instead of in greenhouses.

Planting Guide

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Master Food Preserver Course

I think that most people know about the Master Gardener program organized by Cooperative Extension offices around the country. It's a great program: serious gardeners get training in a wide variety of horticultural topics and then share that knowledge with their community through a mandatory number of volunteer hours in the year after the course.

Well, now Humboldt County Cooperative Extension is offering a Master Food Preserver course! You read that correctly. Coop Extension will be teaching a nine-week course starting February 4th and running every Saturday from 9 to 3pm through March 31st. The course will cover jam and jelly making; drying; canning; pickling; freezing; and food safety.

Once students are awarded their graduation certificates, they are required to provide 40 hours of volunteer service teaching preservation skills to the community. Although the letter to potential applicants states that these hours must be performed in Humboldt County, I've spoken with Deborah Giraud and she would be thrilled to have some Del Norte folks do volunteer service right here.

If you're interested in applying for this wonderful learning opportunity, you can find more information and the application forms here. Let us know if you plan to attend -- maybe we can help set up a Del Norte car-pool for the classes!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Thanksgiving And The Economy

At a time when many people are already struggling financially, Thanksgiving dinner is expected to cost 13% more than it did last year. Commodity prices have gone up, raising prices in the store on everything from bread to flour to cranberries. And, of course, the main feature on many Thanksgiving tables: the turkey.

Soon Ray's and Safeway will begin their Fall Food Drives. Each store has put together a bag of groceries worth $20 that shoppers can buy for $15 and donate to CAN. Our food bank will get the food onto tables throughout our community that would otherwise look a little bare on November 24th. Please give generously so that everyone in our community has a comforting meal to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Local Food As Insurance

In today's New York Times, food writer Mark Bittman discusses the benefits of locally- and regionally-grown food. He writes about similar issues often, but today's column hones in on the policies that create more incentives for growing commodities (wheat, corn, soy) that we export, feed to livestock, or feed to automobiles than incentives for growing fruits and vegetables, for which we are a net importer. He quite rightly points out that our current agricultural system, requiring massive transport costs to bring "fresh" fruits and vegetables to our supermarkets without regard for seasonality, depends on a continuation of cheap fossil fuels. 

He writes, "We’ve seen that nothing is guaranteed: not energy, not water, not the financial system, not even the climate. Our food supply isn’t guaranteed either (remember 2008?), but it’s more likely to provide us with security if we focus more on regional agriculture and less on trade." 

As it happens, there is a living, breathing example of what happens to a food system dependent on imports and fossil fuels when those things disappear. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did Cuba's food economy, which had relied heavily on sugar exports to nations behind the Iron Curtain, and imports of staple grains, tractors, and petroleum-based fertilizers and fuels. With no fuel coming in and no lucrative markets for its sugar, Cuba's food production was forced to become small, labor-intensive, and local. Human labor replaced tractors and small urban gardens and farms replaced sugar plantations almost overnight. You can read about it here, here, and here

Obviously, there are many criticisms that can be made of Cuba and it's Soviet-era economy is not one that is widely shared by nations today. But the lessons learned by Cuban citizens when they needed to take food matters into their own hands are valuable for us all. There are good reasons to build (or rebuild) local and regional food economies, and Cuba has shown the world that it is possible. Just some food for thought. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

New Feature On School Menus

Here at Growing Tables, we're all involved in the Building Healthy Communities work in our community. Part of the work is building resident power and bringing people together who have similar interests and passions to create community change. Sometimes, people get discouraged in working toward change because change can be hard. It can be uncomfortable and people in power can feel threatened and close themselves off to new possibilities.

But sometimes, everything works. Here's an example:

Several weeks ago, my husband was frustrated when looking at the monthly menu of school lunches. We eat a mostly vegetarian diet, with a little fish thrown in occasionally, and there were some school meals that were ambiguous: is a piazza pizza vegetarian or does it have sausage or pepperoni on it? Are the beans in the bean and cheese burrito vegetarian or are they made with lard?

Our kindergartener desperately wanted to check off hot lunch on her sign-in sheet some mornings, but all we could safely allow was the mac-and-cheese once a month. So my husband searched the school district's website and sent off an email asking for more information and ended up having a fairly lengthy and positive exchange with Judy Wangerin, the head of food services at the district. She agreed to try to find some solutions.

And she and her team did! This month's menu includes a single box explaining a new feature of the school menus: meatless meals are marked with an asterisk.

Note the message in the first Monday of the lunch menu!

This is community change at its easiest and best. One resident saw a problem that affected something he really cared about: his (our) daughter's lunches. He figured out who had the power to fix the problem, communicated with them and explained the problem, and the problem was fixed, the system was changed.

Now this particular system change might not affect very many people, but the lesson does:

If you see something in our community that you feel should be changed, say something! Figure out who can make that change happen and talk to them. Let them know you think a change is needed. If nobody speaks up, nothing will change. Be a part of the solution!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Food Day Films And Celebration

The first annual Food Day is coming up on Monday, October 24th! Maybe you're celebrating by putting in a winter garden or cooking an all-local meal or savoring a meal at one of our local restaurants. If you don't yet have plans -- or even if you do! -- please join us for a celebration of Food Day through film and community.

Starting at 5:30, the Community Food Council for Del Norte and Adjacent Tribal Lands and Community Assistance Network will be hosting a Food Day event at the Del Norte School District Office at 301 Washington Blvd. We will celebrate the newly-elected Food Council representatives with a half-hour mixer with food and drinks. At 6pm, we will show a collection of short documentary films highlighting various parts of our food system from farm to waste stream. They are thought-provoking, funny, and inspiring. I hope you'll join the viewing and a post-film conversation.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Community Gardening Excitement

If you haven't seen today's Triplicate yet, make a point to pick it up. A beautiful above-the-fold photograph of one of our community gardeners opens a great article about the Elk Valley Community Garden. The predominantly Hmong gardeners at Elk Valley have turned a bare lot into an extremely productive piece of agricultural land over the past four and a half months. Looking at the garden, it's hard to believe that they only started planting seeds in mid-May! (Check out our past post about this garden to see the before pictures!) This garden supplies fresh, healthy food to 24 families, representing over 100 people. It's a small part of our population, but what a beautiful first step they've taken.

This excellent coverage by Kelley and Bry is the topper on a month of great community gardening in Del Norte. With five community members returning from NYC's American Community Gardening Association conference at the end of August, we have been inundated with information and excitement from their experiences. You can read about it here and here. At this month's Community Food Council meeting, we had two of our school Nutrition in the Garden educators tell members about the status, joys, and challenges in our school gardens. From there, eight people have formed a new subcommittee (open to all community members!) to find news ways to build support for all of our school and community gardens.

Last week, we shared a wonderful day of learning and collaboration with community gardeners from all over California and southern Oregon, right here in Crescent City. Ten sessions about gardening and community gardens took place at the beautiful Oceanfront Lodge. Forty-five participants learned about raised bed techniques, aquaponics, gardening with kids, incorporating fruit trees into community gardens, and much more. Above, Joe Gillespie talks about lessons learned during his 18 years of gardening at Crescent Elk Middle School. Below, participants show off their color-matched finds during a gardening with kids hands-on activity.

After a delicious lunch courtesy of the Bar-O Boys Ranch culinary arts program and exciting afternoon sessions, attendees toured our local community gardens and met with our gardeners. They toured six gardens and learned something new at each one.

 At the Seventh Day Adventist Community Garden

The new garden at the Wellness Center

When the tour was complete, a large contingent of our out-of-town guests had a laughter-filled dinner overlooking the Harbor at Good Harvest. They had more chances to ask questions and share information about their own community garden projects. People left Del Norte with new tools for their own communities. They loved our coast and our redwoods. They raved about the meals and our community's hospitality. It was Del Norte at its best: sharing one of the things we do well in one of the most beautiful places on our planet. Our gardens are an inspiration for people just starting out. They show what our community can accomplish when we work together and we were very proud to show off our gardeners' successes! Community gardens are about food, community, relationships, and hope for the future. All of that was on full display for 45 very happy conference-goers last Friday.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

ACGA Conference in New York City (cont.)

This week we have our co-worker and friend, Chad Hegelmeyer, doing a guest-post about his experience at the ACGA Conference in New York.  Chad is an Americorps VISTA, working as a coordinator for the Healthy Klamath Coalition, and a member of the team to rejuvenate the Klamath Glen Community Garden.  He was a welcome addition on the trip to New York, and we can't wait to see the progress at the Klamath Garden that Chad will help usher in after attending the conference.  Thanks, Chad!

Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing to talk about my previous experience in community gardening, mostly because my “previous experience” is limited to:
a.       occasionally watering a basil plant my mom bought for the kitchen of my college apartment to give it “a homier feel” (as if) and
b.      helping Angela Glore and Connor Caldwell in the Klamath Community Garden for a couple hours (during which time Angela asked me to get her a lettuce start, paused briefly, and then added, “You do know which one is lettuce, don’t you?”).

So when my job as a VISTA at Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods suddenly included building capacity for the community garden in the Klamath Glen, I felt a little under-qualified for the task. Fortunately, professional development is never difficult to come by in the BHC and VISTA worlds; Angela Glore came to my rescue by asking me if I would go, along with Connor and some folks from Open Door Clinic, to a four-day-long conference of the American Community Gardening Association in New York City. I responded in the words of Sid, the diabolical villain from Toy Story: “Double prizes!

My enthusiasm quickly waned, though. On the first morning of the conference, I woke up late and sore after spending the night on a too-short cot wedged between Connor’s bed and the TV because our hotel had been overbooked the night before. My mood continued to sour. It was mercilessly hot and humid in Manhattan. I briefly checked the conference schedule online and was met with beautiful photos of lush, green New York gardens with happy, smiling gardeners and community members standing in them. The difference between those gardens and what I saw in the Glen seemed like an insurmountable distance.

Walking down into the subway was like entering a sauna. After a short, but stifling, trip to 116th and Broadway, we climbed the stairs out of the station and found ourselves standing in the middle of a bustling farmers market (or, as they are called in New York, “a green market”) right on the street in front of the Columbia University auditorium where the conference was being held. We walked between vegetable stands, fruit stands, fresh cheese and dairy products, homemade organic jams, and freshly baked bread. We sampled incredible garden tomatoes, sweet plums, cheese sold by a pushy Mennonite, and literally the most delicious apple I’ve ever tasted. I was enjoying myself, but part of me still had this nagging frustration. In New York, it all seemed so easy and effortless. It reminded me of an episode of RadioLab we had listened to in Connor’s car while driving to the Medford airport the day before. The episode discussed some research that suggests that cities are actually more efficient—use less water and electricity and create less waste per capita—than sparsely populated areas. It seemed like the evidence supporting that theory was now hawking fresh, green cucumbers right before my eyes. New York was some kind of urban utopia where you could have your farmers markets, school and community gardens, and urban farms wherever and whenever you chose, and it was all a cinch to pull off.

Prior to the conference, I had been thinking a lot about the dichotomy between urban and rural. In my job, I see the distinction practically everywhere I look. In my capacity as a VISTA for the Building Healthy Communities initiative, I can’t help but notice that most of the other thirteen communities supported by the California Endowment are densely populated urban areas. As the “Klamath Promise Neighborhood Coordinator” (my official title), I’ve read then- Senator Obama’s speech about the Harlem Children’s Zone a hundred times and each time get a little twinge at the fact that its title is “Changing the Odds for Urban America” (I added the italics). After a few weeks of intense thought about this, I was beginning to feel a little stressed out about the subject—hence my grumpiness in New York. Somehow, after all of that thinking and reading, I had begun to consider the urban/rural dichotomy in terms of other opposite pairs like easy/difficult, efficient/messy, rich in resources/constantly lacking necessary resources. I had fallen into the classic “grass is always greener” conundrum, failing to see the reality of the similarities and differences between inner-city urban areas and isolated rural ones.

The reality check came Friday and Saturday when I spent one full day in various workshops and seminars led by real community gardeners and another full day touring gardens in the South Bronx. My first seminar on Friday morning was a case study on a school garden in Florida titled “A Tropical Oasis behind Barbed Wire.” Contrary to its saccharine title, the seminar was led by a man with long, wavy blonde hair and a permanent scowl through which he expounded primarily on the funding difficulties and arguments with administration inevitably forced upon people unfortunate enough to run school gardens. This seemed more in line with my pessimistic attitude, and I nodded knowingly at each of his complaints like a school gardening veteran.

The next day I boarded a bus headed to the Bronx with Breanne Sorrells and fifteen other conference-goers. Our first stop was the Jacqueline Denise Davis Garden, a small community garden, gazebo, and greenhouse shadowed by tall brick apartment buildings on the corner of Boston Road and E 165th Street. An employee from GrowNYC (a community gardening non-profit) and the neighborhood gardener who lived across the street gave us a rundown of the garden’s history. “How many volunteers do you have?” asked a conference-goer. The gardener responded that they had about ten regular volunteers, but had trouble recruiting and retaining more than that.

We continued to visit three more gardens in the Bronx that were maintained by community members and schools. Some had compost issues. Others had problems with vandalism. In another, a disagreement arose between two gardeners about how and when to harvest a certain type of pea.  I’m not sure why it took a four day conference to help me understand this, but my ultimate realization was that community gardening can be (and often will be) hard work. In the long run, there are no short cuts. There are no easy fixes. No matter where you live or what resources you have access to, the job of teaching people about growing food and nutritious eating is challenging. Food may be a commonplace thing in the U.S. (for some of us at least), but despite this, our relationship with food and eating is anything but simple. The reward of community gardening is that, unlike a lot of the other work that I do on a daily basis, I get to see the tangible fruits of my (limited) labor in person: the complex tang of a fresh tomato, nutrient-rich dirt under my nails, the smirk of a student volunteer who is secretly enjoying her work in the garden despite earlier claims to the contrary. The best things are always worth working for.

In the end, it’s good to know that Del Norte County has something in common with New York.