A food pantry on wheels

The West Side Campaign Against Hunger offers healthy food to low-income residents in a new outreach project


Lincoln Square neighbors try out WSCAH’s new mobile pantry.  Photo: Leslie Gersing

The nation’s oldest supermarket-style food pantry is going mobile. A new mini-mart on wheels will offer low-income residents fresh, healthy food in Northern Manhattan and Bronx communities at the greatest risk of hunger.

The Mobile Food Pantry is the latest outreach project of the 39-year-old West Side Campaign Against Hunger. WSCAH staff, local elected officials and social service providers formally launched the customized refrigerated van on Tuesday, May 15 at Goddard Riverside at Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center on West 65th Street. Volunteers helped eligible neighbors select fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy, grains and canned proteins.

There’s already a waiting list.

“It’s allowing people to do exactly what every citizen in America does these days: getting food delivered,” said Greg Silverman, WSCAH’s executive director. “We want to make sure people have the same dignity as everyone else in the community, so we want to bring healthy, affordable, flavorful food to people, where they live, learn and play.”

IMG_E1097 (481x389)

WSCAH Executive Director Greg Silverman thanks Upper West Siders and community and government agencies for the 4-year drive to get the mobile pantry on the road. Photo: Leslie Gersing

WSCAH operates a food pantry and social service hub from the basement of The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on West 86th Street. Last year, it distributed nearly 1.5 million pounds of food to clients, including working families with children and undocumented immigrants. Clients must prove need for assistance, live in New York City, and have a place to prepare and cook food. They shop the grocery aisles, stocked with produce, meats and other nutritious staples. They also volunteer, get job training, and even sit on the board. Many travel from as far away as Northern Manhattan and the Bronx. But growing numbers of seniors — and others with mobility issues — have trouble making the trip. WSCAH dreamed of bringing the pantry to the people.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal recalls how the community joined forces with WSCAH four years ago, to make it happen. “I remember saying to some of my friends at West Side Campaign Against Hunger, is there some way we could get out into other districts? That would let other people know.” Supporters advocated for the project and shepherded it through a rigorous budget process. During the 2014-2015 round of Participatory Budgeting, Rosenthal’s Council District 6 voted to provide $250,000 to build a mobile pantry.


Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Mark Levine check out WSCAH’s new mobile pantry, which serves clients at Levine’s office in Harlem.  Photo: Leslie Gersing

Test-runs started last October, with staff in a rental van distributing over 150,000 pounds of food to more than 3,000 households. Now, the official mobile truck hits the road four days a week, serving clients at 17 partner organizations. That includes students and young adults taking classes at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp. in Washington Heights. “Sometimes people have to make choices between continuing to study with the goal of promoting their careers or continuing to work in more dead end jobs,” said NIMC’s Sara Chapman. “If they’re able to not have make that decision, because they have food on the table, that means they can stay in the program.”

The Food Bank for New York City says more than 1.3 million New York City residents, or 14.9 percent, are food insecure — meaning they lack reliable access to sufficient amounts of affordable, nutritious food. That includes nearly 1 in 5 children. While the improved economy has reduced demand for food assistance, it says, those still getting help are falling farther behind.

IMG_1037 (1024x768)

WSCAH’s mobile pantry delivers fresh food and high-quality staples to some of NYC’s most  under-served communities.  Photo: Leslie Gersing

New York City Director of Food Policy Barbara Turk called WSCAH a “superstar” for expanding beyond the Upper West Side. “This pantry is going to allow WSCAH to bring food to neighborhoods that are severely underserved and under-supplied,” she said.

Back at Lincoln Square, area resident Celso Ruiz filled his basket with groceries. Speaking in Spanish, he called the mobile pantry a “wonderful” idea “because it helps poor people.”


“Craftivism” for Breast Cancer

Volunteers at an UWS yarn store knit prosthetic “knockers” for low-income women of color

Knitted Knockers founder Barbara Demorest (right) talks with Knitty City group in September.  Photo: Leslie Gersing


Barbara Demorest figured her cancer doctor wasn’t making small talk when he asked if she could knit. The Washington state resident learned complications from a mastectomy prevented her from getting reconstructive surgery. Her doctor said the heavy, rubbery inserts worn in special post-mastectomy bras don’t work for everyone: they get hot and sweaty, irritate surgery scars, and cost $300 to $500. He showed her a printout of a hand-made, breast-shaped pillow with a link to a website.

Demorest immediately contacted the source — a yarn-store owner in Maine who had undergone mastectomy, and got her permission to share the pattern. She then asked a friend to knit her one.

“It changed my life,” she told a gathering at Knitty City on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “It was soft, it was light, it was made by somebody who cared, and I could wear it in my bra … and my doctor said I could wear as it as soon as I could tolerate wearing a bra.”

That was six years ago. Now Demorest heads an all-volunteer foundation, giving out at least 1,000 prosthetics a month. More than 300 groups in the U.S. and 16 countries have joined the cause, donating the inserts to women, through doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals, breast cancer support groups, and directly, through KnittedKnockers.org.

Hand-made “Knitted Knockers” for women after mastectomy. Photo: Leslie Gersing


The hand-made “knockers” are the latest campaign of “craftivism” at Knitty City, an 11-year-old small business at 79th and Amsterdam Avenue which got international exposure last spring, making thousands of pink “pussy” hats for marchers protesting the Trump administration. Store owner Pearl Chin also donates yarn to an Asian women’s organization, holds free knitting classes during the summer in Bryant Park, and is handing out patterns to make “welcome blankets” for new immigrants.

Knitty City owner Pearl Chin. Photo: Leslie Gersing

Regulars gather on Tuesdays. However, anyone can come to the store for free patterns, help and discounts on yarn used to make the “knockers.” Chin expects Breast Cancer Awareness Month to generate even more interest in the project, which benefits LatinaSHARE, a support group serving low-income women of color in New York. When Chin brought them samples, “They looked at the colors and they said, ‘well, could you make them more colorful?’” And, they told her, cup-size matters: “’We’ll have to have them larger than that — C’s or D’s.’”

Knitty City employee Nancy Ricci with orange knitted knockers. LatinaSHARE asked for larger, brightly colored inserts. Photo: Leslie Gersing

Maria Estrella, LatinaSHARE coordinator and volunteer breast cancer patient navigator at Bellevue Hospital, says the inserts can help many women feel more comfortable after mastectomy. While “the majority opt for reconstruction,” she says, healing, chemo and radiation can delay the procedure “up to a year.”

The American Cancer Society estimates one in eight women (252,710) will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year, including 16,000 New Yorkers. While mastectomies are on rise, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons says, “less than half of all women who undergo mastectomy are currently offered breast reconstruction surgery, and fewer than 20 percent … undergo immediate reconstruction.”

In December, Demorest traveled to Rwanda to teach women how to make their own “knockers,” after learning reconstruction isn’t an option for most of them. They told her that some women are taught breast cancer is a curse, and were dying of shame rather than live with disfiguring surgery.

One Knitty City customer shows off a pair of purple knockers to the group, adding that she “says a prayer,” for the women who will get them. Others say they plan to attach personal messages to their finished projects. Demorest nods, telling the group she often gets asked, “Why not manufacture the prosthetics and sell them?”

“We’d be meeting one need, but we would be losing out so much on that caring factor,” says Demorest. “When you make the Knitted Knockers, you feel the sense of purpose with your knitting and your crocheting. You are making a difference in somebody’s life.”

This article was also published in the Straus News Publications’ Our Town and Chelsea News.


Photo Composites

Photo composites involve combining elements from multiple photographs to make a new image.  The image on the left is an equestrian band seen in Belem, Portugal. The photo on the right is a view of the River Douro in the north, which  includes a telephone cable spanning the water.

surrealist photo project.jpg

Equestrian musician on a “high wire” over the River Douro

Likewise, I’ve relocated a fanciful structure from Bainbridge Island, Washington, which the owner calls a “Hobbit House,” to a vineyard in Oregon.

vineyard with hobbit house

Hobbit House in vineyard


Photoshop retouching examples

1.  Retouching a damaged black-and-white photo. The image on the left is torn, folded, and has lots of dust on the negative. The photo on the right reduces the damage and fill in the missing paper.

2. Retouching a color photo. Before and after photos, using Adobe Photoshop. Please note I have removed skin blemishes and re-colored her T-Shirt.

aliza in bunaliza in bun retouched

3. Coloring a black and white photo. Here I have created multiple masks to individually paint large swaths of color on the grass, roofing, dirt and sky areas of this 1941 photograph from the NYPL digital archives. I removed lots of dust and scratches from the negative before adding the various colors.

A Raclette to Remember

My friend Michal is an amazing cook; someone who maintains a carefully-curated collection of recipes — whether from yellowed newspaper clippings or magazines from the 1970s and old cookbooks with broken spines from constant use. But her knowledge of cooking is so deep, her technique so well-honed, we can make the same recipe and it will turn out completely different. She has shared a number of special dishes with me, including a molten chocolate cake; a lime mousse, gravlax and a couple of couscous recipes from her native French Tunisia.

Her family mostly settled in France after World War II, and a brother turned her onto Raclette, a peasant meal popular for centuries on the French and Swiss sides of the Alps. Farmers graze their cows in the mountains to make the cheese, aging 6 kg. rounds for 3 to 6 months. The Swiss canton of Valais is said to be the best source.

When Michal told me she had a racler, a device for melting the cheese, I remembered my first paid gig, as the clean-up helper at a neighbor’s Raclette party. In French, racler means “to scrape.” My neighbors had brought back a device that held a half-wheel of the giant semi-hard cheese, which exposes it to a very hot bulb. The heat melts the top-most layer of the cheese, which is scraped onto a warm plate and served with potatoes and garnishes.

It was my job to scoop up the dirty plates, scrub off the left-over cold melted cheese, wash and dry the dishes, and bring them back for the next round. It just seemed like melted cheese that you put on potatoes and eat before it gets too cold. I don’t remember the taste of it, but I probably wouldn’t have gone crazy for the meal, which sure seemed like a lot less fun than fondue.

Simple Racler Device

So when Michal invited me and a friend to share her Raclette, I had no idea what it could really be like. She brought out an electric grill the size of a toaster oven. It looks something like this:

Multi-Layer Raclette Grill

Under the top-most grill plate is a space for eight flat metal shovels. Various kinds of semi-soft cheese, including Raclette, are placed on the little spades, under the hot grill. The heat from the iron surface melts the cheese, which is scraped off with a wooden spatula — then served with cooked potatoes and condiments.

The top of the grill is used to cook raw meats, smoked sausage, and onions, giving guests are wide variety small bites.

Potatoes and Shrimp for the Grill Top

Smoked and raw meets for the grill top

Michal went all out for this meal, which was originally prepared for her son’s birthday. Following the tradition, she fried fat from a duck breast on the top grill, then added marinated shrimp, various French sausages, duck and chicken breast, red bell peppers, onion slices, and Portobello mushrooms.

For the section under the grill, she laid out a spread of sliced cheeses: Raclette, Brie, Morbier, St. Nectaire and soft goat cheese, Le Grand Caprin. We built little mouthfuls on the spades: starting with sliced, cooked red-bliss potatoes, ham, a French salami, and, at her brother’s insistence, dry-cured beef similar to Bresciola, before topping them with the cheese.

Cheese for a fancy Raclette: from top right clockwise: Raclette, Brie, Morbier, Goat Cheese, St. Nectaire

After the cheese melted, we removed the little morsels and ate them with cornichons, pickled white onions, two kinds of chutney and sauces made with fresh herbs, sour cream and mayonnaise.

In between, we ate the grilled meats and vegetables, embellishing each bite with different mayonnaise- and cream-based sauces and condiments. Sweet and hot chutneys and the pickles helped break through the fatty meats and cheeses. Good crusty bread turns each bite into a great little sandwich.

Raclette accompaniments: spades for melting cheese, wooden spatulas (UL) and condiments

Although the spread is Gargantuan, there’s no need to feel outrageously full while enjoying the meal. The grill cooks very slowly, and the cheese takes even longer to melt underneath it. That slows down the process, so you don’t actually shovel it down your throat, although it helps to use the spade.

Michal’s brother recommends a white vin de Savoie from Apremont, in the Alps of eastern France, which he describes as slightly effervescent. We drank a red Bordeaux called Le Prieure de Lalande, which Michal brought back from Paris, a red wine from the supermarche, too cheap (about 5 euro) to sell here for profit.

A crisp endive salad, served afterward, cut through the heavy feast. But Michal had a surprise for dessert: a ginger-laced Crème Brûlée!

All during the meal, I kept remembering what I was taught as a child: don’t play with your food. This rule was made to be broken — and it’s perfectly ok to do so when you’re eating Raclette.

With “Participatory Budgeting,” New Yorkers Decide How to Spend Funds

By Leslie Gersing, Producer, Video Editor | May 1, 2017 | runs 1:46

On April 25, 2017, New York City Council member Helen Rosenthal announced the winners of projects to be funded with $1.27 million, as a result of voting by her constituents in the Participatory Budgeting (PB) process. See my companion print article in the West Side Rag, April 29, 2017.

For more information on Participatory Budgeting in New York City, visit http://council.nyc.gov/pb/participate/ or @PB_NYC on Twitter.


Frank McCourt High School student Austin Garcia (left), with his teacher Daniele Gates. Frank McCourt received funding for tech upgrades.

By Leslie Gersing
It’s like Sim City with real money.
Locals decided to spend more than a million bucks for library renovations, tech equipment, air conditioning and playground renovations at four schools on the Upper West Side.
The results were announced at The Center for West Park on April 25 at Council Member Helen Rosenthal’s Town Hall for District 6, which includes Central Park, Lincoln Square, northern Clinton and the Upper West Side.
The projects were chosen through participatory budgeting — democracy at the grass roots. Starting last year, numerous cultural, educational, security and other improvement projects were researched and debated for their worthiness, subjected to feasibility studies and budgeted. Any district resident or student, 14 and up, was eligible to vote for their top five choices. Eleven made the ballot during voting from March 27 through April 2.

                                     People voting for projects.

Four projects, at a total cost of $1.27 million, received the most votes, and will be part of the New York City Council Budget. Rosenthal allocated the extra $270,000 from her district budget to cover the overage. They are:

•Library Upgrades for P.S. 166 The project includes work to enlarge the library and creation of a new reading space at P.S. 166, 132 W. 89th St. Cost: $295,000 (1834 votes)

•Air Conditioning for P.S. 9 and Center School Gym Installation of a split system air conditioning system in the gymnasium shared by P.S. 9 and the Center School at 100 W. 84th St. Cost: $400,000 (1398 votes)

•Technology Upgrades at Frank McCourt High School including 11 new Smart Boards and 30 laptop computers with a cart, for use at Frank McCourt H.S. at 145 W. 84th St. Cost: $125,000 (1310 votes)

•Schoolyard Renovation at P.S. 84 Renovation of the playground, converting the asphalt to synthetic turf at P.S. 84 Schoolyard, the Sol Bloom Playground at 32 W. 92nd St. Cost: $450,000 (1304 votes)

During the last day of voting on April 2, volunteer Mark Diller said, “Every council member has a certain amount of money that they’re allowed to spend in the community. And Helen and a few other council members have taken $1 million of that and – capital things, projects and equipment and things – and made it available for the public to propose ideas and then to select among those ideas, which ones will actually get funded.”
At Frank McCourt High School on West 84th Street, 15 juniors and seniors got to experience participatory budgeting up close. Their class took part in all aspects of the process — from the initial development and research of potential projects, to serving on committees that short-listed finalists.
Austin Garcia, an 18-year old senior going to Hunter College next year, said: “It basically just helped me work with people and be more of a better asset in terms of doing group work with people.”
Garcia was pleased voters approved the McCourt High School project for smart boards, computers and other tech gear, which are needed to replace aging and broken equipment. His teacher Daniele Gates was happily surprised about the win, after losing out last year even though the entire student body voted in person. But she doubted there was any special favoritism among the class members. “They were super objective,” she said. “They were all working on different projects, so they weren’t invested in the project they were working on.”
New York City introduced participatory budgeting in 2011. This year, 31 of New York’s 51 city council districts took part during the 2016-2017 cycle, each agreeing to spend at least $1 million in the process. According to the City Council, 28 city council districts took part during the prior cycle, with 67,000 New Yorkers voting to fund $38 million in capital projects.
While many people laud the “small-d” democracy of the process, others are critical of asking voters to decide to spend council districts’ tax dollars on schools, roads, and other public services that should be funded by government agencies. In a recent New York Post op-ed, Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, called New York’s participatory democracy a “sham,” and said, “the exercise points out the city’s failure to spend money wisely, to an absurd degree.”
Rosenthal’s office said 3,111 residents voted for their favorite community initiatives this year, compared to 2,167 last year. While that’s a 43% increase, it’s still a small portion of eligible voters in the district — and comparable, to rising, but continued low levels of participation citywide. Rosenthal urged her Town Hall audience to sign up for her emails at HelenRosenthal.com to stay informed about the process.
Teacher Daniele Gates says more people might vote if ballots were mailed, or more attention were focused on online voting, or ballot locations set up where residents shop, such as grocery stores. But she has no doubt about the value of the class for her students. “They see the impact of participation. I think that a lot of people don’t engage in the process because their voice doesn’t matter and they have first-hand evidence that their vote and their voice matters.”

Photos by Leslie Gersing.