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.”

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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.

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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.”


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.

The Pits

The Pits

Nearly every day, I have to report on something that very few people care about: the yields investors receive to buy Spanish government bonds. 

Bond yields are measurement of how much it costs to get a loan.  During this year, Spain’s economy was so weakened, it had to pay 7% to get a 10-year loan.  Consider that US 10-year bonds, or Treasuries, are paying under 2%, and you realize what a burden this interest rate can be.  And who pays for these loans? Spaniards of course. In the form of taxes, mostly. 

But Spain’s people are suffering. The nation is in its second recession in 3 years. Unemployment  is  nearly 25%  Again, the United States unemployment rate is currently 7.9%.

You would hardly notice how badly Spaniards are suffering if you travel through the most touristic cities.  When we toured Southern Spain last month, the highways were spectacular (we even avoided the toll roads without problems). Restaurants seemed full in the old quarters of Cordoba, Sevilla, and Grenada.

But there were tell-tale signs, literally. Everywhere we went, I saw these signs. See the red one that says “Se Vende?”  That means, FOR SALE.

For sale sign in Cordoba, Spain
copyright: Leslie Gersing

The pain in Spain is partly a result of the same real estate bubble we experienced in the United States –a massive construction boom nurtured through the low cost of borrowing money.  Banks loaned money like water from an endless well.

We saw giant, brand-new condominium complexes all along the Spanish riviera; so many units built that they swamped available demand.  Now many of them are ghost towns.    There are so many unsold or foreclosed properties in Spain, the Madrid government is setting up a “bad bank” to purchase the “toxic assets” and sell them off at more than 50% discounts. 

The default rate on Spanish consumer debt just hit a record.  Credit has now dried up or is very expensive to get. If you’ve lost your job, you can’t afford to repay your loans or buy much of anything else. 

I heard a story from Annie, who owns a converted farmhouse in Almeria.  She and the neighbors own groves full of olive and orange trees.  The olive trees were everywhere we drove and seemed to thrive in the arid Sierra Nevadas.

Olive grove in Purullena, Spain
copyright: ljg456

Each year the olives are harvested and delivered to a coop like this one in Ugijar, where they’re pressed to make oil.

Olive oil cooperative factory, Ugijar Spain
copyright: ljg456

But the orange trees are another matter.  Annie said it cost so much to water her own orange trees, she made no money when it came to harvest time.

Annie’s orange trees, near Almeria, Spain
copyright: Leslie Gersing
Annie’s just an ex-pat with a summer home in this rugged area of southern Spain. She’s not a farmer, who depends on these ancient trees to survive.  Annie said water has become so expensive for the locals, many have cut their trees down to nubs. That keeps the trees from dying, but leaves them in a dormant state, so they won’t need much irrigation.
Many Spaniards have also been cut to the quick; well-educated and proud, but forced to move back home with their parents or grandparents.  Their government is cutting budgets, so school books must be purchased; children who need meals must pay more or they won’t be fed.  Government workers are laid off, their pensions are cut; there’s no money for infrastructure. People can’t afford to buy much of anything.
The government raised the VAT to 21% from 18% in September. Talk about a regressive tax: can you imaging having to pay 21 cents on every dollar spent on food? 

Now last week, demand for Spanish government bonds was described as “insane.” What’s insane about this is the growing belief among bond investors that Spain will formally request a government bailout from its European Union partners. Just rumors of that request have driven Spanish bond yields down. Ironically, Spain’s capitulation, and acceptance of strict terms for borrowing money, have helped the euro and European markets rise.
And when demand rises for bonds, the interest rate goes in the opposite direction. So 10-year bond yields are now about 5.46%.  That’s down from 5.66% at the prior auction, and 1.5% below their peak.  But remember, US 10-year bond yields are about 1/3 that rate. 

The problems are not just confined to the Euro Zone’s fourth largest economy.  Portugal received a sovereign bailout and adopted tough reforms to reduce government spending.  Portuguese 10-year bonds are down about 2% since mid-September:  the government  pays about 7.7% to borrow money. You could say that’s a bargain from nearly 18% in January.

On November 14, many Portuguese are going to strike against austerity measures they say are destroying their nation, not growing the economy.  Spanish unions have just announced they are going to take to the streets that day, too. 

It’s worse in Greece, where overall unemployment is above 25%, and about 50% for the young. Tens of thousands went on strike this week, as the government planned to make another $17 billion in cuts and tax hikes in order to secure the next “tranche” of bailout money from the “Troika” of European Union, European Central Bank and IMF lenders.  Many Greeks say Germany and other wealthy nations in the European Union profit at their expense.  Greek animosity showed its ugly side when the head of Europe’s most properous economy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was portrayed as a Nazi during a recent visit to  Athens. Some demonstrators blame Germany for keeping an irrationally tight control on the aid spigot, forcing them into practical bondage.

A recent New York Times article mentioned the rising popularity of a neo-Nazi party, which blasts immigrants and people deemed insufficiently  “Greek.”  Robbers are mugging people on the streets, as food and fuel become too espensive for the increasing numbers of newly-destitute.

I just learned that most Greek olive oil isn’t even made by Greeks. Some of my favorite Greek olive oils are actually products of large multinational corporations in Italy or Holland. Greeks just grow the fruit; they don’t own the means of production.

Spanish bond yields sound pretty boring, and complex.   But it’s allowed me to learn a little bit about what happens when governments decide to cut spending as a means to reduce their deficits.

There’s a reason politicians, businesses and economists are divided over the notion of stimulating economies with cash and other incentives, instead of putting themselves on a budget diet. There’s a reason this has become a central argument in the 2012 presidential election.

The next time I buy olive oil, I’ll remember what’s happening in Spain..