Monthly Archives: April 2014

Bernell: A reexamination of my neighborhood’s food choices

After a thorough story on organic food and making healthy choices I decided to reexamine my neighborhood to see if anything has changed in terms of health food choices since I changed my diet two years ago. As I have mentioned before, about two years ago my entire family made a choice to live a healthy lifestyle. Now I will be the first to admit I have a ways to go in terms of my weight goals. However, when I started my plans to juice regularly and eat more vegetables and I had few places where I could buy them affordably. However, I am glad to say that my neighborhood now has more healthy and organic choices than two years ago. In this article I will compare two fruit stands and two supermarkets that have changed their entire produce section to accommodate organic and healthy food customers.

This is a picture of the Amish Market located on West 49th Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan. This is where I purchase most of my produce for my family. In order to do this I must pay 30 dollars for parking and pick up my son every other Friday so we can buy enough produce for our family. So as I investigate stores in my own neighborhood they needed to have the same quality of food as a minimum requirement… Here are some pictures of their produce:

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                                                                My Neighborhood              

University Avenue and Fordham Road (University Heights Neighborhood)

                                  Relationship Status

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                           Homes with Kids

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                             Age Distribution

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Statistics courtesy of


Like most of you, I am a creature of habit. So I love driving into Manhattan on Fridays and making a day of my produce shopping. However, if I can save money and still get great quality produce then I must yield to logic and shop in my neighborhood. Also, I must mention that I am writing this story in April 2014, the height of the grower’s season. So while my Amish Market may have great produce year round, my local store may not be committed to that practice. Thus, I created this list:

1)      The store must sell produce year round and offer organic choices

2)      The store must be able to use EBT and various forms of currency being that my mother and brother are both on fixed income and use SNAP benefits regularly

3)      Offer some form of delivery service and not be OVERLY pricy. For this I used Amish Market as a price model. They operate in mid-Manhattan and pay ridiculous rent prices so they would have the largest markup that would affect price.

Other Factors:

Of course I will talk about other factors. E.g. the amount of organic produces offered? Does the store offer delivery so I can save on my driving miles? Last, how often do they receive new produce and stock? Fruits and vegetables should be fresh; if not, then for me this entire experiment is not worth it. My family has adapted to fruits and vegetables that have great substance and taste. So vegies that sit for days at time will not be acceptable to my family’s pallet.

The Stores

To make this process fair I’ve chosen four stores. Two large chain grocery stores and two local vegetable stands that have recently opened up in the area.  In terms of geography we are starting our trip on University Avenue and Fordham Road. For those whom don’t know the Bronx Fordham Road is a major shopping area in the Bronx. During the summer there are many fruit and vegetables carts all over the Fordham road area however they are seasonal. They mostly make their money during the months of April and October where Fordham Road is most busy. In addition, about 10 blocks away from our starting location is the only farmers market in the Bronx. This is located at Poe Park at 190th Street and Grand Concourse. Like the food carts they only operate on a seasonal basis. Also, they seldom take EBT or SNAP food stamp benefits so they would not be sufficient for my comparison.  Of course about 1 mile away is the oldest farmers market in New York located at 180th Street and Broadway. My Colleague Jean Marc discussed the market in an earlier blog. However, as close as that market is to me driving will be a must once I purchase the food and that is one of the criteria I’m hoping to avoid.


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LOCATED on University Avenue and Fordham Road

This store is one of the Chain supermarkets that I chose for my comparison. As you can see from their banner ad they take all forms of payment including SNAP food stamps and they deliver. The fruit and vegetables are surprisingly affordable compared to Amish Market prices and quite frankly it looks good. One of the drawbacks is that they offer a limited supply of organic produce and vegetables but after speaking to the store’s produce manager, Jose Vendez, he promises that “in the next few months we are working with local farmers to buy more organic produce as an option for our customers.  Many of our customers come in asking for these products, especially in the past two years, that we must keep up or lose the customer to our competitor. “

Mr. Vendez went on to tell me how they started rotating their old produce daily and giving away their old produce for distribution to the local church food banks in the area. Because each store carried different varieties of the same produce e.g. McIntosh apple vs Generic Green apple, I could not make a direct comparison, however, I can say based on my Amish Market prices that they are very competitive and a welcome change to when I came here three years ago.

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Located one block North of C town (University Avenue and Grand Avenue)

In their defense this store is still new: about 6 months old. So when I asked to speak to the produce manager and he thought I was from immigration, I knew that this interview would not go well. They offer fruits and vegetables with some organic choices, however, after noticing that the fruit flies and other rodents were easily visible, I don’t recommend you shop at this store. My photographer Malik Frank (and yes my son) was asked to leave after they saw him taking pictures of the produce. In every other location going forward they welcomed us with open arms, because many student journalists from nearby Fordham University constantly write stories about food establishments each month in their school newspaper. Thus, I suggest you avoid Sales and keep walking two more blocks north toward our next store.

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Located one block north of Sal’s Vegetable (Fordham Road and Davidson Avenue)

Like Sales Vegetable Market “Food Dynasty” is new to our neighborhood, open less than one year. The manager, Tom Flevins, doubles as produce manager. He told me that local growers and farmers in the Washington DC area created the Food Dynasty franchise originally. Although they have recently merged with the A @) P food chain, they still cling to their roots selling produce and vegetables in inner city markets at a fair price. Manager Flevins states “Organic food is one of our top priorities this year. Our research has shown that given a choice many customers will buy organic over non organic as long as the price is fair. We want to be that fair marketplace for our customers.”  As you can see by the pictures the fruits and vegetables are more affordable than those sold at my Amish Market, however Organic items are in short supply. Another factor is their business longevity. Before I decide to buy 100 local I need to make sure this business will stay viable for my long term needs. Otherwise, this store is a welcome addition to our community and look forward to trying their product over the next few months.

Before I left, I sampled one of their ready-made salads for lunch. It was four dollars and came with your choice of dressing. A comparable salad on Fordham Road will cost you at least 7 dollars and still the freshness would be questionable. For now Food Dynasty ranks high on my list.

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Located two blocks north five blocks east of Food Dynasty (Jerome Avenue and 183rd Street)

In my neighborhood this store is known as the place to get a great sandwich. Please understand that is saying something with all the great bodegas and Cuban sandwiches shops in my area. However, Pioneer supermarket is also known as literally a pioneer in the community. They sell sushi, they also have a reputable fish market in house and they do catering for many of the local schools. So when I was told by my son to add Pioneer to the list of stores in our comparison I was shocked at what I found. Now in terms of organic foods, the celery is the only thing I found. However, their fruits and vegetables seemed to be amazingly fresh. Pioneer also offers many fruit cups and cuts fruit cups to order while you wait for 5 dollars a plate. Nevertheless, with no produce, the Deli manager only cares about the veggies for sandwiches and not the aisles managers on staff in the produce section. However, the manager Robert Tanz did speak with me. He said that he has taken control of this store two years ago and started with the deli section so he can bring customers in the store.

He went on to say: “With so many vegetable stands in this neighborhood I felt that upgrading our produce was not financially viable. However, many teachers wanted fruit cups and salads along with their meals. Thus, we now started to cater to that market.”  He went on to say that his stores supplier is not “organic minded” in terms of their produce. Thus, Mr. Tanz feels that organic food will be slow to arrive to their shelves.

In summary, when I started this journey almost three years ago I was surprised at how little was offered in my community. With organic and healthy foods now daily buzzwords in our diet talks it seems like the word is getting out to the public. Four stores are stacking their shelves with fresh vegetables and produce. Now in terms of me making the transition to buying my produce 100 percent locally—well, the jury is still out. I need to test these stores to see how well they handle out of season sales. Frozen veggies in the past has always been my backup, but that still requires me to drive and add on that extra cost. However, time will tell whether these stores are capitalizing on the healthy fruits and vegetable hype that the media has been spreading or are these stores supporting this change long term. Until then I will keep my options open.


Lisa K: Producers and Providers: Food Security in Saratoga Springs

Food Security

Whether you are a mainstream family simply looking to feed a family on a budget or a committed organic food consumer food security is a topic that affects you. Food security is defined as, “(A) state of having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food” (Google, 2014). The World Health Organization, WHO, held a food summit in 1996 to address the increasing challenge of maintaining a global food supply. Three key concepts were identified that are critical in maintaining food security. They are,

“Food availability: sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis.

Food access: having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.

Food use: appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation “(Organization, 2014).

Food democracy activist Vandana Shiva advocates empowering local farmers to maintain heirloom seed stocks and grow indigenous food items as the best way of stabilizing the global food supply. She accuses the big agricultural companies such as Monsanto and DuPont of “biopiracy” because these companies threaten regional bio-diversity by killing off native food species and replacing them with chemical laden, genetically modified generations of food (Kosek, 2013).

In an attempt to assess the food security of my local community I decided to evaluate our food resources within the concept as it is discussed by the WHO. I chose to look at the overall availability of food, usage with regard to having nutritional and safe food, and finally the topic of access. Can people in the community access the food that is available?

In my community of Saratoga Springs, NY food is abundant. Shoppers have a multitude of possibilities. There are five full service grocery stores, a Walmart Supercenter with a full grocery department, and the local Target store has also expanded to include groceries. BJ’s Wholesale Warehouse is available for shoppers who need to purchase bulk items. Healthy Living, a full service organic market opened one year ago and another, Fresh Market, is set to open soon. Four Seasons Natural Foods, located downtown, has been open for over 20 years and is expanding to a new location which will provide more space for their loyal customers to shop in. As it turns out, shoppers have access to a wide array of price points and food choices. Food is definitely available in our community.


The best venue for shopping for healthy food is the Saratoga Farmers’ Market. Held year round, the Farmers’ Market has a variety of vendors who bring everything from organic fruits and vegetables to artisanal cheeses. I connected with the folks from Kilpatrick Family Farm (KFF), located in North Granville, NY. Farmer Mike Kilpatrick is one of the larger organic food producers in the area. His farm provides produce, poultry, and eggs for two local farmer’s markets, the on-site farm stand, a growing CSA, as well as wholesaling to Healthy Living natural supermarket and several farm to table restaurants in the area. KFF grows vegetables year round and is one of the few who can provide fresh organic greens at the farmer’s markets during the winter.

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I made arrangements to work with KFF for a Saturday morning market. The load in was a killer. My first task involved a hand truck loaded with several pallets of fresh eggs. I knew this was my make it or break it moment. I dragged the cart up over the ramps spanning the marble steps both outside and inside of the building and couldn’t believe I didn’t lose one egg! We loaded in cases of carrots, beets, potatoes, kale, salad greens, parsnips, rutabaga, as well as a cooler with some chicken parts. The tables were laid out with long wooden planks and covered with burlap sacks. I was handed an apron with my “bank” in it and then we waited.

“Clang, clang!” A cowbell rang and the market officially opened. I wouldn’t exactly call it a stampede, but a crowd of very serious shoppers made their way in and scanned each table for the morning’s offerings. With the very first customer I fell in love with being on the working side of the market. The enthusiasm with which each shopper chose his or her food was exhilarating. Two young boys walked forward with a dollar bill and collectively settled on the perfect sweet potato for their dinner. I watched people of all ages shopping with great purpose. The majority carried their own fabric or straw market bags to organize their purchases.

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Photo by Lisa Kosek

The beauty of the five types of both carrots and potatoes, as well as the richly colored purple and red beets is the stuff artists hope to capture. It only took a week to get out the stains under my fingernail beds from the purple carrots, beets, and potatoes. By the end of the day I was joyously exhausted. We celebrated the fact that many of the carrots and potatoes, as well as all of the greens had sold out – less to pack up for the return home.

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I returned the following weekend so I could gain perspective as an observer. Julia, the Farmer’s Market administrator was eager to answer my questions. I asked about access to market products for those with financial issues. Signage on the main table indicated that WIC benefits can be used to purchase fruits and vegetable. WIC is the Women, Infants, and Children program run by the USDA to provide funding for food and nutrition education (USDA, 2014).  Another benefit program managed by the Department of the Aging provides checks to senior citizens that can be used for produce at the market. Julia also indicated that families and individuals receiving SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can use their electronic benefit transfer cards (EBT) to purchase wooden coins in a variety of denominations for fruits and vegetable. These shoppers can also take advantage of Fresh Connect, a NY state initiative that expands the value of SNAP benefits at participating farmers’ markets.

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Photo by Lisa Kosek

I asked Julia if she had any idea how often these benefits are used but she didn’t have any data to work from. She feels that there is more activity within these programs during the summer market. Julia also indicated that she only has the ability to bring materials to the agencies who work with the at risk populations. She feels strongly that it would be a benefit if there was more effort on the other side to encourage at risk shoppers to attend the markets. This gives me great pause for thought. Like most human service agencies a shortage of resources exists and the staff there are focused on fulfilling the basic work load they struggle to complete. It definitely seems that there is a void in educating benefactors of social services about the benefits of eating healthy food as well as the ability to access it through the programs I just mentioned.

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Next I approached Patrice, a member of Kilpatrick Family Farm’s CSA. She was willing to tell me about her experiences with community supported agriculture. As a member of the CSA Patrice pays a fixed price at the beginning of the season. These funds, along with the other CSA participants’, are used by the farmer to invest directly in food production. Each week program members are given a designated item that they will receive and then they are able to choose what other items they want depending on their share size. Patrice indicated that she has participated in community supported agriculture since its beginning over a decade ago. She laughed as she explained that in the early days you got whatever the farmer was growing. Sometimes you would get bags of basil dropped off for several weeks in a row. She didn’t know what to do with all of it. At that time she participated to support the local the farmers. Patrice has been part of Kilpatrick Family Farm’s CSA for five or so years. Things are very different because there is much more to choose from. By staying “more in touch with products” and buying from KFF she saves money year round. As Patrice moved on to finish her shopping I noticed more CSA customers arriving to choose their weekly share. Many made sure to get there early enough, sometimes they run out of kale – or so I was told!


Despite the efforts to provide funding and access for those with struggling grocery budgets, many people in the area still are hungry. The other day I noticed a young man and his son walking past my car. I overheard the father explain, “You eat two or three times a day before I eat once”. It struck me as an odd conversation. Nearly a half hour later I saw them return, each of them was carrying a bag of what appeared to be groceries. It finally hit me, they had just come from the neighborhood food pantry. This event has stayed in my mind. It gave a face to many of the people who rely on local food pantries. They look like middle class families or you neighbors.

I decided to call my friend Nancy who volunteers for the St. Clement’s Roman Catholic Church in their food pantry. She agreed to discuss her experiences volunteering. The food pantry is part of St. Clement’s outreach ministry and is open on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday each week. Nancy typically volunteers once a week and has seen an increased use of the resources available over the past couple of years. Donations come from parishioners and the general public alike. There has been an increased emphasis on providing healthy food resources. Fresh produce grown in the church’s garden is very popular. During the winter months cash donations are used to purchase fruits and veggies from local markets. She also mentioned that the pantry has reorganized to accommodate a growing need for non-food staples such as personal care products such as shampoo, toothpaste, toilet paper, and laundry soap.

Nancy explained that the financial challenges created by our current economy have forced people who were frequent donors to the pantry to rely on the generosity of others so they can use the pantry for their own needs at this time.  A detectable level of embarrassment and self- consciousness exists for many people who come to the food pantry, particularly for new comers. She is certain that pride prevents many people from taking advantage of resources available at the outreach. A photo ID is the only documentation people must provide to receive goods from the pantry. Interviews are held with visitors so the circumstances of their living situations are clear and appropriate food items are handed out. If someone who comes in only has a microwave oven to cook with they are given items that can be prepared without the need of a conventional oven or stove top.

Along with her work at the food pantry, Nancy volunteers once or twice per month at the soup kitchen run by the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council (EOC). The EOC receives funding from various grants, including the Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Assistance Program, private donations, and fundraising (Council, 2014). The soup kitchen is housed at the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church on Circular Street in Saratoga Springs. The mood at the soup kitchen is quite different from that of the food pantry. Nancy describes the patrons here as more of a “rough and ready crowd”. “If you’re living on the streets the social graces of society don’t seem to apply to you anymore”, she explains. While there are no limitations on the amount of food diners can have, Nancy says diners will frequently insist they just arrived despite the fact that she has served them once already. She acknowledges the fact that mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, and a basic lack of life skills prevents many of the patrons at the soup kitchen from accessing other resources that may be available. The function of the soup kitchen is to provide food for anyone who wants it.

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Soup Kitchen Volunteer – Photo by Eric Jenks

I have great respect for my friend Nancy’s commitment to doing her part in providing for those in need of food in a community of abundance. I also know she is not alone in her efforts. There are a myriad of church and neighborhood run groups who provide food for those in need. Steven Sullivan, owner of two restaurants in Saratoga Springs, donates the food served at the soup kitchen two Sundays each month (Revette, 2013). Donations also come from other area restaurants, local supermarkets provide baked goods, and milk comes from Stewart’s Shops. Because of the generosity of donors like these the soup kitchen has been in operation for over twenty years (Revette, 2013).

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Steve Sullivan – Photo by Charlie Samuels

As I think about food security in my area I feel privileged by the amount of choices to choose from. Cheap food is abundantly available, despite the robust debate regarding the health risks associated with consuming processed foods. Those focused on securing local food sourcing are able to select from a vast amount of farmers with a variety of food products because of the region in which we live. But the financial burden of being able to access food from any purveyor seems to be a continuing dilemma for many. As a journalist, it seems that spreading the word about the resources available to those in need and informing those who have enough about the plight of those who don’t might be a critical component of cementing food security in our community. I am ready to play my part.

Lori M: Why Food Security and the Quality of Our Food is Important?

My little family has firsthand knowledge of what it was like to live with food insecurity. I was a single mom who raised my son with no child support and although I worked full time we were still considered to be living below the poverty line. I was raised to be proud and to think that if I worked hard that all of my needs would be met. Little did I know that sometimes the hardest working person would not always be able to provide for his/her family. I spent many days standing in line for our Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program certification/benefits and government food products at the local Salvation Army, plus visiting the day old bread store to supplement our food supply. The enrollment in the Reduced/Free Lunch Program and the before/after school programs at my son’s school also provided “square meals” for breakfast and lunch and a “healthy” snack after school five days a week. The problem was that even with these added benefits there were many days that I went without or ate very small meals so that my son would not go without a meal. I always knew that I was not alone in my struggle and the sense of failure that I felt when I could not always provide the best meals possible for my child and myself. I wanted to do it on my own with my pride intact and I realize in retrospect that I should have checked my ‘pride at the door’ and applied for the food stamp program.

What I did not realize is the definitions of food security/hunger and how there is interconnectivity between the two terms. It is important to note that in 2006, the Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) of the National Academies recommended that the USDA make a clear and precise distinction between food insecurity and hunger:

There are several other factors to think about in this discussion, such as: the implementation of Genetically Modified (GM) ingredients into our food supply and food sustainability. First, I will talk about GMs. GM ingredients are found largely in processed foods with a staggering 70 percent of processed foods containing these potentially dangerous organisms (Mercola, Dr,, Why GMOs can Never be Safe,

So what are processed foods? Take a few minutes to look at the ingredient list on your favorite cereal or any other processed food product. The longer the ingredient list and the longer, more scientific the ingredients sound the more likely it is that those ingredients are processed. Most processed foods are usually placed in the center aisles of the grocery store and have a very long shelf life. So the key when shopping is if you cannot read it and/or pronounce it then you should leave it on the shelf. One point to remember is that most unprocessed, natural foods such as: vegetables, fruits, eggs, meat, etc. are usually found on the periphery of the grocery store (Jacob, Aglaee, Healthy Eating, Processed Food Definition, However, if you buy processed foods please gravitate towards the products with the USDA 100% Organic label because organics are not supposed to permit GMOs. There is a guide that has been created by the Institute for Responsible Technology that you can print out and use called the Non-GMO Shopping Guide(Mercola, Dr,, Why GMOs can Never be Safe, There is a way to control your intake of GM foods and that would be to actively work to switch the foods in your diet to whole foods such as: vegetables and fruits (grown with non-Genetically Modified Organism (GOM) seeds), grass-fed meats, etc.

Second, would be the introduction of sustainable food into your everyday life. What is sustainable food you ask? There are several definitions; however, most would say that this means:

Food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage for the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities (

With all of this knowledge, I took to the streets including and surrounding my local community in Rochester. My goal was to find out how my local community was dealing with the issues of food security, hunger, accessibility to quality and inexpensive non-processed, non-GMO/GM foods, and sustainable foods.

When asked, How was food provided for you family when you were growing up?

Sandy, a 45 year old white female, stated, “When I was growing up my mom would make the majority of our meals and snacks from scratch. We did not have pop, sweet cereals or junk food in our cupboards. We would pick apples, tomatoes when they were in season and can for the following months. We always had a great time although it was hard work. We never had to worry when times got a bit rough because there were always jars in the cellar so we always had something to eat!”

Jamie, a 23 year old African-American male, stated, “I grew up on convenience foods and the microwave because my parents were at work. Us kids would come home from school and heat up some pizza rolls or Pop Tarts to hold us over until they came home from work.”

Did your family ever receive any assistance from the government to help with the costs of food?

Sandy, “My dad said that he would provide for us and that he didn’t need the government to help us out. We had our own little garden in the backyard and dad would hunt and fish so we would have food to eat. There were times when there was more to eat than others but we hardly went to bed hungry and if we were hungry we would never say it!”

Jamie, “We grew up getting reduced lunches at school and using Monopoly money at the grocery store. That is what my mom called it Monopoly money. We always had easy, microwavable stuff to eat.”

What do you think about eating healthy?

Sandy, “I think it is pretty expensive to eat healthy plus how do we know what is in our food. Even the organic food is not really regulated. So I pay huge money for healthy organic food and not know if they have used manure from cows that were fed corn products. GMOs are bad news…where do we draw the line?”

Jamie, “I have seen how chickens and cows are treated on farms but I like to eat them. How do you know where to buy your food? Where does the food come from? How long since it was packaged? There are more questions than answers when it comes to eating healthy!”

Have you shopped at the Rochester Public Market?

Sandy, “I love going there are buying fresh from the famers. It is great that they take EBT and I have seen them take tokens from I think the WIC program. I feel that I am getting fresher and more healthy produce, eggs, cheese, and meats from the market and I go there at least once a week.”

Jamie, “My girlfriend likes to go to get the fresh produce. I never knew the place was there before but I like to go to walk around and watch the people.”

The Rochester Public Market has been around since 1905. They are open all 52 weeks on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. They have local vendors who sell produce, ethnic items, etc. The have a great program called the Market Token Program that provides $1 and $5 tokens to those people with food stamp benefits. The tokens are meant to be used for fresh produce and other products provided by the over 100 vendors at the market (Public Market,

There are numerous Rochester area food co-ops which help local people come together with area farmers to become a small grocery store type entity. Groups of people throughout the community have a say in what they can purchase because they own and manage the co-ops. Most of the Rochester area co-ops sell seasonal natural, organic foods that are grown and/or raised by the local farmers. These co-ops provide a less expensive avenue for the consumer to quality healthy food to their families for less money.

I like what the website had to say about community improvement through the Rochester co-ops:

Rochester co-ops help to bring people together. A community is only as strong as its citizens and a co-op is only successful if its members cooperate and work together in order to make their venture thrive. Members have an equal say and must focus on how to build the co-op and help to produce enough products to feed and serve as many people as possible.(Organic Ag Info, ShopSmarter-Rochester C0-op Guide,

I believe that as long as the awareness and education continue into the long term effects of eating healthy vs. non-healthy then we are on the right track. We did not get to this point overnight and as long as there is an unbalance in the system between the haves and the have-nots there will continue to be a those families who can afford and those who cannot afford food security in the US. There needs to be increases in the number of businesses in which ALL people within the community, no matter what their socioeconomic background, can be provided with an equal opportunity to healthy, organic foods. This thought process is better for the health and wellness of our children, adults, and elderly.

Lynn: Hunger and Homelessness in the Land of Plenty

Owning a dog widened my social circles considerably. For instance, I would never have met Jimmy, of “Man in a Van” fame. Jimmy lives with his two dogs in a van which is parked in the West Village most of the time. (1) A hoarder without a home, he drags his treasures back to accumulate in, under and on top of the van. (If you have seen the van you will remember it.) Jimmy gets by on a small check from SSI, and income from occasional odd jobs. He also sporadically sells things he finds and/or fixes. However, he is often penniless. (2) Jimmy is one of about 10 homeless people living on the streets and sidewalks in our lovely neighborhood where rents are staggering and conspicuous consumption glares from the windows of high-end neighborhood shops and restaurants.

Photo: Matthew Porter

Photo: Matthew Porter

Jimmy grew up on Leroy St. He is the last of his family here since all the elders have died and their children, except for Jimmy, have moved away. He talks about moving to Pennsylvania, to “the country,” but his roots are still firmly grounded here. Beside the old friends who remain, here he knows where to get food, take a shower, use a toilet, and many other commonplace but necessary things that we who have homes take for granted.

Some people call him a “junk man” because he is always finding things and most of it is junk. Sometimes it’s a treasure. For the two decades, that I have known him, he has always had something he wants to show me. One day it was a box of meat from a supermarket in the neighborhood. Tommy, another homeless man, had found the meat thrown in a large trash bin outside Dagostino’s supermarket. The “street” price was $20 for about $80 worth of meat. I bought it.

As an animal lover and longtime animal activist, I work to keep eggs, dairy and meat out of my diet as buying these creates a demand that keeps the factory farms and slaughterhouses in business.(3) This is not easy as the American diet is based on animal products. As eating is a social activity and most restaurants have few vegan choices, maintaining veganism is an ongoing battle for me. At the time, I was facing a moral conundrum: how can I justify rescuing a dog if that means that 150 chickens and other animals must die yearly for my dog to live? But here was a solution and so I became a “freegan.” Wikipedia explains:

Freeganism is the practice of reclaiming and eating food that has been discarded. Freegans and Freeganism are often seen as part of a wider “anti-consumerist” ideology, and freegans often employ a range of alternative living strategies based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.

Over a two year period during which I regularly went bin-diving at Dagostino’s, I met a freegan subculture. These were people who, to varying degrees, live off the land right here in the big city. Some of the freegans are homeless, others live financially secure lives. One was a French Chef. Another is a single parent of three, who lives off the rent from properties that he owns. No matter our financial circumstances, our little group of freegans all thought that throwing out good food was wrong. In the evening, when most people were asleep in their beds, I would meet Jim and we’d go through the bins at Dags.

Contributing to the problem for the homeless and the rest of us non-millionaires in the neighborhood is that there are no inexpensive eateries in the West Village where shop rents are astronomical and necessary venues such as laundry mats have disappeared. For instance, there are no regular pizza places and our local falafel shop (under $4 for a falafel) suddenly left because their rent increase was too high for them to make a profit.

Approximately ½ a mile away from me is Souen, which has delicious, healthy and inexpensive food, the only restaurant with these three qualities in both Greenwich & the West villages. (There is another health food restaurant but it is expensive.) We do have a wealth of health food stores, with three good ones not more than 10 blocks away. These health food restaurants and stores are not where the neighborhood’s homeless eat or shop.

Ed, 65 years old and another man living in a van, doesn’t believe the organic labeling. Instead he says that it is the same food as the non-organic. “It is pseudo-science!” “I am not going to pay $3 for a quart of milk that comes from the same cows!’ “I am a Walmart man!” Jimmy doesn’t eat organic food either: “Less than 1%, though it is good if you can afford it.”

Jimmy’s dog walks are also scouting adventures, especially on recycling days. Not only does he find food and anything one could think of, he is a dedicated recycler, often picking up bottles and metal from the street to recycle. After Christmas, when so many people in the neighborhood throw out their tree with the decorations still on, Jimmy takes off the decorations so that the trees can be chipped. The tree stand is recycled. The decorations go to the thrift shop (where he is well known.) If more people did this the planet would not be as desecrated as it is.

I fed my dogs on meat from the bins, often finding organic chicken, pork, beef, and Cornish hens. (The dogs loved this destination as they knew where their dinner was coming from and often got scraps while we were there.) One year during the holidays, I found four large turkeys and two large hams. These factory raised animals led torturous lives and deaths only to wind up in the trash. (4)

Going to the bins was like going on a treasure hunt, as not only did I feed my household from them, but I was often able to provide five neighborhood elders with hundreds of dollars’ worth of food for free. Most things in the supermarket, even fresh veggies, fruit, flowers, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, and deserts were found in the bins on various days and 80% had not yet reached its expiration date.

The amount of waste here is staggering. Many nights I came home with a large shopping cart overflowing with food. And there were a quite a few of us doing this. This is just one supermarket in a country full of supermarkets, discarding huge amounts of good food each day. The waste of so much food in the face of hunger is a failure of our acquisitive, “throwaway” society where the mindset is: “if you don’t pay a lot for something, it is not really valuable.” This is insanity when so many are facing hunger on a daily basis. (5)

The freegan lifestyle helped me break out of our cultural bourgeois consciousness. For example, on a scale from one to ten, how mortifying is it to be seen by your neighbors, community board members, etc. bin diving at Dagostino’s? Also, when my sister (who still frequents our favorite shops in Rome and Paris) complimented me on my designer “bucket bag” and asked where I got it, I told her the truth: “In the garbage pail on the corner.” And while I do not make it a habit to go through the garbage, (still too bourgeois I guess) in the spirit of sustainability, except for incidentals, I try to only buy from thrift stores and do not buy fur, leather or silk. I only buy plastic when no other option is available.

Our little Dag club came to an abrupt end when an antisocial homeless man also living in the neighborhood, claimed the bins for himself. When any of us went to get something in the bin he knocked our hands away and threatened to kill us and our dogs. Consequently for the last two years all that food and animal suffering (from the meat thrown out) have been wasted. This man lives a life of isolation and anger on the sidewalk where he builds a “fort” for himself out of empty bottles, cans and other items and is constantly harassed by the police.

That is when Jimmy discovered “God’s Love!” God’s Love We Deliver’s mission is to “prepare and deliver nutritious, high-quality meals to people who, because of their illness, are unable to provide or prepare meals for themselves.”(6) God’s Love often dropped off dozens of packaged meals loaded into black plastic garbage bags, and left them in city garbage cans a few blocks from Jimmy’s van.

So, for a while everyone was getting God’s Love (including the dogs.) God’s Love is in transition while waiting for new downtown digs and has moved to Brooklyn (7) so there has been no God’s Love here lately. God’s Love provides a vital service but their food, described as “high quality,” is not organic and so is likely overly processed: herbicided, pesticided, irradiated, waxed, dyed, prepared for /microwaved, homogenized, etc. Also, the Center for Food Safety estimates that “upwards of 75% of processed foods on supermarket shelves – from soda to soup, crackers to condiments – contain genetically engineered ingredients.” (8)

Additionally, at the end of his shift, the vendor at the coffee kiosk around the corner from Jimmy gives him the left over bagels, pastry and hard boiled eggs. While white flour and sugar pastries are not a good dietary habit, it stops hunger pangs and encourages people to stop by Jimmy’s van where there is often something to eat. Jimmy’s van is where I met more of the neighborhood’s homeless. Some of the homeless are transient with only 10 or so homeless people permanently living in this community. These are very complicated people who, for various reasons, just don’t function well in our (crazy) society. For instance, if Jimmy has an appointment you can bet that he will be anywhere else except where he supposed to be at the time he agreed to be there.

Jimmy, who gets food stamps but has nowhere to cook, also acquires food by taking the leftovers from the local senior program at Our Lady of Pompeii Church. I interviewed Sandy Gabin, Director of the Senior Center (25 Carmine Street), a Greenwich House Caring Community at Our Lady of Pompeii. The center is funded by the Department of Aging and feeds, and provides activities such as bingo, sing-a-longs, chair yoga, and current events, for between 60 and 80 seniors a day (M-F, 9 – 5). Sandy explains that most of the young seniors (60s) have jobs (“it’s hard to retire these days”) but the majority of the people benefiting from this program are in their 80s.

These are the last of the “originals” whose families came to settle in Greenwich Village generations ago. They have held on to their customs and history but they are a dying breed as there is no one left and no forum in which to pass on these customs. They are proud people. So proud, that in spite of isolation and hunger, Sandy says, “some people won’t come into the center because they think it is a charity.”

Sandy, who has worked 25 years in senior care and has a 91 year old mother living with her, described her seniors as 90% republican. They do not complain, stay away from authority and are very culture-oriented. Sandy explains that 25% – 30% live below the poverty level and most are alone. Here at the center, they form an extended family and look out for each other – “Have you seen so and so? “I haven’t seen them all week.” She has learned to watch for changes such as “boredom in your people, or wearing the same clothes.”

Sandy tells me that the grandparents of these elders worked with Mother Cabrini to help establish St Vincent’s Hospital. Years later it was St Vincent’s that asked the churches to begin senior care programs and that is how the Caring Community began. Seniors and the homeless also go to the Caring Community at Greenwich House (27 Barrow St at 7th Ave.) where they serve both breakfast and lunch. The Senior Center on the Square, also run by the Caring Community, at 20 Washington Square North, also serves weekday lunch.

On Saturdays there are two soup kitchens in the village, one at St Joseph’s church, Washington Place and 6th Ave., and at the Church of the Village, 13 Street and 7th Ave, where they serve hot food to whoever comes. Part of the Church of the Village’s food Ministry is Daisy’s Food Pantry on Tuesday afternoons where they distribute bags of groceries to individuals and families in need.

Jimmy and his homeless friends eat at these places, often standing on line to wait for food. Since the program at Pompeii changed its subcontractor (meals are delivered daily), people love the food. Seniors are eligible for the meals at $1.50 per meal but Sandy says the people do not want to pay that much so she is only charging a dollar. She makes up the rest by selling clothes at the thrift shop she has set up in the church basement. She also clothes people in need from the clothing donations.

These food programs are not food “banks” in that they do not store food. Neither are they growing food in any way. In case of emergencies, which happen regularly here in downtown Manhattan (911, hurricane Sandy), if trucks are not able to deliver, there will be no food or water here after a few days.

This way of life is in stark contrast to those who have recently moved into the “new” village. For instance, two blocks west of Jimmy’s van is One Morton Square, a “full service” residence. Services include a 24-hour doorman, professional concierge, a private state-of-the art health and fitness center, a fully equipped children’s play room and an on-site attended parking garage. The $200 million development has 283 apartments. For condos, a 3,644 ft2 4 beds 4.5 baths sells for $9,500,000 and to rent a 4,090 ft2 4 beds 4.5 baths will cost $28,750 monthly.

One Morton Sq.

One Morton Sq.

The Abingdon

The Abingdon

Included in the trend of building luxury residences in the village is the Abingdon, remodeled from the former 200-room neighborhood nursing home. That the Village Nursing Home once housed 200 women but will now accommodate just 10 households illustrates the change in village living. From the Abingdon webpage:

…prices ranging as high as $31 million. The west mansion was the largest and most expensive space in the building, spanning 9,600 square feet on three floors (it includes basement space, as well). It carried an asking price of $25 million. The penthouse facing the Hudson River cost $21.5 million, while the other was turned into a triplex by the buyer, who combined the $19.5 million penthouse with a $10.5 million unit below, creating an 8,550-square-foot pad. The simplexes cost between $8.75 million and $10.75 million. (9)

Generations of neighborhood people visited their elderly family members and friends in the old Village Nursing home. Now, the homeless and those who eat at the Caring Community are not allowed the same solace at the end of their life. Their friends and family will need to travel out of the neighborhood to visit them in a nursing home which means that there might not be daily or even weekly visits. The development of the Abingdon has drawn ridicule in the press and other community forums. Why should the welfare of thousands of dying people get in the way of the luxurious life for 10 families if there is money to be made!?!

Not only have we lost our nursing home, we have also lost our only hospital to luxury housing. The spot where St. Vincent’s used to be now has The Greenwich lane, described on its sale website as:

“…individually crafted with high-end, state-of-the-art, luxury living in mind. Many of the residences throughout have private outdoor spaces, and they all come together to surround one lush central garden, a quiet oasis in the style of historic village greens. The garden is just one of a staggering array of private amenities, all presented at a level of discretion unheard of in most West Village residences. 200 units.”

The Greenwich Lane gardens

The Greenwich Lane gardens

The loss of our hospital leaves downtown Manhattanites in a  death lurch. (10) St. Vincent’s, founded in 1849 as a charity hospital, served the immigrant poor and homeless. It served my Italian family for five generations (my son was born there and we all went to its ER). It is gone.

The new “Urgent Care” facility that the community has been promised to replace St. Vincent’s Hospital will not be able to help with heart attacks and stroke emergencies. Fred Mogul, reporter with WNYC News, writes:

Many community activists, including Eileen Dunn, are disappointed that the facility would have no inpatient beds and would no longer be a full-fledged trauma center. (Will not be equipped to handle all emergencies and surgery cannot be performed.) “If anybody was in cardiac arrest or having a stroke, they would not go to this urgent care center, they would go to a real hospital,” Dunn said. “People will go there and have to be transferred across town or uptown to a full-service hospital.”(11)

For the neighborhood, including the 1% living in these new village luxury buildings, not having a full-fledged emergency room close by makes surviving heart attacks and strokes much less likely. People are dying because of the times it takes to cover the distance to a hospital outside of the neighborhood combined with traffic at busy times of the day. One evening on Bleecker St., an ambulance, with lights and sirens blasting, was stuck behind traffic at the Carmine St. stoplight. Jimmy ran to the first car, banged on its hood and yelled “Pull over! Pull over!” All the stopped cars then pulled off to the side and the ambulance continued east down Bleecker St (probably to Beth Israel.) When I commended Jimmy’s action to help the person in the ambulance Jimmy replied: “It could have been one of my friends in the ambulance.”

In addition, St. Vincent’s was one fo New York City’s most prominent safety-net hospitals, serving mostly those either on Medicaid or Medicare or without insurance. It was also known as a refuge for the homeless. It has principally been these patients, then, who have been hit the hardest by St. Vincent’s closing and by the shutting of other hospitals elsewhere in the city. (12)

Sir Charles Sherrington, in Man on His Nature, wrote in 1940: “Nature, often as she hugs the old, seems seldom or never to revert to a past once abandoned. Evolution can scrap but not revive.”

Developers and the people who buy these uber luxury apartments have shattered what took generations of effort to create. Villagers worked hard to build St Vincent’s in order to enhance their, their descendants and their neighbor’s lives. They worked to keep crime down, create parks, keep the streets flowing and clean and to keep the true character of the village, but they have no way to benefit from the wealth creation that has destroyed their way of life besides selling their lease and moving away. The generations to follow will not know the same village and few will be able to afford to live here.

The neighborhood also has no food security at present. What would happen if we had two hurricanes back to back, for instance, or the “grid came down” and Manhattan and the village were without food and water for more than a few days? The issue of food and water sustainability and security needs to be addressed in community forums.

Creating food banks and even urban farms would be difficult here as there is little available real-estate. Our few and small manicured parks have very little space even for grass. A group attempted to put an urban farm in the new park along the Hudson River as a school program but it never happened. Not even if we planted on every roof would we be able to feed everyone here during a crisis but it would help raise sustainability awareness.

The CB2 Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) has, I assume, disbanded as I cannot find it, or anyone who knows about it, anywhere. At this point it is up to the individual to keep extra food and water in case of emergency. (13) For instance, beside canned foods, a great form of protein can be found in beans and sprouted seeds and they don’t go bad. (14) To sign up for training with the Citizen Preparedness Corps go to:

Hopefully the emergency will not last long as finding extra closet or pantry storage space in NYC apartments is so difficult that people only keep a little food and water stored if at all. To help the individual be better food prepared, the Red Cross has put together advice for emergencies. (15)

In the meantime, we, the old timers here in the neighborhood, including the homeless, carry on, living according to our conscience. In the event of a shortage of food and water in a crisis should the new, wealthy residents of the village not be able to buy their way out of it or leave, my bet would be on the homeless to survive. It is already their reality, after all.










9. Crain’s, 2.28.13, para 3.

10., St. Vincent’s Hospital closes, and Greenwich Village suffers, Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, May 25, 2010.

11., 3.10.2011.

12., St. Vincent’s Highlights Crunch for Hospitals Serving the Poor, Vicky Plestis, Jul 20, 2011.




Ling: A Food Coop for Us All

I have always battled with the practice of eating healthy food. Using my smartphone I don’t even have to talk to someone if I want to order a barbecue chicken and bacon pizza. One of the hardest things I had to do was to stop eating the food that is easily available in my community. However, this is a problem with our entire country.

America is one of the most overweight countries in the world, with over 30 percent of the adult population considered obese and a high rate of Type II diabetes according the World Health Organization( This can affect sustainability on many different levels such as increase in cost to healthcare or maybe even the elimination of healthy options if the food isn’t being purchased or demanded. One of the reasons for this obesity problem is the lack of knowledge about the risks of being overweight. Another reason is a general apathy towards the kinds of foods we eat. The Heart Attack Grill in Nevada offers free food to anyone over 375 pounds and you can order an Octuple Bypass Burger which has 8 beef patties with 40 slices of bacon! Examples like these pokes fun at the seriousness of unhealthy eating. Even their waitress dress like nurses that prep you for “surgery.” Looking at this example it is easy to understand how food has changed from “eating to live” to “living to eat” in America.

If you go into your food pantry or cabinet and look at the ingredients of anything there, you will probably come across things like “No preservatives, trans-fat, saturated-fat, high fructose corn syrup, organic, whole wheat, all natural, and 100% juice.” Most of what’s in our foods are so scientifically opaque that we don’t even think twice about what we are really eating and most of us just eat. That is a major problem which contributes to the obesity in the USA.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I wanted to examine my community with regards to food and what is available. Is it a problem of people not caring what they eat? Does my community have access to healthy food?

I drove around my neighborhood in areas where there were an abundance of places to eat or purchase food. I observed that while there were many places to get food, most of them were fast food, and the choices mostly consisted of Dunkin Donuts, Popeye’s Fried Chicken, Kennedy (not Kentucky) Fried Chicken, or Chinese Food restaurants. There were bodegas covering each corner of every other block, with some blocks having two. Children formed long lines to get after-school specials at the fried chicken spot. This enforces a habit (which I too had become accustomed to) that steers youth to poor choices in food. Popeyes, in particular, was the most abundant franchise with four locations in a relatively small radius. In a predominantly black community, there are often a lot of fried chicken restaurants, which may be stereotypical, but they are full of customers each time I pass them. As I started to head to a more affluent part of Queens County, there was change in the types of stores. Bodegas and fast food were replaced by coffee shops and unique restaurants such as Japanese, Mexican, and Italian. Even in the lower part of Brooklyn, I stumbled across an organic Key Foods which I had never seen before.

Link to a video showing my trip through a better part in comparison to where I live.

Link to a map of four Popeyes restaurants in a small area close together where I live with pictures.

I asked a relative of mine if she knew about options to bring healthy food into our community eating better food. She mentioned the Park Slope Food Coop as an option which I had never heard about before.

Park Slope Food Coop was started in 1973 by a group of neighbors in Brooklyn, New York. Their goal was to provide affordable, healthy food to anyone who wanted it. Currently, the PSFC (Park Slope Food Coop) has 15,000 members, mostly all are working members. As a member you share ownership of the Coop, which includes your input to the decisions that help improve the organization in the future ( I checked the website and there are some barriers to entry; however, they did not seem too hard to overcome in order to gain membership. You must attend an orientation (currently there were no available orientations), and then pay a $25 non-refundable joining and $100 investment into the Coop, which can be returned once you cancel your membership. They do offer lower rates if you qualify (food stamps, Medicaid, Section 8 Housing) which make this a viable option for everybody looking for an alternative way to purchase healthy food. Lastly, an important factor about being a member of Food Coop is that it is required that everyone in your house that is an adult must become a member too, unless they are dependents. This is very interesting to me as it could promote healthy choices amongst a group of people instead of just a single person living in a house or apartment. The downside is that if you can’t agree on it with your housemates (friends, relatives, spouses) than you cannot become a member on your own unless you live alone. Along with the required fees and time commitment, this could indeed become quite commitment.

I interviewed a member at a Food co-op in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She has been a member at the Food Co-op for 26 years and she informed me about what it is exactly and how it works. “A food co-op is a healthy organic gourmet food store that offer affordable price to its members. It is able to keep its prices low because it doesn’t have pay employees for labor and basically requires it’s members to work a 2 hours and 45 minutes shift within a certain time period to maintain a membership.” She also told me that are a few people who do make money working there but she wasn’t entirely sure how that worked. I asked her about the benefits of being a member and she said, “They only mark up the market price by 20 % and most other places I’ve been to mark the prices up at about 40-60%. I feel like it’s a great way to get healthy organic food at a real affordable price.”

Nevertheless, having been a member for over two and a half decades, she has noticed a lot of changes that concern her about the organization. She noticed that the selection of food has changed drastically. Originally offering strictly vegan food when she first became a member, it now offers meat and fish which are grass fed and are still healthy options. Even though she understands the need to offer a wider selection, she believes that this has also created an increase in the amount of members that work and shop at the food co-op. “This creates the problem of being crowded when shopping and also they couldn’t think of jobs for members to do because there are too many people working at a given time.” She added that there was a point where Food Coop could not accept new members because it was too crowded. Another issue is actually the location, as she lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and believes that her area won’t have a food co-op even though it is being gentrified.

I checked out reviews on and there were mostly positive reviews. Most people found a sense of community with members and feel that the low prices made it worth any of the hassles of having to work once a month for the benefits. Common complaints amongst all reviews are crowdedness, long lines, rude people (coworkers), and difficulty finding what you may need. The negative reviews seemed to complain about the fact that you have to work to enjoy the benefits, and that it is difficult to join or take a tour. One woman complained that to even see inside the store you need to be escorted by a guard. Lastly, some people felt that the environment was elitist, especially when dealing with members who have been there for over 15 years.

I think the Food Coop is a great idea that should be incorporated into more neighborhoods, especially the one I live in. It grants access to healthy organic foods at really low prices with the only caveat of having to work every once in a while. Unfortunately, I think the barriers to create a Food Coop are quite hard. Talking with residents in my neighborhoods, friends, and family, the general consensus about food was more about convenience than about the food itself. The people I talked with in my area did not care about much about the organic aspect of healthy food and they did not want to travel very far in order to get that food. The idea of the Food Coop (which was many of my friends and neighbors were ignorant of, including myself) did garner positive reactions from younger adults who felt like it was a great way to save money and feel like part of something to help their community. Middle age residents felt that even the 2 hours and 45 minutes of work was too out the way and time consuming and would rather continue shopping at a regular grocery store.

The Food Coop in Park Slope has been operating for 41 years which is relatively not very old. I think it has room for improvements such as creating expansions to reduce overcrowding and provide services for more areas. Reducing the crowdedness of the store may help to reduce temperaments that some of the reviews complained about. Establishing a method or plan in which older participants are more inclined to join, such as reduced workloads or better discounts, could help the growth of a Food Coop in a neighborhood such as mine. I agree with the idea of having an entire household requiring a membership as it helps the Food Coop and also spreads the idea of it around much better. Word of mouth would spread much faster with groups than one person alone.

Is healthy, organic food too expensive for most people?


Is healthy, organic food too expensive for “most people?” What is healthy food? What is organic food? What is healthy, organic food? More importantly, who are “most people?” These questions are probably already overwhelming the reader and causing headaches.

Before meeting as one big group, individual students taking a residency titled Urban Environmental Sustainability, with a focus on citizen journalism, conducted interviews in their local neighborhoods. Those interviewed are from both urban and suburban/rural areas, and they led us all to one main question: Is healthy, organic food too expensive for most people? Imagine a group of students from all walks of life collectively searching for the answer to that question. Confusion, disagreement and debate ensued. Alas, we had to start somewhere so when we met as a group some conducted research online, and others explored neighborhoods in Manhattan. Speaking with young and old alike about their thoughts on food in the area, what we discovered is that it’s not that simple.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an informative website with answers to many of the questions we had. It even helped us—forced us, rather,–to ask even more questions. Breaking our main question into sections, we sought the USDA’s assistance in defining organic. The USDA gave us three separate definitions:

100% organic: made with 100% organic ingredients,

made with at least 95% organic ingredients, and

made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with restrictions on the remaining 30% including no Genetically Modified Organsims (GMO) ( (

The three main definitions that are provided by the government site did not specifically define organic, but only the classifications used to label something organic. While the USDA’s website proved useful, it ultimately left us with more questions than we originally had.


What is the difference between natural and organic foods? Although organic foods are classified as natural, the term natural is used to broadly describe foods which are:

minimally processed,

free of synthetic preservatives such as: artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and

other artificial additives, such as: growth hormones, antibiotics, hydrogenated oils, stabilizers and emulsifiers.

The problem with the current system is that many of the foods which are labeled as natural are not subject to government controls with the exception of the regulations and health codes that apply to all food products.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSTS) of the USDA require different requirements for meat and poultry. Meat and poultry are required to be free of artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and ingredients which are not part of the natural process in food (

We asked, what is healthy food? In essence, the Access to Healthy Foods Coalition (which was dissolved in 2013) follows the 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans which tie in directly to the food guide pyramid. Access’s definition for healthy foods:

A healthy food is a plant or animal product that provides essential nutrients and energy to sustain growth, health, and life while satiating hunger.

Healthy foods are usually fresh or minimally processed foods, naturally dense in nutrients, that when eaten in moderation and in combination with other foods, sustain growth, repair and maintain vital processes, promote longevity, reduce disease, and strengthen and maintain the body and its functions.

Healthy foods do not contain ingredients that contribute to disease or impede recovery when consumes at normal levels (Partners in Action, Appendix G, Para II).

The word healthy becomes problematic when it is used on a food label because manufacturers are allowed to make claims about having healthy food on their labels even if it is not accurate. The Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) and the USDA’s definition of healthy vary because of the different foods that are regulated by each agency. The FDA says that a food label can use the word healthy if the food is:

1. low in fat and saturated fat

2. limited in amount of sodium and cholesterol

3. provides at least 10 percent of one or more of vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein, and fiber (for single-item foods) (, Partners in Action, Appendix G, Para III).


It has taken a long time for the idea that food should be organic, healthy and natural to be taken seriously. Forty years ago, those who made a choice to eat a healthy diet, were called “health food nuts.” People were very concerned about using lead free gasoline but those who were concerned with what they put into their body were called crazy. It has taken decades for people to catch on that they may be poisoning themselves with the food they eat. (1)

We eat to gain the vital life force from the sun and nutrients from the earth. Unfortunately, modern food production, designed to improve the appearance of food as well as prolong its shelf life, uses processes such as irradiation, bleaching, homogenization and others, which destroy the energy and nutrition in food. Microwaving is a great example of one of these processes. (2)

Our digestive system is designed to absorb and utilize food in specific nutrient forms. Unfortunately, processing changes food so drastically that it has “empty” (no nutrition) calories and in many cases is so different from what Mother Nature designed that it is unrecognizable to our digestive system and becomes toxic in the body. Nutrients are often added after processing and considered “fortifying.” But fortifying, or enriching food with minerals or vitamins, although it sounds good as a sales pitch, is just another form of processing.

Raw, canned, or frozen fruits and vegetables and certain cereal-grain products do not necessarily need to meet these criteria and can be labeled healthy if:

they do not contain ingredients that change the nutritional profile, and

they conform to the standards of identity

(1) enriched grain products which call for certain required ingredients (vitamins, minerals, protein, or fiber).

(2) meal-type products (large enough [6 ounces] to be considered a meal) provide 10 percent of the Daily Value of two or three of these ingredients, in addition to meeting the other criteria:

sodium content does not exceed 360 mg (milligrams) for individual foods and 480 mg for meal-type foods.

The digestive system cannot recognize most processed food and therefore cannot absorb it properly. The result is that this foreign substance in turn clogs up our system. As a consequence of this, we are seeing a whole slew of chronic digestive problems and allergies to the same foods that our ancestors ate. “If your cells cannot operate efficiently, the functioning of your tissues and organs, which are built of your cells, will become compromised, and you can experience a diminishing of physical functioning and the onset of a host of health conditions and diseases.” (3)

But it is not always easy to know which foods are unadulterated. For instance, corporations are in opposition to truthful food labeling are making it more difficult to eat a diet based on simple, whole, pure foods. “The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) had been, apparently in violation of state election law, hiding the identity of its donors who had provided more than $7.2 million to fight the consumer’s right to know what is in their food.” (4)

And helping make good food choices even more difficult, the term “healthy” is so subjective that it can be claimed for almost any food, and the legal definition “natural” is not much better: “may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals.” (5)

Add this to no GMO food labeling and we find ourselves guinea pigs in what is called the largest uncontrolled experiment in history. “The companies say gene modified crops help farmers be more productive, and they say hundreds of studies show the foods from these crops are safe. But critics say there are hundreds of studies showing that GMO crops are not safe for people and the animals who consume them.” (6)

But is it worth it to make the effort necessary to eat right? For example, Mary Ellen, a 55 year old downtown animal advocate says, “If it’s organic it is good.” She stated that when she can afford it she shops in the health food store and believes this pays off as she “feels better when I eat organic food. I have no health problems and I think that good eating helps,” she adds, “People compliment me that I look good. I like that.”

On the other hand, Ed, a 65 years old homeless man who lives in a van, doesn’t believe the organic labeling. Instead he says that it is the same food as the non-organic. “It is pseudo-science!” “I am not going to pay $3 for a quart of milk that comes from the same cows!’ “I am a Walmart man!”

fresh direct chart


This chart shows the difference in price between organic food versus non-organic food from one food retailer (FreshDirect.) An entire organic shopping list for a family of 2.5 for one week could cost as much as fifty dollars more than its non-organic counterpart. Organic food is undoubtedly more expensive than non-organic food and it is also less available in lower income neighborhoods. With healthy, organic food, the marketplace works the same as every other industry in the country – supply and demand. The very fact that organic food is less available in lower income areas may be evidence that it is unaffordable to lower income brackets because the suppliers do not think they will be able to sell their wares in those areas.


Indeed, for those in lower income areas, the problem is compounded even further for those living on public assistance; specifically, on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as Food Stamps, eating healthy becomes exponentially more difficult. As we discovered during our research, even purchasing healthy, organic food from New York City’s (NYC) many greenmarkets is not as simple as one might think.

While most greenmarkets in NYC accept SNAP benefits by way of Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) (7), the acceptance of such exchanges is neither coherent nor consistent. For instance, we found at the Tribeca Greenmarket, located on Greenwich Street between Chambers and Duane in Manhattan, accepts EBT on Saturdays year round but it is only accepted on Wednesdays from Thanksgiving to April. Furthermore, the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), part of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, is only accepted July through November (8).

Given the shame that often accompanies those on public assistance, it is easy to see why such confusing schedules of benefit acceptance could cause those most vulnerable and in need to stay away, lest they attempt to make a purchase and be denied, perhaps furthering their shame (9).

Contrast Tribeca’s acceptance schedule with that of the Union Square Greenmarket where EBT purchases are accepted anytime the market is open and year round, how the confusion must grow for making purchases for those on public assistance (10).

For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a mother of two, struggling to make ends meet, on public assistance, with a full time job (or two), trying to provide some semblance of a healthy life for her children, including a healthy diet. Let’s call her Sarah. Now imagine Sarah going to a greenmarket where EBT benefits are accepted on a scattered and sporadic basis. It is easy to see how Sarah might never return if she happened to arrive when benefits are not accepted, lest she waste her time — time she does not have to spare — again. Let’s take this example even further:

One might argue that Sarah could simply look up the benefits schedule online. This assumption doesn’t take into account the very real problem of the “digital divide” for those living on public assistance.Many people on public assistance, people just like Sarah, have no access to the internet due to lack of a computer or internet capabilities in their home (11). Therefore, Sarah can’t “simply look up” anything, something most of take for granted.

Sarah’s story is a story told a thousand times over in neighborhoods across the country. As we discover below, even those not necessarily on public assistance struggle to find inexpensive organic and healthy food.


Ling, a citizen journalist involved in the study, explored East Harlem to research information and opinions on the topic-at-hand. It is a predominantly lower income, Latino community with an average annual income of $34,379, 40% without a high school diploma (compared to rest of NYC at 20%) with 33.4 percent of the population is below the poverty line (

Three neighborhood residents were interviewed with regards to organic food, and whether they considered it to be too expensive. The first did not care about, nor does she consume “organic” food. She claimed to not know where should could purchase some either.

Resident’s 2 and 3, a couple, said that they ate healthy, but not organic. Resident 2, Lyz said “An apple is an apple.” She also added that organic foods were too far away to purchase and too expensive. She said her local supermarkets are disgusting.

Resident 3 didn’t believe that organic foods were really organic, and thought that they could be anything.

There is a local supermarket a short walk from where the interviews were conducted and there is an “organic”section next to the fresh produce in the store. However, it was a very small selection with an unkempt presentation with the food and boxes unorganized, as can be seen from the photos below.


Little proximity to organic food purveyors is definitely a preventative consideration for many neighborhoods. One alternative to traveling from one part of the city to another comes in the form of a business called Farm Box Direct ( This small company offers a weekly delivery service of organic fruits and produce. Customers can choose from three sizes of deliveries that range in price from $32.95 – $54.95. Assuming a large box would be purchased for a family of four at a cost of $54.95 we can look at the contents and see how well the family would eat.

Included in the large box are 5 avocados, 1 bunch of asparagus, 1 head of butter lettuce, 1 bunch of rainbow carrots, 2 8 ounce boxes of mushrooms, 4 Roma tomatoes, 3 zucchini squash, 1 head of chard, and 1 head of kale. From this it seems like the family would have salad fixings for at least two dinners and veggies for maybe two more. It is hard to know whether this amount of food could be stretched farther. Cost wise we could deduce that the family spends $7.50 per day on vegetables. This does not include any fruits, which are available but come at a much lower quantity ratio than the vegetables.

In the event that the cost fits into a family budget, there might be another obstacle to shopping with Farm Box Direct. At this time, delivery is available in limited neighborhoods. A test with the zip code of a co-researcher determined that no delivery was available to his home at this time. Farm Box Direct says it is expanding delivery districts as quickly as possible.

There are other delivery services that function in the same manner as Far Box Direct. One is Go Organic NY ( This company seems to have a broader delivery area but requires larger minimum purchases. Also, if we look at the prices from the Fresh Direct the costs of both a dozen organic eggs or half gallon of organic milk are listed at $3.99. On the Go Organic NY site eggs are listed at $4.59 and milk is listed at $4.49. It appears that costs will be higher for items on this site.

Another factor to consider is that none of these sites accept SNAP benefits so that families with the tightest budgets are unlikely to use these services. Often the neighborhoods with the lowest income factors are those with the least amount of natural food resources. While delivery services are nice, at this time, it seems that they are not a solution for those with limited grocery budgets.


So how do the inequities in food quality choices play out in different communities in New York City? According to the New York State website, NYC.GOV, Harlem has a major obesity epidemic going on, but then so does all of New York City. Thirty-four percent of New Yorkers are overweight and 22% are obese, they say. In East and Central Harlem, 4 in 10 children, kindergarten age are obese. One in 7 high school age kids are obese, and one in 4 adults are even more are overweight if not obese. So it’s not shocking that 8 in 10 adolescents and 9 in 10 adults report eating fewer than 5 servings of fruit and vegetables. It goes without saying, at this point, that there is an increased cost for eating healthy, let alone organic or locally grown. But what if you can’t even get these healthy and or more sustainably minded, foods anywhere near to where you live? The issue of exercise and having the leisure time to partake in it is another yet connected factor in this obesity epidemic. (


My colleagues have done a tremendous job of giving you some facts about organic food and making healthy choices in regards to your food selection. However, after all the information has sifted through your brain you must now make a decision. A healthy declaration of sorts as to whether you will buy organic products or not. That’s why I’m here to help you gain some perspective in terms of how organic food and healthy food choices can affect a family in a positive way.

As a single morbidly obese father of 3 children, I was forced to make some decisions. I was tipping the scales at over 550 lbs and needed an immediate change. My children had food allergies that made them hate vegetables and fruits. Food that I grew up adoring pears, bananas, and apples made my children violently sick. Fortunately, they were not overweight but if I let the situation get any worse they could easily have shared my fate. So the first thing I did was get back to basics. My nutritionist gave me a site that linked back to something I learned in my childhood. The food pyramid, now modernized site gave me great resources on how my family should be eating. On my plate was two parts meat, one part rice or another starch and maybe a vegetable. From this site I learned that my eating portions were really out of prospective. Thus, from then on our family portions adjusted.

Then we had to find vegetables that not only provided proper nutrients but also allowed us to eat them without rashes and other physical reactions. My children suffered from food allergies that started when we bought vegetables and fruits locally from corner vendors and our local supermaket. After trying frozen food alternative and finding them mainly inedible I was confounded on what to do in terms of healthy food choices for my family. That is where the word organic came into my vocabulary. The USDA has their own standard for what is organic and what’s not. However, after reading their definitions all I had for my trouble was a headache. Yet feel free to read them at your own peril,

Then, a friend of mine told me about small farmers and farmers markets that frequented the NYC area. Living in the Bronx these are hard to come by. So as a family we had to make food shopping an all-day affair. We would go to big box stores, local markets, even take regular trips to Chinatown to get not only organic but fresh vegetables in bulk at a fair price. So the results are, my children eat fruits and vegetables every day. Actually, we have no sugar treats in the house just fresh fruits and a plethora of sorbets in the freezer.

My weight loss is still a work in progress. From the starting point of 550 lbs, I am now down to 470 lbs. Not bad for only thirteen months of eating healthy. Now we eat organic food as often as possible but we have also learned how to thoroughly wash and prepare non-organic food in a way where food allergies are now in the past. Please also understand that many farmers cannot get the label “organic” but using many of the same organic food processes to produce their product. I know it sounds like a mouthful . Yet, as the defintion of “organic “ is so unclear and the paperwork so cumbersome many growers forgo the process. So your best bet is to ask the farmer or produce manager where the food come from and do your own research.

Now let me be clear, veggies alone did not help me shed the pounds. However, it was the overall rethinking of everything that I ate and how it affected me overall. So we reduced the amount of processed foods we ate. We rarely drink sodas. if any. One healthy choice in the right direction helped me to see a lucid path toward my own eating choices and healthy lifestyle.

So in conclusion, we can gather all the data for you in terms of organic food and healthy living. However, in the end you must make the choice for yourself regarding what food is right for you and your family. As for me I am starting phase two of my slim down. Starting April 1, I will be drinking nothing but juices for 30 days. I wish I could claim this thought as my own but my former football playing friends and I watched a documentary entitled Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead ( After watching this film we were inspired to try this ourselves. Look for my blogs in the next few weeks.

1. (, pkc, 9, 27, 2012).

2. (, Microwave Cooking is Killing People!, Stephanie Relfe B.Sc., n.d.).

3. (, How Healthy Nutrition Builds Health Starting With The Cells, pkc, para 3).

4. (, Unveiled: GMO Labeling Opponents Come Out of the Shadows, 10, 22nd, 2013, para 2).

5. (, What do food labels really mean? , n.d., para 2).

6. (, Food Corporations Fight GMO Labeling Measure With Big Money, Eric M. Johnson and Carey Gillam, 10,29,13, para 18 and 18).fresh direct chart.jpg

7.”Our Markets | GrowNYC.” Our Markets | GrowNYC. Grown NYC, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. .

8. “Calendar of Events.” Tribeca Greenmarket. Grow NYC, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. .

9. Walker, Robert, et al. “Poverty in Global Perspective: Is Shame a Common Denominator?” Journal of Social Policy 42.02 (2013): n. pag. Social Policy Institute. Oxford Institute of Social Policy. Web. 27 Mar. 2014. .

10. “Calendar of Events.” Union Square Green Market. Grow NYC, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. .

11. “Exploring the Digital Nation: America’s Emerging Online Experience.” National Telecommunications and Information Administration, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2014. .

Jon-Marc: The Coming Crisis, Our Food and Our Future

The line is at least 40 people deep. It’s 9:30, an hour-and-a-half before the doors open, on a Thursday morning and the scene is as it always is. People of all color and all ages, some with pushcarts, some with walkers, mothers pushing their children in strollers and old men leaning against the wall. They’re here for one reason. It’s the same reason they are here every week, in the cold or the heat, the rain or the snow. They’re hungry. And today is the day the food pantry at the Jewish Community Council on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights is distributing food as it does every Thursday at 11:00am.

As the world’s population grows, and as its food supply becomes more fragile, the issues of “food security” and “food sustainability” will grow as well. The questions of what can be done and, perhaps more importantly, what should be done, seem to be as difficult questions to answer as finding cohesive, coherent, and consistent definitions to the terms themselves. Furthermore, it could be argued, that food security and food sustainability are at odds with the other, that they clash, that they are mutually exclusive terms and that, in order to address one it must be done at the expense of the other.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines food security as“including both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences.” The Agriculture Sustainability Institute at the University of California, Davis, broadly defines food sustainability as “the stewardship of both natural and human resources.”  In order to get a better understanding of the two ideas, it helps to understand them from a local perspective.

The issue of food security in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, one of the northernmost neighborhoods on the island of Manhattan, is alarming. A 2012 City Harvest Survey states that at least 50% of the total population of Washington Heights experiences some form of low or very low “food security”, defined as “reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.” While there are numerous Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) sites in Washington Heights, these do very little by way of addressing the needs of the most vulnerable, due to the high cost of shares. Furthermore, a cursory, unscientific inspection of garbage cans as well as the rampant litter in much of the neighborhood points to a community that is buying unhealthy, non-sustainable, non-organic foods in order to save money.

Even so, there seems to be real efforts on the part of many in the community to address many of these issues as well as bring attention to the issue of sustainability. The Jewish Community Council of Washington Heights-Inwood (JCCWHI) food pantry serves 300 people weekly. When I contacted its director, Miriam Yoles, she was eager to discuss what she called “the plight of the hungry.”

“[Washington  Heights] is changing, this is true, but just because there are more nice restaurants and a coffee shop here and there doesn’t mean there is less need. We constantly struggle to keep up with demand. With the recent cuts in food stamps, we are only going to see need go up” she said in a recent phone interview. “What [congress is] doing affects people, families. We are in one of the most food insecure areas of the city. Taking away the safety net from many will only increase it.”

Indeed, a 2012 study commissioned by City Harvest seems to echo Miriam’s concern. Of those in the emergency food population (EFP), 92% experience low or very low food security.  Not surprisingly, of those 92%, only 13% believe they consume an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables. Specifically, the senior population in Washington Heights, “still encounter barriers at higher rates than the total population and the non-senior population. Some barriers identified are price, poor quality of healthy foods, too far to travel to get healthy foods” according to the study.

A recent foot tour of some Washington Heights’ garbage cans seemed to reinforce the idea of a population concerned with costs at the expense of health (and sustainability). Granted, some of the findings must take into account a society’s preference for unhealthy, sugar laden snacks. But, such preferences do not seem to explain the overwhelming number of wrappers and packaging for unhealthy foods found in garbage cans and on the streets of the neighborhood.

For example, the tunnel that leads from Broadway to the 191 Subway Station in Washington Heights gives insight into what the community at large might be consuming. The tunnel which, by my estimates, is at least 2/10 of a mile long is perennially littered with refuse, and what I found during a midnight stroll was telling.  Wrappers for McDonald’s hamburgers, countless soda cans, half-eaten bags of potato chips, candy bar wrappers, dozens of plastic bags from various unknown bodegas and delis, and even what appeared to be a used condom. What was not seen told me just as much as what was seen. I did not notice any trash from healthier stores or half-eaten apple cores or orange peels. Granted, it would seem to me, people who are more concerned with their health are probably also less likely to litter. However, in my inspection of garbage cans, the results were the same. If neighborhood waste is any indication, it appears that many are eating unhealthy food as a matter of necessity and lack of resources.

In his paper published in May of 2013, “Food Security, Inclusive Growth, Sustainability, and the Post 2015 Development Agenda” Craig Hanson of the World Resources Institute states that “approximately 870 million of the world’s poorest people remain under-nourished even today.  Many poor households are already close to the margins, as shown when food riots in 2008 broke out in more than 25 countries in response to spikes in food prices, which had left many people unable to afford basic food staples. (Hanson 3; par. 2)”

In the United States, and specifically in local communities like Washington Heights, these fears are elevated. When asked about Hanson’s paper, and specifically the issue of whether food riots like the ones in 2008 were possible in Washington Heights today, the executive director of another local food pantry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained “Do I think riots will break out? No. Do I think people are growing increasingly frustrated as they work harder and harder for less and less? Yes. Do I think they will resort to drastic actions as resources become more scarce? I don’t know. Probably. What I do know is that we have an increase in our client load, wages are stagnant, people who need food stamps are being denied them. Something must change. I am not sure what can be done about [food sustainability] but I do know the way things are for the poorest in our community cannot be sustained” she said in a recent phone interview.

While CSAs in the neighborhood provide healthy, organic sustainable produce, the cost of membership, otherwise known as shares, for a season is prohibitive (typically $400.00-$600.00 according to for those on a fixed income and/or living at or below the poverty level.  That being so, while typical food pantries and food banks focus on the immediate needs of their clients, CSAs can  focus on sustainable practices as well as giving back to the community in the form of donations of produce to local charities that deal with food security issues.  On their website, Just Food of New York City, which not only organizes CSAs throughout the five boroughs but also advocates for “fresh food for all” and “food justice”, states on their website “Since 1995, Just Food has pioneered sustainable food models, including CSAs, community-run farmers’ markets, and farm-to-food pantry programs. Just Food serves thousands of New Yorkers by forging partnerships between local farms, neighborhood groups, and consumers, and by providing urban communities with a framework for growing, and knowing, healthy food.”

Washington Heights is a vibrant community that is facing many challenges. With its poverty rate far higher (23% according to Community Board 12M) than the national average (15% in 2014, according to the United States Census), it has immediate food security challenges that seemingly supersede food sustainability. Nevertheless, as Miriam states, “We are a community that faces what we need to do and we do it”. I happen to agree. Food security and food sustainability need not be mutually exclusive.

I believe that, with sufficient help, both issues can be addressed simultaneously. Having volunteers plant gardens for the local food banks would be such a proposal. Another idea might be partnering local food banks and social service organizations with local high-schools and universities and, by way of class projects, have them come up with ideas that address both food security and sustainability, and tangibly implementing those ideas. Lack of ingenuity isn’t the problem. After all, Carmen Reyes of the Washington Heights Ecumenical Pantry was recently honored with the Food Bank Borough of Excellence Award for implementing new computer programs that increased the efficiency of the food bank and allowed it to serve 2.5 times as many clients as previously served under the old system, according to Crossroads, the official blog of the Archdiocese of New York. It seems to me, using this ingenuity and applying such innovation to other areas like sustainability is the logical next step.

Working towards food independence, at least partially, for the community at large would also help address both issues. Growing herbs in windows and vegetables in the common outdoor areas of buildings, creating neighborhood programs for sustainability that mimic those of neighborhood watch programs where residents each have a stake and commit their time to taking measurable, sustainable actions that benefit the neighborhood as a whole might be another idea.

Miriam probably said it best: “People want to do something. Sometimes they just need some help doing it”.