salt of the station street pig & chicken*

Gentrification. Revitalization. Stabilization. All words that come to mind when you’re thinking about what to do, exactly, with declining urban neighborhoods. But at the core of ‘what to do’ with declining urban neighborhoods is a mindset that urban planners (myself included) are often guilty of – at the end of the day, we can’t ‘do’ anything with property we don’t own, at least not easily or without great cost (financial and otherwise) to the community. This is often why the best examples of neighborhood revitalization and stabilization are usually organic ones – perhaps steered by community development corporations, neighborhood plans, or local planning departments – but at their core driven forward by people on the ground willing to take risks, pour their money (and those of their investors) into a place, develop a business plan, make connections, and hope it sticks.

Here in Pittsburgh, I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the East Liberty neighborhood for years. Once the third largest shopping district in Pennsylvania, this neighborhood has great history, fantastic architectural gems, a decades-long period of decline, and some fantastically awful centralized planning decisions. Due to hard work and boots on the ground (and decidedly NOT due to anything our backwards local government planning department has done or not done, since they’re only now writing a comprehensive plan for the city) by the neighborhood CDC and countless other stakeholders, this area is hopping once again. Bookended by big box retail in the large spaces surrounding the urban core, the smaller spaces have for the most part been slowly rehabbed and are a mix of established and relatively new businesses.

And here’s the sticky part – who’s the most important stakeholder in this process? The neighborhood resident who’s seen the decline and rebirth? The chamber of commerce, who doesn’t necessarily have the best track record with supporting the small businesses? The CDC, who’s busted its butt trying to get vacant buildings filled with a sustainable mix of tenants only to get flack because they’re the ‘wrong kind’? The mix is critical to success, but everyone is always critical of the mix.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I frequent businesses in East Liberty. So many are food-based (yes, I am finally talking about food) – two Ethiopian restaurants, a Jamaican place, the cupcake bakery, the pizza shops, the Parisian bistro, the hip local dive bar, the waffle-centered performance art space, the conflict kitchen, the barbeque place, the hot dog shop, the burger bar, the modern American restaurant. As I write this list off the top of my head, I’m struck by the fact that most of these places are relatively new. One of the pizza shops is a long-time business (though frought with its own issues); the rest have been operating a decade or less. And although most business owners are happy with any patrons, for the most part the clientele seems to be young, non-minority, hip, with disposable income. I think it’s safe to say that the immediate neighborhood residents would not fit that description. So East Liberty is back to being a destination – which, to be fair, is its historical role. And what’s the alternative – predatory businesses (there is a check cashing place in the area, I believe), or no businesses at all?

A conversation with a fellow local food blogger started this whole thought process (and that conversation devolved from a lovely brisket recommendation). What level of investment in a neighborhood is appropriate for someone to come in with? Does that level change if they’re from the neighborhood, the city, the region, or a complete outsider? What about if they bring with them a certain caché, a cult of personality, a track record for excellence in the culinary world? Local foodies know by now that I’m talking about Kevin Sousa and his East End restaurant trimvirate (two of which are in East Liberty, and one in the urban core of the neighborhood). His first restaurant, Salt of the Earth in nearby Garfield, earned major accolades from the broader culinary community (Food and Wine and the James Beard Foundation, among others) and has been lauded locally. Rehabbing the building was seen as a Good Thing too, turning a historic Harley Davidson dealership from the 1920s that most recently was a vacant home decor place into a hot spot on a stretch of Penn Avenue that sorely needed some eyes on the street at night.

He’s followed that up with two restaurants opening almost simultaneously: Station Street Hot Dog Shop, and Union Pig & Chicken, and the grumbling has grown along with his foodie empire. I just don’t get it. The hot dog shop had been vacant for over a year, and is carrying on the tradition of a hot dog shop in that general vicinity (with that name) since 1915. The barbeque place bore the brunt of the complaints, both because people are very opinionated about their barbeque expectations and because a white dude from McKees Rocks is cooking barbeque in the ‘hood (haven’t heard it in quite those terms, but that seems to be the general sentiment).

Food questions aside (though I admit to being an avid fan of Kevin’s cooking), I ask these naysayers these questions: what would you have put in their place? Both of those storefronts were vacant. Both places are continuing the traditions of their locations (a rib joint failed a few years ago in the spot where Union is now). While neither place is the cheapest place I can get a hot dog or some fried chicken, it’s not massively overpriced. When a quarter pounder at Mickey D’s now costs $3.84 for processed crap that’s only recently become pink-slime free, and I can get a hot dog with standard fixings, all made by hand and really good quality product for $4 plus tax, how is that pretentious? If $22 is too much to pay for a really good rack of ribs, why would you willingly pay $20.99 at Damon’s for a mediocre rack?

And if you don’t want a Local Boy Done Good to bring restaurants to your vacant storefronts, where should he go? He’s a successful businessman with a solid following who chose to try new things in a neighborhood that needed it, and said they wanted it (one of the  goals in the neighborhood plan is to become a dining destination, after all). He could have rested on his laurels and replicated his brand in the suburbs, and he didn’t. Why all the crap for someone who’s willing to take a chance? Isn’t *that* the American way?

Me, I’m happy to support a local businessman who serves food that I feel comfortable feeding to my kids in an area of the city that I love. Obviously, a lot of other people feel that way too. This debate isn’t unique to East Liberty, or Pittsburgh.  I lived in another city neighborhood a decade ago whose parochial blue hairs tried to run the Hispanic businesses off the main street – apparently they liked vacant storefronts more. But if you alienate the small business owner, who is supposedly the lifeblood of the American economy, sooner or later you’ll end up in a chain store (or vacant window) wasteland. That’s not what I’m interested in, at all.

*an odd title, I know, but it combines the names of the three Kevin Sousa restaurants: Salt of the Earth, Station Street Hot Dog Shop, and Union Pig & Chicken

so there’s this guy…

cute, about my age, spiky hair, fun accent, slightly wonky teeth, has this thing against flavored milk and pink slime… maybe you’ve heard of him. Jamie Oliver? Yeah, him.

Who’s got two thumbs and just had an article posted on his Food Revolution site? *this girl*

I’ll post the text here for those of you lazy enough to not click through to the site, but really, their graphics are much cooler than my simple ones around these parts (make sure you drool over the burger from Burgatory at the top of the page – even with my crappy photography skills and the burger smushed from a takeout box, it makes my mouth water). And I’m not usually one to crow, but this whole process has been surreal and I felt it necessary to put it here as an electronic way of pinching myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.

I do have to say that I wish they had featured some of the school lunch pictures I got from the Environmental Charter School – you’ll wish your kids could eat these lunches. Heck, *I* wish I could eat these lunches!

I’ve been invited to come check out their lunchtime craziness this month and see how the kids react to their food. I can’t wait!

—-

‘Pink Slime': What’s Next for School Lunches [originally written for Jamie's Food Revolution]

Playing Catch-Up With ‘Pink Slime’

If you’ve been paying attention to food-related news in the past three weeks, you’ve likely heard about ‘Pink Slime’.

As the Food Revolution has noted previously, the term has been around since 2002. Also known as Lean Finely Textured Beef, the substance gained some attention in 2010 when Jamie staged a demonstration on the ABC series of the Food Revolution.

But since Bettina Siegel posted a Change.org petition on March 6th urging the USDA to stop using ‘Pink Slime’ in the National School Lunch program, the ‘Pink Slime’ controversy has become a heated national debate.

Siegel’s petition received over a quarter-million signatures in just three weeks. The USDA has acknowledged the pressure, issuing an announcement that it would give school districts the option to purchase beef with or without LFTB. Many large school districts, including those in New York City and Boston, have stopped purchasing beef containing LFTB, while those that don’t use ‘Pink Slime’, like the Houston ISD, are confirming that their beef is LFTB-free. Most recently, Beef Products, Inc. announced the suspension of operations at three of the four plants where LFTB is produced.

Tensions on this topic are running high – while ‘Pink Slime’ opponents are pleased with the initial inroads made with the USDA, they’re not content with this first victory and are actively lobbying members of Congress to keep such additives out of the meat supply. In contrast, the meat industry has gone on the defensive, starting their own site supporting LFTB, and taking out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal.

The takeaway from this controversy is clear: people didn’t know what their kids were eating. When they learned the truth, they wanted ‘Pink Slime’ taken out of their children’s meals – and out of their supermarkets as well. Americans haven’t suddenly turned vegetarian, leaving the beef industry in the lurch. But when given the opportunity to make informed choices, consumers will decide based on what’s in their best interest. In this case, once people were educated about the industrial food system, they chose to change their purchasing habits, and pushed for the government to do the same.

So Now What?

In addition to the USDA giving school districts that purchasing option, Congress is urging the USDA to take ‘Pink Slime’ out of the National School Lunch Program completely, and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) has introduced a bill, the Real Beef Act requiring that ‘‘Pink Slime’’ be labeled. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is planning similar legislation in the Senate.

But how does this affect the school districts that actually feed our kids five days a week? Now that parents are paying closer attention to the food in local schools, how can they help districts continue to make changes for the better, especially when many districts and states are strapped for cash? And most importantly, how can parents be assured that the food that is fed to all children is nutritious, safe, and relatively free of additives?

Commentators think that the USDA ‘Pink Slime’/no-’Pink Slime’ choice will lead to a two-tiered ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ system of school lunches, where better-funded districts that can afford it decide on higher-quality food, while cash-strapped districts end up stuck with lower-priced ‘Pink Slime’-laced beef. But even if money were not an issue, extracting ‘‘Pink Slime’’ from the food supply available to school districts is difficult. The USDA doesn’t currently require that beef products containing ‘Pink Slime’ be labeled as such. Because of the lack of labeling requirements, and that many districts have already placed their food orders for the upcoming school year, the deck is stacked against a quick phase-out.

Don’t forget – districts also have to work within the USDA reimbursement guidelines if they don’t want to pay out-of-pocket for food service. And the new rules for school meals – championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and doubling the amounts of fruits and veg served to children – are estimated to add $3.2 billion in costs to the school lunch program. Pulling ‘Pink Slime’ from menus will also add to the cost of the program at the local level.

Dealing with high-volume food production in large school districts can also be problematic. Centralized food services are great for cutting costs, but not necessarily for getting high quality food onto the lunch plates of students. Smaller schools, like Pittsburgh’s Environmental Charter School, are showing that innovative things can be done in school lunch programs. However, moving from a school of 450 students that develops partnerships with local restaurants and catering businesses (and that also values food quality enough to operate its lunch program at a loss) to a district that serves tens of thousands of children with no budget flexibility requires even more creativity. Especially if schools no longer have fully equipped kitchens, switching to a decentralized model will take more time and money than many districts can afford.

Grass-roots Movements Can Spur Major Changes

As with most established bureaucracies, change will come slowly. But the last three weeks of ‘Slime-gate’ have shown that grass-roots movements can spur major changes. All children who eat school meals – regardless of where they live or how wealthy their parents are – deserve to eat healthy food that tastes good. So keep the heat on the USDA, tell your elected officials to support Rep. Pingree’s and Sen. Menendez’s initiatives, and urge them to support the Local Farm, Foods and Jobs Act as part of the Farm Bill reauthorization process.

Finally, get involved where you live. Call your local school district and ask about their food service. Attend a school board meeting. Advocate for a more transparent system for good food!

About the author: Rebecca Maclean (@foodmeonce) is a food policy blogger whose interests lie at the intersection of urban gardening, food security, and public health. She writes at foodmeonce.com and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Digging Deep Campaign. Rebecca wrangles a husband, two kids, and several raised beds in her spare time.

ew. gross.

I’m hanging out with pink slime over at the Digging Deep Campaign this week – and am thankful that I just bought 100 lbs of beef from my favorite local farmer (which was from a cow that I had met personally). 

I briefly note there that, although the uproar over pink slime is fantastic to see – it’s amazing  to me how much people don’t know about the industrial food supply, and when they do start to learn, they are disgusted enough to do something about it – you can’t just call it a day when the USDA caves a little and gives school districts the choice of not buying ground beef with pink slime (The Lunch Tray explains why). Because the main reason the USDA buys pink slime for school lunches is because it’s cheap. And if school districts (cash-strapped already, at least in this state) still have to operate under the same reimbursement standards for the school lunches, we’ll see something else cheap sneak its way into the school lunch program.

I don’t usually quote myself, but in this case, I think it’s important to reiterate what I said earlier in the week at Digging Deep:

Here’s why – reimbursement rates. How much money do schools get reimbursed per child for the food in school lunches? Not much. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) lists the current year maximum reimbursement rates as $2.79 for free lunches, $2.39 for reduced price lunches, and $0.28 for a lunch fully paid for by the child. Can you cook on an industrial scale for less than three bucks a meal? I sure can’t. And don’t forget the much-touted change in rules to the National School Lunch Program, thanks to Michelle Obama. Don’t get me wrong, doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables children are served in school is fantastic, and way overdue. But until the Farm Bill stops overwhelmingly subsidizing grains and starts leveling the playing field for fruit and veg, they’ll be more expensive. Which means the other food in each school lunch needs to be less expensive. Enter pink slime.

Yep, it all goes back to the Farm Bill. Which, as it happens, is up for reauthorization this year (because, thankfully, the Secret Farm Bill crap didn’t work last year). So work to make your voices heard – catch up on the particulars with the Environmental Working Group’s Farm Bill Policy Plate series, and consider the Community Food Security Coalition’s talking points when you contact your elected officials. Because you know the food-industrial complex is whispering in their ears. The least you can do – especially for the kids dependent on the school lunch program for their nutritional needs – is to do the same.

your questions: answered.

Have a food-related question you’re just dying to know the answer to, but can’t get to it/filter through all the white noise/understand what those crazy foodies are saying? Like, for instance, what’s up with the egg industry getting cozy with the Humane Society?

Don’t worry, the Digging Deep Campaign has it covered. Now with extra bloggers – Including yours truly.

No chickens were harmed in the making of this blog post.

You know me, I’m a sucker for research… and translating wonk-speak… and sifting through mundane details. So the Digging Deep Campaign is a great fit for me. I’ll have new posts up on Tuesdays and welcome your ideas for blog posts – ask me a question about the food world, and I’ll do my best to answer it!

not your forefather’s ketchup.

Raise your hand if you remember Ronald Reagan trying to count ketchup as a vegetable.

(Ok, no, these guys weren’t alive back then. They’re just processed foods, only way cuter. And the two main reasons I get so angry about misguided food policy.)

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a refresher. In 1981, Congress cut $1 billion from child-nutrition funding. The USDA scrambled to figure out how to maintain some semblance of nutrition in school lunches. One idea floated was to count ketchup as “a fruit/vegetable when used as an ingredient.” Thankfully, the idea tanked.

This week, it was reincarnated, in pizza sauce form. Stuck in a joint House-Senate Department of Agriculture spending bill (which is attached to other agencies’ spending bills to make a ‘minibus’ bill, different from an ‘omnibus’ bill, of course. Though what Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, and Housing have to do with each other I don’t exactly know, other than they’re all working under continuing resolutions because the fiscal year these bills are funding started almost two months ago, but I digress) was language blocking new standards in the National School Lunch Program. Standards that were developed in conjunction with nutritionists, doctors, and plain old common sense.

In case you’re a wonk like me, here’s the language from the proposed bill itself (on page 90 of the 401 page document):

Sec. 743. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement an interim final or final rule regarding nutrition programs under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.) and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (42 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.) that –

(1)    requires crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume;

(2)    implements a sodium reduction target beyond Target I, the 2-year target, specified in Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, “Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs (FNS-2007-0038, RIN 0584-AD59) until the Secretary certifies that the Department has reviewed and evaluated relevant scientific studies and data relevant to the relationship of sodium reductions to human health; and

(3)    establishes any whole grain requirement without defining “whole grain.”

I know, that makes absolutely no sense. Guess what? I speak bureaucrat. Here’s my translation:

Sec. 743. USDA, you can’t use any of the money Congress is giving you for your FY 2012 budget to:

(1) make us count the volume of tomato paste we’re putting on something as just the volume served. We like counting the “whole-food equivalency” of a tomato and we’re sticking to that. It doesn’t matter that tomato paste is the only thing we count like this; currently “other fruit paste and purees…are credited based on actual volume as served.” Our friends the pizza lobbyists *really* didn’t like the sentence you put in at the end of that section: “Schools would not be allowed to credit a volume of fruit or vegetables that is more than the actual serving size.” They said to tell you that you suck.

(2) limit the sodium intake of an elementary school-age child to anything less than 540 mg/breakfast and 1,230 mg/lunch; a middle school-age child to anything less than 600 mg/breakfast and 1,360 mg/lunch; and a high school-age child to 640 mg/breakfast and 1,420 mg/lunch until we think you’ve looked at all the data we think is relevant. We’re purposely ignoring the fact that it’s ridiculously easy to find such studies on the internet, including this one on the same website as the report these standards are based on, because we don’t like what it says. And you know, we’re also ignoring data from past Surgeons General, too. What does C. Everett Koop know? It’s not like he has any medical training. His assertion that “1.1 to 3.3 grams [of sodium] per day [is] found to be as safe and adequate for adults by the National Research Council” is ri-gosh-darn-diculous. Never mind that just the lunch for a kindergartener has more than the minimum ‘safe’ level of daily sodium for an adult under these standards. I’m sticking my fingers in my ears.      

(3) make anybody eat whole grains until you define whole grain to our satisfaction. Because the reference to “a minimum whole grain content of 51 percent” in your proposed rule and the definition of whole-grain in the Random House dictionary as “of or being natural or unprocessed grain containing the germ and bran” isn’t clear enough. That makes us think that at least 51% of the stuff we eat with grains in it has to have been minimally processed, keeping the germ and bran, and EVERYbody knows you can’t make ooey-gooey white bread with that crap. My friends at the American Frozen Food Institute told me so.

Holy cow. That took me several hours to untangle. And I know how to read this government-speak. You non-wonks don’t stand a chance in this field. Go back to eating your processed foods, fools.

…and that’s exactly what they want you to do. Don’t pay attention to the fact that the American Frozen Food Institute and the National Potato Council were the only food-related organizations that were happy about this language.

And if that hasn’t made your head spin enough already, here’s some language from the Senate’s deliberations on this bill on Halloween (my comments are conveniently in bold). No word if anyone dressed up as a ketchup bottle while talking about tomato paste.

From Senator Jerry Moran, R-KS (just as an example):

Furthermore, we must keep in mind the impact this rule will have on school budgets and food suppliers. Unfunded mandates such as this one will make it even harder for schools to provide healthy lunches for students. [Right, because properly funding nutritional programs in public schools so that all children have a relatively level nutritional playing field is a nasty socialist endeavor. And capitalism will keep us from falling behind China in educational achievement. Because it's worked so well so far.]

The Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost of compliance over a 5-year period will reach $6.8 billion. The Federal reimbursement already does not cover the full cost of preparing a meal in many schools across our country. This new USDA rule will further drive up the costs of providing lunches and school districts will have to make up the difference. This doesn’t seem like a reasonable approach when many school districts are already struggling to make ends meet. [Oh. My. God. That's an obscene amount of money to pull out of thin air. $6.8 billion for five years? How could you even ask for that volume of cash? Well, according to the Congressional Budget Office, that's about the amount of money that funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for three weeks. If we can find money to fight two wars and mark our territory across a wide swath of Asia, why we can't find the cash to properly feed our kids?]

Let me give an example of what is in this rule. Once finalized, schools would be required to reduce sodium content in breakfasts by up to 27 percent and school lunches by up to 54 percent. There are a couple problems with this requirement. There is no suitable  replacement for sodium that can maintain the same functions of flavor and texture. Also, reducing sodium is not just a function of limiting raw salt content. Many ingredients have sodium in them that occurs naturally. School food suppliers have been working for years to reduce the amount of sodium in their food products. However, they need additional time to come up with a solution that balances nutritional value with taste so kids will eat the school lunch. [Two things: 1) if this guy is genuinely worried about taste, he's never actually eaten a school lunch, and 2) if the school suppliers need more time to figure out the nutrition vs. taste debate, why haven't they been working on it for the eleven months since the proposed rule was published? That's a decent amount of time for the chem labs that simulate food taste to figure something out.]

This rule would also change how nutritional content is measured—rather than measure nutrition based on density, the Department of Agriculture rule proposes to measure nutritional content based on volume. For example, tomato paste is nutritionally dense, but the Department of Agriculture says it must meet the same volume as a fresh tomato. That doesn’t make much sense. Why would we take a metric to be the arbitrary volume requirement instead of just measuring the nutritional value? [I really just don't get this tomato problem. If I buy a six ounce can of tomato paste, it says six ounces on the label. Not ten tomatoes. Lots of things are nutritionally dense when you concentrate them. Why should tomatoes get special treatment?]

No wonder these guys are so easy to ridicule on late night tv.

Elsewhere on the internet, people have been quoted as saying that government shouldn’t be involved in telling kids how to eat. Free will is quintessentially American. Ok, so if that’s the case, my three year old shouldn’t be punished for raiding her brother’s Halloween stash under the dining room table before breakfast (which happened today, and being the ungodly commie pinko that I am, I stopped her). In case you haven’t noticed, kids don’t always make the smartest choices regarding food. And if they don’t have parents who know how to make smart choices about food, or have the money or the time to make good choices for them, where else can they learn how to develop smart eating habits *except* at school?

And riddle me this – if government shouldn’t be involved in telling kids how to eat, why did the American Frozen Food Institute spend $5 million to influence Congress on these rules? I would think that greasing the palms of your local elected official would get them to work for something in your favor, wouldn’t it? Sounds like those politicians who were swayed by lobbyists weren’t exactly exercising their free will, either. I know of no low-income kindergartener who could wield that kind of influence in the halls of Congress.

If this pisses you off, it should. Between processing the Penn State child sex abuse scandal so that I could talk to my son (the same age as the victims) coherently about the dangers of child predators, and hearing that people in Congress like their potatoes and sodium more than they like my kids’ unblocked arteries to stay that way, it’s been a hard week to be a parent. This further cements my position to not let my kids eat the school lunches until Jamie Oliver makes his way to every school district in the country.

Finally, consider this. The federal government created the National School Lunch Program because during the Depression, “[m]illions of school children were unable to pay for their school lunches, and with but limited family resources to provide meals at home, the danger of malnutrition among children became a national concern.” Today, one in four young adults is too overweight to join the military, which should also be a national concern. Not to mention the untold burden this public health crisis will put on future generations. But hey, those frozen pizza makers are job creators!

whoops.

So I blew it for Hunger Action Month.

So much for 30 ways in 30 days in my house – between a weeklong business trip, the end of the fiscal year, the start of a school year for two different kids in two different schools, a new job for my husband, trying to get fall yardwork accomplished, starting to create Angry Birds Halloween costumes early (so I’m not frantically sewing the day of), and the neverending housework/laundry/dishes/cub scouts/dance class cycle, all my good intentions just fell through the cracks. I didn’t sign a paper plate, didn’t donate a tote bag, and heck, didn’t even make it to a farmers’ market to buy local during the month of September. Ugh.

Sound familiar? Getting sucked into the craziness of everyday life happens to a lot of us with small children – and a lot of us who don’t have the excuse of the little people, too. I don’t know about you, but all this go-go-go crisis mode crap stresses me out, and drives my husband crazy when I turn into the shrew. I’m not easily tamed.

But I digress. Sort of. One of the things I’ve been doing this month (with a long-distance friend) is an online course that has helped me clear my head quite a bit. It’s also further cemented the idea that food policy issues are important to me, and that I need to figure out how to incorporate it into my everyday life (more than I already do). Today, I’m doing that in two ways – writing a long overdue post about the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, and reminding everyone that tomorrow (Tuesday, October 4th) is the 2011 Pittsburgh Day of Giving.  Whaddya know? They’re connected, and both points get me back on track.

Point 1. I referenced my trip last month to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank a few weeks ago. But here are some more visuals that struck me:

Wouldn’t you want to come and volunteer for these lovely, happy people at the food bank?

Look at the sheer size of the containers holding the food handed out in one night.

Again, the sheer scale of the place is amazing. And incredibly disheartening. Because if the food bank hands out this much food, it’s because that many people are hungry in this region.

Everybody’s favorite, industrial strength creamed corn. The food that moves through here is not luxurious. Which is a reason why the Produce for People program is so popular – it supplements these basic food items with fresh produce.

The saddest-looking donation in shop-through (where food pantries can take a gander at smaller donations from grocery stores and the like and see if the people they serve can use it). This birthday cake has definitely seen better days. Still, I’d rather see it donated instead of being thrown away. Kudos to the store that agreed with me.

The storage facilities in this place are cavernous.

See those blue mixed can stickers? That’s how the goods that are collected from local food drives are distributed. Food pantries will order those from the food bank for the variety. I felt better knowing that the stuff I donate is actually helpful.

This one made me tear up a little. The juxtaposition of the Feeding America poster, the food bank logo, and that lovely drawing was a little too much for me. My kids are lucky enough to not know what it’s like to be hungry – if only all kids could be so lucky.

We are lucky that the food bank is here. It is a sad, sad commentary on the state of our country that it has to exist at all. Which leads me to…

Point 2. You should care about this. Food, shelter, and clothing are the three needs of every human. If you are lucky enough to have an excess of those three, please consider donating to the food bank so that someone who doesn’t have enough of one of those three basic needs can have some more. People who need food assistance aren’t stereotypes you can wave away. They’re your neighbors. Especially in the current economic climate.

The generous folks at The Pittsburgh Foundation have made this incredibly easy. Our city is blessed with a strong philanthropic spirit – and the Pittsburgh Day of Giving, where your donations through their website (this one – over here – pittsburghgives.org – make sure you use it!) makes it even better. You can donate as little as $25, and your funds will be partially matched. It starts tonight at midnight. DO IT. You’ll be up too late making Halloween costumes or folding laundry anyway.

Or, heck, here’s another easy way: the food bank has a Groupon. Who doesn’t love those ridiculously good deals for the consumer (that turn out not to be so hot for the merchants, but not in this case)? You can donate $10 to help with school food programs. You’ve spent more than that on coffee this week.

I’m doing both (or will once it hits midnight tonight). I haven’t been paid (or fed) by the food bank to do either one of these things, or to talk to you about it. As a former food pantry kid, I know what it’s like to be poor. I’m thankful for social safety nets, both government- and privately funded. I’m happy to do it and talk about it because that means fewer kids go hungry. That’s a no brainer.

And, hey, check it out. I may have crapped the bed on Hunger Action Month, but I have World Food Week of Action 2011 to look forward to. And it’s during my birthday week, so I may force my family to do something food-related for my birthday. A little guilt never hurt anyone, right?

produce to the people.

I had the good fortune to be able to observe the Produce to People program at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank tonight. I’m beat, and still processing all that I learned, but it was definitely one of those experiences I can’t forget. Here’s a glimpse of what I saw.

This doesn’t begin to demonstrate the volume of people or food in the room tonight. This does, however, demonstrate the ways people can be resourceful in getting their food home (we saw many laundry baskets in use). It also demonstrates the ubiquity of the canned corn that helps to fill in the gaps.

This once a month distribution is designed to be supplementary to local food pantry use, providing fresh produce as well as more shelf-stable food. However, 60% of the participants don’t have a home food pantry. Families can take home up to 45 pounds of food, and we saw volunteers maneuvering these carts back and forth for hours tonight.

The Paper Plate campaign asks people to explain to their elected officials how hunger has affected them, and what role the food bank has played in their life. This month, Senator Pat Toomey is the intended recipient of the paper plates – and you can send one virtually. It’s an easy way to make your voice heard and support food security in our region.