Monday, December 13, 2010

December Update

Hi Friends,

I’ve been told by some (ahem…Anna) that I need to update my blog, so here we go…

Things at work have been going really well. My project—to improve SNAP outreach to likely eligible Latino households—has been moving along nicely. I’ve had 22 interviews with community groups and am on track to meet my goal of 40 by mid-January. With the help of some of my interviewees I’ve gotten into contact with some great grassroots people who are telling me incredibly interesting stories about their lives, their dealings with different immigration and racial profiling issues, and the ways that community resources are meeting or not meeting their needs. I think in the last week I’ve really honed in on the right questions to ask and possible next steps for creating collaborative partnerships with and across interested stakeholders.

I wouldn’t say that my findings have been shocking, though some of the more nuanced issues, which I won’t go into in detail here, have been really interesting. By far, the biggest barrier to families not accessing SNAP is (unfortunately) an obvious one for Arizona: fear of reporting and deportation. A close second, though, is misinformation. There are certainly ways that undocumented people, by volunteering information about their immigration status to a DES worker, can get into trouble applying for public benefits, but there is also a large amount of misinformation circulating in the community around SNAP eligibility rules and possible repercussions related to their ability to gain legal residency if/when comprehensive immigration reform happens. These issues have bearing on SNAP enrollment but are also large barriers to SNAP recertification and to the resolution of problems what families that are eligible have been wrongly denied benefits as a result of an error on the part of DES or an incomplete application. I would file all of these issues, from fear of deportation to fear of appealing wrongful rejection, under the category of ignorance of rights. From what I’ve heard in my 22 community meetings, partners with resources and partners with access to likely eligible Latino families need to come together to reinvigorate a wide-reaching, multi-faceted campaign to educate Latino families of mixed status on their rights.

Outside work I’ve been having a nice time enjoying the mild Arizona winter and doing some traveling. Over Thanksgiving I went to San Jose, CA and then onto Oakdale, CA to see a few members of my dad’s side of the family, which was a treat. We (over)ate from Wednesday to Sunday and made a 24 hour-long visit to Yosemite National Park to frolic in the fresh snow and do some wildlife watching. My sister was able to join me for the latter part of the week, and we caught up and slipped around on the ice together. It was great to see everyone and get away for a few days.

Since then I’ve done some shopping (though sadly not for anyone on my Christmas list), bought and decorated a 7-ft Christmas tree with Matthew, attended a corny but enjoyable holiday performance by the Phoenix Symphony, and traveled to Nogales for work and pleasure (the work was a SNAP outreach presentation, the pleasure was the chile relleno I had afterward….). I’ve been slacking as far as working out at the Y goes, but I continue to enjoy attending the UCC church downtown on Sundays. Pastor Steve is a really brilliant preacher, blending academic study of the Bible with ease of speech and accessible, powerful metaphors for a combination I find easy to listen to, easy to understand, and always quite moving. Today I followed up church with a trip to Papago Park, a regional park with a nice picnic area and some well marked (if not too exciting) hiking trails, and a stroll through an arts festival in Mesa, where I bought my office Secret Santa gift!

I am really looking forward to going home for a few days in late December. In particular, I’m looking forward to seeing my family, gorging myself on Christmas cookies, and hanging out with friends I’ve been missing a lot as of late. I think the holiday will also be a nice break during which I might gain some last perspective on my work project before writing it up in January. At the point I go home I will have also completed all the interviews for the policy site placement phase of the fellowship and will, hopefully, have a good sense of where I’ll be working for the first half of the next year. Exciting things to come! I’m hoping for something with a lot of Hill interaction, a healthy dose of research, and good job prospects.

I will likely not writing again until going home on the 23rd, so Merry Christmas to all! I’m eager to relax, reflect, and get started on 2011!


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Alone is Okay

I was warned by many people that after I graduated college, I would be alone. They said this word with weight and sadness for me. Alone is something to be worked through, gotten over, ignored, avoided.

Since moving to Phoenix, I've had fantastic conversations with my roommate, shared brown bag lunches with the staff at my office, and sipped drinks with one lovely friend I made at work. But oftentimes, I am alone. I am alone when I commute to work, I am alone at my desk with my thoughts and millions of to-do lists, I am alone in my bed at night writing down the day's successes or reading or thinking or dreaming. During one of my first few weekends in Phoenix I went to a restaurant alone and had bar food and a Corona. Yesterday I went to the movies alone. Now I am sitting in the library alone after going to the farmer's market alone. Later today I will go to the museum alone and drive in my car alone, singing loudly to the music on the stereo.

I guess the point of the clip I posted above and the totality of my "alone" experience is that alone is okay. I enjoy myself more than I ever have before. I wonder at the way my mind works; I think about conflicts I have and reflect on what these mean about my character; I love the sound of my own singing voice, even when I don't know the words to a song; I savor the food I can cook for myself and the quiet and peaceful moments I can have just walking from my office to my car. I think sometime I mistake alone for lonely, and they are not the same. Alone can foster a love for self that is far deeper than the love you might know if you never give yourself time to just be. Please don't fall into the trap of thinking I am confused or feeling pity for me. I'm content and centered and enjoying all the things I'd never taken the time to know about myself. Really, alone is okay.

Non-profits in Phoenix and the Peril of Working in Cultural Silos

One issue that’s becoming increasingly important to me is the concept of working in silos. This is an oft criticized quality of non-profit work: non-profit organizations, driven by competition for public and private grant funding and donations from many of the same individuals, begin to “sell” their organizations as the best combatants of the social ill de jure. For that reason, we categorize and compartmentalize issues that are actually inextricably intertwined. We duplicate services; we reinvent the wheel all the time. We focus on community needs rather than community assets because we must prove that the crisis is ever-worsening and that we need an increasingly large pool of funding to do our jobs well. We create strategic partnerships but in so doing create artificial separations between issue areas and unhelpful competition between organizations that should otherwise be working collaboratively.

The concept of the silo is not new, but the thing of which I was not aware before coming to Arizona is how, in addition to working in issue silos, the non-profits of Arizona are also working in what I would call cultural silos. Non-profits have further partitioned themselves on the basis of race/ethnicity. For the most part, that bifurcation is one of white vs. Hispanic/Latino/Chicano.

And, honestly, the segregation is understandable if I’m considering carefully the kinds of barriers to effective partnership we might face looking across ethnic lines. Organizations would likely need to agree broadly on immigration issues. They would need to hold meetings in both English and Spanish (which is not to say that many Latinos can’t speak English well). They would need to involve and respect the role of faith-based organizations far more than they do in the white non-profit community. They would need to be sensitive to the issues of undocumented immigrants.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that white groups are largely out of touch with the culture, interests, concerns and importance of Latino-focused groups. People doing “racially neutral” work—-fighting poverty, for example, without an explicit focus on people of color in poverty-—are woefully disconnected from people doing expressly anti-racist anti-poverty work. When I make calls to other anti-poverty organizations with a largely Latino constituency or client base, they are (very) cold calls despite the fact that our organizations work on the same issues, often (nominally) for the same people.

I haven’t found the answer to this problem, but it is something I’m convinced impacts the effectiveness of all race-neutral non-profit groups. Because the poor are disproportionately people of color, race-neutral groups will do things ineffectively without buy-in and leadership from groups led by and for people of color. We need to (1) realize that we are working in cultural silos, (2) identify this as a large factor in our inability to move the needle on poverty, and (3) commit to working together (or rather largely white groups need to do internal anti-racism work and make a public comitment to find ways to enter into Latino or other POC non-profit networks.) Incidentally, race-neutral groups are often headed by whites and often have a disproportionately high portion of the available resources for non-profit work. This means that lacking or nonexistent collaboration also negatively affects anti-racist groups due to lack of funding and access to social and political capital

If we truly believe that everyone is tied up in the plight of the poor, we need to begin looking more closely at who is in our staff meetings, board meetings, neighborhood coalitions, advocacy committees, legislatures. Though we say that we as a society have made large strides in eliminating segregation during the past several decades, it is surprising, frustrating and hypocritical that the non-profits who claim to be aiding in the process of poverty alleviation and social justice are still so completely and ironically isolated on the basis of race.

Friday, October 29, 2010

NYC Soda Ban, Revisited

I've been thinking about my comments on this blog regarding the NYC soda ban, and while I enjoy nerding out on paternalistic policy, you may not. You may also think my arguments weren't all that convincing. In composing an e-mail to a good friend I thought of slightly more succinct, conversational and persuasive way to write about this. Here's my email:

I would certainly concede that using SNAP to buy soda is not ideal. As taxpayers, we hope that our money is spent by government agencies and benefit recipients alike in a responsible and efficient manner. However, I think this soda ban is bad public policy because it is based on an overgeneralization of the facts and it, in my opinion, unfairly targets food stamp users for what I believe will be a very small effect on obesity in NYC. Here's why:

1. Though BMI and income are negatively correlated, USDA studies show that there is no credible evidence that food stamp users are more obese than comparable low-income shoppers who do not use food stamps. There is no good reason for targeting food stamp users over other low-income consumers except for the (decidedly undemocratic) reason that we can because we control the purse strings.
2. Though studies show that 6% of food stamp dollars go to purchase soda, there is no evidence that this is a higher than the percentage of food dollars comparable low-income families spent on soda. Again, targeting food stamp users over other low-income families is not justifiable.
3. Food stamp participant households stay on the program an average of 9 months. A 9-month soda ban will have no appreciable effect the BMIs of affected family members.
4. We don't know what a soda ban will do to food purchasing habits. Has anyone done any research on what types of foods food stamp users would buy instead of soda? I'm not aware of any study, for example, that compares food stamp users' food purchases before the stimulus SNAP bump and after. If we think food stamp users are incapable of or unwilling to make healthy choices without this ban, then shouldn't we also assume they'll substitute toward twinkies or ice cream or the coffee to get that nutrient-free caffeine fix? By the way, if the ban is not about obesity (which it is...), but rather just about the public expense of "non-food" items, then why isn't anyone talking about banning the purchase of those big red buckets of Folgers coffee?
5. The average SNAP benefit per person per week is about $30. 6% of $30 is $1.80. Do we really think that banning $1.80 worth of soda and encouraging (read: gambling on) a $1.80 purchase of fresh fruits or vegetables is really going to make people less obese?
6. Most food stamp participant households spend out-of-pocket monies on food to supplement their too-low food stamp budget. How much of that supplemental food budget is spent on soda? If we force non-soda purchases with food stamps, will people simply increase soda purchases with their out-of-pocket monies and buy non-soda items normally purchased with out-of-pocket money with food stamps? I wonder if food buying habits are a zero-sum game, so to speak.

For the above reasons, I would guess that the cost-benefit calculus just doesn't add up. We're talking about costs in city, state and federal staff time, costs to combat the soda lobbies, costs to determine and fight about what constitutes a "soda", costs to re-educate food retailers on SNAP regulations, and more abstract costs in preventing utility maximization by food stamp users, among others...Unless, of course, we think that food stamp users aren't currently maximizing their utility when they purchase soda because they're too stupid, which is a blatantly racist, classist statement, or too misinformed, which is a valid critique of our woefully inadequate SNAP nutrition education programs. And all of that for a negligible effect on obesity and, consequently, on obesity-related health expenditures.

I would also add that the fact that Mayor Bloomberg pursued a general soda tax, which failed in the state legislature, inadvertently admits that a soda ban for everyone, regardless of income, is a far more just and effective policy than a soda ban for food stamp users.

Frankly, the ban pisses me off. I can't make anything of this ban except that it's a purely political move to appear to be making good on a promise to reduce obesity in the city, all the while sidestepping the legislative process because it rejected a soda tax that might make voters--middle and high income people--mad. There are far better ways to reduce obesity--at least the soda tax would have generated some revenue for the city!

I clearly have a pretty strong stance on this, what do you all think? You could pretty easily avoid dealing with any of my objections if you said that (1) the ban is just about public purchase of non-food items and not primarily about obesity reduction, and (2) that you'd support a food stamp purchase ban on coffee, too. But then I'd invoke the ever-popular slippery slope argument...

I wonder if this re-framing of my thoughts is helpful. Looking for feedback!


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Food as jewelry: my new obsession


There's something you should know about me: I'm obsessed with miniatures (and "megatures", as I call them). Combine that with my obsession with food and you've got the makings for a ridiculous desire to buy jewelry from I know this isn't policy or social justice-y, but it's about food so it's somewhat appropriate for this blog, right? Anyway, check out a few of my favorites...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bloomberg fails to make good public health policy; targets SNAP users instead

I am increasingly disturbed by news out of New York City regarding a recent request from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the USDA, the federal agency in charge of SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program), that soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages be removed from the list of items purchasable with SNAP benefits. (Read more here:


I admit that soda and sugar-sweetened beverages are disproportionately to blame for obesity in our country. It is also true that, roughly speaking, income is negatively correlated with BMI. If you are poor in the US, you are more likely to be overweight and obese. However, the USDA put out an important study of the literature on food stamp use and obesity, finding that studies have NOT conclusively shown that food stamp users are more obese than people with similar incomes who do not receive food stamps. Therefore, it's poverty, not the use of food stamps or factors determining whether a poor family receives or does not receive food stamps, that is causing most of the obesity in our country. Poverty reduces a family's ability to buy healthy food. Poverty reduces a family's ability to live in a neighborhood where the streets are safe for play and where there are parks and community recreation centers. Poverty in a neighborhood reduces incentives for grocers selling healthy, high-quality fruits and vegetables to locate their stores in those neighborhoods. The working poor work more hours (for less money), meaning they cannot make as much time for food shopping and preparation. A number of factors explain the well documented relationship between poverty and obesity. There is no well documented relationship between food stamp use and obesity that also controls for poverty.

The city says it is basing the policy on a recent study showing that a larger than desirable percentage of food stamps are spent on sodas and sugar sweetened beverages. This is indeed an unfortunate finding. I would challenge, however, the idea that food stamp users spend a larger portion of their food budgets on soda than other low-income shoppers. I would challenge this idea that food stamps are a reliable determinant of soda purchasing habits.

For these reasons alone the ban on food stamp purchases of soda does not make good public policy sense. This type of ban only targets part of the population who are so disproportionately burdened by obesity. Those who are poor but not on food stamps but statistically overweight can still buy soda. If the primary objective is reduction in obesity, a ban on purchasing it with food stamps is inefficient. I would also argue that the costs of doing so--monetary costs to retailers and reductions in freedom and ability to meet preferences to food stamp shoppers--are too high.


Beyond the inefficiency argument, I can find no just, sensible reason for banning soda purchase to food stamp users. There are two possible arguments in my mind: justifiable paternalism and social cost.

The arguments for justifiable paternalism (a good reason that the state should intervene when we think we're making choices that only harm ourselves) just don't hold up. Possible "good reasons" for paternalism are if the person affected (in paternalism it should only be the decision-maker) is (1) a child; (2) mentally unable to make sound decisions; (3) someone whose ability to make a good decision is compromised by ignorance, deception, duress or clouded faculties. It is wrong to say that food stamp users as a whole, are mentally unable to make sound decisions, so I will not deal with the argument here. There is an interesting argument to be had that the decisions of food stamp shoppers affect children in families that use food stamps. If a parent buys soda for a child, that child does not have the information or autonomy to refuse the soda. I think this is an interesting and possibly valid argument, but does not present a large enough problem to justify a categorical ban on soda purchase with food stamps. There are better ways to tackle childhood obesity. The third idea, that people cannot make good decisions because they do not have enough information is, in my opinion, quite valid. The nutrition education component of SNAP is underfunded and woefully inadequate for educating the massive numbers of food stamp recipients. In this case, however, it is the inadequacy of nutrition education, not the ability of food stamp users to buy unhealthy foods, which is the key issue.

If we wanted to delve deeper into the issue of permissible paternalism, we could think about the nature of people's preferences for soda. We admit that we want to respect people's preferences, but we have to ask some questions about those preferences to be sure that we are respecting the "right" ones. For example, we want to:

  1. Respect relevant preferences. This would say that the decision to purchase soda was made with some false information so people were considering the wrong factors in their personal cost-benefit analyses. We might say that their deeper preference is for good health, not for the taste of Coke, but I think that this concept is a bit too patronizing to consider seriously. While Sprite commercials may be weird (seriously, what's up with those?) and Coke commercials may pull at your domestically inclined heart strings, I don't think anyone thinks drinking soda is about anything other than enjoying something you like the taste of. I think most people's preference for soda, manifest in their purchase of that soda, is constructed with the idea that soda is not that healthy in mind.
  2. Respect people's settled preferences. This concept would claim that the preference for soda is transitory while the preference for health is the "settled preference", the one that comes to light after some time or after an adverse event has occurred as a result of the transitory preference. This has some validity in the case of soda, I think. I would imagine that many men and women with diabetes would prefer to go back and un-drink that soda if it meant that they would not have to deal with diabetes later on in life. However, because there is a de facto and, in many states, a de jure time limit to receiving food stamps, a ban on food stamp purchase of soda does almost nothing to ensure that people respect their own settled preferences in the long run. We come again to the inefficiency and now inadequacy argument.
  3. Respect preferred preferences. People have many preferences for things. For example, in the case of smoking, people may manifest a preference for smoking when they light up a cigarette but may at different times manifest a preference for not smoking when they try, without success, to quit. We could infer that their preferred preference is not to smoke but the addictive quality of tobacco prevents them from respecting their own preferred preference for quitting. The small effect of caffeine addiction (and you can ingest caffeine from other sources) notwithstanding, the addition/"preferred preferences" argument doesn't have much to say about soda.
  4. Respect your OWN preferences. This gets back to the idea that some people have bad information and their manifest preferences actually mirror preferences generated after unconsciously absorbing various types of persuasion. We might be able to make this case about soda, since soda advertising is so ubiquitous, but we cannot make this argument JUST about food stamp users. Everyone is subject to soda advertising, so if we are following false preferences, we are ALL doing so. A food stamp ban on soda doesn't make sense.


The second argument is social cost. Unfortunately, it's a good one. It asks the question, "Why should we allow federal funds to be spent in ways that will increase expenditures on other federal programs?" The social cost (increase Medicaid expenses, for example) doesn't justify the social benefit of food stamp users being able to purchase and consume soda. I can't personally quantify the degree of preference food stamp users have for soda, but I would guess that the preferences of non-food stamp users to avoid taxes for soda-related Medicaid costs would be greater. However, I think that this generates an impossibly slippery slope. Can food stamp users then not purchase red meat due to the fat they may ingest? What about white bread? What about fruit popsicles? What about trail mix with M&Ms? The social cost argument, though theoretically a good one, presents too many expensive, political problems for sensible implementation.


Furthermore, New York State legislators rejected laws to tax soda for all state residents! I can't help but notice that this law, which is good public policy in that it incentivizes healthier food purchases for ALL PEOPLE and does not categorically ban soda purchases for anyone, was not approved by people who supposedly represent all the state's residents. In response, Mayor Bloomberg made a move not subject to representative decision-making and targeted SNAP users. And why wouldn't he? SNAP users are a disempowered group by virtue of their poverty and by virtue of their use of public benefits. The idea that "beggars can't be choosers", as offensive as this seems to me, I think often prevents people from organizing in a meaningful way around the level of their benefit and, in this case, what their benefit really gets them. It's hard to organize and find a cohesive voice for a group of people who would rather not be in the group in question. I can only imagine that the basic thought process was this: Soda causes obesity and it's too cheap relative to healthier options, so let's tax it! We'll make some money (which we need) and some people will substitute away from soda, which is an added bonus. The state legislature said no? Well, it's really poor people who are obese anyway, so let's target the poor. How can I achieve this, bypass legislative red tape and cause the least amount of political friction possible? Let's ban soda for food stamp users. That targets some of the right people and no one really powerful will make a fuss. Thus, Bloomberg's request to the USDA.

While I support a lot of NYC DHMH policies and progressive ad campaigns, this ban on soda is an unjustifiable, inefficient, hypocritical move and just plain bad policy.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Racial Residential Segregation Meets a “Being With” Model for Engagement with the Poor

According to the US Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, 19.6% of Arizona residents live in poverty, the second highest poverty rate in the nation after Mississippi. It should also be noted that the poverty threshold in this country is a wholly inadequate measure of real, experienced poverty. If you’re living in poverty measured by federal standards, you’re making it (or not) on very, very little.
After this statistic came out on the 16th of this month, I spent some time thinking about what it means for 1 out of every 5 residents of a state to live in poverty. It’s tempting, I think, to draw the “If I’m sitting at a table with 4 other people, one of us is poor!” conclusion, but I’m fairly convinced it’s not that simple. If you’re not poor, it’s unlikely that you sit at metaphorical tables with poor people. The law of large numbers does not apply as easily here because people self-segregate. A convenience sample of your friends or, more importantly, your neighbors, is unlikely to reflect a trans-neighborhood sample.
Racial residential segregation and the housing prices in an area cause a self-selection phenomenon creating areas of concentrated poverty and, often, nonexistent or insufficient community resources. If you’re uncertain as to how widespread racial residential segregation is, check out these maps of major US cities by Eric Fischer: On these maps, concentration of color is concentration of race, which in many cases translates to concentration of wealth. From these threads of thought I’ve realized that, if we adopt the (perhaps too simple) idea that all “neighborhoods” are of equal size, what 19.6% in poverty really means is that 1 out of every 5 neighborhoods in Arizona is a whole community of very poor people. This is including and especially children, the elderly, and people of color.

The question we face, then, is so what? What can we do about concentrated poverty?

The first and too obvious solution is to empower people to move out of poverty. History shows us, however, that people who move out of poverty also tend to move out of their neighborhoods. A cycle of that type of movement leaves a neighborhood in an even worse condition of poverty than it was before some of the better educated, motivated, connected, whatever families left the block. So what about integration? Integration--while in my view an excellent way to challenge racial prejudice and diversify and more equitably distribute social capital across communities—often leads to gentrification of a neighborhood, whereby poorer households are priced out of the local housing market and are forced to move elsewhere. On a macro level, gentrification just scrambles the squares on the racial checkerboard of a city but does little to shrink or eliminate them. A third solution moves closer to a model of community organizing, whereby an area’s relative homogeneity becomes an asset for coming together for a more influential voice in the city. In this way, people of similar backgrounds and interest become a powerful voting bloc. This does less, however, to create opportunities for relationship-based anti-racism work within a neighborhood.
I’ve mentioned before a course I took at Duke on the ethics of poverty. This course put forth an interesting 3-pronged model for community engagement: (1) working for the poor, (2) working with the poor—the model by which most conscientious anti-poverty agencies work, and (3) being with the poor. Since that course, the idea of “being with” has intrigued me. “Being with” essentially means that the non-poor look for opportunities and spaces where they can be part of multi-racial, multi-SES conversations and not be the facilitator or the leader or even a contributor. “Being with” is all about listening and showing compassion and, where possible, empathy. It is about the value of human relationships in and of themselves, but also about creating a solid understanding of poverty on which to base more “working with”-based programs. One way of “being with”, according to the professor, was to move into a poor neighborhood. It is easy to sit in an office or community center and work with poor families, it is certainly harder to commit to the poor by living with them. As a white female, however, I worry that my presence in a poor neighborhood would be viewed as the first step in a gentrifying process that would push the poor out of their homes. I worry that my presence would fundamentally change the dynamics of a neighborhood. If that neighborhood was non-white, I worry that my presence “at the table” would change the conversation, regardless of whether or not I ever opened my mouth.
I remain in an inner struggle with myself to think about my participation in anti-poverty and anti-racism efforts. How can I be a valuable contributor to the effort and when is my presence and participation harmful? What are the unintended consequences of my actions to impact poor communities? How do I, as a middle-class white woman, think about and protest against, if appropriate, racial residential segregation? The idea that 1 in every 5 residents of Arizona is poor is an unfortunate, though manageable idea for me. I can approach one person with compassion, humility and open-mindedness. The idea that 1 in 5 neighborhoods is poor is a far bigger, daunting concept as I am left on the outside looking in.
Photo created by Eric Fischer, New York, NY as of 2000 Census

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fish Jambalaya

Hi friends,

I'm writing to you from the Phoenix Public Library!!! Let's just say I have a new favorite (albeit nerdy) hang-out spot. I found more books than I could ever read in three weeks and have been engaged in conversation by some very fun and interesting locals. Who knew the library was a such a happening locale?!

Anyway, I digress. I've been working on a post about religion and social justice but I just found a million books on the topic and I'd like to read them before putting anything too ignorant out into the blogosphere. Instead, I'll share a recipe I tried and loved!

Fish Jambalaya
From $3 Low-Calorie Meals by Ellen Brown

Matthew made this one while I my sick self rested on the couch. :) He used an extra clove of garlic, brown rice (and increased cooking time), fresh tomatoes rather than canned, and some hot sauce. It turned out exceptionally well. Lots of flavor but not overly spicy. We chose tilapia as our white fish, but I suppose any could do. I highly, highly recommend this one.

Makes 6-servings. Total prep time 40 mins-1 hr.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves peeled and minced
1 green bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, and diced
2 celery ribs, rinsed, trimmed, and sliced
1 cup long-grain white rice
2 tablespoons paprika
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 3/4 cups chicken stock
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes, drained
1 bay leaf
1 pound thick white-fleshed fish fillets, rinsed and cut into 1-inch cubes
3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Heat oil in deep, covered skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, green bell pepper, celery and rice. Cook, stirring frequently for 3 minutes, or until onion is translucent. Add paprika, oregano, and thyme, and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
2. Stir stock, tomatoes, and bay leaf into skillet, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover the skillet, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes, or until rice is almost tender. Stir in fish and peas, and cook for 5-7 minutes, or until fish is cooked through, and rice is tender and has absorbed all of liquid.
3. Remove and discard bay leaf, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Hope you enjoy! I hope to write more often now that I have a new laptop! I'm looking forward to some good reading on liberation theology, feministy theory and white privilege. Also, look out for a post on a Food Stamp Challenge being undertaken by my fellowship field site, the Arizona Community Action Association. Check out our (still developing) blog and my post about the Challenge here:

Grace and peace,


Monday, September 13, 2010

First Week in Phoenix

Hi friends!

I arrived in Phoenix safe and relatively unscathed after the 17-hour trek from Dallas. I was surprised by how beautiful Texas became as I traveled toward and through El Paso. It was wild, too, to find Juarez, Mexico literally a stone’s throw from the highway running through El Paso. A giant Mexican flag billowed in the wind above the city.

After doing some couch surfing for the night, I got into Phoenix around 2 in the afternoon. Matthew and I spent the next few days sampling the local cuisine (carne asada!), shopping for our extended stay hotel suite, and being generally ridiculous. The space is smaller than I was expecting and we don’t (and likely will never) have internet access in the suite, but the full-sized kitchen appliances and comfy bed were pleasant surprises. It’s been very interesting, after a week of extended stay hotel living, to see how true the Nickel and Dimed story is here in western Phoenix. From my observations and a few conversations with residents, the people staying here will live here for the foreseeable future. They are not transient, white business people as I would have guessed before arriving, but rather a diverse group of residents whose colors and socioeconomic backgrounds seem to mirror those of the surrounding neighborhood folk. This hotel seem to be functioning, for most, as a low-deposit, utilities-included apartment building. I have been most surprised at the community feel here. I’ve starting seeing the same people around. Children who have made friends play soccer together in the courtyards. Toddlers ride their tricycles down the path outside our door. One of the windowsills of a room in an adjacent building is lined with tall candles of patron saints. Children wait for the bus near the hotel marquee outside. Today I helped a young girl carry an overflowing laundry basket up the stairs to her room only to find half of the hotel’s children sitting on the couches, the floors, on the kitchen chairs. Just like us, people have made their homes here.

I started work last Wednesday and am enjoying the experience so far. The staff is exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable in their respective fields. Though the organization doesn’t provide direct services, my need for interaction with community members has been met while manning the phones and referring callers to our partner organizations. I’m also looking forward to the interviews with community leaders and local people as called for in my work plan. Though the office is relatively young, I’m the youngest by several years, so I think I’ll have to pursue other avenues of making friends my own age…

I’ve been treating food shopping as a cultural, recreational activity. Today I went to Food City, a grocery chain catering to the tastes of the Latino population. When I drove up and parked I was surprised to find a grocer set up under a white tent, roasting huge green peppers over a gas flame. The produce section boasted both cactus and banana leaves. The beef portion of the meats/poultry section was perhaps 5 times longer (grocers often measure in linear feet for displays along a wall) than the poultry portion. After experimenting with pulled pork and “season chicken” (mmmm!) in my slow cooker this past week, I bought the fixin’s for teriyaki chicken kabobs, tortilla soup, and fish jambalaya. Expect a report back on the jambalaya—I have my doubts but remain optimistic.

Lastly, Matthew and I made it up to beautiful Sedona, AZ this past Saturday. After impulsive stops at a local, cheap Mexican lunch spot and the Gap outlet, we drove over to Baldwin Trail. The red rock is beautiful beyond belief. Pictures don’t do it justice, but we tried anyway. After a longer-than-expected hike we stopped at a coffee place, and I indulged in an iced tea and carrot muffin. We didn’t get to do much else—I’d love to go back and cliff dive—but it was an exceptionally nice retreat from suburban Phoenix.

I’ve went to First Congregational UCC of Phoenix on Sunday and was so impressed with the progressive feel and genuine hospitality. Unfortunately it’s not as multi-ethnic or young as I would like but isn’t that the truth with too many churches…I’m thinking of going to a lecture series on social justice and the Bible. In any case, very excited about this find in such a conservative state!

Much AZ love,


P.S. I'm having a hard time uploading my photos to the blog, but, if we're friends, please check them out on my Facebook page!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Second Try

I've just finished training for the field site-portion of my fellowship. What I'm feeling is a bit too nuanced for late-night words, but most of what I feel is either gratitude, amazement, or humility.

On the first day of training, we were asked to do something creative that would speak well to who we are. I feel like I copped out with a rhyming poem and a few off-color comments I instantly regretted. I'm going to try again using an absolutely brilliant format introduced to me by my new friend Lindsey. It's a piece called "I come from", that recognizes that we come not just from places, but also from relationships, hobbies, experiences, and "aha!" moments. Here's where I come from:

I come from a brick home under a huge Texas sky
I come from a table set with pot roast and overcooked vegetables and chocolate ice cream
I come from the hugs and kisses of a mother, a father, a sister
I come from privilege I was privileged not to realize I had
I come from a community that always says yes and never says no
I come from camping trips with hikes and s'mores and autumn leaves and dogs barking all afternoon
I come from friends who inspire, challenge, support and humble me
I come from a history of both hard work and unearned, lopsided reward
I come from poor choices, honest efforts and trying relationships
I come from ambition, self-doubt, creativity, ignorance, faithfulness, faithlessness
I come from high standards and burn-out
I come from a school culture that taught me that I was better than everyone else
I come from professors and classmates who were unceasing in their efforts to show me what really matters
I come from a struggle with my color, my gender, my hair, my intelligence, my failings, my ego
I come from a church that loves and a Church that excludes
I come from Guatemala City dump, Pete's Pets homeless shelter, Urban Ministries of Durham
I come from a love for my body, frustration that my body cannot be a perfect representation of who I am
I come from a time when people are still figuring out what it means to be created equal
I come from kumbayas and pop-up books and days and days in the swimming pool
I come from a movement for hope and change cruelly juxtaposed with the ease of inertia
I come from dance and paint and clay and color and voice and paper darkened with heavy words
I come from optimism, trust, empathy, love, patience and a soul on fire for something more

Where do you come from?


Sunday, August 29, 2010

I have a dream...about living wage jobs

I've been thinking a lot about the root causes of hunger (poverty), and this is what I have to say on the topic today:

On August 5, 2007, the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, Dean of Duke University Chapel, preached a sermon entitled, "Is there a gospel for the rich?" ( If I can humbly summarize his argument, I would say that his thesis was this: that money is not inherently dirty (and perhaps having money is not inherently wrong), but that being rich makes being faithful so much harder than it has to be, because rich people are often consumed with ownership over their world. They misunderstand what it means to have things, because everything belongs to, was given to people by God. Including grace. Grace is incommensurable with other things that money can buy, and being rich makes people, as Dean Well put it, "forgetful" of this fact. The gospel for the rich (especially those who are already rich and looking around at their money in disdain) is that they can and should give their money away, not by "an unthinking throwing of money at the poor", but by investing in people, in institutions governed in such a way as to not reinforce systems of oppression, in our government in the form of taxes, and in the private sector, wielding their wealth for good rather than evil.

This is a brave thesis and one I appreciate as a person of immense privilege and a member of the upper-middle class. For many people who have already accumulated massive wealth, this is a comforting message: It's not too late. And I can see why Dean Wells went the way he did with his sermon, because I think, really, the message that it's never too late is the good news for everyone, not just the rich. But I do reject the idea (moving somewhat beyond Dean Well's point) that any type of post hoc investment can serve as an acceptable moral or faithful "safety valve". The amassing and then relinquishing of large amounts of money, I would argue, is not the best, nor the correct way, to go about changing the world. I disagree with Dean Well's rejection of the idea that "there's something inherently dirty about money" and that "every cent have is taken directly out of the pockets of the poor." While I don't think that the world economy is a zero-sum equation, there are too many instances in which the rich are getting richer while the poor (who the rich know and employ) are getting poorer. This gets back to one of the ideas I posted in my last blog entry (an idea worded so poignantly by Joel Berg:) "...Americans are willing to accept that we have poverty despite wealth, but they are loathe to consider that we often have poverty because of wealth."

During a visit to see Robert Egger, founder and president of the DC Central Kitchen (, yesterday, I was struck by his idea that focus on how and how much people give away at the ends of their lives is missing the point and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. It's not about how you give your money away; it's about how you make it in the first place. Why is it admirable to give away all of your money to help the poor, who you helped place in poverty by paying less than a living wage? Why is it socially and politically acceptable to start large philanthropies to work on health issues with money gained through ownership of a business that constructed its employment opportunities in such a way as to avoid offering health care to its lowest paid workers? Where does this pattern leave the working poor between the time they work for a corporation and the time the CEO starts a foundation to benefit the poor? It seems to me that government is letting the rich borrow billions from the poor only to take the large majority of the dividends for themselves and distribute the remaining dividends among (often) different sub-populations of poor people. The return on philanthropic investment here does not even begin to make up for the cost of pulling the money together to make that investment in the first place, evidenced by the fact that we continue to have millions who live in poverty.

Yesterday was the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream speech". But as columnist Roland S. Martin wrote yesterday (, the speech, actually entitled "Normalcy: Never Again" was not just about color but also about equality in economic opportunity. The "March on Washington" was actually the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom". In order to honor this man and the importance of the worst recession since the Great Depression, we should stop looking to charity to save the world. We should challenge the idea that we can get rich just to give everything away while maintaining a clean conscience. The rich (including me) must realize their role in upholding and, for some, running institutions that keep people from earning wages to keep them out of poverty. The gospel for the rich is not about investment in philanthropy, but about investment in workers. Today, I have a dream that my generation, my policy makers, my neighbors, the CEOs of companies who make products that I buy, would focus on encouraging prosperity by insisting that work really pays.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Joel Berg---quite the character

For the less nerdy but still interested friends of food policy out there, you should know about Joel Berg. He served in several high-level positions in the USDA during the Clinton administration and is now the Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. In fact, I actually sat in on a few meetings with him during my work for Ben Thomases (then-Food Policy Coordinator for NYC) and had dinner with him and a few other students during a visit he made to Duke last fall. To sum up a very big man in a few words, he is a brilliant, unapologetically liberal, often over-the-top activist who is more than passionate about people's right to food. More specifically, he believes it is the job of the government to uphold and enable that right by providing the needy with adequate nutrition assistance (SNAP, WIC and the like). I actually don't think he'd mind me saying that on the occasions I've seen him speak, both in public and one-on-one to colleagues, he has gotten so worked up that he started sweating through his shirts and wheezing between clauses in his sentences. It's both comical and inspiring to watch someone who cares that much about justice do his thing.

While he really needs no help plugging his book (he's an expert if not subtle self-promoter), I would encourage anyone who's interested to read his book, All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America? (2008). We were assigned the book as part of our training, and I thought, as a public service to you all, I'd share a few surprising and interesting tidbits (stats current as of 2008):
  • 35.5 million Americans, including 12.6 million children, live in a condition described by the federal government as "food insecurity," which means their households either suffer from hunger or struggle at the brink of hunger. (15)
  • 88 percent of households on food stamps contained either a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. (18)
  • Thus, while much of the public still thinks that most poor people are healthy but unemployed, that describes less than one in five of the people in poverty--and many of those actively are looking for work. (133)
  • American as willing to accept that we have poverty despite wealth, but they are loath to consider that we often have poverty because of wealth. (139)
  • [Quoting President Bush in his 2007 State of the Union Address:] "When I graduated from college, the average corporate executive made 209 time what the average worker did. Today, it's nearly 400 times. In other words, it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money his or her boss makes in one day." (142)
  • In 2006, adult women were 41 percent more likely to be poor than adult men. (181)
  • A tenth of all black men between ages 20 and 53 are in jail or prison... (185)
  • [Quoting a 2008 Father's Day speech by Barack Obama:] "...We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child--it's the courage to raise one." (188)
  • Trying to end hunger with food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon. (191)
  • A 41% increase [in the federal nutrition safety net] would entirely eliminate food insecurity in America... (238)
  • We can end food insecurity in America for just the cost of what the federal government spends on a year of agribusiness subsidies... (238)
  • [Quoting Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968:] "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger?"
So much to think about here. You can learn more about Joel at and And of course, if you ever have an opportunity to hear Joel speak, by all means go! It will be an experience you won't soon forget.


(Photo from

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Social Justice Boot Camp

Unfortunately I had fairly limited internet access this summer and so was unable to share all the joys of working with children with autism. I had an absolute blast and am so thankful for the staff at the YMCA, who made even the toughest (and sweatiest) hours at camp bearable, even fun! I wish I could post pictures of some of my campers because they were completely adorable. Their very "normal" looking smiles are reminders that autism and other special needs are not diseases and they're not contagious. As my co-counselor Ariel posted in one inspired Facebook update, people with special needs want what we all want, to be accepted. I also loved living with Cherrie and her family and taking a beginning wheel pottery class at Durham's Claymakers ( After several defeats at the hand of the electric wheel, I actually came out with some decent pieces (pictures to come)! I'm not sure how many ice cream bowls a girl can have, but I know I can never have enough ice cream, so hopefully I'll find a use for them all.

I'm now back in Dallas preparing for fellowship training, which includes a somewhat frustrating mix of goodbyes, packing, and endless pages of summer reading. I'll be embarking on what I lovingly refer to as social justice boot camp in DC next week, and then I'll move on to Phoenix with my new friend Matthew and way too many boxes of useless but sentimental junk that I can't seem to let go of. I'm looking forward to some new scenery, new people, and the luxurious-looking swimming pool at my Phoenix apartment complex! In preparation for my adventure in living alone, I went out and purchased a crock pot (complete with fancy timer and meat thermometer) to try out some cooking light crock pot recipes, and a new pair of running shoes, lest my crock pot creations result in significantly enlarged buttocks. Hope to share some especially successful slow cooker recipes here in the next month or so!

Finally, I have to plug Eat, Pray, Love with the ever-lovely Julia Roberts. I saw it yesterday and, from a foodie perspective, I have to agree with her conclusions about the inevitability (and acceptability) of a food lover's muffin top. Sometimes the pleasure of flavor is worth the pain of having to lie flat on your back to zip up your skinny jeans.

Until my next post, happy eating to all!


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Welcome to Antoinette's Orders!

Hello! Thank you for visiting Antoinette's Orders. I plan to use this site to share personal stories, my commentary on current events related to food and food justice, and a poem or two. While I'll try and stay somewhat on topic (food and hunger, generally), I'll be engaged in an intensive fellowship experience, moving from North Carolina, to Texas, to Arizona, to Washington, D.C., so I hope you'll forgive any side-tracked discussions of what it means to be a modern nomad, create a community, and be fully alive.

I named this blog Antoinette's Orders after the phrase commonly attributed to then French princess Marie Antoinette, "Let them eat cake." Rather than a mandate to consume as many buttered pastries as possible (which I would enjoy and oblige in a heartbeat), this utterance shows how completely out of touch Antoinette was with the suffering and famine of her people. While men, women and children starved in the streets, Antoinette's flippantly advised her subjects to fill themselves with French cakes, which were far too expensive and scarce to provide a real solution.

Through a revolution of technology, culture, and government policy, the modern-day equivalents of those French cakes have become accessible to the masses. Somewhere between Antoinette's life and mine, simple foods have been replaced by what was once outrageously decadent. And still we are a starving people, but our need has taken a new form. Through an exploration of current events and personal anecdotes I hope to show how out of touch our own food culture is with the true purposes and joys of creating, preparing and consuming food with one another.