Category Archives: Social Issues

The Food Mobile Comes to Winthrop

On Wednesday, the Good Shepherd Food Bank’s Food Mobile came to Winthrop and set up a temporary food pantry at the parish hall of St. Francis Catholic Church. According to Good Shepherd’s website, the food mobiles allow them “to deliver fresh, frozen, and dry grocery goods at great distances at safe temperatures,” and they also allow Good Shepherd, which is in Auburn, to set up temporary food pantries anywhere in the state.

Local organizations helping the Good Shepherd bring the food mobile to Winthrop were the Winthrop Food Pantry, Winthrop Hot Meals Kitchen, and the United Way of Kennebec Valley. Last but certainly not least, Nancy and Charlie Shuman, of Charlie’s Family of Dealerships, generously sponsored this event, donating the money needed to bring the food mobile to Winthrop.

Earlier in the week, JoEllen Cottrell, the executive director of the Winthrop Food Pantry, had called to ask me if I could come to the parish hall to help unload the truck, set up food inside the parish hall, and pass out food. “Yes,” I said. “I’ll be there.”

There were many other volunteers, and with a couple of dollies and a lot of people power, we unloaded boxes and boxes of onions, grapes, baked goods, tuna fish, beef stew, baked beans, rice, meat, eggs, pasta, and macaroni and cheese. Did I forget something? Perhaps, but that is the gist of what was there.

Volunteers unpacking food
Volunteers unpacking food
The food pantry's hardworking president, Mike Sienko
The food pantry’s hardworking president, Mike Sienko

Students from Maranacook Middle School, along with some of the staff, also donated their time, and how glad we were to have them on hand to carry boxes and bags for the elderly and the disabled. Simply put, those students were little gems, and I do hope they help again should the food mobile come back to Winthrop.

Anybody in the area who needed food—there were no income restrictions at all—was welcome to come, and come they did, lining up two hours before the doors even opened. And what did these people look like? Readers, they looked like you and me. They were tall, short, thin, fat, young, old, male, female. Don’t think they were somehow “those other people,” because they weren’t. In central Maine, they live among us, and depending on the turn of events, they could indeed be us, going through the line with boxes and bags, taking free food.

I passed out cans of beef stew, and I am not ashamed to admit that I really love, and I mean love, passing out food to people. I suppose I get this from my mother, who liked nothing better than feeding family and friends. The more cans of beef stew I gave, the happier I felt, and my face must have reflected this joy because people smiled right back at me. When I mentioned this to JoEllen, she said, “I think most of the volunteers at the pantry feel exactly the same way that you do.”

I also want to note, with pride, that in central Maine, people cook. There were so many boxes and bags of onions that I was sure we’d have some left over, but we didn’t. Every single bag went out the door with a home cook. “It’s the same with fresh potatoes and squash,” JoEllen said. “When we offer them at the food pantry, people snap them right up.”

Bags of onions
Bags of onions

On a less upbeat note…After the food was gone and the recipients had left, my friend Margy Knight and I chatted for a bit.

“Why are there so many people who need food?” she asked, shaking her head. “That is the question we should be asking.”

Why? Because too many jobs don’t pay enough, and the same is true for pensions going to senior citizens and the disabled. Then, of course, there are the people who are out of work or who have high medical expenses. Margy nodded, telling me that she was so moved by the whole event, by seeing how many people came for food. I then went on to tell her that it was my understanding that most wealthy countries did not use food pantries and food mobiles to feed their people. Instead, higher wages and generous social services keep the people well fed.

As I left, I wondered, what happens to struggling people in communities that don’t have people as generous as the Shumans? Or as hardworking and organized as JoEllen or the food pantry’s president, Mike Sienko? What then?

Well, let’s end on an upbeat note. On Wednesday, 170 families, feeding 470 individuals, took home onions, meat, grapes, and bread and enough other food to supplement their diet for the next week or so. They came from 15 towns, and it makes me feel good to think of all that food in their cupboards, freezers, and refrigerators.

Craig Hickman, of Annabessacook Farm. He loves to feed people just as much as I do.
Craig Hickman, of Annabessacook Farm. He loves to feed people just as much as I do.

 

 

 

 

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First Annual Family Barbecue & Gumbo Festival to End Hunger

 

On Saturday, my husband, Clif, our daughter Shannon, and I went to an event that I had been looking forward to all week—The First Annual Family Barbecue & Gumbo Festival to End Hunger. To my way of thinking, it had 3 things going for it: It was a community event; it was a fund raiser for organizations such as the Winthrop Food Pantry and the Hot Meals Kitchen; and it would feature some of Craig Hickman’s delicious cooking. Craig, of Annabessacook Farm, is a terrific cook who not only cares about good food but also about the problem of hunger, and he volunteers at the Hot Meals Kitchen in Winthrop.

The Winthrop Rotary Club hosted this festival—Craig is the president—which meant that there were plenty of volunteers to make such an event run smoothly. The festival was held on the football field and glory be! The weather actually cooperated. Although the day started out gray and a bit damp, by 4:30, when the festival began, the sky was blue, and the sun was shining.

The view from afar

We live less than a mile from the football field, so we decided to walk rather than take the car. As we approached the field, the aromas of smoked and grilled meat mingled with spicy barbecue sauce, and we followed our noses to the tent with its long row of food and servers. Truly, it was a barbecue feast. Among other delectable items, there were ribs, brisket, pulled pork, corn bread, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, collards, and gumbo. There was so much food that there wasn’t room for everything on one plate.

The long line of delectable food

As we went to the festival early, we got choice seating, and we began sampling the food on our loaded plates. The gumbo was nicely spiced, with a little tingle rather than a blast of heat. The pulled pork was sweet, tender, and not at all dry or stringy, some of the best I’ve ever had. The ribs were smoky and, again, tender. The cornbread was moist and cakey and very good. I’m not sure how to describe the taste of the collards. They weren’t bitter but were instead savory. When Craig stopped by to say hi, I asked him about the spicing, and he listed some of the ingredients: ginger, soy sauce, turmeric, onions, garlic, and curry. Hence the savory taste.

Ah, pulled pork and ribs, corn bread and cole slaw!

As we ate, more and more people came. There were music, Frisbee playing, and an air house for children. Some people spread out on the grass with their families. Joe Young, the police chief and one of the servers, wore a tie-dyed chef’s jacket. Jeff Woolston, the town manager, was at one of the grills. The lead sponsor of the festival was Charlie’s Subaru, and many of the volunteers had on yellow T-shirts with, not surprisingly, “Charlie’s Subaru” in big black letters on the front.

Craig told me he had worried that hardly anyone would come. It seems that he worried needlessly. Enough food was prepared to feed 300 people, and by the end they ran out of pork and had to go to Hannaford’s for pork chops. So the festival was a success, and deservedly so.

The crowds did not surprise me at all.  During the week, I had been hearing an anticipatory buzz around town, with “Are you going to the festival? So am I.”  And then there was the price—$10 per person or $25 per family. No wonder people came.

After we were done eating, we chatted with various friends and acquaintances. The sun was setting, but the day was still warm. Children shrieked with joy as they jumped in the air house, and everywhere there was the sound of happy people eating.

I hope this festival becomes a yearly tradition, and I’m sure there are many who hope the same thing.

 

 

 

A GATHERING OF FRANCO-AMERICANS: PART ONE—A BRIEF HISTORY OF FRANCO-AMERICANS IN MAINE

Last Saturday, I went to a Franco-American gathering that included artists, editors, archivists, and professors. (I’m sure I’ve left out a category or two.) Most of us were of Franco-American descent, but a few were non-Francos who are involved in the culture in one way or another. In Maine, around 30 percent of the population are descended from emigrants from France who made their way to Maine via Québec or the Maritimes.

A brief history of Franco-Americans for readers unfamiliar with Maine’s history: In the mid-1800s, when the Industrial Revolution was gearing up, factory workers were desperately needed in Maine. At the same time, Franco-Canadians needed work. Big Catholic families combined with a finite amount of arable land led to poverty and deprivation. Indeed, as I heard over the weekend, some families were so poor they could hardly afford to buy shoes for their children.

So down the Franco-Canadians came, to work in Maine mills. And they came and they came and they came. (Not only to Maine, but to other New England mill towns as well.) These emigrants brought their language—French—as well as their religion and other customs, including a preternatural urge for cleaning their houses, garages, and barns. Settling in mill towns and cities, the emigrants formed French quarters where French was the main language, and there were French newspapers and radio shows. Masses were said in French, and most of the children went to Catholic schools.

Sometime around the early 1900s, the dominant culture—the Anglo-Americans, the Yankees—began to get alarmed. Yes, they wanted workers, but there were so many of “the French,” who insisted on speaking their language and carrying on as though they were still in Québec, not in Maine. The Yankees embarked on an assimilation campaign, and like all such plans, it relied on intimidation, repression, and, at times, outright terror. The Ku Klux Klan was huge in Maine, and they marched against the Franco-Americans. French was not allowed to be spoken in schools unless it was in French class, where “good French” was taught. Unfortunately, the Yankees succeeded with their plans, and by the time my generation came along, few of us spoke French, and too many of us were only vaguely aware of our rich, cultural heritage. We knew we were the underdogs, but we weren’t exactly sure why this was the case.

Others—writers and scholars—were more aware of what happened, and as the past was examined, there came an overwhelming need to tell the Franco-American story, which had been suppressed for so long. This movement started sometime around the 1970s and is continuing into the 21st century. Writers and performers are examining what it means to be Franco-American. Courses are offered at the University of Maine at Orono that explore the history. And some writers, like me, use the Franco-American culture as a springing board in fiction. It is not the destination, it is who I am, and all things flow from this.

I will admit that as I came to terms with my own heritage—French for as far back as I can trace it—I went through an “angry Franco” period and was quite bitter about the whole Yankee repression thing. But one day, when I was sounding off to David Surrette, a very fine Franco-American poet from Massachusetts, he looked at me and said calmly, “It’s the way of the world, Laurie.”

This brought me up short, but I instantly knew he was right. This sort of thing is the way of the world, and Franco-Americans are hardly the only ethnic group to suffer repression. This acknowledgement doesn’t make it right—of course it doesn’t—but repression happens all around the world with various ethnic groups. Unfortunately, it’s part of the human condition. Humans form groups, and there is always a dominant group. This can happen in different ways, and right now in this country the 1 percent are doing their best to be in charge and to hoard resources.

I would also learn that France—the mother country, so to speak—hardly has a spotless record when it comes to exploitation, and countries in Africa are still dealing with their own legacy of French repression and colonization.

So on we go. We learn, we remember, and we make art. And, I hope, we forgive, although that is not always easy.

In the next post, I will describe some of that art and also the beautiful place—Darling Marine Center—where the gathering was held.

EAT AND LIVE LIKE THE SWISS

Last night, I had a discussion with Scott Davis, a neighbor who lives just up the road from me. His son Ian went to school with my eldest daughter Dee, and we exchanged information about the two “kids.” Ian married a women from Switzerland, who is fluent in English, French, and German, and at home she speaks French to her little children so that they will be bilingual. Both Scott and I agreed that this was a terrific thing to do, that nobody regrets being able to speak more than one language.

However, when I think of Switzerland, I quite naturally think of chocolate, and I mentioned this to Scott.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “They practically serve it at every meal. But you know what? The obesity rates in Switzerland are much lower than they are in the U.S.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“Well, when my wife and I went to visit our daughter-in-law’s family, we noticed that the Swiss walk everywhere, for fun and to get to places. Their portion sizes are much smaller, and their meals are leisurely. They don’t eat on the run.”

To sum up: The Swiss exercise more, eat less, and have more relaxed meal times. Sounds like a winning combination to me. The only thing I would add is that some countries make this healthy lifestyle easier for its citizens than other counties do. For example, it is my understanding that Switzerland has good public transportation and less sprawl. As a result, people don’t use cars as much and walk more.

Also, the Swiss government has mandated that all employees get 4 paid weeks of vacation a year. In the United States, the number of mandated paid vacation weeks is zero. Employers are not required to give their employees any paid vacation or holidays at all, and indeed I have worked in several jobs where I have had neither vacation time nor sick time. I know all too well that old, stressed overworked/underpaid feeling, and it is not a good one.

Let’s just say that it’s easier to have relaxed meals when you have a more relaxed schedule, with plenty of paid vacation time and some paid holidays thrown in to boot.

Now, this does not mean I think that individuals aren’t responsible for healthy and unhealthy habits. Quite the reverse—we are responsible for what we eat and how much we are exercise. But I also believe that we are societal beings as well as individuals, and some countries are better at promoting healthier, more relaxed societies than others are.

These countries, like Switzerland, usually have a high standard of living. They are not fringe countries where people are scrapping to survive for basic necessities.

And need I mention that Switzerland has universal health care for its citizens? No, but I’ll do so anyway.

So my question is, why don’t we do it more like the Swiss, when the benefits are so obvious?

 

 

AS WE HEAD TO THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR

December this year is green but crisp, and when I take the dog for a walk, I need to dress warmly—hat, down gloves, layers, and sometimes even a neck warmer. As we walk up the Narrows Pond Road, I notice there is often a skim of ice on the little swamp not far from our house, but the water hasn’t even begun to freeze underneath. The winter berries are plentiful this year, and little red dots punctuate the leafless woods. The ground is hard, which I like. When we come back from our walk, the dog’s paws hardly need to be wiped.

I love this cold season of lights and Christmas trees and wreaths, but it would be remiss of me to ignore the Grinches, who unfortunately are out in full force in Augusta this year. They want to stop providing health care for many low-income people, and they want to stop funding low-income elderly folks who are in assisted living facilities. They say that we are “broke” and that we can’t afford such niceties as health care and assisted living for those not making much money. Yet, of course, we can still afford tax cuts for the wealthy. I can only hope that this “Year of the Protester” (Time magazine’s designation) will somehow make itself felt in Maine. It is probably too much to wish that the Augusta Grinches will have hearts that suddenly swell in size. But these Grinches can be overruled, and they can be turned out of office, when the time comes.

In the meantime, here’s a recipe (maybe guidelines would be a more appropriate description) for a bean soup made from odds and ends but was very tasty nonetheless. So, good, in fact, that it would be worth making on its own. It’s a poor man’s soup, and a poor woman’s, too. I made it with meat, but I think mushrooms could be substituted to give it an earthy flavor.

This soup came about because I was making chili for a party where my husband, Clif, works. I had soaked and cooked 2 cups of black beans and 2 cups of kidney beans, and I knew I would have leftovers. Using the water that the kidney beans were simmered in, I made a soup.

But first I chopped some carrots—about half a soup bowl full—and sizzled them in a stockpot with olive oil until they were tender. I added 2 cloves of chopped garlic to the carrots and let it sizzle about a minute. Then I poured in the cooking water from the kidney beans, and I added just as much plain water. I didn’t have any fresh onion—actually, I did, but it was being saved for chicken soup, that soup of soups—so I used a tablespoon of dried onion flakes. From Clif’s chili, I had saved a bit of cooked ground beef and some cooked sausage balls, and into the pot they went. For spicing, I used 1 teaspoon of cumin, 1 teaspoon of chili powder, a pinch of red pepper flakes, 2 pinches of allspice, two or three shakes of soy sauce, and 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. I let all of this simmer for about a half an hour then added enough beans for a nice, thick soup and let it simmer a while longer. I also added a bit more water.

This made 4 servings—about a half a pot of soup. If I were going to make a full pot, I would use a pound of meat, a full soup bowl of carrots, and double everything else. Or use a big package of mushrooms in place of the meat. (I would probably cook the mushrooms with the carrots and add some water to them so that it would produce a nice little broth.)

And I would taste the soup constantly as it simmered. How else is a cook going to find her way?

 

ELECTION DAY IN WINTHROP: A BUSY TIME IN THE OLD TOWN

Priscilla Jenkins at the Keep Winthrop Warm Table
Priscilla Jenkins at the Keep Winthrop Warm Table

Yesterday was Election Day across the country, and I went to the Winthrop Town Office to do my civic duty by voting.  My name was on the ballot—I was running for a trustee position at Bailey Public Library—and it’s the first time I’ve ever voted for myself. To top off the day, I agreed to help staff the Keep Winthrop Warm table, which had a big jar for donations as well as lots of goodies on hand to give as a thank-you to donors. Keep Winthrop Warm is, well, an organization that provides fuel assistance to Winthrop residents who are in need. Despite climate change, Maine winters are still long and cold. With the price of fuel going ever upward, and salaries remaining flat, the cost of heating a home has become a significant expense. Not long ago, when my husband was at the grocery store, he overheard a conversation where one person wondered how he was ever going to afford to heat his home this winter. So I was happy to help with this project, which combined food with staying warm, two essentials.

All the goodies were homemade, and they included blueberry muffins, snickerdoodles, chocolate chip cookies, blueberry cake, oatmeal cookies, and chocolate-frosted brownies. As I sat at this table filled with treats, I showed remarkable restraint by eating only one small piece of blueberry cake, which was everything  blueberry cake should be—moist, light, and loaded with blueberries. Oh, how I love blueberry cake.

The Keep Winthrop Warm table was right outside the big room at the town office where people were voting, and even though it was an off-off year for elections, it seemed to me that voter turnout was brisk. (Today, on the town of Winthrop’s website, my suspicions were confirmed: voter turnout was 45 percent.) As I sat at the table, I noted with interest the number of people who stopped to donate and the number of people who either walked by without noticing us or who flat-out refused to donate. Some people sheepishly admitted they didn’t have any money on them, a believable statement in this era of credit and debit cards. Other people had money in their cars and came back to give us a donation.

Priscilla Jenkins, who is on the Keep Winthrop Warm committee, was with me at the table, and I asked her what she thought the percentage was of people who donated. “When you take into account the people who don’t notice us and the people who don’t give, I’d say about one-third of the voters donate,” she answered.

I couldn’t help but wonder if this is par for the course for such organizations as Keep Winthrop Warm. Still, by the time I left at 2:00 P.M., the big jar was nearly full, and the generosity of that one-third will go a long way to help heat the homes of Winthrop residents who are in need.

And, as it turned out, I was indeed elected to be a trustee of the library, a place that is very dear to my heart. I will certainly do my best to help the library thrive in these tough economic times.

Addendum—11/10/11: Today, I went for a walk and had lunch with my friend Debbie Maddi. When I spoke about the people who would not donate to the Keep Winthrop Warm fund, she said to me, “You know, times are hard, and some people have nothing to spare, not even a dollar. You can’t tell by their clothes how people are doing, especially if they’ve just been laid off.” Yes, indeed. Important words to keep in mind.

 

 

WINTHROP FOOD MATTERS: PART ONE—THE ISSUES

Last Sunday, after a chilly October bike ride along Lake Maranacook and its russet-colored shores—somehow we have skipped the blazing colors this year—I rode to Margy and Steve Knight’s house for a Winthrop Food Matters meeting. Various members of the community came to the meeting, and they all were concerned about community, good food, and resilience.

Patrice Putman, who works as director of employee development at MaineGeneral Health, moderated the meeting, and the first issue raised was food insecurity in our community. I have volunteered at the Winthrop Food Pantry for 13 years, and JoEllen Cottrell, the Food Pantry’s new executive director, was at the meeting as well. In addition, Craig Hickman, of Annabessacook Farm Bed & Breakfast, was there. His farm sponsors a private food pantry and is also the temporary home of Winthrop’s Hot Meals Kitchen, which serves free meals on Wednesday to anyone who wants dinner. (Until recently, the Hot Meals Kitchen had been in St. Francis Xavier Hall, which belongs to and is adjacent to the town’s Catholic church. Why the Hot Meals Kitchen is no longer there is a long story worthy of its own post.)

JoEllen, Craig, and I had all come to the same conclusion—due to the horrible economy, more and more people are struggling and therefore need our services. At the same time, inexpensive food from places such as the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Auburn is becoming harder and harder to get. This, in turn, puts a huge strain on the budgets of food pantries and hot meals kitchens as they must buy more of their food at full price from conventional grocery stores. (The lack of food from The Good Shepherd Food Bank, which has been Winthrop Food Pantry’s mainstay for as long as I’ve volunteered there, would be another subject worthy of an entire post on this blog. ) Craig Hickman put it succinctly: “The excess in the system is drying up.”

From there the discussion turned to having a licensed commercial kitchen in Winthrop, where donated fruit and vegetables could be processed and then given to the Hot Meals Kitchen and to the Winthrop Food Pantry. (Because of federal guidelines, the Food Pantry is unable to accept food canned or preserved by home cooks. Such food must come from a licensed commercial kitchen.)

Various homes for the Hot Meals Kitchen were discussed, from the Winthrop Middle School to an abandoned factory in town to a new building on a piece of land. Craig spoke of how the board of the Hot Meals Kitchen voted to investigate having its own place. “That way, we can control our destiny. We won’t be beholden to anybody,” Craig said. Craig’s feeling was that if everything went according to plan, the Hot Meals Kitchen would soon be back in St. Francis Xavier Hall, giving the board time and space to pursue its goal of building a community center focused on food. (I must admit, I love this idea.)

By the time the meeting concluded, there were plans of action. Margy offered to do research about food processing for food pantries in other communities; JoEllen, of course, will be devoting her time and energy into keeping the shelves stocked at the Winthrop Food Pantry; Steve volunteered to check into the Middle School about the possibility of of having a commercial kitchen there; and Craig and I discussed writing a regular food column for our local paper—the Community Advertiser—so that we could bring various food issues to people’s attention as well as provide seasonal recipes.

Even though the Winthrop Food Matters meeting ended on an upbeat note and the mood throughout was positive, one thing is certain. When it comes to food matters, there are many angles to consider—politics, resources (both food and money), time, and energy. Yet what can be more important than the food we eat and how communities are fed? Our health and well being are inextricably twined with food.

But there are lots of reasons to be hopeful. In Winthrop, the interest in local food has never been greater. Thanks to the many farmers in the area, Winthrop grows some of its own food, and the community makes an earnest effort to provide food for those in need.

Now, onward!

(Tomorrow’s post will be Winthrop Food Matters: Part II—Food and Fellowship)