Food Poverty

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My brothers and I were incredibly thin while growing up, but we never missed a single meal. Our mother’s food budget was often as slim as we were, but she new enough about nutrition to build a menu schedule that provided us with what we needed without breaking the bank. She was a creative grocery shopper who also had great talent for making delicious meals using a small number of ingredients. Thus we enjoyed the luxury of never going to bed hungry. What we ate had a healthful purpose, so it was a rare day when there were empty calorie foods like sodas or sugary snacks in our home.

My mom understood the value of basics like eggs, beans, and milk in helping our bones to grow and our muscles to maintain their strength. We often took egg sandwiches to school for lunch which admittedly embarrassed me, but they actually tasted good and filled us with enough protein to get us through the afternoon classes. She checked the circulars which were left on our door or arrived in the mail to find the best sales on produce and meat. Our jaunts to various stores were based on a well planned journey in search of the lowest prices. What we would consume during the week was based on whatever was seasonably inexpensive. We learned to appreciate whatever was placed before us, and ate only the amount that was offered. Mama enforced portion control to ensure that the food in our pantry would last for a week at a time. We knew that we were never to take something from the refrigerator or the cabinet without explicit permission lest we ruin her carefully laid plans for feeding us. Snacks were an unknown luxury unless it was a Saturday evening during the times of the month when our mother got paid.

We never had free lunch at our school. We had to purchase the meals, so it was rare for us to eat fare other than whatever we brought from home. Once in a great while Mama would treat us to pizza day or something that we really enjoyed like the turkey and dressing feast at Thanksgiving time. The nice ladies who worked in the cafeteria gave me noticeably huge mounds of food whenever I came through the line. Some of my friends would puzzle over why my portions were so much bigger than theirs. I often suspected that the servers looked at my skinny arms and legs and felt a surge of compassion, adding an extra spoonful to my plate. I always appreciated their generosity and eagerly ate every single drop of food on my tray.

I recently saw an article on the BBC website noting “food poverty” in economically wealthy nations including Great Britain and the United States. The story asserted that one in five children in the U.S.A. come to school hungry. I’m sure the data is correct, but I truly wonder why. As a teacher I know that low income children had access to free or reduced cost breakfast and lunch. The meals were generally nutritious and inviting, but I witnessed so many youngsters throwing most of it away, complaining that it was not what they wanted to eat. The amount of food that ended up in the trash boggled my mind, especially since it was often a step up from the fried egg sandwiches that filled my own childhood belly on so many days. Somehow there is a kind of disconnect between the hunger that children have and their willingness to take the food that is being offered to them.

I also know that with food stamps, food pantries and food banks there are multiple sources of food, so I wonder why families with school aged children are unable to provide just one more meal at home in the evening. There were times when our dinner consisted of a pot of pinto beans. We’d fill a bowl and enjoy the flavor of a high protein and fiber item that also contained vitamin C among other nutrients. We went to bed without pangs of hunger, and never thought to complain that it was such a homely meal. I wonder if there is truly a lack of food of any kind in homes or if the problem is that the children simply don’t want to eat what is available or the parents don’t know how to prepare low cost nutritious meals.

I have a long time friend who spent years working in a church food pantry. She insists that it is very rare for a family to have no source of food. She often speaks of the many places where staples may be found for free. I also know that most public schools are open for breakfast and lunch in the summer that is available without cost for not just children, but the adults in their families as well. The offerings that I have seen are both nutritious and appealing, leaving only one meal to be prepared at home. A good soup can be created without a great deal of money, and if it is paired with some bread it fills the belly nicely. I know this to be true because my mom was the soup queen who used leftover bits of this and that to create fine stews.

I don’t wish to downplay the scourge of hunger or to insinuate that it does not exist, but I wonder if we are adequately preparing those who suffer from “food poverty” in the methods for securing staples and then preparing wholesome meals. My mom learned from her mother who managed to feed a family of ten during the Great Depression. Maybe there are simply too many people who have no idea how to make limited resources work to keep hunger from stalking. Perhaps programs designed to feed the less fortunate should also include lessons on how to make the most of a food budget. I wonder how much waste is created from a lack of the kind of knowledge that my mother had.

It seems almost unbelievable that anyone in our country should be hungry, and yet the data shows that we have yet to feed everyone in spite of great efforts to do so. Maybe we need to include menus and recipes with the food that people purchase with food stamps that might help them to gain maximum benefit from what they choose to buy. Surely we need to determine exactly where the problems lie so nobody need complain of hunger. We have a cornucopia of food in this nation, much of which is destroyed each day. Somehow we are doing something wrong, and we need to honestly determine what changes might work to eliminate the scourge of hunger once and for all.

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A Lost Tradition

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At my stage in life change is inevitable. Very little that we experience stays exactly the same, and in most cases that is a good thing. Sometimes, however, we become accustomed to certain aspects of doing things that they become a kind of tradition, something that we take for granted. In my case going to Canino’s Farmers’ Market on Airline Drive was one of those things. For sixty years the Canino Family offered fresh local produce at incredibly good prices in an open air market that literally hummed with life. It’s mounds of tomatoes, greens of every variety, oranges and apples were alluring enough to me that I traveled there from the other side of town, braving the traffic on Interstate 45 in the knowledge that my long drive would be rewarded with a glorious shopping experience.

I depended on Canino’s for items that I might otherwise have never found in my local stores. One area of the market featured bulk bags of beans of every possible variety, including the yellow split peas that I cook into a golden soup each New Year’s Day according to the family recipe that my mother-in-law shared with me. Most stores sell the green variety, but not the yellow ones. I never worried because I was always able to find a fresh bag of yellow split peas at Canino’s.

I have associated tangerines with fall and my birthday for all of my life. My grandmother Ulrich used to bring out big enamel bowls of them and they always seemed to be available at the local grocery stores. Suddenly a few years back they became almost a gourmet item that had been replaced by those little mandarin oranges known as Cuties. I insisted on having my traditional tangerines and luckily I never failed to find them at Canino’s.

There was a time when Canino’s even sold fresh eggs. They had every size and color imaginable along with great prices. At Easter time I would purchase dozens and dozens for the Easter Bunny egg coloring and to use in preparing the feast for my extended family on Easter Sunday. The jumbo eggs at Canino’s were larger than any that I found elsewhere and looked so beautiful after I applied brilliant colors to their shells.

For a time we owned a piece of property that had a grove of native pecan trees. In the fall we traveled there with bags and boxes which we filled with the precious nuts. Shelling them was a tedious job because they tended to be very small. My fingers would become raw from the process and sometimes even bleed. I did not worry, however, because Canino’s had a row of nut crackers that broke off just enough of the shell to make the process incredibly easy. For just a few cents per pound the machines would whir away and do a job that would have otherwise taken hours of hand numbing labor. Even after we sold the land and no longer had need of the nut cracking machines the sound of them at work always enchanted us when we went to visit the market on cool fall days. They were a constant like the rising of the sun and the changing of the seasons.

What I loved most about Canino’s is that it did not resemble the typical produce department of a grocery store. Everything was offered in bins mounded with a particular kind of fruit or vegetable. The items were as fresh as if they had been picked on minutes before. Most of the fun was in selecting just the right pieces that I wanted. I would leave with actual brown paper bags filled with wondrous and healthy produce. Going there was a joyful event, a happy adventure.

Sadly the Canino family vendors closed their business at the end of December when the brothers decided to retire. Thirty long time employees lost their jobs and the market itself changed names. An effort to enhance and modernize the concept has left it resembling an ordinary grocery store produce department save for the stalls in the back. The nut crackers are gone. The huge bins mounded with a particular kind of fruit or vegetable are no more. There are bulk bags of beans but the yellow split peas are not to be found. The new employees seem not to understand how much regular customers like me liked the old ways. At least for now most of the magic is gone.

There are plans by developers to turn the area into a destination for Houstonians and travelers to the city much like the markets in New Orleans and Seattle. Sadly their first efforts are leaving me wanting. The charm of Canino’s is gone and with a nearby Sprouts and a huge HEB market within less than five minutes of my house I now have little incentive to drive thirty to forty minutes to the newly styled market. If I’m going to travel that far I would prefer Central Market with its admittedly higher prices, but much better variety.

The new market on Airline is in transition. Perhaps they will yet find their way to my heart. I want to give them a chance to make me as happy and excited as Canino’s always did. I’d like to think that one day in the future I’ll again feel that warm sense of being at a very special place that the old market always gave me. I suggest that the new vendors consider setting up some nut cracking machines, adding yellow split peas to their bulk bean section, and making sure that when fall comes around there will be plenty of tangerines. Some things should never change.

A Great Destination

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It’s January and I have roses and azaleas blooming in my yard. Houston is a funny place. Some years the weather is like Florida or southern California. The temperature stays in the sixties and seventies for most of the winter and the plants are fooled into thinking that it is already spring. Now and again we actually get some ice and snow, but generally our winters are mild. It’s one of those lovely things that makes up for the heat of the summer, and it’s still just cool enough to allow women to wear their boots.

Houston was named a top place to visit by Forbes magazine. Lots of folks wondered why in the world anyone would choose our city as a destination. After all our roads are perennially under construction and the traffic can often be brutal. Most of us who live here take it for granted that nobody would come for the scenery with our flat as a pancake landscape. What we don’t seem to think about are some quite wonderful attractions that we have that might actually be quite appealing for visitors.

For some time now Houston has been ranked as one of the best foodie towns in the country. It competes nicely with New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are some who believe that the food here may even be the best in the country. We have some amazing chefs and they don’t just provide a meat and potatoes kind of fare. The diversity in our city brings cuisine from all over the world and innovations in cooking that make it worthy of a visit for anyone who enjoys fine dining at its best.

Of course it may seem ridiculous to think that anyone would want to visit H-Town just to eat, and that’s a good point, but there are still lots of things to do here. We have sporting events at the professional level year round and our universities provide additional athletic venues that are lots of fun. Our museums are wonderful and boast variety from science to medicine to space to modern art. It would take a week to visit each of them and the effort would be well worth it.

Speaking of the arts, our Alley Theater is world renowned and it’s not the only cast of players in town. There’s also the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet, and Theater Under the Stars. At any given moment there are great musicians and comedians playing in town at Jones Hall, the Reliant Center, the Toyota Center, the Smart Financial Center, Jones Hall, the Woodlands, the Wortham Center or the Hobby Center. Our universities also host plays and musical festivals which are of exceptional quality.

Shopping is world class as well with the Galleria attracting folks from all over the world and smaller places like Memorial City, Highland Village, or the Woodlands offering a wonderful experience in their own right. There are even outlet malls and quaint shops dotted all over the city and its suburbs. Houston has a number of Farmer’s Markets as well that offer everything from spices to pottery along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

A short trip of about an hour will take visitors to Galveston with its beaches, historical homes, and quirky shops. There’s fun to be had swimming, boating or just relaxing in the sun and sand. The seafood there has its own unique taste and ranks with some of the best to be found anywhere.

I think that those who are quick to make fun of Houston’s designation as a great place to visit forget about how fun a trip here might be. With the right planning a traveler can catch the Houston Rodeo or spend a day at the Nutcracker Market. We host quilt shows that feature exhibitions from all over the world. The Houston Garden Club Bulb Mart is a fall favorite along with some of the most glorious weather that the city has to offer.

Those of us who live here are always so busy that we don’t stop to think of how much there is to do at any given moment. For a newcomer the possibilities for fun and entertainment are almost endless. We don’t boast any mountains or grand natural wonders but our springtime Azalea Trail is breathtaking. A trip along Buffalo Bayou is a wonder. A day spent at Brazos Bend State Park is both educational and inspiring with its up close encounters with wildlife and its observatory aimed at the heavens. A drive through River Oaks is a fun as visiting the lovely homes in New Orleans.

I suspect that an out of towner would easily be able to fill a calendar with activities for weeks just with things I have mentioned and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of the many sights that we have here in Houston. I totally understand why my city was chosen as a great destination for anyone hoping to have a great vacation. In fact, I’d like to challenge Houstonians to try a “staycation” someday to enjoy what our great city has to offer.

I am the first to admit that Houston has its flaws but I have yet to travel to any place that is perfect. In the grand scheme of things Houston can be lots of fun and even provide a few nature activities for those who prefer the outdoors. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to find more than enough to do. 

Visions of Sugar Plums

One of my annual pilgrimages is to the Nutcracker Market in Houston, Texas. It’s a yearly gala hosted by the Houston Ballet in a fundraising effort that has grown into an extravaganza that takes place just ahead of the Christmas season. It provides a gathering of unique merchants from all across the country inside the vast halls of the Reliant Center, offering everything from holiday decorations to furniture. It is also one of the most interesting places to people watch, or should I say mostly women watch. Thousands of ladies converge on the event starting early on a Thursday morning in November, with a rare male joining their ranks now and again. It is a carnival, a celebration, and at some moments a truly crazy experience.

I have to admit that I had never even heard of the Nutcracker Market until one of the school administrators with whom I worked told me about almost thirteen years ago. She was shocked to learn that I had never been and decided to show me the ropes by inviting me to join her in taking a “sick” day from work and playing a bit of adult hooky. I reluctantly agreed because it was not my style to be anything but dependable, but the lure of adventure ultimately caused me to agree to her plan.

I was mystified as to why she insisted that we travel in one car on the morning of our glorious day off until we reached the entrance to the parking lot and sat in a long line of traffic waiting expectantly to get inside. We had to leave the car so far away from the hall that we must surely have satisfied our daily exercise routines before even reaching the next huge line of women purchasing tickets. Even though we had begun our journey early in the morning it was almost ten before we finally walked into shopping Nirvana.

Since I have a tinge of Attention Deficit Disorder I was almost overcome when I saw the swarms of people, the array of colors, and the bazaar like atmosphere that lay before us. Thanks to my friend I was able to keep a semblance of focus under her tutelage. She took me to the best vendors first and even insisted that we buy mimosas to calm my anxiety of not knowing where to first turn. We walked from one stall to another in a determined hike that must have been miles. All along the way were women feverishly searching for items that they might never find in a big box or department store. My friend was a veteran of the Nutcracker wars so I felt confident that I would not make any mistakes. She knew where to find the less frequently visited restrooms, and how to secure a table for lunch which she insisted had to be catered by a tamale company that came every year. We talked and laughed and tried on clothes and filled our bags with gifts for friends and family and for ourselves as well. When our purchases became too heavy or bulky my friend demonstrated how to get tons of things inside one bag that we paid to be stored for us for a small price until we were finished shopping. When we finally felt the first tinges of exhaustion we realized that we had been inside the strange world for well over eight hours, and it was growing dark outside. We left as happy and chatty as when we had started earlier that day and vowed to return again.

My friend left the school where I had been working and I lost contact with her but I was hooked and had to go back to the Nutcracker Market each season. Over the years I have found different partners and groups willing to accompany me to the astoundingly celebratory event. During all that time I have watched the crowds swell to unimaginable sizes and the outrageousness of the shoppers become more and more interesting. I still go into a kind of ADD trance when I first enter the scene, and I doubt that I would be capable of navigating the rows and rows of merchants without someone to keep me focused. Those with whom I have gone come and go, either because they have moved away or they just can’t quite handle to zaniness. Nonetheless I remember my times with them with great fondness.

This year I attended the market with my sister-in-law, Allison, who is a great partner in any situation. She’s full of energy and laughter and has a knack for taking on any challenge with a relaxed and optimistic attitude. I was quite grateful that she was driving because the craziness began in the parking lot where there were already of groups of women sitting in lawn chairs enjoying breakfast and a few cocktails to gird their loins for the shopping battle ahead. We ended up parking so far away that walking from my home would not have been a much farther distance. As we searched for a spot to leave her car we saw ladies wearing matching shirts and exotic headdresses. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air and I became as excited as a child.

As usual my brain froze up once we got inside. I knew the drill but there were so many choices and my mind started jumping around like a pinball machine. Allison took charge much to my great joy, and after a time I calmed down enough to actually see what I was doing. We found great gifts from friends and family members and chatted like two sisters. Our bags became as full as Santa’s sleigh and still we walked and walked and walked viewing the great wonders and sampling soups and candies and muffins. As is always the case we lost track of time, and of the world in general. For those wonderful hours we were in our element, just having fun without a care, bonding the way women so often do.

About seven hours into our adventures our feet and our knees and our pocketbooks told us that we were done for this year. We took a trolley to the edge of the parking to retrieve Allison’s car and drove through the parcel pickup station to claim the treasures that we had found. We returned home a bit tired, but feeling so close to one another for what we had shared. It had been another wonderful day at the Nutcracker Market.

I’m already plotting and planning for next year. I hope that Allison will want to go again because she is a fabulous partner. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I dreamed last night. I suppose that if truth were to be told it was not the actual shopping that was so much fun, but rather the time spent with my sister-in-law and thousands of women letting their hair down and having a good time. We were a motley crew with smiles on our faces, and for a brief moment in time our cares and woes were set aside.

My Horn of Plenty

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I knew a man who had suffered greatly during the Great Depression. He and his family oftentimes went hungry and their mealtime staple was usually a pot of beans. When he finally made it into the middle class as an adult he refused to have beans at his table, not even red beans, although he was a bonafide Cajun.

My mother sometimes struggled to put food on the table, but she liked to brag that in spite of our meager budget we never once missed a meal. She was incredibly creative when it came to stretching the offerings in the pantry. She was such a good cook that we rarely noticed that we were sometimes nearing the end of our stores. Only once in a great while would the refrigerator be almost empty, and the cupboards be bare. Even then Mama used her ingenuity to whip up what felt like a feast. She told us that she had learned from her mother who fed a family of ten during the great depression. She told us the story of how our grandmother would cook a whole fish with head still attached. After everyone had taken their share Grandma would eat the head. Mama laughed and said the her mom was actually getting the part with the most vitamins.

I was a skinny girl who barely weighed eighty eight pounds on my wedding day. Food didn’t really matter that much to me. I rarely ate breakfast which was no doubt a bad thing, but I never really missed it. I took a sack lunch to school and it usually consisted of either a bologna sandwich on white bread or a fried egg sandwich. The egg was the more delicious of the two, but it embarrassed me to open the wax paper and let the aroma of cold egg waft across the cafeteria. Someone invariably made a comment, and I quietly did my best to disavow the idea that it was all that we had for that day.

It was supper time when my mother became like the Julia Childs of the low economic set. She was literally able to make hot dogs into a gourmet dish, often making up recipes to use the ingredients that she had on hand. After my Grandmother Little she was the best cook that I have ever known.

I suppose that I was much more affected by the scarcity of food in our home than I ever dreamed because I eventually developed a kind of fetish for fresh fruits and vegetables as well as lean cuts of meat. I like to have my larders well stocked at all times, and I get a bit nervous when they are not. I’m not much for purchasing junk food because that was never something that we kept around my childhood home. Instead I take great joy in visiting a farmer’s market or a really good produce department. I become like a kid in a candy store in such places. In fact, I actually enjoy going to such venues for fun. I suppose that if I am honest I must admit to carrying a hidden fear that the food will one day run out.

Nothing pulls at my heart strings more than seeing photos of starving children in distant lands. My mama used to caution us not to waste food, reminding us that children in some places would be more than happy to have the plenty that she put on our table. My brothers sometimes joked when she was not around that it wasn’t as though we could put our waste in a little box and send it somewhere that it would be appreciated. Of course, that was before we grew up and realized that even though we lived on the edge, we still had more than millions of souls whose misfortunes made ours seem like nothing.

I worked as a volunteer at the Houston Food Bank a number of times. Some of the students that I have taken with me ironically had used the services on a regular basis. It was humbling to realize that even within my own city there are families struggling to get the proper nourishment. I’ve often thought of my own mother and her incredible knowledge of ways to create a healthy diet on a very small income. We may have eaten beans and greens, but she understood the value that they gave to our diet, and cooked them so that they were also delicious. A problem that far too many people have, is a lack of understanding of how to feed themselves and their loved ones with only a small number of ingredients.

I have a good friend who is much like my mom. She uses every part of every kind of food that she purchases. She boils the tops of beets and the peelings from potatoes and all the rest of the seemingly unusable parts of vegetables to make broth that is filled with vitamins and flavor. She purchases big bags of overripe bananas that are practically being given away and freezes them for the smoothies that she makes her husband each morning. Whenever I’m looking for a good way to use food to its utmost she provides me with dozens of ideas. She even knows how to make her own chocolate and has devised a method for making ice cream that doesn’t even require a machine.

I used to shudder whenever I had cafeteria duty in the schools where I worked as I watched the garbage cans filling with perfectly good items that the children simply did not want to eat. I thought of those babies with bloated bellies and wondered if they would have been more than happy to munch on the food that would end up in a landfill. I found myself understanding what my mother had been thinking when she told me and my brothers not to take what we did not think we could eat. 

Food is one of our most basic needs. It is also a way to celebrate and gather with friends and family. We humans have turned eating into an art form. It is one of life’s great joys, and as I grow older it has also become a source of contentment for me to choose a juicy red tomato or find a display of perfectly formed apples. As I store away the meats, fruits, vegetables and grains I feel so thankful. Now when I make an egg sandwich for myself I see it as a great gift. The horn of plenty that is my refrigerator and pantry makes me feel quite thankful, particularly for having a mother who so quietly and courageously fed me an my brothers with no complaint and great joy. She taught me to have an appreciation for whatever I have and to never forget those who have so much less.