Despite difficulties, Pennsylvania farmers are pressing for better practices

Photo courtesy of Laura Deutsch Photography

Photo courtesy of Laura Deutsch Photography

The State of Sustainable Agriculture

by Alex Jones

While the current trendiness of the farm-to-table movement might lead consumers to believe that the businesses that grow our food are booming, that’s not exactly the case. 

Just ask Brooks Miller of North Mountain Pastures in Perry County. Miller and his wife, Anna Santini, raise chickens, pigs, cows and lambs on pasture at their 84-acre farm, selling the meat through a community supported agriculture (CSA) model to consumers in Central Pennsylvania and the D.C. area. The farming practices they use—moving pens and paddocks daily to give the animals access to fresh forage, choosing heritage breeds that take years longer to mature than conventional breeds, feeding the cows and lambs only grass and the pigs and chickens non-GMO grains—make for healthier soils, healthier animals and healthier eaters. 

But Miller acknowledges that growing, raising and selling sustainably produced food can be a tough business. 

“There are plenty of barriers in the pastured livestock industry,” Miller says. The first step, accessing land for grazing, has a high price tag: The cheapest land in Pennsylvania starts around $5,000 per acre. When land is closer to major markets, it typically costs double or triple that amount. 

Then there’s the labor-intensive process of raising animals with sustainable and humane methods, managing the logistics of transporting and processing the animals through a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, and the challenge of marketing a product to customers—all before a single dollar has come back on that investment.

With challenges like this, it’s no wonder that state and national trends show it’s an aging, shrinking population of people who know how to grow our food: According to the 2012 Agricultural Census, the average age of organic farmers is 47; 77 percent of Pennsylvania farmers overall are over the age of 45, and just over 33 percent are over the age of 65. Three-quarters of farms bring in less than $50,000 in sales per year, and only 48 percent of farm owners reported farming as their primary occupation. 

In light of the precarious economic state of farming in Pennsylvania, coupled with the looming threat of a climate that’s changing in unexpected and dramatic ways, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) is doubling down on its mission with the SOIL (Strategic Outreach for Innovation and Leadership) Institute, a program that aims to support the region’s farmers through education and networking.

“What excites me the most about working with the SOIL Institute is exploring the actual concept of sustainability,” says Miller, who serves as vice chair on the PASA board of directors. “I believe farmers working together to decide what factors make their farms sustainable is much more interesting and productive than using the word as a marketing term.”

Cross-pollinating ideas
In 1992, a group of Pennsylvania farmers formed a collective to learn from each other and share sustainable production practices that weren’t being promoted by conventional sources like Cooperative Extension, a support and research service provided by land-grant universities to regional farmers. 

The collective came to serve as something of an unofficial extension service, providing support to farmers who wanted to learn about and implement traditional and innovative practices to grow better vegetables, raise healthier animals, reduce or eliminate inputs such as synthetic fertilizer and harsh pesticides, or increase the profitability of their farms.

That small group grew into PASA, which has been working to address the needs of agricultural producers using sustainable methods for a quarter century. Today, PASA’s membership base—the largest of any state-based sustainable farming organization in the country—is about half farmers. The other half is made up of constituents such as educators, entrepreneurs, fellow advocacy organizations and consumers who understand that sustainable farming is inextricably linked to the health of our bodies, our environment and our economy.

A few years ago, as PASA staff began to prepare for the organization’s 25th anniversary, they began to think about the reason the organization was founded in the first place: farmer education and support. 

“We started understanding that to really build on that success and take things to the next level, we needed to get back to roots and reinvest in our educational programs,” says Franklin Egan, PASA’sdirector of educational programs. “That’s what the SOIL Institute is about.”

This five-year plan will focus on three areas: networking and learning; research and data collection; and new farmer training. PASA’s goals, and the goals of its members, are strongly tied to the success of these programs that aim to provide farmers and farmers-to-be with the tools and information they need to build sustainable businesses.

It all starts with SOIL
Part of the fabric of the initiative, true to its name, is a focus on healthy soils, which are key for just about any farmer.

Through SOIL, PASA will continue to connect farmers through networking events and workshops, from on-farm potlucks to daylong field day trainings on topics such as the economics of grass-based dairy and growing specialty crops—such as young ginger—in Pennsylvania’s climate. This will give its membership the opportunity to encounter and implement the newest techniques and build community through sharing knowledge from farmer to farmer. It also includes PASA’s biggest annual event, the Farming for the Future Conference, which brings thousands of members and nonmembers from across the continent to State College. It’s a vibrant gathering that brings urban and rural farmers together—probably the only place you can swap seeds, buy farm equipment, learn how packaging affects cheese marketing, and participate in a roundtable on the challenges unique to romantic relationships between farmers and nonfarmers.

Another SOIL priority is conducting scientific research at the farm level—gathering data on soil health, energy and land use efficiency, carcass yields and business profitability—from participating PASA members’ farms, many of whom are already tracking key information for regulatory or management purposes.

This key information will allow PASA to offer proven tools and techniques that will help its members and the sustainable farming community to better do their jobs: growing healthier soils, healthier crops and livestock, and healthier businesses that will, with luck, be able to withstand economic and climatic turmoil.

Of course, established farms can only get so far on education and data if they’re having trouble figuring out a succession plan for retirement, or if they want to expand their businesses and can’t find skilled employees to fill management roles. A key element of the SOIL Initiative aims not just to empower young and beginning farmers but also to strengthen established farm businesses with aging operators—starting with dairy farms.

“It’s something that PASA as a community has really seen [as a significant need],” says Egan. “We’re creating a pathway for highly skilled, highly competent new farmers.”

For example, the 4,000 family dairy farms in Pennsylvania need a better-trained labor pool: Professional managers and other skilled labor can help them maintain and grow their businesses as principal operators age out of farming or set their sights on growing the business.

Pushing plows—and pencils
Training the next generation to grow food and raise livestock—as well as manage the business of a farm—is critical to helping support new and established farmers. 

Dairy farmers, who have been hit particularly hard recently by federally mandated milk prices that fall well below the cost of production, are in particular need of support—especially with Pennsylvania producing the fifth most dairy of any state.

PASA members Jonathan and Nina White own and manage Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in Milford, New Jersey. They’ve taken on farm interns, who receive training in herd management, cheesemaking and charcuterie, bread baking, and several more of the myriad skills required to manage the agricultural operation they started in 2002. 

Bobolink is the first PASA member farm to implement the official Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA), starting with its interns beginning in late 2016. The program was created by the Wisconsin-based nonprofit of the same name as the first federally registered and accredited apprenticeship for farm management in the U.S.; DGA is now a PASA partner. 

At the core of the DGA program are sustainable practices such as managed grazing. Also called rotational grazing, it’s a practice in which farmers plant the majority of their acreage with high-quality perennial grasses and other forage crops. Animal paddocks are strategically moved throughout the season to allow the herd access to nutritious grasses while other sections of land are able to rest while the grasses regrow—then the cycle begins again. 

It’s a closed-loop system that typically requires no inputs aside from occasional reseeding—just sunlight, rain and cows. The milk produced by grass-fed cows contains higher levels of beneficial nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids, or CLAs, which some evidence shows may possess anticancer properties. 

But herd management is just one piece, says Jonathan White. “If we only teach [apprentices], say, about cows, or cheesemaking, or pasture management, or selling, then we'd be turning out well-trained potential employees, not future agricultural entrepreneurs.”

The comprehensive nature of the DGA program appeals to White, who aims for participants in Bobolink’s internship programs to leave the farm with a complete skill set. 

Elizabeth Cornwell concluded her Bobolink internship just before the farm implemented the partnership with DGA for apprentice training. Cornwell has worked in dairying for several years, but she was intrigued by Bobolink’s herd management practices and cheesemaking business after reading about the farm in a grazing trade publication. 

“Coming with five years’ prior dairy experience, there was still much to learn in my time at Bobolink,” Cornwell said in an email. “We managed cows, but really we were ‘grass farmers.’ All our decisions had to be based on what was best for our cows but equally important was deciding what was also best for our grass growth.”

While farm apprenticeships are common in many industries, including the small farming community, Egan says that PASA and the DGA program will provide much-needed administrative support for farmers as well as the academic and technical coursework for apprentices to underscore and expand what is learned on-farm. And a perennial problem that would come up for farmers and the apprentices or interns working on their farms—lack of time and resources to specifically train apprentices in addition to hands-on learning—is addressed through PASA’s and DGA’s administrative support and the academic coursework requirements of the program. 

“We did some survey research with these farms last summer, and what we found was pretty familiar to my experience,” said Egan, who has worked on farms in the region as an apprentice. “There’s usually a lot of manual labor and not a lot of [focus] on the other management skills that you need to understand to successfully run a farm.” 

And farmers, Egan says, feel the same way—they want to give back, but finding the time to organize and manage that effort on top of an already packed schedule of farm and business duties can be challenging. But for many, it’s worth it.

Through training apprentices, Jonathan White said via email, “We can see how we have leveraged our life’s work by passing on our experience to others. Besides, someday we’ll be too old to work this hard, and we’d like there to be others making good stuff for us to enjoy.”

Pushing past the plateau
PASA is in the process of working with existing farms that offer apprenticeships and internships to develop a similar program to the dairy apprenticeship that would offer a more rigorous, federally recognized training for apprentices at diversified vegetable farms—that is, the ones you see at the farmers market with tables piled high with a wide, seasonally changing variety of vegetables. 

Egan and PASA are hopeful that the SOIL Institute’s focus on these education-based initiatives can provide a foundation for growing the market share occupied by small producers in the state; they also hope tostrengthen and build sustainable farming around the region. 

“Sustainable agriculture has seen a period of incredible growth,” says Egan, “but there’s a feeling of a plateau that’s been reached.”

Growth in sales outlets such as farmers markets and CSAs have not kept pace with the number of new farm businesses eager to sell their products this way, and reaching the larger scale required to access big wholesale customers such as Whole Foods can be challenging or a poor fit for small producers. 

The question now, Egan says, is, “How do we take this movement that’s had great success and support and give it a greater market share?”

Along with facilitating effective training for new farmers and managers that benefits established producers and research projects on production processes and soil health, gathering data to improve the financial health of these businesses will help our state’s small and sustainable farms to flourish. 

Egan put forth the example of diversified livestock farms that often produce pasture-raised meat and eggs—but do it on a small scale. 

“Do [these businesses] make money for the families that run them? What are [the] pain points? How could they be more profitable?” he asks. “Research over time will generate important info that opens up new ideas about how we break through the plateau.”

In the case of North Mountain Pastures, Miller is able to track information throughout the year well enough to get a “good estimate” of the percent yield he can expect per carcass after his livestock are processed. But better data would give him essential information that would make him a better farmer and make North Mountain Pastures a healthier business. 

“In order to get a better idea of our final meat yield, I have to do a significant amount of work when cases of meat are returned to the farm, and they don’t always return together as one carcass,” Miller says. “I would have to rely on my processor to give me information on final meat yield from different animals, which they generally won’t do.” 

Improving and streamlining this data-gathering process, ideally with cooperation from the processor, would make it easier for him to make decisions on the farm that could improve profitability and streamline operations. 

“All farmers know that every animal is different,” Miller says. “I would love to have [yield] information by breed, bloodline, feed, etc., in order to make better decisions on the farm.”

A photo tribute to the region’s farmworkers

The Hands That Feed Us

photos by Albert Yee

Cuts, bruises and calluses. Hangnails and wrinkled knuckles. It’s difficult work to bring beautiful food to market, and this winter we honor the hardworking hands that provide our bounty.

Raising livestock for food can be a regenerative enterprise

Illustration by Marika Mirren

Illustration by Marika Mirren

Farm Facts

by Bryan Mayer

A vegan, a vegetarian and an omnivore walked into a bar… and… nothing happened—except maybe they enjoyed a cider together. At least that’s the way it should be. All of us want clean water, healthy food and a thriving ecosystem in which those things can exist.

I believe that consuming meat can be part of that thriving ecosystem, if we ditch our (inhumane, fossil-fuel-consuming, soil-contaminating, water-polluting... I could go on and on) industrial system for a restorative and regenerative pasture-based system. 

Condemning the raising and consumption of all livestock is akin to condemning the entire energy industry for polluting. We know that there are forms of energy production that are better than others. Raising livestock (which is a form of energy production) can be regenerative and restorative, as well. 

Water and greenhouse gases (GHG) are usually what opponents set their sights on, so let’s start with the gases. 

Properly managed pastures can remove excess amounts of these compounds from the atmosphere. Studies from both Texas A&M University and South Dakota State University show how this practice can result in a net-neutral and in some cases a negative GHG footprint, essentially acting as a form of carbon sequestration and methane oxidation.

Water usage is a common criticism leveled at meat producers. I’m sure you’ve heard comparisons about how much water it takes to produce a pound of meat to a pound of vegetable matter. Unfortunately what’s missing from this argument is that there are different ways of measuring water.

Most studies focus on “blue water,” water in freshwater lakes, rivers and aquifers. However, 65 percent of water that falls as rain becomes “green water,” or water that is stored in the soil. 

Judith D. Schwartz, in her book “Cows Save the Planet,” shows how animals raised on pasture are uniquely able to benefit from green water, reducing and possibly eliminating the need for blue water usage. In addition, their presence on the land ensures healthy soil that is able to capture this water: Livestock and soil exist in a symbiotic relationship.

But I think one of the most important—and overlooked—facts about meat production is that not all land is suitable for crop production. Some land, especially in arid or mountainous areas, is only usable as pasture, where cattle and other herbivores do not have to compete with vegetables for space. 

But our industrial farming system is well entrenched, and transforming the way we raise and slaughter animals is a big task. So how do we get there? 

Civil Eats asked this past October, “Can craft butcher shops help transform the meat industry?” Well, the answer is, we already have. Whether you’re a millennial, Gen Xer or boomer you’re shopping more at local butcher shops/specialty markets and farmers markets for domestically raised, pasture-raised meat that’s antibiotic free. 

All of us are also eating a larger variety of meat—including more lamb, pork and goat—which helps to break up our monoculture-based system; our entire food system works best when we have a diverse diet, both animal and vegetable. 

Even better is that we’re creating a sustainable system because we’re purchasing more value-added products from these shops. Value-added products such as bacon, deli meats, stock, etc., are a whole animal butcher shop’s key to success, and nothing can replace the local butcher shop in a community when it comes to giving customers good information about how to cook unfamiliar cuts. Your local butcher shop is a proxy for the farmer.

But our work is far from over. We’ll have to continue to address the issues of affordability, accessibility and approachability.  These are complex issues, but if we continue to look at the facts and make better decisions, we’ll get there.

Bryan Mayer is director of butchery education at Fleishers Craft Butchery in New York. He currently resides in Philadelphia.

Four new farm-to-table eateries, from bakeries to pizza joints

Regional Recipes

by Emily Kovach

Tucked into a historic building in Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania, this creative Italian restaurant incorporates products from local farmers in their extensive menu of seafood crudo, pizzas, pastas, salads and grill-fired proteins. True Leaf Microgreens, 1732 Meats and R.L. Irwin mushrooms are among the kitchen’s squad of local purveyors. The bar also represents regional distilleries with selections from Boardroom Spirits and Brandywine Branch Distillers in many of the cocktails. Savona also boasts the largest wine cellar in the state, including locally made wines from Galen Glen Winery, Penns Woods Winery and Pinnacle Ridge Winery.
100 Old Gulph Road, Gulph Mills, Pa.

Cake Life Bake Shop
Baking aces Nima Etemadi and Lily Fischer recently moved their operation from Globe Dye Works to Fishtown’s bustling Frankford Avenue. In addition to creating custom special-occasion cakes, Cake Life Bake Shop is also a BYOB café for the neighborhood, offering all sorts of pastries, cakes by the slice, coffee and ready-made cakes to-go. In addition to classics like vanilla and German chocolate, the shop will stock a rotating selection of seasonal cake flavors such as the wintry Campfire Cocoa Cake, a chocolate cake with Swiss Miss whipped cream, chocolate ganache and housemade marshmallows. The duo buys produce and honey, honeycomb and bee pollen from nearby Riverwards Produce for use in some of their confection creations.
1306 Frankford Ave.

Lou Bird’s
A newcomer to the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, Chef Natalie Maronski has developed a seasonal menu enhanced with local products. Heavy cream for housemade butter comes from Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, and the buttermilk left over from the process gets whipped with horseradish and served with roasted potato and duck confit pierogi. It’s also used as the base for a buttermilk tart for dessert with tarragon, grapefruit and poppy seed. Microgreens are sourced from Blue Moon Acres, and local foragers on retainer “hunt” around Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, for maitakes and other wild mushrooms. 
500 S. 20th St.

This relative newcomer to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, boasts a nicely curated menu of on-trend Neapolitan-style pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven. Interesting salads and veggie sides such as buttermilk fried cauliflower sit alongside various pastas and heritage breed meat. The chef sources locally when possible: Birchrun Hills Farm blue cheese tops their baked gnocchi, Broad Wing Farm’s winter squash is part of the slow roasted pork dish, and Lancaster Farm Fresh apples are folded into a tasty dessert crostata. Other farm fresh ingredients top many of their pizzas, as well. Biga is taking their beverage program seriously as well. You’ll find a wide selection of well-organized craft beers on a list that even beer newbies will find helpful. Local breweries are definitely in the mix on the taps, in bottles and via growlers to-go. Tuesday nights, your glass growler is free with a fill up.
810 Glenbrook Ave., Bryn Mawr, Pa. 

Farmworkers do dangerous work for little pay. They deserve better.

Illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

Illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

The Hands Behind Our Harvest

by Stephanie Dorenbosch

We are lucky to have a vibrant and diverse community of stakeholders in Eastern Pennsylvania working to improve many aspects of our food systems, including groups working on local and seasonal food sourcing, sustainable production and food access in underserved communities. In addition, consumers have recently become more conscientious, and businesses have changed their practices and marketing in response. Locally and across the country, farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs have exploded in popularity, as have the availability and visibility of local and organic food. 

But one link in the food production chain is consistently overlooked: our treatment of the agricultural workers who pick, pack and process our food. Unfortunately, focusing only on organic and local designations does not guarantee that the workers on those farms are being treated humanely. Even for consumers and buyers who are otherwise well-informed about sustainability issues, farmworkers remain the hidden link in the food supply chain. 

Somewhere from 2 million to 3 million men, women and children work in the fields in the United States. Estimates vary, but it’s likely that between 50 and 85 percent of our fruits and vegetables are picked by hand. With an average annual income of only $11,000, farmworkers are the second lowest-paid workforce in the United States, yet agriculture is consistently ranked by OSHA as one of the top three most dangerous industries. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, the workplace fatality rate for agriculture workers in 2011 was seven times higher than the overall rate in private industry.

These conditions are no accident; they are a direct result of national and state policies whose roots are centuries old. Our agricultural economy was originally built on the backs of the slaves who were forced to provide both free labor and political weight to their owners. Later, Southern representatives in Congress insisted on excluding farm laborers and domestic workers—roles largely still held by black workers—from labor protections in exchange for their votes on New Deal legislation. 

Today, the demographics have changed, but the exemptions from legal protections persist. Farmworkers in the U.S. today are largely of a different demographic; the National Agricultural Workers Survey shows that more than 75 percent were born outside of the country, mostly in Latin America. Somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of them are unauthorized immigrants. Due to their work in the agriculture industry—and not due to their immigration status, it’s worth noting—these workers are exempted from some of our most basic labor laws, including the right to overtime pay and in some cases even minimum wage, as well as protection from discrimination and harassment, health and safety requirements, and the right to organize to improve their work conditions. 

Despite all this, we still see potential to raise up farmworkers and the growers they work for beyond these frankly abysmal minimum legal requirements. In a food market increasingly shaped by conscious consumerism, workers, shoppers, growers and retailers have room to get creative about improving pay and work conditions all along the food chain.  

Raising awareness about questionable working conditions and rewarding responsible growers can put us on the right path. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program campaign, which relied largely on public awareness and market pressure, has resulted in 90 percent of Florida tomatoes being grown and harvested under vastly improved labor conditions. 

In Pennsylvania, we have found that many consumers and organizations are interested in workers’ issues, but few know how to get involved. Since this movement is still just nascent locally, we need to start by simply beginning to talk about it. 

For example, co-ops and natural foods markets in Philadelphia advertise their relationships with the farmers they source from. Ask your local store if they use criteria that include working conditions when making their buying decisions. Do they source from growers who are certified by the Agricultural Justice Project or Food Justice Certified programs? Does your favorite farm-to-table restaurant ask that a fair wage is paid to the farmworkers when a fair price is paid to the farmers (and does the restaurant pay a living wage to its own employees)?

You can also talk about it with growers at farmers markets and CSAs. Do they have any particular practices with their employees that go above and beyond that of their neighbors and competitors? Have they ever considered marketing something like that as a value-add to their customers, in the same way they often market their treatment of animals and their chemical-free policies? 

Finally, talk about it anywhere that food and sustainability is discussed. Remind your friends and family that fair treatment of workers is a necessary part of any sustainable food system. Invite someone from Friends of Farmworkers, CATA (the Farmworker Support Committee) or the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to speak at your next food- or sustainability-themed event.

We do not have to sit back and wait for the laws to change to improve our food systems. As we have already done with the way farm animals are treated and the way chemicals and pesticides are used, we can ask our suppliers to do better for the people working for them. 

Stephanie Dorenbosch is a staff attorney at Friends of Farmworkers Inc.

The Kenney administration sets its sights on social impact

Copyright City of Philadelphia. Photo by Samantha Madera

Copyright City of Philadelphia. Photo by Samantha Madera

The People’s Mayor?

by Alex Vuocolo

At a campaign event in November 2015, then-mayoral-candidate Jim Kenney spoke to a packed room of Latino families and restaurant industry veterans about the importance of welcoming immigrants into the city. He stressed that newcomers were not “illegal immigrants” and condemned xenophobic and racist politics. The crowd was impressed. 

On the sidewalk outside the event, Grid asked the candidate how he would protect vulnerable city residents from pollution in light of proposals to develop the city as an “energy hub” that would move fossil fuels from the western part of the state into the global market. So-called “fenceline” communities that surround Philadelphia’s current fossil fuel industry are predominantly poor people of color.

“Right now, there’s no plan. I can’t comment or criticize a ‘no plan,’ and when there is a plan, we’ll look at it and see what we can do to make it safe,” Kenney said. 

For the usually blunt Kenney, the answer was cautious and a reflection of the tangled politics of energy and environmental health in a city desperate for jobs but keenly aware of the risks. 

The idea that immigration, the economy and environmental issues overlap is not a new one. Indeed, the environment is increasingly seen as a factor in issues such as public health, the economy and even housing quality. 

This concept, sometimes called intersectionality, has informed some of the Kenney administration’s key policy decisions in its first year, which has seen a number of initiatives aimed at tackling multiple social woes at once.  

By almost any measure, the administration’s biggest achievement so far has been Rebuild. The $500 million initiative, funded in part by the contentious soda tax, will invest in early education, parks and recreation centers, and the creation of community schools, which double as hubs for social services. The city will also actively hire minority contractors for the initiatives and various capital projects, according to a recent report from Philadelphia Inquirer

The Office of Sustainability’s Greenworks plan, a Nutter-era framework for tackling sustainability goals, has also shifted toward an intersectional approach. Though the office is still working to develop comprehensive citywide goals, the overall approach to sustainability work includes an Equity Index that will use data to identify areas of the city not yet benefiting from investments such as tree cover or access to healthful, local food. The administration will then work with city agencies, nonprofit organizations and community members to design projects targeted specifically at those areas. 

A similar awareness of social equity has taken root at the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA). Developers of city-owned land must now explain their “social impact” in their requests for proposal. Their answers will help determine whether the city chooses that developer. 

“When I started in this job in April, the idea of using the public sector as a willing partner to promote social impact real estate was something that was at the front of my mind,” said Greg Heller, director of PRA. “And one way that I felt and others in the administration felt was a good way to start doing that was to use social impact as one of the ways we score project proposals.”

Heller explained that he has experienced nothing but encouragement for these kinds of ideas since joining the administration.

“This was not something that took a lot of convincing,” Heller said. 

As for the energy hub idea and its connection to immigration, poverty or any social justice matter, the Kenney administration still has not taken a strong stance, partly because plans remain on the drawing board. 

“There hasn’t been a significant amount of development as far as the energy hub is concerned,” said Lauren Hitt, communication director for the Mayor’s Office. 

There have been some signs, however, that the concept is losing steam. The Philadelphia Regional Port Authority recently suspended bids for the development of a 195-acre section of the Delaware River waterfront. The project, known as Southport, was crucial to plans for an energy hub. Energy hub architect and Philadelphia Energy Solutions CEO Phil Rinaldi, who was one of the bidders on the project, has just announced his retirement. 

Meanwhile, the state announced a $300 million capital investment in existing ports, including Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia and the Tioga Marine Terminal in Port Richmond—funds that were initially planned for Southport. Jeff Theobald, executive director and CEO of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, says that a diversity outreach plan will help ensure that contractors and subcontractors include firms owned by women, minorities, veterans and other “traditionally underutilized groups.” 

If the plan for an energy hub does move forward, it remains to be seen whether Kenney will stand up for the fenceline communities in Philadelphia with the same resolve that he’s showing to protect immigrants and other vulnerable populations.

Even as President-elect Donald Trump and Sen. Pat Toomey have proposed cutting funding to cities that protect undocumented immigrants, Kenney remains stalwart that Philadelphia will continue to be a “sanctuary city”—one that limits cooperation with federal immigration authorities. 

“I am hopeful, but cautious,” Kenney said in a speech in early December. “I want everyone to understand that cities, including Philadelphia, have been the bastion of protection for minorities, LGBT people, for immigrants—and we’re not walking this back.”

Harrisburg Watch: Wins in 2016, but fights ahead in the new year

by Grid staff

While 2016 is a year many people are glad to have seen pass, it did contain at least two wins for the environment in Pennsylvania.

Most significant was a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on Act 13, which governs the oil and gas drilling industry in the state. The court struck down several provisions of the act as unconstitutional: the use of eminent domain to support companies that transport, sell or store natural gas; the “gag rule” that prevented medical personnel from acquiring information about fracking liquids that might be harming their patients; and a provision that required natural gas drillers to notify public water suppliers of spills—but not private well owners. Outside of cities with municipal water supplies, private wells are extremely common in Pennsylvania. The ruling also prohibits the Public Utility Commission from penalizing municipalities that enact local ordinances that limit drilling. 

The importance of the ruling should be a reminder to Pennsylvanians who consider themselves anti-fracking activists to pay attention to judicial elections this year. “The judicial races in 2017 will have a significant impact on Pennsylvania’s environment,” says Josh McNeil, executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. “Democrats put a firm lock on the Supreme Court in 2015, but will have the chance to add an additional seat.” More competitive, McNeil says, are Superior Court and Commonwealth Court elections. “The Commonwealth Court,” says McNeil, “handles most state-level cases involving environmental protections, public land, water safety and air quality.” Democrats have the ability to pick up two seats on the court. “Though Republican judges often support conservation issues, an 8-1 Republican majority on the court is not the best outcome for the environment.”

Another 2016 victory was a bill that would have prevented the ability of cities such as Philadelphia to ban the use of plastic bags—essentially a ban on bans. It’s the kind of legislative action that state advocates are worried could be applied to even bigger issues. 

PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur told Grid that the index of bad legislation that could come up this year is too long to list. “My biggest concerns,” he said, “are the state bills that would limit PA environmental regulations to be no stricter than federal regs. That’s bad under President Clinton. It’s catastrophic under President Trump.”  

It’s a sentiment echoed by the Sierra Club’s Joanne Kilgour. “We are worried,” said Kilgour, “that we will again see legislation such as last session’s SB 1327 that would have prevented Pennsylvania from passing certain environmental regulations that add protections for human health and the environment beyond the federal floor set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” 

Kilgour also says that the Sierra Club is anticipating funding cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. She is also watching for a weakening of the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, which requires that by the year 2020–2021, Pennsylvania have a 10 percent alternative energy mix. The percentage may remain, but natural gas may be redefined as an alternative energy source, putting it on the same stage as wind and solar. 

In the wake of the election, Pennsylvania environmental organizers take stock

A Renewed Commitment

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

In the days after President-elect Donald Trump won a narrow victory in Pennsylvania, statewide environmental group PennFuture gathered a who’s who of past and future advocates in downtown Philadelphia. In attendance were three former heads of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, current state Assembly members, myriad leaders and activists in the movement, and supporter Sen. Bob Casey. Casey reminded the audience that Pennsylvania’s constitution includes, “a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”

The packed room of still-in-shock advocates heard from several panels of the politicians and organizers present, who analyzed the election results and asked the question, “Where do we go from here?” Common themes were the importance of continued organizing—especially in the parts of the state where there isn’t strong support on environmental issues—raising more money and getting more progressive candidates to run for office.

Grid asked several statewide environmental groups what was next for them as they regroup after the election. (Among them was the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, which declined to comment for this article.)

Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania
Josh McNeil
Executive Director
At its highest levels, the executive branch of the United States government just declared itself an enemy to clean air, clean water and clean energy—the legislative branch was already there. The most powerful man in the world has surrounded himself with oil executives and their political puppets, creating a Cabinet that believes that Grid readers are dangerous radicals who threaten the profits of the world’s largest companies.  

We only win this fight—we only survive this fight—if environmentalists start thinking big. We can’t win with 100,000 members in Pennsylvania. We need 1 million members and 10,000 high-level volunteers. We can’t win with $500,000 budgets; we need to spend millions to hold elected officials accountable.

We need to work together better and to embrace existing strengths. PennFuture has the most effective policy team in Harrisburg, so we’ll follow their lead in the state Legislature. Sierra Club has the widest network of volunteers, so we’re going to support their organizing efforts.

At Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, we know that good laws come from good lawmakers. By the next election, and with the help of concerned citizens, we will have raised more money to help elect pro-environment candidates than any group in Pennsylvania’s history.

Larry Schweiger
President and CEO
Change is imminent. In the new political alignment, where carbon polluters will be menacing and overriding environmental protections, the environmental community must unite and broaden its reach. We must increasingly engage those residing outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and listen to rural constituents to create new relationships and deepen our impact. PennFuture recognizes this and is embarking on a new path to better serve and equip the constituents in the commonwealth. The community needs to innovate, retool and change its approach to expand this critical conversation and its influence. 

In the coming weeks, we will announce new alliances and look forward to building a stronger environmental base to hold policymakers accountable. In the face of urgent threats, we must remain true to our mission by leading the transition to a clean energy economy. We must defend our air, water and land, and empower citizens to build sustainable communities. 

David Masur 
Executive Director
Election Day 2016 reminded us that we must remain vigilant and engaged to promote the positive change we want to see in the world. From day one, PennEnvironment has known that we can’t compete with the money, access or influence that polluters and powerful special interests infuse into our political process. But we know that we have the public’s support for protections for clean air, clean water and preserving the places we love. Over the next few years there will be a David vs. Goliath fight that revolves around what we stand for when it comes to defending our environment and the legacy we leave for our children and future generations, and PennEnvironment will be doubling down on educating, mobilizing and engaging our members and concerned Pennsylvanians to stand up, speak truth to power and do what we need to do to defend 50 years of cornerstone environmental protections.

Sierra Club
Joanne Kilgour
Director, Pennsylvania Chapter
As a professional woman, this election hurt—it was a reminder that our society is fraught with injustice. Women, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, trans folks, the disabled—millions of Americans continue to be marginalized, with our very lives at stake. As the state director of an environmental organization, I am also deeply concerned about living under the only head of state in the world to reject the scientific consensus that mankind is driving climate change.

Many of the people and places we love are threatened, and our communities may feel more divided than ever, but we must resist the temptation to fight for just a single issue and work instead to dismantle the systems of oppression that underlay them all. Our lives and our lived experiences are as complex and varied as the social identities that define us, so our strategy must not be built around the environment alone, and our organizing must be intersectional—it must also be honest, deep and based in compassion.

Worried about who is in the White House? Don’t be

Illustration by Layla Ehsan

Illustration by Layla Ehsan

Meet the New Boss

by Jerry Silberman

Question: Will President-elect Donald Trump change the direction of the country?
The Right Question: How much influence does a president actually have?

In reality, not much. The political tenor of this, or any country—as well as its economic success or failure—operates in response to systemic factors that have their own momentum. Often, they are completely invisible or even actively denied by those nominally holding great power, such as the president.

A historical look back may be helpful in this respect. Let’s just go back to 1980. Since that time, the policy trajectory of the country at its core has been consistent, regardless of the party of the president, and regardless of the issues that garnered the most press. 

The issues that are actually shaping our country’s direction have, in contrast, been steadfastly ignored by both major political parties. 

By 1979, the U.S. was clearly beginning to lose its position as the dominant economic and political power in the world. Wall Street and the State Department were both clear on that. Ronald Reagan made the reversal of this trend the cornerstone of his campaign, and he won. Every president since then has taken up the theme with various policies, but none has been able to reverse them. Reagan began by loosening corporate regulation, cutting social welfare and making life tough for unions. He made it easier for companies to move out of the U.S. in search of cheaper labor, and he dramatically increased military spending in an effort to restore the ability of the U.S. military to control the world directly if need be. 

President George Bush the first continued that agenda, launching the war against Iraq, which was unpopular enough to cost him his job. He failed to achieve major goals of free trade and cuts to welfare. 

Bill Clinton accomplished those goals. He signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which immediately accelerated the exodus of good paying manufacturing jobs from the U.S. He ended the welfare system established during the New Deal, renewing the right of people to starve to death in the USA. He continued the war against Iraq, inflicting huge suffering on the Iraqi people in an effort to maintain U.S. control of Iraq’s oil. As a bonus, he repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which enabled the risky and irresponsible behavior by banks that resulted in the 2008 crash. 

George W. Bush will best be remembered for accelerating U.S. aggression, turning the Middle East into the continuous battleground it is today, and for degrading public education by reducing funding and attempting to standardize teaching to tests instead of for life skills. 

President Barack Obama continued and extended Bush’s military adventures. He primarily protected banks instead of working people after the 2008 crash. He pushed hard for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a trade deal described as NAFTA on steroids—as the signature achievement of his presidency. (At the moment, the TPP is off the table. But don’t assume it’s dead.) 

The basic goal of restoring American influence and power was shared by every administration, but none of them have succeeded. They all promised that their policies would restore prosperity and full employment to American workers. The opposite has happened. 

The decline of U.S. economic power and military efficacy has accelerated. Real income, and the health of American working people, has declined significantly since the mid-’70s. Equity and justice become more and more remote, as the gains of the civil rights movement erode.

President-elect Trump, even if he is able to impose protective tariffs and channel money to rebuild our infrastructure, will not change these trends, nor would they have changed under any set of policies Hillary Clinton would likely have adopted. 

Why has every president, over 36 years, been unable to achieve their most basic goals?  

Simple: Neither party is willing to acknowledge, let alone address, the reality that we have reached the limits of growth on our finite planet yet that is the issue exerting controlling influence on our country.  

The decline of U.S. power and prestige dates from, among other things, the point at which our country became a net importer of energy, in the form of oil, in the early ’70s. The article of faith held by every president —that growth is the ultimate good and must continue—prevented us then and prevents us now from transitioning to a steady state economy with a focus on human happiness instead of the accumulation of money and goods.  

Continuing to seek to exploit nonrenewable resources is imposing unacceptable costs on the people of our planet in the form of pollution, the destabilizing effects of climate change and rising prices for scarce goods. 

Start locally to lighten your footprint on the earth, and organize your community to reduce consumption and be mutually reliant and respectful. Withdraw from the corporate value system and don’t worry about who’s in the White House. You’ll be doing much more to change the direction of our country. 

Jerry Silberman is a cranky environmentalist and union negotiator who likes to ask the right question and is no stranger to compromise. 

Our divisions are a grand illusion

State of mind

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

This month, we swear in a new president. Some of us will be swearing a lot for the next four years.

There is a mighty cognitive dissonance in looking at an overwhelmingly red map that exists side by side with the fact that nearly 3 million more Americans voted for the other candidate. The visual screams mandate; the numbers cry foul. We’re not sure what to believe anymore, even when we know what to expect.

On the eve of the 2016 presidential election, even early in the evening, the nation watched as a red tide rolled across Florida. As the votes were counted in real time and one district after another succumbed to its color-coded end, the results seemed unsurprising. Miami and other populous areas turned blue, while geographically larger but less populous areas bled out. 

We were prepared for that, at least: At some point, the graphics departments at the major news outlets that shape our perception of reality started more finely tuning coverage to help our diverse and divided nation understand that states are not, politically speaking, simply blue or red. They vote district by district, town by town and even block by block.

Next time around, we will probably insist on even more accurate data from better calibrated polls, all in the service of increasingly prescient statistical modeling and visually arresting infographics. Soon, we’ll be slicing up individual grains of Florida’s sands. 

But, as with everything, framing is everything, and it’s the larger picture that actually gives us insight into reality. When we step back, Florida is a blue state, through and through, and it always will be: It’s surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. 

Those blue waters are apolitical. The sands shift without thought on Florida’s shores even as voters make last-minute decisions on who they want to represent them. The wind sweeps through both sides of the aisle in the form of gentle ocean breezes and destructive hurricanes.  The water, earth and land simply don’t care how the people of Florida, or any other state, vote. 

Now that the water is rising and the hurricanes come stronger and more often, naming that reality isn’t an exercise in poetry; it’s an exercise in survival.  

Looking at what Florida is doing and not what it’s saying at the polls is instructive, and encouraging. The governor may still make public statements questioning climate change, but the mayors of cities are busy with major infrastructure projects all around the state, building sea walls and elevating roads. “Resiliency Director” is now a job that more and more people hold.

Even in states like Texas, where the sea has no chance of flooding roads but the weather is becoming increasingly hot, change is afoot. Making money from energy is buried deep in the marrow of its cultural bones, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Texas produces more wind power than any other state in the union. It might be too soon to utter the phrase “big wind,” but there will come a time when those Texas air conditioners working overtime aren’t powered by fossil fuels.

These projects and more were just chronicled in a piece in The New York Times. It’s important to note that the article was published in a place that should be getting more attention from all of us: the science section.  

The earth will continue to spin, and it will do so with or without us. But if we’d like the ride to last a little longer, we need to keep in mind that political divides are ultimately unhelpful. We need to be united in caring about the earth, precisely because it will never care back.

January: Comings & Goings

Management Positions Change at Top Energy and Sustainability Groups
The Managing Director’s Office of Philadelphia hired Nic Esposito as director of its new Zero Waste and Litter program. Esposito has worked previously for Parks and Recreation as a training specialist, project manager and—most recently—sustainable practices manager. The city’s goals for this program include: diverting almost all waste from being sent to conventional landfills and incinerators by 2035; better management of litter and illegal dumping in public spaces; and implementing measurable standards to demonstrate the progress of these goals.

Greensgrow Farms announced that long-time staff member and program director Ryan Kuck will lead operations at its Kensington and West Philly locations following the passing of founder Mary Seton Corboy, the previous executive director. Kuck’s previous titles at Greensgrow include sustainability manager, food access programs manager and director of Greensgrow West. 

Jamie Gauthier is the new senior director of public partnerships at Fairmount Park Conservancy. She served as executive director of the Sustainable Business Network for almost four years.

Phil Rinaldi announced his retirement in early December as chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Energy Solutions. He has been a central figure in expanding Philadelphia’s role as an East Coast “energy hub”—a proposed long-term project widely criticized by environmental activists and those opposed to reliance on fossil fuels

NextFab Opens its First Delaware Studio for Training and Workspace
NextFab—a membership-based studio and consulting space for manufacturers, designers and entrepreneurs—opens its first Delaware location this month, expanding from its studios at 2025 Washington Ave. and 1227 N. 4th St. in Philadelphia.

A $350,000 grant from the Delaware Strategic Fund was approved by the Council on Development Finance in September 2016, which enabled NextFab to secure a lease for a 10,000-square-foot space at 501–509 Tatnall St. in Wilmington—an area referred to as the Creative District. 

Activists Disrupt Business at Wells Fargo, Demand Divestment from Dakota Access Pipeline
Activists gathered at the Wells Fargo Bank and History Museum on Dec. 15 to protest the bank’s funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The group sang songs, displayed a banner and asked the bank’s manager to withdraw funding.

Standing Rock protesters—led by Sioux leaders who have gained national support at the site of the pipeline’s construction and at local rallies across the U.S.—cite as their main concern the pipeline’s proposed crossing of the Missouri River, which has the potential to threaten the water supply and encroach on land deemed sacred and sovereign to Native American populations.

A Dec. 5 protest at a local TD Bank made similar demands for divestment.

State Grants $45M to Conserving Parks, Trails, Community Space
The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) announced in December that $45 million will be invested in 261 projects across Pennsylvania for new recreational opportunities and conservation of natural resources, according to PR Newswire.

“The health and vitality of our communities is reflected in the quality of parks and trails, access to rivers, open spaces and outdoor recreation opportunities,” DCNR Secretary Cindy Dunn said during the announcement at Long’s Park in Lancaster.

Year-End Awards Given for Sustainable Practices in Building and Planning
Paul W. Meyer was presented with Montgomery County’s 2016 Planning Advocate Award in November, in recognition of contributions to advancing planning within the area. Meyer, executive director at Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, has also served as a member of the Springfield Township Planning Commission and the Montgomery County Open Space Board. 

Also in November, the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Institute of Architects presented A. Stevens Krug of West Chester with the President’s Award. Krug chairs the Climate Change Advisory Committee, a group of 16 appointed representatives that advises the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Lawrence Township was among 26 municipalities to receive Sustainable Jersey Silver Certification for 2016. In 2000, the township helped launch Sustainable Jersey, a nonprofit providing tools, training and financial incentives toward sustainability programs.

New Computer Literacy Lab Educates Public on Web Skills, Job Hunts
SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition), a nonprofit that supports immigrants and refugees in their search for opportunities in their new homeland, launched a series of computer literacy classes in November, with more than 80 people in attendance.

The courses, held Thursdays and Saturdays at SEAMAAC’s outreach center at 2110 S. 8th St., cover typing skills, Microsoft programs, cover letter and resume drafting, email setup and the basics of navigating the internet.

The Comcast Foundation provided funding for the computer courses, and Sunrise of Philadelphia is supporting beginner and intermediate English classes in conjunction.

SEAMAAC plans to include tutorials on Pennsylvania’s COMPASS program and the Health Insurance Marketplace.

Public Housing Grant Will Expand Education Aid for Residents
The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) will be able to hire two full-time “education navigators” with a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). These new employees will work with public housing youth and their families as they apply for federal student aid and educational opportunities.

“Education is a game changer,” said PHA President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah. “This grant will help alleviate some of the barriers that prevent residents from going to college.”

The grant was made under HUD’s Project SOAR (Students + Opportunities + Achievements = Results), a pilot program to expand educational services to youth living in public housing.

Everything we know and love will one day be reduced to a thin strip of sediment. That’s strangely comforting.

Illustration by Lynn Scurfield

Illustration by Lynn Scurfield

The Long (Long) View

interview by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

Elizabeth Kolbert’s book “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” is a great read for anyone who is in need of a little perspective about our place as humans on an ever-changing planet. It was 1705 when the first mastodon tooth was discovered in America; in short order, we had a new understanding of the world that included the process of evolution. It was 1980 when we figured out what killed the dinosaurs.

Kolbert is interested in the next major die-out—which will likely include the species Homo sapiens—and what record humans will leave behind. 

It seems sort of incredible that we’ve learned so much about the world in the last 200 years, and also that we’ve done so much to alter it, although our entire history as a species is still a blip on the geological clock. Did researching this book alter your perception at all of time or agency, or of mortality? 
Yes. You know, we’re all bounded by our limited experience and our imagination, but I think we tend to live so much in the here and now, and so much in the last week, last month, even 24 hours. Try to step back— imaginatively, since that’s the only way you can do it—and really hang out with people who can look at a mountain and tell you how it formed 500 million years ago. 

I’m looking right now out of my window at mountains that are half a billion years old, basically, and they were much, much higher at one point. It does put things in a somewhat different perspective. It was alarming to realize that what [humans] are doing is actually quite unusual, even in the biggest time scale you could look at. But it will be erased one day.

What are some of the ways in which humans have changed the planet?
Obviously the world will continue to rumble on...  [But] we’ve changed the carbon content of the atmosphere; that will be recorded in geological history… recorded in the rocks...

We dammed up a lot of rivers—changed their course… we have a more or less permanent geological record… we’ve mowed down big tracks of forests and planted corn or soy that will also leave traces behind.... In a mass-extinction event, that will be a tremendous record. … Geologists [interpret] things a bit differently from you and me. They’re asking what of these changes are permanent. And that’s actually the question that’s absorbing geologists right now: What is it that we’re going to be able to look at and is going to be synchronous with a signal around the world?… One possibility, another way we’ve changed the planet, more or less permanently, is with nuclear testing. We’ve left behind certain radioactive nucleotype that will be around for a very, very long time.

Do you feel like you have a much different understanding of that picture—of a mass extinction event happening—before and after the book?
People much more expert than I have done numerical analysis and concluded that if we are not in the middle of a mass extinction, we are poised for one, and one could unfold with amazing rapidity given the rate at which things are disappearing. So, when I went into this it wasn’t quite a wide-eyed, “Oh, I wonder if something is going on.” It was definitely with the idea that something big is going on.
One point that I hope comes through in this book is: We’ve become so inured to extinction, so the idea that something is going extinct just doesn’t strike us as a particularly big deal.
But if you, in a human lifetime, are seeing multiple species go extinct, that is huge. That already suggests something very, very unusual is going on, because species can last quite a long time.

You spend a great deal of time with various scientists and species-specific advocates in this book. One that you begin with is a steward of the Panamanian golden frog, and he says to you, “Each one is as important to me as an elephant.” It struck me when I read that, because it was really getting at the fact that the species that get the most attention from the general public are sometimes the ones that inspire the most awe in us—like the elephant. But when it comes to life and death of bacteria or fungi and other kinds of species, those are the ones that are probably going to write our history.
 Even though we are in awe of the elephants—at least in theory—and we love elephants—once again, in theory—I would say to a certain extent that elephants are in terrible trouble right now, even as we speak. There’s a real crisis for African elephants, and Asian elephants are already decimated. So even though we, quote unquote, pay more attention to charismatic fauna—big mammals—actually, big mammals are in terrible trouble. 
The great apes are all in terrible trouble. So we may feel some affection for them, and we see them in zoos, but those few that remain in the wild are really, really in trouble. I can’t stress that enough—our very close relatives.
That being said, I think it’s [biologist E.O. Wilson] who makes the point, if we got rid of all of the mammals on the planet, the planet would still chug along—certainly if we got rid of all the people the planet would chug along very, very nicely. But if you suddenly got rid of all the bacteria—everything responsible for decay and recycling and soil production—life as we know it would come to an end very, very quickly. Immediately. I think it’s another Ed Wilson thing: “It’s the little things that rule the world.” And that’s really true.

When it comes to our responsibility for climate change, one of the things that gets talked about most often is carbon in the atmosphere. Why is the much-less-talked-about acidification of the oceans an equal threat to life on the planet?
Well, first of all, the oceans are just very, very big. You know, they cover 70 percent of the planet, roughly, as every school kid learns. And it’s actually very different to change the chemistry of the ocean, since they have a very large buffering capacity, so the chemistry doesn’t change easily, but we’re exhausting that buffering capacity. We are changing the chemistry of the oceans—that’s not debatable, that’s measurable. It’s [also] very unusual in the history of life or the chemistry of the oceans. In terms of human life and other forms of life, ocean acidification is quite possibly a bigger threat than climate change.

At one point, you quote a biologist who says of an invasive species, “While it’s easy to demonize the brown tree snake, the animal is not evil, it’s just amoral and in the wrong place, precisely what Homo sapiens has done all over the planet, succeeding extravagantly at the expense of other species.” Did that idea of humans being an amoral part of the animal kingdom settle in for you more deeply as you researched the book?
I think the question of “What is the human?” ultimately is the question at the center of the book. The subtitle is “An Unnatural History,” and some people have told me it should have been “A Natural History,” and that’s reasonable, too. 
I think the question of why is it that we turn out to be so destructive to other species—that I don’t think is debatable, really, that we have the peculiar ability and propensity to do in our fellow creatures on the planet. Why does this turn out to be, and how does this relate to us as biological beings and us as ethical actors? And is all of our talk of ethics really just a lot of talk?

You write in the book, “One hundred million years from now, all that we consider the great works of man, the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories, will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.” Do you believe there’s anything that might alter that path, or is that just the way of the planet?
That is just the way of the planet. Erosion and sedimentation—and the pressure of gravity.

Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning book “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” and is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

January: To-Do List

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

1. Recycle your tree and wreaths
There’s no reason to send holiday decorations to the landfill. Drop off trees at city sanitation centers from Jan. 2 through Jan. 14, or find a neighborhood program like Greenlimbs.

2. Program the thermostat
In addition to saving energy, using a programmable thermostat can help you sleep better: Choosing to sleep in a cooler room at night can help you fall asleep and stay asleep.

3. Wrap up the water heater
It’s not just your bed that needs a blanket. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends wrapping even newer, energy efficient heaters in an insulating blanket.

4. Check out the local wildlife
According to the Natural Lands Trust, winter is an excellent time to go birding—it’s time to find out the difference between a winter wren and a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Northern cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees are some of the species who stay during the winter; you’ll also see birds that only show up in our region when cold weather hits.

5. Shovel a neighbor’s walk
We all have people on our block who could use a little help. Take a moment to talk with neighbors and make plans to assist them when the snow hits.

6. Reread ‘I Have a Dream’
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Jan. 16, and his iconic 1963 speech is worth exploring. It may give solace to remember that every generation struggles to persevere: “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.” The National Constitution Center at 525 Arch St. will host a daylong remembrance.

7. Clean (really clean) the kitchen
Since you don’t see the sides of your stove or the tops of your kitchen cabinets often, it may be time to give them a true scrub down. Grease and grime have been collecting throughout the year, so take an hour to get rid of the muck. Hot water and citrus-based cleaner will do the trick, but be sure to wear gloves.

8. Experience some art
While the weather may be frightful, the city’s creative class hasn’t slowed down on mounting shows. Make a commitment to visit a venue you haven’t yet explored.

9. Commit to a social media break
While January is usually the time we recommit to our bodies and go back to the gym, we propose reclaiming your mind: Try to give up social media outlets for a week—or even a few days.

10. Host an inauguration party
On Jan. 20, we swear in a new president. There’s no better way to get through a challenging time than to huddle up with your circle. Host an inauguration party with a twist: Have your guests come prepared to share a concrete commitment to giving time or money to causes that are important to them.

Butternut squash and red lentils star in this one-pot wonder

Savory Winter Stew

by Anna Herman

Some version of this soup is always on my stove during open house gatherings in fall and winter. Although the recipe is somewhat vague on quantities, almost any combination of vegetables works. The key to a good soup—or any other dish—is the quality of the ingredients. Use whatever you have left from your garden, farmers market or co-op for the best results. Organic olive oil and coconut milk are also recommended. It is good smooth as a soup, or more chunky as a stew with rice or bulgur pilaf. Don’t forget to freeze some for those February nights when you don’t feel like cooking!

Serves 8-10

  • 3tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 to 3 teaspoons cumin seeds, or ground cumin
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground hot peppers or flakes
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 4 tablespoons grated fresh ginger (or 1/2-inch piece of ginger, minced fine)
  • 2 onions, minced
  • 3 to 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 to 2 carrots, tops removed, chopped fine
  • 1 to 2 sticks of celery, chopped fine
  • 1 butternut squash (or other hard winter squash), peeled, seeded and cubed
  • 1 to 2 cups cleaned and cubed assorted other root vegetables, such as celeriac, parsnip, turnip, potato, etc.
  • 2 cups red lentils
  • 8 to 10 cups water or vegetable stock
  • 1 28-ounce can chopped or crushed tomatoes 
  • 1 to 2 cans coconut milk
  • Optional garnishes


  1. Heat olive oil in a large soup pot.  Add onions and garlic and sauté until the onions are soft and just browning. Add spices and cook another few minutes, stirring often.  
  2. Add all the chopped vegetables, water or stock and lentils. Stir well and bring to a boil. Simmer gently till the vegetables are soft and lentils have become paste.  
  3. Add the tomatoes and coconut milk and continue cooking another half-hour. Season well with salt and black pepper.Adjust other seasonings to your taste.  
  4. Partially or fully purée as you like with an immersion blender or—carefully—in a stand blender. 
  5. Stir in or garnish with chopped cilantro, browned butter and/or thick yogurt (full-fat, Greek style is especially good) seasoned with toasted chopped pecans, minced garlic, salt and pepper. 

Anna Herman is a garden educator who raises chickens, ducks, bees, fruits and veggies in her Mount Airy backyard.

Straight out of Grandma’s recipe card, a potato soup with no rival

Spud Life

by Peggy Paul Casella

As soon as my sister and I were big enough to wield snow shovels, my mother would pawn us off to help clear the steep driveway outside Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Huntingdon Valley. Our reward? One whole quarter each from Grandpa (50 cents if we did a really good job) and steamy bowls of Grandma’s potato soup, ladled right from the stove. While we ate, clutching the bowls in both hands to thaw our frozen fingers, Grandma would ask about school and Grandpa would quiz us on American history or play one of his favorite big band albums on their giant record player. 

In all the years since then, as I entered adulthood and eventually became a cookbook editor and food writer, I have yet to find a potato soup recipe that rivals my grandma’s in flavor or comfort. The ingredients are simple but a bit specific—Grandma notes on her handwritten recipe card that the milk should be bottled and the parsley should be curly (not flat-leaf). 

Basically, since you’ll notice every flavor in this soup, from the potato-onion-celery base to the butter and milk “broth” and parsley garnish, you should spring for the good stuff, sourced from local farms and dairies. 

Enjoy this soup on a cold winter day while listening to your coziest playlist—no manual labor required.

Serves 4 to 6

  • 2½ cups water
  • 2 cups peeled and finely diced russet potatoes
  • 2 small yellow onions, finely diced
  • 2 outside stalks of celery, including leaves, diced
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1¾ teaspoons salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups whole milk (preferably grass-fed)
  • 1 tablespoon minced, fresh, curly parsley


  1. Bring the water to a boil in a medium pot. Add the potatoes, onions and celery, cover the pot and cook until the vegetables are very tender. When the vegetables are done cooking, after about 10 to 20 minutes, pour them through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl, liquid and all. Use a wooden spoon or spatula to smash the vegetables through the sieve. You should have 3 cups of purée. 
  2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large double boiler over medium heat. Add the flour, stir until smooth, and then add the salt, black pepper and milk. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is smooth and thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. 
  3. Stir the potato purée into the milk mixture, add the parsley and cook just until heated through. Serve immediately.

Peggy Paul Casella is a cookbook editor, writer, urban vegetable gardener and the author of the blog Thursday Night Pizza.

Soul-satisfying cassoulet pairs perfectly with local brews

Slow-Cooked Beans and Beer

by Brian Ricci

Winter brings an excess of darkness and chills. It invites us to stay indoors and gather to share a meal. You might want to read a book for a while and catch a nap—either way: Before you do, read this, go shopping and start your cassoulet. 

Ultimately, this can be used as a wonderful centerpiece for a dinner party, and the work is all done in advance. The overlapping scents and aromas of roasting meats, garlic and beans will welcome your guests. Sample your cassoulet as it cooks, and in between, sit back on your favorite chair and finish that book. Don’t forget to have a beer while you’re at it. You can go outside tomorrow.

What’s cassoulet?
Cassoulet is a dish of braised beans and pork that originated in the Languedoc region of the South of France. Traditionally, navy beans were used, along with pork rinds and sausages. Others protest and insist cassoulet must consist of beans, bacon, lard and pulled goose meat: Therein lies an age-old dispute. 

Ultimately, the divergence can be tied specifically to what grows locally and can benefit from the slow-cooking process. Regions in France claim superiority in regard to cassoulet, much in the same way Philadelphians may feel about a particular cheesesteak. It may seem a negative; however, since there is no empirical right way to make cassoulet, then, for us, there can be no wrong notes.

The beans and beer
Again, the key is using what we can get locally, using the same logic as the folks who cultivated this dish in France. Let’s examine our main component: the bean. Traditionally, that’s the navy bean, a medium-sized white bean that we can find in any grocery store—dry or canned. It’s great and versatile, but I urge you to seek out less common varieties of bean. Dry runner beans are my favorite for this application; I can find varieties like scarlet, polestar and painted lady. I rely on William Woys Weaver’s Roughwood Seed Collection in Wayne, Pennsylvania, for a wide variety of dry beans. He’s a noted food historian, author and gardener whose knowledge in this area is unparalleled. All beans will require an overnight soak or a “quick soak” before we can use them in the recipe. This recipe will also use beer, and I’d suggest a local saison or pale ale.

The meat
I recommend using garlic sausages, duck thighs and bacon ends for your cassoulet. The combination will impart a great variety of flavor and texture to the dish. Reading Terminal Market is an excellent jumping off point for a dish like this. Try out La Divisa, which can provide exceptional, humanely raised meats, charcuterie and service; the shop is about to have a meat counter at the Fair Food Farmstand, which can help with rounding out much of the rest of your shopping list. Alternatively, consider Green Aisle Grocery (locations in East Passyunk, Graduate Hospital and Fishtown), which carries loads of
local products.

Serves 6 to 8

To make the beans:

  • 1 pound dry runner beans
  • 1 good piece of bacon end
  • 1 large onion, peeled and sliced into halves
  • 1 carrot, cut into large pieces
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • A handful of fresh herbs—thyme, bay, rosemary, parsley—use what you like, and make sure to tie them in a bundle to keep track of their whereabouts
  • 1 to 2 pounds of garlic sausages, sliced in 1-inch pieces

To make the cassoulet:

  • 1 pound of pork shoulder, boneless, diced
  • 2 pounds of confit duck thighs, pulled from the bone in small chunks
  • 3 onions, medium diced
  • 3 tablespoons of tomato paste
  • 12 ounces of beer, saison or pale ale recommended
  • 1/2 pound duck or pork fat
  • More herbs, bundled 
  • White breadcrumbs to form a crust


  1. Soak the dry beans overnight in water. Drain and place them in a pot with the bacon end, the onion, carrot, garlic and herb bundle. Cover with water. Simmer until the beans are tender but not splitting. At the end, add the garlic sausages to stiffen them gently. You can do this stovetop or in the oven at about 350 F. Drain the beans and reserve them and the liquid, bacon and sausages for later. Once it’s off the heat, add salt and pepper.
  2. In a large sauté pan, gently cook the diced onion until it’s melted, add the pork and duck and raise the heat to brown the meats while being careful not to burn them. Pour off excess fat, add the tomato paste and set the heat to low. Add the beer, and season with salt and pepper. Continue cooking until half the beer is absorbed.
  3. In a large braising dish, place the reserved bacon, then half of the beans, followed by the pork and duck mixture—spread this thoroughly. Next, add the sausages, followed by the rest of the beans, the second herb bundle and about a pint of the bean liquid. Top this with a 1/2-inch layer of breadcrumbs and dot with the duck or pork fat. Place into a 320 F oven for about 1½  hours. The breadcrumbs will form a great crust, which should be broken with a spoon while it cooks. Top the cassoulet with more breadcrumbs each time.

Pair It With Beer

  1. Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale. Crisp and citrusy. America’s greatest pale ale.
  2. St. Benjamin’s Liaison Saison. An approachable, dry saison that offers peppercorn and lavender notes.
  3. Draai Laag’s R2 Koelschip. Local, wild yeast creates sour notes for this Belgian-style farmhouse ale.

Brian Ricci is a chef living and working in Philadelphia.

Peaceful, native-led Water Protectors have won an important victory. But the fight is not over

Illustration by Charlo Frade

Illustration by Charlo Frade

Black Snake at Standing Rock

by Judy Wicks

A 1,000-year-old Lakota prophecy tells of a Black Snake that would rise from the deep and move across the land, bringing destruction and great sorrow. The Sioux believe that the Black Snake has arrived in the form of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the most powerful economic and political force in the world: the fossil fuel industry. 

I traveled with a group to Standing Rock for a weeklong stay at the native-owned casino to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the Water Protectors. Their camp had swelled to more than 10,000 peaceful native and non-native people praying to stop the completion of a gas pipeline that would burrow under sacred sites and the Missouri River. As soon as we settled in, we met people who were still suffering from a police attack a few days before our arrival. 

Trapped between squads of police, the unarmed protectors had been blasted with water cannons for six hours in freezing temperatures, doused with tear gas and pepper spray, and shot with rubber bullets and exploding percussion grenades. Several hundred were hospitalized for hypothermia and injuries. In earlier confrontations, we heard of nonviolent Water Protectors who were protecting sacred sites, some at prayer, when they were beaten with batons, attacked by dogs that were encouraged to be aggressive; protesters were arrested, strip searched and locked for days in dog kennels. 

Rubber projectiles the size of golf balls had lacerated heads, broken bones and knocked people unconscious, including an elder. The few daring reporters who covered the attack were also arrested and charged with starting a riot.

As other supporters were doing, we offered our rooms for hot showers. A young Lakota man—covered in the residue of tear gas sprayed on him three days before—still suffered from a deep cough. Another had a broken hand. After her shower, a native woman who worked at camp security fell asleep with exhaustion on one of our beds. 

During my week at Standing Rock, I witnessed a surreal, epic drama of two contrasting worldviews: one of horror and one of hope. The Black Snake, driven by greed and fear, uses violence to dominate people and nature, and measures success by short-term profits and the accumulation of material wealth. This extractive economy is fed by rampant consumerism and our own addiction to oil and gas. It is a world where corporations violate Mother Earth every day by drilling, fracking, mountaintop removal, poisoning of water, soil and air, and the destruction of forests, marshes and the habitats of wildlife. 

In contrast, the encampment at Standing Rock offers us a world we can choose to build together, one that is nonviolent, cooperative and loving, that honors women, the old and the young, and respects all species in the web of life. It is a world where a restorative economy is being built that will produce the basic needs of all people, while protecting and restoring natural systems. It is a world of awe, wonder and joy that honors our common Mother. 

Despite the continuation of the genocidal history of abuse and betrayal, the native people of Standing Rock have offered love to all—even the oppressors. 

It is not only the future of their own children that the Protectors are defending, they explain, but the children of the pipe layers and policemen, as well. Kind words and water are offered to the police officers whenever possible. After the vicious attacks, an elder formed a forgiveness procession to the sheriff’s office carrying a banner and a prayer bundle with blessings for the police officers and their families. When the sheriff posted a notice in the newspaper requesting donations for things the officers needed, a group of indigenous youth delivered all the supplies listed, including milk, energy bars, batteries and hand warmers. 

Standing Rock calls us to join the struggle to defeat the Black Snake and inspires us to act with courage to protect what we love in our own communities and to support indigenous people around the globe who stand on the front lines in defense of their places. As the prophecy further warns, if the Earth’s people do not unite to defeat the Black Snake, the world will end. As we near catastrophic climate change, will we as individuals and collectively as a nation choose life over money? Love over fear? This story is not yet over, but the conclusion is near. What role will each of us play in its outcome?

Judy Wicks is a national leader in the movement for sustainable communities and economy.

These six sundries should be in everyone’s house

Photo by Marika Mirren

Photo by Marika Mirren

by Emily Kovach

The Condiment Cupboard

Deep winter cooking got you down? Rev up root veggies, embolden braises and spark casserole creativity with these locally made condiments. A splash, dash or drizzle is all you’ll need to perk up your culinary creations.

1. Keepwell Vinegar 
York, Pa.
This newer operation uses ingredients sourced directly from farmers to push the vinegar envelope with interesting flavors such as white turmeric, blueberry, wildflower honey and sorghum molasses. They also dabble in other fermented condiments, such as soy sauce and miso.  

2. The Bacon Jams
West Chester, Pa.
Is everything actually better with bacon? Here’s an easy way to find out: Spread a spoonful of these porky preserves on anything your heart desires. The Bacon Jams company offers foodies three savory flavors: all original, black pepper, and red chili and garlic. 

3. Sundry Mornings Hot Sauces 
Miranda Watson is a one-woman operation, hand crafting what she calls “hot and not-so-hot-sauces.” Made with locally sourced ingredients, her sauces come in a few vibrant flavors: Splash of Purple, Peach Sugar Rush, Cherry Time Bomb and the super-spicy Revenge ofJ’s Ghost.  

4. Le Bon Magot Condiments 
Lawrenceville, N.J.
For globally influenced flavor pairings you’re unlikely to find elsewhere, explore this small company’s beautiful jarred condiments, including brinjal caponata, tomato and white sultana chutney, white pumpkin and almond murabba (a sweet and sour relish originating in Western India). 

5. Saint Lucifer Table Spice #11 
Royersford, Pa.
The owners of this spice-obsessed company went through many rounds of recipe testing to perfect this addictive dried mixture of garlic, salt, paprika, vinegar and habañero peppers. A few sprinkles of the fiery blend will send grilled meats, soups and popcorn into the stratosphere.

6. We Bee Brothers Raw Honey 
Brothers Joel and Jeff Eckel harvest gorgeous golden honey straight from local hives in spring and fall. Their sweet wares can be found at Weavers Way Co-op in West Philadelphia and seasonally at the Wyck House farmer’s market in Germantown.

Everyday kitchen items made close to home

by Emily Kovach

Picks for the Pantry

When it comes to heirloom produce or dairy, we’re often happy to spend an extra dollar or two for a huge jump in quality. The same principle applies to basic ingredients. Spring for something local and small batch versus mass produced, and marvel at the difference it makes in even the simplest dishes.  

Vera Pasta  
West Chester, Pa.
Extrusion with bronze dies, the traditional method for making pasta where it’s pressed through small holes, creates toothsome, coarse-textured pasta that can stand up to even the sauciest sauce.

Crisp & Co. Pickles  
Hockessin, Del.
Founded by an ex-scientist and a gardening enthusiast, these are some of the tastiest, crunchiest pickled cukes, beets, beans and mushrooms out there. 

Castle Valley Mill Flour and Grains
Doylestown, Pa.
Locally grown wheat, spelt, emmer, grits and cornmeal are ground on rebuilt antique stone milling machines for the freshest flavor and optimal nutrition.  

Susquehanna Mills Oils 
Montoursville, Pa.
This biodynamic farming operation produces organic, non-GMO cooking oils from sunflower, canola and hemp crops. Pressing at low temperatures yields high quality oils that retain naturally occurring antioxidants.  

First Field Strained or Crushed Tomatoes 
Kingston, N.J.
These non-GMO canned and bottled tomatoes are sourced directly with New Jersey farmers, creating a significant value-add to bumper crops. 

Spruce Hill Preserves
Molly Haendler is the chef behind this small-batch canning operation, focusing on creative seasonal flavors such as spicy carrot jam and mulled wine jelly.  

A quarter of Philadelphians are food insecure. What are we doing about it?

Photo by Kriston Bethel

Photo by Kriston Bethel

The Line

by Alex Jones

On a blustery, sunny Friday she’s taken off of work, Melanie Hudson waits in line for food.

“I have a lot more month than money,” says Hudson, 46, who works with autistic teens at Upper Darby High School. Her 17-year-old daughter Veronica is an honors student at the school and plans to join the Air Force when she graduates.

In 2009, Hudson’s husband passed away after a brain aneurysm and left her a single parent. She lost a job she’d held for 15 years. And, during what was already a time of great hardship, Hudson suffered significant damage to her eyesight due to glaucoma.

These challenges meant that Hudson, who radiates a confidence and positivity that belies her past troubles, had to seek help to ensure that her and her daughter’s basic needs were met. “I was trying to figure out how to feed my family,” she says.

She sought out assistance from Philabundance and began patronizing its Fresh For All program, a sort of traveling farmers market that distributes fresh produce and other perishable foods like milk, bread and even meats at no cost to anyone who shows up during the one-hour distribution window. This morning, Philabundance volunteers and staff in green sweatshirts and orange safety vests keep trays and boxes of fresh vegetables stocked while clients fill shopping bags, totes and carts with portions of each item.

Hudson greets fellow clients she hasn’t seen in a while after loading up her bags with cabbage, cauliflower, bananas, peppers, bread and milk. During the school year, her work schedule conflicts with the food distribution schedule, but during summer break, and days like today when she’s taken off work, she still lines up with a few hundred other Philabundance clients Friday mornings at Christ Lutheran in her Upper Darby neighborhood.

“When you come through the Philabundance line, it helps you get to know the members of your community,” says Hudson. “[You build] a type of network or friendship with the people that you stand in line with for about an hour [each week].”

The cold wind keeps the morning from feeling festive, but the sun is warm, people are chatty and the line moves relatively quickly. A boombox plays classic rock while a line of bundled-up clients stretches out of the parking lot and around the block. Clients from around 200 households who self-identify as in need of assistance will collect food at the day’s distribution, some lining up for the 9:30 start time at 7 a.m. The clientele is diverse: black, white, Asian, Latino, seniors, single men, teens, women with and without kids—everyone is represented.

Whether we know it when we see them or not, these are the faces of hunger in Philadelphia.

‘Radical hospitality’
A patched-together network of food pantries, soup kitchens, churches, grassroots organizations, regional nonprofits and other groups across the city do what they can to keep hungry Philadelphians fed as best they can. The Philly Food Finder, a web tool developed by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger (GPCAH), provides a single online portal that people can use to find myriad food resources near them. But the need far outweighs these essential yet short-term solutions.

Nationwide and across Pennsylvania, poverty levels have inched down in recent years. But here in Philadelphia, the problem has grown. One in four citizens are food insecure—running out of food and money to pay for it before the end of the month. That’s nearly twice the national and state average.

Hudson’s story helps to shatter myths some hold about the food insecure. Many are working people, single parents, and others are trying to make it as best they can in a city and country where, more than ever, the system seems designed to work against them.

But the problem also extends to unstable populations such as the homeless and people suffering from drug addiction or mental illness, which many people find more difficult to relate to than someone like Hudson. But these populations aren’t any less hungry, and new programs are also promoting the idea that they aren’t any less deserving of help—or respect.

When Philadelphians in need of a meal walk into Broad Street Ministry, they get something more than a full belly.

“Broad Street Ministry practices an approach we like to call radical hospitality,” says Executive Director Mike Dahl. “Our role, as we see it, is to serve as a wide-open front door for the most vulnerable populations in the city.”

Tablecloths, silverware and fine china top round tables spread throughout the sanctuary of the cathedral-like Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church building on the Avenue of the Arts. There are no plastic trays or chow lines. Meals are made exclusively with fresh ingredients—nothing frozen or canned. Wait staff take orders and serve meals to patrons as they would in a fine dining restaurant.

Broad Street Hospitality Collaborative, a program of Broad Street Ministry, estimates it will serve 80,000 meals to around 7,400 unique individuals in 2016. Many of these clients are among the city’s most vulnerable, living with addiction or mental health issues or attempting to re-enter society after being released from prison.

The food wouldn’t be out of place at one of the high-end restaurants on this tony downtown strip. Dinner at one of these Breaking Bread meals might be vegetable ratatouille served with polenta and balsamic reduction, for example. When he came on four years ago, Executive Chef Steven Seibel revamped the culinary program, making a point to design menus with quality, flavor and nutrition in mind. Service frequency also increased from one to seven meals per week.

“We wanted to be the one place where [guests] could come and get a meal that’s freshly made, that’s made with love—something that they don’t get much [elsewhere],” Seibel said.

The program takes a trauma-informed approach to serving its constituents, centering the experiences and perspectives of clients and avoiding coercive interventions or triggers—including excessive security or practices that pathologize clients—that may lead to re-traumatization.  Offering a top-quality dining experience, well-trained and sensitive staff and volunteers, and a host of other essential services on-site, can help clients reclaim feelings of personhood and a sense of stability after experiencing traumatic or challenging events in their lives.

Depending on the weather and the week—attendance spikes toward the end of the month when benefit checks have run out—Seibel and his team serve anywhere from 150 to 500 patrons per meal. In addition to conventional purveyors, he also sources from local, sustainable food sources when possible; the program receives regular donations of organic produce from Carversville Farm Foundation in Bucks County and has sourced grass-fed beef and tallow through whole-animal butcher Primal Supply Meats.

“We’re trying to put our purchasing power behind sustainable food operations, but we also know that we’re bringing in the best possible produce, the best possible protein for people that truly deserve it,” Seibel says.

While Breaking Bread meals are the primary entry point for patrons, Broad Street Ministries and its partner organizations provide “stabilizing services,” like distributing clothing and personal care items, offering health screenings and assistance signing up for benefits, and another unique service: a mailing address. Having an address can be the first step for patrons to re-establish their lives, as it’s often required to apply for an ID card, benefits, housing and jobs, and it provides a way for clients to reconnect with family and friends.

“We’re trying to provide a place that offers a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a place where [clients] can restore their self-value,” says Dahl. “Put simply, they’re going to be treated with respect and dignity.”

In West Philadelphia, another food service model that’s helping to feed those in need takes a community approach, bringing those who can afford to eat and those who can’t to the same table.

Many Philadelphians take for granted that they can walk into a restaurant and order a meal where they’re attended to by a team of professional servers and cooks—some of whom may be food insecure themselves. At EAT (Everyone at the Table) Café, divisions between those who can pay and those who cannot are removed.

It’s the city’s first not-for-profit, pay-what-you-can restaurant, offering tasty, wholesome meals to all in the community.

Diners can select one of two rotating three-course meals from a streamlined menu—caprese-inspired chopped salad, flavorful lemon roast chicken with pasta, sorbet with fruit for dessert and a hot cup of tea, for example—but when the check comes, diners decide what they can pay: the suggested price of $15, or more, or less, or nothing at all.

EAT Café wasn’t just conceived as a place where those unable to buy food might be able to get a healthy meal. The concept offers the same experience for everyone, combining a welcoming, community-driven ethos with touches that echo trends  that diners might see at the city’s cutting-edge BYOs and fast-casual restaurants, like a menu that’s updated every week based on what’s in season and a no-tipping policy, since all staff are paid a higher than average hourly wage.

The café is the culmination of a years-long collaboration of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, the university’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, Vetri Community Partnership and the greater West Philly community.

“The idea is to minimize hunger,” said April Thompson-Harris, a Powelton Village resident and a member of the project’s Community Advisory Committee. “You have those who can afford [to eat] and those that can’t. If you’re able to pay the suggested price, that’s great. If you’re economically unable to, it’s perfectly fine. They designed [the restaurant] in this way for comfort, ease and community, and [so we can] grow together.”

The service, the food and even the end-of-meal transaction that usually occurs are designed to be the same for all diners, paying and nonpaying. In this way, EAT Café offers an experience that creates community by encouraging diners who can pay full price (or more) to do so to support the concept, while diners who can only pay less than full price or not at all can enjoy a healthy meal in a beautiful space side by side with other diners.

General Manager Donnell Jones-Craven, a food industry veteran whose culinary career has included fine dining, specialty catering and upscale hotels, joined the project in 2014 and has worked with project partners to bring EAT Café from an idea to a brick-and-mortar space to open for business.

“I'm really excited about getting open and working with my staff and just making our hospitality and our customer service stand out—then the food comes after that,” Jones-Craven said just before the café’s opening in late October.

The food that EAT Café serves comes from a combination of donations from grocers, bakeries and other food businesses as well as purchases from purveyors. It’s important to Jones-Craven to build relationships with mission-aligned organizations and businesses, and to source food produced within 200 miles of Philadelphia, including urban growers, whenever possible.

“We’ll be utilizing purveyors that are sensitive and passionate about what we’re doing, who want to join our cause, as well as local community gardens [and] local grocery stores,” says Jones-Craven. They’ve received donations from businesses like Giant supermarket in Wynnewood and Metropolitan Bakery’s Rittenhouse location, among others.

EAT Café’s menu, which is posted online each week, will change seasonally and based on which ingredients have been donated. While selections are limited—initial menus included two appetizer and dessert choices and three entrée options—the kitchen is able to accommodate for dietary restrictions and food allergies.

Waste not, want not
Even as a large percentage of our country goes hungry, we’re still throwing out an awful lot of food. That’s why Megha Kulshreshtha set out to reduce food waste and feed hungry people. Food Connect, the program she’s been developing since 2014, does both.

As the Indian-American child of immigrants growing up in a New Jersey home where food was never wasted and resources were sometimes scarce, it felt natural to Kulshreshtha, who is now a real estate investor, to find a way to give back. In her case, that meant working nights and weekends to develop a solution to food waste and food insecurity: a way to connect excess prepared food with those who could most use it in a manner that’s timely, convenient  and safe.

Food waste is a big problem—and not just because unused food could be used to feed those who don’t have enough. Food waste uses other resources on a large scale: According to ReFED, an alliance of advocates, funders and government agencies dedicated to reducing food waste and its negative impacts, the $218 billion worth of U.S. food wasted each year consumes 21 percent of all fresh water, 19 percent of all fertilizer, 21 percent of landfill volume and 18 percent of cropland.

In response, some supermarket chains have started marketing “ugly” produce, like misshapen carrots, that would otherwise go to waste. Other programs, like Hungry Harvest, which recently began serving the Philadelphia market, aggregate this produce into affordable, CSA-style subscription boxes priced at 20 to 30 percent less than supermarket produce and delivered straight to customers’ homes.

Food Connect intervenes at the food service level, rescuing uneaten but perfectly good food from the waste stream. Restaurants, dining halls and other food service operations with excess food—say, trays of lasagna from a college cafeteria or unserved bowls of salad from a catered wedding—can use Food Connect’s app to schedule pickups. Volunteer drivers are dispatched to pick up donations and bring them straight to the food pantries, shelters and other institutions that distribute food to those who need it.

In its first 30 months, Food Connect donated 6,000 meals—not bad for an all-volunteer organization recording transactions by hand on paper.

“I didn’t want to build [technology] until I knew exactly where the pain point was,” says Kulshreshtha, who has so far funded the all-volunteer program out of pocket. Logistics—how the food would get from donor to recipient promptly—was a big one.

“We addressed that [bottleneck] by leveraging existing resources and efforts in our city,” Kulshreshtha says. “That’s where that Philly spirit comes in, and we really saw that play out during the DNC.”

Food Connect had the technology, but it didn’t have the resources to rescue food at the 50,000-person event in July. Partnering with other hunger relief programs, which already have vehicles and drivers on the road, was key to increasing the program’s capacity in time for the convention. Working with mission-aligned organizations, Kulshreshtha was able to dispatch, say, a Philabundance truck to pick up and deliver a big donation, while a small army of volunteers from around the city helped ferry pickups from smaller-scale businesses.

“What you saw happening was a coming together of all of these different efforts,” she said. “We were able to do this really fast because we didn’t have to do it all ourselves. It really was a team effort.”

That scaling up made possible by the app has made a big difference in Food Connect’s impact. Since the convention, approximately 50,000 meals have been rescued and donated to organizations feeding Philadelphians in need. And the event inspired some big players in Philly food service such as Garces Group Catering, Starr Catering and Temple University’s dining halls to sign up and use the service to donate surplus.

Food Connect’s next phase, Kulshreshtha hopes, is to raise funds to secure the program in Philadelphia; other cities have also expressed interest in a similar model. “Now that we see that there’s real demand for all of this, [our goal] is keeping up with that demand,” she said. “[Donors] are really excited to have this option in a safe and efficient way.”

A growing problem, with threats looming
These programs give cause for hope, but their efficacy is limited by the sheer scale of the problem of food poverty and food insecurity. In the background of rising numbers on both fronts, the specter of federal funding cuts looms, particularly given the results of the presidential election and conservative sentiment about entitlement programs.

“In Philadelphia, if you look at the number of young kids in poverty, that number actually went up [in 2016],” says Kate Scully, policy director at Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, which focuses on studying and mitigating the impact of hunger on very young children. The problem of hunger is nested within the problem of poverty—not making enough money to meet your and your family’s basic needs.

“Hunger doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Scully said. “When kids are food insecure, they’re often energy insecure, housing insecure.”

This increase is echoed in poverty levels in the city overall. "Even with the household income increasing slightly, the poverty level [in our city] remains around 26 percent,” says Tom Mahon, communications director at GPCAH.

One in four Philadelphians live at or below the poverty line, which the federal government defines as an annual income of $24,300 for a family of four—far below a living wage just about anywhere, let alone in a major metropolitan area.

Twelve percent of the city’s population—that’s around 183,000 people, according to 2013 census data—live in deep poverty, defined as income at 50 percent of the poverty level or less. That’s $12,150 to provide food, clothing and housing for a family of four.

What’s more, hunger affects vulnerable and minority populations disproportionately. Thirty-six percent of children and 6 percent of seniors in Philadelphia fit the United States Department of Agriculture’s definition of “food insecure,” according to data from GPCAH.

Hunger affects black (18 percent) and Latino (25 percent) populations more than whites (14 percent), and food insecure people are 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to require mental health services than those who have enough to eat, GPCAH data show. And because of the lack of access to fresh food in many low-income neighborhoods, food insecure people are at higher risk of obesity-related health issues.

While the city has struggled with poverty and food insecurity for the past several decades, the recent recession made things much worse.

“There are plenty of people above the poverty line who still struggle,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director at GPCAH. “Even as unemployment has dropped, there are a lot of jobs that don’t pay very well and don’t provide full-time hours. There are plenty of people who would love to be working full time, but they’re scheduled for 20 or 25 hours a week.” And low-paying jobs in the service industry, for example, often have schedules that change frequently, which can make securing a second job or other paying work impossible.

An increase in the minimum wage, Fisher says, would be a huge step toward ending hunger and poverty in Philadelphia; similar initiatives in other states have been effective in reducing poverty.

To put all these numbers in perspective, it helps to see what the situation looks like on the ground to organizations fighting food insecurity.

Share Food Program distributes emergency food to food pantries; in 2015, more than 500 volunteer-led food pantries in Philadelphia County alone received emergency food donations from Share totaling nearly 25 million pounds of food. The organization also partners with community groups such as churches and senior centers to provide families and individuals with monthly food packages, which include such items as fresh fruit, frozen poultry or fish, eggs, packaged foods and canned vegetables. They are offered at a low cost, and Share requires that recipients put in two hours of volunteer time in exchange for the package.

Despite Share’s significant service area and impact—in addition to its home base of Philadelphia, Share offers distribution points in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and metro New York—the number of families seeking the organization’s services just keeps growing.

Share saw a 31.4 percent increase in the number of low-income individuals its programs serve each month between 2011 and 2015. An average of 150 families patronize the food cupboards that Share supports during distributions, often overwhelming programs that are run out of small neighborhood churches or community hubs.

“The biggest challenge is having enough resources to provide food to the ever increasing number of food cupboards and the people they serve,” says Steveanna Wynn, the organization’s executive director.

The specter of further cuts to the social safety net and other policies that negatively affect low-income and marginalized populations would put further strain on resources already spread thin.

Wynn says it’s too soon to say how the impending Trump administration’s policies might affect the ability of local and state governments and advocacy organizations to support those who are food insecure.

“Everyone in the community will need to be part of the solution in making sure people have food to eat,” Wynn says. “It is a basic right, and in 2016, it is a shame we are still having this discussion.” Wynn and her fellow advocates “plan to be vigilant on the legislative front and increase advocacy and education to legislators and families as needed.”

At the same time, she says, “We are trying not to react to what we do not know. So much depends on the reauthorization of the Farm Bill [which includes SNAP legislation] and child nutrition program.”

SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the new name for what many know as “food stamps,” and advocates maintain that it’s a critical piece.  

“SNAP is the number one defense against hunger in America,” says Fisher. One in seven Americans receives benefits, with that ratio even higher in poorer states.

Streamlining the application process for SNAP and making it easier for those in need to keep their benefits would also help; the city has set up BenePhilly centers to offer this kind of support.

Even with organizations like GPCAH helping approximately 5,000 individuals each year to navigate the arduous process of applying for SNAP, the program has less power to mitigate the effects of poverty than it used to. According to a 2016 report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, recent budget cuts have reduced benefits for many recipients, and seniors have been hardest hit. Time limits implemented at the federal level have reduced or eliminated benefits for able-bodied, low-income adults without children, many of whom do not qualify for other forms of assistance.

According to the Office of Sustainability’s 2016 Greenworks report, one in three Philadelphians receives SNAP benefits, but one out of every 10 Philadelphians qualifies for benefits and does not receive them—only 73 percent of eligible households in the city are currently enrolled in the program.

“There’s still quite a bit of stigma, especially among seniors, [around] participation in the SNAP program,” Fisher said. Getting the word out about existing programs like free school breakfasts, which have a high rate of use at some schools with food insecure students but not others, she said, will have a positive impact.

‘It’s OK to ask for a little help’
According to GPCAH’s Mahon, a lot of the challenges around mitigating the effects of hunger on Philadelphians in need are due to a stigma that still exists around seeking assistance, whether from a neighborhood food pantry or through SNAP.

“This is a problem that affects so many people,” Mahon said. “Almost 500,000 in Philadelphia alone receive SNAP benefits. I think people, when they are in this situation, get the sense that they’re all alone, and we’re trying to reach out to them and say, listen: There are countless other people that are facing similar issues, and we’re here to provide resources and let you know that you’re not in this alone."

That’s why Melanie Hudson is spreading the word that everyone goes through challenges, and there should be no shame attached if you need support.

“Sometimes I look back, when you weigh it out, it’s more hard times than good,” Hudson said. “But my attitude is really good about it, because what’s the alternative to living life and trying to get through it?”  

After looking to Philabundance for support during her hardest times, Hudson says she’s grateful for the opportunity to give back to the organization and her community by working with the organization’s public relations department, which seeks out clients who’d like to share how its support has affected them.

“I was like, ‘What’s the big thing about me standing in line getting food?’” said Hudson of the first time the organization approached her about sharing her story. “Now I see that it’s bigger than that. Philabundance is more than food.”

In this role, Hudson is able to act as an ambassador to those who might be in need but afraid to ask for help, and also as an example of a person served by the program who shows funders and the public what food insecurity really looks like.

“It’s OK to ask for a little help,” she said. “We all need it sometimes. It’s OK.”