Peanut Butter Stew

One some cold winter night in Portland, ME, a dear friend gathered a half-dozen or so people in her apartment to talk and drink wine and eat a fabulous concoction of rice, winter vegetables, swiss chard, peanut sauce and pineapple. An unusual combination, perhaps, but so delicious.

I didn’t have quite the same ingredients on hand, but managed a similar concoction for my main meal this week. I love the warmth of the red pepper in the peanut sauce and the root vegetables combined with the protein of the grain and nuts make this a wonderfully filling dish. Or I might just like it because it’s a slightly classier way to consume large amounts of peanut butter – as opposed to eating it out of the jar with a spoon…

The Recipe: Peanut Butter Stew

Ingredients: 
A fair amount of sweet onion, diced small
1 large clove garlic
2-4 tbsp olive oil
3 large russet potatoes, peeled and diced
4 medium-sized carrots, cut in rounds or diced
1 head of kale, washed, stemmed, and torn into edible chunks (You could also use swiss chard or spinach, depending on the season)
1.5 cups cooked quinoa (brown rice works as a substitute too)

2 cups peanut butter
1-2 cups hot water
Tamari/soy sauce to taste
Crushed red pepper to taste (or sriracha or cayenne or fresh hot peppers; anything to give it a sort of warm, slow heat)

Directions:
1.) Heat oil in a soup pot and sautee onions and garlic until softened.
2.) Add potatoes and carrots. Continue to stir-fry until soft or add some water to the pot and cover. Allow to steam until softened and water has boiled away. (You may need to add a bit more oil at this step.)
3.) While the vegetables cook, combine peanut butter, hot water, tamari, and crushed red pepper in a large bowl. You’ll want to add the hot water a cup at a time in order to have more control over the consistency. I made mine about the consistency of warm honey, but you could make it more like ranch dressing if you like a thinner sauce.
4.) Add kale to the mix. You can allow it to wilt as much as you like. I prefer more crunch for this green, so I just tossed it in for a couple minutes before…
5.) Add the peanut sauce and quinoa to the pot. Mix until everything is covered in the peanut sauce.

Serve hot and enjoy!

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Advocacy

Yesterday, I wrote a letter.  And got a helpful reply.  And for just a moment felt like I was advocating for myself and for other people with some hope for change.

Original Message:

To Whom It May Concern:

I shop at Whole Foods on occasion because you have, by far, the best selection of bulk foods in the Greater Portland Area.  I generally enjoy my shopping experience at Whole Foods, but was disappointed by your notice concerning EBT cards at the register when I checked out yesterday.  The notice instructs any SNAP beneficiary to inform the cashier that they are using an EBT card before s/he swipes the card.  In essence, this requires the customer to declare to not only the cashier but to any fellow customers in earshot that s/he is on public assistance.

I am an AmeriCorps*VISTA working in South Portland.  I live on a small stipend that covers my housing, utilities, car expenses and other bills but is never be enough for me to buy groceries.  I am therefore dependent on SNAP for my monthly food needs.  Personally, I’m not ashamed about the fact that I utilize SNAP; it just sort of comes with the territory.  However, I know that using SNAP can still create a sense of shame in people who use public assistance.  I think that people still feel stigmatized at times and worry that they’ll be perceived as taking advantage of “the system.”  Having to announce to the cashier that you are swiping an EBT could then make the food stamp beneficiary very uncomfortable and might very well deter a person from shopping at Whole Foods in the future.  That would be a pity in my opinion; people on public assistance ought to feel comfortable to shop just like anyone else normally would and empowered to buy foods that are healthy and cost efficient.

I realize that your policy is probably just a product of your technology network, but I would love to see the Portland Whole Foods store look into ways to make EBT usage more discreet.  I know that both Hannaford’s and Shaw’s networks allow a person to swipe the card without announcing it.  If it would be possible for Whole Foods to do something similar, I think it would provide a better and more dignified shopping experience for all of your customers.  Both rich and poor.

Thank you very much for your consideration.

Heather Bennett

AmeriCorps*VISTA

Reply:

Heather,

Thanks for taking the time to contact us about your concern with the need of EBT card users to inform their cashier of their method of payment.

You are correct in that our register requires the cashier to manually enter in the payment type and EBT transactions will not correctly process unless we do so. This is not a protocol that we are very happy following and we have expressed to our regional coordinators on many occasions that we would like for our registers to be reprogrammed to be able to identify and process electronic payments without customer notification.

For now, asking that our customers quietly alert us before the sale starts has proved much less intrusive than having to figure it out in the middle of the sale and then ask them to re-swipe their card.

Our intent is to provide all of our customers with an enjoyable and positive experience in every way, including checkout, and I agree that our situation is less than ideal and has potential to make some customers uncomfortable.

I really appreciate your feedback and will be forwarding it to my regional coordinator as well.

At this point I can only reassure you that I am aware of this issue, I share your feelings on it and will continue to communicate with our regional office, making it a priority to resolve.

Thanks,

Laura Hathaway

Customer Service Team Leader

Whole Foods Market. Portland Maine

iVolunteer.

Some spiffy, if slightly plagiarised, advertising on my part. If only people thought that volunteering was as cool as grooving with an iPod...

I have a habit of planning events that no one (or almost no one) attends.

Exhibit A: I planned a pick-up game of soccer in Columbus last year days in advance. Loads of people (okay, a half-dozen) said they’d come. I stood on a field by myself for at least a half hour and then went home.

Exhibit B: I planned an Alternative Gift Market at the college on December 4 and 5, 2009. The event ran for a total of 8 hours, staffed by 50 student volunteers who spent an additional 2 hours each prepping for the Market. But to no avail. Our attendee grand total was precisely 30 people–that’s 3.75 people per hour. Do you know how empty a space can look with only 3.75 people in it?

Mercifully, today’s Volunteer Fair was not Exhibit C. Thirteen community organizations, including Big Brother/Big Sisters, The Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Wayside Soup Kitchen/Food Rescue and Winter Kids (a sweet organization that provides ski passes and fun winter activities to kids for free!) attended the Fair and enthusiastically engaged nearly 70 students in conversation over the course of two hours. Some of the students came to just fill out a raffle card (an incentive to attend the Fair) or to gather information for a class, but a number of the students caught me as they were leaving to say that they planned to make time to volunteer with one organization or another.

An exuberant (small, blonde) first-year resident informed me that she signed up to be a Big Sister. “Only my Little will be bigger than me!” she giggled.

Another student, one particularly tall basketball-type male, told me that he planned to commit to a mentoring program with Learning Works because he “wanted to be a good role model and stuff.” (Trust me, it was an inspiring response from a twenty-something who came on a class assignment.)

By all important accounts (ie, student involvement/attendance, professor support, and community partner satisfaction) a success. And that warms my little service-geek heart to its very depths.

“Some People Walked Some People Ran”

MLK, Jr. delivers his famous speech, 1963

Working as an AmeriCorps VISTA means a lot of indirect service, i.e. sending a lot of emails, recruiting volunteers, compiling databases and reports, and generally spending too much time in front of a computer.  Those rare moments of direct service are therefore a welcome change of pace–especially when the volunteering involves working with kids.

Yesterday I paired up with a spunky and precocious third-grader named Haley at the East End Community School for the 2010 MLK project piloted by the ever-creative VISTAs from University of Southern Maine and the staff of Learning Works.  I hardly caught Haley’s name the first time she said it because she spoke so quietly and she quickly informed me: “I’m shy.”

Truth: Sometimes third-graders lie.  Haley quite willingly talked my ear off for most of the hour that we worked together.

Together, we listened to MLK’s speech and followed along with a copy of the text.  I asked Haley to underline the words that stood out to her as we listened and was fascinated to see her underline words like “dramatize,” “independence,” “history,” and “withering.”  We went back through the words after the speech had ended and, after I explained the words that she didn’t know, she declared, “My favorite is ‘dramatize’–because I do that a lot.”

The classroom facilitator then laid out a series of photographs loosely related to MLK, Jr. (pictures of drums, people marching, hands and feet, etc.) and asked the students to each choose one that they liked.  Haley, alas, took too long to decide which one she wanted and had very few choices left in the end.  So few, in fact, that she eventually just refused to pick one because she didn’t like the choices that were left!  I finally coaxed her into letting me pick one that we could talk about together.

I have an affinity for pictures of feet, so I chose one that showed a pair of legs and feet pointed towards a well lit window (sorry, couldn’t find a copy to share).  Haley was astounded.  “Why’d you pick that one?!  It’s freaking me out!  It just makes me think of smelly feet!”  Oh good.  That’s inspirational.

With some prompting, I was able to get Haley to look at the photo again.  “Okay,” I said, “can you tell me what you use your legs and feet for?”  She thought a moment.  “Walking. And running.”  I asked if she thought her feet would get smelly if she walked a long way or ran a long way.  Yup, that seemed right to her.  So I queried, “Do you think people walked a long way to listen to this speech?  Why would they do that when they knew their feet would get so smelly?”  Haley, a kid who has grown up surrounded by talk of global warming, answered: “Because it doesn’t hurt the earth to walk and they were doing a good thing for the earth. Because Martin Luther King was doing a good thing.”  Whoo hoo!  She got it!

To finish off, I helped Haley compose a 6-word narrative to describe MLK’s work based on the words and photo we talked about. She counted off on her fingers “some people walked some people ran.”  We raced into the line to write our narrative on the board and have our picture taken.  Perfect, I thought as she wrote the words with a precise hand on the white board. Some people walked and some people ran to hear the “good thing” that this preacher was doing for the world.  Absolutely perfect.