Tomatoes, hunger, and community

I traveled to DC over the weekend, but on my way out of town, I stopped by a local tomato-canning party organized by Caretaker Farm, our CSA. A group had gathered to can tomatoes for the Berkshire Food Project, a very worthy local group that provides 15,000 free meals each year.

The Berkshire Food Project was started from dire circumstances; after local manufacturing plants closed in the 1980s, this area saw a sharp rise in unemployment and hunger. In response, a group of Williams College students, local residents, and a congregational minister, began serving hot meals. Two decades later, the program is still needed, and still going.

It blows my mind that in this, the wealthiest nation in the world, more than 38 million people, including nearly 14 million children, are living on the brink of hunger, not sure of where their next meal will come from. According to Second Harvest, that’s more than the population of the 30 largest cities in this nation combined.

(It hurts my brain to even comprehend those numbers. Think about it; that’s all of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Memphis, Baltimore, Fort Worth, Charlotte, El Paso, Texas, Milwaukee, Seattle, Boston, Louisville, Washington DC, Nashville, Las Vegas, and Portland, Oregon combined).

And it doesn’t look like things are changing; reports from cities like New York and Philadelphia indicate that the need is growing.

Food pantries exist, but are seeing an influx of low-nutrition junk food. (Anyone read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed? Trying to live on low-wage income, she goes to a food pantry and returns home with 21 ounces of Honey Nut Chex cereal; 24 ounces of Grape Nuts, 20 ounces barbecue sauce, several small plastic bags of candy, 13 ounces iced sugar cookies, hamburger buns, six 6-ounce Minute Maid juice coolers, loaf of bread, Star Wars fruit snacks, one loaf of cinnamon bread, 18 ounces of peanut butter, 16 ounces of canned ham, shampoo, one bar of soap, four Rice Krispies Treats bars, two Ritz Cracker packages, one 5-ounce Swanson canned chicken breast, 2 ounces of drink mix similar to Kool-Aid and two Lady Speed Stick deoderants).

I would never claim that a day spent canning tomatoes — or in my case, under 2 hours, before I had to zip off to the airport — can even begin to make a dent in this level of hunger. But it sure got me thinking.

The canning event was overseen by Emilio and Anna Cardinali, out-of-town parents of a local CSA member. They have over 40 years of canning experience. They also have an amazing tomato-milling machine. Just put in some heated tomatoes, and the machine separates the desired tomato pulp from the skin and seeds.

We basically formed an assembly line: wash tomatoes…remove bruises…heat until soft in a big tub for about 5 minutes…run through machine…run seed/skin part through machine a second time…collect the sauce that results in a pot…discard skin/seed combination in compost.

Here’s the wonder-machine at work:

(You, by the way, can get your own tomato strainer machine – prices range from $45 to several hundred dollars for an electric model. After my last tomato canning session, they seem worth every penny).

It’s a messy business, this sauce-making thing. I was splattered from head to toe, the bottoms of my pants got soaked, and my shoes were covered in red splotches. After a while, I rolled up my pants and removed my shoes altogether, and my feet soaked into the warm, squishiness of the tomato-soaked grass (think Lucille Ball in the grape stomping episode).

Emilio looked at me then, and nodded his approval. “There,” he said, “Now you are a real tomato lady!”

As I stood there, I kept thinking about what we were doing: the community, joined together preparing food that was grown within the community, for neighbors who live within the same community. It felt satisfying, but I kept wondering: is this simply a vestige of a bygone era? Or is this a legitimate part of the solution?

It was only later, after I’d left the farm for the antiseptic environment of the airport, still smelling like tomato sauce, and periodically scratching dried tomato off my skin, that it occured to me: this type of solution is only as obsolete as we let it be. As urban farming rises, and as visionaries dream about vertical farming for metropolitan areas, these kinds of local efforts can make an ever-greater dent in hunger.

The results of one day, from one farm (including far more than this photo even shows) is a start.

Thanks to Caretaker, and to Emilio and Anna (who finally got to relax at the end of the day):

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6 Responses to “Tomatoes, hunger, and community”

  1. 1 Her Grace September 26, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    Wonderful pictures, wonderful project. I’m now going to go look up that book AND that tomato strainer machine.

  2. 2 rejeckabean September 27, 2007 at 2:12 am

    I was wondering if you were who Brigette was refering to…

  3. 3 Curious September 29, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    I just got caught up on the posts I’ve missed in the last few weeks, and was inspired to make my own pesto. THANKS! I’m excited to try it out.

    I was wondering if you use butter when cooking? My husband and I (no kids yet) rarely add butter or margerine when we eat, though we occasionally do use brummel and brown’s butter spread which is made with yogurt. I bake with real butter. What do you do, and what’s your opinion of the yogurt spreads?

  4. 4 jolynna September 30, 2007 at 1:56 am

    I didn’t know until I read your post that such a machine as a tomato strainer existed. As beginning gardeners who had a very productive and overwhelming tomato harvest this summer, I would have loved to have had one.

    Which doesn’t compare to your hard work! I can’t imagine having so much tomato sauce on my shoes that I would need to take my shoes off.

    I admire your way of thinking and the actions you are taking to make a difference.

  5. 5 Christi October 13, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    I have to thank you for this post. I often re-read you, but I can’t stop coming back here. I would love more info on how they organized this effort. I live in Des Moines, IA, and although it’s not huge, organizing something like this would take some effort. It would be totally worth it, though. I guess if I got started with my ads/flyers efforts, now, I could reach people before they planted next year and then try to organize a crew, drop off place, etc. Asking people to go absolutely organic would be great, but I don’t know how to regulate that. I guess I could ask people to please refrain from pesticides (my 90-yr-old granny clips caterpillars with clips – ew!) and hope for the best. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this post. I pray others go forth from here and start this same effort in their community.

  1. 1 An hour or so with the Berkshire Food Project, Thanksgiving-style « The Cleaner Plate Club Trackback on November 25, 2008 at 2:36 am
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