In the Kitchen With Joel Berg

The anti-hunger advocate on how he slimmed down, why soda should remain in the Food Stamp Program and why you shouldn’t volunteer at a soup kitchen on Christmas.

Joel Berg is one of the most respected food security experts in the country. During the Clinton Administration he served at the USDA as Coordinator of Community Food Security and of Food Recovery and Gleaning, and since 2001 he’s been executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. A winner of the Congressional Hunger Center National Hunger Fighter Award, he’s been published widely, and is the author of the book All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?, which offers his plan to eradicate domestic hunger for good. He lives a few steps from Grand Army Plaza, a neighborhood he describes as either Park Slope or Prospect Heights, depending on who’s asking.

Edible Brooklyn: Gorgeous kitchen!

Joel Berg: I could fake cooking something but I respect you too much to give you the impression that I cook much. I work ridiculous hours six or seven days a week, so pouring milk on my breakfast cereal is about as much food preparation as I do. My partner works from home now, so she cooks dinner, but we used to eat out four to seven nights a week. Aside from the cost it’s just not a healthy way to live, so I’ve been trying to practice what I preach.

One thing that got me eating healthier was doing the food stamp challenge for a week. For one week I lived only on what I could afford on the food stamp allotment; at the time it was $28.30 per week. It was the first time I forced myself to catalog every morsel I ate—I also catalogued a few days before the challenge and that was a wakeup call.

EB: What did you eat during the challenge?

JB: Lentils. A lot of lentils. Oatmeal in the morning. I could not afford whole-grain pasta, or anything organic. I had one apple a day; that was about 30 cents an apple. The delicious farmers’ market apples were about 50 cents; I could not afford that. I could not afford a single beverage. For the first time in my adult life I went without caffeine. I slept better so I’ve stopped drinking much caffeine since then.

I recently redid the challenge and even though the stimulus package increased the weekly allotment, prices have gone up so much I could not even afford a non-organic apple. And I went without ramen noodles this time. I want someone to do an investigation into ramen noodles. They have packaging, and the little sauce packet and still they’re like five for a dollar. How little must people be paid to make them.

EB: You’re one of the most famous anti-hunger activists in the country and you live in posh Park Slope.

JB: I’m of the belief that people who do this for a living should have a solid middle-class lifestyle. To those who believe that people fighting poverty should live in poverty, I say, even if you’re briefly in that situation it’s nothing like real poverty because you can always leave it. My goal is to get everyone out of poverty, not to bring everyone else down into it.

EB: What’s this framed photograph of a store sign?

JB: That’s the sign outside Taylor Grocery in a wonderful little catfish joint in Taylor, Mississippi. It says “Eat or We Both Starve.” Obviously to the owner, it means, “If you eat here, I’ll stay in business.” But to me it tells the message of my life, that we’re all in this together. And unless we build a more just economy where everyone can afford to buy the food they need, we’re all gonna be shafted in the long run.

EB: That’s quite a collection of political buttons.

JB: I have hundreds of them; this is just an assortment. It shows that the single most disappointing long-term relationship I’ve had in my life is with the Democratic Party. Most of those folks have since embarrassed me. Spitzer. Dukakis. I really wanna cover up the Lieberman part of Gore-Lieberman. This FDR button from 1932 reads “Abolish bread lines.” It’s pretty sick that soup kitchens were supposed to be a temporary response to the Great Depression and now they’re back in spades.

EB: What’s in your fridge?

JB: Most of the produce is from the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. It’s easy to overshop. An Arizona garbologist who studies food waste says that the food that’s wasted most frequently is fresh produce. People buy it and then they’re like “Oh, I’m so exhausted, let’s get takeout.”

This is some barbecue sauce from a recent trip to Texas. I was supposed to be promoting my book at food banks, but on my weekends I secretly based the trip around barbecue. One of the few dishes I actually cook is matzoh brei—I believe I invented a Texas barbecue sauce matzoh brei.

And no home is a home without Sririacha, which I recently learned was invented in Los Angeles and not Vietnam. On rare occasions when we have takeout I put it on that.

EB: Is Sririacha food stamp eligible?

JB: It should be, yes. Condiments are.

EB: What do you think of Bloomberg’s move to make soda ineligible for food stamps?

JB: I don’t think soda should be banned from the Food Stamp Program. There’s not an iota of evidence that people in the program shop any less nutritiously than other poor people. The problem is that they don’t have enough money to buy healthier food. We’re the only industrialized nation in the world where poor people don’t just get cash from their government to buy food. We so distrust them that we micromanage every part of their lives. It’s humiliating. In New York you have to be fingerprinted to get food stamps. It sends the message to low-income people that they can’t be trusted to make their own decisions. People say, “but Joel, it’s government money!” And I point out the zillion times a day that our tax dollars subsidize the non-virtuous behavior of rich people, like heliports for rich people to take on drinking binges. I debated the New York Health Commissioner on NPR and I said “My tax dollars pay for the health insurance of every one of your employees. So would you ban soda in office buildings?” He answered “Of course not.” So that proves the double standard.

We have all these food fads. A few years ago the enemy was fat, and we all gained weight eating Snackwells. Then it was carbs, then trans fats and now the enemy is soda. It’s a very simplistic approach to say one thing is the cause of this problem. If something’s truly horrendous, if it’s hydrochloric acid, ban it for everybody, but don’t single out low-income people.

Look, I strongly support efforts to dramatically reduce soda use—my diet soda here notwithstanding; I have maybe one a day. The soda industry should be ashamed of itself for marketing to children and opposing attempts to increase nutritional knowledge. Anything that increases choices and nutritional knowledge I strongly support; anything that takes away benefits and punishes people won’t work.

And you know what? Occasionally low-income people need some joy. They can’t afford to go to Disneyland, there’s probably not a movie theatre in their neighborhood. They can’t have an occasional soda? I’d rather they be able to have lobster cordon bleu or whatever they’d like, but, since they can’t afford that, an occasional soda may provide a rare moment of joy.

The better alternative is to give people more purchasing power. That’s why we have our CSA projects, which allow people to use food stamps. We have one in Flatbush, one in Clinton Hill. People line up and go on waiting lists. When good food is available and affordable, they will eat it.

EB: How serious is hunger in Brooklyn?

JB: Brooklyn has the largest number of people in poverty of any borough. Hundreds of thousands of our neighbors live in homes that can’t afford enough food, sometimes in very close proximity. Boerum Hill has the census tract with the highest inequality of wealth in all of New York City, and one of the highest levels in the whole country — you’ve got very expensive brownstones and two blocks away is public housing, where people are skipping meals, rationing food and, ironically, becoming obese because they’re buying less nutritious, more fattening food. Sure, it’s not as bad as Somalia, but having neighborhoods where half the kids regularly don’t eat breakfast is unforgivable.

EB: What do you think of the DIY, grind-your-own-polenta phenomenon?

JB: I love the fact that living in Brooklyn I can eat some fun locally produced things. My concern is when people extrapolate that that’s somehow the answer to poverty. I don’t know if you saw my mini-debate with Michael Pollan in the NY Review of Books. I agree with most of his message, but he’s also written that everyone should grow their own food in their own garden, to be virtuous. Personally, I like eating 12 months out of the year. And not everyone has all the time in the world to do that stuff. I want your readers to get real about this. Brooklyn foodies think that if people have a community garden they can grow their way out of the problem and that’s just not a realistic understanding.

EB: Speaking of our readers, what can they do to reduce hunger?

JB: They can contact their elected officials—visit our website and find very specific policy asks. They shouldn’t volunteer at soup kitchen on Christmas—instead, they should donate their skills year-round. If they know how to do a website, if they can write and edit, know graphic design or spreadsheets, that’s needed far more than large groups showing up on a holiday. They need people 365 days of the year to do this long-term work.

There’s a huge disconnect between the ways people think about hunger and what’s actually useful. Canned food drives are just about the worst way of fighting the problem. If you’re insistent on direct food delivery, donate money. Places like City Harvest and the Food Bank buy food wholesale or get it donated and just need help with transportation costs, so they get a lot more food for every dollar you donate. Just think about this: If you found out that a lot of people in your neighborhood couldn’t afford their prescription drugs, would go to your medicine cabinet and donate the drugs you don’t need anymore? That’s the paternalism of our current charity system. “Here’s what I think some person I’ve never met needs,” as opposed to a just system where someone works and earns enough—or makes enough in food stamps and welfare—to buy the food their family needs.

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Gabrielle Langholtz is the former editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan.