William Jordan's path to affordable produce takes him on three city buses.
At 46, Jordan is hindered by high blood pressure, asthma, and permanent damage to his right knee, but he makes the journey - on crutches, despite the heat, every Thursday afternoon - to stretch his SNAP (food stamp) dollars in an experimental program with an appropriate acronym: LIFE.
This Local Initiative for Food Education at Greensgrow Farm in Kensington, now in its second summer, enables members to stretch their SNAP dollars while cultivating their ability to budget, plan, shop, and prepare meals.
"You make out much better here than you would at a supermarket," says Jordan, who lives, and cooks, alone in Center City.
Jordan and nearly a dozen others pay $15 a week in SNAP dollars for membership in the 15-week LIFE program, which runs through Sept. 29. The program is open to all SNAP participants.
In return, each receives a bag of freshly harvested produce that actually exceeds the $15 value. And each week, a Penn State Extension Service nutrition educator is on hand at Greensgrow's outdoor kitchen to demonstrate one or two dishes and distribute recipe cards. Between sessions, program director Noelle Dames checks in with the participants by phone.
On a recent scorching Thursday, when a heat warning cautioned the elderly and asthmatics to stay indoors, the LIFE-ers' boxes overflowed with butterhead lettuce, apricots, red plums, tomatoes, zucchini, purple peppers, cantaloupe, savoy cabbage, and white potatoes. Some of the share is from Greensgrow's network of 75 small farms, and a smaller portion is grown on site at Greensgrow, a long-established urban farm whose experimental projects involve hydroponics, a green roof, biodiesel fuel, a community kitchen, beehives, and more.
Simran James of Penn State Extension cooked up Garlic Ginger Cabbage and the members went home with recipes for that and a cool carrot and cabbage slaw.
Frank Abruzzo, 31, a cook and sometime bass guitarist from Fishtown, washed the cabbage for James as Rae Schufreider, 67, of Oxford Circle, watched.
"It's the social gathering that I love," said Schufreider, who learned of the program through a flier at a senior center. Her two children are grown and gone and she misses cooking big meals.
"I have to watch my weight now, too, so I can't make the things I used to cook for the family." She paused and admitted: "Except I cheat here and there."
Decades of supermarket shopping have left many of us in the dark about some less common fruits and vegetables.
Through LIFE, participants will be able to look at a beetroot, for example, and know what it is; how much it should cost; how to tell if it's ripe; whether it is best raw or cooked, peeled or not; and whether extras should be chopped or blanched before freezing.
Schufreider learned the hard way about the need to remove the stems from kale before simmering it in garlic.
LIFE members Joe and Melinda Mitsouras, who are raising their six children in Tacony, saw their first chocolate tomatoes at Greensgrow.
"Now we've got them growing in our garden at home. The children go outside every day to see if they're ripe yet," said Joe Mitsouras, who, like many SNAP recipients, works full time. (He's district manager for a retailer.)
Melinda Mitsouras is a vegan, Joe's an omnivore, and the children, who range in age from 1 to 10, will make their own decisions in good time. The brood includes a set of 31/2-year-old triplets, one with cerebral palsy.
"My kids will eat anything at least once," Joe Mitsouras said. "But even with a full-time job, we're looking for ways to make sure everybody has a full plate."
The family augments the weekly share from LIFE with pickings from their own backyard where they are growing pears and figs, as well as vegetables from starter plants they bought at Greensgrow in spring.
"The kids get to see their food from seed to finish - and they cook with us, too. My 10-year-old son loves tilapia."
He doesn't always get to take the kids along on Thursday for the weekly LIFE classes, but they've come to see produce shopping as a party. And Mitsouras thinks of LIFE, the program, philosophically.
"Is it humbling to be in a SNAP program?" he asks rhetorically. "Yes. But they make you feel very comfortable there. Besides, there's no point in being proud," he says. "It's a great experience, and experience makes you richer."
Read previous stories in the series at www.philly.com/foodandfarm.
Makes 6 servings
6 cups day-old crusty
peasant-style whole-grain bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 large tomatoes (about 1 pound), cut in wedges
3/4 cup sliced unwaxed
cucumber (or peel a waxy cucumber)
1/2 cup thin slices of red onion
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine
10 fresh basil leaves,
1. In a serving bowl, mix the bread, tomatoes, cucumber, and onion. Separately mix the oil, vinegar, and basil, and taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if necessary.
2.. Refrigerate one hour before serving.
Per serving: 297 calories, 6 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, no cholesterol, 256 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Carrot and Cabbage Slaw
Makes 4 servings
1 pound napa or savoy
cabbage, cored and shredded
2 carrots, peeled and grated
2 or 3 scallions, minced
1/4 to 1/3 cup peanut or
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Freshly ground pepper to taste, if desired
1. Combine the vegetables in a bowl. Then combine the oil, lime juice, and soy sauce; whisk, then add pepper if desired.
2. Pour the dressing over the vegetables, toss and chill before serving.
Per serving: 166 calories, 2 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, no cholesterol, 118 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Stuffed Eight-Ball Squash
Makes 4 servings
2 eight-ball zucchini squash, (round, mini zucchini)
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1/2 small onion, minced
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
1/8 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon minced parsley
Salt and pepper to taste (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cut each eight ball in half, through the equator (not the stem). Scoop out the pulp, leaving 3/8-inch shell. Reserve the pulp.
3. Parboil the shells in boiling salted water for two minutes. Remove and drain. Set aside.
4. Chop zucchini pulp. In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Saute the onion and zucchini until tender. Remove from heat and combine with the egg, bread crumbs, cheese, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste.
5. Fill the shells. Place in a greased baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until heated through.
Per serving: 126 calories, 4 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, 49 milligrams cholesterol, 120 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Mashed Cauliflower With Thyme
Makes 4 servings
1 cup water
1 pound fresh or frozen cauliflower florets
1/4 cup half-and-half (nonfat milk may be used)
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon onion salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed thyme leaves
1. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add cauliflower; return to a boil. Reduce heat, cover tightly, and simmer 7 minutes or until tender.
2. Drain very well. Add half-and-half, butter, and onion salt and mash as you would mashed potatoes. Sprinkle with thyme. Serve warm.
Per serving: 99 calories, 3 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 21 milligrams cholesterol, 361 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.