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The McGriddle – an extreme American breakfast sandwich

The McGriddle – an extreme American breakfast sandwich

A modern breakfast burger for the caveman in all of us: eggs, sausage and a pancake. Meet Mickeydee's McGriddle.

A modern breakfast burger for the caveman in all of us: Eggs, sausage and a pancake. Meet Mickeydee's McGriddle. (Photo: Joel Meares)

By JOEL MEARES

What is it?

The McGriddle, introduced by McDonald’s in 2003, shows that a dish doesn’t need to feature tongue, bat or bug to be Survivor-level weird. A close cousin to the more sophisticated McMuffin, the McGriddle sandwich is bookended by two soft and soggy pancake-like buns and comes in three varieties: Bacon, Egg & Cheese (420 calories); Sausage, Egg & Cheese (560 calories) and plain old Sausage (410 calories). Those dark tablet-looking bruises in the griddlecakes are bursts of maple syrup.

Where do you get it?

Anywhere you see the famous golden arches, before breakfast hours finish.

Where does it come from?

Where else but America? Although, you can now find McGriddles in McDonald’s restaurants in Germany, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Guatemala and Singapore.

How much is it?

The prices vary store to store but a single sandwich will set you back a little over $3. But when Kyle Griffin, 23, went to buy a single McGriddle at his local Harlem Mickey D’s, he discovered it was actually cheaper to buy two. The store was offering two Sausage, Egg & Cheese McGriddles for just $3 – the cheapest way to down 1,120 calories this side of the Hudson. Griffin scarfed two and says he felt sick the rest of the day.

Who eats it?

Griffin and everyone else who likes to mix the sweetness of syrupy hot cakes with the saltiness of squidgy yellow Mickey D’s eggs. One famous eater is Morgan Spurlock, who pointed out in his anti-McDonald’s documentary, “Supersize Me,” that the company launched the McGriddle at the same time it kicked off a healthy eating campaign. At least one of the initiatives was a success. Months after the McGriddle launched, the fast food chain’s sales rose 11 percent in the USA, with the company attributing some of that success to the new breakfast sandwich.

Tastes like: A perfectly good English breakfast dunked in a vat of syrup.

How do you cook it?

You don’t have to – leave that to the pimply teenager out back. All you have to do is peel away the greasy paper wrapping, open your mouth and pray you make it through this alive.

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New York’s veteran waiters aren’t going anywhere

New York’s veteran waiters aren’t going anywhere

Tommy Rowles has been working at the Carlyle's Bemelman's Bar for 51 years. (Photo: Joel Meares)

Tommy Rowles has been working at the Carlyle's Bemelman's Bar for 51 years. (Photo: Joel Meares)

By JOEL MEARES

Tommy Rowles has been shaking martinis at the Carlyle Hotel’s swish Bemelmans’ Bar for 51 years. He was 17 and fresh from Dublin when he first got the job.

“I came in to go to the bathroom and there was this Irish bartender here,” says Rowles, standing at the bar on a quiet November morning. “He said, ‘Are you looking for a job?’ Then he asked, ‘Do you own a pair of black socks?’”

Rowles told the man to mind his own business – he wanted to work in an Irish pub, not a ritzy hotel – but he was soon swayed. Just weeks later, he was serving his first drink in the bar named for “Madeline” creator Ludwig Bemelmans.

New York is famed for its old-time waiters, bartenders and deli workers; raspy raconteurs like Rowles who have taken tips for decades at places like Bemelmans’, Peter Luger’s and Katz’s. They’re as familiar as the towering pastrami on rye at the Carnegie Deli: always there, always smiling and always with a special in mind. Some are as famous as the celebrities they serve. This June, Vanity Fair profiled Elaine Kaufman, of Elaine’s on the Upper East Side.

While many of these familiar faces say they’ll never retire, others are hanging up their aprons. Bartender Hoy Wong, who worked at the Algonquin Hotel past his 90th birthday, retired this year, and the veteran waiters at the Café des Artistes lost their jobs when the restaurant shut its doors in September. But there are those, like Rowles, who are defying the clock and keeping the spirit of the long-serving New York server alive.

New York Times writer William Grimes, who recently released the book “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York,” says the city’s dining and drinking scene has been transformed by this changing of the guard. Flair is being replaced by expertise as diner legends retire.

“The younger generation of waiters is required to be much more knowledgeable about what’s on the menu and the ingredients that are in each dish and be intimately familiar with the wine list,” says Grimes. “There’s almost a requirement that waiters be foodies. I think that in the old days the personal touch of the waiter was much more important than technical knowledge. People went to a particular restaurant because they knew their waiter and cultivated a relationship with him and trusted their dining fate to his capable hands.”

Carnegie Deli’s Jack Sirota might have had the New York food scene’s most famous personal touch. The 77-year-old began working night shifts at the Seventh Avenue deli in 1959, the same year he married his wife, Renee. Grimes says delis like Carnegie are legendary for waiters who gave “not just instruction on the menu, but on how to live your life.” Sirota did just that.

Through his 44 years at Carnegie, where he later switched to lunches, Sirota kept customers smiling with stories, advice like “you can’t go wrong with pastrami,” starred as himself in Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose” and wrote a chapter of a book about the deli, “How to Feed Friends and Influence People.”

Sirota officially retires this year, though he has been on sick leave since 2003 when he fell from a footstool in his kitchen. He was later told he had an enlarged heart and never returned to work. Over the phone from his home in Lakewood, N.J., he says he misses the buzz of the busy diner and its regular customers.

“I loved being around people and I had a good time,” he says. “My philosophy was, every day is Christmas; every day was good.”

Sirota’s customers miss him too. “Bert and Ruth,” who ate at the Carnegie seven nights a week when they lived in Manhattan, were delighted to run into Sirota at a bakery in Lakewood this year. And he hasn’t lost the waiter’s wit that made him a hit on the floor. To a doctor who’d just put a stint in a blocked artery, he said: “I bet you took out the pastrami!”

If gregariousness was Sirota’s secret to success, Rowles’ says his is discretion.

“They tell you that everything that’s done in Vegas stays in Vegas and it doesn’t,” he says, looking as though he might be hiding a million secrets in his flash red Carlyle jacket. “Everything that happens here stays in the Carlyle. People know that if they screw up, they’re not going to see it in the paper in the morning.”

Rowles works the lunchtime shift Tuesdays to Fridays and drives in from Pearl River, N.Y. He says he had a regular crew of men who drank at his bar during the day, but “I’ve buried them all in the last three years.”

His favorite customer was one of his earliest. On his first day of work, the then 17-year-old Rowles served Harry S. Truman. The former president became a regular, drinking bourbon with the young Irish bartender most nights before heading off to visit his grandchildren on the Upper East Side. “He was really nice,” says Rowles, “an American hero.”

Rose Donaghey, an 89-year-old Ulster native still carrying burgers at the east Bronx’s Wicked Wolf restaurant, treats all her customers equally. She says it’s the secret to a 50-year career as a waitress in the city. “I didn’t care, rich or poor, I treated everybody the same,” she said over the phone from her home in the Bronx. “It didn’t matter who they were, I made them feel at home.”

Wicked Wolf owner Kathy Gallagher, whom Donaghey had worked with for 14 years at another restaurant, Charlie’s Inn, roped her in to the job. She works just two days a week – Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.  – and her son drives her to and from the restaurant.

“It’s great therapy,” she says. “If I’m at home, I would be playing games, on the television, going to church, things like that.”

When she began at the Wicked Wolf last year, newspapers across the city covered the story of New York’s oldest waitress. Ellen Degeneres even approached her and offered her a first-class ticket to L.A. to appear on her talk show. Donaghey turned her down. “I didn’t want to fly seven hours,” she says.

Like Rowles and others among the city’s old-timers, Donaghey has no plans to retire and she won’t become a modern “foodie” waiter, either. She says her parents, who were farmers in Ireland, never stopped working.

“It’s in my genes,” she says. “We can’t relax, all my family worked to the very end. If they told me they didn’t need me, I would stop working, but that’s never been a question.”

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The tricks and tips of food styling

The tricks and tips of food styling

Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell carefully brushes sauce on to lamb chops about to be photographed for Departures magazine. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell carefully brushes sauce on to lamb chops to be photographed for Departures magazine. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

By JOEL MEARES

Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell has some words of comfort for those struggling to get their Thanksgiving turkeys looking as plump and brown as the birds in their cookbooks. Those birds, he says, “are still fairly raw on the inside.”

The shiny brown birds that dominate magazines and books every fall are often the work of a food stylist’s paintbrush, one of the many tools Preston-Campbell carries with him in a metal briefcase to studios across New York. He also takes butter tweezers, a scalpel and a butane torch.

The trick with turkeys, he explains, is to roast it quickly at a high temperature. Then, brush the skin with a mix of water, soap and the supermarket-bought browning agent, Kitchen Bouquet. The bird might be Jell-O inside, but its outside is golden, moist and ready for its close-up.

Behind every great, stomach-teasing picture of food, there is a great food stylist and photographer. As models must be primped for the flashbulb, slabs of steak, gourmet cupcakes and martinis must be styled for food magazine pages, billboards and their own packaging. And just as with fashion, there are tricks to the trade.

“People eat with their eyes,” says Preston-Campbell, 38. “One of the first things they teach you at culinary school is that presentation is the first impression on someone when you’re preparing food for them.”

He started styling food a decade ago after 11 years working as a chef. His last kitchen job was as chef de cuisine at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in the Flatiron District, and he found the work grueling. “I had 18 employees and they were a pain in the arse,” he says.
The difference between presenting food to eat and food to be photographed is that “you need to think of how the camera will view the food,” he says.  An overhead shot is styled evenly, he explains, while a shot taken from 45 degrees above the dish, the angle at which most people view their food, will be less even.

On a trip through Chelsea Market, shopping for the ingredients for a chicken hash and lobster bisque he will be styling for the New York Times magazine, Preston-Campbell describes his job. “You’re more or less shopping for, preparing and cooking idealized food for the media, whether it be magazines, newspapers, TV shows, commercials, or anyone else who needs food in their production,” he says.

For a job like that the New York Times shoot, a stylist is booked for “shooting days” and “prep days.” The client sends through recipes and the stylist offers feedback. The stylist then shops for the food, stores it at home or the photographer’s studio – most food photographers have studios with large kitchens, tables and refrigerators – and cooks and presents the dishes to be photographed on the day of the shoot.
“I think what differentiates a food stylist from a prop stylist or a wardrobe person is that we don’t just go and buy the thing that’s being photographed,” he says.  “We have to buy the raw materials, prepare it properly and make sure that it looks good – usually with only one chance to get it right.”

What looks good in food styling is always changing.

Romulo Yanes, for the last 26 years the only staff photographer on the recently closed “Gourmet” magazine, says magazine food was styled in a “very commercial way” in the 1980s. “It was lit and styled to look in the past more plastic,” he says over the telephone from his home in Morristown, N.J.

Preston-Campbell describes the old look as “over stylized, as if everything’s placed exactly and you can tell there’s been five meetings for each carrot stick placed on the plate.”

In a nod to all things organic, local and slow, food is styled today to look unfussy and realistic. Preston-Campbell calls it “making it look accidental when it really isn’t accidental.”

Ingredients are laid out on Preston-Campbell's prep table. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

Ingredients are laid out on Preston-Campbell's prep table. (Photo: Tom Schierlitz)

Kirsty Melville, head publisher at cookbook publisher Andrews McMeel, says photographers are increasingly using natural light. A native of Melbourne, Australia, she says Down Under cookbook queen Donna Hay’s simple, natural photography is having an influence on current US styles. “It’s brighter, with strong colors, but still very natural,” she says.

Hay, in an email from her office in Sydney, says she strives to create food that the reader can easily reproduce. “The way we style at the magazine is straight from the kitchen to the plate,” she writes. “We’re not about reviving cold food for a shoot – we work fresh and fast and we don’t use tricks, paints or colors.”

Yanes likes the move towards reality. “When I am most successful in photography is when I can make a dish come to life for people, like it’s sitting on your kitchen table. One of my biggest things is to have the food be believable and natural so someone doesn’t look at the food and say, ‘It looks so good, it’s fake.’ That would not be a compliment to me.”

The change has been far-reaching. “The other day I passed McDonald’s and they had photography of hamburgers that actually looked good,” says Yanes. “It wasn’t those pristine, perfectly placed lettuce leaves, and the buns, and the super, super juicy burgers that were beyond real.”

Melville says a publisher is ultimately looking for the style of the photography to match the food in the recipes. “Photography is an expression of the style of the food, which is in turn an interpretation of the voice of the chef or food writer,” she says. A particular challenge for her was Andrews McMeel’s book, “The Amish Cook At Home.” Melville wanted pictures reflecting Amish family life, but could not show faces. Instead, she and the photographer decided to use hands, rolling dough and cutting vegetables, in the images.

Hay agrees that the image must match the story. “Each story we do is thought out from the theme to the color palette, background and story,” she writes. “And because food is one dimensional on the page – you can’t touch it or smell it – it needs to have what we call ‘yum factor.’”

Glossy or gritty, the job of the stylist and photographer is to make food look good – no matter what – and photographer Yanes has his own turkey story to share.

Shooting outdoors in upstate New York, Yanes and his team discovered that the oven they were supplied with was not large enough to fit the turkey they had to cook. Luckily, they had one they prepared earlier: a shriveled bird cooked three days before to use as a stand-in.

The team “doctored up” the ageing turkey, already stinking in the July heat, and singed the skin with a butane torch to get rid of wrinkles. “The skin just kind of perks up right away,” he says, laughing. “You would never have been able to tell in the photograph and it wasn’t retouched or anything.”

The only other time Yanes has ever faked it was while shooting a mango rice pudding on a beach in Hawaii for “Gourmet”. Missing the bottle of cream he needed to finish the dish, he substituted sunscreen.

Such substitutions are common in styling. Steam, difficult to capture on camera, is commonly faked with cigarette smoke; garment steamers with a hose attached to steer the vapor and, notoriously, soaked tampons, microwaved and placed behind the dish to be shot.

There are even those who devote themselves to such fakery. Tom Trengrove, who sells everything from fake sushi to blackberries made from resin from his Trengrove Studios Web site, says his company has developed “products that make photographing transitory kinds of things, like ice and foam, more stable.”

Preston-Campbell used carved acrylic ice cubes from Trengrove, for a recent Grey Goose print campaign. The shop’s most popular products are ice, ice powder (used to put a frosty surface on a can or glass) and “Foam Booster,” added to beer to keep the foam from going down. You can even buy a small droplet of solid water for $12. “In this business, reality is defined by whoever’s paying,” says Trengrove.

But stylists, photographers and the mad scientists who assist them, have increasingly fewer reasons to use their tricks. While cookbook sales are up, with many economists suggesting people are cooking at home, magazine sales are down and people like Yanes and Preston-Campbell are finding work scarcer. “It’s much easier and cheaper to get it on the Internet than to go and buy a glossy magazine for $6,” concedes the stylist.

Yanes says the closing of his longtime home, “Gourmet,” which defined food styling trends since it launched in 1941, is devastating. “I think it was a mistake,” he says. “They were the first American publication to cater to gastronomy and it just seems like a terrible loss. You don’t close “Vogue”, “Vogue” is fashion. “Gourmet” is food.”

Preston-Campbell stays hopeful. “There will still be a demand for food stylists in the future even if all the editorial content and food advertising move to the web,” he says. “Food imagery still needs to be created regardless of the medium.”

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Ed Koch on eating your way to Gracie Mansion

Ed Koch on eating your way to Gracie Mansion

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is back to work at his Manhattan office near Times Square after undergoing a quadruple bypass surgery in June. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is back to work at his Manhattan office near Times Square after undergoing a quadruple bypass surgery in June. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)

By JOEL MEARES and DANIEL WOOLFOLK

In time-honored New York style, the mayoral candidates are eating their way to the campaign finish line.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leading the charge, racking up votes with hot dogs at Nathan’s, a second helping of pickles at the Queens County Fair and even a “Mike Bloomberg sandwich” at Lioni’s Italian Heroes in Bensonhurst. “Next time, put some hot peppers on it!” was the incumbent’s verdict on the pastrami, mozzarella and mustard sandwich.

But shrewd as Bloomberg is, few know their way to New York’s heart through its stomach — or enjoyed getting there as much – as well as Ed Koch, New York’s mayor from 1977 to 1989.

“Not as many politicians enjoyed food as much as Ed,” says Koch’s former press secretary and former New York Post political writer George Arzt. “He ate a lot more than Bloomberg does.”

Bill Richardson attempts to scarf some votes at The Varsity restaurant in Atlanta during the Democratic primaries.  Oct. 5, 2007. (Photo: Mike Schinkel)

Bill Richardson attempts to scarf some votes at The Varsity restaurant in Atlanta during the Democratic primaries. Oct. 5, 2007. (Photo: Mike Schinkel)

For Koch, eating on the campaign trail, whether stopping at a street vendor or taking a slice of pizza offered by a local shop owner – and always smiling for the cameras – was not just about scoring votes. It was about being polite.

“You’re there, you’re campaigning and if someone offers you a pizza, to turn it down is plain rude and stupid,” says Koch, now 84, in his Midtown office at law firm Bryan Cave. It was also simply about eating.

A gourmand who these days twirls capellini pasta at high-end diners like the West Village’s Il Mulino and Trattoria Dell’arte on Seventh Avenue, Koch says he relished the pizza, deli sandwiches and hot dogs “with the real casing” that he ate while campaigning for mayor in 1977, 1981 and 1985.

Unlike some candidates, who may discreetly pass half-eaten knishes or pizza slices off to an aide before moving on to the next photo op, Koch boasts: “I ate the whole thing.”

It was a way of showing respect to voters, says Koch. “People want to show their community at its best,” he says. “The best and quickest way to do that is by offering some food that the community feels especially proud of.”

Joyce Purnick, who covered New York politics for 35 years for the New York Post and New York Times, agrees with Koch’s food philosophy. She says it’s particularly important for politicians to have a big appetite in the Big Apple.

“Favorite dishes are a matter of ethnic pride, or even regional identity in the politics of New York,” says Purnick, over the telephone. “It could be pizzas with Italians, burritos for Latinos or the hot dogs from Nathan’s. We all grow up eating certain foods on certain holidays and it’s very much a part of our culture.”

Former White House chef Walter Scheib, who served Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush from 1994-2005, puts it more bluntly. “You want a political debacle, turn down a regional specialty and watch the fallout from that one. It’s just like kissing babies: You’ve got to do it.”

Koch says he never turned down a meal on the campaign trail. Running for governor in 1982 against Mario Cuomo, whom he beat out for mayor in 1977, he was asked to milk a cow in upstate New York. He was then asked to drink the milk. He did.

“Milk directly from a cow is not so good because it’s hot,” says Koch. “I like cold milk, but not direct from the cow. You just try not to show discomfort.”

His discomfort did show once, but not while campaigning. At a Bedouin feast he attended traveling between the Sinai desert and Israel, Koch was given sheep’s eyes, a local delicacy. “You’d take it and then secretly throw it over your shoulder,” he says. “The eye looks at you – very intimidating.”

Koch’s enthusiasm for food photo ops back home sometimes worried press secretary Arzt, particularly at dessert time. “You have to beware of chewing on camera, you have to beware of getting chocolate all over your face, you want the less messy foods when you’re going out,” says Arzt.

But Arzt says that the greater danger for politicians at food stops is the people they’re eating with. When a person approaches a hot-dog-chewing politician for a photograph, Arzt says, “The one thing that goes through the aides’ minds is, ‘Is the guy part of the mob?’”

To ensure he wasn’t snapped with a mobster, Koch would joke with anyone approaching, asking them to raise their right hands and swear they weren’t “a member of la Cosa Nostra.”

Eating your way to power can be more dangerous still for out-of-towners, as South Dakota Sen. George McGovern discovered while campaigning in New York for the 1972 Democratic presidential primary. McGovern ordered a kosher hot dog from a street vendor in Queens, along with a glass of milk. The Jewish community he was courting slammed him for the non-kosher combination.

More recently, President Obama was mocked by conservative pundits when he ordered a cheeseburger with spicy or Dijon mustard at an independent burger joint in Arlington, Va. Sean Hannity teased on Fox News, “I hope you enjoyed that fancy burger, Mr. President.”

Between photo-op pizzas, burgers and an on-the-run campaign diet of hot dogs, takeout, ice cream and soda, Koch struggled with his weight while in office. “It’s always easy to put on weight when you’re campaigning and eating junk food,” he says.

After his quadruple bypass surgery, Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch is 4.5 pounds into a 10-pound doctor-mandated weight gain. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)

After his quadruple bypass surgery, Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch is 4.5 pounds into a 10-pound doctor-mandated weight gain. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)

Scheib, who as White House chef fed Hilary Clinton and Laura Bush, says the photo-op foods and gala dinners, sometimes 5 or 6 meals a day, also

took a toll on the first ladies. “They were thrilled just to get back to the White House and get back on a more low-cal nutritional diet, get their vegetables, lettuces and soups back in,” he says. “They’d come back off the campaign trail and get into a purge type of thing to get ready for the next wave of all this food.”

Since leaving office, Koch has used the private gym at Rockefeller Center most mornings to manage his weight and is comfortable giving advice to others on staying in shape. Visiting Ariel Sharon at his home in the Negev, in southern Israel, he told the former Israeli prime minister, “You’re getting too fat and you’re going to die prematurely.”

“He said, ‘I hardly eat,’” Koch recalls. “And, of course, that wasn’t true; he ate like a horse. He came to Gracie Mansion, where I lived, and he ate off everybody’s plate. I was amazed.”

But Koch himself has not been dieting lately.

From June to July, the former mayor spent five weeks in the intensive care unit of New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he underwent quadruple bypass surgery and had his aortic valve replaced. Slimmer than he’s ever looked, with suspenders holding up too-large pants, the older, more somber man than most New Yorkers remember, says he does not need to worry about what he eats for now.

“It was touch and go because of complications,” he says of the surgery. “I lost 26 pounds in the hospital and the doctor said that until I gain 10 pounds I was under no restriction. I left the hospital at the end of July and I’ve only gained back about four and a half pounds. I have six more pounds to go, during which period I can eat whatever I want.”

Ever the New York politician, Koch thanked the team of 20 hospital staffers who worked on him with a food stop worthy of a thousand Post flashbulbs – a dinner at Brooklyn’s 120-year-old Peter Luger Steak House.

He ordered a slab of steak, medium rare, and told his guests, “If any of you order anything other than steak, I am going to make it public.”

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Get Gore: Aid organization wants Al Gore to make their movie

Get Gore: Aid organization wants Al Gore to make their movie

A mother and her child eating Plumpy'nut supplied by ACF in TK. (Photo: ACF)

A mother and her child eating Plumpy'nut supplied by ACF in Karamoja, Uganda. (Photo: Tine Frank)

By JOEL MEARES

If you want Sean Penn in your movie, you will need a decent script. If you want Will Smith, you better have a spare $20 million. If want former Vice President Al Gore, you will need about 150,000 signatures and a pretty thick skin.

Action Against Hunger is aiming for both. Last week, ACF  (for the French, Action Contre Le Faim) launched its “Ask Al Gore” campaign. The online drive calls on Americans to sign a petition asking their former vice president to make a documentary with ACF called “No Hunger.” The organization believes that documentary could do for global malnutrition what Gore’s zeitgeist-shifting 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth” did for global warming.

ACF’s campaign has had success in the U.K., France and Spain; 68,000 people have signed on since the European launch in fall 2008. Stateside, however, asking Al Gore might be asking for trouble. Partisans, who’ve been sharpening their knives and tongues for Gore’s next move, and even some nutritionists concerned with the direction of the campaign, are already questioning the nonexistent film and its uncommitted star.

For those at ACF’s American headquarters, though, Gore was the perfect pursuit. “Al Gore is someone who transcends global borders,” says Elaine Ryan, who runs “Ask Al Gore” from ACF’s offices on West 37th Street. “He’s an international figure. People know him; some people like him, some people don’t like him. And that’s probably a good thing because they will be curious.”

Ryan says the link between global warming and malnutrition – shifts in drought patterns affecting farming and natural disasters cutting populations off from food supplies – will make a compelling case for Gore. “It’s almost like a sequel to ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’” she says.

ACF, which has 6,000 field staff in 40 countries, hopes the get-Gore effort will draw people to the campaign Web site. There, they can view a mockup of a  “No Hunger” trailer and sign the petition ACF plans to hand Gore at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. If he signs on, it might just push acute malnutrition to the top of the global agenda.

Two young TK children eat Plumpy'nut. (Photo: ACF)

Two young Ugandan children eat Plumpy'nut. (Photo: Tine Frank)

Prevalent in sub-Saharan countries wracked with war, drought, poverty and HIV and AIDS, acute malnutrition can be diagnosed by measuring the circumference of a child’s upper arm. Anything less than 4.7 inches means a child is in danger of dying from acute malnutrition, where the body is so starved it begins to consume itself. It affects 55 million children under the age of five worldwide, according to the British medical journal “The Lancet,” and five million of those die through lack of access to treatment. In Somalia, where aid workers are increasingly the targets of wartime violence, agencies are pulling out of dangerous area and death rates among sufferers are climbing.

At the same time, developments in portable “ready-to-use therapeutic foods” (RUFT) have helped. RUFTs do not spoil, need no refrigeration and do not need to be mixed with potentially contaminated local water. They have made it easier for field workers to treat acute malnutrition at homes instead of in field hospitals. The RUFT Plumpy’Nut, a mix of peanut butter, powdered milk and powdered sugar, enriched with vitamins and minerals, can be squeezed out of its foil packet and eaten like paste.

It’s the harrowing statistics and hopeful developments that ACF wants Gore to help them put on the radar. Still, some are already questioning whether Gore might get in the way of that message in America.

Dennis Avery, head of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, a conservative think tank, says he understands the need to raise awareness of the global hunger problem. But the climate skeptic, who released the book “Unstoppable Global Warming” in 2006, says Gore’s ties to organic farming, including an upcoming line of frozen vegan foods, make him a questionable spokesman.

“Al Gore has always recommended organic farming,” says Avery, on the telephone from his office in Washington, D.C. The advocate of deregulated, high-yield-per-acre farming, says that lower-yield organic methods “starve two billion people” worldwide by reducing food production. “I think he should partner with Prince Charles to sell overpriced organic goodies to British consumers on a small scale.”

Avery’s suggested alternatives to Gore include Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Monsanto, which produces genetically engineered seeds that are themselves subject of controversy.

Dr. Kathryn Dewey, a professor of nutrition at UC Davis, applauds ACF for the initiative but hopes the campaign focuses equally on the prevention of acute malnutrition as well as the cure, or rescue, of those it afflicts.

Dewey, who has experience working with mothers and infants in developing nations, says preventing malnutrition before children reach two, which should include nutritional support for the mother during pregnancy, is a high priority and could greatly reduce the burden of acute malnutrition and the need for treatment.

“When I saw the video it was obviously put together very well to appeal to an audience,” says Dewey on the phone from California. “I certainly hope that if it draws people in that they then look at the bigger picture. A lot of us want to see advocacy turned around so that prevention is a much bigger part of that picture.”

Others want to see advocacy taken out of the hands of celebrities and put into the hands of the public.

When the “No Hunger” trailer was released in Spain in 2008, produced by the Madrid-based Shackleton Group, another Spanish media agency made a response film titled, “Do NOT Ask Al Gore.” Small studio Hibrida’s film ends with the words, “Yes, YOU can do it.”

“We found the Action Against Hunger campaign very provocative and attractive,” David Munoz, Hibrida’s director and producer, wrote in an e-mail from Madrid. “I think it is a very good idea and, eventually, if the film was made by Al Gore, it would have an constructive impact too. But we don’t only need world stars to make useful films for our society. We can and must work on that ourselves too.”

We might have to. There is still no indication from Gore that he is willing to step in front of the camera again.

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Bronx schoolyard garden leads tween locavore movement

Bronx schoolyard garden leads tween locavore movement

By JOEL MEARES

Teacher Kelly McLane picking herbs in the garden at Bronx Green Middle School. (Photo: Joel Meares)

Teacher Kelly McLane picking herbs in the garden at Bronx Green Middle School. (Photo: Joel Meares)

Five years ago, school principal Emily Becker and teacher Kelly McLane visited the Edible Schoolyard, Alice Waters’ one-acre school garden and outdoor kitchen at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, Calif.

The two foodies, who met while teaching at West Side Collaborative Middle School in Manhattan, were impressed by what they saw. Seventh- and eighth-graders churning soil, pruning branches, collecting eggs from a lively chicken coop and cooking meals in an outdoor wood-fired oven. Becker says, “It was a marriage of my two passions: teaching and letting kids know how to eat healthy and where food comes from.”

The pair were so impressed that in 2006 they replanted Waters’ idea in the Bronx — creating an urban edible schoolyard, Bronx Green Middle School,  just blocks from a McDonald’s, Popeye’s, White Castle and Dunkin’ Donuts in the Allerton neighborhood. Along with math, social studies and ELA, the public school’s sixth- to eighth-graders take class in an outside garden classroom similar to Waters’ — a cluster of tomato plants, herbs and raised flowerbeds at the rear of the school.

Four years after opening, Bronx Green is at capacity. Every school day, 450 green-thumbed tweens work the soil and chew over buzzwords like “permaculture” and “sustainability” in class.

“Interest in school gardening is growing across the board in New York,” says Leslie Boden, a food consultant who this year released a free school gardening resource guide through GreenThumb, the Department of Parks and Recreation’s community garden development arm. According to GreenThumb, there are now at least 100 outdoor school gardens, mostly in Brooklyn, in the city’s 1,600 schools. Thirty of them have registered since the beginning of the year.

In New York City, where the Department of Planning says three-quarters of a million people live in areas with little access to fresh produce, that growth is critical. “Children growing up in neighborhoods without access to fresh food haven’t had exposure to fresh fruit and vegetables, the very sustenance of life,” says Boden.

But it’s not easy being green. While GreenThumb and other organizations like it offer support — arranging workshops, supplying soil and tools and, now, guides — Boden says there is still no single, centralized, source of support for people in schools who are doing gardening with students. “It depends largely on there being a champion or principal at the school, support groups and fundraising for it to happen.”

Enter Becker, McLane and their ilk. The pair wasted no time championing a school that addressed these problems when they returned from Berkeley. Becker enrolled in the city’s yearlong Aspiring Principal’s Program and the pair began meeting weekly to discuss everything about the dream school they were planning: From the curriculum to how to elect the PTA president and whether the children would wear uniforms.

Months before launching IS 326 in the fall of 2006, they were at the school from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, ordering books, cleaning classrooms and drawing up schedules for staff. GreenThumb and Bronx Green-Up, at the New York Botanical Garden, supplied much of the garden tools and plants.

“Our school is all about making wise choices,” says Becker, 35 and every the inch the principal with her hair tied back, sensible slacks and button-up blouse. “It’s easy to default to the choices that are right in front of you. The corner store with the chips, the cheaper fast foods.”

McLane, 30, who wears her dark hair long and loose on either side of an unfading smile, and has a tattoo of a spider crawling across the top of her chest, says she’s loved food since growing tomatoes and raspberries in her parents’ home in Matawan, N.J. She helped Becker design the garden-centered syllabus that won them funding and an administrator’s license from the Department of Education.

In the syllabus, sixth graders learn to use gardening tools, transplant perennials, test soils and make worm-composting bins in a special course called Field Studies. The garden permeates the curriculum even when the children are inside. For ELA, sixth graders read assigned books such as “SeedFolks” and “Chew on This.” According to McLane, the latter is like filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s exposé, “Supersize Me.” “We’re pretty intense here,” she laughs.

The first year culminates with a garden design class over winter. The students learn about perfect path width and which plants to place on slopes, to catch flowing water. Then, in pairs, they draw up new designs for the garden, which are exhibited to the parents in a Garden Design Exhibition. Next year, the exhibit will be April 16.

Each student votes, in a secret ballot, for a garden design, and the school transforms the existing garden into the winning design. The lavender, strawberries and tomatoes in the garden today come courtesy of last school year’s winner, Semina Radoncic, 13, and her design, “The Maze to Find Love.”

Bronx Green Middle School students Marco Herrera, 12, Edgar Pineda, 12, and Kimberly Dang, 12, reading a book about gardening. (Photo: Joel Meares

Bronx Green Middle School students Marco Herrera, 12, Edgar Pineda, 12, and Kimberly Dang, 12, reading a book about gardening. (Photo: Joel Meares)

The children at Bronx Green savor the program. Radoncic says she came because of the garden and loves using the extendable “telescope rake” to scratch lines into the earth. Marco Herrera, a slight 12-year-old who lives two blocks from the school, says he enjoys “learning about the nutrition inside the vegetables.” In a cafeteria they share with students from two other schools in the MS 135 building on Wallace Street, the Bronx Green children mostly chose pears over nachos on at least one day.

Armella Ujka, 11, says she likes to eat the fruit from the garden. Students take produce home or eat it at school during spring as part of the city’s new Garden to School Café initiative, where student-grown food is prepared for the cafeteria and kids are given workshops in food preparation. “With the ones from the store,” Ujka says, “you don’t know if they put chemicals in them.” Ujka, now in grade seven, became quite attached to the Bronx Green garden in her first year. “I used to pull out the weeds. But once, I got to this flower that smelt good, the lemon balm. We had to get ride of it and I felt bad for it because it smelt so good.”

The 30 teachers and 15 support staff have been tougher customers. McLane and Becker say some teachers have struggled with controlling classes outdoors and with the heavily specialized curriculum. Some teachers have quit. “We’re constantly changing, we’re figuring things out,” says McLane. “If you don’t have that entrepreneurial spirit it can be really tough for you.” When they do lose staff, Becker and McLane often don’t know whether to advertise for licensed health educators or science teachers.

The shortage has unearthed problems with the seventh grade Field Studies class, which adapts the curriculum from the Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Our second-year Field Studies class has not quite worked,” admits Becker. “We have not been able to staff a strong person for the seventh grade.” The eighth grade has no Field Studies component, but Becker hopes to eventually create one with a final project included.

Still, she is proud of the school she and McLane have built. “I’m not a mother but it really has followed the path of a child,” she muses. “This year is exciting. We just graduated our starting class and we’re back to square one, with a full school and a lot of experience.”

She is about to lose some of that experience. McLane, who this year has been acting “Garden Coordinator,” leaves the school in October to travel the world, dirtying her hands in organic farms as far away as Australia and Japan. She says she is glad to see more schools picking up spades and snatching up GreenThumb’s new guide. She hopes some might dig as deeply she and her friend.

“People ask, ‘Don’t you like being the only school that’s different?’ Maybe it’s cool to be different for a while. But I really want every school to be like that.”

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Shock subway campaign warns of the dangers of sugary drinks

Shock subway campaign warns of the dangers of sugary drinks

By JOEL MEARES

One of three new posters in NYC subways highlighting the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks. (Courtesy of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene)

One of three new posters in NYC subways highlighting the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks. (Photo: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene)

Subway commuters are this month faced with posters featuring soda, iced tea and a “sports” drink congealing into veiny human fat as they are poured into a glass. The ads ask, “Are you pouring on the pounds?” They then suggest: “Go with water, seltzer or low-fat milk instead.”

The Health Department’s director of physical and nutrition programs, Cathy Nonas, says the $277,000 campaign will first shock, then teach. “For those of you who had no idea you could be consuming 51 teaspoons of sugar and 500 to 700 calories just from drinking two to three sweetened beverages, now you know,” says Nonas.

It’s the latest public service campaign using the subway to change New Yorkers’ bad habits, joining the likes of graphic anti-smoking drives. The new ads began appearing in 1,500 subway cars last week and will be there for three months, courtesy of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They aim to get commuters looking up, around and learning. But similar campaigns have met with varying levels of success in recent years.

Bart Robbett, who has created subway ads at Robbett Advocacy Media for 20 years, says subway campaigns work if they fit into their environment.  “Subway ads need to cut through the clutter,” says Robbett, who teaches strategies of political communication in the Elections and Campaign Management Program at Fordham University. “They should channel the emotions, whether it be anger, fear or humor. Then they must have a very clear call to action.”

He cites the Department of Homeless Service’s eye-catching drive from last year as an effective campaign. The ads featured black-and-white portraits of the city’s homeless along with the line “Give the Homeless the Kind of Change They Can Really Use.” The poster then urges riders to call 311 for a team to assist a homeless person.

The Department of Homeless Services says they have had a significant response to this campaign, launched in subway trains and stations last year, and relaunched this July. (Courtesy of the Department of Homeless Services)

This campaign, launched in subway trains and stations last year, was relaunched this July. (Photo: Department of Homeless Services)

“In fiscal year 2009, 311 received an average of 20 calls per day, requesting that outreach teams be deployed,” says department spokeswoman Kristy Buller. Though she was unable to supply similar data for the previous year, Buller says that the 2009 Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) counted 2,328 homeless people in the city, a 47 percent reduction from 2005. Combined with other efforts in the department and throughout the city, the ad is having an impact, enough so that one the department relaunched it this July with 2,400 posters in trains and 400 larger posters in stations.

In 2007, as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s aggressive attack on smoking, subway riders were reintroduced to Ronaldo Martinez, who lost his larynx to throat cancer and who was featured in a series of anti-smoking TV spots in 2000. In a new set of subway ads, Martinez faced viewers directly while pressing a microphone to his throat. The poster read, “Nothing Will Ever Be the Same.”

The campaign was part of a large-scale TV, subway, print and online campaign that some say has helped to drive New York’s smoking rates to their lowest on record: Fewer than 1 million adult smokers in the city, according to the Health Department. But the campaign also featured a three-week giveaway of patches and nicotine gum, and, in the same period, state and federal taxes pushed cigarette prices to an unprecedented average of $9 a pack.

Unlike anti-smoking campaigns, there will be no accompanying tax hike to the new sugary beverage campaign — an 18 percent state tax increase on sugary drinks was nixed early this year, though the idea is not completely dead — no television ads and no free patches to help the over two million New Yorkers, who, according to the Health Department, drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage every day.

Robbett worries that the lesson may not get through. He says the “Are you pouring on the pounds?” campaign connects on an emotional level — “self-consciousness and a degree of disgust” — but faces a rougher track than past campaigns. Putting down the bottle is sometimes harder than picking up the phone, either to call 311 for a free pack of gum or to report a homeless person.

He points out that unlike the homelessness and anti-smoking ads, which feature a slab of text explaining the problem, there is nothing similar on the new posters to explain the calorie content of the drinks and its links to obesity. “And to get people to change their behavior, it’s a tough sell,” he says.

Nonas agrees. “The campaign aims to educate. At the end of the day what you do with your body is up to you.”

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