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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)


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)


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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Coney Island is losing a food stamp center

Coney Island is losing a food stamp center


The food stamp center in Coney Island is closing its doors on October 16th

The food stamp center in Coney Island is closing its doors on Oct. 16.

Ashley Florio pushed the twin stroller down the streets of Coney Island. The wind was cold and she was in a hurry, because she had to pick up one of the children she is looking after from school. Before that, the 27-year old babysitter wanted to apply for food stamps at the 2865 West 8th Street center.

But when she arrived, the staff just handed her a list of addresses.

To cut expenses, the food stamp center near the sea is closing its doors on October 16th. They stopped taking new applications a month before. Officials of the center said that the whole staff was moving to lower Manhattan. Clients, they said, are reassigned to other places, none of them close by.

“I wish I had known this before, I just wasted my time over there,” Florio said. No sign mentions the closure outside the grey building. Just above the handle to the front door, somebody has written “Food stamps in here” in capital letters with a clumsy hand. Inside, at the end of a hallway, a sign in English and Spanish states that the center is not accepting applications and gives three addresses of food stamp centers in northern Brooklyn. But the clients don’t seem to notice it.

Many clients coming out of the center are unaware of the closure. As to the question of where they have been assigned, they have no clue. A Russian woman and her daughter were even shocked by the information. “We didn’t get anything,”they said.

The center said that letters have been sent out to explain the situation and tell people where to go. But many haven’t yet received them.

Although many services of the Human Resources Administration are available online, you still need to get fingerprinted for a first application to food stamps. For the people living in the area of Coney Island, this now means more hassle. To get to the center on Bergen St., for example, it takes 52 minutes on the Q train from the Coney Island station. To another center in Williamsburg, it takes up to an hour and a half.

Ashley Florio doesn’t know what to do. “I can’t go to the addresses they gave me today,” the young brunette said,.” I have to watch over the kids all day and the centers are not open during the weekend. I wish I had known this before.” She pushed her long hair out of her face. “They want us to work, but how are we supposed to work with this?”.

According to the center, there are as many as 3000 new applications coming in per month. In Coney Island, according to the U.S. census bureau, 32,551 inhabitants are dependent on foodstamps. Statistics of the HRA in New York show a 21.8% increase in food stamp recipients in August 2009, compared to the year before.

“The problem is, it’s going to get really crowded,” reckons Tina, a young mother, who didn’t want to give her last name, in case her application would be reviewed. She started getting food stamps a year ago. “There are going to be even more people over there and there’s already a line here,” she said.

The trip to other centers is an inconvenience to people with children. “Taking a carriage with you on the train is just difficult, and then I would have to wait so long with them in the office. Here I could just walk to the center when I had a bit of free time,” said Florio, while adjusting a child’s coat.

She walked away, her hair blowing in the cold wind. She will have to make up time somehow to go to another food stamp center.

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Food vendors close to UN General Assembly meeting report losses

Food vendors close to UN General Assembly meeting report losses

Afsal Ahmed makes a sale on his food cart near the United Nations Headquarters during the 2009 U.N. General Assembly Meeting.  (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)

Afsal Ahmed makes a sale on his food cart near the United Nations Headquarters during the 2009 U.N. General Assembly Meeting. (Photo: Daniel Woolfolk)


As busy as Midtown East was during the 2009 United Nations General Assembly, most people would expect that to be a boom to surrounding businesses. But many street cart vendors said they were losing money.

Jimmy Androu serves Greek food from his food cart, “Jimmy’s Spot,” on 47th Street between Second and Third Avenues about four blocks west of the United Nations Headquarters.

He has been in the food cart business for the past 13 years and has come to expect a lull in business because of street closures.

“I do business with traffic and stuff,” he said.  “The streets are closed, so they don’t let nobody go through.” His street did have traffic going through at that time, but it was interrupted while a  visiting dignitary’s motorcade made a high-profile stop at One Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, a stone’s throw away.

Androu was reluctant to give out figures, but said his daily loss was more than $100.

“Might be more, even more,” he said. “But I cannot say exactly.”

Mahammed Ibrahim, an Egyptian shish-kabob vendor with an Islamic prayer scar, had to move his location from 49th Street and Lexington Avenue to the southwest corner of 47th Street and Third Avenue, he said in Arabic and broken English. The street was closed because President Obama was staying at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.

Ibrahim has been in the United States for six months and usually makes about $200 a day. But for the Thursday of  General Assembly week, he estimated that his income would be about $175.

Raihan Ubdin was also losing money, he said.  The Bangladeshi has been serving Gyros at Kwik Meal for a month on the southeast corner of 43rd  Street and Third Avenue, he said, and he estimated he would make $250 on Thursday.

He said many people from the area buy at his cart, because it is cheaper than a similar sit-down restaurant nearby.

His neighbor, Afsal Ahmed, also a Bengladeshi, was having better luck at his fruit cart.  He said he was staying at about his normal $200 a day.

While he was selling, a long motorcade with a black Cadillac limousine sped by, escorted by cars with full lights and sirens.  Members of a tactical team, armed with assault rifles, followed in a van with an open rear doors.

Ahmed continued with his sales, making about three in roughly five minutes.

“This week is good because First and Second Avenue all closed, that’s why,” he said. “I have no competition.”

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