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Monday, October 17, 2011

Whose eats? OUR eats! Keeping Occupy Pittsburgh fed

Posted By on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 8:03 AM

This weekend, Occupy Pittsburgh's annexation of Mellon Green drew the attention of local media and curious residents alike. But while all eyes were focused Downtown, a critical part of the occupation was taking place more than two-and-a-half miles away -- in Josh Stitzer's Lawrenceville kitchen.

The kitchen itself is nothing special to look at. Except for the scooter parked along the wall, there are few furnishings to obstruct foot traffic from fridge to oven, or from oven to the door. But that's important, because this is where Occupy Pittsburgh's "food working group" -- the cadre of volunteers who keep the Mellon Green occupiers fed -- warms up the meals. Later, the food will be brought Downtown, where it will provide the calories occupiers need to keep warm in the mid-October urban night. 

On the menu for Sunday night: a rice medley, seasoned potatoes, and hummus -- whose spicy "kick" has so far proven "the hit of the entire camp," says Stitzer.

Stitzer is one of more than a half-dozen volunteers who make up the food working group. Participants range from as young as 19 to as old as 68, though most are in their 20s or earlier 30s. Their work is neither easy nor glamorous. The food currently warming in Stitzer's oven -- a half-dozen "half-tins" filled to the brim -- took 14 hours to prepare. (The cooking is done in a larger kitchen located a few blocks away, and stored in Stitzer's fridge until needed.) The day before the occupation, working-group members say, they toiled from noon to 2 a.m. in order to have food ready once the camp was established.

Why do they do it? 

"I've been an advocate for workers' rights for a long time," says Dan Lichten, a 34-year-old former chef. And thanks to the momentum created by the original Wall Street occupation, "it seems like people are actually listening and waking up."

"Student loans -- that's what opened my eyes," says Andrew Koltsoon, a Point Park University student from New Jersey who first heard of the protest from a professor. "I just wanted to get involved in any way I could. I'm away from home, in a new city, and I want to do some things outside the comfort zone." 

Right now, that involves spending a lot of time in the kitchen, and ferrying food from Lawrenceville to Oakland. The fare is mostly vegan -- partly because such food keeps well, and partly because, as Lichten puts it, "you have to know your audience." As you might expect, many of the Mellon Green occupiers eschew meat.

The food is being donated from a variety of sources: a local soup kitchen, from Occupy participants themselves, and from sympathetic Pittsburghers.

"We had an elderly woman who couldn't get out of her car because she used a cane, but she brought a carload of stuff," says Stitzer. "A guy in a wheelchair wheeled up with a donation." 

Assuming you don't have a large-capacity food processor to spare, what the working group could use most is "things we cook in bulk," says Lichten:

  • economy-size bags of pasta
  • rice 
  • potatoes
  • onions
  • oatmeal
  • chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice (for the aforementioned hummus)
  • liquid eggs

Currently, donations can be dropped off at the base of operations for Food Not Bombs, at 258 39th Street in Lawrenceville. (But partly to prevent FNB from being overwhelmed with drop-offs, the working group asks that you keep an eye for alternate locations at the Occupy Pittsburgh website. The site will also feature an updated list of needed items.)

Relying on donated food presents a distinct culinary challenge: trying to prepare meals with little advance notice of what ingredients you'll have. While the cooks haven't quite figured out a plan for some donated items -- like a box of chocolate truffle mix -- Lichten assures that "whatever they give me, I can do something with it."

Despite the logistical challenges, there are no leaders. The work seems almost self-organizing, with people stepping up to fill the need. Which is a good thing: Those "get a job, hippie!" jeers notwithstanding, many of the Pittsburgh Occupiers do work. Lichten himself is headed back to his job working with the mentally challenged this week.

Does he worry about who will fill in for him?

He shrugs. "Everything will gel," he says, "just for the simple fact of necessity." 

In fact, says Stitzer, "I've been to rallies and protests before, but this is the first one I've seen in a long time that has been so well organized. And the first one that bridges age groups and cultural rifts. I'm pretty stoked about that."

And as Stitzer keeps the food warming, the other volunteers pile into a car being driven -- with an "Occupied Vehicle" placard in the windshield -- by Tim Connor, a Slippery Rock University student in town for the weekend. Together, they head Downtown to ready their serving tent on Mellon Green. 

When the food is ready, it too will be brought Downtown, and served warm from chafing dishes. It will be just like any other outdoor catered affair -- or as Koltsoon puts it, "like a continuous wedding reception." 

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