DIY Experiment: Chocolate Edition Part 1

Disclaimer for this blog post- we didn’t actually “make” chocolate from scratch. We did, however, melt and remake and form flavored chocolate so I’m keeping the DIY theme. It’s the same idea that we’re learning the story behind where our food comes from. We also learned about how and where chocolate grows, how it is made, what all is in the chocolate we eat, and the difference in organic fair-trade chocolate as opposed to a conventional brand, for example Hershey’s.

It was pretty much the best community day ever.


In the morning we learned from one of the YAV work-site supervisors who used to own her own chocolate business. We learned the correct way to taste dark chocolate, kind of like how you smell and taste wine, and felt very fancy. We learned about the different types of plants and where they grow, how they are harvested and dried, what the percentage of dark chocolate means and what all goes in our favorite chocolate bars. We even got to sample several different kinds grown in different places to compare the flavors.

chocolate making

Then we got to make our own dark chocolate designs, in ginger and raspberry flavors.

After lunch at a funky, vegetarian, local and organic restaurant Clover Food Lab  we headed over to the Taza Chocolate factory. To say we had been looking forward to this trip for a while would be an understatement.

Taza is a direct trade company, meaning they maintain direct relationships with their caocoa farmers, pay a premium above the Fair Trade price, and partner only with producers who respect the rights of workers and the environment. They also make authentic stone ground Mexican chocolate, meaning their chocolate has a grainy texture and taste to it– in a good way.


We had a really fun tour that started with how and where chocolate grows (we had already become experts earlier that day and knew the answers to all of those questions.) We learned about exactly where they get their cacoa and got to see how and where it is processed in the factory. We learned about how they make the authentic stone-ground texture, how they make the different flavors, and even how they clean out the machines and pipes (hint– it’s with chocolate.)

And the best part– we got to sample several different kinds of delicious chocolate.

yav chocolate heart


This was the awesome, fun part of the day full of laughter and getting chocolate everywhere… Keep reading for an angry activist rant about the “Dark Side of Chocolate.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

DIY Experiment: Chocolate Edition Part 2

We ended our “Chocolate Community Day” on a more serious note by watching the documentary “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” about the child labor that occurs to produce the majority of the chocolate the world eats. Children, usually ages 8-12, are smuggled across the border into the Ivory Coast under the guise that they will work and be able to send money back to the families in Mali. They are then forced to stay on the plantation, are never paid the wages that were promised, and are beaten if they complain or try to leave.

The film-maker had a hidden camera and captured a child crying because he was alone in a new country and didn’t know what to do, where to go, or who would take care of him. We didn’t understand his words (the film has subtitles) but a scared child crying for his parents doesn’t need translation. The film-maker also talked to a young girl who was crying because she had been discovered and was being sent back to her family, who would be mad she was returning without any money. Which was even more devastating.

Even though chocolate company CEOs, government officials, and local cacoa plantation owners swear up and down that there are no children working on the farms, the hidden camera proves otherwise. Little boys, who appeared to be around 7, were in the jungle with machetes harvesting the cacoa. It was heartbreaking.

The process of smuggling the children parallels the chocolate industry itself. One person works to secure the children on one side of the border, another takes them across by bus or motorcycle, another takes them to the plantation, and finally they are bought by someone at the farm where they will work. No one takes individual responsibility for being a part of this violation of human rights.  While it is illegal, it is a socially accepted a way for desperate people to make money– by exploiting young children.

Chocolate companies are doing the same thing on a larger scale. By the time the cacoa beans have made it to the chocolate bar in your kitchen it has been passed around and owned by so many people that no one is taking responsibility for how it was grown. It gets transported to the coast, bought by a shipping company, sold to factories in Europe, bought by various companies like Nestle, then sold to grocery stores and whole-sellers, who then sell it to consumers completely oblivious because they are so far removed from the process. Chocolate companies get around the illegality of it by saying they do not own the plantations where the cacao is grown, meaning they have no control or knowledge of what what happens. While they are completely aware that child slave labor is occurring to make their product, they chose to do nothing about it in favor of the bottom line. They put profit over the lives of the children who are being held and beaten every day to produce our guilty pleasure snack.

Watching the documentary made us all feel sick and queasy (although that might have been all of the chocolate we ate that day.) But we felt assured that at least all of the chocolate we had enjoyed during our community day was grown organically by workers who were treated ethically and made by people who care about the process. I had already been aware that child slave labor occurs in making things like chocolate but decided it was easier to not think about it. But once you have been educated and have seen the faces (even if just in a documentary) there’s no way you can continue making the same ignorant and convenient choices. There’s no excuse for not buying fair trade chocolate. Yes, it might take some research and it costs a little bit more money, but once you know the consequences of supporting an exploitative system it’s a no-brainer. The hardest part is changing our routine and our buying/eating habits and going just a little bit out of our way, and asking ourselves if it’s worth it. I can’t make that decision for you, but I certainly hope it will be a “yes.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Use Your Walking Feet

While thinking of a title for this post about walking, several verses of scripture came to mind (Psalms 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”) and some of my favorite hymns (Just a Closer Walk with Thee) but I decided to go with something I have heard my mom tell kids at church about a million times- “use your walking feet.” Walking- something so simple, yet can be revolutionary.

In the past couple of weeks I have walked a ridiculous number of miles in the name of raising awareness about hunger, which is a ridiculous and unacceptable problem to have in 2014 if you ask me. My feet were consistently sore for a few weeks. My fellow YAVs and I participated in the 10.5 mile walk Good Friday Walk on the North Shore to raise money for low-income families.



Then two weeks later my church participated in Project Bread’s annual 20 mile Walk for Hunger. Our team walked collectively walked over 60 miles (I did 13) and raised over 1,000 dollars to support local food pantries, community-based meal programs, early childhood and school nutrition initiatives, and improved access to farm-to-table resources here in Massachusetts. Over 43,000 people participated and Project Bread estimates that event will reach its goal of raising $3.5 million. 

It’s amazing what people using their walking feet can do.



I was blown away by how many different people and groups were there to walk– faith groups, companies, schools, families, and individuals all coming together in solidarity to say that hunger is a real problem in our communities, but one that we can and must solve. No matter who we are or how much money we have or how many miles we can walk, there is always something we can do and some way we can give back.




Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Patriots’ Day: A Truly Bostonian Experience

 If you’re wondering what “Patriots’ Day” is, don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s another holiday that only seems to be celebrated in Massachusetts (and after some research as well as in Maine and Wisconsin for some reason.) It’s also the date of the Boston Marathon. They sure do know how to celebrate.

Patriots’ Day is always the third Monday in April and commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord– as in the first battles of the American Revolution. Since I lived in Georgia, and two of my housemates are from Virginia, we were used to battle reenactments, just a different war. They take their Revolutionary history very seriously. The town of Lexington’s mantra is “The Birthplace of American Liberty,” which we couldn’t help quoting and making fun of all day and the week after. The reenactment takes place on the Lexington green in the town square about 6AM. We were warned that people get there early for a good spot, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. I couldn’t believe that many people got up at 4AM to stand out in the cold for an hour for 10 minutes of gun shots and men in costumes. It’s not like it changes every year, we all know what’s going to happen…


The British are coming!

But as the announcer explained the events of the morning and the rest of the battle that happened in Concord, and read aloud the names of the men who died- and called them the first American veterans- I began to understand why we keep reliving the history. A group of scared and unsure townspeople were standing up to the greatest “superpower” country of the time, on the very land we were standing on. And it blew us away that we don’t know who fired the first shot.



The American reenactor was a really nice retired history teacher. The Brits had the better costumes.

So we had already relived the birth of America before 7AM. And our day was just starting. 

The other YAVs and I headed to Brookline to experience the Boston Marathon and cheer on the runners around mile 24. Boston was traumatized and scared last year after the bombing and this marathon felt like their resurrection. (Quite appropriately Patriots’ Day fell right after Easter this year.) It was a little weird to experience since we’re weren’t here last year and watched the events unfold from a distance, but we have all admired the strength and community of the city as well as the outpouring of love across the nation. I’ve never seen so many people come together and be so supportive, especially Bostonians. I’ve also never seen so many wearing t-shirts with the same phrase: Boston Strong. It was everywhere, and the town was painted blue and yellow. The city of Boston and all of of the runners, who were adopted by the city for the day, personified endurance and the ability to keep going, mentally, physically, and collectively. It was an honor to witness the love and support, and be able to add my voice to the crowd.

Image  Image


We left exhausted and more than a little sunburned and hoarse, but truly enjoyed celebrating Patriots’ Day in Boston.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our Week at St. Joseph’s Abbey

During Lent the Boston YAVs went on a week-long retreat to St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer, MA. We had no idea what to expect, which has become normal for our adventures. We knew two things: that it would be a silent retreat and that the monastery had recently opened a brewery to add craft beer to the line of products they sell.

It was an absolutely beautiful place, still a little too cold to truly enjoy being outside but we did it anyway. We arrived and were shown to our rooms, given a schedule, and told where we could and could not go and where we could and could not talk. As hospitable as the monks are, the guestmasters who work there are very careful to make sure the retreatants do not accidentally interrupt or interfere with the monks’ meditation or silence.

st joseph 3


Abbey Church and part of the cloister

The first day was weird. We attended two services, vespers and compline, and it was unsettling not being used to this type of service– chanting and bowing, sitting and standing, etc. We were done with the day around 8:30 with nothing else planned, in our rooms with no technology (no phones or laptops), and silent. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.

But as time went on, by day 2 or 3, I had gotten used to the balance of a fixed schedule with lots of free time, quiet meditation and a lot of chanting. It had become familiar and comfortable. It took a few days to get the noise of e-mail and work duties and facebook and text messages and subway trains out of my head. Earlier in the week I was worried about how to take advantage of this opportunity to be with God– I was trying to force some kind of  calm feeling because that’s how I am supposed to feel on retreat. Suddenly, I thought, I should feel fulfilled and at peace and refreshed and at one with God. Eventually I realized there was no “right” way to a retreat and I could not force meditation and peace or I would only get the opposite.

By day 4 I was able to go for a walk outside by myself and just pray. I started walking and started thinking about all the wonderful people I have in my life and prayed for them one by one. I spent time in the quest chapel of the Abbey church in silence and prayer. I spent time reading in the parlor along with the other volunteers who were writing and drawing together in a wonderful silence. I really enjoyed participating in singing/chanting the Psalms and got used to bowing regularly when we said “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” I was blown away the the monks offered us communion, and was humbled that they welcomed us into their intentional, sacred, and cloistered lives. I am glad we got to know Father Peter, an older but spirited German monk who led our daily conference discussion and had us laughing uncontrollably one minute and thoughtful and introspective the next. I appreciated the opportunity for silence, but still getting to know the other retreatants and talking to my fellow YAVs to reflect on the experience. And last, but certainly not least, I loved the ability to nap whenever I wanted.

St Joseph 2

Alter and front of the Abbey Church

The retreat wasn’t as silent as we thought it would, but then again we had no idea what to expect with a group of early 20s volunteers staying at a monastery for a week. It was an interesting contrast of a fixed, regulated schedule of services and meals at the same time every day and plenty of free time to do whatever we wanted. We were all able, or at least tried, to put down any heavy burdens we were carrying and just relax. We learned a lot about a true “intentional community” and what it was like to feel called to a certain way of life. I am grateful for the opportunity to rest and the graceful hospitality we were given.

st joseph view

View from the back of the retreat house

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

DIY Experimemt: Salad Dressing Edition

There are many things we take for granted because they come in a prepackaged box, a plastic bottle, or with several layers of cardboard. We’ve lost the art of “homemade;” the term now gets thrown around for cute art projects found on Pinterest. We trust and find comfort in things in plastic containers with manufacturers’ labels because that’s what we’re used to, and what advertising companies want us to want. We forget that we end up paying more for things we can easily make at home. Not only is it cheaper it’s much healthier for us to bypass the chemicals and the plastic and make things at home. Even the products marketed as green and eco-friendly are just jumping on the current marketing bandwagon and are usually overpriced. Just because something looks different and isn’t what we’re used to does not make it bad or less than.

This brings me to the salad dressing.

My fellow YAVs and myself recently had a “salad dressing throw-down,” a crash course in how to make delicious salad dressing from the contents of your fridge and pantry. Salad dressing has become so normal and mundane that it’s an afterthought, when really it’s an important staple at most meals. So why not experiment and have fun with it, and most importantly, make it taste good? I’ll admit we were a little intimidated before the throw-down, but in the end we had a great time and I’ve never been so excited to eat salad.

There are 3 basic components to a good salad dressing– fatty, salty, and sour. The fat comes in the form of oils, nuts, and dairy-based products. The salt is… well, salty. And the sour usually comes in the form of vinegar or citrus (I’ve learned this year that lemon is a particular favorite of mine.) Once you have your base you can mix in some fun flavors– sweet (honey works really well), savory, and/or use herbs.

Our challenge, in 2 groups of 2, was to create 3 different salad dressings, using each of the different types of fats. We kind of felt like we were in Top Chef– there was parsley flying around the table, several different kinds of jars of exotic brown liquid, yogurt getting passed around table, and countless sampling spoons to try all of the concoctions. Also a hurried frenzy to create something amazing before the other team.

My fellow YAV and partner in the show-down, Alex, and I created a yougrt-based mint dressing with a little lemon juice, honey, and salt. Our nut-based experiment included peanut butter with spicy habanero sauce, two different kinds of vinegar, garlic, and of course salt, then water to thin it out. Our third, and my personal favorite, was oil-based with parsley, lime juice, maple syrup, and (surprise) salt.

After our experiments we celebrated with a huge lunch of salad with all the fixins’.

salad 2salad









It was delicious.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Project Bread’s Walk for Hunger

On Sunday, May 4th a group from my congregation (First United Presbyterian Church in Cambridge) and other churches in the presbytery will participate in Project Bread’s annual Walk for Hunger. Part of my job at the church is getting the people more involved in the community and more involved with food and hunger issues. The Walk for Hunger does both, and I am excited about organizing this group.

Project Bread is very well-known in the Boston food circles (which are actually quite small, but really awesome.) They are involved in some way in almost food nonprofit in Massachusetts– that might be exaggerating, but only a little. They provide information and resources for anyone in need, are a great source for statistics and programs, provide grants for soup kitchens and community meals, and support nutrition programs for school children. I am working with a group in Cambridge along with Project Bread to increase participation in free summer meal programs for kids who qualify for free and reduced school breakfast and lunch. Not only are we trying to get food to more children, but we are trying to get more food for their families and increase the nutritional quality of that food. The Walk for Hunger raises money for Project Bread’s many programs and grants.

Another reason I am really looking forward to this event goes back to my youth group in high school. We participated in Atlanta’s Hunger Walk/Run every spring and I always had a great time. We got to hang out with friends and have fun, be outside, and get new t-shirts. What could be more fun in youth group? But we also had a sense of service and making a difference. I could tell that as a crowd too numerous to count would take over Turner Field’s parking lot and downtown Atlanta that not only were we raising money, we were making a statement. That was never more clear than as we would walk around the state house. Hunger is an issue we can all get behind– different denominations and faith groups, schools, nonprofits, community organizations, and even the government. And it was beautiful to see all of those people together in one place for one cause.

I hope to have a similar experience with this Walk for Hunger here in Boston; I hope it will be a time of fellowship, fun, service, exercise, awareness, and community.

If you would like to sponsor my walk or donate to the Boston Presbytery’s team, go to:

Click on “Donate to a Walker/Team” and type in my name. Thanks for your support!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Thanks to God and the State of Massachusetts

First of all I have to start by saying I know Massachusetts is actually a “commonwealth,” not that I actually know what that means.

Second, this probably seems like two random things together, God and Massachusetts, but this is something that we frequently say at the Boston YAV house, especially about food. We are now in the second half of the year which means we are not on a locavore diet and are now on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formally called food stamps.) Part of “simple living,” one of the core principles of the YAV program, means that we don’t make a lot of money. Housing, utilities, and transportation are all paid for and we get a small monthly stipend for food, medical, and basic living expenses. So we qualified for SNAP benefits, especially living in such an expensive place as Massachusetts.

It has also been good life experience. We talk about food insecurity, government assistance, the farm bill, etc., all of the time. Food, in some form or fashion, is a constant topic in our house. We have the opportunity to really experience what it’s like, the whole process from the application (which was much harder for four college graduates than it should have been), to the interview with our case workers, to waiting for letters in the mail, and finally getting approved and being able to use the cards.

We would be able to pay for groceries out of our small stipend, but probably not buy the same quality food that we had become accustomed to. For 6 months we ate real fresh food, meals made from scratch, and we weren’t willing to give it all up. We now have a spring CSA share, which we will pay for later with SNAP, and we use our EBT cards for supplemental things at the grocery store and farmers markets. (Instead of paper stamps to purchase food, the money is on a plastic card that looks like a debit or credit card. This is less noticeable, which hopefully means less stigma and embarrassment for the users. Why there is such a stigma is a whole other blog post topic.) We are able to buy fresh fruit, milk, organic cereal and granola bars at the grocery store, eggs, jam, and cheese at the farmers market and not have to worry about sacrificing health and nutrition for cost.

We are very, very lucky as this is not the case for most people on SNAP. They are dividing meager dollars too many ways, and often food, since it is not a fixed payment, ends up getting cut. The other YAVs and I are not only relying on the benefits for food, and are able to eat out or get tea or hot chocolate from a coffee shop occasionally if we choose.

Instead of doing a “food stamp challenge” for a week as several people and groups have done (including some congresspeople which is great), we are simply living and using the benefits to help pay for food. We had to get past any of our own personal stigma and resentment about taking government assistance, and now using SNAP has become normal.

And we are quite grateful for it.

We still thank God for the many hands that prepared our food and got it to our plates, but (and this may be a little sacrilegious) now when we buy groceries we also thank the state of Massachusetts.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


For the season of Lent the other YAVs and I are keeping a thankfulness journal, where we write down a few things every day that we are thankful for. This helps up focus on the positive parts of each day and reminds us to be grateful for all of the small things that we all often take for granted. I’ve been thinking about this about this for a while and am trying to change my perspective by being grateful for all of the new experiences I’m having in Boston.

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into patterns of feeling lonely and out of place, unsure, and thinking about all of the things we disagree with or don’t like. Often I feel lonely and homesick for friends and family, familiarity and consistency; sometimes it can be hard to get excited about my independent work on the computer all day; and it can be hard to live in an experiment someone else designed feeling like decisions are being made for me. And when I’m preoccupied with and distracted by this perspective it’s hard to acknowledge and take advantage of the exciting work and opportunities I have here.

Several recent events have really made me reevaluate and refocus my perspective about what I am grateful for. The first was a trip to the state house for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless legislative action day. People from the coalition, other nonprofits, and state representatives spoke about the bill they are trying to pass. It would allocate more money to rent voucher programs, get families into stable housing faster, and provide more shelters and services specifically for young adults– all things that should be common sense. Then several people experiencing homeless shared a little about their lives, and by the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Young adults, all in their early 20’s, told stories about how they became homeless (parents who kicked them out at 18, being abused, and death or incarceration of parents were common themes), what they have been through since, what their living conditions are now, and how the legislation would help them. All of them talked about wanting to be treated like a human, not as some second-class thing that doesn’t deserve respect or basic human rights.

One young woman talked about taking showers in gas station bathrooms and how it hurts when people give her dirty looks. A young man talked about sleeping outside in a tent with friends by a train station (in Massachusetts winter, where it is rarely over 20 degrees.) Another young woman, who is now living with family and in college and working, talked about how she wanted a pillow—just a pillow—to call her own, and the mental safety and security that goes along with having a roof over one’s head. A young mother (22– my age) cried telling the story about living with her newborn baby either the train station or the emergency room, and when she tried to apply for housing and services they wanted to take away her son. Another mother talked about wanting a house, and the stability it provides, for her 10 year old daughter. They live in a motel, with no kitchen to cook in or open space for her daughter to play. It was heart-wrenching as she explained that she would skip meals to make sure her daughter could eat, and then she would stay up all night worrying about how they are going to get by.

All of the speakers were amazingly brave, sharing stories they are not proud of but are vitally important and need to be heard. Everyone listening was inspired and moved; parents and children, retired women and college students, people who have been fortunate enough to have a stable and loving family and a safe place to live their whole lives and people who have felt the fear and anxiety of not having a place to sleep at night, of not having a pillow to call their own.

There was no dry eye, no unmoved heart, and no uninspired mind; everyone left with more purpose, passion, and anger than when they entered.

We left and spoke with representatives’ aids about why HB 135 needs to pass, about how important homelessness is to us, and how completely unacceptable it is in one of the richest states (technically a commonwealth) in the richest country on earth. This legislative action day was a great learning experience about local activism and about real issues that real people face on a daily basis, as well as a reorienting experience about what is truly important in life.

I’ve never been so grateful for my pillow.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Power of a Group of Women

 March 8th is International Women’s Day.

I meant to write this blog post then (which obviously didn’t happen) to celebrate the work of some of the passionate and intelligent women I have come across here in Boston. I have had the privilege to work with some amazing women right here in Cambridge, across Boston, and all over the country with Bread for the World. One thing I’ve noticed is cooperation and compassion. Women working together just get things done, it’s as simple as that.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to join a steering committee for a new coalition focused on hunger issues in Cambridge. I was honored and excited to join, especially since I recognized every name and organization on the list of who was involved. (Volunteering all over Cambridge and constantly explaining myself and my job to strangers is starting to pay off.)

When we all sat down for the first meeting we acknowledged and joked that it was a group of women, and that we liked it that way. We discussed current statistics, conditions, and services in Cambridge and how we can get people and organizations to work together better. It was a little intimidating to be sitting around the table with women who founded/are running some great food nonprofits and to be treated like an equal. There was great conversation, laughter, and an undercurrent of outrage that hunger is still a problem in our community. People bounced ideas off of each other, supported and encouraged each other and their work, and were intentional to make sure everyone got to participate in the discussion and share their opinion. 

I left the meeting encouraged and empowered to be involved in such a group with such an important cause.

The next meeting with a table of women that I encountered was the following week in a nursing home/rehabilitation center. I was shadowing a woman from my church who is a speech pathologist and specializes in eating and swallowing issues. (I learned a lot of about what she does and what some people have to go through on a daily basis just to drink water, but that is another post for another time.) During lunch we joined the weekly meeting of occupational and physical therapists as they discussed patients and their recommendations for treatment. Even though I was definitely out of my element and more of a fly on the wall, I could tell how passionate these women are about caring for their patients. They truly sympathize with them in their struggles and share in their joy when they improve. I was so impressed with their commitment to doing such trying, and sometimes defeating, work day in and day out.

So many of the groups and nonprofits we’ve been working with here in Boston are run and made up of mostly women. Chalk it up to socialization and the corporate glass ceiling, but women working together seem particularly adept in solving problems and getting things done, with compassion and integrity. These women are not only smart, but they have a heart for social justice.

It’s like that old saying… “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Teach a woman to fish and she’ll feed the whole village.”


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment