28th Annual “Taste Of The Nation” Gives As Well As It Receives

Outside 180 Maiden Lane, blocks from the South Street Seaport, a server holding a tray of sample cups greeted arrivals, her name tag indicating she was with the NYS Department of Education. “Turkey chili?” she offered. And just like that, Share Our Strength’s 28th annual “Taste of the Nation” food festival was off and running, the chili cups a small sampling from the city’s school lunch program, as well as a humble reminder of why over 800 guests were gathered last Monday on a damp and misty evening in lower Manhattan. Share Our Strength’s “No Kid Hungry” campaign, beneficiaries of the night’s proceeds, battles child hunger across the country; on a local level, it provides breakfast and summer lunch programs to schoolchildren who would otherwise go without, and proceeds from this particular evening raised enough for 1.9 million meals.

In the expansive glass atrium of 180 Maiden Lane, the dapper Eamon Rockey — formerly of Betony (RIP), and our spirits chair for the evening — welcomed partygoers with glasses of his beloved milk punch. The room was festooned with flags in bright orange, the campaign’s signature color; they dotted each booth with the name of its participating restaurant or bar, of which there were fifty. Danny Meyer served as the event’s honorary chair, with chefs Anita Lo and Bryce Shuman serving as culinary co-chairs.

Representatives from Meyer’s far-flung restaurant empire were clustered together, an amalgamation of booths bearing mostly sweets and cocktails, including Daily Provisions and its popular maple cruller. Union Square Cafe was set up away from the crowd, serving a roast pork and sweet pea bruschetta with grilled ramps, a bite-size re-enactment of the refined rustic and seasonal cuisine for which it is known.

Chef Emily Yuen’s Bessou passed out a memorable Japanese riff on the deviled egg, appropriately named Deviled Tamago: a smoked, soy-pickled egg topped with shiitake bacon and karashi (mustard) cream. Chef Gerardo Gonzalez of Lalito served curried chickpea tamales with charred poblanos; throughout April, he had donated all proceeds from the dish’s full-size restaurant version to No Kid Hungry. And Acme’s Brian Loiacono doled out savory mini-tarts of nettles and goat cheese, inspired by the new spring menu at his restaurant.

The eighteen-year-old chef–boy wonder Flynn McGarry of Eureka was on the evening’s host committee, and his sweeping mop of hair could be seen bouncing throughout the event as he stopped to chat with his (older) peers, grazing as he went. Chef Leah Cohen of Pig and Khao and Top Chef fame was dressed down for the night, out of chef whites and clad in jeans and a T-shirt, as she chatted with bystanders and helped her team pass out bowls of Khao Soi, a spicy curry noodle soup topped with a crisp heap of fried noodles.

The Department of Education had a booth too, where Kid-friendly Kale Salad was being offered — it wasn’t the salad-converting bite one hoped it might be for young palates, but the chili cups from earlier and the creamy NYS Apple & Celery Salad both earned two thumbs up.

It was a night made for the Instagram set, as multiple kiosks, dubbed “Photo Beautifiers” by Citi sponsors, gave strollers the opportunity to snap glamour shots of their food within a backlit mirrored cube. A DJ spinning Top 40 hits soon gave way to the alt-country band the Strumbellas. Then another DJ took over and the room filled with enthusiastic dancers, buoyed by the cocktails and spirits on offer. A brief round of amateur breakdancing ensued.

Just when we thought we would eat no more, we found ourselves outside assessing the light rain and lack of yellow cabs in sight. A food truck from Walter’s Hot Dogs, a Westchester institution since 1919, was parked nearby, the scent of split dogs being seared on a flattop beckoning us over — with most revelers still inside eating and drinking, there was no line. The duo inside the truck were bustling around, assembling mini-plates of funnel cake sticks dusted with powdered sugar, while pressing down every so often on their sizzling hot dogs. We were able to make room for more, so we accepted the offerings of half hot dogs and funnel cake, finding the familiar carnival of flavors a comforting final bite to this year’s lineup.


Feeding the 5,000 Addresses Food Waste With Free Meals in Union Square

Every year, $218 billion worth of food is wasted in the United States.

Estimates claim that up to 63 million tons of perfectly safe food finds its way not onto plates, but into massive landfills, where it rots and spews out greenhouse gases like methane. Yet approximately 49 million Americans live in food-insecure homes. It appears not much has changed since Steinbeck’s days.

“It’s kind of staggering that we haven’t addressed this issue before,” says Chris Hunt, special advisor on food and agriculture for GRACE Communications Foundation. “We can use that food that we’re just throwing away.”

To bring more attention on the issue, Feedback — a U.K.-based environmental nonprofit dedicated to ending waste throughout the food system — has started its U.S. campaign. On Tuesday, May 10, the organization and its partners (including the Rockefeller Foundation, NRDC, EPA, GRACE Communications, and dozens more) will be hosting the first New York City Feeding the 5,000 event on the north end of Union Square, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The one-day food festival is aimed at educating the public about waste by providing 5,000 random individuals with free meals. The dishes will be entirely composed of fresh ingredients that would have been trashed — collected from farms, wholesalers, and food retailers. The dishes will be devised with Feedback and the chefs on the ground, supported by Liz Neumark’s Great Performances Team and Drexel Food Lab.

Well-known NYC toques, like Dan Barber of Blue Hill, will be there offering support. Anti-waste advocates will be on-site giving talks. Live demos by Slow Food NYC‘s Jeneé Grannum, Jason Weiner of Almond, and Egg‘s Evan Hanczor will cover subjects including composting and cooking to reduce waste.

“Worldwide, there is growing recognition of the colossal problem of avoidable and unnecessary food waste. Thankfully, there is also a growing awareness of the menu of delicious solutions that exist to tackle it,” Feedback founder Tristram Stuart says in a statement. “Feeding the 5000 events are designed to celebrate these efforts while simultaneously empowering the general public to make informed decisions about buying and using food, and to demand change from the food industry. Supermarkets in particular must recognize that it’s no longer acceptable to discard food in dumpsters and cause farmers to waste crops while people go hungry. It’s up to us — the public — to recognize that every forkful, trip to the fridge, or visit to a grocery store is an opportunity to take a stand against food waste.”

Tristram Stuart stands with the crowd at a Feeding the 5,000 event.
Tristram Stuart stands with the crowd at a Feeding the 5,000 event.

Since 2009, Feedback has hosted over 34 “guerilla-style” Feeding the 5,000 events, in cities ranging from Dublin and Amsterdam to Paris and Milan. “Tristram Stewart literally wrote the book on food waste,” says Hunt, who is an expert on domestic food waste. “Our hope is that Feeding the 5,000 will continue to raise awareness on the magnitude of food waste in the U.S.”

Over the past half-decade, European nations have been working to decrease waste. With the help of Feedback, other nonprofits, and governmental efforts, the U.K. has reduced household food waste by 21 percent. In February, France became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away unsold food, forcing grocery stores to donate leftovers to charity instead.

Hunt recently consulted on a ReFed report on food waste. It found that in the U.S., food waste consumes 21 percent of all fresh water, 21 percent of landfill volume, 19 percent of all fertilizer, and 18 percent of cropland. And yet, one out of every seven Americans is food insecure.

That waste comes at a cost. Hunt says the average family of four wastes somewhere between $1,300 and $2,300 per year. Highlighting a list of solutions — ranging from consumer education campaigns and smaller plates to standardized date labeling, packaging adjustments, and donation logistics — ReFed found it could create $10 billion in economic benefits, 15 million jobs, substantial reductions in emissions, as well as save water and other natural resources.

The hope is to reduce U.S. food waste by 50 percent by the year 2030. “The issue has emerged in the public consciousness,” says Hunt. “There’s really great agreement about the fact we need to move forward and tackle this.”

While there’s still a long way to go in creating a more sustainable, less wasteful food system, chefs and restaurateurs have recently started bringing the issue to the forefront of gastronomic consciousness. Barber featured a two-week pop-up, WastED, at his Greenwich Village restaurant in March 2015. Barber and a team of guest celebrity chefs — like Mario Batali, Enrique Olvera, and Sean Brock — served an entire menu based on ingredients headed to the trash. Fast-casual chain Sweetgreen followed suit with a “WastED” salad created with Blue Hill, highlighting frequently chucked ingredients like carrot ribbons, bread butts, and broccoli stalks and leaves.

Barber wanted to show guests that items that are considered garbage by many home cooks can be (and currently are) used regularly in professional kitchens. He used by-products like oft-discarded skate cartilage, sable skeleton, and juicer pulp. “The inspiration for it is really the idea that chefs, in general, create delicious dishes from things people normally wouldn’t eat,” Barber tells the Voice. “We call it ravioli and charge seventeen dollars for it; we don’t call it waste.”

Where Barber’s WastED got the media and elite gastronomes talking about waste, Feeding the 5,000 is geared toward the general public — those who do not spend time scouring food blogs or seeking the hottest new restaurants and trends. Organizers have no doubt that individuals interested in food and environmental issues will show up; however, the idea is to attract regular people who just happen to be walking by. “The ultimate goal is to bring the issue to as broad an audience as possible,” says Hunt. “It’s Union Square on a weekday: I think we’ll see tremendous diversity of attendees.”


Famed Chefs Deliver Meals to 18,000 Homebound Elderly. You Can, Too.

Every weekend, 18,000 elderly New Yorkers open their doors to Citymeals on Wheels volunteers. On holidays, Citymeals is there, too, delivering shelf-stable pantry items and freshly prepared full meals so that those who are homebound receive adequate nutrition and a few minutes with someone concerned with their overall welfare.

“We’re feeding the people who built this city,” executive director Beth Shapiro tells the Voice, noting that Citymeals has been around for nearly 35 years. “We’re honoring them and making sure we continue to take care of them. Nutrition, comfort, and a human connection are vital for keeping them in their homes and communities — where they want to be.”

Two years ago, Citymeals added the Chefs Deliver initiative to their roster of outreach programs. Launched by the board of directors’ co-president chef Daniel Boulud, the program asks chefs to commit to making and delivering a few hundred meals once a year.

“I felt that it would be nice to get more chefs involved, so that they could have a greater understanding of the program and the impact it has on their communities,” Boulud tells the Voice. “This is an opportunity to give recipients in a neighborhood a meal prepared by a chef in that neighborhood… and a way to connect the chef with their neighbor, too.”

Eventually, Boulud hopes he’ll have at least 52 chefs committed, so that the program will run weekly. Chefs including Andrew Carmellini, of the NoHo Hospitality Group; Steven Hubbell, of Junoon; Ryan Hardy, of Charlie Bird and Pasquale Jones; and Georgette Farkas, of Rotisserie Georgette, have already joined up.

Right now, Chefs Deliver runs monthly. On April 18, Boulud joined chef Marcus Samuelsson, of Red Rooster and Streetbird, and Tren’ness Woods-Black, owner of Sylvia’s in Harlem. Together, they prepared, packed, and helped to deliver a few hundred of the 200,000 meals delivered in Harlem each year.

“We’re a family-oriented business,” Woods-Black says of Sylvia’s, the restaurant her grandmother opened in Harlem over 50 years ago. “Our elders are a big part of our community. They’re in our churches, they’re our personal relatives. So us working with Citymeals is a natural fit. We have all of these different grandparents we can go visit, say hi to, and make a meal for.”

Tren'ness Woods-Black of Sylvia's
Tren’ness Woods-Black of Sylvia’s

Woods-Black’s kitchen whipped up her grandmother’s meatloaf with red sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and sautéed string beans.

“This is a very simple gift — fried chicken, collards, and mashed potatoes,” Samuelsson says of his own contributions to the program. “But it’s a great idea that Citymeals came up with — allowing us to give it! This is my favorite day of the year.”

Boulud capped the meal off with a dessert trio including a pistachio financier with raspberry mousse, a chocolate fondant, and a citrus vanilla gelatin with fresh papaya, mango, and blueberries.

Citymeals has a long-standing relationship with New York’s culinary elite. Back in 1981, writer and then-New York Magazine critic Gael Greene discovered that elderly New Yorkers did not receive meals from the New York Department for the Aging on weekends or holidays. Distraught, she brought other members of the food world together, raising $35,000 that went directly to providing Christmas meals for 6,000 people. Now, 15,000 volunteers make sure those meals are regularly delivered to those with chronic and disabling conditions.

They’re part of a growing population the rest of the city doesn’t often engage with, simply because we rarely see them. Around 60 percent of Citymeals recipients are over 80 years old, and 200 of them are over 100 years old; almost all of them need assistance walking; 57 percent of them live alone; and a heart-wrenching 8 percent of them have no regular contact with another human being.

Citymeals steps in there, too. And so can you.

Volunteers can interact regularly with elderly, isolated seniors through various forms of communication and time commitment. For those who want to leisurely exchange personal, heartfelt letters, there’s the Senior Script program. Those who are chatty can make a half-hour call to a senior once a week. And for those who can commit to weekly, in-person check-ins, there’s the Friendly Visiting program, where Citymeals connects volunteers with seniors (most often) in their neighborhood. Citymeals folks join in on visits until a relationship is established, helping forge friendships that mean so much to both parties.

“We are so lucky to have an incredible wealth of volunteers, but we always need more,” Shapiro says. “Our bread and butter is our meal deliveries. We’ll take whatever someone wants to commit: a one-time thing for a couple hours, or weekly. Come in one time and see how it works for you. None of us would be here without these older people, who are often hidden in their apartment buildings.”

Boulud, Samuelsson, and Woods-Black also recognize the impact of the Chefs Deliver program on their own cooks. “Many chefs and cooks are young, and they can’t contribute much financially,” Boulud says. “So if they can physically and personally contribute, it matters a lot. They’re growing up to become responsible adults, and they’ll continue to do their social work that way. It’s great.”

Citymeals on Wheels chefs delivering in Harlem
Citymeals on Wheels chefs delivering in Harlem

Throughout the year, the culinary community supports Citymeals through various fundraisers and festivals, including the Chefs Tribute at Rockefeller Center on June 6. The second Harlem EatUp festival (which Samuelsson helped found) will return on May 19-22 after nailing it last year. During the EatUp weekend, chefs from throughout New York and the rest of the country partner with local Harlem chefs for co-hosted dinners, grand tastings, lectures, and presentations. This year, chef Kenichi Tajima hosts chef Andy Ricker at Mountain Bird, chef Carmen Gonzales hosts chef Alex Stupak at Vinateria, and chef JJ Johnson hosts chefs Alex Guarnaschelli and Michael Jenkins at Minton’s, among others. Last year 11,000 people joined the festival; this year, organizers hope to get 15,000.

“Giving back to our community directly with Citymeals is one of the aspects of Harlem EatUp,” Samuelsson says. “Another is the work we do together throughout the year when we’re planning for it, with all the restaurateurs meeting to figure out how we can work better within the community. We’re growing the restaurant community here, too.”

“The Harlem food community still feels like a village,” Woods-Black agrees. “It still has that sense of wanting to take care of one another, whether it’s ‘Meet me at Red Rooster for a drink,’ or ‘My tablecloths didn’t come in, can I please borrow some?’ The community feel is still here. Having an event like Harlem EatUp just plays to that, with all the restaurants preparing our favorite dishes for both our community and all the foodies who come up. It’s really a good time. I’m looking forward to it again.”

As far as Citymeals is concerned, Shapiro applauds the continued growth of direct chef involvement. “Dozens of chefs have already committed to Chefs Deliver,” she says. “They go on a delivery once and are like, ‘Wow, now I get it. Now I know why we need to support Citymeals… and why the rest of the city does, too.'”


The Food of Liberation: A Dinner Series With a Mission

There was a time in New York City’s history when the idea of going to a stranger’s apartment for a meal — along with other people you’ve never met — would’ve made you think twice. Now such “underground” supper clubs happen every day in our city’s trend-happy food scene. The latest version of these dinners not only boasts the allure of a secret setting, but offers a feminist, social-justice mission.

The Advice Project’s Food of Liberation series will feature a monthly dinner, serving favorite recipes from a woman who has lived under oppression, taking place in a private location to be disclosed only the week before. The first dinner is on February 26, featuring Consolee Nishimwe, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Next up is Chi Yvonne Leina, a Cameroonian journalist and activist.

Melissa Banigan, founder and managing editor of The Advice Project, explains, “I look for guests who have not only been through extremely difficult circumstances, but who have risen above. The women on my shortlist are strong feminists. Some of them are refugees; others have dealt with adversity right here on U.S. soil. But they’re all amazing, and they each know how to partner some of life’s biggest problems with remarkable solutions.”

Banigan, a single mom, used to host weekly salon-style dinners in her home. Her daughter, now fourteen, asked Banigan to revive those Friday-night suppers, and with that, the idea for Food of Liberation was born. Banigan says she’d “already been thinking of creating a series of events that would partner storytelling with cuisines from around the world,” and this was just the impetus she needed.

The other, more unlikely, source of inspiration came from Japanese culture. In her early twenties, Banigan read The Gourmet Club by Junichiro Tanizaki and was introduced to the concept of nyotaimori, in which sushi is served on the body of a nude woman. “I found this art to be inherently sexist and often wondered if such a meal could be made more feminist,” she reflects. The Food of Liberation project is her attempt at that: “Instead of serving meals off the bodies of women,” she explains, “I would serve them from the minds of empowered women from around the world.”

This isn’t the first pop-up to offer meals in people’s homes to be enjoyed with strangers. But it does offer a rare opportunity to shine a light on women who have experienced oppression, allowing them to share their stories and cuisines in an intimate setting. Each featured guest will provide at least one recipe, which will be the centerpiece of the evening. Banigan and a few volunteers will cook that recipe, as well as a few other dishes to go with it.

For the first dinner, Nishimwe selected a Rwandan dish called ugali, a maize-based porridge. She says she chose it “because it’s very special, it’s kind of unique, and it’s traditional.” Banigan and her volunteers will also serve Rwandan appetizers including ibiharage (white bean paste) with sweet Rwandan honey bread and are planning to prepare a surprise dish for Nishimwe. After the meal, guests can enjoy tea from Rwanda (“We love to drink tea a lot,” she explains) while Nishimwe reads from her memoir.

Nishimwe doesn’t consider herself a cook, but she’s looking forward to good conversation over what is, for her, comfort food. “My expectation is to be able to share a little more of my culture,” she says. “We love to socialize and sit down, especially when you have a meal together. We are oral-storyteller people, so we don’t write as much, but we like to talk about different things.”

Banigan envisions the meal serving as a kind of Proustian madeleine, a jumping-off point for memories and discussion. “People have such a strong connection to food,” she says. “It’s my hope that as Consolee takes her first bite of delicious ugali, she’s transported back to some of her earliest memories of Rwanda that she will want to share with the rest of our guests.”

Proceeds from the dinner will go to support the Advice Project, which brings free media and writing classes to teen girls in the U.S.A., Cameroon, and Guadeloupe. Banigan hopes to raise enough money to provide five Cameroonian girls and women with a trip to attend the annual Advice Project Global Leadership Summit, happening this year in Ireland. Reserve a space here.


Levain Collaborates on a Pizza to Celebrate 25 Years of Friendship

What do a Michelin-starred greenmarket-focused chef and two of the most influential bakers in New York City do to celebrate 25 years of friendship? Eat pizza, of course.

“Here’s how chefs are friends,” says Bill Telepan, a man so rooted in the Upper West Side that he calls 74th street “downtown.” “We eat at each other’s places! Everyone knows about the cookies at Levain, but the pizza bread is awesome – it’s almost a secret for people in the know. I’ve been eating the pizza at Levain for 20 years, and they’ve been eating my pizza here for 10, so it seemed like the obvious choice for a collaboration.”

Though Levain (167 West 74th Street; 212-874-6080) is famed for its line-out-the-door hockey-puck cookies, it was conceived as a bread bakery, and still turns a brisk trade in them. “Pam grew up baking, and I really found my love for it at culinary school,” says Connie McDonald, who along with partner Pam Weekes, is the founder and baking brains behind Levain. “We always loved how pizza lets you spotlight seasonal ingredients. At first, they were a private treat for us and our friends, but eventually, we put them on the menu, and people seem to really like them. All these years later, they’re still there.”

“I had the idea for us to do a pizza together, with the profits going to a charity I care deeply about, Wellness in Schools,” says Telepan. “The topping is my wife’s favorite, with smoked bacon, jalapeños, mozzarella and parmesan. I pitched it to Pam and Connie and they were’ up for it straight away. “

The pizza, on a soft pillowy flatbread, will be sold on Wednesdays for the rest of this month at Levain, with the other half of proceeds going to the ASPCA. “We’ll see how it goes,” says Telepan. “I hope people really love it because it really is for a great cause. Wellness in Schools hires culinary graduates to go into cafeterias and work with the staff there to improve the healthiness of the food, and it hires coaches who work at recess to organize games that gets kids moving and engaged so they go back to their afternoons energized.”

It’s great to collaborate,” says McDonald. “We’ve been part of Bill’s benefits before, but having this at Levain is even more personal. We’ve loved going to eat at Telepan, and he comes into the bakery for cookies with his family all the time.”

“That’s the thing about being really rooted in your neighborhood,” says Telepan. “You have the chance to have these friendships that have a different character, because of shared experiences. There’s been a lot of change over the years, but it’s good both to be part of it, and to be a constant in it.”

“That’s the Upper West Side,” says McDonald. “When we opened in 1995 there was already an atmosphere of change. Lots of construction going on, including the new 72nd Street subway station. There are pros and cons to all of this, but when the porn store on Amsterdam finally moved a few years ago, everyone knew the changes were here to stay.”


Order Take-Out to Help Fight Hunger in New York This Holiday Season

If Ebenezer Scrooge taught us anything, it’s that the holidays are the season for second chances. Miserly Manhattanites, who were recently pilloried after being outed as the city’s worst tippers for food deliveries, can save themselves simply by ordering take out – but not through Seamless.

Sharebite, a new food-ordering app dedicated to making a social impact, has partnered with City Harvest to launch “Take-Out Hunger,” a campaign they hope will help feed 100,000 New Yorkers battling hunger this holiday season. Similar to other delivery apps like Seamless or GrubHub, Sharebite charges a fee to all participating restaurants and donates $0.26 from each order to City Harvest, a food rescue organization committed to helping New Yorkers who face hunger. That $0.26 is enough to pay for one meal for a child, according to City Harvest.

“We’re in one of the richest cities in the world, yet nearly one in four children are facing hunger,” says Mohsin Memon, the founder of Sharebite. “What can we do about that?” Memon says the idea for the app was first conceived last year while he worked on a project with City Harvest at Columbia Business School. “If everyone who ordered takeout used Sharebite, we could make a huge impact in helping to eliminate hunger citywide.”

In addition to the per-order donations, through December, Sharebite plans to contribute ten meals to City Harvest for every new customer who orders a meal using their app. And local New York companies, Icon Parking and TF Cornerstone — a real estate developing firm — have chipped in to match a meal every time customers place orders.

“We’ve already matched 20,000 meals in the first two weeks of December,” Memon says.

Despite reports of a strengthening economy, nearly 1.4 million New Yorkers are food-insecure, meaning they don’t always know where or when their next meal will come, says Cara Taback, spokesperson for City Harvest. Since last year, its network of soup kitchens and food pantries has seen 1.3 million more visits.

The Sharebite app, available for both iPhones and Androids, also gives users the option of choosing from more than a million other charities, with the company donating two percent of any order to the organization the customers select. Memon says that more than 1,000 Manhattan restaurants have signed up so far. He plans to expand the roster beyond Manhattan to include more eateries in other boroughs in coming months.


This Guy Makes Testicles, and He Wants You to Grow a Pair

Keith Maneri has 20,000 pairs of balls on his hands. That’s right — 20,000 pairs of tiny, off-white, growable balls, and he’s trying to sell them.

What started as a throwaway conversation during a business trip has turned into a ball-breaker of a side-project for Maneri, who by day is the design director of a small Brooklyn creative agency called New Antisocial. But with half of the profits benefitting the Testicular Cancer Society, it’s all for a good cause.

Over the summer, while the thirty-year-old Maneri was traveling with members of his New Antisocial team, he was chatting with a friend who was complaining about her husband. She told him, ” ‘Yeah, he just needs to grow a pair of balls,’ ” Maneri explains. “We thought, ‘What if we started brainstorming a gag gift like that?’ ”

The concept turned out to be pretty simple. Taking their cue from the spongy dinosaur capsule toys that expand in water, Maneri and his co-workers figured they could engineer and produce a pair of testicles that would engorge themselves with water and grow to be six times their original size. Officially named Grow a Pair, the product would go on to feature a tagline: “It’s a hilarious gift for friend or foe.” Working with TCS seemed a no-brainer, as testicular cancer is the leading cancer among 15- to 34-year-old men — the target demographic for the project. And in a world where there’s a market for anonymously shipping bags of gummy-dicks, the possibilities for, er, expansive distribution seemed endless.

But it turns out creating faux gonads is a tough nut to crack. After coming up with the idea, Maneri figured that with logistical help from his two colleagues at New Antisocial, the balls would be ready to ship by November. They had already lined up a Chinese manufacturer through e-commerce giant Alibaba, and they had the enthusiastic endorsement of TCS. Testicular cancer is “awkward to talk about,” says Mike Craycraft, founder of TCS and a cancer survivor. “If there’s ways to start a conversation that are a little less abrasive, we’re all for it. We thought it was a great gag gift.”

The original prototype mold, on Maneri's desk
The original prototype mold, on Maneri’s desk

But when Maneri got the first prototype of his design from the manufacturer, the big, growable balls had a small problem. “The first one didn’t grow very much at all,” he says. They returned the prototype, and while the second version expanded as intended, the design seemed a bit too — clinical. Rather than a gag gift, it seemed like something out of an unfortunate sex ed class. “It looked like we were trying to teach kids about genital warts,” Maneri says. By the third iteration, things had gotten a bit better. The testicles appeared to grow to full size over three days of waterlogged life, but they would quickly dissolve, a sight Maneri describes as “horrifying.” Then there was also a Goldilocks-style selection process to find the perfect hue. “They sent us a whole variety of skin tones, from just way too white — almost like ghostly pale mole-man — to very, very dark ethnic balls,” Maneri says. “We basically just picked the one in the middle.”

Though a couple months later than they anticipated, the group has finally arrived at the perfect set of balls. They’re wart-free and grow without dissolving. But whose balls are they, exactly? “I remember one of my art teachers once saying, ‘An artist always ends up drawing themselves one way or another,’ ” Maneri recalls. “I’d probably be the closest match if you put us in a police lineup.”

And while Maneri is unabashedly happy with the end result, he admits there are downsides to going balls-deep into a project like this. “I think the most awkward conversation was with the girlfriend’s parents,” he remembers. “Eventually, when you ask the question, ‘What are you working on?’ you can only gloss over that for so long.”

At roughly $7 for a set of balls, Grow a Pair has sold just 300 of its 20,000 units through its website, Kickstarter, and partnerships with local businesses. But Maneri says he’s already seeing signs of growth, and he predicts an uptick over the holidays. “People love it,” says Samantha Bard, co-owner of SHAG, a boutique sex shop in Williamsburg that has agreed to sell Maneri’s jewels. “We sell a lot to bachelorette parties. And for the holidays, it’s a good stocking-stuffer.”

But Maneri acknowledges that, even if the balls take off, it’s unlikely he’ll devote the rest of his life to making what are essentially testicle-shaped sponges. “Once the last ball has left the warehouse,” he says, “that will probably be the end of the project.”

The Grow a Pair team, from left to right: Keith Maneri, Mariah Hutchings, and JD Beebe
The Grow a Pair team, from left to right: Keith Maneri, Mariah Hutchings, and JD Beebe



Why Does the MTA Refuse to Work With a Nonprofit That Donates Rides to the Poor?

Zachary DuBow was used to seeing MetroCards strewn all over the city’s subway stations — discarded by tourists or neglected by everyday commuters. He began to wonder how many of the cards contained little bits of leftover money. Probably not enough for a full fare, he thought, but what if he combined the value of all the cards he found and distributed them to people who struggle to pay for public transit?

In early 2013, DuBow founded the Next Stop Project, an effort to do exactly that: redistribute the pittance left on discarded MetroCards to the neediest riders. “It’s a no-brainer idea,” says DuBow, a 26-year-old Upper West Side resident who recently left a business technology/IT consulting job. “There are cards that are wasted. No one’s benefitting from it.” He had an idea to put out collection boxes in some of the city’s subway stations, so riders could donate the remaining value on their cards instead of tossing them on the ground. “Any retail or marketing expert would tell you the best product placement is where it’s being used — when it’s at the ready in their hands,” DuBow adds.

The only problem: The MTA wouldn’t let them set up collection boxes in stations. DuBow surmises the plan was rejected partly for “bureaucratic” reasons, but also because the unused balance rolls back to the MTA. This past year, for instance, the transit agency reaped about $62 million due to remainders left on MetroCards. If the agency made it easy to aggregate those almost-empty cards, it would essentially be giving away rides that might otherwise be paid for.

For its part, the MTA won’t say much about why it has denied Next Stop’s proposal. In an emailed statement, spokesman Kevin Ortiz mostly declined to comment on the record. “This group has been at this for over two years,” he wrote. “We haven’t commented on it and do not plan on doing so.” But if one reason for the MTA’s resistance is losing the revenue that languishes on forgotten cards, DuBow says that doesn’t make much economic sense. After all, even if Next Stop could find $100,000 in unused cards (dramatically more than the group has collected), that would only represent about one-fifth of 1 percent of the MTA’s $62 million unused balance this year. And compared with the MTA’s multibillion-dollar budget, the fiscal impact starts to seem vanishingly small.

Still, DuBow is careful not to directly criticize the MTA since he hopes to eventually convince it to work with Next Stop — and over the past three years, he’s built an operation distributing the cards without the agency’s help. He’s not the first to come up with the idea: A Washington, D.C., organization has a farecard donation program designed to help homeless veterans. Similarly, Next Stop prioritizes those who struggle to scrape together transportation to job interviews and medical appointments; the group mostly leaves decisions about which people get cards up to its partner organizations. So far, Next Stop has donated 1,103 round-trip MetroCards and 15 monthly passes to a handful of organizations that serve needy populations, such as the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen and the Hope Program.

Zachary DuBow
Zachary DuBow

Without the use of subway stations to collect used cards, DuBow says, almost 95 percent of their donations come through monetary contributions from friends and family. Anyone can leave a cash donation on the group’s website or send them a MetroCard; some tourists have discovered the site and mailed in their used cards from twenty different states. But Next Stop is trying to branch out and has launched a crowdfunding campaign, which the group hopes will raise $10,000 to load 1,000 new MetroCards and invest in collection boxes they’re starting to place around the city.

Those MetroCards can make a huge difference to people who are just scraping by, according to Elyssa Gersen, a director at the Hope Program, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that teaches job readiness skills to low-income populations and places them in jobs and internships. “Our students are often in such extreme poverty they can’t afford a round-trip fare each day,” Gersen says, adding that her organization has received fifty MetroCards from Next Stop since May. “Some of them have walked five miles to get here.”

Asked about the MTA’s refusal to allow Next Stop to collect used MetroCards in subway stations, Gersen makes the argument that it’s actually in the transit agency’s long-term economic interest. If the program helps more people get jobs, she figures, chances are they’ll turn into paying public transit riders. “This could ultimately increase their ridership,” Gersen says. “And it really doesn’t cost them anything to put a box in a station. I hope the MTA can see the big picture here.”



Maker’s Mark Whisky Truck Hits NYC in Search of Winter Coats for Charity

Whisky has helped drinkers feel warm and fuzzy for hundreds of years. But this week, it’s bringing warmth in a far more direct fashion. Maker’s Mark, Kentucky’s most popular “wheated” bourbon brand, has teamed up with One Warm Coat to collect extra coats and jackets from across the country. Starting today, until the end of the week, be on the lookout for the Give Cozy, Get Cozy truck, making stops up and down Manhattan, into Long Island and Hoboken.

In exchange for your generosity, Maker’s Mark is doling out the swag. Unfortunately, due to local law, they won’t be giving you free booze on the street. They will, however, offer all manner of treats, including hot cocoa and gingerbread cookies baked with Maker’s Mark.

Today the truck makes a stop in Lower Manhattan at Astor Wines and Spirits on Lafayette. Tomorrow it will be parked in front of Penn Station, from 9 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. All donated coats go to One Warm Coat, which is a nonprofit specializing in providing warm clothing to those in need. To learn more about the organization, check out its website.

The traveling charity truck makes one last stop at Hoboken City Hall on Thursday morning before heading out of town. If you can’t make it, or don’t have any extra coats hanging around this time of year, a one-time $5 donation to One Warm Coat can be made by texting “coat” to 80100.


New York City’s Food Pantries Are Struggling to Keep Up With a Growing Demand for Meals

A working mother of three kids, who could barely make rent. A disabled veteran. Homeless senior citizens. These were people among the 957 who lined up outside a food pantry on a recent morning in Jamaica, Queens waiting for a warm meal.

“Poverty has no face,” says Swami Durga Das, executive director of The River Fund, a non-profit food pantry in Queens that served those 957 families that day. “The people wrapped around the block by 8 a.m. could be anyone – even your neighbor.”

He adds that volunteers have begun setting up at 5 a.m. in the days leading up to Thanksgiving because of the increase in need: “The fact is too many New Yorkers are suffering from food deficiency,” he says.

As the holidays creep closer, that need has worsened and can be traced to federal food stamp benefit cuts, according to a report released this week by the Food Bank For New York City. Since November 2013, when the federal government downsized the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), New Yorkers “have lost more than 116 million meals,” according to the report, entitled “Hunger Cliff NYC: Bridging a City’s Monthly 5.3 Million Meal Loss.” Those reductions lead to growing demand at food pantries and soup kitchens, forcing them to increase hours of operation as a result.

This “Hunger Cliff,” according to the Food Bank, has led to the “immediate loss, on average, of nearly $18 per month in benefits for more than one million New York City households,” in a report released Monday. The cuts were the result of a compromise in Congress in 2010, when in order to pay for an increase of six cents per meal in the school lunch program, SNAP benefits were cut in 2013.

The more than five million meals lost per month for hungry New Yorkers represent more food “than even most of the country’s largest food banks distribute” says the report.

“We’re approaching a holiday season that puts such an emphasis on food, and sharing a meal together is the way that we show love,” says Triada Stampas, Vice President for Research and Public Affairs for The Food Bank For New York City. “It’s no coincidence this ends up being when hunger awareness is at its peak.”

Last year, over a million New York households were deemed “food-insecure” – meaning they lacked consistent access to nutritionally adequate food. That includes one in six people living in New York City. It hasn’t gotten any better, and New York City residents are increasingly forced to rely on emergency food programs, such as food pantries and soup kitchens, and these days food banks across the city are struggling to meet the need of New Yorkers unable to afford meals. Stampas explains that the state allocated a couple million dollars in federal money for a portion of the year between July and September. Now that that money has been spent to meet the growing need, emergency food programs are left to operate with less food.

“We’re rich on compassion, but short on capital,” says Stampas. “It’s an intensely stressful time for New Yorkers in need and it’s felt by those on the front lines who are trying to help them.”

She adds that although the entire network goes into overdrive during the holidays, the empty cupboards and bare shelves people face on Thanksgiving is a dilemma they’re confronted with year round.

The report released by the Food Bank found that in the last two years, ninety percent of food pantries and soup kitchens reported an increase in visitors. This growing demand has forced more than a quarter of these locations to increase operating hours to accommodate longer lines of people. But even hungry New Yorkers looking for a Thanksgiving meal on Thursday can’t count entirely on the kindness of the mostly volunteer-run soup kitchens. More than a third of the food pantries and soup kitchens surveyed had to turn people away over the last two Thanksgivings. They had run out of food.

“We’ll keep serving until the last person is served,” says Swami Durga Das. “Unless we run out of food, which could eventually happen.”