Monday, March 7, 2011

The Food Has Arrived!

by John Aldrich

Prior to the semiannual food runs, an enormous amount of work takes place at the warehouse in Salt Lake City to prepare all of the giveaways and food boxes. A major event in this sequence is the arrival of all the food needed to fill the Rainbow Food boxes. All the shopping and ordering that leads up to this delivery was featured in a blog last year while this blog focuses on the arrival of the food at the warehouse.

Friday March 7th was the culmination of all the work Roger Daly had put into arranging for the food through Walmart. After parting with over $27,000 ANE was the owner of roughly 35,000 pounds of food goods. Getting all this to the warehouse was facilitated by Boyd Mitchell who rented a Penske truck and drove the three round trips from Walmart to the warehouse.

Here are Roger and Boyd with one of the loads. The food is delivered on pallets that must be unloaded from the truck and moved into the warehouse.

Then the cases of food are unloaded from the pallets and placed in their designated places along the warehouse wall.

The following photo shows the combined muscle power that made this big job happen.

But this wasn't the only thing happening at the warehouse that day. Other volunteers were busy working on the various giveaways that are an important part of every food run.

Here Sue Powers and Cheryl Wehmanen are packing rolls of fabric that will be donated to Elders.

And here, Sue is collecting items that will be assembled into Grandma boxes.

While Robin Field-Williams is a blur of motion as she tapes together the boxes that will become Grandma Boxes.

Many more days like this one will be needed before we are ready for the spring food runs.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Solar Cooking on the Reservation

by Mary Phillips , ANE Director of Development

It began with a question asked in Summit County, near Park City Utah.  Someone on the 1% Tax Grant commission (they generously help fund ANE’s Annual Navajo Rug Show) asked, “You fund a lot of firewood for the Navajo Elders, and the cost has risen so much, so why don’t they use solar for heat?  They certainly have a lot of sun.” 

Good question, I thought.  But looking on the web I found no affordable solar heating options. 

A year later a board member from the Aqua Fund (they generously support ANE programs) asked, “Do you think Navajos on the reservation would adapt to solar cooking? Couldn’t this help them meet the rising cost of firewood?”  

In Parade magazine I’d read about solar cookers used in refuge camps around the world.  Some camps had no wood available. In others women were raped while gathering firewood.  Children spent all day gathering enough twigs to cook a meal instead of attending school. Families suffered lung and eye problems from cooking on polluting indoor stoves. The article showed how solar cookers solved these problems. They worked just like my old Girl Scout fold up aluminum reflector oven, slow cooking a pot of food or baking a pan of bread by simply focusing the sun’s rays.  

“I don’t know,” I told the Agua rep, “but Navajo people certainly have a huge history of adapting to survive. I think it’s worth looking into this.  Even if they don’t solar cook for every meal it could provide emergency relief when they run out of wood and  roads are closed for weeks due to weather so they can’t get it hauled in.” 

Searching the web for info about solar cooking, I read that you could also heat up a rock in the cooker and take it indoors to provide emergency heat.  Now I had three reasons to pursue introducing solar cooking on the reservation.

The Agua Fund put me in touch with an expert on solar cooking, Pat McCartle.  She is on the board and volunteers with Solar Cooking International introducing solar cooking all over the world. I visited Pat’s home in Virginia.

In her back yard Pat showed me how three types of commercially available cookers work, proving how easy it is to use them and how durable they are.  One type, the two piece foil covered cardboard CookIt folded flat for easy lightweight storage, perfect for an emergency kit or to take on horseback while herding sheep.

I worried that since none of the affordable cookers got hot enough to fry and boil (they crock pot slow cook and  bake), Navajo families might not want to use them. They’d still need another cooking method to make fry bread and coffee or tea. Pat cautioned this would not be the only obstacle.  She said, “It is difficult to get people to switch to solar from wood and coal until they are desperate.  But,” she said, “it’s possible. I’ve seen it, over and over.”  Then she generously stepped into our world of helping the Elders, “ I’ll help you demonstrate them on the reservation” she said, “if you can pay my travel expenses.” 

But before I called the Agua Fund back to ask for funding, I talked to William Whitehair, a younger weaver with the ANE program who lives on the reservation.  Would he consider using a solar cooker and report how it worked for him? 

William had heard of solar cooking and was enthusiastic about trying it. He thought his brother would also be interested, as well as others, maybe not the Elders but younger ones.  He said, “You have to go so far now to get wood, and the permits to cut wood are so much higher. And people who have to buy wood, the price is so high now.” 

The Aqua Fund donated $5000 for our Spring Solar Cooking Demonstrations.  We bought 20 cookers to leave with Navajos on the reservation. With the cooperation of Salt Lake City’s alternative energy program and with complimentary space donated by the city, we set up a solar demo at the Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake City.  Another solar expert, Paul, the owner of what has become the reservation favorite, the Sun Oven box cooker, met us downtown and set up a display that included pictures of people using solar cookers.  This came in handy as clouds prevented us from cooking.  People who came by learned about solar cooking and the ANE program. 
The first ANE solar food run demo occurred at Many Farms, Arizona, with  40 mph winds on sandy land that is barren for miles. Everyone who remained outside got a free dermabrasion.  Pat braved more consecutive hours outside in the storm tending the cookers, while I went inside the shade house with the Elders and forty-four ANE food run volunteers.

Through a translator I told the Elders and their families that Pat and I were cooking chili and cornbread outside using just the sun, and if they wanted to learn about this kind of cooking, Pat could teach them.  I told them that people far away gave us the money to bring Pat to them and buy cookers for them to take home and try out. They could have one for the price of giving me a report about what they cooked, how often they used it,
and if they had any problems using it.

Using wisdom Pat garnered from women in developing countries (rocks and string will secure cookers in wind) and wisdom from my daddy (keep a roll of duct tape handy) we didn't lose any cooker parts to the non-stop wind.  We constantly wiped sand from the reflective surfaces to keep the food cooking. Despite these challenges we served delicious solar cooked chili and cornbread for lunch.  Elders, their families, and ANE volunteers
were so impressed.

Pat and I used self-selection to decide who went home with  the 20 demo cookers. While Elders engaged in activity inside the shade house, family members braved the conditions to examine the cookers and ask questions.  On her way into the shade house one 90 year old Elder who speaks little English stopped in front of the cookers, visually taking in details.  Pat pointed to the sun and said {phonetically} “Jo-oh-no-eh”, Navajo for sun.  She lifted the lid to show the Elder the food cooking in the pot.  The Elder stared at it.  Then she raised her hand in the air above her head, pumped her arm several times, pointed across the row of cookers, and said with loud conviction, “Is good!” 

Two families spent a lot of time going over the details of how to use the cookers.  They selected cookers to take home. We gave them pot holders and a large can of chilli so they would not have to worry about using their own precious food for their solo attempt at solar cooking.

On Saturday, the final food run, we set up under clear morning skies with a light breeze, cooked food without incident, and found six enthusiastic families to try solar cooking.  One Elder and her daughter stared at the cookers, pointing out details to each other and speaking in Navajo.  The Elder didn’t speak much English.  Her daughter translated that somewhere they’d seen that you could paint tin cans black and heat with them, and they
always wanted to know how to do that.

Pat explained solar cooking uses the same principle as the cans used for solar heating.  Using the cooker they wanted to save money on wood, which was costing up to $150 a load, way over their income, and it was tough to find people to deliver it to their very remote home. They chose a cooker that could take two pots, so they could cook an entire meal using solar.  Their extended family, including school-aged children came over to look at their cooker as we took their picture with it.  Pat explained details to the family and told the children how they could go online and find plans to easily and cheaply make their own CookIts.

William Whitehair came to this food run.  William went to college but came back to the reservation to weave and care for his aging mother.  He tends sheep and grows corn.  He has a laptop and website where he sells his rugs.  An ANE volunteer helped set him up with these resources, which he uses to great advantage.

At the food run William selected a Sun Oven to try.  The metal reflectors for this cooker fold flat across a durable plastic cooking box, they snap down securely, and the box has a carry handle so it is very portable. While talking to Pat and exploring the parabolic prototype that gets hot enough to boil and fry, William asked if he could possibly make a parabolic cooker from old TV dishes found all around the reservation. Pat pointed him to some Internet information sites.

William took his solar cooker home Saturday and emailed me 11:30 pm Sunday night:

“Hi Mary, I hope you had a wonderful Mothers Day. I want to tell you that I used the solar oven today.  I butchered a sheep today for a dinner that we had here at home.  I cooked the sheep head in the solar oven.  It worked great.  Im very pleased with it.  Thank you.  I'll write it down on the paper that you gave me. 
Take care, William.”

At the November Rug Show I asked  Craig, an amazing tech talented ANE volunteer, to help me video William’s resounding enthusiasm for his solar cooker. You can watch it at  Many thanks to William for allowing me to film him.

Getting feedback from the reservation is always challenging, but so far we have reports from about 1/3 of the demonstrators.  With the exception of one, all are using the cookers and enthusiastic about their ease of use and their durability.  None see the fact that they don’t fry as an obstacle.  Everyone said, “Frying isn’t healthy!” Many said they are glad to have the solar cooker on hand in case they run out of fuel.  It makes them feel more secure.

They are not using the cookers as much in winter as they do in summer.  Many have always cooked outside in the summer to avoid heating up their homes that bake under summer’s sun with no shade from trees or awnings.  So cooking outdoors in summer is not an adaptation, they’ve been doing this all their lives.

As a result of this demo Pat and I listed changes that would improve currently available commercial solar cookers. Pat reported this list to Solar Cooking International.  It includes: cookers need to get hot enough to boil and fry, they need to accommodate larger pots and more than one pot of food to be useful to large families, they need to be designed to readily cook in high wind, they need a mechanical or solar powered mechanism that turns them once an hour to keep them sun focused instead of relying upon a person to turn them, the reflective surfaces need to be made of more durable material that doesn’t scratch as easily (like the material used in rooftop solar panels), and solar cookers need to be cheaper.

With approval from the Aqua Fund, remaining demo funds are buying cookers for families who want another cooker so they can cook enough for their large families. We are also using remaining Aqua Fund resources to send a parabolic cooker to William, so he can test a parabolic cooker that boils and fries.  This cooker was used a couple of times by a family in Phoenix who want to donate it but lost the shipping box to safely mail it to the reservation. Nathan, at, sells this type of parabolic cooker and offers pictures and details about their use.  This cooker can support a big enough pot to make it a practical for family use.  People often use this cooker to keep a pot of water boiling so they can make tea and coffee throughout the day.  

The spot on questions asked by Summit County and Agua Fund remain, as we continue to follow up on results from our little solar cooking demonstration. This winter firewood too often cost $150 a load, more than most incomes can bear.  Will we ever figure out how to cheaply harness that blazing reservation sun for heating, and will we ever figure out how to help people switch from using traditional wood and coal and now propane, to cooking with the renewable free abundant energy of the sun?

I send many thanks to the Summit County Commission for their question that got me thinking seriously about using solar on the reservation.  Thanks beyond words to the Aqua Fund for asking the question and generously funding this demo.

Deep gratitude goes out to Pat who could not have been more perfect for this work in this place with these people.  One way all of you can thank Pat is to buy her book Farishna coming out in June 2011, the breakout novel of 2010 selected by Amazon for publication, a story born of her adventures in Afghanistan in the Foreign Service, where she introduced solar cooking to Afghani women.

If you are interested in learning more about solar cooking, visit these sites:, and