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Solar cooking for the homeless

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With the rise of homelessness in the US recently, new efforts are being taken there to design the simplest, cheapest, appropriate solar cooker(s) for use by the homeless. The recent 60 Minutes piece about the homeless tent camps around Sacramento, California (home of Solar Cookers International) has especially hit home.

Some models with potential:

  • EZ-3 Solar Cooker (water-resistant when set up without exterior booster, folds compactly, catches late sun, can take wind if braced)
  • Sunny Cooker (adjusts for different sun angles for wider range of latitude and time-of-day, folds compactly, less cardboard than CooKit)
  • Fun-Panel (adjusts for different angles, made from box instead of cardboard sheet, folds compactly)
  • Suntastic (adjust for different angles, made from box, folds compactly, said to cook without a greenhouse enclosure or bag)
  • CooKit (depending on latitude—works better farther south—folds compactly, cooks fairly large quantities)

In general, cookers for homeless people need to be lightweight and preferably fold compactly (though some, like the one made from a disposable turkey roasting pan, might work for those living out of a larger vehicle or established camp, and it is still light in weight) for storage and transport. Water resistance is a plus, but you can only do so much with cardboard, which is the most readily available material. Painting cardboard cookers with exterior latex (try for donated leftovers from contractors or people who are remodeling) does help cardboard resist some damage from wind and dampness. The minerals in rain can be hard on foil. If waterproof foil cookers (such as the roasting pan one, at least the pan part) must be stored outdoors, they should be placed shiny-side down when not in use.

News and recent developments

Mob-Scene-at-Loaves-&-Fishes-783626
  • August 2009: Update from Junior High class from the B’nai Israel Congregation in Sacramento:
Congregation B'nai Israel (CBI) decided to make solar cookers as their community improvement project last year, and Wendy Fischer's 7th grade class purchased solar cooker pots for use in constructing solar cooker kits to contribute to a Loaves & Fishes (L&F) homeless project. The program started in 2008 when Dave Brubaker had the notion to teach the kids about solar cooking as a way to save energy in Sacramento during good weather, lessen their carbon footprint, and start expanding the vision of ecologically friendly living in novel ways. At Dr. Rachel Weinreb’s suggestion, Bob Metcalf instructed the class on water pasteurization procedures and the importance of safe water in developing countries, expanding the class’ vision of how solar cookers could help refugees in Darfur--a special social outreach of Reform Judaism.
The cooking packages made for Loaves and Fishes contained: 1 solar cooker, 2 clothes pins, 1 three lb. black cooking pot, 1 turkey size roasting bag, and instructions and recipes for using the cookers. During the initial solar cooker give-away at L&F, the 7th-graders used old bicycle boxes to build the solar cookers, which, while environmentally friendly, were not foldable, and therefore not as useful to the homeless as they would have liked. (It's hard to carry a fully open CooKit on a bicycle!) Next year, CBI will modify the plan so that the cookers are more foldable (like the commercially made CooKit) or made out of attachable pieces, perhaps using Velcro to hold parts together.
The Congregation’s 7th grade Sunday School class is it's oldest class before the students become either Bar or Bat Mitzvah and move into other activities oriented towards teenagers ~ the connection with Solar Cookers International (SCI) was a direct result of the class's desire to find a worthy, community-based project that would support an identified need in the Sacramento area.
Homeless1

7th graders, front row, from left to right are: Adam Goldberg, Alan Grossman, Riane Barney. They are giving out raffle tickets to homeless folks who are interested in getting a solar cooker.

Homeless2

Left to right: Norm Gold, Daniel Hammer, Elieen Jacobowitz. They are ready to tell about the solar cookers to all interested parties. The picture also shows solar cookers the 7th graders actually making a solar cooker.

  • Spring 2009: The CBI 7th Grade Sunday School class decided that its Mitzvah for 2009 would be to make solar cookers and give them to the homeless folks through Loaves and Fishes. So, with the help of the Sustainable Living Committee, they made 15 solar cookers on April 26 from used bicycle boxes, aluminum foil, and watered down glue. On May 3, they were supposed to cook lunch in their solar cookers, but the weather did not cooperate—cloudy days do not work for solar cooking! So, the class assembled the cooking packages to give to Loaves and Fishes which contained: 1 solar cooker, 2 clothes pins, 1 3-lb black cooking pot, 1 turkey size roasting bag, and instructions and recipes for using the cookers. Dr. Bob Metcalf from Solar Cookers International demonstrated how solar cookers just like the ones they made help Kenyans purify drinking water so they don’t get sick from pollution. He also mentioned that cookers in Darfur refugee camps are helping women care for their families while also avoiding the real danger of being kidnapped, beaten, and raped while seeking firewood hours from the safety of the camps. On May 31, the 7th grade class assembled at Loaves and Fishes along with Norm Gold and Eileen Jacobowitz from the Sustainable Living Committee, 7th grade teacher Wendy Fischer, and a few parents to give the cookers to the homeless under the direction of Executive Director Sister Libby Fernandez. Adam Goldberg made presentation on behalf of the 7th grade class. While demonstrating the cookers, the homeless folks mentioned concerns about the size and awkwardness of the cookers along with their appreciation of receiving them. So, next year, the cookers will be re-designed so that they are more useful and easy to carry around for their future owners.

Tips

  • Prepared canned foods, such as soup, chili, stew, beans, etc., can be heated in the can in a solar cooker with the aid of a thin, black, cotton blend sock or small piece of black cotton cloth. It is very important to pop the seal slightly when solar heating in the can. After breaking the seal just enough so that steam cannot pressurize in the can, slide the can into the sock or wrap tightly in the cloth, clear-cover or bag if needed, and set to heat, vent side up. Once there are signs of steam, give it 15 or 20 minutes to make sure the heat gets to the middle. Open carefully; can and food will be hot. You cannot re-use the can for solar cooking, because once you open it you don't have a tight enough lid, and there might be issues over time with the can lining, but a one-time heat-up in the vented can should be safe enough, if that is your only option of warm food.
  • Solar coffee is very good, even if you can't have it the very first thing in the morning. The recipe is in Beverages.
  • Retained heat cooking can extend your warm food and beverages into the evening hours. In its simplest form, take the hot food or drink out of the cooker when the rays start to weaken, while the food is still hot. Leave the lid on—you want to conserve every bit of the steam. If you need to check the food, check it early enough that you can put it back to build up a head of steam again. If you have a piece of foil (which can be re-used for this purpose), wrap it in that, and in any case, wrap it in whatever you can spare—sweaters, jackets, towels, sleeping bags, blankets—anything that will hold the heat in. Depending on how much food you have (larger amounts stay hot longer), you can extend your hot food a little to a lot into the evening hours, and even complete cooking of some foods that are almost done. To learn more about retained heat cooking, go here. A thermos is also a good way to keep food and beverages hot for a while, if available.


Can Solar Cooking Provide Business Opportunities for the Homeless?

Solar cooking has been helping refugees from war and strife and their aftermath for many years, bringing not only better, cleaner ways to prepare food and pasteurize water but also job training and employment opportunities in Asia, Africa, and Ibero-Latin America. Now the USA has a new, growing refugee population, homeless and wandering due to foreclosure or unemployment, individuals and families struggling to adapt and survive.

Can solar cooking help refugees in America as it has in other lands, not only providing a way to have the comfort of warm food whenever the sun is shining, but also providing opportunities for jobs and small businesses that could grow? Sharon Cousins, the author of startup model #1, hopes that the right volunteer(s) can find at least one seed group with gumption to try and the collective professional skills needed to work all the angles needed for a successful startup.

Other people are welcome to submit other pilot project ideas.

Pilot Project Idea — Solar Cooker Business Startup Model #1

Note: There are many people with professional skills in the new homeless population. This pilot project idea describes one possible startup model for small groups of homeless people with the right combination of professional skills to create a small business with growth potential based on the manufacture and sales of simple solar cookers. In a situation such as an established, somewhat organized camp, a similar plan could also be run as a collective enterprise, with sales benefitting the entire camp or special projects or services within the camp.

Solar Community Volunteers Needed (1 or more):

One or more people who know how to teach construction of cardboard cookers in two or more simple, inexpensive models (one smaller, one larger, so singles/couples and larger families can be accommodated) such as CooKits, EZ-3s, Suntastic, Sunny Cooker, Fun Panel, etc. Models must fold flat for transport and storage and must be light in weight, since that will make them more useful for homeless people and more likely to be purchased by people with limited storage space at home (it also makes for compact storage of inventory, especially at first when space may be limited). The cookers must also be of types that can be made quickly by a skilled crew with a system, because it is important to keep the retail price modest (no more than $25.00, which is the cost of a CooKit in the USA), especially at the outset. (More expensive models might eventually be added to the line, but the best prospect for early sales is people of modest means who are feeling the pinch of rising power costs more deeply than those who are better off and who care about the homeless but can't afford to give much.)

One or more people who can establish contact with a homeless population or homeless individuals and find 3-6 people with gumption and the requisite combination of professional skills (see further down) who are motivated to try to start a small business together. This volunteer might or might not be the cooker construction teacher but should be someone with at least a some general business knowledge that can aid in identifying good potential startup group members. The solar community volunteer(s) also help coordinate the pieces to help the group get started, in particular putting together the modest startup kit.

Startup Kit Needed:

  • A pickup truck load or so of good-condition recycled cardboard
  • Several rolls of heavy-duty foil (or an industrial equivalent)
  • One gallon of white/PVA/Elmer's glue (Office Depot carries gallons)
  • Roll of Duct tape
  • At least three razor knives with extra blades
  • Half a dozen cheap sponge brushes for glue/paint
  • Bag of clean rags (for smoothing-pads and clean-up)
  • At least two or three metal straightedges or rafter squares
  • Couple sheets of old/donated plywood or something similar to cut on
  • A small amount of "petty cash" or a gift card for a copy shop for things like how-to-use sheets to go with the cookers and flyers about the program/company.
  • A few recycled jars, buckets, etc. for mixing glue, cleanup, etc.
  • A few basic office supplies, such as paper, envelopes, scratch pads, graph paper, tape, pens, pencils, scissors. A donated file cabinet with some recycled hanging files would be useful if available.
  • At least a dozen each of turkey size and large size oven bags (More is better, but they do add up unless a good bulk deal can be found or you can set up a donation cart at a supermarket and ask shoppers to buy a box to donate and get up a better supply that way. Otherwise bags will need to have first call on money from sales, at which point a quantity of at least a hundred can be ordered much more cheaply from restaurant supply).
  • Wood glue (optional, but better for cardboard-to-cardboard)
  • Exterior Latex Paint (optional, but painted cardboard lasts longer and looks much better, and a finished look will help sales—try contractors/painters for donations of leftovers—color is inconsequential for cardboard cooker exteriors, so any exterior latex will do)
  • Roll of lower-end metal tape (optional but nice for some designs, like inner hinges on EZ-3s)

That's it. Probably a less than a hundred fifty dollars, if cutting surfaces can be scavenged/donated and some of the small stuff can be obtained by donation, for a business start-up that could help 3-6 people get through a tough time in better shape, while also providing some aid to the larger homeless population in their area and a cleaner world for all of us. You absolutely cannot beat solar cooking for value.

One or more of the volunteers will need to arrange for the modest start-up supplies. If funding is needed, try churches or other service groups who help those in need, or see if a hardware or grocery store will let you set up a donation cart, as stores are often willing to do for food banks, with a list of needed supplies that shoppers can purchase to contribute (a name for the project will aid the process of raising the modest start-up kit, and belonging to an organization such as SCI or SCWNet and/or affiliation with a local church or service club will help , too.). Smiling volunteers from a local college or high school or youth group handing out small flyers of needed supplies will result in better donations.

Arrangements could potentially be made through SCI or another solar cooking NGO or a regional food bank or other regional humanitarian or civic non-profit to make larger donations tax deductible. Point out that this incredibly modest amount of resource is enough to give 3-6 people a good chance at a modest start-up business to help them get by in a tough time (at least until the economy improves and jobs get easier to find).

Ideally, the startup group include a plan on the order of letting other homeless people earn cookers for their own use by making one or two that go to the company inventory or working on the line a given length of time for each one they keep. This will spread the skill, improve the lives of the local homeless population, and give the startup group a pool of experienced workers if the business grows.

Candidates for Startup Group:

A starter group consists of 3-6 homeless people who share between them a range of business experience (small business is fine, as long as they can cover the range). They must all be willing to work with their hands and have the gumption to try something new. Between them they must also share the following professional skills:

  • Public Relations (crucial—must be skilled and personable)
  • Business Management (small business would do—this startup doesn't need a business magnate, just someone who does understand the basic realities and overview of sensibly growing and running a business and coordinating people in a business)
  • Bookkeeping or Accounting for small business
  • Experience with Assembly Processes/Lines, if at all possible, or at least one member who is handy with tools and materials.
  • Marketing/Sales (also crucial, must know how to work and connect angles)

First big job is for the PR person, who must find a donated workspace—at least at first, while the start-up gets on its feet—where work can be done out of the weather and a modest supply of materials can be stored safely, with some kind of water supply—even if just an outdoor spigot—for clean-up. It doesn't have to be huge or fancy, just reasonably dry and clean and lockable (or in a locked-at-night building) with room for materials and at least a couple of worktables.

Talk to churches… sometimes they have basement rooms that might be used (some community center buildings might, too) or parishioners with some garage space. Maybe a local business has a shed out back not being used. Check out vacant small storefronts or other vacant small commercial buildings and see if one can be used until a tenant is found or the business grows enough to start paying rent. If the PR person is good and tenacious, surely s/he will be able to find something that can be used to help some honest, hard-working Americans survive this time of financial disaster in better shape while helping other homeless folks and giving consumers the opportunity to live cleaner, greener lives. At least a couple of work tables (or jury-rigs of same) will be needed, too, unless some come with the space.

Meanwhile, the group learns to build cookers (and where to go online for information if they want to explore other model or design or material ideas) and then plans how to set up in a small space with a couple of tables to produce them by hand as efficiently as possible. A bookkeeping/accounting system must also be set in place and decisions made about what percentage to plow back into the business and materials, how to share whatever is left, how the business will be structured, etc..

If they have the above-listed professional skills and necessary gumption, once the group understands the construction and use of the cooker models and the overall idea for how best to promote the product, they should be able to do all of this without needing much input from the solar volunteer(s), though a little encouragement is always nice. Also, someone from the group needs to work up a modest information sheet explaining how to set up and use the cooker(s), unless the initiating volunteers can supply this. The sheet can include the url for solarcooking.org, where people can get lots of recipes and other information on solar cooking, so the initial sheet doesn't need to have a lot of recipes, but it does need clear directions for setting up and using and aiming the cookers (including what kinds of pots will work and whether cooking bags are needed) and at least one or two simple recipe suggestions.

Cooker production begins in the donated space. PR and marketing/sales work out a strategy for selling cookers that really works the angle that buying these effective, modestly priced solar cookers will help honest, hard-working Americans who got tangled up in the recent financial crisis AND that the product can help us all live cleaner, greener, cheaper lives and have cooler houses in the summertime, while eating tasty, healthy foods cooked with sunshine. Try stores, churches, farmer's markets, street markets, community centers, produce markets, flea markets, or even, in areas where it would be legal and make sense, a roadside stand.

A lot of people want to help the new homeless, even though they can't give much because they are struggling themselves. A lot of people also want to live greener lives, but there are so many new things to try that they don't know what to try next. A good PR/sales/marketing team that can connect both of these angles and work them and find venues for sales can create a market for these excellent, inexpensive products. If the startup can keep the retail cost of one or two good cardboard cooker models down to twenty-five dollars or under and work the angles with solid PR, many people might buy solar cookers and give them a try.

That first load of start-up supplies is basically all the physical support the business should need to get started growing and earning at least some supplemental income for the people involved, if donated workspace can be found for at least the first few months. Sensible business people will allocate a portion of the income to materials, operations, and growth, so by the time the first load of cardboard (which can be gotten free in enormous quantities in America and many other countries), glue (a gallon of glue can make hundreds of cookers, since it works best for foiling thinned down with water), and foil are dwindling, there should be money for more.

If it is a good team, they won't get rich off the bat, but they will be earning at least some supplemental income in a business with some growth potential (just because you start with cardboard doesn't mean you have to stay with it forever if you can keep growing and learning—maybe some of these startups will come up with brilliant new design ideas), with a product that can help make the world a better place while improving the lives of other homeless people.

While a solid group should be able to take the startup and make something of it, it would be best if the initial solar volunteer(s) who got the process started kept in touch with the startup group from time to time, both to encourage and to report back on progress to the wider solar cooking community. If anyone tries this startup and succeeds in establishing even a modest small business, we MUST get the word out that this is something that can work to provide at least some new jobs for the homeless community.

Individuals involved in providing solar cookers for the homeless

  • Sharon Cousins
  • Malcolm Toriumi lives in the San Jose area and would like to get at least four thousand solar cookers out to the homeless in that area, many of them family people living in cars. He is not sure exactly how to accomplish this, but he is motivated and is working on it. If you are a suncooker from the San Jose area and can help with materials, expertise, labor, or fundraising, please contact Malcolm. Click on his full name to go to the page with contact information.
  • Tom Sponheim

See also

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