Category Archives: Making Things Better

Cinderella fruit: Wild delicacies become cash crops

mg20427331.200-1_300by Charlie Pye-Smith

IF YOU had come here 10 years ago, says Thaddeus Salah as he shows us round his tree nursery in north-west Cameroon, you would have seen real hunger and poverty. “In those times,” he says, “we didn’t have enough chop to eat.” It wasn’t just food – “chop” in the local dialect – that his family lacked. They couldn’t afford school fees, healthcare or even chairs for their dilapidated grass-thatch house.

Salah’s fortunes changed in 2000 when he and his neighbours learned how to identify the best wild fruit trees and propagate them in a nursery. “Domesticating wild fruit like bush mango has changed our lives,” he says. His family now has “plenty chop”, as he puts it. He is also earning enough from the sale of indigenous fruit trees to pay school fees for four of his children. He has been able to re-roof his house with zinc sheets and buy goods he could only dream of owning before. He even has a mobile phone.

From Salah’s farm we gaze across the intensively cultivated hills which roll away towards the Nigerian border. “Ten years ago, you’d hardly see any safou [African plum, Dacryodes edulis] in this area,” says Zachary Tchoundjeu, a botanist at the World Agroforestry Centre‘s regional office in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé. “Now you see them growing everywhere.”

The spread of African plum through these hills is one small part of a bigger movement that could change the lives of millions of Africans. The continent is home to some 3000 species of wild fruit tree, many of which are ripe for domestication. Chocolate berries, gingerbread plums, monkey oranges, gumvines, tree grapes and a host of others could soon play a role in ensuring dependable food supplies in areas now plagued by malnutrition (see “Future fruits of the forest”).

One of the architects of the programme is Roger Leakey, a former director of research at the World Agroforestry Centre. He calls these fruit trees “Cinderella species”: their attributes may have gone unrecognised by science and big business, but the time has come for them to step into the limelight.

“The last great round of crop domestication took place during the green revolution [in the mid-20th century], which developed high-yielding varieties of starchy staples such as rice, maize and wheat,” says Leakey. “This new round could scarcely be more different.” Sparsely funded and largely ignored by agribusiness, high-tech labs and policy-makers, it is a peasant revolution taking place in the fields of Africa’s smallholders.

The revolution has its roots in the mid-1990s, when researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre conducted a series of surveys in west Africa, southern Africa and the Sahel to establish which indigenous trees were most valued by local people. “We were startled by the results,” says Tchoundjeu. “We were expecting people to point to commercially important timber species, but what they valued most were indigenous fruit trees.”

In response to this unexpected finding, the World Agroforestry Centre launched a fruit tree domestication programme in 1998. It began by focusing on a handful of species, including bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis), an indigenous African species unrelated to the Indian mango, African plum – not actually a plum but a savoury, avocado-like fruit sometimes called an afrocado – and a nut tree known locally as njansan (Ricinodendron heudelotii). Though common in the forests and as wild trees on farms, they were almost unknown to science. “We knew their biological names, but that was about all,” says Ebenezar Asaah, a tree specialist at the World Agroforestry Centre. “We had no idea how long it took for them to reach maturity and produce fruit, and we knew nothing about their reproductive behaviour.” Local people, in contrast, knew a good deal about them, as the trees’ fruits have long been part of their diet.

Rural Africans consume an enormous variety of wild foodstuffs. In Cameroon, fruits and seeds from around 300 indigenous trees are eaten, according to a study by researchers at Cameroon’s University of Dschang. A similar survey in Malawi and Zambia found that up to 40 per cent of rural households rely on indigenous fruits to sustain them during the “hungry months”, particularly January and February, when supplies in their granaries are exhausted and they are waiting for their next harvest (Acta Horticulturae, vol 632, p 15).

Some of these so called “famine foods” have already been domesticated by accident, says ethnoecologist Anthony Cunningham of People and Plants International, an NGO based in Essex Junction, Vermont. He cites the example of marula (Sclerocarya birrea), a southern African tree in the cashew family with edible nutty seeds encased in a tart, turpentine-flavoured fruit. “Long before the development of agricultural crops, hunter-gatherers were eating marula fruit,” he says. “They’d pick the best fruit, then scatter the seeds around their camps.” These would eventually germinate and mature into fruit-bearing trees, ensuring, in evolutionary terms, the survival of the tastiest. Marula is now fully domesticated and the fruit is used to make juice, a liqueur called Amarula Cream and cosmetic oils.

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In Just 4 Short Years, Kiva Hits $100 Million In Microloans

kiva-microloansby Jaymi Heimbuch, San Francisco, California

Back in 2005, Warren wrote about Kiva, and making history on a one-to-one basis. Kiva was a brand new idea, an easier, more human-centered way for struggling business owners to get the helping hand they need. Now, four years later, Kiva has hit a record – $100 million in microloans.

As of October 31, Kiva has facilitated the movement of $100 million between people, helping small businesses stay above water. “What’s even more amazing to me is that it took over 1 year to raise our first $1 million . This year alone, we’re on track to raise nearly $60 million.”

TechCrunch notes, “The company has brought together 573,000 lenders (people like you and me putting in $25 or more towards a specific project), and 239,000 entrepreneurs.”

We are big supporters of the microlending system. Many of us TreeHugger writers have invested funds in Kiva, and a similar system that offers a return on investments called MicroPlace was part of our Holiday Gift Guide for Philanthropists last year.

It’s an amazing way to help people help themselves, and redistribute wealth. Congratulations Kiva, on such a significant achievement.

More on Microlending
Green Investing with Microloans
MicroPlace and How Micro Loans Make a Big Difference (Video)
How to Go Green: Investing


Follow @TreeHugger on Twitter & get our headlines with @TH_rss!



Stein Family Says Thank You, Looks To The Future

After a whirlwind week that saw their family featured on the front page of The Huffington Post and $30,000 raised to help them pay their overwhelming medical bills, the Stein family is back with a message of gratitude and hope for the HuffPost community. visited the Steins at home on Sunday morning. They discuss how amazed they are that the Huffington Post came out in such strong numbers to support them. Gary Stein thinks of them as a symbol of the hardships faced by families across America.

If you are one of the more than 900 people who gave to the Stein family, thank you for your generosity. As the Impact section grows, there will be more opportunities to give, volunteer and take action with the causes you care about.

Thank you for following this story, and thanks for your continued commitment to making an impact.

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Rethinking Capitalism: How Very Enterprising

Interesting quote from (for some) and unlikely source

“Profit is useful if it serves as a means toward an end.  Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.” Benedict decried the “speculative use of financial resources that yields to the temptation of seeking only short-term profit, without regard to the long-term sustainability of the enterprise and its benefit to the real economy,” declared the pope in an encyclical issued by the Vatican this past summer.

Friday, October 2, 2009 (the Washington Post)

The curious thing about Michael Moore’s movie “Capitalism: A Love Story.”, however, is that while many of its small points are exaggerated or misinformed, Moore’s largest point is essentially correct: that the economic system no longer works for the majority of Americans.

For me, the most powerful moments in the movie weren’t the interviews with displaced homeowners, laid-off workers or grieving widows, but those with a trio of Catholic clergymen who minced no words in declaring the moral bankruptcy of modern American capitalism. It was clear they had come to their conclusions not from any radical ideology or deep understanding of economics but from the inequity and insensitivity they observed in their parishes. As it happens, their outrage is shared by their boss, Pope Benedict XVI.

“Profit is useful if it serves as a means toward an end,” declared the pope in an encyclical issued by the Vatican this summer. “Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.” Benedict decried the “speculative use of financial resources that yields to the temptation of seeking only short-term profit, without regard to the long-term sustainability of the enterprise and its benefit to the real economy.”

What’s going on here is not simply the moralizing of clerics and filmmakers. Nor, I think, is it merely a reflection of the difficult economy. After nearly two decades of booms and busts that have yielded little in the way of economic gain for the typical household, Americans have developed a profound distrust of the markets, financiers, big business and the capitalist ethos.

I got a taste of that last week when I attended a day-long ceremony celebrating the opening of the Center for Social Value Creation at the University of Maryland’s business school. The school’s dean, Anand Anandalingam, explained that the impetus for the center came not from the administration or even the faculty but from business students who were looking for more meaning and social purpose in their careers than simply making a lot of money for themselves and for shareholders.

The first speaker was Seth Goldman, the founder of Bethesda-based Honest Tea, who was treated as something of a rock star by the students who packed the auditorium. Goldman doesn’t apologize for getting rich by selling healthy, organic beverages, or taking on as his partner and largest investor Coca-Cola, a company best known for peddling sugared and caffeinated beverages. As Goldman explained to the audience — and later in a video interview for The Post’s On Leadership Web site — his aim is to change the culture and values of the beverage industry before they change him.

Alan Webber, the founder of Fast Company magazine, got a round of applause from the Maryland students when he declared that in a knowledge economy, the way companies compete is to attract the best talent — talent that these days is motivated less by money than the desire to work in a place where they can learn, grow and have an impact on the world.

Also on hand was Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor who has been celebrating the achievements of Corporate America for decades. Kanter is still celebrating, but these days she’s cheering for companies that have gone beyond maximizing shareholder value, and even beyond corporate social responsibility, to embrace a more ambitious mission of the world’s problems. In a new book, “SuperCorp,” she argues that companies that imbue their culture with a social ethic wind up making more money for their shareholders, not only because their employees are more motivated but also because their focus on a transcendent external goal makes them less resistant to internal change.

None of this is meant to suggest that a new form of capitalism is about to take hold. But it is a reminder that the big reason capitalism has proven the least-bad economic system is that it is best at correcting its own excesses. After all, only in a capitalist country can you turn a profit making movies about the evils of capitalism.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached at

World Habitat Day is a Reminder that Everyone Deserves Decent Housing

habitat-dayby Bonnie Alter, London

The United Nations has designated the first Monday in October as annual World Habitat Day. This is the day to reaffirm that decent shelter is a basic human right and a time to join together to remind governments that the lack of decent, affordable housing is unacceptable.

Monday, October 5 is World Habitat Day this year and the theme is “it all starts at home.” Habitat for Humanity International is campaigning for security of tenure in the world and neighbourhood revitalization in the U.S.A.


According to the United Nations, more than 100 million people in the world today are homeless. Millions more face a severe housing problems, living without adequate sanitation, with irregular or no electricity supply and without adequate security.

Security of tenure means that people have a right to keep their house and not have it taken away from them because of corruption, poverty, bureaucracy or discrimination. Eighty percent of the world’s population does not have legal documentation to protect their housing rights. Across the world secure housing is a confirmation that families can grow and develop, economies and communities can flourish without fear.

Habitat for Humanity is focussing on neighbourhood revitalization in the U.S. This can be done through government funding at federal and state levels. Through these funds affordable housing can be built for low-income families.

By working with National Service members, more affordable housing can be built. Recently President Obama signed the Save America Act which expands the reach of the Service.

What Can We Do to Support World Habitat Day?

What can we do? Lobby governments, donate money, organize or attend events, have discussions, forums, workshops. Send a photo of yourself holding a sign that says “It all starts at home” and submit it to Habitat’s photo petition. Spread the word that affordable housing is a right for all.

Disney World signs on to High Speed Rail (from Disney Blog)

header_2by John Frost

When the Obama administration announced there was $8 billion in the stimulus package for funding High Speed Rail projects, there was good reason to hope that Central Florida would be receive part of that funding. Now that hope has been given a shot in the arm by the addition of support from the regions 800 lb Gorilla – Walt Disney World.

Disney World was against the previous effort to bring high speed rail to the region because it included a stop near Universal Studios at the Orange County Convention Center; although the reason they gave today for their previous opposition was that they didn’t want a project that would detract, rather than complement, a commuter rail project. Now that there is a good chance the commuter rail project will be approved, Disney no longer opposes the convention center stop. That stop should also put Universal Studios and SeaWorld in the ‘yes’ column for High Speed Rail as well.

The second big sign that Disney World is on board is their willingness to give up to 50 acres of the Walt Disney World property to host a station for the resort area stop. There was no announcement as to where the station would be, but since the train will run down the middle of I-4 for most of the route, it’s likely Disney would want to donate a part of the property they own on the other side of Hwy-192 next to Celebration.

Now I have to wonder if WDW will light a fire under its committee that has been studying the concept of adding a PRT system to the resort. This would be similar to what Disney has called a ‘Peoplemover’ system in the past. I also think that a light rail system running from Disney’s Animal Kingdom to Downtown Disney would be a great addition.

More on the High Speed Rail project and what it means for Central Florida in the Orlando Sentinel.

(Green thing) – Best of BlogHer: Food Bloggers, Netflix For Clothes, Where Babies Come From

blogher-baby-thredupPhoto credit: hammer51012

The most inspirational panel at last week’s BlogHer Food conference was about food bloggers who are changing the world! Get inspired by some amazing social action, and find out how you can get involved.

It’s like Netflix, but for clothes! This green clothing-swap company figured how to let you go shopping–in other people’s closets.

If you haven’t seen the awesome Change Starts at Home site, check it out: It’s supporting some of the most kick-ass change makers we’ve ever met.

Can buying conventional cotton support an eco-cause? Find out what this design company means by “pre-organic.”

“Babies come from WHERE?” How I prepared my daughter for her brother’s natural, at-home birth.

Hunger is a big, complex issue. It’s a feminist, political, economic issue. It’s a moral issue. So now that my awareness is raised, what do I do next?

BlogHer is the leading participatory news, entertainment and information
network for women online. Follow us on Twitter (@Blogher), on Facebook, and at

Who Owns Your Mortgage? “Produce The Note” Movement Helps Stall Foreclosures

s-FORECLOSURE-largeModern-day home mortgages have been so sliced and diced by rapacious financiers that some homeowners are successfully delaying — or even blocking — foreclosures through the simple tactic of demanding that banks produce the original mortgage note, which amazingly enough is often not so easy for them to do.

As the foreclosure rate continues to set new highs, a little-noticed legal provision that requires bankers, if challenged, to prove they hold the original mortgage documents before getting possession has spawned a minor homeowner rebellion, alternately called “produce the note” or “show me the note“. For homeowners trying desperately to keep their homes, the tactic is one way to buy some time — and maybe even get the upper hand on the lender.

“You wouldn’t imagine that the lenders would be that slovenly that they would not be able to produce adequate documentation of the debt,” said House Financial Services Committee member Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.). “But apparently a lot of times they really have been unable to.”

Since North Carolina has begun to provide legal assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure, Miller said, roughly one of every three mortgages has been found to have some substantial legal discrepancy.

The fouled-up paperwork or other lack of legal compliance “has resulted in a much higher rate of negotiated [mortgage] modifications” in North Carolina, said Miller. “It gave the homeowner additional defenses and counterclaims that strengthened their hands substantially.”

The chaos is a sign of how far the mortgage business has come since people commonly took out a mortgage from their neighborhood banker, who kept the relevant documents locked away until the house was sold or paid off. During the securitization boom, millions of mortgages were sold and packaged into bonds — often many times over, metastasizing into esoteric financial instruments — for sale to investors. Each time, the paperwork should have been changing hands and the homeowner should have been notified that someone new held the note. But just as deciphering the true holder of the mortgage has become more and more difficult for homeowners — Is it the servicer? Investor? Trustee? Original lender? — the paperwork has also become difficult to track.

In Florida, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid attorney April Charney has been using the missing-note argument since she first identified the lenders’ weakness in 2004. She began arguing that those initiating foreclosure proceedings on behalf of securitized pools of mortgage loans had no right to do so, because they couldn’t prove they actually owned the debt.

Five years later, some of those homeowners are still in their homes, she says. Because of the missing ownership documentation, Charney is now starting to file quiet title actions, hoping to get her homeowner clients full title to their homes (a quiet title action “quiets” all other claims).

Charney says she’s helped thousands of homeowners delay or prevent foreclosure, and trained thousands of lawyers across the country on how to protect homeowners and battle in court.

When lenders wish to foreclose, the law typically requires them to produce original, signed documents including the mortgage and loan note. While the mortgage documentation is on file at the local courthouse, the note is often lost or misplaced, particularly if the mortgage has been sold and securitized.

In dismissing 14 foreclosure cases in 2007 based on a lack of proper documentation, a federal judge in Ohio admonished the lenders, stating their argument that “‘Judge, you just don’t understand how things work’…reveals a condescending mindset and quasi-monopolistic system where financial institutions have traditionally controlled, and still control, the foreclosure process.”

A recent study of foreclosures in bankruptcy by Katherine M. Porter, a visiting professor at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, found that in 40 percent of cases creditors foreclosing on borrowers did not show the note. It’s what consumer rights advocates and strict judges are seizing on.

It’s still an uphill battle for homeowners, however, Charney says. There are few states where foreclosure proceedings have to go through a judge, notably Florida and New York, which gives homeowners their best shot. In other states, homeowners have to go to court on their own in order to see a judge, running up expensive legal bills in hopes of stopping foreclosure.

Some in Congress are trying to make it easier for homeowners. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, introduced a bill in February with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) that would actually prohibit foreclosures unless lenders produced necessary documentation in court, including the note and evidence that the homeowner was, in fact, notified each time the note was transferred.

“I am encouraging [homeowners] to stay in their homes [and] go through the court proceedings until the institution in question can produce [the] note, because chances are, they can’t,” Kaptur said in an interview Monday. “Somehow the playing field has to be leveled here, and [the bill] provides a very strong means of doing that.”

The bill is languishing in the House Financial Services Committee, headed by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), she said.

“I think that they need to hasten their attention to matters like this, which actually give the American people some leverage with these really big institutions,” she said. “I would hope that the Financial Services Committee would see this as part of their mission.”

Kaptur said she’s going to push to have her bill included as part of the impending financial regulatory overhaul.

Houseplants Cut Indoor Ozone

090908103634-largeExperimental chambers in a Penn State University greenhouse were equipped with a charcoal filtration air supply system to measure ozone depletion rates.

Ozone, the main component of air pollution, or smog, is a highly reactive, colorless gas formed when oxygen reacts with other chemicals. Although ozone pollution is most often associated with outdoor air, the gas also infiltrates indoor environments like homes and offices. Ozone can be released by ordinary copy machines, laser printers, ultraviolet lights, and some electrostatic air purification systems, all of which contribute to increased indoor ozone levels.

Topping the extensive list of toxic effects of ozone on humans are pulmonary edema, hemorrhage, inflammation, and reduction of lung function.

Because people in industrialized countries spend as much of 80% to 90% of their time indoors, indoor air pollution has been ranked as one of the world’s greatest public health risks. The United Nations Development Program estimated (1998) that more than two million people die each year due to the presence of toxic indoor air, while other studies estimate that 14 times as many deaths occur globally from poor indoor air quality compared with outdoor air pollution. The economic consequences of polluted indoor air can’t be ignored either; one Australian study estimated that the cost of unhealthy indoor air in that country exceeds $12 billion annually, measured in losses of worker productivity, higher medical costs, and increased absenteeism.

As indoor air pollution poses new concerns worldwide, cost effective and easy-to-implement methods are needed to eliminate or reduce ozone concentrations. Activated charcoal filters reduce air pollutants, but installation and maintenance costs can be high. Now, researchers are investigating alternatives—including the use of common houseplants—to improve indoor air quality and health.

A research team from the Pennsylvania State University published the results of a new study of the effects of three common houseplants on indoor ozone levels in a recent issue of the American Society of Horticultural Science’s journal HortTechnology. The scientists chose snake plant, spider plant, and golden pothos for the experiment because of the plants’ popularity (primarily due to their low cost, low maintenance, and rich foliage) and their reported ability to reduce other indoor air pollutants. The plants were studied to determine their effectiveness in reducing ozone concentrations in a simulated indoor environment.

To simulate an indoor environment, the researchers set up chambers in a greenhouse equipped with a charcoal filtration air supply system in which ozone concentrations could be measured and regulated. Ozone was then injected into the chambers, and the chambers were checked every 5 to 6 minutes. The data revealed that ozone depletion rates were higher in the chambers that contained plants than in the control chambers without plants, but there were no differences in effectiveness among the three plants.

“Because indoor air pollution extensively affects developing countries, using plants as a mitigation method could serve as a cost-effective tool in the developing world where expensive pollution mitigation technology may not be economically feasible”, concluded the authors.

5-Year-Old Girl Feeds Nearly 18,000 Hungry San Franciscans

s-PHOEBE-largeLittle Phoebe, from San Francisco, California has a big heart. That’s an understatement. Actually, her kindness and compassion is bigger than most grown ups I’ve crossed paths with while reporting TV news for nearly a decade.

It started off with a simple question by Phoebe, an adorable little girl with long brown locks, peach-colored cheeks and big doe eyes, like a character straight out of a Disney after-school special. After seeing a person holding a cardboard sign begging for food, Phoebe wondered, “Why does that man look so sad, and why is he holding a sign in the street?”

That question to her parents, during her daily ride to daycare, sparked an idea that has helped feed nearly 18,000 hungry San Franciscans.

A grown up conversation ensued. “What can we do to help?” asked Phoebe. Her parents told her about one possible place the hungry could go for help; The food bank.

Phoebe also asked Kathleen Albert, her teacher at “With Care Day Care,” about the hunger problem. Albert explained that some people fall on hard times and don’t have the basics like food and clothes. Phoebe replied, “I want to raise money for the San Francisco Food Bank to feed hungry people then,” she said. Her ambitious goal was to raise $1,000, in two months. Why $1,000? No one knows; Phoebe couldn’t even count denominations of money before the project.

“Phoebe focused on the smaller picture, and what she could do,” her teacher explained. She decided to collect cans as a project to complete her mission. Phoebe knew that she could raise money by recycling cans, because her dad would bring her and her sister to trade cans for cash on the weekends.

Albert, a spunky, grey-haired woman, with big Coke-bottle round, purple rimmed glasses, who resembles a jovial, energetic, Sunday strip comic book caricature, admits, “Although, I immediately supported Phoebe’s lofty goal, I thought, ‘Caaaaans?’ I didn’t think a 5-year-old could possibly raise that much money in just two months time.” And as adults sometimes are…She was wrong.

With a little bit of guidance from Albert and a whole lot of support from classmates, Phoebe wrote letters to 150 family, friends, alumni and neighbors. She received 50 responses. Word got around about the 5-year-old girl who wrote, “Dear Family and Friends… My charity project is to raise lots of money for the S.F. Food Bank. They need money. I am collecting soda cans. Would you please give me your soda cans and bring them to With Care… “Donations started pouring in… Friends, family and even anonymous donors dropped off cans, checks and cash at the colorful storybook-looking Victorian in a San Francisco neighborhood which houses Phoebe’s day care. Phoebe’s project, which had started with small donations of $5, $10, then $20 bills, grew exponentially. As, word spread, people started matching donations dollar for dollar. “I was getting cash in the mail, and I thought this is great, I’m getting money in my mailbox,” Albert recalls. Albert’s loud, one-two-three eyes-on-me classroom voice softens as she admits, “Does she understand it [the hunger problem] like you and I, no, but she understood something needed to be done. I learned something from her. And when you learn something from children, it’s great!”

Phoebe responded personally to every donation, no matter how large or small. She would skip recess, instead counting money and writing thank-you notes to all who gave. “Little Phoebe was determined and never once complained,” says Albert, “They looked at it as, ‘it doesn’t have to be big.’ We talked about it in terms of Barack Obama…and how it was the little money and the little donations. So when people came to the door with one or two cans, people we didn’t even know, she would say, oh, that’s five cents, that’s ten cents, that’s fifteen cents. She understood, that you start off small, and you can make it bigger, bigger, bigger.”

Fast forward two months.

Last June, all of the students at With Care, got dressed to the nines for a big celebration, complete with a ceiling full of colorful balloons, decorations and cake. Phoebe handed over the money and checks she collected in a handmade and hand-colored pencil box with flowers and stickers and colorful stars, to Paul Ash, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Food Bank. Phoebe’s grand total: $3,736.30. How many hungry people will that amount feed? Just ask Phoebe, she’ll tell you “Seventeen-thousand something.” The exact amount, according to Ash, 17,800 hungry people will be fed, thanks to Phoebe’s kindness, compassion and determination.