Two who aided Marathon victims meet again in Dorchester

This story was written for The Boston Globe's metro section. It appeared May 20, 2013.

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

Larry Hittinger and Michael Ward first encountered each other in the chaotic aftermath of the Marathon bombings, when they helped a young, injured boy and carried him to EMTs.

In the month since, Hittinger, an ironworker from Melrose whose formal medical training ended with a first aid class 35 years ago, said he hadn’t talked to anyone who, like him, ran toward the explosions to help.

“I always wondered who the other people were,” Hittinger said. “I always wondered who was there, who helped.”

At a Dorchester event to raise money for victims of the Bombing on Sunday, Hittinger officially met Ward, a Massport fire lieutenant and EMT from Charlestown.

A friend pointed out Ward to Hittinger, who realized he was looking at the man who was next to him in a widely circulated photo in which the two are helping to carry a young, injured boy covered in a white cloth after the bombing.

Hittinger and Ward spoke for about an hour Sunday. Together, they tried to piece together what happened in the minutes after two bombs exploded on Boylston Street on April 15, killing three and injuring more than 260.

When the first bomb exploded, Ward had just found a spot near a barrier close to Fairfield and Boylston streets and was cheering for runners. Hittinger had just finished a meal at Atlantic Fish Co., next to the location of the second bomb.

Both men said they were afraid a third bomb could explode. Hittinger said he ran down Boylston Street, checking manhole covers to see if any looked like they were recently moved, perhaps to plant a bomb. Then they turned to the victims, who were bleeding, burnt, covered in soot, and terrified. “You couldn’t tell if [victims] were black or white, you couldn’t tell if [victims] were boy or girl,” Hittinger said.

Ward made a decision. “I thought, I could die here, but I’m not leaving these people,” he said.

Ward said he saw Hittinger, calm and focused, and assumed he was a police detective.

“I thought you were in public safety or something,” Ward said. “The way you reacted, your head was very deliberate.”

Hittinger stayed with the injured boy they carried in the photo, and Ward helped other victims. Ward said he would like to meet more of the victims he saw and helped, but that he wouldn’t want to be a bother.

Ward and Hittinger exchanged contact information and hugged. “God bless what you did,” Ward said. “I’ve been looking for you. You saved a lot of people that day.”

 

Next: Bat fan visits Boston to learn about disease

Bat fan visits Boston to learn about disease

This story was written for The Boston Globe's metro section. It appeared Dec. 9. 2012. 

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

They took a few minutes to emerge from their sleeping nooks, but the moment the ruwenzori longhaired fruit bats started swooping back and forth in their Franklin Park Zoo habitat Saturday morning, 8-year-old Miriam Parrucci lit up.

Miri, a third-grader from Havertown, Pa., has loved bats since her mother read her “Stellaluna,” a book about a bat who raised by birds, when she was a year old.

And she has worried about bats since she read an article in her second-grade class about white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by fungus that is devastating hibernating bats in North America.

“It’s a fungus that lives in caves, and it affects bats that hibernate,” she said Saturday. “Bats are my favorite animals, and they are going to be extinct.”

Her parents, Lynn and Paul, drove Miri and her 13-year-old brother, John, to Boston on Friday so Miri could visit the Kunz Bat Lab at Boston University, where researchers are studying the fungus. They also stopped at the zoo to see live bats, which the lab does not keep.

Ann Froschauer, national white-nose syndrome communications leader for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said she heard about Miri’s love of bats and organized the visit to encourage her interest and maybe help her become a bat biologist, which Miri said she wants to be when she grows up.

“White-nose syndrome is kind of hard to understand, it’s complicated,” Froschauer said. “The fact that she was already interested in bats and she kind of gets the disease means she’s already ahead.”

The ruwenzori longhaired fruit bats that Miri saw are native to eastern Africa and are not affected by white-nose syndrome. But the fungus has seriously affected seven bat species and nearly devastated the little brown bat, which was common in New England. Before the fungus spread, the little brown bat population had been steadily increasing for two to three decades, said Alison Robbins, director of a master’s in conservation medicine program at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

White-nose syndrome has been found in 19 US states and four Canadian provinces since 2006 , killing about 5.5 million bats, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

White-nose syndrome causes insectivorous hibernating bats to wake up in midwinter and go looking for food. The bats fly outside, sometimes during the day, which is abnormal, to find food and water, said Robbins. Most of the bats die of starvation or dehydration because there are fewer insects for them to eat in winter.

“Nobody knows what effects losing the bats in New England will have on our ecosystem,” Robbins said. “Bats certainly eat lots and lots of insects, they eat about twice their body weight every night.”

The geomyces destructans fungus may have come to the United States from Europe, where local species have white fungus growing on their faces and wings.

Studying the syndrome is difficult. Breeding little brown bats in captivity, where researchers and veterinarians could monitor for the fungus, is often futile.

“As far as I know, there are no captive colonies of little brown bats that breed in captivity,” Robbins said. “We just don’t know enough about their nutritional needs, and their diets in captivity are very limited.”

But researchers are working on other ways to help the bats.

At Tufts, researchers are considering treating bats with antifungal medication before they go into hibernation for the winter, Robbins said.

Other wildlife veterinarians and biologists build artificial caves near bat colonies, hoping the animals will move to a home that is not infected, or study whether the caves where bats hibernate can be kept clear of the fungus.

In New England, “we have been living with 90 percent fewer bats in the last three or four years, since 2009,” she said. “It’s a real tragedy.”

At the Kunz Bat Lab, Miri and John danced in front of thermal cameras that bat ecologist Nathan Fuller set up for a demonstration. They rubbed their feet on the floor to create hot spots and stuck their tongues out to see how warm they are.

Fuller uses thermal cameras, which sense heat rather than light, to study bats’ collective movements in large groups and the impact the syndrome has on little brown bats’ wings.

“There’s no way you can see bats at night without help,” he said, removing a camera from its plastic case. “It’s really hard work . . . but it’s fun, because you get to see bats in their natural environment with their natural behaviors, not manipulated at all.”

Fuller played a thermal imaging video of bats circling Frio Cave outside Uvalde, Texas, and explained how he attaches radio transmitters to bats so he can track them with a small battery-operated airplane.

Fuller and Froschauer then took the Parruccis to a teaching lab in the Metcalf Center for Science and Engineering and showed them bat specimens.

For the first time, Miri got to touch a bat.

She held a female cave myotis bat on her flat palm and patted its back with a finger, admiring the bat’s fur and feet.

“I think I’m gonna name her Zombie, because she’s dead,” she said.

Next: Cambridge Food Inspectors Alone In Lacking Power To Fine

Cambridge food inspectors alone in lacking power to fine

It took three inspections for Upstairs On The Square, an upscale restaurant near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., to correct basic violations. 

It took three inspections for Upstairs On The Square, an upscale restaurant near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., to correct basic violations. 

This story was written for Cambridge Day through a partnership with the Initiative for Investigative Reporting at Northeastern University. It was published June 29, 2011. 

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

The co-proprietor of Upstairs on the Square, an oft-praised Harvard Square restaurant, says she appreciates food inspectors’ persistence in doing their jobs, even when the restaurant’s diligence fails and they find violations.

Mary Cleavers, a city food inspector, walked into Upstairs on the Square, the oft-praised Harvard Square restaurant, for a routine inspection Nov. 17. She passed the dining room, with its animal print carpets and menus featuring such dishes as $28 pork loin and $32 charcoal-grilled sirloin, and entered the kitchen.

There she found drain flies, dirty floors, wet clutter on the bar floor and a bowl of rusty water under the sink, according to inspection reports obtained by Cambridge Day. None of these violations are classified as “critical” by the city’s inspectional standards — not like, say, expired food or cooks touching food with bare, unwashed hands. But the restaurant still needed to correct them to comply with the state Food Code.

Cleavers noted the violations in her report and submitted copies to the restaurant and the city’s Inspectional Services Department. Three days later, she returned for a re-inspection and found that not only were the violations unremedied, but three new minor ones had sprung up. It took a third visit, on Dec. 7, for the violations to be corrected.

Mary-Catherine Deibel, the restaurant’s co-proprietor, did not contest the inspector’s findings, and in fact said she appreciated that inspectors were persistent in how they do their jobs. “We try to be very clean,” she said in an interview. “But it’s a busy restaurant. We’re almost like a small hotel — though that’s no excuse … It should be swept, and it should be perfect all the time. That is what we aim for as owners. Over 30 years, we’ve had a really good record.”

Faced with repeat offenses, the three restaurant inspectors charged with making sure the city’s 630 eating establishments are up to code have only one weapon to force improvements: threatening to revoke a restaurant’s permit for an afternoon, a day or as long as it takes to fix the problems.

The added sanction of recommending fines against problem restaurants, which is available to food inspectors in all neighboring communities, doesn’t exist in Cambridge.

And Cambridge inspectors rarely, if ever, shutter restaurants, according to Kristen Fernandes, a Cambridge food inspector for 10 years. Fernandes said she could not recall any forced shutdowns mandated by Inspectional Services during her years on the job. Boston, by comparison, has temporarily suspended 275 permits since 2008.

It isn’t just that Cambridge inspectors have fewer sanctions. There are comparatively fewer of them to handle the workload. Fernandes and her two colleagues inspect 630 establishments every six months — about 210 per person — a heavier burden than that of inspectors in surrounding cities. Watertown’s inspectors, who also deal with housing, nuisance and other complaints, inspect just 57 restaurants every six months. In Newton, each inspector visits 133 restaurants twice a year. Even in Boston, where inspectors have 3,500 establishments to worry about, the individual burden is lower — 194 twice a year.

Fees to get a restaurant permit in Cambridge are significantly lower than in Boston: Cambridge eateries must pay Inspectional Services just $25 a year ($50 if the restaurant serves alcohol) plus 75 cents per seat. Across the river, restaurants pay Boston’s Inspectional Services Department $200 a year, plus another dollar for every seat over 100 seats. Boston restaurants that offer takeout must fork over an additional $200 to $1,200 a year — the more money a restaurant makes, the higher the fee.

Charging higher fees could allow Cambridge to hire more inspectors, but would not give these inspectors more power when dealing with repeat offenders.

Officials are noncommital

Cambridge city officials who oversee Inspectional Services were noncommittal on the need to beef up the number and resources of food inspectors. Inspectional Services Commissioner Ranjit Singanayagam referred questions to City Manager Robert W. Healy, who sent them to the city’s Law Department. Two and a half weeks after the initial inquiry, Singanayagam e-mailed a brief statement suggesting the city would study the issue of allowing inspectors to fine problem restaurants.

“The city is always interested in exploring practices that may help to improve compliance with regulations or ordinances,” he said. “We will review the possible alternative enforcement method you have referenced and after review appropriate recommendations will be made as necessary to appropriate city officials. We will have no further comment until our review is completed.”

Mayor David Maher could propose that the City Council take the matter up officially, but Lee Gianetti, his chief of staff, said Maher wouldn’t make a decision until Inspectional Services drafted legislation. “The concept looks interesting for our perspective,” Gianetti said. “Once they have something concrete, we’ll comment on it.”

Under state law, inspectors must visit each food establishments once every six months for routine inspection, then return for re-inspections a few days to one week later until all violations are resolved. It is left to individual cities and towns to decide whether to issue fines or suspensions for restaurants that fail to maintain clean and sanitary conditions.

Ignoring repeat complaints

“Normally a good thing to do with them is to just sit them down for a hearing, bring in all the key players and have everybody sit down and talk about it, talk about why things are not getting taken care of when you’ve asked for them to be taken care of,” Fernandes said. “Usually that scares them enough.”

Harvest, another upscale restaurant in Harvard Square, had a recurring screen door violation in 2008 that shows that suggests a flaw in Cambridge inspection policy. (Photo: Michael Kappel)

Still, some restaurants, even the best-regarded, can ignore inspectors’ repeat complaints, according to a review of three years of inspection documents for several upscale restaurants obtained by Cambridge Day. Three years ago, inspector Bernard “Buddy” Packer found no screen door between the dish room and trash bin area at Harvest, a renowned upscale restaurant on Brattle Street. With no screen door, insects and other unwelcome critters could saunter into the kitchen. A door had to be installed to keep the restaurant up to code, Packer wrote in his report.

Packer came back for a re-inspection, then another. There was still no screen door in the dish room, according to inspection reports. The restaurant’s management said there was a door on order Oct. 2, 2008, and the restaurant passed inspection — but on the next inspection, April 28, 2009, there was again no screen door to be found. General Manager Peter Baker declined to comment and referred Cambridge Day to Paul Dias, senior vice president of operations at American Food Management, which owns several well-regarded restaurants in Boston and Cambridge. Dias did not return multiple calls for comment.

Over the past three years, inspectors also cited Harvest for four instances of missing refrigerator thermometers and four accounts of allowing cooks and food handlers to wear jewelry or watches — violations of the Food Code that, while not severe enough to shut down the restaurant, can still put patrons at risk of food-borne illness.

Wielding a ticket book

That’s why Fernandes and other inspectors would like the power to fine repeat offenders. Inspectors in Belmont, Newton, Watertown, and Brookline all have the power to impose fines and do so regularly.

The fines won’t solve any budget woes: They typically bring only about $1,000 to $2,000 a year into towns’ general funds. Still, when an inspector comes in wielding a ticket book, restaurant managers tend to pay more attention, said Patrick Maloney, Brookline’s assistant director of public health. Maloney said his inspectors can fine offenders $50 per violation per visit. They only use that power, however, for chronic code violators.

“What it’s useful for are stubborn issues, like food that’s left at the counter unprotected, keeping doors open that would allow flies and pests to come in to the establishment, or any other thing that the inspector would feel they’ve cited a restaurant for multiple times,” Maloney said.

Bad repeat offenders can also get permit surcharges, where the cost of their permit goes up the more they offend. Brookline inspectors can levy these surcharges when they’ve received valid food illness complaints. Belmont uses the same method.

“It’s like driving infractions. Let’s say you’re in a lot of accidents, your insurance costs go up,” Maloney said. “If you’re not keeping your establishment clean, we’re burning more energy on you … so your permit will cost more.”

Next: Surging Food Stamp Recipients Leave Town To Stretch Spending

Surging food stamp recipients leave town to stretch spending

This story was written for Cambridge Day through a partnership with the Initiative for Investigative Reporting at Northeastern University. It was published April 1, 2011. 

For 11 years, Kathy Podgers has been getting food stamps, making her a veteran in a program that even in affluent Cambridge has nearly doubled its recipients over the past four years.

As of December, 6.8 percent of the city’s population got food stamp benefits as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, up from 3.5 percent in 2006. Cambridge residents get $9.8 million a year in benefits, which they can spend pretty much as they see fit on food in supermarkets, convenience stores and, soon enough, farmers markets.

The program offers no nutritional counseling, though, meaning recipients can use their benefits on items with scant nutritional value.

Podgers, who has lived in Cambridge since the 1960s and twice ran unsuccessfully for City Council, is fine with the lack of nutrition counseling. She had eaten a macrobiotic diet for years and is still not the type to buy liters of soft drinks and bags of potato chips. Most of her shopping in done in the produce aisles.

Cambridge is hardly what the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which used $64 billion in taxpayer money last year to pay for the state-administered benefits program, calls a “food desert” — a place where fresh, nutritious food is hard to come by. But recipients of the benefits interviewed by Cambridge Day said affordable foodstuffs can be hard to find in the city. Cambridge food vendors took in $4.2 million from SNAP cards last year, less than half the amount the state gave to city residents.

Cantabrigians are using their food stamps elsewhere.

033111i-food-recipents-combined.jpg

Somerville’s Market Basket appears to be a favorite. In the 12 months ending June 1, the store, on Somerville Avenue a mile from Porter Square, got more than $11 million in food benefits, including from Podgers. The biggest food benefits vendor in Cambridge, Shaw’s in Porter Square, got slightly more than $1 million during the same time period, or 8.9 percent of spending at Market Basket.

Predictably, the number of those getting food benefits in Cambridge varies by neighborhood.

In the Harvard Square and Brattle Street neighborhoods, the benefits go to 2.45 percent of residents. In contrast, 9 percent of those in North and East Cambridge ZIP codes, and 10 percent in Central and Inman Squares, are on food benefits.

In all, about 7,172 of the 105,162 residents of Cambridge get food benefits, according to the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which supervises the program for Massachusetts. Five years ago, it was 3,518.

Although the percent of residents on food benefits is a little over half the statewide average of 12.3 percent, the reason the rolls have soared is the same: the Great Recession. In November 2006, Cambridge boasted an unemployment rate of 3.4 percent. By January of this year, it had risen to 5.3 percent.

Longtime recipients such as Susan Jordan, 67, who began getting benefits in 1994 after a disability left her unable to work, said vendors as well as the public have become more accepting towards SNAP recipients as the number of people in the program has increased. “Because the economy is so poor, people are more open-minded,” she said. “The stigma went away when [the state] made it into a card rather than paper stamps. Now people don’t notice too much.”

Jordan shopped recently at the Harvest Cooperative Market in Central Square, swiping her bright blue SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer card to pay for a small bag of produce and groceries. She typically does her grocery shopping at Market Basket, but happened to be in the neighborhood that afternoon. She said she gets $160 a month to support herself. “I get enough that I can just use food stamps,” she said. “They’ve really helped me a lot.”

To qualify, a person must demonstrate financial need under Department of Agriculture guidelines. A single person can make no more than $1,174 a month or, as head of a four-person household, up to $2,389. If income increases, the food benefits allotment is lowered. Recipients must visit state counselors every six months to prove eligibility.

There are some limits on what can be bought with the benefits. For example, the funds cannot be spent on hot meals, alcohol, tobacco or nonfood items.

Otherwise — from produce to frozen food to popcorn and cookies — there are virtually no nutritional restrictions for the program. Julia Kehoe, commissioner of the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance, said her office supports high nutritional standards, but that the USDA has stayed clear of mandating such standards and with the statewide surge in recipients, her department is not equipped to do nutritional education. Food benefits counselors have caseloads of 900 to 1,000 apiece.

“I think there are real limits to why low-income people aren’t buying the healthiest food, and I don’t think it’s just because people are making bad choices,” Kehoe said. Poor people often have no choice but to shop at convenience stores because they live in neighborhoods with no ready access to a supermarket.

Last year, nearly 16 percent of food benefits used in Cambridge was spent at convenience stores.

Massachusetts has not abandoned the idea of improving nutritional standards for recipients. Recently, the state won a $20 million grant from the USDA for a healthy-eating incentive program to be tested in Hampden County, which includes two of the poorest cities in the state, Holyoke and Springfield. In the program, participants get extra benefits when they buy produce instead of junk food.

Cambridge is trying to do its part. This summer, some of the city’s farmers’ markets will follow a year behind Boston — and join 58 Cambridge vendors — by accepting SNAP cards as payment.

Podgers, however, took exception to the notion low-income shoppers need their eating habits regulated.

“I don’t understand the confusion we have here of people who think that if you’re poor, it’s your fault and you should be punished,” she said. “Most people complain about people who use food stamps not when they buy Cheetos and Cheerios, but when they buy steak. Of course they should buy steak, and they should buy salmon.’’

Next: Sowing The Oats Of Prosperity

Sowing the oats of prosperity

This story was written for The Boston Globe's business section. It appeared March 13, 2010. 

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

Beth Gallo wasn’t trying to start a business. The South Dartmouth resident, a breast cancer survivor, just wanted to add more healthy food to her diet — preferably in the morning.

So when the 49-year-old mother of two couldn’t find a healthy breakfast food she could get excited about, she began making her own oatmeal with organic oats, dried fruits, nuts, and whey protein powder, changing the mixture over five years to suit her taste.

In 2008, she named her homemade recipe Mad Hectic Oatmeal and designed packaging with childhood photos of herself in pigtails. Now, her oatmeal is sold in 38 locations across Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including three Whole Foods Market stores.

“Most of the oatmeals out there are really boring,’’ Gallo said. “I started making the oatmeal for no business reason at all, just for myself. It solved a problem for me personally. I didn’t know it would do it for other people.’’

Mad Hectic Oatmeal, named for Gallo’s frenzied mornings, has more than tripled its business in the past two years. Still, the tiny company may have a behemoth battle to change the morning eating habits of some consumers.

Hot cereal has transformed from a slow-cooking family meal in the mid-1980s to a quick, popular, individualized breakfast thanks to microwaveable instant oatmeal. But consumers who typically eat frozen waffles or scrambled eggs in the morning are unlikely to switch to oatmeal, said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president of NPD Group, a market research firm in Rosemont, Ill.

Last year, nationwide sales of hot cereal declined 2.8 percent to $1.1 billion, according to the Nielsen Co. Hot cereal sales accounted for just 10.8 percent of total cereal sales in 2009, down from 11.3 percent in 2008.

“Habits are very set for breakfast, more so than for any other meal,’’ Balzer said. “The brand may change, but the food typically stays the same.’’

Price may be another barrier for Mad Hectic Oatmeal, which contains 13 to 17 grams of protein and 5 to 6 grams of fiber in each pouch, depending on the flavor. At $7.95 for 12 to 14 ounces, Mad Hectic Oatmeal is about double the cost of some other popular oatmeal brands.

Quaker Oats weight control instant oatmeal, which contains 7 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber per serving, is about $3.99 for 12.6 ounces. Instant oatmeal from Lakeville-Middleborough’s Ocean Spray, which contains 4 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber per serving, is about $3.49 for 12.1 ounces.

But because Mad Hectic Oatmeal touts health benefits such as increased energy from protein, weight control from fiber, stronger bones from calcium, and a healthier heart from omega-3 oil, the price may not be an issue, NPD Group’s Balzer said. Consumers will often pay a premium for products marketed as quick and healthy, and a small company that promises to make their lives easier “won’t be a small company for very long,’’ Balzer said.

So far, the company is growing at a furious pace. Mad Hectic Foods sold 3,562 pouches of oatmeal in 2009, more than triple its 2008 sales of 1,100 pouches. In January and February of this year alone, Gallo’s company sold 1,555 bags — more than four times as many as it did during the same time period in 2009. Mad Hectic Foods’ sales are projected to exceed $95,000 in 2010, Gallo said, and the company has been close to breaking even in the last few months.

Gallo, her husband, Michael Gallo, and their 21-year-old son, Ethan, run the company out of an office in their South Dartmouth home and manufacture the oatmeal in a commercial kitchen in Mattapoisett. The Gallos’ 13-year-old daughter, Anna, helps taste-test the products. She particularly enjoys the chocolate flavors.

Customers enthusiastically line up for tastings led by Michael Gallo in local stores carrying the oatmeal, said Bonnie Frechette, the marketing team leader for Whole Foods Market in University Heights, R.I., which has been carrying Mad Hectic Oatmeal for about two years.

Frechette, who eats a bowl of the best-selling raspberry almond flavor a few times a week, said Whole Foods could consider carrying Mad Hectic Oatmeal in more stores if it continues selling well. “It’s really great to see a local vendor have such great success,’’ she said.

The company is already expanding. The oatmeal originally came in four flavors — raspberry almond, French chocolate, strawberry pecan, and almond pecan. But after customers asked for more nut-free options, Mad Hectic Foods added two flavors in October: red raspberry and chocolate raspberry.

And Beth Gallo is in the early stages of developing a Mad Hectic pancake mix, which will be higher in protein than common commercially available mixes. The mix does not have a release date, but Gallo said it will be nontraditional and come in unique flavors.

Next: Israeli Companies Kept Out Of Bid To Build Solar Power Plant

Israeli companies kept out of bid to build solar power plant

This story was written for The Jerusalem Post. It appeared May 12, 2008. 

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

The Ministry of National Infrastructure sought a private tender to build a solar power plant in the southern town of Ashalim Sunday, but no Israeli company has the required experience to offer a bid.

There are currently no solar power plants in Israel, rendering all Israeli companies ineligible to apply, unless they join forces with foreign companies. Oren Gazenfeld, CEO of Israeli energy company General Engineers, said the project can only benefit from Israeli involvement, and bemoaned the ministry's experience requirement which locked local companies out.

"As an Israeli company, we want to take part in this revolutionary project, and foreign companies want Israeli partners, not just people to fund them," Gazenfeld told The Jerusalem Post. Because Israel Electric owns all the power plants in Israel, Gazenfeld said, no other Israeli companies have experience building power plants.

"We have engineers involved in every major power project in Israel, and I think we are poised as a leading contender, but we do not have the ability to participate," Gazenfeld said. "That is not right."

Avi Shekel, founder and CEO of Shekel Technologies, said his company plans on bidding with foreign associates. "If a few Israeli consortiums join a group of companies, maybe there's a chance. But an Israeli company alone? I don't think so. The bid does not allow it," Shekel said. "Known technologies are not very efficient, and we are inexperienced with technologies in development - that's a problem." Shekel said he was "skeptical but optimistic" about the execution of the project. "As an Israeli citizen, I hope this works out," he said.

Foreign companies at the conference declined to interview, explaining that publicizing their dealings in Israel could jeopardize business in other countries. Uzi Levin, a senior advisor to the Director-General of the Ministry of National Infrastructures, said the project is too innovative and risky for inexperienced Israeli companies to handle alone. "We need the involvement of foreign companies with expertise in these fields," Levin said. "It's unlikely that an international company will establish this alone. It will always lean on and be aided by local companies," he said, but the committee has not mandated any amount of Israeli involvement.

The project was handed to the private sector because of the progress commercial firms have made in the renewable energy field, Director-General of the Ministry of National Infrastructure Hezi Kugler said.

"The private sector is advancing in this field, but not as fast as we would like, so we are hoping this will push them," Kugler said. The Israeli Electric Company has not questioned the decision and hopes to join the private sector in producing renewable energy, Kugler said.

Avi Dor, deputy accountant-general and head of the inter-ministerial tender committee, said the project is Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT), which means plant ownership is transferred to the state after 20-25 years of private sector establishment and maintenance. If this project succeeds, the Ministry of National Infrastructure will build more solar plants, Dor said.

Four thousand square kilometers are available for the project near Ashalim, a small Negev village west of Dimona, Dan Weinstock, director of the Electricity Administration said.

Weinstock called Ashalim an excellent site for solar power because it is sunny and is not a military zone. The Ministry of National Infrastructure's goal of having 10 percent of Israel's power come from renewable sources by 2020 is ambitious but possible, Weinstock said.

"Renewable energy does not work around the clock like other energy sources," Weinstock said, "But if Israel builds enough renewable energy power plants, there is no reason it would not work." 

Next: Two Who Aided Marathon Victims Meet Again In Dorchester

Israeli scientists fight food crisis with gene research

This story was written for The Jerusalem Post. It was published April 27, 2008. 

By Gal Tziperman Lotan

To alleviate shortages of staple foods in developing nations, some Israeli scientists are working to develop crops that grow faster and have a higher nutritional value.

But the genetic engineering they are using to produce these crops, including wheat, have drawn negative attention from environmental groups.

Joseph Hirschberg, a professor of genetics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said he believes that "without genetic engineering, the world will go hungry."

"Today, there is hunger because of unbalanced distribution of food," Hirschberg said. "There is a worldwide surplus of about 10 percent, but the world's poor do not have the means to get it... Now, we are beginning to have a shortage, and here enter genetically modified plants."

Prof. Tzion Fahima, who teaches biology at the University of Haifa, said that of the 600 million tons of wheat produced worldwide annually, 30% is lost to disease, parasites and other maladies.

Fahima's research seeks to create wheat with higher nutritional value, protein, iron and zinc, as well as better immunity to disease.

"During the domestication of wheat that began 10,000 years ago, there were genes that did not reach domestic wheat today," Fahima said. "We are trying to develop wheat with a higher nutritional value, and species that can also be grown in developing countries."

But it may take a while until these countries, including India, Pakistan and South American nations, see the fruits of his research, Fahima said.

"These are very slow processes," he said. "We create new species in the classical method, through interbreeding. It can take 10-12 years for a new species to be finalized."

Fahima works with HarvestPlus, a Washington-based organization made up of scientists seeking to improve the nutritional content of staple foods such as wheat and rice. These foods are widely consumed, especially in developing countries, and are greatly affected by the shortages.

But Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) have faced backlash from environmental, political, anti-globalization and health groups, Hirschberg said.

"These groups have created a very negative crowd perception to GMO, and that is why one cannot grow GMO in Europe and Southeast Asia, in places like Thailand," he said.

"When the green organizations understand that you cannot feed the world without GMO, there will be faster progress," Fahima said.

In Israel, it is illegal to grow GMO except in labs, with permits and under full supervision, a spokesperson for the Agriculture Ministry said. The spokesperson said there was currently no plan to change this policy.

According to Hirschberg, the claims that GMO are harmful to health have never been proven.

"In Israel, there is research that ties into global research to grow species and increase output," he said. "There is basic research that discovers new traits, new genes and new processes in plants."

He added, "We have breeders who create species of crops. Israel is strong in tomato research... China and India have legalized GMO for use in cotton. A characteristic of GMO is that they can increase production."

Cotton production in India and China has doubled since GMO were introduced, Hirschberg said.

There is currently no GMO that would double production of wheat, but there are some that would increase it, he added.

Theodora Karchovsky, spokeswoman for Greenpeace Israel, said she was not aware of any anti-GMO campaigns in Israel.

"Most of the action is in the United States, which is one of the biggest producers of genetically engineered products, and in places like Thailand, India and South America, which [are among] the biggest consumers," she said.

However, Jan Van Aken, sustainable agriculture campaigner for Greenpeace International, said interbreeding between GMO and regular crops can be dangerous.

"If anything goes wrong when GMO are released into the environment, there is no way to get them back. We cannot manage the risk, and the precautionary principle must prevail," Van Aken said.

"With every technology in the past 100 years, someone has claimed it can solve world hunger," she added, citing a 1950s ad showing how nuclear power plants can feed the world through fast production and irrigation.

"There is no rush, and there are no scientific finds behind that claim," he said.