Thursday, March 12, 2015

Many expressions of the Food Movement in Nicaragua

I'm back in Tallahassee! (for two weeks). As I mentioned in previous posts, my wife, Mary Elizabeth and I spent the last two months in Nicaragua and Ecuador studying spanish, culture, dance, history, and community-based good food systems. Though we're back, there are more stories to tell.

If you need a food garden consult, compost delivery, garden design, or a couple raised beds, let me know. Send me an email with subject line "Food Gardening Work" or ring me at 322.0749, and I'll get right back with you.

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In addition to the household-level food economy smarts of folks in Nicaragua, we also learned of many organized efforts to "alimentar" their communities, i.e., to ensure their communities are taken care of and are eating well. The good food movement, indeed, has many expressions!

Take the the spanish language school, Hijos del Maiz in el Lagartillo where we studied for example. On the surface, it is simply a community-based language school for teaching foreigners Spanish. Dig a little deeper, and you'll discover Hijos is a community-led economic development initiative that provides incomes for young people in the community, so they don't have to emigrate to survive, to feed their families. (The economic pressure to emigrate is the net-result of the 10-year U.S. backed and funded contra (revolutionary) war, which cost many in the community their loved ones and the U.S. political take-over of the 90s that dismantled and/or undermined small-farmer cooperatives including the one that originally drew the families of Lagartillo together. In light of these two events, most rural farming communities still struggle to make ends meet and feed their kids.) So, Hijos del Maiz is a spanish language school that provides economic opportunity to community families.

But, dig a step deeper still, and you'll learn that the purpose of the school had always been to nourish the families-- directly. Let me explain.


Everyone from the community involved in the spanish school receives payment: teachers, home-stay families, coordinators, and the bookkeeper. (As an aside, 20% of revenue is placed in a "social projects" account for "betterment" projects like family latrines, a community center & library, medical assistance and scholarships.) The hope in paying home stay families was that they could afford to purchase healthier food options, namely fruits and vegetables. After a while, leadership noticed that though incomes had increased, diets had not changed, so they changed the payment structure.
From then on, families were paid partially in cash and partially with a large baskets full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Additionally Hijos hosted cooking classes to teach families about non-traditional foods like beets. The president of Hijos told me, "Nathan, you wouldn't know because you haven't been here for the last decade, but the difference is profound. The children in our community have rosy cheeks these days." Rosy cheeks. How's that for a measure of impact?


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We visited two other remarkable organized efforts in Nicaragua tied to food: the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative and the Center for Development in Central America. Both impressed us outright and reminded us of the work being done in the north Florida region by Tallahassee Food Network, Red Hills Small Farms Alliance, Seed Time Harvest, and FAMU Small Farm's Program.


The primary product of Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa is sesame: raw, roasted, oil, tahini and snack bars. They also aggregate and sell hibiscus wine and honey. Currently in R&D, they are experimenting with rock-powers and soil bio-enhancers akin to EM (effective microorganisms) as soil amendments for their farmers to increase yields without synthetic chemicals, which poison fields and farmers. They do farmer workshops, provide extension-like services, and maintain a retail-store for farm and family basics. They also have a women's wealth-creation program and leadership development programs for youth. Their 200+ farmers make decisions by representation: all farmers are organized into groups of 5; each group choses their delegate to attend the annual meeting.

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We visited with Kathleen Murdock and Mike Woodward at the Center for Development in Central America (CDCA) in Ciudad Sandino. At the prompting of priest Miguel Descoto, they relocated their Jubilee House Community to Nicaragua in the 90s. For the past 20 years, they have been working with their Nicaraguan neighbors in the areas of sustainable agriculture, sustainable economic development, health, education, and appropriate technology. In their words, their goal is to work in partnership with communities and cooperatives to facilitate empowerment: enabling them to find their own solutions to the problems they identify and connecting them with resources to solve their problems. The mission is to enable communities to become self-sufficient, sustainable, democratic entities. They have helped start 14 coops across the country (including a number of farming coops that are USDA certified organic.) Mike and Kathleen also gave us an update on how the coup in Honduras has led to "open season" on La Via Campesina, their leaders and their peasant (i.e. small) farmer members. Click the links to learn more.

Next up: stories from our time in Ecuador.

Happy Spring!

And, come to Gramling's Centennial Celebration on Saturday! See you there,

Nathan, MIO

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Rural Nicaragua Household Economy

Mary Elizabeth and I spent 3 weeks of our stay in Nicaragua as students at Hijos del Maiz spanish language school in El Lagartillo near Achuapa. We lived with a homestay family, shared meals, conversation, riddles, day-to-day life, and lots of laughs.

Nuestra familia Nicaraguense. Whalder, Yelba, Mercedes, y Margarita. (Mary Elizabeth and I are in the middle.)
Everyday we received 4 hours of 1-on-1 language instruction with professional teachers who rotated weekly. Our classes were comprised of formal grammar lessons or informal conversation- based on our personal preferences. Typically, any given class was a mix of grammar, exhanges of personal & family stories, and stories about their community's history that is rooted in a farming cooperative that brought them together in the early ´80´s and the US-backed Contra's attack on their community in '84 that cost many in the community the lives of their brother and sisters. Beyond our classes, we were free to visit with others in the community, go swimming at the community's cascada (waterfall), help our homestay family around the house, and check out books from the community library. It was a superb experience. Did I mention it was $200/week for room, board, and instruction? Wow. 

Although Hijos del Maiz is most certainly a language school, and learn loads of spanish we did, amongst the first things I noticed upon arriving in El Lagartillo were the economies of our homestay family's household food systems. There is no waste. It is a story best told by pictures.

Host families receive CSA-like baskets of fresh fruits & vegetables each week.

If you look close, you can see the homemade cheese loaves (made using the family cows' milk) on the counter in Yelba's roofed, open-air kitchen. Notice the wood burning, clay-construction stove made from local tierra, or earth.

The whey (leftover milky liquid from cheese making) was combined with vegetable scraps and fed daily to the family pig, which lived only a few steps from the kitchen door.

Family chickens scratched in the pig manure looking for any undigested granules and fly larva. In doing so, they broke up the piles thus eliminating the classic bad odor of pigs.

My host family told us that the reason a piggy bank is in the shape of a pig is because it´s premised on the same idea: feed the pig or piggy bank your leftovers each day and over time you grow something that can allow you to make it through tough times or give you an opportunity to splurge in celebration. We celebrated new family ties and delicious, good meat.

Even at this close range, I kid you not: this home-raised pig did not stink. Something was very right about its diet and living situation.

No waste, like I mentioned: the neighborhood dogs ensured the bloog didn´t simply soak into the ground.

Our family´s brother-in-law oversaw the butchering. His care and precision ensured no meat was spoiled by an accidental puncturing of the intestines.

Our first piggy meal was fritata, all the spinal bones cooked together in a rich broth with a little garlic and chili powder. Delicious.  And talk about local! The cows are approximately 1/3mile away on the periphery of town, the vegetables from a market 3 miles away, the pig 20feet from the kitchen door. The butchering, curing, and eating within a few steps of each other.  (For those of you familar with Permaculture, it was a brilliant lesson in elements and functions not to mention zones.)

If the time and computer access were available, I could write a book about the grass-roots organizing and community-based food systems we witnessed. More stories to come...

Nathan, Man in Overalls








Tuesday, January 6, 2015

See You in March


And we're off!  Mary Elizabeth and I are hopping on a plane this afternoon for a two month stint in Nicaragua and Ecuador to learn spanish, culture, dance, as much about history, and, of course, community-based food systems as we're able.

We'll be back in March for the month. While I'm around, I'll be partnering up with Sundiata Ameh-El of iGrow to put in and ramp up as many food gardens as possible (which means, if you've got food gardening work that needs doing, send me an email with subject line "March Food Garden Work" to get on my list asap. Compost deliveries, consults, new gardens, edible orchards, workshops, & community garden developments all apply).

My other major goal during March is to grow Tallahassee Food Network's financial base. Tallahassee Food Network is our regional coalition of the global movement that works to grow community-based good food systems. I'm eager to see its internal capacity grow through staffing and a dedicated "food-house" (office space). As with travel, so with organizational development: even with frugality, it takes some money. I'll be partnering up with my fellow board member, Qasimah Boston to work on TFN fundraising. I'm excited about the work.

In the meantime, here are two food gardening videos that may offer some assistance during January/February: How to Grow Year Round (in spite of the cold) and Growing Potatoes. Watch the first when those cold days are predicted a week out. And February 14th, Valentines is the old-timers day of choice for planting potatoes... which is just around the corner.

Happy growing,
Nathan, Man in Overalls





Monday, December 8, 2014

"How 'bout them apples?"

What does Apple, Inc, the multinational corporation that designs, develops, and sells consumer electronics have in common with north Florida local food efforts like Red Hills Online Market, the Frenchtown Heritage Market, and iGrow Whatever You Like?

A line to enter at the Apple Store in Miami's Southbeach
This past weekend (still traveling), my wife and I passed by this Apple store in South Beach, Miami. There was a line of people outside waiting to get in for the opportunity to shop. Wow. Picture op! I thought.

But why is Man in Overalls, a food garden entrepreneur and community food system developer interested in a tech store?  Because Apple, Inc. and local food efforts are largely pursuing the same business model: direct marketing, also called "direct-to-consumer" sales.

Let's take a look:

Red Hills Online Market 
Red Hills Online Market (a project of the Red Hills Small Farms Alliance) is an online farmers' market where local farmers can post their products for sale and local customers can purchase directly from the farmers. RHO simply takes out a small commission for the convenience to fund operations. It's basically the AirBnB of our local farm-to-table industry.  RHO even has a mobile app available on GooglePlay to up the convenience.

Frenchtown Heritage Market Summer 2014
In an in-person-retail sort of way, Frenchtown Heritage Market (FHM) is doing the same thing: bringing local producers together with local customers, so they can exchange directly. The bonus FHM brings to the table is that local residents with SNAP/EBT cards can use their food stamps/cash assistance funds to purchase local products.


iGrow Whatever You Like, Tallahassee Food Network's youth empowerment and urban agriculture program that manages the Dunn Street Youth Farm is significantly sustained by the sale of products and services, which they produce and sell directly. Products include iGrow Buckets, iGrow Gardens, iGrow Compost Magic Mix, and fresh vegetables. The young people sell directly to customers on-farm, as well as at the Frenchtown Heritage Market, through Red Hills Online, and directly to restaurants.

Whatever it looks like, the direct-sales business model is rooted in the "logic of the dollar." Apple farmers, for instance, earn 5 to 10 cents for every $1 spent on apple sauce in spite of the fact that sauce is 95-99.9% apples. The rest of the earnings go to harvesters, trains and trucks, peeling and processing, food-science-additives like preservatives, cooking, packaging, marketing, and lots of middle men like your favorite grocery store chain. It's a similar story for all manner of agricultural products.

Thus, if farmers were able to sell their products directly to consumers either in their raw form (apples)-- or as the "value added" products (like apple sauce)-- they would "capture more of the dollar," and therefore economically survive and possibly thrive.

This is the same logic that Apple, Inc the multinational corporation is working off of. And if you look around, it is more and more the logic of the largest companies on earth. Think Google, Exxon, Walmart, and others.

Keep up the good food work,
Nathan, Man in Overalls

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Update: December 10th, 2014

An hour after I published, Tony Murray sent me this short note: "FYI: Apple-- 54.4 B of corporate profits "parked" overseas....; how 'bout those non-American apples...."

Kudos to Tony for pointing out the difference between Apple, Inc and our local farm-to-table business models: namely where the money earned goes. In the case of Apple, Inc, the money we spend with them heads to Cupertino, CA and/or oversees into tax-sanctuaries. Apple, of course, has sizable expenses (R&D, manufacturing, materials, executives, marketing, etc), and they reinvest in the company to the benefit of shareholders-- a few who live in our area. It's safe to say, however, that very little local economic benefit is derived from Apple, Inc.

The vast majority of money spent with our local farmers, on the other hand, stays right here in our community. Orchard Pond, one local farm, estimates that 60% of their farm expenses are labor. That means jobs. Now think of seeds, starts, amendments, office supplies, accounting assistance, and all manner of other possible farm/business materials & services. Many (if not most of those) can also be acquired locally. When a business earns local dollars and re-spends them with other local individuals and businesses, we call this the local multiplier effect. Local, small-scale, naturally-grown agricultural production has one of the greatest local-multiplier effects of any business model out there.

Now consider that annually in Tallahassee's area, we spend $180 million on fruits and vegetables. What if 10%, what if 5% of that were produced locally? We'd be looking at a direct 300 ($30k/yearly) jobs. When the local-multiplier effect was taken into account, we'd easily be talking 500 jobs. Imagine what that would do for our community. For issues of hunger, for crime, for family stress, for local businesses, for property values.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks for Innovation in the Food Movement

TFN board, staff, and advisors joined for a retreat 11/22/14.

Happy Thanksgiving.

I am grateful.  Not only have I had a chance to travel the US the pasted six months -- not to mention I will be traveling internationally with Mary Elizabeth come January-- I've been wildly lucky to spend the last two weeks in Tallahassee.  I had a chance to visit family, share meals, and catch up.  There was also time to check in with loads of good folks doing great work around good food. I wish I could tell you all the stories.

But, I tell you what: instead of my stories, go collect your own at Leon County's Food Summit January 24th. All our key food stakeholders/players will be there, and we need all our area's peoples and networks present because the conversation and the survey they collect is going to help set regional food strategy. Be there.


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One of the highlights of my time in Tallahassee was the Tallahassee Food Network (TFN) board retreat. We reflected at length on our four year history as a "regional coalition of the global movement that works to grow community-based (good) food systems." (You can check out the history here: TFN 2013 Mini-Report). Our impact includes developing a coalition of over 
700 affiliates including over 100 organizations. Solely amongst those organizations, TFN fostered roughly 200+ partnerships and over 700 personal relationships. This new fabric of community has fostered new projects, programs, organizations, businesses, funding avenues, policy adoption, and, frankly, a community-wide shift in the importance placed on food issues (as evidenced by city, county, and other major institutions adopting food-related priorities-- including the above mentioned Food Summit). The impact of our network is even more impressive when you consider that TFN has functioned on very few (financial) resources and minimal part-time staffing.

Paul Ledford, CEO of Florida Hospice hosted and joined us last Saturday. (Thanks Paul).  He pointed out that TFN's history of impact demonstrates a high level of organizational innovation.

His comment renewed a question I've been wrestling with for a while: What makes for the most effective, innovative and impactful group/team? How are great groups organized, structured, unstructured, or led/coordinated? Point being: how do we get impressively large, sustained success? And because my mind always errs this direction: how do we grow and sustain social movements? -- Specifically, how do we build from TFN's history to do even better as an organization and as a networked local/regional/national/international good food movement?

Based on my experience with community gardens, which are 90% community and 10% garden, I know human infrastructure, organization, and facilitative leadership is key, so I've been collecting a lot of material on the subject for my own edification. Below you'll find some of the resources I've collected. One day, I'll likely weave these ideas into a book of strategies and stories about our food movement. For now, click on what you think will serve you in enacting your food dreams.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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 -->"What are the physical spaces that foster innovation?" Often breakthroughs requires a "hunch" in one's brain "colliding" with hunches from others' brains


-->My take away from his book (Ripples from the Zambezi) on what he calls "Enterprise Facilitation": Don't ever give anyone an idea. And don't try to motivate them. Rather: listen for their ideas and foster and facilitate. Defer initiative to the person you're working with.

Open Space Technology
-->A way of hosting meetings or retreats with a small or very large group beginning without any formal agenda beyond the overall purpose of theme.

Collective Genius
-->"The role of a leader of innovation is not to set a vision and motivate others to follow it. It's to create a community that is willing and able to generate new ideas." "The question is not 'How do I make innovation happen?' but, rather, 'How do I set the stage for it to happen?"

Netflix Culture: Freedom and Responsibility
-->As organizations grow, they necessarily grow in complexity. Rather than policies and procedures to minimize error, outpace complexity with dynamic people and by providing context (not by exerting control. E.g., no vacation policy). Creative/dynamic people are 2-10x as productive and achieve non-linear impact. It's not about working hard; it's about what you get done.

 
Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us
-->Pay people enough to take money off the table of worries. Then set up an environment where autonomy, mastery, and purpose are interwoven into your organizational structure/expectations.

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)
-->Everyone has something to bring to the table (assets): skills & ideas, resources, and associations. Often, the people you a)think are in the way or b)assume have the least to offer are those who have the assets you're missing. People in affected communities always hold the trump card assets for successful planning and implementation for projects/programs targeting their communities.


-->Three types of people are required for social phenomenon to "tip," (spread like wild fire): connectors, "experts" (i.e., the people other people hold in high regard for knowing about something), and sales people. Timing and situational context for an idea/trend/movement/story to spread is everything (e.g., Paul Revere rode at night meant people were in their houses). 


-->Focus on "Big Tent" ideas that can unify. Avoid ideology. Lead by providing working models. Share ideas/open collaboration. Support the efforts of other groups under the big tent.

David and Goliath
-->Underdogs win by bucking convention, hustling, and playing by their own rule book. Lawrence of Arabia. Middle school girls playing full court basketball all game. 

Emergence
-->Individual actors - if they can assess & respond to their environment and communicate with others about their action (whether we're talking about ants, computers, or people), they will display an intelligence greater than the sum of their parts. Greater ability to assess/respond and/or greater communication leads to increased emergence.

Outliers
-->The ecology of success. If people are surrounded by an ecology of opportunity and support, they do incredible things. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, S.E. China rice farm children. Connects to ABCD.


-->Interweave disparate viewpoints and people to enrich design development. Think holistically: start to finish. The need for project spaces (like the Purple House, Salvation Army Garden, Dunn Street). 

The Long Haul
-->Put people in situations where they have to act on ideas, not talk about them.  With, not for. Work on integration by integrating. Focus on structural change. Organizations are key to movements.

Rules for Radicals
-->Until you've achieved a balance of power between parties, "reconciliation" simply means, "I win, and you'd better get reconciled to the idea." "Communication only happens when people get what you're trying to get across to them." Change requires power. Without money, power comes from people. "In order to act, the people must get together."

Organizing Genius
-->"Shabby" project spaces. Quirky leadership unafraid of people more talented/different than them. "Fueled by an invigorating, completely unrealistic view of what they can accomplish." Big-time "How" questions/goals. Leadership that insulates team from external evaluation/judgement.

Gamestorming
-->Play-by-play collaborative, creative group "games" or meeting techniques.

-->For hard issues/questions with no immediately apparent solutions, messy open-dialog is necessary to bring divergent perspectives into mix. Takes a long time, but expedites/ensures implementation. Tools for facilitation (drawing out, stacking, interrupting content to discuss process, chart writing, echoing, parking lot). Silence doesn't mean agreement. 

Creativity, Inc
-->Pixar lost money for 20 years, and they found ways to shuffle from the financial back-corner of one business to another, and then they made Toy Story.  Financial power-balancing by going public before partnership with Disney to prevent being steamrolled.


Keep Growing,
Nathan, Man in Overalls
--and, yes, I'm still getting my overalls dirty. Sundiata and I were doing a school garden just yesterday morning together.




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