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Monday, June 23, 2014

Local Gardening Store [Gramling's] is a Treasure: Letter to the Editor

Tallahassee Democrat
Sunday, June 15th 2014

Dear Editor,

I’ve been growing food since I was 8, when I became known as “that boy with the garden.” These days, folks know me as the “Man in Overalls.”

Though I like watching things grow, gardening for me has always been about more than aesthetics. It’s a survival skill-set against hunger and food insecurity, something — thank God — I have not truly needed.

Starting when I was a child, I began visiting Gramling’s on South Adams Street for seeds, starts, organic fertilizer and environmentally safe pest products. They learned my name and watched me grow up. These days, when I stop by, Wayne, their store manager, greets me, “Overalls!” and then says, “Dirty deeds done dirt cheap,” under his breath. Every time. It still makes me smile.

I write, generally, to encourage us to spend our dollars locally, to invest in Main Street, to reclaim our hometown gems, to support the businesses that know our names. Specifically, I propose that we honor Gramling’s with our wallets. More than any person or institution I know, they have enabled us to preserve and further the art of food gardening. For Tallahassee’s health, for wealth, and for true food security and hunger prevention, we need Gramling’s around for another 99 years.

[Pay them a visit or give them a ring: 1010 S. Adams Street/Tallahassee. 850.222.4812.]


Monday, June 16, 2014

Tallahassee Food Network Delegation to Represent at Jefferson Awards in D.C.

Although my expenses as Volunteer of the Year are paid for by the Tallahassee Democrat as the local media sponsor of the Jefferson Awards, the expenses of my fellow delegation travelers are not covered. Travel, lodging, and Jefferson Awards registration expenses amount to just over $4500. Please consider a donation. Any and all financial assistance is appreciated. Please make checks payable and send donations to Tallahassee Food Network's 501c3 fiscal agent: Wiley Sunshine Foundation, memo "TFN Delegation" to 1920 Chowkeebin Nene/ Tallahassee, FL 32301.

"Nathan Ballentine to represent Tallahassee at the Jefferson Awards in Washington, D.C."
Reprinted from Tallahassee Democrat, 6/13/2014

Individual awards don't really suit Nathan Ballentine's personality.

He's a dedicated public servant, working tirelessly to create a culture of sustainability in Tallahassee, but he always insists he's just one part of an enthusiastic team. When he first heard he was nominated to receive the Tallahassee Democrat's Volunteer of the Year award in social/civic services, his original thought was, "Can I share this with everyone else?"

Ballentine — commonly called "The Man in the Overalls" for his work with the Tallahassee Food Network and clothing style even at formal occasions — was named Volunteer of the Year in his category back in May, but he didn't stop there. He was also given the top honor at the awards luncheon, receiving the Jefferson Award for Public Service and a trip to Washington D.C.

Of course, he immediately started thinking of ways to bring the rest of the Tallahassee Food Network with him. The group will travel to D.C. Friday.
"I'm especially excited because we're going to get to travel as a team," he said. "We work as a team in everything we do. We're really excited about representing at a national level and connecting with other volunteer organizations across the country and learning from them."

The Jefferson Awards Ceremony in D.C. brings together Jefferson Award winners from 110 media partners in 70 communities nationwide, according to the website for the awards. The award was created in 1972 and primarily goes to "unsung" community heroes.

Ballentine, 28, is the co-founder of the Tallahassee Food Network (TFN), a group that focuses on eliminating childhood obesity and creating community-based food systems. He's also a coordinator with the youth empowerment program iGrow Whatever You Like.

He said he's hoping for a future that includes schools tending their own gardens, new statistics on childhood obesity and neighbors chatting about new recipes in an easy-to-access community garden.

"I want to see an urban farm educational hub [at the iGrow Whatever You Like Youth Farm]," he said. "I want to see the Frenchtown Heritage Market have a permanent location that can be a thriving central market for the city that connects food and culture and economic development."

TFN also host's a monthly gathering called "Collards and Cornbread." The meeting is a chance for people to meet and discuss possibilities for a sustainable future.

"We're a conduit for folks to connect, especially across racial, income and geographical lines," Ballentine said. "We believe everybody has something to bring to the table."

A team of TFN representatives is traveling with Ballentine to further spread the collective's message. Ballentine's wife, Mary Elizabeth Ballentine, will travel with him, along with iGrow director Sundiata Ameh-El and Clarenia White.

"Our delegation's presence at the Jefferson Awards will provide greater incentive for our youth, our staff and our team to keep working hard because it pays off," Ameh-El said. 

White agreed….” For the rest of the article, click to read it onTallahassee.com

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Growing Forward: Who to Call

(Apologies in advance for the length of this note. It is a resource of who's who info in light of my departure, so save it for another day if you don't have a few moments right now).

few years back, I drafted a dream for a Tallahassee Center for Urban Agriculture:

The Tallahassee Center for Urban Agriculture will serve as a hub of Tallahassee’s food movement, an incubator, a food “movement halfway house.” Akin to Milwaukee’s Growing Power, Birmingham’s Jones Valley Urban Farm, and Detroit area’s Growing Hope.  On a surface level, the Center will simply be a functioning urban farm: a farm in the heart of the city. If you take a second look, however, you’d see a institution funded via earned-income that will offer and coordinate an urban ag job training program for the unemployed, "Youth Grow" (i.e., GED ed + urban farming/food gardening training), a community workshop garden, community garden leadership development, school & church garden incubation workshops, cooking classes, community nutrition initiatives, and roundtable discussions to explore policies that would magnify local efforts working to create community based food systems. The Center will be engaged in and engaging its host community. The Center could serve as a centralized farmers’ market location and a staging ground for a local food gardening business. Lastly, the Center will seek to partner with and facilitate the food movement dreams of other organizations, institutions and individuals.

I had a dream, and reality is better. What we've got is an integrated movement, a mosaic of organizations, programs, and businesses making all this and more come to fruition. The growth over the past five to ten years of our community-based food systems and supporting efforts has been exponential.  Tallahassee Food Network (TFN)Red Hills Small Farms Alliance and Online MarketCOPE Coalition, the Frenchtown Heritage Market,Tallahassee Sustainability GroupSeed Time Harvest Farms, TFN's Good Food Directory (community garden listings now online), the Youth Symposium on Food and Hunger, the city andcounty's community garden programs, and TFN's iGrow Whatever You Like youth farm were all launched within the last five years.  Add to these entities the countless producers connected with the markets, the dozens of organizations tied to COPE, the hundred-plus organizational affiliates of TFN, the food-based businesses that are on the rise, and the thousands of individuals and personal relationships that bind us together within and across organizational, network, race, income, neighborhood, age, political-affiliation, and gender lines.

We have a movement on our hands.

- - -

Strangely, in my opinion, people think that my departure is profound enough to call this movement into question. On the one hand, I am honored by the thought that I've had a large enough role in our good food movement that my presence in Tallahassee has mattered; that I'll be missed; that folks are making arrangements for me to serve as a traveling representative of TFN, so Tallahassee doesn't "lose" me.

On the other hand, I am well-aware of two things: 1)The movement daily surprises me by its growth and impact, and I am but one player of many, hardly responsible for its breadth and depth. I'm confident it will continue to thrive without my presence in Tallahassee.  2)We have a team in place that will continue the work, so we shouldn't miss a beat.

Speaking of the team, make a note of the below folks' names and their contact info. Call them. Introduce yourself. Invite them to lunch. Email them with ideas, with questions, with opportunities. Ask them about their life experience, their work with TFN, their dreams. I could write pages about each one of them, but I'll spare you the details. Just know: they are incredible folks who - if they haven't already - will inspire you.

Tallahassee Food Network staff team:

  • Bakari McClendon, coordinator (989.992.7513) ~ Go-to for "who's who," for grants, for partnership ideas, organizational oversight & development. He will be linking up the network.
  • Sundiata Ameh-El, iGrow co-coordinator (850.778.1531) ~ Go-to for iGrow, for urban ag services including compost deliveries, raised beds, community gardens, youth education
  • Alexis Simoneau, outreach coordinator (386.527.3914) ~ Go-to for website, newsletter, Community Food Report, publicity, outreach, sponsorships
  • Kristen Goldsmith, iGrow volunteer coordinator (419.356.9006) ~ Go-to for volunteer opportunities (short term and internships)
  • Edwige Toussaint, iGrow site manager (561.419.4886)
  • Clarenia White, iGrow workday chef and market staff (850.341.4385)
  • Ebony Smith, Finance Administrator (850 629 8665) ~ Go-to for TFN financials
TFN Board of Directors
  • TFN co-founder, Ms. Miaisha Mitchell with Frenchtown Revitalization Council
  • TFN co-founder, Dr. Qasimah Boston with Project FOOD Now
  • TFN co-founder, Ms. Joyce Brown with Cultural Arts Natural Design International
  • Shelley Gomez with Knight Creative Community Initiative and Frenchtown Heritage Market Action Team
  • Sue Hansen from Betton Hills Community Garden and New Leaf Market
  • Martin Chavez, a former iGrow intern from Faith Presbyterian Church, TCC student
  • Reginal Glover from Distinguished Young Gentlemen & COPE Youth Health Leadership Council, recent graduate from Richards High
  • Al Smith with Community Business Service
  • Sandy Porras-Guitierrez from Florida Department of Children and Families
  • Ed Duffee of Duffee Enterprises (aka the farm on Alabama Street)
And, of course, no listing of our team would be complete without TFN's following key partners:
  • Mr. Jim Bellamy, founder of the Frenchtown Heritage Market, President of Frenchtown Neighborhood Improvement Association
  • Minister Charlotta Ivy of Sowing Seeds Sewing Comfort Ministry - also the go-to for Manna on Meridian Garden
  • Chef Shacafrica Simmons with Empowered by Food; continues to workshop and lay foundation for her N. Florida Culinary Incubator project
  • Louise Divine and Katie Harris, co-founders of Red Hills Small Farms Alliance (and online market) and Karen Goodlett, RHO Market manager
  • Cetta Barnhart of Seed Time Harvest Farms
  • Peter Kelly, Maurizio Bertoldi, and Jeff Phipps who comprise the Incubator Group
  • Cassidy Mills and Wes Shaffer of Tallahassee Sustainability Group
  • Betsy and Nikki Henderson of Dent Street Diggers Community Garden, Hi Fi Jazz, & Innovation Reality
  • Kristi Hatakka, Portia Lundy, and Mark Tancig with Damayan
  • Anthony Gaudio with Sustainable Tallahassee, Knight Creative Community Initiative and Frenchtown Heritage Market Action Team
  • Sue Wiley and Betty Addition with the Wiley Sunshine Foundation
Let's not forget:
  • Lindsey Grubbs with Farm to School in FL Dept of Ag and Consumer Services, Food Nutrition and Wellness Division.
  • COPE Leadership Team: Sokoya Finch, Cynthia Harris, Penny Ralston, and Miaisha Mitchell
  • Kathryn Ziewitz and Maggie Theriot in the Leon County Office of Resource Stewardship
  • Cynthia Barber, John Baker, and Lisa Galocy in the City's Office of Environmental Policy and Energy Resources
  • Patricia Byrd with the Macon Community Garden
  • Courtney Atkins with Whole Child Leon 
  • Trevor Hylton with Leon County and FAMU Extension, and 
  • Claire Mitchell, co-founder of Ten Speed Greens and the garden advisor to the iGrow team when they were gardening at Second Harvest.
*I am sure there are key folks that I've forgotten to list. The fault is my own. Just let me know. As I'm able, I will set the record straight.

- - - 

As I make arrangements for my departure, I am struck with excitement about the capacity of our team and the many exciting developments that are in the works. Here's a heads up about a few things on the radar that you should listen out for:
  • The Frenchtown Heritage Market is in negotiations with a restauranteur and the Frenchtown-Southside Community Redevelopment Agency regarding the construction of a permanent central market for Tallahassee.
  • Representatives from Tallahassee's SouthCity; Thomasville, GA; Sarasota, FL; and Americus, GA have either already commenced or plan to replicate the iGrow model in their communities.
  • TFN is in conversations with FDACS about ways that we can replicate TFN and iGrow models around the state.
  • TFN is going to continue coordinating and/or establish Farm-to-Table, urban gardening, and youth engagement working-groups to aid people in connecting with their good food movement peers
  • Leon County Office of Resources Stewardship - in partnership with TFN, COPE, Red Hills and others -- have identified three priority areas for their office to assist community leaders in implementing: 1)A food hub, 2)farmer and consumer education in conjunction with the food hub, and 3)developing the Good Food Directory.
  • A team is in place including Bakari, Sundiata, Peter, Shac, and Alexis to ensure that Collards and Cornbread continues every 2nd Thursday of the month, 1:30pm at the iGrow Youth Farm.
And just so you know: Sundiata, Clarenia, my wife Mary Elizabeth, and I will be representing Tallahassee Food Network in Washington, DC June 16-18th at the Jefferson Awards.  From there, Mary Elizabeth and I will be headed to Glacier National Park to work for the summer season. Following that, we will be embarking on a traveling adventure.  

I plan to stay in touch, and come back through town semi-regularly.We are exploring ways that I could continue learning from and growing the good food movement by serving as a national/international TFN representative. More on that as it develops.

In closing, as you have supported me, I simply request that you find ways to support TFN, its programs, partners; and that you continue to connect and grow the movement across lines of division.

Keep up the good work my friends,

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Adventure Continues

Last week, I was honored by Tallahassee Democrat as Volunteer of the Year and given the Jefferson Award for Public Service, an honor that highlights my work, yes, but was certainly given based on the impact that our whole Tallahassee Food Network team is making in our work across lines of division to grow community-based good food systems. Much thanks to Nancy Miller and her aid SarahKeith Valentine who nominated me.

Sue Dick, President of the Tallahassee Chamber delivered the following words (prepared by Leslie Smith) at the Volunteer of the Year Luncheon:

Nathan Ballentine, co-founder and volunteer co-director of the Tallahassee Food Network has been working for local food security since 2009.  Along with the Tallahassee Food Network, Nathan coordinates monthly Collards and Cornbread gatherings, facilitates the Community Garden Network Circle and Farm-to-Table team.  Nathan has cultivated roughly 260 organizational partnership and 740 personal relationships among those organizations, which are being leveraged to grow community-based food systems.

Nathan strongly insists that he and his team work across lines of division and bring people with varied perspectives to the table, especially across race, neighborhood, and income lines given the community/network segmentation. He is also volunteer coordinator of iGrow Whatever You Like, Tallahassee Food Networks youth empowerment and urban agriculture program which is responsible for the Dunn Street Youth Farm.  17 young people were trained as urban agriculture leaders as part of iGrow’s Leadership Corps.   Nathan says, “You help me, I’ll help you and we’ll all get further than we would by ourselves.”

Surprised and honored, I offered a few statements of thanks:

Wow. You sketch out notes, but you never expect to use them. Wow. Thank you. Thank you, Nancy for the nomination. I'm grateful for the recognition that this award brings our team. My name is on the paper because this award highlights individuals, but this honor is for our whole team and key partners amidst the Tallahassee Food Network, who are working across lines of division to grow community-based good food systems.  Thank you to my mother, Sue Wiley and father, Tom Ballentine who continue to model big picture thinking paired with bottom up grunt work. Thank you to my new wife, Mary Elizabeth who helps me workshop everything, who tolerates my schedule, who takes me on adventures. Thank you to Tallahassee Food Network. Thank you to my fellow board members, Miaisha Mitchell, Qasimah Boston, Joyce Brown, to the people who-- through under paid or unpaid entirely-- are functioning as staff, to the iGrow Whatever You Like team, to all the people who are both my co-workers and mentors. Thank's y'all for making it all possible, or being all-stars in my life, for allowing me to walk in the spotlight that rightfully belongs to us all for both our private and public work to grow and sustain a better world. It's an honor to run this race with y'all. Thank you for what you've done to support and shape me. Thank you for what you do and for all the reasons that your name should be in the hat for Volunteer of the Year. Thank you to the Tallahassee Democrat, to CenturyLink, and to all of you here. It's an honor to be recognized alongside so many amazing volunteers. Thank you.

To extend that thanks even further, I'd like to thank you-- the folks reading this blog, folks who receive my e-newsletter, my community-partners, friends, and co-conspirators in the effort to grow a better world. Thank you. You've encouraged me, inspired me, challenged me, helped me pay my bills, workshopped programs, business models, and movement tactics. You've waded through meetings, shoveled compost, planted seeds, empowered young people, and cultivated community-based food systems with your creativity, sweat, and resources. You've been the threads of the food movement fabric of which I'm a part. Thank you for doing what you do. Keep up the good work.

~ ~ ~

In what is perhaps the height of ironies, in twenty minutes I'll walk next door to participate in my last Collards and Cornbread Gathering for a while. At the beginning of June, my wife, Mary Elizabeth and I will embark on a traveling adventure for the coming year (or two). Though Tallahassee will always be my home, I will be laying my head elsewhere for the foreseeable future.  If this is the first you're hearing of my departure, don't be too alarmed; I'll remain linked to Tallahassee. I'll simply be connecting and learning across a larger geographical arena. ...You can trust Ms. Miaisha Mitchell not to let me get too far.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

These Days, Money Grows on Trees

Pecan trees gracing the D-Block skyline
A couple mornings before Christmas, my neighbor, Ms. Evelyn came walking by. She had her "grandbabies" in tow, two young girls probably 8 or 9. Ms. Evelyn, is-- my best guess-- probably 70, 75. Bending over every couple steps, she was picking up pecans as she was doing every morning for the past several months. Word on the street is that the "Pecan Man" is paying 40 cents a pound this year. Where other folks pick them up at peak season or when a storm blows through, Ms Everlyn's at it every day, 9am. (Though her skin color is a darker hue, she reminds me a lot of my own grandmother who rummaged for aluminum cans. When I was a child the recyling plant offered $0.26/lb.) Some might call it a "side job," or "supplemental income," but here on Dunn Street, picking up pecans is just another "hustle."

I live in Greater Frenchtown. If you asked an old timer, they'd tell you the house I "stay in" is in Springfield, but folks these days just call the area "D-Block" after the many streets that start with "D," Dunn, Dent, Dewey, Delaware, Dover, and several others. I'm just around the corner from old Ashmore's Antiques, if you know where that is. Interestingly, Old Man Ashmore was famous for buying the kids' pecans in exchange for candy money "back in the day."

You might think Ms Evelyn's hustle is a rariety, but truth be told, she's part of an industry. Pecans don't go to waste in my neighborhood, and it's not (just) because folks around here like pecan pie. It's an indicator, in my opinion, of my neighborhood's economic health. More than one of my neighbors live without utilities. For a while a brother was filling up a 5-gallon bucket with water at the community garden for personal use. Another gentleman up the street pushes a soapy bucket of water around in an old wheelchair. He's a windshield-washing entrepreneur. Last time I saw someone washing windshields to earn a living was in third-world Mexico. 

For the most part, the only jobs geographically available are those at externally owned businesses (Popeyes, Family Dollar, Timesaver). Typically pay is minimum or painfully close, and any wealth generated is removed to Tallahassee's outskirts at the best but more likely to corporate accounts far from town. But don't let me give the wrong impression: there aren't enough jobs to go around, even minimum wage jobs. So, how do folks make ends meet?  They hustle.*

A hustle is not a "real" job in the W-2 sense of the word, but a hustle can help patch up the economic gaps, put food on the table, keep the water running, provide the grandkids with Christmas presents. Having not one but two cars in my driveway (a sign of economic wealth around here), my doorbell is often rung by folks looking for a hustle. "Have you got any work I could do?  I need a few dollars, so I can get some chicken for lunch. Anything helps, two, three dollars."  I've hired folks to mow, rake, sweep, clean up my porch, and move brush. Kids get "little hustles" taking people's trash out. Next door, at the youth farm, folks stop by looking for hustles as well. They water, help build raised beds, weed, dig out stumps, shovel compost, anything that can justify a few dollars. Most hustles are temporary, provide daily survival income. Every once in a while, someone will find a hustle that repeats or lasts for a while, like a bumper pecan harvest.

~ ~ ~

Mr. Bellamy, President of the Frenchtown Neighborhood Improvement Association has been coordinating the Frenchtown Heritage Market for the past three years. His hope is that it could remedy the lack of access to healthy food in the neighborhood, provide a community cultural space and economic center of exchange that would improve the financial health in the area by cycling dollars internally as well as bring in outside purchasing power

From what I see, the trick to true economic development in a depressed area* is to build off of what folks are already doing, what they have, what or who they have access to and/or what they are interested in. It's asset-based business development. In other words, it's transforming hustles into businesses.  There is great potential. Pecans are but one food-based example.

[*Truth be told: it's a great economic foundation wherever you are. Read the books by Ernesto SirolliMichael Shuman and Jane Jacobs.)

Ms. Evelyn is earning forty cents a pound for her pecans. Meanwhile, pecan pieces are being sold at Publix, New Leaf, Winn Dixie for, conservatively, $10 a pound. Let's do a little math. Let's guess she picked up ten pounds every day for two months (a conservative guess). That's ~600lbs. At forty cents a pound, she made $240. Not a bad hustle.

Let's contrast this, however, with retail income. Let's imagine that half the weight that Ms Evelyn collects is shell or bad nuts, so we're assuming 300lbs of pecan pieces. 300lbs x $10/lb is $3000. Of course, there are expenses to shelling and packaging. I've heard from several sources that pecans can be "shelled and blown" for $0.50 to $1.25.  Let's say it costs 0.50 for a zip lock, and you'd have to transport your nuts to and fro the shelling location. Thus, liberally, for shelling, packaging, and transport it would cost Ms Evelyn $1.25/lb for shelling, $0.50/lb for bags, $0.25/lb for gas, or $2 per pound.* Suddenly, with 300lbs of pecan pieces at $10/lb retail with $2/lb of value added processing expenses, Ms Evelyn is looking at $8/lb profit or $2,400. A much better hustle!

[*Better yet, imagine for a moment that Ms Evelyn or someone else in the neighborhood owned the pecan processor! Then consider that they add further value to their pecans like Koinonea Partners.]

Now imagine for a moment-- because it's true-- that there are at least 15 equivalent Ms Evelyns collecting pecans in the neighborhood. Suddenly we're talking about $36,000 injected annually into a neighborhood by capitalizing on wealth that is, quite literally, falling from the sky.

As a food gardening entrepreneur and the start-up coordinator of the iGrow Whatever You Like Youth Farm, I'm surrounded by similar income projections for potential lettuce, collard green, bulk compost, and raised bed assembly hustles. Increasingly, I know the would-be entrepreneurs. My question is this:

Where are our enterprise facilitators? Where the people with an entrepreneurial spirit, a basic understanding of business finance, and a creative marketing mind who can hang at the iGrow Whatever You Like Youth Farm, in Frenchtown restaurants, groceries, and cafes and announce that they're available to "anyone with an idea" that they want to turn into a food-based business?

If you don't know about about Ernesto Sirolli's enterprise facilitation model, watch his TED Talk below. Tallahassee is ready for a food-based business economic renaissance. Current and would-be entrepreneurs just need team building and grunt assistance. The harvest is plentiful...

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