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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Shout Out for Good Work

Sometimes I feel like a broken record.  Nonetheless, I'm going to say it again: there is SO much good work being done locally as it relates to the food movement, as it relates to building a resilient community-based food system*.  When I consider highlighting great work and to whom to offer thanks, I am often at a loss because I don't know where to start.

Allow me to chronicle the list by memory and dates as I've encountered the food movement recently.

April 13th, I met with Betsy Henderson at her Dunn Street property (currently a vacant lot); she dreams of a thriving French Town Community Garden that involves both young and old, hosts community food workshops, provides space to local churches to raise food for the hungry, and hosts periodic cook outs where neighbors can meet neighbors.

April 14th, via the coordination of Ms Miaisha Mitchell of the Frenchtown Revitilization Council and Harriette Hudson with Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, I conducted a workshop at TMH with Health Ministry leaders from area churches interested in investigating the potential of starting church gardens.

That weekend, Esposito Garden Center hosted me for a Food Gardening 101 workshop.  Later in the day, I attended Damayan's Shakespeare Garden celebration at Lichgate. Later that evening, I attended the Red Hills Small Farms Alliance Kick Off at Turkey Hill Farm where they announced the launch of the Red Hills Online Farmers Market, which greatly facilitates the purchase and sale of local food-- likely to take our local food distribution system to the next level.
April 23rd, 47 folks joined at the Havana Community Gardens for the 2nd Annual Community Garden Gathering of the Big Bend where folks heard how the Havana gardens got started, shared ideas, stories and lunch. Additionally, Damon Miller, coordinator of the FAMU Community Garden reported on their 79 plots on Orange Ave, and invited everyone out for the FAMU C.G. Open House on May 28th.  Thanks to Jennifer Taylor of the FAMU Small Farms program, Miaisha Mitchell with the Frenchtown Revitalization Council and the Havana community gardeners for co-organizing this event with me.  Here's a couple pictures:

The last week in April, FBMC launched (to my knowledge) the first company food garden in town.  I hear the Florida Commerce Credit Union is also discussing the possibility.

Over the course of late April and Early May, Working Well, Crawfordville Elementary, and New St Johns AME church hosted me for gardening workshops.  Can I mention that at Crawfordville, little miss Madison- known as the "class priss"- helped me out with my presentation by walking around with worms in her hands to accentuate my discussion about soil micro organisms?  Can I also mention that all 285 kids that cycled through my workshop space got their hands in the compost, planted a green bean seed, and pretended to make it rain by snapping, clapping, stomping and "thundering"?  And later, that they pretended to eat a giant bowl of vegetables like "Vegetable Monsters" akin to the Cookie Monster?  Here's a few pictures.

Did I mention that the Crawfordville Elementary workshops took place immediately adjacent to their beautiful school garden?  There's one 4'x16' raised bed for each grade level.  Just wonderful:

Sat, May 7th, Fort Braden Community Garden hosted visitors for their Open House.  Their garden is awesome!  With (40) 15'x15' plots, their entire garden is 100'x200'.  From the community feel to the deer fence, the information kiosk to the tidy pathways between all their beds, the Fort Braden Community Garden is a sight to see.  Sarah Smith and Dave Watkins, gardeners, shared, "Our meetings always turn into idea sharing sessions where we report our our different experiments and teach each other about things like how to avoid using chemicals."  This simple story in itself is enough to cause me to sing Fort Braden's praises.  What a learning space!  Here are a few pictures:

I love these refurb'ed chairs.

Ms Dorothy insisted that we take an American Gothic picture. What a hoot! Fun lady.

Saturday, May 14th, SouthWood will break ground on their Community Garden, approved for Town Center, across from Early's.  Take a look at their snazzy flier:

To wrap up, again I'll say: "There's a lot going on."  What I've reported hardly comes close to giving a full picture of the Tallahassee-area food movement.  Just Saturday at Fort Braden, I met a man named George with aspirations to start an agricultural rehab center.  There's talk of--and a proposed design for-- a Frenchtown-based urban agriculture job-training/re-entry program for women incarcerated at FCI Women's Prison who will soon re-join the community.  I hear there are new gardens getting started at Killarn Lakes Elementary and Kate Sullivan; a group of high schoolers in Frenchtown will soon start a food gardening entrepreneurship program; the Social Work grad students at FAMU are starting a youth gardening program; folks in Indianhead Acres are brainstorming with Hartsfield Elementary about how neighbors might could supplement the cafeteria fare with homegrown produce.  The examples are endless.  The local food movement is rising.

*Resilient Community Based Food Systems: community and church gardens, a local food industry of thriving local farms and busy farmers' markets, retailers that emphasize healthy and local options, CSAs, cooperatively organized local growers, school gardens, company gardens, countless home gardening workshops and classes, city farms, innovative urban agricultural demonstrations, food security efforts that address quality, backyard and industrial scaled compost operations, seed saving, food prep education, etc. You know the list.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

New Company Garden at FBMC

In late March, I reported on the Nemours Clinic Community Garden in Jacksonville.  Less than a month later, I presented to Working Well, a "community-wide initiative...dedicated to creating a healthy workforce in Leon County."  Though the presentation was lively, and folks were joking and laughing, the real excitement began a few days before the presentation.  Glenda Atkinson with FBMC Benefits Management contacted me by email to see if I would assist FBMC's Wellness Team in developing a company employ garden.


The day after the Working Well presentation (details available here), I visited with Glenda at FBMC to explore their space, sunlight, and discuss food garden design possibilities.

She asked that I put together something-- including a garden layout-- that she could take to her administration for approval.  I drafted a proposal that night.

Then, three to four days later, after securing admin approval, we set up a time for the Wellness Team and I to get the food garden in the ground.  We decided that I'd start the process in the AM by constructing and installing the raised bed frames.  Second, I'd stage a giant pile of compost adjacent to the beds so gardening employees could do the shoveling.

That same afternoon, at 3pm, Glenda, I and 10-12 other FBMC employees joined together in the conference room. 

After a brief conversation about seasonally appropriate vegetable varieties and a review of our garden map, the real work began:

Once we filled the beds with compost mix, I conducted a food garden planting workshop.  We discussed (and demonstrated) how deep to plant tomatoes, how far apart to space peppers, how to plant green bean seeds, how many sunflowers to put in each hole, how much to water, etc.  Everyone got to get their hands dirty!

We concluded the garden work party with a Q & A session:

What a fun project!  What cool folks!  There are not too many people that a)will shovel compost in their heels or b)bring a pair of work clothes with them to the office for a garden workshop.  Kudos to FBMC on their new company garden!

And the best part: I get to go back every month over the summer to check on the garden's progress.  May 18th, I return for a mini-workshop on vertical growing and pest management.

Why Being a Foodie Isn’t ‘Elitist’ - By Eric Schlosser, April 29, Washington Post

A friend shared this article on my FB page a couple days ago.  It is the most articulate and emcompassing article I've read about the food movement's benefits-- as well as a rebuttal against the centralized food system's attempts to hedge in our community garden, health, small-scale/sustainable agriculture, community-based food systems, nutrition, farmers' market... (i.e. food movement) work.  It's worth the read.  If you're looking for an article to pass to friends and family to demonstrate the extent of the food movement and the corresponding need for us to recreate resilient community based food systems, this is a worthy candidate.

(If you'd prefer to read it on the Washington Post's website, click here.)

Why being a foodie isn’t ‘elitist’ 
- By Eric Schlosser, April 29, Washington Post

At the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting this year, Bob Stallman, the group’s president, lashed out at “self-appointed food elitists” who are “hell-bent on misleading consumers.” His target was the growing movement that calls for sustainable farming practices and questions the basic tenets of large-scale industrial agriculture in America.

The “elitist” epithet is a familiar line of attack. In the decade since my book “Fast Food Nation” was published, I’ve been called not only an elitist, but also a socialist, a communist and un-American. In 2009, the documentary “Food, Inc.,” directed by Robby Kenner, was described as “elitist foodie propaganda” by a prominent corporate lobbyist. Nutritionist Marion Nestle has been called a “food fascist,” while an attempt was recently made to cancel a university appearance by Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” who was accused of being an “anti-agricultural” elitist by a wealthy donor.

This name-calling is a form of misdirection, an attempt to evade a serious debate about U.S. agricultural policies. And it gets the elitism charge precisely backward. America’s current system of food production — overly centralized and industrialized, overly controlled by a handful of companies, overly reliant on monocultures, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, chemical additives, genetically modified organisms, factory farms, government subsidies and fossil fuels — is profoundly undemocratic. It is one more sign of how the few now rule the many. And it’s inflicting tremendous harm on American farmers, workers and consumers.

During the past 40 years, our food system has changed more than in the previous 40,000 years. Genetically modified corn and soybeans, cloned animals, McNuggets — none of these technological marvels existed in 1970. The concentrated economic power now prevalent in U.S. agriculture didn’t exist, either. For example, in 1970 the four largest meatpacking companies slaughtered about 21 percent of America’s cattle; today the four largest companies slaughter about 85 percent. The beef industry is more concentrated now than it was in 1906, when Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle” and criticized the unchecked power of the “Beef Trust.” The markets for pork, poultry, grain, farm chemicals and seeds have also become highly concentrated.

America’s ranchers and farmers are suffering from this lack of competition for their goods. In 1970, farmers received about 32 cents for every consumer dollar spent on food; today they get about 16 cents. The average farm household now earns about 87 percent of its income from non-farm sources.

While small farmers and their families have been forced to take second jobs just to stay on their land, wealthy farmers have received substantial help from the federal government. Between 1995 and 2009, about $250 billion in federal subsidies was given directly to American farmers — and about three-quarters of that money was given to the wealthiest 10 percent. Those are the farmers whom the Farm Bureau represents, the ones attacking “big government” and calling the sustainability movement elitist.

Food industry workers are also bearing the brunt of the system’s recent changes. During the 1970s, meatpackers were among America’s highest-paid industrial workers; today they are among the lowest paid. Thanks to the growth of fast-food chains, the wages of restaurant workers have fallen, too. The restaurant industry has long been the largest employer of minimum-wage workers. Since 1968, thanks in part to the industry’s lobbying efforts, the real value of the minimum wage has dropped by 29 percent.

Migrant farmworkers have been hit especially hard. They pick the fresh fruits and vegetables considered the foundation of a healthy diet, but they are hardly well-rewarded for their back-breaking labor. The wages of some migrants, adjusted for inflation, have dropped by more than 50 percent since the late 1970s. Many grape-pickers in California now earn less than their counterparts did a generation ago, when misery in the fields inspired Cesar Chavez to start the United Farm Workers Union.

While workers are earning less, consumers are paying for this industrial food system with their health. Young children, the poor and people of color are being harmed the most. During the past 40 years, the obesity rate among American preschoolers has doubled. Among children ages 6 to 11, it has tripled. Obesity has been linked to asthma, cancer, heart disease and diabetes, among other ailments. Two-thirds of American adults are obese or overweight, and economists from Cornell and Lehigh universities have estimated that obesity is now responsible for 17 percent of the nation’s annual medical costs, or roughly $168 billion.

African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites, and more likely to be poor. As upper-middle-class consumers increasingly seek out healthier foods, fast-food chains are targeting low-income minority communities — much like tobacco companies did when wealthy and well-educated people began to quit smoking.

Some aspects of today’s food movement do smack of elitism, and if left unchecked they could sideline the movement or make it irrelevant. Consider the expensive meals and obscure ingredients favored by a number of celebrity chefs, the snobbery that often oozes from restaurant connoisseurs, and the obsessive interest in exotic cooking techniques among a certain type of gourmand.

Those things may be irritating. But they generally don’t sicken or kill people. And our current industrial food system does.

Children under age 4 are the most vulnerable to food-borne pathogens and to pesticide residues in food. According to a report by Georgetown University and the Pew Charitable Trusts, the annual cost of food-borne illness in the United States is about $152 billion. That figure does not include the cost of the roughly 20,000 annual deaths from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

One of the goals of the Farm Bureau Federation is to influence public opinion. In addition to denying the threat of global warming and attacking the legitimacy of federal environmental laws, the Farm Bureau recently created an entity called the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance to “enhance public trust in our food supply.” Backed by a long list of powerful trade groups, the alliance also plans to “serve as a resource to food companies” seeking to defend current agricultural practices.

But despite their talk of openness and trust, the giants of the food industry rarely engage in public debate with their critics. Instead they rely on well-paid surrogates — or they file lawsuits. In 1990, McDonald’s sued a small group called London Greenpeace for criticizing the chain’s food, starting a legal battle that lasted 15 years. In 1996, Texas cattlemen sued Oprah Winfrey for her assertion that mad cow disease might have come to the United States, and kept her in court for six years. Thirteen states passed “veggie libel laws” during the 1990s to facilitate similar lawsuits. Although the laws are unconstitutional, they remain on the books and serve their real purpose: to intimidate critics of industrial food.

In the same spirit of limiting public awareness, companies such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical have blocked the labeling of genetically modified foods, while the meatpacking industry has prevented the labeling of milk and meat from cloned animals. If genetic modification and cloning are such wonderful things, why aren’t companies eager to advertise the use of these revolutionary techniques?

The answer is that they don’t want people to think about what they’re eating. The survival of the current food system depends upon widespread ignorance of how it really operates. A Florida state senator recently introduced a bill making it a first-degree felony to take a photograph of any farm or processing plant — even from a public road — without the owner’s permission. Similar bills have been introduced in Minnesota and Iowa, with support from Monsanto.

The cheapness of today’s industrial food is an illusion, and the real cost is too high to pay. While the Farm Bureau Federation clings to an outdated mind-set, companies such as Wal-Mart, Danone, Kellogg’s, General Mills and Compass have invested in organic, sustainable production. Insurance companies such as Kaiser Permanente are opening farmers markets in low-income communities. Whole Foods is demanding fair labor practices, while Chipotle promotes the humane treatment of farm animals. Urban farms are being planted by visionaries such as Milwaukee’s Will Allen; the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is defending the rights of poor migrants; Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is fighting to improve the lives of food-service workers; and Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver and first lady Michelle Obama are pushing for healthier food in schools.

Calling these efforts elitist renders the word meaningless. The wealthy will always eat well. It is the poor and working people who need a new, sustainable food system more than anyone else. They live in the most polluted neighborhoods. They are exposed to the worst toxic chemicals on the job. They are sold the unhealthiest foods and can least afford the medical problems that result.

A food system based on poverty and exploitation will never be sustainable.

Eric Schlosser is the author of “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and a co-producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Food, Inc.”

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