Following Leaders 5/28

This week we did a lot of our ongoing work on urban agriculture (and followed the progress of funding the National Housing Trust Fund).  But, we were also keeping an eye on issues outside our focus area that seem to have gone off the radar as a result of the BP disaster.

As we looked at innovative ways to bring the farm to the food desert and turned to our Twitter friends for resources on urban farming and portable urban agriculture, we also sought ways to support our friends working to bring relief to victims of flood in this country and fighting in another.

See you next week.

@AmpleHarvest – for ideas about how backyard gardeners can provide their extra produce to hungry people.

@BuyLocalCA – for presenting the question: what do you think the future of urban farming looks like?  And offering links that help us be part of the answer.

@minigarden – for ideas about container gardening as we researched “portable” gardens (detailed in yesterday’s blog post).

@AnarchyGarden – for a tip and contact info on community gardens in urban affordable housing.

@PlayItFwd – for assisting Tennessee flood victims with a “musical benefit for a musical city.”  The need is still there.

@cateandrebecca – for finding a way to help the war-ravaged women and children of the Democratic Republic of Congo achieve self-sustenance


You can’t take it with you…or can you?

During our search for methods to eliminate food deserts, we’ve come across some innovative ways people are bringing healthy food to low-income communities.

What happens when installing a farmers market or planting in a community garden or a yard is not an option — because there is no land available or people have to move? What if people simply need to learn how easy it is to grow their own food?

Could a garden be portable? Can education come to the people? What if the farmers market was mobile?

One artist designed an urban agriculture movable garden out of pull carts that have their own water storage. For people with no yard or who have to move often, this creative device allows them to grow their own food wherever they are. The folks at The Farm Proper in San Diego are creating pocket farms in unused lots, using shopping carts as the planters – a larger scale portable garden.

What about helping those who have yards or space to grow actually do it? A lot of people think they can’t grow food or that it’s too hard. Projects like Mobile Food Collective in Chicago are bringing the urban ag school and love of growing to the neighborhood. Their mobile unit also serves as a meeting point, seed exchange, and gardening tool shed.

Farmers markets are going mobile, too.  From veggie carts to stores on buses, produce is coming to urban food deserts. For several years, West Oakland’s People’s Grocery used a converted old postal truck (run on bio-diesel with solar-powered sound system) as a mobile market selling fresh, affordable produce at various places in the city. The Buffalo Grown Mobile Marketplace project not only brings organic, local produce to low-income communities, but also educates residents about community gardening and nutrition. Last summer, Seattle’s Mobile Market project collected produce from backyard growers, local farms and businesses in a quest to ensure “food resiliency.” (We talked a bit about community resiliency in our previous post.)

In New York City, 350 Green Carts bring fresh produce to food deserts. Plans are being made for similar carts in Chicago and Detroit.  And one of our favorites is Mark Lilly’s Farm to Family. His converted school bus brings a “unique interactive shopping/educational experience” to folks in the food deserts around Richmond, Virginia. They are a mobile micro farmers market with the motto: feeding the community one stop at a time.

Urban ag on the go! Yes, you can take it with you.

How do communities bounce back?

As we work to increase food security in low-income communities, we see a lot about the notion of “community resilience.”  Resilience means different things in different contexts. Some define it as a community’s ability to respond in the face of natural disasters or violence. Others view it as the ability to respond to global resource depletion. Nearly all agree that resilient communities “bounce back” from adversity. When a crisis occurs, these communities reclaim the sense of place that was lost. They are healthy because they have a diverse set of resources to tap into (they’ve planned for the unplannable).

Resilient communities have networks that allow them to share information when adversity strikes.  People who live here can get their community narratives heard.  They’re well-aware of “who are the people in your neighborhood” and they build meaningful relationships around that knowledge.  They promote sustainable practices that help them shape their own future – they sustain environments, sustain networks, sustain hope.

Community resiliency is small scale, local and grassroots. And it is also marked by diversity (ie: independent and local ownership).

How to get the bounce?

In general, a resilient community has physical and psychological community space – parks, town halls, social networks, political will.  Informal community space is required to get people to socialize, communicate and lead. People in resilient communities also have a sense of identity with place – it’s their home, the place they come back to.

People will be able to adapt to change if they can initiate action (ie: if they can make decisions to fix the bad things that happen).  So, we want to create those informal spaces where people interact, discover similar values, cultural customs and participate in running their community.  Local spaces like community gardens and farmers markets facilitate interactions.

A resilient community also needs the quality of life improvements that create community security.  These can be economic, safety and nutritional improvements.  We are working on improving food security to decrease food deserts and limit other food crises.  That means we have to show that growing food is not menial, but a way to strengthen a community and make it healthy.

And where does sustainability fit in?  A sustainable community is one that has resources to endure.  Resiliency is the ability to return to those strong sustainable practices in the face of difficulty.

If you build it, will they come?

Not to sound like an episode of Lost, but, if it is built, they are already there. In other words, a resilient community is already the people that have built it.  These are residents who gather in the informal community spaces.  They remember past difficulties and can explain how to survive new ones.

Food justice issues are ideally addressed at the community level. Decisions about large-scale food production have been removed from localities – especially poorer areas.  As such, decisions about who gets what and where is out of the hands of low-income communities. (We’ve talked about the resulting food deserts in past posts.) Urban agriculture has the potential to increase community resilience because it promotes meaningful relationships, sustainable practices and food security.

Is your community resilient?  It’s not always clear that even the most affluent community is.  Are your narratives heard? Do you have opportunities to engage socially with neighbors?  In the face of crisis, would your community bounce back?

Following Leaders 5/21

When I started explaining who we were following a few weeks ago, it was a way to express great appreciation. It still is. I mean, dang, tweets can provide something we actually use every day. (Sometimes those 140 characters just provide a welcome diversion.)

Our list is never exclusive, of course.  How could it be with so much great information? We don’t follow “less” who we followed last week. Indeed, the research and work we do continue to rely heavily on past followees. Certainly over time we will double-, triple- and quadruple-up our props.  This process is about letting our friends know we value them.  And how…

@Hominc – for taking the fight to the PHAs and stating the important: “Public housing authorities need a huge culture shift.” (We so needed the reminder as we compile our list of community gardens in PHAs.)

@FarmForager – for a link to a new report by the USDA Economic Research Service: “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts and Issues” that we’re using in our mapping protocol.

@NLIHC – for keeping the heat up on the National Housing Trust Fund and calls to support more affordable housing.

@Cocoxochitl – for reintroducing the wotd (word of the day) “greenlining” to our vocab and reminding us that sometimes it’s all about finding Pixies, Sonic Youth, Pavement & Radiohead all in a row.

@SilverlakeFarms – for encouraging locals to attend the Food & Flowers Freedom Act hearing at City Hall today and breaking ground on a new grow site in our ‘hood.  Go to their free Urban Farming workshop tomorrow!

@GreenzerFr – for hipping us to the fact that the French don’t want to pay more for green, either. Nous aimons le vert…pas cher!

How does a locavore SNAP?

Last week, in an attempted joke about our sustainability efforts, a low-income client said “we’re too poor to be green.” We’ve never been slow with a retort, so replied, “you’re too poor not to be.”  A weird moment. We snapped like a parent not following their conscious parenting techniques.  But, sometimes you gotta break a few eggs to get an omelet.  We need a huge omelet.

In a prior post we talked about locavorism and even a bit about “local” and how they’re not the bad words many low-income residents perceive them to be.  It is an ongoing challenge to introduce ideas about local to communities.  There is a disconnect between the belief that nutritious food is good for you and the seeking out and working with groups that help gain access to that food.  People know about the “food revolution” in kid’s schools but aren’t necessarily achieving the follow through across the community.

What’s going on in schools has been outstanding.  Children are learning valuable lesions about where their food comes from, what it can taste like, how they can become healthier.  But let’s get back home. What are the options?

Many amazing organizations are working to plant community gardens in areas.  We post upwards of 15 new gardens every week.  We’re working on a mapping protocol to identify food options in neighborhoods. Increasingly, Community Supported Agriculture, farmers markets and fresh produce outlets are coming to urban low-income neighborhoods.  But even when the CSA shares, farmers markets and fresh produce outlets do exist, there still remain barriers.  Sometimes there are class issues, but more often there are concerns about the cost of nutritious food.  Affordability.

So, part of our mapping research includes locating those markets that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits —  formerly food stamps.

In one year, SNAP usage has increased by almost 17% nationally.  People will shop where they can use these benefits.  Most states have converted the “stamps” from paper to a plastic card. Unfortunately, many of the local, fresh food providers do not have the capacity to accept this Electronic Benefits Card (EBT).  Of course, many a corner store – usually the only community option — accepts EBT.  Many a corner store also usually has no fresh produce.

The USDA administers the SNAP/EBT initiative (along with the Women, Infants and Children [WIC] Farmers Market Nutrition Program [FMNP].)  SNAP/EBT is currently available at farmers markets in 39 states, while WIC/FMNP is in 37 states. But that could literally be one market in an entire state.  There are some places, like Illinois, that have only a handful of markets that accept SNAP out of nearly 300 outlets.  But they have recently introduced legislation to get every market EBT wired.

The problem is, markets in some states find they just can’t finance the technology or manage the paperwork.  To assist with this, the USDA has initiated pilot programs to help defray costs.  In March, Congress stepped in with the innovative HR4971 “Green Food Deserts Act”. Several states are also introducing legislation to support machines at markets.

So, as we bring the farm closer to urban fork and foster locavorism in places it’s needed most, we’ll strive for a better SNAP.  The one that increases access to nutritious food options.  And we’ll try to keep the other one in check…unless you really, really make us mad.

Following Leaders 5/14

This week, we were working on innovative gardening techniques for clients.  Additionally, we continued identifying farmers markets that accept Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Ultimately, we’ll have an extensive directory to include with our mapping project. And, our work always includes keeping abreast of housing and homeless policy.  The friends we follow today have all helped us achieve these goals this week (and provided a happy reminder of why we garden).

See you next week.

willamettenhs – for links to a report summarizing a national survey on state modernizaton efforts regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

UrbanFarmMag – for the crop profiles we found on their website that helped us help our clients

TheAgUrbanite – for reviewing a guerilla gardening project for children and adults who live in the inner city (and giving us ideas about how to get our clients involved in something similar).

Naehomelessness – for calls to appropriate $165 million to Runaway Homeless Youth Act and keeping on top of McKinney-Vento funding

LAFarmGirl – for great pictures of first sugar snap peas of the season!

Blech + a = bleach

This week, the powers that be (PTB) at our OriginalGreen project got sick.  We don’t know what it was, but it was mercifully short (a mere 48 hours) and only marked by a high fever (apparently 103.8 in an adult is bad).  In researching ways to keep areas clean and safe from any icky things the PTB might spread, we kept getting the same solution: bleach.

May is Asthma Awareness Month in the U.S., and May 4th was World Asthma Day. It’s also Clean-Recipe Tuesday at our OG project, so it seemed the universe was conspiring to have us talk about this bleach thing.

Do you really have to use it?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: No. Okay, longer answer…Bleach, the typical household chlorine bleach, contains about 5% sodium hypochlorite. It can exacerbate or trigger respiratory problems like asthma.  It can make a lethal gas if mixed with ammonia. It can be toxic to fish if it reaches the waterways. Some studies show reproductive and neurological toxicity in humans.

What to use then? Three percent hydrogen peroxide can be added to laundry whites instead of bleach. Use it to sterilize cuts and abrasions. A teaspoon in a cup of water and you’ve got mouthwash. For killing bacteria like E.coli on produce, and for sanitizing food prep surfaces against Salmonella, Shigella and E.coli, spritz hydrogen peroxide and follow with a spritz of vinegar. (Keep them in separate containers.)  Obviously, there are places where infection control regulations demand use of bleach – hospitals, schools, public pools, etc.  But, your home (presumably) isn’t one of them!

If you’d like something called “bleach,” there’s non-chlorine bleach – sodium percarbonate/perborate — and places like Ecover, Seventh Generation and Shaklee carry versions.

For even more bang for your non-bleach buck – buy unbleached products.  It’s commercial bleaching activities that significantly pollute the environment.

So, the PTB wiped everything down with our non-bleach solution, and nobody – sea monkeys, indoor jalapeños, assorted humans – said blech.  We bet you won’t either.

Following leaders 5/7

Last week we said it’s the passion and commitment that we see in tweets that educates, astounds, saddens, and inspires us – sometimes all at the same time! We’ve always wanted to explain why we follow whom we follow on Fridays.

For low-income people, hunger and overall health relates directly to access to affordable housing. This week, we’ve been doing deeper level work on this subject, and thanks to our Twitter friends, we’ve been able to find some really compelling and useful resources. We were also reminded that it’s the little things that get us through the big events.

See you next week.

@vermonthousing – for reminding us about HUD’s delayed publication of income limits and a link to an article summarizing “Rx for Hunger: Affordable Housing” which helped us parse through the actual report.

@UrbanFarming – for helpful tweets about urban cities’ efforts to eliminate hunger and for encouraging folks to donate their excess harvests.

@invisiblepeople – for news about a farmer’s donation of land to feed the poor and thusly hipping us to the folks at @csproject.

@gaiapunk – for what seem like a zillion urban permaculture links that have helped us frame solutions to combating hunger in affordable housing.

@chtrust – for always wonderful affordable housing work and for acknowledging our 10th birthday (who doesn’t love a greeting?).

@arsculinaria – for tweeting on practicing local food tenets even while experiencing water restrictions in flood ravaged Nashville. Be well.

Ten years down…

February 2000, I was working for a Washington, D.C. non-profit, as an organizational development specialist. A fancy title for someone helping low-income people organize around housing policy issues in their communities. Thanks to the President, most know it as “community organizer.”

For two years beforehand, I worked with residents in 45 states. I even traveled to 30 or so of them (yep, even Hawai’i). I loved rabblerousing and working with people. It was great…then came February. I was told the program I was organizing was transitioning into something else. Less housing oriented, more jobs focused.

I’ve never been one to just “let things happen” to me or the things I care about.  I knew there was still housing work to be done.  There always is, right?  So, me being me, I decided to start my own non-profit. How hard could it be?  Submit some documents, tell a story, find some board members, register here, open an account there. And surprisingly, by May 5, 2000, I was in line at the corporations division getting incorporated. Three months later, we were an official 501c3 non-profit.

Do things really happen that fast?  They can. But I know sometimes they don’t. It’s been ten years.  People still suffer from poor housing conditions.  People still don’t have enough to eat.  People still need help.

So, on this tenth birthday, I’m happy we’re still here to help. And happy for opportunities to show how affordable housing relates to good health and less hunger.  It’s an added reward that the benefits of the green revolution stretch across race, gender and socio-economic status. Indeed every cleaning method and food security idea we share is good for everyone. Low-income people benefit most because their resources are already so limited.  And, being “green” is as old school and cheap as it gets.  Remember (or at least did you learn about) Victory Gardens? How did great grandmama get things spotless?  Everything old really is new again.  And I am loving guiding home&community inc through it all.

Happy Birthday to us, and so long as there’s a need, many, many more…