Following Leaders 6/25

Have you ever had a week that was just so full of stuff that your head spun? I think I can safely say that you have.  If you’re human, using social networking/interwebs, trying to change the world…I know you have.

This week, was like that.  This week, there were so many things to research on so many subjects.  Then, a new thing would pop up and much like the dogs in Pixar’s UP, it was like someone shouting “squirrel!” Instant distraction…off in another, kind-of-related, direction.

So, this week it was all about homelessness and low-income housing, rainwater and floods, sharing and innovating.  See? All over the place, but undoubtedly related.  These friends made it work.

@homeaidamerica – for work to help the suddenly homeless and a link to an article on framing homelessness politically.

@LISC_HQ – for a report on the value of low-income housing tax credits in NYC.

@PushingGreen – for a post on harvesting rainwater and a great collaboration with Trees for the Future.

@PlayItFwd and @musicjoshsmith – for working so hard to help Nashville flood victims, and keeping them on the radar.

@YesMagazine – for a great reminder about the value of sharing and the 10 ways our world is becoming more shareable.

@SlowFoodUSA – for tweets on bringing the food revolution to low-income communities through an innovative “people’s choice” CSA program.


Slow Food on $68.88

Is a Slow Food lifestyle possible if you’re poor? What about if you’re on food stamps? Some people seem to think so. They prepare and grow their own food, buy local and buy cheaply.

A bit ago, we talked about Local not being a four-letter word, and how some clients resisted the concept. Lately, some folks have resuscitated the “we’re too poor to be green” protest in response to the Slow Food Movement. So, we set out to explore Slow Food on a (very low) budget.

First, what do we mean by Slow Food Movement?  Basically, raising and growing food on our own, or obtaining fresh food from local sources…Using those ingredients to prepare nutritious meals…Celebrating and enjoying simplicity in food.

Here’s what we found.

It’s not easy achieving a Slow Food diet with Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits (a.k.a. food stamps).  The average weekly SNAP payment for a family of four is $68.88.  I am often told that there are other things besides food that get paid, like the light bill, kids’ coats, gas for the car.  Some folks don’t have a home or a kitchen to cook in. People working 2 or 3 jobs might not have the energy to cook, much less celebrate and enjoy the simplicity of food, after a 16 hour day.

But, for the last argument, there are some solutions. Planning is key.  Preparing meals beforehand, when there is time, is an option.  Learning how to prepare quick, easy, nutritious meals is imperative.  (Rice, vegetables and beans or meat can be quick and don’t require hovering.  Watched pot never boils, and all that.)  Cooking isn’t as hard or time consuming as a lot of people have been told (especially as told by fast food companies).  Also, let’s not forget all the people who used to cook after long days in the field or factory.

Being able to do the above requires education – either from growing up surrounded by simple cooking or learning from others later in life.  Some of that education includes creative recipes and cooking from scratch.  It’s also eating the food that is bought without wasting.  And, something we push is growing a garden or gleaning.

We also found some documented efforts to live on food stamps. In one, a couple took on a “Slow Food for the Poor Challenge” (also know as a Food Stamp Challenge) and sought to eat for a week on a food stamp budget of 61.87 for two people. They did, supplementing with their small garden and shopping only at local farmers markets and other local food outlets.  But, it didn’t seem they had to deal with the other realities of being poor like the lights, coats, gas.

So, is a Slow Food lifestyle possible?  Probably, if a really concerted effort is taken to do it.  But, that concerted effort requires all of us to share our own ideas and time.  And, I suppose that’s why we’re here…

Balancing our sound diet

We spend a lot of time here working on ways to expand food choice and access for low-income residents.  That choice and access includes community and home gardens and urban farms. It’s about health, nutrition and diet. But I read something this week that got me thinking about the ways food production by individuals can have benefits beyond the physical. Gardening and farming can be spiritually “nutritional,” and that can serve our clients, too.

It is fairly settled that big cities don’t sleep very long or well. They aren’t quiet. The bustle might slow down, but doesn’t stop. It’s not that there’s more noise than other times (um, Industrial Revolution anyone?), but there seem to be fewer areas of silence. And, I’m the last one to say there’s anything wrong with the sounds of an active city. But, it is also fairly settled that humans need quiet, too.  Not the sad quiet of loneliness or solitariness or separation. But, the aloneness, solitude and separateness of focused observation.  Meditation.

George Prochnik says a balanced sound diet requires noise and silence, and we can “improve our sound diet by adding to our intake of natural sounds.”  Ohh, let’s think of natural garden sounds as our aural organic food!  “Quiet” isn’t sad in this context, it’s joyful and health-inspiring. Indeed, a Science Daily article attests that it only takes five minutes to get the benefit of gardening – it improves mood and brings general well-being.

Another reason to work a garden (or farm)? A garden’s relative quiet helps you listen.  You hear things differently – discovering and observing through sound. And things slow down there, too.  You can’t just pull things willy nilly.  Harvesting and weeding take care and precision. People also seem to pay attention to other people.

So, how can a garden or farm help us discover more of the good in a city? How does it expand our attention? How do the focus, observation and care found there alter the way we perceive the rest of the community? Well, we need to experience gardens and farms over and over to really know them…their quirks and needs. That is what it takes to see the details of the place.  And through that practice, one begins to notice the other details of a city and community.

How does any of this help us help our clients?  Well, maybe our residents have the potential to take different stock of their entire community – the details — and find things they want to replicate.  Maybe, just maybe, access to a balanced sound diet, like a balanced food diet, can improve entire communities. Please sir, I want some more (natural sounds)!

Following Leaders 6/18

This week, we learned a lotA lot.  We always look for ways to bring the innovative ideas of Twitter friends, to our low-income clients.  Part of leveling playing fields is pouring more dirt (or housing or food) onto the other field.  We saw the usual concepts this week, like sustainability, food security and community…along with some we don’t often see, like cohousing, silence and privatization.

Our friends are doing important work out there that we’re committed to sharing and making relevant for our clients.

Look how they helped us…

@GraceKimArch – for tweets this week on the National Cohousing Conference in Boulder, and inspiring us to think about a different way to bring sustainability to low-income communities.

@LocalDirt – for great links to local food resources and a helpful article on Community Supported Kitchens.  Perhaps another viable way to bring local food and economic improvement to low-income communities.

@COTSvt – for being finalists in the Changemakers competition, with an innovative plan to reduce family homelessness through prevention.  Keeping people in their homes. We are so about that!

@newurbanhabitat – for a reminder about the value of silence and living locally by discovering what’s right outside our door.  What intriguing concepts for our clients, who mostly live in urban areas.  (Don’t be surprised to see a future blog post on this.)

@WLIHA – for information about where to get details on HUD’s PETRA legislation.  Is it privatization of housing? Will it displace residents? This directly affects many of our clients, so we are glad for any new resource.

Future Farmers of America?

The average age of the American farmer is 57 years old.

In the last post we wrote about Home Ec and how it’s one way young people can be involved in gardening and sustainability.  But, outside of middle and high school, who are the future farmers of America? What is their effect on the sustainable gardening movement and how might they be the best bet for bringing gardening practice to low-income communities?

First, let’s suss out who GenY is. Sometimes called the Millenials, Generation Next, Echo Boomers…  Okay, it’s generally all the people born between 1978 – 1995, or thereabouts.  They’ve been hearing the message about being Green and sustainable, from a very young age.  One third are multicultural with nearly 45% identifying as either Latino or Black.  They’re apparently really interested in gardening, too.  But not the way their parents and grandparents have been.

Last year at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts festival, a National Gardening Association survey found a 28% increase in gardening among people 18-34 years old.  In that survey, 90% of the Millenials said they were involved in some kind of gardening.

Some argue that the Bonnaroo kids surveyed are of a “certain” demographic and don’t accurately reflect the overall interest of everyone in the group. Indeed, the music festival bunch has been described as: a “new-millennium hippie variety: J. Crew-clad weekend warriors, tie-dyed longhairs and the ubiquitous trustafarians—white kids with dreadlocks and their folks’ credit cards.” (Man, isn’t every new generation some kind of hippie?)

But we do know that as a group, GenY is Millenials are buying Green cars, Green clothes, Green this and Green that…and seem to be really into Green green. They pay attention to companies that have sustainable and/or socially responsible messages, and those born in the 1990’s tend to highly influence their parents’ eco purchases.

We’re thinking about how the gardening interest of these “kids” is useful in our work with low-income residents.

One thing that stands out about GenY the Millenials is a collective interest in acting with sustainability in mind. They’re more philanthropic, and, of course, using more technology to make things happen.  Looking at their gardening habits, one finds innovative use of land. Gardens and farming are done less on large rural farms and more in urban settings. The garden isn’t an art piece, it’s a product. It is another way that they can express their social responsibility, philanthropy and lifestyle choices.

How can we tap into this different way of gardening? How do we bring those ideals into low-income communities? First, we can remember that this group is tech savvy, loving the process, with an expectation of immediate results. But a garden is not fast. That means satisfaction might be drawn from using technology to advance the process – how to grow what, and how much, where; how am I contributing to sustainability; how is the community benefiting; what connections can be made between communities and between myself and communities; what good can be done with the garden harvest; etc. etc.

With networks in place, these future farmers are in position to create and sustain far-reaching and diverse connections in our urban gardens.  Oh, and in case you wanted to know, all those up-and-coming elementary school gardeners are members of the iGen.

Homemaking after the apocalypse

What would most people do in the face of the apocalypse? Okay, maybe just in the face of having minimal access to resources? That was our thought after reading a tweet from a Twitter friend this week.  In 140 characters she said “Put Home Ec back into curriculum. It’s sorely needed — we need EVERYONE to be better at cooking their own food, mending, fixing etc.”

We agree, more Home Economics.  More self-sufficiency.  But, it can’t be the one most of us remember. Not just girls, not just sewing curtains and ruffly skirts and hems, not just making a béchamel sauce, not just home management.  It also can’t just be the one promoted by the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (the only organization dedicated to Home Ec professionals).  The AAFCS curriculum includes instruction on family values, resource acquisition and management, diet, conflict resolution, parenting skills and pregnancy prevention.  (I definitely do not remember the last one in my Home Ec classes.)

A new Home Economics has to include real, century 21 stuff like general finance management, basic handy work (sewing and structure repair), cooking and growing local food and cleaning with natural products.

Some have tried to fill the void by providing online homekeeping resources, or opening storefronts to encourage homecrafts (sometimes with don’t-miss-the-point names).  Others have created “upscale Home Ec” programs to teach urban kids how to make baby mesclun salad and cilantro bay scallops.  But a new Home Ec needs to be century 21 and relevant.

The first issue is getting that kind of Home Ec into schools when so many programs (anyone remember Art?) are being cut.  Well, what about linking it to the school garden movement? As kids learn about growing food, why not teach them nutrition (an apple is better than apple juice) and cooking and household time management?  I mean, cooking from scratch doesn’t have to be time consuming.  I can make a zillion things from scratch in the same time it takes to put together a complete meal from pre-packaged items. And, I don’t even own a microwave. Shoooot, don’t tell me about time!

Maybe finance management, natural cleaning, sewing and structure repair can be included in school garden time as: marketing produce; natural pest abatement and surface disinfection; work aprons or dish insulators; arbors and sheds.

Home Ec can further integrate sustainability into students’ home life by bringing into the home what wasn’t passed down from parents. I was lucky, I saw both grandmothers garden, built things with my father, and my mother made a huge percentage of my clothes (although I was totally bummed out by the “designer” jeans she made with my own name on them in 1979.  SW on the pocket was not Sasson.)  Kids probably don’t want handmade jeans, but being able to fix a hole instead of buying a new “one of whatevers” is invaluable.  Cleaning without toxins, not only keeps you healthy but is way cheaper ($2 for several months worth of cleaner versus $12 for a few bottles of pre-packaged cleaner).

The apocalypse? I know I would be okay because I can cook and grow lots of things from scratch.  I can sew (I’ve got a sewing machine AND needles, gasp!), and I’ve done plumbing, drywalling and even a little whittling.  Heck, I was even the only girl in shop class…but that’s another blog.  The question is, would you be okay? (No, you can’t come to my house.)

Following Leaders 6/11

Another Friday brings another opportunity to tell everyone exactly how we appreciate our Twitter friends.  This was some week.  I’m one of those people who reads nearly every tweet because there’s just too much to miss.  A few got me really excited because they touched on how to deal with issues we’re interested in here at h&c: urban farming stigma in the black community and indoor air quality standards in LEED.  Others led to public peach trees (mmmm! peach pie) and images of old-school community organizing.

If you’re at all interested in community, local food and green living, then you’ve got to check out these folks!

@GOOD – for a lead on how LEED approaches indoor air quality, something we’ve been talking about but hadn’t seen anything substantive on.  It’s so exciting to see a major report about this (and a follow-up letter from USGBC seeking dialogue!).

@fallenfruit – for always good info on where to glean, and for helping us picture Los Angeles as a giant public garden.  Plus, we’re always down for a Fruit Jam!

@LeoRomero – for introducing us to Our Blocks where we found stories about neighborhood building (real best practices and case studies!) which will help us in our ongoing inquiry into urban ag in black communities along with our affordable housing work.

@TheCityFarmer – for a link to a Grist article on diversity in urban farming that included the best quote we saw all week: “The only generalization left after this long day is that the people in these gardens look comfortable and connected, as if they’re at home.”

@NYCHomesteading – for photos reminding us that sometimes you just have to take it to the streets.

Time to clear the air…

Part of our overall strategy to bring sustainable practices to low-income communities includes improving indoor air quality (IAQ).  For a lot of organizations working on IAQ in affordable housing, that means advocating for better building materials. There are several programs and certifications that require green materials in the construction and maintenance of buildings.  Best known among these is the LEED certification developed by the US Green Building Council.

When we first heard about the USGBC’s new certification for affordable housing, we were ecstatic.  Okay, maybe really, really happy.  Finally, green standards for affordable units. Finally, improved living conditions for low-income residents. The EPA ranks indoor air pollution the fourth highest public health risk – often worse to breathe than outdoor air. Many toxins are in the structure itself (carpet, fiberboard, paint), which the imposition of green construction standards addresses.  But, other toxins include pesticides, smoke and cleaning solvents, which are resident driven.

The LEED certification does not include a requirement in its rating system for educating residents about ways to improve indoor air quality.  When we saw this article on LEED yesterday, it was like wow, someone else is finally talking about this IAQ thing.  Yes, wouldn’t it be great if the certification included a requirement for improving environmental health and maybe even educating residents.  We would love (yes, love, not just really, really like) a program like that — whether it mandated a full-on Promotora program, like at Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, where residents are trained to educate other residents about green cleaning, or an in-home environmental intervention conducted by a health organization, or even an introductory talk required of all new residents, to explain the benefits and ease of using natural products to clean their homes.

But, and this is a big but, the fact is LEED is a building and construction standard.  It isn’t about resident lifestyles.  But, much in the way cities require builders to meet certain LEED standards, maybe those cities can also make education about improving indoor air quality (whether for residents or commercial tenants) part of the local requirement to receive tax credits and other incentives.  People can be encouraged to use natural products (baking soda, vinegar, lemon, air filtering plants) and all commercial cleaning/maintenance would be required to be green certified.

We’ve written a Clean Cookbook with recipes for naturally cleaning everything from ovens to toilets.  And, we post a new Clean Recipe nearly every Tuesday on our OriginalGreen Facebook page (under the Discussions tab).  Soon, we’ll deliver this book to residents in housing developments along with a few natural products to get them started.

Our ultimate goal is to change policy in green building and standards for low-income and affordable housing, so that they mandate this type of education.  It’s great that the building is “green” but when the indoor air quality in some units can be 100 times more polluted than outdoor air quality, we think it’s time to clear the air and fulfill what we call a “whole home” philosophy.

More SHAREcropping

In a prior post we talked about Local being the province of the poor…in the past.  Now, we’d like to elaborate a little on one aspect of that “past.” When clients are asked about growing their own food, the reaction is sometimes one of surprise and incredulity.  Sometimes there’s even a question: You mean like sharecropping?

Since the mid 20th century, people of color (primarily blacks) moved away from the system of farming called sharecropping. In theory, sharecropping was supposed to benefit both the landowner and the worker.  The landowner reaped the benefits of the crop while the worker got paid for a share of the crops. Of course, historically – from Reconstruction to the mid-20th century that is – sharecropping was a system that took advantage of black farmers and often found them abused and hugely indebted to landowners.  So, it’s less than amusing to most clients to hear people calling the current local food movement “urban sharecropping” or referring to their backyards as plantations.

But, urban farming is a necessary component of a sustainable community – one that has its own food resources and food security.  Unfortunately, that message is getting lost in a loaded word.

The problems of obesity and food insecurity are primarily in low-income communities, especially those of color.  So the solutions need to be there, too.  The first step is getting people that look like those in the community to bring the message of urban agriculture there.  Thankfully, there are more than a few options.

Will Allen is most known among these “options.”  The child of sharecroppers and a MacArthur Fellow, he is working to reduce the stigma farming carries in these communities.  He says that it’s “crucial they see faces that look like their own,” and that it’s essential the urban agriculture movement be “truly multi cultural.”

As a Minnesota Department of Agriculture consultant, Collie Graddick is advocating for urban farms, urban gardening and urban food systems as a way to bring economic improvement to low-income communities of color.  As he puts it, getting a food system in place isn’t a chancy proposition.  It’s a proven one.  People “already know that is works, because we sit at the table and eat everyday.”

Then there’s Reginald Fagan who I met at the Urban Agriculture symposium in Los Angeles last Thursday.  He’s setting up the Timbuktu Resource Center and Learning Academy, to involve youth in sustainable agriculture in Compton, California.  During the Q&A session, he frankly observed the handful of black faces in the audience to prove that there really is a trend that needs reversing. Time ran short, but I heard people commenting on the way out that they wished he’d been given more time to speak.  So, it’s clear that people of all backgrounds are ready to hear about and help grow a diverse urban agriculture movement.  But where to start on solutions?

Can the word be re-appropriated?

One of the first tasks is to dispel myths in the community about farming the land.  Most people on the frontline of this part of the movement say it starts with the kids – a generation that doesn’t necessarily attach the same stigma to farming.  Indeed, each man mentioned above has taken a similar approach in their respective organizations. Another large organization taking on this task is The Food Project in Massachusetts.  It engages “young people in personal and social change through sustainable agriculture” and gives them a “personal connection to our food system and issues of food justice.”

For older folks, we need to talk about this “new sharecropping” as something they have control over.  It’s not a job they have to do, but one they should. One where they can name the terms and re-appropriate the word to bring economic growth.  On top of that, there has to be an educational component that lets everyone know if they don’t do it, someone else will come in to the neighborhood and do it instead.  (And…they’ll charge you for something you could be making money from!)  Finally, community-level, real solutions have to be put in place.

One community level solution is an urban farming co-op where members share the labor and profits of a harvest from either one parcel of land or many.  People can also create or participate in Community Supported Agriculture by buying a share of crops from a farm.  (We believe more of these CSAs will have to be subsidized or willing to take SNAP, WIC and other benefits to be a fully viable option for low-income people.)  An increase in community gardens can be an initial small-scale approach that reduces the “farming the land” stigma, while bringing the community together.  Perhaps nearest to the original definition of sharecropping, residents can also take part in a yardshare where landowners provide space for others to come and garden, with both parties benefiting financially.

In these ways, the “new sharecropping” can be a reinterpretation of the word meaning true sharing in low-income communities of color.

Following Leaders 6/4

Man oh man, we just love all our Twitter friends.  Everyone’s great, really, check our list and see if you’re not following a bunch of the same peeps! (You should be!) This week — as we were grantwriting for small groups (and our own pursuits), adding to our list of community gardens in public housing, and designing a food mapping protocol, (and, ugh, keeping up on HOPE VI) — a few of our 199 friends really caught our virtual eye.

It was exciting to see environmentally responsible low-income housing, and community building among the homeless and housed. A link about pesticides led to more research on produce cleaning methods (and confirmed some prior research).  We even had a few friends who fed our foreign language (and sports) jones!

Thank you again…

@Sustainablog – for focusing on 5 green low-income housing developments (we’re following construction like this to seek mandates for community gardens or encourage home growing in these developments).

@PHCSF – for wonderful work on the Growing Home Community Garden providing a setting for homeless and housed to work side-by-side to create community.

@seasonalwisdom – for “wise” ideas about fruit on the grill, grass/lawn alternatives and avoiding pesticide-riddled celery.

@meredithmo – for hipping us to the urban vineyard in Ohio, especially since our mapping protocol looks at the use of urban space and job creation (for traditionally unemployable populations).

@LaOpinionLA –para la cobertura de la Copa del Mundo en 140 caracteres o menos (nuestro distracción de la semana)!  for World Cup coverage in 140 characters or less (our diversion of the week)!

@hyperlocavore – pour tendre la main a tous les gens qui parlent francaise ET partagent leur jardins!  for reaching out to all the people who speak French AND share their yards!