A Positive City: One Size Fits All

Rightsizing not downsizing…I used to wish I would have come up with that phrase.  It’s so simple and sounds like a great idea.  I mean really, the idea that we might do something “right” for cities is far more attractive than simply reducing its size. It got me thinking about what is the right size for a community, and what does it mean to “down” size one?  And is rightsizing even desirable?

First, full disclosure, I’m a student of cities.  From Jacob Riis to Jane Addams, and Robert Moses to Jane Jacobs. I have taken the study to the highest level in academia, so I come at this with a lot of book learnin’ but also, I hope, with the experience of working with people most affected by poor planning. In any case, I was happy to see the phrase again recently because it gave me an opportunity to do some rethinking.  And rethinking is “continuing education” in these parts…


Positive beans


Downsizing cities has traditionally meant a reduction in size.  Rightsizing has come to mean focusing on particular areas in a blighted city, providing incentives for folks to live and work there, and moving functions from productive/consumption areas at the margins, while (sometimes) demolishing buildings to maintain the new density.  In essence, it’s been about consolidating neighborhoods and reallocating resources. But, in a recent article,Roberta Gratz writes that rightsizing is really urban renewal in a different suit.  Urban renewal was and is about demolition, introducing (often forcing) mixed-use development, reducing neighborhood density, and building freeways that slice through and cut off communities. Focusing on housing, I once wrote about the issue as it exists in HOPE VI, a program intended to improve public housing but more often resulted in large-scale demolition.  Major downsizing disguised as rightsizing.

I’ve come to think of how these concepts relate to our community food security goals at home&community.  The downsized city has forced a lot of the food production/distribution functions to the exurbs and suburbs, and decentralized the process.  The rightsized city is moving these processes out of marginal productive/consumption areas to the areas leaders want people to live and work.  I’d like to see a more organic approach.  Returning the city to more organic roots.

Density is key.  Most planners will agree that bringing people and services into some center, where everyone can connect and interact, encourages community and economic growth.  In Gratz’ view, cities improve by introducing positives not by removing negatives: you add to what exists, don’t replace it, don’t overwhelm it.

So what about our community food system (CFS) project?  Well a CFS can thrive in this context.  It can introduce a whole host of “positives” in terms of health and economic improvement. And, by its nature it includes community members in its creation and definition.  It is shaped by need and is an inherently organic process. As a “system,” a CFS needs connections and those connections must be close.  Taking into account local food and farm-to-table issues, there are no productive/consumption areas at the margins because food is produced in small lots and local yards along with local urban farms where the people already are.  Distribution points, whether they be farmers markets, mobile food carts or corner grocers become “positives” introduced into the city.  And, with proper management, the CFS responds to shifting needs in the local community.

In fact, the existence of a community food system might actually be evidence of a revitalized (or revitalizing) community. No downsizing, no rightsizing, just some positivity for a (real) change.

Many minis!

This past week, we’ve been working a lot on two projects.  One required research on farmers market rules and regulations, the other about ways community activity decreases crime.  These are seemingly disparate subjects, so it was a happy surprise when one article — about mini farmers markets — appeared on both computers.  It was clearly something to check out.

One of the difficulties communities have in bringing farmers markets to residents is cost.  The interest may be there, but the costs to establish markets can be steep.  There are permit and license fees.  There are also vendors that need to sell in large quantities and seek out larger venues.  So, it was intriguing to discover the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Streetwerks program in Minneapolis.

They developed a system for getting fresh produce into communities on a smaller scale.  Small farms and community gardeners can take part.  The start-up fees are smaller and set-up/break-down times are shorter.  In our own work, we’ve seen several instances of groups wanting to set up a table or tent to sell produce in low-income communities, while being thwarted by local regulations and/or cost.  What a benefit something like the mini farmers market would be to these communities!

First, it means more local food and improved nutrition. Then there’s the economic benefit to local growers and entrepreneurs. And those are just the most obvious benefits.  It can also become a job training opportunity, where people learn about growing, selling and distributing produce.  Specific types of produce can be sold in different ethnic enclaves.  Depending upon the regulations, residents can bring their own produce to sell at the small market.  Because they can be set up and down faster, markets can open after work hours, so people can buy food as they come home.  They might even deter crime in some areas, just because they bring people to the street and give kids jobs.

Outside of the Minneapolis example, these types of little markets have been established in Detroit as it expands its urban farming programs.  And small produce stands have been started by Foodlink in Rochester.  An interesting turn is an effort by the Pritikin Research Foundation to encourage fast food companies to offer mini farmers markets in their parking lots.  Canada also has a similar set up around British Columbia called pocket markets.

In order to bring more of these markets to low-income communities, cities would have to streamline their permit process to allow these smaller markets to be established (a cheaper and faster process).  In Minneapolis, they established regulations for a “local produce market” permit.  There would also have to be more Farmers Market Nutrition Program coupons distributed instead of the SNAP/ EBT benefits cards, since accepting the cards requires a more extensive wireless set up.

Lets get a different kind of mini-market on every corner in our low-income communities!

How (and where) does your public housing garden grow? Part 3.

It’s Friday.  And usually we give thanks to our Twitter friends, in the “follow Friday” tradition.  But today, we follow ourselves.  We put in a lot of work this week on our public housing and community food project…so we’re giving our own back a pat.  It has been really exciting to continue our work finding community gardens and urban farms in public housing.  Since our last update we’ve confirmed that produce is growing at nine more sites in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, California, Washington and Virginia.  Alabama is a new state on our list!

The community food project we’re working on includes a large garden at a public housing development.  (You can check out photos and information about it at our Facebook page.) So, you can imagine that many of the programs we’re finding are really helpful!  Many serve as wonderful models with programs we will certainly replicate in our own local project.

For every public housing garden (or farm!) we find, we’re excited at the prospect of finding more!  We’d like you to see some of the recent additions, because we think you’ll feel the same way.

The Ohio City Farm grows at the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority’s Riverview Towers site in Cleveland.  It includes a community kitchen and farmstand.  While the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles’ Growing Experience at Carmelitos Housing Development, has a CSA program and green jobs component.  St. Mary’s Urban Farm is in Alemany Public Housing a development of the San Francisco Housing Authority.  And, a garden provides food at the Seattle Housing Authority’s Yesler Terrace development.  The Garden of Goodness grows its goodness in Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s Friendship Court in Virginia.  We’ve got Georgia growing in a Thomson Housing Authority plot.  And that garden in Alabama?  The Garden of Park Place in Housing Authority of Birmingham’s Park Place public housing neighborhood.

Stay tuned!

Making it

A few weeks ago GOOD asked the question:  what do you make or grow instead of buy? So I decided to make my own list.  And I wanted to do it with our clients in mind.  As it turned out, it was really easy to start a list, because we’ve been talking a lot here about the ways we can simplify and reduce.  But, in starting my own list I realized that even though there are a bunch of things I’ve given up, there is still a lot more I could.

If you’ve recently discovered us, you’ll notice a lot of the focus has been on issues of food security.  But, our OriginalGreen project grew out of encouraging use of natural cleaners in low-income households.  In fact, we still distribute clean kits with our Clean recipe book.  I’m sure this is why most of the “made” things on my list relate to cleaning products, as that is what I’ve been making the longest.  So, here goes…

The things I no longer buy, because I make them are: laundry detergent; dishwashing liquid; all-purpose cleaner; oven cleaner; air freshener; facial astringent/toner/cleanser; furniture polish; bug spray.  Then there is butter, along with pies, cookies, muffins, pizza (all still requiring flour, which I’m not brave or patient enough to produce yet).  Wrapping paper, cards and notebooks are on the list, too.

The things I grow or glean include: various bell / chili peppers; squash; scallions; basil; peppermint; rosemary; lavender; platanos; tomatillos; oranges; lemons; peaches; apples; and avocados.

Doing these things makes me feel less wasteful and more conscious of the areas where I still am.  I was actually surprised at the length of the list, but very much aware that it isn’t as long as a true homesteader’s!  I don’t buy pre-packaged meals and don’t own a microwave, but I’d like to use the clothes dryer less and sew a bit…slow down a little more, in general…maybe make my own pasta.

Some of this “making” has become really easy.  And often, once mixed, products last three and four times longer than pre-packaged items.   The recipe book has been fairly easy to introduce to clients.  We are working on a comparable plan for food security and nutrition, and have already addressed the issues of time and cost in a prior post.  So right now, it’s also about simplifying and reducing in other ways.

You’ve seen my list.  But what about yours?  What kinds of things do you make instead of buy? And better yet, what will you?

Being Service

A lot of people pooh-pooh tweeting.  But, the leaders we’ve followed on Twitter are out there making changes.  Some in big ways…some small…but all succeeding in “being” service.

Over the past several months we’ve followed SEGlet, Farmland, Urbangardens, hyperlocavore, TheCityFarmer, AnarchyGarden, and UrbanFarming — as urban farming/gardening resources.  It’s been newurbanhabitat, and fallenfruit for information on mobile and free food.  While naemhomelessness, hominc, PSCtweets, homeaidamerica, chtrust, vermonthousing, and willamettenhs have been constant resources on housing and homelessness.  Then, ShareableDesign, ShareTompkins, and closestcloset have been community sharing resources.  We are consistently inspired by the things we see each week.

So, what about it?  Easy enough to list folks and say thanks, but what have we done with all this inspiration, learning and direction?  Well, we’ve hinted a lot over the past few weeks that we’ve begun collaborating on a community food plan.  It’s got multiple parties and partnerships.  It involves farmers, businesses that support farmers, a university, and cities, along with social and non-profit organizations.  It includes community members, and importantly, a bunch of kids!  It’s about food security, nutrition, mobile food support, food mapping, housing, community kitchen-ing, and food-selling.

It seems our work in housing policy and preserving people’s homes has naturally evolved into preserving people’s health in those homes.   And, sometimes, just when you think something can’t be done, someone gives you something for free!  Or introduces you to the perfect person. Or a link crosses your (computer screen) path.

The spirit of collaboration and service has privileged us to work in communities on issues outside of food security, too.  We’ve become fiscal sponsors to Action Kivu (@actionkivu), in their efforts to help victims of sexual violence in Eastern Congo, and Play it Forward Nashville (@PlayItFwd), as they help Nashville residents recover from May’s flood damage.

How can we best be of service?  This is the question we all need to ask ourselves.

The answer:  You have to become service.  Be a resource, not just provide one.  That’s what our friends we follow are.

So, this Friday, a different take on our follow Friday props.  But still the same ending: Thank you!

The community that cooks together…

Recently we began collaborating with a local farmer who is working to create an integrated local food system.  More soon on that collaboration with OriginalGreen.  But, what really struck us was an insistence on creating a way for residents to share in the bounty of their gardens and urban farms with economic advancement and training skills and community building. Our favorite kind of building. Our friend emphasized cooking food in a collective way and it was right in line with a concept we’ve been reading about – Community Supported Kitchen or CSK.

What is a CSK?

Well, if you’re familiar with Community Suported Agriculture (CSA), you’re halfway to understanding the CSK concept. A CSK is a place, you guessed it a kitchen, where community members can volunteer to prepare locally-grown and produced food. As with a CSA, community involvement includes volunteering (in this case, the kitchen) and/or buying shares in the form of meals.  Most of the examples I’ve seen have professional chefs, or people who have worked in the food prep industry.  Most have a lot of volunteer cooks, too.

There are a few strong examples across the United States, with most placing an emphasis on the community and nourishing it.  Berkeley’s, Three Stone Hearth highlights “nourishing traditions of a different part of the world each week.”  While a goal of Salt, Fire & Time, in Portland, Oregon, is to provide a place for community and community empowerment and nourishment. Across the way, in Portland, Maine, Local Sprouts Cooperative supports local farmers and teaches youth and adults about cooking, with an emphasis on building community. And, they have a café. While an alternative model is the “private eating club” operated by the Food Nanny in Urbana, Illinois, whose background in local food advocacy prompted bringing healthy food to the community.

Each of these, in addition to others highlighted in a Serious Eats article, are useful models.  They first and foremost focus on community building.  So, how might this concept, based upon CSAs, work for poor people?

Maybe the real question is: should a CSK look the same as a CSA for poor people?  In a traditional CSA, members pay in advance for a share of what a farm produces.  It has been difficult to create these for low-income folks – especially those requiring financial assistance and benefits – because the USDA will not allow SNAP or EBT payments in advance.  So the CSA is more like a produce stand or store. This is just one of the differences; and, such creative solutions should, of course, be carried over to the CSK in low-income communities.  But, we believe a CSK should have additional economic development and support components.

We envision a CSK that is a part of the “integrated local food system” advocated by our local farmer friend. It will be specific to individual communities and address their needs. This kitchen would provide local residents with jobs. It would encourage and increase local gardens and farms, which in turn promote entrepreneurship and agricultural jobs. It would serve as a nutrition education center, teaching people about the benefits of fresh food and ways to use seasonal produce. It could even establish a retail food service component.

But, perhaps the most significant reward, would be that sense of community achieved by the CSK’s mentioned above. ..something that has the potential to bring even more long term benefits.

How (and where) does your public housing garden grow? Part 2.

About ten years ago, I saw residents of public housing growing food in their small yards in Richmond and New York.  I didn’t think about it a lot until recently, though.  I didn’t think about it until I started really appreciating the role of a garden in my own life.

At home&community inc, the work has been ongoing to help residents with housing and community development policy. But, there are some fundamental concepts about health that seem missing from some of our client’s daily lives. Our first effort to address health was in the form of green cleaning strategies. We still do that with our OriginalGreen project. But, there was more and more talk about nutrition and community health concerns, and how we might work on those through the OG project.

That’s when I started inquiring about public housing gardens I’d seen years ago, and the status of gardening in those communities now. Public housing authorities are in a position to institute some of the health and sustainability programs touted by the White House – community gardens, physical fitness, green living.  Gardening is a great way to get multiple benefits (mental and physical!), and many residents are either knowledgeable about growing (real OG‘s!) or really, really ready to learn.

Since our first post, we’ve found twelve more gardens in Georgia, Massachusetts, Maine, California, Kansas and Tennessee.  Check out the three at Lots to Gardens in Lewiston, Maine and The Farm in the City, at John Henry Hale Apartments in Nashville, Tennessee, and the training farm at the Juniper Gardens complex in Kansas City, Kansas.  Pretty darn cool.

Wouldn’t it be great if all the housing authorities took a lead role on this? Encouraging residents to plant food?  We’re going to be pushing for them to do so, and for bringing gardens to empty lots near housing developments.  We’re also working on getting gardens into affordable housing developments (usually run by private and/or non-profit developers) and making residents aware of other food options in their neighborhoods.  And, we’ll need your help.

Don’t worry, it’ll be easy peasy and make you feel good, too…

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)!

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.)