Audacity and Oughtness

MLK DC memorial

Photo credit: SL Williams

It has been a while since our last post as we have navigated new projects and a new, national reality. But, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In this post-election world, it is more important than it has been in a while to reflect on his words, ideals and actions. So many folks fear for their futures…many rightfully so. In some ways, we are in a boat that is not only shaky but also has a leak and no wind for its sails.

We have been moving forward with our food justice and entrepreneurship work. The Ghettostead is developing (we have plans for an unveiling on Earth Day this year) and we will soon conduct our next set of Arduino workshops in our sister city of Santiago de Cuba. Today, we will hear references to Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and we will remember how he touched upon food justice in other speeches. We are also reminded that, often, he spoke on the notion of audacity – the willingness to take bold risks. During his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King said:

“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

He acceded that this risk-taking is only so useful as it leads us to what and how we ought to be. His speech that day also included these thoughts:

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.”

Some of us have always been immersed in the struggle for economic empowerment and social justice, because we have seen or continued to experience discrimination and consequential slights.  For better (never for worse) we now have a cadre of allies to work with us as we embrace the lessons of those who have worked so hard before us.  So on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, one that precedes a new, and for some a disquieting, future let’s find our audacity. Let’s remember to aspire to our oughtness. Show up, dive in, stay at it.

We’re in!

HF Farmers Market 6What happens when you grow using some of the best permaculture techniques, get certified by the county to sell your produce, then take said produce to your first farmers market experience? You are a colossal success, that’s what! Yes, we sold out of produce on our first outing. The culmination of a months-long process to get our first farm entrepreneur selling has been satisfying, since we’ve been working without the benefit of large donations or funding. Many simply do not believe that a food hub in South Los Angeles is possible. But, not us and certainly not our food entrepreneurs.

It has been an eventful past several months. We’ve hosted volunteers from GoogleServe, participated in working groups to advocate for local fresh food options, attended permaculture workshops, advocated policy to farm on urban vacant space, established a partnership with a local tech high school, and continue to brave the vagaries of local politics in holding on to the large site we have been working. But mostly we’ve been growing…multiple pounds of tomatoes, burgundy okra, squash, cucumbers, kale, papayas, lemongrass, greens, and nopales, just to name a few.

The fact is, this South Los Angeles food hub will not be thwarted! Our success at the farmers market tells us so. People appreciate and long for local, fresh food options. So, we are in the farmers market. Not only are we in, we are rocking it!

Edifice Complex

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

A few months ago, we acquired a free-standing homesteading, co-working site.  It was unexpected given our happy resolution to accept the next-best-thing. We are restructuring, in the spirit of the MLK quote.  This structure relies upon a DIY ethic that a lot of people call “new” but we all know is “old”.  In the not so distant past, communities helped less-fortunate and down-on-their-luck members.  They helped by directly providing resources and opportunities for improvement.  They worked to create productive members because they knew the edifice of community required it to stand. We are learning even more about our responsibilities to that process.

As we build and learn, we change things up.  We held the last in our Food Craft series recently.  Our first series of four community dinners (Soul, Solh, Sol and Seoul Food) helped us learn quite a bit about how to bring community together…and how community loves it some good food!  When we announced the end of this series, we were met with a lot of disappointment…and it surprised us.

food craft building

Food Craft: The Final Date photo by Cindy Bolf

You might call it our Sally Field moment.  We always intended to have a series of series, as it were.  The idea was to keep it changing and involve different people over time to keep building community.  As it turns out, people really love coming together over a meal, especially a meal that they create themselves.  Who would have thunk it?

People are equally excited about the development of our homesteading site (we’ve got quite a name reserved for it, too!).  It will be more than what we hoped and permit real, direct work in the neighborhoods we serve…just as communities did decades ago.

For us, restructuring means using the lessons of the past to improve the future.  So, we will take what we’ve learned from working with residents at farm sites and lessons from the first two dinner series to do just that.  This means (definitely) more food crafting.  More art.  More community.  More edifice building.

Popularity Contest

Photo: 1959 Martinsburg HS Bulldogs

As we wind down the year here at home&community inc, I’ve been doing that “year-end-review” thing…trying to understand what we’ve accomplished, learn from what we haven’t, and prepare for what is still to come!

One of the most instructive (and interesting) activities has been discovering our most viewed blog posts for 2011.

By far, our post on More SHAREcropping was the most popular.  Talking about how to re-appropriate the urban farming concept in low-income communities strikes a chord with folks.  And we’ll keep talking about it and doing it in the coming year.

Next most popular was Kissing Babies…  Looks like people wanted to check in on whether we were staying true to our goals!

Next was Spring Gleaning.  Most here really like that one; I’ve heard it’s because it gives everyone a chance to find local fruit in a way that they never considered!

And last, there was a tie between Paths of Desire and Gather, Eat, Grow, Repeat.  I think it’s no small coincidence that thinking about how we interact with our environment and how we interact with our community would be viewed in equal measure.

Next year promises even more good works!  We can’t wait to share our plans with you in the next several days.  Thanks to all our supporters and here’s to getting it done in 2012!

How (and where) does your public housing garden grow? Part 4.

We continue gathering information about community gardens in public housing.  Here’s a reminder why…

These gardens serve as models for affordable housing communities with information about: siting, navigating bureaucrazy (um, bureaucracy), community sharing and building, health benefits.  We want housing authorities to support community gardening and urban farming.

And, that’s it.  That is the goal of this “census.”  As we continue to do our own work at the Nickerson Gardens public housing garden, we see first hand how residents manage each of the above goals.  There are, of course, many individual residents who raise plants on their own, but our search focuses on sites designated by local housing authority as community gardens (remember, we want to know how folks navigate the bureaucracy).

In our first post we identified gardens in 18 states and talked about our process.  In our second, we talked more about the importance of even keeping count.  In part 3, we added nine states! This time, we’ve added 38 gardens and have added Florida to reach a total of 30 states!  The following are of particular note.

In Florida, the Miami-Dade Public Housing Authority has established an edible garden in the Liberty Square Housing Project; while you’ll find them at Dixie Court Apartments in the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority.  We’ve added Ingersoll Houses to New York City Housing Authority’s large number of recognized gardens.  And, Ohio’s Geauga Metropolitan Housing Authority is using the community garden model at all its public housing.  The Housing Authority of Portland has added a garden to its St. Johns Woods development.  While, in Massachusetts, we found gardens at the Somerville Housing Authority’s Mystic Housing Project.  Oh, and as a follow-up to our Part 3 post, the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District in Alabama has installed demonstration gardens in its Park Place development, and is working with Jones Valley Urban Farm to bring even more healthy options to residents!

It’s always so exciting to find more gardens in low-income communities.  If you know about any gardens in public housing, please let us know!

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.

(Bad) food, (bad) food, everywhere!

Most of us know about places where there are few grocery stores, or farmers markets or other access to fresh, healthy food.  These are usually called food deserts. We know that there are liquor stores or mini-marts or fast food establishments readily accessible in some of these areas.  But, did you know this environment has a name, too?  Food swamp.

What is a food swamp?  Well, it is definitely not the solution to a food desert.  Health professionals, and others studying health in low-income communities, were finding that although some areas were not labeled food deserts (because there was access to food) there were still high rates of obesity and disease.

So, the term “food swamp” was coined to explain how the “excess of unhealthy food [is] a more pressing problem, than inadequacies.” And, a bill winding through the California legislature defines one by the other.  It says food swamps are subsets of food deserts, and provide an overabundance of high-energy, caloric foods that overwhelm healthy options.  A USDA study further defines food swamps.

Some municipalities have provided incentives to supermarkets to locate in these areas. Others have placed moratoriums on new fast food establishments.  And we’ve heard some people outright wish for cities to demolish retail outlets that don’t offer healthy alternatives. Each of these methods (especially the last one!) takes a long and arduous route. Meanwhile, people are still shopping in swamps for their food.  And a Rand study in South Los Angeles found that taking away the stores wasn’t going to really make a difference, anyway.  So, what are some other alternatives?  We think the answer isn’t to just get rid of those outlets that contribute to swamps, but to provide better choices in and around those very outlets.

We’ve already talked about mobile fresh food options in other posts, and those, along with community gardens, are some of our favorite options.  But we’d like to add cooperation with corner stores and small food marts  – making shelf space for fresh foods. That is the aim of groups like the Healthy Corner Stores Network and The Food Trust with its Healthy Corner Store Initiative. In localities where it’s legal, those stores could work with a local farmer, community garden or yardshare community to offer items.

Meanwhile, we’re not waiting for the stores to accept the food.  There is interest in getting fresh options, and we need to take advantage it.  At our project in South Los Angeles, people come and ask for fruit from the trees.  Some get produce from the raised beds, too, if the owner is around and willing.  One thing we can do is grow food and share it, a lot of it, creating the proper refuge in the desert: a true oasis.