Thursday, February 26, 2009

Feed the children well

First, a number of people have been asking me about the composter: yes, it's operational (which is good, because the bowls of vegetable scraps in my kitchen were getting a little... unwieldy). Apparently my latecoming to composting in Columbia Heights meant that I did, in the end, have to buy a can, rather than find one in an alley. Luckily my friend Rudy (doing the serious drilling in the photo above, along with his neighbor; not to be confused with the person doing an Oscar the Grouch impression in the trashcan: that's me) had a little free time to swing by and pick me up at the hardware store with my earth-but-not-bike-friendly-soon-to-be-composter. The last pic is of my first batch of leaves and scraps. I'll post some compost updates for those who are interested (and who can get past the fact that they are reading, by choice, updates on the progress of someone's compost bin). I'm excited.

I'm also excited about a panel I happened upon just this afternoon downtown, The "What is Farm to School? -- Opportunities to Bring Healthy, Local Produce to DC Cafeterias" brown bag hosted by Friends of the Earth. Of course, as a former public (and charter) school teacher, the public education system holds a special place in my heart. And food issues in schools? School gardens? Nutrition education? Sign me up.

I learned today about the National Farm to School program which is an initiative that links school food service groups to local farmers. (Incidentally, I heard about the brown bag talk from my friend Ashley who I met in a bike maintenance class -- see what I mean about fortuitous conversations? Keep those ideas coming!). And I was impressed when I learned that nearly 9,000 schools across the country participate in this program that integrates fresh fruits and veggies into school breakfasts, lunches, and after school snacks. I'm hoping to visit a few participating schools, but it will have to wait until I am on the road since it turns out that DC public schools have yet to buy into this. But there is hope. Groups like the Farm to School Network and DC Hunger Solutions are doing all sorts of advocacy and outreach. Maybe some of you folks around the country are in places where schools have this program. If not, you might look into asking your school principal or PTA why you don't. Hey, I'm not telling you to harass people because our kids deserve better food. Oh, wait, yes I am. Because they do. (Okay, maybe not harass. Advocate. Pester. Loudly.)

Perhaps the most sage comment of the afternoon came from one of the presenters during the closing discussion. Vinnie, of the Master Peace Community Garden, put it simply: "It doesn't need to be revolutionary. We can start small. Get some food sometimes to some schools. Then build on it." Right on.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Compost happens

You learn something new every day. In my case, I learn many new things every day. Like yesterday: I learned how to build an urban composter, how to design a community garden with kids, and how to get involved in the local food justice movement. I learned that DC has a Department of the Environment. (Not only that, but the DDOE will help local homeowners build a rain cistern and get a tax break for it.) Yes, I had volunteered at the well-attended, 2nd Annual Rooting DC forum.

I eat a lot of produce. No, I mean A LOT. And I cook. A LOT. Between weekly trips to the farmers market and my recent discovery of the fabulous Washington's Green Grocer organic produce box, I wind up with a lot of clippings and such, not all of which can be salvaged for a vegetable stock. I don't generate much trash that isn't either recyclable or compostable, and all of the vegetable waste has been nagging me for years. I'd always been convinced that I couldn't compost in the city because of the rats. (I tell you, I love animals, but these Rodents of Unusual Size are aggressive. I think they beat up cats and little old ladies for fun. They chewed right through the plastic trash bins out back. And I almost fainted when one ran over my foot one night.)

The solution, according to the fearless leader of our composting workshop, is to get an old school metal trashcan and lid, available at your local hardware store. Drill holes in it. Dump in your peels and eggshells and coffee grounds. Add some dry leaves or shredded newspaper. Stir it around with a shovel now and then. So long as you don't try to compost protein or smelly, cooked food, rats aren't really interested. Neither are roaches. Of course! I loved the practical advice of our dry-humored presenter and am all geared up to get myself a can and start drilling holes in it. I love projects. (We also learned about indoor composters. I am happy to go into detail with anyone interested in learning more or who wants help building a composter -- just drop me a line.) I think I'll head to the hardware store around the corner tomorrow....

Friday, February 20, 2009

May the wind be always at your back

Necessity is the mother of... getting on my bike. I'd taken out the recycling yesterday and decided it was too blustery. The day before was too cold and drizzly. This morning found me peering out the window at the leaves and plastic bags blowing past. Sheldon and I exchanged glances -- inasmuch as an inanimate object can look disapproving, Sheldon was pretty convincing (in fact, I believe he is more communicative than the last guy I dated) -- and I knew I could not put off a bike ride for a third consecutive day. Okay, time to bundle up.

While all the layers made me feel a bit like the kid brother in A Christmas Story -- "I can't move my arms!" -- I think the added padding helped with my confidence. Especially when I almost got run off the road a few times. I tried to map out a route that had bike lanes before heading out, but I couldn't find a path from Columbia Heights to Union Station (where I had to run some errands) that didn't involve other streets, too. So I had to ride in traffic. Not my favorite.

Now, conventional wisdom says that when there are no bike lanes, the safest place to ride is in the middle of the traffic lane. I swear at least four cars (mostly on New York Avenue -- admittedly not the wisest choice for my return route) swerved into my lane in spite of there not being anyone in the left lane. Grrr. Biking is beginning to challenge my belief that people are intrinsically good. Maybe I should amend that to "people are intrinsically good when they're not behind the wheel." At one point I had to surrender and head onto the sidewalk for a few blocks. Still, it was a nice ride up 7th Street a bit further on, where there was a bike lane, and when at last the wind was at my back.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Food 101

So my buddy Justin was teasing me yesterday that my current "to-read" list looks like the syllabus for an intro course on local food. Well, yes, I have a lot to learn. In my defense, I am capable of branching out when it comes to my literary choices. For instance, I recently finished "Like Water for Chocolate." Oh, wait, that's about food. Well, I'm finally getting back to "Guns, Germs, and Steel," a book I have been reading slowly, in installments, over the past number of years. (You know those books that are so brilliant and dense that they take more concentration and you feel compelled to take notes? Yeah, it's one of those. Not your light bedtime reading.) Hmmm, that talks a lot about how agricultural development has shaped different societies. Well, heck, you know, really everything comes down to food. Food -- what we grow, how we transport it, prepare it, and consume it -- is central to the rest of our lives. It defines us as individuals and descendants of rich, varied cultures. I don't say this because I peruse cookbooks and Gourmet magazine and for fun. (I mean, I do, but still....) I say it because it's true.

I'm just starting Michael Pollan's latest book, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," in which he lays out some of the reasons behind why and how, as a culture, Americans have moved away from "food" and toward "food products." (Ick. The term "food product" sounds like something out of a futuristic dystopic novel. And I love science fiction, mind you, but still: ick!) He also, helpfully, poses solutions to reverse the damage, some of which are very much in line with his open letter to the president-to-be that ran in the New York Times magazine this past October. And his ideas are gaining some traction. Voice of America ran a piece yesterday on Pollan's work that did a pretty good job of distilling his arguments (in my humble opinion). There are so many reasons to take a more active role in learning about our food. For my part, I tend to focus on two: joy and empowerment.

I would say that I am most fully myself when I am cooking (or dancing, but I'm trying to focus here). I love the smells, the tastes, the comfort of the kitchen, the coming together of a meal. I enjoy cooking even just by and for myself, but I can't think of a more meaningful way to nurture those I care about than to cook with them, to feed them. It is an act of love. (There, I've said it.) Our food choices are also about maintaining control over our lives. When we relinquish the decision-making authority over what we eat to "the experts" (Pollan points to advertisers and nutritionists as the main culprits), we resign so much of ourselves: our health, our identity as eaters with unique preferences, our power of choice, our connection to what our bodies are telling us we need. Are these "experts" even trustworthy? What are they selling us? I don't mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist but is anyone else alarmed by the rash of contaminated food recalls? (I cling to the hope that the peanut butter scandal will not be repeated; ground beef, on the other hand, may be off my list for good.) Does anyone else find themselves confused by all of the unreconizeable and unpronounceable ingredients listed on just about everything at the grocery store? Why the heck is "natural flavor" listed as an ingredient?

So, what do we do? Who can we trust? Ourselves. While I am a huge advocate of gardening I'm not saying we should only eat things we grow ourselves. It's just not an option for everyone. But maybe we can do a better job of seeking out things grown by people we know. That means slowing down, talking with each other, becoming active participants in our food communities. (Maybe even exchanging book recommendations. I can suggest a few books....)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wile E Coyote

Yesterday marked my longest bike ride to date: a bit more than 6 miles round trip. I needed a bike pump and once again my pal Ben came to the rescue. Well, sort of. He had a Wile E Coyote-style pump that he was willing to loan me, but I would need to come pick it up. I could ride over. Or take the bus, he suggested. (I know a gauntlet toss when I see one.) He assured me there were no hills between my place in Columbia Heights and his place in Van Ness. I mapped out a route. Ah, I thought, Rock Creek has bike lanes, right? I was going in the middle of the afternoon, so there shouldn't be many cars, right? There are no hills, right?? Oh. Oh, no.

No crashes and only two near emotional meltdowns. Good old Sheldon was there with me through it all: disappearing/reappearing bike lanes, hills, snow flurries, traffic. Somehow polishing his wheel rims when we returned to the apartment seemed like a paltry thank you. Now, I am not so proud that I will not walk my bike on occasion, but some of those hills were ridiculous. I took a different route back, to be sure. (Yochi, THANK YOU for the suggestion of rerouting through Adams Morgan -- safer and convenient for me to stop off at City Bikes to check on my functional-but-still-squeaky brakes.) In fact, I rather enjoyed the ride back, as the weather had turned clear and sunny (and maybe also partly because I was no longer subject to the hills that lurk around so many corners of this fair city like my personal sword of Damocles). This is progress.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

V-I Day

Some may view the meticulous cleaning of my apartment this morning as an attempt to put off the inaugural bike ride. Really, though, I wanted to be sure that should I end up in a full body cast this afternoon, I would at least be brought back to a clean place. And I'm having a dinner party tonight. And... okay, maybe a little bit of stalling. But after scouring the kitchen counters, warming up some breakfast (a tamale isn't a bad last meal), a little review of the Sheldon Brown website (starting and stopping... right), and some parting words of advice from my upstairs neighbor David ("Don't think too much"), I strapped on my helmet and headed out.

Initially my plan was to check out part of the Rock Creek trail system. But first I thought it wise to have someone look over things to be sure I wasn't riding on a horribly misaligned bicycle. I mean, if I'm going to crash into something, it should be because I lean too far in on a turn or somebody jumps out of nowhere, not because, say, the rear brakes don't work. Thus it came to pass that my first outdoor bike ride was to City Bikes in Adams Morgan where the mechanic did, in fact, realign the rear brake pads (whew!). I considered continuing on to Rock Creek, but then recalled how many of my favorite Greek tragedies involve heroes who tempt the gods. Hubris would not be my downfall when it came to bicycles. I was homeward bound....

I made it back safely to my sparkling clean apartment, taking the street this time instead of the sidewalk and managing to make it back with a total of zero broken bones. People even smiled back at me this time, contrary to the nervous shuffling out of the way I encountered on the ride over. I think it's time for a toast. And in honor of the man I consider the patron saint of velocipedes, I have decided to name my bike-on-loan Sheldon.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Like a fish needs a bicycle

In truth, my relationship with bicycles has been akin to the general plot of When Harry Met Sally (and I am keeping my fingers crossed that the endings are parallel). Our first few encounters have been comical at best, most recently with me wobbling down the hallway of my friend Ben's apartment building to test out the seat height and get an initial sense of the gears on the bike that he has so graciously agreed to lend me to train on while I shop around for the bike I will be riding on my trip. (I'm not entirely sure bike riding is allowed in apartment building hallways, but there are less cars there and, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. No, I was sober. No, really, it was four in the afternoon.)

So the riding of the bike, yes. I've been putting this off, it's true, and I recognize that I'm running out of excuses. I mean, I have a bike. I have a helmet (see, mom, I remembered). I put some air in the tires so I can (in theory) take it out for a spin. I have a lock (for keeping it safe when I have to keep it somewhere besides the sun porch, though he looks so very content leaning casually against the wall, handlebars rakishly tilted to one side). I even started taking a course on bike maintenance and repair (so now, with two classes under my belt, I know what a derailer is and how to adjust it, how to clean a bike chain, and I think next class we learn how to change a tire). Now the riding of it.... (For those of you wondering, yes, I have been taking the bus to my bike repair class. Oh, the irony!)

I'm not quite sure where the anxiety comes from -- perhaps the history of crashing into (mostly stationary) things. It's not like I'm totally uncoordinated in general. I dance. I play sports. I can rub my tummy and tap my head at the same time. I have gotten past the embarrassment of admitting that I am not a good cyclist (okay, not entirely, but I'm getting there) and now I am face to face with the next hurdle: fear. I mean, I could crash and really hurt myself. (I know you're thinking the same thing, dad.) I never really rode a bike as a kid. There is some inherent fearlessness that kids have when they learn to ride a bicycle (or to ski, for that matter -- I'm not so good at that, either, but that's a story for another day) that we seem to lose when we grow up. It's not just bikes, though, it's taking risks in general. As we grow older, many of us find it more difficult to learn a new language ("what if I say the wrong thing?"), to open ourselves up emotionally to another person ("what if he doesn't love me back?"), to walk away from what we know and turn our lives in a totally different direction ("what if I fail?"). And yet each of these is worth the risk. (Well, maybe not skiing.)

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day (or, depending on your perspective, Singles Awareness Day) and it's time to make a move. It's time to get to know my bicycle, my steady partner in this upcoming journey. As with any healthy relationship, it's about communication, trust, and compromise. We've got a long road ahead. With any luck, the two of us will end up riding off into the sunset (rather than into the tree, like last time).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Show me the money

This weekend included my first meal of spaghetti and homemade venison meatballs (yes, Bambi -- my former vegetarian self is still reeling) and my first foray into the world of the next generation of farmers via the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's (PASA) annual conference. Both were made possible by my dear cousin Caroline and her boyfriend Gary, an organic garlic farmer in the Poconos.

PASA was great. I found that everyone I spoke with was eager to share their knowledge. Not in the "look how much I know" kind of way -- contrary to my earlier conference experiences at, say, the Modern Language Association annual meetings (if you want to ever feel truly illiterate, I recommend that you check these out) -- but rather along the lines of "I'm so glad you asked because I've been thinking about that, too." I learned the basics of crop rotation (how, when, and why), the benefits of urban gardening (from community building to beautification of bombed out lots), and celebrated backyard gardening (apparently you can grow enough to feed a person year round on just an eighth of an acre -- mom, dad, I'm helping you develop a bigger vegetable plot in the backyard). I'm still trying to work out the difference between tilling (bad?) and aerating (good?), but I'm sure that will get cleared up at some point.

Some of the more interesting conversations I had over the course of the day were about the financial aspects of sustainable farming. The first of these occurred with the grass-fed dairy farmer I happened to sit next to at lunch. (The cows he raised were grass-fed, not him.) He explained to me how he'd run a conventional dairy for years, but how recently he'd decided to overhaul his whole operation. It wasn't a moment of enlightenment about animal welfare or environmental stewardship that served as the impetus for the conversion. His epiphany: there's a market for it. About a decade ago, he told me, he began hearing rumblings of a growing demand for grass-fed dairy. He did some calculations. He consulted with his son who had recently finished school with a degree in business and who, for the first time, was taking an interest in the family business (my understanding was that this interest came out of the sustainable nature of the project). And so he moved ahead. It was a major financial risk. He had to hire significantly more workers to manage the now 300-strong herd in this more labor-intensive arrangement. Now, he said, he's sorry it took him so long to make the switch. He's elated that the business has brought the family together and he's proud to employ a skilled, local workforce. He has started reading about the nutritional and environmental benefits of his methods -- knowledge that bolsters his confidence beyond the financial rationale. (At this point, having consumed a pitcher and a half of water, I hopped off to the ladies' room. I returned to the table to discover that he and his wife had left and I berated myself for not writing down his name or the name of the dairy beforehand. Note to self: bring notebook and pencil everywhere. And drink less water.)

My second memorable conversation was with our friend Jim, with whom we were carpooling back from the conference. (Call me a slacker, but I was not up to biking to State College, PA, in the snow quite yet.) While I'd sat in on a session on the flourishing community garden programs in downtown Philadelphia (which I'm hoping to learn more about), Jim had been hearing about the plight of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture programs) in the region. There are many forms a CSA might take, but my general understanding is that community members buy a "share" up front (usually in the $400-700 range) and then are supplied with a weekly box of fresh, local produce over the course of the growing season (usually April or May-October). Seems like a great deal for everyone. The issue that arose at the end of the session, it turned out, was the question of financial sustainability: could a CSA be, if not "profitable" by traditional business standards, at least financially independent? At least in the case of the groups represented on the panel, the answer seemed to be "no." One depended largely on outside grants to subsidize the costs involved; another was something of a pet project for a farmer who didn't seem too concerned about the monetary gains or losses. My question is: are there CSAs out there that can serve as viable business models? I don't mean that CSA managers need MBAs and fancy cars and performance bonuses -- certainly not -- but is there a way to set things up so that growers are not merely scraping by (or, worse, operating at a loss)?

The good news is that local produce is becoming more available more often and in more places around the country. CSAs are catching on. The Washington Post Food Section recently came out with a listing of CSAs in the DC metro area. I hope to speak/meet with some of the amazing people who run these programs. If anyone (beyond my two loyal readers: mom and dad) is connected with a CSA in your area -- as a volunteer, manager, participant in some aspect of the program -- I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The project: a bikeable feast

"Sustainability" is such a buzz word these days that I wonder if we've forgotten what it really means. Is it possible to produce and consume in a way that not only doesn't diminish the planet but actually improves it? From what I am learning in my research so far: yes, but we're going to need to change our whole way of thinking about food and how it fits into our lives. The good news is that even small choices help: buying seasonal produce when you can, seeking out local growers, asking questions about where your food comes from, composting, growing things in your yard or on your windowsill, cooking more. I have done these things, but I need more.

I want to learn about sustainable agriculture, as much as I possibly can. In my mind, this means continuing to read up on the history and present state of sustainable farms, visiting -- and working at -- a variety of farms and community gardens in a range of settings, getting my hands back into the earth, listening to as many people as are willing to share their knowledge and experience with me, their views on why they have chosen the path of sustainable agriculture, their successes, what challenges and bottlenecks are preventing more widespread access to local, sustainable food.

I have read about some of the issues and possible solutions in Pollan's writings, in Kingsolver, in Schlosser, but I want to know more. I want to see more and do more, learn more and help more. My plan is to begin more intensive research in my home town, our nation's capital -- reading, meeting with people who have devoted their energy to addressing these issues, visiting farms and community gardens in the general vicinity -- and start writing about it. Meanwhile, at 31, I suspect it's time to really learn to ride a bike. (There you have it: true confession.) I've been a patron of public transit most of my life, and DC has one of the finest systems in the country. But to truly embrace a lifestyle that allows me to live lightly on the land, and because I fundamentally believe in so many aspects of the bike-friendly life, and, finally, because my choice to leave my most recent job to do this full time has left me with a good deal of time and energy but no source of income, I have chosen to learn to ride a bicycle... and to ride it around the country as my primary means of transportation. (I am accepting all manner of tips on biking and finding good, used bikes and equipment, to be sure. This is, perhaps prematurely, assuming that my readership extends beyond my parents who have told me all they know about bikes. "Wear a helmet." Thanks, mom.)

In about three months, I plan to hop on my bike and head north, following the growing season in a giant loop around the country, stopping to learn and work at farms and community gardens along the way, cooking for whomever will let me into their kitchens. I imagine this will take about a year, maybe longer. I hope that by learning from and listening to others who are equally passionate and more knowledgeable in matters of local, sustainable agriculture, I, in my small way, can help to tell some of their stories and be a part of the growing consciousness about how the choices we make about the food we grow and buy and prepare for ourselves and those we love matter.

Change is coming. I've seen it in the eyes of the millions surrounding me during the frostbitten Inauguration Day ceremonies downtown. I've heard it in the voices of the people I have been talking with about my project during these first few weeks, who have kept me in their thoughts as they go about their days, stumbling across and passing along great ideas and contacts, and starting to make small changes themselves. This journey is about learning from each other, sharing what we know, taking the time to listen and to consider how our choices about food affect not only our bodies but our communities and our world. It's about celebrating the at once simple and complex joy of food and the company of good people.

And so, mom and dad, I know you're anxious. There is a lot to work out -- including learning to ride a bike without crashing, which I'm working on -- but this is a labor of love. Food is too important to me to take a more passive approach. Dream big, right? I'm not exactly sure where this will take me, but I have a feeling I will enjoy the ride. I hope you do, too.

For love of food

A few months ago, I read The Omnivore's Dilemma. I'd enjoyed Pollan's Botany of Desire when I'd stumbled across it years back, even bought copies for a few friends who appreciated the rare blend of gardening, anthropology, and great storytelling. I was completely unprepared for the way this more recent book would change my life.

I couldn't stop thinking about it: I can honestly say that the book kept me up at night. I couldn't stop talking about it: friends, family, neighbors, students, my doctor, people standing with me waiting for the bus who were probably expecting small talk about the weather (poor souls). My parents just wanted a quiet Thanksgiving ("Enough with 'the way you spend your food dollars amounts to nothing less than a political act,' just pass the mashed potatoes!") so I did my best to muffle my outcries. Most people probably don't think about food as much as I do, I'll admit that. But the book had opened a veritable can of worms. I have always sought out fresh produce, but only more recently began to consider the implications of what it means to buy local, to weigh in the economic and environmental and nutritional benefits of supporting food systems that are seasonal and sustainable. I started buying my produce, eggs, and dairy almost exclusively at farmers markets. I started reading other books on food policy and local agriculture. There's a lot out there. I wanted to learn more.

I've been heartened by the existence of of a relatively small but growing and increasingly more visible community of people who are making choices to support small, local, sustainable farms and celebrating a return to slow food. I've been taking more time to talk with people, ask questions, learn about where my food comes from. I'm finding that the more people I engage in these conversations, the more we all begin to think about how even on our small, individual scale our food choices matter. I'll pass the mashed potatoes... in a minute.