Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Then they fight you

Michael Pollan's first speaking engagement in Madison last week centered on why so many Americans make poor food choices and what we as individuals can do to change things in our own lives as eaters. His second talk -- at the well-attended Food For Thought Festival on Saturday -- focused more on the need for major policy changes that influence food and farming across the country. In particular, diversified organic farms need more support.

Invoking such inspirational figures as Wendell Berry, Alice Waters, Martin Luther King, and even Gandhi, Pollan's talk was a call to arms. Or rather, a call to farms. It is not that we should get rid of farm subsidies, he argued, but rather than perpetuate the massive production of, say, feed corn for cattle, the money should be used to support small and medium-sized farms who grow a variety of crops and animals for human consumption. It's hard work -- I've only been doing it for 5 months, and with biking breaks periodically (and, yes, cycling is often less exhausting than farming, though perhaps it's a toss up since I've started biking into midwestern headwinds) -- and they need help. We will need many more of these farms and farmers to support a diverse network of foodsheds around the country as we wean ourselves off of the current, petroleum-dependent system of food production. This kind of farming -- without tons of fertilizers and pesticides and giant machines -- takes more people and more thought. And, contrary to the reigning propaganda out there, organic farms *can* feed the world. Look at the amount of food that programs like Growing Power (in Milwaukee) or City Farm (in Chicago) are producing, and doing it pretty much year round. (Contrary to some critics' assertions, I do not believe Mr. Pollan is pro-starvation.)

Our country and our world will be safer when people everywhere have access to fresh, responsibly-grown and regionally-distributed food. These are the sorts of things that folks at next month's Food Security Conference in Des Moines (that I am still trying to talk my way into) are convening to discuss. We are in the midst of a food revolution. The battle has begun in earnest to take back the land, to grow healthy food for all, and to do it in a way that doesn't destroy the land. The backlash from the Farm Bureau and large agriculture interest groups, Mr. Pollan pointed out, means that we, as food advocates, are now in the third stage of a revolution. As Gandhi once said, "First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. They they fight you." Bring it on.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Young MacDonald had a farm

Yesterday and today were spent biking through southwestern Wisconsin. The weather has been a challenge -- 3 rainstorms yesterday alone and winds so strong that my main fear at the campsite last night was not the usual getting eaten by a bear or being struck by lightning but that a tree was going to fall on my head -- so I have not been encountering the usual number of bikers or woodland creatures with whom I might converse. (Also, with the fear of impending skull crushing, I laid awake most of the night.) I've had lots of time to think.

During one of these extended musing sessions, I got to thinking about how farming is simultaneously ingrained in our culture -- just look to children's songs like Old MacDonald, B-I-N-G-O (sorry if it's in your head now, too), or The Farmer in the Dell -- and devalued by it in recent years. I've been hearing about the "brain drain" from a few folks lately: how school counselors (and parents) are encouraging the best and brightest from farming communities to pursue non-farming careers. I mean, farming is hard work, who can blame them for encouraging a path that is physically less taxing, more highly respected, and often better paying than farming?

On the other side, many of the folks coming *into* farming don't come from agricultural backgrounds. In fact, most seem to be coming out of liberal arts colleges, young farmers drawn to sustainable food production because of a philosophical ideal -- maybe they harbor a pastoral vision of life as homesteaders or perhaps they pursue farming as a political act, an attempt to address food inequities. There is a sizable group of young farmers who actually grew up on farms, left, and have found themselves returning to the land, longing for a chance to grow things and feed people. This last group describes the majority of women farmers I spoke and worked with last week in the greater Madison area.

April (of West Star Farm), Kristen and Dawn (of Blue Moon Farm), and Diana (who runs Dreamfarm) each admitted to a desire to return to rural roots as the driving force behind her decision to farm. All wanted to live somewhere green, grow things, raise food for themselves and their communities. And they're succeeding. There is a thriving local food culture in Madison, with many small farms and CSAs. And yet, instead of being in competition -- as a traditional market might dictate -- the producers support each other, sharing the idea that the more the collective farms succeed, the more able they are to feed everyone. (Including me: both April and Kristen loaded Ollie up with produce before I left each farm. It's hard to turn down farm fresh produce....)

Farmers are notoriously independent and isolated. Not so with the young (and not so young) farmers around Madison. There are a few things that might explain this anomaly, but I think it comes down to community support. First, there is MACSAC (Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition) -- a group that works on everything from building farmer customer bases to subsidizing low-income CSA shares to facilitating internships at CSA farms. There are also groups like REAP (Research, Education, Action, and Policy) Food Group -- a coalition that works to build a stronger regional food system and better-educated eaters through programs like Homegrown Lunch and publications such as the Farm Fresh Atlas. (REAP also organizes events like the Food For Thought Festival, meant to highlight food issues in the region and which this year brought me in close proximity to Michael Pollan for the first time. I mean mere *feet* away: I had volunteered to help with crowd control during his book signing session following his talk on Saturday.) And, finally, there are educated consumers -- CSA shareholders, restaurants, farmers' market shoppers, co-op members -- who support these devoted farmers. If only we could mimic similar food system development in other parts of the country!

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Better than donuts

Michael Pollan touched on a number of food culture and policy issues at his two lectures in Madison this past week. He brought up so many great ideas, not to mention hilarious observations and quotable quotes, that I suspect my next few blog posts will be peppered with Pollanisms.

[Gushing aside: I anticipated the talks in much the same way my dad would a papal audience, to give you an idea of the excitement level leading up to my first in-person, shared airspace with one of our nation's greatest contemporary minds. Sitting in the Kohl Center -- yes, they used half of the giant hockey arena as a venue, so clearly I am not the only Pollan fan in Madison -- waiting for the Thursday night talk to begin, I was worried that I'd built up the event so much in my head that I would surely be disappointed. Oh, no. Smart, funny, thoughtful, and with just a touch of irreverence, Mr. Pollan builds arguments like a french master chef builds a chocolate souffle: with both art and skill...and both are a pleasure to witness.]

He started with the basics: why is it that we eat so poorly? Largely, he suggested, it is because we have become so disconnected from our food -- where it comes from, how it grows, when it is in season, what it should taste like, and forget about taking pleasure in it or valuing it as more than a collection of calories -- that we have come to rely on experts to tell us what to eat. Well, it turns out they're often wrong. (And thank goodness: I feel vindicated to know that my predilection for butter is now back in fashion. At least this year.)

In the food industry as in healthcare, there always seems to be a new magic bullet that will solve all of our problems: a breakthrough medication or procedure, a novel diet that praises some food group or nutrient while demonizing another. Fat, sugar, butter, carbs...all have been vilified at some point. "High fructose corn syrup seems to be the satanic nutrient of the moment," Mr. Pollan joked, and food packages are starting to highlight "real cane sugar" on their labels. Sugar. You know, that stuff that was more evil than communist Russia back in the late 80s.

"Nutritionism," as it is termed in Pollan's latest book, "In Defense of Food," is a relatively new field... "Much like surgery in, say, 1650," the author posited. "It's interesting, sure, but are you ready to get on the table?" It is a complicated field, and no doubt nutritionists are doing their best, but when things like Froot Loops get a healthy choice checkmark, you know something's amiss. "Instead of 'a healthy choice' label, how about 'better than donuts?'" Pollan quipped. How about getting to know food -- real food, not foodlike substances -- again? Grow it, cook it yourself, share it. I concur with his proposal that we as a culture move away from the "American Paradox" of nutritional obsession amid our collective decline in health and pursue something more akin to the "French Paradox" that embraces the pleasure and cultural richness surrounding food. We'd likely be happier -- and healthier. Now bring on the red wine and creme fraiche!

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Strange bedfellows

I've been hearing quite a bit about healthcare reform and local food these days. Believe it or not, they're related. Some have proposed the idea that foodies and health insurers may become allies in the push for local, sustainable food systems in the near future. Talk about strange bedfellows....

From local food activists in Wisconsin to Michael Pollan (one of my heroes) all the way up to our president (one of my other heroes) in a recent speech on healthcare reform, folks are beginning to make connections between improved health and eating more fresh, locally-sourced and chemical-free produce, meat, and dairy. In his recent op-ed in the NY Times, Mr. Pollan links an increasingly unhealthy American diet and rising healthcare costs, speculating that if insurance companies in our country are mandated to cover *everybody* -- no more of the denials and pre-existing condition loopholes leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans suffering and deeply in debt -- they would become strong allies in the effort to promote healthier eating habits.

With 1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 projected to develop diet-related diabetes, it will be in the interest, at long last, of the healthcare and insurance industries to educate people about the importance of food choices rather than perpetuating -- some conspiracy theorists might even say encouraging -- poor dietary habits. "As things stand," Pollan writes, "the health care industry finds it more profitable to treat chronic diseases than to prevent them. There's more money in amputating the limbs of diabetics than in counseling them on diet and exercise." What the...?? He's right! If insurers are required to pay for all treatment, suddenly more cost-effective preventive (never mind conscientious) steps like counseling about food and exercise will emerge as the better method.

In the meantime, I propose this: how about while Congress, the president, and interest groups are battling it out to "fix" our healthcare system we make an effort to buy more fresh, local food and reform both the food and healthcare industries simultaneously, one forkful at a time? What a delicious solution....

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The carnivore's dilemma

One of my dad's greatest fears is that I'll become a vegetarian again.

There is a precedent for this: when I was 15, I stopped eating meat one day and didn't touch it for five years. (Much to my mother's chagrin. She thought I was just trying to be difficult. I was a teenager, after all. Meanwhile, dad would try to sneak it into things: anchovy paste in the rattitoille, chicken broth in the rice. I would have none of it. Stubborn? A bit.) I had decided, after much deliberation, and being around a best friend who had been a vegetarian (and for a brief period, a vegan...until I brought her back to the dairy dark side with a pint of Phish Food) for years, that I could enjoy a perfectly healthy diet without an animal's life being claimed to feed me. The decision to stop eating meat came about because it made sense for me at the time. I could not come to terms with the process of meat production for food. I couldn't accept what I knew of the way the animals lived and died.

I started eating fish on occasion my last year of college, and about a year later was eating red meat again. The change was born of necessity: I had joined AmeriCorps, where the combination of a collective food budget (calculated at the local poverty line) and physically intense projects like 10-hour days of building hiking trails and houses as we trained as forest firefighters meant that I moved from eating cheese and tomato sandwiches to devouring anything that wasn't nailed down. I needed the calories.

It's been about a decade since I started eating meat again. I don't cook much of it, but I do eat it. And if I do say so, I make a pretty mean lamb curry (with dried fruit, cinnamon, and rose petals). When I buy meat or order it for dinner, I ask a lot of questions. I want to know as much as I can about the life that the animal led on its way to my plate. Was it free to roam around and fulfill its animal nature -- grazing, rolling in the mud, drinking fresh water, lounging in the sun? Did it experience a humane death? If I wanted to, could I meet my meat and see how it's raised?

Following a delightful potato pancake brunch at the couple's inn earlier today, I had the opportunity to learn about Fountain Prairie Farm's grass-fed beef operation from the man himself, John Priske, and meet the herd. John told me about the challenges of raising the heritage breed in Wisconsin: comparatively few buyers are patient enough to wait for the animals to get to an appropriate age and weight, and generally only chefs able to appreciate the superior quality of the meat are willing to pay a fair price for it. Because the Madison area has a number of restaurants and events focused on local, sustainably-raised food, the farm does okay. But it's not just about financial sustainability. It's about respecting life and treating the land and animals the right way. John believes in his animals living full lives, well beyond the average lifespan of other breeds of beef cattle, and because of this he is unable to justify selling animals too young, especially veal calves -- "their lives are cut too short" -- even in the face of a market that generally treats cattle as nothing more than animals to fatten up as quickly and cheaply as possible for our fast food nation.

I've had some of the meat raised on the Priskes' farm -- marinated short ribs at the Sassy Cow event yesterday; burgers at the UW Slow Food dinner tonight -- and it is superb. I suspect I will continue to grapple with eating meat, but I do feel pretty strongly that if I am to continue to do so, I want it to be raised by people like John.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Maybe it's something in the milk

Wisconsin is hands down the friendliest state so far. It's unreal. I have yet to encounter anyone even remotely unfriendly -- with the notable exception of the SUV drivers on Layton Avenue in Milwaukee, but they're probably from another state. How is it that everyone is so very friendly and cheerful? There isn't a lower unemployment rate. It certainly can't be the weather -- take that, Massachusetts! -- since winter lasts something like 8 months here (although it has been spectacularly sunny this week). Maybe it's something in the milk. There's an awful lot of good dairy around....

Since my arrival in the fine town of Madison nearly a week ago, I've been exploring the local food scene, from markets to school gardens to restaurants to co-ops. (And eating a lot of cheese.) In the coming week I'm hoping to make it to a number of farms in the area to learn and help out a bit, thanks to some connections fostered by Mark and Heidi -- two of the most friendly, thoughtful, food-loving people I have ever met. Talk about having a finger on the pulse of local food: I think between the two of them I was introduced to approximately half of the local farmers within an 80-mile radius. And there are a lot of them, many more small, organic operations than I would have guessed in the GM-feed-corn-dominated midwest.

My initial impression of the town when I came with a former partner to visit his alma mater for a weekend back in 2001 was that it was a fun college town with good beer. It is still a fun place, and the beer is quite good, but what "Madtown" really has going for it, in my humble opinion, is an amazing local food scene. I mean dozens of farms within an easy day's bike ride from the city center, multiple farmers' markets every day of the week, scores of restaurants sourcing their food locally, more varieties of cheese and heirloom fruits and veggies than you can shake a stick at, and a dynamic Slow Food chapter... this is a town after my own heart. (Chicago, you've got some competition: it's immensely bikeable, too.) It's clearly on the food policy map, with heavy hitters in the local food revolution dropping into town regularly to give free talks: Will Allen (of Growing Power) spoke at a community center this past Thursday, Michael Pollan has a few engagements here in town next week around the "Food For Thought" festival (the 11th annual one, mind you). The place is brimming with food advocates, educators, and supporters. The only other town I've been through with a comparable local farming and food advocacy contingent was in Burlington (in our country's *other* notorious dairy state, Vermont. Maybe there's something in the cheese...).

I can feel my determination to bike onward wavering as the original plan for a 5-day visit stretches to nearly 2 weeks. Must... get... to... Iowa... soon.... (I'm convinced there is some kind of highly addictive substance in the artisanal cheeses. I can't resist trying the seemingly endless, flavorful varieties. And here I'd been thinking all of the best cheeses were made in France -- yet *another* place known for food activism. Mon dieu!)

Stay tuned for a look into local farms and CSAs in the area....

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Just add water

After meeting a charming trio of lady cyclists along the Oak Leaf bike trail (who later connected me up with the larger food scene in Milwaukee), Ollie and I zipped over to Growing Power's headquarters on Thursday afternoon for a tour. The organization's work has expanded to Chicago, where I had worked alongside staff and community members at Grant Park and in Cabrini-Green on my way through the fair city. The work in Chicago seemed more focused on community building and youth training; here in Milwaukee the focus was food production and distribution, though there are quite a few training workshops.

I had been reading quite a bit about Will Allen's inspirational work in recent years: intensive greenhouse food production, vermiculture (worm composting), soil building (using "coir" -- compressed, shredded coconut husk), and, more recently, aquaponics. What I was really excited to see on the tour were the aquaponic systems: large, recirculating, multi-tiered tanks that mimicked a full ecosystem to grow both fish and plants for food. No chemicals added, just water. (Well, and plants, rocks, fish, and fish food.) Yellow perch and tilapia flourish for about a year before being harvested for a number of local chefs while watercress and other greens are regularly clipped for sale.

I spent two afternoons up to my elbows in coir, a substance which is mixed with worm castings -- aka worm poop -- to create the rich potting soil at Growing Power. Amazingly, one brick of dry coir expanded to a full wheelbarrow of shredded husk when soaked in water. Still, we needed a lot of the stuff to keep up with the 150 trays per day for sprout planting. Incidentally, scraping and sifting coir left me with unusually moisturized, exfoliated hands. No more calloused farmer hands for me! (Well, at least until the next farm.) Now you know what job to volunteer for when you stop by....

I am a bit enamored with soil building and composting operations, and they have a pretty sophisticated system here. But what really captured my imagination was the way the program reaches out and inspires so many people -- patrons, volunteers, donors, educators, the general public. Everyone in the city knows about Will and about the program. Talk about home town pride.

People flock to the operation. I suspect that this is partly due to Mr. Allen's recent McArthur genius grant and features in The New York Times catapulting the organization into the limelight. But it's not just hype: he really is a genius. He has figured out how to make fresh, mostly local food accessible -- both in terms of location and cost -- to large, underserved communities, and do it sustainably. Take the "Market Basket" program, where I worked with a small staff to pack hundreds of bags of fresh produce on Thursday afternoon. The program is so popular that middle-class families are signed up for the weekly pick-up alongside foodies, lower-income folks, and college students. The year-round, CSA-style produce bags range from $9 (a "senior" half-size) to an all-organic, full-sized bag for something like $30. There's a size and a price range for everyone, and because some don't know from week to week what their cashflow will be, instead of the up-front commitment of a CSA share patrons decide from one week to the next what (and whether) to order. It was a lot of food, even the half size. (I could have handled it, mind you, but they don't skimp on the fresh goodies.)

I did not have the good fortune to meet the man of whom I've read and heard so much. I did see his fishing pole leaning up against the tilapia tank during the tour. But his presence is everywhere: in the varied designs for the fish tanks which he is constantly striving to perfect, in the way everyone who has met him in person speaks of him almost wistfully. One day I hope to meet him (and not faint from excitement). In the meantime, I hope the program continues to grow and flourish.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

WHAT is the average velocity of an unladen Surly?

(Is that an African or European Surly, you ask? In fact, Ollie's from Minnesota -- I thought you could tell from the accent. Don't ya know.)

I know Ollie's weight keeps coming up in conversation -- for awhile there I was concerned she'd develop pannierexia, but she seems to be immune to the stares she gets on bike trails and from kids waiting at bus stops as we cruise past. We're still loaded up, but at least we'll be where states are flat for the next few weeks. (Not pretend flat like that poser state, Ohio. I mean actually flat.) If the headwind ever gives us a break, we should be cruising along at a decent clip for a bit.

I've been playing with numbers again and thought I'd toss out a few stats for the numeraphiles out there. (You were going to look that up, weren't you? It's not a word...yet.)

3: average number of times each day that someone asks me how much my bike weighs

1800: miles biked so far

2000: number of visitors to the blog (!)

4: flat tires since departing DC (not too shabby, all things considered)

14: average miles per hour on an unladen Ollie (When I'm hoofing it, say, trying to get across town to Growing Power, it's closer to 18; meandering around is about 11. Fully loaded runs around 10 and involves a significantly higher heart rate and more frequent snack breaks.)

3: number of times I've been confused about exactly which time zone I'm in

8: varieties of cheese I have consumed over the course of today (Hey, it is Wisconsin, land of dairy. Between parmesan on my leftover pasta for breakfast, wine and cheese by the pool at Julie's in the late afternoon, and an irresistible assortment of local cheeses at the Wisconsin Foodie release party that Martha invited me to this evening, I wouldn't be surprised if I started mooing in my sleep.)

And finally, 0: number of times I've regretted my decision to embark on the bikeable feast

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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Local flavor

When they learned I would be heading through Chicago for a few days, a number of friends suggested that I check out City Farm. As I departed the Grant Park community garden on Friday morning, a couple of the Growing Power staff I'd been chatting with also urged me to check out the unusual space. So on Friday afternoon and for a good bit of Saturday, I did. Wow.

Ollie and I made our way down from where we were staying with friends in Lincoln Park to the relatively rundown Cabrini-Green neighborhood where the urban farm was located. (It's actually one of three sites, and the group is hoping to expand to acquire a few more plots through partnerships with the city as well as private institutions boasting unused green space.) Rows of tall tomato plants, lettuce beds, and trays of basil plants greeted Ollie and I upon our arrival, as did Dan, one of the farm's "three and a half" paid employees. As we strolled about the land which is just shy of an acre in size, Dan gathered some of the unfit-for-sale tomatoes for the compost pile and gave me a bit of background on the operation that brings in around $60K each year in produce sales -- enough to pay the aforementioned three and a half employees. The exceptional quality of the produce makes it appealing to local chefs. And the street cred the upscale restaurants enjoy by virtue of supporting local growers is evident in the way menus prominently feature the names of farms and local, seasonal ingredients. It's a win-win situation, and the first truly economically sustainable small-scale organic farm operation I have come across.

This does not mean that there isn't significant room for improvement in the system, I thought as I weeded radish beds with a few local volunteers on Saturday afternoon. What about supplying fresh produce to, say, the people who live in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood? Can folks across the street from the farm afford $8 per pound for purslane (considered a weed by most rural farmers!) or $4.50 per pound for heirloom tomatoes? Dan admitted to a nagging feeling along these lines, a sense of food injustice. Sometimes the garden vittles are sold on a sliding scale, he told me, but we both felt there should be more.

It may not be ideal, but it's a start, and City Farm is constantly evolving. The 10-year-old program supports itself financially and offers opportunities to educate cityfolk about organic agriculture. City Farm is an outgrowth of The Resource Center, a Chicago-based not-for-profit that builds communities and fosters partnerships between the city's "haves" and its "have-nots." I later learned about the center's Perishable Food Recovery Program which brings together groups like Whole Foods and local food pantries and soup kitchens to minimize the amount of food that is wasted -- day-old bread, bruised fruit, slightly dented canned goods -- by efficiently redistributing it to places that will effectively use the food quickly. Very cool. (Seems like a no-brainer to me, but I seem to have a number of friends who are public defenders or in law school these days, and from hanging around these characters I suspect the reason such programs are not more widespread is due to fear of legal culpability that food recycling might elicit in our modern, lawsuit-happy society.) The Resource Center runs composting and industrial recycling programs, too. In fact, all of the equipment from the hoop houses (mobile mini greenhouses) to the fences to an old tractor trailer on the edge of the City Farm site are reclaimed (recycled) materials. Waste not, want not, truly.

As fate would have it, I happen to be staying with a group of friends that includes a local chef whose restaurant buys their produce from local farmers, and last night Derrick was telling me about the cafe's delectable menu that changes weekly based on what is locally available. This afternoon, a few of us made our way to the amazing Lula Cafe for brunch and feasted on an amazing array of seasonal goodies, including fried green tomato eggs florentine with mustard hollandaise (with heirloom tomatoes from City Farm), french toast with local peaches, and a watermelon and cantelope salad with fried feta, mint, and purslane (!). It was divine when washed down with a blackberry bellini (made with fresh berry compote). I don't eat out often these days, but I couldn't resist. I'm supporting the local economy, right?

Ollie and I are slated to move northward tomorrow morning, but Chicago has definitely caught our attention -- a major blip on the sustainable food radar. And now that I have at long last discovered a great salsa club as well, I may be back...indefinitely....

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Saturday, September 5, 2009

My kind of town

Chicago is hands down the most bike-friendly town I've traversed thus far. Everywhere, there are bike paths, bike lanes, bike signs, bike racks, and, yes, lots of folks on their bicycles. (Too few bike *helmets* for my liking, but I'm working to pare down my lecture to a 3 second sound bite that I can rattle off at stop lights. How about: "Keep your brains on the *inside* of your skull. Wear a helmet." Pithy, no?)

The fact that the mayor is an avid cyclist certainly can't hurt, but I wonder if the "cars and bicycles living in harmony" can be replicated in other cities. Sure, there's still quite a bit of work to be done here -- better road surfaces, for one thing, and more pestering...I mean educating...folks to wear helmets, and some sensitivity training for the truculent individuals manning the public buses -- but overall I must say I'm impressed. Add in the fabulous thrift shops (what? I needed some new pants!), deep dish pizzas, and steadily growing community gardening scene, and this may be the perfect city. And the beautiful public spaces. And live music. And... My experience may be biased by the great folks I am staying with and the best week of weather since I left DC in April, but Chicago has a lot going for it.

A post on the urban agriculture scene is on the way soon. Right now Ollie and I need to hotfoot it over to City Farm for the weekend volunteer shift....

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