Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Feats of Dairy-ing Do

As fate would have it, my plans to check out farms in western Massachusetts fell through just when a number of folks started sending me information on amazing farms further east in the state. (Thank you, Mike, Daniel, and Mother Margaret Georgina!) Ollie and I conferred and agreed that rerouting made sense. So after a few phone calls, we began to head east from Southwick to Foxboro, where I was to learn all about raw milk, the dairy industry, and the Farm Bureau from the friendly and knowledgeable Terri, her parents, and her sister. (I also learned a lot about sharks and dinosaurs from Terri's son, Joseph, but since you can't milk them, I won't go into detail here.)

I arrived at the Lawton Family Farm on Saturday morning, catching a ride from Warren, MA with Terri's sister, Danielle, who had kindly hosted Ollie and I (and our ridiculous amount of gear) the evening before, and who filled me in on the family's history of dairy farming. She and Terri -- the driving force behind Oake Knoll Ayrshires (a raw milk production operation at her family's farm in Foxboro) -- had always been around farmers, been actively involved in their local 4-H organization, and since the 80s when their father converted the farm to a dairy, been around cows. This family knows dairy. (If ever there's a farm trivia night at Wonderland when I get back to DC, I know who I want on my team for the round on bovines.) Terri's degree in Animal Agribusiness and her time as a state dairy inspector have informed her professional practice, but she also clearly really cares for her cows. She names every cow and is acutely aware of the quirks of each; the cows, in turn, seemed comfortable and even a bit curious around various members of the family, and me when I made my way to the pre-milking area. The milking routine moved like a well-oiled machine: the cows waited outside the milking barn until the gate was lifted, then they marched in, found the nearest empty spot, and poked their heads through one of the 12 headgates to nibble on a small pile of grain. The milkers -- Ed and Nancy -- cleaned and sterilized the udders and teats, then hooked the cows up to the milking machines. When the whole group was done, the teats were disinfected once again, the cows unhooked, and everyone marched out the far end of the barn to make room for the next cadre. Amazing.

Terri is very much connected not only to her cows but also to her community of raw milk drinkers who regularly come by the farm to pick up their pre-ordered fresh milk. One afternoon, she told me of a recent time when the price of organic oats and grain (which she uses to supplement the cows' main diet of forage -- grass and hay) rose sharply from $5 to $30 over the course of two months: she took a poll among her loyal customer base to see what they wanted to do. Of the options -- 1) start feeding the cows conventionally grown oats and grain, 2) start feeding them organic corn and soybeans, or 3) let the cows attempt to subsist on a diet of grass and hay alone (which, it turns out, means that they lack key nutrients) -- the group as a whole decided to abandon the organic feed (option 1) in order to keep the cows happy, healthy, and productive. Democracy in action.

I was surprised to learn from Terri's mom that, contrary to what I'd read in books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, cows actually love corn. They will seek it out. If they get loose in a field, I was told, they will always go for the sweet-tasting, easily accessible calories of a corn stalk over the usual grass. (Yes, I know corn is a grass, technically, but there are different chemical things going on that make corn especially appealing... and complicated. There is a good deal of debate among those who raise cattle as to whether chopped corn stalks -- a common component of the diet of conventionally-raised cows -- count as "grain" or "forage" or some combination of the two.) This doesn't mean cows *should* eat corn, or if they do, certainly not anything close to what they are stuffed with when crammed into the typical beef cattle feed lots. For her part, Terri avoids feeding corn products to her herd, a practice which is both more expensive and requires more work to locate appropriate alternatives for her cows. But the decision has philosophical and financial underpinnings for her business, and Terri continues to nourish her cows without corn products.

Speaking of nourishing, I was put on calf-feeding patrol the last morning at the farm. Apparently Ed and Nancy thought I could hold my own after Nancy and I had successfully fed the group the previous morning, so they sent me into the calf barn with a big bucket of fresh milk and a bottle. (In retrospect, I think they might have been mildly hazing me.) Hilarity ensued as the calves proceeded to knock each other (and me, almost) over in the feeding frenzy. I tell you, those little guys are hungry. Whitey got his head stuck in the bucket at one point, while one of the other calves tried to headbutt the bottle out of the mouth of the calf I was feeding as another of the calves jumped on his back, the last little guy nibbling on my fingers and then, when that didn't work, my pants. Total chaos. I was seeing the "suck or die" instinct in action. I'd heard about this principle of calf behavior -- not to be confused with the Republican Party's motto -- during my time at the Abbey, and have found the aggressive nursing instinct to be pretty intense. But I made it out alive and all five calves were fed. Whew!

I purchased a small container of the farm's newly marketed fromage blanc and tossed Ollie into the back of Ed's truck: I'd managed to hitch a ride into Boston during Ed's regular brewer's grain pick-ups. (Hey, I'm biking *most* of the way around the country, but I'll hitch a ride here and there with folks going my way. And after the intensity of the morning's calf riots, I was glad for the rest.)

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Friday, June 26, 2009

The hills are alive with the sound of mooosic

I was fortunate enough to spend the first half of this week at the beautiful Abbey of Regina Laudis, nestled among the hills of western Connecticut. I learned about wool (preparing sheared wool to be turned into yarn), bee-keeping, gardening, orcharding, butter making, and running a small dairy. These are all things that I'd heard about before arriving. What I hadn't expected was how much the joy and thoughtfulness of the Sisters' spritual pursuit was mirrored in their professional endeavors. This was not a bunch of simple women who tinkered with sheep and flowers and prayed for everything to work out. There was quite a bit of worship throughout the day and night for the nuns (and any visitors who cared to participate) -- I attended Vespers services, which consists mainly of the Sisters singing a series of gorgeous psalms in Latin in the late afternoon -- but the prayer and humility of each and every Sister I worked with was complemented by a scientific curiosity and a devotion to her academic field. Many of them hold PhDs, attend conferences, are professional artists, scholars, cheese-makers. I was clearly the student here, and was amazed at how the Sisters seemed genuinely open to all kinds of questions about their craft, about living in such a cloistered yet intellectually engaged community, about the connections between spirituality and food and the land.

From the moment of my arrival I was welcomed into the community. Even when I may have taken more than my share of strawberries and herbed soft cheese with chives at lunch or the dreamy icecream at dinner -- I couldn't resist the startlingly delicious dairy or fresh produce, and it was the feast of St. John the Baptist so I suspect the Sisters on kitchen duty were pulling out all the stops. I daresay some of the soups were divinely inspired: the cooks' hands were surely blessed. (I resisted the temptation to run into the kitchen and kiss the cook, as I had after consuming the most sublime lavender creme brulee ever during a trip through southern France a few years back. Partly, this was due to the Abbey's kitchen being in the enclosed -- and thus off-limits -- portion of the building.)

The women at the Abbey clearly appreciate good food, but also have inculcated the value of conservation, as instructed by Saint Benedict. I read up a bit on St. B. one afternoon: he had a few too many rules for my liking, but his insistence on not being wasteful of any resource -- be it food, water, the land, the human spirit -- holds a good bit of appeal. Finding meaningful, useful work for everyone, taking into account one's interests and abilities, is one of the cornerstones of the Abbey's philosophy, and during my time there, I couldn't help but notice how everyone embraced their given tasks with zeal. I even found myself thinking about how lucky I felt to be a part of this community one morning while pitchforking cow pies into a wheelbarrow outside the dairy -- hardly glamorous (or sweet-smelling) work, but oddly satisfying. (Also, I was still giddy after bottle-feeding one of the young calves, and being nuzzled by a few of the large, peaceful cows as they ambled past me toward the pasture. And I'd guzzled a large coffee with milk squeezed right out of the cow into my mug: the Sisters call it a cow-puccino, but it's really more of a latte.)

After a blissful 3 1/2 days, I departed, filled with gratitude that this community so readily welcomed me into their midst to learn and work and reflect. I hope to return here some day... maybe I'll get to try my hand at making cheese and ice cream the next time around.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A golden compass

I've not written much about Ollie's and my own adventures in cycling for some time, it seems. Truthfully, each leg of the journey has presented some story-worthy challenges.

There was the ride from Philadelphia to Kutztown, PA, for example, which started out with me circling the city for approximately two hours before determining that the GPS must have been on the fritz, only to be approached on my second loop around City Hall by Hal, a local bike advocate and avid cyclist, who directed me toward a set of trails that would take me well beyond Valley Forge. Oh, people are so much better than computers. Or so I thought: the second leg of that same trip, once past the trail portion, had me quite literally circling and retracing steps (or tracks, I suppose) for sometimes 6 or 7 miles at a stretch, uphill both ways (I know it sounds impossible, but might I remind you that I was still in Penns-HILL-vania at that point) in my attempt to make my way to the Rodale Institute. Having given up on the GPS, I decided to rely on the locals. Bad call. Seriously, though, don't you people know the main roads going through your own town?? Sure, very few of the streets are labeled, but still.... Oh, I made it to Rodale, but only after fate stepped in and landed me, exhausted, pacing and muttering in front of Gary's house -- Gary, who had gone to school in Kutztown and whose Aunt Eileen worked at the Institute and kindly took me in, fed me, and set me up with not only a hot shower and a futon for the night, but a ride for Ollie and I across the final 12 (hilly) miles of the way there. Okay, no more maligning people.

Take the trip from Guilford to Meriden, CT, for instance: the printed google map directions could have been better used to line a hamster cage. Better by far were the directions given to me at the local bike shop, The Broken Spoke, by... curse my addled brain, I forgot the mechanic's name, but his directions were perfect. Somebody find and hug that man. For my travels between Meriden and New Haven, my friend Dan gave me turn-by-turn directions that were almost faultless and took me along the lovely Farmington Canal Trail, until I got to the portion of the trail that had not yet been built and discovered that I had neither a CT state map nor a New Haven detail map with me. I made my way into the city on pure instinct, but once there was sent by various locals in circles for miles and was lost for a solid hour. (Shoot, did I say I wasn't going to discredit human directions? Scratch that.) But I got to Yale's farm, too, eventually, after I reached Anastasia, who patiently talked me through the final few turns. I got quite lost on the way back to Meriden as, unable to find the trail entrance, and with nobody for miles along less-than-scenic-or-bike-friendly Dixwell Avenue having heard of the trail, I cut through someone's back yard and magically found myself back on track. (Thanks, God.) I got lost when I took a wrong turn just south of Meriden, too, but no need to go into detail: you get the picture.

I nearly forgot to mention that the Verizon Navigator GPS on the blackberry died about a week and a half ago and has yet to be fixed. I will say the customer service staff are nice, if not particularly knowledgeable, but even during my time at an Abbey -- how much more serene can a place BE, I ask you? -- I am unable to bring myself to sit on hold for 20 minutes at a time while the "your call is important to us, please stay on the line" is interspersed with musack looped again and again as I visibly age waiting for tech support to pick up. I have patience for many things, but food and negligent tech support are not among them. Unfortunately, I am still paying for the service in the meantime -- doh! Thank goodness the ABF tech team is more on top of things... Come to think of it, maybe they can figure out my GPS issues... Rudy? Tysen?

And so, dear readers, I think I may go old school and pick up regular state road maps -- they seem the most reliable -- to fill in the human and google map and GPS gaps. And perhaps I should install a compass on Ollie....(It's not like another couple of ounces is going to make much of a difference when I hit Vermont's mountains in a few weeks.)

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

The lavish radish

It has been brought to my attention recently that many people actually enjoy eating radishes. I myself have been trying to accept these bright, easy-to-grow salad accents as legitimate players at the table, but it's slow going. I'm trying, though: I got a (temporary) radish tattoo; I attempted to make a radish salad at Judith's last weekend. (Actually, the salad turned out to be fairly tasty, but then, when you saute anything in butter -- as we did the quartered radishes before tossing them with the radish greens, arugula, and a viniagrette with citrus, curry powder, and yoghurt to make a wilted salad -- really, how can you go wrong?) I've thought about roasting and stuffing them like mushrooms, tinkered with ways to use grated radishes in a risotto, I wonder about grilling them over the beer can stove as a side for macaroni.

But I need more ideas for ways to prepare and enjoy these spicy little red guys, so I'm starting another contest: whomever submits the best radish recipe by the end of this month gets the second official Bikeable Feast postcard. Chefs, start your burners....

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Lettuce rest, I'm feeling beet

It warms my heart to see the next generation of leaders getting involved in food production and policy issues. (Our current leaders are starting to speak up on food issues, too: I love Michelle Obama. No, really. She gets it: celebrating good food while educating our kids about the value -- and joy -- inherent in sharing delicious, responsibly grown food will change our nation for the better.)

While yesterday started out much like the last eight rainy weeks, by late morning the clouds broke to reveal an increasingly warm, sunny afternoon. As usual, I had food on the brain. While biking along the lovely Farmington Canal Trail on my way to New Haven, an excerpt from a Shel Silverstein poem popped into my head: "What did the carrot say to the wheat? Lettuce rest, I'm feeling beet." (Actually, I wasn't feeling too beat, but was a bit hungry....) Ollie and I were on our way to work with some of our country's brightest young undergraduates who had chosen to spend their summer learning about sustainable food: we were bound for one of the season's first open community work days at the Yale Sustainable Food Project campus farm.

I arrived around lunchtime (how convenient), just in time to share a meal and a lively chat with Daniel (the farm manager), Anastasia (who manages the program's communications), and six student interns, along with a smattering of community volunteers and other program staff. I was particularly taken with the interns, none of whom were pursuing a degree in agriculture -- rather, they immersed themselves during the school year in the study of literature, political science, religion, economics -- who were united by a love of food and who by different paths had ended up doing educational internships at the farm for the summer. Some had been introduced to the small but vibrant farm during pre-orientation via the Harvest program. Others had been seeking fresh, local produce, or were interested in food equity issues, and stumbled across the program. (While Yale does not offer, at present, an undergraduate degree in sustainable food, visibility of the program is slowly growing and courses like Agrarian Culture and History are becoming more popular.)

After lunch, Anastasia gave me a tour of the farm and told me a bit about the history and philosophy of the program -- a project that truly embraces sustainability and local community involvement. From it's Amish-style wooden pavilion built by students and local carpenters of pine and oak from the Yale forest, to the oven beneath it constructed largely of reclaimed bricks and used for post-workday Friday night gatherings with local community and student volunteers to make pizzas topped with a portion of the day's harvest, the YSFP does a great job of practicing what it preaches. In addition to serving as a working farm model in the midst of the urban campus setting -- allowing for Yale and nearby public school students to learn firsthand about sustainable food production -- the program has established itself as a credible advisor for food matters, influencing the purchasing and preparation of food for the campus dining halls.

Next I worked with the interns gathering and washing produce for the Saturday farmers market in Wooster Square: radishes, spinach, mesclun greens, garlic scapes. I was fascinated by the miniature white salad turnips that Grace (one of the interns) and I harvested -- I'm told they sold out in under 40 minutes at last week's market day, and considered myself fortunate to acquire a small bunch of these little varietals ahead of the market crowd. It helps to have connections. ;)

After a spot of weeding the beet bed, I concluded my farm visit and headed north to Felicity's house with my booty of baby turnips and snazzy YSFP wheelbarrow pin. I look forward to learning how this program grows and flourishes under the thoughtful guidance of Daniel (the capable farm manager) and Melina (the project's director whom I did not have the food fortune to meet, but about whom I heard many good things).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I heart new york

It's been a busy weekend here in the city. Yesterday morning, Aunt Martha and I ventured over to the bustling Ft. Greene farmers market, picking up the most vibrant red radishes I have ever seen (and a healthy handful of arugula to make a salad at Judith's later that evening: I am beginning to accept radishes as a legitimate vegetable... slowly, slowly). There, too, I had the unexpected pleasure of learning about the NYC farmers market scene from the very knowledgeable but humble Justin (whom I later discovered founded the innovative Peaceful Ox program, matching interns with organic farms in the region) and friendly but quiet Tara (a volunteer from a local high school who helped out at the info booth on Saturdays). They happened to be handing out samples of luscious looking strawberries with locally produced creme fraiche, so I happily nibbled as they filled me in on the Greenmarket network of weekly farmers markets around the city, including quite a number of year-round locations in different boroughs, more than a dozen of which are equipped to handle EBT/food stamp credit. Very cool.

Next, I made my way to the Bed-Stuy neighborhood to help out at a food festival at the Hattie Carthan Community Garden. The event, organized by the lovely and culinarily inventive Just Food chef, Yonette, was the first of a handful of events at the garden being held over the next month or so to raise funds to cover the start-up costs for a much-needed farmers market in the area. I worked at the information booth/fundraising table, perfectly positioned between the live funk band and the food tent. Score. I met a number of resident gardeners over the few hours I was at the event, many of whom admired my temporary radish tattoo painted by Briana -- a first year design student working at the face painting booth down around the corner.

This afternoon, though, was the highlight of my New York experience: the Greenpoint Rooftop Garden. I arrived around 2pm to join about 20 other volunteers on the beautiful urban farm overlooking the Manhattan skyline. (I'd gotten a later start than anticipated after Saturday night's attempt to find a decent salsa club in the city had me traipsing around Midtown in the rain until all hours... purely for the sake of justifying the inclusion of the dance shoes amid the other, more-regularly-utilized gear in my packs, of course.) Annie talked us through the history of the space, less than a year old, that she and Ben had started as a model to test out the feasibility of rooftop gardening -- to experiment and troubleshoot and educate and spread these gardens, these rooftop oases, all over the city. Lush green leafy things sprouted everywhere: scallions, peas, tomato seedlings, mesclun greens, kale, chard. If the beauty and appetizing produce grown on site weren't convincing enough, Annie's infectious enthusiasm and the joy she takes in all things verdant are enough to inspire even the least likely of greenthumbs. I even learned a bit about the history of brassicas during one of Annie's fascinating tangents, making me suspect that she is as passionate about all things garden-related as I am about all things food-related. If Ollie and I didn't have most of the rest of the country to explore, I would be tempted to stay here indefinitely....

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

C-O-M-P-O-S-T: find out what it means to me

It's been some time since I lived in New York. It's an immense city, teeming with people, cars, and buildings. And waste. Lots of it. And yet NYC is in some ways among the nation's frontrunners for a greener urban space, with its hybrid electric metro buses and comprehensive city-wide recycling program. While there does not appear to be a comparable move toward standardized city-run composting on the horizon, there is a growing consciousness about food, waste, and taking personal/communal responsibility for consumption and disposal.

I had the good fortune to meet Aurelia, educator and distributor for New York Pay Dirt's compost, potting soil, and at-cost compost bins while strolling around the Wednesday farmers market at Union Square yesterday. She filled me in a bit on the food scrap and vermiculture scene over the past couple of decades in the city. Who knew Manhattanites had been composting with worm bins for that long? (I certainly didn't, and I was living just over the Bridge in downtown Brooklyn for two whole years!) I bought a pound of compost (black gold for a $1.50) to prepare the soil for the heirloom tomato plant I'd picked up for my Aunt Martha's garden in Queens and a few informational materials on composting sites and other resources around town.

This morning Aunt Martha and I visited one of the nearby compost-related locations mentioned in one of the booklets: the Queens Botanical Garden. I ventured past the rose gardens with my bag of compost (veggie scraps from last night's dinner and eggshells from today's quiche) only to be brusquely informed at the visitor center that the garden was not a drop-off site for community members. Guess I should have read the fine print. I admit that I was rather disgruntled at this apparent disconnect between the garden and local community/ environmental stewardship ideal. People at the garden were not particularly friendly -- maybe nearly 6 straight weeks of dreary weather was partly to blame -- but at last one of the teachers in the educational center took a few minutes to explain that the QBG simply does not have the capacity to handle community compost drop-offs. I was told I'd have to bring my trash to the biweekly Union Square market. Really?? What a waste! (Pun intended, though this is not a laughing matter.) Come on, Mayor Bloomberg, you're a shrewd businessman, don't you see the potential here?

I am, admittedly, somewhat fanatical about composting. (You may have gathered this from some of my earlier posts.) Luckily my friends humored me when, back in DC, I would pack out my fruit and vegetable scraps after cooking dinner in their kitchens, gleefully biking my bag of rescued-from-landfill goods home to the backyard composter. But hang on to my bag of peels until Saturday and schlep it all the way from Flushing to Union Square on public transit? I can count on about three fingers the number of New Yorkers -- or anyone else, for that matter -- willing to do that.

There is hope, though. After a cup of coffee and lap around the Bluestocking Bookstore -- a great feminist/anarchist bookstore in the East Village and current organizational point for the small-but-growing NYC Food Project -- I put in a call to the Lower East Side Ecology Center. I spoke with Carey, director of the composting program there, who happily filled me in on the history of LESEC which began as a recycling center many years before a systematic urban recycling collection was in place here and which has since expanded to focus on promoting environmental education and stewardship. While a good chunk of the funding for city-wide leaf/grass collection, free compost distribution, and educational programs was recently cut out of the group's budget, the Center continues to run workshops, put environmentally-minded folks in touch with local resources (both around the city and online), and collaborate with schools and community gardens to green New York from the bottom up: a true grass roots approach. And interest is growing.(Here's a link to the petition to bring back composting to the city.)

Rest assured that there will be further posts on composting as my journey continues -- how we manage our waste is a big part of how we are beginning to account for ourselves amid the larger world of consumers. (I'm also hoping for an update on the backyard composter from my neighbors. Henry, David, Shelly: any progress on the bin activity? Eh? Eh?)

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Final days in PA

I spent most of Friday at a workshop on transitioning from conventional to organic farming at The Rodale Institute (something of a Mecca for farmers and gardeners on the east coast, and one of the groups consulted by the Secretary of Agriculture during the drafting of plans for a garden on the National Mall). It was another cold, damp day, and we all clutched cups of coffee and folders in our shivering hands, but the presentations and discussions were totally worth it. Speakers filled us in on the practical concerns -- what organic certification means, what to expect during the process, how long it takes, how to apply -- as well as federal and state (PA) financial assistance options, online resources, and various programs that can help farmers begin, convert, or expand their land to an organic operation. All of the speakers were great and many fielded some pretty tough questions. I learned a ton.

After a wonderful dinner, hot bath, and solid night of sleep in a comfy bed at the home of some dear family friends in (relatively) nearby Kintnersville, my cousin Caroline and friend Jim came by Saturday afternoon and joined us for an impromptu picnic before whisking Ollie and I up to Stroudsburg for a few days. Jim, my unflagging guide to the sustainable farming community here, brought me first to Josie Porter Farm, where veggies for the 100-family-strong Cherry Valley CSA are grown. Heidi and I planted flats of tomatoes and tomatillos as she told me about the history of the formerly biodynamic farm and some of her aspirations for the future of the place. Apparently I couldn't get enough of Josie Porter because I found myself back there on Sunday morning planting nearly an entire row of peppers with Heidi and weeding the onion patch with her friend Somaili visiting from West Africa. Sunday afternoon found me planting sunflower and loofah seeds and weighing garlic scapes with Caroline, Gary, Eric, and Jessie at Mountaindale Farm, followed by a dinner of venison weinerschnitzel, homemade applesauce, and asparagus/garlic scape salad. (Talk about a local meal: I think the bottle of Malbec was the only thing on the table that had traveled more than 200 yards from where it was grown.)

Monday morning found me once again back at Josie Porter Farm, but only for about 2 hours of planting and weeding before Jim transported me to Henry's Homestead Farm in Cresco. I chatted with Jeff and Mary Jean while they harvested mushrooms (part of Jeff's research project for his herbalist certification) and prepared for their 21 members' weekly CSA pickup. Theirs was an amazing and unique farm, with about a dozen small (150 foot or smaller) plots of beets, chard, garlic, onions, lettuce and more scattered about the property. After some conversation with the pair (exchanging recipes for yoghurt, cheese, garlic scapes, and broccoli rabe), Jim and I checked out the state-of-the-art greenhouse, were greeted by packs of truly free-range chickens in the forest (they made me a bit nervous, actually, with their complete disregard for human notions of personal space: about 2 dozen birds sidled right up to me, but Jim insisted they were harmless so I tried to dispel Hitchcockian scenarios from my mind), admired the creek, and learned a bit about the history of the land which had been in Jeff's family for generations. And I even had a chance to try my hand at milking Delilah, their lovely, infinitely patient cow. We left soon afterwards and I departed with the distinct impression that this farm was a place teeming not only with healthy food but also curiosity and joy. As Jeff and Mary Jean expand their efforts in coming years, I hope others seek out a similar model of sustainable food production.

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Friday, June 5, 2009

Where kids run the show

Philadelphia put in a strong bid for my favorite city on the trip so far. (The best ice cream thus far is an even closer race: a 3-way tie between Bedford, Carlisle, and Mechanicsburg. Ah, but I digress.) While only in the city for approximately 4 1/2 days, I managed to peek through many windows into a brighter, more sustainable future for our country. And as I suspected, it all came down to educating people, especially kids. And the best educating was done BY kids.

Monday morning, after a frustrating wild goose chase around the downtown municipal office building attempting to learn more about the mayor's proposed Greenworks Philadelphia project (I was sent to 3 different floors before I managed to locate the Office of Sustainability only to be told that there was nobody I could speak with and nobody could set up an appointment -- not particularly helpful or friendly, that receptionist), I had a cup of coffee (ohhhh, sweet elixir that I've been missing while camping) and headed to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society headquarters. I'd read up on some of the innovative programs and partnerships and was happily met by PHS's lovely Eileen who filled me in a bit more on the City Harvest partnership, which marvelously harnesses the energy and expertise of different groups around the city. Here's how it works: seedlings are started by inmates and 2 part-time PHS staff in the prison greenhouse (I fortuitously met Lisa, one of the two PHS prison gardeners, during a jaunt up to Weaver's Way later that afternoon); seedlings are then distributed to community gardens around the city; SHARE (Self Help and Research Exchange) connects the food growers at these gardens with local food cupboards; and the Health Promotion Council organizes nutrition workshops and develops recipes for the food distribution centers. Pretty smart collaboration, I think.

Oh, but it gets better. On Tuesday morning, after throwing together a quiche and doing a bit of laundry, Ollie and I made our way downtown to meet with Toby, the educational director of the much-lauded (and deservedly so, I would discover) Urban Nutrition Initiative. Toby filled me in on the history of the youth- and nutrition-focused organization and gave me an overview of some of the programs: fruit stands (one of the cornerstones of UNI's work -- more on this later), after school cooking clubs, high school gardens, outreach to teens by teens on nutrition-related topics, and the annual "Eat to Live" Festival (featuring food-related games, snacks, and garden tours at local schools). Toby introduced me to former social worker turned gourmet vegan chef turned educator, Kate, who brought me along to Huey Elementary where I saw one of UNI's 18 fruit stand programs in action. Kate brought the fruit, but the kids ran the show. From delegating tasks (tracking sales, making change, advertising their product -- it was a tough sell next to the italian ice and pretzel stand in the schoolyard) to accounting for the fruit costs on their balance sheet to determining what to do with the profits at the end of the school year, the kids seemed well beyond their 10 years. (One school's fruit stand team, for example, used their earnings to make smoothies for the entire student body. Very cool.) I snapped a quick pic of the kids selling a kiwi to one of their teachers. Too cute.

Next, Toby and Ollie and I walked over to University City High School where one of the students working on the urban garden gave me a tour of the site. We sampled various bits along the way -- strawberries, sorrel, mint -- and I probed his knowledge of garden- and cooking-related matters. A few students filled me in on the weekly mentoring program with nearby elementary school students. Again I was impressed. (Here's a pic of a few of the guys transfering some seedlings to bigger pots.) While at the school, I had a few moments to check in on an after school cooking and peer nutrition education group, led by UNI's capable John but, again, largely driven by students. I love it! (No picture, as I'd left my pitiful excuse for a camera -- the blackberry -- with Ollie in the garden.)

Unfortunately, Ollie and I got pretty lost in Wissahickon Park after that, so we got to Saul Agricultural High School too late to see the country's only student-run CSA in action. I did help harvest -- here's a pic with Lindsay and Nicole and a freshly-pulled rutabaga -- and weed a bit. (Wait, now I'm not sure if it's rutabaga or kohlrabi. Can you tell from the picture?) I hope to learn more about Saul's educational model and the recent shift toward organic vegetable production at some point. I did leave with a lovely bouquet of Russian kale and some bok choy, in any case, and made my way back downtown without incident to meet Alex and Tim for dinner. Over a lovely meal of largely organic and local fare at FARMacia, Alex filled me in on the exciting work he's been doing with "Grid" -- the Philly-focused sustainable living magazine he started this past fall. Great stuff. The latest issue focuses on the movement toward local food in the city: Grid's playing my tune.

And so, Wednesday morning came and I was treated to gorgeous weather on my way out of this wonderful city. Which is good, as Ollie and I were bound for navigational challenges that day....

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