Thursday, October 28, 2010

A test of the Wormergency Broadcast System

Readers, if I am famous one day -- and in the unlikely event that I get too big for my britches -- you can remind me of today: my first experience sifting through poop with my bare hands.

It's not the kind of thing I would usually do on a Thursday afternoon, mind you, but I had no rubber gloves and no alternative during the code brown wormergency. My newly returned under-the-sink compost bin had mysteriously developed a thick layer of sludge during my time cavorting around New Orleans and Turin and I had a nagging feeling that something had gone terribly wrong. I mean, I know worms breathe through their skin, and actually prefer a moist environment, but sludge?? Not good.

The problem was not simply the distinctly swampy consistency (though that would've been reason enough for concern). I also noted that it was smelling a little like a dirty diaper in there. (Faint but distinct -- parents, you know what I'm talking about here.) Something was definitely off, and the wobbling, slow moving fruitflies were making me suspicious that they were tipsy. Hey, I'm all for invertebrates enjoying a drink now and again, but I'm pretty sure worm bin fermentation is a warning sign of things going awry.

[Note: I do not believe the recent downturn of the bin is in any way due to negligence on the part of my wormsitter, who returned my herd of red wigglers when he came by for dinner last night. I'd still write Mike a glowing reference letter for future wormsitting gigs. I mean, the man is devoted to developing the optimal fruitfly trap and the high quality food scraps over at his apartment are almost on par with my own.]

I recalled reading that too much water could wipe out a whole herd of wigglers. There wasn't exactly standing water, but such a development seemed imminent. (Drowning in a pool of fermenting poop -- what a way to go.) "Quick!" I thought, "I need to add something to absorb some of the moisture!" I scoured the apartment, tossing in a dry coffee filter and shoving some pieces of ripped up cardboard along the bottom. Then I sent off a panicked message to The Worm Ladies.

Within an hour or two, Susie, my friendly neighborhood WMT (Wormergency Medical Technician), wrote back to tell me that my instinct was correct, that there was too much moisture and I should add more dry material. Oh, and she also said to dump the bin out on a black garbage bag and sift through everything -- the "everything" being a big mess of stinky excrement -- to rescue the worms and any uneaten food, transferring them to a new bin. So I did.

Well, I didn't have a second container, so I dragged everything out to the garden, rinsed out the existing bin (while its contents were smeared across a Hefty bag for God and my neighbors to see), layered in some fresh brown paper and cardboard and food scraps (not too many high water content ones this time), and moved my wriggling wormies one by one into their remodeled home. (No, I didn't rinse them off first...but I sure was tempted to.) The drippy, aromatic remains on the garbage bag found a new home in the outdoor composter. Actually, maybe it'll make my regular compost even more amazing for the spring.

I checked on the shell shocked wigglers again a few minutes ago. They seem a little sluggish -- maybe they're hung over -- but I'll be sure to post an update on their recovery soon. Oh, man, I hope I don't lose my vermiculture merit badge for this....

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

School food revolution

Poor-quality (not to mention downright repulsive) cafeteria food has long been the bane of schoolchildren, nutritionists, and educators around the country. In recent years, the issue has been getting attention from community activists, celebrity chefs, Slow Food, and the First Lady. And it turns out that last week was not only DC Farm to School Week, but also School Lunch Week. As such there have been all kinds of fun, food-related educational activities going on around the country. (See? It was more than just my group's apple tasting station at the DC Farm to School kickoff event. Those local WV apples do look tasty though, no? Go on and try one.)

School food is finally getting the attention it deserves -- I mean, cripes, how are kids supposed to learn when they're eating junk, or nothing at all?? Local policies like DC's Healthy Schools Act are allowing schools to put more money where their mouths are, allotting funds to get healthier food to more schoolchildren. While the additional money for food, training, and infrastructure going toward improving food quality and access in our public schools pales in comparison to, say, what we spend on our country's military or penal systems, it is something. We're talking a rise of 10 cents per child per meal in DC schools, with an additional 5 cents for locally-sourced ingredients. It may not sound like much, but considering the 2009 $2.68 per meal rate, those pennies can add up.

There also appears to be an unprecedented empowerment of schools and students to demand better food...and some of them are getting it. One of the success stories I recently learned about is the work being done right here in New Orleans. It involves some unlikely partners including a city-wide, student-driven activist group (known as "Rethinkers" in the most recent issue of Edible New Orleans) that has been issuing school food report cards and corporate catering giants like Sodexo (a group which I have long held in low esteem for their poor quality and unfair labor practices, but who seem to be turning over a new leaf -- which is good, even if the leaf turning is entirely profit-driven) changing their offerings accordingly. School food has long been contracted out to corporate catering giants like Sodexo, Chartwells, and Aramark. While I am inherently suspicious of the ability of such groups to produce anything resembling fresh or high-quality food, it turns out that technically these Food Service Providers (FSPs) are supposed to answer to their customers -- the school district, school boards, and even students. It is possible for a school district to demand something better, and groups like New Orleans' FirstLine Schools (which include Samuel Green Charter School, home to NOLA's Edible Schoolyard, which I visited last May) are demanding exactly that from their provider, Sodexo: three servings of fresh fruits and veggies each day, a salad bar, healthier versions of native cuisine. (And let me just say that to describe the native cuisine here in NOLA as "delicious" is a vast understatement.)

Want to know what's going on with school food in your area? For national programs, I'd recommend checking out the National Farm to School website ( and the First Lady's website (

For my fellow DCers, there are resources like the DC Farm to School site ( and councilwoman Mary Cheh's website ( Incidentally, I spotted both Ms. Cheh and USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan -- both champions for improved school food -- at last Tuesday's DC Farm To School Week kickoff event. Neither stopped by my apple tasting station, though, so I didn't have a chance to gush about their work in person. Maybe I should drop them a postcard saying as much when I get to Italy tomorrow.

Apologies in advance for a week unplugged from the crackberry, but international data plans are, shall we say, astronomically expensive. Also, I'll be busy gorging myself on local wine and gelato.

More on the Community Food Security Coalition and Terra Madre conferences to come when I return from Italy.... Oops, sounds like they're boarding my flight. Ciao regazzi!

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Gelato makes the world a better place

Ah. Ahahaha. Yes. I have made my way back to New Orleans and I must say that it is so far seeming like one of those perfect days: 80 degrees, clear and sunny. Not like the miserable, grey, 50-something drizzle I left behind in DC yesterday. (The District seems to be having an identity crisis, behaving more like "the other Washington" lately.) I was cruising around the Garden District today on a mountain-bike-on-loan from Gary -- *with* a corresponding helmet-on-loan, in case you're wondering -- looking for a spot to hang out and do some writing on DC Farm to School Week when what should I stumble across but the best gelato spot in town.

I'd actually heard of La Divina's locally-sourced deliciousness while researching dining options for myself and some friends in town for this weekend's Community Food Security conference, but hadn't noted its location. When I saw the sign on my way up Magazine Street I took it as, well, a sign. Kismet. And I was feeling a bit peckish....

With flavors like bananas foster, avocado, pumpkin, sweet potato pie, guiness, and aztec chocolate (and about a dozen others that I didn't sample...yet) rounding out the list with more traditional offerings like hazelnut and cappuccino, I can see why the shop draws locals and celebrities alike. With cream sourced from a nearby grassfed dairy operation and all-natural, largely local ingredients -- the chocolate imported from France is a-ok in my book -- it is a locavore's dream. A stop in seemed legit. I mean, if I'm continuing to learn about local food around the country, it seems only right that I should research and support small-scale producers like these guys. And it's good background for my upcoming trip to Italy. And did I mention they had *pumpkin* gelato??

I learned during a chat with Jason, a West Virginia native and one of the knowledgeable gelato gurus on his way to drop off a special order at Dante's (one of seven local restaurants that special order customized editions like last week's port and gorgonzola), that the inspiration for new flavors often comes from his twice-weekly trips to farms and farmers markets. New flavors were born all the time, and they were constantly rotating them in and out of circulation. Limited edition gelato? Good heavens, I'd no time to waste! His colleague behind the counter didn't even bat an eye as I sampled nearly a third of their flavors, in the end settling on a "piccolo" -- a small, two-scoop waffle cone with aztec chocolate and pumpkin.

It was a generous portion, as you can see, and thus my plans to write, as well as my plans to keep food from spilling onto my lap, were postponed a bit. Soon, though, you can expect a posting on DC Farm to School Week. First I need to figure out how I got chocolate on my elbow....

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Farm to school week

You may have heard about Bike to Work Day... National Walk to School Day... International Talk Like a Pirate Day. (Yarrr!) I even recall during my time teaching at a public high school here in DC a couple of years ago a celebration of National Punctuation Day. I love themed days that raise awareness and get people thinking a little differently about their everyday choices (especially if the focus helps to improve the general public's understanding of how to use an apostrophe correctly). Tomorrow marks the beginning of DC Farm to School Week.

Yes, folks, school food reform is so important that it gets a whole week. Having witnessed the slop that passes for food in most public schools these days, I'm surprised nobody has issued a code red food quality alert. (I mean, we already have such a system for air quality and terrorism threats, and yet obesity-related diseases kill far more people each year. Then again, who can take these alerts seriously when we're always at code orange? Maybe I'm a touch grumpy about the transportation security measures that seem to get increasingly more ridiculous. I mean, have you been to the airport in Salt Lake City? Good lord.)

The overall poor quality of school food is a systemic problem, with cafeteria offerings just as abysmal in NYC as they are in DC. It's not just urban schools, either. I didn't have a chance to follow Jamie Oliver's attempts to fix things in rural West Virginia schools -- Ollie and I were somewhere in the Southwestern deserts dodging scorpions, I think -- but I heard it wasn't pretty (though things seemingly ended well). The problem seems to be universal, according to the documentary "Two Angry Moms." I know I've written about the need for better food in schools a few times now, but with initiatives like the first lady's "Chefs Move to Schools" -- love her! -- and the passing of the Healthy Schools Act, we Americans are, at long last, doing something about it.

Now, the outsourcing of school lunches is far from a new concept -- my own former school in Southeast DC trucked in loads of fried, frozen, and otherwise unrecognizable trays of gov't surplus slop to the stoveless cafeteria -- but the approach this time around is very different. With a funding stream designed to encourage more fresh fruits and vegetables and provide cafeteria food lower in sugars, salts, and fats, the Healthy Schools Act has the potential to help public school lunch programs come around an important corner. Revolution Foods and DC Central Kitchen, for example, have both won contracts to privately cater school food at a handful of locations around the District, sourcing some ingredients from local producers and emphasizing seasonality and lots of produce in their menus. These are pilot programs underway that, if successful, could revolutionize the way school food is sourced and prepared.

Want to learn more about improving school food in the District? Check out the goings on this week: A number of DC schools will be preparing and serving farm-fresh foods. There will be student-led education booths, farm field trips, and chef demonstrations to help DC area families learn about their local foodshed and get excited about healthy food options. Me, I'll be slicing and handing out local apples at the kick-off event at Thurgood Marshall Academy tomorrow afternoon. (So long as I don't have to use my multi-tool for slicing, nobody should get hurt.)

Hooray for good food in schools!

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Get tested

What do an earthworm, an organic farmer, and a food-obsessed, cross-country bicycling, 30-something city girl have in common? We know good dirt when we see it.

But seriously, up until recently, I just thought of dirt as that stuff you were yelled at for tracking into the house when you were a kid. It turns out that not all dirt is created equal, and the good stuff either takes a long time to cultivate or is expensive to truck in. Either way it's an investment, but a worthwhile one.

My infatuation with good dirt began in earnest with a fantastic article in my free sample issue of Acres USA entitled "Soil as a Superorganism" and has developed into a full-fledged mini mania. (Wait, did I mention my stop at the Acres USA headquarters on my way through Austin last April? I was a little shy to approach the group that publishes the most well-written sustainable farming magazine around, but luckily my friend Jim talked me into stopping by. Boy, am I glad I did, and not just for the free bagel. Here's a snapshot of me hamming it up with Sam, one of the editors, during my tour of the office. Nice group, those folks: my kind of smart and wacky. And the articles and issues I've read since have been comparably impressive.)

Right. Soil.

I've been reading quite a lot about it these days. I think I know a little bit more about it than your average city slicker: the importance of organic matter and diverse microorganisms, the significance of pH and drainage capability, the critical nutrients for growing healthy vegetables. I'm still no soil scientist -- far from it, though I did have one over for dinner a couple of weeks ago -- but I have found myself sending in soil samples from the plot behind my apartment and meticulously poring over the test results from the lab and cross-examining the friendly folks at the UMD extension office. No lead? Whew. High in Phosphorus, eh? Hmmm. And low in Magnesium and Potassium? Ah, that must be why my bean plants are a little yellow in the leaves, and my beloved tomatoes are still green. (Luckily I've come up with 4 or 5 new green tomato recipes, all but one deemed a wild success. I'm just not sure about the green tomato, chocolate, and pecan muffins. Those might get pushed to the bottom of the mental recipe drawer.)

I'm beginning to learn about methods to amend (i.e. fix) deficient soil, in large part thanks to Rebecca's generous loaning of her copy of "Grow Great Grub," which recommends the addition of natural compounds ranging from comfrey tea to epsom salts to bone meal (though I'll be damned if I can find a local source for comfrey leaves). Organic compost seems to be a good general addition a few times per year, and between my outdoor Oscar the Grouch can and the indoor worm bin, I should be set in that department. I'm looking to plant a nitrogen-fixing cover crop on half of the space and fill in the rest with a few varieties of heirloom garlic over the cold months. But enough about *my* soil....

I've also gotten into the habit of encouraging friends and loved ones, and in some cases even their neighbors and landladies, to get their soil tested. Mostly for lead, since one should NOT eat food from plants grown in contaminated soil. (A way around this is to bring in fresh soil and build a raised bed.) Other soil information is helpful, too, since in recent months I've been cajoled into helping a few people convert their backyards into more biodiverse, food producing green spaces. Yes, even good old dad decided of his own free will to abandon the lawn. (Unfortunately, with the, ahem, rather late mailing in of the required soil samples, it seems we will spend the remainder of autumn preparing the land for spring planting. But all is not lost. This means for sure there will be time and space for me to try my hand at lasagne composting to build organic matter through the winter, heheh.)

People hear about my bike trip or see me puttering around my garden and start asking questions about how to get started growing food. Suddenly I am something of a resource, though an as yet unpaid one. (C'est la vie.) My next door neighbor Henry has been inspired to build a raised bed and my friend Mike's landlady just ordered a composter and a shipment of seeds for planting in the next week or so. Dad finally took a soil sample and did some sketches to determine which areas of the yard get full sun. Yay!

I am certainly not a pro at this yet -- as you might guess from my first only somewhat successful experiments with beyond-windowsill gardening -- but I'm learning. And I'm doing my best to spread the word about the importance and the ease of having one's soil tested. (I even photographed my sample drying out for the requisite 24 hours before mailing it in to the lab. What's that? No, I don't carry a copy of the photo in my wallet... that spot is reserved for portraits of my red wigglers.) You can garden in flower pots, raised beds, even old bathtubs, but if you're going to plant food crops in the ground, please, please, please get your soil tested. It's worth it. And if you're wondering how to get started, call me. I can talk dirt and food all day long.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Cooperative earning

Is it really Tuesday? Has it really been a week since my last posting? As the weather's turned cooler I've been lingering under the flannel sheets longer than usual and my laptop's all the way over on the other side of the... studio apartment. (It's still hard for me to believe a year ago I was huddled in a TENT with ICE on it, wearing every item of clothing I could dig out of Ollie's panniers, and biking in 40mph Midwestern headwinds... and yet still seemed to be better about keeping up with the blogging. Hmmm.) In the midst of much snuggling and soup making and trying to reintegrate back into DC's sustainable food scene, I've been doing a lot of thinking about Detroit, a city with which even now, nearly two weeks after my departure, I find myself still inexplicably smitten. Well, actually, there are a number of reasons, but the big one I can sum up in one word: Community.

During the Great Depression, Americans came together to rebuild a broken country. (Civilian Community Corps, anyone?) Most agree that our nation came out stronger, though there are some who argue that the resulting massive industrialization drove us toward the economic mess we are in now. More recently, in former manufacturing-based towns like Detroit, there are inklings of a better future for our once again economically depressed country. Each person and group I met with during my time in town seemed to subscribe to a common belief: it takes a village to raise itself up. Groups like The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Earthworks Urban Farm, and The Greening of Detroit, and projects like The Garden Resource Program Collaborative and Grown in Detroit work together to provide opportunities and support to those growing, distributing, and consuming food around the city. They are empowering folks with skills and income, while the increase in small food-producing plots and markets around the city is creating greater access to fresh, healthy food (and a more beautiful landscape) for residents.

In modern Detroit, in spite of a deeply entrenched culture of disenfranchisement and a mass exodus of people and businesses in recent decades, there are amazing examples of community, of shared knowledge and resources, for among the 900+ family, school, market, and community gardens scattered about the city, folks young and old, rich and poor, natives and transplants, black, white, hispanic, arab, and others are coming together to feed themselves and each other.

(Yes, that was a one-sentence paragraph. Eat your heart out, James Joyce.)

When members of a community truly work together toward a common goal, everybody wins. Those of you who have worked in the field of public education are familiar with the term "cooperative learning" -- a strategy whereby small groups of students with different ability levels work together to help each other understand and complete tasks together. In Detroit, I saw a variation on this: food-based "cooperative earning."

It's not like I've never heard of farmers pooling food to sell collectively before -- remember Appalachian Sustainable Development? -- but the idea came about very differently within the Detroit community. At first a handful of gardeners here grew food for themselves. Then, realizing they had more than they needed, they gave away excess to their neighbors and nearby soup kitchens. It was only after still more abundant produce kept growing (and under far from ideal conditions, mind you, as in addition to quite the challenging climate there are some funny stipulations regarding how land can be used within city limits) that neighbors began to think about selling it at the market. Since 2006, through the citywide Grown in Detroit project, hundreds of small-scale gardeners are selling their excess crops cooperatively. Depending on the amount of food contributed and sold each week, these small farmers earn a percentage of the group's sales. God forbid somewhere as all-American as Detroit be accused of espousing communist principles, but the pooling of produce and the sharing of risks and profits here among neighbors is creating a more stable food system and small-scale income for many in the area... and it's something to celebrate.

And celebrate they do. Here's a pic of some of the local farmers I had a chance to chat with at the Wayne State University farmers' market one afternoon. We celebrated everything from herbal remedies to seasonal recipes to local restaurants to growing mushrooms on old armchairs. (I'm serious. And I'm totally bummed I didn't make it out to see the shroom chair at D-town Farm during this first trip to Detroit.) I'm looking forward to seeing some of these faces and learning more about their work at the upcoming Community Food Security Coalition meeting later this month in New Orleans....