Have I mentioned how I dread public speaking?
No, really. I'm not talking about when I'm teaching boisterous middle schoolers how to make pickles or instructing a roomful of ladies at a community center on how to can applesauce or doing a kale salad demonstration at the farmers' market -- shoot, I could do that all day long. (Some days I do.) I mean the kind of public speaking where you are standing at the front of the room with everybody looking at you, or, more frighteningly, behind a microphone, and you're expected not to faint but rather to present something thought-provoking in front of a roomful of people, most of whom know a heck of a lot more than you do about just about anything. Still, when I learned that City Councilman Tommy Wells was chairing an open forum on community gardens and urban agriculture, seeking advice on what was working, what changes are needed, and recommendations to move forward with integrating growing spaces more deliberately into the city's overall Plan, I had to master my natural chicken-heartedness and step up to the plate. Or in this case, the televised mic. (Eep.)
I spent most of Wednesday night agonizing and continued into the wee hours of Thursday morning preparing my 3-minute testimony for the public oversight roundtable. I'd considered submitting something in writing, thus circumventing the whole need for public speaking, but I wanted to be absolutely sure some of the things I've been talking with my local farmers and food advocates over the past year and a half made it onto the public record. An email or piece of paper can get lost, I reasoned with myself, but if I say it out loud it at this official meeting, well, it has to be noted in the official transcript. (Thank the lord I didn't know the session was going to be broadcast on live television or I never would have made it through the door to the conference room. "It has to get onto the public record" would've been right out the window.)
With the fate of urban agriculture in the District hanging in the balance, I joined more than 30 other DC residents -- gardeners, educators, park rangers, ANC commissioners, for-profit and non-profit farmers and small business folks -- and made my statement before Councilman Wells and his staff, as well as officials from Parks & Recreation, the Planning Office, Tax & Revenue, and UDC (our city's equivalent of a land grant university). I pleaded for a better system of cataloging and leasing land for those who want to grow food, and a means to sell the fresh fruits and vegetables and herbs they grow. Did you know that food grown on park land in the city cannot be sold? For heaven's sake, I argued (and, no, I didn't actually say "for heaven's sake," but I suspect it was implied in my tone), there are parts of the city where vacant land is way more common than healthy food options. We need some of that land to grow food and get it into the communities in which I work. We can build urban oases in these food deserts, we just need access to the land. (I wish I'd thought of the metaphor before this blogpost, alas.) Zoning and code in DC was not written with urban agriculture in mind, clearly, and we need to change it.
[BTW, speaking of city code, what are these silly stipulations I've heard about honey bees in the District needing to be contained in the hive? I actually first heard about that during the Sustainable DC food working group meeting the night before. (Seriously, 3 meetings on DC food policy held by 3 unaffiliated groups within 24 hours is a bit much. I will confess I missed the middle one, the Thursday morning HAFA planning meeting, still in bed and totally drained by the Sustainable DC meeting and then speech writing and hand wringing until all hours.) The whole point of having honey bees is to let them roam and pollinate. And make delicious honey, of course -- some jars of which have anonymously made their way onto the Councilman's desk down at City Hall. Bees can't do any of that when they're kept in the hive. Who is writing these policies?? Probably someone who was stung as a child and had a bad reaction. Get that guy an EpiPen, we need those bees out there working! And don't even get me started on the ridiculous anti-composting code.]
Collectively, we addressed existing successes, current issues with the way things are set up and suggestions for fixing them, and the need for the Planning Department to figure urban agriculture and community garden growing space into their future development of our city. It was pretty awesome listening to all of the knowledgeable, passionate urban food and garden experts. And a good thing, too, since I was there listening for five solid hours before I had my chance to speak on a panel, and then another half hour as things wrapped up. I didn't faint or anything. I will admit to having a bit of a deathgrip on the paper I read from and not looking up nearly as frequently as I previously encouraged students of mine to do while delivering a speech. But I was proud of myself for following through, and the Councilman commented that I'd given him quite a list of items to follow up on. (Good, that's his homework. Due...?)
I'm not sure what's going to come of all this, or the Mayor's Sustainable DC initiative, but at the end of the day, I'm glad to have said my piece on the public record. Someone, some day, might be accountable. Hopefully moreso than they were following the release of the District of Columbia's Food Production and Urban Gardens Program Act of 1986... with requirements for regular public listing and updating of a cataloging of land available for public leasing to grow food. Hmmm. That assignment's a bit overdue, no?