Tag Archives: community

Composting Greens into Green in San Francisco

finished-compost

Yesterday’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted a key part of both food and sustainability – what to do with organic waste.  The solution, working remarkably well in the Bay Area – composting!  (And this was on the front page yesterday!  Exciting – or maybe the economic news is just too depressing.)  The comments to this article are particularly good – generally thoughtful, and often providing a lot of interesting info.

Food scraps are collected by residents and businesses, then put in the green bin for pickup with the garbage and recyclables.  Made into compost, it’s then sold to area farmers for $12 a cubic yard.  Because area resisdents and businesses pay for trash, but not compost or recycling pick-up, this system benefits everyone – less trash is put out, costing residents and businesses less.  This drop in business is off-set by the income the companies get from selling the compost – and diverts about 105,000 tons of compostable matter from the waste stream each year.

105,000 tons out of landfills is a huge amount, and this is with far from everybody participating.  Mayor Gavin Newsom is advancing an ordinance to the City Council making composting and recycling mandatory.  How much organic matter would be prevented from going to landfills, if 105,000 tons is diverted with only 50,000 residential and 4,080 restaurants and large buildings are currently participating?

Best of all, this compost is apparently exceptionally rich in micronutrients and health fungi and bacteria.  The crops fertilized with it have grown extraordinarily well and vibrantly, producing a bounty of vegetables to be sold and eaten within the Bay Area.

To re-cap:

  • significant progress towards re-using the food scraps that make up about 1/3 of San Francisco’s solid waste
  • less food waste in landfills means less methane emitted in its decomposition
  • cheaper garbage  pick-up for participating houses and businesses
  • green practices making a profit for the waste companies – sustainable for businesses, not just the environment
  • exceptional compost, produced and sold locally, and very well-suited to Bay Area conditions
  • delicious vegetables grown from the compost, sold to restaurants and individuals around the Bay.

Win-win-win-win-win-win!

bin-interior

(More images associated with the article availible here.)

The Edible City

I recently stumbled across this trailer for Edible City, which looks to be a well-crafted, detailed look at urban farming in the Bay Area.  The trailer is a bit long, at just over nine minutes, but is well worth watching.

I know there’s a lot of really wonderful urban food organizations in the Bay Area (as well as other places), and it’s great to see the topic treated so well in film.  The movie should be released in Fall 2009.

Putting it all together: local food, agricultural policies, and the environment

There’s all sorts of reasons to eat and enjoy local foods:  taste, the satisfaction of contributing to your local food economy, health, opting out of agribusiness.  In last week’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemna guy) knocks it out of the park with a detailed and lenthy essay about why our agribusiness food system is bad for us and bad for the planet, and what we need to do to change it.
Titled Farmer in Chief, the essay acts as an open letter to the presidential candidate elected on November 4th.  The style is a little affected, with lots of second-person and references to ‘sun-food’, but the content is right on.  The basic premise:  “We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

On the environment:

After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent.

The 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.

On health care:

Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent.While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health.

On foreign policy:

In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food.  They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers.

He also provides a good brief history of the industrialization of the U.S. food system. It’s good reading, but repetitive if you’ve read the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Most usefully, Pollan provides a fairly concrete list of things that can be done to improve our current food system, if not transform it.  FUndamentally, he argues that we need to:

1. encourage polyculture farms with a variety of crops and animals on the farm, farmed with far fewer chemical and petroleum-based imputs, with less soil depletion.

2. re-regionalize the food system by doing things like establishing more year-round farmers’ markets, encouraging instutional food buyers to buy locally, and rationalizing the FDA rules regarding small producers and small farms to that they make sense, rather than the one-size-fits-all rules oriented towards industrial agriculture we have today.

3. change the American culture of food.  This is vaguest part of Pollan’s essay, but he argues for a revived victory garden movement, educating kids about healthy eating, and public health campaigns about diabetes and obesity.

Many these ideas are excellent, and would go a long way to encouraging a more sustainable, healthful, regionalized economy of food.  The big obstacle?  The money and power of the agrobusiness lobby.  Monsanto, ADM, the Cattleman’s Association, the grain lobbyists, the hog lobbyists; they are going to work as hard as they can to shut down any kind of reform like this before it becomes a serious threat to their profits.  Reform of the federal farm subsidies and CAFOs, in particular, are going to be a very uncomfortable, protracted battle, if it happens at all.

Many, many senators and representatives have been treated very well by the agriculture lobby, and have received a lot of money and favors.  Reforming the food system in such broad strokes would go a long way to reducing our greenhouse gas emissisons, reducing pollution that makes living near a hog farm unbearable and causes the huge and growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, getting Americans to eat more healthily, support small farmers and local economies and communities, and improve our national security.  But achieving it will require the same kind of battle against the lobbyists and vested interests that transforming our healthcare system into a single-payer federal system would.

The good news is, you don’t have to wait for a federal reform to start changing the food system.  Stop buying CAFO meat.  Get your fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets, as much as you can.  There’s more of them then ever before, and they’re growing.  Many of them have meat, dairy and eggs, too.  If you can’t afford to get the majority of your food from the farmers’ market, still go pick up a couple things, whatever you can afford.  Even if its only $2 of apples, thats still $2 that’s going to a nearby farmer, rather than a big company.  Maybe there’s a CSA near you.  Many CSA’s offer subsidized low-cost shares to those who can’t afford a full-price share.

See if your grocery store carries anything made or grown nearby.  Ask the produce manager where the apples or cucumbers come from, and ask them to carry vegetables grown closer than Chile.  Sure, you probably won’t see a display of local apples next week in place of the ones from New Zealand, but it’s another reminder to the big corporations that people care where their food comes from.  Start a garden, and give your extra zucchini and tomatoes to a neighbor who will put them up, or do it youself.    Even if it only happens an inch at a time, each of these things helps to build a local food economy rather than one build around chicken factories in Maryland and  Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans of Monsanto.

Tri-County Cooperative Produce Market

The produce auction barn

The produce auction barn

Driving through Hightstown, NJ to visit my friend Geoff last month, I saw a sign for a Produce Auction.  The sign proclaimed that the produce auction occurred every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7pm, but otherwise was inscrutable.  I had to know what this produce auction was. Luckily, it was a little before 6pn on a Friday.  I all but dragged Geoff and Mike with me back to the auction.

One of the trucks at the Tri-County Cooperative Produce Auction

One of the trucks at the Tri-County Cooperative Produce Auction

As it turns out, it was exactly what it sounds like.  A live auction, for produce.  There were a bunch of pickup trucks waiting in line of either side of the auction building, with samples in the back.  Buyers walked around, checking out the produce, getting ready to bid.  The two women in charge, Peggy and Debbie, were very kind to us, even lending me their bidding number.

Alfred Finocchiaro, auctioneer

Alfred Finocchiaro, auctioneer

The auctioneer, a man named Alfred Finocchiaro, knew what every type of squash, every apple was on sight.  He’d rattle off the variety and quantity available, and the bidding started.  Twenty 20lb boxes of medium red tomatoes.  Eight enormous snake squash.  Fifty pound sacks of fresh corn on the cob.  His patter was thunderstorm on a tin roof fast, nearly unintelligible.   A lot of the bidders were old-timers; Alfred knew their bidding number by heart.

The prices were unbelievable:  where else could you get 8 canteloupes for $8?  Or a 20 pound box of perfect, deep red tomatoes for just $12?  Or fifty enormous watermelons for two bucks apice?  Although I was moving to California in just under a week, I was very tempted to round up a bunch of canning jars and start putting up vegetables; peaches in 20 pound flats, tomatoes in 25 pound boxes, 25 pounds of hungarian wax peppers going for $8.  There were new-dug potatoes, squash, apples, melons, and more tomatoes than you could shake a stick at.  Here is the way to be a locavore:  fresh veggies direct from the farmer, cheaper than the organic produce at the farmers’ markets in New York city.  Its certainly much less effort, space, risk and time than growing everything yourself – local food outsourcing in action!

Most of the buyers were farmers themselves, with the occasional restaurateur thrown in.  They were buying for their farm stands:  Silver Queen corn when their corn crop was over for the season, golden Jersey peaches to lure in the drivers, even though they didn’t have an orchard themselves.

Pumpkins for fall

Pumpkins for fall

I was too afraid to bid and wave my card around – I didn’t want to accidentally end up with 10 twenty-pound boxes of tomatoes when I only wanted one.  Nor did I want to bid to win the auction and make sure I got a box of whatever, only to leave the other 19 boxes to languish at too high a price.  So no bidding for me.

Fifty enormous watermelons, $2 each

Fifty enormous watermelons per box, at $2 each

I did manage to get an ginormous watermelon for $2, though, thanks to the intervention of a kindly farmer named George.  George interceded for me with the guy who had bought fifty of the big watermelons, and he agreed to sell me one at cost.  I became the proud owner of a watermelon that must have easily weighed 25 pounds, and was as big as a toddler. And as delicious.

Delicious watermelon!

Delicious watermelon!

The only problem with the market is, I don’t know how much the farmers were able to make, with prices that low.  A couple of times it looked like some lots weren’t going to get any bids before someone stepped in.   A few other times the farmers were getting bids that were too low:  $2.75 for a box, when they needed to get $4.50 just to break even.  Their prices eventually were met, but nothing over the break-even point.  And you’ve got to sell- what can you do with 400 pounds of unsold ripe medium-sized tomatoes?  That’s too few to try and sell to a wholesaler, and if no-one if the produce auction wants them, you’re stuck, and they’ll start going bad pretty quick.

Apparently the market used to be a lot bigger, with six warehouses, and hundreds of boxes of produce, and dairy and meat, too.  A lot of farms have been turned into housing developments, and there’s not as many buyers as there used to be.  Peggy said that this was the only co-operative farmers’ market left in the state, when they used to be all over New Jersey.  Now it’s this one, a small market in South Jersey, and the huge industrial markets in Philly and at Hunts Point in the Bronx.

For all that I like to snark at the New York Times, they beat me to this one.  They wrote about the produce auction and its history, on August 22nd of this year.

An Apology and a Relocation

Alas, I have fallen victim to the scourge of so many bloggers and so need to apologize for my extended absence.  I have relocated from Brooklyn, NY to Santa Cruz, CA, and have been busy settling into my new environs.

Santa Cruz is postively bursting with local food.  It’s part of the Eat Local!:  Cental Coast division, has a waiting list for several of the five or so local CSA’s, has an abundance of local (within 2 counties) produce in the regular supermarkets, and three awesome farmers’ markets.  It’s a very hippy dippy crunchy earthy local kind of place, which is a total change from the hustle and bustle and citiness of New York.  But I’m adjusting.

Santa Cruz has a crazy growing season:  it’s mild mediterranean climate, and many things grow nearly year-round.  Walking around town, you can easily spot figs, lemons, oranges, limes, and grapefruit hanging off trees, as well as mysterious cherry-like fruits and something that looks kind of like a pomelo.  In the summer, there’s peaches and plums in super-abundance.  Frankly, this place is almost begging for the kind of local fruit-harvesting program not far from the tree is pioneering.

In other news, I’ll be posting more regularly and more scheduled-ly, hopefully every Thursday.  Food issues are still big, even in light of the recent economic panic/meltdown/crisis.  A Minnesota farmer got a MacArthur genius grant!  Exciting things are ahead, folks.

Fruit Harvesting in the City

Free peaches in Santa Cruz, CA

Free peaches in Santa Cruz, CA

I’ve learned about several more urban fruit harvesting groups since my first post on the topic back in March, and my excited discovery of a prolific mulberry tree on my block in June.The charming and thoughtful Sage turned me on to another urban foraging group, this one in Portland, Oregon.

Carly of Urban Edibles leading a edible plant walk in Portland, OR

Urban Edibles is a collaborative, community based project to make good use of the abundant urban fruit trees and other food sources that would otherwise be underutilized. As their website states, “Urban Edibles is a cooperative network of wild food foragers. By creating awareness of what is in our neighborhoods, we hope to re-establish the connection between people, environment and food.”

They way they do this is really cool: their website functions as a community database, where anyone can add a source of wild food, or search by category, ranging from acorns to walnut trees, with everything from cherries to dill to hops to grapes to mangoes in between. There’s a guide to the ethics of harvesting from (potentially) private property, and a wiki. The Urban Edibles people lead regular community scouting missions and some guided identification walks. The best part, is that all of these food sources are also searchable by location on a well-done map

Another very awesome group I just learned about is Toronto’s not far from the tree, organized by Laura Reinsborough, which harvests fruit from trees in the Toronto.

Volunteers picked over 100 pounds of apricots on July 21

not far from the tree ensures that Toronto’s fruit doesn’t go to waste. When fruit tree owners can’t harvest their bounty, we dispatch teams of volunteers to harvest it for them. One third goes to the fruit tree owners, another third goes to the volunteers for their labour, and the final third is distributed (by bicycle or cart) to community organizations in the neighbourhood who can make good use of the fresh fruit.

2008 is our first full season of fruit harvesting, beginning in the neighbourhood of Ward 21/St. Clair West. After the fruit tree owners and volunteers split 2/3 of the harvest, we donate the remaining 1/3 to food programs in the neighbourhood. In Ward 21, fresh fruit is delivered to NaMeRes and Wychwood Open Door. As we expand, we hope to become a network of neighbourhood-based fruit tree initiatives around the city, with our combined efforts encompassing education, training, mapping, preserving, and celebrating.

So far this year they have picked an astonishing 1340 pounds of fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste, just from the one neighborhood of Ward 21 and St. Claire West. Unpicked, lots of fruit just falls to the ground to rot.

And they have beautiful photos!

Some cherries from the July 2 pick

Some cherries from the July 2 pick

Picking pears on August 21.  Photo by Clayton Turner

Picking pears on August 21. Photo by Clayton Turne

All of the fruit looks superb, and those volunteers look like they’re having lots of fun.

The benefits of this kind of organization are really kind of hard to overstate.

  • Community food programs, like homeless shelters get beautiful fresh fruit.
  • The owners, who may be busy or elderly, get their fruit harvested, in exchange for not far from the tree keeping two thirds of the harvest.
  • The volunteers get to keep one third of the harvest.

On a more macro level, everyone involved learns a little bit more about where their food comes from, and what a ripe apricot looks like, the most effective cherry-harvesting methods, or how delicious a fresh pear can be. You learn to look at your neighborhood with fresh eyes, knowing that many of the trees have an edible bounty.

Moreover, this is a great way to build community: the tree owners meeting the organizers and the volunteers, people interacting with the food programs and the homeless shelters, and explaining to curious passers-by that this tree being harvested is actually an apricot tree, overflowing with ripe apricots. As I learned when I was harvesting mulberries on my block in Brooklyn, people love to come up and ask what you’re doing, or tell you the story of their grandma’s mulberry tree. The people in not far from the tree have met a lot of their neighbors on their harvests and scouting missions, and they’re the richer for it. And I can’t wait for their map to go live!

It’s Mulberry Season!

I don’t know this because I am a font of horticultural knowledge. Rather, I know this because on my way to the library Monday I ran into a very kind fellow called Jeff who was out harvesting mulberries from a tree near my apartment. We got to chatting about food and the co-op and free markets, as well as the intricacies of mulberries. Intrigued and delighted, I convinced Jeff to let me tag along on his next urban foraging expedition.

Apparently, mulberry season is in full swing here in New York city, and will be for about another two weeks. Mulberries are like a sweeter, more oblong, more intense blackberry, with fewer pits (but an edible stem!) and a slight hint of blueberry flavor. In other words, completely delicious. The easy way to identify a mulberry tree is to look for the mess underneath it, along with the sweetish odor of crushed and rotting fruit. Most mulberries are ripe when they’re black (they gradually change from white to red to purple to black) and release easily from the tree.  There are quite a few mulberry trees in New York city, mostly planted decades ago.

This is particularly exciting as fresh ripe raspberries are very difficult to come by- I’ve never seen them for sale. This is probably due to the extreme fragility of the fruit; they are far more delicate than the blackberry or raspberry. Consequently they aren’t often used for cooking, though they are delicious eaten out of hand. Joy of Cooking, whose 1973 edition discusses fruits like the litchi and the even more exotic akee, acerola and mangosteen, has only the following to say about mulberries:

The mulberry, despite its close resemblance to members of the Rubus family, is not in the least related. As everyone knows, the leaves of the white-fruited tree make up the traditional diet of the silkworm. Purple-fruited mulberry trees are best suited, in our opinion, for varying the diets – and flexing the muscles – of marauding schoolboys.

Despite the disapproval of Joy of Cooking, Jeff and I set out to harvest mulberries this Wednesday. As we got started, we attracted a lot of attention, and many people stopped by to chat and enjoy the fruit themselves.

This last fellow is Muhammed, a charming builder who saw us harvesting, ate his fill, and lent us a very capable hand. Below is our very high-tech harvesting technique:

After about an hour of thwacking and catching, we had amassed quite the tidy pile of mulberries, from just the one tree. I’m excited about the haul; in addition to just eating them and putting them on ice cream, I’m going to attempt a mulberry compote.

If you spot a mulberry tree, do try some mulberries, as they are intensely delicious. But be careful, as they do stain terribly!