New Book Takes a Look at Urban Farms Across the U.S.

It was an overcast but hot and humid Sunday July afternoon when 50 volunteers arrived to clear a sizable lot of land at Phoenix Press in New Haven, Connecticut, underneath their wind turbine, that is soon to become New Haven Farms’ fifth farm site.

As a founding member of New Haven Farms, it is exciting to see our urban farm sites sprout up around the edges of Fair Haven, an historic area of New Haven and one that has been home to immigrant populations for over 100 years. The mission of New Haven Farms is to promote health and community development through urban agriculture and our goal is to establish and cultivate year-round urban farms that produce nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits, in collaboration with community members who are both within 200 percent of the federal poverty level and suffering from diabetes, pre-diabetes, or have at least two risk factors for diabetes. The organization is now partnering with the Fair Haven Community Health Center (FHCHC) to rigorously build farms in the lowest income neighborhoods of New Haven, and investigate the impact of increased exposure and consumption of fresh, local nutrient-dense foods on this underserved community’s health. Its CSA program began the first week of July–called the New Haven Farms Fresh Produce Prescription Program.

Looking at the barren, rocky site at Phoenix Press gave me a rush. It may look desolate now but I can visualize a farm here, and I can imagine all the green and luscious, nutritious produce that will rise forth out of this lot within a year’s time [with the help of a lot of compost!] So when the afternoon was over and the volunteers got back on their bus, I returned home and immediately opened Sarah Rich’s beautiful book, Urban Farms and allowed myself to be inspired and imagine what this new farm site can become. This book chronicles the urban agriculture movement through gorgeous photography and thoughtful essays that would inspire any good urbanite to pick up a shovel and find a nearby community garden. Read more

Citizen Food: In Conversation with Mark Winne

Despite the efforts of many communities that are working hard to support local agriculture and improve nutrition standards, the majority of the food consumed in the USA is still highly processed, unhealthy and unsustainable. Mark Winne, the co-founder of Connecticut Food Policy Council, End Hunger Connecticut!, and the National Community Food Security Coalition and author of the recently published Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture talks about the myths of Big Agribusiness, the possible casualty of American democracy and how Food Citizenship can reclaim our dilapidated food system. Read more

Wave of Change at Farmers’ Markets: An Interview with Michel Nischan

A recent report by the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) and Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) called “Real Food, Real Choice: Connecting SNAP Recipients with Farmers Markets,” gives detail to the economic, social and technological roadblocks that often prevent many Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants from buying fresh and healthy food at their  local, or not so local, farmers markets. Is the real issue access or affordability? Michel Nischan, CEO and President of Wholesome Wave, talks about how their innovative programs are helping to avert a national health care crisis. Read more

The Art of Ant Agriculture: A Conversation with an Entomologist

Leafcutter ants engage in monoculture practices just like we do but with much stricter public health and safety guidelines that would put our own National Organic Program standards to shame. What do these ants know that we don’t? I spoke to Mark Moffett, Research Associate in Entomology at the Smithsonian Institute and author of Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions to find out. Read more

Farmer Friendly Zone: Better School Food = More Local Farms

Last week, U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, unveiled the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which provides $4.5 billion in new child nutrition program funding over ten years. It says on Lincoln’s website: “This legislation will also mark the first time since the inception of the National School Lunch Program that Congress has dedicated this level of resources to increasing the program’s reimbursement rate.”

Currently, the National School Lunch Program feeds nearly 31 million students every day for $9.3 billion per year. At the end of February, President Barack Obama proposed a $1 billion a year increase ($10 billion over ten years) in funding for U.S. child nutrition programs including school lunches. Sounds like a lot. But $1 billion, it turns out, really only boils down to an extra twenty cents per school meal. Right now, the reimbursement rate per meal is $2.68, and less than a dollar of that goes towards actual food. The rest is spent on infrastructure. Many school food advocates believe that serving wholesome, nutritious meals for under $3 is just not possible and there has been a rallying cry for more – up to a $1 more per child’s meal.

Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, once told me if the USDA did nothing else than change the food served in schools, then he would be happy because “to change the school lunch program, USDA Secretary Vilsack will have to change the infrastructure that delivers the food to our schools and that will change the food system because it will provide many new opportunities for farmers to get food they produce to consumers, and I think that will encourage more of our young want-to-bes to begin farming.”

That statement seems fairly profound – that by changing our school food we could actually change this nation’s agricultural system by empowering local farms with local school dollars. So how exactly would an increase, if it actually happened, in the National School Lunch Program change or impact local farm production? Would biodiversity increase? Would commodity crops disappear to make room for more fruit and vegetables? How would the relationship between the schools and the farmers change?

Here are a few answers to those questions from leaders in the school food movement: Read more

Better Bee-Haviour: From Bees, the USDA and Yes, the EPA

Bees have been dying off in record numbers over the past few years — some American beekeepers have lost anywhere from 30 to 90% of their bees.  The situation, termed Colony Collapse Disorder [CCD], has wreaked havoc on American agriculture and the $15 billion worth of crops pollinated by honeybees every year.

So I did what San Francisco State University biologist Gretchen LeBeun, creator of the Great Sunflower Project, has asked. I planted a Lemon Queen sunflower. And then I stood there watching for bees. I timed the first arrival, 7 minutes, 33 seconds. I stood in my front yard for over twenty minutes watching bees circle the new plant, doing loops around the Cone flowers and the Tickseed and circling back. Gretchen has asked us sunflower-planter participants to time how long it takes five bees to find this grand dame plant and then to send in this data via their website, to be included in their big research project on the honeybee disappearing act, the most mysterious and disturbing event in the world of agriculture today. Read more

Alice Waters Playing Pol Pot? Ruth Reichl Responds to Inaugural Dinner Bashing

Alice Waters is taking a lot of heat in blogger land of late. From The Feedbag’s question “Has the locavore taliban finally been checked?” to NPR’s Monkey See blogger Todd Kliman noting Alice’s “inflexible brand of gastronomical correctness” to Anthony Bourdain’s equating her with the Khmer Rouge (I mean, can you see Alice carrying an 8.5 pound AK 47 when she couldn’t even do the Heimlich maneuver on Joan Nathan?) Alice is getting shredded in the Cuisinart of the Anti-Politically Correct. Read more