Archive for January, 2010

The Food We Eat:

I’m working on putting together a series of posts that show the diversity of the vegetables that we eat.  It’s amazing to me variety of plant “parts” that make up our food.  We eat the roots of some, and leaves of others.  We wait for the seeds to fully develop in some plants, yet eat the maturing ovary (fruit) of different plants.  Some vegetables we eat are the stems or petioles.

Do you have any veggies that you’ve been wondering about?  Curious why a potato and a sweet potato are classified as different parts of a plant?  Let me know and I’ll try to add them in to my posts.


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This is the second post, reflecting on my time at a Growing Power Workshop.  In the last post I wrote about Will Allen and the people who work there.  In this post I’ll be writing about the farm, itself.

I had seen pictures and video of Growing Power before I visited, so I thought that I had a good idea of what the farm looked like.  However, seeing it in person gave me a real appreciation for what they are doing in the city.  As you walk through the greenhouses you will quickly notice that they are using as much space in the houses as possible.  As we toured the facility Will would encourage us to “look at the use of vertical space.”  They use hanging baskets hung from hanging baskets for sprouts and micro-greens. They have built shelving to grow their trays of greens, and they use some artificial lighting where shading might be an issue.  This use of space allows them to capitalize on their greenhouses available growing space.  If you’ve spent much time in a greenhouse you’ll know that in many cases there is so much unused space.  There may be a table for growing, but then there is 10+ feet of space above the plants.  Because Growing Power is using all this space they are able to grow sprouts at $30/sq. foot!  If you had an acre of greenhouses the potential is there to make $1.5 million in an acre of greenhouses.  This does, of course, assume that there will be people in the area to purchase an $1.5 million in sprouts, but Will was quick to mention that the the demand for the sprouts and mirco-greens is so much greater than their ability to produce them at this time.  Their main consumers for all these greens are local restaurant and health-based grocery stores.

The next thing that you would notice about Growing Power’s greenhouses is that they are using aquaponics to raise Tilapia and Lake Perch.  I don’t have any experience with aquaponics, so I was pretty amazed at what they were doing.  My understanding of the aquaponics system is pretty minimal, so I hope my explanation isn’t too lacking.

Growing Power uses a few different types of aquaponics set-ups, but they all seem to operate in the same way.  The fish are raised in a tank or trough underneath a wooden shelf.  The fish are raised in tanks that hold several thousand gallons of water; each fish requires one gallon of water’s worth of space.  The fish are introduced into the system as minnows and take about 8-12 months to reach a harvestable weight (1.5-2 lbs).  The water from the fish tanks are pumped up to the top shelf and gravity draws the water back down to the fish tanks after making its way through each shelf.  The shelves are filled with watercress and other greens, which collect the fish “bio-solids” and nutrients up through their roots.  This helps filter the water before it is cycled back to the fish tanks.  At this point the water can also be used to water other plants in the nearby area.  I didn’t spend too much time looking at the aquaponics set-up; I felt like this aspect of Growing Power was not something that I will likely be incorporating any time soon.  I was really interesting, though.

While passing through the greenhouses you would notice that one house was dedicated to vermicomposting. Read anything about Growing Power or Will Allen and you will hear that the worms and the compost are central to the work that they are doing there.  The compost provides the plants with a nutrient-dense growing medium to thrive in.  So how do they make it?  The first, big step in the process is to divert waste from the waste stream.  Growing Power collects food waste, brewers mash, and coffee grounds from local businesses that would normally be heading to the landfill.  When they have collected the materials that they need, they compost them outdoors.  The “pre-composting” (before the worms get to it) allows them to have a quicker turnover time for worm castings and it allows them to compost a greater quantity than they could do inside.  This compost goes to one of two places: to become a growing medium for planting or to the worm bin to become worm casting.  Follow the compost inside to the worm bins and you soon see a beautiful, dark, rich compost.  The compost gets put in a bin with some worms and sits while the worms do their thing.  The worms make their way through the compost, aerating and digesting as they go.  What is left is highly nutrient-dense worm castings.

Going from the pre-composted compost to the worm castings is not only a great step for the health of the plants, but it is also a good business move.  Creating the worm castings adds a value-added product to their production because now they are able to sell packages of worm castings (which sell commercially for around $1.50/lb) but they can also sell the worms.  I think that in the growing world of urban farming, farmers will need to be thinking about ways that they can add value-added products to their farms.  A great example is the worm castings that Growing Power is selling.

All right, lets head outside and take a look at the hoop houses.  This was one of the things I was most interested to see, because it is the closest type of production to what I would like to be doing.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading about winter harvesting and Growing Power is using some interesting methods to keep the temps in their at a reasonable temp.  Visiting Milwaukee in January was a perfect chance to see how they were putting their methods to work.  Now, hoop houses are generally unheated structures made with a clear plastic cover.  This allows the sunlight and heat to hold in the structure as a method of starting the growing season earlier and extending it later.  There becomes a time in the season when the hoop house can no longer hold enough heat that the plants need to grow.  Heating a hoop house is an option, but by design, not the most efficient use of energy.  It can be done, and has been done, but if your goal is to have a heated structure you are better off with a green house, not a hoop house.  What Will does, though, is he uses a mix of spent brewers mash (the grains that beer makers use to to brew the beer) and other high nitrogen materials to release heat into the hoop houses.  As the materials break down they release heat.  This is a method that allows them to heat their hoop houses using materials that would be heading to the landfill otherwise.  In each inside corner of the hoop house they pile this hot compost mix and cover it with wood chips and coir (to use as a filter to capture the ammonia released).  This material does break done and will stop releasing heat, so the pile is added to every other week.  As the winter season goes on the piles continue to decompose and they end up with great compost by spring.  The other way that they help heat stay in the hoop house is by lining the outside walls with 2-3 feet of hot compost.  This acts as an insulation for the house.  How did all of this work?  Well, look at the photos below.  The temps outside were in the single digits, but inside the thermometer read 40F.  When the temps inside dip below 30F they cover the plants with plastic row covers to help hold in heat.  The hoop houses had raised beds planted with spinach and other cold-hardy greens and seem to be doing great.  I think there is great potential for winter harvesting and I was excited to see how they were putting things into practice.  And if they can harvest greens in Milwaukee in January, why cant we do this in other cities too?

I’ll end this long post with some pictures of some of the animals they had on site.  They were raising heritage turkey breeds for meat, chickens for eggs, and goats for milk.  I would like to know more about some of their challenges with raising the animals, but there was not enough time at the workshop for everything.  Oh well.  Enjoy the cute animals.  Let me know if I wasn’t clear about something or if you have any questions.  I’ll be happy to expound a bit more.

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Yesterday I had the chance to attend a Gardening Network Meeting at the Gardens on Spring Creek.  This was the first of these meetings that I’ve attended, but I got the impression that they have been going on for some time.  The particular focus of this meeting was to discuss growing food to alleviate hunger in collaboration with the Food Bank for Larimer County.  The room was filled with nearly 40 people, who are involved with gardening/growing food on some level.  There were people from a few hospitals in the area, which are using gardening as a means of horticultural therapy as well as the nutritional aspects of what they are growing.  There were a few people that are working with the school district to incorporate a “Farm to School” program.  There were people there that work with various community gardens throughout the city, as well as people from The Growing Project and Home Grown Food.  There was a lot of great energy in the room.

The meeting started with Kristin Bieri, from the Food Bank explaining some of what they do.  At the most basic level, they get food to people who need it.  This should seem pretty instinctual, however I was surprised at the ways they go about doing that.  They are much more “just” a pick-up location for people to come to and take food.  They have 3 different programs for how they give food to people.  One program is called Food Share.  This is the type of program that we often associate with a food bank.  Food Share is an on-site food pantry.  Another program is called Food Link.  This program works in partnership with other organizations that are assisting folks in need.  The third program is called Kids Cafe.  This program focuses on the needs of children 3-18 years of age.  There are 6 Kids Cafe drop locations, which are located within 1 mile of a school that has a population of over 50% free/reduced cost meals.  To get an idea for the capacity that the Food Bank serves at consider this: Last year the Food Bank served 27,000 people, 53% of those are children!

Kristin explained that 35% of the food that they are able to give away is fresh produce.  This is an incredible thing.  However, much of the produce is trucked in from other states and the Food Bank has to pay for it to be brought to them.  So, they may get a phone call from an orchard in Washington letting them know that they have a truck full of apples to deliver, but those “free” apples might end up costing #3000 in transportation and other fees.  This is an area in which the Food Bank really would like to find more local produce.  If there was produce available to them from within the state or surrounding regions, they would not have to pay so much for the donations they receive.

This was a great transition to the next presenter, Karen McManus who farms at Wolf Moon Farms.  Karen decided to grow 15 rows of “kid friendly” veggies for the Food Bank last year.  This is an incredible thing.  It’s not uncommon for farmers to donate produce that they don’t sell at a Farmer’s Market or if they have a bumper crop, but Karen was choosing to donate her time and resources and her “first fruits.”  This is extremely generous thing to do when the profit margins for a farmer are so tight.  One of the ways that Karen was able to offset some of these costs was by asking her CSA members to pay a little extra.  This is a great example of a community working toward a greater good.

I’m grateful for being invited to the meeting.  I got the impression that the group meets once a month, and I would love to join them again.  It was really encouraging to join a group of people in town who recognize that there are some in our community who are struggling to put food on the table, but more importantly, that we can do something about it.

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I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to write about my time at the Growing Power workshop, so I’m going to try to gather my thoughts and share them as best as I can.  Part of me feels that I should allow myself some time to digest all that I experienced before trying to share it with other people.  There was so much energy and information and excitement that it was impossible to absorb and remember everything that happened.  Rather than writing a long post about every detail of what we did I think I’ll write a few posts on some big picture experiences that I had.  Any objections?  Ok, here we go.

There were about 40 people there for the Saturday/Sunday workshop and another 30 people that were there for the first of a “once a month, for five months” Friday-Sunday workshop.  When we gathered together for the first time on Saturday morning there was a lot of nervous excitement.  A long row of tables was set up in one of the green houses.  This would be where we gathered together to eat and gather together when we were not in a workshop.  When I sat down to eat it was easy to start to talk to the people around me.  A few guys were there from Connecticut where they work at Urban Oaks.  Another lady next to me was from a place in northern Wisconsin who was working to revitalize her community through community gardens.  There was guy from the Rogers Park in Chicago.  He was on the board of a community garden/farm and he was the one who was elected to come up for the weekend.  We ate breakfast and mingled–wondering what the weekend was going to be like.

After a while Will Allen emerged from the one of the other greenhouses.  His presence is as commanding in person as it seems to be in video.  He was wearing a sleeveless hooded sweatshirt; that made me smile.  Will gave us an introduction to some of his staff and a quick briefing of what we could expect during the weekend.  Before we took a tour of the farm Will asked us go around and introduce ourselves and tell everyone else where we were from and what we do.  It was a little surprising to hear that we were going to take the time to introduce ourselves to everyone in that way, but it really set the tone for the whole weekend.  As we took turns introducing ourselves it became pretty clear that although we were all coming from areas of the country (and even a number of people from Canada) we were all looking for inspiration and support.  Even thought we were there to see and learn about the things that Growing Power was doing, I think the opportunity to get to know people from different places and working on different projects was just as beneficial.  People are so important to Growing Power.  They proved this by providing us time to sit, talk, and learn from and with each other.

“The thing we do best is to inspire people into action.” -Will Allen

Will wants people to learn.  He comes across as being a teacher at heart.  As the weekend’s activities unfolded Will would stop into each of the workshops to ask what we were learning. “Take me back to the beginning.” he would prod the group.  A person in the group would start explaining the steps until Will found time to interject, “And then what happens?”  He would ask this question until he heard the answer he was looking for, playfully prodding the group for the answer.  When he heard what he was looking for he would put his hands up in defense and exclaim with a smile, “I’m just trying to learn.”

One concept that Will continually returned to was the importance of maintaining relationships with the community around Growing Power.  He stressed the importance that once a relationship is built you must work to maintain that relationship.  If you create an agreement with a restaurant or grocery store to take their kitchen wastes for compost, then you had better be there to pick them up.  If those relationships are fractured they are hard to put back together.  There were a few chefs in the group that he asked to support this idea, and then we listened as Will began to preach a short sermon on building relationships with chefs.  “Chefs today…” he said with the rhythm and force of an African-American preacher—building momentum as he spoke. “Chefs today know what good food is…Chefs today want to have the freshest ingredients to serve their guests…Chefs today are a huge player in the Food Revolution.”  And as he preached, we responded with several “Amens.”

Will spoke often about the Food Revolution.  “This is no longer a food movement,” he would say “this is a food revolution.”  This word play on what is being done is powerful.  The thought of participating in a revolution is inspiring.  This food revolution is taking place all across the country.  The food revolution is rising up in urban centers and rural communities.  And the food revolutionaries that are taking up this cause span all ages, genders, races, and political preferences.  “This is a revolution, and it’s growing.  You cannot have a sustainable community without involving sustainable foods.”

The other thing that Will stressed as he spoke was that this revolution would only continue if we did things.  The revolution needs action.  There is a need to hash through policy issues, but simply talking about it wouldn’t show what the solutions could look like.  This workshop weekend was a great example of this.  The purpose wasn’t to show people how to create little Growing Powers all across the country.  The purpose was to inspire people to think creatively about ways that their own communities can take part in the food revolution in ways that are most beneficial to those communities.

“We could talk about this stuff all day, but now is the time for action…” –Will Allen

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Growing Power Workshop

This weekend I am attending a workshop at Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Yesterday was packed full of information that I would love to be able to remember and recall, but I know that even in my attempts to scribble notes and take pictures I know I will be forgetting more than I will remember.

I wanted to share some pictures I took from the first day, and I’ll be writing more about my time after I get back home and have some time to process all the information.

“There is a way to get good food to every person in every community.  We just need to find new ways to do it.” -Will Allen

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2. Experimentation Nation
When’s the last time you sat down to fine dining at a taco truck? If you live in L.A., chances are you’ve at least given it a try (Kimchee quesadilla, anyone?). How about selecting your own wine by the glass after sampling a few from an Enomatic system, the way you can at Nora’s Wine Bar & Osteria? Restaurant concepts are in flux as people redefine what going “out” to eat means. Gastropubs, fusion dining, shareables, and communal tables are all being tried. While this started because of the economy it will finish because consumers will indicate what works for them and what doesn’t. New concepts around “fresh” and DIY will do well. Experimentation is the trend, so we’ll see concepts come and go.

This is a trend that I think has been on the rise for a while.  Restaurants have been trying to find ways to separate themselves from the pack through promoting niche ideas.  Eating out has become more that simply eating at a restaurant- Restaurants are now expected to provide an “experience” for the diners.  This experience has come in all shapes and sizes already: molecular gastronomy has had some time to shine, although I think this is one trend that not going to peak again for some time.  As the economy has folks reigning in their luxury spending, I think that these type of dining experiences/entertainments are not going to make the cut.  Communal/Share tables is a trend that I think will continue to rise in popularity.  I think the idea will be attempted by all sorts of eateries, yet only a small few will be able to pull it off in the long run.  I think diners are wanting to talk about food and the opportunity to share a table with others and discuss while they eat together is an appealing idea.  This will only work when the food is worth talking about.  The chefs that cook for these communal meal must be willing to experiment to the point that they are drawing the conversations out of the eaters.  A “chef” who is reheating frozen stakes that came off the back of a sysco truck is going to have a hard time inspiring eaters.

Another element to this trend are “experiments” that are going to be mostly found in urban settings where access to fresh food is often more difficult.  Some people have already been experimenting with ideas like the Peaches and Greens Wagon.  I expect to see more ideas like this pop up.  The demand for fresh, healthy, and affordable food is really high, but currently the supply is limited by poor imagination.  I think we’ll see more vending machines carrying fresh fruits.  I think we’ll see more “fresh-fast” food restaurants pop up.  I think we’ll see urban farms becoming more visible, and as this happens I would love to see many of them having farm dinners.

I really hope that Food Education is what drives this trend.  I would love to see chefs working with butchers and cheese mongers to educate eaters about what it takes to put the pancetta and blue cheese on their menu.  I hope more farms find ways to host meals on their farms to show eaters that carrots do indeed, grow in the ground.  There are many chefs and farmers that are really trying to lead this trend.  May their tribe increase.

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1. Keeping it Real
In a back-to-basics economy perhaps it is natural to return to basic ingredients. This isn’t about retro, or comfort food, or even cost. It’s about determining the essentials and stocking your pantry accordingly. It is about pure, simple, clean and sustainable. It is—dare we say—a shift from convenience foods to scratch cooking, now that we have more time than money and more food knowledge and concerns….

I’m glad that this prediction is at the top.  My reasons for getting back into the food world was precisely for this reason.  With the rise of convenience foods I think that our country’s collective cooking skills have diminished over the past 50 years.  What used to be considered common knowledge in the kitchen has now become unfamiliar to most.  Regular meals for many has been reduced to frozen dinners and take-out.  And there are even “cooking” shows on The Food Network where the celebrity cook teaches people about semi-homemade cooking where the goal is to combine a few frozen foods together to attempt to pass off the finished meal as something you slaved over.  The main problem I have with this type of cooking is that these frozen dinners are filled with sodium and sugars that sneak into your regular diet.  These ingredients that you have control of when you are cooking from scratch.

It is, of course, not realistic for people to cook all their meals from scratch.  But choosing to make one or two of your normal meals can be a huge step in controlling what you and your family are eating.  Learning about food at the most basic level- the ingredients- can empower a person to feel like they have some foundation to stand on.  When I talk with someone about working on shifting the food/kitchen ways of thinking I almost always start with talking about the importance of a well stocked pantry.  Maintaining a well stocked pantry is not just an educational tool, but a money and time saver as well.  I have found that it’s empowering to be able to step into the kitchen and have all the ingredients to bake banana bread or chocolate-chip cookies.  Or having the staple ingredients for most pasta dishes or a stir fry on hand at any given time.  By keeping a well stocked pantry it is easy to put together a quick and affordable meal.

If there is a negative aspect to this food trend I think that it would be if restaurants attempt to add this language to their menus.  If a restaurant needs to stress that it is cooking its food from scratch then I wonder if their whole image needs some work.  That being said, I do think that we will continue to see sit-down chain restaurants use this language in their advertising.  I expect to see places like TGIFridays to advertise “made-from-scratch” items, but I wonder if they will actually made in their kitchens or simply made from scratch someplace else and shipped in a Sysco truck to them.

In my opinion, this “Keeping it Real” prediction isn’t meant to turn everyone into a “made-from-scratch” cook, but I think it does suggest that people will start to take a greater interest in the basic ingredients that make up the meals that they eat every day.

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