Breathing Room

Posted Wednesday, December 9th, 2009 at 6:32 pm

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There are vacant lots all across Los Angeles.  Spaces waiting to be filled.  Between the concrete walls, patches of earth sit, waiting to be reclaimed and returned to a primal state.  Though it seems improbable in this industrialized, over-developed, metropolitan behemoth of a city, there is still breathing room.

These empty parcels of land create an illusion that “nothing” is there.  In reality, it is simply in a dormant state.  I love that word.  Dormant: lying as if asleep; inactive; torpid.

Last weekend, 45 people from all over California and Los Angeles gathered for the Growing Communities workshop to learn how to lift these barren landscapes out of their slumber and return them to life, as in some kind of urban fairy tale, by creating Community Gardens.

David King, Master Gardener at the Learning Garden of Venice High and Al Renner, head of the LA Community Garden Council, were our wise teachers, sharing decades of experience with plenty of humor and charm.

It’s funny, because I started this blog while meditating on my fruit bowl.  It boggles my mind how fast the journey was from my plate to the rest of the world.  My quest to find somewhere to plant a seed led me directly into a community of activists trying to shift our entire culture.  Before I could say “tomato plant”, I was thrust into a political movement.

Beyond the wealth of information, most of which I’m still trying to digest, the real benefit for me was my fellow classmates. I met teachers, city officials, organization leaders and just plain concerned citizens trying to start their own gardens.  What brought us all together was a deep commitment to “food security” (making sure that nobody goes hungry and everybody has access to fresh food) and a farm-to-plate ethos, something I find increasingly important in my own eating habits.

So why community gardens?  There are the obvious answers: neighborhood unity, fresh food, urban beautification.  But just as important is that, amidst the chaos of the city, a garden is a place where the simplicity of nature is protected; held sacred.  The lush surroundings reflect a natural abundance, which is an essential contrast to the scarcity experienced in so many parts of the city.

Solano Gardens

Solano Gardens

Gardening also offers people a simple, rewarding, highly therapeutic relationship that is, all to often, hard to replicate in the complicated world of human affairs: if you give to plants, they will give back.

Recently a friend sent me a story in the New York Times about the incredible effectiveness of the Veteran’s Administration’s  Garden Therapy Program in rehabilitating soldiers returning from Iraq who were suffering from PTSD.  By learning to deal with plants, they eventually were able to learn how to deal with society.

It follows then that the workshop curriculum had to do with tending people, not gardens.  We learned how to navigate the jungles of government bureaucracy, grow neighborhood interest, attract volunteers.  We were warned about some of the common pitfalls within organizations caused by the imperfections of human beings.  Emphasis was placed on the personal beliefs of a good community organizer:

– people are basically good and want to do the right thing,

– people can be trusted,

– groups make better decisions than individuals

– everyone’s opinion matters

We were encouraged to adhere to these principals even if we didn’t necessarily believe them.  If not for our organizations, then for our plants.  These basic tenets give space for people, and gardens, to grow.

CLICK HERE to purchase the in depth Growing Communities Curriculum on which the workshop was based.

As a parting gift, here are just a few of the organizations and gardens I learned about this weekend.

The Learning Garden at Venice High Schoollaunched in March of 2001, it  has quickly become one of the country’s largest and most successful school gardens.

Los Angeles Conservation Corpa group that provides at-risk youth with job skills with a focus on conservation and community projects.

Mudtown Farms, 2.4 acres in the middle of Watts, one of LA’s poorest neighborhoods, that is being tended by 118 farmers.

SHARE -  works to find affordable house for disabled people.

Millagro Allegra – the newest community garden in Los Angeles located in Highland Park

Solano Canyon – a community garden just East of Chinatown

There are plenty of places to jump in and get dirty.

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Can Doers

Posted Wednesday, November 25th, 2009 at 5:42 pm

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The constant sunshine and good weather can lull us Angelenos into believing that we live in a land of plenty.  Put a seed in the ground and chances are it will grow. Yet, the reality is that hunger remains a serious problem here.

Here come the hard facts.

According to Fed Up With Hunger’s “Blueprint To End Hunger” (click here for PDF):

  • 1,000,000 Angelenos feel hungry every day.

  • The recent economic crisis has exacerbated the situation, resulting in increased unemployment, home loss and a 41% rise in those seeking emergency food services.

  • Most disturbing is that children and the elderly are the most at risk with 25% of LA children and 50% of independent elderly facing food insecurity on a daily basis.

Rick Nahmias of Food Forward came up with a juicy idea to help combat these staggering statistics.  Started in 2009, his organization gathers volunteers to glean excess fruit from trees in private residences and then donates the bounty to food banks.

They work with SOVA, JFS’s Community Food and Resource Program and M.E.N.D Poverty.  Combined, these food banks distribute the fruit to 30,000 hungry people a month.

As of November 12, Food Forward has collected 60,649 pounds of fresh fruit in 2009.

Though this number is astounding, it is not hard to believe.  As a native Angelino, I’m used to seeing trees sitting in yards pregnant with fruit that is never picked. Many home-owners treat their trees as mere decorations.  They don’t know what to do with all they produce and they don’t have time pick it.  So the fruit dangles, like so many dusty Christmas ornaments, rotting away.

With Food Forward in the picture, hopefully there won’t be many un-harvested trees left in LA.

So, how do we preserve all that fruit?  Can it of course!

On Sunday my husband and I were lucky enough to participate in Food Forward’s brand-new canning venture at M.E.N.D’s kitchen in Pacoima.

M.E.N.D stands for Meeting Each Need With Dignity.  Started in the early 70’s in a garage, the organization has now grown into the largest poverty agency in the Valley.  They provide emergency food, clothing, medical, vision and dental care in addition to several other services. In 2008, they served over 368,969 individuals.

Kevin West of the savingtheseason.com and Surfas Canning Class fame, and Nina Corbett of putsup.com were generous enough to donate their time and lead a workshop for Food Forward volunteers in M.E.N.D Poverty’s kitchen.  The idea being to train gleaners to preserve their fruit to donate or sell as a means of raising money for the organization.

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On this Sunday afternoon, about 20 FF volunteers gathered around a table  filled with fruit and listened as Nina and Kevin gave instruction.

The canning process is straightforward and, in practice, pleasing in its Zen-like repetition.  First peel the fruit, then chop it, wash the jars, heat them, boil the water, make the simple syrup, poach the pears, stuff the jars with as much fruit as possible, then seal the jars, boil them, cool them, and eventually eat them.

Each volunteer brought 12 jars to donate.  So with 240 jars, 10 crates of pears, and 7 huge pots we split into groups and got to work. I grabbed a peeler with the dullest blade I’ve ever used and picked a pear to peel (say that three times fast).

Soon, everyone was moving apace: peelers, choppers, syrup makers, water boilers, timekeepers, jar washers, talkers, photographers, and jokers. We were a jolly group, buzzed with the easy camaraderie of folks who think spending a Sunday afternoon canning is a fun idea.

My husband seemed to be having the best time, challenging anyone close by to try squeezing more pears into a jar than him. Needless to say, nobody could – for which he gave praise to many years of playing Tetris.

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After a few hours, it was time to can the canning.  There was no official count, but I’d say we made about 50 jars of pear preserves which were all donated to M.E.N.D.  Not bad!  Plus, FF now has a small army of expert canners at the ready.

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Nina Corbett of putsup.com

Afterwards, we were treated to a smorgasbord of Kevin and Nina’s gourmet preserves.  Kevin’s Fire-Roasted Peppers in Red Wine Vinegar (a recipe that is thankfully published on his blog) were transcendent.  Nina’s raspberry jam was about the best I’ve ever tasted.  Oh and the pickled okra – yum!

For those of you out there with fruit trees in your yards, Food Forward is always looking for new trees to harvest.  Contact Erica, the Property/Harvesting Coordinator at erica@foodforward.org.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Diggin’ School

Posted Monday, November 23rd, 2009 at 8:34 pm

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After watching Food Inc. and learning how big Agri-business has us by the Brussels Sprouts, my day spent volunteering with Garden School Foundation was a much needed ray of sunshine.

My husband and I pulled into the 24th Street Elementary School’s parking lot bright and early on Saturday morning not knowing what to expect.  Located right alongside the Western Ave. exit on the notoriously traffic-laden 10 freeway in the West Adams district of Los Angeles, it certainly seemed like an unlikely place for a garden.

Walking onto the grounds, however, we were soon found ourselves in a lush, green landscape.  Classrooms surrounded a charming garden courtyard beneath a giant weeping willow.  We later learned that this was the school’s initial “test garden” that was now used as an inter-curricular learning area.  Two large banners boasted “Outdoor Classroom” and “Good Eats”.

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Winding our way around the buildings, we came upon GSF’s flagship garden and were truly awe-struck.  Three-quarters of an acre of verdant land, abundant with fresh herbs, vegetable and fruit trees. With the roar of I-10 in the background, this patch of green seemed miraculous. Instead of exhaust and pollution, we inhaled the scent of freshly laid hay, rosemary and honeysuckle.

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Dr. Nat Zappia, an environmental historian specializing in Native California and Director of GSF, greeted us with a warm smile and happily answered our multitude of questions.  In 2003, the LAUSD was going to lay down a fresh new coat of black asphalt in order to “beautify” the grounds.  Classic.  Second grade teacher Linda Slater and principal Yongpyo Grace Yoon, approached the community to see if they couldn’t think of something more imaginative and inspiring for the children then a concrete jungle.  In short order, an enthusiastic group of parents and community members got together and GSF was born.

In 2005 GSF asked Nancy Goslee Power to draw up a plan that would fit all the needs of teachers, parents and students.  The garden is a testament to her outstanding work.  Here is just a sample of the wealth of learning experiences the garden provides:

  • Cooking Curriculum: Volunteer chefs Jennie Cook and Gino Campagna lead two weekly “Slow Food Cooking” classes where students forage, prepare and cook their own food.

  • Herb Project: Students grow herbs that they then sell to a local restaurant, Pitfire Pizza, developing skills in gardening, marketing, packaging and financial literacy.

  • Science Garden: Standardized state science curriculum is integrated into garden-based lessons.

  • Animal Habitat Workshop: Students learn the relationship between animal habitats, gardens and ecosystems.

  • Yoga Workshop: Yoga in the garden!

Not only that, GSF has also started a Wild Food garden.  1/4 of an acre of the schoolyard is now devoted to edible native plants.  Lessons about food foraging and native Californian botany will also be worked into their school curriculum.

Let me just interject here that I am a product of the LAUSD.  I have vivid memories of jumping out of my chair at recess and running as fast as my legs could carry me onto the playground – a vast, imposing landscape of black asphalt that appeared to stretch far into the horizon.  A chain link fence let us know where the playground ended and the city streets began.  There was not a tree in sight.  Like desert buttes, two handball courts jutted through the concrete in the Southwestern corner of the yard.  All other play areas – four square and hopscotch courts, a race track – were simply painted lines on the ground. The rest was left up to our imaginations.  Hopefully, we were involved enough in whatever games we concocted to ignore the heat blasting off concrete beneath us.

Prison?  Schoolyard?  Schoolyard?  Prison?  Certainly the architecture didn’t offer any answers.

So seeing this garden was truly a revelation.  Each classroom had its own raised garden bed.  Sweet, hand-painted signs proudly announced the bounty within: kale, chard, cilantro, lavender, eggplant, melon, tomato.

My husband and I were directed to the tool shed where we grabbed two shovels and some gloves.  There were many projects to choose from and we decided to plant some fruit trees that had been donated.  Howard, the head of the Native Garden project, taught us the proper methods of tree-planting, which I had never done before.

Then the digging began and, boy, was it hard work!  The soil was impacted with clay and rocks.  This was truly and an urban garden experience. I reveled in the symbolism of breaking through the land that had once been covered with concrete to plant a tree whose root system would naturally fight the clay, loosen the soil and create a rich environment for future plants and gardeners.

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Before long, a shy third-grader came over to see what I was up to.  I asked his name and, barely audible, he answered Hunter.  I handed him a trowel and we set to work battling the earth.  Hunter enthusiastically started scooping dirt out of our hole and tossing it over his shoulder, muttering to himself, “I know there’s treasure down here somewhere.”  Every once in awhile he’d hold up a large piece of hard clay and exclaim “Look!  Indian Glue!”

As he worked, he became more and more animated, forgetting his initial shyness.  Actually, the fresh air, the green plants, the community working together was putting all of us in a great mood.

After using a pick-ax to get deep enough for the tree’s root system to spread, I went over to the giant compost pile created by community members and with food donated from Mozza.  I  put the tree in the hole, filled it with a mix of dirt and compost and voila!  One apricot tree planted.

I went looking for Hunter, who had wandered off,  to show him the fruits of our labor.  I found him over at the outdoor kitchen area in front of the toolshed.  Megan, from Root Down LA was teaching the kids to prepare the food from the garden.

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Root Down LA trains youth in South Central LA to build demand for real food by teaching them what it is and how to make it delicious. Basically, they teach kids to eat their veggies.

Pulling from a giant wheelbarrow of freshly harvested greens, students were at work chopping up kale, chard, onions and a donated bag of fruit for lunch.

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About a dozen volunteers sat down for lunch in the eating area next to the kitchen. As we at our delicious whole wheat pasta salad with fresh greens from the garden,  I was filled with a optimism for this city.

In my brief involvement with Angeleno-style food activism, I have been constantly amazed by the inspiring work so many people are doing to foster the health and well-being of our future generations.  And the food is delicious!

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More pics on Flickr!

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