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A fresher Philly: Fruits and veggies make a comeback in the city’s corner stores

Healthy Food Close Up
The Food Trust

Maybe it’s not surprising that Philadelphia -- home of the cheesesteak, scrapple, and Tastykake -- has one of the highest obesity rates among large U.S. cities. (To be fair, nobody’s bragging about their city’s quinoa salad.)

The city has been actively battling the bulge for years. Deep fryers were banned in school kitchens in 2010 and kids haven’t been able to buy soda in school vending machines since 2004, for instance. (On a related front, Philly has targeted Chinese takeout restaurants for excessive salt. No word on the fate of the fortune cookie.)

But the city’s most visible and far-reaching program, the largest of its kind in the country, has been the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. The city-wide project, spearheaded by Philadelphia-based nonprofit The Food Trust, is an attempt to convince corner stores, those one-stop shops for SunnyD and SnoBalls, to carry healthy food.

Brianna Almaguer Sandoval.
Natural Resource Defense Council/SAWYER Agency
Brianna Almaguer Sandoval.

The program began as a small pilot project, with only 11 participating stores. In 2010, it expanded to more than 600 stores of an estimated 1,500 city-wide. “We had tested in a small sample, but we didn’t know if the store owners were going to respond,” says Brianna Almaguer Sandoval, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative's director. “But they are really stepping up. They’re reporting that they’re making money, that customers want those products.”

Read more: Cities, Food

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The solution to America’s food waste problem: Feed people

Arthur Morgan during a rare idle moment
Gather Baltimore
Arthur Morgan during a rare idle moment.

Arthur Morgan doesn’t have time for my shit. He has to pick up 27,000 pounds of watermelons, his phone is ringing off the hook, and those fucking pallets of radishes and green beans aren’t gonna give themselves away, you read? Morgan jumps into the back of his refrigerated truck, shooing me and my reporter’s notebook in the direction of his “articulation guy,” Joe Hamilton.

Hamilton and Morgan belong to a new food recovery organization called Gather Baltimore. Every week -- under the direction of the energetic, foul-mouthed Morgan -- volunteers collect some 15 tons of fresh produce that would otherwise end up in the compost, or more likely, the landfill. Then they give it away to people who need it. Hamilton, a development director who volunteers with the organization, articulates it thus: “The thing I love is it’s such a simple idea. It’s one of those ideas that when you see it, you think, How is this not happening already? How did we miss it?”

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L.A.’s Ron Finley wants to make gardening gangsta

Ron_Finley
Stephen Zeriglaer for Alternative Apparel

In 2010, Ron Finley planted a garden on the 150-foot-long curbside strip outside his house in South Central Los Angeles. The produce -- tomatoes, kale, corn, you name it -- was free for the taking, and the colorful riot of herbs and flowers and vegetables got a lot of attention. The only unwelcome scrutiny was from the city of Los Angeles, which owns the land. Finley received a citation for growing plants that exceeded height limits, and for failing to purchase a $400 permit. By circulating a petition and bending the ear of a receptive city council member, Finley convinced the city to leave his garden alone. Around the same time, he helped start an organization called L.A. Green Grounds, dedicated to installing free vegetable gardens in curbside medians, vacant lots, and other properties in blighted areas.

Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.
Susie Cagle
Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.

Then, in February of this year, the self-described “gangster gardener” -- an outgoing straight-talker with a penchant for catchy one-liners -- gave a TED Talk. “The drive-throughs are killing more than the drive-bys,” he said, exhorting urban dwellers to get outside and “plant some shit.” The talk instantly rocketed him to green-thumb stardom. As of this writing, the talk has attracted more than 1.3 million views, and Finley has appeared on Russell Brand’s late night talk show and been profiled by The New York Times, among many others.

This fashion designer -- he’s dressed the likes of Shaquille O’Neal -- and collector of black entertainment memorabilia, highlighted in a recent movie poster exhibit, now spends much of his time delivering talks and planning new urban gardening ventures. All the media attention has brought new funding, including support from the Goldhirsh Foundation. (But in Los Angeles, the bureaucratic wheels grind slowly. Planting on curbside medians remains a tricky proposition.)

Finley had just returned from a permaculture workshop in Sonoma County when we spoke. We chatted about fame, sex, and his diabolical plan to take over the world.

Read more: Cities, Food

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Black to the land: Project explores connections between race and place

Gastronomically enlightened Grist reader that you are, you’ve probably participated in a CSA, or at least heard of them. Community-supported agriculture is so common that in many circles the acronym needs no explanation. (Sorry, mini football helmet collectors, we’re talking about farmers who sell “shares” of their seasonal fruits and veggies, then deliver them to members when they’re ripe.) But a pint of locally sourced strawberries says you didn't know a black man came up with the idea.

Beginning in the early 1970s, an Alabama horticulturist and Tuskegee University professor named Booker T. Whatley started promoting direct marketing as a tool for small farmers. This took the form of what he called “clientele membership clubs,” as well as pick-your-own farms. Whatley traveled widely, giving as many as 50 seminars a year, and produced a small-farms newsletter with 20,000-some subscribers. Here’s how he described the membership clubs in a 1982 Mother Earth News interview:

The farmer has to seek out people -- city folks, mostly -- to be members of the club ... The clientele membership club is the lifeblood of the whole setup. It enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and, of course, have a guaranteed market.

Not to mention find good homes for Jerusalem artichokes and other ostracized vegetables.

Mistinguette Smith
Mistinguette Smith.

The story of Booker T. Whatley is one of dozens that Mistinguette Smith, founder of a national organization called The Black/Land Project, has unearthed. “People are completely stunned when I tell them that the model [for CSAs and ‘U-Pick’] comes out of black history,” says Smith, a poet, playwright, and nonprofit consultant raised in the 1960s South.

The mission of The Black/Land Project is to find and share stories like Whatley’s as a way of helping black people transcend what Smith calls “historical trauma.” In this country, race has always been intrinsically tied to land. The laws surrounding black land ownership -- from the early 1600s up through the modern practice of redlining -- are part of that history, as, of course, is the experience of forced agricultural labor during slavery.

“Even though we've undone some of those historical structures,” Smith says, "the legacy of that is still very much alive today.” For example, the experience of losing a home to foreclosure during the recent mortgage crisis echoed the loss of family land to theft in the Jim Crow South, she says. The modern version of land loss feels much like the former, and the psychological results are similar. As one Black/Land workshop participant put it: “Having been stripped of the ability to relate to substantive things, such as land and place ... strips away part of our essence.”

The Black/Land Project, now in its third year, is a national survey. Smith and her team have thus far interviewed 38 people from all over the country, and from all walks of life. Interviewees include African Americans, Caribbean Americans, and African immigrants, and the “land” they talk about can be anything from a family farm to a neighborhood church. Here’s a taste of the stories they’ve unearthed:

Read more: Cities, Food, Living

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“Miracle garden” brings life, and food, to the urban wasteland

mr sharpe
Anita Stewart-Hammerer

Fueled by the recent fascination with all things DIY, community gardening -- like brainstorming clever uses for Mason jars and eating like a caveman -- has been popular lately. But on a large plot in inner-city Baltimore, gardeners have been working the land for almost 25 years. The Duncan Street Miracle Garden, a lush rectangle crisscrossed by grape arbors and trellises, sits in a desolate patch of East Baltimore where 44 rowhouses once stood. On a recent spring day, the blue sky was visible through the empty shells of neighboring buildings and birdsong competed with police sirens.

"I call it 'God's little acre,'" says garden manager Lewis Sharpe, 74. The garden is in fact nearly an acre, and it owes its existence to a core group of dedicated gardeners. In 1988, with Baltimore in the throes of the crack cocaine epidemic, a local men’s group cleaned up what had become a dumping ground after the city razed a stretch of crumbling rowhouses. The gardeners then convinced the city to close the alley to traffic. Decades later, it is dotted with trees, including a mulberry that Sharpe likes to nap under, and row upon row of flower, fruit, and vegetable plants.

A few -- the "fruit cocktail tree" and the "strawberry tree" -- do sound vaguely miraculous. But the biggest miracle is that the garden is here at all.

A chain-link fence surrounds the plot, though it does nothing to thwart the rats, the garden’s worst pests. Instead, it was built some years back to deter a two-legged nuisance: drug dealers. "At one time they was running through here with police chasing 'em," Sharpe says. "Now they ain't got time to go over the fence. They go around it."

Sharpe joined the farm in 1989, and as founding members passed away or began to garden less, he became its self-appointed manager. He -- like famous Milwaukee urban farmer Will Allen -- grew up on a farm, in his case in rural Virginia. "During the summer, grandma got us up at 6 a.m. and gave us a hoe or a shovel," Sharpe says. "We'd go out there and cut the rows, put the seed, put fertilizer down."

Health problems have kept him from retiring to his ancestral home, so Sharpe has done the next best thing: create an urban facsimile. "It keeps me busy," he says simply.

Read more: Cities, Food

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Post-Sandy, green groups at loggerheads with plans to rebuild Jersey’s boardwalk empire

Hurricane Sandy took the fun out of the Jersey Shore
b0jangles
Hurricane Sandy took the fun out of the Jersey Shore.

As bikini season approaches, Jersey Shore beach towns are preparing for their annual influx of tourists. This year, that will mean more than dusting off the cotton candy machines and stocking up on vomit deodorizer. When Hurricane Sandy hit last fall, boardwalks from Long Branch to Atlantic City -- including Seaside Heights, of Jersey Shore fame -- were damaged or destroyed. The shore is now in a frenzy of rebuilding and repairing, gearing up for Memorial Day. But environmental activists have been something of a buzz-saw kill.

The decking of these boardwalks pre-Sandy ranged from southern yellow pine to wood-plastic composite lumber to a tropical hardwood called ipe. That last option has rainforest advocates and town officials at loggerheads. Ipe, also known as Brazilian walnut, is the Cadillac of decking materials, prized for its density, fire resistance, and durability. More than one town is considering using it for boardwalk material. Environmental groups, including Rainforest Relief, Friends of the Rainforest, and the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, say tropical hardwoods are a poor choice environmentally speaking, particularly given the circumstances.

“What happens in the Brazilian rainforest [where ipe is often logged] affects the climate,” says Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter. “It’s unconscionable to add to climate disruption when you’ve just been destroyed by an environmental disaster that was caused by climate disruption.”

It’s been estimated that as much as 80 percent of the logging conducted in the Brazilian Amazon is illegal. And some activists say harvesting a tree like ipe -- with only one or two growing in a given acre -- is a devastating affair even under legal circumstances. Logging requires roads, and neighboring trees are often incidentally felled, they say. And since old-growth tropical rainforest supports the greatest biodiversity on the planet, says Tim Keating of Rainforest Relief, every injury is magnified. “You damage ecosystems there, you’re automatically losing species,” he says. “These are the genetic libraries of Mother Earth and we are burning them down to make boardwalks.”

Well, if that doesn’t just drop a doggy bomb on your beach towel ...

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Glenn Ross gives ‘toxic tours’ of neighborhoods you’ve seen in ‘The Wire’

glenn rossWhen Glenn Ross was a child, in the early 1960s, he liked to take a shortcut through a field of sunflowers on his way to school. “It was beautiful, all these yellow sunflowers,” Ross recalls. “We’d bring home the seeds and fry ‘em up with butter and salt.”

A charming memory, but for the fact that Ross grew up in an industrial section of East Baltimore and this bucolic scene bordered a steel plant. One day he was at the neighborhood playground when word went around that “men in spacesuits” were collecting the flowers. When he went to investigate, he says he saw workers in Hazmat gear harvesting the plants, having surrounded the area with caution tape. Many years later, Ross learned that sunflowers are used in phytoremediation projects to pull lead from the soil. (Trail mix, anyone?)

These days, the site -- now a vast sorting facility for construction debris -- is one stop on Ross’ Toxic Tour, a rollicking bus ride through the contaminated wonderland that is inner-city Baltimore. A self-described “urban environmentalist,” Ross leads dozens of tours a year, primarily for college students from Johns Hopkins University’s schools of medicine, nursing, and (wait for it) public health, which are located nearby. The tours take in brownfields, rat infestations, truck traffic, illegal dumping sites, vacant buildings, and other environmental hazards in Baltimore’s poor, predominantly black communities.

Ross, who has been leading them for nearly a decade, makes sure the bus windows are open for these warm-weather outings. “I put it right up in their face -- they've got to smell it, taste it, the whole nine yards,” he says. “And at the end of the tour, they get it.”

“It,” says Ross, is nothing less than environmental racism. “These things only happen in poor urban communities, neighborhoods where there’s poor political representation."

Read more: Cities