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Meaty dialogues: Film tour prompts real talk on the future of food

Since I last spoke to director Graham Meriwether about his documentary American Meat, we’ve experienced the Occupy movement, a long, grinding national campaign season, and another brutally hot summer of record-shattering drought, wildfire, and storms. Throughout that time, Meriwether and crew have been traveling the country showing American Meat at Future Farmers of America chapters, high schools, and universities, having conversations with folks invested in every corner of the food system, from sustainable to conventional, small-scale to large. The film explores ways to make America’s meat healthier for producers, eaters, and the environment, shedding light on the struggles and successes of several types of farmer.

Meriwether says the documentary’s first goal is to thank America’s farmers -- particularly the younger ones. As they’ve been on the road, Meriwether and his team have been producing short video portraits of young farmers around the country, which they plan to eventually use for their next film.

Meriwether just kicked off a 100-screening tour (10 screenings each in 10 mainly farm states). American Meat didn’t premiere in New York City, and Meriwether didn't submit it to any film festivals; he wanted to bring it to the kinds of places where he feels the film can have the most impact. We caught up with him between shows in Missouri to hear the latest.

Read more: Food

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Building up, not selling out: Can denser cities save family farms?

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In 2006, the developers of Olive 8 -- a swanky hotel/condo complex planned for downtown Seattle -- were looking for a way to build beyond the 300-foot height limit that zoning allowed. Doing so required some compromises -- but not the kind of backroom deal residents of Chicago or Baltimore might assume. Instead, Olive 8 got to build an additional 62,000 square feet of residential space and add three extra floors (making it, at 39 stories, the tallest residential building in Seattle) through a mechanism that promotes urban density at the same time it preserves land that supplies the city’s farmers markets, drinking water, and appetite for wilderness adventure.

The tool, called “transfer of development rights,” or TDR for short, sounds wonky enough to scare off even the more serious urban-planning nerds among us. But consider that, in return for letting Olive 8 stretch a little higher into Seattle’s skyline, residents of King County got a 285-acre forest preserve at the county’s rural edges -- killing two smart-growth birds with one stone, all through that paragon of American enterprise: the free market.

Here’s how it worked: Sugarloaf Mountain, 35 miles from downtown Seattle, was slated to be carved up into 56 residential lots. To stop the project, King County offered to buy the development rights to the property, and in 2000, the owners agreed. The landowners still held the title to the property, but they would never be allowed to bulldoze it. The development rights went into the county’s TDR bank, where the Olive 8 developers bought them up in exchange for the ability to build bigger.

When used this way, TDRs encourage more of the kind of density essential for creating walkable cities with lower carbon footprints, while allowing cash-poor landowners to get some money out of their property without subdividing.

Read more: Cities

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These grassroots heroes are fighting for food democracy

National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, a 12,000-member organization based in Sri Lanka, will receive the Food Sovereignty Prize.

Food sovereignty is a relatively new term, but it draws on a long tradition of human-rights activism and the struggle for social and economic justice. La Via Campesina, a global network of peasants, farmers, and indigenous people working to defend small-scale, sustainable agriculture, is widely credited with introducing the concept in 1996. The organization defines it as:

… the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. [Food sovereignty] develops a model of small scale sustainable production benefiting communities and their environment. It puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.

It’s not surprising, then, that over a decade later, La Via Campesina won the first annual Food Sovereignty Prize, an award recognizing grassroots groups fighting for a democratic food system. This year marks the fourth time the prize has been awarded, and the first time the ceremony, held in New York City on Oct. 10, will be open to the public.

The award originated at the grassroots just like the groups it honors. Siena Chrisman of WhyHunger, the organization hosting the prize, explains that the idea for it came about in 2009 when the nonprofit Community Food Security Coalition held its annual meeting (a gathering that draws several hundred people from around the progressive food world) in Des Moines, Iowa. It just so happened that the World Food Prize was being awarded in Des Moines the same weekend. The World Food Prize, Chrisman explains, “really focuses on the industrial agriculture model” -- rewarding individuals who have made technological innovations in line with Norman Borlaug’s “green revolution,” which introduced the type of high-yield, disease-resistant crops often credited with both alleviating third-world hunger on a mass scale and ushering in the era of pesticide-reliant monocrops.

“We felt like we needed to have some kind of response,” Chrisman says. “The Food Sovereignty Prize is very focused on organizations and communities. We believe solutions to community problems come from the ground up.”

The Korean Women’s Peasant Association (KWPA), a national organization of women farmers based in Seoul, South Korea, will receive this year's grand prize.

Since that first year, recipients of the prize have ranged from the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network to the Landless Workers Movement of Brazil. One of this year’s honorees is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the Florida farmworker organization that won a big victory last week when Chipotle finally agreed to sign onto the group’s Fair Food program, following in the footsteps of other national grocery and fast-food chains -- like Taco Bell, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s -- that have pledged to source ingredients only from producers who provide humane conditions for workers.

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Saved by the bell: How recess makes kids healthy, smart, and well-adjusted

Let us out! (Photo by Shutterstock.)

If you were still watching cartoons at the turn of the millennium (guilty), you may remember a delightful series called Recess, which chronicled the adventures of a group of fourth-graders during that most hallowed time of the school day. For TJ, his friends, and the rest of their schoolmates, the recess bell signaled a transition from the world of grown-ups to one ruled by kids, where the playground was their empire and a sixth-grader called King Bob governed from the top of the jungle gym. Epic battles and campaigns could be waged and won within one 22-minute episode, just as, in real life, those few minutes of recess were time enough to break hearts or body parts.

In recent years, though, a return to school hasn't necessarily meant resuming the recess routine. Not only do kids these days get a scant amount of daily rigorous activity (which decreases as they get older, studies show), but schools now skimp on recess time to focus on standardized-test prep.

The good news? In some schools, recess is making a comeback.

Read more: Living

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Spreading the loaf: A bakers cooperative with a vision for change

Photo by Bread Uprising.

If you’re part of the 47 percent of Americans with the audacity to feel entitled to food, these are trying times. The price of both wheat and corn jumped 25 percent from June to July of this year. For people who are already food-insecure -- lacking dependable access to nutrition -- price shocks can be particularly devastating. In the developing world, famine serves as a catalyst for political unrest, but even in the U.S., where we spend less on food than any other country, price hikes of basics like milk and bread don’t go unnoticed. Low-income Americans use a greater portion of their budgets for food -- 17 percent -- than the middle or upper class. For those already scraping to get by, a 50-cent increase in the cost of a loaf of bread is a big deal.

To Emily Chavez, “the idea that someone shouldn’t have bread because they don’t have money is crazy. It’s so basic.” (See how entitled she is?!) Chavez is a member of Bread Uprising, a bakery cooperative in Durham, N.C., that envisions a community-based food system where no one should have to go without bread and where no one questions every citizen’s entitlement to this most fundamental part of our diet.

The coop works like a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, but for bread, not produce.

Read more: Food, Living

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Bee boulevard: An urban corridor becomes a haven for native pollinators

Photo by Abigail Joy.

Sarah Bergmann does not see herself as a political artist. Promoting social causes, raising awareness -- that stuff doesn’t appeal to her. But she likes asking questions. Doing so, she says, “allows me to learn about the world and respond to it, and do something physical based on what I learn.”

Several years ago, Bergmann, a painter by training, started asking questions about the fate of the world’s pollinators. And while she’s not an environmentalist per se, Bergmann’s art and graphic design work never stray far from the environmental sphere. To her, the complex and shifting relationships between pollinators and plants have always begged further investigation. Bergmann’s response to what she learned is a work-in-progress called the Pollinator Pathway, a mile-long corridor of pollinator-friendly, mostly native plants stretching between two green spaces in the heart of Seattle.

Bergmann chose the pathway’s two endpoints -- the Seattle University campus and a lot-sized forest called Nora’s Woods -- for their diverse plant life and lack of pesticides. Since building the first test garden in 2008 with the help of a small city grant, she and hundreds of volunteers have installed 16 more gardens in parking strips along the way. “It’s not just a random line of plants; it’s meant to find two existing green spaces within the city and draw a line between them,” she says.

A garden on the Pollinator Pathway.

Gardens are built with the cooperation and enthusiasm of homeowners on the corridor, who have also agreed to maintain them. They must be drought-tolerant, pesticide free, and, ideally, contain at least 70 percent native plants -- though Bergmann says the project hasn’t quite hit that target yet. And of course, the plants must be appealing to bees and other pollinators.

Read more: Cities, Food

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Chick magnet: Why starting a poultry farm is like starting a band (but harder)

Molly Nakahara, Paul Glowaski, and Cooper Funk. In many ways, starting a farm is like starting a band, Glowaski says. (Photo by Alix Blair.)

Like many Americans, Paul Glowaski, Molly Nakahara, and Cooper Funk have farming in their families. Nakahara’s great-grandparents, Japanese immigrants, farmed in California’s Salinas Valley until being sent to internment camps during World War II. Funk’s extended family has a 2,000-acre farm in the Central Valley. And Glowaski’s grandfather farmed in Indiana. “He raised corn in the '70s and '80s, and they would stir the pesticide with their hands,” Glowaski says. “He died of pancreatic cancer, and probably lots of other farmers did too.”

With these stark pieces of farming history in mind, the three friends started Dinner Bell Farm, a place where, Glowaski says, “everyone is treated humanely, from the animals to the plants to the people.” The farm specializes in organic, pasture-raised heritage poultry, but also offers peppers, greens, okra, strawberries, and wedding flowers, and they’ve started raising sheep and hogs, too.

“We’re trying to create a real dynamic, diversified system, where the animals are working in conjunction with our vegetables, fruit, and flowers,” Glowaski says.

The 33-year-old Glowaski met Nakahara, 32, and Funk, 33, in the agroecology program at the University of California-Santa Cruz -- one of the preeminent places to study organic farming in the nation. Realizing they had similar long-term goals, they began plans for what they called “Dream Farm,” a working farm that would not only feed people, but also provide education and training.

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New Agtivist: From backyard farmer to community visionary in Oakland

Photo by Wendy Goodfriend.

Abeni Ramsey started growing food in her West Oakland backyard when she was a college-aged single mom who wanted her kids to eat better food than what they could afford. Some seven years later, she’s well known among the Bay Area food community, selling produce from her business, City Girl Farms, to local restaurants and through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. Now she plans to open an urban farm store and restaurant in Oakland, and is working with a partner to start farming on 220 acres about an hour outside the Bay Area. I caught up with Ramsey recently to learn more about her involvement in the local food movement and her plans for the future.

Q. How did you get started growing food?

A. My grandfather grew up on a farm and moved from rural Virginia to New York City. He always had plants growing -- potatoes, sweet potatoes, okra, corn. I used to spend every summer with him in Jamaica, Queens, and I remember the smell of tomatoes when I opened the gates of his front yard.

I ended up having my first child while I was in college. So I dropped out and was trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself. I traveled around West Africa and Southeast Asia and saw people trying to eke out subsistence from the land, and I decided that I wanted to help people in the developing world grow more and higher quality food. So I went to UC Davis [to study agriculture]. I now had two kids, and times were really tough. We would eat a lot of Top Ramen, really garbage food, and I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t have a whole lot of options. I applied for food stamps. I found out City Slicker Farms had a program where they would install a garden in your backyard, so they came and installed a garden. I tried different things I had learned up at UC Davis on my plot. I got really productive; I added chickens and goats to my yard, and we were eating eggs and making cheese and yogurt. We were really able to get a full complement of nutrients out of that backyard, which was an eighth of an acre, if that.

Read more: Cities, Food

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Earth community: Can knowledge of the universe make better environmentalists?

Can understanding the universe's origins help us guide its future?

We now know more than ever before about how the universe works and how our planet came to be. Could that knowledge inspire us to be better global citizens and work more effectively toward a sustainable future?

Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker think so. That's why they've launched their Journey of the Universe project -- a book, documentary, and series of educational videos that tell the history of the universe and life on Earth, in the hopes that understanding our origins and our place as humans in this story will inspire us to “bring forth a vibrant Earth community.”

If this sounds a little abstract, that’s the idea. Tucker, a lecturer and scholar of religion and environmental studies at Yale, explained that their project operates on the “principles level,” as opposed to the strategic or tactical level, of a movement. She and her colleagues want to provide a larger unifying context for progressive work happening on the ground, she said: “How do these principles of living within a universe story actually make a difference for how we grow food, how we do education and economics?”

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Going for the green: Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin could medal in gardening

Natalie Coughlin at the 2011 Santa Clara Invitational. (Photo by JD Lasica/Socialmedia.biz.)

It turns out Michael Phelps isn’t the only Olympic athlete who likes his greens. His fellow Team USA swimmer, Natalie Coughlin (who, with 12 medals, shares the record for most decorated American female Olympian), also has a passion for plant life. But she’s into growing it, not smoking it. A self-described urban farmer, Coughlin raises fruits, vegetables, and chickens in her backyard in Lafayette, Calif.

Indeed, if the urban gardening movement had an advertising budget, Coughlin would be its ideal poster child, promoting homegrown kale and tomatoes as the secret ingredients for Olympic strength. (Forget what you've heard about Yorkshire pudding, fast food, and mountains of sushi.)

It's not surprising Coughlin counts her 100-some cookbooks among her favorite possessions; her crops offer a rainbow of ingredients to choose from. “I attempted to grow edamame this year, but animals kept eating it," she told Food & Wine. "I grow kale, figs, tomatillos, Eureka lemons, eggplant. Padrón peppers are one of my favorites.”

Coughlin’s interest in growing things started with an elderly neighbor whose garden she played in as a kid. “I still have the colander that she used to make potpourri from her roses,” Coughlin told Sierra magazine. “A lot of people in my life have had backyard gardens so when I was looking to buy a home, that was one of the requirements. I think it was just a desire to learn more about the seasons and about where food comes from.”

Read more: Food