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Claire Thompson's Posts

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Faraway farms: Chronicling urban agriculture around the world

Urban agriculture outside Calcutta. (Photo by Karney Hatch.)

In all our excitement about the growth of urban agriculture here in the U.S., it can be easy to forget that the tradition of farming in cities has a long international history. “We feel like we’ve reinvented the wheel, but urban farming has been going on as long as cities have existed,” says Karney Hatch, a filmmaker who spent five months traveling the globe to gather material for a documentary about urban farming beyond our borders.

Films about gardening in U.S. cities are practically a dime a dozen these days, but what could we learn from projects in Shanghai, Havana, or Accra? Hatch plans to start post-production work on his film next month, so it’ll be a while until we get all the answers. In the meantime, we couldn’t resist calling him up in for a preview of what he found.

Q. What places stood out to you for their urban farming efforts?

Read more: Urban Agriculture

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‘Cafeteria Man’ comes out swinging for better school lunches

Tony Geraci.

School districts across the country are finding out that improving cafeteria food is never as simple as planting a garden. The bigger and poorer the district, the longer it takes to get anything done, and even smaller, well-funded districts struggle to make real change. That’s why, when Baltimore City Public Schools hired a new director of food and nutrition in 2008, food advocates watched eagerly to see how reform would play out there. Even Michael Pollan was quoted saying, “If Baltimore can pull this off, it will be a sign that the effort is worth making.”

Tony Geraci, Baltimore’s new “cafeteria man,” had his work cut out for him, and the gung-ho way he dove into the job caused no small amount of controversy in this city of 82,000 public-school students. When he stepped down from his position two years later, Geraci was accused of failing to live up to expectations, while he and his supporters blamed the slow progress on school-system bureaucracy.

Cafeteria Man, a documentary from Baltimore cinematographer Richard Chisolm, is a whirlwind look at Geraci’s tenure with the city’s schools. The film shows us snippets of the many ambitious projects the Cafeteria Man took on -- from “breakfast boxes” that mask nutritious food with Happy Meal-like packaging, to class tours and student apprenticeships at a local farm, to Geraci’s frustrated attempt to find funding for a central kitchen. The chaos of working within a large public school district like Baltimore’s certainly comes clear, and a scene of horrified high schoolers tasting raw oysters for the first time illustrates the disconnect so many of the students have from real food. But seeing first graders at the farm munching with fascination on clover and radishes shows how this kind of hands-on approach can begin to bridge that divide -- maybe just at a slower pace than eager advocates would prefer.

We caught up with Chisolm to talk more about Geraci, his legacy, and the challenges of achieving such ambitious reform.

Read more: Food

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Food hubs: How small farmers get to market

Local Food Hub in Virginia takes care of distribution for the small farms it works with. (Photo by USDA.)

Ask most small and mid-sized farmers who sell food to a local audience what they like least about their job and they will probably say marketing and distribution. Driving long hours to sit at farmers markets (or managing someone else who does) is always a risk that can result in unsold leftovers. And even when you have a guaranteed market -- like in the case of community-supported agriculture (CSA) and restaurant sales -- the effort involved diverts time and energy from the actual work of farming.

Enter food hubs. A key component of the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, food hubs operate on the simple principle that farmers, like everyone else, are stronger when they work together. Food hubs are networks that allow regional growers to collaborate on marketing and distribution. The term applies to a broad range of operations, from multi-farm CSAs to Craigslist-like virtual markets where buyers and producers can connect. But each model is motivated by the belief that individual farms can’t survive in a vacuum.

Read more: Locavore

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Beyond ‘ruin porn’: Film gives farm’s-eye view of Detroit

Urban farms are becoming an integral part of Detroit's landscape. (Photo by Urban Roots Film; click to enlarge.)

What happens to a post-industrial city? How does it revive itself amidst the ruins of a disappearing way of life? In Detroit, modern America’s favorite example of urban decay, the auto industry left behind pockets of resilience: “Growtown” is full of urban farms flourishing in backyards and abandoned lots, like wildflowers sprouting from the ash of a charred forest.

Detroiters have practiced urban agriculture for decades, but the city’s economic decline -- which has been dragging on since long before the worldwide financial collapse in 2008 -- serves as a catalyst for gardening’s explosive growth in this town that most of the country still sees as a poster child for inner-city ruin.

Urban Roots, a documentary playing at the San Francisco Green Film Festival on Tuesday, shows us a different image of the city through the eyes of its dedicated urban farmers. In addition to giving background on Motor City’s rise and fall, and introducing viewers to the folks behind a handful of urban farms across town, the film digs into important topics like the racial implications of gardening. Despite its negative associations with slavery, the film argues, working the land can be a powerful vehicle of self-determination and empowerment for Black Americans -- especially in a long-neglected city like Detroit, where residents have learned the hard way not to expect change from above.

Read more: Urban Agriculture

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Into the woods: Seattle plants a public food forest

Photo by Vamapaull.

There’s a stretch of arterial in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood that I’ve traveled probably thousands of times without giving a second thought to the empty, grassy hillside it parallels. When I heard about plans to create a seven-acre urban food forest there, I had a hard time picturing the sloped field covered over in rich soil and filled with a tangle of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and vegetable patches. It seemed like an edible ecosystem too wild to spring from such an unremarkable urban space. But within the next few years, this slice of land adjacent to a city park and golf course will transform from an unofficial off-leash dog run and occasional sledding slope into the Beacon Food Forest, which some say will be the largest of its kind in the U.S.

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Will organic free trade really do a world of good?

It’s official: Organic food certified in the European Union will now be treated as equivalent to food certified here in the U.S., a fact that will now make trade between the two regions much easier. Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the new agreement on Feb. 15, several media sources have lauded it for opening up new overseas markets for organic farmers.

The agriculture press has called it a win for organics, and even Food Safety News focused almost exclusively on the positive trade implications of the agreement.

Mark Lipson, organic and sustainable agriculture policy adviser for the USDA, agrees. “It builds more trust,” he says, adding: “It will give more heft to organic overall.”

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Honey makes the world go ’round

Andrew Coté and his father Norm volunteer in Fiji.

In 2005, Andrew Coté found himself in northern Iraq, walking hand-in-hand with a Kurdish beekeeper. This was not some Bush-era publicity stunt to put a gloss of false friendship over the country’s violent reality. Coté and Khorsheed Ahmed, his new friend, shared rich common ground: They both practice the noble but endangered craft of beekeeping. Coté was on Ahmed’s territory to work with the Kurds to improve their operations and enrich their livelihoods.

For more than 10 years, Coté and his nonprofit, Bees Without Borders, have traveled the developing world, finding ways for beekeepers from Nigeria to Moldova to Fiji to increase their profits by making simple changes. For instance, Ahmed and his fellow beekeepers had too many colonies crowded in one area without adequate sources of nectar or water to support them all, leading to weak hives and poor crops. Or, said Coté, “Most beekeepers discard valuable byproducts such as wax and propolis from their hives. These represent a great cache of value-added products,” and can be a key supplement to income from honey and pollination services, especially for families living close to the edge.

Read more: Food

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Algae whiz: Growing protein with fewer resources

Photo by Drew Bandy.

Protein is directly tied to resource intensity.  Vegetarians choose a meatless path to cut down on the vast quantities of land, water, nitrogen, and pesticides required to produce most livestock feed. And many meat eaters are thinking strategically about the greenest sources of animal protein. But what if animals didn’t require pound upon pound of industrially grown corn or soybeans to grow?

One solution might be algae. That’s right -- pond scum has promising potential as a source of animal feed, as well as human feed and fuel.

Read more: Food

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Bipedal? Curious? Americans give walking and biking a try

Come on, give it a shot. You'll be glad you did. (Photo by Sean Dreilinger.)

As if you needed further proof that the oil-soaked transportation bill now making its way through the U.S. House of Representatives is out of touch with reality, look no further than the just-released 2012 Benchmarking Report from the nonprofit Alliance for Biking and Walking. The report, which culls its numbers from over a dozen government sources and city and state surveys, is chock-full of evidence of the benefits of biking and walking -- and the importance of funding infrastructure to encourage more people-powered transportation.

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Why Ron Paul, elderly libertarian crank, turns young voters on

The candidate speaking at a Youth for Ron Paul event in Las Vegas. (Photo by Gage Skidmore.)

Justin Clements, a 21-year-old finance major at the University of Washington, believes “we are on an unsustainable path with regards to energy.” He thinks government subsidies to the oil and gas industry hold renewable energy back, and he's disgusted by the power corporations wield over elected officials.

But Clements doesn’t want the federal government to fix these problems. Cap-and-trade, he says, “is absolutely disastrous, and would not accomplish the goal of solving global climate change … [carbon] is not a tangible asset.”

Clements puts his faith in the power of a genuinely free market to set the real cost of resources. And, like a surprisingly large cohort of voters in his generation who have grown disillusioned with government, he also puts his faith in Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul -- the Texas congressman who has a libertarian answer to every political question.

Read more: Election 2012