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Meals with wheels: A fresh food movement rolls into Boston

Cassandria Campbell and Jackson Renshaw.
Fresh Food Generation
Cassandria Campbell and Jackson Renshaw.

Wander through Portland, Ore.’s Pearl District, SoCo in Austin, or Manhattan’s financial district and you won’t be able to spit without hitting a food truck selling poutine, Korean tacos, or barbecue in some form. The trend has hit Boston as well, unless you happen to live in the neighborhood of Roxbury.

Most Roxbury residents are black or Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey. Thirty percent of the people living there have incomes below the poverty line. A Tufts project found the obesity rate of Roxbury about 8 percent higher than the overall average in the city.

And it isn’t just food trucks missing, says Cassandria Campbell, who calls Roxbury home. Grocery stores and restaurants serving healthier options aren’t in high supply. “I found myself going to other neighborhoods to get good food,” she says. “These food trucks [appearing in other parts of the city] weren’t serving my neighborhood or other neighborhoods in Boston that are similar in demographic to mine."

So she called up her friend Jackson Renshaw with an idea for solving both the dearth of trucks and lack of access to healthy, local food in one swoop.

Read more: Cities, Food


When it comes to climate change, this artist lets the trees do the talking

Jerzy Rose

Sculptor Frances Whitehead calls herself a provocateur. She’s no Banksy. Instead, this professor of sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago pushes people to think differently about how art fits into, and shapes, our lives, from the mundane to the political -- and how it might help us imagine a more sustainable future.

In 2006, Whitehead penned a creative manifesto called “What Do Artists Know?” The document is a point-by-point articulation of what a creative mind can bring to the broader cultural conversation. She later swayed city officials to place artists into government via her program, The Embedded Artist.

It was only a matter of time before Whitehead, a longtime gardener who frequently incorporated natural objects into her sculpture, began to focus on the combination of art and science. In 2004, Whitehead and her husband purchased a 3,000-square-foot warehouse and converted it into their Green House, a haven of sustainability and reuse. Replete with wind turbines and geothermal heating and cooling, the structure served as an educational classroom for design students and inspired new ways of approaching the post-industrial city.

Sustainability, Whitehead says, “is a cultural problem and artists can help find the solution.”

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Father, son, & whole wheat toast: Southern pastor preaches the gospel of good health

Reverend Michael Minor attends a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), widely referred to as "Obamacare", outside the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center in Jackson, Mississippi October 4, 2013.
Reuters/Jonathan Bachman

Rev. Michael Minor, a pastor at the Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando, Miss., is known widely as “the preacher who banned fried chicken in his congregation.” But he’s been pushing for holistic healthy living, beyond just fried food bans, for almost 20 years now.

Giving up the grease is a hard sell in the South, though, especially if people find such cooking emblematic of their culture -- a complication explored recently in the documentary Soul Food Junkies, and as seen regularly on the cooking shows of former Southern glory Paula Deen. But eating healthy can’t be seen as a foreign concept in a state like Mississippi, which leads the nation in obesity and diabetes. Which is why Minor, and a team of pastors across the impoverished Mississippi Delta region, have made it their mission to change their members’ eating habits.

Minor's work has earned him the support of First Lady Michelle Obama. Recently, he took his mission a step further by enlisting as a “Navigator,” an evangelist of sorts for the Affordable Care Act, helping people sign up for the troubled program.

I caught up with Minor by phone as he drove to Memphis to connect with more churches around expanding access to quality healthcare. What I learned: Grassroots movements really can influence federal policies, and he does not approve of New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to ban large sodas.

Read more: Food, Living


Evil genius takes liberty with maps, floods your city


Andrew David Thaler has always loved the ocean. “I'm that obnoxious kid that wanted to be a marine biologist since I was 3,” he says. “I've wanted to work in the deep sea since before I can remember.”

Thaler now holds a PhD in marine science and conservation from Duke. He lives in the Bay Area working to preserve the species living in and around deep sea vents, particularly as these underwater fissure are explored for possible mineral drilling.

But when not saving deep sea invertebrates, Thaler turns into an evil genius who will help you put Tokyo under 80 meters of water.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


The caveman dilemma: Why we take such lousy care of ourselves and our planet

banksy caveman
Lord Jim

For Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, many of our problems today boil down to this: Through much of human evolution, our ancestors spent their days eating twigs and berries, chasing antelope, and being chased by things with big, nasty teeth; these days, the only things we chase are our double greaseburgers and fries -- and it's usually with 32 ounces of corn-syrup-laced soda. We're cavemen come to live in the city. Our bodies just aren't adapted for this stuff.

DanLiebermanheadshotThose are my words, of course. Lieberman is much more eloquent and precise about the subject, which he's explored in great depth in his new book, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. Lieberman is the first to point out that modern living and technology have made our lives better in many ways. Still, a look back at where we came from can tell us a lot about where we're headed, he says -- and how we might alter that course for the better.

I caught up with Lieberman recently for a conversation that ranged from the paleo diet to Fruit Roll-Ups to the similarities between the obesity epidemic and climate change.


Save yourselves: When it comes to climate change, the cavalry isn’t coming

When I caught up with Rob Hopkins at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, this week, he had just ended a seven-year, self-imposed airplane fast. This is a guy who takes the climate fight -- and the power of individual actions -- seriously. A few years back, he launched Transition Towns, aimed at helping communities lead the way into a post-fossil-fuel world. The movement has since spread around the globe.

Hopkins, a Brit, said he climbed on a plane again to attend a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, and try to convince foundations to pour money into transition efforts. He was in Austin speaking at SXSW and kicking off a whirlwind tour to promote his new book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World. When that's done, he's grounded again: "People say, 'Oh, you're flying again,'" he said. "I'm not flying again. I flew once."


In the hot seat: The NAACP gets into the climate fight

Jacqueline Patterson can rattle off an endless stream of statistics about how climate change, and the industries that are driving it, put communities of color at risk. Patterson heads the NAACP's environmental and climate justice program, so she lives and breathes these numbers -- statistics that show that African American, Hispanic, and other minority communities bear the brunt of our dirty ways, from power plant pollution to urban heat island effect and superstorms like Katrina and Sandy.

I caught up with Patterson at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, this week and found that she had some good news along with all the grim.


Moment of roof: Urban farming entrepreneur explains how he got on top

Mohamed Hage is not your typical urban farmer. The Lebanese-born entrepreneur, now living in Montreal, got into food as a technological challenge: He wanted to come up with a better way for family back in Lebanon to grow crops. But to say he has a green thumb would be a bit of a stretch; instead, he relies on a knack for high-tech gizmos and marketing. In 2011, his business, Lufa Farms, opened the world's first commercial greenhouse on a roof in Montreal. Today, the company has two rooftop farms and a staff of about 30, including "more programmers than farmers," he says. Next year, Lufa expands to Boston, with plans for world conquest from there.

I caught up with Hage at the SXSW Eco conference happening this week in Austin. Here's what he had to say:


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

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


Can bringing wetlands back to our coasts protect us from future megastorms?

Destroyed beach house in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on November 4, 2012 in Far Rockaway, NY
Beach house in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in Far Rockaway, N.Y.

Kevin Shanley says too many cities have an outdated approach to storm protection that makes them vulnerable to the coming mega-storms. The CEO of SWA Group, an international landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm, Shanley is an advocate of using “green infrastructure” -- human-made systems that mimic natural ones -- as bulwarks.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, people are taking note. Some experts believe New York City would not have sustained such severe damage had the original wetlands that lined the coasts not been uprooted by development. In fact, some parts of Staten Island remained relatively unscathed because they were protected by the massive Fresh Kills Park and its wetlands.

Kevin Shanley
SWA Group
Kevin Shanley.

What’s needed, Shanley says, are policy shifts “rooted in a natural system-approach that work with nature’s tremendous forces.” Beyond policy changes though, Shanley has also worked on projects, in Texas and elsewhere, that show how these human-made systems could work. But he cautions that more research is needed if communities’ lives and livelihoods are to rely on human-made nature.

Shanley was recently in Washington, D.C., speaking at the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation on improving the resiliency of our coasts in an effort to protect them from increasingly damaging storms and sea-level rise brought on by climate change. I caught up with him there.

Q. What were the lessons of Hurricane Sandy?

A. There are real-world lessons and then “should-be” lessons. The real-world lesson is that everybody is at risk. These storms don’t just happen to Florida or Bangladesh. They can hit New York City. The storm could have hit Washington, D.C., with disastrous results. We’re not ready.