Posted on June 29, 2011 - by

Growing Food and Farmers for the Future

Photos c/o Jessica Weiss

Jessica Weiss isn’t one to sit around and wait until circumstances fall into place. She is a woman that goes out and happens to things. “Patience has never been my strong point,” Jessica laughs, and dives into the story of how a 2009 screening of FRESH inspired her to create an organization that has since prevented thousands of tons of food from being dumped into landfills, taught hundreds of people how to grow, preserve, and compost their own food, and helped feed a community in which 25% of residents are at risk for hunger.

Jessica grew up in Pasadena, California, and went to the same high school that Julia Child had attended. She opened a restaurant across the street from Chez Panisse during college, and learned from Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard about growing produce and connecting with the people who produce our food.

Like many of us, she was inspired by books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to commit to eating locally and sustainably raised food. Now living in Maryland just beyond the DC border, she joined the buying club for Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms (featured in FRESH and The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and later offered her home as a pickup location for the club.

So when FRESH premiered in DC in May of 2009, Jessica was in the audience. Will Allen, the former ABA basketball star-turned-urban gardener featured in the film, had come to speak on the panel that accompanied the screening. “He was talking about his mission to dismantle racism through creating equal access to food for everyone, and how in order to grow food, we need to grow farmers,” recalls Jessica. “And suddenly it hit me: What if we created a regional outreach training center to grow food and farmers here along the Underground Railroad, in Will’s old stomping grounds?” (He grew up in Rockville, Maryland.) Emboldened by encouragement from Ana Joanes (the film’s director), she approached him after the screening to float the idea. “I’m 5’1’’. Will is a giant. My entire hand fit in the palm of his,” she recalls.

From that handshake sprung growingSOUL (Sustainable Opportunities for Universal Learning), a nonprofit organization, farm, and community learning center that Weiss directs.  She and her staff (many of whom are volunteers) grow food on their small patch of land using compost they make from food scraps they collect from local restaurants, senior centers, and other establishments. They also teach classes in practical skills like building hoop houses and aquaponics growing systems, composting with worms, and cooking and preserving garden-fresh produce. Much of their compost is donated back to local farmers who use it to grow food for a nearby food bank.

“I’m all about closing the loop,” says Jessica. The “zero-waste food system” she promotes and demonstrates through growingSOUL represents a sustainable model for local food production, consumption, and recycling that continuously replenishes itself with its own outputs.

The operation quickly outgrew the space they had available. After a year-long rollercoaster of site changes, logistical hurdles, and a fallen-through lease agreement, growingSOUL finally found a site to call home and a means to expand their client base in late 2010. Their biggest partner is Chipotle Mexican Grill, which composts four tons of food waste each month at the farm. Even the truck they use to collect compost from various sites runs on waste vegetable oil.

growingSOUL’s compost includes meat and dairy products because their piles get so high and generate enough heat as they decompose to kill bacteria and pathogens. But, Weiss says, at-home composters are better off sticking to plant matter. You can compost skins, peels, egg cartons, coffee grounds, tea bags, coffee filters, paper soiled with food, junk mail, cotton underwear, dryer lint, even the hair you pull from your brush.

Sadly, a tornado in February of this year wracked the land where growingSOUL had finally settled down, destroying the hoop house in which their produce grows and ripping apart their aquaponics system and shelving. “We lost all our livestock,” Jessica tells me. “What kind of animals did you have?” I wonder. “Worms,” she says somberly. “We had 50,000 worms.”

Despite the frustration and disappointment she felt at losing so much of what she and her team had built over the past year and half, Jessica remained optimistic. “We still had all our compost and our relationships, which is the most important thing,” she says.

Today, the future is looking bright for growingSOUL. Sixteen student interns from South Korea are coming to work on the farm this summer, and students from the local high school can now volunteer there for physical education credit. Jessica is hoping to secure a lease for a large property where the organization could open a Small Farm Incubator and vastly increase their composting capabilities, and another where she plans to house a broader community training center. The center is slated to include an aquaponics food production system (based on Will Allen’s Growing Power model), integrated rotational grazing of animals (as at Polyface Farms), a commercial kitchen space for community use, a garage to filter waste vegetable oil from partners like Chipotle for production of biodiesel, and wind turbines that capture energy from the breeze.

A third project, a mobile farmers’ market that runs on waste vegetable oil (“Vida.Vita.Vegemobile is her working name,” Jessica adds), will travel to schools where a significant portion of the students live below the federal poverty level to teach students how to compost with worms and then build salsa, pizza sauce, and kim chee gardens using fish tanks and clementine boxes. “At the end of the day, the kids can choose fresh produce from the market on board the bus and pay on credit using SNAP or WIC benefits. After each 8-12 week session, we will bring students from all over the region to our community kitchen and teach them how to make prepared food from what they grew and harvested: kim chee from chard, spinach and kale, salsa from tomatoes, onion chives, cilantro and garlic, and pizza sauce from tomatoes, peppers, basil and oregano. We send them home with the hand-prepared food and their recipes as well as an understanding of the importance of recycling your food scraps into nutrient-rich, community-grown soil and handmade food.” Ideally, this project will become a model for other initiatives across the nation.

“We are continuing on our mission to fill bellies instead of landfills,” Jessica concludes. For all the inspiration she has gathered from food movement pioneers before her, Jessica and growingSOUL are creating plenty more to go around.

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