Archive for the ‘FRESH Heroes’ Category

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.

Our blogger serves the Fresh community as a volunteer. To support her work, consider making a donation to our Writers’ Fund.


Posted on May 10, 2011 - by

Never Say Never: Mobilizing Support for a Smash-Hit Community Screening

Photo: David J. Owen Photography. Used with permission.

Minneapolis restaurateur Tracy Singleton has been putting local food on the map in her community since 1995, long before the locavore entered public consciousness.  That was the year she opened the funky Birchwood Café to carry on the legacy of the neighborhood grocery store that had occupied the spot since the 1940s, and the community dairy there before it. Minneapolitans flock to the Birchwood for “good real food,” much of it sourced from area farms.  So it was only natural that Tracy should play a leading role in rallying the Twin Cities around a movie like FRESH.

When she signed on to cater an urban agriculture conference in the spring of 2009, Tracy had no idea what an outpouring of passion she was about to unleash, both within herself and among the community. She was speaking with urban farmer Will Allen, who would be headlining the conference, when he mentioned FRESH. Tracy was intrigued, so Allen put her in touch with Ana Joanes, the film’s director.

“I spoke with Ana over the phone and felt a really immediate connection with her and her worldview,” Tracy says. “I hadn’t even seen the film yet, but I was so inspired by her and by Will, it just lit something up in me. I knew this was something I wanted to be involved in.”

A short Minneapolis run was already lined up for two weeks away—two sold-out screenings at a small cabaret theatre with a capacity of about 45 people. “I said to Ana, ‘More people need to see this film…we need to do better than that,’” Tracy recalls, “and I went nuts!”

With no time to lose, Tracy leapt into action, booking the Riverview Theatre—which seats 700 people—for a third showing, mobilizing the networks she’d built over the past 15 years as a community fixture to spread the word.  She brought the Land Stewardship Project, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Twin Cities Natural Food Co-Ops on board as co-sponsors and sold tickets at the Birchwood Café and through a community ticketing site online. Through contacts at Minnesota Public Radio, she managed to score an on-air interview for Ana on the day of the Riverview screening. She arranged a panel of local food experts to speak at the event, recruited volunteers to keep everything running smoothly, and even made sure the popcorn came with butter from Hope Creamery, one of the only independent creameries in the state still churning butter in small-batches from local cows’ milk.

The screening was s smashing success: the movie played to a sold-out crowd of 700, the FRESH e-mail distribution list grew by several hundred names, and the crowd moved over to the Birchwood for a community party following the show. “I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” Tracy says, ever humble about the integral role she played in making it all happen. “I had no idea of the effect this event would have on me personally and on my business. The film has been like a ‘shot in the arm’ for the local food movement here: we’ve seen a huge jump in the proliferation of CSA subscriptions, farmers’ markets, and the popularity of home gardening since 2009. The Homegrown Minneapolis Initiative was taking off then. The timing was just perfect.”

What advice does she have for others interested in organizing a community FRESH screening? “Use the screening resources on the website. Try to engage the audience by making room for conversation. Have a farmer there to talk to if you can. And meet people where they’re at: even if they can only do one thing, whether it’s buying one CSA box, or making one trip to the farmers’ market, or yes, trying local butter, that’s one step closer to plugging into the local food movement. If they like it, they’ll tell others.”

And as Tracy herself has proven, one person can make a big difference.

E-mail me at


Posted on April 5, 2011 - by

Inspired by FRESH: Sustainable Film Group

Here at FRESH, we love to hear stories of how people have been inspired by the movie’s message and how they are sharing it in their own communities. This is the first in a series of posts exploring transformative FRESH screenings and the people who have made them possible.

After watching Food, Inc., Robert Kenner’s 2008 film revealing the seamy underbelly of America’s industrialized food system, holistic health coach Linda Rasch felt frustrated, angry, and defeated. So when a young farmer at the Twin Cities (Minnesota) CSA where she had been volunteering suggested watching FRESH for a more uplifting take on the issues, Linda was intrigued.

“When I saw the licensing options on the website and all the screening resources there, I thought, ‘What the heck, why not? I’ll show this at my house,’” she says. She looked through her e-mail contacts and invited those she thought might be interested. Twelve people came over for that first screening, bringing food and drinks to share. “Too many for my house, really,” she laughs, “but you make it work!”

That was in December of 2009. Since then, Linda has held a sustainability-themed film group in her home nearly every month. “We typically mix and mingle over food for about an hour, then sit down to watch the movie. We break for coffee and dessert about halfway through, and discuss the film after we’ve finished watching,” Linda explains.

Featured films have included The Real Dirt on Farmer John, Tapped, Ingredients, and The World According to Monsanto. “[The group] really enhances our consciousness of decisions that we make, how everything is interconnected,” says Linda, “and with that awareness comes responsibility.”

In addition to its informational and motivational value, the monthly event has brought people together through their shared interest. “The chemistry of the group is different every time,” Linda says. “It’s great for community-building, relationship-building. Everyone comes away grinning from ear to ear.”

For others considering hosting their own FRESH screening, she recommends taking advantage of the promotional resources FRESH offers, tapping into the networks you already have, and harnessing the excitement generated by the film’s positivity. “You’ll be really surprised at how hungry people are for this kind of film that connects us to the Earth and to our food.”


Posted on February 24, 2011 - by

The Happiest Pigs in France

We’ve been talking about genetically-modified and factory farmed pigs lately, so let’s take a break to look a decidedly more pleasant sort of pig farm.

Anyone who has even briefly investigated livestock production at industrial farms knows that the process is wholly unnatural, with animals reduced to meat-generating machines, forced to live in dirty, cramped conditions.

At Ferme des Levées, owners Anne and Jacques Volatier firmly believe in treating their pigs with respect and raising them with traditional, organic farming methods. Jacques began raising pigs in 2000, and prior to purchasing this farm, he had no farming experience and worked as a civil engineer in town planning. “I don’t know how exactly to describe it, but I had an intuitive sense that I wanted to find a way to help grow the planet and start a project that would benefit the local economy. The intuition has now become certainty and a way of life in the countryside.” He attended an agricultural training program for a year, acquired the necessary capital and decided to launch a pig breeding operation because it was a product that could be raised and transformed entirely on the farm.

Fermes des Levées is now fully organic and consists of 40 hectares of fields, some which grow cereals that will be used for pig feed. The pigs also eat the natural vegetation of whatever field they live in, and over the course of a year, they are capable of mowing down a field to its roots. Between the fields, Jacques has planted 400 elderflower plants to provide shade. The resulting fruit is used to make elderflower preserves and a syrup perfectly suited for flavoring water.

The Volatiers hold about 150 pigs, and it is impossible not to smile as Jacques waves at his drift of pigs and says enthusiastically, “I know this sounds funny in English, but I call them ‘Mes ti-tis!'” (This is a shortened version of “petits,” or “little ones” in French.) The pigs will grunt, root and frolic here for one year before being taken to slaughter; compare this to an average lifespan of four months for an industrially raised pig.

Each week, 3-4 pigs are chosen to bring to the slaughterhouse, 18 km away in Beaune. “We are lucky that there is a slaughterhouse so close by, because more and more often these days the small slaughterhouses are closing down,” explained Jacques. Even so, being in a new, noisy environment can visibly stress the pigs, and Jacques has lost several to the red ravages of porcine stress syndrome. He now tries to minimize the time the pigs spend at the slaughterhouse and spends time calming them beforehand. Unfortunately, due to legal restrictions, you cannot slaughter a pig on site in France.

Some of the meat is sold fresh, but much of it is cooked, cured and transformed into charcuterie products. We sat down to a buffet of crusty baguette, salads, and a platter of fresh pork products: ham with mustard seed, a specialty of the farm; pâté en croûte, marinaded meat wrapped in pastry crust; jambon persillé, jellied ham with a strong dose of parsley; farm-smoked ham; country pâté; rillettes. “All done without e-numbers!” said Jacques.

Some charcuterie products are sold directly to people who travel to the farm or randomly stroll past, but 80% of the goods are sold through the Dijon market at Les Halles. You can find the Volatiers there twice a week on Friday and Saturday mornings.

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Posted on February 22, 2011 - by

A Chat with Slow Food Founder Carlin Petrini

In 1986, the first branch of McDonald’s in Italy opened in the heart of Rome, at the Piazza di Spagna. As in many other countries, protesters howled and demonstrated. One man took decisive action.

Carlo Petrini, or Carlin as he is known to Italians, has quietly grown from being a little-known left-wing journalist, to becoming the leader of one of the world’s largest food activism organizations. Concerned about the encroachment of multinational influence on traditional food culture, he built a resistance movement to defend and protect local food ecosystems, a counterpoint to the unrelenting onslaught of corporate hegemony.

Today, Slow Food spans over 100,000 members in 153 countries, promoting thousands of small-scale producers, communities and educational initiatives. I sat down to interview Petrini, and asked him about the direction of Slow Food, the global food system, and what you can do to get involved.

In America, there are many people involved with Slow Food, but more who have never heard of Slow Food. For these people, what is Slow Food?

Slow Food is an international movement that is involved in the defense of biodiversity, not only in agriculture and food, but also culture; in the defense of small-scale producers, small farmers, fishermen, and artisans because these small producers are the ones who maintain biodiversity. So, Slow Food is a network of these actors that will grow ever stronger, until it finally reaches every country in the world. However, it makes no pretense of having a strong structure or hierarchy–no, it is very, very agile.

In Italy, I can shopping at the market and buy organic vegetables and artisanal products that will not cost much more than the industrial versions. But in America, the difference between the two is significant, and it can cost double or more to buy organic. Why should we spend more time and pay more money for food, especially impoverished people?

Food must be paid at the right price. Here in Italy, we pay too little. When I was young, in the 1970s, 40 years ago, Italian families spent 32% of their income on food. Today, they spend 12% of income. This cell phone here [points] costs the average Italian 13% of his income. You cannot say that food is expensive—the price of food is far too low! And because the price of food is so low, culture is being destroyed, and the young are being sent away from rural areas. Thus, we need an educated countryside, one that values food. Note that there is a difference between value and price. Food is valuable. If I pay a little more for good food—organic food—I help the environment, and I help farmers. This is what they call in economics “positive externalities.” If, however, I only want to pay as little as possible for food, farmers will leave the countryside, water is mismanaged, I eat what is not healthy, and hence, these are negative externalities. Today, the real problem is that food must be at the right price. Not low, but right.

There are many developing countries whose people dream of a lifestyle like those in first-world countries. For instance, in China, people think of McDonald’s as a fancy restaurant of good quality. How do we protect and preserve traditional food culture in these cases?

China has a food culture that is thousands of years old, much older than that of Europe’s. Today they are searching for ways to be different, to be individuals. But it will pass. Why? Because every people is tied to their traditions. And, what has happened in Italy is happening in China. Italy had its moment when it embraced modernity, fast food, etc.—but everything has returned back to the way it was. This is a sure passage. I cannot imagine that the people of China will only eat McDonald’s—no, I don’t believe it.

So, do you eat non-Italian or non-traditional foods?

Oh, certainly, it depends on where I am. Last week, I was in Germany, and I ate German food. I believe that every country has a food culture that should be respected and known. I would not go to Germany and eat a plate of spaghetti—spaghetti can be eaten here! If there is a different culture, my curiosity wants to know that other culture.

What new projects does Slow Food have for this year? Will there be a conference like Terra Madre [a biennial gathering of Slow Food producers and activists] in the United States?

There will be Terra Madre in different countries of the world. I hope that there will soon be one in the United States because the time is ripe. We would have to see if our chapters and members in America can put it together, but that is the difficulty of working with a big country. Many people have certainly been asking why we have never done a big conference in the U.S. Thus, the time is right.

Do you have any advice for young people who would like to participate in the good food movement?

Be curious. Be knowledgeable. Get the maximum information you can about what you eat, where the producer is from, how it was made, etc. My generation is one that is still very close to farming culture, so we know the products. Today, the new generation does not have these direct links to the farmer. Therefore, it is time to know the information and not be just consumers, but I would say, be co-producers. To be a co-producer signifies the value of food, being curious about food, knowing the producer, knowing the value of the merchandise, and most important, not wasting food.

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Posted on October 22, 2010 - by

FRESH 1% Winner: Our School at Blair Grocery

We are pleased to present the winner of this year’s FRESH 1% grant, Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG), an incredible organization located in the the New Orleans Lower 9th Ward.  You can see the 9 other organizations that were up for the grant on this page, and read more about why we started the FRESH 1% grant here.  We asked OSBG to write a big about who they are so you all could get to know them!  Below is their message to you.

Please consider donating to OSBG – you can do so directly from their front page. :)

-Lisa Madison, FRESH

Driving over the Claiborne Bridge into New Orleans Lower 9th Ward, you’ll see a gas station, the Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School – the first and still only public school to return to the neighborhood and the Magnolia Corner Store. North of Claiborne, the view resembles a jungle. Thousands of lots remain vacant and hundreds more are neglected and overgrown. A mere 10 percent of the neighborhood population has returned since Katrina demolished New Orleans in 2005.

Take a walk down our street and the complex, intersecting challenges to resilience are impossible to ignore. Education, food security, safe spaces for after-school learning, meaningful employment opportunities, decent affordable housing and health care for folks who are themselves trying to lead a healthy lifestyle – none of these are in place in our neighborhood, and many individuals can’t quite seem to plug into the limited systems that are in place to make it work out for themselves. There remains a great deal of work to be done.

Amongst this landscape appears an oasis. Tall banana trees tower and lean into the street, a golden sun made of plywood scraps hangs on the fence. Flowers and green edibles abound. In the face of neglect, a handful of teachers and students have constructed beauty, growth, and potential. Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG) is an independent community school, sustainability education center, and food producing urban farm. Our mission is to create a resource-rich safe space for youth empowerment and sustainable community development. We envision a community where empowered youth work together in a reflective practice to actualize local, environmental justice based solutions to global challenges.

Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG), founded in 2008 by Nat Turner, is located in the old Blair Family Grocery. Turner came to the neighborhood with a black dog, a blue bus, and $12 in his pocket. He saw a need for a safe learning environment in a unique neighborhood that had one of the highest poverty and highest homeowner rates in New Orleans.

Our students, ages 13-19 are young people who have not found success in traditional public education, but need and deserve a supportive environment to learn and grow. They face serious life challenges, learning difficulties, and other educational obstacles, and if it weren’t for OSBG, most would not be in school otherwise. Despite the challenges our students and community face, together we are learning, growing and taking leadership in the development of sustainable community food enterprise.

We apply personalized learning strategies, and hands-on approaches to helping students connect to the curriculum while building real-life skills and developing the knowledge, capacity and agency to achieve their goals. Local challenges become the lens through which we work with students to understand larger lessons about education, society, environment, and economy. On any given day at OSBG it is possible to see students planning, planting and harvesting sprouts and micro-greens, analyzing the racial and economic history of New Orleans and its relationship to current challenges to food access, composting, learning construction skills to build a greenhouse or plumbing for aquaponics or water catchment, building vocabulary through studying hip-hop lyrics, researching ideal conditions for worms to redesign our vermicomposting system, or meeting with one of New Orleans top chefs to talk about their work at OSBG and sell them food they grew to sustain their school.

Despite the difficulties we have faced, and continue to face in our work, we have a lot to be proud of right now:

* During the Summer of 2010, Our School at Blair Grocery hosted nearly 500 high school and college students from around the country for 12-day intensive service-learning experiences as part of “Food Justice Summer”;
* We are in the final stages of renovating our building for final inspection, the old Blair Family Grocery Store, which sustained the damage of 15+ feet of water;
* We are growing and selling nearly $1500 per week of sprouts and microgreens to local restaurants and projecting $3000 per week by January, getting us closer to financial sustainability;
* We are providing meaningful and educational employment opportunities on the OSBG farm to 10 local youth, who work with us after-school and on weekends;
* We recently received notice that our grant proposal to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA was approved providing us with support “Toward a Viable and Sustainable Community Food Economy”;
* We will be participating in and hosting many elements of the 2010 Community Food Security Coalition’s conference in New Orleans this weekend;
* We hare begun our 2010-2011 school year with 5 full-time students, and anticipate 15 by Thanksgiving;
* and we are very proud to have won the national online vote for the FRESH 1% grant thanks to all of our supporters who helped spread the word about the contest, and the movie.

As we continue to push forward in our struggle for economic justice, food justice and educational justice for our community, we continue to need support in many ways. Make a donation by credit card on our blog at Donations of equipment and materials for both the farming and educational aspects of our work are always welcomed and appreciated too. We could always use more shovels, pitchforks and wheelbarrows. Classroom supplies like notebooks, computers, printers, books and other resources that our students can take advantage of to learn and grow are wonderful. Dedicated interns and volunteers are always welcomed. Services like printing, website development, etc. could be helpful. Vehicles that aren’t in constant need of repair would be great….but anyways, we could go on and on. When you are building something like we are, there is always more things you could use, and more work to do. Without all of the support we have received so far from those that believe in our work, we would never have made as much progress as we have.

What we really need are mass-based political movements calling citizens of this nation to uphold democracy and basic human rights for everyone to be educated and have enough good food to eat, and to work on behalf of ending subordination and domination in all its forms – to work for justice, transforming our educational and food systems. In Will Allen’s Good Food Manifesto for America, he challenged us all to “demand [and take] action… [so that collectively], we can move along a continuum to make sure that all of citizens have access to the same fresh, safe, affordable good food regardless of their cultural, social or economic situation.” Our School at Blair Grocery will continue to take up that challenge in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans and beyond.


Posted on July 12, 2010 - by

FRESH Heroes: Rain Lily Farm

FRESH Heroes: Rain Lily Farm, TX from ana joanes on Vimeo.

Who said you can’t live in the country AND in the middle of the city at the same time? I know sounds kind of contradictory until you visit Rain Lily Farm in Austin. I’ve visited quite a few farms in the past few years, and I got to say that I just fell in love with this one, and with the three wonderful women who are making it happen, Stephanie Scherzer (in this video), her partner in Farmhouse Delivery, Elizabeth Winslow and Kim Beal.
Go visit if you live in or near Austin and check out their delivery and landscaping business.


Ana Joanes
Director, FRESH