Monday, May 10, 2010

Composting Our Way to Freedom

By Davey Rogner

This past Saturday I volunteered with my good friend, Christian Melendez, who is building three greenhouses to grow massive amounts of food. He and his counterpart Vinnie Bevivino have been learning and producing food in urban settings for the past three seasons. In College Park, my home, they are the face of the growing movement of individuals recognizing the need to produce our food in local, carefully managed ecosystems.

Christian and Vinnie in the Tunnel; Photo by Chris Mentzer

They have both apprenticed with Will Allen a Macarthur Fellow, former NBA player and urban farmer who has designed techniques for urban farming and related educational programs with Growing Power, a non-profit based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They will be hosting Mr. Allen at the Sowing Seeds Here and Now! A Chesapeake Urban Farming Summit on June 18th, 2010. If you are interested in a future where Urban Farming is commonplace, this conference is a must go. For more information on the summit or helping out with the garden, please check the conference website, or call Vinnie at (202-360-1805).

In the past they have both worked with many beautiful people at a place called the Engaged University; a former collaborative program of the University of Maryland. The program taught about bicycle maintenance and growing food, while providing workshops on art and poetry to the young people of Riverdale, MD. To many who knew of the space it represented a vision for future community engagement, sustainability and empowerment.

At the engaged University Vinnie, Christian and others transformed an abandoned school field into the Master Peace Community Garden; a place where they grew food with preteens and sold the yield at a local farmers markets. However, last fall the University of Maryland stripped them of their jobs due to budget shortfalls. Presently, the University hopes to replace the employees with volunteers, a notion that underestimates the talent, passion and drive that the University had in the Engaged University's former employees.

After receiving the dire news about their jobs, some of the former employees regrouped. They reorganized under a non-profit called Engaged Community Offshoots (ECO), to fulfill their vision of involving people of all walks of life in sustainable living activities. The farm, located on other side of the levee of the Northeast Branch of The Anacostia, in a town called Edmonston is amongst the first programs of the group. The farm will not only grow a plethora of crops, but it will also host an aquaponics system to raise tilapia in a closed system.

A possibly even more impressive feat than the farm is that they are managing all of the nutrient inputs to the farm in a holistic manner. Instead of using fertilizers that are fossil fuel intensive and could potentially harm their neighboring stream they are composting on an industrial scale at another site and transporting the compost back to the farm. They are receiving the food waste from Whole Foods and providing the company with an outlet to divert what would be sent to a landfill, and subsequently rot producing the extremely potent greenhouse gas methane.

Composting with a Wildcat; Photo by Christian Melendez

The vision provided by ECO is a realization of a community's assets and following through with the creativity to generate something that will alleviate the pangs of an under served area. In this case, the founders had the vision and worked to involve the proper stakeholders, Prince George's County Parks and Planning, Whole Foods, Kaiser Permanente, to achieve what to some would have seemed impossible. But in the end, this is only connecting the dots with those groups to do something great with underutilized land or someone's waste.

All over the country there are ares known as food deserts, where a community has little or no access to healthy food found in a super market. The communities sustenance comes from McDonalds or the local "carry out." Last summer I worked in a food desert, located in the Kenilworth neighborhood of Washington DC. In a twist of inspiration, this farm is located about 4 miles from Kenilworth. If this farm is successful it will hopefully provide a model to eliminate these food deserts and get children the healthy food they need to grow and thrive.

Check those muscles! Photo Courtesy of Chris Mentzer

While driving metal stakes into the ground that would soon prop up steel frames, ultimately constructing the large greenhouses I couldn't help but feel like a nineteenth century railroad builder. However, my brute force was going to be used to enhance natural resource wealth in a local community, rather than ship it somewhere else. As the stakes were connected we could see the frame of a greenhouse appear. A symbol that will become common place as people recognize and act upon the need to localize our food production.

Diverting our food waste for composting is the initial step to generating real resource wealth within local communities. Transforming that compost into gardens will provide monetary gain, but it also provides a way of not having to buy food that has nasty preservatives, has been shipped across the globe, and produced in an industrial manner that is underming workers and the environment.

Engaged Community Offshoots, Christian Melendez and Vinnie Bevivino inspire me. They are walking the walk in an age of talking, an age of advertising, an age of PR and marketing, an age where we get people to believe in something more than ever getting them to do it. They realize the rest will follow.

In homage to my last post with intense number crunching, I leave you with two equations I hope to calculate many times in my life. These are inspired by Engaged Community Offshoots and a future vision for The Harvest Collective.

(Inspiration + Navigating Red Tape + Composting + Volunteers + Sunlight + Water) * Love = Fresh Garden

(Garden + Renewable Energy Source + Clean Water + sustainable housing) * (community *Love) = Freedom from Corporate Oppression