Monday, January 21, 2013

A Trip to the Urban Harvest Program on National Day of Service

Happy Martin Luther King day and Happy Inauguration day! (For a post I wrote paraphrasing MLK's I have a dream speech go here).

I thought President Obama's National Day of Service and continuing service projects are a really important potentially unifying step and wanted to be a part of it.
Official image from the inauguration weekend.
To be honest when I watched the first inauguration in 2008 I cried. It was beautiful and touching for many reasons. One thing I realized was just how much we are guilty of first thinking about people's differences rather than their humanity. After growing up in a very ethnically diverse area of California it is amazing how easy and trivial it is to pass judgements initially by physical appearances. Of differences related to political party, skin tones, sexual orientation, economic status, age, gender, etc. How myopic we are. And I was, and continue to be moved, by the President's ability to reach out his hand across the table and sincerely engage with all kinds of people, even when they respond with snarls and lies, and his desire to fight hard against injustices. I have to ask myself how often I am like that. And while race is only one part of his identity, I was struck down by just how much having an African American president made me look at people I passed on the street in a whole different light. Now when I pass a black youth on the street I say a prayer for him to hold his head high and I think, and want to shout to my children, and anyone else standing nearby, "Hey respect that guy- he could be President someday. As a mother, Mr. and Mrs. Obama remain the kind of people that I want my children to imitate.       

This is a blog about good and sustainable food, but one cannot talk about that without also talking about poverty. Abundance and poverty can be two sides of the very same coin. I commend Michelle Obama for her recognition of the food injustices occurring in this country and love her so much for making gardens a posh front yard staple.

For some astounding poverty statistics and connections to where you can donate your own excess garden produce check out Ample Harvest. Here in Oklahoma over 675,000 people may go hungry every night, some of these children. We have outrageous obesity rates, and a very high percentage of our schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, and for the Weekend Snack Backpack program from the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.

Here in Oklahoma, if you do not know about the Regional Food Bank and the work that they do with their Urban Harvest program, I would definitely encourage you to consider taking a tour. Or even better, donate! If you want your donation to go to the garden- make sure to delineate Urban Harvest program!

When I moved back to Oklahoma eight years I got to visit and participate a few times then. The Urban Harvest Program is the most revolutionary, sustainable, and enabling part of the program. They compost, deliver and donate thousands of seeds and seedlings, teach gardening classes, and teach kids what fresh and healthy can taste like. It was these initial visits that made me decide that I wanted to do my grad school research about school gardens (it evolved from that to also include outdoor classrooms). But recently they have added some additional projects that I have wanted to see for some time. Finally I got to go and take the boys there again!

Compost tumbler

Inside their two large hoop houses (For the difference between a hoop house and a green house, and many other kinds of harvest extenders go here) they have undertaken three very cool projects. Two of which they may have been the first to do on any sort of commercial scale in Oklahoma.

Peas please!
First they have installed an aquaponics system that raises tilapia in large drums and then cycles their waste water as fertilizer for plants growing only in a water-based soilless medium. See below to see what beautiful swiss chard they are growing in January. Their tanks are holding about 200 fish each. Currently they sale their fish to some local restaurants . Some advantages of this kind of system are that 1) it makes a super efficient way to raise protein, 2)it isn't dependent on commercial fertilizers and pesticides,  3) it puts waste products into use on the spot, rather than either leaving them dormant, letting them leech into local water sources (a gargantuan global problem), or utilizing enormous amounts of energy to truck them off-site, and 4)It also doesn't deplete soil or make the need for it to be either trucked in or built over long periods of time.

Swiss chard growing in waters fertilized by Tilapia refuse
Checking out the tilapia

Second they have installed some strawberry stackers. These make it easier to 1)prevent some of the rust and fungal diseases so common in these plants, 2)utilize much less water, 3)keep them sheltered from some of the extreme Oklahoma temperature swings, which can be very difficult on perennial (those that come back year after year without being replanted) plants, and 4)make them less labor intensive for harvesting.

Oh, and they also make irresistible places to play hide and seek when you are three feet tall.

Thirdly they have installed worm (vermiculture) bins that are about three cubic feet on one whole side of one of their green houses. Our job for the morning was joining some lovely new friends to hand sort baby worms. This is like the Vera Wang of compost- enabling super nutrient rich worm teas and castings which they can also sell at premium prices. Elemental Coffee Roasting Company of Oklahoma City donates all of their old coffee grounds.

Out in the distance there is an apple orchard and berries, larger compost bins, and many more projects on the horizon. Especially if you believe a paraphrase of the Chinese adage: Give a man food and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to make his own food and he will eat for a lifetime.

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