Interview: Sherry WIlliams and Mr. Lorenzo Young

A conversation with Sherry Williams of the Bronzeville Historical Society with input from Community Member Lorenzo Young.

Sherry Williams was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in the Englewood Community. She is Founder and President of the Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society.

Sherry Williams as Mrs. Jane Hughes Liter

Could you please introduce yourself and the Bronzeville Historical Society? 

Sherry:  I am Sherry Williams, the Founder and Director of the Bronzeville Historical Society. The historical society was established in 1999 and we became a 501c3 in 2002. Part of our mission has been to preserve and protect African American history and culture in Chicago.  That includes those African American migrants, more than 2 million, who came to Chicago from the South between the 1860s all the way to the 1950s during the Great Migration.

We, at the Bronzeville Historical Society, have been committed to the protection and care of African American culture including many of the passed on historic backdrops that come with those who migrated to Chicago.  Say for instance, my family who came here from Mississippi in 1942. They brought with them the skill sets to do handicrafts like quilting, crocheting and knitting, and also taking care of the land. My dad, from Cleveland, Mississippi picked cotton and my mom, in Vernice, Mississippi, also picked cotton; they were sharecroppers. Each of them shared with me, by taking trips back and forth between Mississippi and taught me how they cultivated and cared for the Earth.

So, I’ve always understood that the African has been the caretaker of and the steward of the Earth since the beginning of time.  We were purposely brought here as slaves because we already had the knowledge and skills to take care of soil, to take care of planting, to take care of growing things.

Can you speak a little bit about the Bronzeville Historical Society’s connection to issues of food security in the community?

Sherry: The Bronzeville Historical Society has, since 1999, built its capacity to draw people into preserving African American history in Chicago through partnerships and the support of agencies and institutions that advocated for food security and do urban gardening.

One of the organizations that we were so proud to be invited to support was God’s Gang.  This organization was based in Robert Taylor Public Housing at 5256 S. State.  While they were at that location our board of directors and myself were able to support their food pantry.  They distributed food weekly to more than 800 families in the Bronzeville community as well as in the Robert Taylor Public Housing. That was my first experience as a part of a well managed and productive food distribution system to the neighborhood.

Not only did they provide fresh vegetables and food products to the community, they also had a garden.  They raised tilapia, and they also had worms that were grown and sold to whom ever desired to have earthworms for compost and that kind of thing.

It was in 1999 that the Bronzeville Historical Society started supporting organizations for food advocacy and healthy eating. Last year Bronzeville Historical Society branched out on its own to start the African Heritage Garden at the Stephen Douglas State Tomb Site.  In summer of 2012 we planted a garden where we provided access to the neighborhood, free of charge.  Neighbors and friends and other community members were able to have access to tomatoes, collard greens, jute leaf, and some other vegetables.

African Heritage Garden Opening 2013

What do you think the critical issues are now surrounding food in the community?

Sherry: I would say that access is very important.  Mostly because if we take a deep look at schools in or around Bronzeville we would see that largely the students attending public schools are in households that are at or far below the poverty level. Families do not have the financial means to even buy food, so access is definitely my primary concern.

Secondly, I think that policies that have been in place in the city of Chicago have set limitations to those who would like to grow their own food.  For instance, city policies make it very difficult for a homeowner or a community resident to purchase a vacant lot that they may want to turn into a community garden. And because of the limitations to purchase adjacent lots next to your home, many people that have the skill sets and desire to grow their own vegetables and edibles to not have that option.  Again, we have this dependency on stores to provide access to food, but if there aren’t stores near by, that becomes a challenge when you do not have transportation to get to the stores that may be some distance away from home.

Mr. Young: We had a corner store summit last year through the Centers for New Horizons and John Owens.  He had organized a summit of corner store owners because the issue was to provide healthier food choices in the neighborhood. Because a lot of the children just feel that what is on the shelf is what you get and a lot of that is unhealthy. You know, it’s the Flamin’ Hots and the cheap drinks that are high in sugar and other snack foods that are high in sodium content.

Sherry: So true, Mr. Young. We were raised, and when I say we I’m thinking of those born in the ‘40s, ‘50s. 60s, and ‘70s, candy and cakes were desserts and they came way after dinner. They were not on the front of starting the day. But anyone that has eyes has seen young people visit stores tand come out, again as Mr. Young was saying, with Flamin’ Hots and bubblegum and sweets and candy as opposed to going in and getting a sandwich or some other healthy option.  And I am appalled knowing that we are going into two generations of this depletion if not a third generation. I just think that there needs to be a radical and proactive move on the part of us as elders who know that it’s really simple to take over the choices that we offer to our children.

The third thing that is very important is networking. A number of people who have gardens, such as the one that we have here, we may not have the capacity of outreach to tell people.  We rely primarily on people, such as Mr. Lorenzo Young, an advocate for justice in neighborhoods, to spread the word about where people can get access to free greens, or tomatoes, or peppers, or whatever someone is growing in their garden that they are willing to offer to the public. So networking is a real need.

I think that if we create or strengthen a network that is already in place, whether it’s through word of mouth and add it to social media we could see some improved impacts on people having access to food.  I think that that could be something universities should explore having students do. A lot of projects come out of institutions like the Art Institute or the University of Chicago, and many other schools that have relationships with communities and relationships with organizations.  My sharing this story could very well set the tone or at least get someone thinking very deeply about how they can use social media to highlight where there is food to be accessed. So I appreciate the interview.

Even our location here at the Stephen Douglas tomb site, even though we are advocating for children, we are advocating for healthy neighborhoods, we are advocating for healthy food options, those who are in and around the site have to know that.

Mr. Young: The proactiveness of an organization like the Bronzeville Historical Society is to really effect today.  To put folks on track with their heritage and with the idea of them being able to make better choices and build on those choices.  For our young people, to deny their history is to deny their greatness. To know that they are not just some gang member or person living in substandard housing, but that they are the ancestry of kings and queens.

Sherry: I would say another real concern is vending opportunities. I grew up in Englewood and every Saturday, and our delight as children was anticipating the Watermelon Man coming. And so we had a great introduction into eating knowing that when the Watermelon man showed up we would have, you know, fresh bananas, and oranges, and grapes, and strawberries.

So again, I can’t help but think about policies. I remember during Harold Washington’s administration that you could pay something like $15 and get a vendor’s license.  People could pull themselves up by maybe selling socks or, you know, things that really, really kept people with some money in their pocket. So I imagine we really need to look at why there isn’t strong policy to encourage vending opportunities. People could have pop-up vending stands near and around schools, near and around churches, near and around even this state site [the Stephen Douglas Tomb] where people could just go ahead and sell fresh tomatoes, and fresh greens, and other things that are produced locally.

And I think it has been a very deliberate design to keep communities locked into not being able to feed themselves and not being able to raise their own gardens and not being able to barter or even vend.  And it’s the tragedy of the African American community because these are really simple things that I know have had a huge impact on what we now see as the daily diet of our kids.

Again, I grew up in a household where the cake and the candy was an option only after you ate a solid meal and we were monitored very closely about eating too many sweets. Now I am seeing more and more kids who have to feed themselves and they will chose a fast food as opposed to learning to cook.

So, I guess I would add that as the fifth thing, is a return to Home Economics and cooking classes in the schools.

Mr. Young: You’re so right, because, you know, actually you can get by much less expensively by cooking for yourself. When you start going into that freezer and buying that prepared food you’re paying for it.  You know, a couple of potatoes, some onions, green, you know, kidney beans, rice and other grains…

Sherry: Young people don’t know how to cook at all. It’s one of the very basic things I’ve found young people really thirsty to learn how to do.

I remember very well when my mom, an excellent cook, taught me how to prepare beans. When I reached 11 that was the first thing my mom taught me to prepare was beans. She would call from work and walk me through learning how to soak them, and sort through them to make sure there were no twigs or anything, and then rinsing them and putting them in water and on the stove an adding the onion and garlic, and salt and pepper. By the time my mom would come home at 5:30 the beans were near done so it didn’t take much after that to pan fry some steak or put some fish in the oven, or whatever was going to compliment the beans.

I cook everyday and a lot of young people think it’s hard work, but once you learn how to prepare and line up your kitchen with the ingredients for seasoning and you keep some beans and some rice and you are ready.  That’s all you need is some beans and some rice in the house [laughs].

A lot of young people really don’t know about shopping either and that is the other thing that goes along with home economics returning to schools. Young people need to learn how to budget so they know they can save money by cooking a meal rather than spending money out.

I can’t go without lastly saying the need for sharing and teaching how to grow plants. I was very fortunate that I had elders whom I could go to and get advice on how to plant and how to grow. I remember so well when Caroline Thomas, of God’s Gang, told me to go out and get the Farmer’s Almanac so we could use it as a tool to guide us for planting.  Still today I browse the Almanac to give me some idea of when to plant. Teaching young people how to plant and grow their own food is very, very important for the development of a healthy neighborhood.  That would be a huge remedy for the lack of access.

So many Black communities are called food deserts, so if we can return home economics and add gardening and teaching planting and cultivating food we could turn this around for our young people.

Mr. Young: As far as the city goes, and the state, they need to provide a motivation, a start up capitol, for retail opportunities. We’ve been talking about the grand scheme of community gardening, and harvesting, and selling back to the community. To have a fresh fruit market where people could go and stuff isn’t brought in from South America, but it is grown right here.

And see, that’s another piece, because I remember the seasons and I remember when it was peach season. I remember my grandmother was, you know, getting her peaches and preparing them for the winter. And when strawberries came we had strawberry shortcake and then they passed. That to me was just a part of the whole fabric of the culture. We’ve lost all these things and, you know, if we could do our own gardening we could at least start getting back to that because kids would know this is the season.  So that’s it, we need to attack these issues in the food deserts. Somebody told me they didn’t like that term food deserts.

Sherry: It might have been me. [laughs] Because, you know, to me the word “desert’ denotes an emptiness and I look at it rather as challenges of access.

I know that by design it has been that we haven’t been able to open our own stores, and when I say we I mean African Americans.  And I know that we haven’t been able to vend our own food to each other. And I know that we haven’t had access to the vacant lots to make them productive, and not only for food, but also for beautification and for play lots.

When I hear the word desert I think of abandoned and empty, but it’s not, we just know there is an access issue and there aren’t many options for many people to get fresh food. I used to cry just about everyday when I was working in the Robert Taylor public housing, to see 3-400 families a day, just in one building and there wasn’t a store on the first floor that could offer fresh produce. Many institutions were working with parents and working with families that wee in public housing but a lot of needs were not being met.

We have a lot of work to do.

Additional Links:

The Industria Heritage Archives

Nature on the Freedom Trail (video)

Harvest Garden Program, Chicago Park District

By Sarah K. Benning


Interview: Samm Petrichos

An Interview with Samm Petrichos, Spice!
by Liana Li

Samm Petrichos is the founder of Spice!, a local mobile eatery in Chicago that advocates for sustainable food practices, cooking as a creative art, and independence from bureaucratic and corporate dominance. He has worked with the Nite Market and the Southside Hub of Production (SHoP), and currently at the 61st Street Farmer’s Market, Hyde Park Supper Club (HPSC), and Experimental Station, where he leads cooking classes.
Samm will be participating in the spring 2013 meal – Polyculture: A locally re-sourced performative brunch at City Farm.

(0.00) Spice! – What is behind the name?

(0.48) Do you consider yourself an artist or a chef? – Re-evaluating business models

(3.36) How do you see food as an art practice?

(10.30) You mention working with limitations in your practice. How do you see these affecting creativity?

(11.46) How does photography and social media play a role in Spice!?

(13.30) At the SHoP Three Story Street Feast curated dinner event, you showcased food normally sold by street vendors. What is your relationship with street food? – Local politics on small businesses

(19.00) What is the state of our current food system?

(23.32) Do you see any hope for change in our food system?

(28.11) If you had to choose local vs. organic, which would you pick?

Interview: Katlin Brown

An Interview with Katlin Brown, Chicago Growing Cooperation
by Liana Li

Katlin Brown is an experimental cook and educator. She has worked with WeFarm America, Chicago Time Exchange, The Kids’ Table, and Green Exchange to teach workshops on preparing food for dietary restrictions. As a member of the Chicago Growing Cooperation (CGC), she is focused on connecting people to a more complete food experience and making available the open exchange of skills and resources.

(0.00) What does food represent for you, and how did you become interested in cooking?

(1.13) What did you study in school, and how does it relate to what you are doing now?

(2.26) How did you begin to cook for dietary restrictions?

(5.26) Do you currently view cooking as your occupation?

(7.08) Do you think it’s important to locally source food? Is trade necessary?

(10.38) What is the Chicago Growing Cooperation (CGC)?

(14.14) You are also involved with WeFarm America and the Chicago Time Exchange (CTX). How are these initiatives related to the efforts of CGC?

Additional notes on health
Through my own journey realizing I shouldn’t eat wheat I learned how many foods effect my body, and supporting other people in developing that connection is a goal of my food practice. I’m also starting to venture into the healing properties of food, extending from my experiences and researching a bit about how things have been done in the past (another way of using what we already have—in our cupboards/fridge/garden).

• My mentors Deborah Moroney and Marisha Humphries
• Genya Erling, a food consultant and entrepreneur
• Caroline Carter, a raw food chef and co-host of Cooking Raw
• Chef Edna Lewis
• Community kitchen spaces such as Peoples Kitchen Detroit and CornUcopia Place in Cleveland
• My friends and family—for giving me ideas, cooking with me, and trying new things
• Kids (enthusiasm + keepin it real)

Interview: Ken Dunn

An Interview with Ken Dunn, Urban Farmer

by Megan Isaacs, Alix Anne Shaw, and Liana Li

Compiled and written about by Megan Isaacs

This past February, Liana Li, Alix Anne Shaw and I met up at the Chicago Diner to talk with Ken Dunn. Dunn is the founder of City Farm and The Resource Center, a non-profit environmental education organization demonstrating innovative techniques for recycling and reusing materials. Our conversation started with him introducing a bit about himself and his philosophy about social change and art.

Ken – The human mind is a beautiful device to build systems and principles with which we evaluate things but we have gone a way where it is now failing us. We all have the values of justice and equality and believe in the equal sharing of our planet’s benefits, but something has happened that even though we hold these values, the systems we have in place are not achieving them. In fact, I think that we could recognize that as a society, we are bankrupt and that we don’t have the tools to help us move towards reaching the goals we all share and wish to achieve.

Alix – Can you talk a little bit more specifically about the work that you do?

Ken – When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I was astonished at how impoverished the city was, and its inability to achieve equality and justice. I was looking to understand why we weren’t achieving environmental and social justice, and why our society was extremely damaging to the planet and certain groups of people. While poking around Woodlawn, I noticed that there was a serious lack of jobs and quality of life. So I focused my thesis work on how to better understand why we don’t have the tools to meet the values that we all identify with. I immediately saw that even the most impoverished communities were rich in resources. There were a lot of vacant lots, a lot of people eager to do something useful, and the vacant lots were littered with steel cans, glass bottles and paper. So I did an experiment and asked the guys hanging around parking lots to collect their bottles, and I would go sell the materials and split the money with them. This became a theme of mine both for my thesis at the university, as well as in starting the Resource Center, which became a sustainability non-profit with the idea that building a just and sustainable economy is possible if we recognize the resources that we have.

Alix – What do you do now at the Resource Center?

Ken – We still have the program for buying materials from collectors that pick up from vacant lots and alleys. We have eight trucks that pick up their collected material. And now we also have composting and urban agriculture. After we started cleaning up lots, I thought, “Hey! Let’s figure out another resource. Ah ha! What about food, garden and yard waste!” So we started making compost to create gardens on the very lots we cleaned up. And then I noticed that after a couple of years, the boys who were very involved in the gardening projects, especially when they got to be 10 or 12, started standing back from the gardens, thinking it was too feminine while they were watching the gang bangers making big bucks a couple blocks away. We needed something to tap into the youth’s need for power and speed. I knew there were a lot of discarded bikes in the city so we began collecting them and started a bike shop, Blackstone Bikes, which is still operational today.

Alix – Can you talk a little about how your urban agriculture program works? I understand that it employs people as well as teaches them how to grow their own food.

Ken – Early on, we discovered there is a clear distinction between community gardening and urban agriculture. Community gardening is about building community. Nobody should come and tell the lady who is planting peanuts like she used to plant them with her grandmother that her process doesn’t work in Chicago soils. She is reconnecting with her roots, and she will learn from experience that in Chicago you don’t plant on the hill, you plant in the pearl instead.  Community gardens build community and only somewhat supplements what is on the table.

Urban agriculture recognizes that not everyone can produce all of their food or should even try. People should have jobs so they can produce a lot of food and sell it to support their rent and everyday lifestyles. Urban agriculture became the discipline of discovering how to produce enough so at least four people could work on a farm and make enough money to get days off and take vacations and even get sick, which most subsistence farmers can never do.

Megan – How many vacant lots exist in Chicago?

Ken – Approximately 80,000 lots, which is about 40,000 acres.

Megan – If all 80,000 lots were working within your model, and actively producing, would they be able to feed the city of Chicago?

Ken – Yes, the production on 40,000 acres would take care of our food needs, but only alongside a great dietary and cultural shift.  People must get back to vegetables and we are also going to have to shift more towards root crops, which can be stored through the winter.  It is still expensive to the environment to can and freeze food so we will have to have root cellars.

Alix – Speaking of food, Liana mentioned that you recently started a program to pick up the wasted food from Whole Foods and redistribute it. I am interested because while living in Providence where I started a gleaning program from the local farmers’ market. At the end of the day, farmers would donate what they didn’t want or couldn’t sell, and we took vegetables to the local soup kitchen. Could you talk a bit about how your program works?

Ken – We have been doing this for over 20 years because all agricultural production has surplus. You plant more than you can sell in case you have a bad crop so you can at least meet the demand. And then there are also seconds, the things that you wouldn’t sell to high-end customers, for example vegetables that are too small or the wrong shape. So we started a route to distribute these extras just to salvage our own product. Then we began noticing that homeless shelters became dependent on our deliveries, so we started connecting with grocery stores so we could deliver excess food throughout the year. Whole Foods pulls products from their shelves the day before their expiration date and we now have a van that picks up three tons of food every day and distributes it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

Megan – How much of the food that you are unable to distribute ends up in landfills?

Ken – Produce markets send about 60-80 truckloads a day. Sometimes if someone misjudges a truck’s arrival date, there will be soft tomato in each case and the whole thing goes to the landfill if we don’t get access to it. We are moving towards starting another van because there is plenty of demand. We think that urban agriculture and community gardens are the way to go to build a viable Chicago. We have plenty of vacant space and a workforce that benefits from being outdoors and productive. But we also need community healing as much as anything else. Whole communities have gotten into bad habits, in eating as well as in lacking tradition and community. A theory that I am fond of is that community and civility were built on agriculture because agriculture is so pleasing and so productive.

I also would like to get a large warehouse where we would receive all of that wasted food.  One of our goals is to have an active farm stand at every farm.  If food desert communities were be filled with farms rather than vacant lots, everyone could at least walk to a farm stand to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The limited production of these small farms could then be supplemented with goods like salvaged bananas, oranges and tomatoes from grocery stores and produce markets.

Alix – What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do to change their relationships in the way we have been talking about?

Ken – Follow your money and go for the joy. Petroleum is the main ingredient of the money we spend.  We consumers pay for the petroleum invested in strawberries that come from New Zealand.  So start with watching your money but recognize that you don’t have to jump in all the way. You need to get used to the pleasures of being more responsible. If you like biking, can you drive a little less and bike a little more? Or look at your food habits. Do you like cooking with friends and can you start buying within 100 miles? Look at the whole picture and find something that you know you will get pleasure out of. Absolutely drop the notion that you have an obligation to go back to a more dreary lifestyle. Look for the 10% of sustainability, like eating more with friends and biking a little more, that you would really enjoy. Don’t even think of the burdens. Go for the joy.

Megan – You mentioned earlier that you don’t see yourself as an agent of change. I’m wondering how you see this when you are constantly expanding your reach and starting up new gardens?

Ken – The key is to listen more than you talk. My role is to listen and then help by building a narrative that leaves toward action. And then when it comes to action, some of the ingredients of the action, like the compost, or the truck that hauls away the recycling or garbage, come with no fanfare. The appearance of resources is sort of magical. I don’t come in with a sign that says, “This compost is provided by the Resource Center” or say “If you do this for me, I will take away your garbage.”  I also don’t emphasize the cost of the resources I bring. For a project to be owned by a community, it has to be owned from day one. They perceive their own cleanup as worth more than the truck hauling away the recycling or the compost. Their own work spreading the compost is worth more than me delivering the compost. The compost appears during off hours and is forgotten about, but it as the key ingredient a community uses to transform a vacant lot into a farm.  And instead of giving just 2-3 inches deep of compost, I do it generously.

The great social aspect of this project is that it injures no people.  It comes with the assumption that all people have the desire to live in a community with good quality of life and pre-developed values. We shouldn’t go in there with recipes for the dishes they should be using or how they should arrange community meals. Given the modern community, even though it is despoiled and not functioning well at all, we can give them a little source from which to create value. They will create the institutions and structures appropriate to their own memories and early experiences. That is a respectful rejuvenation of a community rather than going in and bringing in counselors on family relations and cooking classes on what foods to eat. Just bring richness and the availability of good produce.

Megan – Are there any other projects you are currently working on, and how can people get involved with them?

Ken – Our most recent involvement is working with the Washington Park Consortium on the [hyperlink:] Square Mile of Sustainability in Washington Park, where there is an abundance of unutilized lots and low employment. We are working on a farm at the corner of 57th & Perry that will offer good food and jobs to local residents, and hoping to make better use of more lots. We’re looking for passionate people to help with the project, and we have volunteer days every other weekend.

To get involved with Square Mile of Sustainability check out our facebook page

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Interview: Lindsay Hopkins

An Interview with Lindsay Hopkins

by Alix Anne Shaw

I’d like to begin with some questions about your artistic work and activism.

You are part of a theater company, Dramatis Personae. Can you describe the work that you do? How long have you been part of this company?

Dramatis Personae is a performance collective. We focus on original performance and try to build artist community through our multi-disciplinary Artist Gumbo events. Inspiring social change is part of our mission. I have been working with DP for two and a half years. A small but exciting part of the work that we do is in a new partnership with the Howard Area Community Center; I worked there for three years prior to the partnership. To stay involved, I began to do programming involving both.

Dramatis Personae is currently putting together a performance based on issues of food justice. It will be called Food & The Soul. Could you describe this project?

Sure. This spring, we are digging into the questions: What role does food play in our lives? What is our relationship with food and food systems? We have been working on a collection of shared stories about identity, community and our relationship with food. We have interviewed urban farmers in Chicago, people who live on the gift economy and gift food from their farm in Oakland, CA, foodies, and restaurant owners, all with the hopes of collecting stories about food, food sharing, locally grown food. The stories will then be turned into a performance. We are exploring the ritual of food in our lives and in our communities, in order to more deeply explore participation and authenticity in daily life.

During the rehearsal process, these stories will be used to create an ensemble performance piece. This performance is interdisciplinary in nature and will include elements of theatre, movement and sound installation. As a performance artist, I am interested in curating stories as a way to tell personal journeys through a collective, interpersonal lens. What do we have in common? What sets us apart? How do we support each other? How do we destroy each other? I am interested in using this performance as a vehicle to tell stories and explore different identities and perspectives.

How do you balance being an activist and an artist?

[Laughs.] Well, if you’re doing that kind of work, it probably also means you’re working really hard to pay the bills! For me, being an activist has been doing youth work, talking about these issues through theater. Theater gives you the chance to teach in a different way. You are learning through play and not being talked at. Sometimes it’s hard, but sometimes it goes really well together. And I love the combination of the two. For me, there has always been something more behind wanting to be creative.

What are some points where these two practices don’t merge as well

For me, there is no conflict between the fit of the two. I see that more in expectations outside of me…what other people view as social justice as opposed to art and what kind of art they want to see.

What got you interested in this issue? Have you always been interested in food justice, or is this an issue you came to through experience?

So many things happened because of Howard Area Community Center. I knew that I was interested in social justice and food but not in a structured kind of way. I had a so many awesome co-workers I learned from. For example, a staff member I was working with in Spring of 2011, Chris Stortenbecker, got us a grant to make some beds for a small garden at CMSA in Rogers Park. The next spring I was able to invite a friend and local urban farmer out to use the garden beds and lead some workshops with the youth about gardening. I co-created some social justice content about food supply, access and food deserts. That led to a lot of documentaries.

What have you learned that most shocked or surprised you in the course of collecting material for this production?

What shocked me the most were the major differences in the way people view food. That sounds simple, but it’s huge. There are people in Oakland who do permaculture and see food as its own entity with the soul, and there are people who are well-intentioned but who refuse to change things because they are busy and don’t want to take the time. That’s a cycle—the way we live and the food we eat makes us tired, and then we don’t want to deal with these issues. I think the most shocking thing was the contrast in people’s ability to think about things in a reflective way. But I’ve noticed that a greater social awareness can come from changing the food that we eat and looking at food production in a more holistic light.

What do you hope to accomplish through this production?

I think I’m learning to not “hope to accomplish” anything. I think for too long I wanted to accomplish something to make the pain I was seeing and feeling go away. So I’m not trying to accomplish anything except to tell these stories in a real, authentic way. My hope is that somebody takes five minutes to connect with a story. I try to remain true to the stories I’ve collected, and enjoy the process of what I’m getting out of it as an artist. That makes for better art anyway.

Do you believe that art can effect political change in the world?

I believe it absolutely has the power to, because it helps us see things from a different brain-space. For example, Theater of the Oppressed has actually changed legislation in Brazil. But sometimes I’m afraid that in the United States, we’re too far gone as a society to have that kind of reflective change. I do think that art has a power to help us reflect, grow and change. I think on the individual and neighborhood level that we can build something better and more inclusive.

Now for some questions about food.

Tell me a little about your personal relationship to issues of food and food justice. 

In my own life, I had a lot of anxiety and depression. I got lost in the medical system and prescription drugs. I did not have health insurance and was paying out of pocket. Personally, I felt this has got to stop. There was no sense of relationship in the medical system. I realized I had the ability to create a plan for myself. I also realized that you can really help some of those problems with food. I started thinking about preservatives and how they could affect my brain. Once I started changing my eating habits and becoming more aware of how I felt, I had to figure out how to eat differently based on my own access and on label reading. I realized how socially-conditioned we are not to look at labels. It’s not that we don’t read them—because many people actually do—we just aren’t educated about what we should be looking for.

What do you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?

Knowledge. Access to information about what it is that’s really in our food. The information we have is quick and short. It’s meant to shock and awe. It’s an advertising system that doesn’t leave room for real information. I think a huge issue is people not wanting to take the time to think about changing their choices. We do lack time because we are so dictated-to by how we’re supposed to live and all the stuff we’re supposed to buy. We’re working so hard we don’t have time to think.

What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?

There are so many. The media and advertising systems in the United States love to say that we have choices. They say that to cover up the fact that we don’t have a choice, and to makes us argue with ourselves and each other. But we don’t have a real choice because we don’t have real information. If we don’t know that what we’re eating can create diseases down the road, or if we are not informed about GMOs, then we don’t have choice. Not having access to information means that people can’t make decisions about our own bodies.

What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?

It would be neighborhood-based. At this point, because the systems have gotten so big, we need to work locally and small. Locally, because sustainability and local factors are better. Not having to ship food, using small systems, is better. Even for getting information out, focusing on one neighborhood at a time is easier. Information can be shared from neighborhood to neighborhood. You see that happening with farmer’s markets. You can walk to them in your own neighborhood. It’s easier for people. I also love the simplicity of a community garden: it’s small, something people can access, walk to, you know what’s being planted and how it’s being planted, you can get involved even if you don’t know how to grow things.

And finally, a few political questions…

Most people involved in these issues wear many hats. Are there other activities that you personally do that have to do with issues of sustainability/ political and/or food justice?

I’ve spent so much time exploring information, I feel like that’s kind of my role right now. At my house, we are starting to compost, but it’s hard in Chicago because you have to figure out where to take the compost and what to do with it if you don’t have the room to have your own garden. I want to get involved in either a food co-op or an urban farm. I’ve been teaching and collecting information and doing youth work for so long and making artwork about it….now I want to do something with food and I’m trying to find out what that might be.

Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way? If so, what is the simplest and most radical component of your practice?

Yes. I ask questions every day. I use asking questions as a model in youth work a lot. For example, What is the root of different forms of oppression? It takes lots of questions to get there. We use the metaphor of a tree to think about this: you have leaves, branches, trunk, soil and finally you get to get down to the root. It’s the same with the food system. What’s coming from the ground?

Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?

I do shop at Whole Foods. I don’t always want to. I want another option. Whole Foods locations often take time to get to. Their bulk section is the reason I go. It’s hard to find places that will have a bulk section and access to organic produce that isn’t too expensive. During the winter in Chicago, you have everything stacked against you: winter, traveling, and you can’t get access to locally grown vegetables.

At my house, we get all of our produce from New Leaf Grocery because they are small and more local than Whole Foods. My food-buying process is everywhere, to get certain food for certain reasons and to keep the price down. That’s why I’m excited about the fact that there’s a food co-op starting on the north side, although it will be a while before it’s up and running.

What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to make them more sustainable/ to improve or alter their relationship with food?

Just take ten minutes to think. Sit. Turn off your computer and your tv. Allow yourself a minute or ten to think while you’re eating while you sit there. How does your body feel? We often don’t think about ten minutes of not doing something. Think and ask yourself questions…who knows where that will lead?

I think of this process as brain cleansing. A friend of mine in Oakland once said, “ We clean our bodies and go to the bathroom but we don’t let things exit from our brains.” Just being quiet for a minute and flushing your brain of things can be so beneficial—and difficult. You don’t have to spend more than ten or 20 minutes doing it. Just think about cleansing in your own mind and what that means for you. It doesn’t have to meditating or even quiet, but take ten minutes with yourself.

When will your performance on food justice, Food & The Soul, take place? Where can folks read more about it and about your work?

Well, we’ll be doing a preview at the Rooting Symposium spring meal on May 5th.

The longer performance will take place on May 18 and 19 and June 2. You can read about it here:

You can also read about the awesome Howard Area Community Center here:

Interview: Nance Klehm


 Nance Klehm 

An Interview by Alix Anne Shaw and Megan Issacs

AS: The Rooting Symposium brings together artists, chefs, and farmers. Your practice is very diverse: you do urban foraging, have an urban homestead, have done art exhibits to showcase soil-building, and have helped establish a seed archive, to name only a few. So your work seems to span all of these realms—artist, farmer, and chef. Can you talk about that? 

NK: My academic training is in anthropology, not art. I use artistic strategies to reinvigorate the issues that are important to me. That’s because I work with very broad audiences—conservative evangelicals, immigrants, architects, academics—so my language, visual strategies, and performances need to bridge a lot of worlds. For example, if I want to demonstrate how our bodies are a microcosm of the landscape, that how we treat our bodies is how we treat landscape—these are ideas that people can’t or don’t want to hear. As a result I have to use creative ways of getting involved and gauging reactions. Often these involve humor. I consider humor to be an artistic strategy that opens people to things they might not otherwise consider.

I’m a rural person. I grew up on a farm and it took me a long time to realize that when I went outside in the city, I was in public. Any action in the city is a public performance. I use that idea as a way of reaching people.

AS: You call yourself an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticulturalist, and permaculturalist. What got you interested in this work?

NK: I grew up in northern Illinois on what used to be hundreds and hundreds of acres of farmland and wild land. It has now become the sprawl between Chicago and Rockford. I’m a fifth-generation horticulturalist. What I’m doing is my nature, is really deeply rooted since birth and possibly biological. It’s not theoretically-driven. 

AS: Can you describe in more detail the way you see the work that you do?

NK: So much of what I do is deep practice. They are lifetime practices, things that I do naturally every day. I make some of these practices into short-term projects—for example, Humble Pile. In that project, I collected 22 people’s shit in buckets for three months. Then I transported it on my bicycle, composted it, and gave the soil back a year later. It was a way of demonstrating our capacity as soil-makers. I tell people that I’m not doing that project at present, but I still shit in a bucket. Some of the people from the project still shit in a bucket! But people aren’t interested in that; they are interested in a project rather than a way of living. That’s a very urban problem—urban people conceptual, not necessarily interested in practice. They are moving from one idea to the next, from one consumptive moment to the next.

AS: So, are you also an artist? What are your thoughts on art?

NK: The art world draws lines to me but I don’t call myself an artist. I think things being framed as art is impoverishing to the dialogue. The best thing artists can do is get involved as citizens and as neighbors in their cities and townships. The labeling and institutionalization of creativity is not productive in the long run. I’m more interested in the creative, grubby-monkey spirit!

AS: I’m very interested in the work that you do as an urban forager. For you, what is the driving force behind this work?

NK: I’m trying to help people understand that their bodies are connected to landscape, and to help them feel that connection. When I do a public forage, I want people to be able to be outside in a subtle way, an intuitive and sensory way, instead of a recreational way. It’s about observation and small changes, and connecting people to a larger dynamic.

On a forage, the first question is always, “How is it safe for me to eat anything in my environment?” I ask, “If it’s not safe for that plant, why do you think it’s safe for you? You’re breathing the same air, you’re exposed to the same environmental pollution.” We are no safer than the plants around us. We are in communication with all our orifices—nostrils, mouth, pores. Every breath is a liter exchange with our environment, so we are filtering our environment through our bodies. Because it’s all the same, we need to work more carefully with our environment.

I tell people that we’re going to make a pact to eat and nibble and enjoy. If you’re queasy, you don’t have to partake of anything—you can just watch. I tell them, we’ve all ingested dog urine. Don’t worry about it. Anytime you eat a plant in your environment, you’re increasing the probiotics in your body. You can engage homeopathically with both the joy and the contamination that’s out there.

AS: When I tell people that I urban forage for apples that I make into applesauce, they always ask two questions: “Where did you find apples around here?” and “But HOW do you make it?” Do you find this same set of responses? What do they say to you?

NK: I usually don’t answer the questions. To me, they are consumptive, not indicative of true curiosity. I say, “You’ll have to look for the trees. There are five within a two-block radius.” If people are truly curious, they look at you and get wide-eyed and go look for the apple tree. But people lack true curiosity. I’ve also had people who’ve stripped trees and bushes to take more than they need.

I underline that my walks are about spirit and connection and relationship. We drink from a communal cup, and people get over their heebie-jeebies. On my walks, I get chef types, concerned healthy mothers, burning man hippies, people who want to know how to have an abortion, people who want to find psychotropics in their environment. There are people who bring an intention and those who don’t. I’m about protecting the environment and teaching people deeper care and attention to themselves. There are things I won’t point out, that I let people find themselves. By the end of a two-hour forage, people get very close and start sharing with each other. It becomes intimate, deep learning. People get to know each other because they’ve been walking slowly and noticing things. People are changed.

This year, I have a series of seasonal foraging workshops. They are four hours each, one walk in the spring, one in summer, and one in fall. It’ll be in Garfield Park Conservatory. I’m really excited about it!

AS: Is dumpster diving a form of urban foraging? Why or why not?

NK: Sure, loosely. But there is a different set of ethics at work than there is when you are looking for plants in the environment. I’m not a freegan. I support them but I don’t work like that. I don’t forage because it’s free—I do it because I’m connecting with my environment. I dumpster dive for compost because I compost about four truckloads a week. Food waste, landscape waste—I dumpster those for balancing my piles.

AS: What do you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?

NK: Curiosity. I do see a big difference now as compared to ten years ago. But still, no one is asking deeper questions. Many people are satisfied with their vegan smoothie from Whole Foods. They don’t ask deeper questions. I’ve found that most people don’t like to live with questions because it feels risky and too open-ended. There’s a lot of responsibility and personal discomfort. That’s what I’m pushing for.

AS: What are your thoughts on urban farming?

NK: I think there’s no such thing as urban farming. A lot of it is boutique. Half an acre is production gardening. No one knows the land, and no one really has to produce. It’s conceptual, not real. And it’s righteous. When you talk to farmers who actually pay for the land, maintain it, you find that they never earn as much as someone working for a nonprofit. Urban farming grant-funded so there’s no responsibility for land. It’s all kind of a false economy and a false relationship to land. It’s already built on an unsustainable economic base.

AS: I’m curious about your own decision to live in the city.

NK: After college I was in South America working as an anthropologist. When I came back, I got job at the Field Museum and got into a long-term relationship. That grounded me here. I’m pretty uncomfortable in the city—I talk to everybody and am fluent in Spanish—but I see people as consumptive, sad, faddish, and righteous. I like working with people who are interested in the health of the land, land-based people. But I’ve made a career of translating issues to urban people, to trying to get people to act and ask questions. I want to push the eject button every day. I’m currently looking at some property. It’s in a sea of GMO corn and soybeans. I don’t know how I’ll make it unless I have a connection to the city, but I want a deeper connection to the land.

MI: Can you say a bit about your urban homesteading project? Who do you host?

NK: Sure. Lots of different people come to stay with me. You have to be involved in chores and some kind of project. I host activists who want to have a garden, bicycle, use greywater, to form that kind of relationship. I also host sociologists, architects, and artists. It’ have a wide range of people. Right now I have a graphic designer and sculptor. I have a mushroom person coming through who works on remediation projects. You have to be actually engaged and you have to have a project—something you want to learn.

AS: What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?

NK: We need to work with diet and eating things that protect the soil better. There’s a difference between annual and perennial agriculture. We need to be eating more perennial-based vegetables and fruit—and wild foods that are perennial or are self-sowing annuals. Not something you put in and pull out, like lettuce. Lettuce is one of the most ridiculous things that we eat. I will always grow kale and collards but I work with wild plants—dandelion and burdock, cress, ground ivy, chickweed, plantain, early spring stuff.

All our “superfoods” are tropical plants—that’s my problem with the raw food movement. It’s based on tropical agriculture. Also, it’s cold as opposed to warming on the body, and a lot of people I’ve met who do raw food seem to need deeper, more warming foods in their bodies.

I do believe in eating animals. I understand the politics of being vegan, but as human beings we need to see how we can co-exist with animals. I’m a vegetarian and have been for 36 years but I believe in living with animals and eating them and their products, even if I only eat eggs from my birds. So we need to be eating things that help build soil and habitat. Growing eggplants, tomatoes, spinach—that can be done less.

AS: What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do to change their relationships in the way you’ve been talking about? 

NK: Go outside and try to connect deeply to what’s happening around you right now. Listen to the questions that float up from that connection for yourself. Drop the theoretical conceptual bullshit and just ask those questions. Connect your body to the landscape. Grow food and cook at home—stop going to restaurant. Look at the bugs, watch the birds, be curious about how a dandelion grows from a seed. Watch sparrows mate and the tree buds grow fatter and fatter.

AS: What else would you like to say about these issues?

NK: There’s a real lack of bodily engagement in our culture today. I think everybody wants to jump in the mud. They want to be given permission. That’s what I do.

AS: How can folks get more involved?

NK: Find me on Facebook. I’m Nance Klehm. Or go to my websites:

I’m also speaking at the School of the Art Institute on April 24th at 4:30. It will be held in the Sharp Building, Neimann Center, 36 S. Wabash.

MI: Thanks so much for talking with us today!

Interview: Alane Spinney

Interview with chef and artist Alane Spinney by Alix Anne Shaw

I’d like to begin with some questions about art and food.

You are an illustrator and photographer and as well as a chef. What connections do you see between being a being an artist? Is being a chef a practice in the same way that being an artist is?

Yes, they are absolutely one and the same. It’s about making things. It is part of the ethic that was instilled in us at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] that we craft things with our hands. This is what makes us different as artists. The beauty and tragedy of cooking is that what you craft disappears. The workmanlike part is the same—the idea that you get up, pick up your tools and go to work—wherever that work might be. At the end of the day, what you’re looking for is the same, too: engage the person who’s looking at your work or eating your food. Hopefully, you both charm and challenge them.

Photo copyright Alane Spinney. Used with permission 2013.

On the other side of the question, do your interests in food manifest themselves in your artistic work? If they don’t, why not?

That’s something I’m struggling with right now—how to make the artistic work I make mesh more seamlessly with the food I make. I think there’s going to be a confluence, but I’m just not sure how that’s going to look. You know, the way you can feel something about to break in your work, but you’re just not sure where the fault line is? I find myself pouring over images I’ve taken of vegetables, trying to make a new sense out of them. There’s more than just a tomato or greens. I also don’t know how it’s going to manifest in future work; I just know it’s going to.

Photo copyright Alane Spinney. Used with permission 2013.
Photo copyright Alane Spinney. Used with permission 2013.

Photo copyright Alane Spinney. Used with permission 2013.

William Deresiewicz has written forcefully that being a foodie has replaced knowledge of high culture. According to him, “A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.” Do you agree that being a foodie is replacing our knowledge of music and art? Is this a problem?

 Yes, I find the whole idea of the foodie problematic. I hate the way that it’s become an upper-middle class conceit. I hate the trophy kitchens it’s spawned, because no one cooks in them. And I hate the way that real food meant for real people has become a spectacle and consumption…in no small part because I go to the butcher shop and I’m supposed to pay $9.99 lb for a lamb shank—that’s peasant food, dammit! [Laughs.]

Somehow being a foodie is acceptable in certain circles—people can still be “just folks” and foodies. I grew up with a classical music playing in my house, but for many people now, knowing anything about classical music or painting is considered pretentious. That’s a problem, because music and art weren’t created to be pretentious.

In our present historical moment, do you see a connection between our relationship to food and our relationship to art—as viewers or consumers?

The consumption of fast food and the consumption of advertising seem analogous. The vast amount of food that Americans eat is, well, dreck. Whether they have the trophy kitchen or a subscription to Food & Wine, when you look at what they had for lunch, it’s Subway or a Big Mac. In the same vein, sometimes advertising is the closest thing people get to art. It may very well be the only time they hear classical music—that, and at a movie.

Now for some questions about food.

Describe what kinds of work you do as a chef. (You can construe “work” as openly or specifically as you like here.)

I have been a volunteer chef at a soup kitchen in Providence for the past 5 years, and I recently started working at a new upscale bakery / cafe in town. So my current culinary work can be defined like this: fine dining and soup kitchens. No mushy middle. That’s fine by me. The soup kitchen is really a meal site [called City Meal Site], where we serve a sit-down, 3-course meal for anywhere from 150 to 275 people each week. We operate out of a church hall that’s in smack in between the state’s largest homeless shelter and the Providence Police Department headquarters. We do a brisk trade, and we’re a very motivated bunch of cooks. Most meal sites think it’s fine to just open a can of Chef Boyardee, but I think that everybody deserves a good, delicious meal. Obviously, the menu will be different [than at a fine restaurant], but that doesn’t make the culinary effort different. Every week, we work with what we have and with the budget we have to try to make the best meal we can. And I think we do a pretty damn good job.

Tell me what got you into this food justice work.

Unemployment. I graduated from culinary school just as the economy tanked. I found that the meal site was in need of cooks, I called the Director, showed up with my knives, and that was five years ago. I’ve been volunteering ever since. I’ve been very grateful: I did find full-time employment and my employers have been accommodating, not only in giving me time off each week, but in giving donations. Without them, I couldn’t have kept doing it. Some Tuesdays it’s hard, but when I get to the kitchen each week and start cooking with the guys, it’s all worth it.

Tell me about one of your earliest vivid experiences with food. How has this shaped the way that you engage with food now?

There are two, actually. One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 and we were eating a stir-fry she had made. It was very exotic. It was a summer night in the Adirondacks and we were sitting on a big old porch and the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling was on the record player. It was one of those moments in childhood that you remember with vivid clarity—the music, the sun on the mountains, the food—and liking it—loving it all.  I wanted to replicate that. As a chef, I’ve been chasing that moment, and sometimes finding it—either cooking myself or with someone else.

Later on, I was at Apsara [an Asian restaurant in Providence] and I wasn’t very hungry. I ordered egg drop soup. What they served was the simplest and most perfect of foods. The stock was clear and beautiful and the egg couldn’t have been more than a day old. Chicken stock with an egg in it and a little sesame oil on top: it was a miracle. That’s what food should be.

What so you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?

The communal. We spend too much time eating in cars. We spend too much time eating alone. We spend too much time eating in front of the television. That sounds like scolding, but I think that to divorce food from the communal act of eating together is to turn it into fuel. It’s supposed to be more, to nourish the soul. Does that mean every meal has to be some sort of high communion? Of course not. But by not eating together, we’re really losing something. I’m going to go back to the Meal Site here. We have many guests who could probably afford to feed themselves, but they come every week to have somebody to sit down and eat dinner with. They have friends that they meet. These are very poor people, and it’s gratifying to watch them eat with a friend, linger over coffee, and leave renewed. This is probably the most gratifying part of the Meal Site work. It’s something that folks with the trophy kitchen should look for.

What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today—locally, nationally, or globally?

Wages. American wages have been stagnant since 1970. People don’t have enough buying power and they go to Wal-Mart because they have to. If you go to Wal-Mart you end up with crappy processed food. Yes, I know they sell organic, but can you afford organic food on $7.25 an hour? If you don’t make enough, you end up buying crappy food, or you work two jobs and you don’t have time to sit down and eat the food. If you eat crap food, you have health issues. If you track most of the problems Americans have with their food, I think you can put it right back to stagnant wages. Type II diabetes is not a health concern for the top 1%, nor is obesity. But when all you have is $7.25 an hour, it’s not surprising that you start to have problems, both social and medical.

What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?

I hope we haven’t lost the chance to get to some kind of new ideal. I hope for a future in which we can all afford access to healthy local food.  I’m gratified by the growth of farmer’s markets and gratified by the fact that in Rhode Island you can use food stamps at farmer’s markets. That’s great. And in my own little personal utopia, we would have outreach workers and teachers—cooks and chefs—showing people how to make tasty, healthy, food, pretty food, food anybody can make.

What is the most important thing you know about food? About art?

Food has the power to transform the way you look at the world. Food is the gateway to different cultures, different worlds, and different communities. It’s also the easiest and most accessible way to access a culture that’s not your own.

Would you say the same of art?

Yes. Absolutely.

Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way?

Yes, inasmuch as a radical is a person who wants to address issues at the root and not the surface, I am an unapologetic radical.

Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?

I do shop there. [Sighs heavily.] Put down that I sighed! I am conflicted, because I can purchase food there that I cannot purchase anywhere else….for instance, grass-fed beef that’s reasonably local. I could get into a CSA that supports beef, chicken, and eggs, but right now I don’t have the income to do that. The owner’s politics are absolutely appalling–he’s an Ayn Rand libertarian, and that’s anathema to me, but my sister works there. I know personally that Whole Foods is very good about wages and health insurance for their employees. They’re very proactive in making sure that they have a healthy workforce that has access to healthy food. In Providence, there’s no food coop—so it’s either Whole Foods or pink-in-plastic [factory farmed meat]….so what are you going to do?

What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do to improve or alter their relationship with food?

There are two things. First, sit down with somebody and share a meal. Try something you haven’t tried before. The second, and perhaps even more important, is go meat free at least one day a week.

I’m surprised to hear you say that.

I loves me a steak, but from everything I’ve been reading, if people really want to reduce global warming and climate change, the best way is to reduce consumption of factory-farmed protein. Just one day a week!  It’s one small thing that would have a huge impact globally. It’s an opportunity to introduce new food into your diet and it would affect real change right now. Sit down, have a nice curry dal, and greens! And chickpeas!

What else would you like to say about food, or art?

I would just tell people to go make something.  Make a sketch, make an omelet—just make something. It’s not grand or glorious, but you’ll feel much better for having made something with your own two hands.

Artist and chef Alane Spinney

Artist and chef Alane Spinney

Interview: Jenny Kendler

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

I realized a while back that I look far more to non-art sources for inspiration, or if I’m looking at art, it’s generally vintage naturalists prints, or historical art and art objects from Western and non-Western sources. I read a lot and take inspiration from both fiction and non-fiction, as well as nature/activism magazines (favorites include Orion, YES! and National Geographic). One unusual source, in particular, is a collection of pre-1900’s nature books that I own. The etchings in them are endlessly interesting. 

I also watch a lot of films, and will admit to loving to browse my Tumblr feed, when I have free time, to search for all kinds of interesting images which I keep organized on my computer for future reference. I dream about art often, and sometimes get good ideas from reading through the dream journal I keep near my bed to note strange images or interesting ideas.

Do you ever work collaboratively? If so, what type of projects have you worked on and what was your role?

I  enjoy working collaboratively as I find that it always provides a new way of creating, and often allows you to recognize and get outside of the “rules” you may have set up in your own practice. 
Some projects that I have collaborated on include “In a Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists,” a performative project for the 100th CAA in Los Angeles (2012). The project was orchestrated by fellow artist/environmental activist Dai Toyofuku who assembled a group of artists and conservation biologists to create the project, which asked people in the audience to take conceptual responsibility for certain endangered species in California. In exchange, as as a reminder or their commitment, they were given an original artwork of the species. The project, which included animal, insect and plant species, was about creating generosity and community across species lines. 

Myself and artist/illustrator Molly Schafer also collaborate on The Endangered Species Print Project (ESPP), which we founded in 2009, and to date has raised over $10,000 for biodiversity conservation efforts. 
Through ESPP, we were invited by the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization revered in environmental circles for their hard-hitting legal activism on behalf of threatened species and wild-lands, to participate in their amusing Endangered Species Condom Project, an effort to raise awareness about the link between overpopulation and species loss. Molly and I created the artwork for the first round of the project, which included 450,000 condom packages given out nation-wide, and was covered in a New York Times article and featured on a billboard in Times Square. 

Could you speak a little about The Endangered Species Project? (It’s a great thing, I have gotten two prints as gifts for people.)

Thank you, we truly appreciate your support!

Molly Schafer and I came up with ESPP when we found ourselves increasingly frustrated by the limitations of the white wall gallery system. While we were both making work that spoke about the human relationship to the natural world (and I do still feel art has an important role in any movement), we wanted to do something that also had a direct, tangible impact on biodiversity and critically endangered species. 
We came up with the concept of creating limited-edition prints of these species, where each edition number would be the number of that species remaining in the wild. For example, only 45 Amur Leopards remain, so the print edition for that artwork is 45. We saw this as a way to link the concepts of scarcity and preciousness between both this rare art object and the endangered individual species. In order that 100% of the purchase price goes to conservation, project is sponsored by OtherPeoplesPixels, the artist portfolio website company I co-founded with my husband in 2005.

Artwork for the prints is created either by Molly or myself — or one of the 11 other artists who have collaborated with us on the project. To date we have created prints to benefit 21 species (both animals and plants), and interest in the project continues to grow. (To learn more about the project and to support the species of your choice with the purchase of an archival print, please visit:

Do issues relating to food ever enter into your artwork/activism?

Sure, I think that anyone interested in connecting to the Earth and their environment has to think about where our food comes from. My interdisciplinary practice includes leading wild-foraging walks and workshops, most recently at the ACRE residency in Wisconsin. Leading more of these walks is something that I’d love to continue to do, since I think that learning about the edible plants that grow all around us makes us more attentive to nature, provides historical context for food-culture, and inspires people to get more involved in the natural world. One of the main focuses of my practice is to have people engage/re-engage with the wonder inherent in our participation in nature, so watching anyone realize that those little “clovers” (actually Common Yellow Woodsorrel, Oxalis stricta) that grow all over taste like delicious lemon-lime is always a joy!



By Sarah K. Benning

Interview: Amber Ginsburg

An Interview with Amber Ginsburg
by Sarah K. Benning

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Could you describe your practice?

   I have a research generated and site generated installation practice that looks at questions of bodies of knowledge, really two bodies of knowledge. One of them is archival knowledge that is stored in traditional forms like libraries and the internet. There is this interesting relationship to that about completeness. I’m interested in the aspiration and failure of the completeness of that archive.

   At the same time, I am really interested in the performance of the repertoire, knowledge that is passed down, requires presence, and is enacted and performed through the body and is transmitted generally from person to person.  That body of knowledge is often considered relatively unstable, but I think there are many beautiful and long standing human performances that are very stable. I think that’s where I kind of circle around a couple of areas in my work. One of them is objects and how they are used and often food or shelter or survival. And these kinds of networks of knowledge coalesce around these things.

Given the scope of the upcoming Symposium, could you expand on the food aspects of your work?

   I didn’t’ realize that food was such an important part of my work probably until the last two or three years.  I think part of that is because my background is as a production potter. I kind of came to art-making leaving that behind, if that makes any sense at all. I was going to work in a very new and different way and break that very understandable and known relationship between object, food, and body and I wanted to really kind of move away from that. And I now realize five or ten years later that actually I have been, not so much moving away, but actually cracking that open and looking at it through all of these different kinds of lenses.

   And so I engage with food in a number of ways, and one of them is very directly. I collaborate with an artist named Lia Rousset, who’s also a graduate form the School of the Art Institute, and we work together. I work, perhaps, more on the metaphoric end, but she has actually become a full time farmer, grower, and educator and has an art practice within that and separately. I have a full time art-teaching practice with an interest in those subjects. So, our projects very often center around food.

   Our most recent project was Cure at 6018 North with Tricia van Eyk. Lia grew roughly 300 bulbs of garlic and Tricia’s space is in transition, so all the walls are busted out and it’s just 18 inch studs, and we wove the space with the garlic. And some really interesting things came out around that. This is this interesting thing between performed knowledge and archival knowledge. Garlic has a long history as a curative very literally, but also the impetus for that exhibition was this little-known necessary performance that garlic needs to hang in a cool, dry place for three weeks for it to be able to store.  So we were actually putting on display this very beautiful object, but at the same time showing very literally this functional farming aspect. So it’s these little intimate knowledges of farming that we are interested in bringing to the public. But also at the same time, were learned about the garlic itself. We expected it to be overwhelmingly olfactory, to have just this overwhelming garlic smell.  It turns out chefs, when they often press garlic with the side of a knife and crack it open, there are enzymes and proteins in garlic that hold until they collapse and are pushed together and activated, and that’s what releases the smell. There are many little ways in which we are both providing  the little bit of expertise we have and also receiving expertise from people when they interact.

Collaboration seems to be a large part of your practice, could you talk a little more about that?

   It is [laughs]. I would say there are two levels of collaboration. This is where food sometimes intersects rather interestingly. I collaborate in a very tradition sense with other artists on projects, but I also feel as if I collaborate with certain histories. Those become another character or narrative in the work.

   An example of that, Katie Hargrave and I have been working for the last five years on Johnny Appleseed and his history. We collaborate, I would say, on multifaceted lore in American history and we are always interested in bringing a multiprismatic view to something that is either not known at all or something that is almost too well known.

  Johnny Appleseed falls into the ‘too well known.’ So, we started our collaboration by doing massive archival research on every reference we could find to Johnny Appleseed. And his image has transformed and been used in really interested political instruments for the apple industry, for prohibition, for entrepreneurialism, for anti-American Indian propaganda—a huge story. We have a kind of memory game that we play to explore that, but we also are interested in embodying the knowledge of his, as we call it, patron saint object: the apple. So Apples are poly-zygotic, which means that, like two people mating and getting an unknown mixture of chromosomes, it’s the same with apples. If you plant an apple seed you basically have no idea what you are getting. In colonial America, where there were very few flavors, apples were mostly tart. They were used for alcohol, not even cyder but hard alcohol called applejack, and most were either inedible or used as a flavor of sour or bitter when they were dried. So, we have been doing lots of experimentation with the full range of flavors within that apple, while simultaneously learning to plant trees, grafting, and we have found a source of the “original” and last Johnny Appleseed tree. We have a project that we hope comes to fruition in about 20 years where we pair a poly-zygotic seed trees with our original Johnny Appleseed trees across the Midwest. So the practice operates on, what I would say, slow and fast, right, two trees is a very slow project that we would like to see unfold in x-number of years. And there are very fast projects where we’ll go into a gallery and host a broad sense of tasting or a game or something about Johnny Appleseed.

This 20-year growing project is really fascinating and I am curious about how time enters into your work. You talk about archiving and history and many of your projects are very methodical, and I am wondering how time influences you as a maker and what affect you hope it to have on the viewer.


Yes, there are so many ways I could answer that question. These issues are larger than food.  So, I’ll try to give you a couple of answers that maybe circle around the fact that I don’t really know yet. I think that is a really important question I am working out. So, there was an exhibition up at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. One of the pieces called Charge had a light box with 500 potatoes lighting up 100 diodes that weakly lit this light box. And then I’m working with another artist, Marissa Lee Benedict, where we ground all those potatoes down in a blender and milked them by hand, squeezing them through cloth to harvest the potato starch, which we are now doing experiments to create a castable bioplastic. That is going to be connecting with another piece called Break, which was breaking hundreds of dishes in a 16mm film. And, what I would say is that piece and that work is operating as a laboratory, it is changing.

I’ve come to use this performative space of the gallery if I can as an auxiliary studio space to address a problem that I call the “Ta-Da Problem of Art.” So, it’s almost a feminist questions. It comes from theories of having a dinner party. You work really hard and someone says to you, ‘Oh this is wonderful, it must have taken you so long,’ and you say, ‘Oh it was nothing.’ And this kind of refuting of the importance of labor I really question. I question that because it’s refuting the underlying knowledge that goes into the processes that make a result. And since I am interested in webs and bodies and structures of knowledge, to not find mechanisms to reveal those, which almost always require time and labor. If you deny those then you are stuck with the “Ta-Da.” You are stuck with the result. I am working to open that dynamic of knowledge systems through very open performances.

But I think these issues are very much related to our food system here in this country.

 The “Ta-Da” problem [laughs]. Yes, all we have left is the “Ta-Da” moment. It’s all perfectly wrapped, it’s never seen dirt, it’s never seen nutrients, it’s never seen any of these intimate little moments of knowing when you need to clip a bud or all of those things. 

   So there’s that sense of time, which I would say is a kind of micro-knowledge scale of time that I am interested in. On a more macro scale, I would say that knowledge is something that we experience in the moment, but it has this really wonderful elastic stretch to the past and, with technology, to the future. Technology can be wildly complicated or extremely rudimentary, like taking the palm of your hand and scruffing the ground to put a seed in. I use that term very loosely. So time, this idea of past, present, future,  in terms of knowledge, I am always curious whenever I begin researching or engage in a project, Where is the nexus or nugget, or kind of hidden curiosity around the knowledge of that thing that stretches in both directions? And food, because it’s so elemental and part of our survival, is constantly in such cultural flux—such tremendous dynamic, exhilarating, terrifying—cultural flux. It’s inevitable, I think, not to be curious about this direction of past, and present, and future. 

    So time is very important in my work. The duration of the present process that is happening, but also the durational history of a specific facet.

More of Ambers work can be seen on her website:

Blog Post: Why Celiac Disease Is A Political Issue

NFCA Celiac

NFCA Celiac

CeliActivism: Why Gluten Intolerance is a Political Issue

When people learn that I have celiac disease, their response is usually what can best be characterized as one of, well, horror. “Oh no! That’s terrible! What do you eat?” No bread, no pizza, no beer? How can a person survive?

Luckily, people are slightly more likely to have heard of gluten intolerance—or to know someone who has it—than they were even five years ago. Back then, people just used to look at me like I had six big, ugly heads. Despite improved awareness, though, I still don’t hear the a key aspect of gluten intolerance being discussed—not by celiacs, public health advocates, food activists, farmers, vegans, Whole Foods shoppers, or organic gardeners. It’s the fact that celiac disease is a profoundly political issue.

To explain why this is the case, I’d like to begin by thinking abou ta few, well, categories of the horror my revelation tends to produce. A few of the most common:

A)  Celiac disease? OMG! You are a freak of nature condemned to a life of donut-less misery.

B)  Wow, that’s too bad. I’m sure glad I don’t have that problem.

C)  Honestly, you are a hopeless neurotic. This gluten stuff is just another fad. (What? You’re also vegetarian? For ethical reasons? Come on! How picky can one person be?)

Other celiacs, will, I know, be familiar with this, er…. menu of reactions.

Because they all tie in with my larger point, I want to think about each of these responses in turn. First of all, there’s response A). I have to say in reply that gluten intolerance isn’t that bad. Really. It’s not as if I have a degenerative illness: all I have to do is avoid gluten-containing foods. In contrast to 30 or even 15 years ago, when a diagnosis of celiac disease condemned you to a life of pot roast, potatoes, and gluey rice pasta, it’s now possible to buy gluten-free goods of all kinds. Ok, I miss baklava. Barring that…I can get almost anything I want. Even bagels.

In fact, I eat very well. Despite the fact that all those gluten-free goodies are available, I mostly don’t eat them. They can be expensive and not that healthy.  For instance, many gluten-free foods contain a lot of fat to make them seem like replicas of gluten-containing foods. But when you eat fresh foods, and when you stop expecting your food to be exactly like the food you ate before, avoiding gluten is not that hard.

Why do people think gluten intolerance is so terrible? First, they’re used to processed convenience foods. They can’t imagine life without Pop Tarts, Cinnabon, and Lunchables. Second, they fail to realize that it’s largely the additives, and not the food itself, that are the main problem. Many people tell me they’re “avoiding gluten” by not eating bread. According to a recent consumer survey, gluten-avoiders now make up fully one third of the American public. I applaud their intentions, but, alas, not their level of attention.

Unfortunately, what most people who are attempting to avoid gluten miss is the component of food additives. Food starch modified, barley malt, and “natural flavors”—all of these ingredients can blindside people who think they’re going gluten-free. It’s amazing how often you have to read the label to make sure that food you thought was safe really is. By way of examples, here are a few of the gluten-containing processed foods most people don’t think twice about when they “avoid gluten”: Twizzlers (wheat flour), Rice Krispy Treats (barley malt), Campbell’s Tomato Soup (wheat flour?!), granola bars (oats), french fries (cross-contamination with those onion rings from the fryer), soy sauce (wheat flour), pre-shredded cheese (flour coating to keep it from sticking), and hot dogs (wheat-based filler). It’s not just about the bun, folks. But avoid processed foods—or at least read the label—and it’s pretty hard to get tripped up.

As a result of avoiding processed foods, my diet is my healthier than the average American’s, and my palate is much wider. I eat Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern, Japanese, and Vietnamese food with enthusiasm. Sure, they may serve bread, but these cultures and cuisines don’t rely on gluten as a key additive the way the typical American diet does. There are in fact a plethora of other grains out there, and these cuisines use them. In Kenya I had amazing bread made from cinnamon, cardamom, and steamed rice; in India, bread made from millet. Ethiopian cuisine uses teff, a tiny, nutty grain, to make the bread staple, injera. Even when I was in France, that bastion of yummy baked goods, I didn’t have much of a problem. I ate fresh potatoes, salad, and even a bite of pâté from a wild boar my friend’s father had hunted. The food was fresh. It was delicious. Far from feeling like I had missed out on wonderful eating experiences, I feel like I’ve had more of them. In this sense, gluten intolerance isn’t a disease. It’s an opportunity.

Response B)—”glad it’s not me!”—also deserves attention. The fact is, it might be. As a recent New York Times article points out, more people who aren’t necessarily celiacs are becoming aware that they may have gluten sensitivity. This could be due, in part, to the increasing presence of gluten in our food supply. Did you know that bread is now being produced using wheat strains that are genetically modified to contain more gluten? I didn’t. For goodness sakes, with a third of Americans avoiding gluten, why? Because gluten gives bread its springy texture and makes shipped bread last longer. Thanks a lot, GMO grains.

Not to sound the alarm bells, but I with reference to response B), I also find that people are woefully under-informed about the symptoms and prevalence of celiac disease. Consider the following statistics, from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness website:

  • One in 133 people in the US has with celiac disease. That’s three million.
  • By a conservative estimate, 85% of people suffering from celiac disease aren’t diagnosed. And a typical diagnosis still takes 6-10 years.
  • Celiac disease doesn’t necessarily present in the form of gastrointestinal upset. It can show up as symptoms including dermatitis, chronic canker sores, stunted growth, mental confusion, and bone pain, to name a few. Common misdiagnoses include chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, failure to thrive, and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • It’s also possible not to have any noticeable digestive symptoms. This was the case with my sister-in-law, whose antibodies were off the charts when she finally got her test results.
  • Whether or not you’re symptomatic doesn’t matter. Celiac disease damages your intestine and leads health problems over time. It can even cause other food issues, such as lactose intolerance. Over time, celiacs become more and more malnourished and frail, which is why many aren’t diagnosed until they’re in their eighties.

All right, you say, maybe I’ll get tested. But a little bit of gluten won’t hurt. That Rice Krispy treat you mentioned doesn’t have much gluten…right?

This response is strongly tied to celiac-response C): Celiacs and our ilk are just being neurotic. I know it seems that way, but we have our reasons. Consider that in Canada and Europe, the federal safety level for gluten is twenty parts per million. Now imagine that you have one million M & Ms. Of those million, most are blue but twenty are red. It isn’t many. But you can’t tell which is which, because these M & Ms are very, very tiny. Could just a handful make you sick? Unfortunately—and I know this from experience—yes.

All these responses bring me to my point that celiac disease is not just a private dietary issue. Long ago feminism taught us that the personal is political, and that’s the case here too. Celiac disease is political because it entails close scrutiny of what’s in our food supply. Not just what, but why. Why on earth aren’t oats, a gluten-free grain, considered safe for celiacs? Because the fields where the oats are commercially grown and the industrial machinery used to process them are hopelessly contaminated with wheat flour. You won’t find this gluten on the list of ingredients, but if you’re a celiac, you know that a packet of Quaker oatmeal, or even the wrong corn chips, can seriously mess you up.

While we’re asking why all that gluten is there, let’s also ask why we don’t know about it. Manufacturers aren’t likely to volunteer this information if they don’t have to. And the American public is not trained to read food labels. Unless you’ve had to deal with a dietary problem, you are probably only dimly aware of the number and type of additives in the American food chain: extra sodium, food starch modified, food coloring, sulfites, high-fructose corn syrup—these unhealthy ingredients are only necessary for the production of food meant to be packaged, shipped, stored for long periods of time, and thoughtlessly consumed by a public that has been carefully primed to want them. In case you missed it, a recent exposé on the deliberate engineering of addictictive junk food recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I’ve often joked that if I had to make a bomb shelter, I’d construct it out of two indestructible substances on the planet—Cheez Whiz and Twinkies. Gross, right? But let’s face it—this food doesn’t spoil. It’s nearly indestructible because it’s dead.

The fact that we are unaware of what’s in our food goes even deeper, though. Many people are so divorced what they eat that they don’t understand what their food is. We don’t read labels; beyond this, we don’t understand how our food is made or what it’s made from. As a celiac, I’m astonished by the nunber of people who don’t understand that bread is made from wheat. (Astonishingly, so is pasta). A few weeks ago, I dined out at a well-known Chicago restaurant that prides itself on its use of fresh, organic ingredients. Although I told my server I’m gluten intolerant, she still offered me a beer list and, worse, my salad arrived with a big piece of bread in it. I didn’t want to be that person, (see response C), so I carefully removed the bread and ate the salad. Last week, a server at the Chicago Diner, a well-known vegan restaurant, served me a “gluten free” taco salad containing “chorizo” made from seitan. That’s concentrated wheat gluten. Again, not wanting to be that person, I waited until halfway through my salad to ask, just to make sure, what those tiny bits were. Remember those 20 parts per million? In spite of my best efforts, both of these salads made me sick for three days after I ate them.

With more and more people developing gluten sensitivity and recognizing gluten intolerance, we need to take our analysis beyond simple awareness, to the level of political activism. Call it celiactivism. As an alternative to the set of reactions I detailed above, I propose the following:

A) If you’re a celiac, or if you know a celiac, make people aware of it. Don’t accept the “freak of nature” reaction. Don’t shut up and eat the salad that’s going to make you sick. We can take our cue here from people who’ve raised awareness about diabetes, cancer, and any number of health issues. We too deserve to be taken into consideration, even if, at times, it seems a little over the top.

B) Whether or not you have gluten issues, educate yourself about what’s in your food and question why it’s there. Get in the habit of reading the label. What do all those different ingredients do, and what are they for? Check the ingredients, Google them if you’re curious, and pay attention to how you feel—you might find you have a different kind of food issue you didn’t even know about. This is a simple place to begin. Of course, eating fresh, non-processed food and cooking for yourself if and when you can is also wonderful on many levels.

C) Pressure corporations to remove gluten and other harmful additives from our food supply. Like diabetes, celiac disease is common and gluten sensitivity may be on the rise due to what’s in the food we are already eating. Better yet, for those who can, let’s refuse to eat these ingredients. Instead, let’s grow our own food, buy organic, learn to forage—or at least, eat fresh vegetables.

To all this, and since many readers of this blog will already be on board with the points above, I’ll add response D).

D) Let’s forge links in the food justice conversation. Celiac disease and other food intolerances are as much issues of health and food justice as becoming vegan, combating obesity, growing food locally, or building sustainable gardens. It’s about what they’re feeding the American public and how we will empower ourselves.

Blog Post: On Materialism and Materiality


One of the things that connects my own practices—an artist, cook, gardener—is a shared emphasis physicality, on, if you will, immanence. It seems to me that we live in a world that is increasingly divorced from materials and simple physical actions. Haven’t we all become accustomed to automatic faucets, light switches, and doors, to the point where we sometimes stand motionless, waiting for them to act on our behalf? (Am I the only one who feels a slight embarrassment when I realize that this faucet is still the kind you have to turn on yourself?) I am amazed, though I shouldn’t be, at the number of people I meet who don’t have what I consider to be basic physical skills. Some real-life examples: how to grate a carrot, how to cut lines of text from a newspaper, how to sew on a button.

Beyond this strange turning-away from the simple physical actions, we live in a state of profound ignorance about our environment. I don’t only mean an understanding of our ecosystem and how it functions. I mean the natural world’s material presence. In the United States, it’s perfectly possible to go for one’s whole life without having to think about where raw materials originate, the processes they are subjected to, or where our waste goes. One of my theories about our overuse of gasoline lies in the fact that we never actually see it: the transfer from pump to gas tank is invisible, with no sense of the weight or volume of the fluid on which we so depend. We’re also sadly divorced from a sense of connection with our larger natural environments. A high-school student I tutor recently told me she didn’t know which season was which. That would be understandable if we lived in L.A., but she’s lived her whole life here in Chicago.

In the rarefied world of art school, where I spend much of my time, people do use materials and cultivate physical skills. Yet the disconnection with the environment often manifests in a resistance to anything that references the “natural.” By way of example, I am currently working on a piece that uses rawhide. The skins will be used as a projection screen, in what’s meant to be a melding of the analogue and the digital. I don’t know which is more pronounced: the fact that many of my fellow artists can’t recognize rawhide as a material, or the level of resistance from those who do. With the exception of one vegan, it is not concern for the animal’s life that is the issue. It’s the fact that the material is “primal.” I am ok with the fact I’m using skins because I’ve gone to lengths to ensure that they’re ethically-sourced. As a material for making, rawhide has a long history, and that history continues today. But connection with what is perceived as an older way of being is an embarrassment when one could (and should, these responses imply) be focusing on the world of contemporary pop culture with its concomitant irony, self-aware positioning, and consumerism—in short, with its sheer manufacturedness. Although such projects are certainly valid, one might ask why mere use and reference to “natural” materials is considered both an irrelevant cliché and a cause for aesthetic shame.

People often tell me that I am “not materialistic.” They are usually referring to my resistance to consumer culture and my propensity for holding onto objects I already have instead of buying new ones, even when those objects are, in their opinion, way past needing to be replaced. It’s true that, with a few notable exceptions, I don’t often care about acquiring new products or using objects as status symbols. Ok, I am inordinately attached to my iPhone. But I also mend my clothes, try to buy resale, and have no shame about foraging useful materials other people discard. However, this doesn’t mean I’m not materialistic. I’ve realized lately that I am—in some ways, profoundly so.

My attachment to the things I already have was recently driven home to me by life with my roommate’s dog. Suffice it to say that he has a chewing problem. Lately, he’s destroyed quite a few of my things. My distress over this doesn’t correspond to the monetary value of these objects. I realized that I am attached to a thing because of its connection to someone I care about, or my shared history with it, or its simple functionality. I love my afghan because my former partner’s mother made it for me in my favorite color; my full-length winter cloak because of the occasions on which I’ve worn it and because made it with my own hands, on my ancient-but-sturdy Singer sewing machine. Sometimes, I love an object for its sheer misfit-ness. The distorted ceramic bowls my best friend made in college are a perfect example. The glaze bubbled and burst, rendering the two bowls semi-functional, crater-covered monsters. She gave them to me as castoffs, and I love them equally for their deformity, the fact that she made them, and the beautiful color and texture of the translucent blue glaze.

When I use an object that was a gift from the maker, that person is present to me in my memory and, by extension, in my daily existence. If I take the time to examine the object, I can search out the small imperfections that give evidence of the human hand and skill that went into its making. Such is the immanent presence of attention, of skill, of love. I also have an inordinate fondness for objects that are sturdy and useful, for my widemouth jars and the kitchen scissors I use on a daily basis. We have a shared history—one of comfort and sustenance. All of these objects have a familiarity that grounds me in my otherwise overwhelming daily existence.

A friend once referred to my practice of hanging up my laundry in my pantry as “living like Little House on the Prairie.” It’s not like I churn my own butter, fashion my own doorlatches, slaughter pigs, or even chop firewood to heat my rented Chicago condo. (The condo association prohibits public laundry-hanging; apparently, it’s low-class.) I’m not a Luddite, and I won’t be taking a hammer to my MacBook anytime soon. But hanging laundry is a process that grounds me. Of course, I enjoy the knowledge that I’m saving energy, but beyond this, I find a simple calm in the action of pinning up the laundry, in the cyclical harvesting of my shirts from the line in the mornings. The agricultural way in which I think of this is process is largely unconscious but not, I think, accidental. Like gardening, laundry-hanging is a way of connecting myself to the temporal cycles and physical world around me.

In short, I’m far from the Buddhist ideal of detachment, and, for better or worse, I don’t aspire to it. If radicalism means, as etymology would have it, getting to the root, then I propose that we cultivate a radical form of gratitude to the material world and to the physical actions that allow us to participate in it. This is materialism of a different kind. It is about valuing things for their co-participation in and co-creation of our lives. To do so is to depart from Western ideas about mastery. It is to disavow dominion-theology, to begin dismantling hierarchies and distinctions between what is living and what is not. “When you begin to treat things as embodied,” a Pagan friend once said, “they begin to respond in kind.” Whether or not you agree, it’s indisputable that these philosophies of mastery-over and detachment-from have resulted in the destruction of natural environments, the pollution and human exploitation spawned by capitalism. Using handmade objects, cultivating skills, participating in simple actions—these practices are subversive. They are even, in a small way, radical.

Interview: William Pool of Loud Grade Produce Squad

William Pool with WVO bio fuel

William Pool with WVO bio fuel

William Pool

William Pool

“The Loud Grade Produce Squad is a new, Chicago-based 501 (c)(3), not-for-profit, organization dedicated to educating community groups, businesses and individuals about the benefit of local, organic food production and WVO Biodiesel. Our mission is to educate while constructing projects that are self sustaining and environmentally positive. We approach each project through the principles of permaculture and sustainable development.”

I had the pleasure to meet with William Pool, co-founder of The Loud Grade Produce Squad. I spoke with him regarding the development of the space and his background. On a snowy March day I toured the LGPS founding location in Uptown on the rooftop garden at Weiss Hospital. Their other locations throughout Chicago include; Homan and 16th, Delano Elementary, and the Institute of Cultural Affairs. Their international projects include Chile and, coming soon, Haiti.

William’s family roots are Indiana. He grew up in Chicago, specifically the Evanston and Rogers Park neighborhoods. However, Pool always had a foot in the country. He escaped the city to enjoy the pleasure of his aunt and uncle’s farm. Those precious childhood moments developed his passion for agriculture.

While attending college, Pool studied political science, the politics of agriculture and food systems. When Pool moved back to Chicago he farmed in his own backyard and began to volunteer at the Talking Farm in Evanston, IL . Jared Schenkier, a co founder of LGPS, was doing projects around uptown at that time. The Weiss Hospital approached the alderman, Helen Shiller, to find someone to lead the rooftop garden project on top of Weiss hospital in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. It was only natural to select Schenkier to obtain the space. Schenkier approached Pool regarding the project. Pool was excited to participate, and for two years they worked together to develop the space. They were lucky to be working in construction at the time, including working on private gardens and Homewood Square community. That experience made the development of the garden a natural transition. From the positive responses they received, the team realized that they could start an organization focused on access to nutritious food, education, and social justice.

Pool is passionate about helping people. When he begins working on an open space in a neighborhood he believes it is important to be respectful of the community. His goal is not to beautify or gentrify the neighborhood by making it aesthetically pleasing. It is purely centered on connecting those who live in the community to the garden. Pool believes it is important to avoid imposing in on a neighborhood because he wants the community to feel as if the space is completely their own.

When Pool begins a project in a vacant location, his presence intrigues the neighbors. While working on a new garden, community members approach him with questions. It is this moment that Pool finds the most satisfaction in his work.

Pool is best described as a people person. His goal is to connect communities through agriculture. His down to earth personality attracts people to become involved. He wants his work to relate to their lives rather than be an added burden. Pool will not open a space unless he knows that it will be kept. His philosophy is to please to neighbors and to put a full force effort into all his work. It is important to understand the neighborhood before starting a garden. These spaces are already alive with people congregating, and it is not his wish to impose. Pool stated “The most important thing is being out, hands dirty kicking ass on a block where there is a vacant lot where people need access to food. Being natural, approachable, communicating with people. Nothing works better then that.”

Pool grew up with many international people which gave him the desire to travel and understand various cultures. His travels throughout South America and South Africa taught him that community gardens are an important factor in bringing communities together. Food is a common necessity for all cultures. Therefore, farming serves as a language that can link people together internationally.

The name Loud Grade comes from terminology used by Pool’s target demographics – children. The term refers to high quality, and he uses this name to intrigue kids who would not normally be interested. He is devoted to the children of Chicago. Pool treats kids as his equal, and I imagine him as a big brother or friend to the groups he works with. Pool works with Chicago Public School students in all LGPS locations. I asked what kind of involvement the children have with the farm and if they can eat the food. He replied saying they can help with all aspects of the farm and of course they eat the food, even too much at times. Pool laughed as he remembered one of his favorite stories working with children, saying it was one the greatest memories he had with them. A day when the school group was assisting in collecting greens from the garden, there was a large bucket full of muddy water, kale, mustards and other mixed greens. A little girl ate half of the bucket before anyone even noticed. He said the girl must have been was so hungry and malnourished that she needed these scraps. It was a beautiful moment because she found the nutrition within his farm that she couldn’t get at home.

The children have the opportunity to work on the farm. Teenagers are employed by LGPS to tend to the projects. Pool is proud that he can provide jobs to these teenagers.

Financially, the group supports itself through the classes they provide, and sales made to local grocery stores and restaurants. He is proud to say that they have sustained themselves without grants. The hospital purchases some of the vegetables for their food court, but not much. It is not easy to incorporate their produce into the hospital’s meals, but this is something they will continue to work towards.

LGPS produces kale, spinach, mustards, leafy greens, peppers, eggplant and grows beans as a recovery crop. They also maintain a chicken coup and keep bee hives that produce honey. Pool is also passionate about LGPS creating their own bio fuel from waste. He refers to WVO (waste vegetable oil) as the golden child of bio fuels. His belief is that crops should not be grown for fuel because when growing for fuel you are not growing for food. WVO is already used from food, therefore you get twice the bang for your buck by being able to reuse and create a fuel.

The website holds information on how to get involved, how to buy, more insight on the spaces and cultural exchange. Loud Grade Produce Squad has only been around for a year and already offers so much to the community. William Pool is a pioneer for educating communities on sustainable farming and I am excited to see what he does next.

Article by: Stephanie De Re

Weiss Hospital Rooftop

Weiss Hospital Rooftop

WVO bio fuel

WVO bio fuel

Weiss Hospital Rooftop

Weiss Hospital Rooftop

Weiss Hospital Rooftop

Weiss Hospital Rooftop

Weiss Hospital Rooftop

Weiss Hospital Rooftop

Chicken Coop

Chicken Coop


Interview: Billy McGuinness

food notebook

A Conversation about Hunger

Artist Billy McGuinness speaks about his Hunger Project

Interview summarized by Megan Isaacs


Billy McGuinness, currently a graduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, sat down with me the other day to speak about his Hunger Project, a year long work in response to the 2011 nation-wide fast during which thousands went without food in protest of congressional food and health aid budget cuts. A few big time leaders including the then UN Ambassador Tony Hall and renowned food journalist Mark Bittman participated in the fast and publicly advocated for further conversation and action on such urgent issues of food justice.

Billy remembers the day when his wife called and convinced him to participate, as what brought food issues to the forefront of his attention and sparked his future conceptualization of the Hunger Project. “Rather than advocating for a specific policy, what they (the organizers of the fast) were trying to do was reframe the budget debate as a moral debate. To say its not about dollars and cents, it’s about actual human beings. And I found that really compelling as an approach. Rather than to directly steer the conversation, they were indirectly trying to create an overall frame, and to change the nature of the debate, and bring it into a much more human context.”

For his Hunger Project, Billy later committed himself to eating $4.40 worth of food, equivalent to the average food stamp allocation, per day for an entire year. By weighing and calculating the value of his food, he maintained daily, weekly and monthly running averages of his food intake.  To adapt to any eating related problems he came across in daily life, for instance when he went out to dinner with friends, he balanced out the days when he ate a lot with those during which he ate very little or nothing at all.

“A typical day would be oatmeal in the morning, though towards the end of the project it became white rice, with butter and white sugar which was cheaper. Lunch might be bread, maybe with butter. Dinner would be mac and cheese which is really cheap. If you go to Aldi, you can throw stuff into it and eat it over a few days, to make it stretch.”

Towards the beginning of the project he also came across the issue of what to do with the food people wanted to give him for free. “There was the basic drive (from the people close to him) to not see someone go hungry. I had to take the food. I couldn’t turn it down. But if I didn’t charge myself for it, then the project would become about how much free food I could get, which was not the project I wanted to do. I wanted to do a project about what it felt like to be hungry.”

Throughout the project Billy also experienced psychological changes and cognitive difficulties. For a little while the sight of people eating became grotesque and people of normal weight suddenly seemed huge. He was distracted by his hunger almost all the time and his wife noticed that he was mentally slipping when he started to lose at board games.

“Even when I was thinking clearly, whatever we might be talking about, whatever issue I might be considering was still like the fifth thing on my mind. The first four things were: I’m hungry, I didn’t get enough to eat earlier, when am I going to eat next and wow my body doesn’t feel good. This is what is going through your head. You’re distracted by your physical being. Being reminded that you have a body, and that eating is a basic function”

Additionally, having a three-year-old son who couldn’t understand why his father wasn’t eating the same food as him proved how drastically food issues can affect relationships. “What commonly fails to be significant to our consciousness is how fundamental to human interaction eating is. We eat together, this what we do, particularly as a family. Mealtime is a time to be together. So even though we were sitting down at the same table, just the fact that I was not eating the same food was an issue. For my son it was particularly troubling. He could not accept or understand why papa was not eating the same food as him.”

Billy spent his first real meal the morning after his last day eating blueberry pancakes with his wife and son. He intends to use his project to further public conversation and direct action about food justice issues. “Using this project as a credential that I can take into conversation with both people in power and also with people who are not in power.”

When I asked him about his experiences eating since he completed the project, he said “Even though it can never be like that first meal, its good to have just slightly more gratitude for the fact that I have food. Each time I eat, its like, oh that’s awesome.”

To learn more about the fast that sparked Billy’s Hunger Project, check out Mark Bittman’s article Why Were Fasting in the NYTimes Opinion Section or Tony Halls blog at

Mark Bittman

Tony Hall

Blog Post: On Attention

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by artist Fritz Haeg at Chicago’s Graham Foundation. Haeg’s Edible Estates project has built organic food gardens all over the world, tailoring each garden to available urban spaces with plants appropriate to the ecosystem. In his lecture, Haeg discussed his propensity for plantings that can be foraged. Foraging, he pointed out, involves special kinds of attention. A forager must be able to notice and identify useful plants, watch them until they are ready to harvest, and be able to cook or process them. There is a reassuring sense of repetition and connectedness in foraging, one that calls on us to pay attention to the seasons, the weather, the soil, the overall environment in which we watch and move.

Haeg’s brief mention of foraging got me to thinking about the connections between attending, tending, and paying attention. “I didn’t even notice that” and “Oh, I never noticed!” are phrases I seem to hear more and more frequently in my daily life. Two things strike and alarm me about these utterances. The first is the apparent lack of recognition that in order to notice, one must first pay attention. It seems like a given, but the mental activity of making-space, the cultivation of the blankness that allows us to receive and interpret impressions, is an increasingly endangered skill. But the second–even more alarming–aspect of these comments is the nonchalance with which these phrases roll off the tongue. They are said without a sense that paying attention is not only its own reward, but also a kind of personal and communal obligation. In other words, there is no sense that one should pay attention, or that failure to do so is, well, at least a little bit embarrassing.

Of course, we are all busy people. We are relentlessly ridden by advertisements, emails, soundbites, pop songs, text messages, and people trying to get us to give them money. Even my local Citgo features a TV at the pump, lest I miss an opportunity to have my ears filled with sound, or to be advertised to. The selective limiting of one’s attention is a survival skill, particularly for artists, introverts, and other shy creatures living in the city. I’m as guilty as anyone else of having a sense of attention that often either too fragmentary or simply not turned on. Attention, after all, requires time. But it seems to me that the skill of paying attention is not only something we, as a culture, are losing, but is an activity that is quickly losing cultural value. Why bother paying attention, we seem to have concluded, when technology tracks our every move and tells us all we need to know?

The answer is twofold. First, tending and paying are part of remembering, a form of connecting that is another skill Americans profoundly lack. “People from the United States can never remember anyone’s name,” a Kenyan friend of mine remarked. I hadn’t ever noticed, but it turns out to be true. Of course, in order to remember, we must first attend, that is, we must be present. By this I mean cognitively and emotionally accessible, available to participate with our environment instead of being passively entertained by it.

Lately, I’ve been reading writings by Karen Barad, a physicist, and Elizabeth Grosz, a cultural theorist. Both articulate the view that we humans are, at the very level of matter, beings who co-create our environments at every moment. In other words, we are not Cartesian beings who exist as disembodied minds inside the spacesuits of our bodies, choosing to act on or remove ourselves from the world. “Mind,” Grosz reminds us in her summary of theorist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “is always embodied” (Volatile Bodies, 86). To embrace the view Barad and Grosz articulate is to realize that we never exist apart from the materiality of our environment or from our interactions with it. When we think of our relationship to the world this way, our presence in our environment, our decisions to turn away or engage, have profound implications, whether we realize them or not.

This brings me to the second reason and most profound reason for paying tending and paying attention: it feels good. As a writer, when I want to get at the core of an idea, I often consult–what else–my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. It offers the following thoughts on the word TEND (v.). Beyond the meanings I’ve discussed here, “tend” also means “to listen,” “to move toward,” “to have a natural inclination for,” “to be drawn to in affection,” “to cultivate,” “to offer,” and finally, “to obtain.” It derives from the French word tendre, meaning “to direct one’s course toward” or “extend.” There is, in other words, a tenderness in tending. Tending involves stretching ourselves to connect with other humans and with our environment. In reaching forward–in growing–we both offer and are nourished. This set of relationships, embedded in our linguistic memory, allows us to care and be cared for. Haeg’s carefully-constructed gardens both offer and invite such alert tenderness. The powerful yet gentle force behind them is something we’d do well to remember, to pay attention to, and most importantly, to practice in our daily lives.

Interview: Nancy Phillips

Interview with Nancy Phillips, Ayurvedic practitioner and textile artist

by Alix Anne Shaw

March 5, 2013

Nancy, you are a textile artist and ayurvedic practitioner. You run an ayurvedic business, Life in Balance. You also have a strong interested in permaculture. What connections do you see between Ayurveda, permaculture, and your artistic practice?

There’s an obvious connection between Ayurveda and permaculture, which would be the element of following and allowing nature. Permaculture is a design form and also a philosophy: things work the way they work, Nature knows what it needs to do, let it do that and work for you. Ayurveda to me is a form of permaculture.

The element that feels like it connects all three is difficult to describe, but it’s really important to me—I love being at the cutting edge, the pioneer edge. Art is supposed to open people to new ideas. All three are a way to bring beauty into the world. In ayurveda, I say that people are starving on so many levels—for nutrition, a deep sense of beauty, for kindness—definitely all three of these fill those ways of being nourished and also being in harmony with nature.

Ayurvedic Practitioner Nancy Phillips

Are ayurveda and permaculture similar to an art practice? If so, how? How are they different?

I’m overwhelmed at how much design and how many art skills can be drawn from in doing permaculture. For instance, I’m part of an ashram, and every year the head of the ashram comes and we suddenly have 3,000 to 5,000 people on the property instead of a handful. We spend a whole lot of energy figuring out parking for folks….last year was the first year and there were tons of complaints because people had to walk, so one of the things that’s going to be done is to make the path they have to take so beautiful that it will be an overwhelming, glorious experience. Just this past month, I’ve been doing tons and tons of research and planning. I have twelve separate purposes for gardens: a community food garden, a kitchen garden that’s a keyhole with compost in the center, a kids’ garden, a puja flower garden, a garden for medicinal and dyer herbs, a tropical plant garden, a garden for native planting that encourages pollinators…. It’s not just how to design it engineeringwise, so it works, but also finding a way to make it breathtakingly beautiful. That draws on all the art skills.

In ayurveda, my favorite part of seeing clients is framing medicine in a completely different way. At a doctor you have tests, get five minutes with the doctor, are told you have a disease, and they treat you like a machine or a car that needs a part replaced or fixed. In ayurveda, there’s a 180-degree difference. There is a focus on bringing intelligence back. The body is seen as more like a garden, as a very complex ecosystem. Now doctors have suddenly discovered that 90% of your immunity is in the gut. Ayurveda knew that thousands of years ago. This relates to soil as well—it’s an ecosystem, and if you kill everything in the dirt with pesticides, there are no bacteria to break down the plant matter.  It’s the same.

Let’s see…art doesn’t usually have harmful bacteria—but then again, I’ve seen some that does. [Laughs].

On the other side of the question, do your interests in food and sustainability manifest themselves in your artistic work? If they don’t, why not?

I haven’t been doing as much art lately, but the kind of textiles I did was accumulative—adding bits over time. It’s a timed process, so that has some similarities. And also textile art can be very useful,  instead of just art to contemplate. I want to start growing natural plants to make dyes and start people dyeing…perhaps shawls or something else that’s useful.


This is an art world question, but do you see a connection between our relationship to food and our relationship to art as consumers?

We consume art constantly in a commercial way. Some people complain that art has become so commercialized and degraded that it’s lost its divinity. And we’ve totally done that with food. It’s mass produced and people choose it based on sensual, instant fulfillment instead of its original purpose. That’s something I really see in common.

Now for some questions about food. 

I’m always interested in the range of activities that people interested in these issues seem to take up. What are some things that you do, professionally and in your daily life that have to do with food and sustainability? What other hats do you wear besides the ones we’ve been talking about here?

At the ashram, we’re aiming to grow our own food and plant food forests to fill our own needs. Eventually we’ll be off the grid. We’re also talking about learning how to do canning and I dehydrate food—I’m getting into beekeeping and eventually we’ll have animals because they contribute to the soil. We’ll give excess to food banks and eventually have items for sale. I also teach cooking as part of my ayurvedic business. There’s a lot.


What so you see as most lacking today in our relationship to food?

I’d say, people’s disconnections with themselves and complete disconnection from nature. Everything is disconnected. It’s hard to find the information you need, so people are really lacking—there’s this hollow—and they hardly have any idea what it is. They usually fill it with something else besides what nourishes them. We’re not separate from nature. We’re like one of the grains of sand—there’s no way we can be apart from it.


What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?

There’s no question it’s agribusiness and how aggressive it’s become. It’s really got its tentacles in the political and financial arenas and is working to totally take over and stamp out any other competition. Small farmers are disappearing. Then there are chemical components and the lack of life-force. Monocropping was never meant to be and it causes all kinds of problems. Have you ever read One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukouka? In that book, he has half an acre and he grew everything on it. He did everything “wrong” and had no pests and way more yields than you’d expect. Scientists would come and stay with him and study him…. I think food, like medicine, has become a commodity instead of a natural thing, instead of a basic need that we have.


What is your ideal vision of what our food system would look like? 

It would be local, with everybody growing things in their backyard. Not everybody can have a dairy, but small farms would be incorporated into our living systems, not separated from us. No more huge agribusiness farming. We would be growing things in ways where chemicals aren’t needed.


What is the most important thing you know about food?

It’s a gift, a life-gift. It’s something divine and we should it treat as such. Cheese Puffs aren’t food—they’re entertainment!  [Laughs].


Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, how?

Well….yes, mostly because I get very bored if I’m not always pushing boundaries or hitting my head against a wall. If no one’s done it and the task is impossible, I’m there.  Once someone’s done it and it’s normal, I’ve lost interest. But, radical compared to what? Compared to your average person? I don’t even know what that is.

Well, I always think of radical in its original meaning of “root”—as someone who believes in getting to the root of the problem.

Oh is that what it means? My whole life is that! It’s one of the foundations of ayurveda. As early as I can remember having conscious thought, I’ve always known that things could be better. When I was young, my mom was always sick, always going to the doctor, and they’d give her something and she’d get worse. I always knew there was a better way. That was the root of my interest in natural medicine and health. But it’s more than health. In some ways, I could abandon ayurveda completely if some other way were some better way or were a better vehicle to fulfill these drives and motivations to help people. It’s not like people are happy living like this—it’s not fulfilling and it’s not sustainable. So that would be definite yes to being a radical!

Since we’re talking about childhood, what was your relationship to food like growing up?

My mom cooked everything. We sat down at 5:00 for dinner. My mom would apologize all over the place if it was 5:15 or 5:30. Food was a fuel that you ate but it was also a time of family or community. We could have three cookies a day, period. After dinner, by 6:30, the kitchen got cleaned up and the kitchen lights got turned off by 7:00. It was weird—you didn’t go in the kitchen again. On a weekend, maybe….it would be a big production to make popcorn as a late night snack. Now, besides the fact that people are malnourished, people self-medicate with addicting foods. People are eating every hour of the day. It was really different back then. Food had such tradition to it…this is so and so’s brownie recipe. My grandmother—this is Mrs. Thompson’s recipe. This is my sister’s casserole. That grandmother was Swedish and she went to Pope Cooking School in Boston. There were Swedish recipes and things my grandmother would teach me, like how to make a rose out of butter and steamed pudding and things that people don’t eat anymore. Food was also a way for someone to be creative and nourish their loved ones. Even in my little neighborhood [in Park Ridge] people had backyard gardens. We lived two doors down from my grandmother. We had a rhubarb hedge that divided us from the neighbors, so the two households shared it. I used to steal carrots, just pull them up and eat them, barely rinsing them off. The rich earth taste was so good. I’m remembering later, too, when I went to Kyrgyzstan. We’d have breakfast that was yoghurt with dill, tomatoes, and cucumber. The vegetables were so good…it was so good there. I tried to do it at home and it just didn’t work.

Do you support or shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not? 

I try not to. I hate Whole Foods and I think they’re totally evil, but sometimes I’m forced to. I’d rather order from Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks. They deliver to your house for $5 and it’s the same price or cheaper than Whole Foods. You can get their box, but it’s way beyond a CSA box. You can pick it out online, get dairy and eggs…they have organic grass-fed meats now too. I won’t get a pineapple there—

I want to pick out my own—but local farmers have good stuff. Once I bought chard at Whole Foods and I paid $3 and got three leaves. For less at Irv and Shelly’s you get a ginormous bunch. At Whole Foods, the stuff isn’t necessarily good for you, or even organic. But it’s kind of all we have in Chicago, so it’s hard to find alternatives.


What is the simplest and most radical component of your daily life involving food?

It’s normal for me, but for most people, making my own ghee and making things from scratch. I have jars and jars of herbs and grains. I order nuts in bulk, straight from the farms so they’re not irradiated and stick them in the freezer. I’m not vegetarian right now—I don’t eat much meat but I need some right now—so I collect bones for bone broth.

Also, I moved recently and I had to pare down a lot. I realized that mattresses are one of the most wasteful and expensive things that we use. I really wanted a charpoy [wooden bed with webbing that they sleep on in India] but they’re $1500 here and you have to have a custom mattress. So I’m looking at how to make my own bed. That’s really radical.

Another thing I can think of— I clean with vinegar, borax, essential oils and a little bit of soap. We cleaned 95 percent of the whole ashram like that.


What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to change their relationship with food?

The first step is to sit down and make your place some level of lovely, using whatever you have. Sit down to eat—no TV, no reading, and think about eating. Think about what’s in front of you—even if it’s a McDonald’s McNugget. And say thank you. There’s so much effort that goes into feeding a person—growing, harvesting, preparing. Lots of people don’t have anything to eat. Just sitting down is such a huge deal for most people. Then, really take in fully what you’re eating. Then, when you can, try to cook it yourself.

What is the contact info for Life in Balance, your business, and for the ashram?

Nancy J. Phillips, M.Ayur.

Life in Balance Ayurveda

Live & Heal without Side Effects or Toxins


Nancy Phillips, Coordinator – Green Friends, Gardens

MA Center Chicago

Green Friends Initiative, Embracing the World:


Interview: Adam Graffunder

Interview with Adam Graffunder, Urban Farmer

by Alix Anne Shaw

February 28, 2013

Urban farmer Adam Graffunder

Urban farmer Adam Graffunder

Adam, I got to know you in Providence, where you have started an urban farm on an abandoned lot. Can you describe your farm and the work that you do?

I moved to Providence in July of 2010 and was looking for a way of making money by gardening. I started meeting people at farmers’ markets who were growing vegetables and became interested in the food aspect of growing. I just did a walking and bicycle survey of nearby unused properties and made a list of 16 or 17 properties. Then I looked up the owners on the city property database and made a flier that explained my experience and intentions, and what I was looking for. I sent it out in an envelope to each of the owners of the properties that looked promising. I got one response, and that’s where I started the garden.

Florence and Manton Farm, Providence RI

Florence and Manton Farm, Providence RI

The garden is the size of a city lot and I do all the work myself–preparing beds, growing transplants and direct seeding, weeding, and harvesting. I do all the transportation for tools, vegetables and compost by bicycle. I grow vegetables for mostly direct sale at farmers’ markets, but also sell some to restaurants and a grocery store, and this year there will be the CSA.

What initially got you interested gardening / farming in this way?

I lived in Seattle before I moved to Providence. I guess I’ve been interested in gardening for most of my life, but I had an office job when I lived there. I also lived in a house that had a double lot. The second lot didn’t have a house and I spent a lot of time cleaning out and growing vegetables for the house. I was at my office job ordering seeds and plants and thinking…wouldn’t it be nice if I could do this as my work? When I moved to Providence, my goal was to make that be more of my work, and I have.

Would you rather live in a rural environment or an urban one? Is there a tension between what you do and where you live?

I guess I’d rather live in an urban environment. It doesn’t really make sense to farm at such a small scale in a rural environment–transportation is not economically feasible.

Now I’d like to ask you some questions about food issues and sustainability. What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?

I hate playing favorites, you know? Probably the takeover of local, indigenous homes and farms by international corporations that are trying to take control of the source of seed. In taking control of the agricultural infrastructure, they are removing the agency of local cultures and small-scale producers.

As a small-scale urban farmer, do you see yourself as radical or an activist?

I don’t know if I would self-identify as a radical, but definitely as an activist. I’m not really doing a lot to organize a movement. I’m just representing a simple option. I definitely participate in the culture that does some of that organization and know people who are working on those things, but I feel that my role is as a support role. Trying to act on behalf of the local community and people who are doing that work on a larger scale. I think of myself as a worker, as a grass-roots worker.

What is one really simple thing that you do that has political implications?

Composting. That’s as simple as it gets, I think. Being conscious of my waste streams. That’s dead simple. Transportation–that’s another thing that is important and often invisible–just doing transportation under my own power, by bike and simple machines. In farming, I don’t really use power tools. Occasionally I use an electric drill, but 99% is simple tools powered by human bodies.

What is your ideal vision of what our national food system would look like? What would be your ideal way of having us grow, distribute, and consume our food?

I would prefer that people look to their local community as a first resource, and consider what can be produced locally. What are people already doing that I can support? What are local products that are as good or better, fresher? What can I do to support economic localization? I think it’s unrealistic to say, don’t eat anything from less than 100 miles away, but–know–find out what you can get locally. What maybe can you get that haven’t you tried? Do you really want to eat a banana today or can you eat a delicious apple grown 5 miles away?

Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?

I have a complex relationship with Whole Foods. It’s hard to say whether it’s more or less competitive or cooperative. Some of the volunteers I work with at the Co-op work at Whole Foods, so I’ve been hearing a lot about them lately. I don’t necessarily support some of the weird things they do, but if someone calls up asking for something I don’t have, it’s a common recommendation I’d make.

Why are urban farms important? Is this something you’d encourage others to do?

Yeah, totally! If you’re up for it. It’s a high-effort, low-return game, but if you’re motivated, yes. On a direct, practical scale, [it’s important because] there are a lot of post-industrial cities with big potential. We could be getting a large portion of our freshest seasonal produce miles from the people we live. And since they’re so close to population centers, they play an important role in introducing people to local food systems and local economies.

Your farm is in a kind of decimated, inner-city environment. What kind of response have you gotten from the residents?

Most of the residents are really positive. Yesterday I was composting coffee grounds in the rain and someone walked by and said, “I see you workin’ it!” That seemed perfect–a comment in solidarity.

In Providence there’s a high level of lead contamination in the soil. How do you deal with the issue of soil contamination?

It’s definitely an important thing that I consider. In urban farming, particularly in post-industrial cities, you have to–if you’re going to be conscientious. I have the soil in my garden tested by the University of Massachusetts Agricultural Extension. The tests returned an amount that was “medium.” I do significant intentional organization of my crops in order to reduce the impact of lead on the crops that I grow. When I grow crops that absorb lead, like brassicas, I add lots of material that’s not lead-contaminated on top. The highest danger is from soil splashing directly onto weeds, and the next highest danger is from crops that take up significant quantities of lead. I try to amend the soil so that the roots of the plants seek out nutritional elements of the substrate as opposed to the parts that contain preexisting lead. I tested the soil this past year. The acceptable lead levels have reduced, and the nutrient levels are improving, apparently as a result of the management I’ve been doing.

Now I’d to ask you a bit about food. You also sell fermented foods. How did your interest in fermented foods develop? Is it connected with farming?

It’s separate from the farm…I mostly ferment foods other people grow, although there is some overlap. I guess I got interested when Evelyn, my girlfriend at the time, started buying kimchee at Whole Foods. I said, “What? That’s so expensive! We can just make that!” It seemed like a simple thing to try it. I found it to be satisfying, and it was easy to do something that was delicious, better, and cheaper than what we could purchase. When I moved to Providence and started trying to make money by gardening, I brought some to a party and people were like, “this is great–can I buy this?” That’s how it got started.

Now I sell fermented foods and have a blog.

images (2)

Where can we find it?

Most people interested in sustainability wear many hats. What other things you do that are connected with what we’ve discussed here?

Spring is on the way! I’ve been thinking about the first thing to forage for spring, which is greenbriar shoots. I should look back to my calendar and see when I started doing that last year. I also keep bees. I I’ve been waiting for a day to check them. They were doing ok in December…we’ll see.

What are your current new projects?

Im producing for a CSA for the first time this year–that’s pretty exciting. I don’t know how it’s going to go, but I’m hopeful. As a produce manager at a co-op store, I can deal with myself, so I’m looking forward to being able to sell my produce to the store. Working both sides of the local economy.

The Rooting Symposium aims to bring together farmers, artists, and chefs, as well as people who do more than one of these things. Is there any way in which you see yourself as an artist? Is there a relationship between food and art?

The grocery cooperative I belong to was founded by a group of people who consider themselves artists, but I don’t really consider myself an artist. If I were to, it would be as an artist of the hustle or an artist of scheduling and accounting. I do consider myself an artist in terms of food preparation, but that’s mostly for my own consumption, on a non-business basis.

Speaking of that, you are also interested in cooking, and I’ve known you to be pretty experimental in the kitchen. What is the most interesting thing you’ve made lately, and how did it turn out?

Last night I made something I refer to as “not-baked, not-beans.” My roommate last year grew sour corn for corn meal and we’ve been eating it as hominy. She got the wood ash from a friend who has a wood stove. The water ran out in the pot and the hominy got a little burned, so my idea for saving it was to make something that ordinarily has a smoky flavor. I thought, baked beans! But in this case, most of the beans were corn. I made it in a pot on the stove, so it wasn’t baked, but I put all the regular baked bean seasonings in it–mustard, ginger, garlic, onions, molasses. Then I threw in a few beans and some maple syrup. The beans took a lot longer to cook that I expected, but it turned out pretty well! I had it for breakfast this morning.

Oh yes, and last Friday, I attempted to make vegan larb (pork salad). It was made out of mushrooms and tempeh. I used some dried foraged mushrooms from last year. The water I used to rehydrate the mushrooms was sitting on the counter and it started to ferment. It got this lovely dark color. It grew a powerful yeast culture and it smelled so good. Yesterday I fed it some buckwheat flour and I’m going to make some fermented buckwheat pancakes out of it. So there’s three experimental things I’ve been doing in the kitchen!

Thanks so much for talking with me. I’d like to conclude with just a few more questions. What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to make them more sustainable/ to change their relationship with food?

It’s going to be better for you and for the community you live in to eat locally. And transportation. A lot of eating locally is also transportation-associated. Consider whether you need to drive half a mile or whether it would be nice to walk or take the bus. I guess it comes down to mindfulness in everyday existence.

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cropped-001_2041.jpgRooting: Regional Branches, Global Concerns unites trios of artists/farmers/chefs in Chicago and India and connects diverse fields of urban agriculture, food, the arts and small business, catalyzing discussion across disciplines in order to create new hybrid models of sustainability and to better connect people to what they eat. Merging the poetic with pragmatic action in response to the challenging and urgent matters of growing and consuming food sustainably, the trios will collaborate on meals as artworks, conducting discussions and workshops centered on growing, eating and distributing food in cities.

The Symposium: From October 18-20, lectures, workshops, tours and vendors at the Chicago Cultural Center on the subject of urban agriculture will compliment a series of four themed meals developed by creative teams composed of farmer/artist/chef trios at Roots & Culture in Wicker Park. The event will pull together local, regional, and international presenters to share projects and best practices addressing soil health, water conservation, advocacy, food production and distribution, and building sustainable communities. Presentations will be documented on video and posted online with a companion online publication with contributions by symposium participants.

The symposium will kickoff with New Delhi-based artist Akshay Raj Singh Rathore as keynote speaker. Rathore, Flora Boillot, and the Rhizome Alliance, supported in part from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago EAGER grant and a Propeller Grant, are establishing a new international collaboration that expands Rathore/Boillot’s project, NegotiatingRoutes, which re-introduces heritage seeds and indigenous trees in Madhya Pradesh, India.

Sullivan Galleries: At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Symposium visitors can experience a concurrent exhibition by artists Akshay Rathore (featuring a rooftop garden of fall root vegetables), Nancy Klehm and TBA.