Meditations from the Waste Stream

Last weekend, I had the amazing experience of being inside the first Rooting Symposium event, a springtime brunch at Ken Dunn‘s impressive City Farm. Dunn also runs the Resource Center, whose aim is to reclaim underused resources of all kinds, and much of the food was sourced from Chicago’s waste stream. This is of interest to me because, since giving up my university teaching position, moving to Chicago and becoming a graduate student, I’ve extended my urban foraging activities into what I consider their alternate form, dumpster diving.

To be more specific, I’ve learned a lot about what is euphemistically referred to as “food insecurity.” This term refers less to the fact that a person is going hungry as to the fact that she may not know where her next meal is coming from. Since the recession hit in 2008, it’s a situation more and more Americans, including middle-class Americans, are experiencing. As detailed on the USDA’s website, there are two levels of food insecurity including “low,” which means that the quality or desirability of one’s food has been compromised, and “very low,” which basically means that people in the household don’t have enough to eat. Interestingly, there are also two levels of food security: “high,” which means you have enough to eat, and “moderate,” which means that you are experiencing either anxiety about where your food is coming from or some food shortages. According to one report, in 2011, 17.9 million households, or nearly 15 percent of American families, were food insecure. My own dumpstering has been a direct reaction to my own level of food security, which I’d place at somewhere between moderate and low.

This has given me an interesting subject-position from which to make observations. I believe in buying organic (I used to insist on it), and am mostly-vegetarian for ethical reasons. I still shop, very selectively, at Whole Foods. (More on that later.) Having celiac disease and the good fortune to live in Chicago, I also shop at a range of ethnic markets, including Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican grocery stores. Though I’d rather not, these days I make the most trips to my grocery store for what Whole Foods likes to term “conventional” produce. I also frequent the bins behind many of these same stores. This range of consumer experiences has, suffice it to say, taught me a lot.

Because of the undeniable social stigma that surrounds dumpstering, I’d like to preface my discussion with a few notes and disclaimers. First, I consider dumpster diving, like urban foraging, to be a highly creative, adaptive, and environmentally-sustainable practice. As Dunn notes, tapping into the waste stream is another way of using resources from the environment. Second, forget your stereotypes of dumpster-divers as smelly, mentally ill homeless people. I’m not the only one who has embraced this solution. One fellow forager I ran into was an old woman, clearly a middle-class immigrant; one has to ask what has led someone’s grandmother to the trash bin behind her local grocery store. Third, it is legal in the City of Chicago to take what other people are throwing away, as long as you don’t trespass in the process. (Indeed, the absurdity of “stealing” trash is something to meditate on.) Fourth, I’ve applied for LINK benefits twice and been rejected both times, although my income qualifies me and my federal work-study is supposed to guarantee this benefit. (Beyond those rejections, there is an ethical issue of a person who is only “moderately” food insecure taking advantage of resources meant for the very poor, which is why I haven’t pursued this option more aggressively.) Finally, this isn’t a how-to essay, though I am happy to share what I know with the truly interested. (Like mushroom-hunters, good dumpster-divers don’t divulge their favorite spots to just anyone.) All that said, what I would like to do is share a bit of what I’ve come to realize about the waste stream and the food supply in the United States.

Here’s the main, and most shocking thing I’ve learned: the food in your neighborhood dumpster is probably in better shape than the food in your fridge. It might even be better than some of the food still on the shelf at the store. In Chicago, I frequently find perfectly good, crispy, organic produce and scrumptiously ripe fruit. Just today, I ate a small organic peach that tasted as if it had been picked right off the tree. What was wrong with it? Nothing, except that it was little and had a slight soft spot. A few weeks ago I recovered about fifteen organic Fuji apples. Each was perfectly ripe and harbored perhaps one tiny, fingernail-sized bruise.


The last two organic Fugi apples, photographed before I finally gave in and ate them.

Another time, I recovered a pound of slightly dried-out, organic medjool dates, the big kind with the slightly chocolatey flavor. Beyond organic produce, I’ve recovered ripe, sweet cantaloupe, beautiful mangoes, pounds of unblemished grapes, boxes of greens, enough broccoli and carrots to freeze up “California mix,” and even yogurt and tofu. Ok, the tofu had been frozen and was a little grainy. But much of what I find is astonishingly intact.

As Lars Eigner points out in his well-known essay “On Dumpster Diving,” all this raises the question pertinent to every dumpster-diver: why is this item being discarded? The sad truth is that it has much to do with the American food supply. As consumers, we’ve all been conditioned to want rows of perfectly-formed, familiar fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. According to Dunn, at Whole Foods, produce is pulled the day before its expiration date to ensure that customers always have an unblemished, eye-candy array of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. In addition, says Dunn, entire boxes of produce are routinely thrown out because of a single soft fruit that might (but hasn’t) affected the rest. Sadly, these boxes not only represent food that could be going to feed the hungry; the process of growing, harvesting, and long-distance shipping has already consumed massive amounts of petroleum by the time they’re intercepted and discarded at the wholesale level.

I have to admit, I’m as guilty as the next person of wanting that array of eye candy in the produce aisle. Going to Whole Foods, I’ve realized, isn’t just about what I can buy there; it’s about how much I enjoy that consumer experience, that visually stunning presentation. The fact that we expect familiarity and perfection from our fruits and vegetables has much to do, of course, with the use of pesticides, the genetic engineering of foods, and mono-cropping that compromises biodiversity. These issues tie directly to large-scale factory farming. Interestingly, many of the folks I’ve interviewed for this Symposium page, including Adam Graffunder, Dave Snyder, and Nancy Phillips, have identified factory farms as the number one food issue we face today. Factory farming dramatically affects small-scale farmers as well as consumers. And it’s integrally tied to the food we all eat, every day.

From the start of their growing process, fruits and vegetables are engineered to stand up to long-distance shipping while looking pretty. They’re treated with petroleum-based pesticides and harvested before they’re fully ripe. We are all familiar with that mushy red delicious apple, or the perfect red tomato that tastes like cardboard. The importance consumers attach to appearance over taste is best demonstrated by an anecdote from my best friend in Michigan, who runs her own organic farm and has a stand at the upscale Ann Arbor farmer’s market. She reports that even her well-educated, upper-middle-class customers often don’t recognize something as “exotic” as yellow tomatoes.

“But what would I do with a yellow tomato?” one of her customers once famously asked.

“Well,” she offered, “the same thing you’d do with a red one! They’re great in salads and lower in acid.”

“Oh,” the woman replied, “but I don’t know if my husband would eat a yellow tomato.”

Such insistence on conventional-looking fruits and vegetables is directly related to the limited number of varieties available at most grocery stores in the US. That perfect red tomato? Recent genetic research reveals that it’s actually the slightly green shoulders of many heirloom varieties that makes them intense, distinctive flavors. Michael Pollan has written forcefully about this issue of decreasing biodiversity as it pertains to apples in his groundbreaking book, The Botany of Desire.

By way of example, let’s consider another fruit I’ve found in astonishing amounts behind my local grocery store. Worldwide, the market is also dominated by a single variety of banana, the Cavendish. It may come as something of a surprise to learn that bananas (like carrots!) come in colors including red, salmon, orange, yellow, green and black, and range in flavor tones from tart apple to raspberry to strawberry, from intensely sweet and soft to firm and starchy. They also range in size from footlong to pinky-sized. Why then, the focus on the bland 7-inch yellow Cavendish? The answer: it can be farmed by Chiquita on a massive scale, then picked and shipped long distances while still green.

Despite being America’s most-consumed and least expensive fruit, bananas are neither local nor sustainable. As Dan Koppel points out in The New York Times, bananas cost about half as much as apples, although most apples are fresher and regionally-available. Sadly, the well-loved banana is also the direct product of cultural imperialism, labor exploitation, and massive oil consumption through long-range shipping. Moreover, all Cavendish bananas are genetically identical, meaning that not only is our eating experience of bananas severely restricted; the world’s banana supply is precariously susceptible to being wiped out by an encroaching fungal disease. In other words, this kind of large-scale monoculture not only decreases biodiversity, but impoverishes our eating experiences and contributes to global warming.

The fact that I often find loads of Cavendish bananas being thrown away–not even donated to soup kitchens or used for compost–should give us all pause. As noted above, we live in a time of decreasing food security and increasing economic disparity. Worldwide, the cost of food has been rising since 2008, and may continue to do so into 2020. This phenomenon is directly linked to the rising cost of fuel and to drought that may be a result of global climate change. These increases have affected the US less than other countries due largely to our reliance on highly processed foods. In other words, many of us face increasing economic pressure to eat food that’s both cheaper and less healthy; bags of Cheetos rather than those (wasted) fruits and vegetables.

Ironically, dumpstering has also made me ask questions about what stores, businesses, and other food establishments will sell as top-quality in order to ensure their own bottom lines. One other thing I’ve learned is that the food in the dumpster is not only better than the produce in most people’s crisper drawers; it was often on the shelf at the store about five minutes before. The situation is, to say the least, absurd. I’ve come to realize that not only the discounted fruit at my local produce market is a breath away from the trash bin, but also that the 2/$1 oranges on special at 7-11 are often drawn from a box that was clearly destined to be discarded and perhaps even obtained at no cost. These days, I frequently look at a $1 apple and reflect I know where to find one that looks better and is organic, for free.

In fact, dumpstering has dramatically enhanced my own level of food security. I cook and freeze the vegetables, and dry the fruit in the dehydrator I bought for $20 on Craigslist. I see this as embracing a classic American value: resourcefulness. I now have a huge supply of dried, non-sulphured fruit that my friends swear is more delicious than any they’ve bought. I have to agree. I also believe it’s important not to take more than I need (remember that old woman?) and to share what I find. When I find greens in large quantities, I cook them and invite friends for dinner; when I find lots of fruit, there’s fruit salad and applesauce for dessert. Of course, everything is well washed, though as someone who used to buy organic almost exclusively, I’m more concerned about pesticide residues on my food than about a bit of dirt from the bin. And no, neither I nor anyone I’ve known has ever gotten sick from dumpstered produce. When I do shop at Whole Foods, I’m able to buy small amounts of ethically-produced chicken. This is important to me. Dumpstering, in essence, allows me not to participate in I view as the unacceptable animal cruelty of large-scale meat production. Exploring the bins has also expanded my culinary repertoire. Because I am fortunate enough to live near a number of ethnic areas, I have discovered and learned to use vegetables and fruits, like okra and guavas, that I had only the dimmest idea about before.

In sum, the question is not one of whether such food can be good or healthy. Clearly, it can be and is. The deeper question is why such perfectly good food is being thrown away in a city suffering from poverty, recession, and food deserts–and in a world already suffering from global climate change. What if we, as consumers, demanded a range of foods available that were locally grown, produced, and distributed? We would need to embrace more diversity in our food supply, to be less wed to the idea that our food must look a certain way. We would have to accept some soft spots on our peaches, and would need to judge our food more on nutritional value, environmental impact, and taste than on appearance. But, after some initial resistance, such transitions should not be hard for many Americans. We are, after all, highly adaptable. The result would be, first and foremost, and enhanced range of eating experiences, and, perhaps, a greater sense of connection to the world around us. No doubt the would be less waste in the dumpster for folks like me. But I’m the first to admit that dumpstering is an imperfect and highly personal solution to the problem of food insecurity. What if we made a point of using only what we need and donating or composting what has been overproduced? The result might just be better food, a more connected sense of community, and greater environmental awareness. At the risk of being without bananas, I’d certainly like to find out.

What did you eat in school today?

An up and coming movement towards healthy and sustainable eating is directing awareness to schools and school children’s eating habits. People like Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters are actively contributing to this change. In addition to Oliver and Waters, there are also lesser-known people approaching this matter. I have personally spoken to and interviewed some Chicago area farmers and a school principal, namely Alexander Tuchman, Andrea Hazzard, and Anne Gillespie. Jamie Oliver has stated that most people are not even aware of where their food comes from, and he wishes to teach everyone how to grow, cook, and eat healthy.

Alice Waters was inspired to start the Edible Schoolyard project as a result of passing by a run down public middle school in Berkeley every day on her way to work, as a chef at her restaurant. Having also spent a number of years as a teacher, Waters believed that schools influence children, it is just as important to supply the students with an adequate environment. During an interview she had with a journalist, she happened to mention her disdain for the way this public middle school was treated, stating that it was “a great example of how not to use land”[1]. This comment then lead to Waters receiving a letter from that very school’s principal asking whether she would be interested in getting involved in some way to make improvements.

alice waters book pg 16

From here, the Edible Schoolyard began. A project that involved students to plant and grow their own foods, and offered a kitchen where the students could then learn how to cook the food they grew and picked from the garden. Through this project, Waters (and other adults helping out the school garden, including parents) realized that the kids were more excited to eat fresh greens after they had experienced the whole process of growing and cooking them.

Below is an image of the page in Edible Schoolyard that lists the principles this school’s (and Alice Waters’) project is based upon.


            Jamie Oliver’s work is similar to Waters’, based mainly in the UK and USA. He has founded a number of projects and foundations, such as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, Jamie Oliver’s Kitchen Garden Project, The Better Food Foundation, and more. Not surprisingly, Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard project is also featured in the list of companies and individuals whom Jamie Oliver connects with.




The Kitchen Garden Project is one of Oliver’s projects that I researched more closely. This is due to the fact that it is about Oliver working with elementary schoolchildren in the UK, and bringing a reform to the UK education meal plan system. As of currently, Oliver says on his website dedicated to this project, him and his team are working directly with two pilot schools. The Kitchen Garden Project aims to provide schoolchildren with integrated growing and cooking classes, alongside all the other subjects. Also, online Oliver lists appealing results sourced from the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Project in Australia. Some of which are “improved behavior and engagement in learning […] increased willingness in children to try new foods […] increases school community connection” and more. Oliver’s three key ambitions through implementing this program in schools are to educate, empower, and inspire.

In addition to the numerous school gardening projects, Oliver also work with teenagers and adults. Oliver specifically has a program called Fifteen; this is a high end restaurant that goes by the same name, located in London. On their website, Oliver explains that his incentive to open this restaurant was “on one hand to create one of London’s finest restaurants and, on the other, to use the magic of cooking to give young people who’ve often faced enormous challenges in their lives, the opportunity to unlock their true talent, through great training and mentoring”.

Locally, in Illinois, Andrea Hazzard is busy tending her own farm, and offering anyone interested the opportunity to volunteer with her. Another pioneering farmer working in Illinois, Alex Tuchman, an alumni of Loyola University is an avid operations assistant of the Loyola Student Farm. Both Hazzard and Tuchman run active CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, and enjoy teaching others about their practice.

In short, for any who are not familiar with CSAs; these are programs that deal specifically with farmers connecting with their customers. Anyone in the public who is interested can buy a share for each active farming season (that works like a membership), and receive weekly deliveries of freshly picked produce baskets. The amount of shares offered by a farmer may vary on the size of the farmed land.

loyola farm veggies

            Following my research on schoolchildren and meals they are supplied with, the Loyola Student Farm sparked my interest too. I sat down with Alex Tuchman earlier this spring to ask him some more personal questions on his role in the farm, and his opinions on the connection between school meals and their students. It turned out to be a very fruitful interview, with a lot of interesting and useful information (here is a link to listen to the full version: During the interview I ask Tuchman to recall his past experiences with school meals: “Lots of salt and oil” is what he could remember.

A couple weeks after my interview with Alex Tuchman, and gathering research about Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters and her Edible schoolyard, I emailed Anne Gillespie at the Academy for Global Citizenship, asking to meet with her at the school to visit their school garden and ask her more questions. Anne Gillespie is the co-founder and principal of AGC.


As Anne and I walked out the doors into the parking lot, we were standing in the school garden. It was partially closed off from the rest of the parking lot, with growing beds side by side leading to a small greenhouse. Opposite the growing beds is the playground equipment area with a chicken coup and three chickens. Anne told me the chickens are allowed to roam freely around the parking lot area (they stay near the growing beds and playground), but they are not allowed to eat the foods their students are growing. The campus I visited was the main one that offers K-2nd grade classes, and the second campus houses the 3rd-5th graders. The children have the opportunity to plant, grow, and pick a variety of vegetables. Since the playground/garden area did not appear large enough to be able to feed 300 children daily, I asked where else food is sourced for the breakfasts, snacks, and lunches served in the cafeteria. Anne brought me into the cafeteria where there was a map on the wall, and highlighted were the areas of farms who supply them with the additional foods. All of which are in Illinois and its surrounding states.

The questions I had for Anne were based on figuring out her opinion on the current school meal system, and what could be done to reverse it in order to feed all school children more healthy options. I started off asking how she has seen the school transform lives of both children and parents; Anne lists seeing children learn to read and write, families starting to recycle or start small gardens, and chickens at home. We touched on the subject of people not knowing where their food is coming from. Anne believes that chickens are a good place to start learning where your food comes from by seeing that an egg comes from a chicken and not from the refrigerated area at the supermarket.

As the conversation turned to the current meal system in schools without gardens, Anne explains that money is the answer, and it is what drives most daily activities. However, she doesn’t think it’s too late to change the meal system in a healthier way. To make this change, the government would have to shift, and people’s mindsets making assumptions that kids won’t eat anything healthy, and they like sugar.

I asked Anne if there has been an experience that has impacted her more than others. Although she sounded like limiting the answer to a single experience wasn’t enough, she admitted the day they were approved to become a school is definitely high on the list, because it gave her the opportunity to be in the position she is in now, and has learned a lot.

Later this summer I plan to compile a bound book of images and hand written sentences made by the students at AGC. These images and sentences will come from some prompts I have accumulated; asking them questions like what is your favorite food? And draw you and your friends picking vegetables from the garden. The book will then be exhibited in SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries this summer through fall.

The aim of this project is to collect as many sheets I can from the students, and each student will have the freedom to choose any color of paper to either draw or write on in order to create individuality. I am also hoping that through the different ways the prompts are responded to, anyone who chooses to look through the final book is able to notice differences, and pick up on the children’s characters.

Valeria Ledda 

[1] Waters, p. 10

Nature & Aesthetics

If we look at natural forms as ornamental objects then we will be unable to perceive beyond a surface understanding of nature. In the name of efficiency and profit, man made systems tend to dominate and subjugate nature. These intentions are not always functional, but rather visual. When trees, flowers, and shrubs are planted in the strip malls and lawns of our urban and suburban environments, they are used as decorative and static objects isolated from their natural environments. The man-made environment is restrictive about the kinds of plants allowed, and these plants are maintained and controlled to a large degree.  It is worth realizing the ways that our cultural preferences have disconnected us from the natural cycles, restricting us from advancing as a more sustainable society.

We must also realize that beauty is relative and subjective to different cultures, and therefore it is not fixed. As we see in fashion it can change quite regularly, so if we recognize how our visual choices are actually burdening us, we can work to change them. Beauty is subjective, but also influenced by society. The images we absorb visually are transformed in our minds by various influences of personal experiences and cultural values. Through the process of cultural conditioning we create a judgment, or a visual taste. Our visual preferences play a large role in our decisions and experiences.

Why do chefs spend so much time perfecting the appearance of food that will only exist temporarily until it is eaten? Perhaps it is a personal art exploration, or it allows them to charge more for a dish. However the consumer no doubt eagerly receives it because food that is visually pleasing stimulates appetite. If a person were handed a plate of transformed mystery ingredients that resembled what is fed to pigs, or a well-considered plate of beautifully arranged food, he or she would likely be more attracted to look at and eat the latter. A study from Max Planck researchers showed that even the mere image of food is powerful enough to stimulate appetite and influence eating behavior. The study suggests that the abundance of food advertising images in our culture might be a contributor to our national obesity problems.

Grocers are also aware of the power of visual influences on the consumer. Many grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, display produce that exhibit ‘perfect appearance’, disposing anything with minor abnormalities on the skin, or in size or shape, as if these qualities would greatly affect their taste. Common supermarket practices reflect and simultaneously mold the visual preferences of its consumers. Consumers are familiar with food that is provided to them, that look a certain way, and in turn increases the demand for physical perfection. Consequently many million tons of perfectly good and edible food being dumped into landfills each year because the produce do not meet grocery store standards. Such standards are not sensitive to the exciting and random chance that is produced by nature. Fruits and vegetables do not grow in homogenous replicas like tools and toys come out of a factory.

As a culture, we have engaged in many damaging activities based on visual decisions. We enjoy bright, colorful, and vibrant lights, so we live in brilliant energy-draining cities that are littered with light pollution. We appreciate minimal, ‘clean’ environments. Because dirt is considered, well, dirty, we use glass, steel, and concrete to construct our surroundings so that they can be easily sterilized. Our idea of incorporating a little bit of nature into our constructed environments is by planting large plots of useless green lawns. The American lawn is nothing more than another example of monoculture, alongside the great American soy and corn fields that both support our livelihoods and are slowly destroying us through pollution, loss of biodiversity, and unhealthy food.

For artists, visual decisions are often critically considered as an essential component of a professional practice. With great understanding of how people perceive beauty, artists have the potential ability to affect larger cultural perspectives. Artists like Haeg are transforming minimalist lawns into more diverse natural environments that can activate multiple simultaneous functions, from providing visual satisfaction, healthy food and self-sustainability, while providing a more ideal habitat for insects, birds, and other animals. In the Edible Estates projects, artist Fritz Haeg attempts to address the faults of our cultural affinity towards green lawns and our faulty food system by replacing entire suburban yards with edible landscapes. Rather than green grass, his yards were blooming with vegetables and food plants. Haeg’s gardens are thoughtfully arranged by his experience and understanding of compositional elements. He begins his projects by delineating where things will be planted and creating lines for pathways and complimentary shapes. Then he invites the residents and neighbors to help plant. Those who choose to convert their lawns no doubt have the opportunity to develop a closer understanding with natural processes as they interact with their plants.

Kathy Cummings, a Chicago resident who at one time in 2004 received an award from the city for her native-plants garden for being the “Most Naturalized City Garden”, is issued a $640 fine eight years later for having “weeds” that are too tall. The accused weeds were actually Milkweed, an important native plant that is both the home and food source for monarch larvae. The actions of the city displayed an apparent lack of awareness for how healthy and developed native vegetation should look, and their regulations further prohibit the potential restoration of these plants.

It is interested to consider how ancient Chinese culture privileged nature, recognizing man’s insignificant stature. The traditional Chinese perception, influenced by Daoism, is that nature is powerful, vast, and all-inclusive. Every part of it, including water and rocks, has qi, or vital force.  In this dynamic vision of nature, it is acknowledged that all parts of the ecosystem influence each other in a profound way, and nature as a whole is superior to the mere human race. The appreciation for natural forces and nature’s creations had great influence on the visual decisions apparent in Chinese gardens. Abnormally shaped rocks and gnarled driftwood were highlighted to display and reflect the powerful influence of nature.  “In contrast, old Chinese gardens lack elements which westerners would expect to find; in particular, the formal symmetrical arrangement of the plan (both in its major outlines and in the patterned details of garden bedding and parterres), the artificial manipulation of water in fountains, and the extensive use of grass in lawns” (Thacker 44). Much of the traditional Chinese garden designs were also based off of scroll paintings. They depicted vast mountains and in contrast to Western paintings, in which human figures were the main concentration, the people included in Chinese paintings are depicted as dots in the landscape. Chinese paintings reveal “the pervasive influence of the philosophy of the Tao, involving meditation on the unity of the creation, a creation in which nature possesses a hidden yet real order and harmony … such a concern with the order and harmony of nature is often and clearly at odds with the ways of the world, and the works of men are often considered inferior and distracting” (Thacker 43). However, as China’s efforts have been towards rapid modernization to compete in the current global economy, much of the traditional values towards nature seem to be pushed aside to make way for industrial Western methods.

So of course it is not adequate to claim that as long as we alter our visual dispositions then we will live harmoniously with nature. As we know, our economy, the growing population, and the politics involved are great factors. However, we can recognize and study aesthetics as a valid and influential component in our relationship with nature. it is important to realize how many of our current decisions are in actuality based on visual decisions, and that we can more critically consider how they may be inhibiting our development towards a more sustainable future. Learning from John Dewey, aesthetics are not simply how objects are viewed but rather, “the relationship between the individual and the environment… Rather than a subject-object relationship in which the observer parades before the supposedly beautiful view, we have instead a process, an interaction between the viewer and the viewed, and it is that joint association that the aesthetic experience lies” (Evernden 96).

Works Cited

Glotfelty, Cheryll, and Harold Fromm. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens: University of Georgia, 1996. Print.

Greiner, Michael. “Pictures of Food Create Feelings of Hunger.” Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 08 May 2013.

Haeg, Fritz, and Diana Balmori. Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn. New York: Metropolis, 2008. Print.

Thacker, Christopher. The History of Gardens. Berkeley: University of California, 1979. Print.

Yates, Jon. “Problem Solver: Award-winning Garden Ticketed for ‘weeds'”

Chicago Tribune, 30 Dec. 2012. Web. 08 May 2013.

On Darkness, Silence and the Loss of Negative Space

As an artist, the idea of negative space is one of the most important concepts I’ve learned. For those unfamiliar with the term, negative space refers to blank areas in a composition. Although it’s counterintuitive, negative space is one of the most important elements of any work. Think of the white space behind words that allows them to be read, or the musical rests in a concerto draw attention to the specificity of the notes.

One doesn’t have to look far to see that the world around us is losing negative spaces. I mean this not only in terms of the disappearance of sparsely-populated landscapes or CNN-style visual cramming of our television and computer screens. We have lost, or are losing, many blanknesses that once gave our lives meaning and shape. Of these, consider two: darkness and silence.

It has now become a truism that our planet is suffering from light pollution. People once used the space of night to contemplate the heavens, to trace the shapes of constellations, make up myths, and share stories. Writing in The New Yorker, David Owen describes how light pollution not only impacts people but can decimate bird, insect, and sea turtle populations. These environmental effects demonstrate that light pollution is as “real,” and as potentially devastating, as other forms of pollution.

But it is not only excess of light that we need to consider: it is lack of darkness. Watching it get dark outside was, Owen writes, a common evening activity, a moment of calm contemplation. Today, ask someone what phase the moon is in and you’re liable to get a confused stare. One might ask how this loss of connection to spaces beyond ourselves has impacted our contemporary psyches. Divorced from larger cycles, how are we to understand ourselves, our place in a larger order, our impact (or lack of impact) on the world?

It is not only larger celestial cycles we are failing to connect with; it’s also the cycles inside our own bodies. According to historian Roger Ekirch, in the preindustrial night it was normal to go to sleep at dusk and waken, mid-night, for a few hours of quiet. During this time one might pray or meditate, talk or be intimate with one’s bedmate, study or interpret dreams. Such nighttime quiet wakefulness, called segmented sleep, is, Ekrich and others have argued, actually part of our natural human sleep cycle. In the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, night was a negative space giving shape and meaning to those quiet hours it surrounded. I can’t help but wonder how our experience of the world might be changed if such nighttime quiet were still part of our lives—if it were part of mine.

The collective loss of darkness affects not only our psyches but, like the species we are impacting, our biological processes. Recent research has linked ambient light at night to melatonin disruption that contributes to breast cancer and obesity. That’s right, sleeping with too much ambient light can make you fat. And nearly every urban environment contains an excess of ambient light. By way of example, my friend Toby Altman and I recently hosted a poetry reading meant to take place in complete darkness. We soon discovered that even in our quiet neighborhood, there was no escape from the light of the street outside. Although we eventually made do by pulling closed his curtains, there was still plenty of light in the room. Beyond shutting everyone in his bathroom or another windowless space, we realized that true darkness was going to be nearly impossible.

Beyond these very real health effects, we have little negative space inside our own nighttime minds. We all know that Americans don’t sleep enough; I personally could be a poster child for this cause. But try asking people about their dreams. Most will tell you they don’t remember any. This is, I submit, integrally related to the loss of nighttime experience. In contrast, I think of my time in the jungle of Ecuador. There, the Quicha people I stayed with went to bed early, rose at 4:00 a.m. and gathered around the fire to share and interpret their dreams. With the loss of darkness, it seems we may also be losing the free associative spaces inside our own minds.

All of this points to loss of another kind of negative space: quiet. I won’t even say silence. Just as the planet is filled with light, sound now pervades every corner. Like light pollution, noise pollution is as real as chemical pollution and has been linked to severe environmental impacts.  For example, a recent story on NPR described how sonar seriously impacts whales and other species that use echolocation to communicate and to orient themselves in space. To be more specific, according to Scientific American, “evidence shows that whales will swim hundreds of miles, rapidly change their depth (sometimes leading to bleeding from the eyes and ears), and even beach themselves to get away from the sounds of sonar.” Whales and other animals, it turns out, need the negative spaces of the ocean’s quiet to communicate, to navigate, and to be heard.

For humans, too, the negative spaces offered by quiet moments are hard to come by. We are not only surrounded by cacophony, but have been conditioned to prefer it. Many of my friends comment on my propensity to spend time at home with no radio, no music, just simple quiet. They freely admit to the need to fill the space with sound, of having no “tolerance” for quiet. Tolerance for quiet seems to me an odd concept, since biological evidence points to the taxing effects of constant loud noise. One roommate I had went so far as to imitate sounds in the environment–the ringing of the phone, for instance, or a single word from someone’s sentence–when she wasn’t talking, whistling, or passive playing (rather than watching) the television.

Yet it seems we are not really listening to the sounds we hear. Writing in The Journal Acoustic Ecology, Kendall Wrightson uses the term “soundscape” to describe the acoustic environment in which a listener finds herself. According to Wrightson, a soundscape may be “hi-fi” or crowded, or “lo-fi.” Lo-fi soundscapes include not only moments of silence, but, like the broadcast airwaves, also have available frequency bands in which different communications, human or animal, can take place. In contrast, “hi-fi” soundscapes are so crowded that communications overlap and sounds crowd each other out. In today’s hi-fi environment, Wrightson describes how many people are so bombarded by ambient noise that they cannot list as few as five specific sounds (not music) that they’ve heard throughout the day. As an exercise, he routinely asks his students to write a list of sounds they have heard, as well as those they like and do not. “Many,” writes Wrightson, “do not recall ‘consciously’ having heard any sounds during the day, and many do not complete the sound list even after fifteen minutes” (10). Rather than being an exploration, my roommate’s need to react mimetically seemed largely unconscious, a way of preventing silence rather than a way of exploring her environment.

Wrightson seems to confirm this view, pointing out that one strategy for coping with a high-noise environment is to block out the sound with music, what he calls “acoustic perfume.” I’m often struck by how many people on my daily commute use headphones to block out the train noise. Headphones are complicated. They give us the private space we so desperately need, but at the expense of connection with others and with our environments. Wrightson goes even further in his analysis: “The psychogical significance of sound used as a controlling force—as an offensive (weapon) or as a (defensive) barrier against the soundscape—” he writes, “is that the environment and the community become the enemy.”

Like the loss of darkness, loss of quiet not only alienates us, but affects us biologically. Research shows that chronic exposure to traffic and airport noise can lead to acute and chronic changes in the body’s stress hormones. While too much light can contribute to cancer and weight gain, too much noise can damage your heart. Chronic exposure to loud noise, like that from airports, may also disrupt our hormones and damage the quality of sleep, leading to an increased chance of heart disease, hypertension and myocardial infection. Although there is less research to support the hypothesis, there has also been scientific speculation that in pregnant women, noise exposure may lead to birth defects; in children, it may contribute to problems with learning and reading comprehension.

I wonder about this loss of negative spaces, and our apparent fear of darkness, of quiet. There is no space in our environments or, it seems, inside our heads. With no time for introspection or connection, we, like the marine animals we are affecting, are losing the ability to orient, to understand our own subject position relative to our environment. Wrightson writes that in preindustrial times, communities had distinct acoustic profiles “heard at a considerable distance, reinforcing a sense of space and position and maintaining a relationship with home.” I can’t help relate our loss of negative spaces not only to our loss of connection, but to the loss of attention, a topic I’ve written on previously. Indeed, what is attention but the capacity to hold, if only briefly, a mind filled with blank, receptive space? And what is orientation but a pause to take stock of the environment and assess one’s place within it?

Darkness and quiet bring us closer to our environment at every level. Without them, we lose connection to the stars, to diurnal cycles, to other species, to other humans. Instead, our experience becomes a jittery canvas of moment-to-moment stimuli. Graphic artists speak of “activating negative space,” by which they mean making sure that the curves and shapes around the blankness charge it with its own form of energy. Negative space does not “do nothing.” It allows rest for the eye, peace for the ear, renewal for the mind. Negative space renders what is around it comprehensible, and can allow us to understand more fully our complex and often overwhelming lives.

Silence and darkness can be viewed as two natural resources we are depleting. In doing so, we impact the planet, compromise our health, and destroy the internal spaces that allow us to imagine and create. Without the capacity to rest, dream, attend, connect, and reflect, how are we to understand or imagine our place in the world? So here’s a challenge: spend some time in darkness, if you can, or in silence. Or as near to them as you can get.

An Introduction: Nance Klehm, Ken Dunn and The Plant Chicago

Throughout Chicago, mounting concerns of soil contamination and fertility continue to fuel the growth of an increasingly complex urban agricultural community in which both well-established and newly sprouted innovators are working together to create deeper connections between people, food and soil. For years, soil pioneers such as Ken Dunn and Nance Klehm have created the foundation of this network through their research, gardening, urban farming and composting projects. Additionally, and now more than ever before, innovative technology-based sustainability initiatives such as The Plant Chicago are popping up throughout the city, introducing new ideas and opportunities regarding how we can conceive and implement more efficient and sustainable food systems.

Being relatively new to Chicago, I am just beginning to become familiar with this constantly evolving and growing network of environmentally and culturally focused people and their projects, and I am privileged to have become personally acquainted with a few of them. The following is simply an introduction to their culturally and environmentally indispensible work.

Nance Klehm grew up on a farm in northern Illinois, and since moving to the city has witnessed the drastic transformation of her homeland from wild land and farmland into suburb.  Her work is grounded in her past, and during an interview a few weeks ago, she described her connection to this work; “What I am doing is my nature, is really deeply rooted since birth and is possibly biological.” Klehm currently works throughout Chicago as an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, and permaculture grower. She actively addresses local and global issues concerning soil, sustainability and systems in her own life as well as through professional outreach. She employs a variety of creative and visual strategies including working on collaborative projects, teaching workshops and giving urban foraging tours that help her audiences gain a deeper understanding of the interconnections between our bodies and the environment.

“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 literal 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” (Interview: Nance Klehm).

While Klehm’s interactions with her audience range between personal one-on-one experiences to somewhat larger group discussions and events, urban farmer Ken Dunn has been working on a broader city-wide approach in creating a healthier food system.

Dunn began focusing on resource-related issues when he began graduate school at the University of Chicago. Upon his arrival, he immediately recognized the high unemployment rates and serious quality-of-life issues in many neighborhoods throughout the city. He began to view vacant lots with the discarded items that lay upon them, and the unemployed people that hang out around them, as wasted resources, and has since developed a network of farms, composting projects and resource collection systems that combine these elements together to create productive and culturally valuable community spaces.

Over 80,000 lots remain vacant throughout the city, which together make up approximately 30,000 acres of wasted land. Dunn believes if these lots were transformed into active community gardens and food-producing farms, our currently unused space could effectively feed all of Chicago while providing employment for hundreds of people. In his approach, Dunn advocates making change by listening more than talking. His role is to listen to the communities that want change and then to work together to create the change:

“Your role is by listening and then – building a narrative that leads toward an action. And then when it comes to action, some of the ingredients of the action like the compost, or the truck to haul away the recycling or garbage, that comes with no fanfare, the resources are sort of magical. You don’t come in with a sign saying, this compost provided by resource center, or if you do this for me ill take away your garbage, don’t emphasized the expensive or the resources you bring. For a project to be owned, 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, and their own work spreading the compost is worth more than delivering the compost so the compost appears off hours and you forget about it as the ingredient they use to transform a vacant lot into a farm, and instead of 2-3 inches deep of compost you do it generously”(Interview: Ken Dunn).


Above: Washington Park Farm, one of Dunn’s newer projects

Dunn also is the founder of City Farm, an urban farm that sustains itself by growing and selling produce thorough local community farm stands and to high-end restaurants on the North Side of Chicago. It is also connected to Dunn’s environmental education non-profit, the Resource Center, which creates compost from the restaurant’s food scraps, runs a recycling project called Creative Reuse Warehouse, and operates its Perishable Foods program, a food distribution program that picks up and distributes food that would otherwise be thrown away by grocery stores to food banks and pantries. Much of Ken’s day-to-day work involves driving a gigantic composting truck from his different locations throughout the city picking up and dropping off food, supplies, compost and doing whatever needs to be done that day to keep his programs going.

While their methods may differ, Dunn and Klehm seem ideologically aligned and agree that huge changes with regard to food production, distribution, consumption and disposal need to happen throughout the city and at all levels of society. To begin learning how to feed ourselves in a truly sustainable way will require major lifestyle changes and this begs the question of exactly which kinds of efforts are going to be the most effective in creating such massive change. Another more recent venture called The Plant Chicago is working to answer this question.


The Plant Chicago, located 1400 W. 46 St. in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood, is rapidly becoming a unique example of culturally and environmentally focused system innovation. Originally designed and built by the Buehler Brothers as a meatpacking facility in 1925, the warehouse is now being transformed by John Edel and his team into a net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation. When complete, which is estimated to be sometime between 2016 and 2017, The Plant will physically support and connect a closed loop system of approximately one-third aquaponic growing systems and two-thirds sustainable food businesses.  It aims to be economically profitable and create no waste, while actively working to improve the lifestyles and community of its inhabitants, neighborhood and city. It already houses many developing businesses including a rooftop garden, the Kombucha brewer, a mushroom basement, multiple aquaponic and hydroponic farms and a bread bakery.

A large focus of The Plant’s system involves the relationship between its hydroponic and aquaponic farms. The Plant farms Tilapia, a sturdy fresh-water fish that grow quickly and easily tolerates crowded tank environments. The Tilapia’s nitrate and ammonia infused wastewater is circulated into the hydroponic gardens and also used to nourish mushroom farms. The gardens plants, which thrive and grow quickly with the additional nutrients, in turn cleanse the water, which then is circulated back to the Tilapia tanks.

Additionally, the hydroponic gardens and breweries will work in tandem and any excess oxygen produced by the plants will be utilized to fuel its existing Kombucha and future beer breweries. The brewery’s carbon dioxide outputs will then circulate back to the hydroponic gardens to help facilitate even more robust plant growth.  Additionally, the beer brewery’s material waste, such as spent barley, will be used to feed the Tilapia.


Truly sustainable interaction between these two systems would not be possible without the third and possibly most crucial piece of the puzzle. The Plant is currently preparing to install an anaerobic digester, a machine that transforms organic waste into energy, in its backyard. The digester will take in various forms of organic waste including the breweries spent grain, the Tilapias waste material, food waste from The Plants future commercial kitchen and waste collected from neighboring businesses. It will then break the waste down into three key materials: hummus-like solid sludge, nutrient-rich liquids and bio-gas which is 2 parts methane and 1 part carbon dioxide. The methane/carbon dioxide mix will be pumped into a combined heat and power system and burned in a turbine generator to produce electricity and year-round heat/cooling for the building.  It will also produce additional carbon dioxide that will be re-directed to the hydroponic farms to further assist with plant growth (The Plant Chicago).

It is quite clear that The Plant’s model also presents big risks. Any attempt to connect so many different elements and systems while sustainably incorporating them into the infrastructure of a single building is an entirely new technological frontier, and most likely ripe with unknown contingencies. While there is a good chance that their project could fail, the great thing is that The Plant’s employees completely recognize these risks and are doing it anyway.

They do it not only because our world so desperately needs new strategies to begin solving the massive food and climate related problems facing our generation today, but also because even if the project doesn’t work, their attempt can serve as a base of research from which other innovators can learn important lessons. The knowledge gained can be used to further new ideas and eventually figure out how to make this kind of system work. In fact, one of The Plants long-term goals is to create a case study that will detail their ideas and construction processes to assist others in starting their own sustainable systems, independent of the outcome of this particular project.

Interconnected projects and systems such as those modeled by the Nance Klehm, Ken Dunn and The Plant are a crucial part of our transition into a culturally and environmentally conscious society. They exemplify a few of many different strategies and opportunities that society must actively take advantage of and employ in order to facilitate this transition. Our long history of environmental disregard has brought us to a point where we desperately need innovative projects like theirs to continuously push for the extreme change that needs to happen.

By Megan Isaacs


“Interview: Nance Klehm.” Telephone interview. 10 Apr. 2013.

“Interview: Ken Dunn.” Personal interview. 11 Mar. 2013.

The Plant Chicago. Plant Chicago NFP, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

“A” is for Apple…

And apparently so is every other letter of the alphabet.

I was recently enlightened to the incredible diversity of the apple and have since become completely enamored with the fruit.  Worldwide there are 7,500 named varieties, and within North America the number stands around 2,500.  These varieties are referred to as cultivars, which means they have been created or selected intentionally and maintained through cultivation.

This information is fascinating to me on a number of levels.  Firstly, who knew that something so iconic, like an apple, is in reality a diverse group of thousands of varieties, each with individual characteristics differentiating them in color, shape, and (most importantly) taste?  Secondly, cultivation implies human intervention, meaning that apples as we know them do not exist independently in the wild.  In fact, the only native apple to North America is the crab apple, a tiny and very bitter cousin to the apples we eat.  In this way, the apple, which has inserted itself into any number of significant contexts, has developed hand in hand with human societies.

Because of this fundamental link between apple cultivation and human development, the apple has very successfully inserted itself into numerous human stories.  Apples are key figures in American propaganda, folklore and fairytales, and, perhaps the most well known reference, the Garden of Eden.

Historically, the first apples brought to North America were cultivated to produce hard liquor for the early settlers.  Since then their functions have multiplied and apples are now a staple of the American diet.  They are incredibly versatile for cooking and eating raw.  This versatility is a product of the variation within the various cultivars available.

However, despite the incredible potential for variation, the commercial market for apples has been severely reduced.  Only 100 varieties are grown commercially in the United States (though there are many heirloom varieties grown privately and for niche markets), and only 15 cultivars account for 90% of apple production.  These 15 cultivars (Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji, McIntosh, Rome, Empire, Honeycrisp, Braeburn, Cortland, Empire, Ginger Gold, Jonagold, and Idared) are among the sweetest cultivars known.  They have been systematically selected and propagated for this characteristic in addition to being among the longest lasting varieties making them ideal for shipping long distances. Apples are commercially produced in 32 of the 50 states, with the top being Washington.

This abundance, in terms of history and biological diversity prompted me to investigate the apple varieties in my own life.  Over the course of several weeks, I explored the marketplaces in my neighborhood on the north side of Chicago including a Jewel Osco, a Treasure Island, a Whole Foods, a Trader Joe’s, a Walmart Express, a Walgreens, and a corner store.  Some of these markets I frequent and some I do not, but all had a selection of apples to choose from.  (All of these locations are within walking/reasonable public transportation distance from my apartment, which brings up many issues of privilege and accessibility that I won’t get into here.)  During my meandering visits to these retail locations I began compiling a list of apples that I came across, which resulted in 20 different cultivars including Fuji, Pink Lady, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Jazz, Braeburn, Empire, Cameo, Criterion, Gravensmith, Matsu (Crispin), Ginergergold, Jonagold, Pippin, Rome, and Winesap.  As an exercise I have illustrated each type of apple, trying to emphasize the visual diversity within this common (and taken for granted) fruit.

Braeburn Red Delicious Granny Smith Pink Lady Fuji Honey Crisp Mcintosh Jazz Jonagold Ginger Gold Gravenstein Criterion Matsu (Crispin) Pippin Cameo Empire Golden Delicious Gala Rome Winesap

This process over the last few months of researching the history, biological potential, and the commercial aspects of apples combined with store visits and observational drawing has been an intensely rewarding experience.  My eyes have been opened to the complexity and subtlety of such a familiar thing in such a wonderful way.

As an artist, my practice often deals with various degrees of obsession and archiving structures.  I was immediately drawn to the existence of apple archives and seed banks that preserve and propagate the thousands of varieties that exist.  And the beauty of the fruit themselves, each type possessing its own color palette and patterning, has greatly inspired me.

The end result of this effort will be the production of an alphabet book dedicated to apples in hopes of propagating the notion of biological diversity and potential early in life.  This project is currently in progress, but will consist of a selection of 26 apple cultivars paired with a corresponding alphabet letter, for example, “B” is for Braeburn.  Look for the end result later this summer!

Sarah K. Benning