Interview with Blake Daniels

Interview with Blake Daniels: SAIC, Spring 2013, Painting graduate

Worked at Logan Square Intelligentsia from March 2013 – July 2013 (~3-4 months)

Excerpts from Interview.

Mixed Enjoyment; it was a trade job. Intelligentsia did a pretty good job in mixing it up in terms of every day tasks and mundanity.

Enjoyed working at Intelligentsia while he was in school, gave him something else to do outside of an intensely art focused degree. But this did not meant that it was helpful for career development.

Working as a barista helped with immediate bills.

Coffee considered as a process, similar to tobacco & art. The process aspect of it was interesting, but not what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Bureaucracy of employee & employer in Intelligentsia and how coffee is produced. The model that Intelligentsia provided was great, but it was not what the Logan Square community wanted. Intelligentsia was shaping coffee culture, but it was relying on the name, the brand, too much.

I would drink 1 cup a day.

I purchase coffee from a local roaster when it’s on sale. I don’t actually drink Intelligentsia coffee now that I do not work there anymore.

Hobby Products

Undertones of culture as seen through coffee as opposed to overtones.

I’m interested in coffee as a system and the coffee shop as a location.

Interview: Poet Dave Snyder

I’d like to begin with some questions about farming and being a writer

You are an organic grower and community activist as well as an accomplished poet. Can you briefly describe the what you do in each area? Do you consider one or the other to be your main pursuit?

I call myself a grower, not a farmer. It’s silly to call yourself a farmer if you have a quarter of an acre, and the label doesn’t change what I’m going to do in a little piece of space. Today we think of “gardener” as a diminutive, decorative term. I like to say “grower.”

Dave Snyder

I got my start ten years ago when I moved to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood from Seattle. I came to go to grad school; I had no real interest in growing. I associated it with work I did as a kid, with being sweaty and wanting to play Nintendo. But Uptown is so urban. I reacted to that by being drawn to the community garden across the street, Ginkgo Gardens. They grow vegetables on a triple lot and donate them to a food bank. Annually, it’s around 1/2 to 3/4 of a ton, donated to Vital Bridges’ GroceryLand, a food pantry that donates food to low-income people living with AIDS. I really fell in love with that mission and started helping out. By “helping” I mean weeding and watering. Strangely, in reaction to this urban experience, I developed this weird addiction to gardening. Now I’ve been working there for ten seasons. It’s my favorite place in the city. But my only training is working there and with other growers.

How about being a poet?

As with gardening, poetry was not really part of my education until halfway through college, when I took a summer poetry class. I got a C or C- and the teacher was a jerk, but I was weirdly compelled by it. It was probably a bad decision [laughs], but I decided to take another poetry class. That was wonderful and fascinating. The teacher approached it like, “We’re going to spend the semester playing with language!” That, too, became a habit. Eventually I went to the School of the Art Institute and graduated with an MFA in writing.

What connections do you see between being a grower and being a writer?

The work of growing and the work of writing–there are lots of similarities and differences. Both require constant attention and constant work. It takes this sort of–tending–this constantly working on it. If you forget to do that tending, whether of your plants or your poems, they wither. I go through times when the poetry is withering, and times when the horticulture is withering. You have to tend to both.

Yes, I wrote a blog post about that–the connection between tending and paying attention.

Yes. Also, both require this sort of carefulness of looking, a fusion of perception and doing. In gardening, you are constantly reacting to what your plants are doing. You constantly have to be seeing and then acting. It’s the same with poetry–you have to be perceiving and doing, perceiving and doing. I’m suspicious of poetry that gets too far from perception.

Dave's Hands

You know, many people have this kind of divided interest in poetry and gardening. Emily Dickinson was well known as a gardener–no one knew she was a poet. Cicero said, “All you need is a library and a garden to be happy.” The correspondence between tending and attending is a real correspondence that has clearly been explained and examined for millennia. Its’ in our linguistic memory. That’s humbling.

What linkages are there in your overall world view that have led you to choose two socially- undervalued kinds of work?

I’m not a financially-motivated person. I’ve always chosen interest over a paycheck, and I’ve had almost nothing but fascinating jobs. The few times I’ve taken a desk job to pay the bills, I was able to make them interesting. I had great co-workers. It never felt meaningless. I look at people I grew up with and see different life decisions. Those people are financially more stable than me, but they don’t seem that happy. The way that you spend your time changes who you are. I choose interesting things because I’m interested in them. If I didn’t, I would no longer be interested in them–that, too, would wither from lack of attention. The most interesting people I know are interesting because of the effort they’ve put into reading, thinking about things–not watching every episode of their favorite TV program and eating caramel corn each evening.

Both growing and writing are demanding pursuits–vocations, even. How do you balance the demands of each?

I balance them very poorly. My strategy is to not get to get too stressed out about it. Writer Jill Riddell told me that at no point is your life ever in balance, but if you step back, over the course of a decade, there is balance. I took that to heart. This year, I was working part time over the winter. I decided not to teach this semester, and I spent a whole lot more time writing regularly again and producing new work. I started submitting my work to literary journals again. Now it’s April and I was out of the house at 7 a.m. for a compost delivery; after this I’m going home to plant. I’m basically working on growing from sunup to sundown. I’m not writing poetry, but that’s what happens in April and May. Things will chill out again in June. If things don’t slow down in June, they will later on. It’s ok. The process is cyclical and I try not to second guess it too much.

Many artist-farmers find themselves torn between their need of a rural environment and their desire to live in a city. Do you experience this conflict? How do you handle it?

I understand that conflict, but I don’t feel torn. I value and love both environments. I think the reason is that I’ve figured out a way to scratch some of that itch [for living in a rural place]. I have enough space at my home in Garfield Park. I have a backyard and an empty lot next door. The owners let me grow stuff if I keep down the weeds and shovel the walk in winter–that’s my rent. It’s a ton of space, and my neighbors grow there with me. I don’t have the peace of mind [of the country], I don’t have a vista, but I have the city of Chicago, which is mind-blowing. It’s such a culturally-rich city. My girlfriend and I say, “Live in Chicago like you’re vacationing in New York.” It’s a good model.

What is the most important thing you know about growing things? About poetry and writing?

Pay attention to those who are better at it than you are. There’s always somebody. That doesn’t mean emulating that person per se. If you talk to ten gardeners, you get ten different ways of doing something. Pay attention to how other people do things, because there may be something to it. It’s the same thing with writing. If you want to be a poet, read every single poem that you can. Recently, I read Gordon Massman, do you know his work? He writes brutal, ugly poems that couldn’t be further from what I do. But I read his whole book in a single sitting–it was completely compelling! It’s a kind of genius. I won’t write like he does, but my work will only get better from reading that book. In essence, don’t think another way of doing things is a dumb way. You can learn from it, so don’t dismiss things out of hand.

Now for some questions about food and farming.

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

In the most literal way, we need to feed everybody in the best way possible. In the best and most just way. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. The way in which you raise your food, the kind of food you raise, the way you allow people to make their money off of food, the way food is distributed–they are all important.

One thing I think is really important is that worldwide, it should be easier to make your living as a small farmer. This is a complex problem. How can we expect a small farmer to make an equitable living and simultaneously expect another small farmer in central Ghana to make a living when they are competing in the same world market?

But are they really competing with each other? Aren’t they really competing with Monsanto?

Well, yes. Large companies–seed and pesticide producers, food distributors–make it hard for small farmers to operate with a fair standard of living. There should be an expectation that you’re growing food for yourself and your neighbors. For example, in the global South and elsewhere, traditional crops are disappearing in favor of corn and rice that’s being foisted upon the farmers by governments and corporations. People aren’t growing the food that feeds themselves and their neighbors. A food stable region may become food unstable as a result.

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

The monopolization by a few companies to try to make a lot of money off of farming. Monsanto isn’t a food company–they’re a chemical company. They produce seeds that are in a commercial package with their pesticides. It’s profiteering and doesn’t seem to be helping that many people in the long run, except investors. And there are a lot of other companies that do that, not just Monsanto.

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

I can’t really say. It should be as specific as the community it’s serving. I could tell you how me and my neighbors want to feed ourselves. We want to grow goofy, hilarious stuff–

Like what?

Like cardoons and blue tomatoes and papalo, a Central American herb. We grow weird stuff, a lot of it, we work a lot together, share, and barbecue afterwards. That works for my community. There also tradeoffs. There are literally whirlwinds of litter in my neighborhood [of Garfield Park]. There are gunshots. But that’s the exact reason we are able to have land there, so we accept that. It works for us but not for everybody. Some community in the South Islands of the Philippines will have a different way of doing things, but they know how to feed themselves. If you have the skills and the land and a small amount of economic capital, you can do this. But every community does it in their own way.

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

I do. I don’t spend a lot of money there, or anywhere I shop. But let me say this about Whole Foods. Their meat program is the most progressive that I’ve ever seen. It’s more progressive than grocery stores in Europe, more progressive than co-ops I’ve been to. It’s not the most just. The most just is to raise the animal yourself or work with a farmer who raises the animal humanely. But if we’re going to have cities, we’re going to have people who have to buy meat.

It’s hard to get people to think ethically about meat. There’s an information disjunct out there. You have two chicken quarters and you don’t have any information about where your chicken quarters are coming from. One costs 99 cents a pound and one costs $7.99 a pound. They seem the same, but you don’t see chicken #1 getting dipped in bleach or sitting in a cage on top of another chicken, or chicken #2 being raised by a family. Whole Foods has done the most remarkable process in trying to communicate all this information. They have a 5 step rating scale, from 1 to 5, rating how animal-friendly the process was. Five makes the meat most expensive and they tell you why. It’s there at length on their website. Often their criteria are as strict as other certification programs, but even if you’re a casual consumer, you can make way more informed decisions just at the meat counter. That’s just remarkable.

Everybody talks about misperceptions about organic food, because we allow all these values we have about food to stand in for it. “Organic” is almost the only info we have about the food we eat, other than the old system of USDA nutrition. We have little or no information about where the food was produced. Organic is the only other largely accepted way to get information about food. Whole Foods has done a wonderful job about creating information about meat. What if that were true at Jewell? What if they had to tell you it’s a 1, or below a 1? Normal people make more responsible decisions when they have this kind of information.

And finally, a few political questions…

“Radical” in its original sense means getting to the root of a problem. Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way?

The idea of a radical in common usage is someone on the fringes. I find myself on the margins a lot of times, by virtue of being drawn to these interesting places. I live in a marginal neighborhood and do marginal work. Renata Adler writes about the radical middle, and I’ve always been drawn to that concept. Maybe being a radical means being the most central. I don’t know….I’m still thinking about that.

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?

Grow something from seed. Don’t be afraid of it dying–if you’re growing vegetables, you’re going to kill them anyway. Grow something silly, not just basil or lettuce from the DIY grow kit. Save that avocado pit and sprout that. Sprout some popcorn from the bulk bin. Grow some wild flowers in your window box. I was sprouting taro root the other day that was left over from my fridge. These things are all around us. The potatoes we buy are still imbued with life. Cheetos aren’t. They are dead food. But a potato you throw out back will continue to be alive. It’s no wonder it’s healthier for you–it has all the things that keep things alive in it. A potato does you better than a potato chip.

What else would you like to say about these issues?

I had this amazing moment where my own stereotypes were really challenged. Years ago, I was at Kilbourn Greenhouse out on the northwest side, out past Cicero. I was out there doing a seed saver workshop at a harvest festival, and this guy came up. He was a stereotypical west side dad–big, broad-shouldered, with a sports jersey. He was like, “So, tell me about these Monsanto folks–what’s the story with that?” So I talked a little bit about my own thoughts on intellectual property rights in terms of genetics. Then he said, “You know, that stuff really interests me. Me and my wife, we adopted this little girl from Vietnam, and when she came out here, she couldn’t eat any of these processed foods, you know? They made her sick. So we had to get her on this totally non-processed food stuff. Then she was, like, a little bit better. Now we’re moving to the all organic stuff. We were thinking, if it’s better for her, it’s going to be better for us too, you know?” Here was a true blood Black Hawks fan, raising this little girl and completely rethinking the way that he sees food as it relates to nutrition. That may be a different thing than food as it relates to the environment, but it made me so stoked. He probably wasn’t thinking about this stuff beforehand, but faced with the responsibility for the health of another human being, he started to rethink things. As we were talking about with meat, it reinforced my belief that ordinary people will make more responsible choices if they have information to do so.

Thanks so much for talking with me today! And by the way, as a poet and grower and someone who is chronically embarrassed by her nails, I love the photo of your hands on your website. It’s perfect.

Yeah–chipped and a little too long! Just be proud of it.

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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