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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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:

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

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.

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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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