August 2009

Rooftop Gardens in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Rooftop Farms in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

It sounds like directions to your next mafia hit:  Walk to the most northern edge of Brooklyn, down a side street ’til you get to the river, then into the warehouse on the left.  You’ll find what you’re looking for at the top of the stairs.

The good news is what you’re looking for is a 6,000 square foot edible garden known as Rooftop Farms in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  Founded by Ben Flanner, Annie Novak, and Lisa and Chris Goode of Goode Green, the farm is having a triumphant inaugural season.  They have gotten press coverage from many major outlets — including the BBC News.  Every week some 100+ people come to the Farm to tour it, work it, and buy its produce.

One element of the draw is the juxtaposition of a green field against the stunning Manhattan skyline.  The other magnetic force is the people.  Ben and Annie greet everyone like family.  They also have a reservoir of kindness and patience for novices who are eager to get their hands dirty.

As Nicholas D. Kristoff recently wrote in his New York Times Op-Ed piece (8/23/09), “…I think I figured out the central problem with modern industrial agriculture.  It’s not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all.  More fundamentally, it has no soul.”

Rooftop Farms provides green space, local food, and a big heart antidote to the process.  I was happy to get a few thoughts from Annie about it:

Why do you think Rooftop Farms is so popular now?

Greenpoint is community-oriented and it’s been a great year for local food.  Our number 1 goal is that our food speaks for itself.  We’re not selling you anything other than a tomato.  We’re not selling the packaging or the claim that it fights heart disease.  Just the tomato.

Why do you think the Farm important?

Greenpoint has terrible soil on the ground level.  We’re offering people a green space.  It’s an oasis for people – and flora and fauna, too.  And pollinating insects.  We want to put the jungle back into the concrete jungle.  (Laughs.)

What are your plans for expansion?

We hope to be a model for green roofs, local food, and learning about plants.  I think the Farm proves we have endless possibility.  We want people to do this everywhere.  Come, learn about what we’re doing, and take it back home.

To learn more and sign up to volunteer at the most beautiful farm around, go to

Take the Stairs to the Farm

Take the Stairs to the Farm

Annie Novak Instructs Farmhands (A.K.A. Volunteers)

Annie Novak Instructs Farmhands (A.K.A. Volunteers)

In the Dirt

In the Dirt

Field Backdrop: Williamburg Bridge

Field Backdrop: Williamburg Bridge

In talking about a new system of sustainable agriculture, people will ask, “So, you want to go back to the land?”  Then there’s a silence as we each imagine working the endless fields by backhoe followed by an evening around the radio.

No, thank you, I don’t want to go back in time.  Our current ways of producing our food, however, aren’t working.  We need big, new visions of our shared future.

This week’s New York Times opinion piece by Dickson D. Despommier, “A Farm on Every Floor,” is one of the inspiring visions.  Despommier sees tall buildings in urban centers, growing crops year-around through the use of hydroponic and aeroponic technologies.  I don’t know much about these methods, and there’s usually a list of “cons” alongside any “pros”, but there is a lot of potential in this approach.  Both of the technologies “behave like a functional ecosystem,” where the crops’ clean waste water and nutrients are continuously recycled.  As of today, after we irrigate our fields, the run-off water is filled with pesticides and becomes a pollutant.  According to Despommier, “irrigation now claims some 70% of the fresh water that we use.”  Imagine the relief that vertical farming could bring to areas of conflicting water rights — the American Southwest and Israel and her neighbors come to mind.

Lastly, it’s wild how a cultural groundswell works.  It becomes easier and easier to connect the dots.  Before reading this article, I heard someone at a dinner party this week suggest that we do vertical farming in abandoned buildings in areas of urban blight.  Perhaps he had read the article, but I don’t think he had.  (Around here, we’re always eager to say the words, “I just read in the Times…” and he made no mention of it.)  I believe many people are starting to look around and dream up our days ahead.

For more on vertical farming, please see: The Contagious Imagination of Vertical Farming and Other Answers.

Design Image from

Design Image from

Remember when we were kids and Mom would make us a sandwich?  It consisted of two pieces of bread with something in the middle.  In fact, the bread part was fundamental to it being a sandwich.  Otherwise, it was just bologna on the counter.

Kentucky Fried Chicken introduces a new take on the sandwich.  Instead of a bun, they’re using a couple of pieces of fried chicken.  Yep, hands-on meat:

Hunker Down on the Double Down
Hunker Down on the Double Down

I know somebody who knows somebody.

And this Somebody Dos was telling President Obama about the flaws in the American food system.

I wasn’t there, but I think he mentioned:

  • The government pays subsidies to farmers to grow primarily corn and soybeans.  For real cheap.
  • The cheap corn becomes feed for cattle (not their natural diet, by the way) and the basis for high-fructose corn syrup that gives fake flavor to things we’ve taken to calling food.
  • This processed food has no nourishment in it, so we eat more and more of it to fill up.  Here I imagine that Somebody Dos leaned in and said, “Really?  An epidemic of obesity?  We’re going to allow for that?”
  • To make ends meet with the cheap crop sales to agribusiness, farmers use pesticides to get the highest yield possible.  The pesticides may work for awhile, but with time, the insects and diseases fight back and introduce resistant populations.
  • The pesticides make our people and our land sick.

You know what Obama said?  May I paraphrase since – you know – I wasn’t there?

The President said, “On a personal note, I completely agree with you.  But you have to show me the movement.”

So, now we’re all here.  You talk to your friends and I’ll talk to mine.

Recently, before an audience of hundreds at the New York Botanical Garden, Josh Viertel of Slow Food USA, quoted a frightful statistic:  Currently in the African-American and Latino communities of the U.S., children age 9 and under have a 50% chance of developing diabetes.

Fifty percent.  One in two.  Heads or tails.

Diabetes and obesity are tightly linked and a lot has been said about the “cheap calorie.”  In the American food system, it’s less expensive to eat at McDonald’s than it is to go to the farmer’s market and make a stir-fry.  We also know that one’s diet is a main contributor to statistics like the 50/50 one quoted above.

This summer many Americans are talking about our health care system.  I believe if we want to improve health care, it’s important that we also change the way we produce and consume our food.

But before we explore the macro view of American health, I have a simple question:  WHY are processed foods bad for us?

In his book, Organic Inc., author Samuel Fromartz offers an explanation.  As I read and write more for Groundswell, I find my learning curve is a line straight up.  Can I admit to you that I’ve never known the role of the pancreas before?  Here’s the passage from Fromartz’s book:

Page 15:  “…A diet high in refined foods…[is]…the engine of a boom-bust cycle of satiation and hunger that leads to weight gain.  The body easily digests these foods, spiking blood sugar levels and pushing the pancreas into overdrive to produce insulin and channel the excess sugar to muscles, organs, or fat.  By working so hard, the insulin eventually depletes blood sugar, causing energy to flag and hunger to arise, leading to a new cycle of consumption and depletion.”

Ronald Eyes The Word - Macy's Parade Eve - Thanksgiving 2007

Ronald Eyes The Word - Macy's Thanksgiving Parade Eve

E-Z Cookin' in the Heatwave

E-Z Cookin' in the Heatwave

In Michael Pollan’s essay, “Out of the Kitchen, On to the Couch,” (NY Times, 8/2/09), he wrote that Americans today spend an average of 27 minutes a day on food preparation.  That’s less than half the time it takes to watch a typical food competition show on the Food Network.  The popularity of the Food Network says that we’re still interested in cooking and food.  Yet as a society, we’ve decided that we’re too busy to cook.

The essay got me thinking about the ardent home cooks in my life.  Someone at the top of the list is my friend Alex Mandl (left) and his partner, Matthew Murphy.  When we get together, 9 out of 10 times Alex cooks.  (I promise we’re friends for a multitude of reasons.)  Alex is a mix of various paths:  A Harvard MBA, he’s also a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.  He works full-time, but manages to cook at home an average of five nights a week.  He’s been vegetarian since he was a teenager and a member of the Park Slope Co-op for years.  At our latest dinner, I talked with him as he made our meal.

What do you say to people who don’t have time to cook?

“I don’t mean to be a smart ass, but do you have time to go to the doctor?  I’d much rather invest 45 minutes on a Wednesday night to do something that is enjoyable and productive, rather than 45 minutes checking my email, staying later at the office, or watching TV.  I never believe that cooking is wasted time.”

Why do you prefer to cook?

“It gives me more control over the quality of ingredients and nutrition.  I eat a lot less oil, salt and fat. When I go out, I can’t control that.  I like simple, whole foods.  As close to their natural state as possible.  I like working with the food before I cook it and while I’m cooking it.  I like the way it tastes and the way it reacts in my body – it gives me cleaner, simpler energy.  I really feel the difference when I don’t eat food that is full of fresh energy.”

What’s your cooking philosophy?

“I’m simplistic.  Look around my kitchen – I have a total of two different pots and I don’t use a lot of gadgets.  For me, I don’t want to have to be super fancy.  People think that if you cook it has to be this big production with a fancy name.  For my pesto, I see what I have and I throw it in.  I had basil, oil, pine nuts, salt and pepper.  I just keep blending it and seeing how it tastes.  After awhile, you get good at experiments.”

Why do you think the food movement is growing in the United States?

“People are over-processed and over-marketed.  You are what you eat and I don’t want to be something that sat on the shelf for the last couple of years.”

In the playful name of “seeing things differently,” here’s a story.  A couple of years ago I went to a wedding in Indianapolis and got seated next to a local guy.  His name escapes me now.  During the dinner, we started talking about things to do in Indy.  He was trying to persuade me that it’s really a much crazier town that most people realize.

“I know some people who live with a wild pig in their house,” he said.  I didn’t buy it.

So he upped the ante. “Let’s drive out there right now.”

We got in my rental Chrysler 300 and drove to the suburbs of the suburbs of Indy.  It was the last house on the cul-de-sac.  We walked in, shook hands with his very sweet friends, and started chatting.

In that living room, I learned that a pig coming down the hallway sounds different than a dog.  His name was Bacon.

Due to an earlier conversation with this guy, I knew our time together would end at the pig adventure.  As we got back to the wedding, we resumed the night among our separate groups of friends.  “Where have you been?”, Colleen asked me.  I showed her these photos…



Awwww, Sweet Bacon!

Awwww, Sweet Bacon

A couple of nights ago my friend Kate and I attended a screening of the movie, “FRESH” in Southport, Connecticut.  The movie adds a bass drumbeat to the march of change in American food.

It features several key players who are leading the charge, including Michael Pollan, organic farmer Joel Salatin, and Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, Inc. and a 2008 McArthur Fellow for his work in urban agriculture.  In the words of Joel Salatin, “Part of our responsibility as stewards of the Earth is to respect the design of nature.”  As we watch the means of conventional meat production in the film, it’s clear we don’t respect the design of nature.  Images of how our food is made shouldn’t make us flinch.

In addition to the movie’s message, I was struck by the venue:  The Pequot Library.  According to the Fairfield Green Food Guide, over 200 people were in attendance.  The large turnout shows how eager we are for a new approach to our food.  Also, the change we want to see in the world is bubbling up from our community establishments.  For the first time in my life, I saw the public library as a place of interesting exchange.  Not just the ‘ol “grab the book and run and maybe keep it forever.”  In the words of the library’s director: “Think of a new role for the library – as a hub of sustainability – partnering with the community to make us healthier and more sustainable.”

We have all the resources we need:  the land ready for organic agriculture, the will to change the food industry, and the meeting places to plan our future.

A New Shelf at the Local Library

A New Shelf at the Local Library

Andrew and I used to work together at a wonderful art studio in NYC called Beneville Studios.  The studio is Michael Beneville’s creative control center, and his team develops his endless ideas as an artist and inventor.  One of my all-time favorite quotes from Michael is:  “I’m glad I took art seriously as a child.”

With that in mind, Beneville Studios’ crew is made up of people who also take art seriously.  A few months back, Andrew Eksuzian, the Mediasmith, made a salad so beautiful that we all had to gather around to see it.  We even took photos.  Here it is — with my glass held high in a toast to art in all its beautiful forms.

And The Artist Takes a Bow

And The Artist Takes a Bow

From my vantage point, it seems as if everyone is shifting to eating whole foods, in season and produced locally.  The movement is afoot and it involves a return to refrigerator ingredients that our grandparents would recognize.

Yet the food industry of the last 50 years isn’t going to leave quietly.  Take a look at this PR piece from the people who bring us high fructose corn syrup.  Or as I like to call it, Public Enemy #1.  According to the Centers for Disease Control in April of this year, 66% of Americans over the age of 20 are overweight or obese. As Obama would say, “We can do better than that.”  I, too, was raised on mysterious red liquid in gallon jugs, but it’s time to reshape our ways.

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