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A systems approach to addressing food insecurity in North Omaha

August 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Nancy Williams with No More Empty Pots and other players are taking a systems approach to addressing food insecuity in North Omaha.

A systems approach to addressing food insecurity
by Leo Adam Biga

Food insecurity in northeast Omaha is a question of access, education and poverty.

Nancy Williams has designed her nonprofit No More Empty Pots around “equitable access to local, fresh, affordable food” via a holistic approach. It offers the Community Market Basket CSA (community supported agriculture) as well as shared commercial kitchens, a training kitchen and classes. Its Food Hub in Florence is adding a business incubator, community cafe, kids kitchen and rooftop garden.

“We could just do one thing and satisfy a symptom, but we’re trying to address the root cause issue of poverty – of which hunger is a symptom. The food hub concept is a systems approach to not just deal with hunger but to get people trained and hired and to support startup businesses. So we have a multi-pronged approach to supporting local food and supporting people who need access to food and the people providing that food.

“Poverty is not just about food deserts and hunger. it’s about livable wages, adequate education, meaningful connections. It’s about being able to take advantage of the opportunities in front of you. It’s about people engaging. You see, it’s one thing to get people to food because they’re hungry or they don’t have access to it. It’s even something more if they have access to living wage jobs where they can then choose their food.”

Pots is based in North Omaha, she said, in recognition of its “rich cultural heritage of food and community” and concurrent “disparities in health, healthy food access, equity and economics.”

“So, we wanted to make a difference there first, then catalyze a ripple effect in urban, suburban and rural spaces. We believe in the reciprocity of local food.”

An effective food system involves a social contract of public-private players. In Omaha it includes United Way, Together, the Food Bank, Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue, vendors, producers, schools, churches.

“It’s not a simple thing to talk about food access and deserts,” Williams said. “It’s a whole system of the way we produce food and get food to people, the way people consume it and how we value it. The different ways intersect. It takes all of it. But there needs to be some calibration, hole-plugging and shifting.

“We can get there, but it has to be done collaboratively so we’re not working in silos.”

On the access-education-employment side are community gardens and urban farms like those at City Sprouts, which also offers classes and internships. A farmers market is held there, too. Charles Drew Health Center and Florence Mill also host farmers markets.

Minne Lusa House is a neighborhood engagement-sustainability activator..

Some churches, including Shepherd of the Hills and New Life Presbyterian, provide free monthly community meals. New Life also provides food to participants in its youth summer enrichment program.

“There are food insecure kids that come,” pastor Dwight Williams said. “There is a lot more need than we are able to access.”

Community organizations serving seniors, youth and the homeless have a free meals component to meet food insecurity needs. The Omaha Public Schools provides free and reduced lunches to the majority of its students. Private institutions rely on donations to fill the gap. Local farmer Brian Vencil recently directed a $2,500 donation from the America’s Farmers Grow Communities program to help feed kids at Holy Name School.

Nancy Williams said everything has its place.

“Community gardens make food accessible, help people become more self-sufficient and engage. It’s about community building. You can’t have food without community. At farmers markets customers learn about where the food comes from, talk to growers about production practices and how to use products. It develops relationships. The more food customers get from farmers markets the more likely they’ll continue shopping there and expand their palette, which gives growers the opportunity to grow and sell more and put more money into the local economy.”

Pantries play a role, too.

“On average we have about 600 clients come through our food pantry weekly,” Heart Ministry Center executive director Eric Crawford said. “We’ve been seeing more clients come. We’re on pace to give away more than 3 million pounds of food this year.”

Heart case management services strive to get clients to self-sufficiency.

Project Hope director Lori Lindberg said its pantry serves mostly one-time, emergency needs recipients.

Church of the Resurrection is trying a mobile food pantry starting July 15.

Then there are the aquaponics systems Greg Fripp and his Whispering Roots team build, often with students in schools, that grow vegetables and fish.

“Aquaponics has its place in that next level of production,” Williams said. “There’s education, job training, entrepreneurship. There’s an opportunity to do institutional supply because you can scale it.”

The new Fair Deal Grocery was located on North 24th Street to fill fresh food scarcity in the area.

“Whenever you can put food where people are, it’s better than trying to find transportation or other means of getting people to it,” Williams said.

Fair Deal Village Marketplace manager Terri Sanders said it’s challenging getting people to try it.

“Sometimes it takes more education in some places than others,” Williams said. “If you’ve never been exposed to it, just because it’s plopped down in front of you doesn’t mean you’re going to go to it. You need somebody to help you make that transition. Sometimes you don’t even know you need it until somebody points out the benefits and then you take advantage of it.”

The Creatives Collective works with north side residents on education-advocacy through classes, events and activities, including culture fairs.

Jody-Ann Coore is community engagement coordinator for the Omaha Economic Development Cooperation, which sponsors the Collective.

“Education is a big gap for people,” Coore said. “Residents say it’s something the community needs. They often don’t know how to shop for healthy foods or don’t know some of the foods or don’t know how to cook them so they are tasty and appealing to the palette.”

Partnerships with local organizations help built food literacy. Still, getting residents’ buy-in takes time.

“It’s a neighborhood difficult to engage because they’re so used to being told what to do and not asked how to solve those issues. But we’ve seen progress. Resident committee members are taking part in the planning. We’re working on getting more residents involved. The beautiful thing is that each has personal networks they can tap into, so it’s pretty much radiating out.”

Greg Fripp’s sustainable practices dream is taking shape at Highlander Village on North 30th Street. The world headquarters for his Whispering Roots will include a greenhouse, education center and production center. Steelhead trout and vegetables will be grown there. He partners with farmers markets, Hy-Vee stores and others to get food to market. Roots teaches youth and adults how to build food systems and grow food.

“Highlander’s goal is about community development- engagement, and that’s exactly what Whispering Roots does. We say, ‘we grow, we feed, we educate.’ We need to draw more attention to North Omaha. it’s not that students in underserved communities can’t learn and don’t want to learn, they just need access to support, materials and resources. And then they can compete.”

Fripp said he’s learned “you have to meet people where they are and understand that community in order to deliver them a solution that actually works.”

“You provide solutions tailored for that specific community because every community’s different. Everybody needs food, but the way you implement these techniques, policies or systems needs to fit within that community.”

He sees more inclusivity happening.

“We’re getting more organizations that want to spend time with community and collaborating.”

“I am a fan of any model that works in a community with the community that produces what the community needs in the way the community needs and that values people in that process,” Nancy Williams said. “It’s not going to look the same everywhere and frankly most things shouldn’t look the way they’ve always looked because those things aren’t working.”

Fripp sees a need to bridge a disconnect between policymakers and “people implementing change on the ground.” “When that happens,” he said. “we’re going to see an acceleration of change in terms of how some of this stuff gets delivered. You still have some people who make decisions not really connected to the community.”

“We’ve made progress getting access to lots,” said Fripp, who also does community gardens and urban farms. “That was something that didn’t happen in the past. We put together a team to write new policies to allow people to use city lots to grow food.”

Similarly, he’s seen acceptance of aquaponics grow.

“We’re not as advanced as other cities, but we’re coming along. People are starting to see the power of what we do – from growing food to educating children to engaging public. They’re starting to see it really works
and at whatever scale you want to do it.”

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North Omaha Summer Arts presents: Art and Gardening


North Omaha Summer Arts continues its FREE community, family-friendly festival with an Art and Gardening event on July 18. More events through mid-August. Read more below and watch for weekly updates and announcements here.

north omaha summer arts - art and gardening 2-1

North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) celebrates 5 years. Come be a part of this FREE community festival for the whole family!!

Saturday, July 18th
Art and Gardening
10 am – 12 pm
Join NOSA, No More Empty Pots & WhyArts @ Florence Branch Library making art on clay pots and planting flowers that attract pollinators. Pots provided but bring your own pots if you like. Call 402-502-4669 to register but registration not required.

Mon. – Fri., July 20-24
Mural Making Community Project
9 am – 12 pm
Youth participants from Project Everlast, YouthLinks and Solomon Girls will collaborate with Heartland Family Service Senior Center residemts to create a mobile mural with the theme of Peace in North Omaha. Participants will work under the supervision of muralist and sculptor Pamela Hinson at the HFS Intergenerational Campus. The mural will have its first public showing at the NOSA Arts Crawl on August 14.

Weds. through July 29
Women’s Writing Workshops; An Adventure in Art Journaling
6 – 8 pm
Kim Whiteside leads workshops at Trinity Lutheran Church

Friday, August 14th
NOSA 5th annual Arts Crawl
6 – 9 pm
Featuring work by established and emerging artists.Take a stroll or a drive down North 30th Street from Metropolitan College Fort Omaha campus north to various churches to Heartland Family Service/Solomon Girls Center.

The Arts Crawl lineup:

Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campue, Mule Barn Building #21

Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd. (just northwest of 30th and Kansas Ave.)

Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th St. (30th and Redick)

Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Ave. (30th and Newport Ave.)

Heartland Family Service/Solomon Girls Center, 6720 North 30th St. (30th and Titus Ave.)

NEW THIS YEAR: The Washington Branch Library, 2868 Ames Ave. is hosting an Arts Crawl reception from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Enjoy art and refreshments at the library.

Remember all NOSA activities are FREE and open to the public.

Please come participate in this important milestone of 5 years bringing art to North Omaha. Your support is appreciated.

For more info, email pamelajoh100@hotmail.com or call 402-502-4669/402-709-1359

Feeding the World, Nourishing Our Neighbors, Far and Near: Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Omaha Nonprofits Take On Hunger and Food Insecurity

November 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Here is a collection of stories I wrote for the Winter 2014 issue of Metro Quarterly Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) that focus on the theme of how responding to a starving world is within our reach. The stories explore the efforts of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and of four Omaha nonprofits – Food Bank of the Heartland, Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue, City Sprouts and No More Empty Pots – in taking on hunger and food insecurity through various programs and activities.

 

Feeding the World, Nourishing Our Neighbors, Far and Near: Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Omaha Nonprofits Take On Hunger and Food Insecurity

 

metroMAGAZINE/mQUARTERLY

Within Our Reach: A Starving World

40 Chances: Addressing Global Hunger

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

Father-son team bearing famous name pen book that calls people to action

Howard G. and Howard W. Buffett want people to know they can make a difference in a hungry world

Giving became synonymous with the Buffett name when Omaha billionaire investor Warren Buffett gave part of his immense wealth to his adult children’s foundations and pledged the remainder to philanthropy in the event of his death. Thus, one of history’s largest personal fortunes is now closely aligned to myriad efforts that address pressing human needs around the world.

The Wizard of Omaha’s eldest son, Howard Graham Buffett, heads a foundation focused on improving the standard of living and quality of life for the world’s most impoverished, marginalized populations. Food security is among the foundation’s top priorities, not surprising given that its namesake chairman-CEO is a farmer with strong roots in his agriculture-rich native Nebraska. He’s also a staunch conservationist and an accomplished photographer.

A former Douglas County Commissioner now living in Decatur, Illinois, where he farms, Howard G. traveled to developing nations as a youth. His late mother, Susie, cultivated a social justice bent in him and his siblings. Those experiences helped shape the work of his Howard G. Buffett Foundation. His travels and the foundation’s work, told through the prism of experiences lived, relationships built and lessons learned, highlight his new book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.

He co-authored the bestseller with his son and former foundation executive director Howard Warren Buffett, who has extensive experience dealing with international and domestic issues. As a U.S. Department of Defense official he.oversaw ag-based economic stabilization-redevelopment programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a White House policy advisor he co-wrote the President’s cross-sector partnership strategy. The Columbia University lecturer also worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations.

Growing up he made many trips with his father to challenging places. Like his old man he is a farmer, too, with a spread near Tekamah.

Now or never
The book by this father-son team calls readers to take action and do something good for the world, even if it’s in your own backyard. The authors proffer principles for doing and giving and making a lasting impact with the limited chances you’re granted in a lifetime.

“If there’s an overriding thought it’s that anybody can do something. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is, it’s just doing something” that counts,” says Howard G. He adds, “Don’t be afraid to take risks. Even going down to your local food pantry to volunteer might be a risk for somebody. Make a long-term commitment – don’t just do it to see what it’s like. That message is to NGOs and foundations and everybody who works in any kind of philanthropic area.

“Figure it out, focus on it and then stick with it.”

The Buffetts hope their book gives people a sense of urgency to act.

“The truth is most of us just go through life,” Howard G. says. “We don’t think about the fact that by time we get out of college and get a little experience we’ve probably got 40 years to really make a positive impact. That’s our prime. Just do it right. We cant take stuff back and eventually we do run out of time. That’s what the title is about.”

“That gets to the core of what 40 Chances is – about having a limited number of opportunities to do the best job we can in our life,” Howard W. says. “And that can be being the best mother or father, being the best mentor, being the best resident of a neighborhood or community. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s just that you seize those opportunities.”

 

 

Lessons learned
Much of the Buffetts’ work plays out overseas, where the West’s expectations or assumptions don’t hold much currency amid the developing world’s harsh realities. Howard G.’s seen many entities try to come up with First World solutions for Third World problems, but the metrics don’t always apply. The consequences of planting the wrong seed crop for a certain climate or soil in a vulnerable place like Eastern Congo, for example, can be disastrous.

“Everywhere we go and work in the world life is not predictable,” Howard G. says. “If you’re a small farmer struggling feed your family, if one thing goes wrong you can have a child die, so the consequences of what can happen are so significant and magnified.”

His foundation works in some tough environments, including Eastern Congo, Rwanda and Liberia, where food and water insecurity, poverty and conflict are constant threats.

He supports a research farm in South Africa, where the foundation does conservation work returning cheetahs to the wild and supporting anti-poaching measures. The farm grows cover crops, with the goal of making these crops available to several countries on the African continent. He makes a point of visiting wherever his foundation’s active, no matter how remote or unstable the site, in order to put his own eyes on a situation.

“Each trip leads to something,” he says. “I see something, I learn something. I would argue it is important to do it and I think other people need to do more of it. Anything I’ve ever learned that’s stuck with me has been in part because I’ve gone somewhere and experienced it. I think it has to do with my being a photographer. It makes you pay attention to the detailed scene of what’s happening. I absorb a lot of things by osmosis. As a photographer you have to be there to get the photograph. I think the same way with this, you have to be there.

“When you see a lot of pain and see death it’s very hard to deal with. I don’t care who you are, you internalize that somehow. What a camera allows you to do is to take pictures of that to show the world what’s happening. It gives you a whole new purpose of what you’re trying to do, so photography’s been a huge thing for me.”

This “journalist at heart” has published several books of photography featuring what he’s “seen and experienced” around the globe.

He’s learned the only way to truly appreciate the jeopardy people face is to go where they live and witness their peril.

“You can’t understand what people go through unless you see it for yourself. I can tell you what it’s like to go into a landfill where kids are living and dying because I’ve been to where people literally live in trash. When you walk in there your eyes burn and you can’t breathe. You have to experience that.”

Want is as near as our own backyard
The Buffetts say even if you can’t travel the world, opportunities to make a difference are as near as a local pantry or the Food Bank for the Heartland, where Howard W.’s volunteered. In the middle of America’s Breadbasket people face hunger and malnutrition daily.

“The numbers have grown so much in this country of people who are food insecure,” Howard G. says. “I think there are roughly 250,000 food insecure people in Neb. That’s right in the heart of America. You have to say to yourself, That’s not right, something’s totally wrong with that.”

Teaching people to grow their own food is part of building a secure, sustainable food culture. When Howard W. discovered all Omaha Public Schools’ designated career academies had been fulfilled except one – urban agriculture – he helped establish an Urban Ag and Natural Resources career academy at Bryan High School, where he also helped form a Future Farmers of America club. Both are thriving there.

“I’ve been able to mentor some of the students at Bryan and have an impact on their lives,” he says. “Those relationships and the gratification I get from being involved with very local things are extremely rewarding. It’s so enriching what takes place there.”

Father and son encourage folks to get out of their comfort zone and give time to worthy causes like these in their own community.

“I just think being there and showing up is so important,” Howard G. says. “You don’t have to have money to make a difference.”

He says America’s generosity and volunteerism stand it alone.

“Nobody volunteers like Americans. Americans are great volunteers, and they’re great volunteers right here in Omaha.”

 
Image may contain: 5 people , text

 

Staying focused
If he’s learned anything, it’s that mitigating problems like chronic hunger, food insecurity and poor nutrition is gradual at best in places without America’s entrepreneurial-volunteer spirit.

“I’m very impatient and I’ve learned I have to be more patient. I’m a Type A personality, so I’m like, I’m going to go in there and figure it out when I get there. It doesn’t work that way. One of the things you learn is there’s no short-term fix or involvement. You have to be in this for the long haul. That changes how you do things. For us it means we have to stay very focused.”

He may not have the legendary focus of his father but he’s gotten better as he’s learned to say no and to accept he can’t do everything.

“I realized the consequences if I don’t stay focused – I get distracted, I’m wasting money, I’m not making impact. That’s just something I had to get better at. If I’m going to be focused and have impact I just have to say no to people, even very good friends. If I did all those things people come to me with I would get nothing done.”

His advice for organizations and individuals is the same.

“Figure out what you want to do and just do that and don’t get distracted, don’t get sidetracked, don’t try to save the world. If you’re going to try to save the world you’re going to save nobody. You’ve got to be focused. The more narrow you are the more impact you’ll have.”

Coming full circle
Doing the book brought many benefits.

“It helped the foundation itself gain additional focus and learn lessons from the past,” Howard W. says. “It allowed us to start honing in and narrowing down where we wanted to go from there, whether multi-year crop-based research on new varieties of corn or better ways to reduce soil erosion over a decade of no till with cover crops.”

Or building a new hydroelectric plant in Eastern Congo that will bring light to the masses to catalyze investment in agribusiness that will in turn create jobs for people whose only alternative is conflict. Or reducing poaching as a way to cut off funds (from the sale of elephant tusks and rhino horns) to rebels.

“For me personally this retrospective and introspective look was almost like going through a whole other undergraduate degree,” Howard W. says. “My dad and I hadn’t as much time to travel together the last couple years, so working on this book together was a new kind of journey of taking everything we had done together in person and then analyzing it. It’s been incredibly rewarding.”

The Howards were joined by family patriarch Warren, who wrote the book’s foreword, for the launch in New York City. The paperback version from Simon & Schuster is out this fall.

“That was fun. It brought us all together,” Howard G. says.

If there’s one thing Howard G. wants people to take away from the book, it’s for people to do something.

“I just feel like if we do these things it will make a difference. Even if it doesn’t make a difference, we tried and we might learn something from that failure. My dad talks about staying in your circle of confidence. I know what I’m good at, I know what I’m not good at, so I stick with that. But that’s a big enough circle for me to still step into things I’m not comfortable with.

“Like I tell young people, ‘Get uncomfortable, just go do some things that make you go, Holy crap.’ That’s what’s going to make you grow, that’s what’s going to make you want to do more because you’re going to gain some confidence. Some things might not work, but so what.”

 

 

 

Collective Impact

Food Bank of the Heartland

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

Distribution key to getting food to where it’s most needed

Collective effort to reduce food insecurity includes Food Bank

It’s no secret that in the land of plenty, a resource gap exists for many folks, including right here in the metro, The problem with poverty is not just low income, it’s lack of education and access. Want often translates into people experiencing hunger and inadequate nutrition.

Every night, a segment of poor Nebraskans goes hungry. An estimated 250,000 in the state are chronically food insecure, a dramatic increase since the 2007-2008 recession. Most of the affected adults are the working poor. One in five area children are at-risk of hunger.

The mosaic of helping agencies and initiatives addressing the issue includes food pantries. community gardens. healthy cooking classes and nutrition education. A key player in that mix is the Omaha-based Food Bank for the Heartland. Established in 1981, FBFH is one of only two food banks in the state along with the Lincoln Food Bank.

Scaling up
Until five years ago FBFH served just Omaha and Council Bluffs but it now covers most of the state, plus western Iowa, for a total of 93 counties and 75,000 square miles. In what’s been a transformation for an organization that depends almost entirely on donations and fundraisers, a completely new leadership team and staff came on board in 2009 to scale the operations up. That’s meant a new, expanded facility at 10525 J Street, a fleet of big trucks and a tech-driven warehouse order and delivery tracking system.

“We have online ordering for our customers just like Amazon that tells us what they want, when they want it and reserves it in inventory,” says president-CEO Susan Ogborn. “We have Roadnet, the UPS software, to track our trucks and to route them efficiently. We have bar coding in the warehouse so that everything is tied to an item number. It tells you when to pick and how many to pick.”

All of it’s needed to distribute the estimated 16 million pounds of food FBFH will distribute this fiscal year.

“We can’t do this without being as efficient and effective as possible. We monitor everything we do and how we do it.”

Volunteers are critical for sorting and repackaging pallets of food.

In its mode shift the Food Bank’s gone from “order taker to business seeker,” she says. “Before, we waited for people to come to us. Now, I have two full-time food sourcing professionals who do nothing but look out for food and work with the people who give it to us.”

The organization’s increased the number of retail and processing vendors it contracts with to provide food, much of it perishable meat, dairy and produce, from fewer than a dozen to more than 200. Procuring enough edible resources for its many food partners, who include pantries run by the Heart Ministry Center, Together and Heartland Hope Mission in Omaha, has “changed our entire business model completely,” Ogborn says, adding. “We are first and foremost a distribution center now. We’ve got five people on the road all the time in rural Nebraska. We’re an entirely different business.”

Heart Ministry Center director John Levy says, “The Food Bank plays an absolutely critical role in us being able to serve people in need. We can access a much wider selection of food by using Food Bank and also keep our costs much lower. By having a wider selection of food, people are more likely to come back to our Center because they had a good experience. Because we are able to get the food for free or drastically reduced prices, we have more money to spend on helping clients with their underlying problems.”

Ogborn and her staff all came to their jobs with no previous food banking experience, which she says has worked to their advantage.

“We don’t know what we can’t do, so we just we just try anything and don’t let anything stop us.”

Outside-the-box
Most satisfying to Ogborn, she says, is “finding some creative way to serve people we haven’t served before,” For example. identifying the rural poor in the Sand Hills region was proving difficult until she thought of an outside-the-box way to reach them.

“I sent out a letter to the sheriffs in those counties that said, ‘You know who the people are in your community that are in need, I don’t, how about I send you some food boxes and you give it to them when they need it?’ I didn’t know if I’d hear back or not. Well, the sheriffs in those counties, especially Nance and Merrick counties, are now distributing food on a regular basis. They’re supporting mobile pantries and we’ve got all kinds of services going on there.”

Closer to home, FBFH operates programs that provide meals to at-risk children after school, on weekends and during the summer through such youth-serving organizations as Completely Kids.

“Where we identify a gap where people aren’t being served by anybody else we will start a program.”

The effects of hunger and poor nutrition are far-reaching, especially on children’s health and school performance. Often hunger or malnourishment results when people can’t afford or find fresh, local food near them. Those living with food insecurity and residing in food deserts often don’t know what eating healthy entails and need to be taught how to source and cook things that don’t come out of a box.

Growing your own food is an option for some. But for most folks a food pantry or the SNAP (food stamps) program is more realistic. Not everyone knows about or chooses to use these remedial options. Ogborn says as many as a third of those eligible to receive SNAP benefits in Neb. fail to do so, often, she suspects, out of embarrassment.

She agrees with colleagues that mediating hunger in the Heartland requires a collaborative effort to make the needed collective impact.

“In the food banking world we have a saying – you can’t food bank your way out of hunger. And you absolutely can’t. There is enough food to feed everybody in America but how we get it and people connected is very challenging. It’s a distribution challenge process. It’s also an issue around nutrition education, cooking healthy meals.”

That’s why the Food Bank partners with ConAgra Foods Foundation, Walmart and other mega food processors and purveyors to get healthy food to where it’s needed. “We could not do what we do without them.” It’s why it partners, too, with the Hunger Free Heartland coalition and the Hunger Collaborative to do the same on a more intimate scale.

Hunger Collaborative shared services coordinator Craig Howell says FBFH not only provides nutritious food to pantries that clients might otherwise not access but supplies hot meats for children outside of school they might miss at home. He says it also assists eligible clients get signed up for SNAP. “The ability for us to make sustainable changes cannot happen without the work of the Food Bank.”

Another part of the answer is fast food giants and school cafeterias offering healthy alternatives. Ogborn says reaching people where they live with their habits will make a profound difference in their nutritional levels over time.

Ogborn says the ultimate goal is for all Nebraskans to be self-sufficient in terms of secure, sustainable access to food. “We’d love to put ourselves of business.” Until that day arrives, fundraisers are needed to help support its work. In Sept. a city-wide spaghetti feed garnered thousands of dollars. Proceeds from the ConAgra Foods Ice Skating Rink during the annual Holiday Lights Festival will go to the Food Bank. On March 12 FBFH’s big annual fundraising dinner will feature celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian at the Embassy Suites in La Vista.

Money, food, volunteers and vendors are what keep the Food Bank going. Visit http://www.FoodBankHeartland to get involved.

 

 

 

More Organizations Working to overturn food Insecurity

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

Community response to hunger fosters collaboration

Different approaches come together to make collective impact

Organizations working to make at-risk populations food secure agree more can be done collectively than alone to combat hunger. Omaha’s replete with efforts that feature collaboration and cross-pollination. Some players, such as Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue or City Sprouts, have distinct niches. Others, such as No More Empty Pots, are more comprehensive in scope and thus all roads lead there.

One way or another, these organizations connect with coalitions like Hunger Free Heartland, a ConAgra Foods Foundation’s originated-initiative that’s evolved into the community-wide Child Hunger Ends Here-Omaha Plan. Members of the Hunger Collaborative – Food Bank for the Heartland and pantry operators Heart Ministry Center, Together and Heartland Hope Mission – collectively work to end food insecurity and to provide an array of human services.

New collaborations are always surfacing, including the Prospect Village Community Garden Program that finds City Sprouts, No More Empty and Big Garden, among others, promoting the benefits of engaged, cohesive neighborhoods through community gardening.

Three organizations among many making a difference in creating a secure, equitable food system are:

Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue
If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a communal effort to feed one. Experts agree no one source can solve food insecurity, Instead, ending hunger takes multiple approaches. One is capturing excess food otherwise thrown away and giving it to hungry folks. That’s just what Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue does.

Formed in late 2013 by Beth Ostdiek Smith, Saving Grace rescued more than 200,000 pounds of perishable food in its first 10 months of operation. Ostdiek says a pound of food equals one meal, meaning Saving Grace provided 200,000-plus meals to its recipient partners, who include nonprofits such as Table Grace, Heart Ministries and Open Door Mission that serve vulnerable youth, adults and families.

Smith, who’s long been concerned about the amount of food that gets wasted and the number of hungry people needing square meals, says she “found a niche that really wasn’t being fully addressed” in Omaha.
The response to her food rescue and delivery organization indicate’s she’s helping fill a gap.

“I can’t emphasize enough how excited our recipients are by what we’re bringing them. This is really healthy, nutritious food.”

Response from food vendors is equally positive.

“I think it’s because we’re offering this consistent, professional model that comes out to food vendors. We have refrigerated trucks and our drivers have food handling licenses. We keep it simple and seamless. We get food from here to there.”

Trader Joe’s, Akins Natural Foods, Greenberg Fruit and Attitude on Foods are a few of the biggest participating vendors.

“We just signed on CenturyLink Center’s Levy Restaurants, so we’re going to capture all the excess from the concessions and parties there.
QT has expressed interest in donating all the perishable excess from their convenience stores.”

She says she sells vendors on the give-away with a basic appeal. “Rather than throwing your excess food away in the trash we can rescue your food and get it to people that need it. It just makes sense. We like to say we’re feeding bellies rather than the landfills. It’s exciting to see how much people care and want to make this happen. We need to honor our donors who take and make time to donate.”

Part of Saving Grace’s mission is enhancing awareness and education on food waste and hunger. For example, the organization informs vendors and recipients it has the means to capture unsellable but still edible dairy, produce, proteins and grains that otherwise get thrown away.

“A unique thing we do is match the food to recipients’ needs because many times people have great hearts and take things down to food pantries the pantries can’t use. When we bring on a food recipient partner we interview them to see what their capacity is – whether they have refrigeration and freezers – how much they’re serving and what’s most in demand. Then we match our food to their needs.”

She wants to add more recipients but she says she won’t “until we get more food donors – I don’t want to make promises we can’t keep.” She says there are vast segments of the food industry ripe to be tapped, including corporate, school and hospital cafeterias, country clubs, caterers and arena-convention centers. She estimates more than 80 percent of perishable food goes uncaptured and therefore trashed. “There’s huge potential to procure more food,” she says.

Helping her with the logistics and food sourcing is Judy Rydberg, who brought 12 years experience with Waste Not Perishable Food Rescue and Delivery in Scottsdale, Arizona. Smith used that program as the model for her own. Smith feels she’s hitting a wave of interest in mitigating hunger. “I think we’re starting to see a movement, and if we can be a catalyst for the movement with our other food partners that would be a great thing.”

She also sees a need for more collaboration and communication so that food partners can identify how they best align. As for Saving Grace, she says, “what we need to have for this to be sustainable is more dollars and food donors,” adding, “We’re looking for Saving Grace Friends to help us get the word out, raise funds and open doors.
We’re just getting started. We’re a very small but mighty organization.”

Visit savinggracefoodrescue.org to see where you can make a difference.

City Sprouts
In 1995 City Sprouts began as a small community garden meant to bring harmony to the then-violence plagued Orchard Hill neighborhood. The nonprofit’s evolved into a one-and-half acre campus from 40th and Seward to 40th and Decatur. Its education center, community garden and urban farm have a mission to enhance food security, promote healthy lifestyles, employ at-risk youth and build community.

The land produces fresh vegetables and eight hens in a chicken coop produce eggs for use by area residents, many of whom tend plots in the community garden. Youth from challenged backgrounds learn horticulture and life lessons in addition to earning money working on the farm, which includes a hoop house that extends the growing season from early spring through late fall. The fruit and vegetables interns grow from seed to table are sold at an on-site farmer’s market. Classes and workshops by horticulture and other experts cover nutrition, canning, dehydrating, cooking and non-food topics. Events such as potlucks, discussions and seasonal celebrations invite area residents to engage with staff, volunteers and visitors.

“We are part of a larger movement locally and nationally trying to foster a connection with your food, with your neighborhood. Our work is supported by this great resurgence of people going back to gardening, knowing where their food comes from and eating more locally, more seasonally,” says City Sprouts director Roxanne Williams.

A turning point for City Sprouts came in 2005 when a vacant house at 4002 Seward Street was donated as its education center.

“Getting the house was a huge asset,” Williams says. “That is one of the things that has enabled us to grow our organization. It changed the whole direction of City Sprouts and made so many more things possible.”

The house allows the organization to be engaged with the neighborhood year-round through classes and programs held there.

In addition to the interns who grow on the urban farm, young children are introduced to gardening on campus. Next spring children from two neighborhood elementary schools, Franklin and Walnut Hill, will learn gardening and nutrition in programs City Sprouts is planning with them, including developing a school garden with Franklin staff and students.

With northeast Omaha considered a food desert because residents have limited access to fresh, local, nutritious food within walking distance, the garden and farm take center stage in good weather. Williams says City Sprouts is one of many players trying to improve food options there and in other underserved metro neighborhoods.

“It’s not one answer, it takes a village, it takes so many people working together. There’s lots of groups making a difference. I think we’re making inroads. But there’s always going to be a need.”

Community gardeners, ranging from entire families to single moms to senior retirees, grow on 45 raised beds surrounded by fruit trees and perennials. In exchange for a nominal fee gardeners are assigned a bed and provided plants, seeds, water, education and encouragement. Gardeners are responsible for maintaining their own beds.

Getting buy-in from neighbors is taking time, especially in an area with many rental properties and therefore much turnover. But there are growers who return every year. Several young professionals and students living in the area who also happen to be backyard farmers and foodies are regulars at the community-building events.

Williams, a master gardener who comes from an education and fundraising background, came on board three years ago as the nonprofit’s first full-time, year-round director.

“It is my ideal job. I absolutely love what I do here because it encompasses all my interests and experience and weaves them together. I get to work with kids, teens, all the way up to, seniors, I garden, I fund-raise, I teach.”

City Sprouts partners with many organizations in carrying out its mission and depends on volunteers to maintain the campus.

“There’s always weeding and watering and harvesting to do,” Williams says.

Its big fund raisers are the spring Omaha Gives, the August Gala and an end-of-year campaign.

For donation, volunteer and event information, visit omahasprouts.org.

No More Empty Pots
It started with 2010 conversations, then a summit, around people’s passion for fresh, nutritious, local flood – growing it and getting it to where it’s most needed. Discussions about building food systems that tie together local producers and underserved consumers, that educate users, that support entrepreneurial opportunities and that do much more led to the creation of No More Empty Pots.

The catalyst organization is all about identifying needs in the local food ecosystem and partnering with others to address those needs. The hoped for collective impact aims to reduce food insecurity and to grow a sustainable, healthy food culture.

Co-founder Nancy Williams says while food deserts are lessening as there’s more access to fresh, local food, too many people remain disconnected from their food.

“There are a lot of people working on this,” she says, “and it’s going to take a lot of people putting forth effort, working together, securing resources and engaging folks to make that happen. I believe that will happen and I see evidence that we are on our way to getting there.”

The nonprofit does its part by convening stakeholders, hosting workshops and presenting gardening and cooking demonstrations. It partners with Truck Farm to send a garden on wheels to schools and other youth-serving organizations to educate students about how food grows. NMEP also supports things like Community Market Basket, an initiative through Tomato Tomato’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program that makes fresh, local food accessible to folks who might otherwise not get it.

Even with all this activity, she sees gaps that need filling.

“There are still some self-sufficiency issues we need to help people address so that they know how to produce their own food and to use seasonal food for proper nutrition at a reasonable cost.”

She says eating healthy within a budget, on a limited income, is doable when people are informed.

She sees much potential in food business development. She’s fundraising for renovations to new space NMEP recently acquired on North 30th Street. She envisions a food hub there focusing on the aggregation, processing, distribution and recovery of food waste to extract and add value within the food system.

“The problem is not that we don’t have enough food, but that we don’t have the logistics, people, resources to ensure it gets where it needs to be at the right time to be used by the right people for the right thing. America throws away more than 40 percent of the food we grow. There is so much that can be done with logistics and growing food people want to eat and know how to use.

“Restaurants can get more local food but they need a place where they can get it in the quantity they need it, so working with distributors to get more local food is an opportunity as well.”

Where there’s waste, she sees opportunity.

“There’s lots of room for aggregation and processing. There’s lots of farmers growing food but they don’t always have somewhere to take the food after the markets because people aren’t educated and encouraged about the benefits of buying local and may not be accustomed to paying market price. The hub will give farmers a place to take excess produce and create value-added products.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for incubating and developing food-based businesses. It’s why we’re looking at having an accelerator to help cultivate entrepreneurial ideas and to connect new entrepreneurs with people who can help make their ideas come to life.”

She envisions a bakery and bistro at the new site along with shared commercial kitchen spaces that food entrepreneurs can rent by the hour.

In order for NMEP and others to make a lasting difference, she says, collaboration is key. Her goal is to replicate best practices here and elsewhere. No matter who you are, she says, “there’s space at the table for everybody to contribute to make this better.”

To assist NMEP’s growth, human resources are needed, including volunteers to garden, cook and teach.

“We also need professional support with marketing, fundraising, design and community outreach. We’re recruiting board members to help guide the organization to realize the community-driven vision. We’re actively seeking to fill internships in marketing and project management. We plan to hire staff as more projects become active.”

Keep up with NMEP at http://www.nomoreemptypots.org.

 

Culinary-Horticulture Marriage at Metropolitan Community College

October 22, 2013 1 comment

Food, wonderful food.  A food movement and subculture is well under way in America that finds urban dwellers growing their own organic produce, even tending chickens for fresh eggs and raising rabbits for fresh meat, in order to create healthy, sustainable, self-reliant food production and distribution models that bypass dependence on corporate, profit-driven systems with their higly processed, pre-packaged products and that provide relief for the food deserts found in many inner cities.  This trend towards fresh, locally produced ingredients is well-entrenched among the culinary set, where enligntened chefs and restaurants often grow much of their own produce or else get it from local farmers.  At Metroplitan Community College the Institute for Culinary Arts operates the Sage Student Bistro, a public eating venue whose gourmet meals are prepared by students under chef instructor supervision.  The Bistro works closely with the Horticulture program across the street to serve up menus thick with fresh ingredients grown in the campus gardens and greenhouses and aquaponic tanks.  My new cover story for Edible Omaha features this culinary-horticulure marriage.  You can find my related stories on this blog about the Omaha ventures No More Empty Pots and Minne Lusa House.

 

A CULINARY-HORTICULTURE MARRIAGE

 

3

 

 

Collaboration Blossoms at 
Metropolitan Community College

©By Leo Adam Biga
©Photography by Alison Bickel

 

 

Patrick Duffy, horticulture instructor, and Oystein Solberg, culinary arts instructor, collaborate to plan a garden from which both horticulture and culinary students will benefit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The culinary arts and horticulture departments are close interdisciplinary tracks and next-door neighbors at Metropolitan Community College’s (MCC) Fort Omaha campus. With farm-to-table and sustainable movements in full bloom, it’s no surprise that collaboration happens here, giving students and diners at MCC’s Sage Student Bistro fresh, organic food grown by the horticulture team. This partnership is all about working with and enjoying quality ingredients as close to the source and ground as possible.

MCC’s quarter-acre production garden is just a few hundred feet from the bistro, which also has a cutting herb garden in its patio dining area. Locally sourced food “doesn’t get any closer than this,” says Chef Instructor Oystein Solberg. “It’s hyper-local,” adds Patrick Duffy, horticulture instructor and garden manager.

“It’s an incredible difference being able to talk to guests about it and point to where a lot of the vegetables grow,” says Oystein. “During the summer when we’ve got the herb garden going, our guests can sit out there and smell the basil and mint and oregano we’re using to cook with.”

He adds, “There’s few restaurants that do what we do—that are learning environments—teaching both our guests and our students.” Oystein points out that this is only the fourth harvest season for the garden, and the bistro is making more and more use of it. “It’s marvelous. By growing, we’ve been able to use more local than we ever have. Keeping it growing and evolving is excellent.”

Oystein says that having the school’s horticulture program be a key producer for its culinary program is “a little bit outside of the box. There are not that many schools that have it, but there are a lot of restaurants starting to have it. Like maybe they have a little garden on the roof. When you go to California—really all along the West Coast— there are a lot of restaurants that have attached gardens, so it’s getting more common. Our goal is not really to try to be like everybody else. We want to try to push the boundaries and see how far we can go with it.”

Jim Trebbien, Institute for Culinary Arts dean, points out that MCC’s model has been studied across the country. “It is quite unusual, because most culinary programs do not operate a restaurant such as ours and have the expertise that we do. And most horticulture programs have not adopted new sustainability methods into their curriculum as quickly as we have.” He adds that the integrated, collaborative approach resulted from discussions with local leaders in food sustainability, including MCC’s own Brian O’Malley, Jen Valandra and Todd Morrissey, and No More Empty Pots’s Nancy Williams and Susan Whitfield.

 

 

Metropolitan Community College’s Institute for the Culinary Arts, in the background, is just steps away from the bistro's garden. The garden has given new meaning to the term "local food," allowing culinary students to learn with the freshest of ingredients.

 

 

Oystein oversees the bistro. Under his and his fellow instructors’ supervision, culinary students prepare gourmet meals for paying customers, and they are graded on their performance. Oystein works closely with Patrick to determine what can be effectively grown and delivered to accommodate the bistro’s schedule and end up on its quarterly menus. The garden is also a teaching tool for both horticulture and culinary students. The “Food Cultivation” course, for example, uses the garden as an outdoor laboratory.

“Patrick tells me what they want to do with their classes, and then I write a menu of what I want to do with my classes,” Oystein explains. “We met back in January and February and tried to figure out what they were going to plant and what was going to be done when, and then we tried to make the menus out of that. With the greenhouses they have over there, we can start growing fairly early because they keep the air and soil temperatures fairly high.”

If Oystein has changes or other “stuff I want to play with to kind of fit in spots here and there,” he will run it by Patrick to see if it’s something he can grow. They have to work within the timeline and have greens ready by June. “We have to see what we’re able to get with the weather and climate. It’s a lot of stuff that has to match up. It’s kind of a never-ending process.”

Patrick says, “I’m getting better at timing things out. We need to make sure our peaks coincide with the school quarter so we don’t have too much excess. It’s challenging. Down the road, we’d love to do a farmers market for that excess to feed into, but that’s a couple of years away. Right now it gets composted.”

For this summer’s menu, Oystein arranged for Patrick to grow a long list of ingredients to be used in various ways and dishes. They include:

 

Bok choy, grown under the care of Metro's horticulture team, will soon make its way into the Sage Bistro kitchen.

  • arugula
  • basil
  • beets
  • bok choy
  • carrots
  • currants
  • fennel
  • kale
  • leeks
  • mint
  • nasturtium
  • onions
  • peas
  • radishes
  • red sorrel
  • rhubarb
  • romaine lettuce
  • saffron
  • spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • wheatgrass
  • zucchini

“It’s an early-summer menu, so there are no tomatoes, and there are more likely zucchini blossoms than zucchinis,” says Patrick. “Then when the bistro reopens in September, there’ll be big sexy stuff like tomatoes. We do a pretty intense production. We’ll focus more on red tomatoes this year and less on colored tomatoes. We’ll play around a lot.”

Patrick continues sharing they’ve backed off on pumpkins because they take up so much space and there isn’t much use for them. “When you go from being a backyard gardener to a production grower, you need to start doing more lettuces and cabbages and all of these background things that go into salads.”

Cabbage

Patrick says young culinary students can particularly benefit from learning about the production side of things. “The truth is that they don’t know what’s available—they don’t know that there are white tomatoes, white watermelons, etc. One thing I do is walk them through everything and say, ‘These are your options.’ I tell them that you’re only as good as what’s coming off the truck if that’s what you’re going off of. Wholesale distributors are only delivering certain things. Once you know your options, then your imagination as a chef is the limiting factor. So I try to push them.”

The more students understand the food chain, Oystein says, the better. “It just makes them respect the food in a whole different way. It makes them see what labor and blood, sweat and tears go into growing those things. It makes them think twice before throwing it away or using it carelessly.” He also impresses upon students the varieties available. He uses tomatoes as an example: “Some are better for roasting, and some are better for stewing. You can use different tomatoes for different end products. The Striped Cavern, for example, has thick, hearty walls that are great for scooping out and filling and roasting. There are differences in flavor and texture. The Nebraska Wedding and Amish Paste are sweet and delicious.”

Oystein always advises students to go with what’s fresh and the best. “It’s like getting tomatoes in December. Yes, you can do it, but you really shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be doing BLTs and Caprese salads in December. It just ties into menu writing and the way you think. It ties into everything we should be about. If you’re writing a Christmas menu, you use more winter hearty greens because the product will be at its best instead of getting cardboard tomatoes from wherever. It’s just wrong.”

ApplePearTrellis

Oystein says he’s learning all the time. “It’s awesome.” And Patrick is open to Oystein’s opinions. Patrick recalls first meeting Oystein, a native of Norway, at the MCC garden. Oystein asking, “Where are the currant bushes going to go?” Patrick says, “I had not even thought about putting currant bushes in, but being from Norway, he immediately went to berries. So I bought 10 currant bushes, and they’re a permanent part of the garden. It’s a commitment you make.” Patrick also added raspberries, as well as apples and pears that grow on trellises. “Those are just now starting to come into their own,” he says.

The horticulture department supplies more than just what grows in the ground. Its aquaponics tank raises tilapia, and its barnyard provides fresh eggs, rabbit, squab and honey. As a result, the college is offering a small animal husbandry class and a small market farming degree program. “We’ve had a lot of interest already,” says Patrick. “Both are going to start this fall.”

The more the relationship between the horticulture and culinary departments grows, says Patrick, “I’m learning what to bring—greens, root vegetables. We grew potatoes one year but those take up a lot of space. I bring catalogs and we go through them together. I usually start with what I call the Christmas List and have them say everything they want. I don’t want them to edit themselves on their side and then I see what I can do on my side and then we try to meet in the middle. It’s a back and forth.”

Patrick adds, “When I deliver things, I try not to edit myself. I was at first. I was cutting off the radish tops before I brought the radishes, but he (Oystein) wanted the radish tops, too, so I just give them as raw and complete a product as I can because then they have more uses.” And when he sees something like bok choy on a menu plan, he inquires what varieties are desired. He says he occasionally pitches things to the chefs as well. One year he tried convincing them to use dandelions. “It didn’t really fly—too bitter. I might try it again sometime.”

 

Currants, common in Oystein Solberg's native Norwegian cuisine, were one of his garden requests.

Patrick’s goal is for the garden to receive USDA organic certification. He envisions more gardens around campus one day. The barnyard could also eventually raise pigs and goats.

Both men agree that their collaborative effort is a success. Patrick says the burgeoning relationship is “better than we ever could have imagined.” “It’s been a joint effort really,” says Oystein. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking out of the garden and they’ve always enjoyed growing stuff for us to use. It just happened pretty organically. It didn’t ever have to be forced.” And if some things don’t turn out, Oystein adds, “I’m flexible, I just work with whatever Patrick gives me.”

The student-run bistro is open when students are in session. For menus, hours and reservations, call 402.457.2328 or visit the website at Resource.MCCNeb.edu/Bistro.

Leo Adam Biga is an author, journalist and blogger who writes about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. Read more of his work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

 

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New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture

October 21, 2013 5 comments

Dirt, as in soil that you dig in with your hands, is becoming cool among a certain set of young people who are joining the multi-generational ranks of folks practicing urban farming as a response to the food deserts and unhealthy eating choices plaguing many American communities and the disconnect between Americans and the food they consume, most of which is highly processed, pre-packaged crap supplied by corporations that operate out of self-interest, not the public welfare.  Two young men fresh out of college have produced a new documentary, Growing Cities, that takes a road trip look at the burgeoning urban farm movement and its cultivation of a healthy, sustainable food culture that aims to put the power of food back in the hands of the people.  For their project filmmakers Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette traveled from our shared hometown of Omaha, Neb. across the country to both coasts and several stops in between before ending up back where they started.  Growing Cities is playing festivals around the nation.  It has a 7 p.m. Filmmakers Screening Oct. 29 at Film Streams in Omaha.  Susman and Monbouquette will field questions from their hometown audience folliowing the show.  My article about their new film will soon be appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  For related stories, check out my pieces on this blog about three Omaha endeavors:  No More Empty Pots, Minne Lusa House and the culinary-horticulture marriage at Metropolitan Community College.

New film ‘Growing Cities’ takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With words like justice, security, healthy and sustainable increasingly attached to food in America, two Omaha filmmakers with an undisguised POV have plugged into the sustainable edibles culture with a new documentary.

In Growing Cities urban agriculture advocates Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette present farming operations around the nation as smart remedies to inner city food deserts. The doc’s. 7 p.m. Film Streams screening on Oct. 29 will be followed by a Q&A with the creators.

Writer-director Susman, cinematographer Monbouquette and production manager Brent Lubbert logged 13,500 miles in a Dodge Caravan van on a three-month road trip to 20 cities in 2011. They searched out the best, biggest, most innovative urban agriculture models and found farmers not just in trippy spots but everywhere and farming everything from front and backyards to lots to rooftops to windows.

The quest was fueled by their disenchantment with scant local urban farming initiatives, though they acknowledge great strides have been made through No More Empty Pots and Big Muddy Farms, for example. The pair run their own mobile program, Truck Farm, that intros youth to growing things.

The urban ag movement has emerged in response to an industrialized food system that leaves consumers disconnected from the sources of what they eat and therefore reliant on processed, pre-packaged products.

Studies show a lack of ready access to fresh, organic foods may contribute to such health problems as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Susman’s advocate-activist efforts got their start at Dartmouth College. The environmental studies major led a large outing club program, waged a sit-in at the president’s office and helped develop a Sustainable Living Center. He also co-directed a short film about the development of some pristine land.

The filmmakers obtained grants from Dartmouth to fund the Growing Cities road trip and raised $40,000-plus during a 2012 Kickstarter campaign. They’ve since found support among the same urban ag community they tout. Back home, they served as resident fellows at the Union for Contemporary Art and got free studio space there and at the Image Arts Building, whose owner, Dana Altman, became a producer.

The Central High grads lionize grassroots, community-based efforts that support natural, local food production.

Susman, a vegetarian who has a garden and chickens in his midtown backyard, feels they’ve caught a trend.

“What we tapped into is this intense support and desire by people to get involved. We made the film at the right time when I consider this wave because I know it’s only getting bigger,” he says.

“There’s so many different ways to get involved. You don’t have to be a farmer. You can grow a little bit. If you don’t like growing maybe you can cook or preserve or can. Or maybe volunteer at the local food bank. Eighty percent of our country lives in cities, so we have this huge population that could be doing this.”

The filmmakers contend there’s great interest in urban farming and that it can be practiced at some level by anyone, anywhere.

“There’s a lot of people who have never worked with a sustainable organization or who have never farmed but they’re super excited about it,” says Monbouquette. “It’s  something everybody can do. The biggest thing for us is encouraging people to grow a little bit of something.”

 

 

Andrew Monbouquette and Dan Susman

 

 

“Grow where you are” is the mantra they’ve adopted

Monbouquette says, “I think our biggest goal was we wanted to inspire people to do something.”

He says warm receptions to the film at festivals indicate its message resonates widely. Susman says millennials are just as likely to recognize “it’s cool, fun, exciting and rewarding to grow your own food” as older folks.

Monbouquette suggests urban farming will scale up in direct proportion to the number of people who participate in it and the amount of resources devoted to it. He suggests the real question is, “How far can we really take all this positive energy around urban farming and solidify it in our culture and just make it one of the things that we do, so it’s not just for hippies and hipsters?”

“Nobody’s saying we’re going to grow everything we can ever eat in cities. We can grow a lot of things there though,” says Susman.

Urban farming has been popular in earlier eras before fading away.

“The closest thing we have to compare it to is the Victory Garden movement (of World War II).,” says Monbouquette. “The statistics from that are astounding. Urban farmers were growing 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed.” Will the phenomenon last this time? “It just needs people to embrace and try it,” he says, adding government could do more to promote it by offering incentives to property owners to enter land use agreements that transform vacant lots into gardens.

Susman says some cities go so far as to have urban ag directors.

Rather than take a critical approach about “how screwed up everything is with E.coli or Mad Cow or industrial farming,” Susman says the film is “a really positive” spin on what we can all do to make our communities healthier and more inclusive.

Monbouquette says he became a convert to the cause by working on the film.

“The food and social justice issues really stuck a chord with me. Growing food is such a simple act but it can transform into this hugely motivational, inspiring, positive, productive thing in communities that really need it. You know, everyone has to eat and I subscribe to the view that we’re all in this together.”

For tickets, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

August 13, 2013 1 comment

A food movement is afoot in the U.S. and organizations like No More Empty Pots in Omaha are on the leading edge of efforts to get people to eat healthier by buying fresh, organic and local and growing their own produce in their own gardens or in community gardens.  My story about No More Empty Pots and the women who run it is in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  On this blog you can read my stories about related efforts, including pieces on Minne Lusa House, the documentary Growing Cities, and the marriage between the culinary and horitculture programs at Metropolitan Community College.

 

Nancy Williams
Susan Whitfield

Susan Whitfield

 

 

No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending North Omaha Food Desert

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Addressing the food insecurity problems that nag poverty-stricken northeast Omaha, where access to fresh, organic produce, dairy and bread products is limited, are an array of individuals, organizations, projects and initiatives. Many efforts aim to educate residents on how to grow their own food, cook healthier and eat better. That’s part of the mission of a fairly new nonprofit player in the food mosaic, No More Empty Pots (NMEP).

“I want our community to be healthy, I want people to understand the importance of having healthy, nutritious food, I don’t want this community to not have what everybody else has. I also want us to learn we have a right to know how our food is grown, what is being put in it and how it impacts our body. That’s what drives me,” says NMEP program director Susan Whitfield,

Healthy ingredients are important in that designated food desert area whose residents consume mostly processed, packaged and fast foods and a scarcity of fresh, natural items. Unhealthy eating habits contribute to the disproportionately higher rates of diabetes and heart disease among that community’s African American population.

In a district with high unemployment and spotty education there’s also emphasis by NMEP and others on getting people to achieve economic self-sufficiency through their own food businesses, from urban agriculture and catering ventures to food trucks and small eateries.

Launched in 2010, NMEP is dedicated to supporting existing food systems and creating new ones that reach people where they live and given them tools to help themselves.

There are many moving parts in this landscape of needs and delivery systems but NMEP founder Nancy Williams tries keeping it simple.

“NMEP is a backbone organization in the collective impact process for local food systems development,” she says. “We serve as a conduit when needed and a catalyst when necessary. We are trying to help connect entities and fill gaps. We partner, connect, collaborate, initiate and contribute as needed. We try not to duplicate.

“Our neighbors struggling to survive the effects of poverty deserve to have all of us working together with contributions from everybody to develop and implement strategies that work and gets us to self-sufficiency and economic resiliency.”

Besides her scientific background, Williams draws on her experience growing up in Louisiana. Her family and countless others across America employed communal, sustainable food practices that largely fell by the wayside as people became increasingly dependent on mass production. NMEP is part of a continuum of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm to table programs that seek to revive food activities once routinely engaged in.

Referring to her parents Jesse and Nancy Webber, Williams says, “They grew food because cash was short and family labor, plus land, was available. Cash was used for wealth creation – buying property, starting businesses, paying for education, et cetera. Their parents and other family members had bought land and property doing the same thing, so they did what they knew, improving what they could for us as they learned better. Nobody was rich but education was a priority and having your own stuff was important.”

WillIams worked the communal gardens her family planted, helping harvest a bounty shared with friends and neighbors. She applied her experience to 4H projects, once winning a national competition. The Louisiana State University science graduate earned her master’s in weed science and plant pathology at Cornell University. A job with Dupont brought her to Omaha, where she and her musician husband raised four children. The couple introduced their kids to gardening.

“It was important for us to garden when our children were younger so that they understand where food came from, how to grow it and harvest it and had access to the same good food I grew up with. Now we enjoy supporting local farmers and farmers markets.”

Her experience and expertise long ago planted the seed for the sustainable food work she does today.

“I actually wrote plans for elements of No More Empty Pots in 1999 before I knew any of the folks that helped to get it off the ground.”

Around that same time she directed Omaha’s City Sprouts program, whose mantra of “sustaining communities through gardens” fit her philosophy. Then she and a group of friends began talking about doing something to help alleviate the disparities plaguing northeast Omaha.

“Seeing little change in our neighborhoods and with residents as a result, we decided to take action.”

Informal meetings led to a food summit and monthly forums. NMEP was born from the discourse and partners with many like-minded organizations, including Tomato Tomato and Metropolitan Community College‘s Institute for Culinary Arts and horticulture program.

“Because we are a diverse community and alleviating poverty is complex, there is ample room for multiple strategies,” says Williams.

 

 

 

 

She says everyone comes to food issues from their own vantage point  “but I think maybe others detect a certain authenticity in me,” adding, “I can speak with authority about food and practices in this way because I have lived it and internalized it.”

“I’m passionate about this because I understand the power of good food,” Williams says. “When you have access to it, when you know how to provide it for yourself, when you consume it, when it becomes available on a wider scale for you and your neighbors, I know the overarching impact it can have in your life and the ripple effect it can have in your neighborhood and community from a self-sufficiency and sustenance standpoint, from a nutrition standpoint, from a brain development-child development standpoint, from an economic development standpoint.

“Because if you have access to good food you have more energy and better capacity to do those things well and you can invest those dollars you would have been spending on food on something else. You can also have income from providing that food to others or you can create a value-added product from the food that comes from someone else. So it is what I see as a perfect system for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and micro enterprise development.”

NMEP or its partners provide everything from cooking demonstrations to food entrepreneurship programs and looks to expand these offerings and add new ones. Everything NMEP does is about education, collaboration and sustainability. Witness one of its new partner programs, Truck Farm Omaha. The mobile garden planted in the bed of a Chevy pickup educates area youth about sustainability. Truck Farm founders-directors Dan Susberg and Andrew Monbouquette, the makers of the new documentary Growing Cities, sees= their project as a perfect fit, just as NMEP sees Big Muddy Urban Farm or Minne Lusa House or Tomato Tomato as natural co-conspirators in this movement toward food security.

“More and more organizations and public entities are asking us to do cooking demonstrations,” says Whitfield. “People are amazed at how simple and easy it is to cook these foods. If you don’t see it, you don’t know.”

NMEP is located in a former Harvester Truck and Tractor sales and service center at 1127 North 20th St., in a mixed used tract of light industrial plants and single family housing units. There are plans to retrofit the 19,000 square foot facility to house The Eleven27 Project, an urban agriculture and food systems innovation zone that will feature shared commercial kitchens, event space, food production, aquaponics systems, workshops, classes and on the surrounding two acres outdoor urban agriculture, hoop houses, raised garden beds and composting.

Williams says 1127 will approach food “from production to processing to distribution to marketing to composting so that we have a full cycle for these products. We will extract the value along that food chain so that we’re maximizing the resources. We will make this sustainable by generating income to cover the education costs as well as the hands on training people are getting while going through the programs. It’s several different levels of sustainability built into this.”

By year’s end NMEP plans to initiate a $3 million-plus fundraising campaign for the renovation.

NMEP has picked a good time to have emerged.

“The universe is conspiring in our favor,” says Whitfield. “Evidence of that is community gardens and farmers markets. There’s been an explosion over the last few years. In supermarkets local foods are starting to take up more and more space. Stores want to reduce that carbon print, they want to know who their small farmers are, they want to know where their food is grown, they want to know what is put on that food.

“People are becoming more and more educated.”

Follow NMEP at nomoreemptypots.org.

 

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