Mr. Okra – A New Orleans Icon


I met Mr. Okra by chance on my way to the Jazz Fest this past May. He is a large man with an ear-to-ear smile and a voice that must be heard to be appreciated.

Mr. Okra truck

“I have eating pears and bananas,” he cried out from a colorful truck, full of fresh produce.

Arthur J. Robinson, nicknamed, “Mr. Okra” had just sold some produce to a woman unable to leave her home. His paid helper, a much younger and spry man jumped out of the Mr. Okra truck and delivered food to the woman with a smile.

This is how Mr. Okra has been selling his produce, including okra, from his colorful truck for decades, There’s even a short film by The Nom de Guerre filmmakers called, “Mr. Okra” (watch here) that tells his colorful story.

As he rides slowly down the streets of New Orleans, he announces by almost singing in a cadence all his own, the produce he has to sell; “I have oranges and bananas, I have eatin’ apples, I have cantaloupe, I have the mango, I have tangerine, I have garlic green, I have pinapple, I have merliton….”

Merliton or mirliton (pronounced meliton)

Merliton or mirliton (pronounced meliton) is a unique vegetable grown mostly in the deep south and was a backyard staple in South Louisiana. Virtually unknown anywhere else, this vegetable originally comes from South America and is now grown in many warm weather climates. Unfortunately, heirloom mirlitons were nearly wiped out by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav.

Each morning begins with loading up his hand-painted pick-up truck with fresh fruits and vegetables and slowly driving through the neighborhoods of Bywater, Tremé and the 9th Ward. His Cajun cadence is melodic, bellowing from the speakers mounted atop his truck and drawing people from out of their homes to buy what items he has available that day.

The Peoples Grocery in Oakland, California started out by doing much the same thing, by bringing the food to people living in poor neighborhoods. Most of them can not afford to get to a supermarket where a variety of fruits and vegetables is available.

Instead, these neighborhoods are caught in a cycle of purchasing low nutrient foods, high in sodium, fats and sugars (See: ANDI – Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) . All of these communities in West Oakland, Bywater, Tremé and the 9th Ward have one thing in common; they live in, what is now referred to as, “food deserts“.

Dr. Bob and Mr. Okra in new 2006 Ford f150.

Mr. Okra serves these communities by giving them access to nutrient rich foods. He does this with a style and flair uniquely his own. By delivering his goods fresh to the people most in need, he has become a highly visible icon and local hero.

In late 2009 the Mr. Okra truck, painted by Dr. Bob, started having engine problems. When this news got out, a group consisting of Tom Thayer of DBA, Nom De Guerre filmmakers, Ronnie Lamarque and his crew at Lamarque Ford, the Mayor’s office, River Parish Disposal, and hundreds of concerned customers, friends, and proponents of Nola culture came together to help.

On May 20, 2010 a benefit concert to buy him a new truck was held at dba on Frenchman Street. Bands including Morning 40 Federation and the Happy Talk Band played in support of the new truck, and Morning 40 had the distinction of being painted on the truck by beloved New Orleans artist Dr. Bob.

Short film, "Mr. Okra" by Nom De Guerre Films.

In true sustainable fashion, some local museums are interested in buying the old truck and extending its usefulness for years to come.

Mr. Okra is a living reminder of a bygone era in the early 1800s, where people would sing, dance, and play drums in accordance with their African traditions in Congo Square, in what is known today as the French Quarter.  Vendors filled the streets of New Orleans and Congo Square, chanting their offerings such as coffee and calas.

Today, if you’re in New Orleans and hear the sing song voice call out, “I have eatin’ apples, I have merliton…”, run and get your fresh fruits and vegetables from a living legend who continues to build community and improve the health and wellness of people in New Orleans.

To support the maintenance and upkeep on Mr. Okra’s truck, please go to: http://nomdeguerre.tv/foundation.html.

Resources:

Video of Mr. Okra
Merliton History
The Peoples Grocery
Supporting Local Food Culture

Education You Can Eat


The wonderful chef, restaurateur, and leader o...

Leader of the Slow Food Movement, Alice Waters.

Forty years ago in Berkeley, Alice Waters started her restaurant Chez Panisse and brought rise to what is now the Slow Food Movement.

Today, Executive Director Nikki Henderson and author Michael Pollan are collaborating with The Chez Panisse Foundation to offer the first Edible Education course and lecture series at UC Berkeley Extension in the Fall of 2011.

She was inspired by her experience in France at age 18, “where food was woven into everyday life”, she explains. They ate what was in season and everything was fresh. If tomatoes weren’t available, they used what was.

This coursework will build on her Edible Schoolyard Program that’s been teaching children about growing and eating food for the past 16 years. “If they are involved with growing the food, then they will eat it – all of it.”

The Edible Education series examines multiple aspects of the food movement from the perspectives of experts in the field, including Frances Moore Lappe, Marion Nestle, Raj Patel and Eric Schlosser.

Enrollment in the course is closed but, keep tuned to the U.C. Berkeley Extension’s website for upcoming classes.

Resources:

Video of Alice Waters speaking about her inspirational experiences in France.

Soil Composting – Sustainable Means Local


Compost Bin

What does it take to build your own rich, organic soil and do it sustainably?

Many of you have heard of composting or may even have a bin out in the garden. But, is this system meeting your needs or do you find yourself making runs to the local garden store for a few bags of soil? Chances are that these bags came from many hundreds of miles away. A more sustainable system would be to make use of a local composting facility. That is, if there is one near you.

If you live in or near Sonoma, than consider yourself lucky. Sonoma Compost operates the Organic Recycling Program on behalf of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency. They accept yard trimmings and vegetative food discards that are placed in curbside containers by local residents. Yard trimmings are also delivered directly to their site by landscapers, tree trimmers and the public.

Sonoma Compost’s program has already reduced 1,200,000 tons of yard and wood debris, then converted it into organic compost, mulch, recycled lumber, firewood and bio-fuel.Compost Bins

If you don’t have a composting facility in your area, here’s what can individuals do to produce sustainable, organic soil in their backyards or community gardens.

Backyard Compost Bins: Composting is nature’s own way of recycling and helps to keep the high volume of organic material out of landfills and turns it into a useful product. On-site composting reduces the cost of hauling materials and is generally exempted from solid waste regulations. Large scale facilities can handle more material and potentially produce a more consistent product.

Bokashi: This system relies on fermentation to decompose the matter rather than putrefaction, so no offensive odor is produced. In about 10 days, you can bury the nutrient-rich matter in the garden or empty the Bokashi kitchen compost bucket into your compost pile to help improve physical, chemical and biological environments in the soil.

Worm Bins: Vermiculture, or worm composting, allows you to compost your food waste rapidly, while producing high quality compost and fertilizing liquid. Best of all, it’s self-contained and nearly odorless.

The concept of a city run composting facility may not seem sustainable; especially if you consider that trucks burn fossil fuel to haul their loads through neighborhoods, causing air pollution, traffic and more wear and tear on the roads. Then, individuals make separate trips from the suburbs to the local composting center transporting soil back to their homes. The inefficiency of this system is obvious but, may be a means to an end.

I believe that the benefits to having a city-run composing program would outweigh the downside of having none at all. Once a program is up and running, people can utilize the service to enrich their backyard gardens, urban farmers would benefit greatly and there’s the benefit of a reduction in the volume of organic waste going to the landfill.

The following improvements could make this centralized composting system more sustainable:

1. Upgrade the trucks to bio-diesel or other renewables,
2. Encourage community involvement in home composting systems,
3. Run composting workshops,
4. Work with local entrepreneurs to start small, community-based composting stations in their neighborhoods.

To some, it might not seem that difficult to divert your organic waste to a compost bucket to your backyard, but many perceive it to be too time-consuming. There’s also a cultural barrier connected with the formation of soil: some perceive it to be dirty and smelly. Strangely though, many people also view composting as a socially-responsible effort rather than a common sense one, since they do not use the resulting soil in a garden.

With a little effort and a change in behavior, you could be producing many cubic feet of rich, organic compost in your very back yard. The qualitative benefits include a more abundant and productive garden for you and your family. This equates to better health and nutrition. Quantitatively, you are helping to divert from landfill, more than 25 percent your household’s waste and food scraps. In 1996, The Composting Council analyzed backyard composting programs and concluded that the average household in the study composted an average of 646 pounds per year, which amounted to more than 12 pounds every week.

Your family, your community and your tomatoes will thank you for it.

A Call To Farms – Why America Needs A New Victory Garden Movement


WWII-era U.S. War Garden poster

Victory gardens, also called war gardens or food gardens for defense, accounted for the production of nearly 40 percent of the nation’s produce at its peak in 1943.  Vegetable, fruit and herb gardens were planted at private residences and public parks in United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Germany during World War I and World War II to reduce the pressure on the public food supply and build morale. The U.S. government considered this effort a matter of national security. So, what has changed in the past 50 plus years?

Today, home and community gardeners grow only a fraction of what our parents and grandparents grew during the War. Meanwhile, agribusiness has grown out of control. Monsanto, who holds patents on about 80% of all genetically modified seeds, sues small farmers when their fields are contaminated with the patented seed. (see Rodney Nelson’s family farm) Monsanto spent almost $9 million lobbying Washington lawmakers during 2009, an off-election year for national politics.

The U.S. government gives millions of dollars every year, in the form of farm subsidies, to multinational conglomerates who grow monoculture crops like corn. Most of this corn is not even edible and is used solely to make high fructose corn syrup and fillers for highly processed, low ANDI scoring foods. These government subsidies make foods with high sugar content very cheap, according Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, referring to the most prevalent sweetener: high fructose corn syrup, which sweetens most soda pop while upping the calories. (Read a PBS interview with Nestle.)

The politics of food has become a global phenomenon, with nations like China purchasing hundreds of thousands of acres of Brazilian farmland to feed its growing population. Food prices have soared around the world in recent years pushing many impoverished peoples to the brink of starvation. While most of us in the U.S. have been spared this type of shock, nearly all of us have felt the squeeze on our food budgets. If this trend is to be reversed, a different system of food production is needed.

What we need is a brand new Victory Garden Movement.

National Security Is Food Security

Victory gardens were planted in backyards and on apartment-building rooftops, all in support of the war effort to protect our national security. Vacant lots were actually “commandeered for the war effort” and were utilized to grow whatever was needed. During World War II, sections of lawn were publicly plowed for plots in Hyde Park, London to publicize the movement. In New York City, the lawns around vacant “Riverside” were devoted to victory gardens, as were portions of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Today however, we are facing a new threat – not only to our national security, but to our food security. In 1870, 70-80 percent of the US population was employed in agriculture. As of 2008, that number has dwindled to approximately 2-3 percent of the population.

The cultural heritage of growing of food has been systematically hijacked from the American people over the past 60 years. In response to this shift, the urban farming movement in the U.S. and around the world has taken off. This movement is the result of many factors, food security being only one of them.

A distributed system is a resilient system. DARPA (the project that ultimately resulted in the creation of the Internet) was originally created in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik during 1957, with the mission of keeping U.S. military technology ahead of the Soviets. The World Wide Web therefore was designed not from a small number of large supercomputers, which would be vulnerable to attack, but a distributed model with thousands of servers located all over the United States.

Urban farms, community and backyard vegetable gardens, represent this same systems model. By having tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of small urban farms located in communities all over the U.S., we can be resilient and practice sustainable agriculture on a small scale. Price spikes will be cushioned by those who, not only grow their own food, but share, barter, trade and sell to one another.

Corrine Asturias' front yard vegetable garden produces an overabundance and shares the surplus with her neighbors.

Community

The intrinsic nature of farming in an urban or suburban setting creates opportunities for community interaction. When one family replaces their front lawn with a series of raised beds, it has a ripple effect. People peer over their neighbors’ fences and are intrigued. Some even get inspired and start their own vegetable gardens or mini urban farms.

These interactions are only the beginning of the benefits to the community. For example, the Marin Open Garden Project encourages backyard gardeners to bring the excess from your garden to exchange with other gardeners every Saturday in San Anselmo.

Jobs

Urban farming offers the promise of safe jobs that are local and sustainable to the millions of unemployed. Many of them are struggling to pay their mortgages and feel trapped to look for work within commute distance. Putting people back to work in urban farming jobs could be a boon to our economy and put millions of Americans back to work – work that is necessary, healthy and safe.

Unlike conventional large-scale farming, organic urban farming is small scale (even micro-scale), uses no heavy equipment, toxic pesticides or herbicides. Conventional agriculture is among the most hazardous of industries. Farmers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use. Farming is one of the few industries in which the families are also at risk for injuries, illness, and death.

Sustainability

Growing food close to where it will be prepared and consumed exemplifies the path to sustainability. The savings in fuel from not having to transport food from long distances is a compelling reason alone. Add to that, the energy needed to refrigerate and store perishables, and we’re talking significant reductions in carbon emissions.

Nutrition

Produce begins to loose nutritional value immediately after harvest. When food is grown close to home, the time between harvest and consumption is often reduced to mere hours rather than days or weeks. This maximizes the nutritional benefit.

There is also an unquantifiable value to growing your own vegetables or knowing the people who do. You feel connected to your community in a real way and often wind up eating a more healthy diet, while wasting less of this precious resource.

“I probably spend as much time working in my garden each day as I spend making coffee only it is a lot more interesting”, said Corrine Asturias about her front yard vegetable garden that used to be a dry, eye-sore of a front lawn.

Physical Activity

The modern lifestyle is one of convenience and reduced physical effort.

Our forefathers were far more physical than the average American is today. Thomas Jefferson, for one, worked long hours on his own personal farm at Monticello and considered himself to be “a man of the land”. He was an avid farmer and is considered to be one of America’s early agronomists.

Vegetable gardening and urban farming is a wonderful way for people of all ages and abilities to get daily exercise, sunshine and fresh air. Modern growing techniques allow us to grow far more produce in a smaller space and with much less effort than before.

People of all ages and backgrounds can benefit from just a short time spent in the garden. “I probably spend as much time working in my garden each day as I spend making coffee only it is a lot more interesting”, said Corrine Asturias about her front yard vegetable garden that used to be a dry, eye-sore of a front lawn.

Flint River Farm in Flint, Michigan, the city’s largest urban farm.

Conclusion

The Dowling Community Garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota is the last vestige of the original Victory Gardens from World War II.

Fortunately, there is a sea change on the horizon. Places like Flint, Michigan and Detroit are experiencing a Renaissance in the urban farming movement.  Michelle Obama’s digging up the front lawn of the White House to plant a Victory Garden of her own is reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt’s own Victory Garden as first lady.

Our nation is ready for a new approach to growing our own food. History is again our great teacher, as we rediscover the ways our ancestors worked the land, sustainably and for the betterment of society.

MyPlate Symbolizes A New Health-Conscious Generation


Today June 2, 2011, is a turning point in our government’s attitude toward the “American diet”.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the federal government’s new food icon, MyPlate, replacing the familiar and often confusing Food Pyramid that so many of us were used to growing up.

Most notably, the icon is a plate, which is a universal symbol in most cultures. The highlight is that half of the plate is covered with fruits and vegetables. This is a huge step toward creating a more health conscious population.

The sad truth is that currently, Americans are more obese than ever. According to the CDC’s 2009 statistics, overall obesity in the United States is 26.7%. Obesity was calculated based on self-reported weight and height and defined as body mass index (weight [kg] / height [m]2) ≥30. Some states actually ranked much higher than the average.

Childhood obesity rates are rising rapidly at a time where multiple factors are reducing the time that children spend engaging in physical activity. This is causing a never-before-seen class of children with early onset of childhood diabeties.

These trends all point to our nation’s health epidemic that is in full crisis mode. If you have any question, see http://forksoverknives.com/.

Proper Nutrition Is Only Half The Battle

The lack of daily exercise is one of the biggest factors contributing to America’s weight problems. People who live in Appalachia and the South are the least likely to be physically active in their leisure time. In many counties in that region, more than 29 percent of adults reported getting no physical activity other than at their regular job.

Although the new MyPlate icon doesn’t address the issue of exercise, it is an essential part of the solution to being more healthy. And later this year, the USDA will be launching an online tool that consumers can use to personalize and manage their dietary and physical activity choices. This is at least a start on reeducating the public on the need for creating a healthy lifestyle.

Essentially the USDA Guidelines reinforce these basic rules:

Balance Calories
• Enjoy your food, but eat less
• Avoid over-sized portions

Foods to Increase
• Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
• Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk
• Make at least half your grains whole grains

Foods to Reduce
• Compare sodium (salt) in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals, and choose foods with lower numbers
• Drink water instead of sugary drinks

If you’re interested to read up on the details on the USDA’s programs, go to:

And if you, or someone you know is concerned about their weight, you can use this body mass index calculator below.
BMI For Adults Widget

Fruits & Vegetables

I am thrilled to know that part of the new health initiative includes a multi-year campaign with the message “Make Half Your Plate Fruits and Vegetables.” Getting people to eat them is, well – another story….

The social media aspect to this campaign is very interesting. They are encouraging people to take a photo of their plates and share on Twitter with the hash-tag #MyPlate. I’ll be tweeting my plate tonight from my account: @chrisripps if you’d like to follow.

The USDA is showing great public concern for our nation’s obesity epidemic, although they are not calling it that. However, what is needed is a “lifestyle overhaul”. People have been brainwashed into thinking that ‘fast food’ is cheap and convenient. What they don’t realize is that it’s cheap for a reason. It’s not so much food as it is filler that’s been pumped up to trick the taste buds into thinking it’s food.

Fast Food Is Pure Evil

Why is fast food so cheap? Because our government has been giving BILLIONS of dollars in subsidies to the corn and soybean farmers.

The fiscal 2011 Farm Bill contained crop subsidies as the largest federal agricultural spending item.  This years Farm Bill proposes to take a total of $2.7 billion (13.4%) out of the food and agriculture budget including steep cuts to: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE), The Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) and farm conservation funding programs.

Until our government gets truly serious about our food policies and embraces a total solution, I believe that most of the needed changes will come from grassroots and non-profit organizations working together with local communities.

Please support you local farmers and buy from farmers markets and CSAs whenever you can!

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