Taking on the City, the Media and Winter

August 28, 2011

Sustainable Food Fundamentals:
Logan Square Kitchen is officially FED UP, takes on Chicago Department of Public Health

I spent part of Thursday afternoon in court. It wasn’t about me, though. I was supporting Zina Murray, who has been a guest on my radio program and who runs the Logan Square Kitchen. It is self-described as a ” private event space that supports a commercial kitchen available to small food businesses. Known as a ‘shared kitchen,’ LSK gives food entrepreneurs access to a commercial kitchen on an hourly basis–long before they could afford [to create a space of their own].  As a greenhouse for little businesses, we give culinary talent a place to develop.”

When they’re not being harassed by the Chicago Department of Public Health, that is.

That might sound like an over-the-top statement. Until you understand that LSK has been inspected 19 times in 2 yearsThe law requires two per year. The latest inspection resulted in a violation notice and a $500 fine. Murray, in the documentation she brought to court, calls the violation “groundless,” and “retaliation for questionting a decision made by Chicago Health Department Supervisor Arleen Lopez.”

If you want to see how your hard-earned tax dollars are spent by Chicago’s Department of Public Health, Murray details the events of the August 2 inspection and subsequent fine–with photos–here. Read it and judge for yourself. She notes that with 30-something health inspectors and some 20,000 restaurants in Chicago, taxpayers are not getting much bang for our buck when the same spotlessly-clean shared kitchen space is inspected 11 times in 9 months.

So I found myself in court because I wanted to see for myself how justice works in the Windy City. Here’s part of the post that Zina wrote following her appearance:

LSK appearance in Administrative Hearings yesterday resulted in a finding of ‘not liable’–  so no fine.  Note the court does not find you ‘innocent’.  There is no right or wrong in administrative hearings, only liable or not liable.  It acts like a court, but when I requested the Judge order CDPH to issue a new, clean inspection report, her response was, “I can’t do that.” Whaaaa?  A court with no remedy?

So the ‘court’ in Administrative Hearings can fine me, find me at fault, or dismiss charges or find me not liable.  But NO remedies are available to me in the Dept. of Administrative Hearings.  I still have an inspection report posted with three groundless violations on it, and every client in a farmer’s market or outdoor festival must submit.  So there’s a meeting/phone call/email every time to explain that, ‘yes I have violations, but they have been corrected.  Yes, I am still open.’  Yada, yada. CPDH, the gift that keeps on giving.

It’s insane, really. LSK hosted the Chicago Recycling Coalition‘s fundraiser last week, and because I’m CRC President, I got to see the LSK space up close and personal. Let me put it this way. I don’t know how many people would literally be willing to eat off the floor there. But I would. It’s that clean. Oh, by the way, did I mention that Zina Murray donated use of the space to CRC because she thought it was a good cause?

So why the fuss over an obviously well-loved and well-managed small business in Logan Square? To get a sense of that, you might want to take a look at an article in the Chicago Reader last October called Bread & Circuses: Will the city’s licensing laws catch up with new food business models in time to save Zina Murray’s Logan Square Kitchen? The advantages of LSK and other shared-use kitchens is also their chief problem. They allow small-food entrepreneurs to take advantage of the fully equipped and licensed spaces on an hourly basis. This is a benefit to caterers, bakers, confectioners, and others who either can’t afford their own kitchen or simply don’t need a full-time workspace.

The City of Chicago had a hard time wrapping its head around the licensing protocol. The small businesses needed licenses to operate, but when they applied for their papers, they were told that there was already a license for that space–namely Logan Square Kitchen. As for LSK, it got inspected every time a new client came into the building. It’s possible that this issue will be resolved when the new Shared Kitchens Ordinance goes into effect next month. Or maybe CDPH will find other, more creative ways to make Murray’s life miserable.

Meanwhile, in its own words, Logan Square Kitchen is FED UP. Murray started a petition to change the culture at the Department of Public Health. She offers five ways to make CDPH more efficient and accountable:

1. Our Local Food Community should be represented on the Chicago Board of Health—currently consisting of doctors and lawyers. Public health will benefit greatly from the perspective of those working to heal our local food system.

2. Food Safety Division of Chicago Dept. of Public Health needs fresh, qualified leadership—a person with a strong moral compass and food business background to serve a changing and vital sector of our economy. Get suggestions from successful food businesses and restaurants.

3. Provide an independent ombudsman to hear complaints and order corrective action.

4. Fire non-performing employees, no matter who they know or how long their tenure. Empower the right people in the right jobs to make changes as they see fit.

5. Engage us, the citizens of Chicago; we’re ready to participate in our government and work with City workers to make our City the envy of major cities worldwide. Let’s go!

Her goal is to get 23,000 signatures–one for each food business in Chicago. I’ve already signed. You go, girl!

Hurricane Irene: Meteorologist Rick DiMaio is on the job

As my radio show begins this morning, Hurrican Irene is pummeling New York City and much of the northeast coast. Such is the lot of meteorologists that the most important work they do is to help mitigate the misery of people in the path of destructive acts of nature.

I’m giving Rick as much time as I can to discuss the damage already wrought by this once-in-a-century event, and to inform us of what’s to come. If you are fascinated by weather as he an I are, you can follow the path of Irene at this website: http://www.stormpulse.com/atlantic.

Is it Fall already? I must have missed the memo

It must be–or at least pretty darned close–because I just received this years final Plant Health Care Report from the Morton Arboretum. This report, along with the Home, Yard & Garden Newsletter from University of Illinois Extension, are two of my favorite ways to keep abreast of what is going on in the plant world during the growing season.

I want to call your attention in particular to the article “An Ounce of Prevention in the Autumn” by Stephanie Adams. She gives some excellent advice about how some minor cleanup of your garden in the coming couple of months can save you needless heartache next spring and summer. You can find the story by clicking here and scrolling down the report.

When cucumber beetles, humans and banks attack

August 21, 2011

Attack of the cucumber beetles!

Those of you who follow my radio show and this website know that I have been privileged to be part of a community garden not just in my neighborhood, but on my very block. It has been rewarding, humbling, surprising, frustrating and a constant source of joy for me and for several dozen people who have chosen to participate.

If you want to see how the garden has developed, my sweetie Kathleen Thompson has chronicled the whole thing in the Green on McLean blog. If you want even more interesting reading about what goes on in our neighborhood, I suggest that you check out Kathleen’s personal blog, KathleenThompsonWriter. On that site, she writes candidly about our relationship with the gangs that have controlled our block for 30 years.

And when she titles one piece “Gang Kryptonite,” referring to the garden and its effect on the neighborhood, you realize that something quite profound is going on here. Namely, the gang bangers are losing their grip on this block, slowly but inexorably. Will they be back? Probably. Will they have the same power they had in the past? Probably not. It’s hard to tell, really. But for a lot of people of all ages and backgrounds that II have come to know over tomato and squash plants and pot luck gatherings and schlepping mulch, it is a fervent hope.

By the way, if you want a really good read, start following Kathleen’s online book, Just Another Writer, which you can link to at her blog. In it Kathleen writes about writing…and she has some pretty heady stories to tell that invlove people like Hugh Downs, Oprah Winfrey, Studs Terkel and other luminaries who have reviewed her work and interviewed her during her forty year writing career. I give it 5 stars. Of course, I’m prejudiced. If I weren’t, I’d be sleeping on the couch.

Now, it might sound as though I’m writing this as a plug for Kathleen’s writing, which I am. But this is really about cucumber beetles, which have invaded our community garden. They don’t seem to be inflicting as much damage on the cucumbers as they are on our pole beans. Regardless, I had to call out the heavy artillery–which means “Dr.” Wally Schmidtke from Pesche’s Garden Center in Des Plaines. Wally notes that cucumber beetles can cause losses to cucurbits by direct feeding on young plants, blossoms, and fruit. They also vector bacterial wilt and viruses

Not only is he on the show this morning, he sent me a number of websites that will give you a fighting chance in dealing with this garden menace.

From Cornell University
From Utah State University
From GH Organics
Rijk Zwaan introducing cucumber variety resistant to mosaic virus
More resistant varieties from Rogers

The Last Passenger Pigeon: a legacy of environmental arrogance

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
– Genesis 1:26

When it comes to the health of our planet, that might be the single most destructive sentence ever penned. In fact, I challenge you–show me another that comes even close.

Case in point: in the 19th Century there were billions of passenger pigeons in North America. According to the Smithsonian, “it is believed that this species once constituted 25 to 40 per cent of the total bird population of the United States.” In 1914, the last one died. However, they didn’t succumb to some exotic disease or insect attack. Human beings killed them. Every last one. With incredible and devastating efficiency.

In almost exactly three years, we will be commemorating the death of “Martha,” the last passenger pigeon, in 1914. Again from the Smithsonian site:

She died at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, and was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, where her body was once mounted in a display case with this notation:


Last of her species, died at 1 p.m.,
1 September 1914, age 29, in the
Cincinnati Zoological Garden.

I am pleased to have Joel Greenberg on the show today to talk about Project Passenger Pigeon. Joel is author of A Natural History of the Chicago Region and a research associate at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, He is currently writing the first book-length history of the passenger pigeon in over 50 years: River of Shadows: The Life and Times of the Passenger Pigeon. He also has his own radio show at WKCC in Kankakee, where I appeared a couple of months ago. I guess he owed me one.

Also joining me is Steve Sullivan, Curator of Urban Ecology at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Steve directs Project Squirrel, a study of urban squirrels and their habits.

To get a sense of how destructive a species human kind can be, click onto the video The Last Passenger Pigeon. If people would like to contribute to Project Passenger Pigeon, please send a check and note that the money is for Project Passenger Pigeon to Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive, CHicago, 60614. For more information please contact Joel at Joelgreenberg@earthlink.net.

Sustainable Food Fundamentals:
Is this urban agriculture’s big moment in Chicago?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011 might be a day that local foodies remember for a long time. On that day, Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled his plan to bring urban agriculture into the mainstream in Chicago, assuming that his proposed ordinance meets with the approval of both urban agriculture advocates and City Council.

The ordinance the mayor formally introduced two days later would expand the maximum size of community gardens to 25,000 square feet and ease fencing and parking requirements on larger commercial urban farms to reduce operating costs. In addition, urban farms would also be free to sell their wares at farmer’s markets.

To get the full effect of this ordinance, which would begin to bring Chicago food growing into the 21st Century, check out the Urban Agriculture FAQ page, which the city posted on the heels of Emanuel’s announcement. Among the questions addressed:

What would this zoning amendment do?
The proposed zoning amendment will clearly define community garden and urban farm uses, identify where each use is permitted and establish regulations designed to minimize potential impacts on surrounding property and help maintain the character of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

What is the difference between a community garden and an urban farm?
Community gardens are typically owned or managed by public entities, civic organizations or community-based organizations and maintained by volunteers. Plants grown on site are intended for personal use, for charity, or for community beautification purposes. Urban farms grow food that is intended to be sold, either on a nonprofit or for-profit basis. Due to their commercial purpose, urban farms require a business license.

Could produce from a community garden be sold?
Yes. A community garden would be allowed to sell surplus produce that was grown on site if the sales are accessory or subordinate to the garden’s primary purpose described above.

Martha Boyd of Angelic Organics Learning Center, drops by today to help clarify the proposed ordinance and where it might take urban agriculture in Chicago.

The “banksters” win…again

As many of you know, Sid’s Greenhouses was a big sponsor of my radio show…until several weeks ago, when they announced they would be shutting down. It came as a shock to a lot of us in the horticultural industry, as they had been a big part of Chicagoland gardening for 50 years. Shortly after their announcement, company president Phil Schaafsma, Sr. appeared on my program to talk about exactly what happened. I suggest you listen to his very candid interview on this podcast from July 24, 2011.

Also revealing is this article from the August edition of Today’s Garden Center. It is appropriately titled “When Banks Attack.” While the bank that figurately lined up Sid’s Greenhouses and financially gunned them down is not named in the article, I do know the name. If, someday, I can reveal it without causing any more pain to the good people at Sid’s, I will do it, so that insitution can be revealed for the heartless, money-grubbing jerks they are. May they rot in hell.

A week of special events

August 14, 2011

Event #1 – Now streaming LIVE: #gardenchat party at The Yarden!

You might even have noticed my shiny new uStream screen on the home page. It’s up there because I’m going to be streaming the 2011 Garden Party Event from my own website Monday evening, August 15. If it all works well, (and you know what can go wrong with technology) you can just click on tomorrow evening and join the fun. Here’s what’s will be happening.

As I mentioned last week, the Independent Garden Center Show, or IGC, is one of the really big horticultural trade events of the year. It’s at Naviy Pier this week, Tuesday, August 16 through Thursday, August 18 and features 1,000 vendor booths and dozens of seminars. And when the big industry shows are in town, the industry media descend, to see what’s hot, what’s news and generally what’s happening. More and more, that means garden writers armed devices that allow them to immediately connect with their followers on their blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook and more.

As a kickoff to IGC week, some of those social media types will be gathering in LaManda Joy‘s fabulous garden on Chicago’s northwest side. LaManda is one of the forces behind the Peterson Garden Project, a historic 40th Ward victory garden that has become the largest community garden in the City of Chicago. She is also known as the proprietor of The Yarden blog, and her Twitter handle is @TheYarden (quelle coincidence!)

It’s a Twitter garden party, as a bunch of aforementioned horticulture media types gather to have some food and drink, tour her garden, but more importantly, tweet until their fingers drop off! If you have a Twitter account, just go to #gardenchat to join in the conversation. If you couldn’t care less about Twitter (and you know who you are), the whole shebang is going to be streamed live on Ustream from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. CDT tomorrow, August 15,

I will be co-hosting the event with garden writer Brenda Haas, who goes by the Twitter handle @BG_garden, and who has her own blog, BGgarden. If you are a Twitterphile, there are a number of good reasons to log into #gardenchat from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. CDT. The first is that you might win some great prizes, just for tweeting during the event.

One lucky participent will have their name drawn at the end of the #gardenchat Summer Party Event 8/15 in @TheYarden as the winner of the @Subaru_Life Tailgate Wagon. YOU MUST BE tweeting on #gardenchat during the 7 -9 p.m. CT event to be eligible to win the Subaru Wagon. Now before you get all breathless about winning an automobile, you need to know that the Tailgate Wagon isn’t that. It’s a wagon–you know, like a Radio Flyer–except that it’s the perfect size for…um, a tailgate party. Hence the name.

A few other great companies, who sponsor #gardenchat will have things to give away. They include Corona Tools, Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs,and Easy Gardener , to mention a few. To see the full list of giveaways, click on to the Summer 2011 Garden Party Event link.

Rumor has it that horticultural TV guru P.Allen Smith and social media expert Kyle Lacy awill be on site, which doesn’t do you any good, ’cause you didn’t get an invitation. No offense. There’s only so many people that will fit into LaManda’s garden. Which is why you should log on for the Chicago garden event of the season. It’s going to be fun. I hope you join us on Twitter or watch us on uStream. TWEET ON, DUDES!

Event #2 – Recycle Now! fundraiser for CRC on Thursday

If you live in Chicago, you’ve heard these questions more than once:

  • When is my block going to get blue carts?
  • Why do I have to schlep my recyclables to a drop off site?
  • Why can’t Chicago recycle???!

I have a question of my own:

  • Why the heck are we still talking about this in the 21st Century?

It used to be that the city had an excuse–Mayor Richard M. Daley was in charge and he didn’t care about recycling. You could look it up. Well, you could if he had ever said anything about the issue, Now we have a new mayor–some guy named Rahm Emanuel–and it’s hard to tell where he stands on this important environmental matter..At least it is to us at the Chicago Recycling Coaltion, because he’s done his darndest to pretend that our organization doesn’t exist.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I am president of the CRC. However, I don’t make a dime for holding that position. I don’t exactly make a lot of money for being the host of my radio show, either. Boy, can I pick ’em or what?

Last month, Mr. Emanuel announced that he was intiating a six month “managed competition” program for Chicago’s Blue Cart Program. In essense, the mayor is pitting city workers against private contractors to see who can more effeciently and cost-effectlvely perform reycling services. To read more about the media reaction to the mayor’s proposal, go to the CRC home page for a list of stories. The CRC has its own reservations, detailed in an article called Is Mayor Emanuel’s “managed competition” really just “stealth privatization?”

One of the questions that CRC asks is whether this is the first step in turning over ALL Bureau of Sanitation pick ups to private companies–including garbage. To get a good sense of where this might be headed, check out Mick Dumke‘s excellent piece in The Reader: Why you should care about the way garbage is picked up.

Meanwhile, this is no time to sit back while the mayor makes unilateral decisions that will have far-reaching consequences. (Think parking meters.) it’s time to take action…and I hope you’ll join me next Thursday to do just that.

The CRC is holding a fundraiser at the beautiful, Gold LEED certified Logan Square Kitchen on Thursday, August 18 at 6:00 p.m. Do you have something to say about recycling? Do you want to hear what other people have to say? Do you want to be part of a new game plan for a new administration? If you stop by, You’ll meet people who have been fighting for recycling in Chicago for twenty years and people who just moved into town and can’t believe that recycling isn’t recognized as a basic city service. You will have a chance to talk with Chicago Recycling Coalition board members about how we can mobilize to get an efficient, socially fair recycling program instituted in Chicago.

We’re trying to make it an offer you can’t refuse in a number of ways. How? Check it out:

  • The documentary Scrappers will be shown. Shot by local filmmakers, it’s about two metal scavengers in the alleys of Chicago.
  • PC Rebuilders & Recyclers will be on hand to pick up your electronic waste.
  • There will be tours of the gorgeous Logan Square Kitchen facilites.
  • You can talk to CRC board members about possible solutions to moving recycling forward in Chicago.
  • There will be gourmet popcorn (FREE!), as well as craft beer, wine and craft sodas for sale (proceeds go in part to CRC)
  • You can sign up for future strategy sessions with the CRC.
  • AND IT ONLY COSTS $20!!!

Reservations can be made at Brown Paper Tickets. However, I know that many of you won’t be able to attend. So I hope you consider sending a message to city hall that Chicago is an embarrassment in the “greenest city in America” competition until it has a comprehensive recycling program. You can do that clicking RIGHT HERE to make a tax-deductible donation.

“Scrappers” filmmakers Brian Ashby, Courtney Prokopas and Ben Kolak join me in studio this morning to talk about their film, which, among other things, received 3 1/2 stars from Roger Ebert. They’ll be joined on the phone by Zina Murray of the Logan Square Kitchen.

Sustainable Food Fundamentals:
Sweet Home Organics keeps up with changing seasons

It’s time for another visit with “commuting farmer” Kim Marsin of Sweet Home Organics. Even she has begun to use that phrase, which I guess I coined. I can’t wait for the royalty checks to start rolling in. You might remember that Kim and Rachel are part of a new breed of farmers who don’t own the land on which they grow crops. Primrose Farm, where they lease land, is owned by the St. Charles Park District. The farm itself is the last of a line of what used to be 3-5 working dairy farms. The former neighboring farms have since been torn down or turned into homes. The park district runs the farm as a living history farm open for the public for tours (on Wed and Saturdays).

I spoke with Kim the other day and she gave me an ear full of how she and partner Rachel Reklau are “switching fields.” That is to say, they’re about to start planting on fields that have been growing cover crops, which help fertilize the soil naturally. In fact, why don’t I let Kim explain it herself?

We’re in the process of switching fields. We’re on a 2-year rotation, so we’ve been growing our veggies on the East 2 acres and next year we’ll grow on the Whabitatest 2 acres (that was previously growing a red clover/annual rye cover crop). Clover does a great job of breaking up soil and fixing nitrogen. Cut clover makes tasty hay for the Primrose dairy cows and draft horses. We’re excited to make this switch because we know our veggies will do very well.

Today the farmers of Primrose cut the clover one last time to make hay for their animals. Next week we’ll till in the clover and put down our fall cover crop, forage peas and oats. These will winter-kill (die over winter), which will allow us to plant straight into the ground (without tilling) in spring. We’ve previously tried growing over-wintering (plants that will go dormant during the winter, but then start back growing once the ground warms up) cover crops. We found this added stress trying to kill off the cover crop in the midst of unpredictable spring soil moisture craziness. I used to shake my head when I’d drive by all the fields that have just bare open soil in winter, wondering why don’t they plant a cover crop to prevent soil erosion, etc. After what we struggled through earlier this spring, I now understand the draw to leaving the soil exposed and ready to plant come spring.

Having half or part of fields resting or growing cover crops/green manures is a key component to most organic agriculture practices. It’s a great way to allow soil to build up organic matter and replenish nitrogen and other nutrients (without bringing in compost or other ‘bought’ fertilizers). A fun side benefit is the habitat it provides for beneficial insects. We have a yard of honey bee hives on site and the beekeeper likes that we grow clover as it makes for lots more great-tasting honey!

By the way, Angelic Organics Learning Center, which often helps me bring guests to the Sustainable Food Fundamentals segment, features Sweet Home Organics in their latest farmer profile.