Tag Archives: The Plant Chicago

Food justice…today and 50 years from now

January 13, 2013

Food Justice: KAM Isaiah Israel walks the walk.

It’s fashionable these days to talk a lot of smack about “urban agriculture,” “local food,” “sustainability” and more. But if you want to meet people who really walk the walk, you should set aside a few hours next weekend and pay a visit to KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Hyde Park. Of course, you’ll have to say hello to the Secret Service agents, who keep an eye on President Barack Obama’s Chicago home, which is right across the street. But I digress.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, January 18-20, KAMII presents its fourth annual MLK Food Justice and Sustainability Weekend Program, in celebration of the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. This year’s event is titled “Shmita: Food Security and Sustainable Design in the Sabbatical Year and Beyond” and it promises to be a dynamic and inspiring weekend. By the way, it is all free and open to the public.

The Saturday program should especially interesting, as it will be a hands-on Community Design Workshop. Expert growers and planners will, with input from the audience and community partners, lay out a half-acre urban farm for a South Side site, with the design goal being sustainable food security. The workshop leader will be Robert Nevel, architect and chair of KAM Isaiah Israel ‘s Social Justice Committee. Designers will be Kitt Healy, farmer relations and outreach coordinator for Green City Market and farm manager of the K.A.M. Food Justice and Sustainability Program; Mitch Yaciw, farm manager at Unity Gardens; Michael Thompson, farm manager of Chicago Honey Co-op; Ken Dunn, founder and director of Resource Center and Elan Margulies, director of Pushing the Envelope Farm.

What’s fascinating about the “South Side site” is that it is still undisclosed. Hmm. perhaps I can get a scoop on my radio show this morning. I’ll be joined by Robert Nevel, who has been on the program repeatedly, and congregation member Gloria Needlman, who last stopped by in 2010.

While the MLK weekend is great, remember what I said about the KAMII folks “walking the walk?” Really, the most impressive aspect of their social justice work is their garden and the gardens they have helped to build in the community. They started their own garden in 2009 and began donating the produce to area food shelters and hot meal programs. In 2011, they expanded to include a garden at Kenwood United Church of Christ.

In 2012, they reached out to the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer on nearby Dorchester Avenue in their continuing mission to transform congregational lawns into food producing gardens. You can see the fruits of their labor on the left.

Here is some of the other work they do, from the KAMII website:

  • Three times a week during the growing season, workers from the congregation and the community tend and harvest KAMII’s three gardens–the Star Garden, the South 1080 (along Hyde Park Boulevard), and the Apple Tree Garden. Before the growing season, workers prepare the earth, plants seeds, tend seedlings indoors, and prepare for harvest.  After harvest, workers put the garden to bed and prepare for the next year.
  • With our White Rock Gleaning Program, the garden workers collect and distribute otherwise unharvested food from three community gardens.
  • Our Crop Mob Constructions transform congregational lawns into food producing gardens. With grant money from One Nation Chicago Fund at The Chicago Community Trust, we have constructed a 1,000 sq. ft. food-producing garden at Kenwood United Church of Christ, just outside the soup kitchen where we delivered much of our 2010 harvest.
  • In the summer of 2011, we began our Food Justice and Sustainability Young Leadership Summer Program, in which high school students from around the city gathered on Sundays to attend seminars about food justice and sustainable land use and urban farming, and to help tend our three gardens.
  • The bimah decorations for the High Holidays are harvested and arranged by members of the Social Justice Committee.  The flowers and produce come from our KAMII gardens that the committee tends.  All of the produce was donated to local soup kitchens after each service.

They are impressive, and it’s my honor to welcome them back to the show.

A 50 Year Plan for Surviving Climate Change

Sometimes a radio show segment is just so in tune with current events that you might think that I’m actually putting some thought into booking guests. No, really!

Take this past week:

All of that in ONE WEEK!!

That last bullet point in particular is a perfect lead in to my second hour guest, Blake Davis. He is Adjunct Professor of Sustainability and Urban Agriculture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I first got to know him when he gave me a private tour of The Plant on Chicago’s south side, and then appeared on the show to talk about this remarkable look into the future of sustainable technology.

But about a month ago, show contributor Sarah Batka told me about a talk he had given at the Great Lakes Bioneers Chicago gathering in November called “A 50-year Survival Plan for Climate Change.” In fact, she couldn’t stop talking about it. So what could I do but invite him back to the show to talk about that very issue?

Here’s what Blake Davis himself has to say about it:

“Ordinary people want to know if they need to worry about climate change, yet.  What is the “canary in the coal mine” that will warn them that it is time to do something immediately.  Is it the melting of the arctic ice, a series of extremely hot summers or cold winters or an increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes?  And the answer is….the collapse of the economy.

Nature has several hundred million years of experience in dealing with adversity, modern economies less than 300.  Our economy and our way of life is built on ever-increasing use of energy and an expansion of economic output of at least 2% a year…..forever.  Neither of these preconditions are possible as we approach the carrying-capacity of the earth.

The next 50 years will present insurmountable challenges for our society and culture.  Where we live, what we do for work and even how we raise our children will be radically different than they are now.  The government and business are committed to a course of action which will exacerbate the problem of climate change and cause tremendous blow-back for the average citizen.  Unless we want to participate in an elaborate “duck-and-cover” drill, we must all take immediate personal action to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.

A 50-year Survival Plan for Climate Change takes our current knowledge of climate change and forecasts what it will mean for average people over the next 50 years.  It will allow you and your community to start working on surviving the challenges of a less stable and less abundant future.”

Whoa. I’d tune in, if I were you.

Books for your friends and anaerobic digestion for the planet

December 9, 2012

Lisa, Sarah and Mike offer great books for holiday gifts

Hey, this is a full-service radio show. And this segment is something that Lisa Albrecht, Sara Batka and I have been trying to do for at least three weeks. We have gardening, environmental and green living books that have come across the transom to us or have somehow landed on our radar screens. So let’s get started.


Container Gardening for All Seasons by Barbara Wise
Barbara wants gardening to be easy and fun and the best way for that to happen is if you know the basics. So before she presents her spring, summer, fall and winter designs that you can execute yourself, she takes time to explain some of the basics, like container size, watering needs, sun exposure and even where you should site your containers (hint: don’t do it in a place where you have to climb a ladder just to water). The book has beautiful photos and detailed “recipes” for each container, which are becoming more and more popular in gardening books. A great addition to your gardening book collection, whether you’ve never planted petunia or you’re a horticultural pro.

Gardening with Confidence… by Helen Yoest
You know you’re doing all right when P. Allen Smith is at the top of your press blurbs on the back cover of your book. By the way, the subtitle is “50 Ways to add style for personal creativity,” and the word “personal” is the key to what Helen is trying to accomplish. Yes, she explains a lot–styles like cottage gardens and formal gardens and rock gardens; elements like color and focal points and fragrance and paths; environmental concerns like critter control and lawns and being smart with water. But it’s all in the framework of what works for you and your particular needs. Lots to learn here.

The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour
If you’re a listener to my radio show, you might recall that Niki was on the show in early October. Not only is she an author, but she hosts her own gardening radio program out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. So we did a “simulacast” of our two shows, which I hope to do again next year. That was her last program of the season, which has something to do with the weather up there. However, as she explains in her book, the weather shouldn’t really keep you from growing vegetables, whether there’s snow on the ground or ice on the sidewalk. Niki introduces you to the secrets of keeping production going when most people would settle into hibernation. It’s an eye-opening look at how eager vegetables are to grow for us, if we just go a little bit out of our way to give them a chance.

Green Living

Homegrown & Handmade and Ecothrifty by Deborah Niemann
Thankfully, American society seems to be coming out of its decades-long nightmare of freeze-dried dinners, synthetic clothes and plastic everything. Perhaps its due to people like Deborah Neimann, who are showing us how to connect again with nature and, not only that, but how to use what lives and grows on our own planet as a way to sustain ourselves. In Homegrown & Handmade, she reveals that she and her husband produce 100% of their own meat, eggs, maple syrup and dairy products, not to mention thir vegetables, fruit and herbs. And that’s just the beginning of how resourceful you can be if you are concerned about your health and the health of theplanet. Ecothrifty, as Neimann explains on her blog, ” is packed with simple, practical ideas and recipes to help you

  • Make homemade products for cleaning and skin care
  • Grow your own food and cook more from scratch
  • Raise your family without lowering your standards.

Books recommended by Ron Wolford at Illinois Extension

Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia

Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs

Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening

Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest – University of Illinois

Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers – The American Horticulture Society

Crockett’s Victory Garden

Step-by-Step Gardening Techniques Illustrated

Creating heat and power from your food scraps and plant biomass

On November 9 of this year, one component of the future of energy sustainability broke ground at The Plant in Chicago’s Back of the Yards Neighborhood. I have had representatives of this remarkable project on the show during the past year. In brief, The Plant is basically a vertical farm housed in a 93,500 square foot, repurposed meatpacking facility. It brings together various complementary businesses, including aquaponic growing systems, bakeries, beer and kombucha tea breweries, and other sustainable food production companies.

To get a sense of the sheer audacious scope of this project, visit The Plant FAQ page on their website.

The goal of The Plant is to become a “net-zero energy” operation. And one of the keys to that is the ceremony that took place on November 9. That’s when work began on its anaerobic digestion system. Here’s how, in theory, this all comes together:

The Plant will produce all of its own electricity and heat on site and using proven technologies. Our anaerobic digester will take in food waste (everything from spent distillers grains to vegetable produce waste to beef-fat sludge), digest it, and release methane into a combined heat and power (CHP) system. This system will supply the building with heat and electricity. The Plant will remain connected to the public electrical grid and natural gas pipeline, providing us not only with a backup power source but also the possibility of feeding our surplus electricity back to the public grid.

So while we may occasionally take power from the grid, we will also be giving it back, leaving us with a net-zero usage level.

The company behind this technology–somtimes called a biogas plant–is the Eisenmann Corporation, a German company that has its North American Headquarters is in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Though Eisenmann has more than 90 biogas plants worldwide, it is still a relatively new technology, but one with great potential. For instance:

  • High solid organic waste to biogas
  • Renewable energy and soil amendment production
  • Feedstock flexibility
  • Small overall footprint
  • Closed system design for odor control
  • Capacity ranging from 5 tons to 200 tons per day
  • Complete process knowledge

More specifically, from the Eisenmann White Paper – Sustainability in an Urban Environment through Anaerobic Digestion, here, more specifically, are the phases of anaerobic digestion:

1. Hydrolosis – The proteins, carbohydrates and fats are broken down by bacteria into amino acids.
2. Acidogenesis – The amino acids are transformed by acidogenic bacteria into short chain volital acids, ketones, alcohols, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
3. Acetogenesis – The remaining acids are transformed by acetogenic bacteria into hydrogen, carbon dioxide and acetic acid.
4. Methanogenesis – The hydrogen and acetic acids are converted by methanogenic bacteria into methane gas and carbon dioxide.

Now why didn’t I think of that?

Anyway, the system will consume about 13 tons of food waste per day, which amounts to about 5,000 tons per year. That waste will come not only from The Plant but from neighboring businesses, too. The end product will be 2.2 million Btu per hour of biogas, which will be captured and burned, creating 200 kwH of electricity. It will also heat the building while also providing process heat for the brewery operations. Yoikes!

Moreover, The Plant hopes to create 125 jobs in this economically distressed area, while providing a healthy source of food in what has been classified as a fresh food desert by the USDA. All quite remarkable, as I said.

To give credit where credit is due, this project has been awarded grants by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s Food Scrap Composting Revitalization and Advancement Program (F-SCRAP) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). It has also been supported by a loan from the Chicago Community Loan Fund.

I’m pleased to have two Eisenmann people on the show today to talk about the anaerobic digester at The Plant and the technology in general. John McDowell is Project Manager of the biogas project at The Plant and Thomas Gratz is Regional Sales Manager for the technology.