Getting food to people who need it

June 10, 2012

Connecting food with people: Every Last Morsel

I received an email from listener Rob Berry last week about a Kickstarter campaign that some of you might find interesting. It seems that last year he and his wife hired a guy named Todd Jones, who runs an outfit called Every Last Morsel, to install organic raised beds in their suburban Elmhurst backyard. But creating organic gardens isn’t what the Kickstarter proposal is about…though it’s related.

Jones discovered, in the course of his business, that he needed a platform in order to keep track of all the gardens he was building. Here’s what he told The Huffington Post:

I had this idea of creating a sort of platform that would allow me to do it more easily. The idea has grown tremendously since then to include a network for gardeners, what they are growing and how much of it — data used in aggregate to create these marketplaces. There are untold thousands of gardens in Chicago that grow thousands of pounds of food each year. I’m sure a lot of that goes to waste or could certainly go to better use if gardeners had an outlet to sell it from their own back yards.

He views that as only the beginning. If all goes well, farmers and consumers from all over the country will be logging in. Here’s how it will work:

The gardener, when setting up their profile, will visit the homepage, see a map and be able to drop or drag a pin onto that map and claim where, geographically speaking, their garden is. After they define its location, they will be able to add information to that data point and will be able to say how much and what kind of plants they’re growing. When it comes time to harvest, there will be another column where they can push some of those amounts out into the social sphere where they can either accept payments online for food or meet their customers in person and exchange cash and product. We want to connect people who have food with those who want it, that’s the goal.

And, well, he doesn’t need my help. Not only is he getting great coverage on media websites and with bloggers, on Friday he broke through his goal of $10,000. As of Saturday evening, the amount was up to $11,357. With five days to go in the Kickstarter campaign, Jones willl be able to pad that amount (thanks to “The Mike Nowak Show Bump” he is getting today) and, well, from that point, the sky is the limit. Todd Jones joins me this morning to talk about connecting food with the people who want it.

Fixing an urban food desert, one high school student at a time

Almost three years ago, I did a broadcast of The Mike Nowak Show from a community garden in Matteson, Illinois. I was approached by a man who introduced himself as a teacher at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS) in Humboldt Park. His name was Carlos DeJesus and I was interested in that he was trying to teach his students how to grow their own food.

As these things happen, I lost track of him until earlier this year, when I noticed that PACHS had contructed a greenhouse on the roof of their building at the corner of Division and California. So I’m making up for lost time by having him on the show this morning.

PACHS is a charter school, but is unlike many charter schools in that it caters to high school students who have dropped out, been kicked out or been pulled out of other schools. Often they are girls who have gotten pregnant. There are only 175 students in the school but, as DeJesus points out, at any given time, 25 to 30% of them are parents. Reflecting the neighborhood, 85% of the students are Latino–about 60% Puerto Rican, while 25% or so are other Hispanic groups, including Mexican. In fact, though the name of 20th Century political figure Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos is used, the official name of the institution is “The Puerto Rican High School.”

And whatever they’re doing at the school, it’s working. While only one third of Chicago Public School (CPS) graduates read at college level, Campos will not let their studients graduate unless they can read at least at a 10th grade level. (Most magazines and newspapers are written at the 8th grade level.) Considering that many of the students enter the school with 2nd or 3rd grade reading skill levels, that’s quite an accomplishment. Even more stunning is that in the last five years, according to DeJesus, 100% of their graduates have been accepted into college.

The point is that, unlike the charter schools that “mine for gold,” PACHS looks for “diamonds in the rough.”

And now, DeJesus, who started as a science teacher, is assistant principal and looking for ways to teach his kids how to change not only their own lives, but the lives of many in Greater Humboldt Park. According to the Healthy Urban Food Enterprize Development,

The community’s median household income of $29,000 is 26% lower than Chicago’s median income. A study by the Sinai Urban Health Institute (SUHI) indicates that the proportion of adults with diabetes among Puerto Ricans in this community is 21%, three times higher than the national rate, and the diabetes mortality rate among Puerto Ricans in Humboldt Park is 68 per 100,000 people, a rate that is 172% greater than the national diabetes mortality rate. Only 35% of community adults consume at least one serving of fresh fruits or vegetables per day.

The community is what is now commonly called a “food desert.” And DeJesus wanted his students to understand what that meant. But he didn’t want to tell them. He wanted them to figure it out for themselves. So he sent them out into the community to talk to people about what food they had access to and what they ate. And, not too surprisingly, they determined that people in the neighborhood needed to grow their own food because it wasn’t readily available.

But how can you grow food if there are few vacant lots in your community and the ones that are there are prohibitively expensive?

Again, it was a student who suggested that a greenhouse should be built on top of the school. The location would be above the cafeteria, adjacent to the science lab. That shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Think again. DeJesus says it took three years to get funding, and another two years of fighting the city (code compliance, zoning issues, etc.). All you need to know about this is the heartache that Zina Murray at the Logan Square Kitchen endured for years before she finally threw in the towel

Miraculously, everything came together, and the new greenhouse opened on March 3, 2011. Since then, they have grown hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, herbs and more. And PACHS is partnering with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) on La Cosecha, or “The Harvest.”

The idea is not too difficult: grow local and sell local. DeJesus took me to the store at Division and Washtenaw that he hopes will be open in a few weeks, allowing Humboldt Park residents to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. There is also a half acre of Chicago Park District land next to the PRCC, where seedlings from the rooftop greenhouse are being grown. If all goes well, that lot will expand to an acre and a half in a couple of years. In addition, PACHS is working with three community gardens in the area.

Incredibly, that might only be the start. The high school has already changed the neighborhood but DeJesus envisions buying nearby properties to create even more greenhouses–including one that could be as large as 20,000 square feet. Much of this isin the future…but who could have predicted five years ago that PACHS would have gotten this far? Stay tuned, and witness the power of a few “drop outs, push outs and pull outs.”