Squash, social justice and the Secret Service

August 1, 2010

Now if I could just write the novel that goes along with that headline, I’m sure I’d be a gazillionaire. But while I’m coming up with the plot, I’ll explain what this is all about. On January 10 of this year, Robert Nevel appeared on my show to talk about KAM Isaiah Israel and its Martin Luther King, Jr.Social Justice Weekend program on food justice, urban farming and the environment.

Now it’s one thing to talk about social justice. It’s quite another to get out there and dig in the dirt. But that’s just what the congregation has done for two summers in the KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation Food Producing Garden. I stopped by last Sunday after my radio show to take a quick look and I was impressed not only by the quantity of food being harvested but by how the design has allowed the garden to have a minimal impact on the overall landscape.

I was also, er, impressed by the watchful eye of the Secret Service agents. As in “those guys who protect the POTUS.” You see, President Barack Obama’s Chicago home is directly across the street from KAMII. Meaning that if you’re tossing away a bad squash, you might hit his front stoop. And then the Secret Service guys would have a little chat with you. And you would never do that again. On the other hand, I don’t think anybody is going to steal any tomatoes from the garden anytime soon.

Nevel and fellow gardener Gloria Needlman say that the KAMII Social Justice Committee has a number of goals, including growing organic food and donating the harvest to soup kitchens and food pantries within a one mile radius of the garden. I know that they’re already doing that because Robert enlisted me to help deliver food to a local pantry immediately after my tour of the garden last Sunday.

Other goals are to teach the congregation about food production and sustainable land use, to establish KAMII as a model for other congregations and organizations, to educate the community about health eating and, last but not least, how to be be good stewards of the land by converting unproductive lawns into food producing gardens. Amen, brother! Oops, got my religious wires crossed for a second there.

The renewable energy center of Illinois is…Ogle County?

At least it is next Saturday and Sunday, August 7 and 8. That’s when the 9th Annual Illinois Renewable Energy & Sustainable Lifestyle Fair will be held at the Ogle County Fairgrounds in Oregon, IL. This is the real deal, says Bob Vogl, president of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association, which is presenting the fair. Though the IREA is not the largest not-for-profit organization in the world (Bob’s wife Sonia is Vice President and Treasurer) the two days of the fair have it all. There are more than 60 workshops and more than 100 exhibitors, not to mention tours, displays, children’s activities, food, entertainment…and GREEN LIVING! Whoo-hoo!

Seriously, here is just a sampling of the workshops:

  • Alternative energy – a primer
  • Demystifying LEED for homes
  • Do-it-yourself low-cost solar hot air collector in a weekend
  • Effective payback from solar energy, conservation & sustainability
  • Electrical safety with renewable energy systems
  • “Green” your home remodel

And on and on and on. Vogl had me in the palm of his hand when he told me that he’s working on an energy efficient greenhouse–one that wouldn’t need to be artificially heated in the winter. And one of the presenters is Victor Zaderej, who is constantly tinkering to make his own home energy efficient. He told me about construction standards developed in Germany called “passive house” (Passivhaus in German) Under that concept, Zaderej claims you can heat a housee on the coldest day of the year with 1 watt of energy per square foot. That means that a 2000 sqaire foot home (about the size of my hown house, interestingly) hair dryer. (He’s welcome to try that on my barn of a home anytime he wants.) By the way, if you want more information on solar-powered homes, Zaderej recommends the website Solar Homes LLC.

The fair runs Saturday, August 7, 9:00 a.m. till 6:00 p.m. and Sunday, August 8, 9:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. Admission is absurdly inexpensive: $7 each day for adults or $10 for both days. Teens get in for $3 and $5 respectively, and children under 12 get in free. FYI, pets are not allowed on the Fairgrounds, that includes the parking lot. Please leave your pet at home or check it in at a local kennel. Hey, what if you want your pooch’s dog house to be energy efficient? I’m just askin’…

Urban farming takes a village

This year, Will Allen was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. No, he’s not a politician—he’s a farmer.

In 1993, Allen launched Growing Power—an urban farm and teaching program—in one of Milwaukee’s food deserts, where there are more fast-food drive-ins than walk-in grocery stores. It all started when Allen decided to give unemployed teens a place to work. Now, the 3-acre spread is a healthy-food destination for locals who are welcomed to work on the farm, and encouraged to learn how to grow their own food.

Green Correspondent Leah Pietrusiak is on site and reports that the Growing Power store is open all year and the produce–from apples and oranges to green beans and potatoes–is dee-lish! (her words, her exclamation mark) The site is the last zoned farmland in Milwaukee, and there are bee hives, chickens, goats—and one humongous pile of compost known as “the volcano.” (You can’t exactly fry an egg on it but compost gets pretty hot as it decomposes.)

“i could talk about compost all day,” says staff supervisor Sarah Christman, who last week was helping volunteers load buckets of soil onto trucks bound for some of Growing Power’s 13 production sites throughout Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago. Hmm. That sounds like a dare. Bring it on, baby!

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