Adventures in Composting: Let The Fun Begin

Adventures in Composting is a regular series written by Jason Silverman, a composting newbie and blogging enthusiast.

I’ve been “composting” yard waste in plastic bags around the yard, putting off getting a composter. I didn’t know which one to get. They’re mostly ugly things. I figured it wouldn’t work anyway; I’d just wind up with rotting watermelon rinds in a rain barrel. Also, they’re kind of expensive.

But the other day I was feeling flush and confident, and also my wife was asking me why I was keeping all those plastic bags of grass and twigs scattered about the property.  And I got tired of shelling out money for bags of soil amendments that I’d need to shlep back from the garden center and forget about.

So I ordered a fine-looking composter with a snazzy Japanese name that surely means it’s well-designed and efficient. It also has a spigot for compost tea, which I hope tastes as good as it sounds. And it has a nice little trap door at the bottom for taking out what I hope is actually compost and not just plain month-old garbage.

Here’s a photo. I hope it composts as good as it looks.

Kyoto Composter

Gardens, Gleaning, and Feeding the Hungry

Guest blog post by Jason Silverman

A Plot Against Hunger gardenWalk past the corner of Barton and 10th Street in Arlington, VA and you’ll see an assortment of vegetables growing just outside the fence of a sprawling community garden. These vegetables are part of an area-wide program called Plot Against Hunger, which gathers fresh produce from area farmers, farmer’s markets, and private and community gardens to help feed the area’s hungry.

Inspiration for the idea came to Lisa Crye when she saw the approach a church in California took to feeding the hungry: sell produce from members’ gardens and donate the proceeds to a local food pantry.  At around the same time, the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) was looking for a way to offer more fresh vegetables to the approximately 1,400 needy families it serves in the County.  So in a brainstorming session in 2007, Crye and Puwen Lee, AFAC’s volunteer service coordinator, hatched a plan that would grow into AFAC’s Plot Against Hunger program.

Plot Against Hunger now provides AFAC with fresh produce from area farmers, farmer’s markets, and private and community gardens.  In its first year, it contributed 10,000 pounds of fresh produce to AFAC’s warehouses.  Since then, the number has grown dramatically, with Crye estimating that all the sources combined have yielded 200,000 pounds of produce each year.

The program’s largest source of produce comes from harvesting excess vegetables from commercial farms in the area, a practice called “gleaning.”  Plot Against Hunger coordinates gleaning events through the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network (MAGNET), which has relationships with area farms. The organization also gleans excess produce from the USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland.

Its second-largest source is unsold produce donated by vendors after the weekly Crystal City, Courthouse, and Columbia Pike farmer’s markets that otherwise might go to waste.

Plot Against Hunger also receives donations of vegetables grown in gardens across Arlington. Many county community gardens, such as the one at Barton and North 10th St. have plots dedicated to AFAC, as do gardens at faith-based institutions, schools, and private residences.

Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability

But Plot Against Hunger does more than provide fresh produce to AFAC and, in turn, to the tables of its clients. It also educates Arlington residents on how they can grow their own vegetables.  The food-producing garden at Arlington Central Library, for example, employs techniques that can be used to grow food in a wide range of conditions, such as raised beds, square-foot gardening (using small, densely-planted plots), and roof gardening. The garden at Clarendon Presbyterian Church employs straw-bale gardening, and alone yielded 125 pounds of produce for AFAC last year.

Plot Against Hunger also has a school program.  Several area elementary schools have gardens that contribute to AFAC while also giving students a hands-on learning experience in gardening.  In Crye’s experience, kids who have been exposed to gardening and seen vegetables being grown are more likely to, well, eat their vegetables.  Crye reported an anecdote of a child with a long history of broccoli-hating being mesmerized by an actual broccoli plant.

AFAC and Plot Against Hunger don’t get to choose what vegetables are gleaned or donated. But AFAC operates on a “choice model” – its clients can select the food they wish to receive.  Foods grown through local gardens or commercial farms don’t always line up completely with the food preferences of AFAC’s clients, who hail from a wide variety of backgrounds.  So what to do when trying to place Swiss Chard, or blue hubbard squash – a massive, grayish relative of the pumpkin – with families who have no idea what to do with them? AFAC teaches its clients about these vegetables and how they can be prepared.  Twice a week, AFAC holds cooking demonstrations and offers samples to clients.

Want to get involved? AFAC and Plot Against Hunger are always looking for more volunteers, so whether you’re interested in gleaning, growing, cooking, or just donating produce, you can learn more here.

DC’s Independent Food Scene: A Work in Progress

Freshly baked artisan bread Mark Furstenberg caused quite a stir this week in his Washington Post article “What’s missing from D.C.’s food scene? A lot.” He writes: “I do not believe that we have the elements of a really wonderful food culture.” He paints DC as a hapless wannabe nipping at the heels of established foodie meccas like New Orleans and San Francisco. The results of an “unscientific survey of Washington Post readers” (whatever that means) support his assertion, with 64% saying that “no,” DC is not a great food city.

I agree with Furstenberg that we never really developed a food identity. We don’t have the vibrant food traditions of Chicago’s Greektown or LA’s Koreatown, nor do we have the long-standing local food movement of San Francisco, the BBQ of Kansas City, or the crab cakes of Baltimore.

But the problem with the piece is that it’s all about what we don’t have, rather than what we do. It’s a glass half empty critique of a city that is still finding its food identity. I’ve also been here many years–and I’m excited about where we are going.

Ten years ago, you couldn’t find a good slice of pizza in this town except maybe from Vace. Now there’s Pete’s Apizza, Two Amy’s, District of Pi and countless others.

Great bread? In the past, I’d have said forget about it. Now we have Leonora Bakery and Lyon Bakery.  Beer?  Three independent breweries have recently opened in DC alone, as has Port City in Alexandria.  Every day, I learn about another local food venture that is making the culinary landscape here more interesting. From Union Market to smaller restaurants like the Green Pig and the Red Hen, the movement here is taking shape.

Yes, the ubiquity of chains like Au Bon Pain and Chipotle is depressing, though hardly unique to D.C.  We need to do more as a city to support small markets and independent cafes and restaurants. But the way to do this isn’t by bashing DC, as so many have done in the past. We may never be able to compare to New York, LA, Chicago or San Francisco. We are a fraction of their size and will first and foremost be a government town.

But we can grow into a place with a proud local food community—one that supports independent purveyors like Smucker FarmsGordy’s Pickle Jar, MOM’s Organic Market, and Souper Girl. I do believe we have the elements of a wonderful food culture; we certainly have the appetite. Just take a stroll around Logan Circle, Clarendon, Del Ray, Columbia Heights or Silver Spring. The only question now is whether developers, landlords, and investors are willing to work together with independent businesses to make it flourish.

Editor’s Note: Shortly after writing this piece, we came across an article by City Paper’s Jessica Sidman, which is a terrific read in support of DC’s food scene

Green Theater Takes Shape

Guest blog post by Claire Mauro

CityDance Conservatory Dancer
“Brutal Beauty” Choreographed by Christopher K Morgan and Artists, Pictured: CityDance Conservatory Dancer, Photo by: Brianne Bland

Sustainable practices and dance are taking center stage at the CityDance Studio Theater at Strathmore. The 125-seat, state-of-the-art eco-friendly black box theater uses the latest in sustainable technology including solar energy, LED lighting, and electronic retractable riser seating with sustainable textiles. All of these components help increase the theater’s environmental, economic and energy efficiency.

The goal for the solar design is to have all the theatrical elements “off the grid” – the solar energy produced by the panels will provide enough power to run the theater, as well as be able to provide solar offset for the energy used by the education wing.

In addition, the theater uses non-VOC paint, non-PBDEs soft-goods for the theater masking, and developed a policy for purchasing the most eco-friendly and sustainable consumables and materials, such as costumes, cleaners, and floor tape.

“CityDance is constantly thinking of ways to give back to the community by providing transformative experiences that are both artistically meaningful and educational for audiences,” said Alexe Nowakowski, CityDance executive director. “The green theater further fulfills this goal by prompting conversation and providing a new type of educational opportunity for patrons.”

CityDance is currently partnering with Power2Give to raise money for a new sound system for this “Green Theater.”

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Founded in 1996, CityDance produces and presents professional dance at venues across the DC metropolitan area; trains young dancers for professional careers; and provides free dance education programs for thousands of students each year.

Union Station Hosts Earth Month

Cherry Blossoms in front of Union Station
Union Station Celebrates Earth Month

Union Station is hosting Earth Month 2013, scheduled for April 1 through April 30. Presented by Earth Day Network and the Premier Tourist and Landmark Association, the month-long event will feature interactive, eco-friendly experiences throughout Union Station designed to raise awareness of environmental issues and encourage sustainability.

“Our commitment to the environment must extend far beyond one day,” said Kathleen Rogers, president  of Earth Day Network. “That’s why we’re thrilled to partner with Union Station to devote an entire month  to sustainability and green responsibility. Hosting the series of events over the entire month in one of the  most iconic venues in our nation’s capital allows us to engage more exhibitors and educate more people.”

Earth Month 2013 represents a significant expansion of prior Earth Day festivities held annually on Washington’s National Mall. In addition to the scheduled events, exhibitors from across the country will be on hand to highlight their own green initiatives, programs and events.  Most events are free and open to the public. Here’s the schedule:

April 1-14 – Cherry Blossom Festival Events
April 1 – Opening of the NASA Hyperwall and Image Gallery
April 6 – STEM Fair for DC Students, Grades 6 – 12, NASA Astronaut Visits
April 15–23 – Verizon Wireless Earth Fair – East Hall
April 17 – District Department Of Environment Fair – East Hall
April 17 – 18 – Earth Month Film Festival – Columbus Club (see film schedule below)
April 18 – District Department Of Environment Fashion Show – East Hall
April 22 – NASA Earth image gallery Exhibit and hands-on demos – Main Hall
April 19 and 22 – Farmers Market – West Carriage Porch
April 22 – Earth Day! Earth Day Network Events and Entertainment – Main Hall and East Hall
April 23 – Amtrak Sustainability Fair – East Hall