Archive for Simple living

Collaborative Consumption

By:  Jeanne Christensen, RSM

A ‘Big Shift’ from the 20th century, a time defined by hyper-consumption (or conspicuous consumption), to a 21st century age of collaborative consumption is underway. Collaborative consumption describes the rapid explosion in traditional sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting, and swapping redefined through technology and peer communities. The primary source for information on this topic is here.

From enormous marketplaces such as eBay and Craigslist, to emerging sectors such as social lending (Zopa), peer-to-peer travel (Airbnb) and car sharing (Zipcar or peer-to-peer RelayRides), Collaborative Consumption is disrupting outdated modes of business and reinventing not just what we consume but how we consume. New marketplaces such as TaskRabbit, ParkatmyHouse, Zimride,, Zilok, Bartercard and thredUP are enabling “peer-to-peer” to become the default way people exchange — whether it’s unused space, goods, skills, money, or services — and sites like these are appearing everyday, all over the world. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of these as most of us haven’t.

What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption is a groundbreaking original book that includes dozens of stories of how entrepreneurs and businesses are innovating in the space of Collaborative Consumption.  Financial Times says it is: “A remarkably hopeful and accessible book about a social revolution gaining momentum.”

Major areas for collaborative consumption include:

  • Product service systems where individuals Pay for the benefit of using a product without needing to own the product outright. Disrupting traditional industries based on models of individual private ownership.  This could be anything from car sharing to sharing solar power to toy rental to fashion rental to textbook rental.
  • Redistribution markets where used or pre-owned goods are redistributed from where they are not needed to somewhere or someone where they are.  Redistribution includes craigslist, eBay, free/gift exchanges, swap sites for books and other items, clothing swaps – the possibilities are many.

Collaborative lifestyles where People with similar interests are banding together to share and exchange less tangible assets such as time, space, skills, and money.  This can include coworking spaces, social lending, bartering, gardens, skill sharing, parking spots, errand and task networks, and other creative options.

Find two brief videos on this topic here  and here.The second video gives a concise explanation of the concept of collaborative consumption and its value.

For further reading:

Alex Goldmark, GOOD Magazine — October 11, 2011
“Peer to Peer Lenders Take Banks Out of Credit Equation”

Kevin Lee, Forbes — October 25, 2011
“Can China Lead The Development of a Shared Value Economy?”

Derek Thompson, The Atlantic — November 9, 2011
How Steve Case and His Company Are Driving the Sharing Economy

Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine — Thursday, Mar. 17, 2011
Today’s Smart Choice: Don’t Own.  Share


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Pequeña Comunidad: The road to New Hope in El Salvador

Editor’s Note:  December 2 marked the 31st Anniversary of the 4 U.S. Churchwomen in El Salvador.  We remember these brave women who were brutally murdered in El Salvador in 1980.  In their honor, you are invited to reflect on what Pat Marrin has written.  May it speak to your heart.  It is reprinted from The SHARE Foundation: Building a New El Salvador Today Churchwomen Commemoration Guide – 2010


by Pat Marrin, National Catholic Worker Reporter and 2010 Romero Delegation to Nueva Esperanza, El Salvador Participant

The road to Nueva Esperanza is dusty and rutted, a bumpy ride for the old pickup truck Gigi Gruenke drove to San Carlos to get me. She knows the roads well from her six years in El Salvador, from 2001 to 2007, as a Maryknoll lay volunteer working with the sisters of the Pequeña Comunidad (“Little Community”) in the Baja Lempa region of the country.  She is back to visit and has offered to help me tell the story of the sisters as part of NCR’s coverage of El Salvador 30 years after the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated on March 24, 1980.

Nueva Esperanza (“New Hope”) has 140 families and is one of the last towns along the Lempa, the country’s main river, which winds snakelike from the Honduran border and empties into the estuaries along Pacific coast 10 miles south of here.  We negotiate around some cattle. A young girl and her brother hitched a ride in the back of the truck when we stopped at a market to pick up 42 eggs. A week of celebrating Monseñor Romero has kept the Pequeña Comunidad sisters busy feeding visitors.

I hold the four stacked cardboard trays tied with string. My arms flex to cushion the eggs at each bump. The children in back sway and hang onto the pipe frame above the truck bed. El Salvador is a place where metaphors spring to mind to help interpret fragile realities. I recall Scott Wright’s story about what it was like to be in the country during its brutal civil war. An activist from Washington, D.C., he had come down in the early 1980s to work in the refugee camps on the Honduran border, then slipped into the country to accompany the thousands of terrified people hiding out in the hills from the helicopter gunships and army patrols. During a stop to rest in the jungle, a woman handed him her baby to hold while she went off to do something. This was El Salvador. If you came here you were entrusted with something precious.

We drop off our riders and park the truck next to the sisters’ walled compound. The town exhibits a rustic simplicity that is also another name for poverty. Across El Salvador, from the urban sprawl in the capital to the tiny cantons in the mountains accessible only on foot, people are living on the edge. Even 18 years after the 1992 peace accords, political divisions and vast inequities still reflect a lack of resources throughout the country, but especially in areas held by the rebels during the war.  Malnutrition, no funds for schools or health clinics, and unemployment are forcing young people to head north or join the gangs that pervade even the rural areas.

Accompanying the people

This is where the sisters of the Pequeña Comunidad live and minister to a network of 47 surrounding communities. Their style is immersion with the people and their objective is empowerment. They catechize, do sacramental preparation, counsel ordinary ministry but with a bottom-up approach made popular 40 years earlier after the Second Vatican Council and the emergence of Christian base communities that emphasized the role of the laity in the church.  We enter the compound where Srs. Nohemy Ortíz, Hortencia Preza and Valentina Pérez join us in a large, covered courtyard with plastic chairs arranged in a circle, an all-purposespace for meetings, meals and prayer. At one end is a garden sculpture of a seated Romero.

Ortíz has been with the community for most of its 40 years. She says that it was “formed in the womb of the Christian base communities” where lay men and women were trained to conduct Bible study in the many outlying villages visited only rarely by priests. The grassroots vitality of the base community experience attracted young people to the church. Many young women who wanted to commit their lives to service but did not feel called to traditional convent life sought a new form of religious life among the poor. In 1970, the “Little Community” was formed. The sisters did not wear religious habits and did not seek formal status under church law.

Ortíz says that as many as 50 people, both men and women, were involved with the community, but that its vowed membership never exceeded 15. Today, there are a total of eight sisters: the three serving in the Baja Lempa area; two sisters, Ana Beatriz Landaverde and Maria Isabel Figueroa,  serving in San Salvador; and three others, Anna María Barriento, Yulma Bonilla and Carmen Elena Hernández, in Morazán. Two North Americans, St. Joseph Sr. Elena Jaramilla from Orange, California and Providence Sr. Frances Stacy from Spokane, Washington also work with the sisters.

“We never thought of ourselves as an institute or congregation,” Ortíz says. “We were committed to Jesus of Nazareth as his followers and disciples. Rather than take traditional vows to a superior or to a bishop, we take our vows before the people.”

Not having canonical status is outweighed, she says, by the freedom to go where the people need them, and to be prophetic in pursuing justice, even when this is difficult or controversial.

Preza tells of her path to the community; since childhood she had felt a desire to serve but her mother had discouraged her from considering the brown-habited nuns they saw in church. “I joined a choir and youth group where I met Nohemy and some of the other sisters. They didn’t wear habits and I wondered how they could be sisters,” she says. But the more she came to know them and their work with the people, the more she felt called to accompany them. She made her vows in 1989, while the war was still going on. She was 24 years old. “The church became real to me,” she says.

Pérez describes her childhood devotion to her family, but says that she knew she wanted to reach out to others and thought she needed to join the convent to do this. She met Preza, who was holding weekly meetings at her church. “I realized I could dedicate myself to God without going far away to do it. Nohemy kept asking me, ‘When do you want to join us? Come, the door is open.’ ”

Pérez read her vows publicly in 2006. She says that one of the things she values is the sisters’ freedom to reach out to all religious sects and faiths, as Romero had done.

Option for the poor

In its early years, the new community took inspiration from the 1968 Latin American bishops’ meeting in Medellín, Colombia, where the phrase “God’s option for the poor” was first uttered officially. A new spirit took hold in Latin America, challenging the traditional alignment of the church with wealth and power. In both urban and rural areas, Bible study led to analysis of the causes of poverty, unjust labor practices and land distribution, and the treatment of people by the police and military. Those in power, threatened by growing pressures for reform, accused some priests of being communists, including two Belgian priests who have worked closely with the Pequeña sisters, Frs. Pedro Declercq and Rogelio Ponseele. The struggle pitted conservative bishops tied to the wealthy and the military against the popular church led by Romero, who struggled unsuccessfully to hold both church and nation together toavert civil war, which broke out in 1981.

The image of the martyred Silvia Maribel Arriola is carried in this year’s commemoration march honoring El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero. The Pequeña sisters, vowed to accompany the people, were caught up in the conflict. One member, Sr. Silvia Maribel Arriola, who made her vows with the group in 1975, is revered as one of El Salvador’s most beloved martyrs. She came to the community because of her desire to serve Jesus in the poor and through her friendship with Ortíz. Arriola was Romero’s personal secretary from 1977 until his assassination in 1980. A nurse, she was with a group of 97 refugees killed by the army on Jan 17, 1981. She was 29 years old. The bodies were doused in gasoline and burned to destroy evidence of the civilian massacre, one of 200 documented from the war.

The sisters say they continue to look to Romero for inspiration. Preza and Pérez cite his defense of human rights as the greatest challenge. For Ortíz, Romero remains a model of prophet, teacher and pastor. “He gives us spiritual eyes to see so we can continue to build the reign of God,” she says.  “He is now a risen in the people.

“Everyone wants him to be canonized, but not just as an object of devotion, someone to light candles to. He lived his life in total faithfulness during a very crucial moment in El Salvador’s history. We will honor him by living as he did, saying what he said. And that is not so easy.”

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Fair Trade – Alternative Shopping

By Jeanne Christensen, RSM

In  October, we discussed Fair Trade as an alternative shopping option and we noted that we would offer some ideas and  stores for you to consider. What seemed too early last month is now a reality – Christmas is just over a month away. As Christmas is the season of gift-giving, we will soon be considering our Christmas gifts. Many of us will make donations to worthy causes or organizations in someone’s honor, others of us want to give actual gifts.

If you are among the latter, would you consider giving a fair trade gift — a gift that ensures the artisan or producer gets a fair price for their product? Fair trade means creating sustainable and positive change. When items are fairly traded it means that partners participate in a system that aims to pay fair wages, creates long-term, direct trading relationships based on dialogue, transparency, equity, and respect. For those who live in the Kansas City metropolitan area, the following is a list of ideas for purchasing a great gift while helping to contribute positively to the world at the same time:

Ten Thousand Villages at 7947 Santa Fe Drive in downtown Overland Park, Kansas offers gifts from around the world, knowing that the fair market prices empower artisans and producers from third world countries. Of special note is that Ten Thousand Villages has a holiday tradition of offering local not-for-profit organizations 15% of all sales made on Sunday afternoons before Christmas. This is an opportunity to not only shop but to enjoy reconnecting with friends, learning about the not-for-profit who is benefiting and to enjoy light refreshments.

Two of those benefiting are: Keeler Women’s Center which empowers women in the urban core of Kansas City through education, advocacy, personal and spiritual development. Their Sunday benefit is November 27 from 1:00 – 5:00 p.m. The Migrant Farmworkers Project’s (MFP) benefit is Sunday, December 4 from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. MFP works in solidarity with seasonal and migrant farmworkers to obtain a healthier, more secure, and more fulfilling life. MFP offers them social, legal, health care and educational services. MFP feels closely connected to the fair trade imperative because the Lafayette County farmworkers whom they serve are exactly the kind of people who have been displaced by global free market practices. On one hand, MFP supports fair trade to keep workers in developing economies at work. On the other hand, they want to support the farmworkers they know so well who have been forced out of their home countries.
KC Organics and Natural Market is hosting a fair trade event on Saturday, December 10 from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. This Market will be held at Notre Dame de Sion High School at 10631 Wornall Road, ¼ mile South of I-435. There will be locally produced holiday gifts, including baked goods, seasonal produce, body care products, gift baskets, hand-made eco-cards, wreaths, fair trade coffee and more.

1st Baptist Church of Kansas City, MO offers Equal Exchange fair trade items – coffee, tea, chocolate, coca, and sugar. They are located at 100 W. Red Bridge Road, KCMO. For details, call 816-942-1866.

Both The Roasterie and Parisi Artisan Coffee purchase all of their coffees directly from the producers. They prefer to go to the origin, assess the product offered, make arrangements for purchase and shipment, and pay the farmer a fair price directly. Both also offer an organic line of products and both sell select blends of coffees at Costco. The Roasterie has three locations in Kansas City, sells beans to local grocery stores, and has a line of products that are Fair Trade Certified. Parisi Artisan Coffee also seeks to directly assess  the growers’ commitment to employing sustainable farming practices.

Lastly, the Fair Trade Holiday Market in Lawrence, KS that will open November 27 and 28 from 8a.m. to 7p.m. and again from November 29 to December 3 from 10a.m. to 7p.m. It is located at Ecumenical Christian Ministries 1204 Oread Ave, Lawrence, KS. The Market offers fairly traded arts and crafts from local and international artisans that make unique holiday gifts. It is organized by Lawrence Fair Trade, a community group dedicated to raising awareness of global economic injustice and working to establish sustainable solutions.
Also, donations can be given in a person’s name as an alternative gift to local and national organizations such as UNICEF, Habitat for Humanity, Amethyst Place in Kansas City, Center of Concern, Keeler Center, OxFam, Amnesty International, Migrant Farmworkers Project, The Justice Project in Kansas City, Sleeyphead Beds, St. James Place on Troost, or any not-for-profit of your choice. The needs are great and monetary gifts are always welcome. You can also support or find gifts online through organizations like Catholic Relief Services, namely their Work of Human Hands project, or Equal Exchange.

You might also contact the organization of your choice to find out what their needs are. A great example is our Catholic Worker Houses – Holy Family, Cherith Brook or Shalom. Their needs are especially great when it’s cold; blankets, coats, hats, gloves, and thermal underwear are just a few. Make a donation of needed goods in honor of a friend or family member.

Shop at locally-owned businesses such as Rainy Day Books in Fairway, KS, World’s Window or Stuff in Brookside rather than big-box stores. Gift cards to locally-owned and operated restaurants such as The Westside Local and Chez Elle on the Westside, Pot Pie or Teahouse and Coffeepot in Westport, or Eden’s Alley in Unity Temple on the Plaza  are also good options. Another avenue to explore is purchasing only Made in the USA products.
There are many more alternatives for Christmas gifts. We know we have not included them all. If you have one or more you want us to know about please send them to, and we will include them in the December edition of the KC Olive Branch.

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In the heart of Kansas City…Holy Family Catholic Worker House

In the heart of Kansas City, on a busy street steeped with a rich and often tumultuous history, are two houses side by side. The three story houses are white with a dark green trim, reminiscent of the deep color of pine needles or, in the sun, the leaves on the rose bushes by the front porch. Appearing residential in every way, the houses are, in fact, the home to a somewhat unusual family unit.  “Holy Family House,” you see, was the name that would call these simple dwellings and their earnest residents to remember the promise they made to each other: To work for peace and justice by seeing the face of Christ in every forgotten and abused person; to love that person with unconditional love. Two houses. Hundreds of people coming together and believing. A whole lotta love.

Holy Family House has been a part of urban Kansas City for nearly 36 years. In the beginning was Angie O’Gorman, a woman full of passion for justice, and a heart for sharing dignity. In 1974 Angie and her companions were inspired by the words and actions of Dorothy Day, foundress of the Catholic Worker movement. Dorothy Day believed in working for equality by direct works of mercy, and she advocated loudly for the rights of those oppressed by an unjust system. The Catholic Worker movement is characterized by a deep spirit of personalism: walking with those in suffering, sharing resources and providing hospitality to people on the margins of society. In this spirit, Angie and her cohorts began Holy Family House.  Holy Family House embraces the Catholic Worker philosophy and the power of personal relationships as a means to transform the world.

Since its birth, Holy Family Catholic Worker House has been operated by a live-in community of volunteer staff.  Cycling in and out over time, these volunteers have committed to providing food, shelter, and a loving presence to the marginalized people of Kansas City. Brother Louis Rodemann became a live-in community member of Holy Family House in 1982, and he has been a steadfast presence to the house and the Kansas City community ever since. Brother Louis has remained a pillar of the house, and his deep dedication to homeless and abused people has inspired many for nearly 28 years.

Now, in the spring of 2010, we find the house is again entering a time of transition and growth as Brother Louis prepares for a year- long sabbatical. He will be leaving Holy Family House for a time, and he will not return in the same capacity. With sadness, but also with a sense of hope, the community is encouraging Brother Louis to pursue a personal period of renewal and regeneration. We continue to seek his wisdom and guidance as the house moves forward into the future.

As always, Holy Family House is looking to the community for help and assistance in our need. At Holy Family House we serve meals 6 days a week to people like Jackie, a single man who has been homeless on and off since his lay off from MO-DOT nearly 2 years ago. Jackie leaves City Union Mission at 5 a.m. everyday and takes the bus to 31st and Troost.  He then walks to Holy Family where he waits on the porch until we open the doors for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. After we close at 8:30 a.m., Jackie spends his days looking for work and housing and just trying to pass the time until the house opens again at 4:00 p.m. Finding a job is hard in these times, even harder for someone with no home to call their own, and Jackie has had difficulties like many others in his shoes. Nonetheless, Jackie is a hard worker, and is quick to volunteer his time to Holy Family House, often offering to wash dishes in exchange for bus passes or food. Jackie is outgoing, friendly and generous, a truly respected member of the “Holy House” community, and a formidable chess opponent. Jackie is only one of hundreds of guests who visit Holy Family. We ask Jackie how he finds the strength to keep going and he replies every time: “Only with God.”

We place the needs of our guests, people like Jackie, at the forefront, and we will continue to offer hospitality and meals to the homeless and forgotten of the city.  A planning committee comprised of 14 individuals closely associated with the house has been working diligently on a future plan for Holy Family House. At this time, the house continues to rely greatly on volunteers, especially the live-in staff and the long-term volunteers who have shown many years of dedication to the mission. We continue to welcome participation in the house through personal interaction with the guests, who call us back again and again to the mission. We are also actively seeking folks who may be interested in stepping into the role of a live-in staff. The live-in community is a special aspect of the Catholic Worker, and truly at the core of Holy Family House.  We welcome prospective volunteers or interested individuals to contact us about our discernment process, and of course we offer the invitation to visit the house and visit with our guests.

In the heart of our wonderful city, Holy Family House is changing and growing, yet the house stands firm in its commitment to service and hospitality. Come “taste and see.”

Contact or call 816-753-2677 with questions or for more information.

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A Responsible Christmas

by Chandra Blackwell

Ahhh, Christmas.  Songs rejoice in it.  Poems revere it.  Stories, movies, and television specials allegorize its spiritual lessons.  It’s the season of faith, cheer, and goodwill toward all.

Unfortunately, it can sometimes also be the season of irony, because by the third week in December, our goodwill has often been sapped by the stress of the season, and we pass the favor on by making less-than-responsible choices about how to celebrate this most spiritual of holidays.  With a little thought and advance planning, however, you can find your way back to the true meaning of Christmas by celebrating in ways that nurture your own spirit and extend social and global goodwill.

Celebrate With Goodwill Toward The Earth

The Problem: Our culture of consumption results in toxic waste.

Think about how much plastic gets used and discarded on an average day.  From apple sauce to yogurt, so much of what we buy is packaged in plastic or, just as often, made of plastic.  And that plastic doesn’t go away.  Instead it winds up in places like the North Pacific, where an oceanic gyre has trapped seven million tons of plastic waste in an area twice the size of Texas.  With that in mind, think about how much more we buy at Christmas—decorations, presents, and food and beverages—and the amount of plastic that ends up as waste increases exponentially.

What You Can Do:

Chances are, you won’t be able to avoid plastic altogether this holiday season, but there are certainly ways that you can cut down on plastic waste.  Shop for environmentally friendly gifts made of wood, metal, or fabric (check out, or give gifts that can be experienced, like tickets to a play, or dinner for two.  Even bringing your own eco-friendly shopping bags on that pantry-stocking grocery shopping trip before the holiday guests arrive can go a long way toward reducing waste and showing our Earth a little Christmas love.

Celebrate With Goodwill Toward Our Global Community

The Problem: Our “bargain” is sometimes another person’s exploitation.

Our nation’s trade policies with still-developing nations often exploit an underpaid (and sometimes underage) work force.  In addition, poor inspections on goods made in exploitative overseas labor markets hurt people on both sides of the trade.  One need only think back a couple of years to the infamous lead paint issue with Thomas the Tank engine toys to see how underpaid labor affects the entire global community.

What You Can Do:

Buy locally made and/or fair trade items as gifts.  Fair trade items can range from food items to clothing to home décor, and are available here in Kansas City via merchants such as Ten Thousand Villages (visit for locations).  But who says a gift has to be new to be wonderful?  My friend Jennifer’s family has an annual tradition of exchanging books that they’ve loved.

“It’s nice,” she says, “because you don’t have to buy anything—you can just pass along a great read.  I get some of my favorite books this way.”

Another option for socially responsible gift-giving is to make gifts by hand: if you’re a cook, make delicious treats for everyone on your list; if you’re a knitter, a little advance planning can have your loved ones warm and cozy come January.  If you want to make someone’s heart feel warm and cozy, giving the gift of a donation in that person’s name to a cause they hold dear is another fantastic way to show love to people in your inner circle, and in the global community.

Celebrate With Goodwill Toward Yourself and Those You Love

The Problem: Your Christmas Spirit got lost at the mall.

We’ve all been there; it’s 7:17 p.m., you’ve worked a full day in the office, and you’ve been in a checkout line for the past 20 minutes, waiting to purchase this season’s hottest electronic gewgaw for your brother, and simultaneously nursing the black eye that you incurred while elbowing and diving your way toward the last one on the shelf.  (Well, OK, maybe we haven’t all been there, but admit it—it’s not a wholly alien scenario, is it?)  You despair of making it home in time for dinner, let alone in time to wrap your white elephant gift and bake two dozen Santa-shaped cookies for tomorrow’s office Christmas party before you collapse with exhaustion, wanting only for this holiday season to end already.

What You Can Do:

Four simple words: Learn to let go.  Easier said than done, I know, but remember this one simple thing: People love you not for the toys or electronic gewgaws you buy for them, or even for your famous Santa-shaped cookies.  What’s really valuable to anyone who cares about you is your well-being, and spending time with Happy You. So remember this season to show yourself a little goodwill.  Take time to relax, practice your faith, and engage in happy-making activities that celebrate the season.  My cousin, Camille, who grew up in a large family, shares a simple Christmas tradition that focuses on company, not commodities:  “We decorate our Christmas tree, turn on the tree lights, turn out the house lights, and play Musical Chairs in the dark with Christmas music until we collapse from laughter!” And isn’t laughter a better cause for collapse than holiday stress and exhaustion? With a little thought and planning, you can make sure that this holiday season is truly a reason to celebrate not only our Savior, but our friends and family, our global community, and our Earth.

Chandra Blackwell is a writer and editor who lives in Olathe, Kansas with her husband and 20-month old son, both of whom make her life a little bit like Christmas every day.

Editor’s Note:  There are many agencies and organizations offering fair trade products.  Two other sites you may want to visit are SERRV at and Heifer International at   Organizations such as Lutheran World Relief and Catholic Relief Services collaborate with SERRV in bringing fair trade products to the U.S.

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Seed to Plate: Urban farms provide more than produce

By Heather Winslow Gibbons

At seventeen, I couldn’t wait to move to the city. At twenty-one I dreamed of wearing suits and working in a high rise. Over time I realized what a unique experience it was to grow up on a farm, even more so because the farm has been in our family for almost a hundred years now. I’ve become so comfortable talking about it I may even brag a little. My husband and I have hopes of eventually moving back to the country, but it’s not possible right now. Thankfully, I’ve discovered some places within the city limits that give me the feeling of home.

Last week I visited the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture (KCCUA) for the first time. Just five minutes away from the Metcalf/I-35/I-635 interchange, I transplanted lettuce, folded row covers, and tried to resist climbing on the straw bales. A few days later, I sat down with Katherine Kelly, KCCUA’s executive director and farmer, to talk about how she created a land-based lifestyle within an opportunity-based metropolis.

HWG: Where did you grow up?

KK: Outside of Wichita. My parents weren’t farmers but I worked on our neighbor’s farm herding cattle, driving tractors, driving grain to market. Like you, I thought “Life is every place else but on this stupid farm.” I always took the toughest jobs though. When we were hauling hay, the farmer’s son drove the tractor and I’d be the one bucking bales. I actually loved it in a lot of ways, I just didn’t know it at the time.

HWG: What happened when you left?

KK: I went to Carleton College in Minnesota, and all of a sudden, herding cattle and riding horses was like a story I had made up. It had no context, no reality. I moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I started backyard gardening and worked in non-profits, in community arts, community organizing. In the late 80s I moved to Boston where I started hearing about the local food movement. I very deliberately took a job on a farm that was run by a woman because I remembered how much farming is a man’s domain and wanted a place where some of the gender limits I saw as a girl on a farm would be less likely. After that I worked on a couple of other farms and when I wanted my own place, I realized I couldn’t afford to buy land in Boston, so I moved back to the midwest.

HWG: To be in the country?

KK: I thought I wanted to be out in the country. I lived for a while with my sister near Tonganoxie thinking maybe I would farm there. Then I realized I hated being in the country. Every phone call was long distance, the grocery store was terrible, had terrible produce. I never learned to do all my shopping at once — I was used to being able to walk to the grocery store after the subway. I wanted to do both — to live and to farm in the city. That way I could have the art movies, I could have the community, I could be engaged in political ways. So I moved back into town and started looking for land in town. I found the land on Gibbs Road, owned by a non-profit, Associated Youth Services, and worked out a partnership where I farmed the field and rented space in the greenhouse in exchange for some labor and some cash.  As I farmed in town, I began to see some of what was different about farming in town from the farming I’d grown up with out in the country. I saw it was easy for people to get to my farm to volunteer. I could get crew members because there are people in the city who want to work on farms. It was easier, because of geographic proximity, to build relationships with people, to build a support network, to educate people and to be engaged in a much more normal, everyday kind of way.

HWG: What do urban farms mean for urban communities?

KK: They encourage people to engage with the outside world a little bit more. Now there’s an excuse to go out for a walk to see whether Sherry’s tomatoes have ripened up. When farmers grow, sell and give away vegetables and transplants, their garden is established as a place of generosity and abundance. Urban kids can make a connection with a farmer who looks like them, talks like them, grew up in their neighborhood. It’s easy for a school to bring a class over because they load them on the bus, they’re here in 15 minutes. After that, a trip out to the country becomes a little more familiar and possible. Here at our farm, we’re drawing together like-minded people, and people who come from a different perspective but somehow arrive here. When these people work side by side, sometimes they’ll be quiet, sometimes they’ll talk about all kinds of different things. Either way, that side-by-side labor is probably one of the most authentic ways to build relationships and community that I think there is.

HWG: How does the economic crisis look to an urban farmer?

KK: Sometimes you get pushed in the direction you’re supposed to go. I think in some ways it’s good that food has gotten more expensive. It means that people think about it, value it a little bit more. It’s pushing more people to become home gardeners. I think part of our problem is that the last few generations have been taught that food is supposed to be really cheap and we spend our important money on music systems and television systems and stuff like that. So the economy is pushing us to reexamine how we spend out money. We’ve also had a lot of conversations with people who’ve gotten laid off and say “I should go farm.” Most of them won’t, but some of them are taking it as, “Okay, I don’t have a full time job, I’m probably not going to have a full time job for a while, and I’ve always wanted to do this, so this is going to be my opportunity.” We’ve had more volunteers because they’re not finding work — at least it’s something positive to do during a difficult time.

HWG: What about the environment?

KK: Our farms are little ecosystems inside the city. There’s more wildlife at this farm than when I started and it’s because we’ve created little niches where creatures can live and eat and exist. We have more birds, we have more insects, which is good and bad, we have more rodents, good and bad. For an organic farmer, diversity is a plus. If you have a lot of life and different life forms, it’s going to create a healthier system. I think that’s true for urban communities — the more diversity and the more life forms, the healthier it’s going to be.

HWG: Michael Pollan writes about the need to rebuild our food culture. What does that mean to you?

KK: I think our food culture has become a consumer culture. Somebody else prepares it and packages it, then we buy it and we may add a little bit of tomato sauce to the pasta, and call it our own, but it’s not actually ours. Corporations figure out how to market it so it seems like it should be part of our culture, but it’s not at all. Regaining our food culture means learning how to cook, actually cook, with real ingredients that you did something to — not just opened up a can and poured it out and added some hamburger. It means taking the time, creating space in your life, as much as you can, to do it. It means having your kids help you either pick out food at the farmers market or grow it in your garden, and it means reestablishing the connection that food is about nurturing and caring and hard work. It’s not easy to come home and make a meal, but it’s part of life and all these life lessons are embedded in it. When you buy something from the grocery store that’s wrapped in plastic and you put it in the microwave, there’s no care in that, there’s no nurture, there’s no love attached to it.

HWG: What’s your dream for Kansas City?

KK: In the early days of KCCUA I said to someone, “You know what? There should be a farm in every neighborhood.” And I got really terrified but that’s exactly right. You should not be able to drive to work without passing at least one farm. Your kids should not be able to go to school without seeing vegetables growing. I would like to see fruit trees around the city so that kids get to climb into the neighbor’s fruit tree and steal fruit. Sitting up there and kicking their heels against the air — that should be part of every kid’s experience because it makes the apple a valuable thing. We would eat healthier, we would be outside more. I talked to this older lady once who said when she was a girl, every house on the block had a home garden. That was just normal, but we act like it’s not possible. It is possible. In fact it’s actually relatively doable because we have so much open land in Kansas City and people are ready for good fresh local food.

KCCUA promotes small-scale, community based, entrepreneurial farming in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

The KC Urban Farms and Gardens Tour (June 18-27) is a celebration of the benefits of urban agriculture and the people who are making it happen.

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Seed to plate: Care where your food comes from

By Heather Gibbons

“You can’t grow a pizza!” said my three year old daughter at dinner one night. She thought that in the movie WALL-E, the captain of the Axiom had made a mistake when, excited by the prospect of returning to a blighted Earth, he said, “You kids are gonna grow all kinds of plants! Vegetable plants, pizza plants!” Since my daughter helps in the garden and in the kitchen, a quick review of how we make a pizza helped her understand that the captain meant the kids would grow wheat, tomatoes, peppers, and other ingredients for making pizza.

That conversation reminded me of one I wanted to have a few years ago with the young grocery checker who scanned my organic sandwich cookies and looked at me, perplexed. “How do you get organic Oreos,” she asked. I mumbled something about flour and sugar as I grabbed my bags and headed to the car, but I wish I had taken the time to talk more with her about where our food comes from.

There really is a generation of people who believe carrots come from the produce aisle instead of the ground. Thankfully, that’s changing. Unfortunately, it’s taken food scares, increased food allergies, concern over pesticides, and near environmental catastrophe to wake us out of our blissful ignorance.

We can no longer afford to take for granted where our food comes from or how many stops it makes along the way.

The term “food system” is a modern necessity. Until the 1950s, people didn’t need a name for how they got their food. They had gardens, livestock, neighbors. Producing their own food and sharing it was a way of life, not just a way to eat.

When farmer Bret Farhmier explains the food system, he puts it in the simplest of terms: “seed to plate,” but it takes some mental work to consider every aspect of our current complex system. Off the top of my head, I can name fifteen steps or contributors, each which has it’s own list of people and processes: seed companies, farm equipment makers, fertilizer companies, water supplies and irrigation, pest controls, harvesting, processing, packaging, marketing and advertising, selling (to a grocery store), buying (as a consumer), cooking, and eating.

It’s true that the system feeds lots of people on the cheap, but at a dire cost — it has distanced us from the origins of what we eat, making us less concerned about how it’s grown, what it’s made of, and how it got here.

At my daughter’s Montessori school, three rules guide every action: 1. Take care of your environment; 2. Take care of yourself;  and 3. Take care of your friends. In the classroom it means washing your hands, putting away games or composting food waste, and covering your cough.

Here’s what it means in localized or regionalized, sustainable food system:

Taking care of the environment: Farmers who use sustainable methods enrich the soil, choose crops that will thrive without help from synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers that eventually end up in the water supply. They typically grow a wide variety of foods, saving heirloom varieties or heritage breeds from extinction.

Taking care of yourself: Local, sustainably grown foods are the freshest and most nutritious foods you can get. Your exposure to chemicals is reduced, and if there were a salmonella or e-coli outbreak, it could be quickly contained.

Taking care of your friends: The local food system bolsters communities by strengthening social bonds. When you buy locally grown foods, you are making connections with people who you might not meet in an ordinary day. You are also providing income to support the farmers’ livelihoods.

It’s also a much more direct path from seed to plate than the industrial quagmire. Imagine actually being on a first name basis with the person who grew your pizza, or even inviting them to help you eat it. This would never happen with Oreos, organic or not.

Here are some things you can do, read and see to get back in touch with where your food comes from:

Choose foods that come from the Earth, not a lab.

Can you imagine your breakfast growing in the sunshine, nourished by the soil? If you ate a bowl of oatmeal with raisins, milk, and maple syrup, you’ll have an easier time of it than if you ate a strawberry flavored Pop Tart. That’s because “natural” strawberry flavoring is made from about 40 ingredients (no strawberries), and artificial flavoring, also used in Pop Tarts, is made from about 50 ingredients. Watch the movie King Corn, to see how two guys make high fructose corn syrup in their kitchen.

Eat your values.

Yesterday I had to choose between organic bananas and fair trade, non-organic bananas. Fair trade may mean a little extra money for third world farmers, but critics argue it makes them dependent on Western shoppers; organic doesn’t necessarily mean “chemical free,” but workers on conventional banana farms can have a high rate of testicular cancer. I wasn’t sure which was the better moral choice, but I think at least having an awareness is a good start. When I need hard facts, I read What to Eat, by Marion Nestle, which sheds light on the politics behind the labels, plus marketing ploys and health claims.

Pay for good food.

The next time you see kiwi at four for a dollar, consider how far that kiwi had to travel from New Zealand, and how many workers helped grow it and get it to you. Yes, there are economies of scale, but in general, the prices we pay for our food are artificially low. When we’re willing to pay real prices for fresh food, we’re contributing to a more stable, more sustainable food system. Watch Sierra Club’s animated movie, The True Cost of Food to learn about the hidden costs of food:

Buy local.

You can make a big difference by replacing just one or two of your regular grocery items with local alternatives. Many metro grocery stores carry products from Shatto Milk Company and eggs from Campo Lindo Farms. Good Natured Family Farms is a cooperative that supplies Hen House Market with goods sold under the Buy Fresh, Buy Local brand. Or you can choose from a number of Community Supported Agriculture programs where “eaters” pay up front for a season’s worth of locally grown, sustainable raised fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs and honey. And of course, farmers markets make food buying fun for everyone in the family.

At the Eat Local! Exhibition of Farmers, you can buy food and seedlings, sign up for a CSA, and pick up a directory of local growers. The expo is scheduled for two dates at two locations: March 28 at the Shawnee Civic Center in Shawnee, Kansas, 9 a.m to 2 p.m. and April 4th at the Roger T. Sermon Community Center in Independence, Missouri, 9:15 to 2 p.m.(

Grow something.

If you’re new to gardening, start with a few herbs in a sunny patch. If you already grow herbs, try cherry tomatoes (you’re half way to a pizza!). When you grow things, you’re much more aware of just what it takes to put food on the table. The weather is important for reasons beyond your picnic plans, and you’ll have a great conversation starter the next time you meet a farmer. Kansas City Community Gardens offers support for gardeners, and for inspiration (and lots of good information), you can read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver.

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