Today is National Food Day!  Food Day is a national celebration and day of awareness around the need for a more sustainable, healthy, and affordable food system.  Our current food system is unsustainable, are large pollution source and emitter of greenhouse gases.

The ultimate goal for this day is to unify the food movement and push for and improve our nation’s food policies.

Until a few days ago, I was unaware of the real issues surrounding our food system.  The next time you pick up your groceries at your nationwide, chain grocery store, think about where your food is coming from and what it has gone through to be conveniently available to you year long.

Do me a favor?  Take it one step further and think about how convenient it is to have a grocery store at your disposal at all.   You may have the luxury to drive whatever distance to your favorite grocery store, but there are some people who are not.  There are areas across the country identified as “food deserts” who have little to no access to adequate food to support a healthy diet.  These are also areas that are typically populated by numerous fast food restaurants.  The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University is currently working on mapping this issues for the state of Maryland.  No community should be a victim of food deserts, but it is a sad reality of the system we operate it.

One last favor?  Tell me, do you think it is fair  that farmers, those responsible for growing the food our nation and our world, depends on should depend on food stamps?  Because I don’t.  The ideal family farm we like to envision is not the family farm of today and some farm families are forced to rely on food stamps.  Our food system is controlled by industrial agricultural systems.  There are a number of myths floating around in regards to our food system.  Anne Lappe addresses these myths in her film “Food Mythbusters: Do We Really Need Industrial Agriculture to Feed the World?

If we begin to focus locally, and begin shifting our food purchases, thereby creating a space and market for small, family farms to make a living we could begin transforming the food system to a more sustainable model.  This cannot happen over night, but if we focus one community at a time, we could begin seeing a real difference.


The Thoughtful Voter’s Guide to Same-Sex Marriage

A few weeks ago David Morris sent me The Thoughtful Voter’s Guide to Same-Sex Marriage. David is the co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a recent Town Creek Foundation grantee. We support ILSR’s ‘Waste to Wealth’ initiative through which it is organizing support for expanding composting in Maryland.Founded in 1974, ILSR works to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. As its name implies, ILSR champions local self-reliance – ‘humanly scaled institutions and economies’ through which ownership is distributed as widely as possible.David works out of ILSR’s Minneapolis office, where he runs their program on Defending The Public Good. In their words, the program is a response to ‘the wild imbalance between those who favor protecting public assets and those who do not, between those who believe the public should take priority over the private, and those who do not, between those who would emphasize the ‘we’ over the ‘me’ and those who would not”.

David sent me the Guide because Maryland and Minnesota are two of the four states in which rigorous debates are currently underway about marriage equality. David is distributing the Guide in Minnesota and hoped I might be able to help to do so in Maryland. I am inclined to send the Guide to our grantees, and to profile it on our blog. I suspect that it will not be self evident to our grantees how we see any connection between their work and marriage equality. Most of these organizations are focused on restoring and protecting the Chesapeake Bay and/or on insuring Maryland’s rapid transition to a clean energy economy.

 Their instinctive reaction will probably be that they’ve not much to gain and possibly much to loose by entering the Marriage Equality conversation. They likely suspect that marriage equality proponents and supporters are already in the environmental camp, and they likely fear that the issue may alienate those whose support they are still trying to win.

I think that this reaction is reinforced by an argument that I often encounter in our grantees. This is the belief that environmentalism is, at bottom, a broadly held value that can override disagreements on a range of other things.  This is the hope that we can agree to disagree about a range of things – music, fashion, spectator sports, recreational pursuits, the value of the public sphere, the appropriate size and purpose of government – and yet agree on the importance of environmental protection. This view of environmentalism as fundamental (if sometimes latent) and independent – untethered by ideology and disconnected from other values – drives and defends our perpetual quest for ‘unlikely’ allies and ‘unusual suspects’.

There are many interesting things about this perspective, one of which is the way that it rejects – without naming – a range of alternative possibilities. It rejects the idea that the will to protect the environment may be activated by a specific constellation of values, and undermined by an alternative constellation.  It rejects the idea that our ability to protect the environment may be enabled by particular ideological commitments and undermined by alternative ideologies. In the particular case it overlooks the possibility that sustainability – the authentic, robust sustainability that we require – may be an emergent property of a more just, democratic, and equal society, and not simply a correction that can be grafted onto any society.

Now it would be easy to overstate this in unfair ways – indeed, I’ve probably already done so.  While many if not most of our grantees act as if they believe that ‘we are all environmentalists under the skin’ I do not discount the possibility that they may just be acting. After all, forty years of demonization generates a certain incentive to present oneself as non-threatening and normal, just like everybody else. More importantly, we have made real gains arm in arm with ‘unusual suspects’ and ‘unlikely allies’, and it would be shameful of me to ignore or discount this.

I do think, however, that our assertion and embrace (whether real or tactical) of independent environmentalism is not without cost, not least of which is a certain kind of strategic atrophication. If we believe – or if we act as if we believe – that environmental protection is an independent value, lurking in everyone, then the critical questions probably wind up being tactical ones: How do we orient our work so as to most effectively and efficiently catch whatever appears to be the dominant stream? If, however, environmental protection is an interdependent, ideologically inflected value, then it would seem that questions of vision – and therefore strategy – become unavoidable. What constellation of values need we strengthen, and how will we do so? What ideological commitments need we broaden, and how will we do so? What society are we striving towards, who else is moving in that direction, and when, how, and where can we join with them? How, in other words, do we generate a stream that moves powerfully in the direction that we need to go?

There is always important engagement on these questions, and I’d like to see our community more involved with it. The World Wildlife Fund UK’s Strategies for Change Project has produced a series of reports exploring the relationship between values and environmental protection, and discussing the implications for campaigners if the will to protect the environment is activated by a specific constellation of values and undermined by an alternative constellation. I assume that many of us have read Naomi Klein’s powerful piece in The Nation on “Capitalism vs. The Climate” and Gus Speth’s “America The Possible” essays.

This work seems to me to be united by a sense that the systemic challenges that confront us – political, economic, social, cultural, and, yes, ecological – will not succumb to free market fixes, tailpipe tactics and ‘unholy alliances’. Arguably we environmentalists have a special responsibility to engage this possibility, because the most pressing signals are coming in on our wavelength. If climate change is the paradigmatic example of the planet rebelling against its political, economic, and ideological operating systems, we ought to be the first to recognize that we won’t get where we need to be by agreeing to disagree about politics, economics, and ideology.

So, I am  posting about David’s Guide on our blog, and forwarding this post to our grantees.  I don’t know what our grantees will do with this, or what they will think I want them to do with it. I’m not so sure about that either. What I do know, is that right now, Maryland is ground zero in a fight over the direction (and pace) in which we will evolve as a society, and it does seem to me that that is something that environmentalists ought to stand up and be counted about.

Insights from the Mountain


This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Environmental Grantmakers Association.  Their annual fall retreat took place Sunday, September 30th-Wednesday, October 3rd at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York.  The retreat was filled with the most welcoming group of people, stellar views, thought provoking talks, and endless inspiration.

The philanthropic community is filled with well-meaning individuals who want to make a difference in the world.  But as William Cronin poignantly reminded the EGA community in Monday’s keynote, the Dawes Act (responsible for Native American Tribes losing 90 million acres of land) was created by a well meaning group of white men, at Mohonk, who wanted to make the Native Americans responsive to their land as farmers.

The Act, as well meaning as it may have been, destroyed tribal communities.  As a newcomer in philanthropy, Cronin’s statement was a welcomed reminder and caution to the impact a funder can have and the need to ensure each voice has a seat at the table.

In addition to having all voices at the table, we have to be cognizant that campaign wins do not generally occur over night.  If a win does not occur within the first year, the philanthropic community should work with the groups to help build a network or plan that will help it achieve the sought after success.

In a plenary talk given Tuesday morning, with Kumi Naidoo and Van Jones, Jones addressed that exact point of view.  He used the Civil Rights movement and the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. to explain the importance of looking beyond failed deliverables.  After MLK’s participation in the bus boycotts, it took years before the Civil Rights Act was finally passed.  If you were a funder, after year after year of not delivering the success of the Civil Rights Act, would you have continued to fund the work.  Some groups might not have.

As Van Jones thoughtfully pointed out, “when there is a quality of leadership, there should be a quality of commitment.”  We must remember this as we work with new and old grantees on the systemic and transformational change we seek to achieve.

We also cannot observe the landscape at the 30k foot level and expect to achieve real systemic, transformational change, if we start from a defeatist point of view.  How can you expect to really make a difference?

In the short amount of time I have spent within the environmental and philanthropic community, it seems to me, that the environmental community is almost too nice, which negatively influences how they are perceived by legislators and agency personnel.  Just because our “friend” is in office, does not mean we should be afraid to make the large asks or hold them accountable for their actions.  It gets us no where, beyond the community not being taken as seriously.  This is not like having a friend in office, it is like having a child and there needs to be consequences.  We cannot expect to make the real transformational changes necessary in the community if we shy away from the hard asks.

Environmentalism is commonsense.  It should be a bipartisan issue and should be engaging a diverse group of individuals from various backgrounds.

On the third night of the retreat, Yoko Ono and Dr. Anthony Infraffea, moderated by David Fenton, spoke about fracking and the work of Artists Against Fracking.

When asked how to reach broader audiences with something as complicated as fracking, Yoko responded, without hesitation, “Truth is simple. We are the ones complicating it.


After such a great conversation with Yoko Ono, we were joined by Natalie Merchant (also involved with Artists Against Fracking).  EGA was shown a sneak peak of the documentary ‘Dear Governor Cuomo, New Yorkers Against Fracking in One Voice’ (featured above), followed by a moving performance by Natalie Merchant and her band.

When I thought such an amazing night could not get any better, I was witness to a legit hoedown of EGA members and Natalie Merchant herself.  What a great way to celebrate, not only the great work of the environmental philanthropic community, but also EGA’s 25th anniversary!


And then Wednesday morning happened…

After such an amazing trip I sadly left the picturesque landscape surrounding Mohonk and attempted to head back to the good ole eastern shore of Maryland on Wednesday morning.  Apparently, someone upstairs did not agree with this decision, as 10 minutes before reaching exit 7a on the New Jersey Turnpike traffic came to an absolute stop.  This LOVELY food truck thought they would make the situation even better, by opening up and selling food, thus preventing cars from moving the little that they could.  What was suppose to be a 5 hour trip, turned into a 10 hour drive.  THANK GOODNESS for the companionship of my trusty iPod, a good cup of coffee, and the fabulous memories of my first EGA retreat.



Before there was an environmental movement…

…there was one brave woman and her very brave book.  – 1999 New York Times magazine, on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore County where perfectly manicured lawns were (and still are) the norm.  My lawn was regularly treated with pesticides.  Once the lawn had been sprayed we had to remain off the grass for at least 24-48 hours.  At the time, pesticide treatment went on without question.  In retrospect I am appalled by how slow I was to realize the impact that practice could have on my health in the long run.  I mean seriously, how did I or anyone else in my family not think of what it could mean for our health, especially since we had to remain off of the lawn days after initial treatment?

Rich, green and perfectly manicured lawns are almost a societal non-negotiable.  To achieve that expectation we spray tons of pesticides on our lawns to create that perfect societal image.  There is a tremendous disconnect or false belief that a product that is meant to kill small insects would have no residual impact on humans.  Let me me just say – the dose does not make the poison.

Pesticides are meant to kill and have a residual and accumulative impact in the ecosystem.  Just because we are not the “tiny bug” the pesticide is intended for does not mean we are immune to their impacts after years of exposure.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought that issue to light in 1962 and generated public awareness and dialogue around the impact of pesticides in our ecosystems.  September 27, 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and although there is still a lot of work to be done, there is some great work emerging throughout the state on environmental health related issues.  The Maryland Pesticide Network, a group that has been around for a number of years, has been fighting on pesticide related issues in Maryland.  Additionally, the Maryland Environmental Health Network, a newly formed network in the state, is poised to bring valuable support to the fights against pesticides and other environmental health issues.  These are two groups to keep an eye out for this fall as they will be important players throughout the upcoming Maryland legislative session.

If there is any year for the environmental community to really dive deep into pesticide related issues, let it be during the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring.