Thursday, November 1, 2018

Sowing Food Justice with the Community Gardens & Urban Agriculture

by Dave Aftandilian, CGUA Working Group Leader and TCFPC Board Member


Making Fresh Produce More Accessible to All in Tarrant County

If people in a community lack affordable access to healthy, nutritious produce, they can pursue a range of remedies:
  • They might try to convince a full-service grocery store to locate in their community. 
  • They could work with the city to help local convenience stores stock more healthy produce, or to locate a farmers market in their community. 
  • Or they might decide to grow their own.

That’s where Community Gardens & Urban Agriculture (CGUA), the Tarrant County Food Policy Council’s CGUA Working Group, comes in.

Plant Your Produce
TCU student, Sharon Fronk, assists a
volunteer in the Southside Community Garden.

CGUA helps people grow fresh produce, both for themselves and for others, and we especially want to assist people who are living in areas that lack affordable access to healthy produce. We have created the following how-to-garden curricula that we offer for free on the TCFPC website:
  • Backyard Gardening Curriculum
    • Soils and Composting
    • Planning and Planting
    • Tending and Harvesting
  • Container Garden Curriculum 

All the curricula are specific to North Texas. Our backyard gardening curriculum also has summaries in Spanish.

Community Efforts

One of the biggest challenges Tarrant County faces in terms of our local food system is that there are not enough farmers growing here to supply the demand for fresh produce. To help address this gap, CGUA:
  • Helped develop and publish a new urban agriculture ordinance that lets people sell extra produce they grow in their own neighborhood and establishes guidelines for larger-scale urban farms along with Blue Zones and the City of Fort Worth’s Planning Department.
  • Is currently writing and promoting a garden/farm-based entrepreneurship curriculum for high school students—partly with the hope that some of them might decide to start urban farms here when they graduate.
  • Is developing and promoting various programs to assist existing local farmers reach wider markets for their produce, including supplying local restaurants and institutions.
  • We also offer a free monthly newsletter, How’s It Growing?, that shares news about upcoming garden-related events, seasonal planting tips, and recipes for simple but tasty dishes that feature seasonal produce.
  • And maybe, most importantly, we support folks who want to start new community gardens or urban agriculture projects by connecting them to existing resources, to knowledgeable people and institutions who can advise them, and to each other, so that we can all work together to make Tarrant County a greener, healthier, and happier place.


If you’d like to join us, please email the CGUA Working Group’s Chair, Dave Aftandilian, at d.aftandilian@tcu.edu, or come to our next bimonthly meeting on Thursday, November 29, 3:00-4:30 p.m. at Tarrant Area Food Bank’s administration building, 2525 Cullen St. in Fort Worth.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The State of Our Local Food System

What Every Citizen Should Know About Food From North Texas

by Micheline Hynes, Chair, Tarrant County Food Policy Council

To improve access to healthy foods, you have to have a community that produces it. The North Texas region needs more farmers and gardeners to meet the needs of our community. Most local growers are family run small businesses. When you buy local, it can often mean fresher, more variety, and foods that are more nutritious than those that have been transported hundreds of miles, and your dollars stay in the community where you live.




While buying local is great in many ways, it may require a little adjustment to consumer expectations. Here's the real deal about locally grown in North Texas:  


1. Locally grown is not cheaply grown. Small-scale, local farmers typically have higher costs and sometimes shorter growing seasons than large-scale farmers or suppliers from other regions (or even other countries). Many times, local farmers are not using the expensive, mechanized equipment or cheap labor that can significantly reduce operating costs like large-scale producers do.They're also not as likely to farm exclusively in massive hoop houses, greenhouses, or other climate and pest-controlled environments which increases yield and sometimes lowers the sticker price on their inventory. Comparative length of growing season is a factor, too--while we can grow some truly lovely, tasty little strawberries here in North Texas between March and June, we cannot compete with southern California's twelve month growing season of gorgeous, large (albeit relatively flavorless) mass-produced fruits. Locally grown is not cheaply grown, but it is worth the difference



2. North Texas has unique soil fertility and microclimate. This presents both some opportunities and challenges for our farmers. Eastern parts of DFW, boast the more fertile Blackland soil which drains relatively well and is quite conducive for vegetable production. Western parts of DFW, like Tarrant and Parker counties have Grand Prairie soil, which has comparatively inferior drainage and is more suitable for ranching, although vegetable production is certainly possible. This is one factor in why there are more produce growers circling the eastern edge of the metroplex and the western side leans toward beef. Whether you're growing in the east or west of our region, our shared microclimate gives the advantage of extended growing seasons for all of us compared to our northern neighbors--we can grow something in the soil all year long. We typically have a long season for things like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and okra, but you'll only find table staples like broccoli and cauliflower for a short while in spring and late fall and never in mid-summer at your farmers market. Droughts, deluges, hail, and the occasional 85 degree day followed by a 45 degree night is rough on plants and can result in some significant crop loss for area market farmers. Our extreme weather events can simply break a farmer's heart, but amazingly, they just get out there and start again!


3. Sometimes ugly or weird vegetables taste better than pretty, standard ones. What makes something beautiful to behold (and transport well from field to distributor to grocer to consumer) is rarely also the best tasting. Flavor comes from compounds present in any given plant cultivar, the nutrients in the soil, and the interplay of sun, wind and rainfall on the crop. We've become accustomed to all the perfect looking produce at the grocers and have let our eyes fool us into thinking what looks best, tastes best, too. There are 10,000 varieties of tomato plants alone, each with a unique flavor profile and I promise you that the vast majority of them taste better than those pale-but-perfectly round hothouse sandwich slicers you can get all winter. So, trust your farmer and take a chance on something different, for they know the secrets to great flavor. 


4. Your patronage really does matter, but more markets may not be the solution. One recent study in California discovered that, “for every dollar of sales, direct marketers are generating twice as much economic activity within the region, as compared to producers who are not involved in direct marketing.” There's some good evidence that farmers markets and other types of direct-sales benefit local farmers and stimulate their local economies. Adding new farmers markets in our region is always a popular idea and could be a great thing, but not if there aren’t enough farmers to fill them. At this moment, we don't have enough small-scale farmers in North Texas and the ones we do have on average aren't able to effectively scale up their production to support multiple weekend markets. Small neighborhood markets seem like a good idea, but the past few years have demonstrated they tend to have few vendors, limited product diversity, low sales, and typically close within a year. For the time-being at least, there is more overall benefit from the presence of a few, well-run, large markets with robust traffic.



So whenever you can, make the effort to get out to our region's farmers markets, stop by the on-farm road stands, get your harvest share through a CSA or dine at restaurants featuring locally grown food. When you do, you can be proud to know that you're supporting our hard-working growers who in turn, not only put great food on your table, but create jobs and spend their money supporting local, too. They're right at the heart of the local food movement and what makes food grown right here in North Texas something to treasure. 






Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Passionate about Child Health and Wellness

by Noah Drew, JD and Vahista Ussery, MS, MBA, RDN
Co-leaders of the TCFPC Children's Working Group


In the United States, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s. Data from 2015-2016 shows that nearly 1 in 5 school-age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in the United States has obesity.  As of 2018, more than 44 percent of children in the Fort Worth Independent School District were overweight or obese.

While genetics and physical activity play a part, a healthy diet is the keystone for maintaining a healthy weight. More than 90 percent of American children have poor diets. Some children have it harder than others, living in food deserts, where there are few nearby places for their parents to purchase healthy foods. Despite their economic situation, our overall environment sets a child up for failure when it comes to health. To help combat this problem, our mission is improving access to healthy foods for children at home, restaurants, schools and in the community.


Our Children’s Working Group is made up of members from a variety of backgrounds and areas of work, but all of us share a passion for children’s health. We are currently working on the following initiatives:

  •  Children’s Menu Program: We want to ensure children have healthy dining options when visiting restaurants in Tarrant County. Currently, many menus feature popular “kid foods,” but these foods do not provide the nutrition kids need. We hope to help increase fruit and vegetable options, decrease soda and other sweetened beverages, and promote healthier cooking techniques.
  • Summer Feeding Promotion: Many kids rely on the National School Lunch Program and other feeding programs throughout the school year. When summer begins, many have nothing to eat at home. Through the Seamless Summer Program and Summer Food Service Program, free meals are offered to children under age 18 throughout Tarrant County. Unfortunately, many families do not take advantage of these programs, so we hope to increase awareness and ensure we have less hungry kids in our county.
  • Vended Meal Food Quality Improvement: Many afterschool programs rely on vended meal companies to provide nutritious snacks and supper meals to children. We unfortunately have discovered a lack of quality with these meals, and plan to help improve the acceptability. The Tarrant Area Food Bank has already taken steps to ensure their vendors understand the importance of quality. They have modified their procurement procedures to require vendor sample meals, and are working with their current vendor to improve their offerings. We hope the Food Bank’s story will help to lead others to encourage other food vendors to make changes to their meals.

If any of these initiatives sound like something you would like to get involved with, please consider attending our next working group meeting. We would also love to hear feedback and other ideas!  

Monday, July 2, 2018

Local Partnership Reduces Food Waste


by Becca Knutson, TCFPC Board Member

Since January 2014, Tarrant Area Food Bank (TAFB) has operated their demonstration garden, The Learning Garden, on a residential lot owned by Ridglea Christian Church in the Ridglea North neighborhood. The garden serves the purpose of demonstrating several different types of growing methods, different materials that can be used and different watering techniques. From this garden, volunteers and staff work hard to grow fresh fruits and vegetables to donate to local food pantries. They also maintain a robust composting program that provides enough organic material to nurture the entire garden, year-round.

Community Composting

Composting is a very useful process that can be implemented in any garden. It involves taking garden waste, kitchen scraps, yard clippings, leaves and other discarded organic materials, combining them with water and air to encourage the process of decomposition. After a couple of months, the finished product is beautiful, organic material that will provide nutrients to the garden crops and help improve the soil tilth.

TAFB’s Learning Garden has been able to produce enough compost to supply all of its needs for the last two years, resulting in thousands of dollars in savings. While the composting program has been successful using contributions from the community and the garden, not having a consistent source of high-nitrogen “green” materials was the only thing keeping it from producing at capacity.

Gardener Marshall Harris adds vegetable scraps from the CSFW to the worm bin at TAFB's Learning Garden. Vermicomposting is one of several methods of breaking down organic matter like vegetable scraps into useful soil amendments for the garden. 


Clever Collaboration

On January 10, 2018, Edward Gutierrez of the Culinary School of Fort Worth (CSFTW) contacted Lauren Hickman, gardener at TAFB to find out if the two organizations could work together to reduce food waste. Edward suggested that CSFTW’s students start saving their compostable kitchen scraps to donate to TAFB’s compost piles. CSFTW is located on Camp Bowie Boulevard, less than a mile from TAFB’s Learning Garden which makes the relationship simple and convenient.

After a few conversations to work out the logistics, the two partners came up with an effective program that would benefit both organizations. Each week, students at CSFTW use small buckets at their workstations to collect any unused food scraps. When the buckets are full, the students empty their buckets into larger bins stored by the dumpsters. Then, each Tuesday before the regular volunteer workday at the Learning Garden, TAFB staff picks up two 33-gallon tubs full of fruit, veggie and grain scraps that will be used by volunteers in the compost piles.

Food scraps are added to a newly built compost pile and turned in, to the delight of billions of microbes. These bacteria, fungi, and other microscopic animals will transform the pile into useable compost over about 8 weeks using the hot composting method. 


As of June 2018, TAFB’s Learning Garden has incorporated approximately 790 gallons of food waste donated by CSFTW. The food waste is used by volunteers to build new compost piles during almost every workday. It also allows opportunities for Master Composters to earn volunteer hours by teaching others how to compost. The increased amount of compost produced will benefit TAFB’s Learning Garden by increasing production of fruits and vegetables and allow us to share compost resources in the future.

CSFTW also benefits from the partnership. Saving food scraps in separate containers facilitates instructor and student awareness of food waste. Instructors are also able to use the discarded produce to critique the student’s methods and provide teachable moments. Removing the food scraps from the waste stream also saves on dumpster space and diverts organic material from the landfill where it would not break back down into usable materials.
As TAFB and CSFTW continue to work together, the culinary students hope to be able to volunteer their time at the Learning Garden to learn more about growing their own fruits and vegetables. Eventually, the culinary school would like to have a garden of its own.

To find out more about TAFB’s Learning Garden and volunteer opportunities, please visit www.tafb.org/volunteer or register for a garden workshop at www.tarrantareafoodbank.eventbrite.com. Information about the Culinary School of Fort Worth can be found at www.csftw.edu.