Sheifalika Bhatnagar

Memphis Food Code

In Uncategorized on May 9, 2011 at 2:55 am

One step forward, two steps back

Memphians take on the local food code

Video and story by Sheifalika Bhatnagar

The fight is on. The bout between Memphis’ food policy council members and the local food code ordinances has begun planning to revise local outdated policies in hopes to further the local food movement and establish equal opportunities amongst food producers. No longer will locals be practiced in turning their heads from the strife of small-food producers and the vast differences of access to nutritious foods in various Memphis communities.

With research underway and local awareness within food markets at a high, 2011 may be the year of progress for many disenfranchised Memphians. On Thursday March 17, a food policy council meeting discussed revisions to the Memphis Food Code at the First Congregational Church, in the Cooper-Young area. Extending the rights of local food vendors, producers and distributers were addressed.

Also, improvements that would allow people in low-income communities to access local farmers’ markets was discussed in an open forum between student researchers at the Mississippi Delta Project and members of the Memphis Food Policy Council.

Memphis has hit a wall when it comes to environmental progress. The need to severely revise the current food code is a multi-faceted attempt to resolve issues within the local food movement. The unusually high level of food regulation laws also disenfranchises small food producers while leaving behind low-income communities who do not have any access to nutritious foods. The Memphis Food Policy Council was constructed from stake-holders in the community that share various backgrounds, perspectives and passions for improving the equality of local food access for all Memphians.

At the meeting, three Harvard Law students presented their research from the Mississippi Delta Project on various food code policies from around the country as examples of what positive changes could be done to improve the local code. The three students are Nathan Rosenberg, Sarah Jelsema and Jay Willis.

“Memphis and Shelby County can institute some changes and promote various innovative programs to make it easier for people in Memphis and Shelby County to access healthy foods while helping to support local food farmers, producers, and vendors by keeping their food dollars locals,” said Sarah Jelsema, in her research analysis. “This will lead to a win-win situation in Memphis and Shelby County.”

The current regulations within the food code specify details on the manufacturing, selling and distribution of food items. However, these ordinances that were written in 1967 also underwent minor updates in 1985 and are not only outdated but also do not allow for the continual economic and local agricultural growth, which Memphis has experienced over the last few years of farmers’ markets.

Josephine Williams, coordinator for GrowMemphis, spoke about her first impression of the current food code and why she believes it is time to pursue revisions in order to catch up to the progress already being made.

“Last spring, there were some new farmers’ markets getting started, which is how I got introduced to the food ordinance handbook,” said Williams. “What I was reading about farmer’s markets didn’t seem to match up really well with what I was seeing farmers’ markets looking like.”

As a local food and gardening advocate, Williams has greatly helped local community gardens and new farmer’s markets, such as the Midtown farmers’ market become acquainted with the local food codes that govern food production, distribution and economic growth. Williams admits there are still issues in which the current food policies are not adequate in the face of further growth.

“For example, the Memphis Farmers’ Market downtown, the ordinance said that farmers’ markets are only fresh produce, but I had been to the Memphis Farmers’ Market and I knew they had a whole lot more than that,” she said. “So I began thinking about this food ordinance handbook and how… in other areas, besides just farmers’ markets that it’s a hindrance to getting fresh fruits and vegetables to the neighborhoods [and] a hindrance to food entrepreneurs who would be doing things to increase their business and the food economy in Memphis and Shelby County.”

However there are some positive changes being made on the state level that could increase local economies and provide updated food laws that empower small business owners to sell directly to consumers. This is only one step closer to achieving a healthier, more productive food code but every little bit counts.

Harvard Law student Jay Willis spoke at the food policy meeting about Cottage Food Laws. “Tennessee recently enacted a very business-friendly piece of legislation [that has] happened in a lot of states – I think 32 – and they are called Cottage Food Laws, which allow people that are producing food products in their own home, like your barbeque sauce, your honey, to sell it directly to consumers without state inspection,” said Willis.

Willis explains that there are requirements to abide by when utilizing Cottage Food Laws. Home producers must use labels that list their ingredients, their names and home addresses. Willis also said that all products under Cottage Food Laws must state that the “product was made in a home kitchen and was not made in a state-inspected commercial kitchen.”

However, despite the state-level approval of Cottage Food Laws, the Memphis Food Code still retains the ability to limit such food production. This is yet another example of Memphis’ policies taking one step forward and two steps back.

The important thing is to remember that state laws like Cottage Food are still vital to Memphis communities, in that, heritage foods from low-income areas may be sold, sooner than later, directly to consumers in farmers’ markets, where people choose to spend a few extra dollars in support of local products. The less we, as Memphians, segregate ourselves from one another– the better our local economy, health and beloved city will become.

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Urban agriculture in North Memphis

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2011 at 1:51 am

by Sheifalika Bhatnagar

The North Memphis 38108 zip code is home to bulletproof corner stores, windowless clubs, poverty on the streets by day and rapid bursts of gunshots by night. Despite the dilapidated low-income housing strung out along Hollywood and Broad, a half-acre plot of reclaimed land, the North Memphis Garden, has residents mindful of treading on fertile ground.

Retired veteran, Mary Norman, is the owner and team-leader of the North Memphis urban garden. At 62-years-old, Norman is busy sprouting this year’s produce in her plywood and plastic-covered greenhouse.

Makeshift tables, made from spare pieces of donated wood, are covered with seedling trays that are bursting with tiny green stems and leaves. Under the table are hundreds of water bottles, two-liters, milk jugs and almost every other kind of common household container imaginable. Each bottle is filled with rainwater collected from the recent thunderstorms.

“Rainwater is better for seedlings because it doesn’t have chemicals like chlorine or fluoride in it – like the tap water,” she said. “This is my version of those expensive rain barrels you see at Home Depot. It’s okay if it rains on my parade.”

Norman is doing anything she can to prepare for this year’s growing season. With forecasts of rain, temperatures in the 40s and only a handful of volunteers, Norman is bundled up from head to toe and ready to inspire her team.

“Who are leaders – Are they born or are they made?” she said. “You have to have a passion for urban farming. You should enjoy what you are doing, whether you do gardening as a hobby, an entrepreneurship or a business. You must enjoy it or you are already doomed to fail.”

Adam Guirrero, project manager for the North Memphis Garden, listened and smiled as he transplanted bean sprouts into larger pots. “This is not a one man show, Ms. Mary. Get to work,” he said as he chuckled at the look on Norman’s face.

Guirrero, 32-years-old, is responsible for the production of produce in the garden and maintains key gardening elements like composting, preparing the beds and sustaining bee boxes.

“I work with Project Green fork to pick up kitchen scraps from many of the restaurants around Memphis,” Guirrero said. “I bring it all here to compost so we ‘grow’ more soil each year.”

Growing soil is the practice of composting, then top-dressing the garden beds in order to build up the topsoil. “Healthy, rich soil is king,” Norman said.

Despite the daily trudge through horse manure, decomposing kitchen scraps and mud, Norman and Guirrero have new plans to incorporate the community into the garden.

Norman said, “I am going door-to-door and telling people about how important fresh food is and inviting them to visit the garden. I tell them about the Heifer Project and some of them are really interested.”

The Heifer Project International is an organization that travels the world and finds communities in need like the 38108 and teaches them how to live sustainably of their own food and livestock. The Heifer Project donates animals and starting materials and then teaches them how to maintain it on their own.

From the Third World countries like Uganda and India to the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken ghettos of Memphis, TN, communities desperately in need of healthy, sustainable changes are getting the life lessons they need to prosper.

“I don’t know if you know but this whole neighborhood is rotting away because of crime, drugs, gang violence,” Norman said. “That’s why I stay here in the garden every day, because I don’t want to give up on this community. If people knew how much fresh nutritious food could help them, I think they’d be lined up around the block to help.”

The North Memphis Garden is a major source of education in the community. Children at all hours of the day stop by to visit Norman and Guirrero and ask to help with inquisitive eyes.

Perhaps the safety and lush beauty of a garden in full-bloom is more alluring than it may seem. In fact, the food produced there could save many lives in North Memphis.

The Commercial Appeal, published a story called “Special Report: Infant Mortality in Memphis” in March of 2005. CA writer, Aimee Edmondson, reports on the high rates of infant mortality in Memphis.

“Several Memphis ZIP codes have infant death rates higher than scores of Third World countries,” Edmondson said. “North Memphis’ 38108, which includes the tattered communities of Douglass and Hollywood, is deadlier for babies than Vietnam, El Salvador and Iran.”

Edmondson explained possible reasons why the phenomenon of fatal childbirth has occurred so close to low-income communities. In her article, she says that poverty and lack of health care education are leading factors in North Memphis’ high infant mortality rates.

Pregnant women in poorer neighborhoods are at a greater risk of premature childbirth. Early labor results in an under-developed child whose body may not be capable of living without life support.

Premature birth is the most common cause of death amongst newborns. Sixty percent of all childbirth-related deaths stem from prematurity.

This devastating phenomenon is not just a local problem but also a preventable one.

“All it takes is a little know-how and some fresh, healthy, real food,” Norman said. “And these young mothers can save their babies’ lives. We want them to know that we are here for them – in their own backyard.”

The mother’s health is tantamount to the survival of her child. Edmondson said that mothers living in poverty are less likely to eat nutritious foods, take prenatal vitamins and see a doctor regularly during pregnancy.

Unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking and drug use during pregnancy are symptoms of a community without direct access to health care education.

“The garden has attracted a lot of young folks,” Guirrero said. “They always want to know what we’re up to. It gives me a chance to teach them about growing food and why it’s so important.”

Where health education may drop off, the North Memphis Garden steps up. Norman and Guirrero are continuing their efforts to motivate, educate and irrigate the community they serve.

Welcoming the neighborhood to participate in the garden is “the best way to heal ourselves,” said Norman. “Because no one knows us, better than us.”

Environmental Beat Photo Slideshow

In Uncategorized on March 1, 2011 at 9:17 pm

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