Director's Report: March 2016

Director's Report: March 2016

With our Transition Talks and Suncoast Gleaning Project heating up, and preparations now underway for our sixth annual Eat Local Week and second print edition of Greater Sarasota's Eat Local Resource Guide & Directory (to be distributed this Fall), Transition Sarasota is calling on all of our friends and fans to help support these important efforts.

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One Good, One Bad Solar Amendment

(Associated Press)

(Associated Press)

The Florida Supreme Court advanced the interests of the electric monopolies Thursday by narrowly ruling that an industry-backed solar power amendment to the state Constitution can be placed on the November ballot. The 4-3 split by the justices on whether the ballot language was clear or misleading reflects the thin line the utilities have walked in framing this important public policy issue. Though the court's opinion is disappointing, there will be an opportunity to put solar on a more stable and constructive path before pushing an effort to defeat the utilities and their power grab.

Florida voters have a chance on the Aug. 30 primary ballot to put solar on the right course. Legislators unanimously voted to place a constitutional amendment on that ballot that would provide tax breaks to property owners who install solar. The measure is a good start at creating cleaner and more affordable energy, and voters should approve it.

The amendment would repeal personal property taxes on solar energy equipment, and exempt for 20 years real estate taxes on solar devices. It is primarily aimed at businesses, and the goal is to expand the market for solar by making it cheaper on the front end to lease and install the equipment and more cost effective over time to switch to renewable energy.

The legislative measure also could be a starting point for a more assertive solar policy. The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, has the support of a cross section of interest groups, from business and environmentalists to faith-based organizations and retailers.

That is a different situation from the November amendment whose wording was approved by the court this week. It is backed by the utilities and opposed by renewable energy advocates. The misnamed Consumers for Smart Solar will be Amendment 1 and would merely enshrine into the Constitution the unfair playing field that already exists in the power market. It restates the options current law provides in allowing property owners to place solar equipment on their property. But unlike a competing amendment that would have opened the market, whose sponsors have been forced to wait until 2018, the industry-backed proposal does nothing to expand consumer choice, competitive pricing or any other benefits of a truly open market. The measure was intended to mislead voters and block the pro-solar power amendment all along.

The Legislature's measure on the August ballot is a clean shot, good for business, homeowners, the solar industry and the state's economic climate. It could induce big businesses - from the largest retail chains to manufacturers and shopping malls - to invest significantly in energy-efficient technologies that create jobs, improve public health, diversify and strengthen the electric grid and position the state to better address the impacts of climate change. This is a good step in fashioning a larger and smarter energy policy, and voters should support the amendment.

Time for Backyard Chickens in Sarasota County?

CLUCK is making a push for some of these in Sarasota County backyards. PHOTO PROVIDED

CLUCK is making a push for some of these in Sarasota County backyards. PHOTO PROVIDED

A proposal to allow backyard chickens in unincorporated Sarasota County could finally hatch later this spring.

The issue has been incubating at the County Commission for almost four years, but it was revived last week at the request of Commissioner Carolyn Mason.

Now the group has asked county planning staff to investigate how, exactly, such a rule might work based on zoning parameters, deed restrictions, existing homeowners associations and enforcement concerns. Another report, in addition to two previous staff reviews, is due back to the commission in early May.

“I do think this needs to be addressed, whether it's a thumbs up or thumbs down,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said. “There certainly are very legitimate issues and questions.

“I don't have chickens, I don't plan on having chickens — I eat chicken, a lot of chicken,” he said. “I don't have any personal interest other than my interest as a policy standpoint, but let's advance this discussion.”

The issue of permitting backyard chickens has scrambled county leaders since early 2012, shortly after the city of Sarasota changed its rules to allow residents to keep up to four hens, but no roosters, in a coop on a single-family property.

CLUCK, a local advocacy group that helped craft the city rules, has pushed since to convince the county to adopt a similar stance, but no to avail. Last week, CLUCK founder Jono Miller presented more than 1,200 signatures of a petition supporting backyard chickens to commissioners and asked them to push the issue forward.

“I think we've demonstrated the support is there, this does not need to be a contentious issue,” Miller told commissioners. “If we're looking for a way to solve problems and use the city of Sarasota as a basis to simplify education and enforcement, we can do this in an expeditious manner.”

But commissioners warn that a series of questions remain unanswered, namely about enforcement of the rules and whether homeowners' associations and deed restricted communities would be able to adopt rules limiting chickens in their own communities.

“I have some very serious questions on this issue that I have not been able to get answered,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said. “I can't ignore the financial impact, the neighborhood impact. I'm just not supportive of it.”

Should the county adopt an ordinance, deed restrictions prohibiting backyard chickens would supersede the county rule but enforcement would be up to each community, a county report last year detailed. Another potential problem could be abandoned chickens, because Sarasota County Animal Services does not accept chickens.

Nearby Charlotte, Hillsborough and Lee counties do not allow chickens in single-family residential zones, a county report found. But the dity of Sarasota, Venice, Tampa, Manatee County and Pinellas County each allow them, with restrictions on the number or containment of the chickens per property, the report found.

County planners will consider which zoning districts could be included a rule allowing chickens and report back to the commission on its recommendations, Planning Director Tom Polks said. They will also address questions about enforcement and health.

Depending on commissioners' feelings then, the county could pursue a public hearing for a zoning amendment, he said.

Otherwise, “it's almost the cart before the horse,” Polk said last week.

“Chicken before the egg?” Caraguilo corrected with a smile.

Newtown Farmers Market

Lou Murray Newtown Nation

This past Friday, a farmer’s market set up for the second time at the Redevelopment Office right off MLK way, in the heart of the Newtown neighborhood. From the street, the market looks like a makeshift stand with heaps of produce laid out on tables or in baskets - and it is. But it is also a potential hub for social enterprise and development in Newtown.

The driving force behind this innovative, open air market is Newtown Nation - a coalition of individuals for the wellbeing of the larger Newtown community. “We’re still putting a lot of pieces in place,” Lou Murray, Newtown Nation’s vice president and chair of economic development, said. “We’re going to sit down with our partners and take it to the next level but we did it. In a 1000 mile journey, half your problems are in taking that first step.”

The Newtown market - which kicked off on MLK day - will be held from two to five the first and third Friday of every month. Ideas for the Newtown market roll on endlessly, creating a vision that is unique to the Newtown community. Some plans include getting Pride of Jamaica on board, local jazz and reggae music playing, and tons of produce that fit the community’s tastes.

“We’re looking at our farmer’s market being a Caribbean-styled market,” Murray said. “Most of the markets you see here are what we call Eurocentric. We want to do something different. We want that Caribbean flavor.”

One major goal of the market is to help enroll customers in any social benefits they qualify for such as Medicaid and food stamps. Newtown Nation set up a table in Hamilton (Ham) Center just yesterday to pull in students as volunteers at the market. There are several projects a volunteer can help out with; one is signing people up for benefits, another is writing grants for the market and they also need help with social media and web advertising.

“We are doing a lot of different tasks with economic and social development and trying to see how we can partner together with our efforts,” Valerie Buchand, the president of Newtown Nation, said.

An organization with strong ties to the Black Lives Matter movement, Newtown Nation celebrated its year anniversary on Feb. 27. Murray said the group took off overnight. “There was such a great need for a group that knew how to put resources together, there was a lot of fragmentation and mistrust in the community. We wanted to be a conduit, a facilitator, a program that’s needed in Newtown.”

Sure enough, the Newtown Redevelopment Office heard about Newtown Nation and its goals for the community and contacted Murray himself. “They said we’re looking for a group that will be a liaison between us and the community so we can get some projects off the table and in reality. That’s where Newtown Nation stepped in and started taking one thing at a time.”

Newtown Nation’s latest project is the farmer’s market. They took on the mission back in November, with the goal of bringing fresh produce into the hands of the community.  

“Food is a common denominator,” Lou said. “It’s always an important denominator when you’re talking about underserved communities. How do I get food? If you don’t address that how can you talk about anything else? It’s a basic necessity.”

Before the neighborhood Walmart moved in, Newtown was designated by the United States Department of Agriculture as a food desert - an area without suitable access to healthy foods. Even with the store, some parts of the Newtown remain out of reach of fresh and affordable foods and many residents still resort to the myriad of convenience stores in the neighborhood.

“We are in the center of an underserved community,” Murray said. “We are also in an underutilized market in an enterprise zone, that’s what makes this market so unique, so important. It’s gonna be run by the community, developed by the community.”

"We want to create social enterprise,” Murray said. “Social enterprise keeps the dollars in underserved communities, that’s the key. Everybody wants to serve an underserved community by giving them a hand out - that ain’t helping. This is like giving them a hand up, it creates self-sustaining community. For us, by us.”

Before the market could set up in the Newtown Redevelopment Office parking lot, it had to be approved by the city.  

“I think we should make it easier to set up farmers markets,” Professor of Anthropology Erin Dean said. This semester, Dean is teaching Anthropology of Food. “My understanding is that they don’t zone a lot of places for farmers markets. Centralizing everything in downtown Sarasota does not make it accessible to people who aren’t close to downtown.”

Zoning is basically where planners in the county work with elected officials to determine what open land can be used for. The process varies significantly across communities.

“When I was in Sarasota back in 2007-2008, working at their health department, you couldn’t set up any farmers market,” Megan Jourdan, Community Health Specialist for the Florida Department of Health in Manatee, said. “Zoning regulations made it against the rules to sell produce or anything on the sidewalk outside of the downtown farmer’s market. We worked with them so you could apply for a permit to sell produce specifically.”

Interestingly, the city was already looking to have a farmer’s market set up in Newtown. “They had a lot of loosey goosey street vendors so they said we’re gonna have to start cracking down and requiring permits or you can be a part of the Newtown market under a liability waiver,” Murray said.  

Murray explained that many vendors have come looking to partner with the Newtown market but they are looking to select vendors with their own liability who can “compliment what we’re trying to do. That’s why I want to get Pride of Jamaica in there that makes sense to us.”

“We started off with what we could control liability wise,” Murray said. “Eventually, we’re going to have other businesses coming in there, food business and clothing.”

For now, most of the produce at the Newtown market is sourced from farms in Palmetto and Arcadia. The market is in the midst of working out a relationship with the school district to use their food gardens. “That will be a part of it as well as the farm to school system- that’s the plan within the few months, to convert into that,” Murray said. “For the immediate community, we have to look at costs. When we work out our arrangement with the farmer’s through the school food system we can bring our costs down, that’s the whole strategy there.”

One of the first objectives in constructing the Newtown farmer’s market was to get it certified by the USDA to accept the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system- food stamps essentially. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a common EBT food stamp system. “The USDA was elated because we want to be a SNAP farmer’s market in an underserved area,” Murray said.

This part of the process was like deja vu for Murray, who was the president of the Detroit Food Security Council back in the day. “It’s a national model now,” he said with a laugh. “I was the regional go to guy for food security. I was also on the advisory board of the Federal Reserve Bank and I was there when they created the EBT system, when it was a piece of paper.”

At the downtown Sarasota farmer’s market, there is one produce stand that is certified through the EBT system to accept food stamps. Brown’s Family Farm stand - located towards the end of the market strip - went to a government site to get approved for the system.

“Not many people use food stamps here, out of 100 customers I’d say maybe one person does,” Heidi Brown, the stand’s namesake, said. “I don’t know if they’re just not aware or what. We have a sign that says ‘check, cash, card and EBT.’”

It’s important to keep a balanced price point on fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods. “You have to develop systems that allow farmers to grow their food locally in a way that they can keep the price where it needs to be for residents to buy there,” Jourdan said.

“I try to find the sweet spot where it’s enough to make me a living but under retail grocery store prices,” Peter Burkard, the oldest vendor at the downtown farmer’s market, said. “I strive not to be out of reach price-wise. I don’t want the local food movement to be seen as elitist or only for those who can afford it.”

“I don’t mind contracting with farmers, they’re going to be suppliers but when they come to our community door, we will be distributors, we will be the business,” Murray said. “You want to be working with those who serve the same population that you do. It’s no coincidence we’re working with Goodwill, department of social services.

“We’re going to be working with New College too - I can’t tell you how yet but you’ll be one of the first ones to know,” Murray teased. “It’s going to be huge. It will be an amazing announcement.” So keep your eyes peeled New College.

A Solution to Hunger? Stop Throwing Dinner Away

Dumping food scraps at a compost in Montpelier Vt., in 2013. (Photo: Toby Talbot, AP)

Dumping food scraps at a compost in Montpelier Vt., in 2013. (Photo: Toby Talbot, AP)

Picture a field ready for harvest. Any field in the world, it doesn’t matter: an acre of cassava in Nigeria, a rice paddy in Indonesia, some amber waves of grain in the United States. Now harvest this imaginary field, and toss one third of it into the trash.

Welcome to the global food supply chain of 2016, a vast system in quiet crisis which requires an emergency intervention to nourish people, preserve our planet and protect profits.

By 2050, the earth’s population will have swelled to an estimated 9.7 billion people. According to Rockefeller Foundation research, all the food that never makes it from farm to table could feed all of the 1.2 billion hungry or undernourished people on the planet today.

While hunger is the most visible part of this quiet global crisis, it is certainly not the only impact. Indeed, the ramifications of global food loss and waste hit home throughout the entire food supply chain in every country in the world and reverberate in corporate bottom lines. Every year, food loss and waste cost the global economy nearly $1 trillion, which includes $680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 billion in developing countries. That’s more than the combined 2015 profits of the Fortune 500.

It has dangerous implications for our planet, as well. Limited land and water resources are squandered. In the U.S., a quarter of the world's increasingly scarce freshwater is wasted on unconsumed food. Harmful greenhouse gas emissions increase. In fact, if food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after the United States and China.

This isn’t to say that progress hasn’t been made, particularly in the industrialized world. The adoption of new warehousingshipping and logistics technologies all have reduced spoilage from farm to market. Retailers have installed misters and improved refrigeration, helping extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Food saving technologies like vacuum bags and services that deliver pre-measured portions of food are both reducing waste in the home.

Despite advances like these, there remains no comprehensive approach to address all three heads of this hydra - people, planet and profits - simultaneously, including the now-familiar problem of post-consumer waste in industrialized nations, as well as the massive, hidden post-harvest loss issue in the developing world.

That’s why the Rockefeller Foundation has launched YieldWise, a $130 million initiative that will work with private, public and non-profit participants across the entire global food supply chain to prove that we can slash global food loss and waste by half. We will meet this ambitious goal by attacking the problem at every point of entry, from farm to table to trash: tackling everything from how smallholder farmers grow and store their crops, to how corporations account for food loss and waste, to consumer tolerance for throwing away food.

The initiative is starting work in Sub-Saharan Africa, where some researches say up to 50% of certain crops are lost to inefficient harvesting, storage and processing. Some of the solutions to this problem are simple, like airtight storage cocoons and polyethylene storage bags. Others are more complex, but equally achievable, such as mobile processing units - and the consistent electricity needed to power them - that extend the short life of foods like cassava.

These interventions have the potential to transform family incomes and, in due course, local and regional economies. And partnerships between multinational corporations and smallholder farmers enable these farmers to quickly sell their crops to a guaranteed buyer, saving trips to frequently oversaturated markets.

In industrialized countries - where 40% of food waste happens at the retail and consumer level - targeted investments can have a major impact. The average American family of four wastes almost $1,500 a year throwing away delicious and nutritious food in their kitchen. This includes the humble broccoli, which sees its stems and leaves thrown out, despite the fact that these parts are almost equally nutritious and delicious as the florets. You just need to know how to prepare them.

While some change will happen at the household level, restaurants, college campuses and supermarkets can take innovative and creative measures to reduce food waste. For example, organizations and companies like the Food Recovery NetworkThe Campus Kitchens Project and Aramark challenge college and university campuses to reduce waste and recycle more. Through an innovative platform called Zero Percent, restaurants with surplus food can alert local volunteers to take donations to homeless shelters and food pantries. In Canada, supermarket chain Loblaw sells misshapen apples and potatoes at up to a 30% discount through a campaign to encourage customers to buy imperfect-looking, but perfectly edible, food.

The public sector has a critical role to play in this solution as well. Nearly 200 national governments - including the Obama administration - have already pledged to cut food loss and waste in half by 2030, and 117 cities have signed a pact to develop and implement strategies that improve their local food systems.

No business would ever excuse the loss of one-third of its inventory - and when it comes to the world’s food supply, neither can we. Together, these efforts will help ensure that the earth’s bounty continues to feed people all over the world.

Florida Drops Bill to Open Fracking in the Everglades After Public Outcry

Florida environmentalists are cheering the death of a bill that would have allowed fracking in the Everglades. Photograph: Getty Images

Florida environmentalists are cheering the death of a bill that would have allowed fracking in the Everglades. Photograph: Getty Images

Environmentalists in Florida are celebrating the failure of an oil industry-backed bill they say would have opened a pathway to fracking in the ecologically sensitive Everglades wetlands.

State lawmakers unexpectedly dropped the measure in a hearing in Tallahassee on Tuesday, just as they were about to begin debate on the controversial, high-pressure drilling practice, bowing instead to a groundswell of public opinion.

More than 40 local authorities around Florida had already passed ordinances or resolutions banning fracking for oil and natural gas on their lands, a power they would have been forced to cede to a single state agency had the bill become law.

“It’s a very good day for democracy, and a good day for the Florida Everglades,” said Kim Ross of Floridians Against Fracking, a grassroots alliance of activists that helped organize numerous rallies in recent months, including a 100-strong protest at the capitol building on Tuesday.

“The people of Florida don’t want fracking and almost 70% are represented by cities and counties that don’t,” Ross said, adding that the bill “really awakened a sleeping giant”.

“This is only a small part because the Everglades needs so much more,” she added. “There are all kinds of water and pollution issues. But for today at least this is a great and wonderful moment.”

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state senator Garrett Richter, had presented the measure as one that brought more safeguards to residents, in part through a $1m study by the Florida department of environmental protection. The study would have examined the mechanics and chemicals of hydraulic fracking, and the possible effect on drinking water, and Richter said it would have guided new rules to govern the industry. He also argued there would have been a moratorium on exploratory drilling, at least until the study was complete and the rules drawn up.

Conceding defeat, Richter said that fracking in Florida was determined by the low price of oil, and promised that the issue would surface again. “When prices go up oil companies will produce more oil to meet demand, and that’s when we’ll see fracking again in this state,” he said.But opponents insisted that no study was needed to see the threat that heavy drilling poses to Florida’s porous and fragile limestone bedrock – and to the underground Biscayne Aquifer, the only source of fresh water for more than three million south Florida residents.

“This bill was a well-intended piece of legislation,” Richter added. “I’d hoped to give our regulators more statutory tools to do their job, I wanted to see a stronger and more effective set of laws. This is a controversial subject, controversy will continue, and I dare say will draw even more concern when oil supplies drop and prices go up.”

Ross meanwhile told the Guardian that the death of the fracking bill in the state senate was a victory for common sense, and the continuation of the campaign to better protect the Everglades and Florida’s other natural resources.

“We have to keep working until we get what we truly want, a ban on fracking in Florida and a renewable energy infrastructure so we are less dependent on fossil fuels,” she said.