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Photo: Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor.
Kwesi Billups (right) and volunteers at Project Eden hold homegrown Swiss chard at the greenhouse in Southeast Washington, DC, April 17, 2021. Project Eden distributes its produce, along with donations from the Capital Area Food Bank, at a nearby church.

As many people learned during the pandemic, small, hopeful things can make a big difference in how a person feels. The same is true of neighborhoods. Even in areas characterized by blight and despair, a bunch Swiss chard that people grow together can make them believe that better days are ahead.

Noah Robertson writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Three years ago, when Jevael German received his assignment through Washington’s Summer Youth Employment Program, he wanted nothing to do with it. He would be working with Project Eden, a community garden in the city’s troubled Southeast – known for police sirens much more than produce.

“A Washington native himself, Mr. German dreaded the months of labor in the district’s humidity. He didn’t even like vegetables. While meeting his supervisors on his first day, Mr. German laid his head facedown on the desk. 

“ ‘Sir, if you don’t want to be here, you’re welcome to leave,’ he heard back. ‘But you can’t put your head on the desk.’

“Mr. German stayed, and the summer surprised him. He enjoyed the outdoor work, which reminded him of childhood gardening with his grandmother. As an older member of the summer group, he began mentoring some of his younger co-workers. He even started eating greens. 

“At the program’s end, Mr. German asked to continue with Project Eden for another summer.

After returning, he learned that a former summer employee at the garden had died in a shooting. Mr. German, who was still living with one foot in the streets at that time, saw in that tragic death a version of himself if he didn’t change.

“ ‘Right then and there, I was like, I’ve got to leave the streets alone,’ he says. …

“Almost 10 years ago, Cheryl Gaines, a local pastor, started the garden as a response to the South Capitol Street massacre, one of Washington’s worst mass shootings in decades. Her idea then, as now, was that no community chooses violence when it has another option. Since then Ms. Gaines, her son Kwesi Billups, and hundreds of local employees and volunteers have sought to offer such an option.

“While simultaneously addressing challenges of health, food insecurity, and unemployment, Project Eden is at its roots an alternative. The work is rarely convenient, and resources are often low. But the garden’s legacy is that seeds can grow on what may seem like rocky soil – if only there’s a sower.

“ ‘This garden gives back to you what you give to it,’ says Mr. Billups. 

“In 2012, Ms. Gaines was Project Eden’s sower, though an unlikely one at that. She grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father in public housing outside New Orleans, only to trade that past for a career in law, and later the ministry. While at seminary in Rochester, New York, she had a persistent vision that God was calling her to live in Southeast Washington, begin a church, and plant a community garden. In 2010, after having lived in the Washington area for years, she felt the time had come.

“Leaving four dead and six more injured, the South Capitol Street massacre rattled Southeast, and brought the community together to mourn. At a vigil, Ms. Gaines met the owner of an apartment building just blocks away from the the shooting. In that conversation, she eventually shared her vision. Before long, the owner told her she could use her building’s backyard.

“On that land two years later, Project Eden (‘EDEN’ stands for Everyone Deserves to Eat Naturally) began as a 10-by-20-foot patch of dirt, with only rows of tilled soil. The next year Ms. Gaines and her team turned that plot into a 28-by-48-foot greenhouse, complete with aquaponics, and have since expanded to another location at nearby Faith Presbyterian Church.

“A community garden may seem like a boutique project in some areas, but not in Southeast, says Caroline Brewer, director of marketing and communications at the Audubon Naturalist Society, which recently named Mr. Billups its yearly Taking Nature Black youth environmental champion. …

“ ‘When people have opportunities to give back … that allows them to grow and develop and mature and make [an] even greater contribution to their families and their communities,’ says Ms. Brewer.

“Project Eden isn’t just resisting material challenges of nutrition and income, says Ms. Brewer. It’s helping the community resist despair. ‘It’s a constant battle,’ she says, ‘and they’re winning that battle.’ “

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP.
Gardening gurus Jim and Cindy Kaufmann met when they both worked at the National Gallery. Today they work in separate government jobs to brighten Washington, DC, with 300 acres of landscaping and flowers.

Have you ever thought about how the beautiful flowers appear in public places like the US capital — and what it takes to keep them beautiful, even in a pandemic?

Cari Shane reports at the Washington Post reports about a married couple who are responsible for more than 300 acres of the the Washington, DC, landscape.

“Cindy Kaufmann, 56, is chief of horticulture services at the National Gallery of Art and Sculpture Garden. Her husband, Jim Kaufmann, 48, is the director of the Capitol grounds and arboretum for the Architect of the Capitol, which maintains the buildings, monuments and gardens on the U.S. Capitol campus. He also chooses the National Christmas Tree. …

“They call themselves ‘garden geeks’: Jim is ‘a tree guy,’ he says. (His favorite is the white oak.) Cindy loves pink flowering plants the most. ‘But it’s like having children,’ she says. ‘You really just love them all.’

Cindy grew up in Rockville, Md., where she spent hours in the garden, ‘growing flowers and vegetables just to see how they would look,’ she says.

“After studying horticulture at the University of Maryland, she started at the National Gallery right out of college. Jim grew up in Philadelphia, helping his parents take care of their vegetable garden. He attended a public vocational-technical high school that specialized in agriculture, then graduated from Temple University with a degree in horticulture. They met when they both worked at the National Gallery. …

“Cindy’s pre-pandemic life meant arriving at the office at 6 a.m. and ‘walking five miles every day, visiting the campus and directing the wide variety of areas we support from the Sculpture Garden — the greenhouses, the garden courts, terraces and every exhibit and interior space,’ she says.

“Now, like for many of us, her work is done mostly over Zoom. The National Gallery closed and reopened a few times over the past year; each time, Cindy had to be ready, constantly ‘planning for normal.’ The museum’s March anniversary is celebrated annually with a rotating display of 250 azaleas in the Rotunda, and Cindy and her staff spent the winter preparing the plants to transfer from greenhouses in Frederick, Md., but the museum didn’t reopen after all. (The Sculpture Garden reopened in February.)

“For Jim, the pandemic and the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol — which was followed by the erecting of non-scalable fencing — meant some pivoting, too.

“He and his team continue to care for more than 4,500 trees and all the flowering plants on 274 acres of Capitol landscape. …

“Like Cindy, Jim’s days this past year have been less hands-on, which he misses. ‘Nothing ever replaces the ability or the experience to walk the grounds, feel the landscape and talk to people,’ he says.

“But the pandemic has allowed the Kaufmanns to spend more time in their own garden in Silver Spring, Md. Last summer, tending it was their ‘pandemic therapy,’ says Cindy. It reflects their different horticultural styles, and over the years, the yard has naturally divided into ‘Cindy’ and ‘Jim’ sections.’ “

More at the Washington Post, here.

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Photo: Mason & Greens
Store in Washington, DC, area aims for zero waste.

My friend Jeanne has been investigating more-sustainable living and has experimented with producing zero waste. I’m impressed. My small efforts have been almost completely undermined by the pandemic and all the plastic containers that come with takeout — takeout being both a break from cooking and support for our local restaurants.

Even the folks at Plastic Free Hackney, an inspiring effort in an English town, admit that it’s all harder during a pandemic. Still, idealists soldier on and will eventually triumph.

Jessica Wolfrom writes at the Washington Post, ” ‘It was kind of like a slow-moving coup on my part,’ said Anna [Marino], 32, a former seller on the website Etsy, who started researching the meat industry and the zero-waste movement. Even though they were only a family of four — [Anna and Justin] have two children, ages 6 and 3 — they knew they needed to change their lives.

“Paper towels and single-use napkins were the first to go. Then went the plastic. But as they traded traditional products for more eco-friendly items, they quickly realized that their reliance on online shopping was another problem.

“ ‘It almost defeats the purpose,’ said Justin, 43, who previously worked in cybersecurity. ‘I’m ordering something to save the planet, but in order for it to get here, it’s creating a pretty nasty carbon footprint. … And so, we were like, well, there needs to be a store around here.’

“Enter Mason & Greens, the Washington region’s first zero-waste store. … The airy shop is equal parts organic grocer and minimalist boutique, selling items such as package-free shampoo bars, organic produce and drip-irrigated olive oil. Hanging plants and shelves lined with stainless steel containers and books titled ‘All You Need Is Less’ offer shoppers a glimpse into the world of low-waste living. …

“ ‘You know it’s a movement when you don’t know everything that’s going on,’ said Gary Liss, vice president of Zero Waste USA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing waste, who described the growing interest in low-waste living as a sea change in the relationship between people and things.

“Americans throw away about five pounds of trash per person per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency — 12 percent of which is plastics. … Scientists estimate that up to 91 percent of plastic is never recycled, leaving the rest to burn in incinerators, clog landfills or degrade in the oceans. Scientists have even found microplastics in air, water and food. …

“The coronavirus pandemic has only increased reliance on disposable plastics. Billions of masks and gloves made from plastics and used by health-care workers, first responders and essential workers are being discarded every month, studies show. …

“Mason & Greens, which is based in part on the bulk model, makes a point of avoiding plastics at nearly every turn. Beans and grains come in gravity dispensers. Produce is package-free. Pomberry Kombucha and pinot noir stream from a tap. The spices are self-serve.

“Customers aren’t required to bring their own bags or refillable containers, but the couple said many customers do. The shop employs a tare system that logs the weight of an empty container and then calculates the price of products by the ounce. …

“The couple welcomes newcomers into their waste-free world, but Anna routinely castigates vendors for their packaging practices — she is not above shaming suppliers who send items wrapped in plastic. … ‘I have to go through so much to get a product into the store that’s zero-waste or low-waste.’

“But living a waste-free life might soon become easier. As consumers demand more sustainable options, brands large and small are shifting to make sustainability central to their strategy. Major companies such as Unilever have pledged to halve the use of virgin plastics in packaging by 2025. Walmart, Target, CVS and other retailers are working to develop an environmentally friendly alternative to the plastic bag. And other companies are starting circular delivery services — an updated version of the 1950s milkman — where groceries and goods are packaged in reusable containers that are returned empty.”

Signing up for the guy who brings milk in reusable bottles is one way I’ve actually gotten better at controlling waste in the pandemic. Thanks to my daughter-in-law, I got in under the wire with the dairy farm as other people started lining up for deliveries, too.

Read about a variety of zero-waste shops and the blogger who fit all the waste she produced over four years into a 16-ounce Mason jar at the Washington Post, here.

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Photo: Irena Stein Photography/Immigrant Food
Chef Enrique Limardo says the “Columbia Road” bowl at his restaurant, Immigrant Food, combines elements of Salvadoran and Ethiopian cuisine. A special side dish: opportunities to help recent immigrants.

People say, “I’m upset, but I don’t know what to do.” Or, “I don’t have time to do anything extra.”

Look, when you shop, do you have time put a can in the food pantry bin? Do you have time to write a handful of postcards to voters once in a while? There is always time to put a can in a bin; there are always nonprofits that will accept a tiny bit of volunteering. It adds up.

And here’s the biggest benefit: you will feel better. Was it Ann Landers or Dear Abby who was always recommending helping someone worse off as a cure for nonclinical blues? You just need to find a volunteer gig that fits your interests.

This post is mostly about a cool restaurant in Washington, but be sure to note what the owners are trying to do in addition to presenting delicious, creative dishes.

In November, Catherine E. Shoichet reported at CNN about a new restaurant that opened up in the nation’s capital.

“It’s called ‘Immigrant Food,’ ” she wrote, “and it’s just a block from the White House. The fast-casual spot caters to a weekday lunchtime crowd, with bowls blending cuisines from different cultures around the globe — like a dish that combines Vietnamese spicy-rice noodles with pickled bananas in what the restaurant says is an ‘ode both to Central America’s favorite fruit and to German-style pickling.’

“It also gives diners a chance to donate to local immigrant advocacy groups, all under a slogan aiming to bridge the political divide and find common ground: ‘United at the Table.’

“[Co-founder Peter Schechter] wants people to feel at home here, and to hear the story he’s excited to tell. …

“As the child of immigrants from Austria and Germany, Schechter says he felt like he had to respond to the surge in anti-immigrant rhetoric across the United States.

” ‘This isn’t the America I recognize. … Immigrants have been the foundation of growth and vibrancy. This country has been great again and again and again because of immigrants. …

” ‘Immigrants are feeding America,’ he says. ‘All of the industries that make food, whether it is the picking or the shucking or the meatpacking or the slaughterhouses, (or) in restaurants, the servers, the bus boys, this is an industry that is dominated by immigrants.’ …

“At Immigrant Food, menus available by the door describe each of the nine fusion bowls and five vegan drinks on tap. They also encourage visitors to donate to and volunteer with local immigrant advocacy groups.

“Among the suggestions listed on the restaurant’s ‘engagement menu’: teaching English, visiting detention centers, staffing hotlines and helping with mock ICE interviews. …

“There’s also a photo booth featuring a world map. Diners can point to where their families are from, snap a selfie and get a text message with a frame around the image that says, ‘We are all immigrants!’ …

‘People say, “I’m really upset about what’s happening, but I don’t know what to do,” ‘ Schechter says. ‘And so, you come to this restaurant, we will give you stuff to do — concretely and easily.’

“Local immigrant advocacy groups will also be able to use the restaurant’s upstairs space for things like meetings and English classes, free of charge. And on its website, the restaurant will serve up bite-sized breakdowns of immigration policy issues, dubbed ‘The Think Table.’ …

“The location turned out to be a case of serendipity, Schechter says. ‘[But] I really think it goes beyond the political.’ …

As he sips on a drink called ‘Across the Border’ — which blends cacao, dates, peppers, allspice, vanilla and cashew milk — Robert Evans, 72, says he loves the concept but worries the restaurant might end up preaching to the choir rather than crossing political lines.

“But then again, he says, one day someone who works in the White House might stop by. … In Schechter’s view, immigration shouldn’t be a polarizing topic. He points to polls that show most Americans say immigration is a good thing. And he hopes Democrats and Republicans will dine at Immigrant Food together.

” ‘The table, the restaurant, has always been a place where people unite,’ he says.” More.

By the way, if you’re ever in Providence, the immigrant restaurant called Aleppo Sweets is just fantastic. An extra treat for me is running into one of my former ESL (English as a Second Language) students who’s working alongside her family members there.

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Photo: WGRZ
The owner of Sakina Halal Grill, Kazi Mannan, knows what it’s like to be hungry. Thanks to his paying customers in DC, he can give meals to the homeless for free.

Don’t you love successful people who remember how painful poverty and daily anxiety about food can be — and who decide to help others? Tim Ebner reports at the Eater in Washington, DC, about a restaurateur who did just that.

“Come 2 p.m. in many Washington, D.C., restaurants, the lunch rush is all but over. … But for Kazi Mannan, owner of Sakina Halal Grill, the lunch rush is just getting started.

“On a late-Friday afternoon, the door to his Pakistani-Nepalese-Indian restaurant keeps swinging open. A homeless man who is deaf walks through the door. He carries a note. Mannan reads it, then attempts to sign with the man.

“Mannan asks if he wants something to eat while gesturing toward his mouth. The man holds up two fingers and pulls out $2, but Mannan shakes his head no.

“ ‘No money,’ ” he says. ‘You eat for free.’

“That’s Mannan’s policy for every homeless person who walks through the door. At Sakina Halal Grill, the poor, homeless, and hungry eat for free — Mannan calculates he gave away 6,000 meals in 2016 — and the waiters serve them in the dining room, as if they’re full paying customers.

“The buffet-style, halal restaurant, which is undergoing a name change from Mayur Kabab House to Sakina Halal Grill — ‘It’s a tribute to all the mothers around the world,’ Mannan, who lost his mother Sakina, 26 years ago, says of the switch. …

” ‘I’m the little guy on this block,’ Mannan said. ‘And, I love it. …

‘I want to say, “Hey listen, corporate people and people in politics! Listen to me!” I want to show them what love can do, and I want to spread a wave of love that touches the lives of millions.’

“Mannan says he’s living the immigrant dream, in a place where people are likely to take notice. Keeping his door open — which he did Thursday during the #ADayWithoutImmigrants strike — is more than just good business, it’s an expression of his faith. …

” ‘Kazi Mannan: The restaurant has been here for decades. I took it over in 2013 and this really was my dream. I came from a village in Pakistan that didn’t have electricity or plumbing. Our school was completely outdoors. It was always my dream to overcome poverty and own a restaurant. …

” ‘I started working at a gas station off Benning Road in Northeast. At the time, it was a very dangerous neighborhood. I worked there for a few years, and eventually, I saved enough money to start a limousine service; someone told me that I could make my own money as a driver. The funny thing is — that’s where you meet all of the stars of D.C. I still own the company, and I’m very proud that I can provide jobs to people like me, immigrants. Because seriously for me, this is not about the money. …

” ‘My mother taught me to be generous and give with my time. Because remember, we were broke. But, if we had a guest visit, she would make tea and welcome them into our home. She gave everything of herself. …

” ‘I’m a Muslim-American. And I like to believe that when I’m giving to the poor and hungry, God sees that. Just the act of giving a smile to someone can be a blessing. Just think about what food has the power to do. …

‘ ‘The chefs work together … and not only do they make delicious food, but they represent places, which are typically at odds with each other. They come together in this kitchen and use pure love and food. …

” ‘I am proud to be Muslim-American. I am proud to be a citizen of this country. And as a Muslim, I want to show others the true essence of Islam — and that is to love.”

More at the Eater, here. Manna’s initiative seems to be going strong (click here for a 2019 update), which is reassuring as the Eater article is from 2017. I was sorry to see that when Panera tried something similar, a pay-what-you-want model, it didn’t last. (See Bloomberg.) As philanthropic people keep trying to find ways to feed the hungry while running a business, a model that works long-term will emerge. Meanwhile, one kind individual can make a huge difference in many lives.

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Photo: Jared Soares for the New York Times
Dupont Underground, a converted trolley station, functions as an experimental art and cultural space in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood.

Kids are pretty literal about things they hear adults say. I knew a girl, a granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, who when very young was supposed to recite Bible verses with all the students in her school. In her mind, the words “Praise and magnify Him forever” were “Praise the grandfather with a feather.” Someone corrected her.

If I were to tell one of my young granddaughters about underground art, I suspect she’d picture art that was literally under the ground, maybe for the ants that “go marching one by one, down to the ground, to get out of the rain.”

In Washington, DC, she’d be close to the mark. As Avantika Chilkoti wrote recently for the New York Times, an experimental-art space is located under Dupont Circle.

“Roaming the streets of the Dupont Circle neighborhood about 20 years ago, Julian Hunt spotted a grimy staircase leading down from the pavement to a boarded-up door.

“He spent many hours on the phone and in the city’s archives, which led Mr. Hunt to crawl through filthy tunnels with a flashlight to discover an old trolley tunnel inhabited by a small group of homeless people.

“Since the city’s trolley service shut down in 1962, the 75,000-square-foot labyrinth had been the site of a subterranean murder, rumored ’80s rave parties and a Cold War-era bomb shelter. Now, Mr. Hunt, an architect who was a founder of the Hunt Laudi Studio, has turned the tunnels into the Dupont Underground art space, which draws 3,000 visitors every month. …

“The tunnels are now part of a wave of spaces — from small galleries that host artists to sitting rooms that accommodate musicians — where local talent can showcase work in the capital rather than fleeing to New York. …

“ ‘We’re this intermediate opportunity,’ said Noel Kassewitz, director for arts programming at Dupont Underground. ‘We’re a young nonprofit so we have the flexibility to host more experimental works here while at the same time having the space.” …

“The tunnels belong to the District of Columbia government. But after much haggling with the authorities, delayed further by the turmoil of the global financial crisis, Mr. Hunt won a five-year lease in 2014.

“His nonprofit has since spent about $300,000 — raised through crowdfunding and private donations as well as ticket sales — to clean the space and install basic lights and ventilation. Local officials are watching its success closely after an attempt to draw people to the tunnels with a food court on another platform failed in the 1990s.

“For Mr. Hunt, the project is a form of activism in a city where, when people think of beautiful architecture, they think mostly of the preservation of historic buildings.

“ ‘It’s not the kind of activism where you actually do things, new things and where you experiment,’ Mr. Hunt said. ‘That’s not here. This is not an entrepreneurial city.’ ” More here. Check out the pictures.

I do like the concept, but I wish the reporter had told me what happened to the homeless people that Hunt found there 20 years ago.

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