Stephen Ritz: Raising Edible Walls in Harlem

Ritz's student, Nathali Soriano, against the edible wall.

From down the hallway at the Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation in Harlem, Stephen Ritz, in slouchy khakis and a half-tucked shirt, looks more like a student than a teacher. As he comes closer, his shaved head shines under the glare of fluorescent lights and he becomes much taller than the average high school student, standing in all his glory at 6 feet 3 inches tall.

When he reaches us, he doesn’t even break his stride. He walks right past us and waves for us to follow, saying simply, “lets go.” It was like being a student on The Magic School Bus.

This is Ritz’s second day at Innovation High so it took him a while to find the roof. “Where are the stairs to the roof,” Ritz asks one sour faced guard. The guard had no clue. He asks the other guard standing by the metal-detector student scanners. That guard pointed us to the wrong set of stairs that dead-end on floor five. We started back at floor two again. Ritz was out of breath.

Finally we were directed to the proper stairs that had roof access without a fire alarm. The paint on the walls is chipped. There is a freshly crushed apple on the first step and empty potato chip wrappers on the next. Ritz likes to refer to chips as one of the “biggest bullies in school,” along with all the other fatty, unhealthy foods that dominate the diet both in his school and in the entire neighborhood.

Ritz hikes up his khakis as he climbed the stairs. He has lost some weight. “I need some suspenders to attach to my thong to hold my pants up now,” he laughs. “I hope this is the way,” he adds, reaching the third set of stairs, puffing out air. Ritz is going to need to learn the correct stairway very soon. After all, it leads to his classroom.

Stephen Ritz is an urban farmer. He has turned his classroom into a farm and the roof we step out onto is about to become one of the largest food producing facilities in Manhattan. His students go by the name “Green Bronx Machine” because they literally pump out enough vegetables and fruit to feed 450 people. Though Ritz credits his students with all the success— “my students are the orchestra, I am just the conductor”— it is evident that he brought the music, wrote the songs and taught his students how to play.

Standing with his arms out spinning around on the rooftop, Ritz looked like an excited child on Christmas morning. From the roof you can see the Ward’s Island Bridge and to the right are the 12 buildings that make up the housing projects. The garbage trucks are lined up on the streets below. New York City Sanitation Department is across the street. It feels like the end of the world on the school roof in East Harlem, just at the edge of the East River. Some would call it a wasteland. Ritz sees it as fertile – a sight full of a hope and a promise.

The rooftop is an expansive space, about 2800 square feet, and Ritz, having just moved to this school, is allowed to use all of it for growing. But as of right now, there’s nothing here but an old shovel and a few wooden boxes with dried plants. He has a lot of work to do before it becomes the Garden of Eden he envisions it to be. “We are gonna put the vertical walls over here and maybe some plants growing up the side of the fence here, maybe a work bench over here.” Ritz maintains the move will allow for “critical learnings that will ultimately enable me to replicate this model across NYC and back home in my beloved Borough of the Bronx.”

“It’s my intellectual Viagra,” Ritz yells out excitedly during his Ted Talk, “I love this stuff.” This stuff is the stuff of urban farming and it has brought him a long way.

Ritz was raised by supportive Jewish parents in the Bronx, just off Gun Hill Road on Tryon Avenue. He attended PS 94. It was during a time Ritz describes as “white flight; my neighborhood changed dramatically during my youth, he could quote both Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King as well as all sorts of protest music and sports trivia.” Seems as if social advocacy and justice has always been on his mind.

Up until a few weeks ago, Ritz worked at Discovery High School in the Bronx. There he made the most progress with urban farming inside his classroom and many of his students who started the first Green Bronx Machine group at Discovery remain in close contact with Ritz.

In 2009, after restoring a garden in Harlem, Ritz and a few of his students were invited to receive an award on the set of Good Morning America. It just so happened that George Irwin was also on the show that morning.

George Irwin, the Founder of Green Light Technologies, is the guy who invented edible walls or vertical urban farming. Manufactured from aluminum and stainless steel, Irwin’s walls are small compartments filed with soil that fit together to cover entire walls and allow water to steep downward from the top in order for plants to grow out of the wall.

Irwin was so impressed with Ritz’s young students from the Bronx that they partnered up. As Ritz puts it, “my horizontal farmers met his vertical farms and it was love at first sight.”

The teenagers were trained by Ritz’s company so they could start making their own vertical walls and even put a unique spin on them—wheels. “One of my teammates came up with the idea of putting the wall on wheels so we could move it around,” remembers former student, Nathali Soriano, 19. The students started to move the walls into other classrooms so it could be a learning experience for all.

“Steven was able to use our technology,” says Pamela Werts, Director of Sales at Green Living Technologies, “and pull his children together with it.” Werts was present at the training Green Living Technologies held for the students in upstate New York and could not believe what she saw. “I know that some of these kids wouldn’t even be in the same room as one another.” Gang affiliations and turf wars in the Bronx are just as much apart of the place as baggy pants and funky fresh beats. “But then,” says Werts, “I saw them designing and planning out walls together” She was amazed.

Things just got bigger from there. They had green markets at school for parents and teachers. They built more community gardens that produced free vegetables for people in Harlem and the Bronx. The group reached 3200 “likes” on Facebook. Whole Foods was calling. CNN was calling. TED Talks wanted Ritz. Jamie Oliver wanted him. Then rich people called.

Green Bronx Machine traveled to the Hamptons to build the vertical walls on people’s roofs. In New York City, they built a wall inside the Empire State Building and inside NBC’s Experience Store at Rockefeller Plaza. There have been visits from senators and commendations by City Council members. Accolades and scholarships for Ritz’s students have poured in. “Steve was showing them a life that if you work hard and reach your dreams there is still a life beyond the Bronx,” says Werts, “a whole new world.”

“The expectation for young men from the Bronx is to stay in the neighborhood and never come out of it,” says Soriano. Ritz’s students have had the chance to get out of the neighborhood and see some beautiful and historic places. Now, they aim to make the Bronx beautiful too.

Now at Innovation High, Ritz is mentoring new teachers and designing curriculum that uses urban farming in classrooms. His Green Bronx Machine group has 15 students who work with him on the roof.

On the roof during lunchtime a crowd has gathered, Ritz sings “I’m bringing sexy back” and everyone laughs. It is just one of the unorthodox and just plane goofy things he does that are apart of his teaching style.

In his TedTalk, Ritz admits to being “the oldest sixth grader you will ever meet; so I get up everyday with this tremendous amount of enthusiasm. “

Ritz’s age is unknown among his students. He refuses to tell. “I am as young as 30 and as old as 75,” smiles Ritz, “I was Jesus’ schoolmate and was there for the First Depression.” Ritz uses this line on his students like a comedian and he says it gets a laugh. As long as it gets them to open a book and look these things up, no applause is necessary.

“I don’t know what kind of magic he works but his system is very magical,” says friend and now partner in sustainable construction, Jim Ellenberger. “He gets them to pass their regents, he gets some of them into college.”

When Ellenberg, 46, a contractor who owns his own construction business based in the Bronx, heard about what his friend, Ritz was doing, he saw a business opportunity. What if Ritz’s students, who were already trained in building the walls by Green Living Technologies, came to work for him?

A job came up for low-income affordable housing in the Bronx. Ellenberger hired Ritz’s students. He trained them to build with all kinds of materials. The students were building housing in their community, for their community. Things had come full circle.

But getting a job wasn’t the only problem in the Bronx Ritz is trying to solve.

“At out supermarket in the Bronx,” describes longtime friend Susan Ventura, 46, a mother of four and a resident of the Bronx, “there is an entire aisle devoted to Little Debbie products, but the produce aisle is a half an aisle of shriveled up lettuce.” The Bronx is weighed down by the largest obesity rates – 68 percent compared to 57.9 percent in Manhattan, according to the New York State Department of Health.

Ritz himself has lost over 70 pounds after he swore off the junk food and started eating more of what he was growing in class. “I got tired of being the big fat white guy,” says a proud Ritz who eagerly shares his new weight with anyone who will listen. 190 pounds. Ritz is hoping that shedding a few of his own pounds will motivate his students to eat better. That will be difficult though. Just two blocks from the high school doors lie an array of every fast food joint you can think of. They don’t just make up the predominant food group in the area, they are the entire food chain.

Green carts sprinkled on a few sidewalk corners, however, mark a change in food options and a new demand from residents.

Chili peppers and tomatoes are a big hit with his Mexican American students get to bring those home. “I don’t get phone calls from grandmothers when their kids get into a fight at school,” laughs Ritz, “but I get a phone call from grandmothers when their kids bring home chili peppers for the salsa.”

Not all of Ritz’s students have families. Most of them have learning disabilities or psychological issues or are in foster care. Those are the kind of kids Ritz loves. “I remember when I was a basketball coach,” Ritz shares, “I always got the fat kids. I want the underdogs.”

Nadje Maeueau, 19, was an underdog. Immigrating to America with his uncle when he was 12-years-old from the Ivory Coast, Maeueai was abused and beaten by his uncle and ended up in the foster care system. When he first met Ritz, Maeueai thought to himself, “look at this white guy with his big belly.” Ritz, who also trains students from foster care agencies to join Green Bronx Machine, taught Maeueai about the edible walls and accepted him into the student group. Maeueai then got a job with Ellenberger working construction.

Ritz attributes his success to access. The gardens are located at school where children have to be anyway. It is completely integrated into their lives; it is making them feel better and earn money. Ritz points out that “you can’t box your way through a math test or shoot baskets through statistics.”

As a child living in the Bronx was in the late 1970’s when the arson epidemic caused by the total economic collapse of the South Bronx left streets lined with singed skeletons of burnt out buildings. “We have come from dark places,” says Ritz. Where the rest of the world sees the Bronx and Harlem as where everything that is wrong with society occurs, Ritz believes this is not so.

Werts says, “green is not just going to be a fad, it is becoming more mandated,” and Ritz’s kids are ahead of the game, for once.

Ritz called last Tuesday during his lunch break to talk about how it’s going. “I love the new school,” he reports, “we just moved all the equipment for the edible walls to the roof this past Saturday.” Just then a burst of children can be heard in the background. “Uh-oh I guess the kids eat lunch in this room, let me move,” says Ritz. He is still getting to know the place.

Ritz talks about his plans to get the kids up to the roof in the upcoming week. Suddenly someone interrupts him. “What,” asks Ritz, “who is Mud Baron,” he asks. Mud Baron is big on Twitter and travels the country advocating for gardening within public schools.

Ritz returns to the phone. “I have to go, Mud Baron is outside with a thousand plants.”

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How to Grow Chickens in New York City

Noah Leff is the proud Papa of a two-year-old son and three one-year-old hens. While the hens and Leff are not biologically related, they are family nonetheless. Leff even started Victory Chicken, a company that sets up chicken coops and delivers four-month-old hens for people in the city so everyone can have the pleasure of having a chicken for a pet.

I know what you’re thinking…
I don’t have room for a chicken coop!
Coops are compact in size and could fit on a large balcony, patio, a roof or backyard provided that the coops are kept in a spot that has a barrier from the wind.
What about in the winter when it snows?
There are chickens that can handle that! Leff recommends all New Yorkers purchase the same hens he owns and delivers at Victory Chicken which are Rhode Island Reds and Araucanas, Chilean Mountain Chickens. Leff’s coops that he sells are insulated making chickens the perfect outside pets down to -10 degrees. Besides, lets not forget chickens are covered in chicken fat.
I don’t know where to buy chicken feed my bodega doesn’t sell any.
You can sign up with places like Victory Chicken who will deliver the feed, order it online, or supplement a little feed with food scraps from your own dinner table. PETCO’s in the city sell chicken feed for $9 a bag and they also sell diet chicken feed in case you think your hens are looking a little on the heavy side after all your leftover table scraps.
Is this legal?
Yes! There isn’t a limit in New York as to how many chickens you can keep on your property provided that you are not creating a public nuisance. And hens unlike roosters would never create a nuisance.

Leff, his son Marko and their pet chicken Shasta

Can you pet a pet chicken?
“Chickens are nice companions as pets,” says Leff. In fact, Leff’s son said “chicken” before he said “Daddy” – now what does that tell you about how cute and cuddly chickens can be. Chickens enjoy being stroked and held, they will follow you around if you let them outside of their coop and are pretty funny and entertaining to watch. They are sociable creatures. It is why Leff recommends if you are going to get chickens that you get more than one since they do get lonely.
How many eggs will I be getting?
Lets face it the biggest perk here is the eggs. Unless you are crazy and consume more than four eggs a day, you can say goodbye to buying eggs at the supermarket and hoping you didn’t break any on your walk back home. If you have two or three hens you’re looking at 12-18 eggs a week for seven months out of the year. That is enough to make you want to do the chicken dance.
This sounds expensive.
According to Leff, it costs about $5 a month per chicken for feed and hay if you are maintaining them yourself. If you are subscribing to a service that delivers the supplies, it is around $10 a month per chicken.

This is how to take care of a chicken…
Feed them. This is the most frequent obligation one has when it comes to a chicken because it is a daily chore. But hey, if you want your hens to be making the eggs that you are eating it is only fair that they get to peck at something also.
DO NOT feed your chickens avocados or uncooked potato, as they are poisonous to chickens.
Dump the litter. This needs to be done twice a week and replaced with new hay because no one likes to hang out with his or her own crap, even chickens.
Water. Change the water every 3 days.
Let them out of their coop to allow the chickens to roam about twice a week, either in an open space or room so they can stretch their legs. This is a pretty easy task that does not require too much supervision since chickens can’t fly so you know they are not going to make a run for it.

Food Fish, Christopher Toole’s Tilapia

In August of 2010, Christopher Toole quit his job at Sovereign Bank, grew a beard and bought some fish. Today, he is teaching children at a South Bronx community center how to grow those fish in an urban setting. For the last two years, Toole devoted himself to perfecting a way to raise tilapia in the city. Trash bins. Recycled of course.

Annie Rose: How do you explain what you do to your fifth grade students?

Chris: It is called Aquaponics. Aquaponics is growing fish in a controlled environment. At the community center, we use hoses that recirculate the water in the trash bins so it is constantly keeping the water clean.

Annie Rose: How big is the biggest tilapia you have?

Chris: Right now, about 1.5 lbs., a little over one foot long.

Annie Rose: How big do you let the fish grow until you eat them?

Chris: Do you want popcorn tilapia? Do you want a tilapia sandwich? One pound feeds two people. From fry, it takes 9-10 months at the fastest.

Annie Rose: What do you feed them then?

Chris: Many things including and especially duckweed and black soldier fly larvae. We’ve also experimented with maggots, other insects, worms, various fish, flax and various other plants.

Annie Rose: How did you begin growing your fish?

Chris: We first started out with live Chinatown fish that were about a pound and grew ‘em. We needed to learn – to figure out how many one pound fish we could manage in a trash barrel. I didn’t know until I did it. Now I know. I know exactly.

After that, we went online and ordered 500 tiny tilapias “fry” that would officially start the project. We chose tilapia because they are easy to grow and to care for.

Annie Rose: Lets talk about the love life of a tilapia. Have any of your tilapias mated?

Chris: Yes we have had breeding successes!!! We mostly let nature run its course with our guidance and intervention.

Annie Rose: Is fish farming legal in New York City?

Chris: No, unless you’ve got a certain type of home. But is it legal to grow a little food? Sure. Is it legal to be a farmer? Sure.

Annie Rose: The Humane Society is working on the Farm Animal Protection Project to be sure animals raised for food purposes in both urban and rural farms have enough room to grow. Would they find fault with fish raised in trashcans?

Chris: The commercial industry uses one gallon of water per pound of tilapia. That is pretty intense. It makes this trashcan look like a swim in the ocean.

Annie Rose: What do you use for money?

Chris: My 401 k.

Annie Rose: Why this intense interest in fish farming from someone who was previously a businessman?

Chris: We need food, specifically good quality protein to eat.

Annie Rose: What is the name that appears under employment on your tax return?

Chris: Aquapon

Annie Rose: What is the difference between your trashcan tilapia and the organic tilapia they sell at Whole Foods?

Chris: Is there such a thing as an organic tilapia? That word’s been bastardized and patented and copyrighted. By definition anything that’s alive is organic, its carbon based – look up the word!

Annie Rose: Do you dislike the name “trashcan tilapia”?

Chris: It’s a bin – a can is something made of metal! I call them food fish.

Annie Rose: What good does fish farming do for our environment?

Chris: If nothing else, fish farming gives the oceans, seas, rivers, streams, lakes and other natural growing waters a rest. It also educates and is a critical step on the path towards Urban Food Sustainability.

Annie Rose: Do you name the fish?

Chris: Ya, Lunch and Dinner.

Annie Rose: When you kill a fish that you have harvested, do you cut off their heads? Is it quick and dirty?

Chris: The ideal way to harvest them is to understand how they exist to being alive and part of that is they are cold-blooded fish. So what do we do? Well we cool them down. So, we put them into the freezer or a bucket of ice and let them slip into a coma. That is the correct and most humane way to do it.

Annie Rose: Who has had the pleasure of eating one of the fishes you have grown?

Chris: We are not yet at millions and millions served, more like dozens and dozens, tipping quickly towards hundreds & thousands… Children and adults at the community center, professional chefs, tourists & other customers, friends and relatives to name a few.

Annie Rose: What is your favorite way to cook your tilapia you raised?

Chris: Putting one on the George Foreman on the terrace right next to where I grew them is my favorite way: a trash barrel, one comes out, throw it on the Foreman with a little lemon, eat it right there. Gorgeous. That is the best way to eat it. I mean, in the urban environment.

Annie Rose: What’s with the beard?

Chris: I am trying to grow things.

Forget Williamsburg, Go To Smorgasburg

In a city like our beloved NYC, we rarely have the opportunity to interact with the people who are directly involved in making our food. This has changed. The mouth-watering food market people are flocking to in Williamsburg is called Smorgasburg and it is bringing together food entrepreneurs and purveyors from the New York City area – changing both how we spend our Saturdays and how we eat our food. Eric Demby, from Smorgasburg, gives us some insight into the genius behind the market and how it lends to a different way New Yorkers can chow.

Q: Part of the beauty of markets like Smorgasburg is that consumers build a new relationship with vendors where they meet them first hand and are able to ask things about the food they are buying – was that the intent when you started this food market?

A: We very much view Smorgasburg as a platform for vendors and like-minded shoppers to connect in the “real” world (ie, not online), and this was part of our motivation for launching the market, and the “regular” Flea as well. The old-fashioned town square never goes out of style. But we’re a business and we definitely saw the potential of really “owning” this new artisanal food space on the market level.

Q: Would you expand the Smorgasburg to contain more Farmers Market items instead of cooked food?

Eric Demby

A: We have tried this with mixed results. We had a Greenmarket inside Smorgasburg last year that did OK, but not well enough to return this year. Several of those farmers will now be part of the regular Smorgasburg this year though. We’ve had plenty of folks who make cheese and syrup and honey and the like who aren’t technically “farmers market” farmers, and we always work to expand that aspect of the offerings.

Q:  What are some of the things you personally enjoy eating at the market?

A: I like it all. I love Mighty Quinn’s brisket, Brooklyn Soda Works, Blue Marble Ice Cream, Landhaus BLTs, Salud smoothies, Kumquat Cupcakes, Mile End, Butter Plus Love, and on and on. Pizza Moto is probably my go-to in general. The wife likes Asia Dog (veggie Sydney) and the kid likes People’s Pops.

Q: What is your favorite aspect of Smorgasburg?

A: I love the intra-vendor community that emerged so quickly. All those folks are basically in the same boat in terms of starting and/or growing their businesses, and the camaraderie of feeling like you’re part of something—a movement, a moment, whatever—can be enough to keep you motivated when your sales or business plan aren’t quite where you want them to be. And people have just become friends, which is the nicest feeling when you’ve helped facilitate that.

Food For Thought…The Humane Society Speaks Out

Kristie Middleton works for the Farm Animal Protection division of The Humane Society.  Working to reduce the suffering of animals raised for milk, eggs and meat – the Human Society’s Farm Animal Protection Project seeks to educate the public about the cruelty of animals who are directly and indirectly involved in our food chain.

Middleton shares her thoughts…
Q: How can people who live in a highly populated city, like New York City, ensure that our food is from animals raised in the proper environment?

A: For those who choose to consume meat, eggs, and milk products, there is an inherent responsibility to use our consumer dollars to support only those farming practices we feel provide animals the level of welfare they deserve. It’s all about doing your homework. Though it may be easier to simply go for the lowest-priced item, what do we know about how that animal was raised? You don’t have to spend hours and hours online doing research or visit every single farm or ranch.

Photo courtesy of Kristie Middleton.

Q: The Humane Society believes everyone should Reduce, Refine and Replace – how can people implement this into their lives, especially in a city?

A: These tenants are easy steps for people everywhere to make. About 10 billion animals are raised and killed in the U.S. every year for our consumption and the vast majority are raised on factory farms where they live lives devoid of things that are natural and important to them. We can help improve their lives by:

  • Reducing our consumption of animals and animal products by participating in programs like Meatless Monday. If every American went meat-free just one day a week, it would mean 1.4 billion fewer animals raised and slaughtered each year.
  • Refining the products we eat by switching to higher welfare products such as cage-free eggs and pork from breeding pigs not confined in cages.
  • Replacing animal products in our diet with plant-based ones, like egg replacers instead of eggs for baking; soy, almond, or rice milk instead of dairy; and meat alternatives like Gardein and Tofurky. Those products are found in grocery stores and in many New York City corner stores.

Become An Urban Farmer Today: DIY Kits!

Don’t have a balcony? Don’t like soil? Don’t have the floor space? Your excuses are up! Windowfarms has invented a new way to farm for New Yorkers…vertically. A hydroponic growing system, Windowfarms is a year-round growing system perfect for any window that combines the light and temperate climate of your apartment along with “liquid soil” in order to make a perfect little garden for green thumbs and all other kind of thumbs alike.

Getting Real with Real Time Farms

You might be wondering while going through this blog, just how we found some of our most amazing urban farmers. With the help of Real Time Farms of course – a new website founded by married couple, Karl and Cara Rosaen that is a crowd-sourced online food guide. It provides visitors of the website with information about restaurants and local farms in order to learn more about where their food is coming from. We might be staying “in the know” through Real Time Farms but Cara spoke with us and shared just how her and her husband – a former Google Android senior engineer, came up with the idea for their website and how it takes literally an army of “Food Warriors” to document our food system.

Q: So Cara, how did you and your husband, Karl, come up with Real Time Farms? 

A: We had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and seen Food, Inc. but one of the biggest problems, once you find a problem, is finding an alternative. The first problem was food distribution and one solution to that was the ability for people to find food in their area that they feel good about eating but also being able to trace back to finding the source of the food. A kind of food transparency. We knew with technology we could do that. It was important that we were a resource but also a neutral territory. Our goal was how to get my Mom and Dad interested.

Q: How to get Mom and Dad interested and still be able to use the website right!  What kind of relationship does this website create with people and the food they eat? 

Karl and Cara Rosaen.

A: Real Time Farms aggregates all the data. It is trying to connect consumers to their goods.

Q: Because consumers cannot always physically do so when you live in New York City? 

A: Right. People are adding farms everyday, both big and small. We want to be a Wikipedia of Farms.

Q: So today people are more educated about food? 

A: The food system isn’t what people thought it was; they can’t take that for granted that there are chemicals involved they might not be happy about or animals are not treated right. Why are there eggs that are $1.99 and others that are $6.99? People see images of animals at farms that are shocking but people need to be encouraged. We are really good at connecting you to the human behind the farms and their growing practices so people can find food based on that. We want to make it simpler without dumbing it down.

 

If you have time…watch Cara’s Ted Talk!

The Cool Chicken Coop

Thanks to the folks at the Chicken Co-Op, who have designed what they call “luxury chicken residences,” chickens can can this stylish and compact coop their home that fits easily in even the smallest of New York City apartments.
(To Purchase: Click on Photo)

A Tree Grows In NYU

Flickr/jpellgen.

This is a blog about urban farming in New York City! Come on you believers and non-believers who thought it was impossible to grow a plant in your tiny studio apartment. I am here to tell you that this is a lie! I have killed many a plant and flower seemingly gasping for air and sunlight in a tiny nook of my windowsill. Many people have defied this notion that among the acid rain and pollution of this city that things can grow in a clean and “green” environment and can grow in such a success that they may just be able to feed all eight million people one day! Find out how…

Throughout the Spring 2012 semester, I will be bringing to light urban farming in the New York City area. In doing so, the overall intention is to allow readers to grow more conscious of the relationship people have with what they consume and how we can make food more sustainable and accessible to people.

Here, you are invited to read about self starting urban and local farmers and innovators who are creating new ways to find, learn and cultivate food and how we interact with food in sustainable ways.

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