Sustainable Urban Farming Facing Winter

By Xiaoran Liu for Northattan

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church has turned unused land into an urban farm on which church members and volunteers have nurtured carrots, snap peas, beets, arugula, tomatoes and lettuce.

The vegetables, however, aren’t planted in the actual soil, which is polluted. They grow in raised beds of dirt transported from outside Manhattan.

“The lead in the actual soil is dangerous, three times the regular level,” said Billy Adams, the senior gardener of the urban farm. “There was a garden before. People were growing things, but they didn’t know the soil was contaminated.”

Neighbors say a print factory used to be on the site. According to a 2010 soil test, the garden had high levels of arsenic and cadmium, for example.  Chromium and mercury were more than double the recommended maximum level of contamination and lead was more than three times higher, according to the test.   These chemicals in high doses can damage the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys and reproductive and nervous systems, and are particularly toxic for children.

Now, church members and volunteers are “remediating” the soil by using special microbial products that break down the pollutants.

“Two or three or four years? It takes a long time for the soil to be de-toxified,” Adams said.  “We will have another soil test to see the improvement.”

The concern with contamination extends beyond the dirt.  “We have used organic fertilizer, no chemicals,” said Claire West, the coordinator of St. Mary’s garden. “That tends to be things like egg shells and bones, not necessarily plant-like, but from live things.”

But for the urban farm, there is another enemy that does come from nature: squirrels.  Workers at the farm speak of the critters with both love and hate. The squirrels are swift, cute and greedy.

Adams pointed at one trapped inside a wire cage built around the plants on a soil bed and said,  “See it there? They are everywhere.”

All the soil beds had similar one-meter-high cages that were designed to keep the squirrels out.

“Oh my god, they’ve eaten up this tomato,” Adams said, pointing. “I picked up some green ones yesterday and put them in bag to ripen. I forgot this one.”

The vegetables harvested in the urban farm go directly to St. Mary’s food pantry. Janet Dorman is in charge of the food pantry. She said the pantry started 30 years ago and most fresh food is from an upstate farm called Geblocki Farm.

“This year has been wonderful, because the garden has started to produce,” said Dorman. “We don’t get tomatoes from the farm upstate because it’s hard to transport. If they are vey ripe, they just get smashy.  And if they are green, they are just not tasty. So we get them fresh in the garden.”

The urban farm has four senior gardeners, who harvest the vegetables every Monday afternoon and bring them downstairs to the food pantry. Gardener Adams is also a client of the food pantry. “I love the tomatoes here,” he said  “In the supermarket, they are almost 3 dollars a pound.  I get them and there are soft spots and you can’t take them back.”

Dorman said people coming to the food pantry know that some of the food is from the church’s farm and they love the idea as “it gives them a close connection to the food.”

“Grown locally–that’s the trend for food pantries and soup kitchens now,” said Adams.

The urban farm started this past spring. As winter comes, it is facing a new problem.

“The grant we got is a one year grant,” said West. “So we can’t necessarily re-apply. It would be very unusual that they would fund us the second year.”  The funding is from United Way Seed Grant, a program that supports sustainable urban farms.

As winter comes, West plans to use ground cover to keep things growing. “We might have leftover money to purchase these supplies,” West said. “But for funding the neighbors to do that, we don’t have money. The grant is very specific on how much to spend on what things.” Senior gardeners cannot get stipends from the fund anymore.

“For next spring, some people are talking to local banks and businesses about this project,” said West, as the group looks for support. “What about next month? I guess we have to rely on our volunteers.”

Why Do Asian Americans Vote for Democrats?

By Caroline Chen, for the Huffington Post

That the majority of Hispanics voted for President Obama this November surprised no one. But what may have been less expected is that 73 percent of Asian American voters cast their ballots for Obama this fall, according to exit polls. Data also shows that Asian Americans have shifted more to the left since 2008 than any other minority group.

Asian Americans, an oft-neglected voting group, represent only 3 percent of the national voting population. However, they are also the fastest growing demographic in the United States, and are also beginning to move out of traditionally blue states (like California, Hawaii, New York and New Jersey) into swing states like Virginia and North Carolina, making them an increasingly important demographic for politicians to pay attention to.

But why are Asian Americans so solidly Democratic?

One of the biggest reasons is that Asian Americans align more closely with the Democratic party on key issues, including preferring a bigger government that provides more services than a smaller government with fewer services (55 percent to 36 percent), according to Pew study conducted in June this year.

Asian Americans also support health care reform (about 50 percent in favor, 15-18 percent against), according the National Asian American Survey conducted this September.

Around 18.1 percent of the Asian American population doesn’t have health insurance, compared to the national average of 16.3 percent, according to the American Community Survey. Among Korean Americans, one in four are without health insurance.

Asian Americans also support raising taxes on high earners, even though they are among the highest-income racial groups in the U.S.

“Sixty-two percent [of high-earning Asian Americans] supported raising taxes on themselves,” said Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, director of the National Asian American Survey. “Just because a group might stand to lose does not mean they won’t support it.”

An overwhelming majority of Asian Americans surveyed also approve of affirmative action (78 percent in favor, 13 percent against), an issue which Democrats have traditionally supported.

Another reason for the shift towards the left, says Ramakrishnan, is that Asian Americans increasingly do not relate to the Republican Party image.

“The Republican Party between 2000 and 2010 became much more conservative on immigration and that hurt its standing among Asian American voters,” said Ramakrishnan. “On top of that, a party projecting a pro-Christian image makes it difficult to reach out to Asian American voters, most who are not Christian.”

While Asian American voters did not rank immigration high on the list of issues they considered in this election (like most voters, the economy and jobs came first, followed by health care), nonetheless the impression of the Democratic Party as friendly to immigrants has helped the party attract more Asian Americans.

“There’s a growing perception among Americans of color that the Republican Party is not concerned about the concerns of minorities,” said Melissa Michelson, professor of political science at Menlo College, who has published a book on Asian American voter mobilization.

There are around 1 million undocumented Asian American immigrants in the U.S. today, notes Christine Chen, executive director of APIAVote, a national nonpartisan organization that seeks to mobilize the Asian American and Pacific Islander voting population, so immigration continues to be an important issue, even if it is not the highest ranking.

Finally Asian Americans may feel a stronger connection to Obama himself, suggested Michelson.

The fact that Obama grew up in Indonesia means that some voters “feel that he is somebody who can understand a bit more where they come from,” she said.

While Obama was criticized by many for saying he had eaten dog as a child in Indonesia, this is not unusual to many Asian Americans.

“An Asian American is more likely to understand — there’s a little bit more of a connection in that they understand how he is being attacked for this thing that would be totally normal, that a mainstream American would not understand,” said Michelson.

Looking ahead, Republicans have realized that the Asian American community is a set of voters that they cannot allow to slip away. While Romney’s campaign was not able to reach out to Asian Americans in as great numbers as Obama’s team, Chen says that she saw evidence that Republicans are beginning to pay attention.

“This was the first time that Republicans made some type of investment in reaching out to Asian Americans,” she said. “They had Chinese-translated literature in Ohio — it’s the first time I’ve ever seen that.”