Whenever I have any free time, I read or listen to audiobooks. Reading can be meaningful and restorative. And it brings us into worlds we may know little about. One of the pleasures of my job is doing interviews with the authors of books that help shift our understanding of the environment and the food system. This month, I interviewed journalist Jori Lewis about her new book Slaves for Peanuts. We talked about how the ordinary, ubiquitous peanuts became a tool for colonial expansion in West Africa, how the colonial approach to peanut farming destroyed prime cropland, and why indigenous approaches to agriculture are so often discounted by white men. This book, written skillfully and elegantly in narrative form, takes us back in time to the era of the slave trade and shows us how the peanut trade impacted an entire region — and more — for decades to come. I highly recommend it.
Indigenous communities in the West and across the U.S. are some of the most affected by climate change. In recent years, news media have finally focused on bringing their voices to the forefront. What is emerging from such stories is that Native communities are stepping up with their own solutions to climate change, solutions steeped in traditional wisdom, previously-discounted practices, and innovative approaches. From a return to prescribed burning to conservation projects that aid struggling salmon populations to regenerative farming techniques, indigenous people in rural and urban areas hold wisdom that can be useful to all of us as we try to imagine the future of our planet. In recent months, I’ve held several important conversations with indigenous leaders about what climate justice means and what type of solutions Native communities can offer. In the midst of the COP26 UN climate summit, these ideas bring hope to what may sometimes seem a pretty hopeless situation.
READ: In ‘Required Reading,’ Indigenous Leaders Call for Landback Reforms and Climate Justice
READ: ‘Inhabitants’ Digs Deep Into Indigenous Solutions to Climate Change
This year, I’ve shifted most of my energy to covering climate change. Over the past few years, views and positions have shifted in this country. Even those who deny that man is fueling the climate crisis now acknowledge there’s a problem. Americans finally feel its weight first hand: the unhealthy air, the unrelenting heat, the rains and floods, the droughts… the burden of these natural disasters has previously been borne by people in other, usually less economically and politically stable, parts of the world. This summer in the Pacific Northwest, I packed my toddler, some food/clothes, and drove to the library turned cooling center and then to a friend’s house because we could no longer bear the heat inside our home (our air conditioner having given out past 100 F). I felt anxiety and dread, a sinking feeling that this was going to be the norm for years to come. We were lucky. We had a place to go. At least 600 people died as a result of the June heat in Oregon and Washington, and at least 400 more died in Canada. Again, people in other parts of the world have faced similar disasters for years… we were just unwilling to listen and acknowledge the severity of the situation.
At Civil Eats, I write about the intersection of agriculture and the environment. Farmers are the closest to the climate crisis because they work with soil and plants daily and their livelihoods are tied with Mother Nature. Many farmers are now extremely anxious and depressed about their futures. Indigenous and BIPOC farmers have for millennia worked in concert with nature, practicing a type of farming that sustains the environment where they live. Over the past two decades, innovative white farmers have borrowed from these ideas, launching a movement of regenerative agriculture in the U.S. that could potentially revolutionize American farming — and, perhaps, make a dent in slowing down climate change. The book Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown, one of the pioneers of this most recent movement, is a telling reminder of just how large the gap is between extractive agricultural practices that deplete the soil (and farming communities) and those practices that aim to restore soil life and farming.
If you are new to regenerative agriculture, I wrote a primer to address everything from regenerative labels to the credibility of regenerative climate claims. Front and center of the discussion around regenerative agriculture is the question of how this “new” movement is based on cultural theft and fails to invite indigenous and other farmers of color to the table. To many indigenous farmers, regenerative agriculture isn’t the revolutionary movement it claims to be because it simply borrows practices from indigenous cultures, but isn’t willing to take on a cultural/systemic shift that could really make a change. We still want our cars, our cell phones, our cheap food, and our power.
Still, regenerative agriculture — especially when understood as a shift in how we view farming, the environment, and each other — holds great potential in mitigating climate change. Indigenous people have powerful solutions if only we are willing to listen. Increasingly, more American farmers are open to a shift in practices (though not necessarily worldviews). Even Big Food companies have jumped on the regenerative agriculture bandwagon — including the polluting dairy industry — but corporate interest comes with caveats and dangers, as my stories for Civil Eats have demonstrated. Regen ag is also tied with an increased interest in carbon markets — a way for farmers to monetize the carbon dioxide their soil/plants suck out of the atmosphere. But, as you can read in my story, that solution is far from perfect. But few solutions are. I hope the stories I write can move the conversation forward and push all of us from a complacent, hopeless position to one of openness and readiness to change, speak out, and act.
In recent weeks, Civil Eats has been focusing its in-depth reporting on how the pandemic is reshaping our food system. This includes COVID-19’s impacts on farmers, food and farm labor, communities, and much more. So far, I’ve contributed stories about how farmworkers are especially vulnerable to the virus and hundreds have already tested positive. I’ve covered the Trump administration’s rollback of critical food and farm rules and the major outbreaks at meatpacking plants. I’ve also written about how small and mid-size farmers will likely not see any money from the stimulus package. Find more of my stories on COVID-19 here.
Since mid-April, I’ve been working as a senior reporter for Civil Eats, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to telling stories about the food system and agriculture. So far, I’ve written about the mining of phosphate ore to make Roundup, the race to develop healthier chicken genetics, and the exponential growth of the controversial agricultural guest worker program. For other stories, please see my author page here.
Last year, when I wrote a story about domestic violence in rural areas, I came across a stark statistic: a survey conducted by the Women’s Foundation of Oregon had found that 100 percent of the respondents at the Umatilla Reservation said they knew someone affected by domestic violence, the only location in Oregon with such a high percentage. I had heard about the epidemic of violence claiming the lives of Native women across the nation. Here was a chance to write about its impacts in Oregon. I was also introduced to Desireé Coyote, Umatilla’s Family Violence Services program manager, who would be my guide during this story. I had pitched the idea to Cascadia Magazine, a cool online publication dedicated to the stories of the Pacific Northwest. I drove from Portland to Pendleton (a 4-hour drive each way) while more than 8 months pregnant because I thought the story was important. It took me a long time to write it – my son arrived before I was able to finish the draft. But I stuck with it and eventually finished the piece. The fact that Congress dragged its feet on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) helped keep it fresh. I put my heart into this story, and I thank those who spoke about their experiences.
After a work hiatus and time dedicated to being a new mom, I’m joining Civil Eats as a senior reporter! Civil Eats is an award-winning online news organization featuring thoughtful, timely stories about food policy, agriculture, and environmental issues. In 2014, it was named the James Beard Foundation Publication of the Year. You’ll be able to find my stories here.
We’re excited to announce two new senior reporters our joining our editorial team, @NadraKareem and @GosiaWozniacka! They’ll be producing weekly news and features focused on the food system. https://t.co/07zYQoC1nM
— Civil Eats (@CivilEats) April 9, 2019
The cookbook is here! It’s beautiful, large in format, with high-quality paper and great photographs. You can purchase a paper copy or e-book from the City of Gresham. I loved working on this project. My goal was to represent the culinary traditions of the immigrant and refugee communities who have found their way to Rockwood, a diverse neighborhood on Portland’s edge. I met many wonderful people, ate mouthwatering food around their tables and listened to stories…
Some of these stories were bittersweet. Some full of challenges. All permeated with aspirations and dreams. One of our cooks had worked as a chef at a famous Baghdad restaurant. During the war, he cooked for the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Institute of Peace and hence was later able to escape the war-torn country. Here in Portland, he works at a local Middle Eastern eatery, struggling as most newcomers are. He dreams of opening his own restaurant, but speaks limited English and works long hours to provide for his family, making this dream an unlikely reality for now. But who knows in a few years?
So many of my interviewees came from war. They told stories that could not be included in a family cookbook. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya… Our Libyan cook, a wonderful lady full of spunk and warmth, spoke of incredible violence in her home city of Tawargha. Ethnic cleansing, torture, rape. A city turned into a ghost town. Yet here she was, with her husband and children, in the middle of Rockwood, trying to move forward, attending community college. Her recipe for stuffed peppers and swiss chard rolls is one of my favorites in the cookbook. Another story of war also had a good ending. Our Belarussian cook recounted how, during World War II, families in Nazi-occupied Minsk were forced to host German officers in their homes. Her aunt had to open her doors to one such enemy officer, who thankfully turned out to be a nice guy who liked to cook. He taught her a special recipe that’s now passed on in the family and cooked for special occasions.
These are just a few stories from the Rockwood cookbook. The people with whom I cooked and whose recipes the cookbook replicates conveyed perseverance, self-reinvention, and hope. Though most live in low-income apartment housing and work entry-level jobs, they’re studying English and have big dreams for themselves and their children. They value food, enjoy cooking and sharing. They are open-hearted, generous. I was deeply moved when, after our cooking session, the Bhutanese husband and wife sent me home with delicious leftovers and a large bag of onions they had planted and grown in Rockwood. Below please find a few page spreads from the cookbook. While I was the lead writer, several others also contributed.
As part of Portland Monthly‘s May Oregon Woman issue, I wrote a story about domestic violence in rural areas. I drove down to southern Oregon to report this story and spent the day with the Cave Junction-based Illinois Valley Safe House Alliance. In a very small town that lacks the most basic resources and doesn’t have much of a law enforcement presence, this organization is doing vital work on a shoestring budget. My story begins:
When Christine, a resident of Cave Junction, was punched repeatedly in February by her drunken estranged husband, she could count herself lucky.
It took an Oregon State Police trooper more than 40 minutes to arrive, but at least someone responded—more help than domestic and sexual violence victims often get in this rural part of Oregon, just 20 miles north of the California border.
But while Christine, whose last name is withheld for her safety, ended up at the hospital with a concussion and bloody bruises, the trooper didn’t file a police report. OSP took the estranged husband to a sobriety center instead of jail. And with the Josephine County courthouse closed for the weekend, Christine couldn’t file for a restraining order.
Her husband was released the next day. He broke into Christine’s house and waited with the lights off. Fortunately, her friends and family found him first.
“Sitting in the hospital, I thought, ‘How can a woman ever go back to a man like that?’” Christine says. “But when you don’t have the help to feel you can stand strong, if you don’t have a support system, you almost don’t have a choice.”
In rural Oregon, that support system has been lacking for years. “Rural women have a hugely difficult time accessing help,” says Emily Evans, executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Oregon. “Cave Junction [shows] how communities have catastrophically underinvested in their capacity to support survivors.”
You can read the rest of the story here.
The number of people living in recreational vehicles has exploded in the Portland area (and other parts of the country) in recent years, and it has stirred controversy. RV’s and motorhomes are everywhere, parked in residential and industrial areas, often in rows. This year, according to the 2017 Point-In-Time homeless count, a greater portion of unsheltered people reported sleeping in vehicles than in 2015 – and that percentage has climbed over the past decade. Notably, in 2017 over a half of the unsheltered families with children slept in vehicles. I decided to pitch this story to the magazine Non/Fiction, a quarterly focused on long-form reporting and based in Warsaw. My story, titled On Wheels, appears in the winter issue focused on the theme of “Home”. I spent several days with each of the couples and individuals I portrayed. I sat inside their RV’s, petted their cats and dogs, and listened to their stories, humbled that I can return to a large, warm house after the interview. I am most grateful to those who opened their doors to me. I learned to overcome my own stereotypes and saw that “home” can be many things to many people. And it matters little whether it has wheels or a foundation.
Here are the proofs of the pages. Because the magazine is really a good-sized book, it doesn’t post its stories online. You can also see the photos I produced as part of the story. Click on each thumbnail to call up a full-page proof.