Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

I somehow convinced a fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to move with me to Memphis, Tennessee. I very recently decided to choose 901, a week ago to be exact, and having the “let life flow” attitude that many Peace Corps volunteers have, Danny signed up too. Without a job firmed up, and having never visited the city he might be even more extreme than I am. My bubbling chatter about my visit to Memphis must have spilled over to corral him into the movement. So how did I end up in Memphis? Well, in November after a few weeks back in the States from Mexico, I called an acquaintance from my college days knowing about his involvement in the food movement here in the US and wanting to pick his brain about how I could jump right in stateside. A simple inquiry resulted in a phone call, and a very good sales pitch about Memphis and the meaningful work to be found in this mid-southern city. I bought the pitch, and planned a trip down for early December.

When that acquaintance picked me up from the airport, that car conversation was the longest conversation we had ever had. We knew each other’s faces in college, but nothing else. I was going on pure gut feeling. I spent the next few days in Memphis with an agenda completely focused on food. I spent the day biking around to different community gardens with pit stops to Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken and Soul Fish Cafe. I met beautiful people growing their own vegetables in places like the McMerton Gardens. I felt and fed off of their excitement about inspiring others in their communities to do the same. People very openly spoke to me about Memphis’s struggles, but  they also shared their visions for potential and positive change.

One fateful trivia event in Memphis’s hip Cooper Young neighborhood, I met a fellow New Yorker. I knew we would get along when she came into the bar, ordered a hot tea, whiskey, and some honey, and started to prepare herself her own treat after her flight back in town from the holidays. In a bar foaming over with full beer glasses, this girl knew exactly what she wanted. I liked that. We got to talking and she asked what I was interested in pursuing post Peace Corps. I gave my five minute pitch – urban farming, food justice, community engagement – and the baby of passion in my stomach began kicking again. She wanted her voice heard. This young woman listened, and told me to send over my resume. I obliged.

I came back down last Sunday to officially accept a job offer with Knowledge Quest as the non-profit’s Farm Manager and Education Programmer for Green Leaf Learning Farm. The next adventure begins…

the twigster,


PS: Did you know that Memphis is in the top ten for farmers markets in the nation?

Green Leaf Learning Farm

We Dig South Memphis

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During the last two months of my Peace Corps service, I began to collaborate with CIASPE on a rooftop garden in a day-care center (t.e.p.e). The students in the Center are at risk of childhood labor and/or at risk of living and working on the street. The school garden was to serve as a way to connect the children with nature, learn a useful set of skills, and offer a break from the regular classroom routine. Sandra, my co-worker, and I were to facilitate sessions with 3 different age groups ranging from kindergarten to high school. The planning of each session was complex, as each age group was very distinct, but the planned activity for each day was to be the same.

We began with the base – soil and composting. The high school boys weren’t too happy about using a shovel or getting dirty. The middle school kids really liked soil, so much so that they found it fun to throw it at classmates. The kindergarten students were content simply running their hands through the soil. After Day 1, a day full of trying to maintain control, attention, and in-tact fingers, Sandra and I went back to CIASPE exhausted. We began to pick apart the session to see what went right, what went wrong, and how we could move past incidents like “soil in the face of a friend” and the resultant hysterics. We knew we had to change our approach and come to an agreement with the students about appropriate guidelines. That’s when Guideline 1 was created: No throwing soil at oneself or another student.

With each session, the list of guidelines grew. We utilized guidelines rather than rules to avoid becoming potentates. We wanted to create an environment in which the students had control over one another, the sessions, and the activities. After all, it was their garden. Sandra and I were not going to water it daily. They were. We were not going to decide what was planted. They were. We knew how important it is that the participants’ have a sense of ownership of the garden, because experience has shown that school gardens are everyone’s when there are pretty butterfly visitors, but when it comes time to weed it is no one’s. We needed the students to be excited and more importantly, invested.

The chaos boiled down. That was until they found a frog. That session was a ruckus. But instead of fighting it, Sandra and I abandoned seeding to learn more about frogs’ habitat and what they need to survive. So, things were going along pretty swimmingly and the rooftop garden was growing. We had some beets ready to harvest, some chard, and the herbs were doing great with Queretaro’s full sun. Many students were still learning the names of many of the veggies, so we wanted to keep the excitement growing and actually have them taste the fruits of their labor. To experience earthy beets, distinguish chard from lettuce, and bite into a crisp carrot is to fall in love with a garden. To give the students that experience, we designed a cooking class.

We were scared, yes. Little kids with knives. Little kids with blenders. Older kids with knives. Older kids with blenders. But we threw caution to the wind, and the result was pure beauty. The kids, of all levels, were the most behaved they have ever been. We chopped up some beets, and prepared them with tajín and lime – they wanted to lick the plate! We prepared water with swiss chard, lime, basil, and chia – they held out their cups for more. We made a big salad with lettuce, carrots, beets, onion, amaranth, and pear tomatoes – they began planning to seed more carrots. As a foodie, I was elated to watch their excitement as they bit into the beet and commented to one another, “this tastes different than the one my mom buys,” and “we need to plant more of these.”

As Sandra and I discussed the session, we realized that we didn’t need any new guidelines that day. All along, we just had to give them some green juice.

the twigster,


PS: I am now a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer back in NYC planning for the next adventure. Stay tuned!

Watering the Garden

Can't Get Enough of those BEETS!

Future Foodies!

Future Foodies!

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The summer of 2014, the CIASPE, non-profit group, that I work with in Mexico became involved in a community garden project. Naturally, I was thrilled. Ever since my experience working on an urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, I have been looking for my next opportunity to work in the urban gardening movement. As cities continue to grow and people move farther and farther away from the original source of food production, urban gardens offer people access to fresh, healthy food while also reminding them that carrots do in fact have leaves. As a woman who grew up in New York City,  I can attest to little and limited access city kids have to get their hands in the dirt and encounter the creepy crawlers. Now Menchaca, Querétaro is not quite the same concrete jungle as Manhattan, but it does have an interesting story.

The neighborhood of Menchaca was once an ejido or a communally-owned parcel of land that resided outside of the grasp of the city. Querétaro has been experiencing huge growth these past few years and poco a poco this ejido has become part of the expanding city. (They are even constructing a train to connect Mexico City to Querétaro.) In Menchaca, many people built temporary housing, that later became permanent housing, in order to be close to the growing work opportunities in the city’s center. Since this neighborhood grew without any real planning, there are still lots of empty lots. The Mexican Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources saw Menchaca as a great site for a pilot community garden and helped the community to obtain the resources to get started.

When I first saw the land that was destined to be sprouting with veggies, I was skeptical but largely excited for its potential. A fellow Peace Corps volunteer and I began to draw up some plans. We considered where we would put the water tanks, the free area, and the garden beds. We had grander plans, of course, but we prioritized the available funding. Along with community members, we began to outline the garden beds. Each participant was to receive a bed size of about 1 meter by 5 meters. With the biointensive method of agriculture, this was plenty of space to get started. To put it in perspective, consider that 100 garlic plants can fit in one square meter.

Over the next few months, the CIASPE team went out to Menchaca to share our experiences with gardening. We stressed the importance of building up the soil, and our first task was to build compost piles. With each subsequent session, and resultant homework, the space began to transform. Doña Maria brought a small peach plant to the community garden. Women decided to border the garden’s fence with corn. Calendula flowers and its curly seeds offered spots of  orange among the beds. Children began running around in the communal “free space.” It was truly becoming a space that everyone could enjoy.

After one session, a Peace Corps volunteer, asked for some help to conduct some surveys that would help her move forward in her Master’s  work. Loving those one-on-one talks, I jumped right in to help. One of the questions, seemingly straightforward, really captured my attention. The diagnostic asked, “Where do you spend most of your time?” Now, most of the participants in the garden are women, so I wasn’t surprised to hear the answer of “in the household.” What surprised me more, was the overwhelming majority of these women shared the second largest portion of their time in the community garden. As we continued to talk, they mentioned how the garden has given them another purpose, has offered them stress-release, and has given their kids a safe and stimulating environment to play.

The biggest benefit of Menchaca’s community garden may not be its spinach and swiss chard harvest. This community, which is characterized by high levels of marginalization, now has a source of hope, or in the least, it has an outlet for creativity and productivity. I am sure this garden will continue to grow. My friend will continue to work in Menchaca during her service in Mexico and help the participants to reach the great potential of this project.

the twigster,


PS: Watch the transformation unfold with the photos.

Getting Stated

Building Compost, Building Soil

A Community Garden

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We, team CIASPE, started a biointensive gardening course in three communities of Amealco, Querétaro in January 2014. Every other week we made the 1 hour drive from the experimental farming center to the communities of El Apartadero, San Bartolo, and Tenazda. Over the course of these past 6 months we learned a bit about the history of the people, their desire to grow their own food, and the factors that sometimes get in the way of meeting that goal.

We shared information about composting, soil improvement, organic plague treatment, double excavation of garden beds and so on. I share with you some results of the great collaboration.

the twigster,


PS: The CDs in the fist photo are meant to keep the birds away. What a great way to use what’s at hand!

Chasing Birds

Chard Explosion

A Different Start

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            CIASPE  is a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable agricultural practices and research. It is a fairly young organization, only three years old, and the majority of its funding has come from its sponsor organization, GMI. As CIASPE is growing older, the organization is working towards covering a larger percentage of its operational costs and becoming more financially independent from its sponsor. Seeing CIASPE’s desire for self-sufficiency, the CIASPE team began to conjure up the vision of opening a gift shop to generate a supplemental income for the non-profit.

            CIASPE receives visitors from universities, other non-profit organizations, and groups of people interested in the sustainable food movement. The traffic and the demand for the products already existed. We met this basic rule of business. Next step: a suitable space for the store. Once we found and transformed a perfect nook in CIASPE’s teaching center, I drew on my contacts in Huimilpan and began to slowly fill the store with inventory. I called Lourdes from Capula, and ordered 30 bottles of nopal capsules. Next I spoke with Gustavo to develop jewelry made from seeds, and so on. As excitement began to build about the store, CIASPE team members began passing me more and more information about potential products.

            Today in the store we are selling organic seeds from CIASPE, portable solar lamps, crocheted key chains and baby toys, nopal products, succulent plants, and manuals about the biointensive method of gardening. The store continues to grow as Equipo CIASPE seeks budding products and continues to build relationships with community members through our gardening courses. For example, we are teaching women in Amealco to crochet baby blankets so that they may sell their work in the store as well and gain a small income. The store, therefore, is not only generating income for CIASPE, but also for community members with whom CIASPE works.

            As the store grows, we will continue to seek potential markets. There is talk of starting an online store using etsy, but we are not quite there yet. We are also developing salsas and natural beauty products using plants and veggies that come right from CIASPE’s garden. It will be a truly beautiful thing to not only promote sustainable farming practices, but sustainable consumerism through CIASPE’s small “organic boutique”.  We are generating an income for the non-profit, for community members, all while supporting our mission of promoting sustainable lifestyle choices.

the twigster,


PS: We still need a name for the store. Any ideas?

Lourdes from Capula with her xoconostle jam & nopal pills

Lourdes from Capula with her xoconostle jam & nopal pills

Nopal in Bloom

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I recently moved to CIASPE, an experimental agricultural center just outside the city of Querétaro.  I am working for a non-profit organization that is dedicated to promoting and teaching sustainable agriculture practices. I am doing exactly what I love.

the twigster,


PS: More to come soon…

Bio-intensive Garden Beds

Pup at Work

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The women are not very accustomed to eating their greens. Mexicans, in general, are not very accustomed to eating their greens. Part of the course, therefore, is to teach the women how to eat healthier, better utilize what they have in their gardens, and save money in the meantime. Since women have power over what is put on the table in these communities, we are encouraging the women to make smart choices in what they are feeding their children – start now in the fight against obesity and diabetes. Diabetes is the number one killer in Mexico, and Mexico is the most obese nation in the world. Yes, we are more than justified in suggesting these changes.

CIASPE shared very simple recipes with the women about how to make different kinds of milks and green waters. The women showed great interest during the course, commenting about the deliciousness and manageability of the recipes. The hope is that this enthusiasm will translate to their gardens – they will be motivated to grow a wider variety of vegetables and herbs and that they see their garden as an asset rather than a burden. I have shared a few of CIASPE’s recipes with you below.

Milk with some nutrition

The Director of CIASPE making nutritious and wallet-friendly milks.

Take this into consideration…Humans are the only creatures on earth that consume milk from another animal.

Recommended use: indigestion, vomiting, diarrhea, post-surgery
Characteristics: It has almost no saturated fat or choloresterol, but also does NOT contain protein.
It helps to regulate the intestines.
(In order to make 1 liter of milk, you need 1/2 cup of rice and 1 liter of water)
1) Soak the rice for four hours.
2) Liquefy the rice in blender.
3) Add water.

Recommended use: high cholesterol, cardiovascular problems, constipation, strengthens the nervous system
Characteristics: Rich in fiber and Vitamin B.
(In order to make 1 liter of milk, you need 6 tablespoons of uncooked oatmeal and 1 liter of water)
1) Soak the oats overnight.
2) Liquefy the oats with the soaking water in the blender.
3) Add water.
4) Add cinnamon for flavor. (Cinnamon also speeds up the metabolism).

The women are taking notes!

The women are taking notes!

I am very excited about sharing these water recipes with the women and I am so very enthusiastic that this will cut down on their Coca Cola consumption.

Ingredients: 1 liter of water, 1 handful of mint, 1 big cucumber diced
Recipe: Mix all the ingredients in a jar and leave in the refrigerator for 2 hours for all the flavors to come together.

Ingredients: 1 liter of water, 2 skinned cucumbers (without seeds, diced), 3/4 cup of lime juice, 1/3 cup of sugar (or substitute with honey)
1) Put all of the ingredients in the blender.
2) Drain the water using a colander.

* Parsley and lime (Parsley is packed with vitamin C, so use it as an immune system boost.)
* Chard and lime
* Spinach and pineapple or guayaba
* Beet and lime
* Nopal, celery, and pineapple
* Celery and pineapple
* Basil, mint, lime and sugar

* When the recipe calls for the lime, put the entire lime in the blender. The majority of the vitamins are in the skin. ¡Ojo! Do not liquify the lime for a long time, or it will cause the water to taste bitter.

the twigster,

PS: I’d love to hear if you have any other great combinations for the waters.

PPS: Check out Biointensive Garening: Session 1 here.

A Different Future

A Different Future of Eating Habits

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Women in three communities of Huimilpan, Querétaro – Piedras Lisas, Capula, and El Sauz Norte were trained in the mosaic method of gardening two years ago – long before Peace Corps volunteers arrived to their pueblito. They planted their cilantro and broccoli in haphazard beds, explored flowers for seeds, and experimented with growing leafy greens. They improvised and learned with their hands in the soil. When my compañera and I conducted interviews upon our arrival, the women spoke of their gardens enthusiastically, but with a tinge of defeat. After a few interviews, we began to see a common theme of lingering questions. What vegetables do I seed for the winter? What can I do to get rid of the worm in the col? What do I do with all this swiss chard?

Since the women of these communities saw the benefits of growing food for their families, and were driven to continue advancing, another volunteer and I collaborated together to write a SPA grant. In partnership with the organization, CIASPE, we started a four session gardening course to share the  biointensive gardening method – a method that produces more in less space, uses less water, and takes care to regenerate the soil. It is a method that will allow the women to seguir adelante.

Since the first and most important step in starting a biointensive garden is the elaboration of a compost pile, a large part of Session 1 was dedicated to compost. As humans, what we put inside of us is reflected on the outside. Similarly the soil quality, or the nutrients that are available to the plant’s roots, is reflected in the leaves, stems, vigor of the plant, etc. Also, many of the plagues that we encounter in the garden are a symptom of the larger problem of poor soil quality. Rather than focusing on recipes to expel plagues, we must think about addressing the root of the problem, the poor soil quality. This can be treated with compost piles, or the production of nutrient-rich soil.

Compost Pile

One of the things that I love about the biointensive method is the focus on using what is available at hand. Surveying the land in each community, we used different materials for the “green” and “brown” matter in the compost piles. In Piedras Lisas, we used vines of a harvested chayote plant and elotes. In Capula, we used grass and straw. In El Sauz, we used recently harvested corn stalks and dried grass. Each pile was adapted to what the women had in their community.

Here are some fun facts about compost:

*Compost improves soil structure by breaking up clay and clods. It also bonds sandy soils together.

*Compost creates soil with a good organic matter content, which holds much more water  and thus preventing erosion and nutrient run-off.

*Compost dissolves soil minerals, making them available to plants.

*Compost allows us to recycles nutrients back into the soil that we have taken nutrients from.


The next part of the day’s lesson was to seed in transplanting boxes. Most of the women were accustomed to seeding directly in the soil, so this was a very new concept to them. Stressing the importance of using what is already on hand, we used milk boxes as our almácigos. Seeding in almácigo has the benefit of using a lot less water. Instead of watering the whole garden bed, you only have to water the small box. Also, you are able to give the seeds the best soil possible (your compost soil) and since the boxes are easy to move, you can better protect the seedlings from extreme temperatures.

Session 1 ended with homework of course. Each woman was assigned to go home and repeat what we had done during the day: Compost piles, seed boxes. Let’s see if they are good students…

the twigster,


PS: Check out the biointensive gardening bible here.

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Today I paid close attention while Yolanda made salsa. You see, a few years back my friends and I decided to throw a party. A Tulane party. It might be my italian background, or just my love for food, but every time there is talk of a party, my mind jumps to the food planning. As a college student, my budget wasn’t large by any means so I planned on contributing salsa. Chips and dip. Party classic. I chopped at least 20 tomatoes, sprinkled in a bit of cilantro and red onion, and called it a masterpiece. I lovingly set out this large quantity of salsa, and awaited the praise.

My roommates hassled me about the salsa. I assured them that yes, everyone was going to eat it. And no, 5 bowls of salsa wasn’t overkill. The party ended. The salsa didn’t. Needless to say, whenever another party plan came up, I was always mockingly asked if I would be making the famous Josephine salsa. As I said earlier, I paid very close attention to Yolanda today as she was making authentic, Mexican salsa. Today I have reached my one year mark working in the Peace Corps, México.  After a full year, I can tell you this much. My salsa will never be ridiculed again.

Here are the secrets..

– Put the tomatoes and a jalapeño(s) on the stovetop until the skin is a little charred

– Add the tomatoes,  jalapeño(s) half a clove of garlic, salt, and cilantro to the blender


the twigster,


PS: New Orleans, you are in my heart today and every day. 504.

PPS: Check out another volunteer’s reflection on her one year mark here in Mexico.

PhotoBooth helped me to capture some important moments over the year…

Adventure Beginning

Red Lips, Always.

My own place! … after living with two host families.

Hospital Visit: Food Poisoning. Early In-Service Training.

Hospital Visit: Food Poisoning. Early In-Service Training.

One of the friends I have met along the way.

One of the friends I have met along the way.

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I have struggled with the incongruous factors of wanting to grow vegetables, but not having a place to do it. For that reason, I began to look into urban gardening, and visiting such places as the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, NY. When I saw the more than ample rooftop space in my apartment here in Huimilpan, México, I knew the time had finally arrived to experiment with rooftop farming, or more specifically, container gardening. Over the past few months, I have found that it is indeed possible to grow a significant amount of food in containers and my roof is transforming from a concrete wasteland to my lush Eden of edibles. Ok, I haven’t quite reached Paradise yet, but I do have fresh lettuce, cilantro, rosemary, arugula, swiss chard, lavender, dill, basil, and baby tomato plants. I have definitely come a long way from where I first started.

The same principles of the biointensive gardening method in earth gardening can be applied in container gardening. That is to say, that the association of the crops is also important in the containers and companion planting can help plants to fight and keep away plagues and even improve the plants’ flavor.  Check out examples of said “companions” here. You also want to add the flowers not only for the aesthetics but also to attract pollinators. This little garden is helping me to produce organic and locally adapted seeds to share with community members, helping me to clear my mind, and helping me to avoid drinking Coca-Cola for Breakfast.

the twigster,


PS: The little pup’s name is Canela or Cinnamon. I found her abandoned about a month ago, and took her in with the intention of finding her a good home. We haven’t had much luck yet, but still have hope. Isn’t she adorable?

PPS: Worm compost is also great to have on the rooftop or urban garden. Those worms work hard turning your kitchen waste into great humus for your seedlings.

Rooftop Garden

Lettuce, Arugula, and a Street Dog named Canela

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