On a sweltering September morning in Venice, a group of students sits around a container of seed packets on the front porch of the old Venice City Hall building.
“Radish, beets and carrots are all growing in the same season. Does anyone know which season?” asks Lauren Tucker, who leads the Kiss the Ground regenerative agriculture classes as part of Ryland Engelhart’s (Cafe Gratitude, Gracias Madre) carbon-farming initiative.
The students, who are there with Saint Joseph’s Culinary Training Program for the low-income and homeless, have spent the morning feeding to worms the leftover fruit and vegetable pulp from Cafe Gratitude’s cold-pressed juices.
“As worms can process any kind of veggie scrap, the pulp will create worm castings, which act as a natural amendment to the soil,” explains Tucker, who has spent five years studying regenerative agriculture through various programs, including the University of California's Master Gardener program.
Engelhart describes the year-old community gardens that Kiss the Ground planted in 2014 as a “living classroom,” one where the at-risk students from Saint Joseph’s could learn “not just what to do with food but where food comes from, so they can see what sustainability actually looks, feels and tastes like.” Carbon farming — or farming in such a way that the increased carbon in the soil counters the increasing amount of carbon in the atmosphere — is one newly proposed solution to slow or reverse global climate change.
"Sustainability" is a word tossed around frequently in the world of chefs and restaurateurs, but Engelhart believes he has come to the bottom of it — literally — with regenerative and carbon farming techniques. As a restauranteur known for his passion for organic vegetables, vegan cuisine and a holistic approach to dining (his official title at Cafe Gratitude/Gracias Madre is chief inspiration officer), he is drawing focus to the source for all of these things: the soil. The regenerative gardening classes he and his team at Kiss the Ground teach in Venice are just a small part of a big initiative for soil health.
“This is a really exciting time around soil science.” says Finian Makepeace, Engelhart's childhood best friend and co-founder of Kiss the Ground.
Makepeace explains that the NRCS (National Resources Conservation Service) and USDA are promoting this type of agriculture. “We’re in a dire situation. We’re losing more topsoil now than we did in the Dustbowl era," he says.
The hope is that by returning nutrients and fertility to the soil through composting, cover cropping, abstaining from tilling and avoiding chemical fertilizers, carbon will be transferred down from the atmosphere into the soil, thus guarding the planet against from global warming and ensuring our future food supply.
Engelhart and Makepeace explain this concept a video, The Soil Story, launched alongside a petition urging the California Legislature to support the allocation of $160 million from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to help rebuild healthy soils in California. The Soil Story recently was nominated in the Environmental Media Awards' Best Digital Short category; a full-length documentary is in the works.
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Engelhart acknowledges that the tiny garden in Venice isn’t big enough to accumulate a substantial amount of carbon from the atmosphere. But he feels it is an important microcosm of the ideal hyperlocal food system. The garden has become a sort of international hub for soil-health enthusiasts and sustainable-agriculture education. Kiss the Ground also has hosted fermentation festivals where hundreds of people came to learn how to preserve food through fermentation.
"One of the biggest problems with our food system is one-third of the food we grow, we throw away," Engelhart explains. Fermentation is a useful method for preserving food and minimizing waste. And in this time of severe drought, farming methods that limit the need to import/export are vital, as they reduce carbon emissions.
Engelhart is not the first restaurant personality to embrace the soil health movement. New York–based chef Dan Barber (Blue Hill and Blue Hill Stone Barns) discussed the culinary benefits of soil health in his episode of the Netflix-produced documentary series Chef's Table. The dishes at Barber's James Beard Award–winning restaurants highlight the produce grown using these methods.
Engelhart is enthusiastic, but he's aware of the enormous challenge ahead. “While the organic food movement is huge in concept," he says, "only 1 percent of the food grown in this country is organic."