Sewage Sludge, Celebrities and School Gardens

"Fall is my favorite season in Los Angeles, watching the birds change color and fall from the trees." -- David Letterman

I have a strange little story to tell. It involves sewage sludge, celebrities and school gardens. It is set in the City of Angels, naturally.

This story has several characters, which we can lump into two basic categories: the children and the adults.

The children are the most important, and as always, are innocent and have virtually no say in the outcome of the story. They are the ones in the garden.

The adults can be generally divided into three groups: the green celebrities, the company, and the environmentalists.

First there are the celebrities (as we know, fame is big currency in LA). They are part of the Environmental Media Association (EMA), a good organization that is seeking to make the green movement go mainstream. The tension of the story is built around EMA, which as you'll see, has a very important ethical decision to make. The EMA has a worthy project creating organic gardens in schools, so that, as Rosario Dawson says in a video on their site, "kids can be clean enough to be healthy, and dirty enough to be happy." Sounds great. We definitely need more organic gardens in schools.

Then there is the company, Kellogg Garden Products. At risk of being formulaic, Kellogg is the controversial villain of the story. It appears that Kellogg is using sewage sludge, purchased from the city of Los Angeles, in 70% of its fertilizers, while all the while branding them as "natural & organic." The promotional language on their website says: "The cornerstone to our success, stability, and integrity is our commitment to providing organic gardeners with products you can trust." Sewage sludge is not just treated human waste (which is gross enough, but apparently safe); it also contains hazardous contaminants drawn from sewer water by sewage treatments plants, including industrial solvents and chemicals, heavy metals, medical wastes, flame retardants and PCBs. There are many potential health hazards related to exposure to sewage sludge (though the science is limited - a definite boon to the sewage sludge industry), including neurological damage, cancer, meningitis, fever, respiratory illness, roundworm, hookworm...the list goes on.

Kathy Kellogg Johnson is the Chief Sustainability Officer for Kellogg Garden Products, and is also, importantly, on EMA's corporate advisory board. EMA has formed an alliance with Kellogg Garden Products as part of the School Gardens Project. According to EMA's website: "Kellogg Garden Products has generously pledged to donate soil, fertilizer and compost to each of the partner gardens. EMA will directly support a number of school gardens through funding and celebrity mentoring via EMA's Young Hollywood Board." And so it appears that children in LA are now gardening with toxic sewage sludge, and unaware of the scandal, the celebrities are promoting the project.

Enter the environmentalists. The Food Rights Network, a project of the The Center for Media and Democracy, is running a national campaign with a fairly straightforward and reasonable message: sewage sludge is toxic and should not be branded as organic fertilizer, nor should it be used to grow food with, and very obviously, school children should not be digging around in it to grow zucchini and cilantro. The environmentalists have informed Debbie Levin, the President of the Environmental Media Association of the hazards of Kellogg's "organic" fertilizer, essentially saying: please don't kill the messenger, but sewage sludge is toxic and your worthy School Gardens Project is potentially poisoning the children you are trying to help. In an email response to the Food Rights Network, Ms. Levin said: "The EMA School Garden Program has never claimed to be "organic" and that EMA does "not claim to work with only 100% organic and or sustainable corporations."

And so herein lies the ethical dilemma: "Will Hollywood's EMA join the environmentalists and tell the truth to the parents, children and the schools: the gardens are not organic, and the children are being exposed to hazardous materials in the sewage sludge used in the gardens?" Will EMA terminate its alliance with Kellogg Garden Products and commit to only use truly organic, non hazardous fertilizer and soil in school gardens throughout Los Angeles? And of course, will Kellogg Garden Products, and the dozens of other companies using sewage sludge in their fertilizers, stop confusing the public through greenwashing, and instead label sewage sludge as sewage sludge? Or even better, stop using sewage sludge?

As I said before, we live in an adult world. Hopefully the adults will have the integrity to make decisions with the kids in mind.

Until then, we can tweak Letterman's quote a bit: Spring is my favorite season in Los Angeles, watching the school kids farm with sewage sludge and grow tomatoes.


To learn more about the sewage sludge industry visit: The Food Rights Network

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