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I Never Promised You an Organic Garden

A story has been developing over the past month involving lies, toxic sludge, Hollywood celebrities, and poor, inner city school children. It centers around the Environmental Media Association (EMA), a group of environmentally conscious Hollywood celebs, and the “organic” school gardens they’ve been volunteering at for the past past couple years.

Stars like Rosario Dawson, Amy Smart, Emmanuelle Chriqui, and Nicole Ritchie have generously adopted Los Angeles schools, visiting the schools and helping the children garden. What the celebs didn’t know is that their organization’s corporate donor – Kellogg Garden Products – sells both organic compost and soil amendments and ones made from sewage sludge. Seventy percent of Kellogg’s business is products made from sewage sludge. Sewage sludge is not allowed on organic farms and gardens. In late March, the Center for Media & Democracy (CMD) wrote to EMA, alerting them that Kellogg products contain sludge, which may jeopardize the safety and the organic status of the gardens. As a result of the letter, John Stauber, founder of CMD, then met with Ed Begley, Jr., famous environmentalist and EMA board member, who was concerned about the possibility that sludge was used on the gardens.

Following that meeting, a reply came back from EMA’s President, Debbie Levin, who has been called “Hollywood’s Conscience,” asking CMD to stop communicating with Ed Begley, Jr. and to call off its public campaign against the use of Kellogg products on the LA school gardens. She asserted that her organization never claimed the gardens were organic. Then, in the next week, EMA removed the word “organic” from its webpage about its school garden program… but left it in on some pages. (See screenshots here) EMA refers to the gardens as “organic” in a fundraising form, leading donors to believe they are contributing to organic school gardens. Ironically, in 2003, EMA gave an award to King of the Hill for its episode titled “I Never Promised You an Organic Garden.” Talk about foreshadowing.

SFGate and Mother Jones each wrote articles on this story, published a few days after Levin’s initial email reply. The Mother Jones piece features a picture of Rosario Dawson gardening with children, with a bag of Kellogg’s Amend (made from sewage sludge and contaminated with dioxins and other hazardous material) behind them. The article says:

“This was one of those unfortunate weird things,” says EMA president Debbie Levin, who hadn’t known anything about Amend before the shoot. Amend, she later learned, is not approved for organic farming because it’s made from municipal sewage sludge.

So what to do if you’re a home gardener who wants compost without the sewage? Try checking the website of the Organic Materials Review Institute, which vets agricultural products used by certified organic farmers. That’s the preferred approach of Levin, who stresses that no Kellogg Amend was ever actually applied to EMA’s gardens (though one school may have inadvertently ordered a different sludge-based product). “Everything was according to what we asked for,” she says. “We use the organic stuff.” That much is old news.

According to Levin, she and EMA were unaware that Kellogg products contained sludge, but not to worry because the products in the photos were never used. (Does that mean the bags of Amend that appear in many pictures of the school gardens were brought in for use as props in photo ops and then removed? Even if that were the case, it’s unfortunate that an environmental organization is giving that sort of free publicity to an environmentally unsound product like Amend.)

Here’s the new part of the story. Mud Baron, a Master Gardener who worked for the LA Unified School District’s garden program from 2006 to 2011, has come forward, with a signed, notarized affidavit, alleging that he informed Levin and others at EMA that some Kellogg products contained sewage sludge, which is not permissible on organic gardens, as early as summer 2009. (See his statement here.) Levin repeatedly assured him that all of the products donated from Kellogg would be organic.

Baron also says he questioned the appropriateness of an environmental group promoting a corporation that sold sewage sludge as “compost,” and those concerns were ignored and overruled as well. (Kellogg products identify the sewage sludge only as “compost” on product labels. The packages use the word “organic,” misleading some gardeners that they are appropriate to use on organic gardens.)

Baron says he continually raised the issue of sewage sludge in Kellogg products, but Levin responded “We’ve been doing our projects for 20 years, we know what we are doing.” Yet order records from the schools betray that one high school ordered 192 bags of Gromulch, made with sludge, in 2010 alone. Baron adds that the resource-strapped schools shared the donations they received from Kellogg, so the 384 cubic feet of Gromulch may be split among several schools’ gardens. And worse, a 2010 test by San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission found dangerously high levels of cancer-causing dioxins in Kellogg’s Amend. (Gromulch was not tested.)

Thus far, the response to CMD’s Food Rights Network) from EMA’s Executive Director Greg Baldwin is that in the future, EMA will ensure that only organic (OMRI-listed) products are used in the school gardens. Furthermore, they will no longer refer to the gardens as organic.

There is no evidence that EMA has notified the LA Unified School District, the schools, the children, the children’s parents, the celebrities who were promoting the school gardens, the donors who provided the funding for the gardens while believing they were organic, or all of EMA’s board members that the school gardens are not organic and may contain sewage sludge from Kellogg Garden Products. When asked in an email, Levin refused to answer whether these steps were taken yet or not.

Lisa Graves, executive director of CMD, says, “We are demanding that EMA end the greenwashing now, and end its relationship with Kellogg and any other organization that refuses to clearly label its products as ‘derived from sewage sludge.’ We are also asking that EMA notify the children, the schools, and the donors who contributed money for the “organic” gardens. Last, EMA must remediate the gardens that have been contaminated.”

Your move, EMA.

Jill Richardson edits LaVidaLocavore.

Disclosure: I am being paid for my work on this by the Center for Media & Democracy.

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