Lauren Tucker is the Executive Director at Kiss the Ground, an organization based in Venice, CA. Established in 2013, Kiss the Ground is a nonprofit organization with the mission of “We can do this!” This simple phrase stems from the idea that eaters and farmers have the science and technology to balance the climate and recreate our food system, but everyone needs to feel hopeful and catalyze diverse community solutions. Because of this concept, everything that Kiss the Ground does has an underlying message of a hopeful future.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak to Lauren about Kiss the Ground’s goals to produce media content, engage homeless youth in their community garden, and advocate for the restoration of soil worldwide. Soil carbon sequestration is kept at the center of everything they do.
Food Tank (FT): What sparked your interest in and passion for sustainable agriculture?
Lauren Tucker (LT): I studied International Relations in college and always thought I wanted to do development work. I spent a long time, almost a year living in West Africa studying development. My thesis focused on chronic food aid situations in Ethiopia, North Korea, and Malawi. I learned that from the time starving people request food aid to the actual time food is dropped is usually a year to 18 months, a huge flaw in food aid. After coming back to the States, I did some volunteering after Katrina in New Orleans, and I helped start an energy efficiency rebuilding nonprofit down there.
From there, I became pregnant and became obsessed with food and what was going into my body. How was I going to nourish a young life? This question started a path of learning about farming and gardening through a nutrition lens, and about three years ago Ryland Englehart and Finian Makepeace became super inspired about soil carbon sequestration—the way we farm can draw carbon out of the atmosphere! Ryland is the Chief Inspiration Officer (CIO) of Café Gratitude, and Fin is a local musician in LA. When they became inspired, I was finishing a permaculture course and everything aligned. In other words, my non-profit background, permaculture coursework, obsession with food and farming, and realizing that wow, this is also climate change activism, motivated me to get involved.
Kiss the Ground was founded on the premise that not a lot of individuals know that the way we manage land also affects our carbon cycle and not a lot of people are even aware that we have a carbon cycle. We are taught the water cycle; we are taught photosynthesis, but we are not taught the carbon cycle. Soil carbon sequestration blew our minds and changed our lives. The way we grow our food can balance our climate—this is incredible. Our first response was to start a non-profit. We began by focusing on building awareness through media. Our first piece, the Soil Story, took us over a year to produce (it’s a four-minute piece) because behind that is extensive research, countless interviews, and a lot of consensus building in the movement. Since then we have started focusing on a feature length documentary that will be released next year.
FT: Why and when was Kiss the Ground founded? How would you describe your organization and your programs?
LT: The Aha moment for Ryland was when he flew to New Zealand to speak at a conference. He was speaking about sacred commerce, a style of business and a business philosophy that has been created by and adopted at Café Gratitude. It comes from a straightforward idea. Since we spend so much time at work, why can’t that time be a transformational and personal growth experience? During his time at the conference, he sat and listened to a panel of four scientists who spoke about the viability of human life on planet earth with relationship to climate change. The first three said look, we are doomed. This is really bad. The fourth person to talk was an Australian by the name of Graeme Sait. He spoke about soil carbon sequestration. For Ryland, that was his life changing, aha moment.
Kiss the Ground started with gatherings in Ryland’s living room. We committed to meeting once a week and had no clue what we were going to do. Some weeks there were 10 of us. Other weeks there were 40 of us. It was a gathering of our friends—journalists, activists, gardeners, filmmakers, restaurateurs, and marketing experts. We gathered all of our friends, and out of that, a non-profit was born.
Then, we started with an on-the-ground garden project. We did not want to start a community garden where people pay to have plots, so we created space where anyone could volunteer and then all the food grown is donated to homeless people. Now, we have transitioned to teaching the homeless population. For homeless youth, we offer an internship job training program that gives them a paid stipend, gardening knowledge, and something for their resume. The goal is to create more people with training in soil based landscaping or edible gardening so healthy soil can be the base of growing cities. Our first media piece was The Soil Story. From there, we expanded into creating a documentary, which is where most of our energy has gone recently.
FT: How has your organization grown/been received in the sustainable agricultural community thus far? Have you seen an increase or decrease in support?
LT: When we first started three years ago, the word regenerative agriculture was not in the news at all, and soil carbon sequestration was not talked about that much. What we found in the last three years is that it is an emerging field. Many people around the world understand this knowledge, and this topic has accelerated a lot faster than we thought it would. We have become part of a network of a bunch of non-profits and organizations worldwide who are working on soil carbon sequestration. Last year at the 21st annual Conference of the Parties (cop21), the 4 per 1000 initiative was put forward. In this initiative, 30 plus countries and a ton of non-profits signed on to soil carbon sequestration! Now, countries are figuring out how to implement a 0.4 percent global increase of carbon contained in soils on agricultural land.
What we found is that anyone we have reached out to (researchers, non-profits, farming teachers, etc.) has been receptive and open to working with us. It’s an incredibly open space at this point. We have been able to fill an incredible advisory board and gotten to know many people in the space. There is a lot of excitement from people who have been researching soil carbon sequestration is in a scientific way or farmers who have been practicing it for many years. These people are excited that youthful energy, that city energy, that individuals who are not deep in the field are excited about soil carbon sequestration. Farmers and scientists count on us to translate deep science into language that is easier to understand for people. For the most part, we are reaching a tipping point—people in the world know that healthy food comes from healthy soil. Soil carbon sequestration promotes the fact that the way we farm can balance our climate too, which is exciting.
FT: Kiss the Ground’s mission is centered around soil carbon sequestering. How does this concept relate to climate change?
LT: The easiest way to answer this is to take four minutes and watch The Soil Story, www.thesoilstory.com. Plants take in carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water. Carbon dioxide is converted into carbohydrates, and those sugars are pumped into the soil life, which includes bacteria, fungi, and all the things that are alive that we can only see under a microscope. If the soil is not alive, or if it has been killed by tilling, chemicals, or pesticides, then carbon gets rereleased into the atmosphere instead of being stored in the soil as organic matter.
Next year, we are releasing a curriculum for seventh-grade students. Even though we need to educate lawmakers, farmers, and everyone, it is important to start with our children and build a generation that understands we are all connected. To implement this curriculum, we are working with a couple of national partners with gardening programs.
FT: What social and political impact do you hope that Kiss the Ground: The Documentary, a feature-length film to be released 2017, will have?
If we look at Leo DiCaprio’s new movie that came out, Before the Flood, he’s targeting the question “Do we believe climate change or not?”. He stresses that we need to reduce our emissions and swap to renewable sources. We believe that this transition is imperative, but once we stop emitting and switch over to renewables, we will still have too much carbon in the atmosphere.
Kiss the Ground is hoping to add to a global conversation focused on, “What do we do with all that carbon?” and “How do we restore land at the same time as drawing carbon out of the atmosphere?”. In other words, we hope to have the second half of the climate change discussion and build massive awareness about soil carbon sequestration.
FT: Regarding policy advocacy, does Kiss the Ground utilize grassroots movements or lobby decision makers in government?
At this point, we have not done a lot of lobbying work, but we have gotten very familiar with what is going on in California. We did help write some of the healthy soil language in Los Angeles’s compositing redistricting. Also, we leveraged The Soil Story video and helped get 22,000 signatures for the Healthy Soils Act in California through an online campaign. That petition was one of many things that helped the legislature divert funds from the greenhouse gas reduction fund to farmers building soil carbon. For the first time in the country, California’s government is paying for farmers to farm in a regenerative way and take care of their land. We have seen the government of Australia and France doing it. And then we have this whole international emergence with the 4 per 1000 initiative. Healthy soil removes atmospheric carbon, stores additional water, grows more nutritious food, and increases biodiversity.
The beautiful thing about healthy soil is that it does not matter if you care about climate change, or if you care about the drought, or if you just care about healthy food, or if you want to see more biodiversity, restoring soil hits all of those targets. Almost everyone has some self-interest or desire for soil to be restored.
FT: What is one other way you are contributing to building a better food system?
I would love to touch on our mission. We started with this mission: “to inspire and advocate for the restoration of healthy soil worldwide.” That statement allowed us to understand why we do this work. Our new mission statement is, “We can do this!” because we have the science, the technology, and the farmers who are farming in incredible ways, but there is something missing. It is the feeling that we can together recreate the food system. Therefore, everything that Kiss the Ground does has an underlying message of a hopeful future, a future where we can all come together and cooperate to create the food system that we want. Whether it is teaching people about soil carbon sequestration through social media posts, viewing the upcoming documentary, or working with homeless youth in their community garden, we are working toward a future where humanity can come together to create a better food system and balance the climate.
Ultimately, when we look at food system issues and climate change, a lot of them boil down to being disconnected. We are disconnected from how our actions affect farmland. How what we purchase has an impact on a factory, how it affects shipping. How our actions influence the world as one organism. If we were to all get to the thinking that humans are part of nature, not separate from it, then we would have a very, very different world. Kiss the Ground’s vision is that people are reverent of our interconnectedness with nature.