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.