OCSL in Action | Omega

OCSL in Action

A Message From Omega’s CEO on Earth Day

2 months 6 days ago

Dear Friends,

It is fitting that the focus of Earth Day campaign this year is environmental literacy. Education is the key to creating an understanding of our environmental challenges. Knowledge, leading to a change in mindset, will give us the tools and resolve to address the many complicated issues we face.

Literacy, as it pertains to the environment, is not just the study of climate change, but rather a deeply woven study of life. At Omega our core principle is the interconnected and interdependent nature of life. We believe that the well-being of each of us is deeply connected to the well-being of all living things. As an educational institution we teach this in our classes and model it in our operations.

It’s imperative that as we focus on literacy we take an intersectional and holistic approach and speak to the connectivity of many related issues. For instance, we can’t address air and water quality without addressing how we source energy. 

We can’t really address health care unless we address poverty and racism. It’s time to recognize that issues such as economics, migration, food security, and even terrorism are links in the same chain of environmental destruction.

At a time when the new administration is demonstrating that it will promote private and corporate interests at the expense of the environment and our health, it is important that we educate ourselves and act as an informed constituency. Let’s employ our individual and collective efforts to preserve hard-fought environmental victories and chart an even more inclusive and impactful path forward.

Now is the time to seize the momentum and send a clear message that we will not accept policies that harm the well-being of people and the planet.

Omega will be at the People’s Climate March on Washington on April 29. Let us know if you're going. I hope to see you there.

With appreciation,

Robert Backus's Signature

Robert "Skip" Backus 
Chief Executive Officer 
Omega Institute

Omega Recognized for Donating Up to 5000 Meals Annually

12 months 10 hours ago

Dutchess Outreach, one of the largest emergency food providers in the Hudson Valley, recently gathered more than 100 people to recognize the many volunteers and partners that help “alleviate the myriad difficulties poor people face every day.”

Omega FoodWorks was one of the organizations honored and presented with a Community Service Award for helping combat the unacceptable levels of food insecurity in our communities. 

Since 2002, Omega has saved prepared meals that weren’t served in the Dining Hall to share with Dutchess Outreach’s Lunch Box. One of the most recent deliveries provided enough food for almost two weeks worth of Lunch Box evening meals. Omega’s annual donations are used to provide up to 5,000 meals that incorporate organically grown food sourced from Hudson Valley farms.

The theme of the evening was "volunteering is my superpower." In his opening remarks, Dutchess Outreach executive director Brian Riddell said, "Take a look around, take in what you see here, and if you’ve ever wondered or if anyone ever asks you, what does it take to provide 200,000 meals a year for people who often go without enough to eat, this is it! We’re all in this together. Everyone has a right to eat and to eat well, and united we take that stand and make it happen. If that’s not a superpower, I don’t know what is."

Omega FoodWorks general manager and executive chef Adam Cincotti accepted the award on Omega’s behalf, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to partner with Dutchess Outreach.

“When we have perfectly good food ready to be eaten that we can no longer use, we’re grateful to be able to bring it to the Lunch Box," he said. "It’s important to me that we work to eliminate food waste however we can. Partnering with Dutchess Outreach allows us to live into one of Omega's core values, sustainability, that we interpret through the lens of intersecting social, economic, and environmental issues.” 

The Lunch Box serves midday, after school, and dinner meals to 200 people each day from the home base of Dutchess Outreach in Poughkeepsie, New York, a city where more than one in four households experience food insecurity.

Presenting the award, Dutchess Outreach board member Brandi Rider said, "Omega’s donations support Dutchess Outreach’s increased efforts to provide wholesome and nutritious meals."

Omega Helps Explore Poughkeepsie’s #Poughtential

1 year 1 month ago

With the catchy hashtag #Poughtential, the city of Poughkeepsie, New York, just 17 miles south of Omega, hosted their first Community Wealth-Building Summit in April. Omega’s CEO, Robert “Skip” Backus, spoke at the event as part of a panel on sourcing local food.

Community wealth building is an alternative approach to economic development. It is focused on inclusion, working collaboratively, local control and ownership of businesses, and building anchor institutions for long-term community benefit. 

Poughkeepsie is home to many anchor institutions—nonprofits that, once established, tend not to move location—including five colleges, several hospitals, and the seat of the county government. Yet the city also faces enormous challenges. Nearly 1/3 of its residents live below the poverty line; nearly 1/3 of the downtown is vacant; and 1 in 4 households are food insecure.

The summit brought together more than 150 community stakeholders to talk about how Poughkeepsie’s anchor institutions could shift their spending to support and grow local businesses. Agriculture is a driving force behind the Hudson Valley’s economy—more than 5,000 largely family-owned and operated local farms have a gross economic impact of $810 million. At Omega, purchasing food grown in the Hudson Valley and reducing food waste are two important initiatives. 

“We try to only buy things in season,” said Backus at the event. “For example, raspberries are available at a local supermarket year-round, but Omega is only serving them when they are growing locally…. We’ve also adjusted our menus to reduce food waste. The economics of buying local can be costly for nonprofits…. Defining sustainability and local purchasing requires a broad scope. It’s not just where food comes from, it’s how much energy and water was used, and thinking about the embedded carbon footprint when you are making purchasing decisions.”

With thousands of meals served each day across local anchor institutions, it is not possible to source all that’s needed from local farms, but every little bit helps.

“At Omega, we serve approximately 23,000 people per year. That’s about 700 meals, 3 times a day, beginning in May, when many of our local produce crops have not yet become available,” said Backus. “We are constantly adjusting to what is available and typically can find 60% locally. We have a staff member dedicated to researching vendors and helping us make the best purchase choices…. We would prefer to spend every dollar in the local market space, so this is an important area for regional conversation and cooperation,” concluded Backus. 

The Community Wealth-Building Summit was a great place to start the conversation, helping key organizations in the Hudson Valley realize we have the opportunity—and #Poughtential—to address challenges no one organization can solve alone. 

Feeding Each Other: ELIP & the Long Spoon Collective

1 year 2 months ago
Monica Albizu completed the Ecological Literacy Immersion Program (ELIP) in 2013. She has since joined the Long Spoon Collective, named for a well-known parable that illustrates the difference between hell and heaven. In hell, the people are starving because they can't lift food to their own mouths using the long spoons. In heaven, the people are well-fed because they use the long spoons to feed each other across the table.
Omega: Tell us about the Long Spoon Collective that you're involved with.
Monica: The Long Spoon Collective is a group of individuals in Saugerties, New York, that started working together a year and a half ago. We have a two-fold mission: We’re looking to help people meet basic needs, like food and housing, and we’re trying to help people be less dependent on money. The main focus is to create an abundance economy—whether that’s having materials stored for building projects for whoever might need them, or growing as much food as possible so that we can share it. 
We have a network of 12 people who have seven gardens at different sites. Certain sites might be more conducive to growing potatoes, whereas others might be better suited for growing berries, or plants that need more water or more sunshine. It’s all done under the lens of land restoration, trying to rebuild soil, to plant things that are long-term investments.
At the beginning of August 2015, we had our first food share event. We set up big tables and tents to give food away. We went around the neighborhood and invited people. It was a word of mouth, organic thing. We had open house hours. People brought food to exchange. Other people just came to get fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a free farmer’s market, but we wanted to get away from both the word "free" and the word "market," to begin to really change the language, to get people to begin to think of things in a different way.
Omega: Is it true the collective has been deconstructing houses and putting the reclaimed materials to new use?
Monica: Two of our guys started this movement when they were having breakfast one day at a local cafe. They heard a contractor talking about a neighbor who wanted a house taken down, but he didn’t want to take the project. They approached the property owner and said, "If you want this house taken down, we can take it down for free in exchange for keeping the materials." The landowner thought it was a great idea, so a group of us got together and deconstructed the house in about 15 days. We reused as much material as we possibly could. The only things we had to throw out were fiberglass insulation and some of the sheetrock. 
We stored all the materials and used them on many different projects, two of which were full houses for individuals. We used everything from nails and screws that were taken out carefully, to siding and windows, sinks, and copper pipes. In doing this we began to build a relationship with the landowner. He was so impressed that he offered us the land the house had been on to build a garden. This season that property has been our main focus. We’ve been really focusing on turning it into a community space. 
Omega: How was it coming back to Omega for the ELIP reunion?
Monica: It was a wonderful opportunity to link back up with people whom I had spent so much time with, had shared a lot and grown a lot with. It allowed us all to connect with one another, to give advice to each other. It was very productive because you could go right into talking about deep issues. 

The ELIP program is creating a language we all share. It really begins to highlight how humans and nature are connected. A lot of the classes I took were demonstrating systems thinking, how we’re all interconnected. ELIP gives you the tools to think about society and the environment in new ways.
Omega: What was your biggest take away from ELIP?
Monica: It left me feeling called to rise to the challenge. The most important thing I took away from the program is how to live a life where actions reflect values in order to lead by example. Alone, consciously making the decision to change can be a daunting task, but when you join forces with others and build community, you become part of something larger and more meaningful. Community is a support network that allows you to share, teach, learn, and inspire others. 

Cultivating Hank's Beans & a Seed Center

1 year 2 months ago

“Part of what is missing in the seed industry is the spirit of seed,” says Ken Greene, cofounder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library, and the Center of Seed Stewardship.

If you took a close look at Omega’s main garden in the summer of 2015, you might have noticed something growing that’s truly unique. Something that embodies the "spirit of seed." It may have looked like any old bean, but it’s a bean with a special story. It’s 'Hank's Xtra Special Baking Bean.'

Rediscovering Hank's Beans

“Hank’s bean was the first seed that was donated to the Hudson Valley Seed Library.” Greene says. “I was still working at the Gardiner Library, and the library director, Peg Lotvin, had gone home to help her mom clean up her basement. Her father, Hank, had passed away maybe four or five years before. Hank had grown beans every year because he loved baked beans. He had a very specific idea of what made a good bean for making baked beans. He was selecting the plants over time to express the characteristics that he thought were ideal. There’s no other bean like it, because one person was guiding the changes in evolution of that particular variety.”

“When we found these beans, we weren’t sure if they would germinate or not,” Greene said. “But enough did that we were able to grow them, save seeds from them, and bring them back from near extinction.”

Planting & Sharing 

Omega planted Hank’s beans alongside a collaborative project headed up by the Glynwood Center in Cold Spring, New York. Several farms in the Hudson Valley grew the beans. Each was paired with a local New York restaurant that created and shared the beans in sold-out events across the Hudson Valley. In addition to sharing the beans with restaurants, 10 percent of the harvest was sent back to the Hudson Valley Seed Library to preserve the seed stock for future generations, echoing the way small-scale agriculture was conducted prior to the industrialization and consolidation that's taken place over the last half century.

Greene explains, “For generations, farmers and small gardeners alike were active participants in a practice older than civilization—the stewardship of seeds—but this skill set has been now relegated to scientists and corporations.”

A Seed Saving Challenge

Saving seed isn’t without it’s trials and tribulations, though. Omega’s 2015 crop was largely eaten by our resident woodchucks, despite best efforts to protect the plants. From the seeds we were able to save, we tested their viability, and it looks promising (see photo). We will plant the remaining seeds and hope for a larger yield in 2016 so we can give a portion back to the Hudson Valley Seed Library in the fall.

Growing the Center for Seed Stewardship

Greene's latest effort is the Center for Seed Stewardship (CSS), which he says was inspired by connections made at the 2014 and 2015 Omega Center for Sustainable Living conferences. "This nonprofit would not be happening if it wasn't for the ability to connect and build community around the concept of the commons at Omega." 

CSS aims to spread the knowledge and practice of seed saving by creating a network of seed libraries and seed sanctuaries. Greene looks to “rekindle participatory seed stewardship on a regional level, decentralize seed production and access nationally, and create a culture in which seed stewardship is revered.”

CSS plans to form individual seed sanctuaries through the Northeast, beginning in the Hudson Valley. Each of these sites will be centers for discovering and trialing regionally adapted plant varieties, educating the public on seed stewardship, producing organic seed for the region, and training farmers on how to produce seed in our region.

The organization is in its early stages of germination and will continue to plan its growth in a retreat at Omega during our annual Service Week in 2016.

Update: Power Lines Plan Approved by Public Service Commission

1 year 6 months ago

Dear Friends,

I am sad to report that the New York Public Service Commission has announced that they approved moving forward with the transmission line development project. 

Omega is grateful to all those who called and wrote to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Public Service Commission. Your support helped shape the process along the way and has made the outcome less harmful than it would otherwise have been. 

While the decision does take into consideration some of our stated environmental concerns, it will still cause damage and saddle the rate payers of the region with a very large, unnecessary construction bill. The route of the transmission line development will thankfully not impact historic sites or Omega. There were two routes in question, one directly bordering Omega and one east of Omega, with the eastern route being chosen. 

Together we have built a strong coalition that will continue to work toward a 21st century energy plan for New York State. Thank you for your support over this long process. I will be in touch about ongoing work.

For more details and comments from other members of the Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition, please read PSC Allows High-Voltage Power Lines to Proceed Despite Project’s Failure to Meet Tests of Need, Fairness and Emissions Reduction.

With appreciation,

Robert Backus's Signature

Robert "Skip" Backus 
Chief Executive Officer 
Omega Institute

Omega Needs Your Help! Call New York's Governor by December 17th

1 year 6 months ago

Dear Friends,

It’s been nearly two years since Omega, along with the Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition, began speaking out to create a better energy future for New York State. But there is still work to be done.

On December 17th, the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) is expected to make its final decision on whether or not to approve an unnecessary new power line expansion project that would cut through the heart of the Hudson Valley.

If this project is approved new, taller, overhead electric transmission lines will be built through 25 communities in seven counties—including potentially bordering Omega's campus.

Please help us by contacting Governor Andrew Cuomo and letting him know there is no need for this project. See a summary of talking points here.

You can call the Governor’s office at (518) 474-8390 or contact them via email at www.governor.ny.gov/contact. You can also call the Public Service Commission hotline at (800) 335-2120, as well as contact the PSC.  

The most recent review of the state’s electricity needs now and over the coming decades shows that New York already has more than enough transmission capacity, with 90 percent of the project’s projected $1.2 billion cost being borne by tax payers.

Not only does this project directly threaten the Omega Institute campus, as the proposed route runs directly behind our property, it threatens the environmental and economic future of the entire region.

Instead of out-dated, massive long-distance power lines, what the region needs is a 21st century energy grid, based on clean, renewable energy, generated as closely as possible to where it is used.

To learn more, join us on December 13th from 10:00-11:00 a.m., at Upstate Films in downtown Rhinebeck, New York, for a series of short films including High Voltage, Dark Shadow, which portrays the threats the Hudson River faces from this transmission project, as well as from toxic PCBs, and from oil transportation by so-called "bomb trains.” The short film series will be followed by a panel discussion with filmmaker Jon BowermasterDr. Gidon Eshel from Bard College, Ned Sullivan and Hayley Carlock from Scenic Hudson, and Greg Quinn from Hudson Valley Smart Energy Coalition.

Can’t make it on December 13th? View and share the short film today. And don’t forget to call the Governor’s office by December 17th.

With appreciation,

Robert Backus's Signature

Robert "Skip" Backus 
Chief Executive Officer 
Omega Institute

Rejecting Keystone XL Pipeline: A Step in the Right Direction

1 year 7 months ago
Saying that now was the time to act to "protect the one planet we've got while we still can," President Obama rejected the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The decision is a genuine victory for the planet, both in its symbolism and for what it means practically for protecting our climate, air, and water.
"It's great news that there is a growing understanding of the real danger of transporting highly explosive tar sands oil, as well as the increasing negative impact that burning our remaining sources of hydrocarbons has on our environment," Omega CEO Robert "Skip" Backus said on hearing the President's decision.
Due its composition, oil spills involving tar sands are considerably more difficult to clean up than spills with conventional sources of petroleum. Tar sand oil extraction and processing also creates more greenhouse gas emissions than other crude oil sources.
TransCanada's Keystone XL has been a highly contentious fossil fuel infrastructure since it was first proposed, becoming a touchstone of civil disobedience for environmentalists throughout the United States, with dozens of arrests taking place outside the White House.
"While rejection of Keystone XL is important," Backus added, "there are other, more local, extreme energy projects that now deserve our renewed attention. To protect our water, air, and climate from pollution, we need to keep the spotlight on efforts to transport oil through our region via so-called bomb trains and on Hudson River barges."
The decision, coming as it does just weeks before the COP21 climate talks in Paris, is being hailed by environmentalists.
Bill McKibben, cofounder of 350.org and Omega teacher says, "This isn't just a victory for the climate movement—it's a victory for everyone who believes in the power of organized people, from the streets of Missouri, to the border crossings of Arizona, to the hills of South Dakota and Nebraska. Together, we're on the path to real, substantive change."
"If we want to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable future, we have to make the choice to expand our national and regional clean energy infrastructure, rather than continued investment in expanding polluting energy sources," Backus said. "Rejecting Keystone XL is a step in the right direction."

Kids Will Love Vegetables Once They Know Them

1 year 7 months ago

"What we know," Poughkeepsie Farm Project education director Jamie Levato told the Seeds of Change conference audience, "is if you get kids excited about vegetables, if you show them what they can prepare, if you provide a fun and interesting learning environment with caring loving adults, they will love vegetables. They won't love them just baked into a muffin, or with some cinnamon and sugar on top, they will love to eat slices of raw turnip; they will love to eat raw kale."

Poughkeepsie Farm Project, based in the city of Poughkeepsie, New York, is the recipient of the 2015 Omega Center for Sustainable Living Leadership in Sustainable Education Award. The award was presented at the Seeds of Change conference on October 10. 

“We are delighted to recognize Poughkeepsie Farm Project as a nonprofit that has made great strides with community partners to increase support for growing and serving local food in schools,” Omega CEO Robert “Skip” Backus said.

In the first half of 2015, Poughkeepsie Farm project served some 2,000 participants in farm visits, school nutrition programs, and a newly created high school intern program, nearly a 100 percent increase in reach from the year before.

Levato summed up the importance of teaching children about where food comes from, what it takes to grow it, and what foods to eat: “Kids in urban environments often have less access to fresh vegetables and the great outdoors. Without that exposure, familiarity, and access, they are not as likely to make the choice to eat vegetables.” 

As part of this award, Poughkeepsie Farm Project receives $10,000 and a strategic planning retreat at Omega, to help strengthen organizational development and further its mission.

Local Teens Can't Stop Talking About Omega

1 year 9 months ago

Omega recently hosted tweens and teens from two Hudson Valley organizations, Mill Street Loft and the North East Community Center (NECC), to explore campus and some quintessential Omega offerings. 

Tweens who visited from Mill Street Loft, based in the City of Poughkeepsie, were part of an outreach program that addresses issues for at-risk girls, providing learning and life skills and fostering self-esteem and personal empowerment.

The tweens took a tour of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL), enjoyed lunch at the dining hall, took a movement class, and interviewed Robert Turner, executive chef at Omega FoodWorks about the food served at Omega. 

“It's hard to explain what Omega is to 10- and 11-year-olds, but at Omega they felt so at ease,” said Michelle De la Cruz, director of Latino Programming at Mill Street Loft. “Just the experience of getting out of their environment, out in the country, and walking around was fantastic for them. They loved the self-sustainability project [OCSL]. They had a million and one questions about how the plants clean the water, and on the van ride home, they were explaining it to each other. One of the girls asked why they're not doing this in every city. They wanted to know how the water is cleaned in the city. They had never thought about it before.” 

Teens from the NECC's Teen Team Youth Leadership Program also enjoyed lunch at Omega and time with chef Bob, explored campus and the lake, and took an introductory yoga and meditation class.

“We all really enjoyed our trip to Omega, it was amazing,” said Sara Campbell NECC Teen Program Coordinator. “The teens couldn't stop talking about it all the way home.”