Why Cara Jennings May Be the Healthiest City Commissioner in Florida

City Commissioners are not often noted for their vibrant good health; up there on the dais under those fluorescent lights, most of them look little gray around the gills. But judging from her consumption of green leafy vegetables, Lake Worth City Commissioner Cara Jennings, 33, now in her second term, may well outlive her most hostile opponents. Jennings, who has been  associated with the anarchist movement for more than a decade, keeps an open house:  What you see with Jennings is  what you get.

We stopped by Jennings' Pepto-Bismol pink bungalow on Lake Worth's C St. -- it's nicknamed "The Canew," -- last Friday night. A sign taped by the heavily-flyered front door reads: "We Are a Community-Oriented Anarchist Collective Home," followed by a list of reasonable requests: 

that visitors help with cleaning, food costs, and gardening. That guests avoid wearing out their welcome by zoning out on living room couches. That yes, the internet costs money: Contributions are welcome.

Jennings and a group of friends were puttering around the kitchen, preparing a "Tropical Garden Dinner." At least 18 people, paying $30 a head, were scheduled to show up to eat at 7 p.m. The Canew crew had set up cloth-covered picnic tables in the back yard. The money was earmarked for Haiti relief.

The cooks had gathered great bowls of tomatoes, a table's worth of leafy greens the size of small umbrellas, and baskets of other vegetables from the backyard garden that Jennings and her housemates have tended for the past five years. It's a compact urban farm, with three bee houses, walls of roof-high tomato plants, mini pineapple plantations, citrus and tropical fruit trees -- key lime, loquat, mammy, papaya, banana -- and enough mustard greens and kale to feed a legion of bunnies. Twelve-foot-high sunflowers nodded benignly above our heads. Jennings attributes the surreal fertility of her organic garden to the worm poop she harvests from a couple of worm houses, and the constant cycle of compost. She said an inspector had just come by to inspect their hives and pronounced them in perfect health. "He also said the honey was some of the best he'd ever tasted," she added.

Jennings and the Canew-ers are inching ever closer to getting off the grid. The garden, she told us, supplies the household with the bulk of its food, although they still buy grains and beans. A local friend named Waffle, who lives a few blocks away, has helped build solar panels to power some of the appliances and lights. The front yard is planted entirely with native trees and shrubs. And Jennings is behind a local movement to allow families to raise a couple of chickens in Lake Worth's backyards. An old Mercedes diesel, which runs on cooking oil, is parked outside, but Jennings is most often seen riding her bike to and from commission meetings and the new Night Heron Grassroots Activist Center just off 13th St. With her housemate Panagioti Tsolkes (Tsolkes ran for mayor of Lake Worth in 2005), Jennings helped found the puts in volunteer time at the Night Heron, which opened in November last year. The Center offers a nightly list of events: This week, a workshop on how to help register Haitian immigrants for temporary protected status.

Jennings' house also serves as a makeshift crash pad for an underground railroad of anarchists in South Florida. As that sign by the door implies, visitors from other activist groups, especially from Miami, show up to spend the night when they're in town to participate in progressive protests. Jennings is part of a network that runs from eco-groups like the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition and Everglades Earth First to the Florida Green Party and Food Not Bombs; she's taken a lot of flak from political opponents over her activist commitments. Last March, she was arrested in Miami during a protest against Israeli aggression in Palestine (the video of Jennings, in whiteface, being hauled off screaming is a classic). She also ran into trouble for threatening to boycott a local restaurant when they hosted a candidate's fundraising party for commission hopeful Scott Maxwell (Maxwell won. The kerfluffle about his ties to racist groups is here.) The Florida Commission on Ethics later dismissed an ethics complaint against Jennings related to her boycott threat.

Her enemies are quick to pounce on her quirks. When Jennings raised a question about where Publix buys its tomatoes during a commission meeting discussing the CRA's project to attract the grocery chain downtown, supporters of the plan went ballistic. Lake Worth bloggers Lynn Anderson and Wes Blackman have been particularly vituperative. But years of activism have made Jennings politically savvy. She's got powerful networking skills (her Facebook page lists 455 friends). She's amassed a well organized group of supporters -- students, Greens, and left-leaners -- who are willing to spend their weekends knocking on doors during election campaigns. As a group, the Jennings brigade is visible, vocal, consistent.

And anybody who happens to peer through the overgrown foliage at The Canew sees a flourishing anarchist household humming away, healthy as its beehives. Credit all those vegetables.

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