It is amazing how much you can grow in a small space if the soil is good and you stay on top of tasks such as watering and weeding. But even in a pandemic-driven planting year full of homegrown potatoes, beans and carrots, you have to face reality. If you relied on most urban veggie plots alone to feed yourself, never mind a large family, you’d be forever tightening your belt.
This is why I’ve had my doubts about whether urban agriculture can meet the challenge where it is most needed: in poorer, food-insecure neighborhoods.
Rosie Williams is in charge of such a garden, in an expansive side lot of the National Children’s Center, an early-learning and educational development provider in Southeast Washington.
The garden packs a lot in. There are almost 70 raised planter beds, each four by eight feet and filled with deep, rich soil. That’s a lot of growing area; the beds generate bushels of edible plants for most of the year. A shed houses tools, a single beehive is active, a few fruit trees ring the area, and one side is devoted to little benches for little people. The center, which normally houses classes for 188 children up to age 5, has been closed because of the pandemic, though a limited reopening is in the works.
Williams, a teacher and the garden coordinator, shows me cool-season veggies growing in the fall, young plants of kale, collards, cauliflower, broccoli and red cabbage. In other planters, mature plants are seeing out the season in robust vigor. The most obvious is a single pepper plant — now taller than Williams — whose leaves hide unripe green chiles that hang like ornaments. This is a mighty hot pepper from Trinidad named Scorpion, she said, and I have no doubt that it has a sting in its tail.
Nearby, a Japanese eggplant is full of purple streaked fruit. Along another path, Williams stops to lift a wayward cherry tomato vine and places it back in its bed. “I don’t like to step on my babies,” she said.
Elsewhere, wizened sunflowers have had their day. “We bring the kids out, we show them how to plant seeds, what the plants need,” she said. “It’s getting folks exposed to the garden.” Food from the garden is used in the center’s kitchen.
Thus the children (and their families) get a sense that food comes from the soil. This is not so obvious a connection in Ward 8. In this corner of the capital of the United States, there is one full-service grocery store for 80,000 people, and access to something as basic as fresh vegetables is limited.
“We have a lack of grocery stores,” said Jahni Threatt, the CSA market manager for the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River. “In Wards 7 and 8, we have three grocery stores.” Residents eat from fast-food chains or out of convenience stores and liquor stores. “The food that’s available isn’t necessarily healthy,” she said. Under Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs, growers provide direct weekly harvests to subscribers.
The Baby Bloomers Urban Farm that Williams coordinates at the National Children’s Center is one of seven in a network of city farms east of the Anacostia River, including a one-acre farm run by Threatt’s organization at THEARC, the arts, education and social services campus at 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE.
This one farm produced as much as 1,600 pounds of food this year, but to provision its CSA program, the Building Bridges group turns to an additional 10 farms within 50 miles of the city, most of them Black-owned, said Scott Kratz, vice president.
The CSA runs three seasons of subscriptions, and bags are picked up on Saturdays at THEARC. The spring season was canceled because of the pandemic, but the summer and fall ones have been heavily subscribed and will provide food for more than 400 families this year. The season has also been extended, from the end of this month to the end of next. Lower-income subscribers get a reduced rate, and families on assistance get the food free, Kratz said.
This is heartening, because the pandemic has hit the city’s poorest wards the hardest. Many residents have underlying health issues related in part to their diet, and many are front-line workers or rely on the gig economy, putting them at greater risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, Kratz said. Ward 8, which is 92 percent Black, so far has the highest number of virus deaths in the District, with 127, according to city data. Ward 3, 81 percent White, had 34 for the same period.
“We need to make sure that the programming we have is coming through the lens of equity and making sure the access people need is available to everybody in the community,” said Dominic Hosack, farm director of Building Bridges.
I am rethinking my sense that mini-farms in the city are of limited value. They are, rather, a key portal into a larger infrastructure of food-security efforts. Beyond their utility, they are places of deep reconnection, to the soil, to food and to communities. In the food deserts of big-city America, they are the oases.
Tip of the Week
Whiteflies are tenacious pests of certain houseplants and should be tackled, preferably before bringing plants indoors for the season. A vacuum cleaner is an effective way of dealing with them without using pesticides. Repeat as needed.
— Adrian Higgins
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