Most of Washington east of the Anacostia River is what’s called a food desert, with few outlets that offer fresh produce. But D.C. Urban Greens has built a small oasis: An organic farm that grows collards, kale, okra, lettuce and other edibles. And it’s planning several more.
The nonprofit group was founded in 2012 by Julie Kirkwood and Vincent Forte, veterans of local building and real estate businesses. It had its first growing season last year, using three unheated greenhouses (known as high tunnels or hoop houses) behind the Fort Dupont Ice Arena on Ely Place in Southeast.
“Our model is to take small pieces of land in food-desert neighborhoods in Wards 7 and 8 and create these neighborhood farms,” Kirkwood said. “Our concept is, the land belongs to the people; we can turn it into a productive space. And then keep the food directly in the community in which it was grown.”
Last year, the produce was sold at a farm stand on the site. Now the group is planning a delivery service and will use D.C. Central Kitchen’s “Healthy Corners” program to distribute its salad mix to small stores more likely to sell chips, cigarettes and lottery tickets.
The Fort Dupont site is not a community garden, Kirkwood said.
“We do not have people growing their own food,” she said. “We manage the spaces. We don’t consider this a hobby. We consider it a production space.
“The community we’re working is, like, 35 percent single mothers with kids,” she added. “They don’t have time to go out and garden themselves to get healthy food.”
The group has partnered with Washington Parks and People to build a second farm, dubbed the Marvin Gaye Greening Center, on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue in Northeast. It was also approached by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to create a third farm behind the Fort Stanton Recreation Center.
“We don’t know if we’re going to build it, but we are going to manage whatever ends up there,” Kirkwood said. “And it’s all on our model and our design.”
D.C. Urban Greens hires neighborhood residents to build the farms and manage them.
“We do everything the first time ourselves,” Kirkwood said. “The way we need to do it in order to teach it. But then we try to hand it off to the folks in the neighborhood.”
The group does rely on volunteers to do some of the farm work, drawing from local schools, government agencies and businesses such as Ben & Jerry’s.
“In order to make volunteers productive, we need to have a plan,” Kirkwood said. “We write up instruction sheets, so people don’t have to sit there wondering what to do.”
On Earth Day, members of the Endangered Species Coalition planted a pollinator garden designed to lure bees, butterflies and small birds to the farm.
“Our model is to always put a pollinator garden in every space,” Kirkwood said, “because we’ve got food that needs pollination, and we know that lost habitat and chemicals are killing pollinators.”
Inside the greenhouses, lettuces are already growing, and mushrooms are sprouting in bags that hang from the supports. Last year, many customers asked for fruit, so terraces are being built to cultivate melons outside the structures.
“In the small spaces we work in, it would be more efficient to grow all the same thing,” Kirkwood said. “But that’s kind of not the point.”
The Fort Dupont site is rustic enough that its crops are raided by deer and wild turkeys, yet the farm benefits from its proximity to the large ice arena. Water condensed by the arena’s cooling system is recycled for irrigation, and a wall that borders one high tunnel retains heat. That and plastic coverings help extend the growing season.
“We go from, like, March through Thanksgiving,” Kirkwood said.
Based on D.C. Urban Greens’ first season, she said, “we can grow the food pretty well. The hardest part is getting it into the community. Being only one year old, people don’t really know that we exist.”
That’s why this year’s crops will be available through a program called Farm to Front Door.
“People can either call in or order on the computer, and then one of the guys we hire from the neighborhood will deliver,” Kirkwood said. “But we will only deliver to people’s house[s] if they’re within the 20019 Zip code. Because 20019 is where we grow our food.”
The farm may not be all that well known in its back yard, but some people from farther away have heard of it.
“We do get requests,” Kirkwood said. “ ‘Will you deliver to Montgomery County? Will you deliver to Arlington?’ And we’re, like, ‘No,’ ” she said with a laugh. “We deliver to 20019.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.