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Are Mobile Urban Farms A Good Use Of Space In D.C.?

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Volunteers build raised vegetable beds on DCBIA’s “Build Day” on Sept. 26.
Lisa Pelstring/Department of the Interior
Volunteers build raised vegetable beds on DCBIA’s “Build Day” on Sept. 26.

An abandoned island of grass and dirt sloping between Capitol Heights Metro station and busy East Capitol Street is getting new life this fall.

Far from a flashy new development, the site will soon be home to D.C.’s largest urban farm, covering three acres near the Maryland border. The project is headed by the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and backed by a diverse coalition of a dozen or so groups ranging from unlikely ally Walmart to local non-profits to the federal family through the Urban Waters Federal Partnership.

Why build such a large farm in the middle of a rapidly developing neighborhood? UDC and its partners aim to help solve the food desert problem in this Ward 7 area east of the Anacostia River.

Solving food deserts

Jessica Howard Wynter Martin is up to her knees in mud. When asked what brought her out here today, she says that getting quality groceries is a weekly struggle living here in Ward 7.

“There’s no food out here,” she says, “I have to take a serious day off to get two bags of groceries to my house.”

On this sunny, windswept Saturday morning Wynter Martin is one of a hundred or so volunteers crisscrossing the property carting soil, plants, and shovels. She says that she currently travels across the city to 14th Street NW to get groceries from Whole Foods and Trader Joes.

“I go all the way out there, now I have like 40 pounds of groceries I got four bags on me and I’m really heavy and I’m tired, I’m debating whether to call Uber,” she explains, “I have to really sit and think about it, I’m like alright my food stamps just came in and I just got a check so I put all this together I’m going to go make a big trip.”

Before development, the property was an abandoned island of dirt and grass. (Lisa Pelstring/Department of the Interior)

Wynter Martin is a student in UDC’s urban agriculture certificate program. Residents like Martin will be able to grow their own vegetables and sell them at an on-site farmer’s market. Organizers also hope to branch out to sell produce in local corner stores.

“It would be really nice if you could pick up some cucumbers, that’s what I’d really like to see,” she says.

Ward 7 residents travel some of the farthest distances in the District to get to their closest supermarket, according to a 2012 D.C. Hunger Solutions report. Sabine O’Hara is the Dean of UDC’s College of Agriculture Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences. She calls this food insecurity.

“We have households that are food insecure, in fact 37 percent households with children in this city report not having enough food or enough high quality food in the course of the year,” she says.

Along with making good food more accessible, another goal of the farm is to make better use of vacant property. Sharon Bradley was in charge of designing the site; she says that organizers were looking for a model that could be replicated across the city.

“[We were] asking ourselves, can we make these vacant parcels more valuable?” she says. “Can we increase social capital and financial value and environmental performance when we transform those lots even on a temporary basis?”

Amazingly, East Capitol Urban Farm is built to be totally portable — with movable farm beds and box gardens. Mobility is a necessity because the land is owned by the DC Housing Authority and is slated for development in the next two to three years.

Over in the vegetable garden Che Axum, the Director of the Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education at UDC, is leading a class on cover crops.

Over a 1,000 volunteers participated in DC Building Industry Association’s “Build Day” on the farm Sept. 26. (Lisa Pelstring/Department of the Interior)

“Today we’re going to be dealing with a very important topic in sustainable agriculture called nutrient cycling, so what you want to do you want to cycle as many of the nutrients in the growing area as you can,” he begins to explain.

For Axum, education is an essential component of the project.

“We are trying to give people an understanding of the connection between soil and health,” he says.

A future in urban land

Come spring, the site will host programs to teach kids how to grow vegetables. The farm will also work with older residents, providing services like a food truck that does home delivery.

“Around here we don’t have a lot of transportation, so it could be that some of the seniors can’t go out and get green vegetables,” says 83-year-old Evelyn Morse.

Morse can see the farm from her window in one of the townhouses on the hill. She’s out today with a rake in hand to help level ground for vegetable plots. She looks forward to growing her own vegetables here when the weather wards up.

“I will be having a plot here, hopefully I’ll be working with my son, because as you know I am 83 years old and I just can’t do it all by myself,” she says, laughing.

This three-acre plot is only the first in a network of urban farms UDC and its partners plan to develop on vacant lots across the District.

[Music: "The Farmer and the Duck" by Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile from Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile]

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