A D.C. urban farm takes on urban problems

Joseph Molieri, Bread for the World
Urban farming can serve needs of local communities beyond nutrition.

Little more than grass used to grow on the two-acre plot behind a middle school in the District of Columbia where tomatoes, okra and infrastructure for food entrepreneurs will begin cropping up this year.

In a ward of the city with just two grocery stores serving more than 70,000 residents, fresh produce is hard to come by. But the Kelly Miller Farm, which will be situated behind a middle school with the same name, aims to offer much more: youth programs, a community garden accessible to seniors and a commercial kitchen from which area residents can launch food-based businesses.

Joseph Molieri, Bread for the World
<p><span>Christopher Bradshaw, executive director of&nbsp;</span>Dreaming Out Loud<span>.</span></p>

"It’s like a food system in a box — in one space, in one community," said Christopher Bradshaw, executive director of Dreaming Out Loud. The D.C. food justice nonprofit is partnering with the city and a half-dozen other organizations to run the farm in a way that generates revenue while also meeting the community’s unique needs. "I don’t know too many places combining those things," Bradshaw said.

With $150,000 in seed money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — through programs promoting farmers’ markets and specialty crops — and a mix of other local grants, the founders plan to build infrastructure such as hoop houses and a greenhouse while transforming a gutted shipping container into a commercial kitchen space. Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring and be completed by midsummer.

A USDA spokesman said the farm will serve as a model for organizations across the country that want to help consumers understand how their food is produced, especially in urban settings. But what sets the farm apart from a rooftop garden in the district’s restaurant row is that it’s catered to the people who live in this often-underserved part of the city, not just the ones who work or spend money there.

After attending the district’s historically black Howard University, Bradshaw, 35, stumbled into urban agriculture while trying to teach in an after-school program at a public charter school that has since closed. The students would arrive each day with stomachs full of the Teddy Grahams and Kool-Aid the school provided as snacks only to bounce off the walls during his lessons on "character development." Then, they’d crash.

Realizing he couldn’t teach the children without first addressing their most basic needs, Bradshaw’s nonprofit started a school garden and then a farmers’ market, so parents could buy better food, too. The latter often proved an exercise in staying power more than money-making and, eventually, Bradshaw decided to pursue broader, community-level programs.

Last year, when Bradshaw reached out looking for rentable, farmable land, the district happened to be looking for a partner to help create a model urban farm for the city. The two joined forces.

Bradshaw said he couldn’t have come as far as he has without the help of both city and federal partners who have prioritized food access over the past eight years. Having an outspoken advocate for this brand of work in the White House’s first lady hasn’t hurt, either — although it’s left him leery about the prospects of a new administration this year.

Involving the community

Bradshaw started the Kelly Miller Farm project, now months in the making, with a step he now knows is crucial to success: Asking people who live in the community what they want.

A short walk from two housing projects in a neighborhood whose population is 96 percent African American and 11 percent unemployed, the farm will serve many people who lack access to healthy food and rely on federal nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP, or food stamps. It became clear to Bradshaw and other organizers in the community that residents wanted and needed food options beyond corner stores.

Josh Singer, a community garden specialist with the district’s Department of Parks and Recreation, said the city model needs to go further than growing a lot of food on a little land to address urban problems such as affordable food and housing. If such projects ignore the context in which they’re growing food and the groups that are already at work in those communities, they may do more harm than good, he said.

"A lot of times, organizations will use these poor communities and their statistics to get grants to do work that the community never wanted in the first place," Singer said. With the Dreaming Out Loud project, however, "we have a whole coalition focused on making this space serve the local community."

Joseph Molieri, Bread for the World

Given the area’s specific challenges, growing microgreens to sell at high-dollar to the city’s hottest restaurants — as some urban farms do to make money on expensive land— would not be appropriate, Singer said.

From the beginning, the organizers of this farm wanted to do more than show residents how food is grown; they wanted them to be able to do the work themselves. That’s why the space incorporates a kitchen and incubator where entrepreneurs can work on their recipes and business plans alongside a compost space where locals can get dirt under their nails. Bradshaw said the farm is fundraising to hire a manager and assistants from within the community but that volunteer work is welcome, too.

Partner nonprofits will use the space to teach children from the middle school about food production or to host therapeutic gardening sessions for seniors recovering from addiction. The produce will be sold at a nearby farmers’ market Dreaming Out Loud runs in the ward and possibly through a subscription program. (Bradshaw would like parents to be able to pick up a weekly produce box with their kids from the school.)

Initially, some residents were concerned about the project’s impact on their own properties; construction to rebuild the middle school a few years ago involved work with a wrecking ball that some say damaged the foundations of their homes and left them suspicious of new projects. But after a few meetings during the project’s early stages, many began suggesting ideas for the space.

Boe Luther, 52, has lived in the ward’s Clay Terrace neighborhood his entire life and said the farm project couldn’t come at a better time. As the owner of two ice cream trucks and a regular at the neighborhood’s existing community garden, Luther is eager for others to have the chance to become food entrepreneurs. They could use the project’s kitchen space to make salad dressings or salsas, he said, or grow cut flowers to sell at the market.

"We’ll have to do the research and see what people want," Luther said. "But a lot of citizens of Ward 7 are happy about it."

Walking the talk

Beyond the neighborhood, organizations that work to improve access to nutritious food in the city’s poorest areas are rooting for the farm’s success. The city’s newly minted food policy council, of which Bradshaw is a member, sees the farm as a stage for many policies they’ve espoused on paper, including growing both farms and food access in the city’s poorest enclaves.

Joseph Molieri, Bread for the World

"The Kelly Miller Farm is embodying those values, said Laine Cidlowski, the district’s food policy director.

After seeing firsthand the big impact of a small garden, Luther thinks a vibrant farm has the potential to bring much more than food to the neighborhood: "Jobs, training, careers, opportunities, peace of mind, serenity — it brings all of that."

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