Thirteen years ago, Marvin Gaye Park was a mess.
The park sits in Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 7, just east of the Anacostia River. The community is overwhelmingly poor and non-white, and suffers some of the worst rates of crime, unemployment and social breakdown in the city. The park itself had succumbed to disuse. One of the worst PCP and heroin markets in the city had cropped up nearby.
So Lincoln Heights residents and Washington Parks and People — an urban park organization in D.C. — jointly decided to step in. They transformed Marvin Gaye Park into the biggest community park revitalization effort in D.C. history. Over the ensuing years, a total of 85,000 volunteers helped move nine million pounds of trash and debris. Crime was cut over 50 percent, playgrounds were put in, the tree canopy was restored, and the drug market was replaced by a farmers market.
But one other piece was needed. “One of the things we’ve always found, community organizing 101, is that one of the best ways to get people together in any kind of community organizing situation is food,” said Steve Coleman, Washington Parks and People’s executive director. So starting sometime after 2012 they built a one-and-one-quarter acre urban farm right in the middle of the park: 41 raised beds, a small hoop house, a composting operation, and a fairly intensive crop rotation.
RonDell Pooler, Washington Parks and People’s field coordinator, grew up a block and a half away, on a lot his family’s owned since 1979 and in a house they built in 1987. He was one of the people who helped build the farm. “A lot of people from D.C., they look at it as just a city,” Pooler said. “They can’t really fathom farming until you bring them out there.”
A lot of people from D.C., they look at it as just a city. They can’t really fathom farming until you bring them out there.
Along with other efforts like Common Good City Farm, DC Greenworks, GroW Community Garden, Rooftop Roots and others, the farm in Marvin Gaye Park is part of Washington D.C.’s burgeoning urban agriculture movement. Its produce goes to a public housing project right across the street — one of the most impoverished and underserved sites in the city — and the garden itself now provides a training ground for local students and volunteers to learn both urban agriculture and a host of other skills.
But this isn’t just a feel-good story of community revitalization. Coleman and Pooler and their compatriots in the urban agriculture movement are trying to demonstrate a new way of feeding major cities — one that could rework Americans’ food systems, our employment, our impact on the environment, and our relationships to the land and to one another.
“We’re not pretending that you can grow your way out of the food security and access problem, or that you can solve all of the issues with climate from urban agriculture,” Coleman said. “[But] there are some wonderful things happening here in D.C. and in other cities to test out urban agriculture — and to challenge what we think are myths that urban agriculture has to be confined to a sort of boutique level of gardening, and that it can’t be done at a scale that’s a serious component of regional food security and sustainability.”
A More Climate-Friendly Food System
There are roughly two million farms in the United States, but half of them are part-time operations, and three quarters are considered “very small” — five acres or less. Of that two million, less than 140,000 farms (or a mere seven percent) account for 80 percent of all sales of agricultural products. In short, America’s food system is defined by a small number of extremely large, extremely centralized producers, who transport their wears out in all directions and often over great distances to the rest of the country.
Doing things that way comes with two main environmental consequences. First, all that food transportation means lots of vehicles burning fossil fuels. Food-related transportation isn’t much of the country’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions — only about three percent — but every bit counts.
The second and much bigger consequence, however, is waste. Agriculture accounts for something between 10 and 15 percent of the country’s GHG output, and almost half of that is for food that is ultimately thrown out.
America ships its food out with big, centralized producers and sells it with big, centralized distributors. When we shop at the grocery store, we usually do one trip to hold us over for an extended period of time. This all combines to create a system where, at every step, food is more likely to be misallocated and to be bought when it ultimately isn’t needed. As a result, Americans throw out 40 percent of the food they produce.
According to Sabine O’Hara, the Dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability & Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), moving some portion of America’s food system onto a decentralized network of small, local, urban gardens that serve their immediate community would address some of these issues. Carbon emissions would be cut down because more of the food would travel much shorter distances, and less of it would be wasted. Residents could shop for smaller quantities of food at a time, which would translate into consumers having a better idea of how much food they need to buy at a given time, and suppliers having a better idea of how much food they need to have on hand.
“I’m originally from Germany,” O’Hara explained, “and until I moved to this country I went shopping every day. I picked up my food for dinner on my way home from work, looking at what’s fresh in the vegetable store, or in the butcher shop, etc. That’s a very different consumption system than what I’ve become accustomed to in the U.S.”
One solution is to bring food production to the neighborhood: “If we localize the food system more, we stand a better chance of actually receiving feedback on the amount of food we need,” O’Hara said.
Gardens Of Well-Being
Among the most perverse effects of poverty are “food deserts.” If a community’s purchasing power is low enough, major grocery chains often make an actuarial decision to just not set up there. There’s too little profit in it.
Food deserts are the result: neighborhoods where people have to travel miles or make multiple bus line changes to buy food anywhere other than a corner gas station or convenience store. Low-income communities also have the hardest time accessing transportation and typically have the most unpredictable work schedules, all of which compounds the problem. They wind up mainly being able to access only the dregs of our national food system. It’s why advanced economies like America see the paradoxical circumstance of hunger and obesity going hand-in-hand.
It’s way under the radar because all the places that are food deserts are all the places that have less power and attention … It’s a massive problem.
“You’re talking about white flour, white bread, white pasta, high amounts of sugar, white sugar, processed food, and very low amounts of fresh food,” Coleman said.
Food deserts can be tricky to identify, both because of where people actually live in census tracts, and because, as Coleman pointed out, social dynamics like crime prevent people from visiting or traveling through certain areas. But in D.C., Wards 5, 6, 8, and especially 7 are the hardest hit, with Ward 4 facing a much more modest difficulty, as well.
“It’s way under the radar because all the places that are food deserts are all the places that have less power and attention. It’s the forgotten, traditionally underserved communities,” Coleman said. “It’s a massive problem.”
Pooler often works at the farmers market that runs every Saturday around the corner from the Marvin Gaye farm, providing the produce to the local residents in Lincoln Heights. “A lot of people they recognize that they’re in a food desert whether they know that term or not,” he said. “Being able to just walk down the street and stop and pick up some fresh fruits or fresh vegetables — that’s a plus for them. They love that.”
And for others in the neighborhood, it’s an introduction to a new way of eating, when previously they only options they’ve known are things like carry-out and fast food. “We have a lot of people who depend on the greening center,” Pooler said. “[They] look forward every Saturday to stopping past the farmers market to get three or four cups of watermelon, to get a few pounds of grapes or a few pounds of potatoes.”
Nationally, 14.3 percent of Americans were food insecure in 2013, “meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members” according to the Department of Agriculture. The result is high rates of diabetes, high rates of obesity, and a whole host of other health ailments, along with the general lack of a well-functioning immune system that comes with poor nutrition. People in poor health have to take more days off work, making poverty all the harder to climb out of. Add it all up, according to Coleman, and residents in the impoverished neighborhoods of the nation’s capitol can expect to live 10 or even 20 fewer years on average than their more well-to-do brethren. The same holds true for impoverished urban areas elsewhere in the country.
An expansion of urban gardening would bring immediate access to food — and to high-quality food — to low-income neighborhoods. Whether food is harvested when it’s ripe, how well it’s stored by the big industrial distributors and how long it takes to ship can all have significant nutritional impacts — urban gardens solve much of that by drastically shrinking the trip from farm to table.
“Studies that have been done show that some of the worst heart problems and diabetes can be significantly reversed — not just prevented in the first place, but reversed — through basic common sense changes in diet and access to fresh grown greens and other high nutrient food products,” Coleman said.
There’s also a more indirect and communal benefit to urban farming that can do things like cut down on crime. “People talk a lot about crime in places and they forget that everything we do that’s forcing us inside is increasing that,” Coleman said. “[Urban farming] gets us together with our neighbors, it connects us with the land and with community in a very real and non-abstract way.”
The crops need to be regularly tended and the garden maintained, which means a constant cycle of activity that brings local residents into organized contact with one another. The technical term for it is “social capital,” but it just boils down to the relationships and trust people build with one another in a common endeavor.
“It means a lot for me,” Pooler affirmed. “Not only does it give me the opportunity to give back to the neighborhood and the community and the environment, but also to help others out as well.”
Where There’s Food, There’s Jobs
The farms alone won’t do the trick, however. Food deserts don’t just limit what food people can get; they limit what people can learn about food.
Cooking a meal from fresh produce is a skill set like any other. There are ways to handle fresh greens versus other kinds of raw food. There are methods to learn and recipes to remember, and all that knowledge has to be retained by repetition and passed on through individual, familial and communal interaction. Food deserts prevent many of the people in Lincoln Heights and other low-income areas around the country from ever going through that process.
“When people have relied their entire lives on a system that delivers them nothing but processed, canned, and frozen food, they can often miss out on basic skill sets more fortunate Americans take for granted,” O’Hara added. “Or the fact that when food comes fresh from the land, that’s not a messy thing, that’s a good thing.”
So when Washington Parks and People reclaimed Marvin Gaye Park, they didn’t just build the farm; they partnered with O’Hara and UDC to bring those skills back to the Lincoln Heights community. They took over a space around the corner that used to be a night club — the Crystal Lounge, where Marvin Gaye first performed professionally — and transformed it into a kitchen and teaching center. Chefs from UDC run classes where adults and children from the neighborhood can learn how to cook, how to prepare fresh food, how to understand nutrition, and how to tend and care for the garden itself.
The college has a similar setup at the other urban gardens it’s helped incubate around D.C. They combine the farming with a kitchen and an associated farmers market to create a “food hub,” where people can develop the skills for the full food system supply chain that spans out from each garden. O’Hara and others from the college even hand out recipes for whatever’s being harvested that week, and they’ll also help locals retool family recipes to use more nutritional ingredients and to take advantage of what the urban farms are producing.
“A lot of times people say, ‘You’re right, I don’t really taste the difference,’” O’Hara went on. “Or sometimes they’ll say, ‘Well, it does taste different, but you know what I actually like it better!’”
Food preparation skills are also job skills. UDC’s food hubs train local residents in how to handle food according to regulatory standards, and take them through the process of starting their own restaurant, food shop or farmer’s market stand. The hubs are also looking to support local food entrepreneurs with market research, networking, and other logistics. In particular, O’Hara pointed to the rise of niche markets for ethnic food in D.C. as a ripe opportunity for an entrepreneur working with urban gardens and the food hubs.
“Some of our fellow residents here come from all parts of the world, and like their own food, and are willing to pay top dollar for their own food,” O’Hara explained. “So what might not be commercially viable for you if you grow corn, might be very viable in terms of your small piece of land that you might have if you grow specialty crops and ethnic crops.”
These hubs will … also be businesses incubators that can spawn other food related businesses in the District.
The rise of the “hourglass” economy, especially since the recession, has meant most of the jobs gained in the economy in recent years have been low-income, and Bureau of Labor Statistics research indicates food service and preparation will be one of the main areas that contribute to the new (and primarily low-income) jobs by 2020.
If all this will be happening in tandem with the need to improve nutrition among impoverished Americans, the case possibility of revitalizing at least some low-income communities with networks of farmers markets, kitchens, local restaurants and vendors — all built around local urban gardens — becomes clearer.
“The idea is these hubs will not only be production and food preparation and distribution sites themselves, but they will also be businesses incubators that can spawn other food related businesses in the District,” O’Hara said.
Pooler himself got his full-time job with Washington Parks and People by coming up through their Green Corps jobs training program, which brings in residents primarily from Wards 7 and 8 and gives them skills that can be transferred to urban agriculture, reforestation, landscaping, stormwater infrastructure, and more. A spread of urban gardens across all the cities in the country could support many more such jobs. And the Green Corps members in turn handle thousands of volunteers from D.C. and elsewhere who come through every year to work the gardens in the District.
“The majority of the [Green Corps] trainees — at least 80 or 85 percent of them — have had some type of barrier against them or set up in front of them that keep them from employment, whether it’s felony convictions, whether it’s history of drug addiction, whether it’s homelessness, anything you can think of,” Pooler said. “Or some of them may have just never had a job.
Beyond the food hubs, there are rain gardens, green roofs, decorative planters and other forms of “green infrastructure” that are a crucial part of how cities are managing stormwater runoff — a task that will only become more necessary as climate change drives up deluges and the intensity of storms in some parts of the country. Those too will create jobs, many accessible to less educated and working class Americans, since green infrastructure will need to be constantly maintained as well as designed and installed.
“Sometimes we think of the high-tech end of the green jobs market, the fancy hydroponics, but we forget about the low-tech end of the green jobs market,” O’Hara said. “People maintaining landscape bases, rain gardens, green roofs, etc. Those are very viable opportunities.”
Spreading The Green
“Washington, D.C.’s actually the greenest large city in North America,” according to Coleman. “We have the highest percentage of public green acreage. So we think this is a good testing ground for what a more serious commitment to urban agriculture would look like.” Sustainable DC, a project launched in 2011, aims to add 20 new acres for community food production to the city within the next two decades. Coleman and Washington Parks and People believe that goal is grossly underpowered, and that 2,000 new acres of urban gardens could be added in that time span.
What would that mean in practice? Well, according to experts with the Community Food Security Coalition, a 100-square-meter plot in a 130-day temperate growing season “can provide most of a four-person household’s total yearly vegetable needs, including much of the household’s nutritional requirements for vitamins A, C, and B complex and iron.” Roughly 40 such plots could fit in an acre, so 2,000 acres would shake out to the annual vegetable needs of 80,000 four-person households, or 320,000 individuals.
Just under 119,600 people in D.C. currently live below the poverty line — though that number increases to over 148,600 when cost of living is factored in, and considerably more live at two or three times the poverty line, where life is still extremely difficult.
Still, the short answer is a serious push to maximize urban gardening in the District could make a very big dent in the food needs of its neediest residents.
In order for that to happen, municipalities like the District of Columbia will have to rethink their regulatory, zoning, permitting and tax policies, which as currently written throw up unusually acute hurdles for local urban gardening and the like. “It’s very hard to have a farm market in [Washington, D.C.],” Coleman said. “If you just want to grow the food and sell it affordably there’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through … Especially if you want to use the various food assistance programs like SNAP and WIC and tie that all together.”
Coleman pointed to D.C. laws that make it difficult to raise chickens in the city, for example, and to federal policy that stands in the way of the same owner running both a farm and a farmers market. Then there’s the paperwork often involved in starting an urban garden. “The hardest part [of building the gardens] wasn’t the physical part,” Coleman said. “It was the legal end of dealing with the taxes and all the leans and all the ways that we’ve created barriers between the neighbors who were eager to transform the land and the property itself. So there are some land taxation and assessment issues that need to be addressed.”
Improvements are happening: the District recently passed a law explicitly allowing beekeeping within the city, though the specific regulations have yet to be finalized. And a pending D.C. City Council bill aims to facilitate turning vacant lots into urban farms, and to provide tax incentives for local farming. For other possibilities, O’Hara pointed to her native Germany, where people who grow their own food and sell it at local farmers markets aren’t taxed on their sales, thus giving the development of local food systems a leg up.
It will require a balancing act, especially in dense urban centers like D.C. or San Francisco, where affordable housing for low-income residents is as difficult to find as good nutrition options. So the goals of greater housing supply and more urban gardens are competing for the same urban spaces.
Ultimately, Coleman suggested the District actually needs its own Department of Agriculture: a central hub for organizing agricultural policy within the city, for moving agricultural education back into the local schools, and so forth. Coleman said there’s a proposal for a food city council in D.C. — a primordial form of an agricultural department, and similar to what already exists in Los Angeles — but so far that’s the extent of the new plans.
“A lot of it just comes from the illiteracy of all of us being disconnected from the land, a lot of policymakers just not having a lot of familiarity with working the land,” Coleman said. “There’s a ways to go in really thinking about agriculture interwoven into city life.”
For Coleman, it’s all part of our heritage. “We want to remind folks that a key part of our heritage is our agrarian roots,” he said. “It’s really in our view very appropriate to ask that a substantial portion — not a majority — but a substantial portion of public green space in the capital be a place to grow food in a way that’s sustainable and healthy for the people.”
The Gift of Good (Urban) Land
Years ago, the ground in the Marvin Gaye Park urban farm that RonDell Pooler works used to be a playground he would clamber over as a child. The entirety of the park is 1.6 miles long, and much of it beyond the farm still struggles with a crime problem that sits in uneasy tension with the reclamation efforts by Washington parks and People and others. But for RonDell Pooler the change has been real: “Now that I’m 32 years old and I’m working over there and zone out and think about how I was small and sliding down the sliding board that’s where the tool shed is now — that’s big,” Pooler said. “I used to look at the park as just the woods. Now looking at it through adult eyes and I guess green eyes I’m looking at this as green space. It’s kind of surreal for me. I get a real good feeling inside when I’m out there.”
Garden- and park-making goes on everywhere, whether it’s a great national park like Yosemite, or if it’s a flower box in a city tenement.
Along with Marvin Gaye Park and Washington Parks and People, the urban farming program at the University of the District of Columbia has helped set up three other food hubs with other groups around the District, with the ultimate ambition of seeding a network of such hubs across D.C. and then on to other cities as well.
“Our hope is that the period of our disconnect with agriculture will in the future be viewed as a blip in history,” Coleman explained. He pointed to the 19th Century naturalist John Muir, who asserted that “garden- and park-making goes on everywhere, whether it’s a great national park like Yosemite, or if it’s a flower box in a city tenement.” He also argued that the national park analogy extends further, to how public green space could ultimately be managed to encourage urban farming — treating a simple one-acre garden as a part of America’s agrarian heritage every bit as much as the great national parks are part of its wilderness heritage.
“Instead of us just recalling how our grandfathers tended the land, our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren — even in dense urban areas — will be working the land on their rooftops and in tree boxes and intertwined with playgrounds and parks all over the country.”
“Agriculture and working the land no matter which culture or nationality you come from — at one point that was a thing,” Pooler added. “That was a way of life. It was natural. There wasn’t a Super Walmart or any fast food. You grew your food. That’s what we want to bring our futures back to.”
This article originally said crime in Marvin Gaye Park was cut 99 percent following the restoration. That figure was incorrect. We regret the error.