As the air warms and greenery sprouts from trees again, the time for lush gardens is now. Seeds from melons, corn, squash, tomatoes and any other produce are sowed in the hopes of bountiful summer and fall harvests. This scene may sound like it belongs on farmlands in rural America or in the backyard of a suburban home, but it’s happening in our own city. Forgotten lots and overgrown fields are being converted into urban gardens right here in D.C., providing food and community to the District’s residents.
Multiple urban garden organizations have emerged since the passage of the D.C. Urban Farming and Food Security Act of 2014, also known as D.C.’s Farm Bill, acting as a spark for residents to put their green thumbs to use, grow food themselves and maybe make a few friends. While fostering community is a goal of these organizations, the main objective is to provide Washingtonians access to fresh produce.
“It’s important to know your neighbors and develop rapport with everyone, but the sole purpose is [to create] food security and self-sufficiency,” says Saleemah Shabazz, former program coordinator of Common Good City Farm and current gardener at LeDroit Park Community Garden.
Northeast and Southeast D.C. are home to some of the city’s major food deserts, classified by the D.C. Policy Center as areas where the walking distance to a grocery store is more than 0.5 miles, more than 40 percent of households do not have a reliable vehicle available and the average family income is less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level.
For residents living in these areas, food insecurity is a part of everyday life. In order to reduce the total number of people living with these circumstances, communities have turned to urban gardening. Without this vegetation, many would not have access to healthy food options, including Shabazz.
“I’m low-income and this addresses my need and supplements a lot of my food,” she says. “This is where all of our food comes from: the earth. It promotes health, activities and education, and it’s a natural thing to do. We can’t avoid it.”
Shabazz explains that the need for gardening in D.C. is so great that many people are on the waiting list for their own plot at LeDroit Park. She has worked with the property managers at Kelly Miller, a public housing community development, to build garden beds on their property for residents to use.But there are still people without plots of their own.
Luckily, there are other gardens also attempting to address this need. One such garden is DC UrbanGreens, located in Fort Dupont Park. Taboris Robinson, food access entrepreneur at DC UrbanGreens and owner of contract service DMV Urban Greens, focuses his efforts on providing fresh produce from the gardens to his community. Robinson sets up a stand to sell the produce he has grown at affordable prices, and also delivers food to those in need. When he runs out of food to offer, community members stop him on the street to inquire when they can get their next batch of fruits and vegetables. Robinson’s number one priority is getting healthy food in his neighbors’ hands.
“I try to make sure it all goes back to the community,” he says. “In Wards 7 and 8, you have more liquor stores than you do grocery stores, so it’s hard [for people] to get healthy food. I try to bring it to them so that their first option is getting fresh vegetables instead of canned goods.”
Providing food is not the only way to stifle food insecurity in our food deserts – education is a priority as well. While working as program coordinator of Common Good City Farm, Shabazz set up cooking demonstrations from local chefs and brought in community members to participate. Robinson believes a large part of his job at DC UrbanGreens involves educating community members on the importance of a healthy diet.
While these two gardeners believe in the value of education, growing food is the number one priority at the end of the day. Niraj Ray, founder and CEO of Cultivate the City, says a majority of what his organization does is provide the educational tools for D.C. residents to grow their own food rather than vending produce or creating community plots. Ray describes his thinking similar to the old idiom about teaching a man to fish.
“I feel like there’s a capacity to how much I can personally grow,” Ray says. “But the more I teach people how to grow, and get them interested in growing food locally and activating underutilized spaces, that just has more of a cascade effect.”
The average city dweller may visit their local park occasionally for a breath of fresh air, but may not think of how else to use the space. Urban gardens provide a space for people to connect with the earth, get a good meal and acquaint themselves with like-minded individuals. Ray hopes to provide a community to those he educates.
“Living in a city, you don’t always get to have a lot of those social interactions,” he says. “I think gardening provides those social opportunities. I always say, if everyone on the street is growing different items – someone’s growing tomatoes, someone’s growing onions, someone’s growing peppers – together, you have a great salsa.”
Learn more about each of these organizations and how you can get involved below.
Cultivate the City: 910 Bladensburg Rd. NE, DC; www.cultivatethecity.com
DC UrbanGreens: 3779 Ely Pl. SE, DC; www.dcurbangreens.com
LeDroit Park Community Garden: 3rd and Elm Streets NW, DC; www.dpr.dc.gov/page/community-gardens