Gardens at Woodridge Elementary school by James Crane licensed under Creative Commons.

Urban agriculture aims to eradicate food insecurity in cities, foster community, and otherwise contribute to the well-being of residents — all things urbanists seek. There are a dozen or so farms and more than 100 school gardens in and around DC, and research indicates they can have a surprisingly large benefit to residents’ quality of life.

Under present geographical and technological constraints, it’s hard to imagine any American city becoming agriculturally self-sufficient. However, urban ag advocates are not aiming for 100% nutritional self-sufficiency, but rather aspire to use leftover city land to provide fresh produce for people, particularly those without access now. Like monuments or unique streets and buildings, urban farms and gardens also color neighborhoods and add distinction to their surroundings.

Urban agriculture programs also help empower and unify communities, allow residents to connect to nature, and help build a food system that serves all residents. Here are some ways urban agriculture fits into urbanism.

Community garden at Bruce Monroe by DCErica used with permission.

1. Urban ag can provide an important supplement to the traditional food system

The current food system is failing many residents. DC is deeply affected by food insecurity, meaning some struggle to access enough healthy food and face chronic illnesses and high health care costs as a result. Urban agriculture can help meet basic nutritional needs and keep residents more healthy.

Community farmers often eat the food they grow themselves and share with friends and neighbors. Other times they sell it to local grocery stores, or directly to households at a farmer's market or through a farm share, also known as Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA). Some programs make local produce available to SNAP recipients (though one such DC-based initiative is in jeopardy) and others in need.

Garden plots at Noyes Community Garden, Brookland. Photo by Becky Schwartz.

In Washington, food insecurity is very highly concentrated. According to a recent DC Policy Center analysis, 89% of the city’s food deserts (where people do not have ready access to healthy, affordable food) are located in Wards 5, 7, and 8 — the majority in the latter ward.

In Ward 5, food insecurity is primarily a distance issue. Qualifying stores exist, but most of them are far from residents’ homes. In the case of Wards 7 and 8, the problem is more severe. There are just three grocery stores serving the nearly 150,000 Washingtonians living on the eastern side of the Anacostia River, to say nothing of the subpar selection and poor quality of the food at those stores.

Those involved with food issues locally want to create a future where all residents are able to have real and good options for what they eat, and many believe urban agriculture is a key lever for achieving this. Local farmers Ashleigh Taylor and Becky Schwartz say that people at both Noyes and Ferebee Hope gardens have been undertaking increasingly challenging crops, such as corn. That shows how even amateur, DIY urban agriculture operations can become serious food producers.

In LeDroit Park in DC, Common Good City Farm provides community members with fresh food (more than 10 tons of produce since 2007!) as well as the opportunity to see sustainable urban agriculture in action and to gain food production, healthy eating, and environmental sustainability skills. City Blossoms, another DC-based urban ag initiative, works primarily in low-income communities without access to much green space and prioritizes working with black, Latino, and immigrant youth.

Corn at Noyes Community Garden. Photo by Becky Schwartz.  Image used with permission.

There's also pilot program for an agriculture plot on the eastern border of Ward 5, as well as a variety of larger, commercially-driven and nonprofit operations that dedicate paid staff to producing food in urban settings with home-delivery services and rooftop farms throughout the region.

In Baltimore, a network of churches called the Black Church Food Security Network (BCFSN) led by Reverend Heber Brown has spent years building self-sufficient networks of people who grow their own food and distribute it to residents facing shortages. BCFSN aims “to build a sustainable, community-centered food system anchored by Black churches and Black food producers and led by those most directly affected by economic inequity.”

A comprehensive overview of the state of food security in DC is still ongoing, so we still need time to draw conclusions on how effective the city’s current urban agriculture initiatives are. However, similar studies in other US municipalities show that effectively-managed farms with well-trained staff can address community food needs.

2. Urban ag is powered by volunteers, and could be a source of jobs too

There's research showing that volunteer or part-time urban farm employment can work, but why can’t urban agriculture be a source of jobs as well? There are a wide variety of jobs within the food industry. (Netflix-fueled celebrity chefs are just one example of highly-respected food professionals.) While there is not an unemployment crisis in the District per se, there's a demand for medium- and high-skill work with direct communal benefits.

One model the region could emulate is the Holistic Organic Sustainable Cooperative (HOSCO), a Saint Louis-based sustainable food and sustainable community economic development cooperative that offers a range of coursework, hands-on training, and services to make urban agricultural financially viable.

A garden sign at Two Rivers Charter School by Claire Uziel licensed under Creative Commons.

In addition why couldn’t a modern-day local jobs program based around local agriculture be successful? Publicly available resources for DC do not show any occupations focused on agricultural production, but that’s something we could change.

3. Urban ag helps strengthen communities

After providing enough homes for everyone, cities should focus on creating appealing and well-connected neighborhoods. Since urban ag can never feed everyone in the city, it's crucial that it not become an excuse to edge out vital land uses like housing. However there is little evidence that's happening, and putting ill-used land into productive food-growing use is a good thing.

In addition to boosting food security, urban farms and gardens can make neighborhoods more tight-knit by providing people the chance to connect and giving youth the opportunity to spend time in nature. They also ease depression and boost residents' mental health, particularly people living in low-income areas.

Sunflowers at Ferebee Hope Community Garden. Photo by Ashleigh Taylor.  Image used with permission.

Many advocates also want to use community gardens for less tangible benefits, like introducing intergenerational wisdom into our current nutritional practices and knowledge. For some, this means connecting to new or distant memories of growing food.

Ashleigh Taylor, garden coordinator at Ferebee Hope Community Garden, ties her passion for urban gardening back to her upbringing in Bowie, where her grandmother and other relatives farmed. She recently observed the next stage of this process as her daughter played with a friend at Ferebee Hope: “It was amazing to see in front of me, this child having his first experience with seeds. He had never seen seeds before, and who knows whether that would have happened without a garden in his neighborhood.”

Community green spaces allow moments like these to happen. During a recent visit to the garden, Taylor bumped into a neighbor who works as an artist, and they chatted about urban agriculture. Shortly afterwards, a large painted hummingbird appeared on one of the garden sheds.

While we haven’t yet ironed out every detail of a successful urban agriculture policy in DC, there's evidence to show these gardens and farms are having a positive impact on the health, food security, and general well-being of local residents. If we further support local urban farmers and gardners, I’m confident the District’s food security grow to new heights too.