The University of the District of Columbia is leading the charge in transforming the food system in a city challenged with high levels of poverty, obesity, and population growth.
“Nature will be just fine. The question is whether it’ll be just fine with us or without us. Nature might just decide to jettison us.” So says Sabine O’Hara, dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to a class of eager area residents who have come to learn about sustainable urban farming. Through CAUSES, O’Hara is working to transform every aspect of the food system in Washington, D.C.—from cultivation, preparation, and distribution to food waste management—in a way that provides food security for city residents but does not compromise Earth’s systems or the ability of our species to survive. As impossible as this sounds, CAUSES may just offer a model for creating sustainable urban food systems in the constrained future ahead.
Cultivating a New Urban Food Path
While cultivation is just one component of the food cycle, it is perhaps the most visible one, and CAUSES has experimented with a wide variety of techniques to get as much food as possible out of the high-priced landscape of the nation’s capital. As O’Hara explains, “We are not a city like Baltimore or Detroit where urban agriculture is the new big thing. D.C. is not emptying out, like it is there. D.C. is growing by a rate of 1,500 per month.”
Right on campus is the largest rooftop farm in the city—20,000 square feet—growing plump Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes and crisp red-stemmed Swiss Chard along the edges (areas of the roof that have the structural integrity to handle larger crops) as well as greens, flowers, and sedum in the interior sections (for insulation and water capture benefits). Much of this rooftop produce—grown mostly by volunteers—gets distributed to UDC’s faculty and staff through a community-supported agriculture program and to D.C. food banks as donations.
Beyond the campus, at the end of the Green Metro Line, is the 143-acre Firebird Farm. Here UDC is experimenting with a wide selection of crops and techniques to sustainably provide food for a growing city: 1.5 acres of sweet potatoes, an Asian pear orchard, a more-sustainable dryland rice variety, a cluster of half-acre allotment gardens available to entrepreneurial D.C. residents. There’s even a large garden of “ethnic crops,” growing uncommon and highly nutritious vegetables like garden eggs, ghost peppers, gbomas, kitely, jamma jamma, and jute for the city's significant immigrant population.
Nearby there are also greenhouses with aquaponics, producing tilapia in high-tech, low-energy-demanding aerated tanks, with the fish waste water fertilizing greenhouses full of greens and veggies. But tilapia sells for little, so O’Hara’s team recently installed a smoking facility. “Why sell tilapia for a dollar a pound when you can smoke it and sell it for 12 dollars a pound?” O’Hara asks the class. As this pragmatic stance shows, if the numbers can’t be made to work, neither can the farm.
There are challenges, though. For example, the rooftop tomatoes had to be harvested green last year as forecasts of high winds could have turned them into dangerous projectiles threatening unsuspecting pedestrians below. And as a city-funded university, navigating how to sell produce without bumping up against non-compete rules has not been easy. Currently, a lot of the food is donated, which helps with food security but does not help with sustaining the farm.
Food in the City
O’Hara is not just focused on growing crops on the campus and farm. She is taking food exactly where it is most needed. The goal is to build an “Urban Food Hub” in each of the city’s eight wards, particularly the poorer ones. And with five already established, CAUSES is well on its way.
These food hubs include farms, hydroponics systems, and food preparation facilities. They are helping to train a new generation of agricultural entrepreneurs who can provide healthy food in a city where too many neighborhoods are food deserts. O’Hara notes that 88 percent of the 520 D.C. food retailers offer no fresh produce; in Ward 7—where overweight and obesity rates have now reached 72 percent—only three full-service grocery stores serve 71,000 residents.
By creating food hubs, CAUSES can take a leading role in providing new skills, jobs, and healthy sustainable food to the people who need them the most. One of its newest endeavors is a business-incubator kitchen. Here food-safety-certified D.C. residents can get access to a commercial kitchen, standardize their recipes, and create and market new food products—to stores, restaurants, and markets. “We’re not running food hubs as businesses, but as business incubators. Our goal is to spin off businesses,” explains O’Hara.
CAUSES has even set up a food truck, riding on the current craze for these mobile mini-restaurants in DC. But like all of UDC’s efforts, this too serves as an educational and training opportunity—“a classroom on wheels,” says O’Hara.
“Food Systems Must Be Circular”
O’Hara doesn’t stop with the growing, preparing and distributing of food, but makes it clear that agriculture waste streams must also be captured and feed the next cycle of production. Solar power is used to pump groundwater for Firebird Farm, and drip irrigation reduces total water usage. Wastewater is managed with a variety of technologies—cisterns, rain gardens, even rice paddies. Composting transforms food waste into new soil, and a bio-diesel press converts used cooking oil into diesel fuel.
With more people becoming urbanites, if cities can cultivate, prepare, and distribute more of their own food this will be a major step in making agricultural systems more sustainable, including reducing food-related greenhouse gas emissions and closing nutrient cycles. Moreover, if cities can localize their economies rather than depending on just one or two industries, they will be more resilient—a valuable trait in the less stable future that’s at our doorstep.
Perhaps with innovations coming from such a prominent place as the city’s university, and with the food and farming entrepreneurs that CAUSES is nurturing and the food businesses it is helping to create, Washington, D.C., will become America’s capital of sustainable food production. O’Hara is doing her best to make that happen.