Thursday, July 29, 2010

Uncommonly good

Since my return to DC a couple of weeks ago I've been visiting quite a number of farmers' markets (and have a ridiculous amount of fresh produce and local dairy to prove it: thus piles of chocolate zucchini muffins, dozens of carrot oatmeal cookies, and veggie stirfries galore). I've also been volunteering at a number of urban gardens in the greater Washington area, from Fort Totten to Girard Street, and had the good fortune to help out at the District's only urban farm last weekend. Yes, we only have one.

Why is it that DC is behind the curve on local food? I mean, for heaven's sake, we're the nation's capital, we should be setting an example! I don't mean to sound competitive -- I'm not competitive by nature, except perhaps when playing Pictionary -- but we're being left in the dust by places like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Chicago when it comes to local food production, food justice, and education. Urban agriculture here has only recently had visible and vocal champions, most notably in the form of Michelle Obama. Her organic garden (I am still scheming to figure out a way in there -- maybe if I offer to help with composting or chaperone a visiting school group) and various related programs are gaining national attention. (I am as enamored as much with the "Chefs Move to Schools" cafeteria reform as the "Let's Move" diet-and-exercise initiative. Hmmm, I wonder if they're hiring....) We also have some help from the USDA, thanks to Ag Secretary Vilsack's "People's Garden" and Kathleen Merrigan's "Know your farmer, know your food" work. Things are just getting started up here at the country's political center, but we're still nibbling on the amuse bouche of the larger, local food movement.

It's not like people were unaware of the need for fresh, healthy, local food grown in these parts before last year. But the folks who started The 7th Street Garden back in 2007 were the first to *do* something about it. When the garden outgrew its original lot on 7th Street, it was the Ledroit Park community that reached out to the brilliant (yet notoriously elusive) Liz Falk for her help moving the city's only urban farm to their neighborhood. In addition to growing food in the veritable food desert and offering work-share arrangements for residents, the farm conducts regular, low-cost workshops and welcomes youth groups for garden-centered lessons that tie DC standards-based learning together with outdoor, hands-on experiences. Pretty sweet.

Now I must admit that Common Good's volunteer program seems a bit rigid, with a waiting list for mandatory orientation sessions offered once monthly and online registration required for helping out at the limited times the green space is open. Yes, even in this sweltering heat one must sign up to haul manure. I believe this is due to a combination of quite a small staff (almost all working on a volunteer basis on evenings and weekends) and quite a large number of interested volunteers. (Seems like a pretty clear indication that more land and funding should be devoted to bolster Common Good and start up other urban farms in DC, but what do I know?) Luckily I came to help out last Saturday via DC Food For All, circumventing the usual volunteer wait time, and had an opportunity to help with weeding and mulching while chatting with other volunteers and staff about food issues and community building in the city.

I learned, for example, about the Green Tomorrows program that encourages residents of the low-income Ledroit Park neighborhood to help out at the farm for a couple of hours each week during the growing season in exchange for a bag of freshly harvested food. A work-share of sorts, with an emphasis on knowledge sharing and empowerment of the local community. Sounds like my kind of program. (I may not be on the road any more, but I am still a huge proponent of the barter system. Let there be no mistake: I will work for fresh food and gardening supplies and a chance to pick the brains of experienced farmers.) Participation in the program nearly doubled since the previous year, Chris (one of the farm's education coordinators) told me during the post-workday potluck, with around 15 neighborhood families participating in the program. Slowly, slowly, the community is steadily getting involved.

Makes one wonder why the farm, going into the final year of its initial 3-year-lease, is in danger of closing. Yep. A local politician is once again stalling the development of a public park on the adjoining property, threatening the continued existence of this model program. Once I have details on what's going on with the lease, and how we DCists can help advocate for the continuation of our only urban farm, I'll post them here. Stay tuned!

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. I just ran into Spencer, Common Good's farm manager, yesterday. Here's an update:
    According to the Deputy Mayor's office, park construction will begin in the next 2 weeks. Work must still be done to make sure the farm's land lease is extended next year, but this is a great step and will be wonderful for the community (and in a small way for the earth).


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