Friday, December 9, 2011

A local celebrity

I listen to my local NPR station every morning. This morning as I was warming up some breakfast I heard an excerpt from my very first radio interview on WAMU: a piece on the challenge faced by aspiring urban farmers to identify and secure a plot of vacant land to farm here in the District. Those who have tried to grow food on city, federal, or park land can tell you better than I can how circuitous and frustrating the process can be in this town. I happen to know a lot of them.

In fact, there are a number of challenges facing folks who want to raise crops, start a compost operation of any magnitude (thus building soil instead of loading up landfills), keep laying hens or honeybees, build aquaponics (fish farming) systems, or pursue other sustainable agricultural projects here in the city. Creating jobs, providing access to healthy food, improving the soil -- seems like a no-brainer that any politician or government office would love to support. (They could certainly use the positive press.) And yet.... In terms of the interview, I was speaking on behalf of the informally-named DC Urban Agriculture Coalition, a collection of local experts -- farmers, gardeners, educators, advocates, land developers, and policy folks -- who have come together to discuss ways we might inform city officials about the benefits of a robust urban agriculture sector, identify the barriers that currently prevent (or strongly discourage) food production and composting in our nation's capital, offer models from other cities, and propose a set of recommendations to encourage sustainable urban agriculture. (No, it's not one of my 6 paid part-time jobs; it's one of my 4 unpaid ones, and some days managing the group felt a bit like herding cats. Nice cats, mind you, but still tough to shepherd.) In the weeks since we drafted an advisory white paper and letter to the Mayor, many of us Coalition members have joined up with the recently announced Sustainable DC initiative. If there's even a chance of sincere commitment from city government to address some of the barriers to urban food production, I'll bike myself to the series of 8 meetings over the next few months.

I mean, seriously, what are our alternatives as supporters of healthy, local food? Some folks who have tried to grow here have given up. Some have started guerrilla gardening. Some have gotten jobs in the government to try and change things from within. Some have gone elsewhere to grow food, to places like... Baltimore??

Most in the sustainable food world know that Detroit is leaps and bounds ahead of DC in terms of urban food production. Some may have heard of similarly cool urban ag projects in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Okay, fine. But when, a few months ago, I learned how city officials in nearby Baltimore have been working with urban growers to revamp zoning regulations and streamline land assessment/leasing to encourage urban food production, I really got worked up. I mean, for crying out loud, the First Lady has an organic garden on the White House lawn... how are there not urban growing spaces on every street corner here in DC? I never thought we'd be looking up to Baltimore as a model for urban food production, but these are strange times. (Even so, I would not advise biking around there when you go to visit the urban farms.)

Anyway, at least three different friends sent me a message within a few minutes of the short broadcast this morning to say they were excited to hear me on WAMU. Yes, a five-second blurb on local radio. Well, I hope it helps spread the word on the urgent need for reforming the way vacant land is used in DC -- especially in areas of DC that are considered "food deserts," where fresh food is hard to find -- but I'm not exactly a local celebrity.

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