“Hey! Where’s the tomatoes at?” Ben calls out across a half-acre produce farm in a low-income neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He is a local resident who appears to be in his late 60s.
“Tomatoes?” asks Anita Adalja, a petite, tan young woman who manages this urban farm. “It’s not time yet. It’s too cold. Come back in August. They’re in the greenhouse. They’re still really little. Don’t worry. You’ll get some.”
“All right, darlin’.”
Before Anita looked up to see her friend standing outside the farm fence, she had been explaining the farm’s composting system to me — a volunteer at Common Good City Farm.
As the new staff writer for Conservation International, I wanted to experience firsthand the type of work CI does all over the world. With recent news stories about places like the Sahel Desert region suffering from drought and famine, sustainable food production and security seemed like a great place to start.
While many people may associate hunger and malnutrition with developing countries, lack of access to healthy food is a frequent occurrence in the United States. In 2010, 14.5 percent of American households faced food insecurity — or the inability to access nutritious and adequate food. More than a third of U.S. adults are obese.
Since one-third of residents in the farm’s neighborhood are poor, and one in five is overweight, the farm provides an interactive education on eating well and how to cooperate with the earth to live sustainably.
Through my conversations with Anita as we pulled weeds and planted lettuce seeds, I learned how her farm is a multi-faceted model for providing a community with healthy food.
“There’s a ton of potential in this space,” Anita said of the farm that produced 5,000 pounds of produce last year. “Everyone tells me the soil here is magic.”
The abundance of food produced may appear supernatural, but Anita has managing the farm down to a science. During cold weather, Anita and her cohort of volunteers plant radishes and spread straw to keep the soil aerated and warm.
“Cover crops are incredible for pest control, for giving the soil a break, for pulling nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil,” Anita said. “It’s how you keep your soil healthy and increase the organic matter in your soil. It’s why we’re able to produce so much.”
While she waits for the city to turn the water back on with the arrival of warmer weather, she uses a rain-collecting, solar-powered water pump to irrigate the soil. “It’s awesome,” she said. “Every time I use it, I’m freaked out by how amazing it is.”
Anita’s enthusiasm for cover crops and solar water pumps is equally strong when it comes to the farm’s composting area. The straw and manure-laden compost piles are about as high as the elementary school children and baseball players who used to roam the farmland that was once a school and sports field.
To form the various layers of what Anita terms a “compost lasagna,” individuals and restaurants donate 500 pounds of food scraps a year. A local horse stable donates the manure. When the food scraps are broken down and the composting process is complete, the rich soil is laid to rest on the farm’s 57 garden plots.
Once seeds sprout and Anita transfers other plants from her greenhouse, the garden will boast kale, broccoli, collards, cabbage, lettuce, and of course, tomatoes. It might make you want to visit and taste these healthy foods, but only certain people are allowed to take home the farm’s fruits and vegetables.
In exchange for attending workshops on nutrition, health, farming and irrigation, income-qualifying residents receive five pounds of produce each week.
As I left Common Good City Farm, I had a smile on my face and dirt etched into my fingernails. I realized that farming isn’t just something for families that resembled my childhood Fisher-Price play sets. It’s also for people like Anita, Ben and me, who live in the city and could benefit from sunshine and fresh food.
In addition to feeling closer to the Earth, I also felt more connected to CI’s mission of empowering societies to care for themselves and nature.
One stellar example of CI’s work for sustainable agriculture is the Africa Monitoring System. CI and our partner organizations recently received $10 million for the new initiative to holistically monitor agriculture, ecosystems and human well-being in five regions of sub-Saharan Africa.
With the right data, CI envisions the establishment of a “gold standard” in environmental monitoring — one that will inform policy decisions about agricultural intensification to sustain growing populations without harming precious natural resources.
As organizations like Conservation International and Common Good City Farm spread environmentally sustainable practices across the world, I believe there is much hope for meeting humanity’s basic need for food security.
Mandy Morgan is a staff writer on CI’s Marketing + Communications team.