Cities around the United States are undergoing significant food system transitions in the face of climate change and as they reckon in tandem the inequalities underpinning the intersectional injustices of racial oppression, economic hardship, and environmental harms. Urban agriculture has arisen as an important component of transitions to more sustainable urban food systems. In addition to offering the promise of growing food in a more ecologically sound way, urban agriculture has the potential to also combat food insecurity, strengthen local communities, and provide educational opportunities.
Washington D.C. is one such city in the midst of a sustainable transformation. Key to the story of D.C.’s food landscape is its legacy of racial oppression and segregation. Today, Wards 7 and 8 hold a concentrated population of low-income Black residents experiencing food insecurity and challenges affording other basic necessities. Other types of systemic inequity and oppression are co-contributors to food insecurity, such as a lack of affordable housing, disproportionate travel times for basic commuting and grocery store access, higher rates of unemployment, and less access to financial building resources. Dr. Sabine O’Hara, Program Director at the University of DC’s CAUSES, concluded that the City’s failure to move away from supply-side solutions has hindered substantive change in these areas, and must be something urban agriculture projects are attentive to as they develop plans for D.C in order to avoid perpetuating harmful systems.
Amid increasing policy action supporting urban agriculture, local organizations are rising to specifically ensure that their Black communities have access to healthy and fresh produce through innovative methods of farming. DMV UrbanGreens is a nonprofit production farm located in Ward 7 which also runs a mobile planter pilot program in conjunction with DC UrbanGreens, another urban farm. These transportable planter boxes on wheels enable users to make use of small paved spaces and grow in otherwise impossible locations. Their goal is to create a scalable growing model that eventually goes beyond the local community and allows more people to grow food.
For those living in areas without affordable fresh produce options, the opportunity to use the mobile planters offers one way to have a secure source of food. Taboris Robinson, manager of DMV UrbanGreens, highlighted the additional goal to shift the culture around food production in the District. He said, “you can kind of put these boxes anywhere, and move them at any time so we're trying to prove that you know that could be done [anywhere].” His beliefs harken to ideas of Black self-reliance seen in scholarship from authors like Ashantee Reese and historic farms like Fannie Lou Hammer’s Freedom Farm Collective, where Black communities took it upon themselves to build networks to care for one another. DMV UrbanGreens is the latest innovation of self-reliance.
The DMV UrbanGreens mobile planter boxes also seek to remove middlemen distributors entirely and enable people to grow their own food. Black communities have significantly less access to affordable and quality grocery stores making the D.C. food supply chain unreliable for these communities. The mobile planter boxes and garden simultaneously fill the immediate gap in the D.C. food system while providing an alternative to the failing system. In addition to access, the creation of the organization works toward altering the economic landscape to allow the low-income minority community the opportunity to purchase affordable produce. Their presence also disrupts consumer purchase patterns, instead of spending money at major chain grocery stores disconnected from the local community, when consumers purchase from Mr. Robinson they are supporting local business and keeping their money in the community.
The mobile planter boxes are an impressive innovation which are already positively impacting Ward 7, but goes beyond just providing food. They offer a vision of a future where D.C. residents aren’t reliant solely on a food system that has failed them. Through the scalable model, DMV UrbanGreens is taking necessary steps toward a just and equitable system for their community and demonstrates that social innovation cannot be separated from technological cultivation innovations. DMV UrbanGreens is forever changing the food and social landscape of Washington D.C.